Friday, June 17, 2005

2005 College Football Preview: SEC

By Avery Smith

Who will win the SEC this season? That question is extremely tough this year. It is made even more difficult by the return of Steve Spurrier to the conference at South Carolina. Even though I do not foresee the Gamecocks at the top, they will pull off their share of upsets.

There is no "week off" in the SEC and I do not think that any team will come out of the season unscathed. However, there will be some squads that may end this year with enough momentum to get into a BCS bowl. Who will they be? Please read below, and check out who will be the best five teams in the conference.

5) Alabama (Projected Record: 8-4; League: 5-3)

I know of all you Georgia and South Carolina fans are whining as to why your team is not here. The Crimson Tide will shock a lot of people this season and just remember you heard it here first. They have a tailor-made schedule, with all of their difficult games at home. They also have a team that will play at much higher level than it did last season. Alabama has a legitimate shot at the SEC West title and they might be playing Auburn for it on the last game of the season.

Brodie Croyle will lead the Crimson Tide on offense. Croyle is a talented quarterback who would have been a household name had he not gotten injured. He is back at full speed this year, and that will give 'Bama a much-needed boost. Croyle will be handing the ball often to Ken Darby, one of the best backs in the SEC.

Darby rushed for over 1,000 yards last season and will be looking for even more this year. He may be a bit slowed by the hernia injury he suffered this spring, but he should be ready for action by the fall. The receivers are young, but look for one of them to step up. The most likely candidate will be either Matt Caddell or Tyrone Prothro. Both receivers will be aided by having a quarterback who can get them the ball, which Croyle should be able to do.

One thing the Tide will have in common with Auburn, their hated rivals, is a strong defense. Alabama's defense is led by Demeco Ryans, their star linebacker. Ryans is coming off of a strong junior year where he led the team in tackles with 78. This season he will get much-needed assistance from Juwan Simpson and Freddie Roach. The linebacking corps will prove to be very effective this season. The defensive line will also be strong with Mark Anderson as its star. Anderson can pass rush, as well as stop a speedy back. All of the tackles and ends return, so experience is a given and so are plenty of sacks and fumbles.

Alabama's secondary is the best in the conference. All four starters return to a unit that is extremely cohesive. These guys can both cover and tackle, and look for Mike Shula's squad to employ a lot of nickel and dime sets. The key to the Crimson Tide's season will be how well their offense plays. If Brodie Croyle can rebound from his injury and put points on the board, then 'Bama has a very good shot at going to the SEC championship.

4) Auburn (8-4; 5-3)

The main question that Tiger fans have to be asking themselves is, "Did we miss our window of opportunity?" Auburn shocked the nation by going 13-0 last year, and the Tigers should have been in the Orange Bowl with the Trojans for the National Championship. I don't think Tommy Tuberville's team will replicate last year's success, but I also don't think an SEC West title is out of the question, either. If there is one player who will make or break the season, it will be Brandon Cox, Auburn's new quarterback.

Brandon Cox has some very big shoes to fill. Jason Campbell, Auburn's previous quarterback, led the team to a perfect record by not making mistakes. Cox will have to do the same, but he will also have to do even more than Campbell did last year. Cox does not have the luxury of handing the ball to Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown.

Auburn will still run the ball, and Tre Smith will be the starter. It is obvious why his career hasn't yet been sparkling, but he should have plenty of opportunities this season. Kenny Irons, Carl Stewart, and Brad Lester will also add some production. The key to the season for the running backs will be if they can generate enough production to loosen up the passing game

Tommy Tuberville's team is going to have to throw the ball much more in 2005 in order to be effective. The good thing for the Tigers is that they have a group of receivers who are up to the task. Courtney Taylor is an NFL prospect with blazing speed and good hands to match. He has also has the ability to rack up the YAC (yards after catch), as well. Ben Obamanu and Devin Aromashadu compliment Taylor and will be utilized on deeper patterns.

Even though there have been many changes at Auburn, the defense still remains their strength. The Tiger defense was tops in the nation in scoring defense last year, and there is no reason why they cannot repeat this year. Stanley McClover had an excellent freshman season, and he will lead the best defensive line in the country. It is almost incomprehensible to think how he can get better, but the word from spring practice is that he has. If that's the case, Auburn's front four will apply tons of pressure to opposing quarterbacks.

A trio of studs, Kevin Sears, Travis Williams, and Antarrious Williams, lead the Auburn linebackers into 2005. These guys utilize their speed very effectively and have the athleticism to both cover and blitz. The only concern for Tiger fans will be if this unit has enough time to gel because of their injuries in the spring. The secondary might be the only reason for concern. Carlos Rogers is gone, but David Irons and Will Herring should be able to take his place.

The Tigers might give up a few big plays due to their gambling style, but I just don't see opposing teams hurting them in the air because of the front four. Auburn's defense will be fun to watch, and more importantly, will give the Tigers a shot to win the SEC West crown.

3) Florida (9-3; 6-2)

The arrival of the "Urban" legend has Florida fans from across the country hopeful for a return to glory. Gator fans should expect a team that should be more consistent than last year's. Ron Zook's squad showed flashes of brilliance, but inconsistency (and having to follow Steve Spurrier) ultimately led to his firing.

Another positive of hiring Meyer is all of the media attention he is getting. Everyone is talking about the coach and no one is talking about the players. The Gator head coach has been setting up swamp talks throughout the state of Florida, with the goal of re-energizing a somewhat disillusioned fan base. So far, he's done a great job. Meyer has also been excellent in deflecting the media scrutiny towards him and away from his team.

The attention to the players will intensify on the first snap on offense, when the best quarterback in the SEC goes under center. That would be Chris Leak. Leak, the prodigy from Charlotte, has underperformed in his previous seasons in Gainesville. This season, I think he will emerge as on of the strongest quarterbacks in the country. His combination of strength and mobility is jaw-dropping, and defensive backs from Baton Rouge to Athens are already nervous.

Leak will have Andre Caldwell, Chad Jackson, and Dallas Baker as his primary targets at receiver. Caldwell, whose 57.4 yards per game average leads all returning players, should be able to fill the void of O.J. Small who has moved on to the NFL. Chad Jackson's big play ability should give the Gators their perennial deep threat, and will open up the playbook on offense.

The offensive line at Florida looks outstanding. The starting five is on-par with anyone in the conference. Mike Degory is an All-American candidate, while Randy Hand and Lance Butler will probably end up with conference recognition. The only concern for Florida is depth. Injuries to the line are very common, and their second unit is nowhere near as talented as the first. Hopefully, the line stays healthy and the offense performs to its potential.

The Gators are expecting a reduction in productivity at the running back position in 2005. Ciatrick Fason is gone, and there are a plethora of candidates for the position. DeShawn Wynn will not remind Gator fans of Emmitt Smith, but he will get the majority of the carries and has the potential of being a suitable back. Skyler Thornton and Markus Manson will spell him and contribute, as well. The amount of yards the backs will gain is a concern for Urban Meyer, and will affect the strength of the offense.

On defense, the Gators return eight starters to a group that looks to continue to improve in 2005. Defense is not something that is comes to mind when you mention Gator football, but it will become more of a focus in 2005. I look for Florida to take more risks with blitzes and stunts becoming more common. Of course, you need good linebackers to do this. Brandon Siler and Earl Everett both fit the bill.

Siler and Everett will have to replace Channing Crowder, who is down I-75 playing for the Miami Dolphins. Siler looks like the obvious choice to step into Crowder's role at middle linebacker. Last year, Siler, the All-SEC freshman performer, was the No. 2 tackler on the Gator defense. This is noteworthy because he only started in six games. Earl Everett will help the Gators in the blitzing category, and improve on his 4.5 sacks from last year. Everett possesses a combination of speed and agility that will allow Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong to call his number often.

In the secondary, Demetrice Webb will look to solidify a unit that was shaky in 2004. Webb has All-American potential, and will need Tremaine McCullom and Kyle Jackson to step their games up as well. Last year, the secondary seemed lost at times, and opponents exploited this. This year, Florida's DB's should be much more prepared after playing together as a unit. The Gator defense should give Urban Meyer's squad an opportunity to win more games this season, and maybe even snatch the SEC East title from the hated Volunteers. However, if Webb, Siler, or Everett get hurt, even eight wins might be a stretch.

2) Louisiana State (9-3; 6-2)

"Who dat say dat we need Nick Saban?" The LSU Tigers will miss their former head coach, however, they will be strong enough to win the SEC West crown. The Tigers will return nine starters back on an offense that should be among the elite in the country. The only concern LSU fans have at this time will be who will be taking the snaps from center.

JaMarcus Russell and Matt Flynn are the candidates for the quarterback position. Right now they are in a dead heat, and no one will know who the true starter is until the season start. Whether it is Russell or Flynn, one thing is for certain, they will be handing the ball off to Joseph Addai many times. Addai is in the top five of every publications rating for running backs in the country. He is a Marshall Faulk-type back that can run effectively and create mismatches in the passing game. Alley Broussard should round out the running game with a Ron Dayne, bruising-type style.

The pass corps should be strong for the Tigers, as well. Skyler Green and Xavier Carter lead the deepest group of receivers in the conference. I expect that offensive coordinator Jimbo Fisher will utilize four and even five wide-out sets to maximize this strength. The offensive line is also excellent with Andrew Whitworth. I expect the Tigers to average over 30 points per game this season.

LSU's defense last year was not nearly as effective as it was when they split the National Championship the year before. The Tigers will have to maintain a high level of consistency on defense in the competitive SEC. Bo Pelini, the new defensive coordinator, will do an excellent job of getting this squad ready. He has coached in the NFL and at Nebraska and most recently at Oklahoma. I look for Pelini to run schemes that will utilize one of the strongest defensive lines in the country.

The Tigers' defensive line, even without Marcus Spears, will be one of the best in the nation. The front four will be able to generate a strong pass rush on their own. This will allow Pelini to utilize cover 2 sets if he so chooses. Of course, with linebackers like Cameron Vaughn, blitzing will also be a very good option. LSU fans may also see some zone blitzing to utilize Vaughn's ability and confuse their opponents. This will also give the defense an opportunity to try and mask their weak point, the secondary.

The secondary is the will be challenge due to the departures of Corey Webster and Travis Daniels. There are a number of options at cornerback, and LSU fans will hope that someone will step up and fill the void. If the Tigers stay healthy, they should be a top-10 team this season, and should come out on top of the SEC West. They should dominate their division, as Auburn is much weaker this season, and the rest of the pack are nowhere near as talented.

1) Tennessee (10-2; 7-1)

"Rocky Top Tennessee," It has to be the best fight song in the country. It also looks like coach Phillip Fulmer's squad will be among the best in America, as well. Can you believe it has been seven years since Tee Martin led the Vols to the National Championship? I don't know if Tennessee is headed to Pasadena this year, but it looks like they will end up on top of the SEC East standings. They closed out the season strong with a bone-crushing 38-7 win over Texas A&M at the Cotton Bowl, and that momentum will most certainly spill over to this year.

Erik Ainge is the starting quarterback this season, and he will have a very talented offense to work with. The Vols have a potential Heisman trophy candidate in Gerald Riggs, Jr. He is the type of back that can take over a game and if he can maintain his 5.7-yard per carry average from last season, Tennessee will be able to dominate offensively. Riggs' ability to run will also help the passing game. The combination of Jayson Swain and Robert Meacham may be the best 1-2 punch in the country.

What I like about these two guys is that they complement each other. Meacham is the speedy deep threat, and Swain is the reliable pass-catcher. At tight end, Tennessee is doing their best Jared Lorenzen impression with the 289 lb. Justin Reed. Even at that weight, Reed is surprisingly mobile, and if he can provide excellent blocking as well as a pass option, the Vols will be even that much better with the ball.

On defense, Tennessee is as strong and deep as ever. They are returning eight starters to a squad that will be among the best in the nation. On the line, Jesse Mahelona will be the one to watch. He provided immediate dividends last year, and is looking to have an even better senior campaign. The linebackers will continue a tradition of Tennessee football by being strong as well. The only potential fly in the ointment will be the health of Kevin Simon. If he is truly at 100%, Tennessee's front seven will live up to the tremendous expectations bestowed upon them.

The secondary is the only spot that could use some improvement. The Vols finished 2004 last in pass defense, and will need Jason Allen, a potential All-American to lead the way. Allen decided to forego an opportunity at the NFL and come back for his senior season. He will be moving from safety to cornerback this season, so the key will be how well he will adjust to his new position. Inky Johnson will also provide help at defensive back, and allow the front seven to be more aggressive. All Tennessee needs is for their DBs to be decent as their pass rush will be fierce.

The key for coach Fulmer's squad will be taking care of business early by defeating Florida and LSU on the road. This will not be an easy task, but I think they will come out of it with at least a split. The rest of the season looks much easier, and if everything works out right, they may not lose at all.

Also, see the preview for the Pac-10. Stay tuned for more college football previews!

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2009