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Florida: The identity of the offense following the loss of Tim Tebow was the storyline all throughout spring. But that’s not the case anymore, as John Brantley seems primed to lead this emerging Gators offense in 2010. He looked confident and had a nice command of the huddle in the team’s spring game, and he should have enough playmakers around him to score points. Fifth-year senior Carl Moore could emerge as Brantley’s go-to receiver after the 6-3, 225-pound senior missed the entire ‘09 season to injury. Andre Debose has reminded head coach Urban Meyer of former Gator Percy Harvin, while Chris Rainey has been moved to the slot. Then there’s Deonte Thompson, who could thrive as the Gators’ deep threat. While Aaron Hernandez, Riley Cooper and David Nelson will be missed, UF has plenty of replacements ready to emerge. But who will step up as the voice of new coordinator Teryl Austin’s defense? Lineman Justin Trattou has been named a captain and is expected to carry the load for a unit that lost five defensive starters to either the draft or graduation. Junior William Green is expected to grow into one of Florida’s typical dominant pass rushers, while the jury is out on highly touted freshmen linemen Sharrif Floyd, Dominique Easley and freakish Ronald Powell. Jon Bostic will man the middle at linebacker and has shown the leadership and talent to replace Brandon Spikes. Who will start opposite Janoris Jenkins at cornerback? Overall, the Gators are still the class of the SEC East.
ICONA.J. Green caught 53 passes for 808 yards and 6 TDs in '09.
Georgia: The Bulldogs are coming off of a five-loss season — the most defeats in the Mark Richt era. But there is optimism in Athens — and for good reason. The ground game should flourish behind a solid offensive line. Whether or not Washaun Ealey misses more than just one game to suspension, the Bulldogs are in good shape with junior Caleb King ready to live up to the expectations placed on him when he arrived on campus. New quarterback Aaron Murray must be steady under center, however — Greg McElroy-like. He’ll have a stud receiver in A.J. Green and a loaded tight end unit to look to when under pressure. Forcing turnovers, however, will be crucial for the Bulldogs, as they weren’t a very opportunistic unit in ’09. New coordinator Todd Grantham has installed the 3-4 scheme in an effort to reshape a unit that allowed big plays and huge point totals to its opponents last season. Keep an eye on outside linebacker Justin Houston, who ranked third in the conference in sacks and second in tackles for loss despite missing three games. The Dawgs are a talented group, but a difficult schedule may not reflect their talent in the standings.
South Carolina: It’s still hard to believe that South Carolina has yet to find any offensive rhythm under Steve Spurrier. The Gamecocks couldn’t have played any worse in their Papajohns.com Bowl loss to Connecticut to close out last season. Spurrier described the debacle as a “sad, sad effort” — not quite what you’d expect from a program completing its fifth season with the Old Ball Coach at the helm. But it’s a new season, and Spurrier has full control of the offense after wresting play-calling duties away from his son, Steve Jr. The elder has promised a better rushing attack, as Jarvis Giles and Kenny Miles showed promise as freshmen but didn’t get enough carries within the flow of the offense for the Gamecocks to move the chains. Five-star recruit Marcus Lattimore will also see the field early. And then there’s the enigma, quarterback Stephen Garcia. It’s obvious that Garcia isn’t going to be the savior of South Carolina football, so now it comes down to how consistent the Tampa native can be in this offense. While he threw for 2,862 yards and 17 touchdowns last year, his 10 interceptions always seemed to come at the worst times. With wideouts Tori Gurley and Alshon Jeffery on the field at the same time, the offense has a chance to be explosive if the running game is able to keep opposing defenses honest. But can the offensive line play better? Southern Miss looms as a tricky opener before the Gamecocks battle Georgia. The rest of the schedule plays out as one of the most difficult in the nation.
Kentucky: Rich Brooks may go down as one of the most underappreciated head coaches in SEC history. The former Oregon coach brought the Wildcats up from the bowels of the league to sustained respectability, going 30-22 overall since 2006 and climbing closer to the conference’s middle tier the last four seasons of his tenure. Now it’s up to Joker Phillips to keep the program stabilized and build off the recent success enjoyed by the ‘Cats. Senior quarterback Mike Hartline is primed to quiet his naysayers after a solid spring practice and fall camp, and he has playmakers in Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews in the passing game. Meanwhile, Derrick Locke is as solid a running back as you’ll find. He also is a threat in the passing game, catching 31 passes for 284 yards and two scores in ’09 while being one of the best kickoff returners in the country. Defensively, the Wildcats are always solid. Is this the season UK takes a step up against SEC East competition?
ICONGerald Jones led the Vols in receptions and yards last season.
Tennessee: It hasn’t been a great offseason for the Volunteers. Lane Kiffin bolted, depth became an issue when numerous players transferred after Derek Dooley was named the new head coach, the Bryce Brown saga still hovers over the program and the school is linked to an investigation involving recruiting on Kiffin’s watch. On the field, the offense returns just four starters and seven players return to the defense. With depth a major issue, the immediate future doesn’t look bright for the Vols. However, there are some bright spots. Junior Tauren Poole should be a productive SEC running back after being lost in the shuffle under Kiffin. UT also returns its top three receivers — including senior Gerald Jones. But how will the Vols’ rebuilt — and thin — offensive line fare? Junior-college transfer Matt Simms won the quarterback battle, but does he have SEC talent?
Vanderbilt: College football said goodbye to a respected gentleman when Bobby Johnson abruptly retired, leaving the Vandy program in the hands of offensive line coach Robbie Caldwell. While it’s a program that is much stronger than it was before Johnson’s arrival, it’s a tough place to win. Still, it will be fun to follow the Commodores after Caldwell owned the stage during his hilarious SEC media days presser. On th
e field, running back Warren Norman returns after eclipsing former Georgia superstar Herschel Walker’s record for most total yards by an SEC freshman in ‘09. However, he is questionable for the opener against Northwestern after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee. Can Larry Smith become a more accurate passer? And will his wide receivers be able to stretch the field and make plays? A young offensive line isn’t going to help matters. The defense, however, is solid and is led by linebacker Chris Marve and defensive tackle T.J. Greenstone.
Alabama: Reloading the defense was head coach Nick Saban’s top priority heading into this season as the Crimson Tide look to defend their BCS national title. Despite having a Heisman Trophy-winning tailback in Mark Ingram, the defense was the glue for the team in the undefeated ’09 season. But this fall, could an offense loaded with skill players actually carry the squad and be the key to a repeat title? It may have to, with a ferocious defense losing so much bite — specifically the secondary, which lost three starters and many of the nickel backs and backups as well. Strong safety Mark Barron returns, however, after leading Tide defenders with seven interceptions. ‘Bama was also hit hard at linebacker, starting with the loss of All-America middle linebacker Rolando McClain. Dont’a Hightower and Nico Johnson will be leaned upon to step up in his absence. The Tide also will be replacing all three starting defensive linemen. The eligibility of Marcel Dareus will be crucial to this unit. But getting back to that offense. Ingram, receiver Julio Jones and quarterback Greg McElroy lead a unit that returns 10 starters. Will the Tide open up the offense more? We know one thing: fans will see a lot more of running back Trent Richardson.
ICONGene Chizik brought in a great recruiting class this past offseason.
Auburn: Head coach Gene Chizik put his unspectacular tenure at Iowa State in the distant past with a solid first year at Auburn in ’09. Now, the expectations have been raised — especially with rival Alabama’s national championship serving as daily bragging rights for Tide fans in the state. The Tigers are well-positioned for a serious run at the SEC West division title this season with Florida transfer Cameron Newton running Gus Malzahn’s spread offense. The 6-6, 247-pounder can run and throw, and he’ll be joined on offense by a trio of running backs — Mario Fannin, Onterio McCalebb and Michael Dyer — as well as receiver Darvin Adams, who became one of the SEC’s breakout players last season with 10 touchdowns and 997 yards. The Tigers defense struggled throughout ‘09, as limited numbers at linebacker and along the defensive line took its toll. A very good recruiting class will help some of the depth woes along the front seven on Ted Roof’s unit, but will the group be ready for the customary rugged SEC schedule?
Arkansas: Arkansas head coach Bobby Petrino knows what he’ll get from quarterback Ryan Mallett after his coming-out party last season. The former Michigan transfer amassed 3,627 yards through the air and tossed 30 TDs against just seven interceptions in leading the Hogs to an eight-win season. As good as he was in ’09, Mallett and the Razorbacks can be even better on offense this fall. They are deep in the backfield and are set at wide receiver, where the top five pass-catchers return from a year ago — led by Greg Childs. Tight end D.J. Williams will also get his share of looks from Mallett. As good as the offense will be, can the Hogs play defense? The Razorbacks are going to have to come up with some key stops and win a tough conference road game if they have designs on winning the West. They host Alabama in the fourth week of the season, and that game will set the tone for the rest of the conference season.
Ole Miss: The first five games set up nicely for the Rebels. And although sophomore Nathan Stanley will likely line up under center for the opener, I don’t see how Jeremiah Masoli isn’t entrenched as the starter before the serious SEC competition begins as the Rebels look for their third straight nine-win season. Senior Markeith Summers should have a real productive season at split end, but who else will step up at receiver? Look for Randall Mackey to get the ball in a variety of ways while Brandon Bolden should give the Rebels a productive season on the ground. Defensively, coordinator Tyrone Nix will rely on seniors Kentrell Lockett, Jerrell Powe and Ted Laurent. Keep an eye on junior-college transfer defensive end Wayne Dorsey. I’m not sure the Rebels have enough firepower offensively, but the “free-agent” addition of Masoli helps.
ICONCan Jordan Jefferson manage the game better for the Tigers?
LSU: Quarterback Jordan Jefferson must be better in his game management if the Tigers want to get back to the top of the West. Last season’s version of Jefferson rarely resembled the signal caller who led the Tigers to a Chick-fil-A Bowl thrashing of Georgia Tech to close out 2008. His sophomore year was littered with inconsistency. He held onto the football too long far too often, and he often had difficulty recognizing defensive pressure. Granted, he was playing behind an offensive line that surrendered 37 sacks and never looked comfortable as a group, but Tigers coaches fully expect Jefferson to take that next step in his junior campaign. Terrence Toliver, Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard give Jefferson plenty of options in the passing game, while Stevan Ridley, Richard Murphy and two highly recruited backs who redshirted this past season — Michael Ford and Drayton Calhoun — will be part of a rededicated rushing attack. While coordinator John Chavis must replace seven starters on defense, the Tigers have studs in cornerback Patrick Peterson and middle linebacker Kelvin Sheppard. If the Tigers slip up because of a very difficult schedule, it could turn up the heat — unfairly in my opinion — on head coach Les Miles.
Mississippi State: The Bulldogs enter the second year of the Dan Mullen era after a five-win campaign in ’09. The team played hard every week for the former Florida offensive coordinator, but losing Anthony Dixon is a tough blow as the running back was the heart and soul of the unit. Junior Robert Elliott and junior-college transfer Vick Ballard are expected to share the load and take pressure off quarterbacks Chris Relf and redshirt freshman Tyler Russell. Defensively, the Bulldogs will work more in man-to-man coverage under the more aggressive, attacking scheme installed by new co-coordinators Manny Diaz and Chris Wilson. Improvement in a secondary that allowed 220 passing yards per game last season is crucial for Mullen’s squad to go bowling.
Stay with the NFP as we count down the remaining days until the start of the 2010 college football season on Thursday, Sept. 2.
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