EAST DIVISION PREVIEW
Florida. Nebraska was the last team to win back-to-back outright national championships in 1994 and 1995, and the 1995 Huskers, widely considered the best team in the history of college football, were a huge favorite to defend their crown. Florida might match that high level of expectation entering 2009. The Gators are loaded across the board after winning the 2008 national championship, led by the 2007 Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Tim Tebow. However, it's the Florida defense that deserves the headlines. After allowing only 12.9 points per game and after limiting Oklahoma's record-setting offense to 14 points in the BCS Championship Game, the Gators return several starters on defense. The schedule is even favorable for Florida, with the toughest game at LSU Oct. 10, and with no regular-season games against Mississippi or Alabama. The traditionally competitive SEC East Division should be a Gator runaway this season.
LAST YEAR: 13-1 (7-1 in SEC, 1st East Div., won 31-20 against Alabama in SEC Championship Game), BOWL GAME: BCS Championship Game, def. Oklahoma, 24-14, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 11-2, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: N/A, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 4-0
Georgia. Despite yet another 10-win season in 2008, Georgia fans were a bit disappointed with the results. After all, the Bulldogs began last season ranked #1 in some polls, but watched rival Florida win the national title, thumping Georgia 49-10 along the way. However, 2009 doesn't figure to be the year Georgia gains revenge, as the Bulldogs must replace quarterback Matthew Stafford (the first pick in the NFL draft) and running back Knowshon Moreno. Receiver A.J. Green does return, giving the new Georgia quarterback a dangerous weapon. Linebacker Rennie Curran must lead a revamped Georgia defense. Georgia's non-conference schedule is one of the country's most challenging, with road games against Oklahoma State and Georgia Tech and a home game against Arizona State.
LAST YEAR: 10-3 (6-2 in SEC, 2nd East Div.), BOWL GAME: Capital One Bowl, def. Michigan State, 24-12, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 4-7-1, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: N/A, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 1-2-1
Kentucky. After back-to-back eight-win seasons, Kentucky slipped a little bit in 2008, finishing last in the SEC's East Division. However, Kentucky salvaged its season with a 25-19 win against East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. If Kentucky is to make a fourth straight bowl game, it will probably rely on an offensive line that allowed only 13 sacks last season. Defensively, the Wildcats will benefit from the return of end Jeremy Jarmon and cornerback Trevard Lindley, both of whom considered entering the NFL draft early. Kentucky's schedule is front-loaded with games against Florida and Alabama, but the schedule is soft over the second half of the season, with four winnable home games.
LAST YEAR: 7-6 (2-6 in SEC, 6th in East Div.), BOWL GAME: Liberty Bowl, def. East Carolina, 25-19, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 6-6, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 1-1, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: N/A
South Carolina. When South Carolina hired Coach Steve Spurrier after the 2004 season, no one could've guessed that the program's biggest struggles under the Ol' Ball Coach would be in developing a quarterback and in overall offensive production. In 2009, South Carolina will turn to quarterback Stephen Garcia, who has been suspended three times in his career with the Gamecocks. The offensive problems for South Carolina last season prompted Spurrier to begin calling plays again in 2009. South Carolina's defense, which was solid through most of last season, must replace some key players this season. Couple those problems with the three straight blowout losses South Carolina suffered to end 2008, and the Gamecock fans are restless. Season-opening road trips to North Carolina State and Georgia will provide an early clue to South Carolina's prospects in 2009.
LAST YEAR: 7-6 (4-4 in SEC, tie-3rd East Div.), BOWL GAME: Outback Bowl, lost to Iowa, 31-10, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 5-6-1, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 0-1-1, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 1-1
Tennessee. New Vols Coach Lane Kiffin wasted no time generating headlines in the off-season with his mouth. It remains to be seen whether he can make headlines with his team's play on the field in 2009. Tennessee, which fired long-time Coach Phil Fulmer during the 2008 season, will return seven starters on both sides of the ball from last season. The Volunteer defense, led by safety Eric Berry, should be solid again, especially with the addition of highly successful, veteran NFL defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. Improvement needs to happen offensively for a Tennessee team that was held to 14 or fewer points seven times and that lost at home to Wyoming, 13-7. The schedule is brutal, with road trips to Florida, Alabama, and Mississippi.
LAST YEAR: 5-7 (3-5 in SEC, 5th East Div.), BOWL GAME: None, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 5-7, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 0-2, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 0-1
Vanderbilt. Few coaches have done more with less than Vanderbilt Coach Bobby Johnson, who in 2008 led Vanderbilt to its first bowl win in 53 years. After five straight wins to open 2008, the Commodores survived a rough finish to the season to qualify for the Music City Bowl, where they defeated Boston College, 16-14. Vanderbilt rode a strong defense in 2008, which allowed more than 24 points only once. The Commodores should be strong defensively again, despite losing cornerback D.J. Moore. The Vanderbilt quarterback situation is unsettled, which is bad news for a team that topped 16 points only once in its final nine games.
LAST YEAR: 7-6 (4-4 in SEC, tie-3rd East Div.), BOWL GAME: Music City Bowl, def. Boston College, 16-14, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 8-5, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 2-1, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 0-1
WEST DIVISION PREVIEW
Alabama. With Florida's dominance in the post-season, it's easy to forget it was Alabama that ruled the SEC during the regular season. The Crimson Tide rolled to a 12-0 record before losing, 31-20, to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. Alabama then lost to Utah, 31-17, in the Sugar Bowl, making Alabama a bit of an after-thought entering 2009. Still, Alabama figures to be very strong again under Coach Nick Saban. Quarterback John Parker Wilson graduated, along with star offensive tackle Andre Smith. Alabama's defense, though, should be one of the best units in the country, led by cornerback Javier Arenas. The Crimson Tide led the country in rushing defense last season. A season opening, neutral-site game against powerful Virginia Tech will provide a strong clue to Alabama's hopes to be involved in the national championship hunt again this season. Alabama does not play Florida or Georgia during the regular season.
LAST YEAR: 12-2 (8-0 in SEC, 1st West Div., lost 31-20 to Florida in SEC Championship Game), BOWL GAME: Sugar Bowl, lost to Utah, 31-17, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 9-5, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: N/A, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 3-0
Arkansas. The Razorbackss will be looking to improve its quarterback situation this season behind Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett. Considering the Razorbacks lost three games by a total of six points over the last half of 2008, improved quarterback play just might be enough to propel Arkansas from a 5-7 record to a bowl berth. Second-year Coach Bobby Petrino returns eight starters on offense and nine on defense. However, the Arkansas defense ranked last in the SEC last season. The Razorback schedule is brutal, with road trips to Alabama, Florida, Mississippi, LSU, and Texas A&M.
LAST YEAR: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC, tie-4th West Div.), BOWL GAME: None, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 5-6, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 3-2, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 0-1
Auburn. Former Tigers Coach Tommy Tuberville never quite seemed to have the backing of the Auburn fan base, despite a 13-0 season in 2004. So, it probably wasn't surprising that when the Tigers finally had a poor season and missed a bowl in 2008, Tuberville was fired. New Coach Gene Chizik was a successful defensive coordinator for Auburn under Tuberville, and he returns to Auburn after a dismal 5-19 stretch as a head coach at Iowa State. Chizik inherits an Auburn team that played strong defense last season, allowing more than 20 points only four times. The Tiger offense is led by running back Ben Tate, but Auburn will break in a new quarterback. Early home non-conference tests against Louisiana Tech and West Virginia will provide a clue to the direction of Auburn's season.
LAST YEAR: 5-7 (2-6 in SEC, tie-4th West Div.), BOWL GAME: None, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 2-9, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 1-1, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 0-2
LSU. One year removed from a national championship, a 3-5 finish in the SEC West Division led LSU Coach Les Miles to replace his first-year defensive coordinators. A down season is not acceptable at LSU, no matter how many national titles are in the bank. The Tigers opened 4-0 in 2008, but suffered blowout losses to Florida, Georgia, and Mississippi. LSU enters 2009 with some question marks at quarterback, although sophomore Jordan Jefferson should be the starter. Running back Charles Scott, who scored 18 touchdowns last season, returns, too. The schedule is tough, with road trips to Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi, and a home game against Florida.
LAST YEAR: 8-5 (3-5 in SEC, 3rd West Div.), BOWL GAME: Chick-fil-A Bowl, def. Georgia Tech, 38-3, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 3-9, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 0-1, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 2-1
Mississippi. A strong finish to the 2008 season, which included six straight wins and a Cotton Bowl victory against Texas Tech, has expectations as high as they've been in a couple of decades for Mississippi. Second-year Coach Houston Nutt has the Rebels poised to challenge for both the SEC and national championships. If Ole Miss is to live up to the lofty expectations, it will need more consistency than it showed in early 2008, where it lost at home to South Carolina and Vanderbilt, but managed a 31-30 win at Florida. Quarterback Jevan Sneed will be one of the top signal-callers in the country for Ole Miss. The Rebels defensive line should be very strong, led by Ted Laurent and Greg Hardy. The Ole Miss schedule is soft, with no Florida or Georgia on the slate, and LSU and Alabama must visit Mississippi.
LAST YEAR: 9-4 (5-3 in SEC, 2nd West Div.), BOWL GAME: Cotton Bowl, def. Texas Tech, 47-34, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 9-3, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: N/A, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 0-1
Mississippi State. Former Florida offensive coordinator Dan Mullen takes over at Mississippi State for former Coach Sylvester Croom after the Bulldogs won a bowl in 2007 but slipped to 4-8 last season. Mullen has a tall order implementing his spread offense as Mississippi State ranked 113th nationally last season in total offense. Senior running back Anthony Dixon should help ease the transition. The Bulldogs should be strong defensively as they return several key performers. LSU, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida, and Georgia Tech all play at Mississippi State, giving the Bulldogs several chances at pulling an upset.
LAST YEAR: 4-8 (2-6 in SEC, tie-4th West Div.), BOWL GAME: None, 2008 VS. SPREAD: 4-7, 2008 HOME UNDERDOG VS. SPREAD: 3-0, 2008 ROAD FAVORITE VS. SPREAD: 0-1
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