2011 NCAA Football Preview: Southeastern Conference

August 29, 2011
By K. Becks

Overview

Five straight BCS National Champions. These days, an SEC team winning the national championship is almost expected. While it can be argued whether or not the SEC is top to bottom the best conference in football every year, one thing is for sure: in the Big Game, they don’t lose. Since the BCS was invented, the SEC has never lost a championship game in which a member from the conference has participated.

With eight teams in the AP Top 25 to start the season, it’s hard to imagine the SEC not having at least a few teams contending for an unprecedented sixth straight national title bid for the conference. It should be another great season full of smash mouth, hard-nose football in the Southeastern Conference. The message to the other major conferences? Try to keep up.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Alabama

It seems like every year the Crimson Tide have a squad capable of running the table in the ultra competitive SEC. Almost the entire offensive line returns, and they will be making holes for running back Trent Richardson, one of the SEC’s game changing players. Assuming he stays healthy, Richardson will be a focal point in Nick Saban’s offense. The hope is that whoever starts at quarterback (sophomore AJ McCarron and redshirt freshman Phillip Sims) can be eased into the role and that Richardson will be able to do the bulk of the work the first few games.

The Crimson Tide defense should be one of the best in the nation. They return seven starters, including the entire secondary. The only place where they may have issues is on the line. Last year Alabama was tenth in the nation against the run, and it is very important that they are strong in that area again. When the Crimson Tide won the national title in ’09, they were second best in the nation at stopping the run, and Texas was number one.

Alabama has a very favorable schedule for an SEC team. Their toughest game on the road should be at Florida, and they get to play Arkansas and LSU in Tuscaloosa. In addition, the Crimson Tide does not have to face South Carolina or Georgia. If one quarterback can settle into the starting role, and the defensive line is strong, Alabama is a good bet to make it to New Orleans to play for their second national title in three years.

South Carolina

The Gamecocks are definitely a dark horse contender at best. In fact, they are included in this category because of their schedule and the division they play in more than the actual talent of the team.

South Carolina has some big names on offense in Stephen Garcia, Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery, but had trouble scoring last year even with all of those stars. Garcia is one of the biggest question marks in the SEC; between suspensions, injuries and inconsistent play, Garcia could be considered lucky to still have the starting job at quarterback. One reason why he still has the job is that when he is playing well, the Gamecocks are very hard to stop on offense.

On defense, South Carolina needs to improve their pass rush. Thanks to highly touted freshman Jadeveon Clowney, the Gamecocks may have the man for the job. Clowney is a monster at defensive end who should compliment junior defensive end Devin Taylor on the other side. If Clowney and Taylor can put more pressure on quarterbacks this season, the entire Carolina defense should benefit immensely.

The SEC East is relatively young and definitely the weaker of the two divisions. If South Carolina can get through a tough three game stretch near the end of the season in which they go on the road to face Arkansas and Tennessee and then come home to play Florida, they could have a chance to win the division. If they could get to the SEC Championship Game with only one loss, they would be in the national title conversation.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Mississippi State

Dan Mullen’s team was confident heading into the Gator Bowl last season, but their confidence reached a new level after the Bulldogs pounded Michigan 52-14 in Jacksonville. Fans in Starkville hope that the confidence will carry over to this season and the Bulldogs can build upon the success of last season.

Senior quarterback Chris Relf is a talented quarterback who is somewhat underrated in the SEC. This year, Relf will have a slew of experienced receivers to throw to and should throw for a lot more touchdowns. The offensive line may be an issue, but Relf is a mobile quarterback who can get out of trouble using his legs.

If Mississippi State gets good production out of the linebackers replacing all three starters from last season, they could have one of the best defenses in the conference. The secondary is experienced and should be better than last season, when they gave up 236.4 yards per game through the air.

The Bulldogs play in the very competitive SEC West, and have to play Auburn and Arkansas on the road. However, if Coach Mullen’s team continues to improve as they have every year he has been at MSU, then there is reason for Bulldogs fans to be excited for 2011.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Marcus Lattimore (So.), South Carolina running back

Plain and simple, Marcus Lattimore is a game changer for the Gamecocks. By rushing for 1,197 yards last season and breaking South Carolina’s single season rushing record for a freshman by 349 yards, Lattimore propelled himself into the early season Heisman Watch for 2011. Because of Stephen Garcia’s inconsistency, the Gamecocks will rely on Lattimore for stability on offense.

Lattimore is such a powerful runner that it is hard for teams to stop him, even when they take extra measures to do so. This allows Lattimore to essentially set up other skill players on offense such as receiver Alshon Jeffery.

South Carolina will lean on the running game this season because of the consistency that Lattimore provides. When Around The Corn picked South Carolina as a dark horse national title contender, one offensive player in particular put them over the edge. Here’s a hint: it wasn’t Stephen Garcia.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Alabama vs. Penn State (September 10th)

Alabama handled Penn State pretty easily at home last season, but it will be a whole different story when they travel to Happy Valley to take on the Nittany Lions in 2011.

Penn State has several issues on the offensive and defensive lines to address, but will keep the crowd into the game with an early stop or two. The Nittany Lions cannot win this game on talent; they will need a lot of luck and a mistake-riddled game by Alabama. However, with a young quarterback who will be playing only his second game of the season, it is possible for that to happen to the Crimson Tide.

This game shouldn’t really be that close, but the potential for it to be is enough to make it worth watching.

In-Conference Game To Watch

South Carolina vs. Florida (November 12th)

With South Carolina, Georgia and Florida all capable of winning the SEC East, there is reason to believe that this game could have a major impact in deciding which team is at the top of the division with only a few weeks left in the season.

Florida is young, has a new coach and plays a tough schedule, but has a chance to surprise people. They may still have issues on offense, but if quarterback John Brantley can find his groove the Gators have unproven talent at receiver who could make the offense dangerous.

South Carolina isn’t the type of team to look for the big play often, but it may behoove them to do so in this game. The inability to stop the big play is what killed Florida last season, and ultimately sealed their fate in the SEC East. Being so young, that could be their downfall again this year.

If the Gamecocks were to beat Georgia early in the season, a victory in this game would almost certainly put them in position to win the SEC East. It should be a closer game than last year, though.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. South Carolina (10-2, [6-2])

2. Georgia (8-4, [6-2])

3. Florida (7-5, [4-4])

4. Kentucky (7-5, [3-5])

5. Tennessee (6-6, [2-6])

6. Vanderbilt (2-10, [0-8])

West Division

1. Alabama (12-0, [8-0])

2. Mississippi State (10-2, [6-2])

3. LSU (9-3, [6-2])

4. Arkansas (9-3, [6-2])

5. Auburn (6-6, [2-6])

6. Mississippi (4-8, [1-7])

Championship Game (South Carolina vs. Alabama)

Winner: Alabama

- K. Becks

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