4. South Carolina
5. Mississippi State
Fab Four: Top Storylines in the SEC
Florida's drive. One of the commonly-held beliefs that runs against the chances of a team repeating a championship is that teams that win become complacent. No such problem with the Gators, thanks to coach Urban Meyer and quarterback Tim Tebow. The Gators were put through an insane offseason program, with the idea being to keep their focus and make sure they were ready to compete for another championship. Is it enough? Most people believe so, considering the Gators return their entire two-deep on defense -- led by guys like linebacker Brandon Spikes and cornerback Joe Haden -- and have a two-time national champion quarterback who is digging for a second Heisman while chasing the label of "greatest college football player ever." There is speed and high-level talent all over the field, and ringleader Meyer isn't taking his foot off the gas. To add to things, the verbal war Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin started with pretty much the entire city of Gainesville can only help the Gators in their preparation. If Florida fails to win again this year, it will likely be due to injuries or the fact that Meyer's master motivation plan didn't work the way he envisioned.
Lane Kiffin's mouth. While it was welcomed with open arms by success-hungry Tennessee fans, Kiffin's bombastic presence has created waves elsewhere in the SEC. He ticked off Florida with allegations of cheating, and he told a recruit that if he went to South Carolina he'd be "pumping gas for the rest of his life." Kiffin was right in that his program was in dire need of the kind of recruits national attention can bring you, but it wasn't a good first impression to make on the rest of the league. Now, it's up to Kiffin's players, many of whom will be first-year college athletes, to make the coach look good. It's expected that Jonathan Crompton will start at quarterback again, and upperclassmen like Austin Rogers and Joff Cottam present the top targets for the senior. Their job will be to reignite an offense that scored two touchdowns per game fewer than the year before. Because of that, one of the nation's better defenses could do nothing about the Vols' poor season.
LSU on the rebound. In Les Miles' first three seasons at LSU, he lost a total of six games. In 2008, the Tigers lost five, including blowout losses to Georgia and Mississippi at Tiger Stadium. Former Tennessee assistant John Chavis -- architect of the aforementioned top-notch Volunteer defense -- takes over the LSU defense this year. Improvement should be swift, as the Tigers have the athletes to play the same kind of defense they played during their national championship season of 2007. It doesn't hurt that Chavis can build his scheme around guys like All-America caliber defensive end Rahim Alem, a pass-rushing machine. Offensively, the Tigers were solid last year, and should only improve as sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson continues to develop. He hit just under 50 percent of his throws as a true freshman, so he really has nowhere to go but up as a passer. His athleticism is superb, but that doesn't matter if he can't throw accurately. Expect another big season from receiver Brandon LaFell.
Mississippi goes Nutts. Ole Miss' turning point came in The Swamp. After a so-so 2-2 start that included a home loss to Vanderbilt, the Rebels headed to Florida. A game against the fourth-ranked Gators showed Ole Miss as a 22-point underdog, but they didn't care. Head coach Houston Nutt got his team ready, and they played with poise and determination against a foe thought to be far superior. Thanks to some uncharacteristic Florida mistakes and the ability of Jevan Snead to direct the offense, the Rebels upset Florida 31-30. It was the turning point for two teams, as the Gators went on their national title run from that point, and the Rebels would lost just two more games (the next two they played, actually, to South Carolina and Alabama). A 31-13 win at LSU cemented the rally, and the Rebels went on to beat Texas Tech in the Cotton Bowl. It was an impressive rally from a slow start, and Ole Miss fans hope it's just the springboard to a bigger season in 2009. Snead is back, as is wide receiver/slotback Dexter McCluster. He teams with Cordera Eason to provide the punch on the ground, as well as working as a top receiver. Athletes like Kentrell Lockett, Marcus Tillman, and Kendrick Lewis lead the way on defense. If Ole Miss can survive a home gauntlet that includes Alabama, Tennessee, and LSU, they are in great position to play for the SEC title.
Best of the rest
It will be very difficult to replace Matthew Stafford at Georgia. However, fifth-year senior Joe Cox has a great grasp of Mark Richt's offense, and he appears to have gained quick acceptance as the new leader. ... No one could have guessed that Steve Spurrier would have so many problems at the quarterback position. Everything else at South Carolina appears to be in good shape, but if he can't find a way to get sophomore Stephen Garcia (pictured) to play more consistently, it's going to be a long season. ... Despite having nearly everything against him, including probation, when he started, Rich Brooks has done a great job at Kentucky. His team has rewarded him with three straight bowl trips, even though they've struggled against the SEC elite. Junior quarterback Mike Hartline returns, and most of his weapons are back with him. ... Vanderbilt broke a 26-year bowl drought last year, and beat Boston College in the Music City Bowl. They did it on the strength of a defense that only allowed 19.6 points per game. A bowl repeat is a possibility, as nine starters are back on that side of the ball. However, the Commodores need more of an offensive contribution to fight off a tough schedule. ... For Alabama, it was a sour ending to a storybook season. The Tide were 12-0 before an SEC Championship loss to Florida and a Sugar Bowl waxing by Utah. After the Utes walked all over the defense, that unit should be plenty motivated to rebound. They'll need to, as seven starters -- including quarterback John Parker Wilson, running back Glen Coffee, and mammoth tackle Andre Smith -- are lost from the offense. ... It didn't take Bobby Petrino long to get settled in at Arkansas. The Razorbacks are loaded on both sides of the ball, and Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett takes over the offense. It might be too much to ask for Arkansas to crack the upper half of this loaded division, but this team is capable if they get some breaks. ... Things are a bit of a mess at Mississippi State, but they won't be for long. Former Florida assistant Dan Mullen takes over, bringing in his spread offense. Once he finds a quarterback, the Bulldogs will be on the rise ... Snickers came from all over the college football world when Auburn hired Gene Chizik -- 4-19 as a head coach -- to take over for the fired Tommy Tuberville. Stranger things have happened than Chizik being successful, but it looks like it might be a couple years before the Tigers can catch up with the rest of the West.
Preseason SEC Honors and Notables
Offensive Player of the Year: Tim Tebow, QB, Florida
Defensive Player of the Year: Rahim Alem, DE, LSU
Coach of the Year: Houston Nutt, Mississippi
Coach on the Hot Seat: Les Miles, LSU
Best non-conference game: Georgia at Oklahoma State, September 5
Worst non-conference game: Charleston Southern at Florida, September 5