Athlon's 2011 SEC Predictions

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Trent Richardson looks to lead Alabama back to Atlanta.

Trent Richardson looks to lead Alabama back to Atlanta.

The SEC West has won the last two BCS championships, and the league’s balance of power remains tilted in a westerly direction heading into the 2011 college football season.

Nick Saban has built a machine at Alabama during his brief tenure in Tuscaloosa, and despite the loss of solid starting quarterback Greg McElroy and 2009 Heisman winner Mark Ingram, the Tide has once again turned its attention toward a national title.

So what about the defending national champs? With decimating losses on both sides of the ball, Auburn seems poised to take a step back, as Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State surge forward in this impossibly stacked division. Much like Bama in first place, Ole Miss seems locked in at sixth as the Rebels try to bounce back from a disappointing 2010 season.

In the East, Steve Spurrier seems to have recaptured some of his old Florida mojo; his Gamecocks are coming off their first division title, and fans are clamoring for more. But a return to Atlanta is far from certain, especially with the ongoing drama with quarterback Stephen Garcia.

It would have seemed unthinkable five years ago, but Mark Richt is probably one mediocre season away from unemployment. Fortunately for him, he has the horses to win the division, led by quarterback Aaron Murray, who has transitioned from question mark to lead Dawg.

There’s a new sheriff in Gainesville, as Will Muschamp inherits a talented roster from Urban Meyer. New offensive coordinator Charlie Weis is one of the more intriguing hires of the offseason, and Gator quarterback John Brantley should be the primary beneficiary of Weis’ pro-style philosophy.

Tennessee will be fighting an uphill battle in Derek Dooley’s second season, while James Franklin’s inaugural campaign at Vanderbilt promises to be long and difficult. Better days seem to lie ahead, though, for both of the Volunteer State’s SEC programs. Kentucky is stout on defense, but the Cats’ offense is in need of some playmakers.

Athlon's 2011 SEC Previews

East West
Florida Alabama
Georgia Arkansas
Kentucky Auburn
South Carolina LSU
Tennessee Mississippi State
Vanderbilt Ole Miss

CONFERENCE NOTES

A NEW CHAMP?

The SEC is on an unprecedented run of national dominance: Auburn’s BCS championship was the league’s fifth in a row, by four different schools.

So will the league make it six in a row? And what are the chances it will be by a fifth different school?

Alabama (the 2009 champ) and LSU (2007) start the year with probably the best chances. But if you were looking for a “new” champ, here are a few candidates:

• Georgia, which last won a national title in 1980, has perhaps the league’s top returning quarterback in Aaron Murray, a highly rated recruiting class and a favorable schedule.

• South Carolina, if it can settle its quarterback issues, has a Heisman candidate in Marcus Lattimore, a bevy of other future NFL players and a coach (Steve Spurrier) who’s won nationally before.

• Arkansas will have a high-octane offense as long as Bobby Petrino is coach, and the defense began to improve last year.

• Mississippi State — which like South Carolina and Arkansas has never won an AP title — already surpassed expectations last year by going 9–4. What if Dan Mullen keeps the upward trend going?

Sure, all four may sound far-fetched. But this time last year, so did Auburn.

Uncertainty Under center?

Has the SEC ever entered a season with less returning star power at quarterback? When a redshirt sophomore (Georgia’s Murray) is arguably the top returning QB, that says something. But there’s still a lot of talent in the league — some stars are sure to emerge.

LSU could be a prime example. While Jordan Jefferson has been erratic, transfer Zach Mettenberger has a chance to be this year’s Cam Newton. OK, maybe a stretch, but Mettenberger (who was kicked off Georgia’s team for off-field issues) has great size and an arm cannon. Alabama’s AJ McCarron, a first-year starter, was one of the nation’s top recruits a few years ago. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray finished last year strong. Florida’s John Brantley could flourish in Charlie Weis’ system. Arkansas’ Tyler Wilson should put up big numbers in Petrino’s offense.

The moral of the story: By year’s end, expect there to be plenty of new stars at the game’s most important position.

Scheduling small — for a reason

Nationally, the SEC takes some pot-shots for its non-conference scheduling. Too weak. Too many hyphenated opponents. Too afraid to travel out of the region.

But how fair is that?

Yes, the trend has been for SEC teams to schedule “down.” Florida famously only plays its arch-rival Florida State while playing the likes of Charleston Southern (in the opener) and The Citadel (late in the season). Most SEC teams now only play one other BCS conference team in non-conference play.

But those ‘one’ games should be pretty challenging this year.

•  LSU opens with defending BCS runner-up Oregon in Arlington, Texas

•  Ole Miss opens with BYU in Oxford.

•  Alabama is playing at Penn State.

•  Georgia opens with Boise State in Atlanta.

•  Vanderbilt plays Connecticut, the defending Big East champion, in Nashville.

•  There are regional or in-state matchups: Auburn-Clemson, Arkansas-Texas A&M, Kentucky-Louisville, South Carolina-Clemson.

Beyond that, what motivation is there for SEC teams to stack their non-conference schedules? When Georgia canceled a series with Oregon last year — by mutual agreement — UGA athletics director Greg McGarity pointed out that non-conference schedule strength essentially doesn’t matter.

“There is no RPI in football,” McGarity said. “At the end of the day if Georgia is 8–0 and beats Georgia Tech, chances are they’re going to play for the national championship.”

There’s also a local economic factor: Because SEC football is such an event, the schools and their towns generate a lot more revenue for home games. In these economic times, who can blame them for wanting to maximize the amount of home games per year?

That factor, and the fact that eight league games a year is challenging enough, mean that the current SEC scheduling model should stay this way for awhile.

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<p> Athlon's countdown to the 2011 season continues with a look at the projected order of finish for the SEC.</p>
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