August 2, 2005

SEC loaded with change and contenders

None of the major conferences underwent more change this offseason than the SEC. None emerged with more legitimate national title contenders, either.

Four head coaches were replaced, and the moves are sure to have a big effect on the upcoming season. A pair of the top programs have new men in charge, and one of the biggest name's in college football history is back in the league.

Urban Meyer, who may be the hottest name in coaching at the moment, took over at Florida, and Les Miles left Oklahoma State for LSU. Still, no coaching change caused more of a stir than Steve Spurrier taking over South Carolina. The former Florida coach rejoined the college ranks after a short stint in the NFL and a year off. All those moves overshadowed former Southern Cal assistant Ed Orgeron earning his first head coaching job at Ole Miss.

Meyer and Miles inherit teams with enough talent and experience to end Southern Cal's run at a third straight title. Tennessee falls into that category, too.

Proof of the league's depth can be found by taking a look at its defending champ. Despite having four players get drafted in the first round, Auburn still ranks among the most talented teams in either division. Alabama, Arkansas and Georgia each return at least 15 starters and could get to the Georgia Dome with a big upset or two.

THE FAVORITE: Tennessee - The Volunteers were a middle-of-the-pack SEC defense last year, but with eight returning starters that figures to change. Up front, the combination of pass-rush specialist Parys Haralson and run stuffer Jesse Mahelona is tough to stop. Offensively, seven starters return, including Gerald Riggs, who will handle the rushing load a year after piling up 1,107 yards on the ground while splitting carries, and proven receivers Robert Meachem, C.J. Fayton and Jayson Swain. The big question is who will get to play with all those weapons? Sophomore Erik Ainge and senior Rick Clausen are fighting for the starting quarterback job.

THE SLEEPER: Georgia - OK, so the Bulldogs aren't exactly a longshot, but with Meyer taking over at Florida and Tennessee's overwhelming talent, the 2003 SEC champs are being overlooked. If D.J. Shockley proves to be an adequate quarterback, Mark Richt has enough talent to get his boys back to Atlanta.

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: South Carolina - Don't expect Steve Spurrier to spark a magical run right away. Lou Holtz didn't leave the Ol' Ball Coach with a lot of talent or experience, and the Gamecocks have a particularly tough schedule this fall. But, the mindset in Gamecock Country has already changed dramatically, and the program will be a contender in the SEC East before long. The fan base has exploded with renewed energy, recruits from around the Southeast perk up at the sound of Spurrier's name and he has a solid freshmen class to work with.

PROGRAM ON THE SLIDE: Kentucky - Just three years ago, the Wildcats won seven games and were a Bluegrass Miracle away from eight, probation being the only thing that kept the Wildcats from a bowl. But Rich Brooks hasn't been able to build on Guy Morris' success, going 6-17 over the last two seasons. A weak recruiting class combined with arch-rival Louisville's rising success could lead to his demise by the end of the fall.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Arkansas - The Razorbacks face Southern Cal, perhaps one of the greatest teams in college football history, before league play even begins. Next, comes a road trip to Alabama followed by a visit from SEC defending champ Auburn three weeks later. They must travel to Georgia and LSU as well.

MARK YOUR CALENDAR: Tennessee at LSU, Sept: 24 - The Volunteers head to one of the toughest places to play in the nation. Whoever emerges with a 'W' will be in the driver's seat to capture a league title.

UPSET SPECIAL: Florida at Alabama, Oct. 1 - This will be year three for Mike Shula, and with 16 starters returning, the Crimson Tide are poised for a breakout year. The two teams haven't faced each other in six years, since the Tide edged Florida 40-39 in a thriller in the swamp and then crushed them again 34-7 in the SEC title game. Expect something similar.

REMEMBER THIS NAME: Andre Caldwell - Nobody may benefit more from Meyer bringing his spread offense to Florida. The Gators' 6-foot-1, 200-pound receiver is the kind of playmaker who the offensive guru will design game plans around and could lead the league in receiving yardage.

INSTANT IMPACT: Mike West - One of the nation's top junior college safeties, the 6-foot-0, 205-pound West was moved to outside linebacker when he arrived at South Carolina in January and won a starting job by the end of spring drills.

PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH:

EAST

1. Tennessee
2. Florida
3. Georgia
4. South Carolina
5. Vanderbilt
6. Kentucky

WEST

1. LSU
2. Alabama
3. Auburn
4. Arkansas
5. Ole Miss
6. Mississippi State

Champion: Tennessee



 

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