5 predictions for the SEC season

Remember when quarterbacks such as Peyton Manning, Eric Zeier, Danny Wuerffel, Tim Couch
and Eli Manning were lighting up the Southern skies? When Steve Spurrier's Fun-'n'-Gun offense
revolutionized the way football was played in the SEC?

Well, those days seem long-forgotten in a
conference where defense and running backs now matter most.

Last season, half the SEC's 12 teams -- Alabama, LSU, Auburn, Georgia, Tennessee and Florida -- allowed 19 points or fewer and each ranked in the top 18 in NCAA Division I-A in scoring
defense. The SEC has only one quarterback -- Florida's Chris Leak -- whose name would be
recognizable in a place such as, say, Lawrence, Kan. And only one SEC team, Vanderbilt, of all
offenses, finished among the top 48 teams in the country in passing last season.

Here are five SEC predictions for the 2006 season:

1. Auburn will finish the regular season undefeated and won't get left out of the BCS title game
for the second time in three seasons. The Tigers have fewer concerns than most of the top teams in
the country. Running back Kenny Irons is a Heisman Trophy candidate. Quarterback Brandon Cox is one of the most experienced signal callers in the league. Tigers coach Tommy Tuberville believes this is the fastest defense he has assembled at Auburn. Most importantly, the Tigers play eight home
games, and most of their toughest tests -- LSU, Arkansas, Florida and Georgia -- will be played on the Plains.

2. The winner of the Oct. 28 game between Georgia and Florida in Jacksonville, Fla., will decide which SEC East team plays Auburn in the SEC championship game in Atlanta's Georgia Dome on
Dec. 2. The Gators have Leak and a very fast defense and have owned the Bulldogs for much of the last two decades. But Florida doesn't have much depth on the offensive line, and the running game still concerns coach Urban Meyer. The Bulldogs have three good running backs and two
great defensive ends, but they don't have depth on the offensive line, either. Georgia also is starting
senior quarterback Joe Tereshinski III, who has made one college start, a 14-10 loss to the Gators
last season. Florida plays one of the toughest schedules in the country, with road games at
Tennessee, Auburn and Florida State, plus home games against Alabama, LSU and South Carolina (Spurrier's homecoming). Georgia's schedule is more favorable -- the Bulldogs play Colorado,
Tennessee and Georgia Tech at home, with their toughest road games at South Carolina and Auburn.

3. Kentucky will be much better in 2006 than the Wildcats were during coach Rich Brooks'
first three seasons. Brooks, the former Oregon and St. Louis Rams coach, has assembled pretty good talent but has endured an unsightly rash of injuries the past two seasons. However, with running back
Rafael Little returning, along with 14 other starters, the Wildcats have a chance to go 6-6 and qualify
for a bowl game. But that might require winning at Tennessee in the Nov. 25 finale, a game in which the Vols might be trying to avoid a 6-6 record.

4. Matthew Stafford and Mitch Mustain will be the starting quarterbacks at Georgia and Arkansas, respectively, before the season is over. Tereshinski deserves to start for the Bulldogs, after sitting the
last three seasons behind David Greene and then D.J. Shockley. The third-generation Georgia player
earned the job by beating out Stafford and two other quarterbacks during the preseason. But Stafford
has more upside athletically and will play by the third game, against Alabama-Birmingham on Sept. 16. Mustain will play out of necessity after the Razorbacks are again blasted by Southern Cal in their
opener. Robert Johnson won the starting job during the preseason because Casey Dick has an
aching back. Coach Houston Nutt probably needs to win at least seven or eight games to keep his
job, and playing Mustain gives his team the best chance to do that.

5. The SEC season will start with a bang on Thursday, Aug. 31, when Mississippi State beats South Carolina in a nationally televised game (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET), dropping Spurrier's record to 0-3 in
Starkville, Miss. The Bulldogs will be another SEC team on the cusp of qualifying for a bowl game and might have to beat Alabama, coach Sylvester Croom's alma mater, in Tuscaloosa, Ala., on Nov. 4 to do it. The Gamecocks will take a big step back this season because of inexperience on defense (they might start four freshmen) and on the
offensive line.

Mark Schlabach covers college football and men's college basketball for ESPN.com. You can contact him at schlabachma@yahoo.com.