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Monday, February 22, 2010
New faces emerge as SEC eyes another crown

By ESPN.com staff
ESPN.com

No matter how you slice it, some familiar faces in the SEC are gone.

In fact, some might say the league has lost its star power, especially when you consider the likes of Tim Tebow, Rolando McClain, Eric Berry, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Javier Arenas, Dexter McCluster, Anthony Dixon, Eric Norwood and Terrence Cody are all now embarking on their professional careers.

Ryan Mallett
Arkansas hopes quarterback Ryan Mallett will rise up and be one of the league's new stars.
Can any league, even one that captured four straight BCS national championships, sustain such deep personnel losses and expect to stay atop the college football mountaintop?

“I don’t think it will be any different,” said Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino, entering his third season in the SEC. “You’re going to see those other guys step up and be good players and be leaders. Hopefully, we have a few on our team.”

No doubt, and a good place to start is a marquee quarterback. Arkansas has one of the best passers in the country in junior Ryan Mallett, who threw 30 touchdown passes a year ago and is the ideal building block.

If the Hogs can plug the holes on defense, they might end up being one of the new faces of the league.

The last couple of years, it’s pretty much been an Alabama/Florida stranglehold.

The Crimson Tide haven't lost a regular-season game in two years. They were 14-0 in winning their first national championship in 17 years last season.

The Gators had a 22-game winning streak snapped last season by the Crimson Tide. Prior to last season’s breakthrough by Alabama, Florida had won two of the last three national titles.

And the one in that stretch that wasn’t won by Florida was won by LSU in 2007.

The odds of the SEC making it five straight with so many new faces playing starring roles?

Well, that depends on how you look at it.

The league does have a chance to be more balanced in 2010. A year ago, there was a pretty clear separation between Alabama and Florida and everybody else.

But with the Gators losing five juniors to the NFL in addition to Tebow, Spikes and the other seniors, they’re going to have their work cut out merely getting out of the East alive.

As soon as you say that, you look around the East and realize there’s not a clear-cut challenger. Everybody has their warts, and everybody has major question marks to address this spring.

South Carolina has 19 starters returning, but this is South Carolina we're talking about. The Gamecocks have made a living of stumbling all over themselves any time they face real expectations.

Georgia has 10 starters coming back on defense, but will be guided by a first-year starter at quarterback, probably a redshirt freshman who will be taking his first college snap. The Bulldogs are also overhauling their defense, as Todd Grantham takes over for Willie Martinez as coordinator.

Georgia last played in the SEC championship game in 2005, which was also the last time the Bulldogs won an SEC title.

The door might not be cracked open this much again in the East for a long time when you examine how relentlessly and how well Meyer has recruited at Florida -- regardless of how bizarre the whole resignation/leave of absence flip-flop was.

New stars will emerge for the Gators, and don’t be surprised if junior quarterback John Brantley is one of those stars next season.

There’s a reason nobody has repeated as champion in this league since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998. It’s the same reason this league has been so cyclical over the last two decades.

On any Saturday, the eighth best team can beat the best team. And when the tide turns in this league, it turns quickly.

Marcell Dareus
Despite losing many starters on defense, Alabama has young players like Marcell Dareus waiting to take up the mantle.
Just ask Tennessee.

Speaking of the Tide, the class of the league remains defending national champion Alabama, which has a chance to be even better on offense in 2010.

The defense loses nine starters, but that’s deceiving. The young talent Nick Saban stockpiled on that side of the ball has simply been waiting its chance.

Marcell Dareus, Nico Johnson, Dre Kirkpatrick, Kerry Murphy, Dont’a Hightower and the rest of their cohorts get a chance to step into leading roles this fall.

Arkansas isn’t the only team in the West capable of taking down Alabama. Auburn and LSU are both talented enough to make a run. Like Arkansas, Auburn has to prove it can take that step defensively to play championship-caliber football. LSU has to rediscover itself after finishing 11th in the league in total offense a year ago.

Looking for a surprise?

Mississippi State is poised to be one of the league’s most improved teams. The Bulldogs might not be ready to contend for a championship, but it would be a huge disappointment in Starkville next season if they’re not in a bowl game.

They also have one of those fresh, new faces that should become familiar to just about everybody next season.

Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen is counting the different ways to get the ball in Chad Bumphis’ hands after a promising debut season in the SEC.

So sit back and enjoy. It all cranks back up on Friday when LSU opens spring practice.

If recent history is any indication in this conference, it will all end on Jan. 10 in Glendale, Ariz., site of the 2011 BCS National Championship Game.