article by Matt Hayes Scouting the SEC July 23, 2002 TSN's College Football Yearbook Phillip Fulmer and Steve Spurrier laughed and joked this spring. Yep, right there at Neyland Stadium, without the crush of 100,000 fans watching their every move. Such is life in the new Southeastern Conference. Darth Visor is gone. And Fulmer, Tennessee's ultra-successful coach, is chasing -- ahem -- Nick Saban? "I enjoyed seeing him,'' Fulmer said in March, when Spurrier arrived in Knoxville as coach of the Washington Redskins to evaluate some of the Vols' professional prospects. "Things change; times change.'' No kidding. Spurrier turned the stodgy conference sideways the previous 12 seasons as coach at Florida, tormenting Fulmer and the Vols and everyone else in the process. The Gators won a national title and six league championships under Spurrier. So how does Florida replace the legend? By hiring Ron Zook, a former assistant whom Spurrier promoted, demoted and promoted again before Zook left for the NFL in 1996. Zook hadn't been back to the college scene since, but NFL people swear he was head coaching material in their league. TSN's Projected Finish More than anything, Zook will try to emulate what Larry Coker did with state rival Miami last season: take the bridge of a talented ship and steer it through any personality or chemistry issues. The Gators have the best player in the league (QB Rex Grossman), the best wide receiver (Taylor Jacobs), one of the best running backs (Earnest Graham) and a defense full of young stars. The only problem: The schedule includes home games against Miami and defending SEC champion LSU and road games against Tennessee and Florida State. Now we know why Spurrier and Fulmer were so chummy in Knoxville this spring. Spurrier doesn't have to deal with that brutal schedule, and Fulmer doesn't have to deal with Spurrier. Fulmer does have to be concerned with a new nemesis in Saban, who helped perennial underachiever LSU finally reach championship status. LSU athletic director Skip Bertman was so impressed with Saban's SEC championship last season that he made Saban the richest coach in the league -- and potentially the richest in the nation. Should LSU win the national title, Saban is guaranteed to make at least $1 more than the highest-paid coach in college football (Bob Stoops, Oklahoma, $2.1 million per season). Any chance of doing that will hinge on the ability to replace gritty QB Rohan Davey. Matt Mauck played well in the SEC championship game when Davey was injured, but needs to prove he can produce on a consistent basis. And just as important, Saban again rejected NFL overtures this offseason and appears to be set on staying in the Bayou for a few years, at least. That means Fulmer and the rest of the SEC again will have a free-wheeling, free-speaking successful coach the NFL desperately wants knocking around its league for a while. ASCENDING Georgia. OK, so Bulldogs coach Mark Richt made some tactical blunders in his first season, and that loss to Boston College in the Music City Bowl was embarrassing. Don't think the Dawgs won't bounce back. Georgia is among the SEC's elite in talent, and Richt quickly has established himself as one of the league's best recruiters. Just how deep are the Bulldogs? QB David Greene, the SEC's freshman of the year last season, is fighting for his starting job. D.J. Shockley, a heralded prospect from Richt's first recruiting class, reminds many in Athens of former Heisman Trophy winner Charlie Ward, whom Richt molded as quarterbacks coach at Florida State in the early 1990s. Greene and Shockley will play. What their roles will be or how the playing time will shake out likely depends on their performance the first few weeks of the season. The Bulldogs have conquered one East Division mental block, having posted two consecutive wins over Tennessee after losing nine in a row. But they must find a way to conquer another in Florida -- Georgia won once against Spurrier's teams. DESCENDING Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have done two things well under coach Jackie Sherrill: Run the ball and play defense. State did neither well last season, a bottomed-out year that included a home loss to Troy State. Now, reality: It could get worse this season. State's offensive line is in shambles, with players learning new positions and inexperience everywhere. Tailback Dontae Walker struggled with injuries last season and might not be the same without running mate Dicenzo Miller picking up the slack. Kevin Fant takes over for four-year starter Wayne Madkin at quarterback, and he's more of a thrower and less of a threat outside the pocket, which is what made State's offense so dangerous. The defense, the heart of the team under coordinator Joe Lee Dunn, underachieved last season with a shaky secondary. If the Bulldogs can't cover in man situations, Dunn's wacky blitz schemes won't mean a thing. Cornerbacks Korey Banks and Demetric Wright struggled in coverage and limited Dunn's defensive calls. Even the special teams, in which Sherrill takes an active part, took a step back last season. DREAM SCHEDULE Arkansas' non-conference schedule consists of Boise State, South Florida, Troy State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Arkansas officials will tell you Boise State was the team that first beat Fresno State last year, South Florida won at Pittsburgh, and Troy State won at Mississippi State. Big deal. A cupcake is a cupcake any way you look at it, and Arkansas tried to pencil in four wins the easy way. The Hogs also got a break in the conference schedule. Defending SEC champion LSU visits Little Rock in one of Arkansas' eight home games there or at Fayetteville. And the SEC's rotating schedule moves East favorite Georgia off and East patsy Kentucky on. Eight wins await the Hogs. NIGHTMARE SCHEDULE Florida. The honeymoon for Zook -- OK, alumni patience -- won't last long. The Gators play host to Miami on Sept. 7, then travel to Tennessee two weeks later. The Gators could start 2-2. Even then, it doesn't get much easier. The Gators get LSU and Auburn in Gainesville but must finish the season at rival Florida State. And don't forget about the game against Georgia in Jacksonville. The Dawgs need it; so does Zook. BEST MATCHUP Miami at Tennessee. It's not a stretch to think both teams could be unbeaten by the Nov. 9 kickoff at Neyland Stadium. If that's the case, this game likely will deny one of the teams a chance to play for the national championship in Tempe, Ariz. Other big games: Sept. 7: Alabama at Oklahoma; Miami at Florida. Oct. 12: Tennessee at Georgia; LSU at Florida. Nov. 2: Florida vs. Georgia. Nov. 23: Auburn at Alabama. Nov. 29: LSU at Arkansas. Nov. 30: Florida at Florida State. UGLIEST MATCHUP Cupcake scheduling has hit a low in the SEC. Forget about scheduling Division-I patsies; the SEC has stooped even lower. Check out these riveting matchups (read: glorified scrimmages against I-AA schools for about $30 a pop for Joe Fan): Mississippi State vs. Jacksonville State, Auburn vs. Western Carolina, Georgia vs. Northwestern State, Vanderbilt vs. Furman. Check that; Furman probably will beat Vandy, but that's another story. UPSET OF THE YEAR Eventually, the SEC will stop scheduling Troy State. The Trojans went into Starkville last season and beat Mississippi State in a driving rainstorm. Think how bad it could've been had it been dry and Troy State's spread offense could have worked without constraints. Now it's Arkansas' turn to stop Troy State, which has been overshadowed in Alabama by big brothers Auburn and Alabama. What better way to get more respect in the South than beating another SEC team? BOWL BOUND The shadow of former SEC commissioner Roy Kramer no longer looms over the bowl selection process. We think. Still, expect the SEC to get at least seven teams in the postseason: Georgia, Tennessee, LSU, Florida, South Carolina, Auburn and Arkansas. The bowls slighted Mississippi last year when Alabama was picked to play in the Independence Bowl over the Rebels, who beat the Tide and had a better record. If the SEC gets two teams in the BCS -- champion Georgia and crowd/ratings draws Florida or Tennessee -- the Rebels might slip in. BIGGEST SHOES TO FILL This time last year, there was talk about a tailback-by-committee at Tennessee. Then Travis Stephens set the school record for yards in a season and almost single-handedly beat Florida in Gainesville. Even Peyton Manning couldn't do that. So just who replaces Stephens? The Vols have numerous possibilities, including the bullish style of Jabari Davis, the speed and moves of Cedric Houston and the scatback style of Derrick Tinsley. Then there's Gerald Riggs Jr., one of the nation's top incoming freshmen, who has the size and talent to win the job outright. MOST OVERRATED PLAYER QB Tyler Watts, Alabama. He was supposed to be the savior for Alabama, the next Joe Namath. His fans say he helped the Tide win an SEC championship in 1999, even though tailback Shaun Alexander and a nasty defense carried the team. Going into his senior season, Watts has put up mediocre numbers and will be fighting off Spencer Pennington and Brodie Croyle. Watts is more of a running threat and doesn't have the strength or savvy to beat teams with his arm. MOST UNDERRATED PLAYER Running back Andrew Pinnock, South Carolina. Coach Lou Holtz should've dumped Derek Watson last season after his umpteenth off-field indiscretion and gone with Pinnock, a bruising, punishing runner. Pinnock didn't fit into South Carolina's spread scheme last season, but he'll get plenty of touches with the Gamecocks moving more toward a running offense. BEST COACH Now that Spurrier has moved on, another coach can be tabbed as the league's best. For too long, Fulmer was overshadowed because of his inability to beat Spurrier and the Gators consistently. How fitting then that Fulmer won last season's game in Gainesville. No one recruits like Fulmer, and his game-day decision-making -- last year's SEC championship game loss notwithstanding -- has grown in leaps over the last few seasons. He's a players' coach and a solid motivator. And he's officially out of Spurrier's shadow. BEST STAFF Before Holtz arrived in Columbia, S.C., the Gamecocks had just one bowl victory in nine appearances. They've won two straight in his second and third seasons and are primed for another bowl this season. But it's more than just Holtz; it's the staff he has assembled. Defensive coordinator Charlie Strong is one of the nation's best assistants, and his unit was among the top 20 in the country the last three years. Offensive coordinator Skip Holtz persuaded his father to change to the spread and somehow got 17 wins the last two seasons with a limited quarterback and no true deep threats at wide receiver. COACH ON THE HOT SEAT Zook. A no-brainer. Look, if Rockne followed Spurrier in Gainesville and didn't win at least 10 games and the SEC championship and beat Tennessee and Florida State, he would have failed. And keep an eye on Tommy Tuberville at Auburn. The Tigers closed last season with four losses in their last five games, including the last three in a row. One of the losses: 31-7 at home against Alabama. One of the first signs a head coach is feeling heat: He changes both coordinators in the offseason, which Tuberville did. With Alabama on probation and unable to play in bowls for two seasons, Tuberville can't miss this opportunity to fatten up on the program's archrival with wins on the field and in recruiting. A loss to Alabama this season might be the beginning of the end. BEST BETS Georgia will beat Tennessee and Florida in the same season for the first time since 1988 and win the SEC East. . . . LSU will be the first team to win back-to-back West Division titles since Alabama in 1993-94. . . . South Carolina will look a lot like Holtz's Notre Dame teams this season, with a run-dominated offense. . . . Vanderbilt fans will see what a fundamental, disciplined team looks like under new coach Bobby Johnson. The days of Woodyball are long gone. So are the fumbling, bumbling days of hoping the defense saves the offense. . . . Mississippi QB Eli Manning will throw for 3,500 yards and 30-plus touchdowns. He won't win the Heisman and won't be the best quarterback in the league. Hey, Eli. Talk to Peyton. He knows about being overshadowed by a Florida quarterback. . . . Forget about a quarterback controversy at LSU. It won't matter who plays when tailback LaBrandon Toefield emerges as one of the nation's best running backs behind what will develop into one of the nation's best offensive lines, featuring guard Stephen Peterman and tackle Rodney Reed. ODDS AND ENDS Tuberville wants a tougher attitude on The Plains. To that end, he hired offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino, who has the line using more man-to-man blocking schemes instead of zone blocking. The thought is that speedy and shifty tailback Carnell Williams is one seam away from breaking big gains. . . . With so much inexperience among the front seven at Mississippi State, Dunn is looking at different ways to free up linebacker Mario Haggan and make him more disruptive. Haggan will play linebacker and rush end and likely will be moved all over the front seven. . . . Florida and Tennessee will experiment with defensive backs playing dual roles this season. The Gators' Keiwan Ratliff and the Vols' Jabari Greer will get opportunities on the offense in fall camp and could be used as situational substitutions because of their speed and athletic ability. Either way, expect Ratliff and Greer to be the league's best corners by the end of the season. Matt Hayes is a staff writer for The Sporting News.