I hear ya, Alabama fans. I didn’t see Nick Saban working his magic quite so quickly, nor did I see Auburn and Tennessee imploding the way they did.
After 31 combined seasons in the SEC as head coaches, Tommy Tuberville and Phillip Fulmer are now out of work. Man, does it change quickly in this league.
So here goes with my 2009 preseason power rankings. I’m counting on the same type of improvement from Year 1 to Year 2 that the Crimson Tide enjoyed under Saban.
The only difference is that that I’m going to finish.
1. Florida: I’m really going out on a limb here. The Gators are the most prohibitive favorite to win the SEC since the league expanded and split into two divisions in 1992. They have the best player in college football, one of the best coaches in the game and a defense that returns virtually everybody from last season’s BCS national championship team. The upset would be if anybody beats them. There hasn’t been an undefeated national champion from the SEC since Tennessee in 1998.
2. Ole Miss: The Rebels swooped in under the radar last season after going 0-8 in the SEC the year before. The combination of a franchise quarterback like Jevan Snead and perhaps the deepest defensive line in the country makes them one of the favorites this season. How do they handle all the hype? We’re going to find out. But talent won’t be a problem. After all, they are the only team to have beaten Florida last season, and most of those guys are back.
3. Alabama: I could easily see the Crimson Tide winning the West this season. Their defense should be one of the best in the country, and you know Saban will have this team ready to play every week. But whereas the Crimson Tide leaned on their offensive line a year ago, I’m not sure they will have that luxury in 2009. Not that they will be bad up front. I just don’t see them being dominant. Then again, stud receiver Julio Jones is the great equalizer.
4. LSU: If sophomore quarterback Jordan Jefferson plays with the same poise he did in the Chick-fil-A Bowl rout of Georgia Tech last season, the Tigers’ drop from elite status in this league will be short-lived. First-year defensive coordinator John Chavis has reinvigorated a defense that went belly-up last season, and the Tigers’ secondary will be scary good. So much of what happens this season on the Bayou, though, gets back to the quarterback position. In fairness to Jarrett Lee, the Tigers asked him to throw too much a year ago.
5. Georgia: Mark Richt has ’em right where he wants them. Nobody really expects Georgia to contend for the SEC championships this season, which means we might want to look out for the Bulldogs. Remember 2005? The Georgia coaches think first-time quarterback starter Joe Cox, a fifth-year senior, will be the least of their problems, and the offensive line should be the strength of the team. The big question: Can Willie Martinez’s defense tackle better and get back to playing championship defense?
6. Arkansas: Man, I’d like to pick the Hogs a little higher. I told myself the same thing this time last year with Ole Miss and didn’t have the guts. Because of the killer schedule, I don’t know where Arkansas will end up. What I do know is that Bobby Petrino has an offense in his second season that’s going to light up a few SEC scoreboards. But you can’t win shootouts all the time in this league, which means the defense needs to be significantly better if the Hogs are going to make a move in the West.
7. South Carolina: The key for South Carolina is not losing anybody else to injury or suspension. Depth won’t be the Gamecocks’ friend in 2009. But they’re talented enough if they stay healthy to better their 7-6 record from a year ago. The other wild card is sophomore quarterback Stephen Garcia. There are signs that he’s ready to take off and be a quality player and the kind of leader the Gamecocks need him to be. You’ve also got to love the young talent in this program.
8. Vanderbilt: It’s about time Vanderbilt got a little respect. After all, only Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Ole Miss won more SEC games last season. Losing cornerback D.J. Moore early to the NFL hurts, but Myron Lewis might end up being even better. Putting together a second straight winning season will require that the Commodores find a passing game. Sophomore quarterback Larry Smith has a big-time arm. But if Connecticut transfer Terence Jeffers-Harris isn’t eligible, there won’t be any proven receiver threats to throw to.
9. Tennessee: The Vols probably deserve to be higher when you look at their talent in spots. They will be good again on defense this season, and there’s a definite energy surrounding the program now with first-year coach Lane Kiffin and his staff. But there’s no depth at defense tackle. Protecting the quarterback on offense will be a problem, and the two guys playing quarterback are the same ones from last year. Maybe Jonathan Crompton and Nick Stephens are better under this new regime, but they have to prove it first.
10. Auburn: It seems like everybody in the SEC (with the exception of Florida and Ole Miss) has some sort of issue at quarterback. The Tigers are sort of like the Vols. The same guys are back that struggled mightily last season. Plus, offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is putting in a new spread offense. It’s going to take some time, and first-year coach Gene Chizik has said himself that he doesn’t want people to have “illusions of grandeur.” The defense will be good enough, though, that the Tigers will still be a tough out.
11. Kentucky: The Wildcats took a bit of a tumble from the post-spring power rankings, and it’s no secret why. Losing senior defensive end Jeremy Jarmon was a big blow. He was their top pass-rusher and an invaluable presence in the locker room. It’s tough for any team to lose a senior leader like that, and now the Wildcats are faced with having to trot out two first-time starters at end. The defense should still hold its own with the likes of cornerback Trevard Lindley and linebacker Micah Johnson. But on offense, if junior quarterback Mike Hartline isn’t greatly improved as a passer, the Wildcats could have real issues.
12. Mississippi State: Somebody’s got to be last, and that dubious distinction belongs to the Bulldogs. The reality, though, is that the bottom five teams in the SEC right now are pretty close to being interchangeable. The Bulldogs will be salty on defense, and the return of middle linebacker Jamar Chaney after going down in the opener last season is huge. First-year coach Dan Mullen is an offensive guy, and that’s why he was brought in — to put in his version of the spread. But getting this offense up to speed in Year 1 may be too much to ask.