, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Yes, it’s time we dabble in the minor league system of the NFL, college football.

The NCAA is having a rough go of it. The number of violations and major programs finding themselves under fire seems to be increasing every year. Auburn hasn’t quite gotten out of the spotlight of the NCAA, and last years runner-up – Oregon – is very much in the NCAA’s sights. Ohio State lost their head coach and starting quarterback due to major violations, and even Boise State has had some share of violations.

Combine this with many conference presidents beginning calls to start paying players and various concerns with the state of their sport, college football finds itself in a very precarious predicament. This could be from the absence of the NFL, which has become a 365 day a year sport news wise, but I think there are some fundamental problems within college football that are coming to light.

Still, with another season comes another outburst of college nationalism from rivalries renewed, and preseason speculation. To start with today, we’ll look at the NFL B conference – the SEC.

Last years Champions – Auburn will have a major overhaul throughout their roster. They return only 6 starters. They do bring back their starting running back Michael Dyer whose a 1000 yard rusher last season. Still without a quarterback familiar with the system and a defense lacking in experience this could be a rough year for Auburn. Still Gene Chizik has proven he can turn programs around quickly and has worked with 1 year wonder quarterbacks more than once.

The former champs – Alabama – have been quietly turning over their roster year by year in small doses. They went from John Parker Wilson to Greg McElroy fairly seamlessly and this year they’ll have made another transition. At the moment, Sophomore AJ McCarron looks to be the starter, but he’s been pressed by Phillip Sims this off-season, a freshman. Their defense should be absolutely terrifying. Among their 9 (count that nine) preseason All SEC players, 5 come from their defense. They may have 3 first round DBs on the roster and their linebackers continue to be ferocious. The only problems they might have this year come at quarterback. If Richardson cannot keep the pressure off them in the ground game, opponents could find turnovers from the young signal callers.

Nick Saban’s old stomping grounds, LSU, also brings a fierce defense to the table. They are a team that perennially struggles on offense, but is dominating on the defensive side. They feature a strong set of linebackers and corner play. Replacing Patrick Peterson will be hard, but Morris Claiborne has had a year of being targeted opposite Peterson to work out the kinks. Like the Tide, LSU’s questions stand at Quarterback. Jordan Jefferson returns again. Hated by much of the LSU faithful, he’s coming off a 4 TD season, but LSU’s coaching staff have once again promised to turn Jefferson around this year. If he struggles again, he might be pulled for a younger arm.

SEC East champions, South Carolina, are still in the hunt. Steve Spurrier continues to build a team to his liking, and though it’s taking a long time to bring in the talent. Still he has maybe the best running back and best wide receiver in the conference in Marcus Lattimore and Alshon Jeffery. These two should keep Stephen Garcia’s stress level to a minimum. Garcia’s off field stupidity (and there really isn’t another word for it) remain the biggest concern for the team. He’s had 5 suspensions in his college career and very few NFL teams will even think about touching him. Their defense is a little suspect, but should be competitive enough to let the offense take the field.

Tim Tebow’s old stomping ground, Florida, is also primed to step back into prominence. Will Muschamp is at the helm now and bringing in Charlie Weis to run a more pro style offense should work in the long run (I’ve always felt programs that can recruit top talent should not consider any other scheme except pro). Quarterback John Brantley was forced into a spread scheme he didn’t fit, but Weis will bring a good scheme for his skill set. They bring back a lot of their offense, but their O-line could give them some struggles. As could a brutal schedule featuring Alabama, LSU, and Auburn in three straight weeks in October. With the trend of the champions being undefeated, it might be tough to come out of that stretch 3-0.

Georgia coach Mark Richt is on the hot seat. He wasted supremely talented A.J. Green with the teams offensive struggles. Quarterback Aaron Murray has shown flashes of big time play, but regressed last season (hence the hot seat under Richt). They return much of their offense, but not at the skill positions which will make Murray’s life a bit tougher. They also have an almost fresh set of linebackers in a 3-4 scheme, which might be a tough transition to endure.

Arkansas played in a very memorable game against Ohio State at the end of last season. Ryan Mallett is in New England now and will be replaced by Tyler Wilson. By all accounts, Wilson will be more than capable of keeping the Arkansas offense productive, and with tailback Knile Davis, the SEC rushing leader last season, behind him he’ll have help along the way. The offensive line lost both bookends, but the interior should be sound still (encouraging for the running game). Their defense wasn’t particularly frightening last year, but another season of experience ought to help, aside from two need starters in their secondary.

Tennessee is still regrouping from the Kiffin Incident, but showed some signs of progress last season. They’ve got a starting quarterback in Sophomore Tyler Bray. He’s been somewhat inconsistent, but being a young signal caller you’d expect that. On defense they’ll need some help. Their line depth is pitiful and since Eric Berry’s departure they haven’t had much on the back-end. This is a team that will surprise a couple of games and botch others.

Mississippi had a horrendous defense last season and after losing Jerrell Powe it figures to only get worse. On offense, Brandon Bolden is the bright spot at running back, behind a returning 5 starters on their O-line. They’re replacing Jeremiah Masoli, Oregon transfer, with Nathan Stanley so they’ll figure to lean on the rushing attack heavily early on. Still, Houston Nutt could be on the way out if he can’t swing that defense around quickly.

Dan Mullen, former Urban Meyer guy, could bring a dark horse team to the West in Mississippi State. Chris Relf has improved every year and running back Vick Ballard has been solid with a nose for the goal line (20 touchdowns last year).  On defense, they’ve been solid if not spectacular. Still, returning 7 starters on defense should help, or would except that they have 3 new linebackers coming in this year. Being stuck in the West, the stronger of the two conferences, will hurt their chances of making a run at the SEC title, but they have enough talent that they could surprise some people.

Kentucky features an up and coming coach in Joker Phillips who has kept the team competitive, if not very successful. They’re bringing back a large portion of their starters. Unfortunately, they’re rebuilding all the skill positions this year. Their top player, Randall Cobb, is gone to the NFL and they lost their top rusher in Derrick Locke. On defense they bring back a monster linebacker in Danny Trevathan, as well as several DB’s. Their offensive line also returns this year. It figures to be another long season for Kentucky, but progress is being made.

Vanderbilt. Perennial joke of the SEC. Even with Jay Cutler and Earl Bennett they weren’t much of a program to be reckoned with. However, they’ve signed long time Maryland coach in waiting James Franklin who has already worked on creating a more sound program. He’s already recruited one of the best classes for Vandy in years. They return 19 starters with some nice skill position players, but beyond the starters there isn’t much room for mistakes. Franklin brings hope, but it’s likely a couple of years away before it starts to show some real progress.

The SEC figure to be pretty top-heavy. While still the best conference in the NCAA, the upper teams are more alike this year than most. Alabama and LSU are National Championship contenders, and Arkansas isn’t far off. All three will be in the hunt for the West. In the East, South Carolina looks in the best position through continuity and talent to repeat, but don’t rule out Florida making a quick transition to the pro style offense.

West                                                East

1. Alabama                                     1. South Carolina
2. LSU                                             2. Florida
3. Arkansas                                    3. Kentucky
4. Mississippi State                       4. Tennessee
5. Ole Miss                                     5. Georgia
6. Auburn                                       6. Vanderbilt