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May 23, 2006

Magazine Review: Florida picked to win the East

The season is still more than three months away, but college football previews already are hitting the shelves in Gainesville. I guess it is never too early to start quenching your SEC football thirst.

If you buy one SEC magazine, make sure it is Sporting News. For years, Sporting News has produced the best national previews, and this time its 128-page regional edition is just as good. The eight-page packages on each SEC team are concise, colorful and informative. In lieu of long features that usually are not well-written, the magazine has 20 pages of lists, charts, predictions and recruiting analysis at the front and a national schedule at the back. The magazine gets right to the point, projecting every team's record, SEC finish and the outcome of the SEC Championship Game on page 1. Gotta like that.

Here are the highlights, lowlights and any other points of interest:

1) Backing up the boast

The tag on the cover, "Your ultimate guide to the nation's best league," could be seen as pandering (Does the Big 12 preview state, "Your ultimate guide to the nation's third-best league?"), but it is no empty statement. Sporting News writer Tom Dienhart puts four SEC teams in his national top 12, with Auburn No. 3, LSU No. 4, Florida No. 8 and Georgia No. 12. No other conference has more than two teams in that dandy dozen. Six SEC teams are in the top 25, with Tennessee (No. 18) and Alabama (No. 25) rounding out the list. Next best are the ACC, Big Ten and Big 12 with four.

2)Second best

Two is the magic number for Florida. Sporting News predicts UF will lose twice in the regular season. It forecasts a second-place finish in the league with a loss to Auburn in the SEC Championship Game. In ranking players by position, it has six UF players second - quarterback Chris Leak (behind Auburn's Brandon Cox), fullback Billy Latsko, inside linebacker Brandon Siler, outside linebacker Earl Everett and place kicker Chris Hetland. Defensive tackle Brandon Siler is the only UF player listed No. 1 at his position.

3)Dominant defense

Sporting News loves Florida's defense. It rates the front four as the best in the SEC - "the league's best run-stuffing tackle (Marcus Thomas) and a talented rush end (Jarvis Moss) highlight a deep and athletic unit." It lists the linebackers No. 1, too - "Brandon Siler and Earl Everett are All-American-type players who can stuff the run and cover." Writes Dienhart: "The Gators will have a ferocious defense. And that might be enough for Florida to win the SEC for the first time since 2000."

4)Fearless Forecast

All magazines make predictions, but Sporting News goes the extra mile. It forecasts the result of every game for every team in the SEC. Simply writing that Florida will go 10-2 does not reveal much, but it is much more interesting to find out how the Gators are supposed to get there. In this case, it's with an early-season loss at Tennessee, bounce-back victories over Alabama and LSU, a loss at Auburn and wins at home over Georgia and South Carolina to clinch the SEC East before a third consecutive victory over FSU.

5)O-line troubles

The bottom line about UF's offensive line is that it could be in the bottom half of the SEC, according to Sporting News. Florida's units are third or higher at every other spot, but the blockers come in at No. 7. Says an anonymous NFL scout: "This team is loaded with skill players, but that offensive line better improve or it will get ugly when the meat of the schedule arrives. There is no one on that line who scares you right now." The magazine lists center Steve Rissler as UF's best returning lineman.

6)Good facts

Sporting News separates itself from other magazines by going beyond the obvious. It points out that Florida's coaching staff returned intact for the first time since 1997. It lists turnover differential as one of seven statistical categories for each team, revealing that Florida was first in the SEC and third in the nation last year. It has a chart listing the three conference opponents each SEC team does not face, allowing the ready an easy comparison of schedule strength. It cautions Vanderbilt fans to prepare for misery through 2010 after a surprising 5-6 record last season, pointing out the Commodores won 11 games in five years after going 5-6 in 1999. Oops, there went the potential Vanderbilt buyers. Both of them.

7)Picky, picky

Almost every preseason magazine has contradictions because different writers write different sections, and Sporting News is no exception. On page 18, we read that Florida could have the best defensive line in the nation if Ray McDonald is healthy. On page 32, we read that if McDonald is healthy, Florida will have the second or third best line in the SEC. UF's defensive preview mentions tackle Steven Harris as a key figure without mentioning his absence from spring drills and tenuous status.

8)Say what?

There are no howlers, but there are a few head-scratchers. One offensive lineman for each team is listed as a rising star, and Sporting News chooses Carlton Medder for UF. Who told the magazine that UF's coaching staff believes senior linebacker Brian Crum is ready for a huge season? Doubt it was one of the coaches. Anyone who watched Steve Spurrier's offenses at Florida knows he used the pass to set up the run, but the South Carolina preview says his best Gator teams had more running than passing. A)That's not accurate. B)In 1995 and '96, when it was accurate, UF build up huge leads throwing, then ran out the clock in the second half on the ground.

And this love for Georgia's running backs is excessive. A scout says a healthy Danny Ware is the best runner in the nation. The team preview says Ware, Thomas Brown and Kregg Lumpkin are the best trio in the nation. Really? They accounted for 1,463 yards on 314 carries last season. UF's maligned trio of DeShawn Wynn, Markus Manson and Kestahn Moore gained 1,263 yards on 259 carries, a better average per carry with only 200 fewer yards.

9)Clip and save

The Sporting News predicts wide receiver Andre Caldwell can catch 70 passes for 1,000 yards and 10 touchdowns. It predicts Moss will rack of double figures in sacks. It lists Leak as one of the SEC's top three Heisman candidates but says his starting job could be in jeopardy by mid season if he does not get a grip on coach Urban Meyer's system. Writer Matt Hayes predicts no one from the SEC will be in the national championship picture because the teams will beat up on each other.

10)Miscellaneous

Meyer makes the best halftime adjustments of any coach in the SEC, according to Sporting News. Spurrier is listed as the best game planner, and Mark Richt makes the best in-game adjustments. Not sure what the distinction between halftime and in-game adjustments is. … Co-defensive coordinators Greg Mattison and Charlie Strong and offensive coordinator Dan Mullen do not crack the list of top three coordinators at their spot. The Swamp wins the honor for best game atmosphere. Percy Harvin is one of the top four newcomers to watch along with Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford, Alabama offensive tackle Andre Smith and Arkansas quarterback Mitch Mustain.


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