January 16, 2011

CECIL HURT: SEC will be loaded again for 2011 season

It is still a little early to have a complete picture of what 2011 Southeastern Conference football will look like, with National Signing Day still pending, but the image is coming into focus - and it looks scary.

For the most part, the league's annual exodus of early NFL entrants didn't include any real surprises. From a historical perspective, though, has any conference in history ever lost a group of juniors even remotely comparable to this one?

You are talking about two Heisman Trophy winners, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton. Add in arguably the two best defensive players in college football in 2010, Patrick Peterson and Nick Fairley. Then add two of the elite receivers in SEC history in Julio Jones and A.J. Green. And that list still doesn't include Marcel Dareus, Javoris Jenkins, Randall Cobb, Ryan Mallett or Stevan Ridley - a roster of all-stars.

Amazingly, for all that has left early, there is still plenty of talent left behind. There is probably more to come, too. Newcomers had a huge impact in the SEC in 2010, beginning with Newton, obviously, but including Marcus Lattimore, Michael Dyer and several others.

But the league also has veteran stars, even allowing for a drop off at quarterback. Perhaps the best returning quarterback is Georgia's Aaron Murray. I will throw a chair at anyone who votes for Stephen Garcia, the South Carolina quarterback and personification of inconsistency.

The league title may come down to other quarterbacks. Can Zach Mettenberger win the job at LSU? Will A.J. McCarron or Phillip Sims (who will have a fierce battle this spring) give Alabama the consistent leadership it had with Greg McElroy? Will they provide more big-play potential? Or will the Alabama defense have to carry the team while it goes through quarterback growing pains?

Mark Barron's (correct) decision to return for his senior season gives the Crimson Tide tremendous defensive potential. There will be comparisons, premature but inevitable, to the great UA defenses of recent vintage: 1992, 2005 and 2009.

Some of the eventual success the defense has will depend on newcomers like Quinton Dial and Jesse Williams providing a push up front. A talented freshman third-down pass rusher would be icing on the cake, but with Barron, Courtney Upshaw, Dont'a Hightower, C.J.Mosley and a host of young talent, the potential is there.

Even with that returning talent, the primary challenge will be winning the SEC, particularly the loaded West Division. LSU and Alabama are both getting national Top Five consideration. Arkansas, despite losing Ryan Mallett, returns a lot of talent and has high hopes. One Arkansas writer said Saturday the Razorbacks would finish ahead of Alabama in the West, which might be a bit overoptimistic. Auburn, the defending BCS champion, probably will be picked no higher than fourth in its division going into next season.

I am well aware pointing out the huge amount of talent in the SEC - the talent that is leaving, the talent that remains and the talent on the way - leaves me open to charges of regional bias from the sort of "experts" who spent most of the year telling us how Boise State was the best team in America. It will be interesting to see the Broncos open against chronic underachiever Georgia next season, to say nothing of Oregon opening with LSU. It isn't likely that the SEC will produce a Heisman winner next year (hello, Andrew Luck), but even with all the talent going out the door, more than enough remains for a sixth straight BCS title run.

The only question is, which team will make that run?



 

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