SEC mailbag: Watch out for Ealey-King duo

We’ll dip back into the SEC mailbag today. Keep the questions coming (and the nice comments). OK, even the mean-spirited ones, too. After all, this is the SEC:

Casey in Tikrit, Iraq, writes: You have a very strong point in who the best running back duo is the SEC. But my question is that if the Georgia Bulldogs’ offensive line blocks like they are supposed to, then would you say that Washaun Ealey and Caleb King could be the sleepers? The way they ran at the end of the last season in my mind looked unreal. What would you say?

Chris Low: First of all, Casey, I want to thank you for your service and please be safe over there. As for running back duos, Ealey and King would be No. 2 on my list right now behind the Alabama tandem of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, although I think the running backs at Arkansas and Auburn could have something to say about that No. 2 spot before it’s all over. With Ealey finishing the season the way he did a year ago, I think that will only motivate King. Did you notice how King’s numbers went up as Ealey got it rolling last November? In Georgia’s last five outings, the two of them averaged a combined 193 yards rushing per game. King had six touchdowns in those five games, too. I think they will be good for each other, push each other and they will also keep each other fresh. So, yes, I like the Ealey-King duo running behind a deep, veteran Georgia offensive line. If the Bulldogs get Trinton Sturdivant and Tanner Strickland back healthy next season, it could be one of the best lines in the league. But as Mark Richt says himself, he wants to see it on the field before he starts talking about what this line may or may not be capable of in 2010.

Stephen in Mobile, Ala., writes: In your opinion, who out of Auburn, Florida and Georgia will have the best offensive line?

Chris Low: As I stated above, I think Georgia will certainly be right up there. But until we get into the season, there are a few too many “ifs” that scare me. We just don’t know yet about Sturdivant and Strickland, although Sturdivant is due some good luck after missing each of the past two seasons with knee injuries. Auburn and Florida each have four of five starters returning. All four of Auburn’s starters are seniors. The Gators’ only loss was a big one, center Maurkice Pouncey, who was a first-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Steelers. His replacement, twin brother Mike Pouncey, will slide over and play center, and the Gators have three other returnees who are NFL prospects -- senior tackle Marcus Gilbert, sophomore tackle Xavier Nixon and senior guard/tackle Carl Johnson. It’s a close call among all three of the teams you ask about. But right now, I’d go with the Gators based on their ability to both run block and protect the passer. They also have some quality depth. Maurice Hurt, James Wilson and Matt Patchan have all played some in the past.

Mark in Chattanooga, Tenn., writes: Tell me how Tennessee struggles to get to six wins. Tennessee-Martin, Vanderbilt, Memphis and UAB are all wins. Kentucky will be a good challenge, but it’s in Knoxville. Three of our four toughest games are at home (Oregon, Florida and Alabama). We could pick up a win against a weaker Ole Miss team at home. I think we could win at least one of the away games against Georgia or South Carolina. It is a tougher schedule with LSU and Oregon rolling in and UCLA and Auburn rolling out. But we lost those two games last year, so it won't change wins versus last year if we lose both. I liked how Crompton ended his career, but he didn't get rolling until Georgia. One of our quarterbacks can figure it out by then. Our receivers are talented. We have two good options at running back. The offensive line will be a big factor. I think we have some good players on defense and some with experience due to the injuries last year. What seven teams do you think beat us?

Chris Low: I know Derek Dooley would appreciate your optimism. There’s not a surplus of that around Knoxville these days and may not be for a couple of years. As I look at the Vols’ 2010 schedule, their lack of experience at quarterback and on the offensive line and their general lack of depth across the board, I think 6-6 sounds about right. But I also don’t think it will be easy to get there. Outside Tennessee-Martin, I wouldn’t say any game is a guarantee. The Vanderbilt series has been pretty close the past few years, and the Commodores won in 2005. The Vols had to go into overtime to beat Kentucky two of the past three years, and I wouldn’t call the Memphis game (a November night game on the road) a lock. But my best guess is that Tennessee wins three of its four nonconference games, wins two SEC games at home (maybe Ole Miss and Kentucky) and finds another win somewhere (maybe Vanderbilt). Again, though, it will be a struggle to get there.

DK in Portland, Ore., writes: When and if the SEC expands to possibly 16 schools, who do you see getting the invites? Is it possible that they look for new territory and invite Texas, Texas A&M, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State to join the Western Division? What a strong conference that would be.

Chris Low: Anything is possible. I do believe the landscape is going to change with regard to the conferences in the next two years. How much it changes is the question. In talking to some folks at the SEC, they’re just waiting and not antsy to make any moves. If the Big Ten goes to 16 schools (and I’m starting to think that’s not going to happen), then the SEC will certainly respond. If we do indeed get to that point, then I think all four of the schools you mention could be in play, especially if Nebraska and Missouri were to leave the Big 12. I’ll admit that it would be fun (the coaches might not think so) to see Florida going up against Texas every few years and Alabama and Oklahoma squaring off on occasion.

John in Columbia, S.C., writes: At South Carolina, do you think that Spurrier will be more aggressive with the play-calling next football season.

Chris Low: John, to be honest, I think he will be more consistent. Now, he says he called most of the plays last season. Some in and around Columbia aren’t buying that. To me, the genius of Spurrier as a playcaller was always that he'd keep you on your toes. He’d get into one of those rhythms calling plays, would commit to the run when it made sense and then rip your heart out with a play nobody saw coming. The key here is committing to the run. The Gamecocks gave up on the run way too early in some games the last two seasons. If the Head Ball Coach is truly going to call all of the plays next season, I don’t think you’ll see that happen. The other thing is that he needs to do a better job of protecting his defense next season and not hang those guys out to dry as much.

Mark in New Market, Ala., writes: Why are tickets so high this year?

Chris Low: For one, have you seen what they’re paying head coaches these days? Heck, forget the head coaches. I saw recently where seven of the 10 highest-paid assistant coaches in the country reside in the SEC. Six of the 12 defensive coordinators in this league make $500,000 or more annually. I’m not begrudging them. They deserve every penny when you consider the pressure to win in this conference. But when you’re paying the kind of coin SEC schools are to coaches, renovating stadiums the way schools are and constantly building new facilities, ticket prices are going to keep going up. It’s almost to the point where the average Joe can’t afford to take his family of four to a game. Sad … but that’s reality.