LSU's the SEC favorite, but Bama could surprise

The NFL draft is an annual reminder of just how much talent flows through the Southeastern Conference.

But the real star power in 2007 just may be on the sidelines. Now that Nick Saban is back in the SEC at Alabama, the league has four head coaches who've won national championships.

Really, that number's closer to five when you consider that Auburn's Tommy Tuberville went 13-0 in 2004 and didn't even get a chance to play for the title thanks to that splendid creation we all know as the BCS.

"Our league is tough enough, but then you look at our division," Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer said. "I'm not sure there's a tougher division anywhere."

Indeed, three of the four SEC coaches who own national titles reside in the Eastern Division. Tennessee captured the 1998 title under Fulmer. Urban Meyer's Gators are the defending national champions, while South Carolina's Steve Spurrier won it at Florida in 1996. Saban's title came while coaching LSU in 2003.

Saban's influence at LSU is still on display for all to see. Much of the talent he stockpiled in the Bayou remains, as evidenced by the four LSU players selected in the first round of this year's NFL draft.

Even with the likes of JaMarcus Russell, LaRon Landry, Dwayne Bowe and Craig Davis gone, LSU heads into the 2007 season as the SEC's most talented team and the clear-cut favorite to win the championship. The Tigers' front seven on defense, led by tackle Glenn Dorsey, may be as good as any group they've ever had in Baton Rouge.

Of course, the question echoing throughout the league is whether Les Miles will be able to win with his own players. Entering his third season at LSU, Miles has certainly proved he can win with Saban holdovers. There will be more of Miles' players sprinkled into the mix next season.

Ultimately, the bottom line is the only thing that matters when you're winning championships. Just ask the folks at Florida.

Nobody was counting how many Ron Zook-recruited players made up the Gators' national championship roster last season And, yet, there were plenty of them.

The difference was how that team came together and delivered in clutch moments, a sign of a well-coached team. There also were enough new faces thrown into the equation -- Tim Tebow, Percy Harvin and Ryan Smith -- who proved to be difference makers.

For Meyer, who loses nine defensive starters off that team, the only thing on his radar is what lies ahead. He's not interested in basking in the glory of the past.

Judging by his recruiting class this year, he means business. He reeled in what most experts considered the No. 1 class in the country.

"There is no sustaining," Meyer said. "If you're sustaining, you're losing. You're going backward. We're building. We're growing. We're moving. We're not sitting back and figuring out how to enjoy this. We're trying to figure how to build upon it. That's a hell of a task."

While it's difficult to pick anybody but LSU in the Western Division, the Eastern Division is as wide open as it's ever been.

Georgia has major question marks on defense, and the Bulldogs' offensive line remains unproven. But watching how true freshman quarterback Matthew Stafford played at the end of last season and how the team rallied around him is a pretty good indicator that the Bulldogs will be a factor next season.

Tennessee bounced back nicely last season from its 5-6 disaster in 2005, although the Vols went belly-up in their bowl game. Quarterback Erik Ainge flourished under offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe. But he'll have a whole new group of receivers to get used to, and there are a bunch of unknowns on defense, particularly up front and in the secondary.

Is this the season that the Head Ball Coach gets South Carolina in the hunt? And if Kentucky can stop anybody on defense, don't count out the Wildcats.

Even with Florida winning it all last season, the biggest news in the SEC this offseason was Saban's leaving the Miami Dolphins to coach in a shadow that seemingly grows larger and more ominous by the year.

Saban's $4 million price tag comes with equally steep expectations: winning with the regularity that Bear Bryant did.

How hungry are the Alabama fans? More than 92,000 flocked to Bryant-Denny Stadium to see the Tide's annual A-Day spring game -- a glorified scrimmage.

Saban spent most of spring practice preaching about the process and not the results. The rationale: You do the things it takes to win, and winning will come.

While Saban never specifically singled out the Alabama fans, who've typically shown the patience of a 3-year-old, he made it clear that everybody associated with the Alabama program needed to quit talking so much about winning championships and start doing something about it.

"Too many people around here talk about it," Saban said.

How quickly the Crimson Tide will win under Saban remains to be seen. But junior center Antoine Caldwell noted some significant changes this spring among his teammates.

Notably, more of them were beginning to take ownership -- a requirement if you're going to play for Saban.

His requirement is to win, win big -- and most importantly -- win fast.

SEC Spring Wrap
Post-spring picks, predictions and prognostications:

1. Georgia
2. Tennessee
3. Florida
4. South Carolina

5. Kentucky
6. Vanderbilt

1. LSU
2. Auburn
3. Arkansas
4. Alabama
5. Mississippi
6. Mississippi State

Toughest schedule: Auburn. Florida has to play at LSU and at South Carolina along with its annual showdown with Georgia in Jacksonville, but Auburn's road schedule is brutal. The Tigers have to travel to Florida, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia.

Offensive player of the year: Darren McFadden, running back, Arkansas. He was the best running back in the country last fall and should be even better in 2007. He has it all: speed, power, vision and a nose for the end zone.

Defensive player of the year: Glenn Dorsey, defensive tackle, LSU. Les Miles' biggest recruit during the offseason was keeping Dorsey at LSU. He's not a guy who will overwhelm you with statistics, but no defender in the league impacts the line of scrimmage more than he does.

Newcomer of the year: Knowshon Moreno, running back, Georgia. The Bulldogs were already pretty deep at running back, but Moreno was the rage of spring practice. The Dawgs' fans can't wait to get a glimpse of him when it counts in the fall.

Comeback player of the year: Brandon Cox, quarterback, Auburn. Cox is a better player than he showed last season. But in fairness, he battled injuries and was never 100 percent. Look for his production and his consistency to go up next season.

Breakout player of the year: Tyson Jackson, defensive end, LSU. As a sophomore a year ago, Jackson led the Tigers with eight sacks. That was just scratching the surface. Auburn's Quentin Groves and Florida's Derrick Harvey are both big-time pass-rushers, but Jackson has a chance to be just as good, if not better.

Most overrated player: Brent Schaeffer, quarterback, Mississippi. After he put up crazy junior college numbers, the starting job was handed to him last season before he ever arrived on campus. Schaeffer never grasped the offense and never got into shape. As a result, he enters the 2007 season No. 2 on the depth chart behind Seth Adams.

Most underrated player: Jonathan Hefney, safety, Tennessee. Quick question: Who led all SEC defensive backs in tackles last season? It was the diminutive Hefney, who also had five interceptions and plays much bigger than his 5-foot-9, 185-pound frame. He's started at cornerback and safety and also returns punts for the Vols.

Most dynamic playmaker: Percy Harvin, wide receiver, Florida. One of Urban Meyer's strengths as a coach is devising different ways to get his best players the ball. The Gators used Harvin on reverses, pitched it to him occasionally out of the backfield and threw it to him deep. There's not a more dangerous player in the open field in the SEC.

Coach on the hot seat: Houston Nutt, Arkansas. Yes, it sounds crazy after Nutt led the Razorbacks to 10 wins and the SEC championship game a year ago. But he's taken some major hits this offseason with all the off-the-field drama. Combine that with a growing restlessness among fans and a new athletic director on his way in and it isn't a promising combination for Nutt, who's led the Hogs to bowl games in seven of his nine seasons.

Team that may surprise: Alabama. Taking down LSU in the West isn't likely, but Saban has enough to work with to get the Crimson Tide to nine wins. The road schedule isn't that daunting, and quarterback John Parker Wilson has some proven weapons to throw to. With some early momentum, this could be a team to watch.

Team that may disappoint: Florida. There's still enough good young talent in the program to compete with everybody on the schedule, but how do you lose nine defensive starters and not have some drop-off? There's also the question of how Tim Tebow will adapt to being an every-down quarterback, and whether he can stay healthy running as much as he does in the SEC.

SEC champion: LSU. Two years ago, Matt Flynn stepped in for an injured JaMarcus Russell and led LSU to a rout of Miami in the Peach Bowl. Now comes his chance to lead the Tigers for an entire season. The defense is the best in the league, maybe the best in the country, and new offensive coordinator Gary Crowton will play to Flynn's strengths on offense. This is a team that should be favored to win every game it plays.

Chris Low covers the SEC for The (Nashville) Tennessean.