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2011 SEC predictions

The first two SEC games of the 2011 season are just 16 days away.

Kentucky faces Western Kentucky and Mississippi State takes on Memphis on Sept. 1, both Thursday night games.

With football in the air, anybody ready for a few predictions?

Here’s my best college try:

SEC champion: Alabama

I’m sure it sounds redundant to a lot of you since I incorrectly picked Alabama a year ago, but I’m sticking with the Crimson Tide again this season. They’re going to be nasty on defense and will ride Trent Richardson on offense. They get their toughest two opponents, Arkansas and LSU, at home, and there’s a certain edge that was missing at times a year ago that has returned. So look for Alabama to return to Atlanta for the third time in four years and defeat South Carolina for its 23rd SEC championship.

Player of the year: Alabama RB Trent Richardson

Tough decision here, because South Carolina receiver Alshon Jeffery and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore are both primed for big seasons. But Richardson is going to get as many carries as he can handle (he never carried it more than 145 times in either of his first two seasons), and his blend of power and speed make him the ultimate offensive weapon.

Freshman of the year: South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney

We’ll keep it to true freshmen, and something says several in the league will make significant impacts. Georgia running back Isaiah Crowell comes to mind, as do LSU defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, Tennessee linebacker Curt Maggitt and Auburn quarterback Kiehl Frazier. None of the incoming freshmen, though, are as physically ready to come in and wreak havoc as the 6-foot-6, 252-pound Clowney. He’s going to be a force rushing the passer.

Most improved player: Florida DE Ronald Powell

His actual position is listed as “Buck,” which is a cross between outside linebacker and defensive end in the Gators’ new defensive scheme. Powell, who came in with all sorts of hype last year, will go a long way toward living up to that hype this season. He’ll play standing up most of the time and is a blur getting to the football. His attitude and approach to the game are also a lot better. The Gators are counting on him to be a game-changer after a freshman season that fell well below expectations.

Breakout player of the year: Georgia LB Alec Ogletree

It was obvious last season that Ogletree was on his way to being an outstanding player in this league. He earned Freshman All-SEC honors by the coaches and made five starts at safety. Now pushing 240 pounds, Ogletree has shifted to inside linebacker and has been one of the best defenders on the field for the Bulldogs this preseason. He’s a fierce hitter and a perfect fit for Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme at inside linebacker. There’s no shortage of great linebackers in this league. Ogletree will be knocking on that door by season’s end.

Comeback player of the year: LSU WR Russell Shepard

A year ago, Shepard was still making the adjustment to being a full-time receiver after coming to LSU as a quarterback. He didn’t always run the best routes, and he didn’t always run the right routes. But now that he has a full season under his belt at receiver, look out. Shepard is one of the most dynamic players in the SEC in the open field and a big play waiting to happen. He’ll make a lot more of those big plays in 2011.

Game of the year: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5

It’s not the only game that will decide the Western Division race (and possibly who in the SEC gets a chance to make it six straight national championships), but it’s the game everybody will point to from the time they kick it off on Sept. 1. No game in the league has been as consistently compelling as this one the last four years. It always goes down to the final few possessions. It always has a bearing nationally, and it always epitomizes what SEC football is all about. That first weekend in November can’t get here soon enough.