From time to time, I will blog on subjects other than Auburn football, mainly (and maybe exclusively) SEC football, and with the Summer lull about to end, I thought I would give my own breakdown on how the SEC season may play out this fall. I'll begin by looking at the SEC East. Hard for the younger generation of Auburn fans (of which I am one) to believe this, but this is probably the division that Auburn should have been put into after the realignment of 1992. Geographically speaking, we lie further east than Vanderbilt, but more importantly, most of our historical SEC rivals outside of Bama reside this division, not even counting Georgia Tech from their SEC days. Back in the 1980s, Amen Corner consisted not just of Georgia and Alabama, but Florida as well. Before Florida-Tennessee in the 1990s and Auburn-LSU in the last decade (when played in Auburn anyway), Auburn-Tennessee was always the September game that set the tone for the rest of the SEC season.
Perhaps I should be thankful that things turned out the way they did, because Auburn will not have to face the Gators this season unless we make a run to Atlanta. As it stands, barring such a run or a miracle in Starkville when Florida plays Mississippi State, Auburn is and will remain the only SEC team that Tim Tebow has played and not beaten. Nice. Discussions on who will be favored to win the conference, not to mention the national championship, begin and end with Florida. What's not to like, other than Urban Meyer and their off the field problems. The offense has the biggest question marks given the loss of Harvin and some key offensive linemen. As for Harvin, they will have to find someone who can at least attempt to replicate what he did, but it's worth remembering that the Harvin-less Gators beat Alabama in Atlanta going away in the fourth quarter. The bottom line is that they have still got Tebow. The offensive line will only see a drop off in experience, not talent, and a relatively soft schedule to begin the season before the first real test in Baton Rouge should help the maturation process. One other thing to remember is that part of what fueled Florida's offensive explosion last season was a more balanced attack that had a running game that did not rely exclusively on Harvin and Tebow, and it should be better this year. As scary as Tebow and the offense is, it may be the other side of the ball where opponents' coaching staffs lose the most sleep over having to figure out a way past them. With Brandon Spikes leading the way for a defense that returns every starter, this may end up being the best unit, offense or defense, in the league. They were pretty salty after the Ole Miss game last season all the way up to the title game against Oklahoma, and it's hard to see how that doesn't continue this season. Tebow and company should still put up plenty of points, but they probably won't need all of them.
After Florida, it looks like Georgia and Tennessee will probably fight it out for second while one of the bottom feeders (USC, UK, and Vandy) tries to assert itself from that pack. If any team is going to challenge Florida or separate itself from the rest of the pack, Georgia may be that team. Tennessee may well finish ahead of the Dawgs, but Georgia is the only team with the depth of talent to realistically frighten the Gators. The Dawgs remind me a little bit of the 2004 Auburn team coming off a 2003 season that promised much and delivered little, but this comparison is drawn mainly from the fact that Georgia is largely flying under the radar with Florida picked to win everything again and Kiffin causing such a fuss in Knoxville. The fact is that Knowshon Moreno, Matthew Stafford, and Asher Allen all left early for the draft when Lac, Ronnie, and Carlos stayed for their senior years at Auburn in 2004. Still, without the expectation of last season, Georgia may be able to thrive. Without Stafford or Moreno, the offense may not be as dynamic, but it will probably be more efficient with Joe Cox at QB if a reliable running back can emerge. Defense will likely be the key to their season and Willie Martinez has some questions to answer about his ability to get the best out of Georgia's defensive talent. People have remarked that Georgia's defensive standards dropped off noticeably last season, but the truth is that Georgia has not been the same on the defensive side of the ball since VanGorder left after 2004. Georgia has the talent to be special there, but they've flattered to deceive in recent seasons. With the first half of the season consisting of games against Oklahoma State (away), South Carolina, Arkansas (away), Arizona State, LSU, and Tennessee (away), we'll quickly find out what kind of team Georgia is going to be.
Up on Rocky Top, Tennessee looks to be something of a mirror image of Auburn, just as both teams were in 2008 in many respects. While the roster may not be overflowing with the vintage Tennessee crop of players, there is still talent there. The biggest issue facing this team will be depth and consistent play from the quarterback position, not to mention the culture shock that sometimes comes with a new staff. Lost in the haze of Tennessee's disastrous 2008 campaign was the fact that their defense was one of the top units in the SEC and the country. It was really one of the better Tennessee defenses in recent memory, which is no small statement. The offense was just that poor that 5-7 was still the final result. The bad news is that the defense has some holes to fill this year, notably in the front seven. In Eric Berry, the Vols have probably the best defensive player in the nation leading maybe the best secondary in the nation. If Tennessee can plug the gaps up front, they could be very strong again on defense this year. Having Monte Kiffin run the defense should not hurt either. On offense, the good news is that Crompton or whoever takes the QB reigns cannot be any worse than a year ago, at least in theory. With an experienced offensive line and a proven SEC running back in Montario Hardesty, as well as a couple of blue chip RB recruits who look to make an immediate impact, Tennessee's running game should be strong enough to ease the burden on the quarterbacks, though a lack of proven playmakers at the receiver position remains a concern. The biggest x-factor for Tennessee will probably be Lane Kiffin. After all the excitement and controversy he has generated this off season, now comes the time to deliver. Expectations aren't huge this year in Knoxville, but failure to win at least seven or eight games after displaying such a cocksure attitude will quickly end the honeymoon period. The road schedule does the Vols no favors with trips to Gainesville, Tuscaloosa, and Oxford, but there isn't a home game that Tennessee shouldn't be confident of winning. Georgia should be the only home game (there are eight of them) where the Vols may start as underdogs. Despite the tough road schedule, Tennessee fans will probably be disappointed if they are not at least 8-4.
If Georgia and Tennessee are resurgent, then rounding out the SEC East should be thetraditional also-rans of the division: Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vanderbilt. Having said that, each team looks capable of springing a surprise. Up in Lexington, the Wildcats are looking to do the unthinkable and go to a fourth straight bowl. Such is the state of this program under Brooks that it is not inconceivable to see it happen despite the loss of several starters from a strong defensive unit, including star defensive end Jeremy Jarmon who was ruled ineligible for unwittingly taking a banned substance. Regardless, Kentucky should still be solid on defense. The pressure resides on the offense to see if they can perform better than last season and alleviate some pressure on a talented, but less experienced defense. They have a bonafide playmaker in Randall Cobb and several starters return, but they need Mike Hartline to step up at the quarterback position so that they can find more ways to get Cobb the ball. Kentucky will in all probability be underdogs in three of their SEC home games and at least three of their SEC road games, so it's up to them to prove that this ain't your daddy's Kentucky football program. That said, they only needed two conference wins last season to make it to a bowl game, and they are probably good enough to do the same again this year with four winnable non-conference games.
Down in Columbia, their seems to be quite a bit of optimism about South Carolina, but it seems based more on hope than reality. It's as if Gamecocks fans are counting on the fact that Spurrier is bound to succeed down there at some point. There isn't a whole lot to indicate that this will finally be the breakout year past a few glimmers of hope here and there. The offensive line is suppose to be better than ever, and it will need to be. South Carolina's offense never did really find any rhythm last year, and that was largely due to the lack of a running game. For all Spurrier's perceived reluctance to run the ball, history will show that his best offenses have been able to run the ball with at least some authority, and Spurrier knows this. Until Spurrier develops a running game to take the pressure off of the enigmatic Stephen Garcia, the offense will continue to struggle to put up points. South Carolina's defense at least means the Gamecocks will be able to stay in most games regardless of how well their offense is playing. Ellis Johnson's unit does not figure to be quite as stout as last season, especially in the secondary with the loss of key personnel such as Captain Munnerlin and Emanuel Cook (both to the draft), but they should still be strong against the run, which is never a bad thing in the SEC. If Spurrier can finally establish the kind of offense he wants to, then South Carolina could be the sleeper in the East, but it's hard to see past another 6-6 type season with a schedule that includes road games N.C. State, Georgia, Alabama, Tennessee, and Arkansas as well as home games against Ole Miss and Florida.
Up in Nasvhille, Vanderbilt is a hard team to get a read on. In theory, a team that went 7-6 last season and returns nine starters on both sides of the ball should be considered a contender, but Vandy often did it with smoke and mirrors last season, beating teams like Auburn and Ole Miss and yet losing to teams like Mississippi State and Duke. Vanderbilt has just about always been solid on defense, and even with the loss of D.J. Moore to the NFL, they still figure to be. But as seems a constant throughout much of the SEC East and the SEC in general, the offense has to really up its production if they are to repeat last season's heroics, let alone surpass them. The offense didn't win very many games last season for Vandy, if any at all. It was solid special teams and an opportunistic defense that paved the way for their success, but it's hard to count on those things two seasons in a row. Mackenzi Adams showed promise at times at the quarterback position in relief of Chris Nickson, but he'll have to take on much more responsibility if Vandy is to go bowling two years in a row. Vandy has a tough road slate in the SEC with trips to Baton Rouge, Columbia, Gainesville, and Knoxville while facing the likes of Ole Miss and Georgia at home. Throw in a couple of out of conference road trips to places like Rice and Army (games that Vandy sometimes struggle in, e.g., MTSU in 2005) and Vandy would do quite well just to replicate the success of last season. That said, even before they went bowling last season, Vandy has never been an easy out in the SEC and they're likely to throw up at least one surprise at some point.
That is my breakdown of the SEC East. Unsurprisingly, I expect Florida to come out on top with Georgia ahead of Tennessee. Rounding out the bottom will be South Carolina, Vanderbilt, and Kentucky. With Georgia under the radar and Tennessee breaking in a new coaching staff, I think the Dawgs finish in second, but it's tough to see them posing any kind of a threat to Florida. We'll find out in a couple of months how right or wrong I am. In the meantime, keep a lookout for the second installment of my SEC preview when I will be breaking down the SEC West.