By Marc Lawrence
When it comes to determining college football's next national champion, one would be wise to peruse the SEC before casting a vote.
Winning four national titles in a row and five of the last seven, the SEC might have padded the numbers even more had Auburn caught a break in 2004.
But, as Pete Fiutak of College Football News.com reminds us, "of the five recent national champions from the SEC, only Alabama of last year was able to get through clean."
So while saddling up with an SEC team to make it the BCS title game would appear to be the high percentage play, the tougher question is ‘who'.
Five different teams have captured the SEC championship game the last six years, with only Florida winning twice.
And speaking of the Gators, the Tim Tebow era ends, and the John Brantley era begins, in Gainseville in 2010. We'll soon learn whether Florida's 48 wins the past four seasons was more a factor of Tebow or head coach Urban Meyer. (UF won nine games in Meyer's first year at the helm in 2005).
Regardless, the fact remains the SEC has won more BCS bowl games (14) than any conference and until another another steps up and says otherwise, they remain SECond to none.
Note: Team writeups excerpted from the 2010 PLAYBOOK Football Preview magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Designated ‘Play On' and ‘Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
FLORIDA - 6 / 5
TEAM THEME: TIM 1:70
The only Division 1 team to ever win 13 games in consecutive seasons has lost its leader. The Tim Tebow era has come to an end but not before the chosen one leaves with a 170.8 career passer rating, which ranks No. 1 all-time in the SEC and No. 2 in CFB history. QB John Brantley, a more conventional passer, steps in and he'll be surrounded with the team's top four RB's who combined to rush for nearly 2,000 yards last season. Most important, Urban Meyer is back, insisting there is no truth to the rumor that his leave of absence is coming in 6-hour increments. Only 11 starters return from last year's squad as nine Gators were gobbled up by the NFL draft - the most of any school this season. Meyer will also have to replace DC Charlie Strong - the fifth assistant under Meyer to be hired as a head coach. We'll give you one guess where GameDay will be on October 2!
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Alabama (10/2)
GEORGIA - 10 / 5
TEAM THEME: A LEG UP
Despite a down season, an Independence Bowl win over Texas A&M gave the Bulldogs their 13th straight season of eight or more wins - extending the longest such streak in the nation. To keep that skein intact, the Dawgs will need to keep from losing the yardage battle - which was the case a surprising seven of 13 times in 2009. As a result, three new defensive coaches are aboard. Special teams is one area where Mark Richt shouldn't have any concerns. P Drew Butler, the 2009 Ray Guy award winner, is back. So is PK Blair Walsh, a finalist for the Lou Groza award. A soft non-conference slate along with a favorable SEC road schedule (Richt is 33-6 in true road games, including an amazing 11-3 vs. ranked opponents) should have these Bulldogs, once again, ‘kicking' butt in 2010.
PLAY ON: vs. Kentucky (10/23)
KENTUCKY - *5 / 7
TEAM THEME: OPERATION WHAT?
New HC Joker Phillips has begun a plan called ‘Operation Win.' To which we say, "Huh?" After all, the Wildcats have won seven-plus games each of the last four years for the first time since 1909-1912 and have gone bowling four straight years for the first time in school history. In fact, the 2009 seniors have recorded the most wins in Kentucky lore since the 1950 class, including a victory at Georgia last year - the Wildcats first win ‘Between the Hedges' in over 20 years. Kudos to veteran Rich Brooks who retires with peace of mind knowing he masterminded the aforementioned milestones. Seven starters are back on defense and the QB position is in good hands with the return of Morgan Newton and former starter Mike Hartline. With three of the last four seasons ending in bowl wins, our advice to Phillips is simple: Keep winning - or the laughing stops in Lexington. No Joke.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Louisville (9/4)
SOUTH CAROLINA - *8 / 7
TEAM THEME: ROUTE 666
While a trio of six-loss seasons the last three years is hardly impressive, the 68 wins that the Gamecocks posted this past decade were the most in school history. It's a good thing for the ol' ball coach that 99% of his team's passing yards, 93% of their rushing yards and 83% of their receiving yards return from a year ago as his Gamecocks face the toughest schedule in Division 1 this year - despite hosting seven contests. Eleven winning foes dot the 2010 docket, including 10 bowlers. Even its six home games versus FBS foes find no cupcakes, as all six went bowling while combining for a 53-26 record in 2009. QB Stephen Garcia, the SEC active leader in total yards and passing yards, is back for the challenge but he'll have to improve on his 8-8 mark as a starter if these Columbia ‘Cocks want to hit the alleys for the fifth time in six years.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Georgia (9/11)
TENNESSEE - 5 / 6
TEAM THEME: AS THE VOLS TURN
The soap opera has left town. Lane Kiffin is out after a one-year stand in Knoxville but, truth be told, nary a tear was shed. It's now Derek Dooley's show. The son of legendary coach, Vince, and most recently the sideline boss at Louisiana Tech, looks to rebuild a once proud program. "Everything we're going to do is going to be a foundation of integrity in every aspect of the program... I'm excited about what the future holds for Tennessee, " says Dooley. The loss of 11 starters, including star CB Eric Berry, may keep the ratings down in Season One but winning runs deep in the Dooley family tree. Dooley's run-first philosophy may also miss prime time with the departure of Montario Hardesty. It may take some time but we have a suspicion Dooley and the Vols will be a long-running hit.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Alabama (10/23)
VANDERBILT - *7 / 5
TEAM THEME: FROM BOBBY TO ROBBIE
A tough season-opening four-game itinerary against four bowlers is only the tip of the iceberg for the Commies in 2010. They must deal with no less than 10 bowl teams this campaign, and another that will dress up as a ‘Mission Team' (Wake Forest). Bad news came out of spring camp when DT Adam Smotherman, a vital cog on a leaky defense last year, blew out his knee. JUCO transfer QB Jordan Rodgers, the brother of Green Bay signal-caller Aaron, is expected to battle Larry Smith, who started nine games last season, for the starting job. To make matters worse, head coach Bobby Johnson resigned in July. Thirty-six sophomores and red-shirt freshman, including SEC Freshman of the Year, RB/KR Warren Norman, will see plenty of time as interim HC Robbie Caldwell rebuilds from the ground up. Our advice for Robbie: with wins looking hard to come by, make 0-12 Eastern Michigan the homecoming opponent!
ALABAMA - *8 / 2
TEAM THEME: ELEPHANT SEASON
SEC opponents will be trading in their snatch hooks for double rifles now that the defending national champs replace the Gators as the team to beat this season. How good was the Tide last year? Of the five recent national champions from the SEC, only the 2009 Crimson managed to get through the season unscathed. Expect the Tide to continue rolling under QB Greg McElroy, a senior who has yet to experience a loss in a high school or college game as a starter. He'll have plenty of firepower to work with as Heisman Trophy winner RB Mark Ingram and WR Julio Jones (maybe the best receiver in the land) return for their junior seasons. Defense (ranked No. 2 overall the last six years - allowing just 275 YPG) has been the name of the game in Tuscaloosa but the ‘Nictator' will have to retool a unit that lost four players to the first two rounds of the NFL draft. Let's see how these well-rounded elephants fare with the bulls-eye squarely on their trunks.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Auburn (11/26)
ARKANSAS - *9 / 7
TEAM THEME: HOG WILD
The mud slinging should be kept to a minimum with a lot to like in Fayetteville this season. The Razorbacks capped off an eight-win season last year with a Liberty Bowl victory over East Carolina despite facing the nation's 4th toughest schedule. The 2009 squad leaders in passing, rushing, receiving, total offense, all-purpose yards, tackles, sacks, interceptions, pass break-ups, QB hurries, forced fumbles, fumble recoveries, kickoff returns, field goals, punting and blocked punts all return! One of those returning leaders is 6'7" 238-lb QB Ryan Mallett, who was named the top signal caller in the country last season by the Sporting News. In all, 59 letterman, 16 starters and both specialists will once again don the cardinal & white, making Petrino's Hogs a handful in 2010.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Texas A&M (10/9)
AUBURN - 7 / 8
TEAM THEME: JUST WIN, BABY
A 5-0 start diminished to a 2-5 finish, but Gene Chizik silenced the naysayers with an 8-win campaign that included a victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. His Tigers were even on the verge of an Iron Bowl win before arch-rival Alabama rallied for a 26-21 victory on their way to the national title. As a result, Auburn enjoyed a strong recruiting class, which should serve as building blocks for the future. Unfortunately, the future is always now at Jordan-Hare Stadium and Chizik will have to deal with a schedule that includes eight bowlers and a trip to Tuscaloosa. The good news is eight home games dot the slate and 15 starters return, including the majority of offensive and defensive linemen. Here's some friendly advice for Chizik - keep winning. It didn't matter that former HC Tommy Tuberville had eight straight winning seasons... a 5-7 season sent him packing.
PLAY ON: vs. Kentucky (10/9)
LSU - *6 / 4
TEAM THEME: CLUE LES
The Tigers' offense fell off the map in 2009, barely averaging over 300 YPG and finishing No. 112 in the nation. Maybe it's time to start pointing the finger at Les Miles. Yes, Miles has won 51 of 66 games in his first 5 years at LSU, but nine of those losses have come within the past two seasons as he continues to find more ways to lose games than win them. Last year ended with a whimper as the Bengals dropped three of their last five, losing the stat battle in every contest. To make matters worse, the defense slipped for the third year in a row. To further emphasize our point, and to show how his teams continue to underachieve, we point out that LSU is 14-3 SU as a home favorite under Miles but only 2-14-1 ATS in those games. If the return of QB Jordan Jefferson doesn't help, perhaps an appointment with Dr. Jennifer Melfi will.
PLAY AGAINST: as favorite vs. Mississippi St (9/18)
MISSISSIPPI - 3 / 6
TEAM THEME: NINE BALL
Thanks to 31 turnovers and the inconsistent play of QB Jevan Snead, the Rebels were unable to improve on their surprise 2008 season. On some bad advice, Snead forewent his senior season and declared for the NFL Draft. However, it's the loss of some other skill players that has Houston nutty. "When you lose the first 1,000-yard receiver in Ole Miss history (Shay Hodge), and then lose a guy like Dexter (McCluster) who was a 1,000-yard rusher and 500-yard receiver, that's 2,500 yards you've got to make up," lamented Nutt. Nutt has led the Rebels to consecutive nine-win seasons for the first time since 1961-1962. A seven-game home slate and a favorable non-conference schedule (only one bowler) should keep Ole Miss in the mix, but Nutt will need to call on all of his coaching acumen to produce a third straight nine-win season.
PLAY ON: as dog vs. Alabama (10/16)
MISSISSIPPI STATE - 6 / 8
TEAM THEME: CROOMING A DIFFERENT TUNE
Sadly, with Sylvester Croom in retirement, the excitement is back in Starkville. After leading the nation in increased attendance last season, 34,127 fans attended the spring game - a new record in the state of Mississippi. Despite facing the toughest slate in the country last season, the Bulldogs won a respectable five games - including three on the road. 2010's schedule is also challenging: Dan Mullen's men face no less than nine bowlers. However, the second-year HC returns four starters from an offensive line that paved the way for a ground attack that led the SEC in rushing while improving by over 1,500 yards and a significant 1.8 YPG. Thanks to the ground game, the offense averaged 26 PPG - quite an improvement from the 15 PPG in 2008. While the passing attack (No. 113) still requires some glee, Mullen has the State faithful singing in full force.
PLAY ON: vs. Arkansas (11/20)