The Campus Game SEC spring preview starts with the SEC East.
Defending national champion Florida figures to be an overwhelming favorite to win the division, the conference, and to top national polls. While no other divisional team appears an imminent threat to the Gators now … that’s why we play the games.
Here are two questions to track for each SEC East squad as we approach spring drills. Spring practice dates for each school are posted below.
How will the Gators handle the favorite’s role? Most likely very well. Expect Florida to be an overwhelming choice to repeat as national champions. Quarterback Tim Tebow, already a conference legend along the lines of Archie Manning, Herschel Walker, Bo Jackson, and the like, returns as does the entire defensive unit that stifled Oklahoma’s record setting offense in the BCS title game. Can the Gators handle all that prosperity? The guess here is yes.
How bad does the loss of Percy Harvin hurt? It depends. First, imagine if the multi-purpose speedster had returned for his senior year … wow. The Gators have plenty of offensive speed with Jeff Demps, Chris Rainey (assuming he recovers from an injury in the NC game), and others, but Harvin possessed that special play-making ability that few can replicate. He will be missed.
How will the Bulldogs replace QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno? From a statistical standpoint, they will not. From a production and wins view, they may be able to come close. Senior Joe Cox will take over for Stafford. He’s an accurate passer and by all accounts a tough competitor, but he has only average arm strength. At running back, the Dogs will count on a group that includes Caleb King, Richard Samuel, and (watch this guy) redshirt freshman Carlton Thomas. For the first time in a while, the backfield will be playing behind a first-rate and deep offensive line (a luxury Stafford never had).
Can the Bulldogs regain their swagger on defense? This may be more troublesome than replacing that offensive duo. Coordinator Willie Martinez caught tremendous flak when his troops gave up points in bunches in big games last season (41 to Alabama, 38 to LSU and Kentucky, 49 to Florida). The return from injury of DT Jeff Owens will help, but more production from the defensive end position is critical.
What to do with Randall Cobb? The multi-talented rising sophomore moved from WR to quarterback and was electrifying at times before going down to an injury. Mike Hartline nailed down the job by leading the Cats to a school-record third straight bowl win, but Cobb is too good to keep off the field. Expect him to play wideout while also getting snaps from the shotgun in the “Wildcat” formation.
Can UK win a 4th straight bowl? Sure. Coach Rich Brooks has built a nice program, and the 2009 outlook brightened considerably when three defensive stalwarts (DE Jeremy Jarmon, LB Micah Johnson, CB Trevard Lindley) all bypassed NFL green to play another year for the Big Blue.
How goes the development of QB Stephen Garcia? The enigmatic Garcia has the position to himself with the departures of Tommy Beecher (to Liberty) and Chris Smelley (to play baseball at Alabama), so maybe that security will lead to greater production. Of course, no quarterback playing for Steve Spurrier should ever feel completely secure.
Can the young SC offensive backfield excel? This is a tough one. The Gamecocks should be good enough on defense (with DE/LB Eric Norwood leading the unit), and Garcia will make some plays with his arm and his feet. Still, the Roosters need production at running back and (if it comes) expect redshirt freshman Kenny Miles and true frosh Jarvis Giles to get first crack at providing the yards.
Is Lane Kiffin crazy like a fox … or just crazy? Let’s see. The new Vol coach has tangled with Steve Spurrier, Urban Meyer, Nick Saban, Mark Richt, Florida AD Jeremy Foley, and SEC Commissioner Mike Slive. Oh yeah, he also has committed at least three NCAA rules violations, while simultaneously publicly accusing Meyer of being a cheater, and he bragged about firing a low-level athletic department staff member who caused him to have to wait fifteen minutes for a ride at the Knoxville airport. Who said he didn’t learn anything from Al Davis and the Raiders? For all his zaniness, Vol fans seem to love him so far. The SEC is a truth-machine and we’ll find out soon enough whether the joke is on the league … or the Vols have hired a joke.
Can this staff coach? Kiffin assembled an all-star coaching staff of recruiters (he famously ran down the list of SEC schools from which he’d hired what he called their best recruiters), but the staff still must develop actual coaching chemistry. D-Line coach Ed Orgeron brought in much talent at Ole Miss but could not coach them to even a .500 record during his four years, but highly-touted defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin has a sterling reputation. Lane Kiffin may be the biggest question mark because he was clearly in over his head with the Raiders, and was by most accounts not an overly significant part of the coaching staff at USC.
Can the Commodores build on their first bowl win since Ike was in the White House? Coach Bobby Johnson returns 17 starters along with some quality redshirts, but where do you go in this division. For Vanderbilt to keep moving up, somebody has to move down. With Florida dominant, Georgia still loaded, Kentucky on the rise, Tennessee rejuvenated, and South Carolina hungry … it’s a challenge.
Will sophomore QB Larry Smith live up to his promise? Smith receives accolades for his pocket presence and passing touch, but the former Mr. Alabama high school star from Prattville started only one game – that Music City Bowl victory over Boston College. The Commodores still have sometime starter Mackenzi Adams available too.
SEC East Spring Football Dates
Florida: March 25 – April 18
Georgia: March 16 – April 11
Kentucky: April 1 – April 25
South Carolina: March 3 – April 11
Tennessee: March 10 – April 18
Vanderbilt: March 10 – March 28