Predictions: SEC Football


1. Florida Gators

Head coach: Urban Meyer (57-10 overall at Florida, 32-8 Southeastern Conference)

Last year: 13-1, 8-0 SEC

Taking the reins: John Brantley

For better or for worse, Brantley is already being called the second coming of the first incarnation. Fans who are expecting Florida’s offense to improve after replacing Tim Tebow with a more traditional quarterback might be crazy, but Florida is still the odds-on favorite to win the East. It’s years like this that show how important recruiting is in the SEC. Most teams couldn’t withstand the talent drain the Gators suffered after last year, but Meyer makes sure to reload in every offseason. Florida won’t be as good as it was a year ago, but since Georgia could take a step back as well, the Gators should still play for the league championship in Atlanta come December.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

Head coach: Mark Richt (90-27 overall at Georgia, 46-18 SEC)

Last year: 8-5, 4-4 SEC

Taking the reins: DeAngelo Tyson

Geno Atkins and Jeff Owens made life miserable for offensive lines around the league last year, as both could disrupt game plans from the defensive tackle position. They’re both in the NFL now, and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was fired and replaced by Todd Grantham. The Bulldogs will operate out of a 3-4 this year, and Tyson is expected to be the nose tackle. If he can’t adjust to his new role as a starter in the new scheme, the defense could crumble behind him. There are also quarterback questions in Athens, as Richt hasn’t found anyone to play to the level Matthew Stafford did two years ago.

3. South Carolina Gamecocks

Head coach: Steve Spurrier (35-28 overall at South Carolina, 18-22 SEC at South Carolina)

Last year: 7-6, 3-5 SEC

Taking the reins: Marcus Lattimore

The Gamecocks’ running game last year was a nightmare. They scored just seven rushing touchdowns all year and didn’t have a back who could average more than 4.0 yards per carry. Enter Lattimore, considered the best high school running back in the nation last year. If he can have a breakout campaign as a freshman, South Carolina has all the pieces needed to be an offensive behemoth. Otherwise, Steve Spurrier could find himself looking at a 7-6 campaign for the third consecutive season. With a solid quarterback in Stephen Garcia entrenched and a rising star at wide receiver in Alshon Jeffery, the Gamecocks should do better than in previous years.

4. Kentucky Wildcats

Head coach: Joker Phillips (first year)

Last year: 7-6, 3-5 SEC

Taking the reins: Phillips

It will take a couple years to find out whether Phillips really is the coach to move UK out of the dregs of the SEC East, but don’t expect a long honeymoon. The good news is that if the Cats can improve, four of their six losses were within a possession last year. The bad news is that if they take a step back, there were also three wins by a eight points or fewer. With Florida, Georgia and Tennessee all expected to play below their usual level this year, it’s a season of tremendous opportunity for the Cats. Breaking a few more streaks could make for a season for the ages.

5. Tennessee Volunteers

Head coach: Derek Dooley (first year)

Last year: 7-6, 4-4 SEC

Taking the reins: Darren Myles, Janzen Jackson

The Vols might not miss Lane Kiffin, but they sure will miss Eric Berry, last year’s Jim Thorpe award winner as the best defensive back in the country. Jackson broke into the starting lineup last year and was one of the best freshmen in the country as Myles sat behind Berry. If one of the two can step up and make some of the plays Berry made, it’ll take a lot of pressure off a Tennessee defense that will be relied upon heavily as the offense breaks in new starters at quarterback and running back. Dooley has been perfect since taking over for Kiffin, but it’s safe to say he won’t be perfect once the season starts. Forgive the cliché, but expect a ‘rocky’ season.

6. Vanderbilt Commodores

Head coach: Robbie Caldwell (first year)

Last year: 2-10, 0-8

Taking the reins: Caldwell

Caldwell wasn’t dropped into the best situation, but don’t expect to hear him complain about his new job (especially after he told us about his old job at SEC Media Day). As usually, Vandy’s roster is littered with questions and athletes who just aren’t on the same level as elite players in the SEC. Bobby Johnson showed that a good coach can win here – occasionally. But no one knows if Caldwell can coach, or if this is the time for the Commodores to shine. Until there are answers, Vandy will always be picked in the SEC basement.

SEC West

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

Head coach: Nick Saban (33-8 overall at Alabama, 20-4 SEC at Alabama)

Last year: 14-0, 8-0 SEC

Taking the reins: Dont’a Hightower

Saban and his team will begin the year atop the polls, but whether they can stay there will hinge on replacing several defensive stalwarts, including Rolando McClain. Hightower tore his ACL early last year and missed most of the season, but he’s still one of the best defensive players in the conference. He was a stud linebacker prospect and a freshman All-America, and looked like his old self in spring practice. Even if he lives up to the hype, the defense will still have to replace monolithic nose tackle Terrence Cody and its top three cornerbacks, including Javier Arenas. The good news in the secondary is that safety Mark Barron, who had an SEC-best seven picks, is back.

2. Arkansas Razorbacks

Head coach: Bobby Petrino (13-12 overall at Arkansas, 5-11 SEC)

Last year: 8-5, 3-5

Taking the reins: Ronnie Wingo Jr.

About this time a year ago, people started hyping a mid-level SEC West team with a big-armed quarterback as a challenger to Alabama. Jevan Snead and Ole Miss couldn’t handle the expectations, and now Arkansas gets a shot to move up in the world. Quarterback Ryan Mallet has all of his favorite receivers back, so if the defense can improve there’s no reason to think the Hogs can’t make a move. Then again, there’s not much difference between Arkansas, Auburn and LSU, and anything could happen. Wingo will also have to make plays as a runner to keep teams from dropping too many men in coverage against Mallett.

3. Louisiana State Tigers

Head coach: Les Miles (51-15 overall at LSU, 27-13 SEC)

Last year: 9-4, 5-3 SEC

Taking the reins: Michael Ford

LSU is just another team looking up at Alabama in the division, tightly clustered with Auburn and Arkansas. Ford, a redshirt freshman, may be the most talented back on the roster. The Tigers finished 11th in rushing, and an established ground game could be what talented quarterback Jordan Jefferson needs to get comfortable. A Nov. 6 meeting with the Crimson Tide in Death Valley could make or break LSU’s season – and could determine the fate of Les Miles if the rest of the season is rocky. LSU has to play at Auburn and at Arkansas, handicapping them in the race for second in the West.

4. Auburn Tigers

Head coach: Gene Chizik (8-5, 3-5)

Last year: 8-5, 3-5

Taking the reins: Mario Fannin

Junior Cam Newton has already locked down the starting quarterback spot with a convincing display of athleticism and passing ability in the spring. But replacing Ben Tate, the workhorse running back, could be problematic. Fannin rushed for nearly 500 yards as a freshman as a change-of-pace back, but hasn’t matched that production since. If he can regain that form as a senior, the Tigers could be formidable. After surprising a lot of people early last season, Gene Chizik and Co. won’t be able to sneak up on opponents this year. The season could come down to one or two plays that separate them in the standings from Arkansas and LSU.

5. Ole Miss

Head coach: Houston Nutt (18-8 at Ole Miss, 9-7 SEC at Ole Miss)

Last year: 9-4, 4-4 SEC

Taking the reins: Ja-Mes Logan

Jeremiah Masoli made all the headlines in the offseason, but barring a completed hail mary with the NCAA, he’ll sit the season out. That’s bad news for a team that returns just eight starters, including just one on offense. Nutt can coach when the odds are against him, and things certainly look that way now. Logan, a redshirt freshman receiver, showed promise in the spring. But he’ll be looked to for production on an offense that doesn’t return any significant contributors out wide. It’s a steep hill to climb, especially in a division with four top-25 teams.

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Head coach: Dan Mullen (5-7, 3-5)

Last year: 5-7, 3-5

Taking the reins: Manny Diaz

Mullen tweaked his coaching staff in the offseason, adding Diaz as offensive coordinator to help run the spread. Chris Wilson, the defensive line coach, is also new and has been named co-defensive coordinator. The Bulldogs are moving in the right direction and aren’t an easy win by any means, but the West is completely loaded. An Egg Bowl win could save them from last place in the division, but the bottom line is that this team was below .500 last year and then lost its only major offensive weapon in running back Anthony Dixon.