Wasn’t it just yesterday that Alabama’s Nick Saban was raising that crystal trophy out in California?
It sure seems so, but the start of spring practice in the SEC is only two weeks away. LSU cranks it up on Feb. 25, which means it’s time for the pre-spring power rankings.
There’s not much drama as to who’s No. 1. The Crimson Tide haven’t lost a regular-season game since 2007 and are coming off their first national championship in 17 years.
Even with nine starters departing on defense, they still head into the spring as the clear-cut favorite in the SEC.
Here’s a look at the entire poll:
1. Alabama: We’ll find out early about Alabama. The Crimson Tide face Penn State the second week of the season in Tuscaloosa. Losing nine starters on defense will be a challenge to overcome. But make no mistake. There's no shortage of defensive talent in Alabama’s program. New faces will emerge, and Nick Saban is one of the best in business when it comes to developing players. The offense should be even better than it was a year ago. How good will the Mark Ingram-Trent Richardson tandem be next season? Repeating as SEC champions isn't easy. It hasn't been done since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998.
2. Florida: The Gators get the prize for losing the most talent in the SEC when you consider all the juniors leaving early for the NFL. John Brantley finally gets his shot at quarterback and right away will be one of the better passers in the league. How successful he is in his first season will depend largely on the players around him. Tim Tebow won’t be around anymore to convert all the key third downs. Defensively, Florida will again be strong. There’s a ton of untapped talent on that side of the ball in the program. The Gators won’t win 13 games again, but 10 or 11 isn’t out of the question.
3. LSU: Having LSU this high may be a bit of a gamble. But when you look at the talent on the Tigers’ roster, both offensively and defensively, they’re still a top 3 team. For now. Here’s betting that quarterback Jordan Jefferson breaks out and has a much more productive junior season. And somehow, the Tigers have to get Russell Shepard involved in the offense. John Chavis’ defense played well enough to win the West last season and will give the Tigers a chance in every game again next season. It’s a critical year for Les Miles. He needs to make a run at another title and finish strongly.
4. Arkansas: Watch out for the Hogs in 2010. And really watch out for them if some of the younger players on defense grow up and play more consistently. Arkansas still isn’t going to be able to win every game 41-38. But with quarterback Ryan Mallett returning along with his arsenal of playmakers, the Hogs should be the most explosive offense in the league. Mallett will also be better equipped to operate against some of the better defenses now that he’s been through the league one time.
5. Auburn: One of the biggest pickups in the offseason for any team in the SEC was the Tigers signing junior college quarterback Cameron Newton. He looks like a perfect fit in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Look for the Tigers to play at an even faster pace offensively next season. The real trick will be picking up the pace defensively and not giving up as many points. If some of the newcomers in this highly touted signing class can help on defense, Auburn has a chance to make a run at nine or 10 wins in 2010.
6. South Carolina: If ever the Gamecocks were going to make a serious push to be in Atlanta for the SEC championship game, this may be the year. They return many of their key players on offense and defense, and Stephen Garcia all of a sudden looks like a seasoned quarterback. Ellis Johnson’s defense will be up to the task, and South Carolina gets Georgia in Columbia next season in the second week. It’s all going to come down to whether or not the Gamecocks can finally figure it out in the offensive line. So far, they haven't.
7. Georgia: The Bulldogs will sport several new looks in 2010. They have a new defensive coordinator in Todd Grantham, who’s implementing a new 3-4 defense. They will also have a new quarterback. Redshirt freshmen Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger are expected to battle it out for the starting job this spring. The Bulldogs are talented enough to make some noise in the East. The Washaun Ealey-A.J. Green combo on offense should be something to see. It remains to be seen, though, if they can improve enough on defense to be a factor.
8. Ole Miss: The Rebels loom as the team most likely to take the biggest tumble next season. They were a senior-heavy team a year ago, and most of their playmakers on offense and defense are gone. More than ever, Tyrone Nix’s defense is going to have to carry Ole Miss in 2010. The Rebels should again be strong up front defensively with Kentrell Lockett and Jerrell Powe returning. But the offense will include new faces across the board, including a new starter at quarterback.
9. Tennessee: New coach Derek Dooley may not be ready to call it a rebuilding job, but that’s what he faces in Knoxville. The Vols are frighteningly thin on the offensive line and at defensive tackle, and that’s not a good combination in the SEC. They will also have a new starter at quarterback, not to mention a killer schedule. Tennessee has lost 13 games in the last two seasons. That total could easily approach 20 following next season. In other words, it's not going to be a quick fix for Dooley.
10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs appear poised to make a move under Dan Mullen after coming close to being bowl eligible a year ago. The young talent in this program is impressive, headed up by Chad Bumphis, Johnthan Banks and Fletcher Cox. Pernell McPhee returns as one of the most dominant defensive linemen in the league, but the real question for Mississippi State is on offense. Replacing Anthony Dixon won’t be easy. Is redshirt freshman Tyler Russell ready to win the starting quarterback job?
11. Kentucky: The Joker Phillips era begins with a lot of question marks on defense. The Wildcats lost a ton of good defensive football players from last season, including Corey Peters, Micah Johnson, Sam Maxwell and Trevard Lindley. The good news is that Randall Cobb is back on offense (and special teams), and Phillips can build around him offensively. Getting back to a bowl game for a fifth straight year may be a tall order for the Wildcats.
12. Vanderbilt: Quarterback Larry Smith will have some competition this spring in the form of junior college newcomer Jordan Rodgers, the younger brother of Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers. The Commodores can’t possibly have as many injuries as they had a year ago, which means they’re a solid bet to improve on their 2-10 season. They should again be good on defense. It just gets down to whether or not they can generate any type of passing game.