The SEC carries the reputation as the nation’s premier conference, and with the last three national championships under their belt, who’s to argue? In the BCS era, going back to 1998, the conference has had three different schools win it all (Florida, LSU, Tennessee) and fourth (Auburn) enjoy an unrewarded perfect season. The SEC is not without its blemishes—for all the rhetoric about their dominance of the Big Ten in national championship games, the SEC is actually 3-5 in the two leagues' annual New Year’s rivalry in the Outback & Capital One Bowls since 2005. But as we enter another season, the Southeastern Conference looks like it will again be at the head of the class—dare we say, they might almost be as good as their fans think they are.
Discussion here and throughout the country begins and ends with defending national champion Florida. The Gators not only return Tim Tebow, but the entire defense and most of the offensive line is back in the fold. They have some skill people to replace, most notably Percy Harvin at receiver, but does anyone think Urban Meyer can’t just plug some new pieces into place and keep the machine cranking? Tebow is after a historic second Heisman Trophy and third national title in his career, and everything is in place for him to make that happen.
There’s no serious competition to deny Florida the Eastern Division title, but Georgia has everything needed to make a run at a major bowl game. The Bulldogs were overrated at this time last year, when they were #1 in the country despite a very young offensive line. That line is back with some experience now and senior Joe Cox is stepping in to take the place of the equally overrated Matthew Stafford. The Dawgs are flying a little bit under the radar, and they would be a threat to win this conference’s other division, indeed most other conferences in the country.
Tennessee’s new coach Lane Kiffin, has made a lot of noise in the offseason with his attacks on Urban Meyer and other conference coaches. At least Kiffin has the horses to back up some of his talk. The Vols have four senior starters on the offensive front, an upperclassmen-laden front seven on defense and a senior at quarterback. Tennessee should return to a bowl game this season and is a serious contender to play on January 1.
Rounding out the division, Vanderbilt will be ready to make some noise, with every starter on both lines back and a pretty good secondary. This is another team that will be underrated because of inexperience at quarterback and receiver, but it’s easy to see the Commodores getting to eight wins this season. That’s a job that will be made easier by the hard fall that’s awaiting Steve Spurrier at South Carolina. The Gamecocks have a poor secondary and are inexperienced up front. Kentucky is another team with serious problems on defense.
As we go over to the other side of the conference, Alabama is the media favorite to win this division and set up a rematch in Atlanta with Florida for the championship. But I do not see the Tide as a serious threat to go all the way this year. The defense will again be strong, anchored by Terrence Cody and Brandon Deadrick up front. But there’s some work to do rebuilding the offensive line. The fact Nick Saban is plugging upperclassmen into the starting roles will certainly help, and the Tide are a strong team, but I don’t see them in Florida’s class.
And ‘Bama has a serious threat within its own division coming from Ole Miss. Recall that the Rebs beat Florida in Gainesville last year and ended the campaign by nailing Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. Jevan Snead is back behind center and he’s still got Shay Hodge to play catch with and Dexter McCluster to hand the ball too. The defense is strong, particularly in the secondary. Key divisional games against Alabama (October 10) and LSU (November 21) are at home. If this sounds like a trumpet for the Rebels to win their first division title since the SEC expanded in 1992, that’s what it is. It’s hard to picture Ole Miss playing on the first weekend of December, but this is the second year of the Houston Nutt reign here, and we know he was able to get Arkansas to that level.
Speaking of the Hogs, they have enough in the cupboard to make sure this is not just a two-team race for the division. I like sophomore quarterback Ryan Mallet, a transfer who left Michigan after Rich Rodriguez arrived with his spread offense. The defensive line is back intact and the offensive line should be able to clear a path for Michael Smith. I don’t know that I like Bobby Petrino enough, either personally or professionally, to pick him to win big in a genuinely tough conference, but the Hogs will test the top teams and win enough to make a Cotton Bowl bid (the reward that goes to the top West team after the BCS and Capital One Bowls have made their picks) a viable hope.
I hate writing off LSU too quickly. This is a program only two years removed from a national title and they humiliated Georgia Tech in the Chick-fil-a-Bowl to end last season. But there is just too much rebuilding on defense to do to envision them getting any higher than a midlevel bowl. Auburn made a foolish decision in getting rid of Tommy Tuberville and I don’t believe Gene Chizik is up to the task of winning in this conference. Mississippi State is another team with an entire defense to rebuild and first-year coach Dan Mullen will have his hands full just trying to win a conference game.
There are four at-large bids to BCS bowl games, after the automatic bids to the six conference champs are awarded. If not for a rule that prohibits a league from getting more than one at-large bid, it would be easy to see the SEC grabbing up two or three of them, as Georgia, Alabama and Ole Miss are all at that level. But none are at Florida’s level. While it’s realistic to see the Gators losing a game, it’s unimaginable to think they will be denied another conference championship.
Up Next: Big 12 on Wednesday