3. South Carolina
6. Mississippi State
Stories to Watch in the SEC
Alabama better in defense of title? One of the great challenges facing Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban is motivating his crew to defend their national championship. As long as that motivation is there, Saban should find that his team could actually be better than it was a year ago. Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram is back to anchor the running game, which also features the extremely talented sophomore Trent Richardson, who ran for over 750 yards last year in a purely complimentary role. Senior quarterback Greg McElroy threw just four picks in 325 pass attempts last year. Leading receivers Julio Jones and Marquis Maze return, as do three starters on the offensive line. Saban has some work to do on defense, where he lost a ton of talent, most notably linebacker Rolando McClain. Expect linebacker Dont'a Hightower -- a Freshman All-American last year -- to shoulder much of the load. There are plenty of juniors and seniors along Alabama's defensive two-deep, indicating that Saban will have no shortage of talent or playing experience to call upon. The friendly schedule -- tough games with Penn State, Florida, and Auburn are all at home -- sure helps matters for Alabama.
Florida reloads. Amid all the health drama surrounding coach Urban Meyer -- who is thankfully okay and ready to go this season -- the Gators have some heavy losses to deal with on the field. Quarterback Tim Tebow was the biggest star in the sport, and they also lost Riley Cooper, Aaron Hernandez, Brandon Spikes, Joe Haden, and Ryan Stamper. That's a lot of passing yards, rushing yards, receptions, tackles, interceptions, passes defensed, and sacks. Meyer obviously has a very talented crop of players, but he has to find new leaders. Junior John Brantley will run the offense, and junior Jeff Demps will probably get more looks running the ball than he did with Tebow, who had 118 carries more than the next-most on the team last year (Demps). The Gators are a heavy favorite in the East because of the available talent, as well as their proven ability to reload. It helps that safety Ahmad Black and tackles Omar Hunter and Jaye Howard lead a solid group of defensive returnees. If Brantley can run the offense efficiently while integrating some new receivers, Florida will be formidable again.
How good can Ryan Mallett be? The Arkansas junior -- a Michigan transfer -- flourished in Bobby Petrino's offense last year, throwing for over 3,600 yards and 30 scores. There's more to come, as Mallett is better than the 56 percent completions he was good for a year ago. He'll have to be, because there are holes on this Arkansas team that won't go away with the snap of a finger. The Hogs gave up over 400 yards per game last year, including over 450 yards four times, and they coughed up 30 or more points four times. Mallett might be able to make this offense even better in 2010, but he has to do it with the help of the defense. The Razorbacks simply can't afford to spend too much time trying feebly to stop opponents, especially in the tough SEC West. Seven starters are back on defense, and Petrino simply needs that unit to improve with the help of linebacker Jerry Franklin, end Jake Bequette, and cornerbacks Ramon Broadway and Rudell Crim. Games against Tennessee Tech and Louisiana-Monroe should help whip that defense into shape with some confidence before their trip to Georgia and games against Alabama, Texas A&M, and Auburn.
Masoli arrives in Oxford. If he's cleared by the NCAA, it seems a virtual lock that Jeremiah Masoli will start at quarterback for Mississippi after transferring from Oregon. Masoli brings a lot of talent and experience to Houston Nutt's team, and he instantly makes them credible at the sport's most important position. The other problem for the Rebels will be replacing do-everything back/receiver Dexter McCluster. Expect Nutt to try a few guys in that spot, including Derrick Herman and Jesse Grandy. If Masoli steps in and shows some accuracy while taking good care of the football, the Rebels could make some real noise this season as a darkhorse in the SEC West. Road dates against Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU could be too tough for Ole Miss to overcome, but it becomes even tougher for them to do anything notable if they can't get quality play out of the quarterback position.
Best of the rest
Georgia looks quite impressive, thanks to ten returning starters on offense. Redshirt freshman quarterback Aaron Murray is the new starter, leaving the Bulldogs with one huge question mark on offense entering the season. ... Steve Spurrier can't seem to get South Carolina over the hump. With a freshman under center at Georgia and a ton of new faces at Florida, this seems like as good a year as any. If the Gamecocks can show some actual consistency on offense, they're going to be good. ... If new coach Joker Phillips can solve Kentucky's quarterback situation, they have a shot in the East. The Wildcats have talented back Derrick Locke and receiver Randall Cobb back, along with big-play defensive end DeQuin Evans. ... After an up-and-down season with Lane Kiffin, Tennessee has to hope Derek Dooley can restore some calm to the program. It might take some time to build a winner, as the Volunteers lost eight offensive starters and their top four tacklers on defense. Then again, after the controversial Kiffin, many UT fans will be happy if Dooley can just avoid pissing off most of the college football world. ... As if there weren't enough coaching changes in the SEC East, Vanderbilt named Robbie Caldwell as the successor to Bobby Johnson, who stepped down before fall camp started. It doesn't make Vandy any more or less of a team this year, as it was thought to be a tough year ahead for the Commodores. Johnson was a class act who worked hard at Vandy to be respectable amid serious academic hurdles. This is likely a program that is destined to never be a serious contender in this league, but they've proven they can be competitive and avoid constantly being blown out as they once were. ... Auburn detractors aren't laughing now. Controversial hire Gene Chizik built a solid team last year, and they should improve again in 2010. Quarterback Cameron Newton is a good fit for their offense, and junior receiver Darvin Adams should get better as he gains experience. Replacing star back Ben Tate will be tough. ... Look for a big season out of LSU. They have nine losses the last two years, but the Tigers do have a growing quarterback and some stars in the making around him. I like Jordan Jefferson a lot, and now we'll find out if coordinator John Chavis can keep the defense improving. If that happens, LSU could shock a lot of people this year. ... Many were surprised by Mississippi State winning five games last year. For them to get better this year, it's going to take some great strides at the quarterback position. Running back Anthony Dixon is gone, leaving a hole in the offense. The Bulldogs got just nine touchdown passes out of two quarterbacks last year, and while junior Chris Reif returns, he's trying to fend off a challenge from redshirt freshman Tyler Russell. The struggle continued through fall camp, and no starter has been named as of this writing.
Preseason SEC Superlatives
Best QB: Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
Best RB: Mark Ingram, Alabama
Best WR: Darvin Adams, Auburn
Best offense: Georgia
Best defense: Alabama
Best coach: Nick Saban, Alabama
Coach in the most trouble: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Best non-conference game: Penn State at Alabama, Sept. 11
Worst non-conference game: Georgia State at Alabama, Nov. 20