Mark Story: Bama, Georgia to vie for SEC title

mstory@herald-leader.comAugust 31, 2011 

The most remarkable aspect of the Southeastern Conference's five consecutive BCS national champions is that the crowns have been spread across four different schools — Florida (two), Alabama, Auburn and LSU.

This year, at least five SEC teams — Alabama, LSU and Arkansas from the West; South Carolina and recently underachieving Georgia from the East — enter the season with the legitimate right to dream about a national title.

Amazingly, Auburn, which went undefeated and won the national title a season ago, has a very realistic chance to finish last in the SEC West in 2011. (Predicted records in parentheses.)

SEC EAST

1. Georgia (11-1; 7-1): Incredibly favorable schedule (no Alabama, Arkansas or LSU; open date before Florida; South Carolina in Athens) should help Mark Richt put out the growing fire beneath his seat.

2. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2): In wide receiver Alshon Jeffrey and running back Marcus Lattimore, the Head Ball Coach might have the two most gifted offensive players in the SEC. Road games at Georgia, Mississippi State and Arkansas will determine Gamecocks' fate.

3. Florida (8-4, 5-3): New offensive system under Charlie Weis and Will Muschamp's first season as a head coach at any level make the Gators a mystery team.

4. Kentucky (6-6, 2-6): Schedule (both Mississippi schools in Lexington; two winnable games in Nashville) is favorable. Way too many question marks at the offensive skill positions for this to be the "breakthrough" season UK football needs.

4. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6): Volunteers should have bottomed out last season and be starting back up. However, Derek Dooley's crew has a brutal schedule that includes the three West favorites (LSU, at Alabama and at Arkansas).

4. Vanderbilt (5-7, 2-6): First-year head man James Franklin has 19 starters (all 11 on offense) and 56 lettermen back, and the Commodores should be good enough to pull a surprise or two in 2011.

SEC WEST

1. Alabama (12-0, 8-0): Ten returning starters on defense, four on the offensive line and a potential Heisman candidate (Trent Richardson) at running back give Nick Saban all the ingredients he'll need to "bounce back" from last season's 10-3 "disappointment."

2. LSU (10-2, 7-1): Hard to fully trust historically inconsistent quarterback Jordan Jefferson. Two very tough non-conference games (vs. Oregon in Dallas and at West Virginia) complicate national title hopes.

3. Arkansas (9-3, 6-2): Had Bobby Petrino's Hogs ranked ahead of LSU until Knile Davis' ankle injury knocked the star running back out for the season. Doesn't help that three of the Hogs' four toughest games (Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU) will be played outside the state.

4. Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6): Home games with LSU, South Carolina and Alabama, and road trips to Georgia and Arkansas make a repeat of last season's feel-good 9-4 unlikely.

5. Auburn (4-8, 1-7): Defending national champs draw the top three teams from the East (at South Carolina, Florida, at Georgia) and have road games at LSU and Arkansas. With no Cam Newton or Nick Fairley, reality is set to bite Gene Chizik.

6. Mississippi (3-9, 0-8): Houston Nutt needs a much better year than this projection to keep the wolves at bay in Oxford.

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP

Alabama 23, Georgia 21

SEC BOWL TEAMS

BCS Championship Game: Alabama

Sugar: Georgia

Capital One: LSU

Cotton: Arkansas

Outback: South Carolina

Chick-fil-A: Florida

Gator: Kentucky

Music City: Mississippi State

Liberty: No SEC team eligible

BBVA Compass: No SEC team eligible

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