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Friday, May 16, 2008
Breaking down the SEC East

By Chris Low
ESPN.com

Has Florida found a running back to take pressure off Tim Tebow? Who takes over at quarterback for South Carolina? How does Kentucky replace Andre' Woodson? Take a look at what questions were answered this spring and what problems linger heading into the fall.

Florida Gators

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Hawaii
Sept. 06 Miami (Fla.)
Sept. 20 @ Tennessee
Sept. 27 Mississippi
Oct. 04 @ Arkansas
Oct. 11 LSU
Oct. 25 Kentucky
Nov. 01 @ Georgia
Nov. 08 @ Vanderbilt
Nov. 15 South Carolina
Nov. 22 Citadel
Nov. 29 @ Florida State

2007 overall record:
9-4

2007 conference record:
5-3

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Tim Tebow, WR Percy Harvin, TE Cornelius Ingram, OG Jim Tartt, OT Phil Trautwein, DE Jermaine Cunningham, LB Brandon Spikes
Key losses
WR Andre Caldwell, OT Carlton Medder, C Drew Miller, DE Derrick Harvey, NT Clint McMillan, SS Tony Joiner, PK Joey Ijjas
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Tim Tebow* (895 yds)
Passing: Tim Tebow* (3,286 yds)
Receiving: Percy Harvin* (858 yds)
Tackles: Brandon Spikes* (131)
Sacks: Derrick Harvey (8.5)
Interceptions: Tony Joiner/Wondy Pierre-Louis* (2)

Spring answers

1. Rainey emerges: Is it possible to have too many playmakers? Florida coach Urban Meyer sure doesn't think so, and the Gators found another one this spring in running back Chris Rainey. Meyer said Rainey's going to be starting somewhere. It's just a matter of where. He scored on a nifty 65-yard touchdown catch in the Gators' spring game.

2. Sack patrol: With Derrick Harvey leaving early for the NFL, one of the priorities this spring was finding a pass-rusher. Sophomore Carlos Dunlap, with four sacks in the spring game, showed that he's ready to step up and become a dominant finisher off the edge. He has all the tools to be a great one, and when he becomes a little more consistent playing the run, look out.

3. Growing pains: The Gators were painfully young in the secondary last season, and it showed in their inability to defend the pass (last in the SEC in pass defense). But after playing as true freshmen, cornerback Joe Haden and safety Major Wright came back this spring and played more instinctively. Junior cornerback Wondy Pierre-Louis is also back, giving Florida three returning starters in the secondary who played a lot of football last season.

Fall questions

1. Protecting Tebow: It will be interesting to see if the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner can manage to take fewer hits in 2008. Part of what makes him so great is his fearlessness to take off and run. But the Gators need more production from their running backs, if for nothing else, to keep Tebow from being hit so much. Who knows what would have happened had he not been limited by a shoulder injury against Georgia last season?

2. Manning the interior: There isn't much depth at defensive tackle. It's to the point that Meyer has said more than once that the countdown has begun for true freshman Omar Hunter's arrival on campus. The Gators are probably going to have to play several younger players at tackle, while hoping that a few of the holdovers elevate their play considerably in the fall.

3. Tebow's understudy: Meyer said he wants to play two quarterbacks, which would further help to keep Tebow fresh. There wasn't much separation between Cameron Newton and John Brantley in the spring. They get a chance to prove themselves all over again in the fall.

Georgia Bulldogs

2008 Schedule

Aug. 30 Georgia Southern
Sept. 06 Central Michigan
Sept. 13 @ South Carolina
Sept. 20 @ Arizona State
Sept. 27 Alabama
Oct. 11 Tennessee
Oct. 18 Vanderbilt
Oct. 25 @ LSU
Nov. 01 Florida
Nov. 08 @ Kentucky
Nov. 15 @ Auburn
Nov. 29 Georgia Tech

2007 overall record:
11-2

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 7, defense: 9, kicker/punter: 1

Top returners
QB Matthew Stafford, TB Knowshon Moreno, WR Mohamed Massaquoi, OT Trinton Sturdivant, DT Geno Atkins, LB Dannell Ellerbe, LB Rennie Curran
Key losses
TB Thomas Brown, WR Sean Bailey, OT Chester Adams, C Fernando Velasco, DE Marcus Howard, SS Kelin Johnson, PK Brandon Coutu
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Knowshon Moreno* (1,334 yds)
Passing: Matthew Stafford* (2,523 yds)
Receiving: Sean Bailey (615 yds)
Tackles: Dannell Ellerbe* (93)
Sacks: Marcus Howard (10.5)
Interceptions: Kelin Johnson (4)

Spring answers

1. Adding firepower: Everybody knows what quarterback Matthew Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno can do. Moreno might even find his way into the Heisman Trophy race, but the Bulldogs found a few more playmakers in the spring, notably redshirt running back Caleb King, true freshman running back Richard Samuel and freshman receiver Tavarres King.

2. Playing catch: Not only will Stafford have the luxury of using the play-action pass more than ever with opposing defenses eyeing Moreno's every move, but he'll be throwing to what should be the Bulldogs' deepest and best receiving corps in some time. Seniors Mohamed Massaquoi and Kenneth Harris lead the way, but there's enough depth behind them that they won't be able to get comfortable. The guy Georgia fans can't wait to see is true freshman A.J. Green.

3. Defending their turf: Georgia didn't lose much on defense, but Sugar Bowl star Marcus Howard is gone. Jarius Wynn, a former junior college transfer, had a big spring and appears poised to take over for Howard. Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez thinks Wynn has a chance to be "special" off the edge. The Georgia linebackers are already special.

Fall questions

1. Taking on all comers: Yes, the schedule is that difficult, and it's not a schedule tailor-made for a championship run. In the first month, there are away games at South Carolina and at Arizona State . Down the road, the Bulldogs also have to play at LSU and at Auburn, not to mention facing Florida in the annual Jacksonville, Fla., showdown. There are also home games against Alabama and Tennessee.

2. Kicking it around: The Bulldogs are still looking for a replacement for place-kicker Brandon Coutu, who was recently taken in the NFL draft. There's a chance it could be a true freshman, Blair Walsh.

3. Line dancing: Even though three of the five starters on the offensive line return, the Bulldogs are still looking for the right combination. Replacing center Fernando Velasco won't be easy. Georgia was also without guard Clint Boling this spring, as he sat out with an illness. It's still a young line, too. All three returning starters are sophomores.

Kentucky Wildcats

2008 Schedule

Aug. 31 @ Louisville
Sept. 06 Norfolk State
Sept. 13 Middle Tennessee
Sept. 27 Western Kentucky
Oct. 04 @ Alabama
Oct. 11 South Carolina
Oct. 18 Arkansas
Oct. 25 @ Florida
Nov. 01 @ Mississippi State
Nov. 08 Georgia
Nov. 15 Vanderbilt
Nov. 29 @ Tennessee

2007 overall record:
8-5

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 5, defense: 8, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Derrick Locke, RB Tony Dixon, OT Garry Williams, WR Dicky Lyons Jr., DE Jeremy Jarmon, LB Braxton Kelley, CB Trevard Lindley
Key losses
QB Andre' Woodson, RB Rafael Little, WR Keenan Burton, WR Steve Johnson, TE Jacob Tamme, OG Jason Leger, LB Wesley Woodyard
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Rafael Little (1,013 yds)
Passing: Andre' Woodson (3,709 yds)
Receiving: Steve Johnson (1,041 yds)
Tackles: Wesley Woodyard (139)
Sacks: Jeremy Jarmon* (9)
Interceptions: Trevard Lindley (3)

Spring answers

1. Strength in numbers: Some of that depth Kentucky coach Rich Brooks has been talking about on defense started to rear its head this spring. Defensive end Jeremy Jarmon might be the best overall player on the team, and cornerback Trevard Lindley would be a close second. Both are All-SEC caliber players.

2. Linebacker shuffle: There was some shuffling going on at linebacker this spring and the Wildcats like the flexibility the new look gives them. Braxton Kelley, a three-year starter in the middle, moved to the weak side. Junior Micah Johnson played his way into a starting role at middle linebacker. Johnny Williams is the starter on the strong side, but also got some snaps at defensive end.

3. Winning edge: Despite the loss of so many key players, Brooks said the attitude from those 8-5 teams the past two seasons carried over into the spring with players hungry to prove that Kentucky football isn't going to fall off the face of the earth. The Wildcats haven't had three straight winning seasons since the mid 1950s.

Fall questions

1. Life after Woodson: Andre' Woodson threw an SEC-record 40 touchdown passes last season. The Wildcats aren't expecting that kind of production from their next quarterback, but they're still waiting for either Curtis Pulley or Mike Hartline to win the job. That battle will resume in August when preseason practice begins.

2. New faces: Woodson isn't the only key component from last season's high-scoring offense that's gone. Running back Rafael Little, receivers Keenan Burton and Steve Johnson and tight end Jacob Tamme have all moved on. Kentucky needs a big year out of senior receiver Dicky Lyons Jr., and the running backs (Derrick Locke, Tony Dixon and Alfonso Smith) all need to take their game to the next level.

3. Lead the way: Just about all the leadership from a year ago is gone, even on defense. Linebacker Wesley Woodyard was the catalyst on that side of the ball. New leaders have to emerge. Jarmon and Lindley both fit that bill. It's not as clear on offense where that leadership will come from.

South Carolina Gamecocks

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 North Carolina State
Sept. 04 @ Vanderbilt
Sept. 13 Georgia
Sept. 20 Wofford
Sept. 27 UAB
Oct. 04 @ Mississippi
Oct. 11 @ Kentucky
Oct. 18 LSU
Nov. 01 Tennessee
Nov. 08 Arkansas
Nov. 15 @ Florida
Nov. 29 @ Clemson

2007 overall record:
6-6

2007 conference record:
3-5

Returning starters
Offense: 6, defense: 10, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Tommy Beecher, RB Mike Davis, WR Kenny McKinley, LB Jasper Brinkley, LB Eric Norwood, CB Captain Munnerlyn, SS Emanuel Cook
Key losses
QB Blake Mitchell, RB Cory Boyd, FB Lanard Stafford, TE Andy Boyd, C William Brown, DE Casper Brinkley
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Cory Boyd (903 yds)
Passing: Blake Mitchell (1,747yds)
Receiving: Kenny McKinley* (968 yds)
Tackles: Emanuel Cook* (92)
Sacks: Eric Norwood* (6)
Interceptions: Captain Munnerlyn*/Emanuel Cook* (3)

Spring answers

1. Beecher on deck: Junior Tommy Beecher is South Carolina's quarterback, at least for now. Coach Steve Spurrier, who's been known to go through a few quarterbacks, tabbed Beecher as his starter following spring practice. His reasoning was that Beecher was more consistent than Chris Smelley this spring, and the Gamecocks needed to have a starter heading into the summer workouts.

2. Special order: Spurrier brought in Ray Rychleski from Maryland to head up special teams after the Gamecocks unraveled more times than not a year ago. Getting punts blocked was a huge problem for South Carolina, and Rychleski's units at Maryland didn't have any punts blocked during his seven seasons as coordinator and blocked 22 kicks of their own during that span. The Gamecocks might break up the kicking duties this fall, letting Ryan Succop handle the placement kicks and Spencer Lanning the punting.

3. New play-caller?: For the first time in his career, Spurrier is delegating more of the offensive responsibilities to his staff. In particular, he's turned over some of the play-calling duties to his son, Steve Spurrier Jr. Not calling his own plays is one of those things you'd have to see to believe, but the Head Ball Coach said he's serious. He insists he'll remain the offensive coordinator and be very much involved, but that Steve Jr. might be the one actually calling the plays next season. Stay tuned.

Fall questions

1. Garcia Chronicles: For a guy who hasn't taken a snap at South Carolina, redshirt freshman quarterback Stephen Garcia sure has generated a bunch of attention. Unfortunately for him, it's been for all of the wrong reasons. He's now suspended from the university until mid-August when he'll have a chance to return -- if he does everything required of him. If he is re-admitted to school, don't be surprised if Spurrier gets him ready to play in a hurry.

2. Brinkley to the rescue: The Gamecocks received good news when linebacker Jasper Brinkley decided to return for his senior season after missing most of last year with a knee injury. Brinkley was perhaps the best middle linebacker in the SEC before his injury. He didn't do much this spring while recovering, but said he's lost weight and hasn't lost a step. His health will go a long way toward determining how good South Carolina is on defense next season.

3. Front line: The uncertainty at quarterback is troubling enough, and the Gamecocks also lost their best running back, Cory Boyd. What that means is the offensive line has to take significant step up from where it was a year ago. Four starters are back. That's the good news. The bad news is that South Carolina struggled to protect the quarterback at times last season and was last in the SEC in rushing offense.

Tennessee Volunteers

2008 Schedule

Sept. 01 @ UCLA
Sept. 13 UAB
Sept. 20 Florida
Sept. 27 @ Auburn
Oct. 04 Northern Illinois
Oct. 11 @ Georgia
Oct. 18 Mississippi State
Oct. 25 Alabama
Nov. 01 @ South Carolina
Nov. 08 Wyoming
Nov. 22 @ Vanderbilt
Nov. 29 Kentucky

2007 overall record:
10-4

2007 conference record:
6-2

Returning starters
Offense: 9, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
RB Arian Foster, WR Lucas Taylor, WR Gerald Jones, OG Anthony Parker, DT Demonte' Bolden, LB Rico McCoy, SS Eric Berry
Key losses
QB Erik Ainge, TE Chris Brown, TE Brad Cottam, OT Eric Young, DE Xavier Mitchell, LB Jerod Mayo, FS Jonathan Hefney
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Arian Foster* (1,193 yds)
Passing: Erik Ainge (3,522 yds)
Receiving: Lucas Taylor* (1,000 yds)
Tackles: Jerod Mayo (140)
Sacks: Robert Ayers* (4)
Interceptions: Eric Berry* (5)

Spring answers

1. Crompton steps up: There wasn't much suspense in the Vols' quarterback race. Junior Jonathan Crompton, who's been waiting his turn behind Erik Ainge, latched onto the job and never let go. He was clearly the best player from the outset and ended spring practice with a strong showing in the spring game. Crompton isn't afraid to run the ball, either, which was a dimension the Vols never had with Ainge behind center.

2. New kid in town: For the first time in nearly 20 years, someone from outside the "Tennessee family" will be calling the plays for the Vols. New offensive coordinator Dave Clawson comes over from Richmond, where he was the head coach, and brings a version of the West Coast offense with him. The running game will be similar to what Tennessee has done in the past, but the passing game will be considerably different. Clawson will move his best playmakers around in order to get them the ball.

3. Berry good: The Vols' secondary will be the strength of the team, and they're led back there by sophomore safety Eric Berry. He was one of the best defensive backs in the SEC last season as a true freshman and is joined back there by Demetrice Morley, who sat out last season for academic reasons. Morley also has All-SEC potential. The Vols return as many as six players in the secondary who've either started or played extensively in an SEC game.

Fall questions

1. Early testing: Now that Crompton has left little doubt that he's the Vols' starting quarterback, his next order of business is playing like a veteran right away and settling into Clawson's system. That means making good decisions and taking care of the ball because three of Tennessee's first four games are against UCLA, Florida and Auburn. In other words, there aren't any warmups.

2. Thin in the middle: The Vols are dangerously thin at defensive tackle, and it's not much better at defensive end. An injury to end Robert Ayers or tackle Demonte Bolden could be catastrophic. How well younger defensive linemen such as Ben Martin, Chris Walker, Donald Langley and Victor Thomas develop will probably hold the key to how strong Tennessee is on defense next season.

3. Chemistry 101: Tennessee coach Phillip Fulmer had to replace all but one of his coaches on the offensive side, the largest staff overhaul of his career. The Vols also lost their best leader when linebacker Jerod Mayo elected to turn pro. With so many new coaches in place and leadership on the team still taking shape, it will be interesting to see how well (and how quickly) everything meshes together.

Vanderbilt Commodores

2008 Schedule

Aug. 28 @ Miami (Ohio)
Sept. 04 South Carolina
Sept. 13 Rice
Sept. 20 @ Mississippi
Oct. 04 Auburn
Oct. 11 @ Mississippi State
Oct. 18 @ Georgia
Oct. 25 Duke
Nov. 08 Florida
Nov. 15 @ Kentucky
Nov. 22 Tennessee
Nov. 29 @ Wake Forest

2007 overall record:
5-7

2007 conference record:
2-6

Returning starters
Offense: 3, defense: 6, kicker/punter: 2

Top returners
QB Chris Nickson, QB Mackenzi Adams, WR George Smith, WR Sean Walker, DE Broderick Stewart, CB D.J. Moore, SS Reshard Langford
Key losses
RB Cassen Jackson-Garrison, WR Earl Bennett, OT Chris Williams, OT Brian Stamper, DE Curtis Gatewood, LB Marcus Buggs, LB Jonathan Goff
2007 statistical leaders (* returners)
Rushing: Cassen Jackson-Garrison (594 yds)
Passing: Mackenzi Adams* (1,043 yds)
Receiving: Earl Bennett (830 yds)
Tackles: Jonathan Goff (113)
Sacks: Broderick Stewart* (6)
Interceptions: D.J. Moore* (6)

Spring answers

1. More of Moore: Junior D.J. Moore is a bona-fide three-way threat. He earned All-SEC honors a year ago as a cornerback after tying for the SEC lead with six interceptions. He also had 78 yards rushing as a slot receiver and was fourth in the league with a 25.7-yard kickoff return average.

2. Last line of defense: About the only area the Commodores weren't hit hard by graduation was in the defensive backfield. And the spring revealed what everybody in black and gold already knew: This has a chance to be one of the better secondaries at Vanderbilt in a long time. Moore is already an All-SEC player, and senior strong safety Reshard Langford has started every game of his Vanderbilt career. All four starters from a year ago return, plus top nickel back Darlron Spead.

3. Making a move: Junior Jared Hawkins went a long way this spring toward earning an expanded role at tailback. Senior Jeff Jennings is still the likely starter, but the Vanderbilt coaches liked what they saw from Hawkins this spring. He led the team for the second straight season with a 4.4-yard rushing average and is excellent at setting up his blocks. Gaston Miller, who redshirted last season, brings more of a speed element to the Commodores' backfield.

Fall questions

1. Nickson's job to lose?: Junior Mackenzi Adams ended last season as the Commodores' starting quarterback. But he and senior Chris Nickson split the reps this spring, and Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson won't decide on a starter until the preseason. If healthy, Nickson probably gives the Commodores a better chance against SEC defenses. He can run and throw but still needs to become a stronger leader.

2. Earl has left the building: Earl Bennett's decision to turn pro early left the Commodores without a go-to receiver. They also received a blow when Alex Washington tore his ACL the first week of spring practice. Justin Wheeler and Sean Walker will be counted on more than ever this fall. Vanderbilt could also use a breakout year from sixth-year senior George Smith.

3. Then there were none: All five offensive line starters from a year ago are gone, including first-round draft pick Chris Williams. Johnson isn't fretting, though. He believes the Commodores have recruited well in the offensive line the past few years. Depth might be a concern, but talent shouldn't be. How well it all comes together up front will likely hinge on the leadership of junior center Bradley Vierling. One of the youngsters to watch is redshirt freshman Kyle Fischer, who can play guard or tackle.

Chris Low is a college football writer for ESPN.com. Send your questions and comments to him at espnclow@aol.com.