article Scouting the SEC February 19, 2002 Print it LOOKING AHEAD Team on the rise: The Georgia Bulldogs are hot. Mark Richt suffered some growing pains last year (see the Auburn game), but he'll be better for it. Richt is an innovative offensive mind who is beginning to assemble a lot of talent. His latest recruiting haul was among the best Athens has seen in years. The veterans coming back also are impressive. Among them are four offensive line starters, running back Musa Smith, receivers Terrence Edwards and Fred Gibson and quarterback David Greene. The defense has more concerns, but there's talent at linebacker. Further fueling the Bulldogs' hopes is the departure of Steve Spurrier from Florida. The Evil Genius beat Georgia 11 out of 12 years. His absence may allow the Dogs to make a run this year -- or in the very near future -- at their first SEC title since 1982. Team on the wane: Alabama. The Tide may not drop too far this fall, but NCAA-imposed scholarship limits over the next three years will take their toll in the future. Even though the Tide will be operating with a fairly full deck this season, Dennis Franchione must attempt to keep players focused despite the fact the school has been banned from playing in a bowl for the next two seasons. What's the incentive to succeed? That's for Coach Fran to figure out. Best Heisman bets: Florida quarterback Rex Grossman is the man to beat after finishing as a runner-up to Nebraska quarterback Eric Crouch last season. As a sophomore in 2001, Grossman completed 259-of-395 passes for 3,896 yards, with 34 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He'll have to work without receivers Jabar Gaffney and Reche Caldwell, both of whom turned pro early. Stud offensive tackle Mike Pearson also bolted early. And then there's the matter of no longer having Spurrier whispering in Grossman's ear. Still, Grossman will have plenty of talent around him in running back Earnest Graham and receivers Carlos Perez and Taylor Jacobs. Others who could be in the race are Mississippi quarterback Eli Manning, Tennessee quarterback Casey Clausen, Georgia quarterback David Greene, Tennessee receiver Kelley Washington and LSU running back LaBrandon Toefield. Coach on the hot seat: It doesn't take long for things to heat up in Auburn. Just ask Terry Bowden. In 2000, Tommy Tuberville led the Tigers to the SEC championship game. He followed that last year by gaining a share of the SEC West title. What was the result? Tuberville got rid of offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and defensive coordinator John Lovett. You can image what would have happened if Auburn had had a losing record. But the fact Auburn blew a chance to win the division outright and finished the year with three consecutive losses -- a home defeat to Alabama, a West showdown at LSU and the Peach Bowl to North Carolina -- caused people to blow their stacks on The Plains. Toughest schedule: This is no way for Ron Zook to debut as Florida coach. The Gators begin a two-year contract with Miami (Fla.). The schools met in the Sugar Bowl after the 2000 season but haven't met in the regular season since 1987. At least the defending national champions come to Gainesville. And, of course, the Gators have their annual tussle with Florida State. This year it's in Tallahassee. Of course, SEC East toughies Tennessee (away) and Georgia (at Jacksonville) are on the menu. And Florida gets no break in the schedule rotation with games vs. SEC West foes Mississippi (away), LSU (home) and Auburn (home). Dream schedule: You can see why Houston Nutt is in hog heaven in Fayetteville. The Razorbacks play eight home games. And four of those are against non-conference marshmallows Boise State, South Florida, Troy State and Louisiana-Lafayette. Throw in a visit from SEC East powderpuff Kentucky, and Arkansas is almost bowl eligible. But before that can happen, the Hogs will have to roll up their sleeves and play someone with a pulse -- home vs. Alabama, Mississippi and LSU; at Tennessee, Auburn, South Carolina and Mississippi State. Best non-conference game: Miami visits Gainesville for the first time since 1986, when the 'Canes left town with a 23-15 triumph. In fact, Miami has won the last three meetings, including the aforementioned 37-20 win over the Gators in the 2001 Sugar Bowl. The schools met every year from 1938-87 before the series was suspended. By the way, the series is tied: 25-25. Other non-conference delicacies include Florida at Florida State, Miami at Tennessee, Alabama at Oklahoma, Auburn at Southern California, Syracuse at Auburn, Mississippi State at Oregon, LSU at Virginia Tech, South Carolina at Virginia, and Mississippi at Texas Tech. Special mention goes to Clemson at Georgia, as the schools renew one of the best rivalries in the sport after a seven-season absence. Ugliest non-conference game: A warning label should be printed on every ticket when The Citadel goes to LSU: This game could get out of control early, so you may want to cover your eyes. The Tigers are riding high after winning their first SEC title since 1988. The Citadel is a I-AA school. That's not a good mix. The same goes for these games -- I-AA Northwestern State at Georgia, North Texas at Alabama, I-AA Western Carolina at Auburn, and Middle Tennessee State at Tennessee. Biggest shoes to fill: In a league that annually sees talent galore depart, this is a difficult question. The dearly departed include Tennessee running back Travis Stephens (1,464 yards rushing), Florida defensive end Alex Brown, South Carolina linebacker Kalimba Edwards, LSU receiver Josh Reed (94 catches for 1,740 yards and seven touchdowns), Florida receiver Jabar Gaffney (67 catches for 1,191 yards and 13 touchdowns), Florida receiver Reche Caldwell (65 catches, 1,059 yards, 10 TDs) and Tennessee receiver Donte Stallworth (41 catches, 821 yards, 10 TDs). But the biggest void was left by LSU quarterback Rohan Davey (217-of-367, 3,347 yards, 18 TDs, 10 INTs), who guided the Bayou Bengals to the SEC title, then helped LSU thump Illinois in the Sugar Bowl. That gave the Tigers just their second 10-win season since 1987. Matt Mauck, who will be a sophomore, has a good chance to claim the job. He came in for an injured Davey in the SEC title game and promptly led the Tigers to an upset victory over Tennessee. Pre-preseason All-SEC Team Offense WR Fred Gibson, Georgia, Soph. WR Kelley Washington, Tennessee, Soph. TE Doug Zeigler, Mississippi, Sr. T Jon Stinchcomb, Georgia, Sr. T Shawn Andrews, Arkansas, Soph. G Shannon Snell, Florida, Jr. G Shane Hall, South Carolina, Sr. C Alonzo Ephraim, Alabama, Sr. QB Rex Grossman, Florida, Jr. RB LaBrandon Toefield, LSU, Jr. RB Earnest Graham, Florida, Sr. Defense E Kindal Moorehead, Alabama, Sr. T Jarret Johnson, Alabama, Sr. T Ian Scott, Florida, Jr. E Constantin Ritzmann, Tennessee, Sr. LB Dontarrious Thomas, Auburn, Jr. LB Mario Haggan, Mississippi State, Sr. LB Tony Bua, Arkansas, Jr. CB Lawrence Richardson, Arkansas, Jr. CB Korey Banks, Mississippi State, Sr. S Todd Johnson, Florida, Sr. S Ken Hamlin, Arkansas, Jr. Specialists K Damon Duval, Auburn, Sr. P Glenn Pakulak, Kentucky, Sr. KR Derek Abney, Kentucky, Jr. LOOKING BACK Most surprising team: Yes, Auburn's season ended with three consecutive losses, but the Tiger faithful had to be pleased with a 7-5 record and the SEC West co-championship when you consider the offensive personnel (running back Rudi Johnson, Ben Leard, Heath Evans) that Tuberville had to replace. Freshmen such as running backs Carnell Williams and Ronnie Brown, free safety Donnay Young and cornerback Carlos Rogers all showed promise, as did quarterback Jason Campbell. Most disappointing team: Most picked Mississippi State to seriously challenge for the SEC West title and rank in the Top 25. But the Bulldogs went belly up en route to finishing last in their division with a 3-8 record and missing a bowl for the first time since 1997. The offense was horrendous, ranking last in the SEC with a 17.8-point scoring average. The Bulldogs had thrived on running the ball, but they netted just 128 yards per game (10th in the SEC) last year. Even a stout defense got run over en route to yielding 26 points a game. Best game: Running back Verron Haynes caught a 6-yard touchdown pass from David Greene with five seconds left to give Georgia a 26-24 win at Tennessee. The Volunteers appeared to have the game wrapped up after running back Travis Stephens raced 62 yards with a screen pass for a touchdown to put Tennessee ahead 24-20 with 44 seconds left. But Greene marched the Bulldogs 59 yards for the winning score. Greene finished 21-of-34 for 303 yards. It was Georgia's first win in Knoxville since 1980 and its second in a row over Tennessee. Upset of the year: I hate to pick on Mississippi State, but its 21-9 home loss to Troy State was inexcusable. The 2001 season was the first in I-A for he Trojans, who entered the game as 23-point underdogs. But Troy State raced to a 21-0 lead in a game that was delayed more than an hour in the second quarter because of a tornado warning. That should have been a sign that this wasn't to be the Bulldogs' day. Former Auburn running back Demontray Carter caught and ran for a touchdown for Troy State. Most surprising player: Prior to the season, no one had Grossman on their Heisman watch list. How could they when Grossman was battling Brock Berlin for the starting QB job at Florida? But Grossman emerged to become the Heisman runner-up. Berlin has since transferred to Miami (Fla.). What a difference nine months or so make. Most disappointing player: Tennessee defensive tackle John Henderson did little to enhance his NFL prospects. He was nagged by injuries most of 2001, finishing with 48 tackles (8 1/2 for loss) and 4 1/2 sacks. The year before, he had 71 tackles (nine for loss) and 12 sacks en route to winning the Outland Trophy. Staff writer Tom Dienhart covers college football for The Sporting News. Email him at [email protected].