Over the past few weeks, I've traded emails with beat writers for each SEC team, along with Georgia's three other BCS-conference opponents to get some insider insight into what fans can expect from UGA's competition in 2009.
To read the previous entries in the series, click HERE.
Each day, we've previewed two teams, and today we finish with a big-picture look at the SEC. Who are the breakout candidates for 2009? Will Florida have a let-down? Who's the favorite out West? I talked to ESPN SEC blogger Chris Low, who has been to every campus in the SEC this spring, to find out some answers.
David Hale: There are three new coaches in the league this year. From what you've seen this spring, which of the new coaches do you think has the best chance of making a similar impact to what Houston Nutt was able to accomplish at Ole Miss last year?
Chris Low: All three face tough tasks, but I'll go with Gene Chizik at Auburn. I think the Tigers will be good on defense and that the offense will be improved under first-year coordinator Gus Malzahn.
DH: Offenses around the SEC were down last year, and I was of the opinion that it started with some pretty bad quarterback play. With Matthew Stafford and John Parker Wilson now gone, it looks like that could be even worse in 2009. From what you've seen this spring, which QBs outside of Tebow and Snead do you think might have a breakout season, and which teams are in the worst shape at that position right now?
CL: My breakout quarteback is LSU's Jordan Jefferson. My newcomer of the year at quarterback is Arkansas' Ryan Mallett. As for who's in the worst shape at quarterback, I'd have to say Tennessee. The depth has taken a hit with B.J. Coleman's exit, and neither Jon Crompton or Nick Stephens has shown that he can lead a team for a full season in the SEC. It could really get ugly at South Carolina, too, if Stephen Garcia bombs or gets in trouble again this offseason.
DH: With so many top recruiting classes among SEC teams, there will be a lot of new talent in the league this fall. But from the early enrollees you got to see this spring, are there any who stood out to you that might wow fans the way freshmen like A.J. Green and Julio Jones did last year?
CL: I like Stephon Gilmore at South Carolina a lot. He'll probably start at cornerback and may play some at quarterback in a special package. LSU's Russell Shepard is a blur in the open field, and three tailbacks to watch are Trent Richardson at Alabama, Bryce Brown at Tennessee and Washaun Ealey at Georgia. At Florida, receiver Andre Debose will get a chance to show what he can do right away.
DH: Alabama took the SEC West last year, but loses two key linemen, its starting QB and its best running back. From what you've seen, is Nick Saban ready to reload, and if not, who do you see as the early favorite out West?
CL: Alabama will be good again, challenge for the West crown again and will ride what will be one of the better defenses in the league, but I have Ole Miss winning the West in 2009.
DH: Florida is the defending national champs, they return nearly everyone off their two-deep, and they have the best player in the SEC at quarterback. Is another SEC title really a foregone conclusion for the Gators, or could there be some chinks in the armor? Do you see any dark horses in the mix for the conference crown?
CL: Florida would have to get way too comfy not to win the SEC title again, and Tim Tebow, Brandon Spikes and Co. aren't going to let that happen. The leadership from the players is outstanding on Florida's team, and I don't see the Gators losing their edge. The best bet to unseat them is the only team that beat them last year -- Ole Miss. The Rebels, though, have to prove they can handle being the favorite and all the hype that comes with it.
DH: Having been around the SEC this spring, what teams or players have jumped out at you with the strongest performances, and what do you think might be the biggest remaining questions to be answered this fall?
CL: Among the guys that really jumped out to me this spring were Ole Miss linebacker Patrick Trahan, Ole Miss quarterback Jevan Snead, Arkansas receiver Joe Adams, Tennessee defensive end Chris Walker, Alabama linebacker Dont'a Hightower, Florida quarterback John Brantley, LSU safety Chad Jones, LSU cornerback Patrick Patterson, Mississippi State defensive lineman Pernell McPhee, Vanderbilt receiver Terence Jeffers, Kentucky cornerback Trevard Lindley, Auburn running back Mario Fannin, South Carolina cornerback Stephon Gilmore and Georgia running back Carlton Thomas. My No. 1 concern going into the fall would be how long it takes to get the three new offenses up to speeed at Auburn, Mississippi State and Tennessee. There could be some serious growing pains with all three, Alabama and Ole Miss both need to find left tackles, and is Georgia going to be able to run the ball and take some of the pressure off of Joe Cox?
* Chris Low has been with ESPN since 2007 after spending 10 years with The Tennessean. You can read his excellent SEC blog HERE.Next up: I'll answer a handful of your UGA questions.