2011 SEC College Football Preview
The SEC has dominated the college football landscape of late as evidenced by its five consecutive BCS National Championships. The power house league appears to be in position to, possibly, record a sixth straight national title with teams like Alabama and LSU loaded up of returning talent and top level recruits. The biggest issue for those two squads, as well as the rest of the conference’s upper echelon teams, will be safely navigating a league where even the bottom feeders are known to bite.
After all, most people saw Auburn as the third or fourth place finisher in the West last year, but the Tigers upset prognosticators as well as the favored Crimson Tide in winning the league and, eventually, the BCS National Championship.
Does this year hold any surprises for college football’s most renowned conference?
2011 SEC West Division Forecast:
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (Projections 11-1 Overall, 7-1 Conference): It is difficult to label a 10-3 season a disappointment, but that is exactly how the 2009 version of the Crimson Tide must have viewed their finish as many expected the team to contend for another national title. Making matters worse was the fact that Nick Saban’s troops blew a 24-0 lead in the Iron Bowl that would have, most likely, nixed hated rival Auburn’s January trip to Glendale, Arizona. Fortunately for the Alabama faithful, Saban and company are in position to make amends for last season’s “failures”. Seventeen starters and 53 letter-men return to Tuscaloosa, making the Crimson Tide a prohibitive favorite in the West Division.
2. LSU Tigers (Projections 10-2 Overall, 7-1 Conference): Many people were questioning Head Coach Les Miles headed into last season after the Tigers had failed to reach double digit wins in 2008 and 2009. Some even openly suggested that the program would be better off with someone else in charge. Miles’ team responded for him as the Tigers put together a 10-2 regular season record before going on to stomp Texas A&M 41-24 in the Cotton Bowl. The voices have quieted this off-season as most expect another strong season out of an LSU team that returns 15 starters, including quarterback Jordan Jefferson and defensive stars Ryan Baker (LB) and Morris Claiborne (CB).
3. Arkansas Razorbacks (Projections 9-3 Overall, 6-2 Conference): The Razorbacks lose quarterback Ryan Mallett (3869 yards, 32 touchdowns) from last year’s 10-3 squad, but Head Coach Bobby Petrino has a truck load of talent still on the roster as 13 starters and 52 letter-men are back on campus. Even without Mallett, Arkansas may field its best team yet under Petrino as most envision a strong season from junior passer Tyler Wilson. The Razorbacks’ defense will almost certainly be the best it has been since the 2006 season as seven starters, including All SEC performers Jerry Franklin and Tramain Thomas, return. Despite all the positives, Arkansas must face Alabama and LSU on the road this fall, a development that probably stands in the way of the school securing the SEC West title.
4. Mississippi State Bulldogs (Projections 8-4 Overall, 4-4 Conference): Mississippi State might contend for a conference title in a number of leagues this season with Head Coach Dan Mullen welcoming back 16 starters from last year’s impressive 9-4 squad. Unfortunately for Mullen and the Bulldogs, they do not play in another league, and must instead deal with the likes of Alabama, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas. While fourth place is the predicted finish, Mississippi State could easily pull off an upset or two (hosts both Alabama and LSU) and find its way into a top two or three slot.
5. Mississippi Rebels (Projections 4-8 Overall, 1-7 Conference): Houston Nutt has proven himself a good coach, compiling a 102-70 record between stops at Boise State, Arkansas, and Mississippi, but he may find his back against the wall this season. Nutt’s Rebels went a meager 4-8 last year and they were a pitiful 1-7 in conference action. Mississippi has 13 starters back and a highly touted recruiting class coming in, but there is little to suggest that the Rebels are any better equipped than the teams they lost to a season ago.
6. Auburn Tigers (Projections 4-8 Overall, 1-7 Conference): Head Coach Gene Chizek, after taking over a team that went 5-7 in 2008, has guided the Tigers to 22 wins and a BCS National Championship victory. That is the epitome of setting the bar high, and this year’s Auburn squad will have a difficult time living up to the lofty standard. With only six starters and 38 letter-men back, it looks like Chizek will be overseeing a rebuild job. The Tigers should not be down for long if they do, indeed, stumble as Chizek reeled in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
2011 SEC East Division Forecast:
1. Georgia Bulldogs (Projections 9-3 Overall, 6-2 Conference): It is difficult to envision a head coach with a 96-34 career record on the hot seat, but that is exactly where Georgia’s Mark Richt finds himself heading into the 2011 season. The Bulldogs have underachieved the last two years, posting an 8-5 mark in 2009 when many expected them to win the East and a 6-7 tally last season to give them their first losing campaign under Richt. The former Florida State offensive coordinator will have every opportunity to get things turned around this year, though. Georgia does not have an overwhelming number of starters back (12), but sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray has a chance to be special. Also working in the Bulldogs favor is a light schedule that avoids both Alabama and LSU while traveling to Mississippi, Tennessee, and Vanderbilt.
2. South Carolina Gamecocks (Projections 8-4 Overall, 5-3 Conference): Steve Spurrier finally got South Carolina over the hump last year as the Gamecocks won the East Division for the first time on his watch. The “Old Ball Coach” might have a difficult time repeating that feat this season, despite the return of National Freshman of the Year running back Marcus Lattimore. There is uncertainty at the quarterback position with incumbent Stephen Garcia’s off the field troubles and the Gamecocks must face Georgia, Mississippi State, and Arkansas on the road. South Carolina, given the returning talent, will reach a bowl game, but anything over eight wins would be gravy.
3. Florida Gators (Projections 7-5 Overall, 4-4 Conference): Florida, after going 13-1 in 2008 and 2009, finished up a sub-par 8-5 last season. The Gators did procure a second place finish in the East and they stomped Penn State 37-24 in the Outback Bowl to send Head Coach Urban Meyer out on a high note, but the season did not go as expected. Now Florida must adapt to the scheme’s of Will Muschamp, the former defensive coordinator at Auburn and Texas, as he takes over for Meyer. The Gators will also undergo a significant change on offense as new coordinator Charlie Weis scraps the spread attack in favor of his pro-style system. All the changes point toward Florida being at least a year away from enjoying the same type of success in did under Meyer.
4. Kentucky Wildcats (Projections 7-5 Overall, 3-5 Conference): Joker Phillips guided the Wildcats to a 6-7 record last season, which represented the school’s worst finish since going 3-8 in 2005. The second year head coach has a decent shot at getting the team back on the winning track this season, despite the loss of quarterback Mike Hartline. The Wildcats return 16 starters and 53 letter-men and they stand a good chance at going 4-0 in non-conference play. With a winnable road game at Vanderbilt and home games against Mississippi and Tennessee, Kentucky could be, potentially, an upset or two away from an eight win season.
5. Tennessee Volunteers (Projections 6-6 Overall, 2-6 Conference): The Vols survived the brief but dis-heartening Lane Kiffin experiment as they fought their way to a 6-6 regular season record under new Head Coach Derek Dooley. Tennessee did lose its post-season contest, falling 27-30 to North Carolina in the Music City Bowl to close things out at 6-7. Dooley did a wonderful job recruiting this spring, bringing in one of the nation’s top classes, and he returns promising quarterback Tyler Bray as well as senior tailback Tauren Poole. Road games at Florida, Alabama, and Arkansas may make this a difficult year for the Vols to rebound, though.
6. Vanderbilt Commodores (Projections 6-6 Overall, 2-6 Conference): Vanderbilt appeared to be moving out of the dark ages after its surprising 7-6 finish in 2008, but the program was unable to sustain the momentum from that solid season. The Commodores dropped back to an all to familiar 2-10 in 2009 and they repeated that ignoble total last season under first year Head Coach James Franklin. Franklin should realize far different results this year with 19 starters and 56 letter-men back on campus. Yes, Vanderbilt does face a brutal schedule with road games at South Carolina, Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee as well as home games against Georgia and Arkansas; however, it has enough experience to possibly pull off an upset or two…or three.