BY RAFAEL GARCIA
Down in the southern parts of America, college football stadiums were filled to capacity this past weekend -- anticipation and intensity so thick you can’t cut it with wire cutters. Welcome to the Southeastern Conference:
Last season, nine teams went to a bowl game winning a SEC record six. Two went to a BCS bowl and one stood alone as a BCS champs. Let’s peek into these teams and their chances of making it to Atlanta and the SEC Title game.
Florida- The defending champs now put their hopes of a repeat on the arms and legs of Tim Tebow. He has shown flashes of what he can do but is he ready to be the man? He has two good targets in Bubba Caldwell and Percy Harvin. Most of the offensive line returns, from a season in which they performed better than was projected in 2006. On defense, end Derrick Harvey tries to improve on an 11-sack season, including three in the BCS title game. The secondary is full of speed and ability. Can they mesh for a championship push? Other than Florida State their non-conference schedule is weak. Will the Gators repeat? Likely not but don’t count out this champ till the final round.
Tennessee- The Volunteers are looking to put Rocky Top back on top. Phillip Fulmer knows the Vol faithful won’t wait long for results or to start the call for the coach’s head. Senior quarterback Erik Ainge must step forward and be the complete signal caller Tennessee has waited for. Making it tougher is the fact that he has no standout receiver in his stable. Running backs Arian Foster, Montario Hardesty and LaMarcus Coker should form a potent ground game. They will need their inexperienced offensive line to do a better job of opening up holes than they did last year. The defense had its own difficulties getting into the opponent’s backfield. In order for the Vols to compete the defensive line will have to stop the run game and get pressure on the opposing quarterback to prevent the big plays that hurt them last year. Jonathan Hefney is the only sure thing they have in the secondary. The Vols will be hard pressed to make it to Atlanta but if Ainge and the defense hold their end up the Vols have a chance.
South Carolina- The Gamecocks feel this is their time, so says The Ole Ball Coach Steve Spurrier. After an 8-5 campaign, this team feels it is ready to compete for the East now. Quarterback Blake Mitchell came on strong during the second half of last season, but started this year serving a suspension. Spurrier has molded this kid and he knows how to get the best from his quarterbacks, so know one could more disappointed in Mitchell’s off the field troubles. Cory Boyd and Mike Davis give S.C. a solid ground game so long as the offensive line can step up, as the coach is demanding. Defensively they are still weak against the run, while their pass defense is a bit more stable and should get even better this season. Maybe this team should worry more about another a winning season before thinking they can win the East.
Georgia- The Bulldogs will have sophomore Matthew Stafford take the helm from day one after leading the Dogs to wins against three Top 25 foes (Auburn, Georgia Tech and Virginia Tech) as a redshirt freshman. Kregg Lumpkin is a duel threat as a runner, as well as a receiver. On defense, they lose many of their starters, but they have a good young nucleus just itching to make their mark. The secondary is loaded with talent and is expected to give opposing wide receivers all they can handle. Lastly, they must improve on their woeful kick return game to hope to compete for the East.
Kentucky- The Wildcats are ready to take few bites out of the SEC. They come off a bowl win and have Andre Woodson at quarterback. He led the league in total offense, passing yards per game and touchdown passes. His number one target will be Keenan Burton who had 77 catches for 1036 yards and 12 touchdowns. On defense they just flat out stink -- they can score but will be scored on. A 37-35 game with this team is par for the course. Just as last year, the secondary will give up chunks of yardage. With this team, you know they won’t challenge for the East but they sure can be fun to watch and may even play spoiler with an upset or two.
Vanderbilt- After so many years of losing could this be the year? In a word…no. Can the ‘Dores break a 24 year drought and have a winning season as well as go to a bowl? Quarterback Chris Nixon has the tools and the receiver in Earl Bennett. Bennett is arguably the best receiver in the SEC -- he has great hands and runs great routes. The running game provided stability for Nixon allowing him to shine as a passer. Defensively, Vandy must do a better job against the run, as they gave up too many big runs that led to points for their opponents. They have the experience in linebackers Jonathan Goff and Chris Williams to get better. At this point, the only thing that matters is that they achieve their goal of a winning season and a bowl berth. The rest as they say will take care of itself.
Check back tomorrow for the SEC West