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WEDNESDAY, AUGUST 1, 2007
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Preseason football experts say Georgia's SEC East title hopes rest with quarterback Matthew Stafford.
Courtesy photo
Preseason football experts say Georgia's SEC East title hopes rest with quarterback Matthew Stafford.

ANALYSIS
Vols favored in tough East
Fulmer pushing team to run better

By Ross Dellenger
sports@decaturdaily.com · 340-2460

The Southeastern Conference Eastern Division is hands down the best division in college football. It has three coaches who wear national championship rings, three of the top eight largest on-campus stadiums in the nation (Tennessee, Georgia, Florida) and five of its six teams made it to a bowl game last season.

Each year, there are several teams that can win the division. Sometimes just one play is the difference between who goes to Atlanta for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game and who goes to Atlanta for the Chick-fil-A Bowl.

It’s always a difficult division to predict, especially with the resurgence of Kentucky, Vanderbilt and South Carolina during the past few years. Every team in the division could be bowl eligible this year. Here’s how the East stacks and how I think they will finish.

Tennessee

What to watch: Tennessee usually has a stellar running game, but last season the ground attack was abysmal. Last year’s offense earned 71 percent of its yards through the passing game, the highest percentage since 1997 when Peyton Manning was quarterback.

“I’ve challenged our team to be a better running football team,” coach Phillip Fulmer said.

Last season, the Vols averaged 108 rushing yards a game, the lowest since 1964. Tennessee will lean on sophomore running back LaMarcus Coker, who averaged 6.4 yards a carry last season but missed two games because of injury. With the top three receivers gone, the Vols must solidify a running attack to take some pressure off of quarterback Eric Ainge.

Who to watch: Quarterback Ainge.

With loads of experience and a powerful, accurate arm, Ainge seems to be one of the best quarterbacks in the league if not the nation. He completed a school record 67 percent of his passes last season and threw only nine interceptions to 19 touchdowns.

But Ainge loses his three top receivers, two to graduation and one to the NFL.

It will be interesting to see how a new receiving corps progresses through the season.

Quotable: It’s been two years since Tennessee ended that tumultuous season, but Fulmer still hears about it.

The 2005 season, in which the Vols went 5-6, was his worst in 15 seasons at Tennessee. It was the first losing season for a Tennessee team since 1988.

“ ’05 was a shocking football season to me as a head football coach and to our program,” Fulmer said. “To our credit, the selfishness that had creeped in, the distractions that had come up, we have eliminated those things.”

UT went 9-4 last season.

Prediction: An SEC East crown.

If Ainge can stay healthy, the Vols will be back in Atlanta for the first time since 2004 with a shot at a Bowl Championship Series game on the line.

Florida

What to watch: We haven’t seen coach Urban Meyer’s spread option offense in full force since he’s been at Florida. Chris Leak was more of a drop-back passer and preferred not to run.

New starting quarterback Tim Tebow is much more versatile, as seen last year when he gained nearly 500 yards rushing in his limited snaps at quarterback. This year, Meyer’s offense will be hitting on all cylinders, and what a spectacle that could be.

Who to watch: Quarterback Tebow.

We all saw Tebow last season as a true freshman utilized as a running back, powering through defensive lines with his thick frame. He only threw the ball 33 times (completing 22) and took 89 handoffs (the second-most on the team) for 469 yards and eight touchdowns. But this year as a starter, Tebow’s role changes. He will undoubtedly be expected to use his arm more, and he inherits that starting quarterback leadership role.

“I think he can handle the job,” UF receiver Andre Caldwell said.

Quotable: When Meyer was asked what his plan is if Tebow gets hurt, the third-year coach stumbled over the answer.

“Ooh. Next question,” he said smiling. Meyer then asked another reporter to “turn around and punch (the reporter who asked the question) right in the mouth.”

Of course no blood was drawn. He was kidding.

Meyer went on to discuss his backup quarterbacks, but his initial response said everything. Florida will need Tebow if it is to bring another championship back to Gainesville.

Prediction: A tie for second in the SEC East with a New Year’s Day bowl. The Gators are young on defense after losing nine starters, but they’ll still vie for a division crown with Tebow running and throwing.

Georgia

What to watch: Georgia is tied with Mississippi State and Ole Miss with the fewest number of players (two) selected to the reporters’ all-SEC teams. The Bulldogs are the only team in the conference not to have at least one player selected for any all-SEC first team.

Much of that can be blamed on a lack of returning starters. The Bulldogs return seven players on offense but just three on defense. They could start as many as five sophomores on defense and two freshman on offense. It will be interesting to see how this young team develops.

“If we win, we’ll have guys on the first team (all-SEC),” coach Mark Richt said.

Who to watch: Quarterback Matthew Stafford.

Stafford shared playing time throughout last season with two other quarterbacks as Georgia slid to a 6-4 mark after 10 games. But the true freshman solely held the QB role for the last three games and UGA went 3-0.

Before that stretch, he had thrown four touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He had a 3-1 ratio over the final three games of the year, but Stafford still managed to complete only 52 percent of his passes. How Stafford goes, so will Georgia.

Quotable: “I’m glad to be here, year seven, which is kind of a miracle in itself. I never knew I’d last over about three or four years, but we’re still here.”

Those were Richt’s opening comments at SEC media days in Hoover.

Asked to elaborate, he said: “When you’re a first-time head coach, you’re going into the Southeastern Conference, to sit there and say, ‘boy, I’m going to be here seven years from now,’ that’s pretty bold to think that.

“It’s a rough league. It’s a rough business,” said Richt, who was the offensive coordinator at Florida State before becoming head coach for the Bulldogs in 2001.

Prediction: A tie with Florida for second place in the SEC East and a New Year’s Day bowl. Stafford hasn’t sold me yet, but the Bulldogs could very well win the division if he shows up.

South Carolina

What to watch: The Gamecocks were on the brink of going to the conference championship game in coach Steve Spurrier’s first season in 2005, and last year they had seven-point losses to Tennessee and Auburn, a six-point loss to Arkansas and a one-point loss at Florida.

“We’re going to try to win the conference,” Spurrier said. “We’ve added a lot of players that we think are at a pretty close level with Florida, Georgia and Tennessee. Obviously you need to be at their level to win the conference.”

The Gamecocks return the second-most starters in the SEC, with 17 (10 on defense and seven on offense). Spurrier’s team looks to seriously vie for the trip to Atlanta, although the road schedule is brutal (Tennessee, Arkansas, LSU and Georgia).

Who to watch: Running back Cory Boyd.

Boyd, a 6-foot-1, 212-pound senior, had 823 rushing yards last season, averaging 5 yards per carry. But Boyd is also a receiving threat.

He led SEC backs with 35 receptions in 2006.

Before being suspended for the entire 2005 season, Boyd began his career as a sophomore and freshman playing fullback, making him a good pass blocker. His skills will be needed all over the field for a Gamecocks team that lost its best player — Sidney Rice — to the NFL draft last year.

Boyd decided against turning pro.

“I’m always happy with my decision,” he said. “I’ve got to be a leader amongst the younger guys.”

Quotable: When asked about the investigation into an NBA referee for gambling, Spurrier couldn’t resist.

“There’s been a few lousily called games that deserved an investigation,” he said. “Yeah, we’ll have to be careful now of not saying, ‘It appeared that guy had money on the game.’ ”

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy is being investigated for allegedly betting on games that he officiated.

Prediction: A third- or fourth-place finish in the SEC East and New Year’s Day bowl. The Gamecocks, like Georgia and Florida, will compete for the Eastern Division crown, but their difficult road schedule will be their downfall.

Kentucky

What to watch: Coach Rich Brooks said “without a doubt this is the best football team” that he has had going into a season at Kentucky, but can they win eight games again?

Kentucky isn’t used to following a winning season, especially one in which it won a bowl game.

Brooks talks up his team enough that you would think it’ll win at least eight games, but the Wildcats have to go to South Carolina, Arkansas and

Georgia and host LSU and Florida.

Who to watch: Quarterback André Woodson.

Woodson was a stunning surprise for the Wildcats last year, helping them to a winning season and a bowl victory. He threw 31 touchdowns and only seven picks. He also led the SEC in passing offense and total offense.

Woodson hopes to have a similar year this season.

“I came to this university to help turn things around,” he said. “We’d been a doormat for so many years, and now, we want people and teams to know that we are a contender and want to be a contender year in and year out.”

Quotable: Brooks stepped up to the microphone at SEC media days last week and shouted: “I’m baaaaaack.”

Brooks, going into his fifth year at Kentucky, was thought to be a likely coaching casualty heading into last season. Before last year’s 8-5 campaign, Brooks had only nine wins in three seasons. His seat was hotter than any coach in the conference.

But the Wildcats surprised everyone, winning seven regular season games and advancing to a bowl for the first time in seven years. UK beat Clemson in the Music City Bowl for its first postseason victory since 1984.

“Well, finally got it on a little bit more solid footing and hopefully I won’t have to answer too many questions about job security this year,” Brooks said.

He was not asked one question about job security.

Prediction: A fifth-place finish in the SEC East with an early bowl game.

A repeat of last season’s eight wins will be tough, but they’ll have a chance if Woodson stays healthy.

Vanderbilt

What to watch: It’s been 24 years since Vanderbilt has posted a winning record. After some close calls the last few seasons, it’s easy to see that coach Bobby Johnson has his troops on the brink of a bowl berth, but they still find ways to lose many of the close games.

For the first time in school history, the Commodores have eight home games, but the road schedule is tough (South Carolina, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee). With a league leading 18 starters returning, the Commodores have a lot to be excited about.

Who to watch: Wide receiver Earl Bennett.

Bennett was the first player in SEC history to catch 75-plus passes in each of his first two years.

The 6-foot-1, 202-pound junior is less than 1,000 yards away from becoming the school’s all-time career receiving leader.

He scored six touchdowns and caught 82 passes for 1,146 yards as a sophomore and scored nine touchdowns as a true freshman.

If Vandy goes to its first bowl game since 1982, it will be via the hands of Bennett.

Quotable: When asked about the relationship SEC coaches have with one another, Johnson put it in perspective.

“We don’t call each other up and go play golf or anything like that, or fishing,” he said.

“You talk to them on the phone every once in a while.”

Prediction: A tie for last place in the SEC East with Kentucky and one win shy of a bowl game.

That’s right. Again the ’Dores fall short of that bowl berth.

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