SEC Football: Standouts Who Put the Conference Above Everybody Else
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Let's start with one inarguable fact: the Southeastern Conference is the nation's best. For now, at least, it isn't even close.
Want to debate it? If so, you can use any argument you want. I'll just point to the two BCS trophies in Gainesville, along with the one each in Baton Rouge, Tuscaloosa and on The Plains from the five most recent college football seasons.
So, who and what will help the SEC try to stay atop the college football landscape?
Here is a look at some of the best and brightest the league will have to offer in 2011:
Top Team: Let's go 1A and 1B here.
Alabama and LSU have legitimate BCS national championship contenders (again), with probably the only factor giving the Crimson Tide a slight edge is the fact that the showdown between the two teams is scheduled for Nov. 5 in Tuscaloosa.
Biggest Wild Card: It has to be Florida.
Who will win the SEC championship?
The Gators finished 8-5 in Urban Meyer's final season with what was (a few positions excepted) a very young cast. Now, the much-heralded 2010 freshman class is in its second season on campus, and the old adage is that players make their most improvement from year one to year two.
That said, the conference schedule is brutal (playing East favorite South Carolina in Columbia, hosting Alabama and visiting LSU), and the team is adjusting to a new coaching staff and offensive system.
But there is a whole lot of potential in Gator Country, and if UF puts it all together, this could be a dangerous team.
Biggest Conference Game: The aforementioned Nov. 5 showdown in Tuscaloosa gets the nod here.
In the four most recent games between the Crimson Tide and Tigers, each team has gone 2-2 with no one winning by more than nine points. The combined point total in those contests: Alabama 106, LSU 101.
What is the SEC's best unit?
Honorable mentions go to South Carolina at Georgia (Sept. 10), Arkansas at Alabama (Sept. 24), Alabama at Florida (Oct. 1), Florida at LSU (Oct. 8), Georgia-Florida (Oct. 29 in Jacksonville, Fla.), South Carolina at Arkansas (Nov. 5), Florida at South Carolina (Nov. 12), Arkansas at LSU (Nov. 25) and Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 26).
Top Offensive Unit: Have you taken a look at the receiving corps Bobby Petrino has at his disposal in Arkansas?
This group already was quite good with Joe Adams (50 receptions for 813 yards and six touchdowns in 2010), Jarius Wright (42, 788, five) and Cobi Hamilton (32, 630, six) back, but throw in the return from injury of the player who could be the best of the bunch, Greg Childs (46, 659, six in just seven starts), and you have a unit more loaded than a stuffed baked potato.
Who will lead the SEC in rushing?
Honorable mention goes to the offensive lines at Alabama and Mississippi, as well as the running back units at 'Bama, South Carolina, Auburn and Arkansas.
Top Defensive Unit: How potent is Alabama's defense? It very well could have the best set of linebackers and defensive backs in the country.
I'm giving a slight edge between those two units to Nick Saban's jumbo and talented set of linebackers.
Inside 'backers Nico Johnson (6'3", 245 pounds) and Dont'a Hightower (6'4", 260) are flanked by Courtney Upshaw (6'2", 265) and the "little guy" of the group, C.J. Mosley (6'2", 234).
All are returning starters with the NFL being particularly fond of Hightower and Upshaw.
Combined, this fearsome foursome recorded 218 tackles (led by Hightower's 69 and Mosley's 67), 15.5 tackles-for-loss (led by Upshaw's 7.5) and 16 pass breakups (10 by Mosley).
Who is the SEC's best 2012 draft-eligible NFL prospect?
The corps had just 7.5 sacks, with seven by Upshaw, but think about this...Hightower had nine quarterback hurries (one behind Buffalo Bills' first-rounder Marcell Dareus for team honors) but no sacks last season. That sounds kind of flukish. Anyone think he'll have any less than five sacks in 2011?
As for those DBs, Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, Mark Barron and Robert Lester—all returning starters—combined for 235 tackles (led by SS Barron's team-best 75) and 15 interceptions (led by FS Lester's team-best eight) in 2011.
All stand at least 6'1" (making them difficult to throw over), and Kirkpatrick, Barron and Lester are either the best or among the best 2012 draft-eligible prospects at their positions (Milliner is just a sophomore).
Give a wait-and-see honorable mention nod to Florida's defensive tackles.
Senior Jaye Howard may be the league's best at the position, while junior Omar Hunter and sophomores Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley all were 5-star signees out of high school. Other than Howard, none have proven to be All-SEC caliber, yet, but the possibilities seem pretty limitless if those guys become what recruiting gurus predicted.
Recent Heisman Trophies have been awarded to former SEC players Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton. Will the league take home the 2011 Heisman
League's Deepest Position: This one is easy. There are a plethora of outstanding running backs in the SEC (even with 2009 Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram having moved on from the Tide to the New Orleans Saints).
Seriously, how difficult must it have been to pick two preseason All-SEC backs when you have to choose between Arkansas' Knile Davis (204 carries for 1,322 yards and 13 TDs in 2010), South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore (249-for-1,197 and 17), Auburn's Michael Dyer (182-for-1,093, five), Tennessee's Tauren Poole (204-for-1,034, 11), Mississippi's Brandon Bolden (163-for-976, 14), Mississippi State's Vick Ballard (186-for-968, 19) and perhaps, the guy the NFL likes the most, Alabama's Trent Richardson (112-for-700, six, while primarily playing as Ingram's backup)?
That list doesn't even include the country's fastest player, Florida's Jeff Demps (92-for-551, three), or the SEC's top reserve back, Auburn's Onterrio McCaebb (95-for-810, nine). Also, don't count out Georgia freshman Isaiah Crowell making a similar splash to the one Lattimore made last year, his first in the league.
Honorable mention goes to inside linebacker (with Alabama's pair, Arkansas' Jerry Franklin and Vanderbilt's Chris Marve all being among the nation's best), outside linebacker (with Alabama's duo and Kentucky's Danny Trevathan being potential All-Americans) and wide receiver (Arkansas alone would make this list, but also throw in South Carolina's Alshon Jeffery, LSU's Reuben Randle and Russell Sheppard, as well as 'Bama's Marquis Maze and the elite depth is very strong).
How many SEC teams will play in a bowl game?
Had Janoris Jenkins not been booted from UF's team in the spring, cornerback (also with Kirkpatrick, Milliner, South Carolina's Stephen Gilmore, Vandy's Casey Hayward, LSU's Morris Claiborne and Georgia's Brandon Boykin) would have merited consideration.
A position to watch is defensive end, where South Carolina's Devin Taylor and Arkansas' Jake Bequette are the most accomplished returnees. However, young players like Gator sophomore Ronald Powell and Gamecock freshman Jadeveon Clowney have high-impact potential.
Most Underrated Player: Tough call, but I'll go with Kentucky's senior free safety/outside linebacker Winston Guy.
He is second (to teammate Trevathan) among the league's returning tacklers, having recorded 106 in 2010. He also had four tackles-for-loss and three interceptions.
Honorable mentions go to Florida's Howard and offensive guard Jon Halapio, Tennessee free safety Janzen Jackson and quarterback Tyler Bray, Vanderbilt strong safety Sean Richardson, Mississippi State center Quentin Saulsberry and Mississippi offensive tackles Bradley Sowell and Bobby Massie.
A few award predictions:
Offensive Player of the Year: Jeffery of South Carolina edges teammate Lattimore, Richardson, Georgia QB Aaron Murray and Dyer.
Defensive Player of the Year: Alabama's Upshaw barely beats out teammates Hightower and Barron, as well as Kentucky's Trevathan (2010's top tackler by a ridiculous 18).
Most Improved Player: There is no way Florida senior quarterback John Brantley throws 10 interceptions and nine touchdowns, like he did in 2010, this season.
Offensive Newcomer of the Year: Georgia's Crowell
Defensive Newcomer of the Year: South Carolina's Clowney
Coach of the Year: Alabama's Nick Saban (A darkhorse could be Florida's first-year coach Will Muschamp if he can maneuver his Gators to double-digit wins through a brutal conference schedule after Urban Meyer's final team finished 8-5. And no doubt, it won't be easy to replace Meyer, who brought Florida two BCS national championships and deserves a bust in UF's athletic Hall of Fame.)
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