July 26, 2006

It all starts with the quarterbacks in the SEC

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With David Cutcliffe back in Knoxville it's just like old times at Tennessee.

The Volunteers certainly hope so.

Cutcliffe served as offensive coordinator on Tennessee's 1998 national championship team and then left to take over the head coaching position at Ole Miss. Now, he's back. Maybe the Vols will be back in the Southeastern Conference race, too.

Tennessee struggled to an uncharacteristic 5-6 finish last year, which was its worst finish since an identical record in 1988. But with Cutcliffe back to tutor junior quarterback Erik Ainge, who has been predictably inconsistent in his first two seasons, there is reason for cautious optimism. After all, that 5-6 finish 16 years ago was followed up with an 11-1 record in 1989.

Another reason for optimism is that Phillip Fulmer's Volunteers ranked seventh in total defense last season, and five of those starters including the entire secondary return for another shot.

But quarterback play figures to be the single greatest factor in whether the Volunteers bounce back or get bounced again. Indeed, that is likely to be the case for the entire Southeastern Conference, and it's no surprise that teams with proven quarterbacks are raised up as preseason favorites to win the conference championship - and maybe more.

Brandon Cox proved himself for Auburn with 2,324 yards passing and 15 touchdowns last season. He has a solid offensive line and exciting running back Kenny Irons with which to work.

Florida's Chris Leak got better as the season progressed in 2005 and now he's got a year of experience in Urban Meyer's scheme, so he should be even better in 2006.

A talented quarterback will start at LSU, the only question is which one. LSU coach Les Miles is no doubt envied from coast to coast with a quarterback depth chart that includes JaMarcus Russell, Matt Flynn and Ryan Perrilloux. Whoever Miles opts to go with will have the luxury of a scary group of receivers and the return of running back Alley Broussard, who has recovered from a right knee injury that caused him to miss the 2005 season.

South Carolina, aiming to improve on its 7-5 finish in 2005, will also be interesting with quarterback Blake Mitchell and dangerous receiver Sidney Rice returning for another year in Steve Spurrier's offense.

Brent Schaeffer presumably will also be back in the SEC after a year in junior college. The former Tennessee quarterback will likely give a huge boost to Ole Miss, which is also hoping for big production from another transfer running back BenJarvus Green-Ellis.

SEC 2005 Standings
Team Conference Overall
Georgia 6-2 10-3
Florida 5-3 9-3
South Carolina 5-3 7-5
Tennessee 3-5 5-6
Vanderbilt 3-5 5-6
Kentucky 2-6 3-8
LSU 7-1 11-2
Auburn 7-1 9-3
Alabama 6-2 10-3
Arkansas 2-6 4-7
Mississippi 1-7 3-8
Mississippi State 1-7 3-8
The quarterback situation at Arkansas will be watched closely as Casey Dick must hold off the challenge from heralded freshman Mitch Mustain. However, the Hogs have two elusive and versatile running backs in Darren McFadden and Felix Jones, so there's ample ammunition available for whoever emerges at quarterback in the Ozarks.

Defending conference champion Georgia is in a similar position with freshman Matthew Stafford, who tossed a 64-yard touchdown pass on first attempt in the spring game, vying with senior Joe Tereshinski and redshirt freshman Joe Cox for the starting job.

Brodie Croyle has gone to the NFL, so Alabama has a void at quarterback it hopes John Parker Wilson can fill. He'll be helped by the presence of shifty running back Kenneth Darby, who is aiming to become the Crimson Tide's first running back to rush for 1,000 yards in three consecutive seasons.

Last year was memorable for Vanderbilt as the Commodores as they defeated Tennessee for the first time since 1982 and came within one victory of attaining bowl eligibility. Seven offensive and six defensive starters are back, but Vandy won't have quarterback Jay Cutler, the SEC offensive player of the year. His absence may be eased by the arrival of junior quarterback Richard Kovalcheck, a transfer for Arizona who had 11 starts for the Wildcats.

Kentucky, which has managed just nine victories in coach Rich Brooks' three-year tenure, are hoping versatile running back Rafael Little - also one of the nation's most feared kick returners - can invoke images of 2002 when the Wildcats posted their most recent winning campaign.

Mississippi State, meanwhile, is hoping to make significant improvement in its third season under coach Sylvester Croom, who feels he has upgraded the Bulldogs' overall talent level.

Click here for more coverage of 2006 Football Media Days.


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