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2011 SEC conference report

SEC 2011 Conference Report
Can South Carolina handle the pressure? Is Florida poised to return to elite status? Will the SEC win its sixth consecutive national title? Andy Staples tackles that and much more in his SEC preview.
 
How They'll Finish
 
EASTConferenceOverall
South Carolina6-210-2
Florida4-47-5
Georgia3-56-6
Tennessee2-66-6
Kentucky2-65-7
Vanderbilt1-74-8
 
WESTConferenceOverall
Alabama8-012-0
LSU6-210-2
Arkansas6-29-3
Mississippi State5-39-3
Auburn4-48-4
Ole Miss1-75-7
Conference Championship: Alabama def. South Carolina
 
Offensive MVP
 
WR
Alshon Jeffery
2010 stats: 88 catches, 1,517 receiving yards, 9 TDs
2011 projection: 90 catches, 1,550 receiving yards, 12 TDs
At 6-foot-4 and 229 pounds, Jeffery is the toughest individual matchup for an SEC defensive back. Unfortunately for most defenses, the threat of Marcus Lattimore on the ground makes it impossible to focus too much on Jeffery. Plus, Jeffery's size gives South Carolina room for error. "We tell our quarterbacks," coach Steve Spurrier said, "to just get it up where he can just get his hands on it ... because those are good odds."
Jeffery headlines SI.com's preseason All-SEC Team
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Courtney Upshaw
2010 stats: 52 tackles, 14.5 TFL, 7 sacks, 1 FR, 4 FF
2011 projection: 60 tackles, 18 TFL, 12 sacks, 2 FR, 3 FF
When mulling Upshaw's 2010 stats, bear in mind that he was hampered all season by a nagging ankle sprain suffered in the opener. That injury slowed Upshaw's first step in pass-rushing situations, yet he still wound up leading the Crimson Tide with 14.5 tackles for loss. This season, Upshaw is healthy. Given the fact that coach Nick Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart love to move Upshaw around to surprise offenses, Upshaw could be the most disruptive defensive player in the SEC.
 
Impact Freshman
 
DE
Jadeveon Clowney
2010 stats (high school): 162 tackles, 29.5 sacks, 6 FR, 11 FF, 5 DEF TDs
2011 projection: 55 tackles, 14 TFL, 8 sacks, 3 FF
Clowney's high school stats are superhuman, which explains why he was the nation's most coveted recruit. He won't get near those numbers in college, but he should make his presence felt quickly. Clowney will benefit from fellow defensive end Devin Taylor, another lightning-quick pass rusher. If offenses worry too much about slowing Taylor, Clowney will reap the benefits.
Debate: Which team will emerge as SEC champ?
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Mark Richt
Last season: 6-7 (3-5 SEC)
Career at Georgia: 96-34 (53-27 SEC)
Mark Richt is an excellent coach. His six double-digit win seasons since 2001 speak to that fact. Unfortunately, Richt went 14-12 (7-9 in the SEC) the past two seasons. Georgia is too good of a job to post such mediocre numbers in consecutive years. The Bulldogs have the resources and the recruiting base to be in the national title hunt on a semi-annual basis. If Richt can't turn things around this year, those great seasons of the past won't help him.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
LSU vs. Oregon
Saturday, Sept. 3
8 p.m. ET (ABC)
The Tigers certainly aren't ducking anyone this season. On top of playing in the nation's most loaded division, they'll open against a team that came within three points of last year's national title. Once again, the nation will consider this a referendum on SEC superiority. But that won't be the last of the out-of-conference brutality for LSU. On Sept. 24, the Tigers face West Virginia in Morgantown.
 
Boise State vs. Georgia
Saturday, Sept. 3
8 p.m. ET (ESPN)
While LSU defends the SEC's honor in Arlington, Texas, Georgia will face the greatest threat to talk-show callers with a superiority complex when it plays a Boise State team that likely will enter the game favored. A win would represent a big step forward for the Bulldogs. A loss would draw the ire of every other SEC fan base. SEC fans have clung to the whipping Georgia laid on Boise State in Athens in 2005 as evidence that no puny blue-turfers could mess with the greatest conference in the land. A loss to Boise State in the Georgia Dome would shame the league -- regardless of the actual abilities of the two teams.
 
Alabama at Penn State
Saturday, Sept. 10
3:30 p.m. ET (ABC)
These teams have played 13 times in the Joe Paterno era, and since Paterno's contract expires after this season, this could be the final time he coaches against the Crimson Tide. The teams have staged some classics during that era. Hopefully, they'll give us one more. Maybe Barry Krauss can stuff someone at the goal line for old times' sake.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
South Carolina at Georgia
Saturday, Sept. 10
4:30 p.m. ET (ESPN)
The Boise State-Georgia game the previous week may have plenty of symbolic meaning, but this one -- early as it is -- might determine who wins the SEC East. It should give us an idea of how good South Carolina really is, and it should give us an idea of where Georgia is headed. Make no mistake, the Bulldogs need to beat the Gamecocks a lot more than they need to beat Boise State.
 
Arkansas at Alabama
Saturday, Sept. 24
TBD
Both teams have the talent to win the West, the SEC and the national title. This one happens to be in Tuscaloosa, which gives Alabama the edge.
 
LSU at Alabama
Saturday, Nov. 5
TBD
See Arkansas at Alabama. Rinse. Repeat.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Who won the schedule competition? I'm sure some of you looked at the predicted records above and then referred to the delightfully musical Power Rankings I penned last week before determining that I am not only an idiot but also a hypocrite. If Auburn is the No. 18 team in the country, then how can the Tigers go 4-4 in conference play? And why would Mississippi State -- ranked four spots below Auburn -- have a better record? When I rank teams, I try to determine who would win if they met on a neutral field. Most games aren't played on a neutral field, as the past two national champs can attest. Would Alabama have won the 2009 national title if the Crimson Tide had played LSU in Baton Rouge? Maybe. Maybe not. Would Auburn have won the 2010 title if the Tigers had played LSU and Arkansas on the road? Maybe. Maybe not. This year Alabama, which suffered through a brutal schedule last year, gets LSU and Arkansas at home. Auburn, meanwhile, must go to Arkansas, LSU and South Carolina. In the SEC, schedule matters. Which is why if my prediction about Georgia's record is wrong, it probably will be astoundingly wrong. The Bulldogs play only three true road games in conference play (Ole Miss, Tennessee and Vanderbilt). Their other two games away from Sanford Stadium (Boise State and Georgia Tech) will be in Atlanta, 67 miles from Athens. If Richt does turn things around, the schedule could help the Bulldogs come back in a big way.
Top 25 scouting reports: Alabama | LSU | South Carolina | Arkansas | Auburn | Miss. State
How will Arkansas handle the loss of Knile Davis? The loss of their best rusher is a serious blow for the Razorbacks, but coach Bobby Petrino's offense might be able to weather it. Remember, Davis emerged last year after the Hogs lost Dennis Johnson to injury. Johnson has returned, and Ronnie Wingo also will help carry the load. No matter who runs the ball, defenses will have to concern themselves with the nation's best trio of receivers (Greg Childs, Jarius Wright and Joe Adams). The healthy backs won't have to carry the offense by themselves, and they should find more room to run because opponents will show so much respect for Arkansas' passing game.
Can South Carolina handle the weight of expectations? The Chicken Curse has taken a few hits in the past two years. South Carolina's baseball team has won consecutive national titles, and the football team finally broke through last year with its first SEC East title. Now, South Carolina will enter the season ranked high and expected to win the East again. Coach Steve Spurrier should be familiar with that position; his Florida teams were annually expected to finish atop the division. But will the Gamecocks be able to handle those expectations? They'll find out quickly when they step between the hedges at Georgia in Week 2. Still, South Carolina fans are understandably leery. They had to cringe when they looked at the 2011 schedule and saw Navy. In 1984, the Gamecocks were 9-0 and ranked No. 2 in the nation when they went to Annapolis and got crushed. But there is no such thing as a Chicken Curse, right?
Will Florida return to elite status? The Gators might have a better shot if their West draw didn't include a visit from Alabama and games at LSU and Auburn. Coach Will Muschamp has played things so close to the vest that it's difficult to predict what the Gators will do. Under first-year coordinator Charlie Weis, quarterback John Brantley will get to play in an offense that suits his skill set. Of course, the rest of the Gators are better suited to the spread. Meanwhile, Florida should field a fast, athletic defense with very little experience. If good coaching can overcome the greenness of the players, scoring on the Gators could be quite difficult.
Will the SEC win its sixth consecutive national title? It certainly seems as if the league has enough quality teams to send its champ to the BCS title game for a sixth consecutive year. After that, anything can happen in one game. But three of the SEC's elite (Alabama, LSU and South Carolina) have excellent defensive lines, and that unit has made all the difference in the past five BCS title games.
 
SEC Video Preview
Top SEC contenders
Source:SI
SI.com breaks down why Alabama, LSU and South Carolina look like the top SEC contenders.

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