The Southeastern Conference (SEC) in college football is possibly the best conference in terms of tradition and great games year in and year out. The 2006 SEC season will be no exception as the SEC East and West divisions will feature a number of competitive teams and some, like South Carolina and Arkansas, that would do much better in conferences like the Big East and the ACC. However, it is great to see the traditionally strong teams like Florida, Auburn, and Tennessee near the top of their games heading into 2006 and college football fans everywhere should revel in having games like these on ever Saturday.
1. Florida- Quarterback Chris Leak’s talent is unquestioned, but is he good enough to carry on the tradition of great Gators quarterbacks? Obviously, by this projection, he does well enough but there are still questions about whether he can adapt to Urban Meyer’s offensive scheme. Meyer’s honeymoon in Gainesville is over and Gators fans, who ran Ron Zook out on a rail only two years ago, will be looking for championship style play and a nearly flawless performance from their Gators. The reason that the Gators will do well enough in this tough division is that their defense is pretty solid and Leak will cut down on his mistakes in 2006.
2. Georgia- The biggest question for Mark Richt this season is whether or not they can replace versatile quarterback D.J. Shockley, taken in the NFL draft by the Falcons. The most likely candidate to succeed Shockley is senior quarterback Joe Tereshinski, who had a few repetitions in relief of Shockley in 2005. However, sophomore Blake Barnes could push Tereshinski if there are any doubts as to the latter’s ability to lead the Bulldogs on offense. Richt has a great defense, as per usual, and his special teams are good enough to make plays in close games. Look for the Bulldogs to make a greater push for the conference lead in 2007.
3. Tennessee- Philip Fullmer’s Volunteers team had a disappointing 2005 with a 5-6 record. As well, the off-season has featured the arrest of four players, including tight end Lee Smith, and questions about Fullmer’s ability to rebound. However, the Fullmer era in Knoxville will continue for at least a few more seasons as the Volunteers will rebound with a 7 to 8 win season and a bowl appearance in 2006. Despite the massive amount of mistakes that were committed in 2005, Fullmer is confident that his team will play smarter and harder in 2006.
4. South Carolina- Steve Spurrier’s mark has been made on the Gamecocks, with a bowl appearance and a winning season after only two seasons under the old ball coach. However, the top of the Eastern division is improving while the Gamecocks will be holding steady and maybe tailing off a bit in 2006. The defense is undersized but in their third season in Spurrier’s aggressive scheme they will improve. Quarterback Blake Mitchell needs to have a good to great performance every game for South Carolina to be competitive because the running game is nearly non-existent.
5. Kentucky- Coach Rich Brooks is in trouble and the Wildcats are only better in 2006 in comparison to the dropping commodity that is Vanderbilt football. Brooks needs one of his two talented quarterbacks, Andre Woodson or Curtis Pulley, to step up and become a leader because the running game will be tough to get started. The defense is adequate but against teams like South Carolina and Florida, they won’t stand a chance.
6. Vanderbilt- The loss of outstanding quarterback Jay Cutler to the NFL Draft means the Commodores will need to perform better as a team in order to compete in the difficult SEC East. However, Vanderbilt just does not have the talent to be anything but a bottom feeder in the SEC in the 2006 season.
1. Auburn- Tommy Tuberville has a great defense, a good running game, and a potentially great quarterback in Brandon Cox. Expectations are high for the Tigers and while they may not get to the BCS Championship, they will figure to be one of the top teams in the nation and a contender for the championship over the next couple of seasons.
2. LSU- The devastation caused by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita in the 2005 football season made the LSU Tigers a traveling team that was in constant flux week in and week out. However, the Tigers played inspired football and won 11 games with many games on the road. While such devastation was difficult for the people of Louisiana, there had to be some pride in the fact that the Tigers and other teams continued to perform and entertain the people of the state hit hard by natural disaster. The experiences of 2005, along with the continued performance of a healthy JaMarcus Russell, means that LSU will be able to compete with Auburn in 2006.
3. Alabama- Coach Mike Shula loses quarterback Brody Croyle to the NFL but young quarterback John Parker Wilson will be able to develop into perhaps a better collegiate quarterback. Never mind the quarterbacks, though, as the special teams and defense are the trademarks of Crimson Tide football. The defense only has four starters returning but linebacker Juwan Simpson is a solid player and will be a good leader for a young squad. Shula’s biggest hope is that the same forces that came together to give them a great 2005 season will smile kindly upon them in 2006.
4. Arkansas- The biggest news for the Razorbacks football team in the 2006 offseason was coach Houston Nutt’s relinquishment of the play calling duties to new offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Malzahn has no collegiate experience but the Razorbacks are hoping to get their offense going with a new voice calling the plays. Nevertheless, Arkansas’ lack of major offensive talent will make their move to a new offense less impressive.
5. Mississippi State-Sylvester Croom’s coaching ability will begin to show through in the 2006 season as the Bulldogs improve to 4 wins from their 3-8 record last season. The Bulldogs need to replace Jerious Norwood, who left for the NFL in the offseason, and his 1100 yards in 2005. The loss of these running yards will make it tough for Mississippi State to move it up and down the field but their heart, determination, and improving offensive and defensive line means that they will keep it close in quite a few games.
6. Mississippi- A tough division, a tough conference, and little talent equals a poor season ahead for the Rebels faithful. Without a Manning at the helm and much talent in the cupboard, Ole Miss will fall behind an improving Mississippi State in the SEC West.
SEC Championship- Auburn versus Florida- Auburn has the championship experience and a team that is prepared for big games under Tommy Tuberville. While Florida has great talent on offense, Urban Meyer is still a year or two away from being able to adequately compete with a team the caliber of Auburn. Look for Chris Leak to be harried by the aggressive Auburn defense and make a few too many mistakes.
2006 SEC Championship projection- Auburn 28, Florida 13
Best NFL Prospect- Quarterback Brandon Cox, Auburn- Brandon Cox is heavily lauded as a young talent and in a pro-style offense like Auburn’s, Cox should be prepared for the NFL in a few years. His strong arm and agility in the pocket will make him a pro-level threat once he gets more experience behind him.
Most Improved Team- Tennessee- The Philip Fullmer era in Knoxville will continue for another year or two at least with his efforts in 2006. The Volunteers will be able to pull it together as a team, especially on offense, and won’t make the same mistakes that beleaguered them in 2005.