Coaches will tell you that shoddy special teams play will lose you a game quicker than anything.
At the same time, superior special teams play can be the difference in playing to get to a nice bowl game and playing for championships.
Here’s a look at the top special teams units in the SEC heading into the 2010 season:
1. Georgia: Try finding a better place-kicker/punter combination anywhere in the country than Blair Walsh and Drew Butler. You won’t. Walsh was 20-of-22 on field goals. Butler averaged 48.1 yards a punt. The Bulldogs also led the league in net punting, and Brandon Boykin is back after tying an SEC record last season with three kickoffs returned for touchdowns. He’s not the only dangerous return man on the roster, either.
2. Florida: The Gators have consistently had the best special teams in the league since Urban Meyer arrived in 2005. That's not a coincidence. They will be right there at the top again this season. Nobody’s better than Florida at blocking kicks or covering kicks. Caleb Sturgis has unlimited range on field goals, and senior punter Chas Henry is back after averaging 43.4 yards a kick last season. Chris Rainey will see his role expand in the return game.
3. LSU: The Tigers have one of those clutch senior place-kickers that proves so valuable in the tight games. Josh Jasper was 6-of-8 on field goals over 40 yards. After missing a 52-yarder against Auburn, he connected on his last seven attempts. LSU was also first in the league in kickoff coverage and third in the league in net punting with Jasper and Derek Helton sharing those duties. Trindon Holliday is gone, but watch out for Patrick Peterson and Russell Shepard in the return game.
4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks struggled in kickoff coverage last season, but they’re strong everywhere else on special teams. It starts with senior Spencer Lanning, who handles the place-kicking and punting chores. He only missed once inside 40 yards, that lone miss coming in the first game, and he averaged 41.9 yards a punt. Stephon Gilmore will return punts, and he’s one of the most electrifying athletes in the SEC.
5. Auburn: Senior place-kicker Wes Byrum took his game to another level last season, making 15 of his 16 field goals. He doesn’t have the biggest leg in the league, but inside 45 yards he was automatic. The Tigers also return the SEC’s top kickoff returner, Demond Washington, who averaged 31.1 yards to rank sixth nationally. Washington had a 99-yard return for a touchdown. Senior Ryan Shoemaker will battle true freshman Steven Clark for the punting job. Clark was one of the top punter prospects in the country .
6. Vanderbilt: Anybody who kicks the ball to Warren Norman this season had better beware. He returned three kickoffs for touchdowns last season as a freshman on his way to leading the league in all-purpose yardage. Sophomore place-kicker Ryan Fowler made a nice recovery after a rocky start a year ago and has range up to 50 yards. The Commodores were fourth in kickoff coverage last season, but have to replace dependable punter Brett Upson.
7. Ole Miss: The first order of business is replacing place-kicker Joshua Shene, a four-year starter. Sophomore Bryson Rose and junior David Hankins both have big legs, but Ole Miss coach Houston Nutt is looking for consistency. The Rebels are strong everywhere else. Tyler Campbell was one of the best freshman punters in the country last season, averaging 44 yards a kick, and Jesse Grandy took two kickoff returns back for touchdowns.
8. Kentucky: If the Wildcats had a proven place-kicker, they’d probably be ranked several spots higher. Junior punter Ryan Tydlacka will also do the kicking this season. He tied for ninth in the league in punting last season and has excellent hang time. He hopes to give the Wildcats some consistency on field goals after Lones Seiber’s up-and-down career. Where Kentucky will be outstanding is the return game with Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb, both of whom had touchdowns last season.
9. Alabama: Just about all the key components from Alabama’s special teams units last season are gone, including All-America kicker Leigh Tiffin and record-breaking return man Javier Arenas. It looks like the Crimson Tide will have both a true freshman place-kicker (Cade Foster) and true freshman punter (Jay Williams). Alabama wasn’t particularly good in kickoff coverage last season, finishing 10th in the SEC. Julio Jones should give the Crimson Tide some pop in the return game.
10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs still have a little battle going on as to whom will be doing their kicking and punting this season. There were times when they struggled in both departments last season and finished 11th in the league in net punting. However, junior Derek DePasquale took over the field goal duties midway through the season and ended up 10-of-12. The Bulldogs should be set in the return game with the Leon Berry-Chad Bumphis combo.
11. Tennessee: Tennessee and Arkansas were the only teams in the league to finish in the bottom four in both net punting and field goal kicking a year ago. The Vols were also next to last in kickoff coverage. Obviously, there’s a new staff in place, and Tennessee also has two new freshman kickers. More than anything, the Vols need to make a few field goals (or just keep them from being blocked), and that’s where high school All-American Michael Palardy comes in.
12. Arkansas: Inconsistency has plagued senior place-kicker Alex Tejada throughout his career, and it reared its head again this spring. The Hogs were also last in the SEC in net punting a year ago. The coverage units have improved with the addition of John L. Smith, the former Louisville and Michigan State head coach, to the staff. Dennis Johnson is one of the more dangerous return men in the league.