2. South Carolina
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5. Will Vanderbilt end their bowl drought? It's been 25 years. The 1982 Hall of Fame Bowl was the last time Vanderbilt played in a postseason game. The Commodores narrowly missed out in 2005, collapsing after a 4-0 start to finish 5-6. Last year, Vandy beat Georgia and took Arkansas and Florida to the limit, but came up short in those two games and finished 4-8. The offense has talent and experience, led by junior quarterback Chris Nickson, who is only going to get better as he develops chemistry with his skill position talent. They have a solid running back in senior Cassen Jackson-Garrison, and all the top pass-catchers are juniors. Add in an offensive line that returns five senior starters for 2007, and you have the makings of the best offense Bobby Johnson has fielded at Vanderbilt. Oh, and there are four experienced seniors along the defensive front seven. Look out. And don't say I didn't warn you.
4. Is Eric Ainge good enough to overcome the loss of his top three receivers? Ainge was somewhat shaky in 2005, but rebounded nicely to come within a hair of 3,000 yards last year. However, Robert Meachem, Jayson Swain, and Bret Smith combined for over two-thirds of Tennessee's passing yards. The leading returning receiver is tight end Chris Brown, who caught 31 for a non-descript 7.7 yard average. Opening at California doesn't make things any easier for Ainge, as they will be hungry to avenge last year's embarrassing performance in Knoxville. There aren't any gimmes until the fourth game against Arkansas State.
3. Exactly how is Florida going to replace all that lost talent? Just seven starters return from the national championship team. Super-sophomore Tim Tebow takes over for Chris Leak at quarterback, and Kestahn Moore is the new feature back. Urban Meyer will make the most out of the talented and speedy Andre Caldwell and Percy Harvin, and his new QB will benefit from a strong offensive line. On defense, the losses are even greater, as nine starters depart. Youth will rule the roost, as Meyer is likely to start at least one freshman and two sophomores. Size is an issue in the secondary, where both projected starting corners stand just 5-9. Luckily, layups against Western Kentucky and Troy start the season for the Gators before they play Tennessee in the Swamp.
2. Is this Spurrier's year? South Carolina appears poised to make a move. Senior Blake Mitchell leads the offense. Senior Cory Boyd is the primary ballcarrier. Sidney Rice is gone, but Kenny McKinley and Freddie Brown return on the outside. The defense returns everyone except safety Fred Bennett, and they add a potentially great freshman in end Clifton Geathers. Spurrier has to take his team to Georgia, LSU, Tennessee, and Arkansas, so it's not a favorable schedule. But ask any Florida fan, and they'll tell you that Spurrier won't use it as an excuse. Can he get lucky enough to lead his team through this kind of schedule?
1. So who's going to win this division, anyway? Geez. Demanding questions. Florida lost enough starters to stock an average NFL team. Their leading two tacklers combined for 94 stops last year. Their leading returning rusher is now their starting quarterback, who ran for more yards than he threw for last year. South Carolina has talent, and they have Spurrier, but their quarterback is suspended for the opener, and who knows if he'll escape from the doghouse long enough to have a strong season? Georgia looked good at the end of the season, but they lost a home game to Vanderbilt along the way to a late rebound. What to make of that defense that was gutted by departures? Could Tennessee sneak up? Can Vanderbilt pull a Wake Forest? Can Kentucky make a giant leap? Put their names in a hat and draw, and you'd be just as effective in figuring this division out. It's as wide open as any conference/division in college football this year. And, yes, that's a copout if my picks stink.
5. Mississippi State
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5. Which Mississippi team will begin to approach a turnaround? This is a deadly-tough division, and it's even tougher when you're trying to rebuild a program. Sly Croom has done a respectable job at Mississippi State, but he might not be around long enough to see the project through if he doesn't start winning some games. While the defense might be missing some bodies, the offense is almost perfectly intact from a year ago, giving Croom some hope of getting this team at least to five or six wins. Meanwhile, Ed Orgeron enters his third year at Ole Miss, and he does it without last year's starting QB, Brent Schaeffer, who is no longer the starter. JUCO transfer Seth Adams takes over, and all of last year's leaders return. If Ole Miss can play more consistent defense, Orgeron may have a shot of at least staying out of the West cellar.
4. Are we just going to forget about Auburn? With LSU taking the headlines among the "Tigers" in the SEC, and Nick Saban getting all the love on behalf of the Alabama contingent of the league, Auburn could be considered "flying under the radar". Seems impossible if you think back to that 5-0 start last year, but it's amazing what losing two conference home games by a combined 64-25 can do to your national profile. The Tigers won 11 last year, but lose stars at running back (Kenny Irons), wide receiver (Courtney Taylor), and on defense (Will Herring). How Brandon Cox leads the offense will be a key. Auburn gets no early breaks with non-conference home dates against Kansas State and emerging South Florida. Their only four road games are all in the SEC, but they are at Florida, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia. It would be tough to pick a tougher foursome to play on the road.
3. Did everyone forget about Darren McFadden's teammates? Sure, he's the H*i*m*n favorite. Sure, he's one of the true star players in the country. But he wasn't even the only 1,000-yard rusher on his own team last year. Not only is McFadden back, but his sidekick, Felix Jones, also returns. The Mitch Mustain drama is over, which should help clear things up at quarterback, where Casey Dick should emerge as the starter. Marcus Monk leads the receivers, and the senior looks to build on a 50-catch season. So, I would implore you to not forget about Darren McFadden's teammates. If they can figure out a way to win at Tennessee and LSU late in the season, they may find themselves back in Atlanta for another SEC title game.
2. Does Nick Saban have a Cinderella title contender on his hands? Saban's well-publicized and controversial departure from the NFL leads him back to the SEC, and it leads him to one of the most pressure-packed coaching jobs in America. The Tide posted two losing seasons under former coach Mike Shula, including last year's 6-7 finish that Shula wasn't around for (he didn't coach the team in their bowl loss to Oklahoma State). Saban arrives and finds an experienced offensive line, a returning starting quarterback, and a slew of solid receivers. If Saban can solve issues at running back, the offense will be potent. Saban's background is defense, and that's the part of this team that needs the most work. I think it's a safe assumption that Saban will get it done eventually, but I don't think it will happen right away. Saban should be able to squeeze eight or nine wins out of this season, but next year will be on everyone's radar screen, as Alabama will be a legitimate contender.
1. Can Les Miles overcome heavy skill-position losses and lead LSU to the SEC title? Absolutely. He's 22-4 at LSU, which is hardly a poor record, though for some reason, there are fans questioning his ability to lead. I buy this guy as the head coach, and LSU fans should jump on board if they haven't yet. The Tigers should have little trouble posting their sixth straight season of allowing less than 20 points per game, which will help ease the transitions on offense. Senior Matt Flynn gets the keys in place of top draft pick JaMarcus Russell. Flynn has just one start in three years, but deserves credit for waiting his turn. Early Doucet should emerge as Flynn's top target, and Keiland Williams returns at RB. The Tigers get a nice warmup on Thursday, as they travel to Mississippi State before the showdown next weekend with Virginia Tech.
CISKIE BLOG PRESEASON AWARDS AND NOTABLES
Preseason Offensive Player of the Year: Darren McFadden, RB, Arkansas
Preseason Defensive Player of the Year: Glenn Dorsey, DT, LSU
Preseason Coach of the Year: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Coach on the Hot Seat: Sylvester Croom, Mississippi State
Bowl Bound: Florida, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina, Georgia, Tennessee, Auburn, Alabama
Bowl Bubble: Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Mississippi State
Best Non-Conference Game: Virginia Tech at LSU, September 8
Worst Non-Conference Game: Western Carolina at Alabama, September 1