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SEC predictions

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After witnessing the first-ever “360” during the introductions at UFC 100 this past Saturday night, let’s honor Bruce Buffer by letting you know that “IT’S TIME!” for my 2009 SEC football predictions. Here we go…

SEC EAST:

1. Florida- The Gators have won two of the last three national titles and return all 11 starters from their defense. That unit held Oklahoma to 14 points in the BCS title game after the Sooners had scored 61 points or more in their five previous games against Big 12 foes. UF brings back seven starters on offense, including senior quarterback Tim Tebow, who might be the best player in college football history. Without a doubt, if Tebow wins another Heisman and/or national title, there will be no debating that issue. The schedule sets up nicely for UF, as it doesn’t have to play Alabama, Ole Miss and Auburn from the West division. The toughest test will come in Baton Rouge on Oct. 10 but even that game is scripted perfectly for the Gators, who have an open date the prior week while LSU has a revenge game between the hedges against Georgia. Even if Florida slips up against LSU, it will probably get to Pasadena if it wins out from there. I have Urban Meyer's squad running the table and beating Texas for the national title.

2. Georgia- Georgia was overrated last season, but I think it is an underrated squad this year. The Dawgs are flying under the radar mostly due to the departures of QB Matthew Stafford and RB Knowshon Moreno. However, it says here that fifth-year senior QB Joe Cox is going to be better than expected and third-year sophomore RB Caleb King looks poised for a breakout campaign. The offensive line, riddled with injuries in 2008, should be stout thanks to the return of OT Trinton Sturdivant. I have UGA finishing 8-4 but it could easily go 9-3 or even 10-2 with a few breaks. The Week 3 trip to Arkansas is a big swing game.

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3. South Carolina-
The reclamation project in Columbia hasn’t gone quite as well as Steve Spurrier anticipated when he took the challenging job. However, the 28 victories in a four-year span represent the best such stretch in South Carolina football history. Spurrier isn’t proud of that back-handed compliment, though. Twelve of the 22 losses on his watch have come by seven points or less and five defeats have come by margins of four points or less, so it’s not as if USC hasn’t been competitive. To start to win close games, the Gamecocks need to take better care of the football. They had an abysmal minus-11 turnover ratio in 2008. Stephen Garcia, the third-year sophomore QB from Tampa, is going to be the catalyst for this team (for better or worse). He showed promise during the regular season but was a turnover machine in a 31-10 loss to Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Garcia will have to stay healthy and be effective for the ‘Cocks to have a successful season. The defense, led by All-American Eric Norwood and DE Cliff Matthews, should be solid and freshman RB Jarvis Giles will give the ground game some spark. I say USC gets more bounces and breaks in 2009, finishing with an 8-4 record and trip back to the Sunshine State for New Year’s Day.

4. Tennessee- Since beating Kentucky in Phillip Fulmer’s farewell, the off-season in Knoxville has been quite eventful. Lane Kiffin (AKA Lame Chafin’) has ruffled feathers from Gainesville to Tuscaloosa to Columbia and back. With that said, the new head coach has assembled an outstanding staff, highlighted by his father, legendary defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin. He also brought in an excellent recruiting class, highlighted by RB Bryce Brown, who should be a starter from the get-go. Five of UT’s first six games are at home and a 4-1 start appears likely, but the Vols will struggle when they get into the meat of their schedule. Once again, poor QB play will prove costly. The Vols will limp to a 2-6 SEC record and finish tied for last in the SEC East with Kentucky and Vandy. They will go 6-6 overall to garner a trip to either the Liberty or Music City Bowl.

4. Kentucky- Let’s start by offering props galore to Rich Brooks, who has led Kentucky to three consecutive bowl wins. He took over the program when it was on probation and struggled mightily in his first three seasons, prompting this space to prematurely write his pink slip. Since then, we’ve taken that ridiculous notion back on many occasions and deservedly so. Brooks has built a respectable program and should hold his head high when he eventually passes the reigns over to coach-in-waiting Joker Phillips, who is the current offensive coordinator. UK’s 2009 squad caught a tough break when senior All-SEC defensive end Jeremy Jarmon was recently declared ineligible. Nevertheless, the ‘Cats still have a pair of All-American candidates in CB Trevard Lindley and LB Micah Johnson. Mike Hartline (9/8 touchdown-interception ratio) was shaky in his first season as a starter, but he played well in a 25-19 win over East Carolina in the Liberty Bowl. Hartline has a dynamic weapon in WR Randall Cobb, who had seven rushing touchdowns and a pair of TDs both passing and receiving. As always, the schedule is daunting but I see UK going 6-6 to earn a fourth straight bowl bid. Most importantly, the ‘Cats will end a 24-game losing streak to Tennessee in the regular-season finale.

4. Vanderbilt- The Commodores hadn’t been to a bowl game since 1982 until Bobby Johnson guided them to a 16-14 win over Boston College in last year’s Music City Bowl. Vandy could go bowling again, as it returns eight starters on offense and nine on ‘D.’ The schedule is always challenging for Vandy, but it will be even more so this year because the ‘Dores play all 12 of their games in consecutive weeks without an open date. In addition, they play six true road games and must face a solid Ga. Tech squad in non-conference play. The QB situation remains unsettled with senior Mackenzie Adams and sophomore Larry Smith battling for the starting spot. If Vandy can win at Rice, it will go 5-7. Johnson’s bunch won’t go bowling again but it will win a pair of SEC home games against UK and Mississippi St. to finish in a fourth-place tie in the East.

SEC WEST:

1. Alabama- The Crimson Tide must replace QB John Parker Wilson and has only four starters back on offense. On the flip side, ‘Bama’s defense nearly returns intact with nine starters back. And it’s the ‘D’ that’ll lead the Tide back to the Georgia Dome. This unit is led by a pair of All-Americans in LB Rolando McClain and DT Terrence Cody. The offensive line lost some key parts and RB Glen Coffee turned pro early, but Mark Ingram (12 rushing TDs in ’08) is plenty capable of filling Coffee’s shoes. The pressure is on junior QB Greg McElroy as the new starter, but he’ll have an adequate rushing attack behind him and perhaps the nation’s premier wide receiver in Julio Jones. I think ‘Bama goes down in Oxford, but that’ll be its only defeat until it runs into the Gators again in Atlanta.

2. Ole Miss- The Rebels are coming off their best season since 2003 (Eli’s senior year) and expectations haven’t been this high since the 1960s. Like Georgia last year, Houston Nutt’s team is the chic pick in college football. Ole Miss is in the top 10 of every pre-season publication I’ve seen and that’s not necessarily a good thing. But Nutt is the perfect coach to help his squad handle unusual expectations. He has the league’s second-best QB in Jevan Snead, who is a darkhorse Heisman candidate after throwing 26 TD passes last season. Eight starters are back on both sides of the ball, but a pair of first-round picks (OT Michael Oher and Peria Jerry) are gone. Also, Snead’s best deep-ball threat Mike Wallace has departed. Nevertheless, the schedule works due to soft non-conference competition and Tennessee replacing Florida from the East. I’ve wavered back and forth on who will prevail when LSU comes to The Grove, finally settling on the Rebels thanks to a better signal caller and homefield advantage. The Rebels will go 10-2 and just barely miss out on a trip to the Georgia Dome.

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3. LSU-
The Tigers have seven starters back on both sides of the ball after a disappointing 8-5 campaign, but there are still questions about who will be the starting QB. Jordan Jefferson appears to be the man, but I have major doubts about his ability to consistently keep defenses honest by accurately throwing the ball down the field. We know Jefferson can get it done with his legs and so can RB Charles Scott, who is a bruising between-the-tackles runner who scored 18 TDs and averaged 5.4 yards per carry in 2008. The defense should be one of the league’s best with six of last year’s top seven tacklers returning. Les Miles and Co. will start 4-0 but I have ‘L’s penciled in at Georgia and vs. Florida. And as previously mentioned, I have Ole Miss nipping LSU in a nail-biter. Things worked out for the Bayou Bengals in 2007 despite Miles’ shaky game-day decisions, but his lack of coaching acumen will continue to surface in 2009. LSU will finish 8-4 and then beat an ACC team in the Chick-Fil-A Bowl (again).

4. Arkansas- This is my sleeper team that’s going to surprise some people. Bobby Petrino’s team played strong down the stretch of his first season, beating previously-unbeaten Tulsa and rallying to edge LSU in the regular-season finale. The Razorbacks could’ve gone bowling if not for three losses (at UK, vs. Ole Miss and at Mississippi St.) by six combined points. They have an outstanding RB in senior Michael Smith, who rushed for 1,072 yards and eight TDs in ’08. Michigan transfer Ryan Mallett is poised to take over under center, but he was pushed by redshirt freshman Tyler Wilson during spring practice. The Hogs have the SEC’s best TE in D.J. Williams, who is coming off a 61-reception campaign. The defense returns 10 starters, but is that a good thing? Arkansas finished last in the SEC in defense last year. Look for the Hogs to finish 8-4, but they had better be on upset alert when Levi Brown leads the Troy Trojans into Fayetteville on Nov. 14.

5. Auburn- This space is still perplexed by the pink slip handed to Tommy Tuberville and the subsequent coaching search that resembled a three-ring circus sponsored by Barnum and Bailey. That quest ended with the hiring of Iowa St. coach Gene Chizik, who sports a 5-19 career ledger as a head coach. Auburn has seven starters back on offense and eight on defense. The ‘D’ wasn’t the problem in ’07 and that unit should be stout once again, but will the anemic offense improve? Who will be the QB? Kodi Burns clearly isn’t the answer, as evidenced by his 2/7 TD-INT ratio last year. Defenses will continue to stack the box unless Burns or Chris Todd start making plays in the passing game. I have Auburn going 7-5 but that’s by virtue of a 4-0 start that could have an ‘L’ in it if a QB doesn’t emerge. The highlight of the year will be an upset over Ole Miss at home.

6. Mississippi State- Dan Mullen has his work cut out for him and it’s going to take some time in Starkville. The Bulldogs limped to a 4-8 record that led to Sylvester Croom’s removal after a five-year tenure that netted just one bowl-game appearance (in fairness to Croom, he inherited a colossal mess and it’s not easy winning at MSU). They return a league-low 10 starters overall, but that number is a tad misleading because LB Jamar Chaney is back after tearing his ACL in Week 1. Anthony Dixon is one of the country’s most underrated RBs, but the lack of a steady aerial attack has made life difficult for him throughout his career. Tyson Lee took over under center midway through last season and performed adequately with a 7/5 TD-INT ratio. Lee will have to step up his game if MSU is going to get a ‘W’ in SEC play. The schedule doesn’t help as the four SEC home games are against the league’s heavyweights in UF, LSU, ‘Bama and Ole Miss. I smell a bagel for the Bulldogs in conference play and a long 3-9 year that’ll end with their bitter rivals celebrating an Egg Bowl victory at Scott Field.

**B.E.’s Bonus Nuggets**

--UGA’s Cox was rated the eighth-best prep QB in the country coming out of high school. Like D.J. Shockley, he has patiently waited his turn and will get his chance during his fifth-year senior campaign. Mark Richt is hoping Cox can “pull a Shockley” by leading the Dawgs to an SEC championship. For his career, Cox has started only once and has 432 passing yards with a 5/1 touchdown-interception ratio.

--Scott Field has been a house of horrors for the Gators, who haven’t won in Starkville since 1985. In their last trip, Jerious Norwood rallied Mississippi St. to a come-from behind win that led to Ron Zook’s pink slip the following Monday. Back in 1992, Shane Matthews saw his Heisman hopes go up in flames when he threw five interceptions in a 30-6 loss. In 2000, the Bulldogs rushed for more than 300 yards on UF in a 47-35 triumph. They won’t have the horses to pull a shocker on Oct. 24 but with Florida in a clear look-ahead spot with the Georgia game on deck, MSU could be worth a look as a huge home underdog.

--South Carolina is 13-7 ATS as a favorite under Spurrier, 9-5 versus the number as a home ‘chalk.’

--Vandy went 7-2 ATS in underdog spots last year.

--I have Alabama suffering its lone regular-season setback at Ole Miss in Week 6. If the Tide finds a way to prevail in Oxford and goes into the South Carolina game with a 6-0 record, that spot will have letdown written all over it. In addition, I’m confident the Gamecocks will come to Tuscaloosa on a four-game winning streak. If Garcia is healthy and ‘Bama is still unbeaten, watch out for a potential upset here. On the other hand, if the Tide is in bounce-back mode after losing to the Rebels, forget the aforementioned notion as it will take care of business against the ‘Cocks at Bryant-Denny Stadium.

--In his most recent column, Paul Finebaum of the Mobile Press-Register says that you can’t get to Atlanta from Oxford.

--Remember, Ole Miss is the only SEC West school that has never won the division to advance to the SEC Championship Game. From the SEC East, Vandy, South Carolina and Kentucky have never made it to the Georgia Dome.

--UK's Jarmon was drafted by the Redskins in the third round of the NFL's supplemental draft.

--SEC’s Best Players:
1-Tim Tebow (QB, Florida)
2-Julio Jones (WR, Alabama)
3-Brandon Spikes (LB, Florida)
4-Eric Berry (SS, Tennessee)
5-Rolando McClain (LB, Alabama)
6-Trevard Lindley (CB, Kentucky)
7-Eric Norwood (LB, South Carolina)
8-A.J. Green (WR, Georgia)
9-Ciron Black (OT, LSU)
10-Charles Scott (RB, LSU)

--Tebow fell one vote short of being the unanimous choice as first-team All-SEC QB. Since Houston Nutt (and every other coach) can't vote for his own player in Jevan Snead, it makes you wonder who did give Snead the nod over Tebow. My guess is either Saban or Kiffin (I mean Chafin').  

Brian Edwards can be reached at briane@vegasinsider.com.

  
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