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August 11, 2008

In the loaded SEC, it all starts with coaching

MORE: 2008 SEC Unit Rankings

There are more than a few fans who get tired of hearing about how good the SEC is on an annual basis. Well, those folks are going to have to put their fingers in their ears and say "La-la-la-la-la" a lot this season because the SEC is loaded again - so loaded that it wouldn't be a surprise if a conference team wins the national title for the third consecutive season.

Florida and Georgia in the East and Auburn and LSU in the West are the teams with legit hopes they'll be in Miami for the BCS Championship Game this season. Sure, each of those teams has some holes. But they're also supremely talented and supremely coached.

The good coaching thing is prevalent in this league. Five SEC coaches have won national titles - Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer, Florida's Urban Meyer, LSU's Les Miles, Alabama's Nick Saban and South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. Two others - Georgia's Mark Richt and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville - would be among the first 10 or so names mentioned when a roll call of the nation's best coaches was taken. Arkansas' Bobby Petrino has taken a team to a BCS bowl. Ole Miss' Houston Nutt won two SEC West titles at Arkansas. Kentucky's Rich Brooks has rebuilt the Wildcats' program; the same with Sylvester Croom at Mississippi State. And while Bobby Johnson hasn't had a ton of success at Vanderbilt, he took Furman to the I-AA national title game in 2001.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: Florida quarterback Tim Tebow. It's hard to argue against the reigning Heisman winner, who had a season for the ages in 2007. Tebow is a tough, physical runner, and also an accomplished passer who showed much better touch than expected last season. Still, there are some other worthy candidates, most notably Florida receiver Percy Harvin and Georgia tailback Knowshon Moreno.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Tennessee strong safety Eric Berry. He may be a sophomore, but he plays well beyond his years. He played as consistently as anybody on the Vols' defense last season and is a big-play threat. He's equally adept against the run and the pass, and once he gets stronger he will be a true force.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: Georgia quarterback Matthew Stafford. For all his physical tools - and for all the huzzahs thrown his way - Stafford still has a lot to prove. The guy has a cannon for an arm, but his career passing stats are ordinary: 26 TDs, 23 interceptions and 54.5 completion percentage in 26 games, with 21 as a starter. Moreno will be the focal point of Georgia's offense this season, but given the Bulldogs' murderous schedule, there will come a game - or two - where Stafford's arm is going to have to lead the Bulldogs to victory.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: LSU end Tyson Jackson. By his own admission, Jackson didn't have the season he expected in 2007. He had 3.5 sacks last season, five fewer than he had in 2006. He has everything you'd want in a dominating end, and this is his senior season - which means NFL scouts will be intently watching to see if 2007 was the norm or the aberration.

PLAYER WITH THE BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL: Kentucky quarterback Mike Hartline. Andre Woodson had an exceptional season for the Wildcats last season, throwing for 3,709 yards, 40 TDs and just 11 picks, with a 63.1 completion percentage. Well, he's gone now, along with three of UK's four leading receivers and their leading rusher. Hartline is 6 feet 6 but lacks bulk (he's listed at 201 pounds), and wasn't assured the starting job until Curtis Pulley was dismissed from the team earlier this month. Good news for Hartline is that UK has a plethora of good tailbacks. Still, his inexperience makes it hard to believe UK will be going bowling again.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: LSU wide receiver Demetrius Byrd. Byrd played one season of high school football and committed to Florida International as a senior at Miami's Central High. Alas, he didn't make the academic cut and went to junior college for two years. He was a bit of a mystery man when last season began, but had emerged as a consistent No. 2 threat by the time the season ended. This season, he'll be LSU's No. 1 receiver, which means a 60-catch, 800-yard, eight-TD season is within reach. Also within reach is a first-round selection in the NFL Draft. Quite the rags-to-riches story, huh?

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: Auburn tackle Sen'Derrick Marks. He moves inside from end, and he'll be a disruptive force in the middle for the Tigers. He's squatty (6-1/288) but quick, which means he'll be a handful for opposing centers. Marks is a junior, but if he has the season everyone expects, he'll be in the NFL next year at this time.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead. Snead sat out last season after transferring from Texas, and there's a school of thought that if he had been able to play in '07, Ed Orgeron still would be the Rebels' coach. There's no question Snead will be a huge upgrade over the guys the Rebels have trotted out at quarterback since Eli Manning left Oxford. He's a capable passer and a good runner. The question: How often will he put the ball in the air in Houston Nutt's offense? Another newcomer in the Rebels' backfield will be freshman running back Enrique Davis, a highly touted prep school star. Davis, whose dad played at Florida in the 1970s, signed with Auburn out of high school in 2007 but didn't make it academically. He should get a lot of opportunities in Nutt's offense.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Tennessee linebacker Gerald Williams. Let's put it this way: If Williams - a junior college transfer - struggles in the middle, the Vols' run defense is going to be shaky again. The Vols return just one starting linebacker, and Williams is being counted on to step in and make plays from Day One.

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: None, really. For the first time in a long while, no SEC coach is in imminent danger. That said, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer who led his team to the SEC East title last season, then received a four-year extension was feeling the heat before (and during) last season. If his Vols finish lower than third in the division, he'll be back on the hot seat entering 2009.

BEST COACHING STAFF: Florida. This is a nice mix of veteran assistants and young up-and-comers. Urban Meyer's version of the spread offense works just fine, and he and his staff have been a recruiting machine the past three years. Charlie Strong is an able defensive coordinator, and the defensive staff is top-notch with line coach Dan McCarney, cornerback coach Vance Bedford and safety coach Chuck Heater. Dan Mullen does a nice job as offensive coordinator, too.

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: LSU's Gary Crowton. He had a lot of success in his first season as coach at BYU earlier this decade, but his luck ran out later in his tenure and he was fired, which - truth be told - didn't exactly make a lot of folks in the Mountain West Conference weepy. He helped to introduce the spread offense at Oregon, then was hired away by Les Miles before last season to run the Tigers' offense. While LSU's defense got all the kudos last season, Crowton's offense actually put up better numbers than the defense. Crowton has a ton of experienced talent to work with this season - except at quarterback. He'll do just fine.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: South Carolina's Ellis Johnson. We surprised you with this one, huh? With Will Muschamp leaving Auburn for Texas, Johnson ascends to the top in this category. Johnson put together some stingy units with Mississippi State the past few seasons, and he'll have more to work with this season with the Gamecocks. He's a steady, veteran hand, and you can be sure South Carolina will be fundamentally sound on defense. Expect big things from the Gamecocks' linebackers.

ASSISTANT WITH THE BEST CHANCE TO BE A HEAD COACH THIS TIME NEXT YEAR: Florida defensive coordinator Charlie Strong. Strong has had some head-coaching interviews in the past, and he should get a few more late this year if Florida's defense improves as much as we think it will. Strong has a long history in the SEC and at Notre Dame, is a good recruiter and connects well with his players. He also has worked for three coaches - Meyer, Steve Spurrier and Lou Holtz - who have won national titles.

THE GAMES

GAME OF THE YEAR: Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 1. The Gators have owned the Bulldogs since 1990 15 victories in the past 18 games but the Bulldogs won last season, giving them two wins in the past four meetings. This almost certainly will be for the SEC East title, and it's not a stretch to think the winner will have the inside track to the SEC title and a berth in the national title game.

Georgia at Arizona State, Sept. 20
LSU at Auburn, Sept. 20
Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 20
Tennessee at Auburn, Sept. 27
LSU at Florida, Oct. 11
Auburn at West Virginia, Oct. 23
Georgia at LSU, Oct. 25
Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Nov. 1
Georgia at Auburn, Nov. 15
Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29
TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: Georgia. If the Bulldogs emerge unscathed after navigating through this monstrosity, just give them the national-title hardware. There are nine bowl teams from last season on the schedule. There are road games against South Carolina, Arizona State, LSU, Kentucky and Auburn. There's the annual bloodletting/bacchanal in Jacksonville against Florida. There's LSU, Florida, Kentucky and Auburn back-to-back-to-back-to back and none at home. There are the three best teams from the SEC West Alabama, Auburn and LSU. And there's just one home game after Oct. 18. Have fun, Mark Richt.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Florida. "Easiest" is a relative term in the SEC. The Gators miss Alabama and Auburn, two of the three best teams in the SEC West. The toughest non-conference road game is against Florida State which has scored 46 points in its past four games against Florida, all losses. Hawaii and Miami are on the schedule, but Hawaii will be way down from last season and UM has a ways to go to get back to elite status. The toughest conference road game is against Tennessee, a team UF beat by 39 last season. The Gators do play LSU and Georgia, but the Tigers have to play in the Swamp and the game against the Bulldogs is in Jacksonville. Mississippi State has the easiest schedule in the West. The Bulldogs don't play Florida or Georgia.

WORST NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE: Kentucky. The Wildcats' non-conference schedule features Louisville, Division I-AA Norfolk State, Middle Tennessee State and Western Kentucky. They and LSU are the only SEC teams that don't play at least one non-conference game against an opponent that went to a bowl last season. LSU comes in a close second in this category.

BIGGEST MISMATCH: UT-Martin at Auburn, Nov. 8. UT Martin has had three winning seasons in the past 20 and 11 seasons with three or fewer wins. Yes, this will be homecoming weekend for Auburn. But shouldn't the opposition provide just a teensy bit of intrigue? Runner-up in this category: Florida-The Citadel on Nov. 22.

THE PROGRAMS

PROGRAM ON THE RISE: Alabama. Nick Saban is making a ton of money, so the Tide better be on the move up the standings. Asking Alabama to win the SEC West this season is too much, but an eight- or nine-win season is a legitimate goal. Realistically, the Tide is two seasons away from truly being a player in national title race.

PROGRAM ON THE DECLINE: Kentucky. The Wildcats have had back-to-back eight-victory seasons, but it's hard to see them finishing with even six wins this season even though the non-conference schedule isn't that tough. UK simply lost too much talent. Coach Rich Brooks and his staff have recruited relatively well of late, but UK's classes still lack the talent reeled in by other SEC East schools not named Vanderbilt. A bowl appearance this season might be Brooks' best coaching job in his six seasons in Lexington.

IN THREE YEARS, FLORIDA WILL BE THE BEST TEAM IN THE CONFERENCE: It's hard to foresee a run like the Gators had in the mid-'90s one reason is the coaching league-wide is a lot stronger now but Florida is making hay on the recruiting trail with Florida State and Miami struggling. The Gators have had three consecutive top-three classes, and the '09 class should at least be in the top 10. Urban Meyer's offense is explosive and appeals to skill-position players, the state produces a ton of high school talent and the athletic department has a ton of cash to spend on facilities.

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Tim Tebow, Florida, Jr.
RB Arian Foster, Tennessee, Sr.
RB Knowshon Moreno, Georgia, Soph.
WR Demetrius Byrd, LSU, Sr.
WR Percy Harvin, Florida, Jr.
WR Kenny McKinley, South Carolina, Sr.
T Michael Oher, Ole Miss, Sr.
G Herman Johnson, LSU, Sr.
C Jonathan Luigs, Arkansas, Sr.
G Anthony Parker, Tennessee, Sr.
T Andre Smith, Alabama, Jr.
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Greg Hardy, Ole Miss, Jr.
T Ricky Jean-Francois, LSU, Jr.
T Sen'Derrick Marks, Auburn, Jr.
E Tyson Jackson, LSU, Sr.
LB Jasper Brinkley, South Carolina, Sr.
LB Jamar Chaney, Mississippi State, Sr.
LB Brandon Spikes, Florida, Jr.
CB D.J. Moore, Vanderbilt, Jr.
CB Captain Munnerlyn, South Carolina, Jr.
SS Eric Berry, Tennessee, Soph.
FS Derek Pegues, Mississippi State, Sr.
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Colt David, LSU, Sr.
P Ryan Shoemaker, Auburn, Soph.
KR Brandon James, Florida, Jr.

MORE: 2008 SEC Unit Rankings

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be heard on Rivals Radio every Wednesday at 8:30 a.m. ET and can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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