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2011 NCAA Preview: SEC
By Jonathan Hull

Make no mistake about it, the SEC is still the nation's elite college football conference. But no one school in the SEC can currently claim year-to-year supremacy.

The SEC recruits so well across the board that any team in the league might have the ability to surprise its competitors and contend, not just for a SEC title, but a BCS Championship as well. Last season it was Auburn, but Cam Newton and Nick Fairley are now gone.

Alabama is the closest thing to a dynasty in college football currently, but even the Crimson Tide have shown they can go a year without advancing to the SEC Championship.

When looking at the East and West Divisions, there are two different outcomes expected. The West had a chance to essentially be a two-horse race, that was until a couple LSU players decided to break some bones in a bar fight. Now, Alabama is the heavy favorite and the Tigers find themselves scrambling to fill some major voids.

The East is more wide open. South Carolina is the favorite, but Florida might have recovered from the loss of Tim Tebow enough and Georgia should improve during Aaron Murray's second season as a starter.

Of course, these conferences might appear slightly different in 2012. Texas A&M's addition to the SEC seems like only a formality now. Will the SEC become the first super conference in the nation? If A&M joins, then a 14th team will also be added to the mix. The frontrunners?

Well Florida State makes a lot of sense, but many in the SEC do not want to add another Florida school to the mix of their conference and lose the advantage they have in recruiting the state against the Seminoles. Expect any team that is added to be from a state that currently doesn't have any SEC schools in it.

Virginia Tech is my top guess for the 14th team added to the SEC. Va. Tech is a football school playing in a basketball conference in the ACC. The Hokies athletic program matches up much better with the SEC than the ACC and they would jump at the opportunity. And don't mistaken the Hokies for just a regional draw. For many reasons, Va. Tech has proven to be a strong national draw when it comes to media. Other schools mentioned have been Maryland, West Virginia and Missouri.

I've been on record saying Oklahoma and Oklahoma State would make much sense, but rumor has it Oklahoma has no interest in the SEC because of the conference's low academic standards. The Sooners prefer the Pac-12 or Big Ten and Oklahoma State will follow where ever their Norman brethren lead.

But for now, the SEC is still only a 12-team league. Here's how I view those 12 teams heading into the season.

EAST

South Carolina (Projected record: 10-2, 6-2)
2010 record: 9-5
Top players: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Alshon Jeffery, DE Devin Taylor, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Melvin Ingram, DT Travian Robertson, CB Stephone Gilmore, SS Antonio Allen, QB Stephen Garcia, OG Kevious Watkins, FS D.J. Swearinger, OC T.J. Johnson.
What to expect: South Carolina is the biggest threat to Alabama's BCS Championship dreams. The Gamecocks might have their most talented team in the program's history. On offense, RB Marcus Lattimore is a legit Heisman contender as a sophomore. There isn't a back in the nation with a better combination of size and speed.

The Gamecocks also sport the best DL in the country. It's because of their depth, partcularly at DE. Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram already make for a great starting tandem, but they're backed up by the nation's No. 1 recruit Jadeveon Clowney and sophomore Chaz Sutton. Add DT Travian Robertson to the mix and you get a unit that is unequaled in natural talent.

Perhaps South Carolina's one weakness is QB play. Senior Stephen Garcia has to finally prove he can just be efficient for a whole season. No one is going to ask Garcia to go out and win games all season. The talent around him, including WR Alshon Jeffery, is so great that all he needs to do is manage the game.

Five of South Carolina's first six games are at home with the one exception being a visit to Georgia in Week 2. The Gamecocks have just four road games in 2012, but three come back-to-back-to-back, beginning on Oct. 15 against Mississippi State, continuing on Oct. 29 at Tennessee and concluding Nov. 5 against Arkansas. That midseason stretch could be key in South Carolina wrapping up the East Division title.

2. Georgia (9-3, 5-3)
2010 record: 6-7
Top players: QB Aaron Murray, OC Ben Jones, OG Cordy Glenn, TE Orson Charles, CB Brandon Boykin, WR Tavarres King, DT Kwame Geathers, CB Branden Smith, SS Bacarri Rambo, RB Carlton Thomas, WR Marlon Brown, LB Cornelius Washington, DT Johnathan Jenkins, OG Chris Burnette.
What to expect: It's time for Georgia to stop underachieving. The Bulldogs are no where near being short on talent, but that potential has failed to live up to expectations for the past three seasons. If Aaron Murray can build on a solid freshman season, Georgia might be a real threat in the SEC.

Perhaps the most promising part for Georgia is how many of its top talent is still regarded as underclassmen, including Murray and DT Kwame Geathers. Geathers is already a legit All-American candidate as a redshirt sophomore and could boost his NFL Draft stock to first-round material with a strong season.

The Bulldogs must come out the gate strong. Otherwise, they could find themselves 0-2 to start the year very easily. They open with Boise State and South Carolina. The good news is both games are in Athens. But managing an SEC schedule is always tricky. For right now, the Bulldogs look like South Carolina's biggest threat in the East.

3. Florida (8-4, 4-4)
2010 record: 8-5
Top players: OT Xavier Nixon, WR Chris Rainey, LB Jelani Jenkins, DE Ronald Powell, RB Jeffrey Demps, DT Jaye Howard, CB Jeremy Brown, RB Mike Gillislee, FS Josh Evans, LB Jonathan Bostic, SS Matt Elam, WR Andre Debose, DT Sharrif Floyd, OC Jonotthan Harrison.
What to expect: The Gators were badly overrated heading into last season. There was no way they were going to be OK without Tim Tebow after relying so heavily on the QB for three seasons. They still managed a respectable record, though, but now they must cope without coach Urban Meyer as well.

Will Muschamp takes over at Florida after being considered one of the best assistants in the country as the defensive coordinator at Texas. It will be interesting to see what kind of changes Muschamp institutes in Gainesville, but he's got a loaded team and some talented defenders to to with, including redshirt sophomore Jelani Jenkins. Jenkins is considered one of the best LBs in the country.

Florida's schedule is nasty, though. The Gators should be 4-0 entering Week 5, but begin a tricky four game stretch that starts with Alabama coming to Gainesville followed by back-to-back road trips to LSU and Auburn. After a bye week, the Gators meet Georgia in their annual rivalry game. Even after that, two of the Gators final four opponents are South Carolina and Florida State. They will be a better team, but the record might not reflect it.

4. Tennessee (7-5, 3-5)
2010 record: 6-7
Top players: DT Malik Jackson, FS Prentiss Waggner, RB Tauren Poole, OT Dallas Thomas, WR Justin Hunter, QB Tyler Bray, OC James Stone, OT Jawuan James, WR Da'Rick Rogers.
What to expect: The Vols are young. Much of their best talent are sophomores, including QB Tyler Bray, who played well as a freshman starter. His top two targets are also sophomores in receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. Two of the top linemen protecting Bray -- OC James Stone and OT Jawuan James -- are only sophomores, too.

The future is admittedly promising for the Vols, but right now this is a team that is going to struggle with some inconsistencies. But look out for Tennessee in two seasons.

5. Vanderbilt (5-7, 2-6)
2010 record: 2-10
Top players: CB Casey Heyward, SS Sean Richardson, LB Chris Marve, OT Wesley Johnson, OC Logan Stewart.
What to expect: It's the same ol', same ol' from the Commodores. They typically field some talented players in one or two spots. But Vandy struggles to ever put together a finished product.

If Vandy can win all their non-conference games -- an achieveable feat with Connecticut being its toughest opponent -- then it could find a legit shot at becoming bowl eligible, considering it has two very winnable home games against Kentucky and Ole Miss.

6. Kentucky (5-7, 1-7)
2010 record: 6-7
Top players: LB Danny Trevathan, OG Larry Warford, SS Winston Guy, DE Collins Ukwu, TE Jordan Aumiller.
What to expect: Kentucky is always at least pressing for bowl eligibility, but I see the Wildcats coming up just short of that goal in 2011. The schedule simply doesn't seem to matchup right.

The Wildcats aren't without some talent worth watching. After all, they do play in the SEC. Most notably, OG Larry Warford is one of the best juniors in the nation at his position and will be playing on Sundays soon.

WEST

1. Alabama (12-0, 8-0)
2010 record: 10-3
Top players: LB Courtney Upshaw, LB Dont'a Hightower, RB Trent Richardson, DT Josh Chapman, WR Duron Carter, OT D.J. Fluker, OT Tyler Love, OC Williams Vlachos, OG Barrett Jones, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, FS Robert Lester, SS Mark Barron, WR Marquis Maze, LB Nico Johnson, TE Michael Williams, DE Quinton Dial, DT Jesse Williams, OG Chance Warmack.
What to expect: At times, complete dominance. I could have listed several backups on Alabama's roster as some of its top players. There isn't a team blessed with more talent in the country, let alone the SEC. The Crimson Tide are loaded and a second national title under coach Nick Saban could be in order.

The offense begins and ends with RB Trent Richardson, who is now the featured back with Mark Ingram trying to become NFL Offensive Rookie of the Year with the New Orleans Saints. Richardson has the talent to duplicate Ingram's efforts by winning the Heisman Trophy.
Defensively, there isn't a better unit in the country. The Tide are great in every facet from the DL to LBs to the secondary. Points won't come easy against this group.

It's never easy to go undefeated in the SEC, but if anyone can do it, then it's this team. They're loaded even in SEC terms. No team is unbeatable, but Alabama might have many believing it is this season.

2. LSU (9-3, 6-2)
2010 record: 11-2
Top players: CB Morris Claiborne, OG Josh Williford, LB Ryan Baker, TE Deangelo Peterson, WR Rueben Randle, WR Russell Shepard, OT Alex Hurst, OC P.J. Lonergan, CB Tyrann Mathieu, FS Craig Loston, RB Spencer Ware, LB Kevin Minter, DE Barkevious Mingo, DT Michael Brockers.
What to expect: LSU had a very promising outlook for the 2011 season, then starting QB Jordan Jefferson kicked a man in the face in a bar fight and earned himself an indefinite suspension. While Jefferson is just one player, the dropoff from him to Jarrett Lee is fairly significant. Considering how much offense has been an issue for LSU the past two seasons, it's a distraction on that side of the ball the Tigers definitely didn't need.

The Tigers are still an extremely talented team and their defense will overcome some of the offense's inadequacies as it has time and time again in recent memory. But a poor offense is more than enough to keep LSU from truly challenging Alabama and it might just keep them out of gaining a BCS birth as well.

3. Arkansas (9-3, 6-2)
2010 record: 10-3
Top players: QB Tyler Wilson, WR Greg Childs, WR Joe Adams, WR Jarius Wright, LB Jerry Franklin, DE Jake Bequette, FS Tramain Thomas, WR Cobi Hamilton, DT Byran Jones, OG Alvin Bailey, OC Travis Swanson.
What to expect: Passing, passing and more passing. The Razorbacks should easily be the SEC's most pass-happy team and with good reason. Tyler Wilson is a highly touted QB prospect and he's got perhaps the best receiving corps in the country to throw to, including WR Greg Childs, who is easily one of the best receivers in the nation. The loss of stellar RB Knile Davis for the season only means the Hogs should throw the ball even more.

Arkansas is the one team in the SEC that is going to need to win shootouts, though. The Hogs aren't known for their defense, and there's good reason for that, too. But a few stops may be all Arkansas needs to pick up a win each week. A Sept. 24 matchup against Alabama pits the SEC's best defense against its best offense and is sure to be entertaining.

4. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4)
2010 record: 9-4
Top players: SS Charles Mitchell, OC Quinton Saulsberry, CB Johnthan Banks, DT Fletcher Cox, OG Tobias Smith, OG Gabe Jackson, RB LaDarius Perkins, RB Vick Ballard.
What to expect: Mississippi State was the surprise team of the SEC last season, winning nine games in coach Dan Mullen's second season with the team. Mullen has done a fine job of recruiting to Mississippi State and has playmakers on both sides of the ball.

Expect the Bulldogs to make big plays with their run game given they can use a dynamic tandem of Vick Ballard and LaDarius Perkins in the backfield. Defensively, DT Fletcher Cox is one of the better juniors at his position in the country.

Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, they play in a division that featured four 10-win teams from a year ago. They would definitely be better off in the East, but should still prove competitive in the West.

5. Auburn (7-5, 3-5)
2010 record: 14-0
Top players: RB Michael Dyer, TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen, OT Brandon Mosley, SS Daren BAtes, WR Emory Blake, LB Jake Holland, DT Jeffrey Whitaker, OC Blake Burgess, RB Onterio McCalebb, DE Corey Lemonier.
What to expect: Much like Florida's John Brantley had to deal with replacing Tim Tebow last season, junior Barrett Trotter must deal with the reality of replacing Cam Newton, who arguably put together one of the best seasons ever by a QB last year en route to winning the Heisman and a BCS Championships.

Trotter won't be without help, though. Auburn is still very talented on offense with RBs Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, who will work as a tandem in the ground game. He also has a talented receiver in Emory Blake and a reliable H-Back in Philip Lutzenkirchen.
Defensively, the Tigers might have more holes to fill, but have plenty of talent to do so. Unfortunatley, it's young talent and it's hard to expect much when four sophomores will be starting on the defensive line. This season is going to be a major learning process for the Tigers defense.

6. Ole Miss (3-9, 1-7)
2010 record: 4-8
Top players: OT Bobby Massie, RB Brandon Bolden, FS Damien Jackson, OG Patrick Junen, LB Mike Marry.
What to expect: Ole Miss is in the wrong division at the wrong time. The West is definitely stronger than the East and the Rebels could definitely do with having Kentucky and Vanderbilt in their division.

But that's not the case and this season is definitly going to be a struggle for them. Don't be surprised if they show a solid ground game, though, with Brandon Bolden running behind a talented OL that includes OT Bobby Massie -- a legit All-SEC candidate.


SEC 1st Team Offense


SEC 2nd Team Offense
QB Aaron Murray Georgia
QB Tyler Wilson Arkansas
RB Marcus Lattimore South Carolina
RB Michael Dyer Auburn
RB Trent Richardson Alabama
RB Tauren Poole Tennessee
WR Alshon Jeffery South Carolina
WR Chris Rainey Florida
WR Greg Childs Arkansas
WR Duron Carter Alabama
WR Joe Adams Arkansas
WR Jarius Wright Arkansas
TE Orson Charles Georgia
TE Phillip Lutzenkirchen Auburn
OT Bobby Massie Ole Miss
OT D.J. Fluker Alabama
OG Cordy Glenn Georgia
OG Josh Williford LSU
OC William Vlachos Alabama
OC Ben Jones Georgia
OG Barrett Jones Alabama
OG Larry Warford Kentucky
OT Xavier Nixon Florida
OT Tyler Love Alabama
K Blair Walsh Georgia
K Bryson Rose Ole Miss
RS Andre Debose Florida
RS Brandon Boykin Georgia

SEC 1st Team Defense


SEC 2nd Team Defense
DE Melvin Ingram South Carolina
DE Ronald Powell Florida
DT Kwame Geathers Georgia
DT Travian Robertson South Carolina
DT Malik Jackson Tennessee
DT Josh Chapman Alabama
DE Devin Taylor South Carolina
DE Jake Bequette Arkansas
LB Nico Johnson Alabama
LB Ryan Baker LSU
LB Courtney Upshaw Alabama
LB Danny Trevathan Kentucky
LB Dont'a Hightower Alabama
LB Chris Marve Vanderbilt
LB Jelani Jenkins Florida
LB Jerry Franklin Arkansas
CB Stephone Gilmore South Carolina
CB Casey Hayward Vanderbilt
CB Dre Kirkpatrick Alabama
CB Morris Claiborne LSU
S Robert Lester Alabama
S Prentiss Waggner Tennessee
S Mark Barron Alabama
S Tramain Thomas Arkansas
P Tyler Campbell Ole Miss
P Drew Butler Georgia
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