SEC Football: Power Ranking the Conference on the Eve of the Season

Jeremy Hillman@@SECpigskinContributor IAugust 29, 2011

SEC Football: Power Ranking the Conference on the Eve of the Season

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    Get your cooler, grab your tickets and set your DVR.  Find your tailgating recipes and polish your cowbells if you have them.

    It is game week, folks. Get your game face on!

    The season is just a few days away and we need to be prepared.

    First things first, we need to sort out how the teams compare as the season races towards us.

    Click through the following slide show to see my power ranking of each of the 12 SEC programs for 2011...

12. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    New head coach James Franklin takes over a team that has won just 13 conference games in the last 10 years.  I believe he will end up being a good long-term fit for the Commodores, but this season will be an uphill battle for a team lacking talent and depth at key positions in a conference loaded with tough teams.

    Area of concern: Quarterback play (the offense struggled last season and quarterback Larry Smith must step up this season if Vanderbilt has any hopes of winning more games than a year ago. Smith only completed 47 percent of his passes and threw just 6 touchdowns to 5 interceptions a year ago)

    Area of strength: Safety (Senior Sean Richardson, 98 tackles in 2010,  is one of the better safeties in the SEC and sophomore returning starter Kenny Ladler brings skill to the other safety spot)

    Most realistic record: 2-10

    Bowl Projection: None

11. Ole Miss Rebels

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    The Rebels endured a painful season in 2010, losing to FCS Jacksonville State in Week 1 and limping to a 4-8 overall record.

    Head coach Houston Nutt needs to get this ship turned around quickly if he has aspirations of staying in Oxford very long. A tough opening game against BYU will tell us a lot about where Ole Miss stands in 2011.

    Look for improved play and progress on the offensive side of the ball with play-makers at QB (new quarterback Barry Brunetti, a transfer from West Virginia, could spark a sluggish offense) and RB (Brandon Bolden had over 1,300 total offensive yards last season).

    However, the defense will continue to struggle, with only two returning starters to a unit that gave up over 35 points a game last season.

    Area of Concern: Linebacker (the Rebels lost star linebacker D.T. Shackelford to injury this off-season and will rely on inexperienced young players to fill the void. Junior Joel Knight is the lone returning starter to this unit, and he only had 35 tackles a year ago)

    Area of Strength: Rushing offense (Brandon Bolden and back-up running back Enrique Davis will provide the Rebel offense with a nice one-two punch on the ground. Add to that the mobility of quarterback Barry Brunetti, and Ole Miss should have a strong running game)

    Record Projection: 5-7

    Bowl Projection: None

10. Kentucky Wildcats

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    This program is definitely on the upswing. Last season, they earned their fifth straight bowl invitation and are looking to make it six in a row this upcoming season, gradually pulling away from Vanderbilt and the SEC East basement.

    The bad news for second-year head coach Joker Phillips is that his Wildcats lost significant offensive talent to graduation, losing all-world QB/WR/ATH Randall Cobb, top receiver Chris Matthews, talented running back Derrick Locke and starting quarterback Mike Hartline.

    The good news is that Kentucky returns seven starters to the defensive side of the ball, including star safety Winston Guy (106 tackles last season) and one of the very best players in the SEC, senior linebacker Danny Trevathan (144 tackles last season).

    After all is said and done, look for Kentucky to struggle at times on offense, play solid defense and benefit from a pretty light schedule (no Alabama, Arkansas or Auburn from the West and WKU, Central Michigan, Louisville and Jacksonville State as the out-of-conference games) to take a sixth straight bowl trip.

    Area of Concern: Receivers (new Kentucky quarterback Morgan Newton has the ability to be an effective quarterback, if he has reliable receivers to throw to. The loss of Cobb and Matthews leaves a big hole at wide receiver. The Wildcats are looking to capable La'Rod King and Matt Roark to try and fill those shoes as much as possible.)

    Area of Strength: Defensive secondary (the Kentucky defensive linebackers, cornerbacks and safeties are a solid unit. Trevathan and Guy are joined by returning starters LB Ronnie Sneed, CB Randall Burden, CB Anthony Mosley and FS Mychal Bailey and will make it tough on opposing offenses to generate big plays)

    Record Projection: 6-6

    Bowl Projection: Compass Bowl (Kentucky vs. Connecticut)

9. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Tennessee ended last season winning four straight games to end the season and qualifying for a bowl game. A disappointing overtime loss to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl ended what was a good late-season run for a team trying to rebuild under new coach Derek Dooley.

    Sophomore quarterback comes into 2011 with more experience and confidence and can also rely on solid run support from talented running back Tauren Poole (1,085 yards last season). An unproven, but talented, slew of young receivers dots the roster as well.

    The defensive secondary should be solid, but the defensive front seven has to replace 5 starters.

    Look for the Vols to get off to a solid 3-1 start and play their way into another bowl game in 2010. Road games at Alabama, Florida and Arkansas make the schedule tough and will relegate Tennessee to fourth in the SEC East.

    Area of Concern: Linebacker (with just one starter, Herman Lathers, coming off injury, coming back to the linebacker corps in 2011, the Volunteers linebacking unit is inexperienced and has a lot to prove.

    Area of Strength: Running Back (with a 1,000-yard rusher, Poole, returning and a capable backup in sophomore Rajion Neal, look for the Volunteers to run it early and often behind a big offensive line)

    Record Projection: 7-5

    Bowl Projection: Liberty Bowl (Tennessee vs. Southern Miss)

8. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Head coach Dan Mullen is building a solid program at Mississippi State.

    Eight regular season wins in 2010 and the 52-14 beating of Michigan in last season's Gator Bowl have expectations flying high in Starkville this season.

    Vick Ballard (19 rushing touchdowns last season) is an underrated back, and quarterback Chris Relf will try to put together a big senior season. He will have talented wide receiver Chad Bumphis (634 receiving yards in 2010) and returning starter Arceto Clark to throw to. Look for the Bulldogs to score more points this season than last.

    The defense finished just eighth in the SEC last season and must replace all three starting linebackers. Expect an adjustment period for this unit early in the season.

    Area of Concern: Linebackers (Geoff Collins is the new linebackers coach at Mississippi State, and he must get three new starters up and running this season. He has capable guys in transfer Brandon Maye and senior Brandon Wilson at the middle linebacker spot. However, there is lack of experience and depth at the other two linebacker positions.)

    Area of Strength: Defensive Tackle (one of the best interior lineman tandems in the SEC, star defensive tackles Josh Boyd and Fletcher Cox will clog up the middle for the Bulldog defense all season long)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 7-5

    Bowl Projection: Music City Bowl (Mississippi State vs. NC State)

7. Auburn Tigers

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    Auburn is the defending national champion after an undefeated 2010 campaign.

    The only problem is, key stars on both sides of the ball were lost to the NFL (QB Cam Newton and DT Nick Fairley are the two most notable).

    Gene Chizik was able to keep one of his biggest stars in town as Auburn paid big to keep offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn on the Plains. Malzahn will be without Newton, but he has a cast of talented position players to slip into his dynamic offensive scheme, including star running back Michael Dyer (1,106 rushing yards last season). 

    The defense only returns three starters to a unit that was less-than-impressive in some early games last season. The good news for the Tigers is many of these new starters have had significant playing experience the last couple of seasons.

    Expect a drop off in production on both sides of the ball, but don't be surprised if this young, but  talented Auburn team builds into a dangerous squad by season's end. However, a really difficult schedule keeps Auburn here for now.

    Area of Concern: Quarterback (with Cam Newton and his 4,000 offensive yards gone to the NFL, Gus Malzahn and the Auburn coaches are turning to Barrett Trotter as the new starter. He has been in the Malzahn system for three seasons, but has only attempted nine passes in game play.)

    Area of Strength: Running Backs (it seems that Auburn always has stud running backs, and this season is no exception. Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb combined for over 1,900 yards and 14 touchdowns a year ago and are back for more in 2010)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 7-5

    Bowl Projection: Gator Bowl (Auburn vs. Penn State)

6. Florida Gators

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    It is hard to predict what the Gators may do in 2011. With a new coaching staff (including new head coach Will Muschamp) and following a disappointing 8 win season in 2010, the Gators will try to regroup and work to tclimb their way back near the top. 

    The passing game is still a question mark. Can new Offensive Coordinator Charlie Weis and his pro-style system help embattled quarterback John Brantley improve on his dismal stats from last season (10 interceptions and only 9 touchdowns)? Having a healthy Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps at running back could help.

    The defense only returns two starters, but is littered with NFL quality talent across the defensive line and quality starters in the secondary.

    Look for an improved Gator team, but with about the same number of wins as a year ago as the coaches work to implement their systems and build for the future.

    Area of Concern: Receiver (Deaonte Thompson had a problem of dropping balls a year ago. Has he improved? Who will be the go-to guy at wide out, unproven Quinton Dunbar? Will Andre Debose step up and live up to his expectations? They have plenty of bodies, but they will need production.)

    Area of Strength: Defensive line (Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley, William Green and Ronald Powell form one of the most athletic and powerful defensive lines in the SEC)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 8-4

    Bowl Projection: Chick-Fil-A Bowl (Florida vs. Virginia Tech)

5. LSU Tigers

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    With Jordan Jefferson and teammate Joshua Johns off the team due to arrest and Russell Sheppard off the team due to violations, this LSU team looks different from what we expected to see in Week 1 of the season.

    There is still talent in place, and LSU will still be competitive without these players, but there is no doubt that this hurts LSU and is a big distraction to the football team.

    For the offense, they still have weapons like wide receiver Rueben Randle (33 catches for 544 yards in 2010) and speedy running back Spencer Ware (102 rushing yards against Texas A&M in last season's bowl game).

    On the defense, they only return four starters but have young talent all over the starting lineup. Sophomore defensive ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo should visit opponents' offensive backfields all season, and the linebacker corps and secondary are full of all-star candidates like senior linebacker Ryan Baker.

    Area of Concern: Quarterback  (Jefferson was a question mark and now he is gone and replaced by a bigger question mark, new starter Jarrett Lee. The Tigers are just 5-4 in games he has started and 1-8 against the spread)

    Area of Strength: Linebacker (Ryan Baker, Kevin Minter, Stefoin Francious, and Karnell Hatcher form one of the best linebacker units in the conference. They are rangy and work well in defensive coordinator John Chavis' system)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 8-4

    Bowl Projection: Outback Bowl (LSU vs. Michigan State)

4. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Over the last four seasons, Georgia's win total has gone from 11 in 2007, to 10 in 2008, to eight in 2008 and then six in 2010.

    That would be why Head Coach Mark Richt's seat is so hot in 2011.  Many believe he needs nine or more wins to be sure of staying at Georgia.

    The good news for Richt is that he has the best quarterback in the conference, in Sophomore Aaron Murray (3,049 passing yards as a freshman last season).

    The bad news is because of attrition  at the running back position, the Bulldogs must rely on highly touted true freshman Isaiah Crowell to carry the load (Crowell may turn that into good news, we shall see) and the loss of all-universe wide receiver A.J. Green looms large.

    Who will step up to fill his shoes? Tavarres King is the most likely candidate (504 receiving yards in 2010) from a slew of unproven pass catchers.

    The defense returns five starters and should hold its own with talent like big nose tackle John Jenkins, linebacker Christian Robinson and ball-hawking safety Bacarri Rambo roaming the field.

    Nine or more wins is definitely possible if the injury news on offensive linemen subsides and young players step up on offense.

    Area of Concern: Wide Receiver (Tight End Orsen Charles is the best pass-catching option, not usually a good sign for a passing game. There is potential in this receiver unit, but it must develop quickly as the first two games are against stiff competition)

    Area of Strength: Quarterback (easily the best quarterback in the SEC, Aaron Murray is a leader and has an accurate arm)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 9-3

    Bowl Projection: Capital One Bowl (Georgia vs. Ohio State)

3. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Maybe one of the more underrated teams in the conference, Arkansas is coming off a season where they won 10 games and earned a BCS bowl bid.

    While star quarterback Ryan Mallett is off to the NFL, his replacement is no slouch. New quarterback Tyler Wilson has a big arm and looked good in relief appearances a year ago.  He also has one of the best receiving corps in the nation to throw to.

    Although starting running back Knile Davis was injured in preseason practice, he also has a capable replacements in talented Ronnie Wingo Jr. and Dennis Johnson. The running game may lose a little production, but it won't fall off the map by any means.

    The defense is getting better each season and returns six starters for 2011. Defensive end Jake Bequette leads the defense, linebacker Jerry Franklin had 100 tackles last season and free safety Tramain Thomas hits hard. Look for even better stats from this defensive unit in 2011.

    With the issues at LSU and the talent in place for the Razorbacks, I look for Arkansas to finish second in the tough SEC West.

    Area of Concern: Offensive line (the loss of three starters to the offensive line has the Razorbacks in rebuild mode up front. They must gel quickly for Arkansas to reach its potential)

    Area of Strength: Wide Receiver (wide receivers Greg Childs, Joe Adams and Jarious Wright combined for 138 catches, over 2,000 yards receiving and 17 receiving touchdowns in 2010. This offense is built for the big passing play)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 9-3

    Bowl Projection: Cotton Bowl (Arkansas vs. Oklahoma State)

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    This is the biggest season in South Carolina football history. It could very well be the first top 10 finish in the final AP poll in the program's history. It could also be even more than that.

    The offense will be very hard to stop as senior quarterback Stephen Garcia looks to get his head straight and lead this Gamecock offensive attack. The Gamecocks also have the conference's best running back (Marcus Lattimore) and best receiver (Alshon Jeffery).

    The defense should be improved with linebacker Shaq Wilson returning from injury, highly touted defensive end Jadeveon Clowney joining an already dominant defensive line that includes star defensive end Devon Taylor and big defensive tackle Travarian Robertson, and returning the league's top cornerback in Stephen Gilmore.

    Look for South Carolina to win the SEC East again in 2010.

    Area of Concern: Special Teams (Spencer Lanning has graduated after three seasons of handling kicking and punting duties. While there are several viable options, who will step up and fill this void?)

    Area of Strength: Wide Receiver (the Gamecocks return four of their top five receivers from a year ago, including one of the best receivers in the country, Alshon Jeffery)

    Regular Season Record Projection: 11-1

    Bowl Projection: Fiesta Bowl (South Carolina vs. Boise State)

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Three losses a year ago was a big disappointment for the Crimson Tide. However, it says a lot when a 10-win season is a disappointment.

    The 2011 Tide will be built around running the football and defense.

    Trent Richardson gets his chance to be the featured back in the Alabama offense now that Heisman winner Mark Ingram is gone to the NFL.  In his 112 carries last season, Richardson averaged an impressive 6.2 yards per carry.

    Breaking in a new quarterback, most likely A.J. McCarron, look for Alabama to lean on Richardson, Eddie Lacey and the running attack. There are questions about who will step up at receiver, but the massive and talented offensive line will open up lanes for passing and running.

    The defense is the star of this team. The Tide returns seven starters to a defense that gave up a conference-leading 13 points a game last season.

    Nose tackle Josh Chapman, line backers Courtney Upshaw, Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosely and Dont'a Hightower, corner back Dre Kirkpatrick, strong safety Mark Barron and free safety Robert Lester are all potential first-day NFL draft selections...and there are more in the starting line-up and depth chart who will likely play on Sundays. 

    Look for the passing game to take a bit of time to develop, as the defense and running game lead Alabama to a special season.

    Area of Concern: Wide Receiver (Alabama will sorely miss star receiver Julio Jones. Can Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks, and/or Duron Carter fill his shoes?)

    Record Projection: 11-1

    Bowl Projection: BCS Sugar Bowl (Alabama vs. Nebraska)