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It's football time in the SEC

It's football time in the SEC

Florida eyes second straight title as beginning of season gets closer

Magazines are on the rack, season tickets are in the mail, and expectations are up in the air.

Hard to believe, but college football season is almost upon us. In less than a month, Southeastern Conference teams begin practice.

Never mind that the majority of SEC players have been on campus for summer school and participating in unsupervised workouts at least once a day. Those workouts are — Wink! Wink! — voluntary.

In the spirit of the offseason, here are a baker's half-dozen questions about SEC football that are begging for answers:

Does Florida have a chance of matching the basketball program by winning a second straight national title?

Maybe. We'll get back to you at the end of October with a definitive answer.

In what could be the toughest stretch of scheduling in the nation, the Gators play Auburn, LSU and Georgia in a four-game span, with a trip to Kentucky thrown in for good measure. If Florida exits the Georgia game on Oct. 27 undefeated, a repeat is a strong possibility.

Granted, it is possible to win a national title with one loss, as was the case last year. But things have to fall right for a one-loss team to get into the championship game.

If any team in the SEC is fortified for this kind of challenge, it is Florida. Urban Meyer took a roster full of talent that he inherited from his predecessor, Ron Zook, and has added to it with some remarkable recruiting.

While much of the focus will be on sophomore quarterback Tim Tebow and the fleet weapons at his disposal, the big question centers on the Gators' overhauled defense. Nine starters must be replaced, including first-round draft choices Jarvis Moss and Reggie Nelson.

What chance does Nick Saban really have of turning things around at Alabama?

Put it this way: For $4 million a year, he'd better turn things around.

Under Saban, the Crimson Tide will be better in '07 if only because of improved organization and attention to detail. Saban sweats the small stuff.

But much work lies ahead before Alabama has any chance of a return to glory. The Tide lags behind some of the SEC West in overall talent. Saban and staff need another couple of recruiting classes to match personnel with programs like LSU and Auburn.

John Parker Wilson should continue to improve at quarterback, but the Tide needs more playmakers on offense after ranking ninth in the SEC in scoring last season.

Give Saban time to put his stamp on the program. Then we'll see if he has closed the gap on in-state rival Auburn.

What SEC coach is on the hottest seat this fall?

Sad to say, it's Sylvester Croom of Mississippi State. He's one of the best people in college coaching, and he's been dealing with limited assets in his first three years in Starkville, but patience is wearing thin.

Croom has won only four SEC games since arriving in '04 and ended last season with a 20-17 loss at Ole Miss. His teams have been especially puny on offense, where his possession passing game has failed to take flight.

When he was hired, Mississippi State Athletics Director Larry Templeton said Croom would be given time to clean up the mess left behind by Jackie Sherrill.

In that regard, Croom has accomplished what he was hired to do.

But with fans growing weary of blowout losses like the 34-0 defeat by Auburn and 48-17 rout by LSU last season, Croom needs to show some on-field progress in '07 or he might not be make it to '08.

Does Vanderbilt have a realistic shot at a bowl?

The postseason drought is 24 years … and counting.

While there is no disputing that Bobby Johnson has upgraded the program and made Vanderbilt more competitive on a week-by-week basis, it's tough to look at the upcoming schedule and find six victories.

With that said, we shouldn't put anything past the Commodores. If nothing else, this should be one of the most exciting Vanderbilt teams in many years because of a pass-run threat at quarterback in Chris Nickson and a premier receiver like Earl Bennett.

Food for thought: What if the Commodores have five victories entering the finale against Wake Forest? When that contract was signed, the Demon Deacons did not project as a major obstacle. But that was before Wake Forest won the ACC championship in '06.

Which has a better chance of happening in 2007: Arkansas running back Darren McFadden winning the Heisman Trophy or Coach Houston Nutt getting a new, long-term contract?

The two may go hand-in-hand.

After all the offseason turmoil that began with but was not limited to the transfer of quarterback Mitch Mustain, Nutt needs to capitalize on McFadden before he sprints off to the NFL.

McFadden enters the season at the top of the list of Heisman candidates. He finished second behind Troy Smith last year, when he ran for 1,647 yards and 14 touchdowns.

McFadden, whose Heisman candidacy is outlined in the Web site, could be a victim of the Razorbacks' embarrassment of riches on offense. Felix Jones is another 1,000-yard rusher and Marcus Monk is one of the nation's top pass receivers.

As for Nutt, he is a survivor. After back-to-back losing seasons in 2004-05, he rebounded with a 10-win season last year and a berth in the SEC Championship Game.

The SEC has had a quarterback picked in the first round of the NFL draft in each of the last four years. Will it be 5-for-5?

Yes. But the league's top pro quarterback prospect is not from one of the programs you'd expect.

Meet Andre' Woodson. He's the best quarterback in the SEC. And he plays for Kentucky.

Woodson is 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, with a strong, accurate arm. In NFL parlance, he can make all the throws.

Although much can happen between now and the NFL draft, Woodson ranks with Brian Brohm of Louisville and Chad Henne of Michigan at the top of the quarterback heap.

In case you're wondering, SEC quarterbacks who went in the first round in the last four years: Eli Manning of Ole Miss in 2004, Jason Campbell of Auburn in '05, Jay Cutler of Vanderbilt in '06 and JaMarcus Russell of LSU this year.

Is Tennessee downsizing its offensive linemen?

Yes. With good reason.

In the last five drafts, UT has had a grand total of two offensive linemen drafted — Scott Wells in 2004 and Arron Sears this year.

Obviously, NFL coaches and scouts see something in Tennessee linemen that they don't like — too much girth and not enough quickness.

In 2005, UT made headlines with an offensive line that averaged 328 pounds — more than most NFL teams. But what was to be an asset proved to be one of the weakest parts of the team.

Consider: Cody Douglas was a three-year starter for the Vols, playing at 330 pounds. Now Douglas is trying to make the Titans — at 312 pounds.

So Vols offensive coordinator David Cutcliffe has stressed the need for more quickness and athleticism. Cutcliffe wants to make the screen pass a big part of his offense, which requires agile linemen.

The projected starting offensive line this season will average 304 pounds.

For UT, less is more.

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