Will any team challenge Gator-Tide duopoly?
In this country, we're all familiar with the separation of church and state.
In the realm of SEC football, at least during the last two years, we've seen a similar separation. It's been Alabama and Florida and then everybody else.
Between them, the Crimson Tide and Gators have compiled a 33-3 record against SEC opponents the last two seasons. Two of those three losses came against each other in the SEC championship game. The third was Ole Miss' 31-30 upset of Florida in 2008.
All the Gators did after that hiccup was reel off 22 wins in a row against all competition before having that streak snapped by Alabama in last season's SEC championship game.
Alabama and Florida have owned this league for the past two years. There's no debating that.
There's also no debating that this conference runs in cycles. In other words, nobody stays on top for too long.
"My hat's off to them. They've done a great job," Auburn coach Gene Chizik said. "But in this league, there's a new challenge every week."
Coming out of the spring, it still looks like Florida is the team to beat in the East and Alabama the team to beat in the West.
That said, we may actually have some drama in 2010. There hasn't been much drama the last two years because the divisional races were all but over by the time we reached the final weekend of October.
Georgia and South Carolina in the East and Arkansas, Auburn and LSU in the West may have something to say about that next season.
And who knows? Maybe somebody else will surprise us. Ole Miss is good enough on defense to make a run, but it has a challenging rebuilding job ahead of it on offense.
Speaking of rebuilding, most teams that lost the caliber of talent Alabama and Florida did in this year's NFL draft would be scrambling to fill in the gaps.
There's a reason Tim Tebow, Joe Haden, Maurkice Pouncey, Brandon Spikes, Carlos Dunlap, Jermaine Cunningham, Rolando McClain, Kareem Jackson, Javier Arenas and Terrence Cody were all selected in the first two rounds of the draft.
But both teams have recruited so well the last couple of years and stockpiled so much talent that there shouldn't be a major drop-off at either place.
Nonetheless, the playing field does level some for the other teams. The question is: Has it leveled enough?
Arkansas coach Bobby Petrino said it's up to the rest of the league to catch Alabama and Florida, because he doesn't see those teams coming all the way back to the rest of the pack.
"It's everybody's challenge to get there," Petrino said. "We feel like we have a shot at it, and I'm sure there are other teams in the SEC that feel like they have a shot at it. It's always great competition.
"The hardest thing about this conference is that week in and week out you have to be ready to play. There are no times you just step out there and feel like you have the better players."
Alabama hasn't lost a regular-season SEC game in two years. Florida has lost just one during that span.
Perhaps this is one of those years where everybody has at least one conference loss by the time November arrives.
One of the overriding themes will again be the quarterbacks. The only two teams that don't have any questions at that position are Alabama and Arkansas.
The Crimson Tide's Greg McElroy is unbeaten as a starter in college and has a wealth of talent behind him. The Hogs' Ryan Mallett is one of the most talented passers in the country and should be fully recovered by June from the broken bone in his foot that caused him to miss the spring.
Otherwise, everybody is either breaking in a first-year starter or trying to decide who their best option is.
In particular, it will be worth watching what happens at South Carolina with Stephen Garcia and at LSU with Jordan Jefferson. If both of those players can overcome shaky springs and really take off next fall, the Gamecocks and Tigers will be legitimate contenders.
If not, those teams could end up being two of the biggest disappointments in the SEC.
Sit back and enjoy what should be grand theater. It always is in this league.
And it matters little who's trying to catch whom.
What we learned this spring
Had we learned too much about anybody in the SEC this spring, then somebody probably wouldn't have been doing his job.
Come on, nobody wants to show a whole lot in the spring, which is why most of the scrimmages are closed and the spring games are purposely vanilla most of the time.
Still, a few things stuck out.
1. Getting offensive in Tuscaloosa: Everybody knows that Nick Saban digs defense, but the Tide Nation is going to dig this offense in 2010. The Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson combo at running back should be even more effective next season, especially with a healthy Julio Jones out there at receiver.
2. Another round of quarterback questions: Weren't we talking about quarterback instability in the SEC this time a year ago? Come to think of it, we have been for the last two years. Of the first-year starters, Florida's John Brantley appears poised to have the biggest season. Don't be surprised if close to half the teams in the league wind up playing two quarterbacks.
3. Hog heaven: Arkansas is confident that it has everything in place offensively to make a run at its first SEC championship. But where coach Bobby Petrino felt that the Hogs made up the most ground this spring was defensively with their fundamentals, their depth and their mind-set. Arkansas took it on the chin defensively last season but is ready to make a stand on that side of the ball in 2010.
4. Feeling Spurrier's wrath: Stephen Garcia's numbers might have improved from his freshman season to his sophomore season, but not his standing with South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier. The Head Ball Coach is as down as he's ever been on Garcia and has made it known to everybody who'll listen that he's serious about playing true freshman Connor Shaw if Garcia doesn't have a great summer.
5. Rocky times on Rocky Top: It may be a while before Tennessee sees double-digit wins again. This spring was eye-opening for first-year coach Derek Dooley, who inherited a mess. It goes much deeper than merely a lack of talent and experience, too. This is a once-proud program that's lost its stinger, and it could take more than a year or two to get it back when you look at how the heavyweights in this league have run off and left the Vols.
Best of spring
Everybody has wrapped up spring practice in the SEC, and it's time to look at the some of the superlatives of the last two months:
Best spring game performance: It's hard to pick just one. Alabama defensive end Marcell Dareus had two tackles for loss, including a sack, and two quarterback hurries. Florida quarterback John Brantley was 15-of-19 for 201 yards and two touchdowns. Arkansas receiver Jarius Wright had seven catches for 118 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown. Ole Miss backup quarterback Raymond Cotton was 5-of-7 for 178 yards with touchdown passes of 80 and 61 yards, while LSU running back Stevan Ridley rushed for 104 yards and a touchdown.
Best performance by a freshman: Florida went all the way out to California to land prized cornerback Joshua Shaw, and he didn't wait long to make his presence felt. Staking a claim to the starting job opposite Janoris Jenkins, Shaw had a team-high eight tackles in the spring game to go along with an interception.
Best performance by an offensive newcomer: Quarterback Cameron Newton arrived at Auburn with a lot of hype. But he was all substance during the spring in playing his way to the top of the depth chart.
Best performance by a defensive newcomer: Ole Miss defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix can't wait to turn safety Damien Jackson loose in the Rebels' defense. Jackson was everywhere this spring after coming over from junior college.
Best position battle: The race to fill Joe Haden's vacated spot at cornerback will extend into the preseason at Florida. Senior Moses Jenkins got most of the first-team work in the spring, but sophomore Jeremy Brown would probably get the nod at this point, assuming his back problems don't flare up in the fall. Shaw may have the most upside. He just needs experience. Sophomore Adrian Bushell also remains a possibility if he can get everything squared away off the field.
Best position move: LSU's Russell Shepard has given up the quarterback thing and is now concentrating fully on receiver. The Tigers need to be concentrating on getting him the ball.
Best spring game atmosphere: Maybe there will come a day again when Alabama doesn't draw 90,000-plus to Bryant-Denny Stadium for an A-Day spring game. But that day doesn't figure to be anytime soon.
Best blowup: The runaway winner was Urban Meyer's "You're a bad guy" lambasting of Orlando Sentinel beat reporter Jeremy Fowler, whose "crime" was correctly quoting receiver Deonte Thompson concerning the differences between Tim Tebow and John Brantley as quarterbacks. Meyer later apologized and said he was simply protecting one of his players.
Best swan song: Georgia redshirt freshman Zach Mettenberger threw a pair of touchdown passes in the Bulldogs' spring game and looked good doing it, but was gone eight days later when coach Mark Richt dismissed him from the team.
Best camera work: Thanks to all of my volunteers on the road this spring who did a little camera work for the video interviews of players and coaches. Showing what a Renaissance man he truly is, even Julio Jones got into the act in Tuscaloosa.
Best quote: "You look at coach [Nick] Saban's first year at Alabama, and he didn't win against us, and now all of a sudden, they've won two years against us, and you hear all sorts of things, like they're going to own Auburn the next couple of years. I'm telling you that's not going to be the case." -- Auburn linebacker Josh Bynes
BCS contenders from SEC
Team-By-Team Spring Reports
Alabama: The defending SEC and national champions return eight starters on offense. For more on the Crimson Tide, click here.
Arkansas: There's plenty of talent on offense, but is the defense up to the task? For more on the Razorbacks, click here.
Auburn: If you thought Auburn's offense was fast in 2009, wait 'til you see it in 2010. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Florida: Plenty was lost, but the cupboard is far from bare in Gainesville. For more on the Gators, click here.
Georgia: There's no longer any quarterback controversy heading into the preseason. For more on the Bulldogs, click here.
Kentucky: Joker Phillips gets his chance to keep UK headed in the right direction. For more on the Wildcats, click here.
LSU: The Tigers are finally serious about getting the ball in Russell Shepard's hands. For more on LSU, click here.
Mississippi: The Rebels' front seven is as good as they come in the SEC. For more on the Rebels, click here.
Mississippi State: Dan Mullen laid the groundwork in his first year. What will Year 2 look like? For more on MSU, click here.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier's calling the shots this year literally. For more on the Gamecocks, click here.
Tennessee: First-year coach Derek Dooley has his work cut out for him in Knoxville. For more on the Vols, click here.
Vanderbilt: The Commodores have some questions to answer on offense. For more on Vanderbilt, click here.
SEC games to watch
Post-Spring Power Rankings
1. Alabama: Don't be fooled by how few starters return on defense. Defensive end Marcell Dareus and linebacker Dont'a Hightower are future first-round draft picks, and this program has recruited like crazy the past two years. The offense may be the best Alabama has put on the field in a long time. You can bet the Tide will be balanced, too. Having two backs the caliber of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson on the same roster tends to open up a few things for the offense.
2. Florida: Junior quarterback John Brantley certainly looks like the real thing. We'll find out for sure this fall. How everybody plays around him on offense may be the most important component for the Gators. The schedule sets up nicely, meaning all of the new faces on defense will have a chance to build up some confidence before that Oct. 2 trip to Alabama.
3. Arkansas: The Hogs move up a spot from the pre-spring rankings. Coach Bobby Petrino is convinced that his defense will be improved and said the competition between the offense and defense this spring was the best it's been. That's saying something, too, when you consider how potent Arkansas is offensively. The Razorbacks are going to light up scoreboards in the fall.
4. LSU: There wasn't that air of confidence surrounding the quarterback position coming out of the spring at LSU. Jordan Jefferson simply didn't take the job and run with it, as a lot of people around the program thought he would. The Tigers made more of a commitment to running the ball this spring and will again be good on defense. But to be a 10-win team or better, Jefferson has to take his game to another level.
5. Auburn: Arkansas and Auburn find themselves in similar positions. Both need to improve on defense to have a legitimate shot of contending for the SEC championship. The Tigers are still facing a numbers problem on defense, although it's not as severe as it was last season. They're counting on several players from this signing class to come in and provide some depth. Quarterback Cameron Newton was one of the best acquisitions of the offseason. He'll bring a different dimension to this offense.
6. Georgia: Even though the Bulldogs lost a few key players this spring, namely quarterback Zach Mettenberger and outside linebacker Montrez Robinson, they get the nod over South Carolina and move up to the sixth spot. Redshirt freshman Aaron Murray will be a first-year starter at quarterback, but he has 10 starters returning around him. Ultimately, it will be up to the defense to see whether the Bulldogs can make a serious run at the Gators in the East.
7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were ranked in the top half of the league in the pre-spring rankings. That's before Steve Spurrier went after quarterback Stephen Garcia publicly. Maybe Garcia will respond and have a great year. The Gamecocks return 15 starters, and you know Ellis Johnson's defense will be good again. But if Garcia goes the other way, Spurrier will head into the most anticipated season since he's been in Columbia with a true freshman (Connor Shaw) as his quarterback.
8. Ole Miss: Tyrone Nix's front seven on defense is what gives the Rebels the nod over their in-state rivals for the No. 8 spot. A defensive line led by Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Lockett should be one of the best in the league, and the Rebels' linebackers are extremely underrated. It may be slow going for the offense until some guys grow up. The middle of the offensive line will be new, and somebody needs to emerge as the go-to playmaker.
9. Mississippi State: It's tempting to move the Bulldogs even higher. After all, they did beat Ole Miss by two touchdowns when they met last November. Dan Mullen said he would be disappointed if Mississippi State's not in a bowl game next postseason. The defensive line should be greatly improved, and it sounds as if Mullen is comfortable with playing two quarterbacks. That Thursday night home game against Auburn the second week of the season will be huge for this club to generate some early momentum.
10. Tennessee: It's strange seeing the Vols this far down in any kind of ranking of SEC teams, but that's what happens when your roster is gutted the way it has been the past couple of years and you're on your third head coach in a little more than 14 months. Even getting to .500 next season will be a challenge for the Vols, who will have five new starters on the offensive line, a first-year starter at quarterback and no depth at defensive tackle.
11. Kentucky: The Wildcats have thrived on being picked low the past two years and then proving everybody wrong. Only four other teams in the SEC have been to bowl games each of the past four years. The problem heading into the 2010 season is that they lost so many key defensive players from those teams. Quarterback Mike Hartline's return from a knee injury should help the passing game, which was non-existent after he went down last season.
12. Vanderbilt: The offense can't be any worse than it was a year ago, right? Those who saw the offense go 13 straight possessions before finding the end zone in the Black and Gold spring scrimmage may beg to disagree. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has shuffled some responsibilities on his offensive staff, and even though the Commodores will again be salty on defense, it's hard to move them out of the cellar until they prove they're going to be able to score points in this league.