SEC: Chris Martin

On the move in the SEC

June, 30, 2011
We’re starting to see the normal attrition across the league, players leaving on their own accord or being asked to leave.

If you toss in a few of the injured players who aren’t expected to play next season, you could put together a pretty decent team of those SEC players who have either moved on or won’t be on the field this fall for various reasons.

Here’s a sampling:

  • Nathan Stanley, QB, Ole Miss
  • Washaun Ealey, RB, Georgia
  • Broderick Green, RB, Arkansas (injured)
  • Mike Blakely, RB, Florida
  • Eric Smith, H-back, Auburn
  • Shaun Kitchens, WR, Auburn
  • Trinton Sturdivant, OL, Georgia (injured)
  • Brent Benedict, OL, Georgia
  • A.J. Harmon, OL, Georgia
  • Seth Oxner, OL, Arkansas
  • Alex Smith, TE, Kentucky
  • Chris Martin, DE, Florida
  • Kerry Murphy, NG, Alabama (injured)
  • Montori Hughes, DT, Tennessee
  • D.T. Shackelford, LB, Ole Miss (injured)
  • Clarence Jackson, LB, Ole Miss
  • Janoris Jenkins, CB, Florida
  • B.J. Scott, CB, Alabama
  • Mike McNeil, S, Auburn
  • Robby Green, S, Alabama
Florida's front seven has taken a big hit.

Friday, coach Will Muschamp announced that redshirt freshman defensive end/linebacker Chris Martin is transferring from the program.

“Chris and his family have indicated that it might be best for him to be closer to home," Muschamp said. “We wish him nothing but the best of luck.”

Martin is now the fifth player to leave Florida's program this year. All-SEC cornerback Janoris Jenkins was dismissed from the team this spring, following his second arrest on misdemeanor marijuana charges in less than three months. Freshmen receivers Chris Dunkley and Javares McRoy both transferred, along with freshman running back Mike Blakely.

Martin, who played high school ball at Aurora, Colo., Grandview, originally signed with California, but transferred to Florida in July because he felt his heart was at Florida and there were too many distractions at Cal.

But Cal wasn't even Martin's first choice in recruiting. Martin, who was in and out of three different high schools, originally committed to Notre Dame in February of 2009, but later decommitted and was going to commit to Florida. He chose Cal in December after former Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong left to be the head coach at Louisville.

Now, Martin is on the move once again and will be looking for his fourth school to call home.

There’s no denying the ability Martin has on the field. During his redshirt year, Florida coaches and players raved about his play and how he was one of the most talented defensive players in practice. The 6-4, 250-pound athlete practiced at middle linebacker in the fall, but was moved outside this spring. He left spring as the backup to rising sophomore Ronald Powell at the hybrid Buck position.

While Martin had all the talent to excel in this league, issues off the field might have finally caught up with him. On Jan. 29, Martin was cited by Gainesville police for possessing less than 20 grams of marijuana. A source close to the situation told Friday night that Martin had multiple off-the-field issues that played a part in his decision to transfer.

Martin also had a history of being pretty outspoken on social media outlets.

Shortly after Jim Tressel's resignation at Ohio State, former Florida coach Urban Meyer released a statement stating that he wasn't interested in pursuing any coaching jobs this fall and that he was committed to his new as a college football analyst with ESPN.

After Meyer's statement came out, Martin took to Twitter on the account @cmart4634 to express his feelings about what Meyer said.

"Committed to espn? Lets see if the other analyst stress him out so bad he has to spend time with his family in COLUMBUS now.. #truthhurts," Martin tweeted.

Earlier this year, Martin wrote on his Facebook page that he was dismissed from the team. After a handful of people responded both on his Facebook page and on Internet message boards, he wrote that his status was an "early April Fools" joke and then offered up this gem to those who read his Facebook:


Immaturity is something all college athletes struggle with, but more and more these off-field antics are shortening careers, but it seems like Martin is still figuring that out.

One thing is for certain, Martin is wasting some quality talent and with the current college football climate, coaches might think twice about getting involved with someone who has a knack for putting himself before his team.
AlabamaUS PresswireCourtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower and C.J. Mosley are part of what could be the best linebacker corps in the conference.
Today we take a look at the SEC linebackers. The front sevens in this league are always good and 2011 shouldn't be any different.

Here's how the teams stacked up:

1. Alabama: There are a lot of strengths on this Alabama team, but the linebackers should be very fun to watch this fall. Courtney Upshaw and Dont’a Hightower are back to full speed and are considered top players at their positions. With them back, the Tide should have a much more aggressive pass rush. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley improved even more this spring and will get time in the middle when Hightower is outside at the "Jack" position. Mosely blossomed as a freshman and could be a star in the making. Jarrell Harris seems to finally be coming around and Chris Jordan gives them another body in the front seven.

2. Florida: This group struggled to stay consistent at times last fall, but the new coaching staff was pleased with the progress it made this spring. There is a lot talent out there and now there are two distinct leaders in Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic, who should occupy the middle when the Gators go to the 3-4. Both are tremendous athletes and should be a solid duo this fall. Florida also has former No. 1 high school prospect Ronald Powell playing that linebacker/defensive end hybrid spot called the Buck. He’ll stand up a lot this season and should elevate himself near the top of the SEC pass-rushing list. Cal transfer Chris Martin earned a ton of praise last year on the practice squad and will be a hybrid as well. Converted safety Dee Finley will play outside and there is some good, but young, depth in the wings.

3. Arkansas: This area of the team improved a lot during the season and this spring. It’s headlined by Jerry Franklin, who has led the Razorbacks in tackles the last three seasons. He has 271, including 21.5 for loss in his career. Strongside hybrid Jerico Nelson was second on the team in tackles and has the speed to get all over the field. Nelson will occasional drop back and play safety as well. This linebacker tandem will be one of the best out there this fall. The major plus for the Razorbacks is that there is finally some really good depth at the position. Bret Harris, Jarrett Lake and Terrell Williams came on strong on the outside this spring, while Ross Rasner was making strides until he was arrested and suspended indefinitely this spring.

4. Georgia: There is no shortage of athleticism in Georgia’s linebacker corps. Alec Ogletree moved down from safety and while he’s bulked up, he’s still got tremendous closing speed and will make a ton of plays at middle linebacker. Next to him is defensive leader Christian Robinson, who left spring as one of Georgia’s most consistent linebackers. On the outside, USC transfer Jarvis Jones will occupy the weak side and the coaches feel he might be more of a complete player than Justin Houston. On the other end, Cornelius Washington might not be getting a ton of publicity, but he’s no slouch and can run with the best of them.

5. LSU: Like most of the Tigers’ positions, this one might not have a ton of in-game experience, but the athleticism is too good not to praise. LSU lost leading tackler and monster in the middle Kelvin Sheppard, but there should be enough able bodies to make this unit one of the tops in the league this fall. Ryan Baker is now the leader out there and can keep up with some of the best offensive weapons out there. He’ll play on the weak side, while converted safety Karnell Hatcher moved down from safety and took reps at middle linebacker, but could find his home outside. Sophomore Kevin Minter spent his spring trying to fill Sheppard’s void and has made vast improvements. Senior Stefoin Francois provides veteran depth for the Tigers on the outside, while there are a few young, able bodies ready to contribute as well.

[+] EnlargeDanny Trevathan
Mark Zerof/US PresswireKentucky's Danny Trevathan, left, led the league with 144 total tackles.
6. Kentucky: Things start with one of the nation’s best in Danny Trevathan. He led the SEC with 144 tackles a year ago and the word out of Lexington is that he’s looking to be even better this fall and wants to move around the field a lot more. Ronnie Sneed returns as the starter in the middle, after grabbing 61 tackles a year ago. He made some nice improvements this spring. Ridge Wilson will be another hybrid on the outside, and will occasionally lineup as a rush end for the Wildcats. The talented Winston Guy, who has played just about everywhere on Kentucky’s defense has finally settled into his home at linebacker and should play closer to the line of scrimmage and be a nickel linebacker.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks got an immediate upgrade to this position with the return of Shaq Wilson, after he missed last year with a hamstring injury. Wilson is known as the quarterback of the defense and led South Carolina in tackles in 2009. The player that could really make noise in this unit is DeVonte Holloman, who is moving from safety to the hybrid Spur position. He’ll drop back into coverage and rush from the outside to give the Gamecocks another weapon in the pass rush. Upperclassmen Reggie Bowens and Rodney Paulk will get some reps in the middle this fall, while Damario Jeffery and Quinn Smith will compete for time outside.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers are still trying to find out what this group is made of. Junior Herman Lathers will be back after he heals from an ankle injury this spring and he’s the most experienced player at the position. He had 75 tackles last season and will man the weak side for the Vols when he returns. Senior Daryl Vereen should get time at strong side, but he still has some developing to do. Senior Austin Johnson, a converted fullback, will get time in the middle with All-SEC freshman pick John Propst. The jury is still out on this unit and youngsters like A.J. Johnson, Curt Maggitt and Christian Harris will have to develop quickly.

9. Auburn: The Tigers are almost back to the drawing board at linebacker. Both Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens are gone, leaving Daren Bates as the lone returning starter. Bates is a converted safety, but settled nicely into the linebacker position well last fall. Inexperience looms after that as sophomore Jake Holland is a projected starter in the middle and junior Jonathan Evans will get time at weakside. Former junior college standout Eltoro Freeman, has the potential to be a menace, but has yet to truly step up for the Tigers. They’ll need that light bulb to go on this year.

10. Mississippi State: First thing’s first -- the Bulldogs must replace three starting linebackers this season. That won’t be easy or fun in Starkville. But help could be on the way in Clemson transfer Brandon Maye, who was a three-year starter with the Tigers. Coach Dan Mullen said he’s a player they expect to come in and take one of those openings at linebacker. Mississippi State still has senior leader Brandon Wilson, who players fed off of this spring. Chris Hughes and Cam Lawrence also made strides, but expect a lot of rotation from new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson.

11. Vanderbilt: Chris Marve is one of the top linebackers in the nation. He’s got great field instincts and matches his skill with the best of them. Just having him on the field makes this group better. But after him, the Commodores have a lot of questions. Vanderbilt must replace outside linebackers John Stokes and Nate Campbell, and though there are six candidates, they have just start among them. Coming out of spring, juniors Tristan Strong and Archibald Barnes and sophomore Chase Garnham are the leading candidates to see valuable playing time.

12. Ole Miss: Losing D.T. Shackelford was an enormous blow to the Rebels. Not only was he Ole Miss’ best defensive player but he was the emotional leader of the team. He was going to carry this team as far as he could go. Now, the Rebels have a wealth of inexperience to deal with. Things got even worse when sophomore linebacker Clarence Jackson was dismissed following his arrest for public drunkenness. The pressure is now on incoming freshman C.J. Johnson, who was the top prospect coming out of the state of Mississippi. He could jump right into Shackelford’s spot. Mike Marry and Ralph Williams worked in Shackelford’s spot this spring and Joel Knight returns as a starter outside.
It's one of his dream jobs.

He's an Ohio native.

And he'll be well rested just in time.

When Ohio State is done with the 2011 season -- and probably interim coach Luke Fickell -- the university shouldn't hesitate to place a phone call to former Florida coach Urban Meyer and try to woo him up to replace Jim Tressel.

[+] EnlargeUrban Meyer
Kim Klement/US PresswireUrban Meyer had a 65-15 record and won two national titles at Florida.
I know, he's looking to recharge and he's said in the past that he doesn't plan to return to the coaching ranks until his son Nate -- the youngest of Meyer's three children -- graduates from high school. And we still aren't sure if his health issues that played a role in him stepping away from college football last year have cleared up.

Meyer's oldest daughter Nicki also said on Twitter (using the account @Nicki_07) last month that she didn’t think her father would be taking over for The Sweater anytime soon -- if ever.

"Stop txting me abt my dad. HE IS NOT repeat NOT, GOING TO OHIO STATE. thanks," she tweeted.

Meyer, now a college football analyst for ESPN, even released a statement shortly after the news of Tressel's resignation stating that he wouldn't pursue any head-coaching jobs this fall.

“I am committed to ESPN and will not pursue any coaching opportunities this fall," Meyer said. "I have thoroughly enjoyed working with the people at ESPN this spring and remain very excited about my role with the network this fall.”

“Jim Tressel has been a respected friend and colleague for a long time. I wish Jim and his family the very best now and in the future.”

I hate to nitpick, but "this fall" leaves this case very open. And this isn't a job Meyer is just going to shrug off. He loves Ohio and this is considered a dream job for the man from Toledo, Ohio, who attended college at Cincinnati and was a graduate assistant at Ohio State from 1986-87.

The man has a lucky buckeye for crying out loud.

Oh, and there’s the itch. It's a coaching itch that won't leave a man, who "retired" at the age of 46, anytime soon. He’s won everywhere he’s been and led the Gators to two national championships and three SEC title games in his six years in Gainesville. His health might be in question (for now), but that coaching fire that made him one of the most exciting young coaches in the country is still inside him somewhere.

Don’t expect a new recruiting base to deter him either. He coached at Bowling Green, where the Midwest was his home and if he can dominate recruiting in the SEC, the Big Ten shouldn’t be an issue. OSU's recruiting grounds stretched all the way to the southeast, especially Florida, and Meyer owned that area.

As far as family is concerned, it might not have much input this time around. Meyer said in a book in 2008 that OSU, Notre Dame and Michigan were the only coaching jobs that his wife had no power to veto.

Check and mate.

We aren't sure what sanctions will or won't be handed down, but having the chance to go back home and rescue the state's team is something that should greatly entice Meyer.

At least one of his former players at Florida seems to think he'll be on OSU's sideline soon enough. Florida sophomore linebacker/defensive end Chris Martin turned to Twitter under the account of @cmart4634 to express his feelings about Meyer's statement from Monday.

"Committed to espn? Lets see if the other analyst stress him out so bad he has to spend time with his family in COLUMBUS now.. #truthhurts," Martin tweeted.

If OSU makes that phone call after next season, the truth is it will be hard for Meyer to say no.
Omar Hunter knows his time is running out.

Florida’s redshirt junior defensive lineman fought early hype and nagging injuries during his first three years with the Gators and now sees that he’s got to step up or sit and watch.

Hunter doesn’t want to do the latter. He had all the right to that this spring when a nagging injury returned. While he was listed as limited on Florida’s pre-spring depth chart, he pushed through the pain and competed as much as he could with a new coaching staff watching.

“It was tough, but they [the coaches] realized that I was injured and I was still trying to fight through some things,” Hunter said. “They let me off a few times on some things that they could have easily gotten on me for, but they understood I had an injury and took it easy on me a little bit.”

[+] EnlargeOmar Hunter
Al Messerschmidt/Getty ImagesJunior Omar Hunter (99) fought through injuries this spring and is looking forward to making an impact in the fall.
Hunter, who is down to 300 pounds after working at 307 this spring, decided that participating would help him learn defensive coordinator Dan Quinn’s new system and get him more familiar with defensive line coach Bryant Young’s new philosophy. If he was going to show the new staff he was ready to take his game to a new level, he had to do it -- hurt or not.

Hunter’s ability to stay on the practice field this spring also helped him gain more respect from his teammates. With depth issues and a gang of youngsters pushing for time on Florida’s line, Hunter wanted to not only show he wasn’t going to just hand his spot over, he wanted to prove that he was going to be a leader for the line.

“The message I tried to send was that I was going to be there whether I was hurt or not,” he said. “I’m always going to have their backs and I’m always going to push through injuries for them.”

The young talent certainly motivated Hunter. Regardless of how he felt physically, Hunter knew he’d have to fight off some pups this spring.

Leading the underclassmen charge is sophomore Sharrif Floyd, who will compete with Hunter for time at nose tackle when the Gators go into the 3-4. Dominique Easley, who blossomed this spring, and Leon Orr are also pushing for time on the interior.

Hunter is looking over his shoulder at those players, but he’s also helping them. While his goal is to be the disruptor in the middle, he wants what’s best for the team, and development of the younger players will be key to keeping Florida’s line fresh.

“I keep pushing them, they push me,” Hunter said. “We’re all getting better because of that.

“Last year, we were a close group, but we could have been closer. If we would have been closer, we would have been even better.”

The unit could be special, really. There is talent oozing at each position. Senior Jaye Howard, who ESPN NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper ranked as the fourth-best draft-eligible returner at defensive tackle, missed all of the spring because of surgery on his ankle, but is expected to be full-go for two-a-days. Senior William Green will maintain one of the end spots, and while he hasn’t truly broken out, he’ll fit nicely into Florida’s multiple defense.

Sophomore Ronald Powell will play the hybrid defensive end/linebacker position known as the Buck. He’s got all the athleticism and speed to be a menace in the pass rush, but he’s got to continue to mature. Cal transfer Chris Martin and junior Lerentee McCray will also get time at end.

Florida’s line is young, but the ceiling appears high for the unit. Barring injuries, this could be the strength of Florida’s defense in the fall.
Green and Gators just haven't gone well together lately.

This year alone, three Florida players -- cornerback Janoris Jenkins and linebackers Chris Martin and Kedric Johnson -- had misdemeanor marijuana-related arrests. Jenkins, an All-SEC performer in 2010, was dismissed from the team last week following his second arrest in three months for possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana.

[+] EnlargeJanoris Jenkins
Kim Klement/US PresswireNew Florida coach Will Muschamp dismissed cornerback Janoris Jenkins from the team.
On the same day as Jenkins’ dismissal, it was reported that former Florida offensive lineman Maurice Hurt tested positive for marijuana at the NFL combine in Indianapolis.

Former Gator receiver Percy Harvin tested positive for marijuana before the 2009 NFL draft, and tight end Aaron Hernandez admitted before last year’s draft that he failed a drug test during his time at Florida.

So when new coach Will Muschamp met with reporters before he spoke to the Central Florida Gator Club in Orlando on Tuesday night, he was asked if he thought there was a drug problem, specifically marijuana, with players at Florida.

Muschamp said he hasn’t specifically addressed marijuana use with his players, but said there is continuous effort to help them with the decision-making aspects of life outside of football.

“We’re constantly in the mental conditioning stage with our football team of making good choices and decisions,” Muschamp said. “It’s a constant effort. When you’re dealing with young people, that’s every day. It’s not going to change. We could have no incidents for 10 years, but we’re still going to be doing it.

“When you’re dealing with young people, you’re always in that developmental stage of making good choices and decisions.”

Despite the four incidents this spring, Muschamp classified those as isolated situations and doesn’t believe marijuana use is a rampant problem circuiting throughout his entire team.

“We’ve got a good situation going,” he said. “We’ve got some good kids on our football team. Some guys make poor decisions and choices and that shouldn’t reflect on the whole team.”

Though coaches are allowed to administer their own dismissals, Florida has the only drug policy in the SEC that allows an athlete to remain on a team with four failed tests. A fourth failed drug test results in a player missing 50 percent of the season.

Auburn, Georgia, Kentucky, South Carolina and Tennessee dismiss athletes after a third positive test, while Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi State dismiss athletes after a fourth.

Former Florida coach Urban Meyer recently told The Gainesville Sun that marijuana use among players was an issue at Florida before he became head coach in 2005.

Four of the 30 arrests during Meyer’s six-year tenure at Florida were for possession of marijuana.

"It was a problem when we got here," Meyer told The Sun. "I thought we put a little bit of a dent in it. But it's still a problem.

"It's an issue at a lot of places. I've talked to a lot of other coaches who told me they were dealing with it as well. But at Gainesville, it's a national story.

"We sought counselors. We did a lot of things. There comes a point when you have to separate the player from the university, and I did that several times."

Meyer said he cut players loose after a third failed test.

Muschamp made a powerful statement when he cut Jenkins loose.

While marijuana use might have been a problem before Jenkins’ dismissal, it doesn’t look like Muschamp will make it much of one anymore.

More marijuana trouble for Gators

April, 25, 2011
Turns out star cornerback Janoris Jenkins isn't the only Florida player in the last few months to get in trouble with police for marijuana possession.

The Palm Beach Post reported over the weekend that sophomore linebacker Kedric Johnson and redshirt freshman defensive end/linebacker Chris Martin were also arrested and charged back in January with possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana in separate incidents.

Jenkins was charged with possession of less than 20 grams of marijuana early Saturday morning after police said they saw him sitting in his car in a parking lot and smoking what turned out to be a marijuana cigar. Three months earlier, a police officer caught Jenkins rolling a marijuana cigarette in a the bathroom of a Gainesville nightclub, a charge that led to a plea agreement by Jenkins.

It was well-documented that there were more than 30 arrests involving Florida football players under former coach Urban Meyer.

The tally is already up to four under new coach Will Muschamp, and he's only been on the job for four months.

Obviously, it's impossible to change a program's culture in four months, so blaming Muschamp for players getting popped for smoking marijuana a few months after he was hired is unfair.

Anybody who thinks that doesn't go on elsewhere on college campuses, by athletes and non-athletes alike, is in total denial.

That said, marijuana is illegal, and it's only fair to question how much it really means to a player to be a part of a program when he's brazen enough to sit in a parking lot puffing on a blunt after being arrested three months earlier for trying to twist one up in the bathroom of a nightclub.

What's more, Jenkins is the best player on the team and probably the most recognizable.

Anyway, now is when you judge Muschamp, who has a tone-setting decision to make.

There will be some who joke that he's already ahead of Meyer's blistering pace when it comes to players getting in trouble with the law. Again, that's unfair.

But what is fair is monitoring how Muschamp deals with these issues and how serious he is about sending a message that they won't be tolerated now that he's the Head Gator.

The SEC begins its quest for six in a row

February, 22, 2011
When the start of spring practice arrived a year ago in the SEC, we’d barely even heard of Cam Newton and Nick Fairley.

And as for Auburn winning the national championship, the bigger debate was whether the Tigers could finish in the top three of the SEC’s Western Division.

“It’s amazing what you can accomplish when you get a group of people together who genuinely believe in what you’re doing and are willing to work as one for the same goal,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said as the Tigers were putting the finishing touches on their first national championship in 53 years.

Well, here we are again, and with Newton and Fairley now the envy of every NFL team in the upcoming draft, a familiar question is being asked about Auburn heading into spring practice.

[+] EnlargeGene Chizik
Jonathan Ferrey/Getty ImagesNo one expected Gene Chizik's Tigers to win the national championship this past season.
Can the Tigers make it out of the Western Division alive?

For that matter, can anybody make it out alive and still be in position to extend the SEC’s national championship streak to six consecutive years.

“The thing that’s so hard is how competitive [the Western Division] is and how tough it is with Alabama, Auburn and LSU year in and year out,” Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said. “It’s going to be real competitive.

“You have to be able to have great chemistry within your team and do something special to win all those big games.”

Adding the eventual Heisman Trophy winner at quarterback from the junior college ranks and having the Lombardi Award winner emerge from the shadows to become the most dominant interior defensive lineman in college football also does wonders for a team’s chances.

For both Newton and Fairley, the spring was their coming-out party a year ago.

They made a veteran, very good Auburn team a championship team, and it didn’t take the Auburn brain trust of Chizik, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and defensive coordinator Ted Roof long to realize what they had.

The Tigers hit it just right last season and demonstrated an uncanny knack for delivering in the fourth quarter.

Who will that team be next season in the SEC, and does such a team exist?

You start right back in the West, where three teams will likely open the season ranked in the top 15 nationally. Alabama and LSU will both be top-5 teams, and Arkansas could flirt with the top 10.

Nobody expects Auburn to disappear, especially with the way the Tigers have recruited the past two years, and Mississippi State is poised to take another step in 2011 after winning nine games in 2010 and capping its season with a 52-14 rout of Michigan in the Gator Bowl.

And while Mississippi State took a backseat to archrival Ole Miss in terms of where their recruiting classes were ranked earlier this month, Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen wasn’t backing down on his assertion of which of the two programs is headed in the right direction.

“I thought we did pretty well,” Mullen said. “I guess we’ll find out next Thanksgiving, just like the last two Thanksgivings.”

To translate, Mullen is 2-0 against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl, a rivalry that is played Thanksgiving week every year.

With all this talk about the West and how loaded it will be again next season, there’s no truth to the rumor that the SEC has become a one-division league.

Granted, it sure felt that way a year ago.

Four of the teams in the East suffered through losing seasons, and for the first time ever, the East champion (South Carolina) had three conference losses.

[+] EnlargeWill Muschamp
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesWill Muschamp takes over for Urban Meyer as Florida's head coach.
The Gamecocks are the team to beat again in 2011, but Florida and Georgia are both talented enough to make a run. Tennessee has stacked two solid recruiting classes on top of each other, but is still probably a year away from making a serious bid to get to Atlanta.

The real question in the East is whether anybody is equipped to take down the West champion in the title game.

There are a ton of unknowns at Florida with Will Muschamp taking over for Urban Meyer, and Mark Richt has never gone into a season at Georgia with his back this close to the wall.

Still, something says one of those programs may rise up and be the surprise team in the SEC next season.

As last season proved emphatically, two or three players can indeed make a world of difference in this league.

Who are those players in 2011?

A few to keep an eye on this spring are LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger, Alabama offensive tackle Aaron Douglas, Florida linebacker Chris Martin, Auburn receiver Trovon Reed, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones and Arkansas offensive tackle Jason Peacock.

Assuming the Eastern Division does get over its hangover from a year ago, the league has a chance to be even more balanced than it was last season.

In theory, beating up on each other isn’t ideal when it comes to producing a national champion.

But after five in a row, how do you pick against the SEC?

The SEC's impact redshirt freshmen

February, 18, 2011
A pair of SEC players -- Alabama quarterback Phillip Sims and LSU defensive lineman Ego Ferguson -- made ESPN colleague Bruce Feldman’s national list of impact redshirt freshmen for next season.

I’ve come up with 12 more redshirt freshmen in the SEC to keep an eye on for 2011. They’re listed alphabetically:

Michael Bennett, WR, Georgia: With A.J. Green and Kris Durham departing, the Bulldogs are looking for more playmakers at receiver, and the 6-3, 202-pound Bennett is a terrific athlete with the ability to go up and get the football.

Ferlando Bohanna, LB, Mississippi State: All three starting linebackers from a year ago are gone, including the Bulldogs’ two tackle leaders, Chris White and K.J. Wright. The 6-foot, 235-pound Bohanna has the size and speed to step in and be a starter.

A.J. Cann, OG, South Carolina: Steve Spurrier talked like Cann might have a chance to play as a true freshman. The Gamecocks are losing four senior offensive linemen who made starts last season, which means Cann will get his shot in 2011.

Ed Christian, OG, Auburn: Four spots are up for grabs in the Tigers’ offensive with the four senior starters departing. Christian may end up battling another redshirt freshman, Eric Mack, for one of the starting guard jobs.

Chris Dunkley, WR, Florida: The Gators are looking for anybody on the perimeter who can make plays, and Dunkley showed a lot of promise last season and would have played as a true freshman had he not been saddled with hamstring problems.

Brandon Gainer, TB, Kentucky: The weight room has been good to Gainer, who’s bulked up to more than 215 pounds. He was pushing to play last season, but was slowed by injury. With Derrick Locke gone, the Wildcats need Gainer to make a move next season.

Victor Hampton, CB, South Carolina: Ellis Johnson, South Carolina’s assistant coach for the defense, is putting out an APB for anybody who can help improve the Gamecocks’ pass coverage. Hampton had some issues off the field before he got to South Carolina, but is plenty talented.

Chris Martin, LB, Florida: After originally signing with California, the 6-4, 240-pound Martin decided to transfer to Florida and was required to sit out and redshirt last season. He was a terror on the Gators’ scout team and will be a big addition to their defense in 2011.

Trovon Reed, WR, Auburn: A knee injury that followed him from high school was the only thing that kept Reed off the field last season. He drew rave reviews during the preseason when he did practice and is a perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s offense.

Vincent Sanders, WR, Ole Miss: One of the Rebels’ highest profile signees a year ago, the 6-3, 180-pound Sanders will be counted on to add some pop to the deep passing game. Ole Miss needs its receivers to make more plays down the field next season, especially with Markeith Summers gone.

Ronnie Vinson, CB, LSU: An injury sidelined Vinson after playing in the first three games last season, and LSU is listing him as a redshirt freshman in 2011. The Tigers have a bundle of young talent in their secondary, and Vinson is right there at the top.

DeAndrew White, WR, Alabama: In offseason workouts a year ago, White impressed several of his older teammates. With Julio Jones turning pro, the Crimson Tide will be looking for help for Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks, and White is ready to provide that help.