2011 SEC preview

The National Football Post continues its College Football Kickoff Week with the second of six BCS conference previews. Today, the SEC.

Let’s take a look at how the conference could shake out this season, in order of strength of team.

Spencer WareICONNo matter who is under center at LSU, the Tigers can lean on RB Spencer Ware.

LSU: Around the time spring ball began, many believed the biggest question the Tigers would face this fall centered on a defense missing stars Patrick Peterson, Drake Nevis and Kelvin Sheppard. But as we’ve seen over the years, the Tigers just keep reloading. And coordinator John Chavis is one of the best in the nation. So with the recent off-the-field news involving quarterback Jordan Jefferson and receiver Russell Shepard, it’s the offense that has become the biggest question mark. Head coach Les Miles knows he’ll have a strong ground attack led by Spencer Ware, who is coming off of a big Cotton Bowl performance against Texas A&M. And Shepard still has a chance to come back. In the meantime, Reuben Randle will have to carry a bigger load, and freshman Odell Beckham will likely see more action. With Jefferson not in the picture while a felony charge hangs over his head, the job under center is Jarrett Lee’s beginning with the opener Saturday against Oregon. Despite being nicknamed “Pick Six” in 2008 as a freshman for his propensity to give opposing defenses easy touchdowns, Lee helped the Tigers in clutch moments last season while splitting time with Jefferson (see contests against Tennessee and Florida). LSU has won national titles with Matt Mauck and Matt Flynn, so this group can do it again if Lee keeps his mistakes to a minimum. The opener against Oregon at Cowboys Stadium will set the table for the rest of the season — or at least until the team begins its rigorous SEC campaign.

Alabama: While the Crimson Tide finished with one of the better defenses in the nation last season based on the numbers, the pass rush wasn’t the consistent, dominant threat as it was in 2009, and the secondary seemed to give up the big play at inopportune times. Those shouldn’t be concerns in 2011, as this unit is talented, experienced and deep. And it’s not often that head coach Nick Saban would heap so much praise on a unit, but Saban really likes this group, which returns 10 starters. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are the most experienced along the front seven, and the secondary should be much improved. Safety Mark Barron is the veteran of the bunch, while cornerbacks DeQuan Menzie and Dre Kirkpatrick form a tough duo for opposing receivers. Missed assignments and mental errors due to lack of experience shouldn’t be the case in 2011 in that defensive backfield. And no matter who is under center — sophomore AJ McCarron, redshirt freshman Phillip Sims or both — the Crimson Tide should be steady enough through the air to complement the rushing attack paced by Heisman Trophy contender Trent Richardson.

Arkansas: There’s no question that the loss early in fall camp of running back Knile Davis for the season was a tough blow for the Razorbacks. With new starting quarterback Tyler Wilson having arguably the most talented corps of wide receivers in the nation at his disposal, having Davis in the backfield would have given the Hogs one of the better offenses in the country. Still, having Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo, Jr., puts Arkansas in a better position than most teams would be in after losing their top back. The question remains whether either back could get the tough yards in-between the tackles. Meanwhile, head coach Bobby Petrino raved about the team’s overall speed at SEC Media Days, and there’s no question this is his most talented team since arriving at Arkansas. The defense made big strides in 2010, and the unit should be even better this fall. Petrino is primed to make this program an annual Top-15 contender.

Mississippi State: Third-year head coach Dan Mullen has done wonders in Starkville in a short amount of time, as he’s made his Bulldogs a tough “out” every Saturday. Quarterback Chris Relf continues to improve, and the offense will only continue to grow as he matures as a passer. Running back Vick Ballard led SEC running backs in touchdowns, and look for Relf to find receiver Chad Bumphis more often down the field. Defensively, losing coordinator Manny Diaz to Texas hurts. Mullen, however, is confident that the unit won’t miss a beat. While the Bulldogs may not dial up Diaz-like pressure, the defense is still promising. Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd are one of the more underrated tackle pairs in the nation, combining for 14 tackles for loss and five sacks last season. And new coordinator Chris Wilson has a pair of cornerbacks, Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield, who each intercepted three passes last season.

Steve SpurrierICONSteve Spurrier has his most talented team yet at South Carolina.

South Carolina: Steve Spurrier unquestionably has his most talented team yet in Columbia. The defensive line is nasty, and it will become an even bigger strength with the addition of true freshman end Jadeveon Clowney. Super sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender, and receiver Alshon Jefferey is one of the best in the nation. But, as usual, quarterback Stephen Garcia remains the X-factor. After five suspensions as a Gamecock, Garcia gets yet another chance before the Head Ball Coach has to turn to backup Connor Shaw. Garcia had his best season in 2010, and he’ll need to continue that solid play if the Gamecocks want to claim another East division crown. The Gamecocks will also need their 97th-ranked pass defense to improve, and it should because of its pass rush if nothing else.

Auburn: The defending national champions have a very different-looking roster from the one that squared off with Oregon last January in the BCS title game. Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton, defensive tackle Nick Fairley, receiver Darvin Adams and offensive tackle Lee Ziemba headline the personnel losses. Barrett Trotter takes over as the starting signal-caller, and while he isn’t Newton keep in mind that coordinator Gus Malzahn has directed prolific offenses with much less talented quarterbacks. Having running backs Mike Dyer and Onterio McCalebb will also help. The bigger question is on the defensive side of the ball, where the Tigers lost seven starters. They won’t be as strong defending the run, but an improved pass defense could make Ted Roof’s unit more balanced. Last season, the defensive backfield was susceptible to the big play. Helping the cause will be a pass rush that should be effective, led by sophomores Corey Lemonier and Nosa Eguae and junior Dee Ford. It’s hard to imagine Auburn being able to compete for a division crown because the West is so loaded, but head coach Gene Chizik has had stellar results the last few seasons on the recruiting trail. There’s still a lot of talent on this roster, but it’s definitely a new-look squad with only six starters returning.

Florida: First-year head coach Will Muschamp made an instant impact in Gainesville, dismissing star cornerback Janoris Jenkins following his off-the-field issues. However, the secondary now looms as the major question mark for the Gators because two true freshmen are slated to start in the season opener. What could greatly aid the defensive backfield is a line that could be nasty. Offensively, the Gators were almost painful to watch last season. New coordinator Charlie Weis, however, has a strong track record and will make any offense better. Yes, even one quarterbacked by much-maligned John Brantley. The Gators will run a pro-style scheme, so Brantley’s improvement under center is vital to its success. UF will also need Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey to stay healthy and be viable options between the tackles. Finally, can receivers Deonte Thompson, Frankie Hammond, Jr., Quinton Dunbar and Andre Debose produce enough to make this aerial attack prolific enough to move up and down the field consistently on Saturdays?

Georgia: Mark Richt enters a pivotal season in Athens, and things don’t start easy for the head coach who won 10 or more games in six of his 10 seasons with the Bulldogs. Georgia plays Boise State in the opener and faces South Carolina the next week. An 0-2 start could be too tough to overcome for Richt, who has accumulated 12 losses over the last two seasons and led the team to its first losing season since 1996 last year. Quarterback Aaron Murray is coming off of a promising first season as the starter, and he’s arguably already the best signal-caller in the SEC. Freshman running back Isaiah Crowell could have a chance to receive a lot of playing time with a vastly different-looking backfield, but can he have the impact that Marcus Lattimore had at South Carolina last season? And can the offensive line keep Murray upright and open up enough holes for Crowell and Richard Samuel? Todd Grantham’s defense should be improved in year two under his leadership, especially with the improvement of nose tackle Kwame Geathers, the addition of fellow nose Jonathan Jenkins and linebacker Jarvis Jones. But getting off to a fast start is huge, especially because the East once again is winnable in 2011.

Justin HunterICONJustin Hunter gives QB Tyler Bray a legitimate threat at the WR position.

Tennessee: Tyler Bray probably started to make a lot of Volunteer fans worry after his disastrous spring game, but the sophomore quarterback impressed coordinator Jim Chaney and head coach Derek Dooley with his hard work and dedication this offseason. While he’s still a work in progress, as evidenced by his lack of consistency and accuracy in the team’s first few scrimmages, Bray is expected to make a jump in his sophomore season after showing vast potential last year when he assumed the starting role. He has good receivers in Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers, and senior running back Tauren Poole emerged as one of the best in the SEC after being lost in the backfield during Lane Kiffin’s only season in Knoxville. Defensively, however, the Vols will be relying on a lot of inexperienced players while dealing with depth issues. Coordinator Justin Wilcox will have to be creative in replacing safety Janzen Jackson, who was the team’s best defender. Wilcox likes to employ multiple formations and looks, but will the team’s lack of experience and quality depth in the front seven hinder the team’s chances of competing in the SEC?

Kentucky: Second-year head coach Joker Phillips will be looking for offense any way he can get it this fall. All-everything performer Randall Cobb is gone, as is Chris Matthews and Derrick Locke. That trio combined for 32 touchdowns last season and kept the Wildcats in contests they often had no business being in. Running back Raymond Sanders will step in for Locke, but new starting quarterback Morgan Newton will need some weapons to step up at receiver. Can receiver La’Rod King become the new go-to guy on offense after catching 36 passes for 478 yards and five scores in 2010? He had consecutive two-touchdown games against South Carolina and Georgia last season and has big-play ability. Defensively, first-year coordinator Rick Minter will bring a variety of looks to create turnovers — a hybrid of 4-3, 3-4 and some 4-2-5. But can the Wildcats get to the quarterback? Keep an eye on All-America linebacker Danny Trevathan, who led the SEC in tackles last season and bypassed a chance to enter this past April’s NFL draft.

Ole Miss: What direction are the Rebels heading under Houston Nutt? After a 4-8 campaign last season, Nutt is feeling the heat as Dan Mullen and rival Mississippi State are enjoying their ascent. The secondary was porous last fall and remains young even though it looked improved this offseason. The defensive line lacks a standout and starting weakside linebacker Clarence Jackson was dismissed from the team in the spring. That came on the heels of losing linebacker D.T. Shackelford to a knee injury that will likely cost him his senior season. The Rebels will be able to run the ball, however, with a deep backfield highlighted by Brandon Bolden behind a good offensive line. Barry Brunetti, who has just nine career pass attempts, won the starting quarterback job after a tight competition.

Vanderbilt: First-year Commodores head coach James Franklin, the former heir apparent to Ralph Friedgen at Maryland, is getting things done on the recruiting trail. It may not translate into many more wins in 2011, but Franklin is beginning to instill fresh blood into the Vandy program and is hoping to change the losing culture that has been so prevalent in Nashville. While every season will be an uphill battle for the Commodores in the SEC, there is reason for hope in 2011. Larry Smith will have to have a standout senior season under center, but he may have to be on the run because the offensive line is a big concern. And who will step up as playmakers? Wesley Tate leads a strong backfield corps.

Check out the 2011 Big East preview

Email dave.miller@nationalfootballpost.com or follow me on Twitter at Miller_Dave

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