'11 Predictions: SEC

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The SEC East should bounce back, while a familar face tops the West.

The SEC East should bounce back, while a familar face tops the West.

Athlon Sports is in the predictions business. We are currently America’s oldest preseason College Football publication (1967) and have been the most accurate NCAA football predictor over the last five years. With this in mind, and the finale of the 2010 football season quickly approaching, Athlon felt the urge to look ahead to the 2011 season.

Here are “The Way Too Early Predictions for 2011” in the SEC.

One could argue that the Alabama Crimson Tide posted the most impressive bowl performance of any team in the nation. Even with potential losses that few teams could survive, Nick Saban should have his squad back at the top of the SEC in 2011.

Some oddsmakers already have the Tide as the favorite to win the 2011 National Championship. With names like Ingram, Hightower, Barron, Dareus and two different Joneses yet to decide on their NFL future, it’s tough to call them the top team in the nation just yet — especially since most of those names will likely move on to Sunday.

That being said, Alabama does not rebuild, they reload. And they will have plenty of talented options stepping into those voids. Stellar recruiting classes afford Saban the ability to plug in prep All-Americans like A.J. McCarron, Tyler Love, Trent Richardson, Tana Patrick and Jarrick Williams at key positions of loss. If McCarron lives up to his recruiting hype, Bama will once again be in Atlanta battling for an SEC title.

Who they will play is an entirely different issue. In 2010, the SEC East was arguably the worst it has been since its creation in 1992. Subsequently, South Carolina broke its drought this fall, but the Gamecocks will face improved teams at almost every stop along the path of its East title defense. Reworking the front seven will be the biggest issue for the Cocks, but Steve Spurrier has lots of shiny toys to play with on offense. South Carolina returns the best offensive skill players in the league.

Tennessee and Florida have a lot of young talent and both should be improved at the most important position (quarterback). Tyler Bray, with his powerful right arm, proved that he is the future for the Vols — and a bright one at that (especially in the home orange!). The Vols offensive line was incredibly young and it showed this season, but those growing pains could turn them into road graders next season. The Gators will need to replace plenty in the secondary and along the offensive line but have their own prep All-Americans waiting in the wings. The Gators could have the most talented two-deep in the league.

The coaching changes, however, are a different issue. Will Muschamp needs to prove he can be a great CEO and not just a quality defensive coordinator. Charlie Weis has less to prove as an offensive mind, and doesn’t have to worry about those same CEO duties any longer. He should be better than his Notre Dame stint indicated.

That leaves the Georgia Bulldogs, and emerging star quarterback Aaron Murray, coming off their first losing season in Athens in 14 years. The Drew Brees-esque player clearly has the “it” factor and could be the league’s best quarterback in 2011 (assuming Ryan Mallett and Cam Newton go pro). He has a wide array of weapons to choose from, even if A.J. Green goes pro. Mark Richt will need to replace some talent along the line, but there are plenty of options for coordinator Mike Bobo — who will need to succeed in 2011 to keep his job.

On defense, the Bulldogs should be improved in the second year of Todd Grantham’s new 3-4 scheme. Keeping Justin Houston in a college uniform could be the difference for a defense that returns much of the starting line-up. Depth along the defensive line will be an issue, but the newer, younger players should fit the system better.

Heading back out West, it's rebuilding mode for most. LSU, Auburn and Arkansas will each lose arguably their best, and most important, players on the roster. Newton, Nick Fairley and Lee Ziemba are far and away the most imperative cogs to the Auburn Tiger attack. Those names are only the beginning, though, as Auburn could be looking at nearly 15 new starters.

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Athlon takes a way too early look at the SEC in 2011.

Undoubtedly, the NCAA will be lurking around the Loveliest Village on the Plains this offseason. Should they find anything, the fall for Auburn could be even more catastrophic than anyone could imagine. Even if the NCAA doesn’t look the Tigers’ way, Gene Chizik has a massive uphill climb back to the top of the SEC West ahead of him in 2011.

The LSU Tigers lose their top three defensive players as Drake Nevis, Kelvin Sheppard and Patrick Peterson are set to depart. The struggling LSU offense does finally have a chance to be good, however, as all but Joe Barksdale and Terrance Tolliver return. For Les Miles' and Gary Crowton’s sake, this unit better be improved.

And for the Hogs, DeMarcus Love, D.J. Williams and Ryan Mallett top a long list of departing talent.

Mississippi State will also deal with line of scrimmage issues — losing studs Derrek Sherrod and Pernell McPhee — but they have been consistently strong at the point of attack under Dan Mullen. Do they simply have enough talent to win more than one or two big games? Because they will have to win at least six or seven conference games if they expect to climb the SEC West hierarchy and compete with Bama for a conference title.

SEC East 2011 Predictions (key losses):

1. Georgia: WR A.J. Green*, FB Shaun Chapas, OL Clint Boling, OL Josh Davis, LB Justin Houston*, DT Demarcus Dobbs, LB Akeem Dent

2. South Carolina: OL Jarriel King, DE Cliff Matthews, DT Ladi Ajiboye, TE Weslye Saunders, CB Chris Culliver, WR Tori Gurley*

3. Florida: OL Mike Pouncey, OL Marcus Gilbert, OL Carl Johnson, DT Lawrence Marsh, DT Jaye Howard*, DT Terron Sanders, S Ahmad Black, S Will Hill*, CB Janoris Jenkins*, P Chas Henry

4. Tennessee: WR Denarius Moore, WR Gerald Jones, TE Luke Stocker, OL Jarrod Shaw, FB Kevin Cooper, DE Chris Walker, DE Ben Martin, LB LaMarcus Thompson, LB Nick Reveiz, LB Savion Frazier

5. Kentucky: QB Mike Hartline, RB Derrick Locke, WR Randall Cobb*, WR Chris Matthews, DE DeQuin Evans, DT Ricky Lumpkin, DT Shane McCord, LB Danny Trevathan*, LB Jacob Dufrene, CB Paul Warford

6. Vanderbilt: OL Joey Bailey, LB John Stokes, DL Theron Kadri, DE Teriall Brannon

SEC West 2011 Predictions:

1. Alabama: QB Greg McElroy, RB Mark Ingram*, WR Julio Jones*, OL Barrett Jones*, OL James Carpenter, TE Preston Dial, DE Marcell Dareus*, LB Dont’a Hightower*, S Mark Barron*

2. LSU: OL Joseph Barksdale, WR Terrence Toliver, DT Drake Nevis, LB Kelvin Sheppard, DE Pep Levingston, CB Patrick Peterson*, CB Jai Eugene, K Josh Jasper

3. Mississippi State: OL Derrek Sherrod, OL J.C. Brignone, DE Pernell McPhee, LB K.J. Wright, LB Chris Wright, RS Leon Berry

4. Arkansas: QB Ryan Mallett*, TE D.J. Williams, OL DeMarcus Love, OL Wade Grayson, OL Ray Dominguez, DE Damario Ambrose, LB Jerry Franklin*, LB Jermaine Love, LB Freddy Burton, CB Ramon Broadway, DB Rudell Crim

5. Auburn: QB Cam Newton*, OL Lee Ziemba, OL Byron Isom, OL Mike Berry, OL Ryan Pugh, WR Terrell Zachery, RB Mario Fanin, DE Antoine Carter, DT Nick Fairley, DT Mike Blanc, DE Mike Goggans, LB Craig Stevens, LB Josh Bynes, DB Demond Washington, CB Aairon Savage, S Zac Etheridge, K Wes Byrum

6. Ole Miss: DE Kentrell Lockett, DT Jerrell Powe, DT Lawon Scott, DT Ted Laurent, LB Jonathan Cornell, S Johnny Brown, WR Markeith Summers, QB Jeremiah Masoli

* - Underclassmen who could declare for the NFL Draft.

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