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Monday, February 9, 2009
SEC pre-spring power rankings


Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

We know which players opted early for the NFL draft and which players decided to return for their senior seasons.

We know who's come and who's gone on the different coaching staffs around the league.

We know what the recruiting classes look like for this year, and we know which transfers will be eligible for next season.

What's all this mean? It's time to roll out our SEC power rankings heading into spring practice.

So here goes:

1. Florida: The Gators would also top any national power poll going into the spring. They return virtually their entire two-deep on defense and got a huge boost with the return of middle linebacker Brandon Spikes. It's the same unit that held Oklahoma to 14 points in the FedEx BCS National Championship Game. Quarterback Tim Tebow also returns and is gunning for a third national title. You can bet that he will keep this team hungry. The Gators do have to replace both of their tackles on offense, and their most explosive offensive weapon, Percy Harvin, is headed to the NFL.

2. Alabama: All eyes will be on the quarterback battle at Alabama this spring between junior Greg McElroy and redshirt freshman Star Jackson. McElroy probably has the edge because of experience, but Jackson is plenty talented. And as John Parker Wilson illustrated last season, Julio Jones is any quarterback's best friend. The Crimson Tide will again be strong on defense, especially right up the middle with nose tackle Terrence Cody and middle linebacker Rolando McClain returning. Rebuilding the offensive line won't be easy, though, with stalwarts Andre Smith, Antoine Caldwell and Marlon Davis all gone.

3. Ole Miss: The Rebels are right there pushing for that No. 2 spot in the SEC and may well be there when we rank the teams again heading into the season. Jevan Snead is the best pure passer in the league and should only be better during his second tour of the SEC. Most of his offensive weapons are back, and the Rebels added receiver Patrick Patterson on signing day -- the top prospect in the state of Mississippi. Tyrone Nix's defense was nasty last season, but the anchor of that defense, tackle Peria Jerry, is gone. The Rebels are hopeful that pass-rushing specialist Greg Hardy can be healthy for the entire season and that they continue to grow up in the secondary.

4. LSU: Somewhere along the way, the Tigers lost their edge last season and managed to lose five games after winning the BCS national championship the year before. LSU coach Les Miles has brought former Tennessee defensive coordinator John Chavis aboard to head up the Tigers' defense, and one of Chavis' first challenges will be seeing to it that the Tigers regain that edge. Even with end Tyson Jackson gone, there's still a lot of young talent on defense. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson is the front-runner to start at quarterback after playing well in the Chick-fil-A Bowl, but true freshman Russell Shepard is already on campus and will also take his shot at the job in the spring.

5. Georgia: Some of Georgia's best results under Mark Richt have come when the Bulldogs weren't picked as highly. So maybe that's good news for Georgia, which lost three All-SEC players early to the NFL draft -- quarterback Matthew Stafford, running back Knowshon Moreno and cornerback Asher Allen. Joe Cox will try to hold off true freshman Aaron Murray for the starting quarterback job. But the real key for the Bulldogs is playing more consistently on defense next season and picking up some of the slack while the quarterback situation sorts itself out. Whoever wins the job has the luxury of throwing to A.J. Green, and the offensive line should be a strength of the team in 2009.

6. Arkansas: There's just something about that second year when a new coach takes over a program. Look what Urban Meyer did at Florida in his second year, and look what Nick Saban did in his second year at Alabama. Arkansas isn't ready to challenge for an SEC title in Bobby Petrino's second year, but the Razorbacks are a strong bet to be the breakthrough team in 2009. Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett is the favorite to win the quarterback job, and he'll have plenty of playmakers around him, including one of the best pass-catching tight ends in the country in D.J. Williams. For the Hogs to make a move into the upper half of the league, they have to improve on defense. Just about everybody who made a play last season on defense returns, but the Hogs were last in the SEC and 72nd nationally a year ago in total defense.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks went into the proverbial tank to finish last season and were blown out in their last three games. In the months that followed, there were six different staff changes. But somehow, thanks in large part to the efforts of recruiting coordinator Shane Beamer, South Carolina was able to put together a terrific recruiting class and regain some momentum heading into the spring. A lot of what happens next season comes down to how much quarterback Stephen Garcia matures. It's his show now that Chris Smelley has left the program. Ellis Johnson's defense will again be stout even with some of the early defections in the secondary. Signees Stephon Gilmore and Devonte Holloman, both athletic safety types, are already on campus and may be able to help right away.

8. Tennessee: We know Lane Kiffin can talk a good game, and we know he's already taken aim verbally at Urban Meyer, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier. He gets his chance on the field at those three guys this fall. The Vols were 5-7 last season, so getting them to 7-5 or 8-4 would be marked improvement. Quarterback Jonathan Crompton will get a new life after struggling in Dave Clawson's system last season. But he'll have competition from B.J. Coleman and Nick Stephens. The Vols' quarterback play last season was wretched. Junior safety Eric Berry is as good as any player in the country. Senior tackle Dan Williams is one of the more underrated players in the SEC, but the Vols are precariously thin up front defensively.

9. Kentucky: Ev
en before national signing day, the Wildcats picked up some key recruits on defense when end Jeremy Jarmon, middle linebacker Micah Johnson and cornerback Trevard Lindley all decided to return for their senior seasons. It's the kind of jolt Kentucky needed, because the Wildcats played better defensively than they ever had under Rich Brooks last season when they were healthy. It's a defense that has a chance to take it to another level in 2009. The pressing question, though, is how much the offense can improve. Mike Hartline goes in as the starter at quarterback, but the Wildcats will again move Randall Cobb around. He caught passes, threw passes and returned kicks a year ago as a true freshman.

10. Vanderbilt: Bobby Johnson continues to prove that he gets as much or more out of his players than any coach in the conference. But here's the catch: He's starting to get better players. The Commodores have worked hard at upgrading their talent. The early departure of cornerback D.J. Moore to the NFL will hurt, but cornerback Myron Lewis remains on the other side and also has a chance to be an NFL player. Everybody in the front seven is back, too, and the Commodores finished fifth in the SEC with 30 sacks last season. Quarterback Larry Smith's showing in the Gaylord Hotels Music City Bowl was promising, but the Commodores are still looking for more playmakers on offense. They were 117th (out of 119 teams) nationally a year ago in total offense.

11. Auburn: The firestorm that surrounded Gene Chizik's hiring at Auburn has quieted ... for now. He's put together a quality staff, and the Tigers did a nice job in recruiting. Now the hard part begins -- taking it to the field and improving on last season's 5-7 record. That starts with implementing Gus Malzahn's spread offense. It's no secret that Tony Franklin's spread wasn't a big hit a year ago on the Plains. Much of the pressure will fall on quarterback Kodi Burns, who struggled mightily last season. The Tigers hope prep school receiver DeAngelo Benton can add some immediate firepower on offense. Losing tackle Sen'Derrick Marks early to the NFL was a blow defensively, but the Tigers did hold onto end Antonio Coleman.

12. Mississippi State: First-year coach Dan Mullen brings his version of the spread offense to Mississippi State. Too bad he doesn't also get to bring Tebow. The Bulldogs probably need one more recruiting class to fully stock the offense with the players they need to run the spread, but they're off to a good start with seven receivers in this class. They also signed quarterback Tyler Russell of Meridian, Miss. There's sure to be growing pains as the Bulldogs make the conversion on offense, which means the defense needs to be good right away. Mississippi State loses star safety Derek Pegues, but All-SEC linebacker Jamar Chaney is set to return after fracturing his leg last season.