In part two of our installment, we take a look at the eastern division of the SEC. Florida enters 2009 as the team to beat in the SEC. Can anyone else challenge them in the east?
1). Florida Gators
The Gators have won two of the last three national championships, and there's no reason to believe they won't be contending for one again in 2009.
Senior Tim Tebow, the All-American quarterback, returns for his final season in the swamp. During his career, Tebow has accounted for 6,390 yards and 67 touchdowns. He has proven he is the best college player in the game today.
Scatback Jeff Demps returns to lead the rushing attack. Demps, a 5'8", 183-pound runner, amassed over 600 yards and seven touchdowns for the Gators in 2008. Chris Rainey and Emmanuel Moody will be part of the mix as well.
Pearcy Harvin is gone, but the Gators return a decent group of receivers led by senior David Nelson, whose contributions were huge in the SEC Championship game last season. If any position on the Gator team is questionable this year, wide receiver may be it.
On the offensive line, both All-SEC guards return, but junior Carl Johnson must step into the left tackle position vacated by Phil Trautwein. In all, three new starters must step up on the offensive line. This is another position that could need some time to build chemistry.
The Gators return one of the best defenses in college football. Jermaine Cunningham leads the defensive line with 52 tackles and six sacks last season. All-American Brandon Spikes returns for his senior year as the heart and soul of the defense.
Expect Florida to repeat as champions in the east and follow the road to Atlanta.
2). Georgia Bulldogs
Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno are gone. They will not be easily replaced.
Senior Joe Cox enters fall camp as the favorite to replace Stafford. Cox may not possess the big arm that Stafford had, but he is a smart player who can manage the offense. Parade All-American Aaron Murray is in the fold now, but starting a freshman in the SEC is risky business.
Sophomore Caleb King is the favorite to replace Moreno. King had a disappointing freshman season and sophomore Richard Samuel is thought of as a serviceable back. The rushing attack from the Bulldogs may be very ordinary this season.
Freshman All-American receiver A.J. Green leads the receivers. Beyond Green, things aren't quite so clear. Coaches look to senior Michael Moore to step up and fill the spot opposite Green. Moore has disappointed in his efforts to this point. Incoming freshman Marlon Brown will have an opportunity to step in right away.
Trinton Sturdivant returns at left tackle, after missing the 2008 season with injury. Center Ben Jones returns and is a solid SEC starter. Chemistry on the line is a must if Georgia is to compete for the east this year.
Defense is thought to be a questionable area, especially in the secondary.
3). South Carolina Gamecocks
Head coach Steve Spurrier enters this season with a 15-17 SEC record at South Carolina. Spurrier has brought in several new coaches to help revamp the offense.
Stephen Garcia enters fall camp as the number one guy at quarterback after the transfer of Chris Smelley to Alabama. Garcia was very inconsistent in 2008 and no player behind him has attempted a pass in a college game. For a position that Spurrier specializes in, quarterback has been a problem for him at South Carolina.
Junior Brian Maddox returns as the favorite to start at running back. Maddox leads a very average group of backs. No back on the roster has more than 200 career rushing yards, and Garcia was the second leading rusher on the team last year.
Half of the receiving corp from last season is gone. Sophomore Jason Barnes may be the best of the bunch. He showed flashes of potential last season. Senior Moe Brown returns and has 633 career receiving yards.
The offensive line gave up 39 sacks last season, ranking as the second most in the conference behind Arkansas. New line coach Eric Wolford hopes to turn things around. Improvement here is critical.
The defense must replace a number of key players, especially in the secondary. The Gamecocks have lost their top three corners from last season. Cornerback depth is very thin. All-SEC LB Eric Norwood leads the defense.
4). Vanderbilt Commodores
For the first time in over two decades, Vanderbilt finished the 2008 football season with a winning record. The Commodores welcome back 17 starters, tied for first in the league.
Vanderbilt ranked 117th in the nation in offense last season. Senior Mackenzi Adams and sophomore Larry Smith will both be battling for the starting quarterback position.
Jared Hawkins returns as the leading rusher. Hawkins rushed for a team-high 593 yards in 2008. Vanderbilt has not had a 1,000 yard rusher in over a decade.
UConn transfer, Terence Jeffers, will step in right away after the departures of George Smith and Sean Walker to graduation. Jeffers had 582 receiving yards with UConn and could be the top receiving threat for the Commodores.
Seven offensive linemen return, but the offensive line wasn't always a strength in 2008. Coaches believe the new no-huddle offense will help out their line.
A solid defensive line returns, led by defensive tackle Greg Billinger. The strength of the defense will be the linebacker group. Patrick Benoist returns and All-SEC MLB Chris Marve leads the group. The Commodores are extremly thin in the secondary. Vanderbilt will have to have some freshmen step up to help the numbers.
5). Tennessee Volunteers
Lane Kiffin was brought in to replace the departed Phillip Fulmer. Kiffin hit the ground with his mouth running. After an offseason filled with outlandish remarks, child-like behavior, and numerous NCAA secondary violations, Vol fans must have thought the season couldn't arrive quickly enough.
Senior Jonathan Crompton returns at quarterback. Compton has a strong arm but has been inconsistent. Playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in five years hasn't helped.
Senior Montario Hardesty returns to lead the rushing attack. Heralded incoming freshmen Bryce Brown and David Oku will compete for playing time right away.
Junior Gerald Jones returns as the leading receiver. Behind Jones, things are murky at best. Highly recruited freshman Nu’Keese Richardson will be expected to step in right away and take some double teams off of Jones.
A solid offensive line returns, lead by Josh McNeil at Center. There's plenty of experience with senior starters at guard at left tackle.
Junior Chris Walker leads the defensive linemen. Junior Ben Martin is just as good on the other end. Linebackers return only one starter in senior Rico McCoy. This is a very thin position for the Vols and is an area of concern.
All-American strong safety Eric Berry returns to lead the secondary. Several freshmen will be given the opportunity to compete for spots in the secondary this season.
6). Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky hopes to revert back to the kind of offensive success they enjoyed in 2006-2007. That could be a tall order.
Junior Mike Hartline returns as the starter at quarterback. If Kentucky has any success this year, Hartline must improve upon his 1,666 yards from last season.
Tony Dixon is gone from the backfield, so senior tailback Alfonso Smith will have the opportunity to step up. Smith is a fast back who rushed for 204 yards last season. Junior Derrick Locke could be a factor, but he has battled injuries during his career.
Randall Cobb returns after his first full season as a wide receiver. Cobb is the best of the bunch in a group that appears to be average at best. Junior college transfer Chris Matthews will have an opportunity to contribute right way.
The offensive line was a problem last season, and coaches hope to correct it this year. There are seven guys who have some experience, including Zip Duncan, a converted tight end.
The Wildcats lost three of their four defensive linemen from last season. Senior tackle Corey Peters is the only returning starter. MLB Micah Johnson returns to lead the linebacker group. Johnson recorded 93 tackles last season. Trevard Lindley returns for his senior season in the secondary. Lindley is thought by some to be the best pure cover corner in the SEC. The secondary could be the strength of the Wildcat defense this year.
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