Can SEC make it six in a row?
The SEC's stronghold on the rest of the country just seems unfair at times.
For the past five years, the SEC has reached the BCS title game and left with the crystal ball in hand.
The SEC hasn't just won; it's dominated. In those five wins, SEC teams combined to outscore their opponents 162-92, or 32-18 each game.
In the 2010 campaign, even as preseason favorite Alabama fizzled down the stretch, Auburn kept the streak going with a 22-19 win over Oregon.
It seems foolish to pick against the SEC, but the streak has to end someday, right?
The Boston Celtics' NBA championship streak in the 1960s ended after eight years. The UCLA Bruins' men's basketball seven-year championship streak stopped in 1973. And the UConn women's basketball team finally felt the awful sting of a loss this past season after 90 wins in a row.
But will it happen to the SEC this season?
Unlike the past few seasons, the SEC has a handful of teams with a legitimate chance of keeping the national championship winning streak alive.
The most likely candidates can be found in the West, with Alabama, LSU and Arkansas leading the way.
Alabama coach Nick Saban sensed the pain from last season's shortcomings circulating throughout his team this spring. Regret mixed with hunger as the Crimson Tide took to spring workouts with a newfound angst.
Alabama must deal with an inexperienced starting quarterback this fall but will benefit from having a veteran offensive line, one of the stoutest and more mature defenses in the league, and a workhorse of a running back in junior Trent Richardson, who many feel could be better than Heisman-winning predecessor Mark Ingram.
Saban understands the mounds of talent he's working with, but to return to championship form, he needs to see the want out of his players.
"I thought we made a lot of progress in a lot of areas this spring," Saban said. "I like the character and attitude of our team. We have a little more maturity and a little more leadership. The key is, what's everybody going to invest moving forward to get a better result [than last season]?"
LSU returns a younger defense, but it should be one of the fastest and most athletic in the country. What was significant about LSU's spring was the transformation senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson underwent with new offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe. Jefferson had what head coach Les Miles called his best spring in Baton Rouge by becoming more of a complete passer.
Add experience and athleticism to the wide receiver and running back positions, and LSU has the makings of a team ready to fight its way to the SEC championship game in Atlanta.
Then there's Arkansas. The Razorbacks are breaking in new quarterback Tyler Wilson, but with veteran receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs and senior running back Knile Davis, Arkansas' offense doesn't figure to flounder. The real progress was made by the defense, which coach Bobby Petrino thinks is the best he's had during his time at Arkansas.
As a whole, Petrino said, his team left spring sharper than any other he's had as the Hogs' coach.
"We're obviously a much better football team," Petrino said. "It's good that our players and our coaches understand how we're going to work. Standards have been set on what we expect in practice, what we expect from our preparation, and that allows you to go out there and get better every day."
In the East, defending East champ South Carolina appears to be equipped for a return to Atlanta, but quarterback is a concern. Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia's future is in limbo, so youngster Connor Shaw could be thrust into the starting position.
If the Gamecocks make it through the regular season with barely a blemish, they could benefit from facing a tattered West team in the SEC championship game, considering the big three must face each other. Two won't make it out alive.
Or maybe none will. As with Auburn last season, the SEC is capable of producing a dark horse national champion. This season, that team could be Mississippi State.
The Bulldogs return most of a defensive line that helped Mississippi State rank 15th in rushing defense in 2010 and five defensive backs with starting experience.
Quarterback Chris Relf, running back Vick Ballard and a host of receiver talent are back as well. The shortcomings are on the offensive line and at linebacker, but the Bulldogs have the privilege of hosting LSU and Alabama.
However, keeping up with the big boys could leave the Bulldogs winded by season's end.
In 2011, there could be too much talent for one team to escape both the regular season and a conference title game with a strong enough record to make it to the national championship.
But this is the SEC, where no team is going to let a little competition get in the way of that championship confidence.
What we learned this spring
With more and more schools closing practices and scrimmages in the spring, the reality is we learn only as much as the coaches want us to.
But there are always a few things that stick out.
Here are five:
1. Running to glory: There won't be any shortage of talent at the running back position this fall in the SEC. Arkansas' Knile Davis, South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore and Alabama's Trent Richardson (listed in alphabetical order) are three of the premier backs in the country. Let the debate begin as to which one is the best of the trio, but they're not the only ones. Ole Miss' Brandon Bolden is extremely underrated, and Tennessee's Tauren Poole is coming off a 1,000-yard season. And what about the combos? You've got Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb at Auburn, Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins at Mississippi State, and Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey at Florida. The newcomer everybody is waiting to see is Isaiah Crowell at Georgia.
2. Hogs are for real up front: The common denominator in the SEC's string of five straight national championships has been dominant play on the defensive line. Arkansas might not have a player the caliber of departed Auburn star Nick Fairley, but the Hogs have a collection of players up front defensively that will give them a chance in every game they play this season. For the first time under Bobby Petrino, they look like an SEC championship-caliber defensive line when you consider all the 300-pounders they have at their disposal, not to mention the experience, depth and athleticism they possess at both end and tackle.
3. New stars on the horizon: Five of the first six NFL draft picks this year were SEC players, and all five were underclassmen. Obviously, there's a lot of talent leaving the league, but rest assured that new stars are on the horizon. Some of the ones to watch this fall are LSU running back Spencer Ware, LSU cornerback Tyrann Mathieu, Alabama cornerback DeQuan Menzie, Tennessee quarterback Tyler Bray, Kentucky running back Raymond Sanders, Georgia linebacker Jarvis Jones, Auburn defensive end Corey Lemonier, and Florida defensive tackles Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd.
4. Stephen Garcia has nine lives: Usually when you've been suspended five times, you never make it to your senior season ... at least not at the same school. Garcia is one of the most enigmatic players to come through the SEC in a long time. He has a toughness about him in games that fans and teammates embrace, and he's coming off a season in which he threw for 3,059 yards and 20 touchdowns. But here's the rub: He also threw 14 interceptions, including five in the last two games, and has tossed 24 picks over the past two seasons. Off the field, he has been equally reckless and persists in finding trouble. He's probably down to his ninth and final life. One way or the other, it's going to make for compelling theater.
5. High stakes at Georgia: With the Eastern Division race once again appearing to be wide open, it might well be now or never for Mark Richt at Georgia. Regardless of what anybody says, there's no set number of games he has to win to be safe. There are too many variables in a season to put a hard cap on it. But what he can't do is continue on that same path the Bulldogs have been on for the past two seasons. They have lost 12 games during that span and are coming off the school's first losing season since 1996. Georgia gets South Carolina at home this season, and avoids Western Division powerhouses Alabama, Arkansas and LSU. Nobody needs to tell Richt or the players what the stakes are. As junior linebacker Christian Robinson said, "This is it. We don't have time to sit and wait. If something's going to happen, it has to happen now. We have to have that urgency every day. That is, if we're going to get back to where Georgia belongs."
Best of spring
Spring practice has come and gone for all 12 SEC teams, so let's look at some of the highlights and lowlights of the past two months:
Best spring game performance: A South Carolina receiver stole the show during the Gamecocks' annual Garnet & Black spring game, and it wasn't Alshon Jeffery. Sophomore DeAngelo Smith caught four passes for 118 yards, and three of those catches were for touchdowns. Honorable mention goes to Mississippi State redshirt freshman linebacker Ferlando Bohanna, who made a strong bid for a starting job with eight tackles in the Bulldogs' Maroon and White spring game. Bohanna had three tackles for loss, including two sacks.
Best performance by a freshman: Alabama's Dee Hart showed off the kind of speed and moves that will come in handy in several capacities in the fall. He'll be able to fill in some for Trent Richardson at running back, and he worked as one of the Crimson Tide's primary punt returners.
Best spring awakening: The truth is there were several. Kwame Geathers made a big move at Georgia and should be able to play nose guard or defensive end in the Bulldogs' 3-4 scheme. Randall Mackey, after redshirting last season, exited the spring as the leader in the Ole Miss quarterback race. Florida sophomore Quinton Dunbar made more big plays than any of the Gators' other receivers and promptly climbed his way up the depth chart. Tennessee's Da'Rick Rogers made the transition from being an impressive athlete as a freshman to a bona fide receiver who should put up big numbers as a sophomore. And at Vanderbilt, sophomore running back Wesley Tate showed what he could do when healthy and brings a different dimension to an already talented Commodores backfield.
Best spring no-show: South Carolina fifth-year senior quarterback Stephen Garcia opened the spring on suspension and then ended the spring serving out yet another suspension, the fifth of his career. If Garcia stays out of further trouble, it sounds like Steve Spurrier is going to take him back in June. At least the spring wasn't a total waste for Garcia, who graduated last month with a degree in sociology.
Best position move: Georgia sophomore Alec Ogletree is a natural at linebacker after playing safety as a freshman. He has great speed and hits like a jackhammer.
Best up-in-smoke act: Florida's Janoris Jenkins went from being one of the best cornerbacks in college football to wondering when he would play his next football. He was booted from the Gators' team following a pair of arrests on marijuana possession charges, the second one coming after police said they saw him sitting in a public parking lot in his car puffing on a blunt.
Best Bo Jackson impersonation: Kentucky's Brian Adams caught two touchdown passes in the Wildcats' spring football game and then played center field later that day for the Wildcats' baseball team. Adams split his time between the two sports all spring. He was Kentucky's most consistent receiver on the football field and currently is hitting . 297 for the baseball team.
Best quarterback battle: This spring was full of quarterback battles in the SEC. But the team that exited spring with the best battle under center was Alabama. The Crimson Tide have two young but capable quarterbacks in AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims. While both lack ideal experience, their coaches and teammates feel comfortable having either one direct the offense this fall. It's a battle that might not be decided until several games into the season.
Best coaching decision: This one is easy. First-year Florida coach Will Muschamp wasted little time in deciding to part ways with star cornerback Janoris Jenkins following Jenkins' second marijuana-related arrest in the span of three months. A lot of coaches wouldn't have had the guts to pull the trigger with a player as talented as Jenkins, but Muschamp had to send a strong message to a team that had serious discipline problems this past fall.
Best quote: "My whole thing since I got here was that I wanted to make sure we dig deep and build a foundation so we can do this for a long time. That's been our goal since we got here. We haven't changed. We haven't changed course, and we're not going to." -- Auburn coach Gene Chizik
SEC Players To Watch
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Arkansas: There's talent aplenty at the skill positions, but it's improvement on the defensive line that has the Hogs thinking big. For more on the Razorbacks, click here.
Auburn: Replacing Cam Newton and Nick Fairley is a work in progress, but there's plenty of talent remaining in the running game. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Florida: First-year coach Will Muschamp has to like the look of a more aggressive and athletic defensive line. For more on the Gators, click here.
Mississippi: Backfield depth and a veteran offensive line mean Ole Miss should be able to rely on its running game in 2011. For more on the Rebels, click here.
South Carolina: The confusion surrounding Stephen Garcia's status aside, there's plenty to like about Steve Spurrier's offense. The defensive front isn't too bad, either. For more on the Gamecocks, click here.
Tennessee: Time will be the ultimate judge, but there's some promising talent for Derek Dooley. For more on the Vols, click here.
Vanderbilt: First-year coach James Franklin has already put his stamp on the Dores with his energy and enthusiasm. Will it carry over onto the field? For more on the Commodores, click here.
SEC Games To Watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide still aren't sure who their quarterback is going to be in the fall, but Nick Saban thinks he has two he can win with in AJ McCarron and Phillip Sims, not to mention an electrifying running back he can ride in Trent Richardson. More importantly, Alabama has a defense poised to return to its championship form now that there's more experience in the secondary.
2. LSU: Normally when you lose three players the caliber of Patrick Peterson, Kelvin Sheppard and Drake Nevis on defense, you're going to experience a drop-off. But not LSU, which has as much young talent on defense as any team in America. If Jordan Jefferson comes through at quarterback, look for the Tigers to be right in the thick of the national championship race.
3. Arkansas: There are three legitimate national top-10 teams in the SEC headed into the 2011 season, and the Hogs are the third member of that group. This should be Arkansas' best defense yet under Bobby Petrino, complete with a deep, experienced front, and there's not a better receiving foursome in college football than Greg Childs, Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Cobi Hamilton.
4. South Carolina: The quarterback picture is a little sketchy at this point with Stephen Garcia still suspended, but he's likely to be back in June. The reality is that Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery would make a lot of quarterbacks look good. If the Gamecocks can get their pass coverage problems from last season straightened out, they're the favorite to win the East again.
5. Mississippi State: Don't sleep on Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs, who won nine games last season, and were a few points away against Auburn and Arkansas from winning 11. Quarterback Chris Relf was one of the league's most improved players last season, and just about all of the Bulldogs' top threats on offense are back. The hard part will be replacing all three linebackers on defense.
6. Georgia: This is where it gets tough. The Bulldogs get the nod based on sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray and a defense that should be significantly better the second year in Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme. Moreover, the Bulldogs now appear to have the personnel to run that system with Kwame Geathers' improvement this spring and massive nose guard John Jenkins on his way to campus this summer.
7. Florida: Leaving the Gators out of the top half of the power rankings was difficult, especially with all the talent they've stockpiled the past few years. The front seven on defense figures to be the strength of the team, but Janoris Jenkins' dismissal was a huge blow to the secondary. The offense will be better under Charlie Weis, but it's not going to be a transformation that happens overnight.
8. Auburn: Be sure to have your rosters handy when the Tigers hit the field this fall. There will be a lot of new faces out there, many of them first- and second-year players. Settling on a quarterback remains one of the top priorities, and the offensive line also has to be rebuilt. Nonetheless, this is a team with enough young talent that the Tigers will be a tough out for anybody the second half of the season.
9. Tennessee: Similar to Auburn, Tennessee will play a ton of young players in Year 2 under Derek Dooley. In fact, he said 70 percent of the roster will be freshmen and sophomores. The good news is that several of those sophomores were thrown into the fire as freshmen last season and more than held their own. The Vols might be one of those teams that has to outscore people and win a lot of shootouts.
10. Kentucky: The Wildcats will be gunning for their sixth straight bowl appearance, although second-year coach Joker Phillips is adamant that their goals are much higher than merely going to bowl games. All of Kentucky's top offensive playmakers from last season are gone, including Randall Cobb. The Wildcats will have to lean heavily on their offensive line, which returns four starters.
11. Ole Miss: No team suffered a more deflating blow this spring than the Rebels when they lost junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford to an injury. He was one of their best players and strongest leaders. Getting senior defensive end Kentrell Lockett back for a sixth season helps, and quarterback Barry Brunetti was granted immediate eligibility by the NCAA after transferring from West Virginia. The Rebels can't afford another poor start this season, or things could really go south.
12. Vanderbilt: James Franklin, previously the Maryland offensive coordinator, takes on one of the toughest challenges in all of college football, but he does so with unbridled enthusiasm and energy. The Commodores return more starters than anybody else in the league but have won just one SEC game over the past two seasons. Their biggest issues have been on offense, which is where Franklin and his offensive pedigree come in.