Smelling Roses in January: 2009 SEC Football Preview

Dave WalkerCorrespondent IJuly 17, 2009

Dominance is the one word you can use to describe the SEC. Three years in a row the National Champions have come from this league. Plus, since the inception of the BCS they have won more BCS games than any other conference. Will their dominance end this year? Probably not.

Once again the conference is chalk full of talent from top to bottom. Leading the way are the defending champs, the Florida Gators. Tim Tebow is back, along with a supporting cast that will make the Gators a tough team to beat. Watch out for an always solid Georgia team, along with a Tennessee team that will right the ship this season.

In the West, things are a bit more foggy, as LSU, Ole Miss, and Alabama can all make a claim to be the top dog. Ole Miss comes in the favorite, returning QB Jevan Snead and a veteran defense. LSU may finally have their quarterback issues settled with Jordan Jefferson, who looked solid in a bowl win over Georgia Tech last year. Rounding out the contenders is Alabama. Coach Nick Saban can recruit, and we will see yet another dominant defense on the field in Tuscaloosa.

If there is one thing to bet on though, bet that no one will come out unscathed from the conference season.

SEC East

Florida 2008 Record 13-1 (7-1) Defending National Champions.

Another year, another chance of a National Title. It's just another day in the life of a Gator fan. This year, just as in the past, the Gators are a favorite to get back to the big game. Tim Tebow is back for his senior season after throwing for over 2700 yards and 30 TD's. Tim Tebow is also the leading rusher returning from last season, with 700 yards and 12 TD's. So what can't Tebow do? Well, one thing is for sure, he won't need to play any wideout. The Gators are stacked at the skill position with guys like David Nelson, Deonte Thompson, and All Conference TE Aaron Hernandez. But, look for the big plays to come from the speedy Brandon James. Now, when the Gators aren't hurrying it up to the line and going to the air, both Jeffery Demps and Chris Rainey are equally good at hitting the hole. The only thing that may slow them down is the loss of both starting tackles from a year ago. Overall, watch out for the Gator offense again this year, as the only thing that will slow them down are the Gators themselves.

Loaded again. That is how to describe Charlie Strong's defense. Middle Linebacker Brandon Spikes is back after a 93 tackle campaign last year. Up front, Carlos Dunlap looks to better his 9.5 sack performance from '08. In the secondary, pick your poison. Joe Haden at right corner, or Janoris Jenkins at left. Then, if you decide to throw it deep to the middle, Ahmad Black is there, looking to add to his seven picks, two returned for TD's, from last year. Stacked and ready to make plays, the Gators will be rock solid on defense once again.

Normally when making predictions, you want to think outside the box. But, this year, it is just too hard to go against such a talented team. The Gators will lose one game, I am saying the game at LSU on October 10th will be there only slip up as they head to and win the SEC title.

My pick, Gators go 12-1( (7-1) unbeaten in the division and head out to Pasadena for the BCS title game once again.

Tennessee 2008 Record 5-7 (3-5)

The Lane Kiffin era is ready to roll in Rocky Top. The big question, are the players ready to roll with the new coach, and new system? But enough about Kiffin. This is a team that greatly underachieved last season, and they will have a better year without question. Jonathan Crompton seemed to impress the coaches this spring, and will be taking the snaps again this fall. The Vols need a big season out of their backfield. Montario Hardesty will look to secure the job, but all eyes are on Bryce Brown, the top tailback prospect in the nation. With Brown, the coaches feel he gives them speed and size that is needed to be a blueprint in the offense. When they decide to throw it, watch for freshman Nu'Keese Richardson to provide the big play that was lacking last year.

Defensive guru Monte Kiffin joins his son as the defensive coordinator, and that alone should have opposing offenses shaking. His schemes will look to free up playmakers up front like Chris Walker and Ben Martin. In the middle, Nick Reveiz will have to step up, but where they are really strong at is at strong safety. Returning is Eric Berry, the all SEC pick from a year ago. If Kiffin's defense can get the pressure on the edges. look for him to be at the top of the league in INT's.

Turning the program around will not be as easy as apple pie. The Vols do need to gel before getting into the heart of the SEC season. Look for them to beat Western Kentucky and UCLA early. Florida will beat them by double digits, but after that a close loss at Alabama, and another close loss at Ole Miss will be it.

The Vols go 9-3 (5-3) with a 4-1 division mark and earn a trip to the Outback Bowl.

Georgia 2008 Record 10-3 (6-2)

Gone are Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, but back are several key players that spent last year on the sidelines with injuries. Tackle Trinton Sturdivant is back from a torn ACL last season, and looks to anchor down a line that returns everyone. At quarterback, Joe Cox is going to be handed the ball. The word is that he doesn't have the arm of Stafford, but is smart and knows how to manage the game. Sophomore receiver A.J. Green will look to hit the 1000 yard mark, a mark he missed by just 37 yards last year. The big question might be at tailback. It could go two ways, either Caleb King, or redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas. Word out of Athens is that he has the speed and elusiveness to be the next Knowshon Moreno.

The defense has a lot of talent, but will that talent rise to the occasion? Middle Linebacker Rennie Curran is one guy that will. Curran racked up 115 tackles and led the team with three sacks. What the Dogs are hoping is that ends Demarcus Dobbs and Justin Houston step up and get some pressure. That will set up big plays for Curran and the secondary, which will feature Brandon Boykin, a playmaker with a huge vertical and speed to match.

Georgia plays a relatively tough schedule. The opener at Oklahoma State will be interesting, and important as they play their next two in conference. I look for the Bulldogs to get pummeled in Stillwater, lose a close one at Tennessee, get white washed by Florida, and lose a heartbreaker at Georgia Tech.

Georgia goes 8-4 (6-2) with a 3-2 division mark and earns a trip to Atlanta and the Chick-Fil-A Bowl.

South Carolina 2008 Record 7-6 (4-4)

Three out of the last four years have been bowl season in Columbia. This season the Gamecocks will struggle, but play just well enough to earn a another bowl berth. Sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia hopes to be able to play up to his big recruit status from two years ago. Garcia, who has been suspended three times by coach Spurrier, says those times are behind him, and folks in Columbia hope he is right. The bottom line is the offense needs to improve greatly. If Garcia can mature, watch for senior wideout Moe Brown to have a big game week in and week out. Jarvis Giles, a young tailback, is fast and has the ability to take it to the house on any play. Watch for him to emerge as the starting tailback by mid season.

The defense will have to replace the Jasper Brinkley's of the world. Replacing him will be All-SEC linebacker Eric Norwood, as he moves from outside to the middle. South Carolina will rely on several newcomers to the secondary, as they look to replace Captain Munnerlyn, and Emanuel Cook. Though there are some holes to fill, look for this unit to solidify after a few games.

The Gamecocks schedule is brutal on paper. Even an out of conference game with Sun Belt power Florida Atlantic will be tough. Look for them to start strong with a win over N.C. State, but fall to Georgia the following week. Losses against conference powers, Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, and Ole Miss, plus a rivalry game loss to Clemson.

South Carolina struggles to a 6-6 (3-5) record with a 2-3 division mark, but makes the post season with a berth in the Bowl.

Kentucky 2008 Record 7-6 (2-6)

This year the Wildcats will look to make their fourth straight bowl apperance. They also will look to add the flavor of the week offense in the, "Wildcat formation." This makes things very interesting for some of the younger players. Randall Cobb played some QB last year, and is a perfect fit to run some of the offensive sets. When not optioning and shuffling the ball around, look for tailback Alfonso Smith to step up and have a big season. Also, watch out for Charles Woodson, oops, I mean corner Trevard Lindley. Lindley has the speed to play at the next level, and may take some snaps, catch some passes, or even throw a few.

The Wildcats are solid on defense. Lindley returns for his senior season after shunning the NFL draft. Along with him is middle linebacker Micah Johnson. Look for him to lead the team in tackles and add a few sacks. With Lindley at one corner, it will be up to Randall Burden to cover the other half of the field. If he can, Kentucky could be a difficult team to pass against.

The bottom line this year is that there just isn't enough here to challenge the big dogs of the league. Watch for Kentucky to put a scare into at least one top opponent, if not more. They will record wins over Miami OH, ULM, Mississippi St, Eastern Kentucky, and Vanderbilt.

Final record for Kentucky will be 5-7 (2-6) with a 1-4 division spot. Sorry, no bowl game this year.

Vanderbilt 2008 Record 7-6 (4-4)

The streak ended last year. The Commodores ended a 53-year bowl-winless streak by beating BC 16-14 in the Music City Bowl. Now head coach Bobby Johnson and crew look to keep the momentum going. Vandy returns 19 starters from a year ago, including tough bruising tailback Jared Hawkins. Up front the Commodores are big and experienced. The anchor is right tackle Thomas Welch, the 310 pounder can open up huge holes on the right side, along with his counter part 315 pound guard Eric Hensley. The QB spot could go to either last years starter Mackenzi Adams, or sophomore Larry Smith who stole the job late last season.

D.J. Moore must be replaced on defense. The All-SEC corner shut down opponents, and now look for senior Lyron Lewis to step up and fill his shoes. The big question from this unit is will they be able to bend, but not break? The name of the game is to limit big plays, and hope at the same time you can find a way to make one yourself.

The SEC is tough. Vanderbilt knows this. To say that they will struggle at times would be an understatement. Look for the Commodores to pick up wins over Western Carolina, Mississippi State, Rice, and Army.

A tough season for Vandy 4-8 (1-7) with no division wins.


LSU 2008 Record 8-5 (3-5)

Les Miles is hoping that last year was just an illusion. The Tigers seemed to just find ways to lose games, and a lot of the blame was put on sophomore QB Jarrett Lee.  They seem to have this problem solved with the emergence of Jordan Jefferson last year. With a QB in place, look for tailback Charles Scott to have another thousand yard season, as he will look to go to the left side behind massive tackle Ciron Black. Also look out for QB recruit Russell Shepard to get into the mix, either at wideout, or QB in certain formations. The big question for the Tigers is who will step and block on the line other than Black? Miles is hoping that another top recruiting class will give him that answer in fall practice.

The defense returns its top three tacklers a year ago in the form of Harry Coleman, Kelvin Sheppard, and Perry Riley, all starting linebackers. Watch out for Lazarius Levingston on the left side, as teams will be looking to block down on returning sack leader Rahim Alem on the other side. The secondary will be basically new, and that may be a good thing. This years group will look to grab more than just 8 INT's all year.

In the SEC West every division game will be a battle. Look for LSU to rise out of the ashes and win the West, via an Ole Miss win on November 21st. The Tigers will slip up in Georgia on October 3rd, and lose a close one at Bama in November. They will beat Florida in Death Valley, but no such luck in Atlanta for the conference title game.

LSU has a great bounce back season at 10-3 (6-2) with a 5-1 division mark, and stays in state for the Sugar Bowl.

Mississippi 2008 Record 9-4 (5-3)

Last year was the bounce back season that nobody anticipated, which culminated in the upset win over Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. This year, big things are expected, and the Rebels seem to have the team to back it up. Offensively, the line still looks to be a huge strength, despite the loss of Michael Oher to the NFL. All five starters weigh over 300 pounds and will provide QB Jevan Snead all the time he needs to throw the ball. Emerging this year at tailback will be Brandon Bolden. Bolden can run and make big catches out of the backfield. Rounding out the air attack are returning receivers Dexter McCluster and Shay Hodge. The combines for over 1300 yards and nine TD's last season.

The health of Greg Hardy could be a major factor for the output of the defense. Hardy was involved in a car accident early in July, and may miss some time. If he doesn't go, not only do the Rebels lose an All-SEC end, but lose his 8.5 sacks from a year ago. Aiding in the run stop will be big NT Ted Laurent. He recorded 24 tackles in 13 games last year. Veterans return at linebacker and in the secondary, led by ball hawking safety Kendrick Lewis.

It will be another big season in Oxford. Look for the Rebels to get out to a fast 7-0 start before fumbling one to Auburn on the road. Then a Magnolia Bowl barn burning loss to LSU will be the one that costs them a trip to Atlanta.

Rebels go 10-2 (6-2) but with a 3-2 division mark, and head to the Capital One Bowl in sunny Orlando.

Alabama 2008 Record 12-2 (8-0)

The Tide will look to move forward after last year's embarrassing loss to Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Again Nick Saban has stocked the cupboard full of talent. QBing these days will be Greg McElroy. He easily won the job this spring over several highly touted, athletic QB's. McElroy will have a big time guy to get the ball to in sophomore Julio Jones. Jones grabbed 58 balls for over 900 yards and four TD's as a freshman last year. He should have just as good of a year, if not better this season. The line will have to replace three starters, including Outland Trophy winner Andre Smith. A slew of big, athletic guys will fill these openings. On the ground look for freshman Trent Richardson to split time with sophomore Mark Ingram. Richardson could bring the thunder to an already lightning backfield.

On defense the Tide appear to be about as good as they can get. The Tide only lose two starters from a unit that ranked third in total defense. Anchoring the front line is All-American candidate Terrence Cody at nose tackle. Cody, the 6'5" 365 lbs senior, is a force in the run defense and will be a guy that opens up lanes for All American linebacker Rolando McClain to make plays. If that isn't enough, add Javier Arenas to the mix, and you get a speedy ball-hawking corner that is lightning quick in the return game.

Bama is still a force in the SEC West, and they will prove it again. But a tough opener versus Virginia Tech in Atlanta may be a bad way to start out. Look for VaTech to steal one here, but Bama recovers enough to win nine games, with slip ups to LSU and Ole Miss.

The Tide go 9-3 (6-2) with a 3-2 division record and earn a much deserved trip to the Cotton Bowl.

Arkansas 2008 Record 5-7 (2-6)

The Razorbacks appear to be one of the more interesting teams in the SEC. Arkansas was two close losses away from being 7-5. Former Michigan prospect Ryan Mallett appears to be the trigger man in Bobby Petrino's offense. Mallett filled in for Chad Henne back in 2007, throwing for nearly 900 yards in limited action. The Hogs are loaded at the skill positions. Back is running back Michael Smith. The thousand yard rusher was All SEC and will benefit from a huge offensive line. D.J. Williams highlights the passing game. The All-Conference TE grabbed three TD passes last year along with nearly 800 receiving yards. All in all, the Hogs look solid offensively.

Defensively the Hogs need some work. They do return nine starters from last years team, but that defense was dead last in the SEC. All conference tackle Malcolm Sheppard anchors the defense, and outside linebacker Jerry Franklin looks to add to his 87 tackles from a year ago. But if this unit is going to improve, the secondary will have to step up and make big plays.

The Hogs will go bowling, and may end up slaying a dragon if their defense mends its fences. Look for wins over Missouri State, Texas A&M, Auburn, Eastern Michigan, Troy, and Mississippi State. 

Hogs are just good enough at 6-6 (2-6) with a 2-3 division mark. An Independence Bowl berth is likely.

Auburn 2008 Record 5-7 (2-6)

Gene Chizik will get his chance to revive the Auburn program that fell on hard time last year. Offensively they were not good, and that may be a nice way to put it. The bright spot is running back Ben Tate. Tate has already amassed nearly 1300 career rushing yards, and may end up being the focal point of the offense. The receiving corps will be unproven and will look to TE Tommy Trott to step up and be a safety valve for whomever they put at quarterback. QB was the position that cost Auburn the most last year. Even after this year's spring game, it is still undecided as to who will take the snaps in 2009.

Again the defense will have to keep Auburn in the game. A 3-2 win over Mississippi State last year is the perfect example. Watch for LB Eltoro Freeman to have a monster season, 100 plus tackles, and at least 5 sacks. A talented secondary is lead by safety Zac Etheridge, and corner Walter McFadden. If the offense can move the ball and help the defense catch their breath, watch out for a sleeper in the West.

The offense will get better, the defense will maintain, but the record will stay the same. Wins over Louisiana Tech, Mississippi State, Ball State, Kentucky, and Furman will be the highlights of the 2009 season.

The Tigers go 5-7 (2-6) with a 1-4 division record, and will be a bowl team in 2010.

Mississippi State 2008 Record 4-8 (2-6)

Bringing up the rear of the SEC this year will be the Bulldogs. New head coach Dan Mullen will bring a better offense to the table in Starkville, but it will take time for them to grasp it. The big key will be to get the big play into the offense. Senior Tyson Lee will look to be Mullen's "little Tebow," and master the offense. If he doesn't watch out for recruit Tyler Russell to step in and take his lumps and be the guy for the future. Tailback Anthony Dixon may be the best friend to whomever is at QB. Dixon ran for nearly 900 yards and seven touchdowns last year, and is a big, bruising, physical back. Depth at wideout, and an offensive line that has been mediocre at times also are concerns.

Just like Auburn, the defense is solid and will have to win games on their own. Middle linebacker Jamar Chaney leads this unit that can be lights out at times. Helping him out is his sidekick K.J. Wright at outside backer. Wright chipped in with 72 tackles last season. The defensive line is very talented and needs to be solid against the run. The secondary was 17th nationally last year against the pass, and looks to be as good as they were last year.

Schedules are everything, and when you are retooling, you better have a few cupcakes to start the year. The Bulldogs have one, then a slew of giants to slay. Look for wins over Jackson State and Middle Tennessee. If they can move the ball, they may be able to add a win or two to their total, but as of now,

Mississippi State goes 2-10 (0-8) and will have a brighter future down the road.


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