It’s quite simple – Alabama is the favorite to repeat as national champions, and the SEC is the best football conference. However, the SEC, as a whole, has lost a lot of talent due to graduation and the NFL. Florida, Auburn, Georgia, Mississippi, Mississippi St., and Tennessee are breaking in new quarterbacks in 2010.
The West is Alabama’s to lose, but Auburn and Arkansas will be heavily in the mix. Florida may be the frontrunner in the East, but stiff competition from Georgia and South Carolina will make the road tough.
SEC – West
Alabama Crimson Tide
The Alabama Crimson Tide (No. 1 AP, No. 1 USA Today) are the defending national champions. They return 10 starters (eight on offense), including last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, junior RB Mark Ingram (1,658 yards, 17 TDs). In addition, senior QB Greg McElroy (2,508 yards, 17 TDs, 4 INTs) and top junior receivers Julio Jones (596 yards, 4 TDs) and Marquis Maze (523 yards, 2 TDs) are back.
The Tide will open the year without Ingram as he continues to recover from knee surgery. His replacement is sophomore Trent Richardson (751 yards, 8 TDs), who is more than capable of picking up the slack.
Nick Saban and the Tide have been undefeated in the regular season for two straight years. However, with only two returning starters on defense, several tough road games (Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU), and the potential SEC title game, defending their title won’t be an easy task.
But, Alabama is clearly the No. 1 team in the country, and until they lose, they ought to be the favorites to win it all in 2010.
Gene Chizik enters his second year with Auburn (No. 22 AP, No. 23 USA Today) after a solid inaugural season (8-5 record) that was capped by an overtime win in the Outback Bowl against Northwestern. The Tigers return 15 starters but lost their starting QB (Chris Todd) and RB (Ben Tate) from last year’s team. Still, there should be enough talent to replenish the team.
Junior QB Cameron Newton, a Florida transfer, will likely get the first shot at replacing Todd. Senior RB Mario Fannin is penciled in as Tate’s replacement, but sophomore Onterio McCalebb and true freshman five-star recruit Michael Dyer could also see time in the backfield. In addition, the Tigers bring back their top three receivers, including First Team All-SEC junior Darvin Adams (997 yards, 10 TDs).
If Auburn can settle the quarterback and running back issues, they should be able to come close to winning 10 games. The Nov. 26 meeting at Tuscaloosa may determine who goes to the SEC title game.
Bobby Petrino’s third year in Fayetteville looks to build off of last season’s 8-5 record and Liberty Bowl overtime victory against East Carolina. Arkansas (No. 17 AP, No. 19 USA Today) has 10 returning starters on offense and seven on defense.
The Razorbacks are counting on the strong arm of junior QB Ryan Mallett (3,624 yards, 30 TDs, 7 INTs), a Michigan transfer. Mallett was as good as advertised after throwing for five touchdowns on three separate occasions in 2009.
He will also have his top five receivers back from last year’s corps, including juniors Greg Childs (894 yards, 7 TDs), Jarius Wright (681 yards, 5 TDs), and Joe Adams (568 yards, 7 TDs). Senior TE D.J. Williams (411 yards, 3 TDs) also returns as the fourth best senior TE on Mel Kiper’s big board.
Arkansas has a difficult road schedule (Georgia, Auburn, South Carolina) in addition to playing Texas A&M and LSU at neutral sites. The Razorbacks will be exciting to watch this season, but 10 wins will be difficult to attain. However, they should easily qualify for a bowl game and could play spoiler in the SEC.
Louisiana St. Tigers
Les Miles is 51-15 at LSU with a national championship in 2007 under his belt. The Tigers of Baton Rouge, Louisiana (No. 21 AP, No. 16 USA Today) have a harsh schedule in 2010 as they play North Carolina and West Virginia out of conference. In conference, they will have to travel to Florida, Auburn, and Arkansas.
LSU gets junior QB Jordan Jefferson (2,166 yards, 17 TDs, 7 INTs) back on offense and senior LB Kelvin Sheppard back on defense. Although Miles only has 10 total starters returning, he has a ton of talent to plug into starting roles.
Most importantly, the role of junior CB Patrick Peterson will be expanded. Peterson is quite possibly the best player in the entire conference. His role as a shutdown corner will keep QBs from throwing to his side of the field, but he’ll also field punts and kicks this year.
While the Tigers will likely reach their sixth straight bowl game under Miles, matching last year’s nine wins is improbable.
The Rebels of Oxford, Mississippi enter 2010 with fewer expectations than they did in 2009. Houston Nutt’s third season has already fueled controversy with the transfer of QB Jeremiah Masoli from Oregon to Ole Miss. Now, the NCAA is denying Masoli’s waiver request to play this season.
Masoli was supposed to replace last year’s starting QB, Jevan Sneed, but that job will likely fall to sophomore Nathan Stanley. Nutt will also have incoming junior college QB Randall Mackey as an option to run the offense.
Despite the loss of Masoli, Nutt has a bigger problem in trying to replace Dexter McCluster’s run (1,169 yards, 8 TDs) and receiving (520 yards, 3 TDs) production. Junior RB Brandon Bolden (614 yards, 4 TDs) will attempt to secure the job.
The Rebels face a tough October schedule with road games at Alabama (10/16) and Arkansas (10/23) and a home game against Auburn (10/30). They must also play Tennessee (11/13) and LSU (11/20) on the road; however, Ole Miss has a good shot at winning their first five games and will easily be bowl eligible.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen enters his second year in Starkville with 14 returning starters – seven on offense and seven on defense. He must replace the school’s all-time leading rusher in Anthony Dixon (3,994 yards from 2006-09) as well as last year’s starting QB, Tyson Lee.
The Bulldogs will face LSU, Houston, Florida, Alabama, and rival Mississippi on the road. They need to pull off an upset or two to get to .500 this season.
SEC – East
Urban Meyer enters his sixth year in Gainsville, Florida (No. 4 AP, No. 3 USA Today) after compiling an astounding 51-10 record (32-2 at home) to go along with two national championships (2006, 2008).
He lost one of the greatest college football players of all-time in Tim Tebow (9,285 passing yards, 88 passing TDs, 2,947 rushing yards, 57 rushing TDs), who broke numerous records, won a Heisman Trophy, and brought home two national titles in his four years.
Junior QB John Brantley will attempt to replace Tebow. Junior speedsters Jeffery Demps (763 rushing yards, 7 TDs) and Chris Rainey (575 rushing yards, 5 TDs) will help ease Brantley’s potential rough transition with a solid ground game.
The highly anticipated matchup in Alabama on Oct. 2 will have national title implications. Although Meyer lost a lot of talent from last year’s team, there is no doubt that he will have his team in contention for the SEC title with a possible national championship appearance.
Mark Richt has spent nine years as head coach for the Georgia Bulldogs (No. 23 AP, No. 21 USA Today). His track record includes winning at least eight games every season while boasting a 90-27 overall record and 46-11 home record at Sanford Stadium.
Despite his success, many critics feel that Richt is on the hot seat in 2010. He will have to count on redshirt freshman QB Aaron Murray to get the ball to top receiver and future NFL first round pick, junior A.J. Green (808 yards, 6 TDs). Green missed three games last season with a shoulder injury and will need to stay healthy all year for Georgia to make some noise in the East.
But, that’s not all. Green could be ruled ineligible as part of an ongoing NCAA investigation into sports agent violations at multiple universities. With two days left before Georgia’s opener, Green’s status is still uncertain.
In addition, sophomore Washaun Ealey (717 yards, 3 TDs), the team’s leading rusher last season, has already been suspended for at least one game after getting charged with a hit and run and driving with a suspended license last week. That leaves junior Caleb King (594 yards, 7 TDs) as the main running back with Carlton Thomas moving up the depth chart. Junior Richard Samuel, who had 88 carries last year, will play linebacker this season.
The Dawgs face several tough road games at South Carolina and Auburn, but they should be more than capable of winning 10 games. Murray’s development will be the key to their success, especially in the most important game at the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party against Florida on Oct. 30.
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina looks to have their best year under the Ol’ Ball Coach, Steve Spurrier. Spurrier’s five years at South Carolina have been solid, but he has not been able to duplicate the type of success he had at Florida.
The Gamecocks return 16 starters (nine on offense), including junior QB Stephen Garcia (2,862 yards, 17 TDs, 10 INTs), last year’s leading rusher, Kenny Miles (626 yards, 1 TD), and top receiver, sophomore Alshon Jeffery (763 yards, 6 TDs). However, true freshman QB Connor Shaw will play in the opener against Southern Miss and could take the starting job from Garcia.
The big arrival for 2010 is five-star true freshman RB Marcus Lattimore, who should make an impact much like RB Trent Richardson did for Alabama last year.
Off-field issues include Spurrier’s suspension of TE Weslye Saunders for violating team rules and the ongoing NCAA investigation that could sideline as many as six starters.
SC must play Auburn, Florida, and Clemson on the road, but they also get Georgia at home (9/11). South Carolina has the talent to make a lot of noise in the East. If Spurrier can find a way to rally his troops, they could be a top contender in representing the division in the SEC title game.
The faithful of Rocky Top have their third coach in as many years, and hope that Derek Dooley will be able to restore the legacy left by Philip Fulmer rather than the one left by Lane Kiffin.
Dooley inherits a 7-6 team from 2009 that has nine returning starters, the fewest in the conference. The Vols will need to replace QB Jonathan Crompton and RB Montario Hardesty, two important offensive weapons. All reports indicate that junior Matt Simms will be the QB in 2010. Simms will have last year’s top three receivers back, including seniors Gerald Jones (680 yards, 4 TDs) and Denarius Moore (540 yards, 7 TDs).
The Vols also have a difficult schedule in 2010, facing LSU, Georgia, and South Carolina all on the road. In addition, they draw Alabama at home from the West division. Tennessee could struggle with their first eight games but they only need to win two to become bowl eligible since their last four games are winnable (Memphis, Mississippi, Vanderbilt, Kentucky). Should they let the early struggles affect their play, Rocky Top may not be home sweet home after all.
The Cats open 2010 with a new head coach, former offensive coordinator Joker Phillips. Phillips takes over a 7-6 team that reached four bowl games during Rich Brooks’s final four years in Lexington.
For the third straight year, senior Mike Hartline (802 yards, 6 TDs, 7 INTs) was named the starting quarterback after a highly competitive preseason, beating out sophomore Morgan Newton (706 yards, 6 TDs, 3 INTs) and redshirt freshman Ryan Mossakowski.
Hartline will likely hand off a lot to senior RB Derrick Locke (907 yards, 6 TDs). The top five receivers coming back include junior Randall Cobb (447 yards, 4 TDs) and senior Chris Matthews (354 yards, 3 TDs).
The schedule for the Cats won’t be easy in October when they have to face Auburn, South Carolina, and Georgia in consecutive weeks. If they are not able to win at least two games in the first three weeks of the season, they may be forced to cheer for the basketball team much earlier than expected.
The Commodores are trying to forget a 2009 season in which they went 2-10. They return their leading passer, junior Larry Smith (1,126 yards, 4 TDs, 7 INTs), in addition to sophomore RB Warren Norman (783 yards, 3 TDs) and sophomore WR John Cole (382 yards, 1 TD).
Although Vandy only returns 11 starters total, they hope for a much healthier 2010 as they lost 42 starts due to injuries last year. They face a brutal schedule since 11 of their 12 opponents played in bowl games last season. It looks like another long road ahead for the Commodores, but with so many underclassmen, 2011 should bring much better results in the win column.
If RB Mark Ingram is not 100% healthy in 2010, Alabama will not have a third straight undefeated regular season. Still, they are projected to meet Florida in the SEC title game. Georgia lurks as the third best team in the conference. If QB Aaron Murray develops, the Bulldogs will be a top 10 team by the end of the year.
Follow Yoshito Tsuji on Twitter @YoshitoTsuji.