SEC: What to watch SEC

What to watch in the SEC West

August, 18, 2010
Picking a favorite this season in the SEC’s Western Division race isn’t the hard part.

Defending national champion Alabama has the rightful claim to that distinction until proven otherwise.

The hard part is figuring out who will be No. 2. Arkansas, Auburn, LSU and even Ole Miss (now that the Rebels have Jeremiah Masoli at quarterback) could make claims, while Mississippi State has a chance to be one of the most improved teams in the league.

Here are five things to watch this season in the SEC West:

[+] EnlargeMarcell Dareus
AP Photo/Chris Carlson Marcell Dareus simply knows how to make plays.
1. Turning the Tide on defense: It’s difficult to imagine an Alabama defense that struggles with Nick Saban running the show, not to mention knowing how well the Crimson Tide have recruited on that side of the ball. But the first scrimmage of the preseason would seem to suggest that Alabama has a ways to go on defense, part of which was expected when you lose nine starters. The secondary remains the biggest concern, especially with a couple guys back there battling injuries right now. The good thing for Alabama is that it's not a talent issue. The issue is an overall lack of experience. The threesome of defensive end Marcell Dareus, middle linebacker Dont’a Hightower and safety Mark Barron is as good as it gets, but guys like cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick, cornerback DeMarcus Milliner, safety Robert Lester, nose guard Kerry Murphy and linebacker Chris Jordan will end up determining how good this defense will be in 2010. Obviously, if Dareus is suspended for any length of time because of agent-related issues, that would be a huge blow to the Tide.

2. Auburn’s reinforcements: This signing class could be what puts Auburn over the top this season. The Tigers lacked the depth to make a serious run a year ago and wound up losing five of their last six SEC games. But already, it’s obvious that several first-year players are going to play key roles for the Tigers, starting with quarterback Cameron Newton. Freshman running back Michael Dyer, freshman fullback Ladarious Phllips, freshman receiver Trovon Reed and freshman receiver Antonio Goodwin should add firepower to the offense, and a number of newcomers are pushing to play on defense. Among them: Corey Lemonier at end, Jeffrey Whitaker at tackle, Jonathan Mincy at cornerback and LaDarius Owens and Jake Holland at linebacker. As senior linebacker Josh Bynes noted recently, the gap between the Tigers’ first- and second-team players shouldn’t be nearly as wide this season.

3. September to remember: LSU hopes it’s a September to remember, but that’s going to entail knocking off North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game to open the season. It’s easily the most critical opener Les Miles has faced since taking the LSU job in 2005, and it will go a long way toward answering the question that has reverberated all offseason: Is Miles really on the hot seat? In particular, the Tigers need to build some momentum and establish some early confidence on offense. Junior quarterback Jordan Jefferson needs to play better, but he also needs the guys protecting him to play better. The Tigers revamped their offensive line, moved some guys around, and Miles is confident it will be a more physical unit. LSU finished 11th in the SEC in rushing offense last season, and that’s tough on any quarterback. The best thing Jefferson has going for him is the collection of guys he’ll be throwing to -- Terrence Toliver, Russell Shepard and Rueben Randle. West Virginia comes to Baton Rouge to close out the month of September, meaning we’ll know plenty about these Tigers by the time we get to October.

4. Star power in the West: No disrespect to the East, but most of the star power in the league this season is concentrated in the West. You’ve got the Heisman Trophy winner returning in Alabama running back Mark Ingram, one of the top quarterbacks in the country in Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett and perhaps the best cornerback in college football in LSU’s Patrick Peterson. On top of it all, several of the analysts have Dareus as one of the hottest NFL draft prospects in the country. ESPN’s Todd McShay had Dareus No. 5 on his most recent list. Alabama receiver Julio Jones, Alabama linebacker Dont’a Hightower, Ole Miss nose tackle Jerrell Powe and Mississippi State defensive end Pernell McPhee were other players from the West who cracked the top 10 earlier this year in our countdown of the Top 25 players in the SEC. In fact, the only two players in our top 10 not from the West were Georgia receiver A.J. Green and Florida center Mike Pouncey.

5. Masoli’s impact: Without a doubt, the most noteworthy addition in the SEC this offseason was Masoli latching on with Ole Miss for his senior season. He’s already made a difference for the Rebels this preseason with the way he’s been able to scramble around and make plays. Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt still has an interesting decision to make on who he’s going to start in the opener, but it’s difficult to imagine Masoli not being the guy the Rebels go with for most of the season. You don’t take a chance on a guy with a troubled past to sit him on the bench. Plus, Masoli has already proven that he can lead a team to the Rose Bowl when he quarterbacked Oregon to a Pac-10 title last season. This is not an Ole Miss offense that’s laden with proven playmakers, either, so having a veteran guy at quarterback who can make things happen when things break down would be even more valuable for the Rebels. One thing’s for certain: Everybody will be watching Masoli’s every move … both on and off the field.

What to watch in the SEC East

August, 17, 2010
The last time somebody other than Florida, Georgia or Tennessee won the Eastern Division was ... never.

Is this the year that changes? The folks in Columbia, S.C., sure hope so.

Here are five things to watch this season in the SEC East:

[+] EnlargeBrantley
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJohn Brantley is being counted on to help keep the Gators among the SEC elite.
1. Florida’s fresh faces: The Gators won so frequently with the likes of Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey, Carlos Dunlap and Aaron Hernandez that you almost took it for granted. They reeled off 22 straight wins before losing to Alabama last season in the SEC championship game. Now it’s up to a new nucleus of players to see to it that Florida continues its stranglehold in the East. The Gators haven’t lost a game to an Eastern Division opponent since falling to Georgia 42-30 during the 2007 season. That’s a lofty standard to uphold. We’ll see if the likes of John Brantley, Jelani Jenkins, Will Hill, Omar Hunter, Andre Debose and Justin Trattou are up to the challenge.

2. Quarterback quandary: If you’re looking for a surplus of experience at the quarterback position, don’t go hunting it in the East. The veteran of the group is South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia, and his head coach spent the offseason telling everybody who would listen that he might sit Garcia and play a true freshman. Kentucky senior quarterback Mike Hartline has 14 career starts, but is locked into a battle this preseason for the starting job along with sophomore Morgan Newton and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski. Vanderbilt’s Larry Smith is back for his junior season after struggling as a sophomore a year ago. Tennessee looks like it will go with newcomer Matt Simms, who started his career at Louisville before making a stopover at junior college. Georgia redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has yet to take his first college snap, while Brantley has been one of those guys everybody has raved about at Florida, but is still looking for his first meaningful snap against an SEC defense.

3. Quick strikes: The East boasts an impressive array of big-play performers, led by Georgia receiver A.J. Green. If he gets off to the kind of start he did last season and then stays healthy, look out. The two guys at Kentucky aren’t shabby, either. The Derrick Locke-Randall Cobb combo is enough to give any defensive coordinator nightmares. With Tebow gone at Florida, running back Jeff Demps is going to get even more chances to showcase his 9.96 speed in the 100-meter dash. South Carolina sophomore receiver Alshon Jeffery’s not a burner, but he finds his way into the end zone. Tennessee likes its entire collection of pass-catchers, including a pair of true freshmen -- Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers -- who’ve already shown their big-play ability in camp. And don’t forget about special teams, either. Between them, Georgia’s Brandon Boykin and Vanderbilt’s Warren Norman returned six kickoffs for touchdowns last season.

4. Hold that line: Who has the best offensive line in the East? Georgia has all five starters and eight lettermen returning from a unit that allowed an SEC-low 12 sacks last season. Florida returns four starters, including senior Mike Pouncey, who’s moving from guard to center and is one of the top offensive linemen in the country. After the Bulldogs and Gators, it drops off considerably up front in the East. Kentucky has to replace four starters. Vanderbilt is already battling injuries on its offensive line, and Tennessee will put five new starters on the field. That leaves South Carolina, which is on its third different offensive line coach in as many years -- Shawn Elliott. If the Gamecocks are going to make a run this season in the East, they will have to play significantly better in their offensive line than they have at any point over the past couple of seasons. In other words, that needs to be the most improved unit on the team.

5. Coaching debuts: Vanderbilt’s Robbie Caldwell, Tennessee’s Derek Dooley and Kentucky’s Joker Phillips will all make their SEC head coaching debuts this season. Caldwell found out he would be leading the Commodores about three weeks prior to the start of preseason practice when Bobby Johnson abruptly retired. Dooley takes his shot at rebuilding Tennessee’s program now that Lane Kiffin is no longer stirring it up in the SEC. For 31 seasons, the Vols had a total of two head coaches, but Dooley is now their third in the past three seasons. Phillips was named the Wildcats’ coach in waiting a couple of years ago. But with Rich Brooks retiring following last season, Phillips steps into the big office and will try to extend Kentucky’s bowl streak to five straight seasons. Only four other SEC teams have been to bowl games each of the past four years -- Alabama, Florida, Georgia and LSU.