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From the Sidelines

The Southeastern Conference would seem to be, once again, an inverted Weeble – lots of power at the top, winnowing into a pool of teams that won’t compete for anything beyond the mid-level bowl games.

Look again.

The SEC has produced the last four BCS national champions but if it happens again this year, it likely will be the result of big plays made by players we don’t know – yet.

Sure, Alabama has Mark Ingram and Greg McElroy returning. Ingram has a shot at a second consecutive Heisman Trophy, but he probably will sacrifice carries so Bama’s other ridiculously talented tailback, Trent Richardson, will be more productive. And McEloy, who claimed to be playing quarterback with “false confidence” last season as a first-time starter, now can play with the real deal, born of knowing what it takes to lead his team to an undefeated national title. Of course, never having started a losing game, either in high school or college, does wonders for a QB’s confidence, too.

Still, the Crimson Tide must replace the likes of defensive lineman Terrence “Mount” Cody, defensive back/return specialist Javier Arenas and all-world linebacker Rolando McClain, who brought not just raw ability, but the smarts that made him the top defensive player in the country.

The team Bama squashed in the SEC Championship game last year, Florida, bid a tearful goodbye to legendary quarterback Tim Tebow (okay, it was probably Tebow who had the waterworks going, and Urban Meyer as well). And Tebow’s favorite receivers, wideout Riley Cooper and tight end Aaron Hernandez, also have moved on.
But the Gators, perhaps more importantly, also lost six starters on defense, including linebacker Brandon Spikes and defensive end Carlos Dunlap.

As you can see, between them, the two teams lost what amounts to an all-star team. But you also know Meyer and Nick Saban rarely are caught without capable newbies, just waiting for the opportunity to prove they were worth the five stars they earned from various recruiting services.

Still, Saban had a point when he answered my question about the appearance that the SEC is, based on pre-season all-star voting, top-heavy:

“I think just the opposite,” he told me. “I think just the opposite. I think realistically. The media doesn’t always look at things realistically.
“Probably the two teams that were at the top are the two teams on paper that lost the most. I think a lot of the other teams have a lot of good players coming back,” Saban said. “I see more parity coming back, with the top teams maybe coming back toward the pack and everybody else improving. That’s how I look at it – realistically.”
Point taken.

Alabama still is the team to beat in the West, and not just because the Tide is defending division, league and national champion. It has the most talent in the division, if not the league. But arch-rival Auburn figures to take a giant stride toward the team it loves to hate.

The Tigers, in their second season under Gene Chizik, lost talented tailback Ben Tate. And they’ll likely entrust the starting QB job to a juco transfer, Cameron Newton. He’ll have to master the challenge of operating a high-octane attack that never seems to take a breath, or give opponents the opportunity to catch one.

But what pleases Chizik the most is that his defense, which gave up far too many points last year, features a huge front line, as well as returning experience at linebacker and defensive back.

LSU is just three seasons removed from a national title, but the Bayou Bengals have been sliding. They lost four games last season, which didn’t sit well with Tiger fans who watched their former coach win a BCS championship.

Quarterback Jordan Jefferson returns after a freshman season that was sometimes rocky, sometimes rollicking. The Tigers were 11th in the league in rushing offense and Jefferson was sacked 34 times – sure evidence that the O-line must improve. And while the defense, third in scoring D last season, returns all-star linebacker Kelvin Sheppard, it lost eight starters.

Arkansas will go as far as quarterback Ryan Mallet takes it. At 6-foot-7, 240 lbs. with a cannon for a right arm, Mallet is perfect for Bobby Petrino’s pro-style offense. And eight other starters return to the offense, although the Razorbacks did lose explosive tailback Michael Smith.

But the Hogs last year were last in scoring defense and last in pass defense in 2009. Improvement there needs to be dramatic.
The Mississippi schools, like Florida and Alabama, both had key personnel losses. Mississippi State said goodbye to SEC rushing champion Anthony Dixon (126.5 yards per game), though the Bulldogs do return running QB Chris Self, who might share the job with Tyler Russell. Four starters are back on the O-line and there’s a ton of size on the D-line. The Dogs will be dangerous under second-year head coach Dan Mullen.

Mississippi figures to take the largest step back. The Rebels, ranked as high as fifth in the pre-season last year, underachieved – and still managed to win nine games.

QB Jevan Snead and tailback Dexter McCluster are gone from the offense; safety Kendrick Lewis and DE Greg Hardy (26 career sacks) must be replaced on defense.

Houston Nutt has recruited well, including DE Wayne Dorsey, a player Nutt was touting at SEC Media Days. But nine wins THIS season would have the Grove on the Ole Miss campus rocking on football Saturdays.

SEC EAST

Florida is still the pick in the Eastern division, Tebow or no Tebow (and it's "no"). John Brantley is the man who stepped in for him last season, when UK defensive end Taylor Wyndham leveled Tebow on national television, putting a shudder into Gator Nation from hundreds of miles away in Lexington.

Meyer agreed when I asked him if Brantley is more along the lines of a Chris Leake, the senior QB in place when Meyer signed on in Gainesville. Leake ran the new offense well enough to lead Florida to a national championship. It's doubtful Brantley will do the same because he doesn't have a similar supporting cast, but he does have a decent offensive line, starting with center Mike Pouncey. The defense has lots of holes to fill, minus six starters. But recruiting classes have been bountiful at UF. Expect a return trip the championship game.

The top challengers in the division figure to be Georgia and South Carolina. The Gamecocks return 15 starters, including QB Stephen Garcia, who would benefit the most from Steve Spurrier's hiring of a new offensive line coach. Garcia was sacked 34 times last season, and the Gamecocks were last in the league in rushing (sack yardage goes against rushing totals in college football). And you can expect to hear a lot about true freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore.

South Carolina, amazingly, has had more consistent defensive squads under Spurrier, long known in college ball for his offensive mind. If both squads move forward, the 'Cocks could challenge Florida for supremacy in the division.

That's something Georgia fans are demanding from Mark Richter, the subject of off-season speculation after an 8-5 season, which includined a homefield, come-from-ahead loss to Kentucky. Never mind the fact that Richt is one of only seven coaches to average 10 victories per season in his first eight years as a head coach. He's one guy who shouldn't have to worry about losing his gig.

The Bulldogs did win four of their last five games, and they return wideout A.J. Green, perhaps the best in the league. But they'll be breaking in a new quarterback AND a new defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, who is switching the Dawgs to a 3-4. Their success will hinge on how quickly the new faces settle in.

Vanderbilt, like Kentucky, has a brand new head coach who moved up from the assistant ranks. The difference is, Joker Phillips has known for a few years. Robbie Caldwell, as he tells it, found out when Bobby Johnson walked into his office in July and dropped the bombshell that Johnson was retiring. Right then.

So Caldwell, who got a standing ovation from writers at SEC Media Days for his presentation laced with cornpone-humor, will try to figure out how to deliver the Commodores back to post-season play. They did it two seasons ago, but then tumbled to an 0-8 SEC record last year.

Vandy features perhaps the most exciting player in the league, Warren Norman, a wide receiver who also excelled at returning kicks and punts. He'll need to do a lot more if the 'Dores are going to improve upon a dismal nine points per game in SEC play.

Vanderbilt's 22-man depth chart features 12 juniors, so a majority of the starters know what it's like to play on a winning team, a rarity in Nashville. It'll be tough to do this season with a non-conference schedule that includes Northwestern, which lost a wild Outback Bowl game to Auburn last year, and a trip to Connecticut. And the Commodores have to find a way to improve a defensive unit that gave up nearly 200 rushing yards per game last year.

The Wildcats, like their SEC brethren, lost valuable manpower from a year ago, and have talent returning. We'll break down their league chances as we draw closer to the season opener.

For now, everybody's undefeated, and every team in the SEC has a chance to play in Atlanta in December.

(Dick Gabriel is a 22-year veteran of the Big Blue Sports Network. You can listen to him Monday-Friday on “Sports Nightly” on 630-WLAP.)


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