SEC Preview: A Three Team Race In The West To Face The Gators

Douglas WebbCorrespondent IJuly 18, 2009

ATLANTA - DECEMBER 06:  Members of the Florida Gators celebrate their 31-20 win over the Alabama Crimson Tide to win the SEC Championship on December 6, 2008 at the Georgia Dome in Atlanta, Georgia.  (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Lot's of questions come to mind regarding the upcoming SEC football season. Some appear to have obvious answers while others are not so black and white. Some but not all would include:

Can Mississippi State turn things around?

1) Can Dan Mullen successfully make the step up from successful offensive coordinator to head coach at perennial cellar dweller Mississippi State?

To do so, he'll have to improve upon the Bulldogs recruiting particularly on the offensive side of the ball. With the the spread style offense he'll bring with him from stints as OC with both Florida and Utah, he'll need the type speed that MSU has seldom seen, at least from the home team.

He'll also need to maintain the disciplined type program that previous head coach Sly Croom instilled during his tenure at Starkville. Given enough time, odds are Mullen will be able to significantly improve the offensive output, as compared to the anemic efforts Bulldog fans have endured in recent years.

2) Can Defensive Coordinator Carl Torbush duplicate the success he had at Alabama, or will it be more reminiscent of his less than lackluster stint at Texas A&M?

If his defense comes up short performance-wise and forces the offense to win shootouts, it will likely be a long inaugural season for the new coaching staff.

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Prognosis: Mullen faces a very tough road ahead of him. The likelihood he's capable of bringing in the type players he had on offense at Florida is slim. The "Next Percy Harvin" angle won't work as well at Miss St. as it does for the Gators.

And without enough of those type players, his spread style offense will likely struggle against SEC competition, particularly early on in the season.

Will Auburn Continue To Flounder Or Will There New Staff Be Able To Turn Things Around?

1) Can Gene Chizik, 5-19 in his first stop as a Head Coach at Iowa State, finally prove himself capable of producing a winning program?

He'll have a tough road ahead of him, thanks in part to the lackluster recruiting efforts in recent years by the previous staff. Indications are that Chizik's staff will far outwork the efforts of previous head coach Tommy Tuberville's staff in recruiting.

The problem, though, it that it will likely take at least two (possibly three) full years on the recruiting trail to improve the Tigers enough depth-wise to be able to compete with the upper echelon teams in the league.

The Tigers are woefully behind in some spots, particularly on the offensive line.

2) Even with improved talent does Chizik have what it takes to be a success as a Head Coach?

At Iowa St., many involved with the program felt he was a poor game day coach, and noted that there often seemed to be allot of disorganization with him at the helm. His staff at Auburn appears to much improved over his Iowa State staff, but whether that will make enough difference on game day has yet to be seen.ย 

3) Will Offensive Coordinator Gus Malzahn's wide open style of offense prove as successful in the SEC as it was in Conference USA?

Auburn fans are quick to point out the success he had as offensive coordinator at Arkansas.

The truth is, he left the Razorbacks following his lone season there as offennsive coordinator because Head Coach Houston Nutt refused to allow him to run the offense the way he wanted. Nutt chose instead to focus game plans on the running of Darren McFadden and Felix Jones.

Prognosis: The Tigers likely face a tough season ahead. No depth on their offensive line, and no proven playmakers at either quarterback or wide receiver could put a lot of pressure on their defense for a majority of the season.

With depth problems in the secondary, thanks in part to injury and disciplinary issues, the Tigers' front seven will be called upon to carry a heavy load.

The schedule is tough, as well. A bowl game is no certainty for the Tigers this season.

Can Lane Kiffin Prove Himself As Capable At Producing A Winning Football Program As He Is At Getting His Name In The Paper?

The Lane Kiffin clown show hit the road shortly after he was hired as the head coach for the Vols. Managing to insult multiple coaching staffs around the league within weeks of taking the reigns of the UT program, he also found himself reprimanded by the SEC's front office.

His short lived job as head coach of the NFL's Oakland Raiders proved him not ready for prime time as a professional football coach. Whether he's capable of turning things around one level lower in the bright lights of the SEC remains to be seen.

1) Will Kiffin's staff prove to be more of a help or a hindrance?

There are no doubts that Monte Kiffin is a top notch defensive coordinator. He proved that year in and year out as the coordinator for the NFL's Tampa Bay Bucs, including a Super Bowl winning season.

Assistant head coach Ed Orgeron is a different animal all together. Though he's proved himself an excellent recruiter on the college level, his antics at times make you believe that at any moment, he will rip his shirt off and start going off about living in a van down by the river.

Whether he will turn out to be a negative influence on an already immature acting Kiffin remains to be seen.

2) How will Tennessee deal with its depth issues on offense?

Much like Auburn, Tennessee depth is a concern in several key spots. Developing depth on the offensive line and a starting quarterback are keys early on for UT.

Quarterback in particular will be important, as the Vols struggled all year long under center in 2008. Things were made no easier when expected 2009 starter BJ Coleman transferred after spring practice, due to poor communication between him and head coach Lane Kiffin.

Coleman left feeling as though he wasn't part of the Vols future plans at the QB position. How he could feel that way after watching returning starter Jonathan Crompton bumble his way through last season is beyond reason?

Injuries to their receiving core in the offseason will put further pressure on their passing game early in the year.

Prognosis: The Vols have solid talent on defense, particularly in their secondary with Eric Berry, and up front with their defensive line. If they can't develop consistent quarterback play and depth on their offensive line, though, they face having to win an awful lot of defensive struggles once they reach SEC play.

Who wins the SEC West?

The obvious choices seem to be Alabama, LSU, or Ole Miss. Arkansas should be much improved from 2008, and could possibly be considered the dark horse choice to win the league. Auburn and Miss. St both have far too many questions to be considered serious contenders.

Alabama - The Crimson Tide will have to find replacements for All-Americans Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell along with Marlon Davis on their offensive line. Greg McElroy came out of spring practice as the No.1 candidate to replace the former three year starter John Parker Wilson.

If the Tide's line play can produce holes for running backs Mark Ingram, Roy Upchurch and newcomer Trent Richardson to run through, then McElroy shouldn't be called upon to do much more than manage things early on in the season.

When he does have to throw, it will help having 2008 Freshman All-American Julio Jones to throw the ball to. If Alabama can develop another receiving threat, either opposite Jones or in the slot, their offense has the potential to put a lot of points on the board.

LSU - The Tigers are another team loaded with talent, though the LSU seems to be young at several key spots. Jordan Jefferson will be asked to lead them from under center. If he plays the way he did in their bowl game, they should be fine offensively. If he struggles, however, the Tigers will likely struggle, as well.

Charles Scott is a brutally tough runner at tailback. Backups Keiland Williams and Richard Murphy should provide the depth for a very strong running game. LSU will have to depend on a fairly young but talented offensive line led by OT Ciron Black.

Brad LaFell and Terrance Toliver make up what should be a solid receiving core and the addition of Rueben Randle won't hurt either.

Ole Miss - The Rebels aren't nearly as deep overall as either Alabama or LSU. That said, head coach Houston Nutt has proved year in and year out to be a very good game day coach.

The question on most minds regarding Ole Miss is whether last year was a fluke, or whether the program has actually turned the corner. Quarterback Jevan Snead is one of the top returning starters in the conference, and he'll have Shay Hodge and Dexter McCluster returning as top receiving targets, along with the highly touted incoming freshman, Patrick Patterson.

Brandon Bolden and Cordera Eason will be asked to carry the load for the Rebels' running game. The Rebs will feature two redshirt freshman starting for their first times at tackle and guard, leaving questions on the offensive line.

The Ole Miss defense should be solid, though depth in their secondary and at linebacker will be a question.

Arkansas - Head coach Bobby Petrino is a known commodity at the college level, despite a rough inaugural season. Offensively, the Hogs will depend on transfer Ryan Mallet at Quarterback. He should excel in Petrino's system, provided he gets support from a young receiving core and running game.

Starters on the offensive line appear to be solid, though depth is once again young and questionable.

The Hogs defense will be questionable with youth on their line, and at safety. It could be another rebuilding year for the Razorbacks, but with some lucky breaks and limited injuries, they could possibly find themselves in contention in the West.

Prognosis: Overall talent wise would have to favor the Alabama and LSU. Ole Miss's schedule is favorable, and they could be explosive offensively. Arkansas is likely a year away from being a serious contender for the West title. Alabama's defense could turn out to be the difference in who wins it all.

Predicted order of finish:

  • Alabama
  • LSU
  • Ole Miss
  • Arkansas
  • Auburn
  • Miss. St.

Who Will Win The East?

Things in the East are much clearer than they are in the West. Defending National Champion Florida will once again be considered the favorite, with the University of Georgia likely considered the only real threat to keep them from Atlanta and the SEC Championship game again.

The Bulldogs will have to get past whatever jinx annually seems to await them against the Gators in Jacksonville. That will be tough to do after losing the NFL's first overall pick in Mathew Stafford, as well as fellow first round pick Knowshon Moreno.

The rest of the East is a step down from the top two teams.

Tennessee is coming off a poor season and a coaching change. South Carolina has struggled to put it together under the Ole Ball Coach, with an 8-5 season in '06 being their high water mark.

Kentucky and Vandy both come off 7-6 seasons capped by bowl wins. The Wildcats have the most favorable schedule, with road games against Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina, and Vandy. The Vols face road contests against Florida, Alabama, Ole Miss, and Kentucky.

South Carolina has perhaps the toughest road schedule of the bottom four eastern teams, with road games against Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee and Arkansas.ย  Vandy goes on the road against LSU, South Carolina, Florida, and Tennessee.

Prognosis: The Gators will once again head to Atlanta to face either Alabama or LSU for the SEC title.

Predicted Order Of Finish :

  • Florida
  • Georgia
  • Tennessee
  • Kentucky
  • South Carolina
  • Vanderbilt

Who Wins The Championship Game In Atlanta?

Regardless of who wins the West, until someone steps up and proves themselves capable of beating the Gators, you would have to consider UF once again to be the favorite.

Alabama once again probably proves to be the best matchup for the Gators, and will look to be the team that knocks Tebow and company off their perch.

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