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FOOTBALL | AROUND THE NATION / SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE

Five Points

September 01, 2006|Chris Dufresne

* It's the toughest conference and, if you don't believe it, just ask anyone who says "Ya'll" -- although it doesn't help the cause when your champion, Georgia, is coming off a home-crowd Sugar Bowl defeat to the Big East champion. SEC schools generally schedule soft in nonconference because of the gantlet they face in league play and that works out fine most years -- except 2004, when unbeaten Auburn got pinched in the Bowl Championship Series partly because the SEC wasn't its usual self. This year, the SEC looks as tough as an alligator purse, with four schools ranked in the top 15 of the coaches' and writers' polls.

* Florida will contend for a national championship if you buy into the "second-year" theory about Coach Urban Meyer. He is a master at getting the best out of a previous coach's talent, and the payoff comes in Year 2. Meyer made Bowling Green a nine-win team in two years and, in his second year at Utah, led the Utes to a perfect season and a Fiesta Bowl win. Meyer won nine games at Florida last year and now will be asked kindly to bump that number into the teens.

* If you had to pick one game to see this year, it would be South Carolina at Florida on Nov. 11 -- Steve Spurrier's return to Gainesville. This is Spurrier's second year as coach of the Gamecocks, and he's still savoring last year's win over Florida in Columbia. You can learn more about Spurrier's spectacular career on Page 127 of the Florida media guide, which devotes more than half a page to Spurrier and details many of his achievements: six outright SEC titles, 122 wins in 12 years and a national title triumph in 1996.

* Tennessee Coach Phil Fulmer needs to win. The 10-year insurance policy on that 1998 national title is just about up, and the bad news is there's no extended warranty. To right the Volunteer Navy that last year listed to 5-6, Fulmer hired back quarterbacks coach David Cutcliffe to mentor Erik Ainge. Cutcliffe worked with Peyton Manning a decade ago at Tennessee and Eli Manning when Cutcliffe was head coach at Mississippi.

California comes to town Saturday. It could get real good, or real ugly, real fast.

* They say football is religion in the South, and if you don't believe it, consider this possibly apocryphal off-season story about Alabama Coach Mike Shula, coming off a 10-win season last year: Sports Illustrated reported that Shula "had to switch churches after being hounded by autograph seekers, including one who was waiting at the end of a communion line with a football." Shula said at SEC media day that the story wasn't exactly accurate, but it did nothing to dispel the notion that the two most important Marys at Alabama are "Hail" and Mary Harmon -- Bear Bryant's wife.

-- Chris Dufresne

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Quick Facts

* AP preseason top 25: Auburn No. 4; Florida No. 7; Louisiana State No. 8; Georgia No. 15; Tennessee No. 23.

* AP final 2005 ranking: LSU (11-2) No. 6; Alabama (10-2) No. 8; Georgia (10-3) No. 10; Florida (9-3) No. 12 (tied); Auburn (9-3) No. 14.

* 2005 bowl record: 3-3.

* 2006 favorite: Auburn.

* Top newcomers: Jasper Brinkley, Jr., LB, South Carolina -- junior college transfer will start at middle linebacker and help shore up a porous run defense; Mitch Mustain, Fr., QB, Arkansas -- Houston Nutt surrendered his offensive coordinator duties to Mustain's high school coach, Gus Malzahn, and the nation's top quarterback recruit wound up in Fayetteville; Brent Schaeffer, Jr., QB, Mississippi -- Already a veteran of the SEC after playing at Tennessee in 2004, he was handed the starting job in Oxford on signing day.

* Top returning players: Kenny Irons, Sr., RB, Auburn -- Rushed for 1,293 yards and 13 touchdowns in 2005; Quentin Moses, Sr., DE, Georgia -- Makes up for modest size (6-4, 250) with pass-rushing ability and is projected as a top-10 NFL pick; Sidney Rice, So., WR, South Carolina -- Led SEC with 1,143 receiving yards and 13 touchdown catches as a freshman; Marcus Thomas, Sr., NT, Florida -- Four-year starter is a key to the run defense; Patrick Willis, Sr., LB, Mississippi -- Returning first-team All-American led nation in solo tackles.

-- Eric Maddy

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