Keys to the 2009 season


Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Now that the real thing is almost here, let's examine the keys to the season for all 12 SEC teams:

Alabama: The defense will be one of the best in the country, but the story of Alabama's season will come down to how well a revamped offensive line comes together coupled with a quarterback, Greg McElroy, who enters his first season as the starter. That can be a dicey combination.

Arkansas: Can the Hogs stop anybody? That may be oversimplifying things a bit, but Arkansas' defense was one of the worst in the SEC a year ago. Injuries forced the Hogs to play a bunch of younger players. How much have those younger players improved, and can they keep every game from turning into a shootout?

Auburn: If the Tigers could play with 22 the whole season, they'd be in good shape. There's enough talent among the starters on offense and defense to have a successful first season under Gene Chizik. The problem is depth. Auburn is way under the 85-scholarship limit and desperately needs to avoid injuries.

Florida: At first glimpse, you say Tim Tebow needs to stay healthy. But his backup, John Brantley, might be the third best quarterback in the league. This is a ridiculously deep football team. The Gators' greatest enemy may be overconfidence. It sounds cliche, but they better play them one at a time and not get caught up in what the bigger picture might hold.

Georgia: The Bulldogs should be as good as anybody in the country at defensive tackle, especially with Jeff Owens back and healthy. The problem is finding some finishers at end. There's not a dominant pass-rusher on this team, at least one that's proven. Georgia needs to improve on its 24 sacks from a year ago, and the Bulldogs need to tackle better overall.

Kentucky: Rich Brooks says junior quarterback Mike Hartline has improved as a passer. His teammates insist he has, too, and it's been a productive preseason for the Hartline. Now comes the real test. Can he do it against SEC defenses? He probably took too much of the blame for the Wildcats' struggles on offense a year ago. But for this team to return to a bowl game, the passing game has to improve.

LSU: Like so many of the teams in this league, LSU isn't exactly what you would call settled at quarterback. Sophomore Jordan Jefferson started all of two games last season. He has all the physical tools and a much better grasp of the offense than he did a year ago, but there's still the matter of doing it for an entire season.

Mississippi State: Throwing the football, period, figures to be a challenge for the Bulldogs this season. Dan Mullen plans to play a couple of quarterbacks, and there aren't a surplus of proven playmakers at receiver. What this all means is that the Bulldogs better be able to run the ball and ride senior running back Anthony Dixon.

Ole Miss: Quarterback Jevan Snead is the Rebels' most priceless commodity, which is why protecting his blind side is so critical. Michael Oher had that duty last season before he became an NFL millionaire. That duty falls to Bradley Sowell this season. He's had his ups and downs during the spring and preseason. One mistake at left tackle can be disastrous.

South Carolina: The stock answer here is that sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia needs to improve … and he does. But just as important is the offensive line performing more consistently and doing a better job of protecting Garcia this season. If the Gamecocks can't run the ball better than they did last season, it won't matter how much Garcia improves.

Tennessee: For all the talk about quarterback Jonathan Crompton and the offense recovering from last season's dismal showing, the real key for the Vols might be how well their younger players perform. Guys like Bryce Brown, Nu'Keese Richardson, Marsalis Teague and David Oku need to be impact players right off the bat.

Vanderbilt: Finding a passing game is right there at the forefront for the Commodores, who averaged just 122.6 yards per game through the air a year ago and finished last in the SEC in passing offense. Sophomore quarterback Larry Smith will get the start. The real question, though, is who's going to be catching passes from Smith.