SEC: Hope and concern

Hope and concern: Vanderbilt

July, 2, 2009
7/02/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Experience, coaching and belief

Take a look at the depth chart, and you'll see that the Commodores have experience in key spots. On defense, Patrick Benoist, Myron Lewis, Chris Marve, Greg Billinger, Broderick Stewart and Ryan Hamilton have all played a lot of football, while everybody is back on the offensive line along with a healthy Jared Hawkins at tailback. It also goes without saying that Bobby Johnson has proven he can coach them up pretty well. Does any other staff in the SEC get as much out of their talent as the Commodores? There's also a belief on this team now that it can compete in the SEC, and much of that goes back to Johnson and the way he's elevated the program and elevated the talent level. Remember, Vanderbilt won four games in the SEC last season, and only Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Ole Miss won more.

Biggest reason for concern: Not enough punch on offense

There's still the matter of sorting out who's going to be the quarterback, and the reality is that Larry Smith and Mackenzi Adams are both going to play. There wasn't enough separation in the spring to name a starter. A bigger question is: Who are they going to throw to? Justin Wheeler blew out his knee during spring practice, and talented transfer Terence Jeffers is still working to be eligible this fall. On paper anyway, there just doesn't seem to be a lot of big-play capability on this offense, and having to drive the field all the time for touchdowns is risky business against SEC defenses. The Commodores should be a little better at running the ball this season and controlling the clock, but they're going to have to find a way to score more points if they want to get back to a bowl game.

Hope and concern: Tennessee

July, 1, 2009
7/01/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Playmakers on defense

With the way All-America safety Eric Berry finds the end zone every time he intercepts a pass, who could blame the Vols if they gave him a few more chances on offense this season? He's the ultimate ball hawk in the secondary and should be a perfect fit in Monte Kiffin's defense. Berry can hit, cover and force turnovers with the best of them. He's not the only one, either. Linebacker Rico McCoy is one of the more underrated players in the league and provides Kiffin with the kind of versatile linebacker who can move around and fill different roles. Defensive end Chris Walker also showed in the spring that he's poised to be the kind of finisher off the edge that all the great defenses possess. The guy can really get to the quarterback.

Biggest reason for concern: Scoring points

It would be short-sighted to pick quarterback play or offensive line muscle or the lack of big-play receivers and say one of those areas was where the Vols were most vulnerable on offense. The truth is that they enter this season very much an unproven quantity across the board when it comes to moving the ball and scoring points. Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens both struggled at quarterback last season. Will either one be markedly better this coming season? There's no depth in the offensive line, and protecting the passer figures to be a problem. The passing game was abysmal a year ago, and part of the problem falls on a group of receivers that didn't make many plays. Most of those guys are back, but it's difficult to point to anybody returning and label him as a game-breaker. It could be that true freshman running back Bryce Brown will be the most dynamic offensive threat the Vols have in 2009.

Hope and concern: South Carolina

June, 30, 2009
6/30/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Ellis Johnson and his defense

South Carolina's defense was the reason the Gamecocks made it to a bowl game last season, and even though there will be some youth in key spots, rest assured that defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson will again have an attacking, resilient unit that will keep the Gamecocks in just about every game they play. Getting tackle Ladi Ajiboye back from suspension was a big boost, and outside linebacker Eric Norwood is the kind of difference-maker you can build a defense around. He's the SEC's active leader in both career sacks and tackles for loss. The Gamecocks will be young in the secondary, but freshman cornerback Stephon Gilmore has everything it takes to be a special player. Steve Spurrier has already called him one of the best freshmen he's ever signed. That's some pretty heady stuff, coming from the Head Ball Coach.

Biggest reason for concern: Youth and inexperience everywhere

Fans always get juiced up about the new guys, the players we've heard a lot about, but haven't seen a whole lot of on the field. Well, the Gamecocks will be counting on too many of those guys this coming season. Think about it. Sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia is going to be the centerpiece of the offense, and he's only gone through one season in the SEC and one spring practice. He doesn't have much in the way of returning experience in the backfield or at receiver, either. That's not to say that Eric Baker, Jason Barnes or Jarvis Giles won't break out and have big seasons. All three have the potential, but potential is a scary word in the SEC. It's a similar story on defense, especially in the secondary. The Gamecocks will lean heavily on a pair of true freshmen -- cornerback Stephon Gilmore and safety DeVonte Holloman -- and will be keeping their fingers crossed that sophomore cornerback C.C. Whitlock gets eligible this summer.

Hope and concern: Ole Miss

June, 29, 2009
6/29/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Quarterback Jevan Snead and cast

Honestly, there's a lot to choose from. Tyrone Nix's defense should again be outstanding, and you'd be hard-pressed to find a deeper defensive line anywhere in the country. But this team will go as Snead goes, which has to be music to the ears of the Rebels' fans. He was brilliant during the last half of the season a year ago and figures to be even better now that he's been through a whole SEC season and has a better grasp of what defenses are trying to do to him. Offensive coordinator Kent Austin will also give him a bigger chunk of the playbook, and Snead has a lot of confidence in the playmakers around him, including Dexter McCluster, Shay Hodge, Brandon Bolden, Cordera Eason, Lionel Breaux and Markeith Summers.

Biggest reason for concern: Handling the hype

It's been repeated ad nauseam ever since last season ended, but one of the biggest hurdles for Ole Miss in 2009 is being able to absorb all the expectations and perform in the favorite's role. This is new ground for this program as well as for the players on the team. Nobody really saw the Rebels coming last season. They will start this coming season as one of those teams everybody is talking about and will be a team everybody circles on their schedule. The proper leadership will be key, which is where players like Marcus Tillman, Kentrell Lockett, Greg Hardy, John Jerry, McCluster and Snead all come in. It's also on Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt to prove that he can just as effectively motivate and prepare a team that everybody is picking to do well as he can one that flies into the season under the radar. His best teams at Arkansas were typically those that came from the back of the pack and excelled in the underdog role.

Hope and concern: Mississippi State

June, 26, 2009
6/26/09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Strength up the middle on defense

Mississippi State needed an enforcer on defense and got one in the form of junior college newcomer Pernell McPhee, who was dominant this past spring from his tackle position. He's athletic enough to play end, but was such a force inside that the Bulldogs will keep him there. There were times on the practice field that he wrecked everything the offense was trying to do. He has a chance to be one of those new faces in the league that everybody in the country knows by the end of the season. He also has a menacing cast of linebackers behind him, led by Jamar Chaney in the middle. Chaney is back for his senior season after breaking his ankle in the opener a year ago. He's flanked by K.J. Wright and Chris White, another impressive junior college newcomer. All three linebackers weigh 240-plus pounds and are fierce tacklers. It will be no picnic trying to run the ball on the Bulldogs this season.

Biggest reason for concern: Too much new on offense

Much of the spring was devoted to installing Dan Mullen's spread offense, and the truth is that it won't be fully installed until the Bulldogs can add some more firepower at receiver. A few of the freshmen enrollees will help this season, but you know what they say about first-year players in the SEC. Quarterback Tyson Lee isn't entirely new, but this will be his first season running this offense. It will also be the first time that he's entered a season as the starter, and that's assuming there are no surprises in preseason practice and somebody beats him out. Even though the new staff has had the spring and will also have the preseason to get a better feel for the personnel on offense, it's difficult to be sure who can do what until you see them in the games. All in all, the Bulldogs figure to be pretty limited in what they will be able to do on offense this first season under Mullen.

Hope and concern: LSU

June, 25, 2009
6/25/09
3:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Playing with an edge on defense

The Tigers were much better than they played last season defensively. And despite losing Tyson Jackson and Ricky Jean-Francois up front, they will still be plenty talented on defense this coming season. The difference will be the attitude they play with, an attitude new defensive coordinator John Chavis demands if you're going to play for him. LSU coach Les Miles said it was obvious this past spring that the defense had regained its edge under Chavis. Some new faces will have to emerge on the defensive line, although junior tackle Drake Nevis is primed for a big season, but the secondary should be one of the best in the SEC. Chad Jones is back where he belongs at free safety. Ron Brooks looks like he'll be the other safety, and cornerbacks Patrick Peterson, Chris Hawkins and Jai Eugene give the Tigers three strong cover guys.

Biggest reason for concern: Passing game

There are red flags everywhere. Sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson will be entering his first season as the full-time starter. He's got a lot of talent, but has only made one career start against an SEC opponent. An even bigger concern is who Jefferson's going to throw to. Brandon LaFell is among the top receiving threats in the league. But after LaFell, the Tigers' depth at receiver is scary thin. They desperately need a big year from Terrance Toliver, and heralded freshman Rueben Randle certainly won't be able to ease his way into college football. It helps having a veteran at tight end the caliber of Richard Dickson, but protecting the passer could also be dicey if something were to happen to All-SEC left tackle Ciron Black. The Tigers don't have anybody behind Black.

Hope and concern: Kentucky

June, 24, 2009
6/24/09
9:55
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Better talent and more depth

Kentucky coach Rich Brooks will be the first to tell you that the Wildcats wouldn't have been able to weather the loss of a player the caliber of Jeremy Jarmon three or four years ago, and it still remains to be seen how much the defense will suffer with the senior defensive end being ruled ineligible this season. But the good news is that Kentucky has been able to recruit a higher caliber of player the last couple of years, thanks in large part to the Wildcats' success. Moreover, their depth on defense is better than it's ever been under Brooks. There are several younger players such as defensive ends Chandler Burden and Collins Ukwu and linebacker Danny Trevathan who appear poised to make their mark, while a pair of junior college newcomers -- tackle Mark Crawford and end DeQuin Evans -- will also help up front. Crawford had the benefit of going through spring practice.

Biggest reason for concern: Lack of offensive playmakers

Outside of Randall Cobb, who proved last season he can make plays no matter where he lines up, who's going to make things happen for the Wildcats on offense? If nobody else emerges, defenses are really going to gang up on Cobb. And, remember, he's still learning all the ins and outs of the receiver position. There are no other proven receivers on this team, and then you throw in the fact that quarterback Mike Hartline didn't exactly light it up throwing the ball last season, and it's easy to see why it's difficult right now to identify where all the offensive production is going to come from. The news sounds better on running back Derrick Locke's recovery from knee surgery. But other than Cobb, there's not an established difference-maker on offense, the kind of player who can change the complexion of a game with two or three plays.

Hope and concern: Georgia

June, 23, 2009
6/23/09
12:09
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Strength and versatility up front

Quarterback Matthew Stafford is gone. So is running back Knowshon Moreno and receiver Mohamed Massaquoi. All three will be playing in the NFL next season. So while the Bulldogs will be ripe with fresh faces at the skill positions, their strength will be up front in the offensive line. That's right, the same group that had to mix and match a year ago just to stay afloat after all the injuries. This coming season, it should be a group Georgia will be able to lean on. There's depth, experience and versatility. Trinton Sturdivant returns at left tackle after missing all of last season with a knee injury, but All-SEC selection Clint Boling was more than steady there a year ago after moving over from right tackle and then right guard. Right tackle Justin Anderson, left guard Cordy Glenn and center Ben Jones are all back after earning Freshman All-America mention last season.

Biggest reason for concern: A killer schedule

Coaches will tell you they worry only about those things they can control and don't spend much time fretting about things out of their control. But have you taken a peek recently at the Bulldogs' schedule next season? It's as difficult, if not more so, than their schedule last season. The first five games will tell us all we need to know about these Bulldogs, and there are still trips to Tennessee and Georgia Tech after that, not to mention the annual clash with Florida in Jacksonville. Georgia opens the season at Oklahoma State, comes back home to face South Carolina and then travels to Arkansas the third week. Arizona State visits Athens on Sept. 26 and followed by LSU on Oct. 3. The Bulldogs need to find a way to go at least 4-1 in that season-opening stretch if they're going to win 10 or more games for the seventh time in nine years under Mark Richt.

Hope and concern: Florida

June, 22, 2009
6/22/09
1:30
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes and ...

There's no need to keep going. I think you get the picture. You win with great talent, players who are self-motivated, players who crave the pressure situations and players who raise the level of play of everybody else around them. Tebow is that guy on offense for the Gators, and Spikes is that guy on defense. Here's the other thing that's so tasty for Florida fans: There's a bunch of talented players surrounding Tebow and Spikes who are equally hungry and equally eager to make their mark. And most of those guys have great speed and know what it takes to win a championship.

Biggest reason for concern: No more touchdowns from Percy

The Percy Position lives on, but the guy who made it famous is gone. Percy Harvin was a touchdown machine, scoring touchdowns in the last 15 games in which he played at Florida. When he was in the lineup, it was a given he was going to reach the end zone either running it in or by catching a pass. He was a difference-maker in the purest sense of the word. And while there's clearly talent on this team and tremendous speed on this team, there's not a Percy Harvin. Who will the Gators go to in crunch time? That's still to be determined.

Hope and concern: Auburn

June, 19, 2009
6/19/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: Getting defensive

First-year Auburn coach Gene Chizik is a defensive guy, and that's where the Tigers' hopes will rest this first season on the Plains. Their defensive production dropped some last season, especially toward the end of the year when things really started to sour. But Chizik's proven that he can put together quality defenses, and there's enough returning talent even with tackle Sen'Derrick Marks deciding to turn pro that Auburn should be in most games next season simply because of its defense. End Antonio Coleman is one of the better pass-rushers in the league. His running mate, Michael Goggans, might be one of the most-improved players in the league, and the Tigers have a wealth of experience in the secondary. The severity of Aairon Savage's Achilles injury will be worth watching. Depth is a concern at linebacker, but the starting threesome of Josh Bynes, Craig Stevens and junior college newcomer Eltore Freeman has a chance to be special.

Biggest reason for concern: And the quarterback is ...

Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn has his work cut out. Not only is he putting in his version of the spread offense, but the Tigers are still not sure who their starting quarterback will be. Kodi Burns and Neil Caudle exited the spring as the top two, but neither performed consistently enough for Malzahn to pinpoint a starter. At this point, the whole thing has the makings of the Tigers going into the season and jockeying back and forth between a couple of different guys for most of the year. Chris Todd, depending on how well his shoulder holds up, could also be a factor. The guy Auburn fans are most excited about is incoming freshman Tyrik Rollison, who has all the physical tools to be an excellent spread quarterback. But do you really want to hand the keys to the offense to a true freshman, especially when everybody else around him is still learning as they go in a new system? Stay tuned.

Hope and concern: Arkansas

June, 18, 2009
6/18/09
11:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

Biggest reason for hope: More firepower in Bobby Petrino's offense

It's the second time around for the Hogs in Petrino's offense, and that's always a good thing. But even better is the fact that he has the pieces in place now to run his offense the way he wants to run it. The key cog is quarterback Ryan Mallett, who has one of the strongest arms you're going to see anywhere. Petrino said Mallett's understanding of the offense and feel for where to throw the ball were equally impressive this spring. Sophomore receivers Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarius Wright should be even more explosive next season. Senior running back Michael Smith is healthy again and will have help in 2009, and junior D.J. Williams is perhaps the best pass-catching tight end in the country. This is an offense that should score points in bunches.

Biggest reason for concern: Stopping anybody on defense

The flip side to the offense being so impressive in the spring is that the jury is still out on whether the Hogs can stop anybody on defense. Petrino thinks they will be better and he is counting on all of the experience the younger players gained a year ago paying dividends in 2009. Arkansas opened last season with three true freshmen and two redshirt freshmen in the starting lineup, and the Hogs also were hampered by injuries on defense. Still, there's no sugarcoating how ugly it was at times a year ago. They ranked last in the SEC in six defensive statistical categories. Petrino said a must is being more physical across the board on defense. Moving Malcolm Sheppard inside to tackle should help. Bottom line: This defense probably isn't ready to win a lot of games for the Hogs, but it can't allow every game to become a shootout, either.

Hope and concern: Alabama

June, 17, 2009
6/17/09
2:00
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Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low

The summer months can be a pretty dead time for college football. But I prefer to look at it differently.

The start of preseason practice is less than two months away, and the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala., will be here in a month.

So as we count down the days, we'll kick off our "Hope and Concern" series today where we look at each team and analyze why that team has reason for hope and why it has reason for concern in 2009.

We'll go alphabetically and start with Alabama:

Biggest reason for hope: Defense and plenty of it

Alabama was terrific defensively last season, tying for third nationally in total defense. Not to get the Tide Nation too giddy, but don't be surprised if Alabama is even nastier on defense in 2009. Replacing safety Rashad Johnson and all he did will be the only snag, but Robby Green looked to be up to the task in the spring. Some of the younger players who played lesser roles a year ago are ready to take that next step, and the middle of this defense is going to be as good as it gets with the likes of Terrence Cody, Marcel Dareus and Rolando McClain. The guy who may really take off next season, though, is linebacker Dont'a Hightower, who's versatile enough to play a number of different roles. Look for him to be used more as a pass-rusher.

Biggest reason for concern: Rebuilding the offensive line

What Alabama has going for it here is veteran offensive line coach Joe Pendry. He's been down this road before. But when you lose two All-Americans the caliber of Andre Smith and Antoine Caldwell and another steady starter at guard (Marlon Davis), there's bound to be some drop-off. Settling on a left tackle is the first order of business, and junior college newcomer James Carpenter exited the spring as the starter. Senior Mike Johnson is good enough and smart enough to play anywhere Alabama needs him to, but there are going to be a bunch of new faces up front next season that the Crimson Tide will be counting on. Whereas Alabama set the tone for its 12-0 start last season with the way its offensive line dominated that Clemson game, there could be some growing pains in 2009. How long those growing pains last will go a long way toward determining whether the Tide can repeat as Western Division champs.

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