Will Florida win its second straight SEC East title? The Times' SEC Preview
Finally, it’s here.
The college football season officially kicks off this week. I’m sure you’re tired of reading all this preseason stuff and ready to get the games going. With that in mind, I've compiled my SEC Preview.
We all know what makes college football unique is that anything can happen on any given week, which is one of the reasons people love the game so much. So mine, like everyone else, is a prognostication based on what every team brings into the season - on paper. And you know how that goes.
Feel free to give me feedback with your league predictions and opinions. Let’s meet back here in December and see who had it right. Or at least got close. For now, here goes . . . . .
SEC EAST (in predicted order of finish)
Coach: Urban Meyer (44-9 in fifth season; 83-17 in ninth season overall)
2008 record: 13-1 (7-1, Won SEC East; defeated Oklahoma 24-14 in BCS national championship)
With 11 starters and all the backups returning on defense, a
Heisman winner, most of the skill players and depth on the offensive line,
expectations is a loaded word. The East is the Gators' to lose.
Key date to watch: Oct. 10 at LSU. No matter how good you are, it's just not easy to go into Baton Rouge, particularly at night in recent years, and come away with a win. If things play out on paper the way most expect, the Gators will be undefeated and the Tigers' fans will be rabid. Keep in mind: the Gators have lost on their last two trips to Baton Rouge.
Key player to watch: Clearwater's Riley Cooper could triple his 18 catches of a year ago. This is the season the rest of the nation realizes how good linebacker Ryan Stamper is.
WHAT MEYER'S SAYING: "To keep these guys happy and motivated, that certainly is a difficult task. The only way to get it done is with great leadership on our team and our staff does a heck of a job.''
Coach: Mark Richt (82-22, ninth season)
2008 record: 10-3 (6-2, second in SEC East)
The breakdown: Rumors have started that Mark Richt could be in trouble. Add in the departures of Knowshon Moreno and Matthew Stafford and you begin to wonder. Richt needs a win against Florida, among other things. As he said at the spring meetings in Destin, it's not a rivalry unless UGA wins more. Georgia has serious questions about its defensive front. Then there's the biggest question mark - Joe Cox the new quarterback.
Key date to watch: Sept. 5 at Oklahoma State. The Bulldogs will find out right away where they stand. OSU could be a Big 12 title contender and packs a ton of offense.
WHAT RICHT IS SAYING: "Overall, I like the fact defensively that we're going to be hungry, maybe hungrier than we've been in a long time.''
Coach: (Steve Spurrier (28-22 in fifth season; 170-62-2 in 20th overall)
2008 record: 7-6 (4-4, tied for third in Eastern Division).
The breakdown: This could very well be Steve Spurrier's final roundup in the SEC. He claims he'll be around several more years. But his frustration may be growing while his career winning percentage is dropping. Tampa's Stephen Garcia's time has come. Is he ready? Eric Norwood is a defensive star. But overall, USC is a bit of a mess. The biggest question of all may be this: who would be willing to step up and tell Spurrier maybe this isn't working out afterall?
Key date to watch: Nov. 28 vs. Clemson. Will it be Spurrier's goodbye in Columbia?
WHAT SPURRIER'S SAYING: "What was the most encouraging part is that after the bowl game, we did not lose any committed players. They all stuck with us. We actually picked up a few more. So it was a sign, the high school players, some of the top athletes, still believe that South Carolina can win, and win big.''
Coach: Lane Kiffin – first season.
2008 record: 5-7 (3-5, fifth in SEC East)
The breakdown: Notice how things have slightly quieted down in Knoxville? Lane Kiffin came out of the box firing off insults at anyone and everyone, but he could find a few jeers directed at him quickly by Vols' fans unless UT finds some offense and picks up a few upsets. Defensively, the Vols should be OK - especially with ex-Tampa Bay Bucs defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin calling the shots. But there's no one proven player as far as big play offense goes.
Key date to watch: You know Florida fans are waiting for Sept. 19. It could be the worst day of Kiffin's coaching career if he doesn't keep it zipped. And considering the debacle he had in Oakland, that's saying a lot.
WHAT KIFFIN'S SAYING: "I don't feel any pressure because we apply so much pressure ourselves.''
Coach: Rich Brooks (32-41, seventh season; 123-150-4 in 25th overall)
2008 record: 7-6 (2-6, sixth in division)
The breakdown: Rich Brooks held a press conference over the summer, with plans to name a coach-in-waiting for when he decides to step down. Brooks joked in Destin at the SEC spring meetings that friends were calling about rumors he was sick. Actually, the 'Cats' program is pretty healthy - with three straight bowl wins - and so is Brooks, or so he says. Six starters are back on offense and, hey . . . it's Kentucky. That basketball team should be something else.
Key date to watch: Sept. 19 vs. Louisville. Win the in-state battle and it takes a little pressure off.
WHAT BROOKS IS SAYING: "(This team) is a better team than I had going into last season.''
Coach: Bobby Johnson (27-56, eighth season; 87-92, 16th overall)
2008 record: 7-6 (4-4, tied for third in SEC East)
The breakdown: The Commodores got a bowl win last season, a school first. It's a program that has been so close to being average in the SEC. Now it could be. And that says a lot. But in the East this year, you could finish at the bottom and go to a bowl. The offense has nine players back - including Mackenzi Adams at quarterback. Corner Myron Lewis is destined to be an NFL star.
Key date to watch: Nov. 21 at Tennessee. Remember, no one puts more pressure on Kiffin than he does.
WHAT JOHNSON'S SAYING: "Any time you do better than what you have been doing in the past, I think it's satisfying.''
Coach: Nick Saban (19-8, third season; 110-50-1, 14th overall)
2008 record: 12-1 (8-0 SEC West champions)
The breakdown: Nick Saban sniffed when Meyer got his $4 million a year contract . . . and signed his own deal for a similar amount. The Tide could have beaten UF in last year's title game with a few breaks. Don't take it for granted. The Crimson Tide is back and is the one team the Gators should fear the most. 'Bama has nine starters back on defense. Julio Jones is a growing beast at receiver. I know everyone is in love with Ole Miss, but I say Fear the Tide.
Key date to watch: Oct. 10 at Ole Miss. National writers, and apparently coaches are in love with the Rebels, but this could be the date when the Rebels' bandwagon suddenly looks like the Titanic.
WHAT SABAN'S SAYING: "My daddy always says . . . you only have a problem if no one's asking for your autograph.''
Coach: Les Miles (42-11, sixth season’ 70-32, ninth overall).
2008 record: 8-5 (3-5, third in SEC West)
Les Miles saw his team tumble to five losses after winning it all in 2007. Redemption? We'll see. He needs to settle on a quarterback, find a defense and hope the Tigers don't slide back into mediocrity when things get tough.
Key date to watch: Oct. 3 at Georgia. Forget about the Gators coming to town the following week. LSU needs an early statement game. This is it.
WHAT MILES IS SAYING: "Offensively, certainly we'll be better. A year ago, we put three freshman quarterbacks on the field.''
Coach: Houston Nutt (9-4 second season; 120-74 in 17th overall).
2008 record: 9-4 (5-3, second in SEC West).
The breakdown: The Rebels are getting an awful lot of publicity - including the cover of the Sports Illustrated College Preview edition. Jevan Snead for Heisman? Ole Miss to win the West? Not so fast, my friend. Look at that schedule before you start packing for Atlanta. Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU will all test Ole Miss for various reasons. Take nothing away from Snead's talent. But since 1999, Houston Nutt has never had a team lose fewer than four games. And don't forget, there were some NFL first-round draft picks lost on both lines.
Key date to watch: Sept. 24 at South Carolina. Don't laugh. Steve Spurrier just seems to have a knack for winning these kinds of games - in Columbia - against the latest flavor of the year.
WHAT NUTT IS SAYING: "I just want Jevan to keep being Jevan.''
Coach: Bobby Petrino (5-7, second season; 46-16 sixth season).
2008 record: 5-7 (2-6 tied for fourth in SEC West)
The breakdown: It's Bobby Petrino's second season in Fayetteville. There's something about Year Two in the SEC. The Hogs started nine freshmen and sophomores in one game on defense, so they're bound to improve. If Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett comes through at quarterback, they may have something. D.J. Williams is a beast at tight end.
Key date to watch: Oct. 3 at Texas A&M. A win could give Arkansas some early respectability and signal the Hogs are on the way back.
WHAT PETRINO'S SAYING: "The staff and the players are more comfortable in what we're doing.''
Coach: Dan Mullen – first season
2008 record: 4-8 (2-6, tied for fourth in Western Division)
The breakdown: Dan Mullen left behind a national title team and a Heisman winning quarterback when he left Florida to take this job. What was he thinking? Patience, he realizes, is a must. It takes players time to get acclimated to this offense. But there are some nice skill players to mold and the defense could be okay. But Mullen will need a couple of years.
Key date to watch: Sept. 5 vs. Jackson State. Seriously, if the Bulldogs want to build any confidence, it needs to happen quickly. A lousy showing against a weak team will only start the crumbling and doubt early.
WHAT MULLEN'S SAYING: "When you start coaching, you want the opportunity to become a head football coach. . . . I can't wait to get this season going.''
Coach: Gene Chizik (first season; 5-19 in third season overall).
2008 record: 5-7 (2-6, tied for fourth in Western)
The breakdown: Realistically, this team could go either way. The departure of Tommy Tuberville is still an issue there. Gene Chizik's hiring brought some grumbles, but there are seven starters back on both sides of the ball. Antonio Coleman could be the best defensive lineman in the SEC. Ben Tate is a solid back. But there's just that odd feeling. Just not sure about this team.
Key date to watch: You're kidding, right? Nov. 27 vs. Alabama. Win that one and the offseason will be just fine, regardless of what happens.
WHAT CHIZIK IS SAYING: "We're setting a foundation for long-term here at Auburn.''
Antonya English, Times Staff Writer