The SEC East leaders are clearly Florida and Georgia. They're the cream of the entire SEC crop and one of these two teams will represent the conference in a BCS game - maybe the BCS title game. The other will likely be an at-large bid. There's a razor-thin margin between these two teams, and this placement (second) means that today, I think Georgia will edge the Gators in the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. But more on that later.
The Gators stormed out of the gate last year, trouncing rival Tennessee 59-20 in a game that really wasn't even that close. They followed that by slipping by Ole Miss in Oxford 30-24 and many thought they were just looking past the Rebels to Auburn. Nope - as I watched in horror from the Hooters at the Landing in Jacksonville as this happened:
The following week in Baton Rouge, LSU downed the Gators again - this time 28-24. In Lexington 2 weeks later, they managed to win a 45-37 defensive struggle over Kentucky before receiving a 42-30 drubbing to Georgia in Jacksonville. That three of four streak put them out of the SEC East race.
Florida closed strong - winning 4 in a row - and they traveled a full hour to Orlando on New Years Day where Michigan was waiting. An emotional Michigan team was nearly thwarted by Mike Hart's holiday fumble-itis (he dropped 2 balls at the goal line), but the Wolverines persevered in Lloyd Carr's final game as head coach. First leading by 2 touchdowns, then down by 7, Big Blue managed to come back and win with a late touchdown 41-35.
Notice a trend in those Florida losses? Their opponent's scores in those games: 20-28-42-41. The defense pretty clearly didn't hold up their end of the bargain - especially when the chips were down.
That's where the question marks are again in 2008.
Tim Tebow. You may have heard of him. They don't just give away those Heisman Trophies. He's the GPOOE (™ Get The Picture). He's... well, the always poetic Sunday Morning Quarterback argues the NFL won't want him despite "the Tebow Child’s prototype size and strength and ability to make panties disappear while curing malaria with his smile."
That pretty much says it all. If you don't know who Tebow is and what he's capable of, you're not reading this.
Joining Tebow in the backfield will be a hodgepodge collection of various and sundry backs. Kestahn Moore was the "starter" last year - but has trouble hanging on to the ball. Emmanual Moody (a USC transfer) had a good spring game - until the fumbles started. The smallish Chris Rainey is a redshirt freshman Meyer hopes can step up and be a gamebreaker - return specialist Brandon James and Jeffrey Demps both fit into that smaller, quicker back mold. Sophomore Mon Williams tore up his knee and reshirted last season - he's the best looking "big" back the Gators have.
The Gators do return their first and second leading rushers from last year - the aforementioned Tebow and wide receiver Percy Harvin. And Harvin may have been working out this summer. Wow. If he's able to regain his speed (after off season heel surgery) and is as strong as it seems (he put on 30 pounds of muscle), he could be an even more dangerous threat this year.
Beyond Harvin at receiver, Louis Muprhy returns for his senior campaign after grabbing 37 balls for 548 yards and 5 TDs last year. There's not a lot of experienced depth here beyond that, but there's tons of talent. Juco wide receiver phenom Carl Moore (6'4", 223) is big and strong and expected to contribute immediately. Additionally, youngsters Riley Cooper (who missed spring playing baseball) and Deonte Thompson hope to contribute - they've both shown big play potential.
The Gators took a big blow at tight end this week - Cornellius Ingram is out, likely for all of 2008. Ingram was a wide receiver last year (and a QB before that), but projected as an NFL tight end, so he came back to work on his blocking. Sadly, that may cost him a chance at the NFL. Aaron Hernandez, a coverted fullback will need to step up in Ingram's absence.
Three of Florida's offensive line starters return from last season, and despite Heisman caliber talent at QB and WR, this may be the best unit on the team. The squad last season allowed only 13 sacks in 13 games last season. Fifth year senior Phil Trautwein is back at left tackle after being sidelined with a stress fracture in his right foot. The injury ended his 2007 season before it started. He was second team all conference in 2006.
Sophomore Maurkice Pouncey started 11 games place last year - and takes that experience as he moves to center. His twin brother Mike (also a sophomore) takes Maurkice's spot at guard as the other newcomer. Jason Watkins (15 starts) and Jim Tartt (29 starts) are both veterans who return as starters this year and round out the excellent line.
On the other side of the line, there are far more questions than answers. There's one senior in the defensive line rotation - and Javier Estopinan is coming off his second major knee surgery in as many years. Oft-arrested Ronnie Wilson has been partially reinstated (and moved to DT), but is not ready to play - according to Estopinan. Terron Sanders, Troy Epps and Lawrence Marsh are the candidates for the second tackle spot, there's no real experience in that group.
Omar Hunter and Matt Patchan are true freshman who were both Rivals 5 star recruits. They could be asked to step in at DT - maybe even before they're ready.
At the end spot, Jermaine Cunningham is a virtual lock. Carlos Dunlap is an exceptional pass rushing talent (four sacks in the spring game), but is consistently out of position on run plays. If he does not improve against the run, he'll be looking to split time with fellow sophomore Justin Trattou.
The SEC's second leading tackler a season ago, MLB Brandon Spikes anchors the linebacking corps. You couldn't ask for a better defensive quarterback than Spikes. He's a leader and is among the league's (and nation's) best backers. He'll be flanked by Dustin Doe (on the weak side) and A.J. Jones (on the strong). The OLBs will be pushed by newcomer Brendan Beal and redhirt freshman Lorenzo Edwards (a former safety).
Florida's secondary is where the Gators lacked most last year. Three of the four starters returned, and they're bolstered by one of the nation's best defensive backfield recruiting classes. They should be better in the secondary this year - but there's really just one way to go for the team that finished dead last in pass defense in the SEC a year ago.
Georgia, Georgia, Georgia.
Did I mention Georgia? There's also a relatively tough date with Tennessee early on, but if the Gators clear that, it'll be all about Georgia. If Florida can defeat the Bulldogs on the first day of November, they'll likely play for the national title come the first week of January.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1)
They won't get past Georgia, but that'll be their only roadblock. Offensively, they have way too much for anyone else on the schedule. But Georgia's balanced offensive attack will be too much for the Gators, and they'll have to settle for an at large BCS bid.
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