Ten things to watch for in the SEC
Ten things to watch in the Southeastern Conference this season:
1. The (relatively) meek shall inherit Dixie
Since becoming the godfather of conference expansion in 1992, the SEC has been as unbalanced as Michael Jackson. The Eastern Division's ownership of the West has been indisputable. A team from the East has won eight of 11 league championship games, has held the league's highest AP ranking seven of the last eight years and has owned the SEC's top scoring offense every year.
That's starting to change.
Steve Superior leaving Florida for the NFL is a major factor, but so is the steady rise of Auburn under Tommy Tuberville and LSU under Nick Saban. Auburn is widely seen as the SEC's marquee team and chief national title contender this year, and LSU could be the No. 2 squad if Georgia cannot overcome major personnel losses due to graduation, early-season suspension and injury.
And while Florida and Tennessee try to rebound from disastrous years (by their standards), almost everyone in the West is brimming with optimism. All six Western teams return at least 15 starters, while none in the East return more than 13.
If Tuberville starts calling himself the Head Ball Coach and wearing a visor, we will officially have a sea change.
2. Over/under on Ron Zook's head exploding: nine games
Athletic director Jeremy Foley says his second-year coach's job security is not an issue -- especially after a slam-bang recruiting class. But if the Zooker is on the wrong side of .500 after Nov. 1, the situation could be combustible.
And being 4-5 at that point is at least a possibility, after games at Miami, Kentucky, LSU and Arkansas, a home game against Tennessee and the annual Cocktail Party game in Jacksonville against Georgia. That's tough sledding for a team with a lot of question marks.
And after a year of handling the slings and arrows of multitudinous critics fairly well, Zook seems to be adopting a bit of a bunker mentality. As of Wednesday he still was refusing to publicly name a starting quarterback for Saturday's game against San Jose State, and said he probably will keep it secret until kickoff. He also was reportedly getting tired of reporters pressing the issue.
(The longer Zook delays, the more it fuels speculation that he might go with true freshman Chris Leak over sophomore Ingle Martin and redshirt freshman Gavin Dickey. The thinking is that Zook is trying to protect the rookie from a week of high-wattage attention. Keeping San Jose State guessing would hardly seem worth the drama.)
If the climate is like this in August, the message board brushfires could be an inferno by November.
3. Year of the Slashback
Always a league flush with athletes, the SEC might lead the nation in multiposition players this fall.
Keep an eye on how often (and where) you see Tennessee receiver/cornerback Mark Jones and receiver/quarterback James Banks; Florida cornerback/receiver Kiewan Ratliff; LSU receiver/safety Michael Clayton; Arkansas quarterback/receiver Matt Jones, Kentucky quarterback/running back/receiver Shane Boyd and South Carolina receiver/quarterback Syvelle Newton.
The only limits on these guys will be the imaginations of their coaches.
4. Auburn in the spotlight
More than a few folks have made the Tigers a trendy No. 1 pick, but Auburn hasn't been No. 1 since September 1985, when Bo Jackson was blowing up defensive backs. With expectations hanging on this team like toilet paper on the trees at Toomer's Corner, can the Tigers live up to it?
"That's going to be interesting to see," Tuberville said of the No. 1 picks. "I think you need to educate your fans and alumni about rankings early in the season. I think our team understands it pretty well. You can't fool players and coaches as much as you probably can the fans. Where you're ranked before the season doesn't make a hill of beans anyhow."
The defense should be bullet-proof, the running backs are the best in the country and the receiving corps is young but very gifted. The pressure falls to junior quarterback Jason Campbell and first-year offensive coordinator Hugh Nall, who steps in for departed game plan wiz Bobby Petrino, now the head coach at Louisville.
Campbell has proven he can be a starting SEC quarterback -- but he hasn't yet been a great SEC quarterback yet. (He hasn't thrown for 200 yards in a game since September 2001, while sharing the position the last two years with Daniel Cobb.) He shouldn't have to be the second coming of Pat Sullivan with Cadillac Williams and Ronnie Brown lined up behind him, but you figure somewhere along the line he'll have to win a big game with his arm.
5. Who's the best quarterback?
Even with Rex Grossman going pro after his junior year, the league offers you four quality choices: Ole Miss' Eli Manning, Georgia's David Greene, Tennessee's Casey Clausen and Kentucky's Jared Lorenzen.
Of the fab four, Manning threw for the most yards (3,401) last year. Greene had the highest efficiency rating (137.3) and the best record (13-1). Lorenzen threw the most touchdown passes (24) and the fewest interceptions (five). Clausen was the most accurate (62.6 percent) and most injured (he missed two full games and parts of others).
6. Life on the penal colony
Alabama is on its second year with no postseason and on its third head coach in less than 12 months. The Crimson Tide has turned to 38-year-old alum Mike Shula, who has never been a head coach on any level and never been a college coach of any kind, to see them through.
Kentucky can go to a bowl after sitting out last year, but is still laboring with scholarship restrictions and must adjust to its third head coach in four seasons. The Wildcats have turned to 62-year-old Rich Brooks, who hasn't won a college game since 1994, hasn't won any game as a head coach since '96 and hasn't coached, period, since 2000.
Young and old meet in the Probation Bowl in Tuscaloosa Sept. 13. Maybe Albert Means can drop by for the coin toss.
7. Is the sun setting on the Day of the Jackal?
Jackie Sherrill is the winningest coach in Mississippi State history. He's taken one of the league's underdog programs and doubled its all-time bowl total, from six to 12. From 1997-2001, he won 33 games and an SEC West title.
But The Jackal is up against it this year. His record the past two seasons is 6-17, the Bulldogs have lost eight straight league games and are widely picked last in the West again. And there's the not-so-small issue of an ongoing NCAA investigation.
Some people in Mississippi believe Sherrill has the talent and the schedule for a turnaround year. He might need it to save his job.
8. Attitude adjustment on Rocky Top
Receiver Kelley Washington's jump to the pros can only help team chemistry in Knoxville, where a fractious locker room and an injury plague led to Tennessee's worst season in 10 years under Phillip Fulmer.
A rerun of the cohesion issues is unlikely, given the veteran coaching staff and core of player leadership. If the Volunteers are all on the same page, there's always enough talent in Knoxville to be a national factor.
9. Baby blockers between the hedges
Defending SEC champion Georgia starts an all-new offensive line. They are reportedly flush with talent, but frighteningly young: the starters are four sophomores and a redshirt freshman, backed up by three freshmen and two sophomores. And they open at extra-loud Clemson Saturday.
That's automatic ulcer material for coaches, but Mark Richt does have veterans at quarterback and receiver to lean on while the blocking comes together.
"We really don't know where we are," said Richt, who is a freakish 8-0 in true road games as a head coach.
10. Colonel Reb retired
If you needed final proof that everything football-related is a big deal in the Deep South, Ole Miss' moth-balled mascot is it.
The old Southern gentleman is out, gone the way of the Confederate flag and the band playing "Dixie," amid concerns that he was another symbol of lingering racism at Ole Miss. The old buzzard has been reduced to just another fable of the reconstruction of Mississippi's image.
And a whole bunch of Ole Miss fans are outraged. It was a divisive enough issue that athletic director Pete Boone had to defend the decision at numerous booster meetings, and school president Robert Khayat issued a statement on the matter.
If the Rebel faithful truly feel the need for an iconic Southern officer on their side, they can always dress up a few frat boys as Colonel Sanders. Might even be able to swing a sponsorship deal with KFC.
Pat Forde covers college football for the Louisville Courier-Journal.