Friday, September 4, 2009

College Football Insiders Preview: SEC

For the third straight year, the National Championship winner came out of the SEC and it was the second title victory in three seasons for the Florida Gators. The SEC also sent two teams to a BCS bowl game for the third year in a row—no other conference is having that sort of post-season success. It may be hard to believe but the SEC is going to be better this year than last. The two teams that met in last season’s conference title game return nearly their entire team, contenders LSU and Ole Miss are talented and now more experienced, and Georgia is healthy. It’s going to be hard to predict an order of finish, but it’s safe to say whichever team is left standing after the conference title game will be in the National Title discussion.

The Favorites: Florida & Alabama: They both return a tantalizing, talented, and deep defense. Florida brings back the most experience in the conference and from top to bottom, they have no weaknesses. They have pass rushers, fast linebackers, and a secondary full of future NFL draft picks. Last year’s SEC sack leader, Carlos Dunlap, teams up with senior Jermaine Cunningham to form a lethal defensive-end combo. Those two, along with middle-linebacker and vocal leader Brandon Spikes, will strike fear in the hearts of their SEC opponents. That being said, the best unit of the team might be the secondary. They are physical and will create turnovers, led by safeties Ahmed Black and Major Wright, as well as cornerback Joe Hayden and Janoris Jenkins—four of the conference’s best. On offense, it’s all about Tim Tebow. The Heisman winner from 2007 is a get-it-done type of player who is improving his throwing ability. The break-out star this year for Florida will be tight-end Aaron Hernandez, who possesses good hands and will be the go-to guy around the red zone. The only causes for concern are how well the new offensive-line gels, and how to replace dynamic playmaker Percy Harvin. Their toughest conference matchups will be a trip to Baton Rouge and the game against Georgia, which will take place on a neutral field. The Crimson Tide shares the same uneasiness about losing starters on the offensive line, especially since they’re breaking in Greg McElroy as the new starting quarterback. Despite the O-line concerns, the Tide’s cast of running backs and sophomore receiving sensation Julio Jones give them the offensive weaponry necessary to win the conference. The defense, led by massive Terrance Cody, Lorenzo Washington and linebackers Rolando McClain and Dont'a Hightower, is strong up the middle and can stop the run with the best of them. Their big play guy is Javier Arenas, and Kareem Jackson is ready to have a breakout season. Alabama will have to be on point to start the year as they will face Virginia Tech in their opener. They also have tough games at Ole Miss and against LSU.

The Contenders: LSU & Ole Miss:
LSU was a disappointment in 2008. They were a five-loss team with a dreadful passing game and a defense that let up too many big plays through the air. This year, Jordan Jefferson is the new quarterback. He performed well in LSU’s bowl game last season and his mobility will help the Tigers’ offense. But it’s all about Charles Scott, the physical number one back. He’s last year‘s conference touchdown leader and the offensive star who could carry LSU to a title game. A big part of the offense is the play of electric receiver Brandon LaFell. The senior is experienced and has good hands. The defense will be better than a year ago-junior safety Chad Jones is the guy to keep an eye on, he should have a big season. They’re going to need Rahim Alem to continue to be a sack machine, and for Pep Livingston to step up. If those two things happen, the LSU front will be more than difficult to contain. They play what is arguably the toughest conference schedule in the SEC, facing all the top teams-trips to Ole Miss, Georgia, and Alabama plus Florida at home. Nevertheless, they’re contenders along with the new kids on the block, the Mississippi Rebels. The edge that Mississippi has over any SEC West team is at quarterback. Jevan Snead is the top returning passer of the conference and shows no signs of slowing down. Even though they lost deep threat Mike Wallace, the Rebels return Shay Hodge, who caught everything (including eight touchdowns) last season. Wide receiver Dexter McCluster was second in the SEC in all-purpose yards, racking up receiving yards and big rushes out of the “Wild Rebel” formation. Because they bring back some dazzling ball-carriers, the offensive line could be the difference between the team being mediocre and playing for a SEC title. The departure of Michael Oher is a big loss and with only two returning starters back the lack of experience could end up catching up to them. If the line does hold up, expect big things from sophomore Brandon Bolden. He excelled down the stretch of last season, averaging 5.5 yards a carry and five touchdowns.

The Sleeper: Georgia:
The Bulldogs have a chance to be a better team despite losing Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno. The reason—they’ll have a healthier team. Yes, Georgia was a top team last year but injuries really set them back at times, especially in the trenches. The defense will greatly benefit from healthier players. Returning from injury is senior Jeff Owens, who along with Geno Atkins gives them two All-Conference tackles. They missed Owens last season, and struggled to stop teams who played smash-mouth football. The team’s leading tackler, linebacker Rennie Curran, returns, as does playmaker Akeem Dent. The offensive line also suffered from injuries last year. The unit is the strong suit of the offense and will be able to block for Moreno’s replacement, most likely Richard Samuel. If quarterback Joe Cox has the intangibles as described and can get the ball to A.J Green, the Bulldogs could surprise some people.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Tim Tebow (Florida) vs. QB Jevan Snead (Ole Miss): Tim Tebow
is the returning SEC offensive player of the year and without question, the favorite to win the award again. Last year he was in the top ten in the conference in both passing and rushing. Tebow’s duel threat ability puts him in a class of his own, but his stats could go down in 2009—his carries diminished last year and replacing Harvin will be no easy task. That’s why Jevan Snead must be mentioned as a top contender for the award. He was overshadowed last year by Tebow and Matthew Stafford and his overall numbers suffered because of a suspect start to the season. This year Snead will come out of the gate strong, and with an array of receivers around him, he’ll be airing it out plenty.

Honorable Mention: RB Charles Scott (LSU), RB Michael Smith (Arkansas), WR Julio Jones (Alabama), WR A. J. Green (Georgia)

Defensive Player of the Year: S Eric Berry (Tennessee) vs. DE Carlos Dunlap (Florida):
Like the offensive award, the returning Defensive Player of the Year is back, too. Tennessee’s Eric Berry was awesome last year, winning the award as a sophomore. He led the conference in interceptions and led a very good Vols’ secondary. He was the team’s MVP, the one bright spot of their 5-7 season. The defense is better this year, and Berry will be as dangerous as ever. But he wasn’t the only sophomore defensive star in the conference. The Gators’ Carlos Dunlap led the SEC in sacks and was the defensive MVP of the title game. He’s relentless, finishes out plays, and is a great pass rusher.

Honorable Mention: DE Rahim Alem (LSU), DL Malcolm Sheppard (Arkansas), LB Joran Norwood (South Carolina), LB Rolando McClain (Alabama), LB Brandon Spikes (Florida)

Breakout Seasons: QB Jordan Jefferson (LSU) & RB Richard Samuel (Georgia): Jordan Jefferson’s performance against Georgia Tech in the Peach Bowl gave SEC fans a glimpse of what LSU could do if they had a decent quarterback. I think Jefferson will be more than just decent this year—he showed he had a good arm in the three games he started in 2008 and with a real good group of receivers, he has the tools around him. What Jefferson also has is mobility. The Bulldogs’ Richard Samuel had a fantastic summer after missing the spring with a wrist injury. He won the job over the favorite Caleb King and speedster Carlton Thomas, and with the Georgia offensive line now healthy, Samuel is poised for a great 2009 campaign.

Best Pro Prospect: Eric Berry, Tennessee: Eric Berry has a long list of accomplishments already. He’s won Defensive Player of the Year and All-American honors, and is a Nagurski Trophy candidate. He led the nation in interceptions and is 15 yards away from becoming the NCAA’s all-time leader in interception return yardage. Berry has no weaknesses and is playmaker of the highest caliber. He is a tremendous pass defender, always making things happen and getting to the ball, to the tune of 13 passes broken up last year. The Vol is a top prospect—he’s quick, skillful, and physical. In other words, he’s a complete player and a future NFL safety.

College Football Insiders Picks:

Conference Champion: Alabama Crimson Tide:
Even though they have to break in a new quarterback, Alabama is a favorite in the conference and the pick to win it. Julio Jones is a star wide-out and one of the most dangerous offensive players in the nation. He will continue to thrive, making plays all over the field with the ball, plus running back Mark Ingram is primed for a break-out season. They’re good on offense and dominate on defense. There is nothing not to like about the big D; they have run stoppers and shut down players in the secondary. The team that was so close last year gets it done this year. Trust Nick Saban to make this prediction come true.

Offensive Player of the Year: QB Jevan Snead, Ole Miss: This is a long shot considering he’s going up against a Heisman trophy winner, but Jevan Snead’s going to beat out Tim Tebow for this award. There is a lot of pressure on Snead to have a big season and I believe he will respond and flourish. With his talent and the versatility and athleticism around him, he’s going to have a good year both in the win column and statistically. With another year leading this offense and learning Houston Nutt’s system, Snead is really going to be big. (Note: Yes, I filled this out myself and no, I will not be taking it back.)

Defensive Player of the Year: DE Carlos Dunlap, Florida: Returning sack leaders don’t usually put up the same numbers in their encore seasons, but Carlos Dunlap will be an exception to that trend. His skill, pass rushing, and production all improved throughout 2008 and I think he will continue that momentum into this year. Because Florida has a very good defensive line and is effective when blitzing, opponents won’t be able just key in on Dunlap. The more one-on-ones he receives as a result, the better his numbers will be. By the end of 2008, Dunlap was a different player. If he plays the whole year like he did in the title game, double-teams won’t even matter.

Photos Courtesy of SEC Sports Media