By Lee J. Green
A high five goes out to SEC football for winning an unprecedented five straight national championships.
But SEC Commissioner Mike Slive didn’t focus on pats on the back for the conference at SEC Media Days in Birmingham. Instead, he spoke of an agenda of change for student-athletes in intercollegiate athletics nationally.
“This agenda is not a panacea, nor is it intended to offer a solution to every problem. It does, however, identify several key issues we believe need attention,” said Slive, including strengthening academic requirements for incoming freshman and transfers; modernizing recruiting rules; supporting the NCAA’s efforts to improve the enforcement process and redefining the benefits available to student-athletes.
During the off-season, Slive said he has enjoyed attending several events in the Birmingham area Jewish community. He and his daughter, Anna, both serve on the Temple Emanu-El Board of Directors.
“My work takes me outside of Birmingham a great deal so I enjoy the time I can spend with my family and in the Jewish community here,” said Slive, who has been commissioner of the SEC (based in Birmingham) for nine years. “The Jewish community here gives us a strong connection and identity.”
Of course, Slive did say he is very proud of the on-field accomplishments of his member institutions. The Auburn Tigers won their second national championship in 2010, their first since 1957, by defeating the Oregon Ducks in the BCS Championship game this past January.
The year prior, in-state rival Alabama Crimson Tide claimed the title, preceded by Florida, LSU and Florida. On another field, South Carolina claimed back-to-back baseball College World Series championships. “Our conference has accomplished a great deal in the athletic and academic worlds. We’re certainly proud of that.”
Despite winning the BCS Championship, most prognosticators pick Auburn to finish in the lower half of the SEC West due to losing 18 starters, including Heisman Trophy winning quarterback Cam Newton and All-American defensive lineman Nick Fairley.
Here are some capsules for the 2011 SEC football season listed in SJL’s predicted order of finish:
1 – Alabama Crimson Tide: Many predict the Tide to contend for the title in 2011, thanks to 10 starters returning to a defense that is being heralded by some as the strongest in the nation. Alabama also returns Heisman Trophy-candidate running back Trent Richardson.
Alabama led Auburn 24-0 before losing the 2010 Iron Bowl. In late April, Tuscaloosa was devastated by a tornado. The players and Head Coach Nick Saban were very involved in the recovery efforts, raising money and helping rebuild. Finding motivation won’t be a problem for the 2011 team, Saban said.
“We want to play a role in lifting the spirits of so many whose lives were impacted by this tragedy in our community and statewide,” said Saban, adding that his team is not fazed by the high pre-season praise and predictions. “We’re not focused on what the prognosticators say about us. We want to grow and mature as a unit. We have a talented team that needs to prove itself on the field.”
Freshman Phillip Sims and Sophomore A.J. McCarron will compete for the starting job vacated by Greg McElroy. All-America candidates Mark Barron (senior safety) and Dont’a Hightower (junior linebacker) will lead the Tide’s defense.
2 – LSU Tigers: The Bayou Bengals will challenge the Tide for the SEC West title, especially if senior quarterback Jordan Jefferson continues his maturation process (the two teams battle in Tuscaloosa Nov. 5).
Jefferson knows he will have a capable connection in junior wide receiver Rueben Randle. LSU returns eight starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that won eleven games in 2010.
If senior linebacker Ryan Baker and junior cornerback Morris Claiborne can bolster Head Coach Les Miles’ already-staunch defense, the Tigers could contend too for the conference as well as national crowns.
3 – Arkansas Razorbacks: The Hogs had their ups and downs in 2010, going 10-3 but losing in a couple of big games that could have allowed them to challenge on a national level.
Head Coach Bobby Petrino lost star quarterback Ryan Mallett to the NFL, but junior quarterback Tyler Wilson filled in admirably a couple of times when Mallett was hurt. Arkansas boasts plenty of weapons on offense including all-SEC junior running back Knile Davis along with a tandem of top wide receivers – Greg Childs and Joe Adams.
4 – Auburn Tigers: Auburn capped its dream undefeated season with a 22-19 win over Oregon in the BCS Championship. But now Head Coach Gene Chizik, who earned the title in just his second year on The Plains, must find players to fill some pretty big shoes.
“This has been an incredible journey for myself and everyone in the Auburn family. There were many people before the season that didn’t think we’d have a chance to win the national championship and I am so proud of what we all accomplished together,” said Chizik.
“But the minute our plane hit the ground January 11, we had moved on. We have been focused and locked in solely on the 2011 football season; being the best team that we can possibly be, not just being content winning it last season.”
Auburn brings back talented sophomore running back Michael Dyer and senior offensive lineman Brandon Mosely on offense. Senior defensive back Neiko Thorpe and junior defensive back T’sharvin Bell will anchor the defensive secondary for the Tigers.
5 – Mississippi State: The Bulldogs finished in the top 20 last season and return 15 starters. The team would probably contend for a conference or division title if it wasn’t in the loaded SEC West.
But that’s not to say the 2011 version couldn’t improve on its 9-4 2010 campaign, capped off by a Gator Bowl win over Michigan.
Head Coach Dan Mullen said senior quarterback Chris Relf has aptly taken the leadership reins and has looked strong in practice. The Bulldogs also boast one of the conference’s best running backs in senior Vick Ballard.
6 – Ole Miss Rebels: The only SEC West team not to appear in the final Top 25 or notch a winning record, even an improvement this year might not be enough to lift Ole Miss out of the cellar in the division.
The good news is that the Rebels return nine starters on offense, including senior running back Brandon Bolden and senior offensive tackle Bradley Sowell. Head Coach Houston Nutt hopes for strong contributions on special teams, especially junior punter Tyler Campbell.
1 – South Carolina Gamecocks: South Carolina played in the SEC Championship Game for the first time in history last season and its nine wins — one of the best seasons ever for South Carolina — vaulted the Gamecocks to the top of the SEC East.
But Head Coach Steve Spurrier said he expects the 2011 team to be better, putting a thorn on the 2010 rose by mentioning that South Carolina got blown out by Auburn in the SEC Championship then lost to Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
There are some concerns with senior quarterback Stephen Garcia’s off-field suspensions and lack of team leadership. Spurrier said sophomore Connor Shaw will be given a chance to win the position. But South Carolina is loaded on offense, including two of the nation’s likely top performers for 2011 in sophomore running back Marcus Lattimore and junior wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey. And the Gamecocks will get strong performances on defense from junior cornerback Stephen Gilmore along with junior defensive end Devin Taylor.
2 – Florida Gators: After winning two national championships in his tenure at Florida, Urban Meyer stepped down and Will Muschamp – who returns to the SEC after previous assistant coaching stops in Auburn and LSU – steps in.
So too does experienced NFL and college football coach Charlie Weis, who will install a new offense in Gainesville that will lend itself better to the strengths of senior quarterback John Brantley.
Brantley hopes to have help moving the chains on offense from senior running back/receiver Chris Rainey and senior Jeff Demps. Jonathan Bostic, a junior linebacker, will anchor the defense.
The Gators, who finished a disappointing 8-5 in 2010, should rebound in 2011. Expect Florida and Georgia to contend with South Carolina for the SEC East crown.
3 – Georgia Bulldogs: The Bulldogs will be tested early playing national power Boise State in its first game and their rival Gamecocks in the second game.
But regardless, Georgia will be vastly improved from its 6-7 2010 campaign. Sophomore quarterback Aaron Murray appears poised for a breakout year after a strong 2010.
The ‘Dogs kicking game will have plenty of bite with All-SEC punter Drew Butler and kicker Blair Walsh, both seniors.
4 – Tennessee Volunteers: The Vols will likely improve upon their 6-7 season last year, Derek Dooley’s first as head coach up at Rocky Top. Two or three more wins are realistic.
Tennessee returns seven starters on offense and hope sophomore quarterback Tyler Bray continues to improve. Dooley also has offensive firepower in sophomore wide receiver Justin Hunter and senior running back Tauren Poole.
5 – Kentucky Wildcats: Kentucky also finished 6-7 in its first-year coach’s (former Wildcats wide receiver and assistant coach Joker Phillips) inaugural season at the helm.
Phillips brings back 15 starters including nine on defense (senior linebackers Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy will be players to watch). The offensive line will be strong, but Kentucky needs some skill position players to step up if they are to contend.
6 – Vanderbilt Commodores: New Vandy Head Coach James Franklin will have quite a challenge in this first year of head coaching. Vandy finished 2-10 in 2010.
However, Franklin will have the benefit of bringing back all eleven starters on the ‘Dores offense along with eight on defense. That defense will be anchored by senior linebacker Chris Marve, a two-time All-SEC performer and senior defensive back Casey Hayward.