August 13, 2007

SEC Preview: Hopes run high as season nears

RIVALS.COM SEC PREVIEW:
Conference breakdown | Preseason All-SEC First Team | Preseason All-SEC Second Team

Connoisseurs seek a vintage year.

Politicians look forward to an election year.

Football teams await a championship year.

It's been a long, long wait in places like Nashville, Columbia, S.C., and Oxford, Miss., where championship seasons or even bowl appearances come about as frequently as snow in Miami.

Yet in those areas, and several other locales within the Southeastern Conference, a feeling of optimism is the air that this could indeed be THE year.

A quarter century has passed since the Vanderbilt Commodores appeared in a bowl game, but the combination of 17 returning starters, eight home games and victories over Georgia in 2006 and Tennessee in 2005 has sparked talk on West End that the drought could be nearing an end.

"We have 17 or 18 starters returning," said Vandy coach Bobby Johnson, who is entering his sixth season at the Commodores' helm. "We've won some pretty big games in the last couple years. I think that in itself is probably more important than talent level or whatever. I feel like our guys feel like they can compete in this league.

"When you get that working for you you're going to have a chance."

Some of the residents of Columbia, S.C., think the Gamecocks have a chance to capture their first conference championship since winning the ACC in 1969.

Count coach Steve Spurrier among them.

"We've raised our goals this year," Spurrier said. "We're going to try to win the conference. We felt like we've really increased our talent level at South Carolina. 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. We lost some close games last year, didn't play our best maybe or didn't coach our best. But we feel like our talent level is good enough now we should say, 'Hey, let's go try to win our conference championship.' "

That may seem a little too ambitious considering South Carolina, since joining the SEC in 1992, has never finished higher than second place in the East Division.

Spurrier coached Florida to six SEC crowns and a national title, so he knows a championship-caliber team when he sees one.

There are 16 starters back from last season's Gamecocks team, which finished 7-5.

"He's always big on trying to do things for the first time and trying to have bigger goals," South Carolina running back Cory Boyd said of Spurrier. "You can't really win something unless you really install it in your mind, and I think that's what he's trying to do with us."

Coach Ed Orgeron is trying to do the same at Mississippi, which hasn't won an SEC championship since 1963 and has gone three seasons without appearing in a bowl game.

Last season the Rebels finished 4-8, but lost four games by a touchdown or less - including two in overtime.

"I believe, looking at our schedule, we're going to be very competitive in each game and we need to find a way to finish and win the games that we're supposed to win, upset a couple of people, go to a bowl and win it," Orgeron said. "Our goal is always going to be to go to the Sugar Bowl and win it. I still believe and I still know that we can attain that goal, it's just going to take a little while."

Of course, all around the SEC there are hopes and aspirations for this year.

Florida aspires to be the first team to win back-to-back national championships since Nebraska in 1994-95.

Alabama hopes to end a five-year losing streak to Auburn.

Arkansas aims for its first SEC championship.

That would seem unlikely, though, because LSU was the overwhelming choice to win the conference championship in preseason voting among the SEC media.

However, the media prediction has been wrong the last 11 seasons.

Maybe this is the year.

RIVALS.COM SEC PREVIEW:
Conference breakdown | Preseason All-SEC First Team | Preseason All-SEC Second Team

Olin Buchanan is the senior college football writer for Rivals.com. He can be reached at olin@rivals.com.



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