2010 record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC
Biggest strength: A back end defensively that is destined for the NFL. Nobody in the SEC has a trio of linebackers to match Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw and C.J. Mosley, or a pair of safeties to match Mark Barron and Robert Lester. In a few weeks, Dre Kirkpatrick and Dee Milliner could comprise the league’s top cornerback tandem as well.
Biggest weakness: It’s hard to pinpoint a weakness on a roster this full of talent, but there are some questions. Will either AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims be as effective as predecessor Greg McElroy at quarterback. Can Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks fill the big-play void left by Julio Jones at receiver, and can the defensive line remain potent?
Biggest star: Hightower, due to the medical redshirt he received, has the unique stat of starting 29 games entering his junior season. He has tallied 149 career tackles with 10 tackles for loss and 17 quarterback hurries. What’s more impressive than any numbers is his versatility, as Hightower is excellent inside against the run and can shift outside to rush the passer in lengthy down-and-distance situations.
Biggest future star: Cyrus Kouandjio was considered the top offensive lineman in the 2011 signing class, and the 6-foot-6, 322-pounder apparently has performed well enough to assist an already established front in Tuscaloosa.
Biggest game: The Iron Bowl rivalry has never been bigger following the past two national titles won by Alabama and Auburn, but the biggest game in terms of the league landscape appears to be LSU’s visit to Tuscaloosa on Nov. 5. Both teams are beginning the season ranked in the top five and could still be in that neighborhood when they collide in Bryant-Denny.
Biggest finish: Alabama has been favored in every game since the 2009 SEC championship and should be favored in every game this season. There are three road trips the Crimson Tide will make against powers who are expected to be in down cycles — Penn State, Florida and Auburn — and two more against Ole Miss and Mississippi State, a duo Bama has owned traditionally as well as the past couple of seasons.
2010 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC
Biggest strength: The offensive system under head coach Bobby Petrino, which is headlined this year with the return of receivers Joe Adams, Greg Childs and Jarious Wright. Tyler Wilson steps in for Ryan Mallett at quarterback, and most everybody is expecting Wilson to shine based on Petrino’s track record of cranking out potent throwers. The season-ending loss earlier this month of tailback Knile Davis will make it hard for the Razorbacks to match last season’s success, as Davis rushed for 1,322 yards a year ago and led every tailback in the NCAA who had 200 or more rushes with 6.48 yards per carry.
Biggest weakness: This spot is usually reserved for the defense, but the Razorbacks improved in that area last season and return end Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and defensive backs Jerico Nelson and Tramain Thomas. The biggest concern is actually on offense, where the Hogs must replace a pair of three-year starting tackles, possibly with freshman Brey Cook and junior-college transfer Jason Peacock.
Biggest star: If Childs, a 6-foot-3, 217-pound senior, can show he’s completely over the torn patella tendon he suffered last October, then he could become the league’s best receiver not named Alshon Jeffery. Childs has five 100-yard games in his career, including 164 in last season’s loss at Auburn.
Biggest future star: Cook was among the state’s top two or three prospects last season and benefited by enrolling early. He practiced at tackle this spring but has worked at guard as well during camp, so Cook may have the talent and versatility to be a four-year starter wherever he’s needed.
Biggest game: The Razorbacks should feast on Missouri State, New Mexico and Troy before heading to Alabama for a Sept. 24 showdown. Almost as important as that game is how they respond the following two weeks, when they face Texas A&M in Dallas and Auburn in Fayetteville.
Biggest finish: Going 10-3 again is not totally out of the question even with Davis out, though it will be tough considering none of the games against Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU are at home. This is a program on solid ground, and if the Hogs can split games against Alabama and Texas A&M while Wilson gains experience, then another 10-win season is definitely attainable.
2010 record: 14-0, 8-0 SEC
Biggest strength: Offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who turned down the head-coaching opportunity at Vanderbilt to return for his third season on the Plains. Malzahn will not have Cam Newton at quarterback this season, nor will he have a veteran offensive front, but expect him to get the most from tailbacks Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen and a slew of promising newcomers.
Biggest weakness: The Tigers return fewer starters than any team in the FBS, and their biggest questions start with the replacements for Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley. Barrett Trotter and Clint Moseley return at quarterback but don’t have the versatility Newton possessed, while newcomer Kiehl Frazier has some of those traits but is just a freshman. Jeffrey Whitaker is a potential star at defensive tackle, but the Tigers are young and thin there.
Biggest star: Dyer set the school’s freshman rushing record with 1,093 yards and was the offensive MVP of the BCS title game after shredding Oregon for 143 yards. The 5-9, 207-pounder had 182 carries a year ago and only six went for negative yardage, but he will have to shoulder much more of a load this season.
Biggest future star: Auburn’s 2011 class has a slew of possibilities, including Frazier, but two who could take their lumps due to a rapid learning curve and then shine down the road are left tackle Greg Robinson and left guard Christian Westerman. Robinson and Westerman entered highly touted, and they have worked side by side on the first team for much of the preseason.
Biggest game: The Iron Bowl always is the biggest game, but the best gauge is the same one as last season — game two against Mississippi State. The Tigers prevailed 17-14 last season in Starkville, and it was the first of five games Auburn wound up winning by a field goal or less. Last year’s game was followed by the Newton controversy that affected both schools, and the most notable advantage Auburn has in this year’s matchup is being at home.
Biggest finish: A lot would have to come together for Auburn to start out 4-0, but that’s not unreasonable. Surviving the next four of South Carolina, Arkansas, Florida and LSU might be. Only the games against Utah State, Florida Atlantic, Ole Miss and Samford are expected or surefire victories, but if a third quarterback in three years can thrive under Malzahn, the Tigers might match the 8-5 record in Gene Chizik’s first season and have Tigers fans foaming about a return to the nation’s elite in 2012.
2010 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Biggest strength: Though the Gators do not have a single All-SEC preseason first-team selection, there are emerging stars on the defensive front with Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley. They should be solid at linebacker as well with Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins.
Biggest weakness: Charlie Weis is among the greatest offensive coordinators ever to walk a field, but he could be challenged implementing a productive downfield passing game with quarterback John Brantley and a thin offensive line. Brantley should be much better under Weis than he was in the spread system a year ago, when he threw more interceptions than touchdowns, but here he is as a senior, and the jury is still out as to whether he can be a quality quarterback.
Biggest star: Senior tailback Jeff Demps has won six national titles in track and has averaged 7.1 yards a carry during his college career. How he and fellow senior Chris Rainey, who also has a career 7.1 yards per carry average, fare in terms of establishing the run will go a long way in terms of Florida bouncing back from many of last season’s debacles.
Biggest future star: The Gators uncharacteristically have so many openings at receiver, and Quinton Dunbar appears ready to seize some of that opportunity. A four-star receiver in the 2010 signing class out of Miami, Dunbar has been hailed by teammates for his performances in summer workouts and preseason camp.
Biggest game: Considering 5-3 won the East Division last season, Florida could get swept by Alabama and LSU during the first two Saturdays in October and still have a chance at the division. Which brings us to the Nov. 12 trip to defending East champion South Carolina. The Gamecocks mauled the Gators 29-7 last year in the Swamp, which decided the division, and this year’s rematch could as well.
Biggest finish: Considering the talent Florida always has as well as the addition of Weis, setting a low ceiling on year one of the Will Muschamp era may not be wise. If Demps and Rainey can open up the running game and take the pressure of Brantley, thus giving him confidence to grow in the new system, Florida can return to 10 wins. One problem at the end of the schedule is Florida State, which was mediocre last decade after flourishing in the 1990s but is headed back to national prominence.
2010 record: 6-7, 2-6 SEC
Biggest strength: The Wildcats return 10 defensive starters as well as their top 11 tacklers from last season. They have six starters back on offense and return quarterback Morgan Newton, who made eight starts in 2009. This team could be very similar to the ’02 Wildcats, which did not have much flare offensively but was sound on defense and went 7-5 in the second and final season under Guy Morriss.
Biggest weakness: Although Newton returns, Kentucky lost its most prominent playmakers from a year ago. Gone are running back Derrick Locke and receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews, so the Wildcats are not expected to be nearly as dangerous.
Biggest star: Senior linebacker Danny Trevathan led the SEC last season with 144 tackles, and he finished third in the league with 16 tackles for loss. He enters this season on a streak of nine consecutive games with double-digit tackles, and his four caused fumbles last season ranked second in the conference.
Biggest future star: Kentucky’s top offensive player right now is junior guard Larry Warford, and Warford believes the Wildcat of the future is freshman Darrian Miller. The 6-foot-5, 300-pound Miller was rated by Scout.com among the top 20 tackles nationally and among the top 125 prospects overall.
Biggest game: The Wildcats have turned the tables in their rivalry with Louisville with four straight wins that followed four straight defeats, but the past two meetings have been very close. The Cardinals are nowhere close to where they were under Bobby Petrino, but they did get to a bowl last season under Charlie Strong and appear to be rising again. Kentucky will host Louisville on Sept. 17, and that outcome eventually could determine whether the Wildcats can extend their streak of five consecutive bowl trips.
Biggest finish: Kentucky took a slight step back last season but was not that far away from being an eight-win team considering losses to Auburn at the final horn and at Tennessee, a game in which the Wildcats had complete control early. Despite the experience on defense, it’s difficult to think those offensive talents will be replaced, so matching last year’s 6-6 regular season might be viewed as worthwhile.
2010 record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC
Biggest strength: A defense that can lose talents such as Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard and Patrick Peterson and still be stout. Tigers defenders should be strong again under coordinator John Chavis, as they expect to be led by senior linebacker Ryan Baker, who had 87 tackles and 11 tackles for loss last season, and junior cornerback Morris Claiborne, who had 37 tackles and a team-high five interceptions. The combination of Claiborne and sophomore Tyrann Mathieu should rank among the nation’s top corner tandems.
Biggest weakness: The Tigers were dealt a disappointing blow earlier this month when offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe had to relinquish his duties as offensive coordinator because of Parkinson’s disease. Kragthorpe will continue to coach quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson, Jarrett Lee and Zach Mettenberger, but offensive line coach Greg Studrawa is now the play-caller. This could be a shakeup that LSU quickly overcomes or one that affects the entire season.
Biggest star: Rueben Randle is a quality receiver, but the pick here is Claiborne. The 6-foot, 177-pounder ranked fourth in the SEC with 11 deflections and was third with five interceptions on a defense that led the conference against the pass, allowing just 169 yards per game.
Biggest future star: The one freshman who has received almost daily praise from Les Miles this month is tailback Terrence McGee. The 5-foot-9, 190-pounder was a quarterback last season and led Franklinton High to Louisiana’s 4A state championship, throwing for 203 yards and rushing for 126 in the title tilt.
Biggest game: It’s obvious LSU has a daunting schedule when the pick here isn’t the opener between the No. 4 Tigers and No. 3 Oregon. As long as Nick Saban is in Tuscaloosa, the biggest game for Tigers fans will always be that first Saturday in November. Miles is 2-2 against Saban after the Tigers prevailed 24-21 last season in Baton Rouge, but this year’s game is at Bama, where the Crimson Tide won 24-15 two years ago.
Biggest finish: Considering LSU has a schedule containing Oregon, West Virginia, Florida and the rest of the SEC West, just equaling last year’s 11-2 mark would be impressive. Some Tigers fans are wanting more than that, but Jefferson has too many highs and lows during his career to exude a feeling that LSU will top 11 wins. Miles has lost at least two games every season, including his 2007 BCS title team, and such a challenging slate pretty much assures more of the same.
2010 record: 9-4, 4-4 SEC
Biggest strength: Florida’s offense hasn’t been the same since Dan Mullen left, and Mississippi State’s offense hasn’t been the same since Mullen arrived. Quarterback Chris Relf and tailback Vick Ballard are not the most recognized names at their respective positions in the SEC, but they are very effective in Mullen’s attack. Relf’s career efficiency rating of 136.87 is the best in program history, and Ballard’s 20 total touchdowns last season set a school mark.
Biggest weakness: The Bulldogs join a pretty big club in terms of not having a starting 22 or the quality depth to hang with the West’s projected top two teams this season — Alabama and LSU. As good as State has gotten under Mullen, and the surge has been impressive, his Bulldogs have been outscored 61-13 by the Crimson Tide. Mullen almost led MSU to an upset of LSU two years ago in Starkville, but the Tigers have won 11 straight in that series.
Biggest star: Though he can get lost in the shuffle with all the great defensive backs in the SEC, Bulldogs senior safety Charles Mitchell is pretty close to the top. The 5-foot-11, 205-pounder has played in all 37 games during his career, amassing 188 tackles and four interceptions. He had 93 tackles last season, including three for loss.
Biggest future star: Because Mullen played seven true freshmen in 2009 and only three last season, the safer pick may be a redshirt freshman, such as receiver Jameon Lewis. The 5-foot-9, 185-pounder is expected to aid a receiving corps headed by Chad Bumphis.
Biggest game: The Egg Bowl is the biggest, but Mississippi State could set the tone for another banner year with a win Sept. 10 at defending BCS champ Auburn. A victory over the youthful Tigers could catapult the more experienced Bulldogs into the top 15, and a win five days later against visiting LSU would cement top-10 status.
Biggest finish: Sweeping Auburn and LSU would certainly provide the West Division with a new look, but it’s a much more likely scenario than sweeping late-season games against Alabama and Arkansas. State went 1-4 against the West last season and went 8-0 against everybody else, and the return of Mullen and 15 starters certainly builds a case for the program’s second 10-win season since World War II.
2010 record: 4-8, 1-7 SEC
Biggest strength: The Rebels have had their share of do-it-all tailbacks in recent seasons, with Deuce McAlllister and Dexter McCluster being the most notable, and they certainly have another in senior Brandon Bolden. The 5-foot-11, 221-pounder rushed for 976 yards and 32 receptions for 344 yards, and he was the only SEC player to lead his team in rushes and receptions. Complementing Bolden is sophomore Jeff Scott, who at 5-foot-7 and 175 pounds isn’t an every down back but is as fast as they come.
Biggest weakness: Ole Miss was miserable defensively, averaging a program record 422 points, or 36.8 points per game. Tennessee hung 52 on the Rebels last season, while Auburn scored 51, Jacksonville State 49 and LSU 43. To make matters worse, the team’s best returning defender, junior linebacker D.T. Shackelford, tore his right ACL in April and is expected to miss the entire season.
Biggest star: Senior offensive tackle Bradley Sowell got off to a rocky start in Oxford because he was thrust into the lineup to fill the void of All-American Michael Oher, he of “The Blind Side” fame. Fast forward to 2011, and the 6-foot-7, 315-pounder has made 24 starts at left tackle and is coming off a junior season in which he was an All-SEC second-team selection. The Rebels led the SEC in fewest sacks allowed last season and produced eight 100-yard rushing performances a year ago from four different runners.
Biggest future star: If there was a silver lining to Shackelford’s setback this spring, it’s that Ole Miss had another star linebacker in the making. C.J. Johnson was a top 25 national prospect in the 2011 signing class after amassing 149 tackles and a pair of interceptions at Philadelphia (Miss.) High.
Biggest game: Ole Miss has not lost three straight games to rival Mississippi State since the early stages of World War II, and losing to the Bulldogs has become the easy part. MSU has placed “Welcome to our State” billboards complete with coach Dan Mullen within the first mile or two of every interstate within the state line, so who knows what would be in store after a third consecutive occurrence.
Biggest finish: The Rebels open with five consecutive games in which they will be expected to hold their own, especially with matchups against Brigham Young and Georgia in Oxford. If they can get out of the gate at 4-1, there could be opportunities against Auburn, Kentucky, Louisiana Tech and Mississippi State to attain bowl eligibility. Because those games with Auburn, Kentucky and MSU are on the road, a 5-7 finish is more likely than 6-6, but Houston Nutt does have a history of surpassing low expectations.
2010 record: 9-5, 5-3 SEC
Biggest strength: The Gamecocks have the ever cagey Steve Spurrier as coach and possess the best tailback-receiver combination in Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery is clearly the league’s top receiving talent following the departures of A.J. Green and Julio Jones, while Lattimore is probably at the head of the league’s tailback class as well.
Biggest weakness: Senior quarterback Stephen Garcia has had some great moments, most notably going 17-for-20 in last year’s upset of top-ranked Alabama, but he’s better known for being a mess. Garcia was suspended for the fourth and fifth times during his college career earlier this year, and how he handles his final go-around in Columbia could determine the entire league landscape. He certainly has the pieces with which to work.
Biggest star: Jeffery has the chance to do what Green couldn’t because of injuries and an NCAA suspension, and that’s to set the SEC’s career receiving mark in only three seasons. The 6-foot-4, 233-pounder needs just 814 yards to surpass the 3,093 Terrence Edwards compiled at Georgia from 1999-2002, or just over half the whopping 1,517 yards he had last season. Green and Jones were two of the top six picks in the 2011 NFL draft, and Jeffery could find himself in that same area next April.
Biggest future star: Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was No. 1 prospect nationally and tallied two sacks in his first scrimmage in Columbia. The hype is there and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson knows it, which is why he has stated repeatedly that Devin Taylor and Melvin Ingram are his starting defensive ends, with Clowney backing Inrgram.
Biggest game: South Carolina won its first SEC East title last season and has been picked this summer as the division favorite for the first time. The Gamecocks could go a long way in repeating their title with a win Sept. 10 at Georgia, which has been picked second in the East in most polls. Spurrier has not dominated Georgia in the same manner he did during his 12 seasons at Florida, but his Gamecocks have split the past four series meetings, which is outstanding from a historical standpoint.
Biggest finish: If the Gamecocks can’t beat Georgia, then they must prevail Oct. 1 against Auburn, the only team they have yet to defeat since joining the SEC. Even if South Carolina sweeps those two games, there could still be plenty of potential potholes with trips to Mississippi State and Arkansas, which mutilated the Gamecocks a year ago in Columbia. If Garcia has his head on straight, this team has the talent and the coaching to go 12-2. Because of his history, however, would anybody be surprised with 8-5?
2010 record: 2-10, 1-7 SEC
Biggest strength: The energy being provided by new coach James Franklin and the return of 19 of 22 starters, the most of any team in the SEC. It’s hard to delve knee-deep in admiration of Franklin considering he has never been a head coach, but there is no question that Robbie Caldwell, though very likable, was in well over his head last season after predecessor Bobby Johnson bolted.
Biggest weakness: The adage that a team is only is good as its quarterback was pretty evident last season. Just ask Auburn, which added Cam Newton and won the national title, and Florida, which had to replace Tim Tebow and went from 13 wins to eight. Larry Smith has struggled throughout his career in Nashville — Vandy ranked 118th last season in completion percentage — and backup Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Aaron Rodgers, has battled injuries since transferring from junior college.
Biggest star: Senior cornerback Casey Hayward has proven time and time again that he can hold his own against the top receivers in college football. Hayward led the SEC last season with 17 pass deflections and ranked second in the league with six interceptions. Throw in senior safety Sean Richardson and Vanderbilt has the most undervalued secondary tandem in the league.
Biggest future star: Josh Grady, a 6-foot, 185-pound freshman dual-threat quarterback from Tampa isn’t expected to supplant Smith and Rodgers in stepping under center, but his athleticism has been appreciated this month in Nashville. Coaches are looking for ways to get Grady, who plays the violin and wants to be a heart surgeon, on the field.
Biggest game: If Franklin wants to set the tone for a positive era in Commodores football, he needs to produce a win over Connecticut on Sept. 10 or Ole Miss on Sep. 17, and each of those is in Nashville. A win over UConn would be huge from a perception standpoint considering the Huskies played in a BCS bowl last season, and a win over the Rebels would be the fourth in five years.
Biggest finish: Even with a fresh attitude and so many starters back, it’s difficult to see the Commodores challenging for a second bowl trip in four years. That said, this program could certainly double its victory total from two to four. So let’s go somewhere in the middle for a best-case scenario of 5-7, which would mean more victories than the past two seasons combined.