2008-2009 SEC Preview: Florida and Auburn to Battle for SEC Title

David Parks@DavidParks10Correspondent IJuly 24, 2008

The annual argument over which conference reigns supreme in the college football world will add another chapter when the season kicks off this fall, but already there is a clear-cut number one heading into the season—the SEC.

The SEC has always been at or near the top of conference rankings since I can remember, but this year the conference might be the best it's ever been.  With as many as six teams having a shot to be ranked in the preseason top 25, the SEC will be as wild as ever.

Here's what to expect from each team come football season.


Alabama Crimson Tide

The Nick Saban era got off to a great start last season, with the Tide jumping out to a 6-2 record.  However, they bogged down towards the end of the season and wound up finishing with a 7-6 record.

Expectations continue to grow in Tuscaloosa, with nine offensive starters coming back, along with a top five recruiting class.

Offense: The offense returns nine starters to a unit that was plagued by inconsistency last year.  Leading the way is quarterback John Parker Wilson, who struggled mightily in the last five games of the season, throwing just four touchdowns with six interceptions.  Wilson is losing his top three receivers from last year, so who he throws the ball to is somewhat of a concern.

Terry Grant returns to give the Tide a solid running game, and junior Andrew Smith anchors one of the best offensive lines in the country.

Defense: The defense for the Tide loses some key players from last year's squad, including cornerback Simeon Castille.  Senior safety Rashad Johnson is one of the best safeties in the conference.

The biggest concern for the Tide on defense would be the D-line.  With the departure of Wallace Gilberry the Tide lose the only considerable pass rusher from last year's team.  Consider that Gilberry had 10 sacks last season, while nobody else on the team had more than three.  The secondary better be good, or else the Tide will get run out of the building.

Impact Newcomer: Julio Jones, WR.  Even if Alabama hadn't lost their top three receivers from this past year, Jones would start—he's that good.  A five-star recruit out of high school, Jones had 194 career catches for 3,287 yards and 42 touchdowns.  Jones is 6'4", 215 pounds and will be deadly in the red zone.

'08-09 Forecast: Even though Saban has done an incredible job recruiting, it's tough to see this team competing for an SEC title anytime soon.  Alabama just isn't as talented as LSU or Auburn or any of the other elites in the SEC.  Expect another year like 2007 for the Tide in '08.

'08-09 Record: 7-5 (4-4)


Arkansas Razorbacks

The Hogs made a decision to part ways with longtime head coach Houston Nutt and hire former Louisville and Atlanta Falcons coach Bobby Petrino.  After losing both Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, it's tough to envision the Hogs being competitive this year in the SEC.

Offense: As mentioned, the offense will have to be completely overhauled with the losses of McFadden and Jones.  Petrino does have a knack for developing quarterbacks, as he did with Brian Brohm up at Louisville.  Casey Dick returns and figures to be the opening day starter, but who will he throw and hand off to?  That remains to be seen.

Expect sophomore tight end D.J. Williams to be involved in the offense.  Petrino's offense historically involves a tight end.  The offensive line will be one of the best in the nation, anchored by All-American center Jonathan Luigs.

Defense:  Wow—where to begin?  The defense is a mess.  All four starters in the secondary are gone, and depending on linebacker Freddie Fairchild's pending suspension, all three linebackers could be gone as well.  The defensive line better get to the quarterback early and often—because if not, things could get ugly in the Ozarks.

Impact Newcomer: Ryan Mallett, QB.  With no real impact guy coming in this year, we're going to cheat a little bit and name Mallett here.  Mallett was a five-star quarterback coming out of high school who committed to Michigan, but when new coach Rich Rodriguez brought his system up to Ann Arbor, Mallett transferred.  Expect Mallett to start in '09.

'08-09 Forecast: Over the past three seasons, Arkansas has ranked 112th, 109th and 109th in pass offense, so there is optimism that Petrino will take to the air more often.  In recent years fans have been frustrated that the team hasn't won more.  This season, getting to a bowl game would be a miracle for the Hogs.

'08-09 Record: 3-9 (0-8)


Auburn Tigers

You could make an argument that Auburn has been the most consistent team in the SEC over the past several years.  The Brandon Cox era has officially come to an end in Auburn, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  This team will be all about the defense.  If the Tigers want to overtake LSU in the West, the D will be the key.

Offense: Blake Field figures to begin the season as the starter, but sophomore Kodi Burns will give him a run for his money.  The Tigers have a good duo in the backfield with junior Ben Tate and senior Brad Lester.  The star on offense is senior wide receiver Rodgeriqus Smith, who figures to be either Field's or Burns' go-to target.

Defense: It's not often that a team can lose an All-SEC defensive end and be perfectly fine the next season, but that's exactly what the Auburn Tigers are after losing Quentin Groves.  Junior linebacker Tray Blackmon might very well be the best linebacker in the SEC, but the defense is led by another linebacker, Sen'Derrick Marks.  This team will go as far as the defense carries them.

Impact Newcomer: Raven Gray, DE.  Gray is a 6'4" defensive end who is lightning-quick off the edge.  He's a lot like Groves in the sense that what he lacks in size he makes up for in quickness.  Look for him to start by midseason.

'08-09 Forecast: Will this be the year that Auburn finally gets back to the SEC title game?  It sure looks like it.  With LSU reeling from personnel loses and nobody else having enough talent to compete with Auburn, it appears that for the first time since '04, the Tigers will be headed to Atlanta.

'08-09 Record: 10-3 (7-1), SEC West Champions


Florida Gators

Two words: Tim Tebow.  The Gators followed up their national title with a solid performance in '07, but the defense was a huge concern.  Florida's offense is one of the best in the country, and if the Gators' defense can continue to get better, expect the Gators to be competing for another National title.

Offense: This team is loaded.  It all starts with Tebow, but he does have plenty of weapons at his disposal.  Leading the way is junior wide receiver Percy Harvin, who is a threat to take it the distance every time he touches the ball.  USC transfer Emmanuel Moody might be the link that the Gators have been missing.  Moody should be the Gators' starting running back and should take some heat off Tebow.

Defense: The defense was horrible last year, plain and simple.  If the defense had been better, the Gators likely might have repeated as champions.  With another year of experience, expect the Gators defense to give more help to the offense.  The D will have to overcome the loss of All-SEC defensive end Derrick Harvey, but sophomore Carlos Dunlap should fill the void nicely.

Impact Newcomer: Emmanuel Moody, RB.  Florida has lacked a big-time running back for years, but there is optimism in Gainesville that Moody can be a 20-carry-a-game back.  If he was good enough to get carries at USC, with all the talent they had in the backfield, he should do just fine for the Gators.

'08-09 Forecast: Florida should be preseason top five in the country.  Tebow will be anxious to have an even better season than he did last year.  Like many teams, though, Florida will go as far as their defense allows them to.

'08-09 Record: 13-0 (8-0), SEC Champions


Georgia Bulldogs

An argument could be made that at the end of last year, there was not a team in the country playing better than Georgia was.  Coming off of a 41-10 beatdown of supposed Cinderella Hawaii, expectations are high in Athens for the team's first SEC title since 2005.

Offense: The offense is led by junior quarterback Matthew Stafford and sophomore running back Knowshon Moreno.  Moreno is coming off a freshman year in which he ran for over 1,300 yards.  There is some concern over who Stafford will throw the ball to, but freshman A.J. Green should provide some instant help.  The line will have to replace two starters but should be in good hands with Trinton Sturdivant and Clint Boling returning.

Defense: The defense for the Dawgs will be rock solid as they return nine starters.  The D is led by senior linebacker Dannell Ellerbe and defensive tackle Geno Atkins.  The secondary will be in good hands with the return of junior Asher Allen and C.J. Byrd.  Look for the Dawgs to dominate opponents with suffocating D.

Impact Newcomer: A.J. Green, WR.  It's not often that you see the best two high school wide receivers commit to play in the same conference, but that's the story here.  Green will battle Alabama's Julio Jones for freshman of the year honors in the SEC.  Green, like Jones, is 6'4" and should provide Stafford with a go-to target in the red zone.

'08-09 forecast: The Dawgs picked a bad year to have such a good team.  There's no denying that the Dawgs are one of the best teams in the nation, but I'm inclined to give the edge to Florida just because I think their defense will be much improved.  Nevertheless, expect Georgia in a BCS bowl game.

'08-09 Record: 11-1 (7-1)


Kentucky Wildcats

The Andre Woodson era is over in Lexington after enjoying back to back bowl games.  Rich Brooks will have his toughest season of coaching yet with the losses the team suffered on offense.

Offense: Tons of question marks for the Wildcats on offense.  Who will be quarterback?  At this point the edge would go to Curtis Pulley, but Matt Hartline could push him for the starting job.

Who will take over for Rafael Little at running back?  Probably a running back by committee with Tony Dixon, Alphonso Smith, and Derrick Locke competing for carries.  Advantage goes to Smith for the starting job.

Finally, the receivers are a mess.  Steve Johnson and Keenan Burton are gone, so whoever the quarterback is will need to establish a go-to receiver and fast.

Defense: The D is led by junior cornerback Trevard Lindley, who's got five career interceptions.  For the first time in a while, Kentucky will be relying on defense to win ball games.  Junior Jeremy Jarmon leads an experienced group along the line.  Look for Kentucky to continue to improve on defense as they did a year ago.

Impact Newcomer: Aaron Boyd, WR.  Boyd was a four-star receiver out of high school and gets this accolade based primarily on the fact that he will likely be the number two receiver for the Wildcats on opening day.  He's not as good as Jones is for Bama or Green is for Georgia, but look for Boyd to have better stats then both of them at season's end.

'08-09 Forecast: Brooks will try to do something that hasn't been done at Kentucky since Bear Bryant coached the 'Cats—make it to three consecutive bowl games.  But Brooks will have to do that in the toughest conference in America relying on an improved defense and an unproven offense.

'08-09 Record: 5-7 (2-6)


LSU Tigers

LSU's quarterback situation and brutal road schedule make it difficult to predict a repeat title.  But the Tigers do have enough talent to challenge once again for the SEC crown.

Offense: If Ryan Perrilloux is still on the team, LSU is very likely one of the top three teams in the country.  That being said, the offense has to recover from several huge losses on offense.  Gone from last year's team are running back Jacob Hester and receiver Early Doucet.

The line figures to be one of the best in the country with the return of four starters.  LSU has an abundance of riches at the running back position with Charles Scott, Richard Murphy, and Keiland Williams, but expect Williams to win the starting job.  LSU has enough firepower on offense, no matter who the quarterback is.

Defense: LSU is quickly becoming D-Line U.  Even after losing All-American Glenn Dorsey, the Tigers are once again loaded on the line, led by Al Woods and Tyson Jackson.  The secondary and linebackers are a little bit of a concern, with the losses of Chevous Jackson and Jonathan Zenon in the secondary and Ali Highsmith and Derry Beckwith at linebacker.  

Impact Newcomer: Patrick Johnson, CB.  An absolutely jaw-dropping athlete, Johnson was the No. 5 recruit in the country.  He originally committed to Miami but later signed with the Tigers.  Johnson is 6'1", 185 pounds, which is good size for a corner.  He can absolutely fly, clocking a 4.38 in the 40 to go along with a 37-inch vertical.  Look for Johnson to compete for a starting job right away in Baton Rouge.

'08-09 Forecast:  LSU's quarterback situation and a demanding schedule make it difficult to see the Tigers winning another SEC title this year.  Even if LSU fails to win the West, expect the Tigers to be in the running for a BCS berth.

'08-09 Record: 9-3 (5-3)


Ole Miss Rebels

The Rebels finally got rid of Ed Orgeron after a disastrous tenure at the school.  Replacing him is former Arkansas head coach Houston Nutt.  The Rebels have lacked a consistent quarterback ever since Eli Manning left campus, but look for a transfer to save the day this year.

Offense: The Rebels have some talent on offense—it's just a matter of whether Nutt can translate talent into results.  Texas transfer Jevan Snead figures to be the starter this season.  Snead is a big 6'5" quarterback with a rifle arm.  The question still remains of who he will throw to.

Michael Oher is the best offensive lineman in the conference, so Snead will be well-protected.  Enrique Davis will likely be the opening day starter for the Rebels at running back.

Defense: The defense is a mess.  There is almost no depth at linebacker.  As for defensive back, junior Marshay Green moved from receiver to cornerback—and immediately won a starting job.  The line better get pressure on the quarterback, or else the Rebels will be in for some long days.

Impact Newcomer: Enrique Davis, RB.  Davis was a five-star prospect who originally signed with Auburn but now finds himself in Oxford in a great position.  He immediately adds a breakaway threat to the Rebels' running back position.

'08-09 Forecast: Newcomers on the sideline, at quarterback, and at running back have given new hope to the faithful in Oxford.  Having a proven coach in Nutt on the sideline is a bonus, and Snead is a significant upgrade at quarterback.  If the defense holds up, Ole Miss could make a legitimate run at a bowl bid.

'08-09 Record: 5-7 (2-6)


Mississippi State

The Bulldogs got their first winning season under coach Sylvester Croom, and it could not have come at a better time, as the natives in Starkville were growing restless.  The Bulldogs return several starters on both offense and defense and should return to a bowl game again in '08.

Offense: The offense is led by running back Anthony Dixon.  He rushed for over 1,000 yards and 14 TDs last year.  Dixon will be the primary focus of the Bulldogs offense this year.  Wesley Carroll will look to keep on improving as a quarterback but has limited resources to throw to.  The coaching staff is hoping that senior Jamayel Smith can be the go-to guy, but that is far from a sure thing.

Defense: The defense should be the Bulldogs' strength, as they return nine starters from last year's team.  Those returning are led by arguably the best safety in the country in Derek Pegues.  The strong area of the defense will be the secondary with all starters returning from last year.

The weakest part of the Bulldog defense would seem to be the lack of a pass rusher on the outside, but the secondary is good enough to fend for themselves.

Impact Newcomer: Robert Elliott, RB.  Make no mistake about it, Dixon is the guy for the Bulldogs—but Elliot is an explosive playmaker.  He has good size and blazing speed.  Elliott will provide lightning to Dixon's thunder.  He reminds people of a young Jerious Norwood.

'08-09 Forecast: Mississippi State showed progress in year four under Croom last fall, earning the school's first bowl game in seven seasons.  Given the returning starters on both sides, an offense that's finally adding playmakers, a tough defense, and the confidence that rolled over from 2007's success, there's no doubt that the Bulldogs should be headed to another bowl game.

'08-09 Record: 7-5 (3-5)


South Carolina Gamecocks

When Steve Spurrier arrived at South Carolina, fans dreamed of SEC championships and BCS bowl games.  Instead they've gotten three years of mediocrity.  Carolina can't quite seem to make the jump to the elite of the SEC.

Offense: Spurrier has his work cut out for him beyond the quarterback spot.  The line should be improved after the Gamecocks allowed the second-most sacks in the SEC.  Mike Davis should get the nod at running back, while senior Kenny McKinley looks to build on a solid 2007 season that saw him catch an SEC-leading 77 passes.

Defense: There is a ton of talent on the Gamecock defense—the main problem has been keeping them healthy.  Leading the way is senior linebacker Jasper Brinkley, returning from a knee injury, who figures to be an All-SEC performer this year.

The defense is simple: They are really good at pass defense and awful at run defense.  The front seven must improve, or it could be another season of mediocrity in Columbia.

Impact Newcomer: Eric Baker, RB.  Baker is a lot like Elliott for Mississippi State.  Baker will provide a nice compliment to Mike Davis, who is more of a bruising back.  Baker rushed for over 1,700 yards and 16 touchdowns in his senior year of high school.

'08-09 Forecast: The fans in Columbia won't like it if the Gamecocks miss out on a bowl game again this year, so it's safe to say that for the first time in his college coaching career, Steve Spurrier is under pressure to perform.  Whether the Gamecocks are in SEC East contention depends on the health of the defense and the emergence of a legitimate quarterback.

'08-09 Record: 7-5 (4-4)


Tennessee Volunteers

The arrival of new offensive coordinator Dave Clawson signals a changing of the times in Knoxville.  Clawson runs a spread offense, which is a complete 180 from the traditional West Coast offense that head coach Phillip Fulmer usually likes to run.  

Offense: With the Erik Ainge era over in Knoxville, Jonathan Crompton officially takes the reins of the offense.  He's joined by senior running back Arian Foster and the two leading receivers from last year's team in Lucas Taylor and Austin Rogers.  Expect Clawson to use sophomore Gerald Jones in special situations, such as lining him up at quarterback.

Defense: You'd be hard-pressed to find a better secondary in the country.  Eric Berry is the best safety in the country by far, and he will be even better with the return of Demetrius Morely.  Jerod Mayo will be missed, but Gerald Williams should provide relief at the linebacker spot.

Impact Newcomer: Brandon Warren, TE.  We're cheating again on this one.  Warren was a freshman All-American tight end at Florida State but has since transferred to Tennessee.  If he can become eligible for the upcoming year, Clawson will have another weapon at his disposal to use on offense.

'08-09 Forecast: It's a bad year to be good on Rocky Top.  Any other year and this team would be an easy pick for SEC East winner, but this year they will likely be the third-best team...in their division.  That may play in the Vols' favor, though.  Historically under Fulmer, Tennessee is most dangerous on those occasions when everyone doubts them.

'08-09 Record: 9-3 (5-3)


Vanderbilt Commodores

It's tough to find a lot to get excited about with this Vandy team.  All signs pointed to Vanderbilt ending its bowl drought in 2007, but they couldn't get it done.  With Chris Williams and Earl Bennett departing for the NFL, it could be a very long season in Nashville.

Offense: Where to start?  Chris Nickson figures to be the starter, but things are wide open after Nickson regressed so much.  Mackenzi Adams could wind up being the starter.

As for who will catch and run the ball?  Your guess is as good as ours.  A plethora of guys figure to compete for the starting jobs, with nobody having a clear-cut edge at this point.

Defense: The defense is a different story.  The secondary for Vandy is incredibly solid.  Senior strong safety Reshard Langford and junior cornerback D.J. Moore return after being All-SEC selections.  The front seven on defense will have five new starters, so the secondary better be up to the challenge.

Impact Newcomer: TBD.  Honestly, when was the last time that Vanderbilt had an impact newcomer?  By midseason someone will break away from the pack, but right now it's too tough to call.

'08-09 Forecast: Vanderbilt has improved under coach Bobby Johnson.  The Commodores beat South Carolina in Columbia last season and lost close games to Georgia, Kentucky, and Tennessee, but they just can't seem to get over the hump.  Vandy needs to have consistency at quarterback to reach their first bowl game since 1982.

'08-09 Record: 3-9 (0-8)


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