The Southeastern Conference has got the pre-season national rankings, but can it stay on top all year? Brooks Clark scouts the teams and analyzes their chances in his annual football preview. THE SEC

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⢠Brothers on (and off) the Field

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The Southeastern Conference has more teams in the Top 25 (six) than any other conference, which, to borrow some NASCAR language, is college football the way it oughta beâ"and probably the way Baby Jesus wants it. That's the Baby Jesus from Talladega Nights , with a Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt, an ethereal glow, and a sense that he wants to party.

The Big Ten and Big 12, representing the good people of the Heartland (and Texas and places like that), have four teams each in the Top 25. The Godless Pac-10 and Godless Big East have three each. No. 1-ranked Southern Cal is led by Shreveport, La., native John David Booty, whose brother Josh played for LSU before becoming an Oakland Raider, so there is SEC redemption to be found in his greatness. For the true redemption of the conference, like David with his sling, UT is called upon to smite No.12-ranked Cal for the second season in a rowâ"this time in Berkeley, where liberals walk the earth like living fossils from the '60s.

Oh, smite them, UT! Smite the Golden Bears! And cast out the demons of that stupid â“playâ” through the Stanford band in 1982 that we must watch again and again. Joe Kapp was the coach of the Bears that year. His son Will made the team as a walk-on this year. Smite them!  

In truth, there has never been a time when the SEC's reputation was riding as high as it is right now. The national press is completely infatuated with No. 2-ranked LSU and No. 6-ranked reigning national champion Floridaâ"partly (and justifiably) resulting from two 41-14 dog-whippings (insert Michael Vick joke of choice) over Notre Dame in the Sugar Bowl and Ohio State in the Rose Bowl national championship game, respectively.  

Another measure of the SEC's strength is that Auburn, as usual, isn't getting the props it deserves. Last year the 11-2 Tigers were the only team to beat Florida (27-17) and the only team other than Florida to beat LSU (7-3).

Yet another measure is that Arkansas actually won the SEC West over both LSU and Auburn behind the best running back in the country, tailback Darren McFadden, who ran for 1,647 yards and finished second in the Heisman voting last fall. Let us hope that McFadden is not bitten by the curse that befell Peyton Manning, when he was screwed out of the Heisman, and Johnny Majors, when he finished second in the 1956 balloting behind Paul Hornung, who had led Notre Dame to a 2-8 record. Never again!

These are the days of SEC dominance. The way it oughta be.  

Tennessee: Ainge's Stairway to the No-Huddle Offense

When quarterback Erik Ainge listens to his iPod, it's classic rockâ"Led Zeppelin and the like. Under offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe, Ainge has also gained an appreciation for classic defenses. In watching film, says Ainge, Cutcliffe looks at a blitz and instructs Ainge not only about what it will look like and when opponents are likely to use it, but also â“where that blitz came from . He'll give a history lesson, how they blitzed in the '70s, how it changed in the '80s, and on like that. You learn what you're looking at.â”

Last season Ainge completed 67 percent of his passes with only nine interceptions. At one point he threw 136 passes without a single one getting picked off. This year Ainge will run a no-huddle offense, complete with flapping arms and gesticulations before the snap of the ball, looking like Peyton Manning, or maybe Robert Plant. It's a given of this season that Ainge, like Zeppelin, rules.

He'll need help, though, and the top three pass-catchers from last year, including superstar Robert Meachem, now a New Orleans Saint, are gone.

This season, Ainge will be throwing to a chorus of receivers, including tight end Chris Brown, who grabbed 31 passes last fall, junior Lucas Taylor, who had 14 catches, Austin Rogers, who had five catches before he injured his shoulder and then contracted mononucleosis; Josh Briscoe, who also made five catches and Quintin Hancock.    

New faces at receiver include speedster Kenny O'Neal, Jr., a transfer from City College of San Francisco and son of the former Saints' tight end. â“Kenny O'Neal can outrun a spotted ape,â” said receivers coach Trooper Taylor in the News Sentinel . â“You've never seen a spotted ape because they've never been caught on tape. They're too fast.â” In scrimmages O'Neal alternately made great plays and big drops.   

Freshman receiver Denarius Moore, a 110-meter state hurdling champion from Tatum, Tex., will return kicks. Freshman Gerald Jones, 2006 Oklahoma Gatorade Player of the Year, sang in his high school and church choirs in Oklahoma City. He's made many circus catches in scrimmages, and is also being used as a quarterback in a special package.     

At tailback, Arian Foster and Montario Hardesty will be challenged by super-talented sophomore LaMarcus Coker, whose 89- and 87-yard runs last season rank among the four longest runs in UT history. No stranger to Fulmer's doghouse, Coker was placed on indefinite suspension for undisclosed reasons earlier this summer, then reinstated last week. He won't make the trip to Cal, but will play starting with Game 2 against Southern Miss.  

After Cal, the big game is Sept. 15 at Florida.    

Florida: Defending National Champion, Yada Yada Yada

Trooper Taylor's comments aside, in the era of political correctness, sports people are generally discouraged from comparing athletes to animals. Nevertheless, 6'3â”, 235-pound quarterback Tim Tebow is a horse . Or in Keith Jackson-ese, Tebow is a â“Big Hoss!â”  

Tebow spent last year going in for Chris Leak primarily on running plays. Although Leak was a good enough field general to lead his team to the national title, Tebow's ridiculously powerful physique is more suited to coach Urban Meyer's spread offense, in which everybody runs to open spaces and humiliates the Ohio State Buckeyes on national TV. Speaking of horses, Tebow is backed up by 6'5â”, 243-pound freshman quarterback Cameron Newton. Even if Tebow goes down, Florida is a force of nature.

Since teams like Tennessee and Ohio State are good at stopping traditional running games, the spread offense drops short balls to receivers and essentially turns them into unleashed runners. This is how receiver Percy Harvin ended up as MVP of the SEC title game against Arkansas. Harvin rushed for 105 yards and two touchdowns. He also gained 62 yards receiving. In the BCS Championship game against the Buckeyes, Harvin had nine catches.

Wide receiver Andre Caldwell has improved his time in the 40 from 4.31 seconds to 4.29. He caught 57 passes and averaged 19.1 yards on each one.

Offensive tackle Phil Trautwein, 6'6â”, 308 pounds, bench presses 400 pounds. This means he can bench press himself plus a third of himself. Two years ago Trautwein switched between tackle and blocking tight end. â“I'd warm up wearing No. 75 then run over and throw on No. 86 to play tight end,â” he said in the SI scouting report. Last season he played left tackle, guarding righty Chris Leak's back. Now he'll be guarding lefty Tebow's back at right tackle.

Defensive end Derrick Harvey, a pre-season All-America, was the defensive MVP of the 2006 BCS National Championship game with three sacks and a fumble recovery, but he and strong safety Tony Joiner are the only returning starters.

Georgia: Call the Blur for Tech Support

Why does AP rank Georgia (No. 13) higher than the Vols (No. 15)? The Dawgs have just 11 starters back from the team that UT whipped 51-33. In fact, UT came back from 17 points down. This is a make-or-break season for coach Mark Richt, but the Bulldogs are not going to beat the Vols at Neyland Stadium on Oct. 6.  

Sophomore quarterback Matthew â“Howitzerâ” Stafford threw for 8,711 yards at Dallas's toney Highland Park High. That didn't help him in his freshman campaign in Athens, when he threw 13 interceptions and did many other dumb things that earned him 19 or 20 gassers in practices after games.  

As we noticed during his 86-yard punt return against the Vols, senior flanker Mikey Henderson can cover 40 yards in 4.3 seconds (and 86 yards in about 10). No wonder his nickname in high school was â“The Blur.â” A computer science major who helps his teammates design websites, unclog printers and reset passwords, Henderson was asked by Athens Online whom he would most like to meet if he could meet any person in the world. Henderson answered Bill Gates.

South Carolina: Look out for Jasper and Casper  

Twin linebackers Jasper and Casper Brinkley anchor the Gamecock's defense, which returns pretty much all its starters from a year ago.

This spring, coach Steve Spurrier spent some time complaining that the entrance requirements for his football players were too stringent, but the controversy subsided fairly quickly. With South Carolina's ACC history, its ideas about qualifications for academia may be closer to those of Duke than Florida (both places Spurrier coached), but, really, Coach Visor may not want to open up a public discussion on this topic.   

Spurrier said at SEC Media Days that this will be the breakout year for his Gamecocks. He's got a solid fifth-year senior quarterback in Blake Mitchell, whose 61.2 percent completion rate is the best in the SEC. They lost super-fabulous receiver Sidney Rice to the Minnesota Vikings, but they still have Kenny McKinley, who averaged 17.3 yards on 51 catches last year, and tailback Cory Boyd, from Orange, N.J., who ran for 823 yards and caught 35 passes for another 406 yards.

Tennessee better be ready to play on Oct. 27 in Neyland Stadium.

Kentucky: No More Moving Vans Circling Rich Brooks' House

â“I'm back!â” crowed Kentucky coach Rich Brooks to the Media Days crowd. High up on the Doomed Coaches Watchlist a year ago, Brooks was saved by the Wildcats' surprise 8-5 season.  

UT's fallen knight Randy Sanders earned some measure of redemption as Kentucky's quarterbacks coach. He brought out the best in All-SEC senior André Woodson, who led the conference in total offense, passing yardage, and touchdown passes (31). Woodson completed 63 percent of his passes and has the lowest interception ration in SEC history.

All-SEC tailback Rafael Little was injured last year but still led the team with 673 yards. The team also features two UK Athletics Society of Character and SEC Academic Honor Roll members: All-SEC senior linebacker Wesley Woodyard (122 tackles) and All-SEC receiver Keenan Burton, who caught 77 passes for 12 touchdowns. Burton averages 26.6 yards on kickoff returns, which may even go up with the ball being kicked off from the 30-yard line this year.  

Despite being a stronger program with one of the top quarterbacks in the conference, Kentucky still has five pesky teams on its schedule that it won't be able to beat.   

Vanderbilt: Nickson's the One

Junior Chris Nickson completed 55 percent of his passes for 2,085 yards and 15 touchdowns. As a rusher, he led the team with 694 yards and nine TDs, both tops among all SEC quarterbacks. Last season the Commodores upset Georgia 24-22 and gave eventual national champion Florida a 26-38 scare. Season ticket sales are up by 40 percent. â“More important than talent level, or whatever,â” said coach Bobby Johnson at Media Days, â“is our confidence level. I think our guys feel that we can compete in this league.â”

Junior Earl Bennett, who had 161 catches over the past two seasons, is 47 catches away from becoming the SEC's all-time leader in career receptions. He also volunteers his time working with several organizations helping children in his inner-city community in Birmingham, Ala.      

Linebacker Jonathan Goff had 93 tackles last year. An engineering major from Lynn, Mass., Goff made two huge defensive plays in Vandy's late comeback against Floridaâ"an interception of a Chris Leak pass deep in Vanderbilt territory and a timely third down tackle-for-loss of Tim Tebow that halted a Florida drive.

At St. John's Prep in Danvers, Mass., Goff earned the school's French Award in 2000, traveled to Europe with Men's Honors Chorus, participated in Johns Hopkins University's Gifted and Talented Student Program and St. John's Prep Leadership Institute.

LSU: Run, Glenn, Run!

Like Forrest Gump, All-America defensive tackle Glenn Dorsey was so bowlegged as a three-year-old that he had to wear leg braces. Now 299 pounds and the best interior lineman in the nation, Dorsey said in the SI scouting report, â“Whenever I need a little extra motivation, I think about those braces and how hungry I was to get those things off.â”   He would have gone in the first round of the NFL draft, but he came back to try for the national title in Coach Les Miles' second year.

Defensive end Tyson Jackson is a preseason All-America.

With JaMarcus Russell, the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, now an Oakland Raider, the quarterback job belongs to fifth-year senior Matt Flynn, who has appeared in 38 games, including a 40-3 Peach Bowl win over Miami. He'll throw to Early Doucet, whose four-yard catch with nine seconds left beat UT last year.

Trindon Holiday is reportedly the fastest player in the nation. He owns the LSU school record for the 100 meters (10.02 seconds). He has also been clocked at 4.27 seconds in the 40 yards. At 5'5â”, 159 pounds he averaged 32.4 yards on five kickoff returns.  

Auburn: Quentin Loves Treska

â“You looked like a weakling out there,â” said Treska Groves to her husband, sackmaster Quentin Groves, via cellphone after the South Carolina game. They watch game film together, and Treska tells Quentin when he is playing like a girly man. Groves, who finished his criminology degree and graduated last December, had three sacks, two hurries and a forced fumble in the 27-17 win over Florida. As mentioned, the Tigers were the only team to beat Florida last year. They play the Gators on Sept. 29.

Lefty quarterback Brandon Cox has only one returnee to his offensive line, senior tackle King David Dunlap V, a 6'8â” 312-pound Outland Trophy candidate. His dad, King David Dunlap IV played at Tennessee State and in the NFL.

Tailback Tristan Davis led the SEC with 27 yards per return last season

Auburn has a four-game stretch in the middle of the season that includes road games against Florida, Arkansas and LSU.   

Arkansasâ" McFadden and The Real World â" Fayetteville

Last year, tailback Darren McFadden rushed for 1,647 yards, the fifth best single-season rushing total in SEC history. Herschel Walker is the only other SEC runner ever to rush for more than 1,000 yards as a freshman and a sophomore.

The funny thing is that junior tailback Felix Jones is almost as fabulous as McFadden.   An All-America as a kick returner in 2005, Jones rushed for 1,168 yards in 2006.

Behind the blocking of 307-pound preseason All-America center Jonathan Luigs, McFadden and Jones led the Hogs to 10 wins and the SEC West championship. Houston Nutt was named SEC coach of the year.

So why in soul-searching interviews is Nutt saying, â“It's been one of the toughest times in all my careerâ”?

It all started with quarterback Mitch Mustain, from Springdale, Ark. The 2005 consensus national prep player of the year, Mustain had picked Arkansas over Notre Dame, Tennessee, Army, Michigan, Miami (Fla.), and Alabama. He brought with him from Springdale High three receiversâ"Ben Cleveland, Andrew Norman and Damian Williamsâ"and his coach, Gus Malzahn, who became the Razorbacks' offensive coordinator.  

This seemed fishy from the start, but Malzahn had lots of street cred in Arkansas high school football, which sounds strangely like the line â“He's world famous in Poland!â” from the old Mel Brooks movie To Be or Not to Be .  

In the last few games of last season, Nutt started Casey Dick, an experienced junior, at quarterback, at which point the parents of the flashy freshmen had their meeting with octogenarian athletic director Frank Broyles.  

That's right, the Mustain kid's mom had a meeting with the coach's boss.

Afterward, Mustain's mother issued a statement to the media explaining that she had met with Broyles not â“seeking assurances, promises, or guarantees about the future of the program. There was never any discussion by any parent regarding the playing time of any player.â”  

Of course, this soap opera was accompanied by a tsunami of blog activity. â“There is no way Casey Dick should be starting for this team!â” read one of thousands of entries on dozens of Hog blogs last fall. â“Play Mustain and most of these concerns go away.â”

One blogger, Thomas McAfee, read the post of an e-mail sent Dec. 7 from a booster named Teresa Prewett to Mustain. The subject line read: â“Hello Mr. Interception King.â” In her message, Prewett called Mustain a â“fagâ” who needed â“breast-feedingâ” and his â“diaper changed.â” Because Nutt had apparently been copied on the e-mail, McAfee filed a Freedom of Information Act request to look for connections between Nutt and Prewett.   Instead McAfee found that Nutt had sent 2,104 texts to one numberâ"that of a local female news anchor.  

All this was made public, with much tumult and shouting, but nothing untoward was ever proven. Blogger McAfee's flowerbeds were poisoned, and he received threats directed to his home and family

â“The toughest thing is your family,â” said Nutt in interviews. â“The reason you're able to go home at night, look your children in the eye, look your wife in the eye, is because, see, they know the truth. Our players know the truth. That's why I'm still here today.â”

Three members of the Springdale Whiz Kidsâ"Malzahn, Mustain and receiver Damian Williamsâ"stomped off in a huff. Malzahn is now the co-coordinator at Tulsa. Mustain and Williams are now sitting out a year at USC, where Mustain is taking ballet in his first semester. Receiver Andrew Norman left Arkansas over the summer and was thinking about following Malzahn to Tulsa.

The Tennessee defense better be ready for McFadden and Jones when Arkansas comes to Neyland Stadium on Nov. 10.

Alabama: The $4 Million Man

Look at it this way: Nick Saban is worth only 2/3rds as much as TV's Bionic Man.

Poor Mike Shula was fired unceremoniously after four straight losses at the end of the season (and the fifth of five straight losses to Auburn). He was replaced by Saban, whose salary was probably financed by a sub-prime lender and helped trigger the international financial panic.  

During SEC Media Days, Saban countered all this money talk with memories of pumping gas back in his hardscrabble childhood in West Virginia, loading trucks at Roadway Express, driving a Coca-Cola delivery truck, and walking 10 miles to and from school in a driving snowstorm while returning a Bible to Abe Lincoln.  

Some of the Alabama players had to adjust to the fact that their new coach was someone they've heard referred to as â“Nick Satanâ” from his time as coach at LSU. On the plus side, Alabama's five-year NCAA probation ended in February, and the Bama fans have taken to Saban like the converted to Elmer Gantry. Some 92,000 of them showed up for the spring game.   

As the great Rick ( All Over But the Shoutin' ) Bragg wrote in his Sports Illustrated feature last week, â“They have welcomed him as Caesar, as pharaoh, and paid him enough money to burn a wet dog.â”   (Again, insert Michael Vick joke of choice.)

Junior John Parker Wilson set a handful of single-season Bama passing recordsâ"all except touchdowns, of which he threw â“onlyâ” 17.

At 6'4â”, 348 pounds, left tackle Andre Smith made the Freshman All-America team after knocking down the opposing defensive lineman nine times against Duke, eight times at Florida International and seven times against LSU.  

Defensive back Simeon Castille had three fumble recoveries and interceptions (including those two against UT!) Against the Vols, Castille had 10 tackles and two other pass breakups. Let's not throw the ball his way on October 20.

Trivia: Offensive coordinator Major Applewhite, the former Texas quarterback, was named for Major Ogilvie, the Alabama running back from 1977-80 (oh yeah, and winner of three SEC titles and two national titles). Ogilvie, a class act all the way around, was the first, last, and only player this reporter ever saw leave a post-game locker room interview wearing a madras sport jacket and white buck shoes.

Question: How did Alabama go from Bear Bryant and Major Ogilvie to a gamoosh like Nick Saban? Metro Pulse fears for the Republic.

Miss State: Missed It By That Much!   

As Maxwell Smart would say, last year Mississisppi State missed its first winning season under Sylvester Croom by that much. The Bulldogs lost to UAB in overtime (16-10), and lost by just three points in four other gamesâ"against Tulane, Georgia, Kentucky and Ole Miss.       

Sports Illustrated predicts the Bulldogs will go 2-10 this year, but as the Cable Guy would say, â“That just ain't right.â”

Croom's fourth year should be a substantial improvement over three 3-8 seasons. Junior QB Michael Henig can throw a football 64½ yards and runs a 4.6 40, but it's the short passes he's had to master to run Croom's adaptation of the West Coast offense. Henig has five starters on his offensive line coming back, as well as a good sophomore running back in Anthony Dixon, and his four top receivers, led by Tony Burks, who averaged 24.3 yards a catch.

Defensive end/tackle Titus Bro wn and safety/cornerback Derek Pegues, both second team All-SEC picks, lead a solid defense.

After three seasons, Croom's players are now all doing it Croom's way, which is the way Croom learned playing and coaching for Bear Bryant, and which is also the right way. â“I know we're doing things the right way,â” says Croom. â“I know our plan is on track.â”

Look for an upset at South Carolina on Sept. 29.    

Ole Miss: Schaeffer's Last Chance

Ed Orgeron's note to self: don't award players positions before they arrive on campus.

Last August, Orgeron announced that ne'er-do-well Brent Schaeffer would be his starting quarterback before Schaeffer even transferred in from the College of the Sequoias in Visalia, Calif. Schaeffer struggled, throwing 10 interceptions, leading an offense that was last in three categories in the conference, and opening the door for senior walk-on Seth Adams or redshirt freshman Michael Herrick to win the job this season. At Media Days Orgeron theorized that Schaeffer's â“inconsistent lifestyleâ” plays a role in his inconsistency on the field. Duh. It was Schaeffer's â“inconsistent lifestyle,â” specifically wielding a baseball bat in the jock dorm, that played a role in his departure from Tennessee.

This season, the super-talented Schaeffer is getting one last chance, at receiver. â“He was the fastest person at camp,â” remembers Erik Ainge, from when they were freshman quarterbacks at UT. â“We got along, but we were different.â”

The Rebels have most of their starters returning, with the notable exception of All-America linebacker Patrick Willis, who is now a San Francisco 49er. At 6'5â”, 325 pounds, offensive tackle Michael Oher is a preseason All-America. Running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis ran for an even 1,000 yards. Orgeron told the Media Days audience that his coaches had â“worked very hard in the spring in research and development to tweak some things on offense.â”

For his first two seasons, Orgeron used bluster and hot air to divert attention from his program, which was a lot better off before David Cutcliffe was run off as head coach.   Now Orgeron is reverting to corporate speak, which means things must be really bad.


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