John Roberts College Football

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

Preseason 2005: A Look at the SEC

Rarely has a conference experienced so much change at the top. Les Miles takes over for Nick Saban at LSU. Urban Meyer takes over for Ron Zook at Florida. Steve Spurrier takes over for Lou Holtz at South Carolina. Would it surprise anyone to see two of those teams playing in the SEC Championship Game this season? The question is, will stability play out and some other team make it or will new blood win the day? This conference just drips with storylines.

EAST
1. Tennessee (10-1, 7-1)- The Vols have it all together. At quarterback, the battle rages bewteen Erik Ainge and Rick Clausen. Both played last year and were impressive. Ainge has a rifle arm and is a sophomore, while Clausen is a senior who has all the mental aspects of the game down. Gerald Riggs will be running the ball. Riggs burst onto the scene with more than 1100 yards a year ago as the team's second running back. He is expected to contend for the Heisman this year. The receivers are as deep as they have been in several years in Knoxville. Jayson Swain, Robert Meachem, C.J. Fayton, Bret Smith and Chris Hannon give the Vols multiple options of who to throw the ball to. The offensive line returns four starters from a year ago. The problem is that there appears to be a lack of depth on the line. The defense could be a dominant force. The line is lead by Parys Haralson and Jesse Mahelona. Those two are as good as any duo on the line in the conference. Omar Gaither and Jason Mitchell return at linebacker, while Kevin Simon hopes to finally have a completely healthy season. The secondary was a cause for concern a year ago, but thanks to Jason Allen's move to corner and Roshaun Fellows, Jonathan Heffney, and Corey Campbell being all a year more experienced, there is hope that they can show a lot of improvement. The schedule is not kind with UAB at home and road trips to LSU and Florida in September. Trips to Alabama and Notre Dame later in the year are both key contests as well. This team has the talent to be a national title contender, but potentially not the schedule.

2. Florida (9-2, 6-2)- In Urban Meyer's new system, Chris Leak is expected to shine. Leak has shown flashes of brilliance in his first two years at Florida, but has not been able to sustain anything. The receivers are deep and talented. Chad Jackson, Dallas Baker, Andre Caldwell, and Jemalle Cornelius give Leak plenty of options to throw the ball to. The offensive line returns three starters, but lacks a lot of depth. The running game will be lead by DeShawn Wynn, an explosive back who needs to establish that he can be the star that he was expected to be when he first got to Gainesville. The defense will be solid up front. Ray McDonald and Marcus Thomas are solid linemen and Jeremy Mincey and Joe Cohen also return to the line. The linebackers are thinner than last year, but Brandon Siler is expected to develop into the leader of the defense that Channing Crowder was last year. The secondary is the lone real question mark on the defensive side of the ball. Jarvis Herring had four interceptions a year ago. The schedule is not easy by any means. Wyoming, a potential Top 25 darkhorse, comes calling on September 3. Tennessee comes to town on September 17. Florida State comes on November 26. They have to go to Alabama, LSU, and Steve Spurrier's new home in South Carolina. They also play in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville against Georgia. Again, the schedule is brutal, but the talent is there to make a run at a national title.

3. Georgia (9-2, 6-2)- The Dawgs lost some of the most talent in the country, but they have capable back ups waiting in the wings. At quarterback, D.J. Shockley has proven that he is as athletic as they come. However, he still has to prove he has the arm to be an SEC quarterback. He showed a strong arm last year in the Tennessee game. The running game will be lead by three sophomores, Thomas Brown, Danny Ware, and Kregg Lumpkin. They all averaged around 5.0 yards per carry last year. That's not bad. The receivers are the biggest downside to this offense. Sean Bailey and Bryan McClendon have talent, but they are very inexperienced and did not look good in spring practice. The offensive line returns five starters, which means that Shockley could have all day to try to find some of those receivers. The defense will be lead by a deep and talented defensive line. Will Thompson, Kedric Golston, Gerald Anderson, Quentin Moses, Darrius Swain, and Charles Johnson all have a load of talent. The linebackers are athletic and talented, but lack a lot of experience and a true leader. The secondary needs to step up their playmaking. DeMario Minter, Tim Jennings, and Greg Blue are all good players, but have never made the big plays. The schedule for the Dawgs is very interesting as they will present two deeply intriguing games right off the bat when they battle Boise State and South Carolina. Both of those teams will be looking to make statements that they belong with the big boys early in the season. Trips to Tennessee and Georgia Tech later in the year won't be any fun. The trip to Jacksonville to play Florida is always interesting. They get Auburn at home this year. The schedule is kinder than either Florida or Tennessee's, at least on paper. The Dawgs lost a lot off of last year's team, but with their kind schedule and a host of talented players stepping in, it is possible that Georgia could stun the country and have a special season.

4. South Carolina (4-7, 2-6)- The rest of the SEC shuddered when it was announced that Steve Spurrier would be becoming the new head coach at South Carolina. The problem is that this year's team looks to be supremely behind the top three of the East. Cory Boyd is expected to be the starting running back. He is a talented back. Noah Whiteside and Syvelle Newton lead a pretty good lot of receivers. Three starters return on the offensive line. The real question is at quarteback. Blake Mitchell and Antonio Heffner are the two most likely candidates to be starters, but neither has much college experience. The defense will be lead by sophomore Ko Simpson in the secondary. He intercepted six passes and came up with 61 tackles a year ago. He made an instant impact and is one of the better safeties in the conference. Fred Bennett also picked off four passes a year ago. The secondary appears to be solid. The rest of the defense is full of questions. Ricardo Hurley returns at linebacker and is expected to finally live up to his potential and make a push towards being an high draft pick in the NFL draft. There are four new players on the defensive line. Marque Hall and Stanley Doughty had very good spring practices. The Gamecocks first three SEC games are at Georgia and Auburn, and a home game with Alabama smashed in between. One win in those three games would tell the world that Spurrier has arrived. A trip to Tennessee in late October and a home game with Florida in November may be the most anticipated games of the whole season just to see Spurrier renewing old rivalries in the SEC. Not getting embarrassed by Clemson on November 19 would also be a nice step for the Gamecocks.

5. Vanderbilt (3-8, 2-6)- The Commodores return Jay Cutler at quarterback and hope everything else falls into place. Cutler may just be the top quarterback in the SEC. Marlon White and Erik Davis both are talented wide receivers. Davis makes the tough catches and is the possession receiver, while White is counted on to stretch the field. The offensive line returns four starters, but all of them have some starting experience. This is a group that may not be as experienced as some, but has the ability to hold their own. The running game will be lead by Jeff Jennings and Cassen Jackson-Garrison. The defense will be counting on the successful transition from linebacker to defensive line of Herdley Harrison. If the Commodores defense is successful, it will be because of Harrison wreaking havoc in the backfield. The linebackers are already pretty talented. Jonathan Goff is a talented linebacker, but Moses Osemwegie is one of the better ones in the conference. The secondary is the biggest question mark for this defense. Andrew Pace, Sean Dixon, and Kelechi Ohanaja all have potential but need to recognize it for the secondary to be solid. The Commodores open in an interesting game at Wake Forest on September 1. A trip to Arkansas and a home date with Ole Miss follow. After that Richm0nd, and Middle Tennessee both come to Nashville. There is a chance for a 5-0 start for the 'Dores. Of course, they could also start 1-4. With a home date with Kentucky on the schedule for late November and a trip to South Carolina in October a winning season is not out of the question. LSU and Georgia both come to Nashville. Last year, the Commodores finished 2-9 and lost five games by five points or less. If this year's squad could win those five, a 7-4 record would follow, and finally another trip to a bowl game.

6. Kentucky (2-9, 1-7)- Andre Woodson is the projected starter at quarterback, and he appears to be a playmaker. He's got a cannon of an arm and is speedy on his feet. He'll be throwing to Glenn Holt, Keenan Burton, Scott Mitchell, and Tommy Cook. Those four all are solid receivers. The offensive line returns just three starters, but the group could be a solid bunch. The running game is cause for some major concern. Rafael Little will be the first to get a crack at running the ball. The defense needs to start stopping the run. Trey Mielsch is the team's most consistent lineman. The linebackers will be lead by Wesley Woodyard and Joe Schuler. The secondary will depend a lot on safeties Muhammad Abdullah (the team's leading returner in tackles, sacks, and interceptions) and Marcus McClinton. The corners need to step up. The key to the season for the Wildcats are the first three games. The home date with arch rival Louisville will be tough, but then come two very winnable games against Idaho State and Indiana. Mississippi State comes to Lexington later in the year and trips to Ole Miss and Vanderbilt also present winnable games. Then if they could sneak a win out of one of the Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee home games, this team could be looking at a bowl game. But it's not likely. Four wins would show some major improvement.

WEST
1. LSU (10-1, 7-1)- The Tigers have the talent to go a long way in Les Miles first season as coach. JaMarcus Rusell will be taking over at quarterback. He played very well a year ago in his split time. The running game will be lead by Joseph Addai. He is a solid back that should have a good season. Justin Vincent also will play very well. Throwing the ball to Skyler Green, Dwayne Bow, and Craig Davis has potential to make any offense look good. The offensive line returns four starters and should again open up huge running holes and provide a lot of protection for the quarterback. The defense will be lead by the defensive line. Melvin Oliver, Claude Wroten, and Kyle Williams will be trying to make up for the loss of Marcus Spears. They should be able to. The linebackers Cameron Vaughn and Kenneth Hollis are both capable of being big time players. LaRon Landry and Jessie Daniels are among the best in the SEC in the secondary. Landry picked off four passes a year ago. LSU will battle Arizona State and Tennessee at home before the end of September and get Florida and Auburn at home later in the year. The toughest road game is at Alabama. The team has a nice schedule as long as their tough home field advantage holds up.

2. Alabama (8-3, 5-3)- The Crimson Tide, if they can stay healthy, have as good of a team as any in the SEC. Brodie Croyle returns at quarterback after getting hurt in the third game last year. He was having his best season by far up to that point. After that game, the Tide went a mere 3-6. Kenneth Darby also needs to stay healthy at running back. He rushed for over 1000 yards a year ago, but had offseason hernia surgery. Croyle will be throwing to Tyrone Prothro a lot. Ezekiel Knight and Matt Caddell should make the receivers one of the deeper groups on the team. The offensive line returns just two starters, which could cause some serious problems for the Tide's offense. However, the defense that ranked second in total defense a year ago returns almost entirely intact. Jeremy Clark, Rudy Griffin, and Mark Anderson all return on the line and are very good. However, there are several guys pushing them for playing time, which shows that this unit could be very deep and very talented. The linebackers are solid at the starting positions and a little weaker in the depth department. Juwan Garth, Freddie Roach, and DeMeco Ryans could probably start on any of the other teams in the conference. The secondary is deep and talented. Charlie Peprah is one of the conference's better safeties. The trip to South Carolina on September 17 could tell a lot. However, the season really begins in October, when both Florida and Tennessee come to Tuscaloosa. A home date with LSU and road game at Auburn to close out the season also should be very interesting.

3. Arkansas (7-4, 5-3)- The Razorbacks have to replace do everything quarterback Matt Jones, but he was all they had coming back last year, so this year's team has a lot of experience. Robert Johnson is the favorite to take over at the quarterback spot. He's not as athletic as Jones, but few people are. He has a good arm and good speed. He'll be throwing to Marcus Monk and Anthony Brown, both tall receivers that should be big time receivers this year. The offensive line returns all five starters. That should open up holes for Peyton Hillis and De'Arrius Howard to run through. They both are big tough backs that can make huge plays. The defensive line has the size necessary to compete in the SEC. Marcus Harrison is only sophomore, but looks to be a rising star in the SEC. Pierre Brown and Sam Olajubutu are both returning at linebacker and are expected to take the next step in their senior seasons. The secondary returns four starters, and Vickiel Vaughn has a chance to shine from his safety spot. Trips to USC and Alabama end September. Let's not forget that the Razorbacks always seem to play Texas tough early in the year under Houston Nutt. Can they do the same thing at USC? Things could get very interesting if they do. Trips to Georgia and LSU come later. A home date with Auburn is the season's best home game.

4. Auburn (7-4, 5-3)- Here comes the disrespect train again. The Auburn Tigers are not getting much respect again. But when you lose four first round NFL picks, things just can't get much better. Brandon Cox will take over at quarterback. He has been very impressive in spring and fall drills. Kenny Irons, Tre Smith, and Carl Stewart all look talented, but replacing Ronnie Brown and Carnell Williams is no easy task. The offensive line returns three starters and should be a force still. The receivers are very talented, lead by Ben Obomanu, Devin Aromashodu, and Courtney Taylor. The linebackers are the best part of this defense. Kevin Sears, Travis Williams, and Antarrious Williams are all solid contributors that started a year ago. The defensive line returns just one starter, but Stanley McGlover and Quentin Groves both recorded 7.5 sacks a year ago coming off the bench. The secondary is hurt by the loss of Carlos Rogers and Junior Rosegreen. Will Herring and Montavis Pitts will be expected to step up. Georgia Tech and Alabama both come to Auburn, but road games against Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia are not easy tests. This team could be very talented again, but it is very tough to replace so much talent.

5. Mississippi (4-7, 2-6)- Ed Orgeron has a tough task ahead of him trying to take the Rebels to a consistent SEC title contender. Micheal Spurlock, Robet Lane, and Ethan Flatt will battle for the quarterback spot again. Spurlock is the slight favorite. He is athletically gifted. The offensive line returns just two starters, meaning that everyone will need to be patient with the offense. Jamal Pittman and Vashon Pearson are both very solid backs that could explode onto the scene. The receivers are very talented. Mario Hill, Mike Espy, and Taye Biddie all are looking to break out of Bill Flowers shadow. The defense will be lead by the defensive line. Jayme Mitchell, McKinley Boykin, and Michael Bozeman are all senior leaders expected to carry the load. The linebackers featur Patrick Willis and Dontae Reed along with Kelvin Robinson. They should be a much improved unit over a year ago. The secondary will be lead by Trumaine McBride. He had three interceptions a year ago. The Rebels must improve on both offense and defense to see much improvement. Odds are that things ae going to get worse before they get better for the Rebels.

6. Mississippi State (3-8, 0-8)- The Bulldogs should continue to improve under Sylvester Croom, but whether that will translate into more wins remains to be seen. Omarr Conner and Jerious Norwood make up a very talented quarterback-running back duo. Will Prosser and Tee Millons both are capable receivers. The key to the offense is the development of the line. Only two starters return and they need to get a lot better for the offense to improve much. The defense will depend on Quinton Culberson at linebacker. Gabe O'Neal and Clarence McDougal both are talented linebackers as well. The defensive line should be much improved under the leadership of Willie Evand and Michael Hear along with Andrew Powell. Kevin Dockery, David Heard, and Mario Bobo need to help stabilize the secondary to the point that the opposing offenses can not just bomb away on them. The Bulldogs probably have a major upset in them this year, like last year's Florida game. With Georgia, LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss making up this year's SEC home games, there will be plenty of opportunities.

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
LSU and Tennessee will square off for the second time and a possible shot at the Rose Bowl will be on the line for both teams. LSU will play solid defense and do just enough offensively to put the Vols away, 24-20.

ALL SEC

Offense
QB Chris Leak, Florida
RB Gerald Riggs, Tennessee
RB Jerious Norwood, Mississippi State
WR Chad Jackson, Florida
WR Skyler Green, LSU
TE Leonard Pope, Georgia
OL Arron Sears, Tennessee
OL Mike Gregorn, Florida
OL Max Jean Giles, Georgia
OL Marcus McNeill, Auburn
OL Andrew Whitworth, ALSU

Defense
DL Jesse Mahelona, Tennessee
DL Stanley McGlover, Auburn
DL Claude Wroten, LSU
DL Parys Haralson, Tennessee
LB DeMeco Ryans, Alabama
LB Travis Williams, Auburn
LB Moses Osemwegie, Vanderbilt
DB Jason Allen, Tennessee
DB Roman Harper, Alabama
DB LaRon Landry, LSU
DB Ko Simpson, South Carolina

Specialists
K John Vaughn, Auburn
P Eric Wilbur, Florida
KR Tyrone Prothro, Alabama
PR Skyler Green, LSU

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