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It's not Alabama's turn again ... is it?

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Pete Fiutak

Pete Fiutak writes previews, predictions and prognostications for CollegeFootballNews.com.

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All right, SEC. How much juice do you really have?

'Bama can be beat

Can Alabama again run the table in the SEC? WhatIfSports breaks down the entire SEC season.

The conference overall might be a bit overrated (once you get past the killers at the very top each year), and this is certainly a rebuilding season for several key programs. But it’s still the cream of the crop on a national scale. For right or wrong, when the top teams are great, the rest of the league's reputation follows, and that respect could get put to the test this season.

If all things are equal, the SEC champion will play for the national title no matter what. Four successive BCS Championship wins tend to overshadow various problems here and there. No, it doesn't matter that there isn't the 10-mile-wide gap between the SEC and the other BCS leagues like everyone assumes there is, mainly because there’s a 100-mile chasm between the cream of the crop and everyone else when it comes to playing in championship games.

And that’s why 2010 could be extremely interesting when it comes to the national title debate. Will you feel comfortable if a one-loss SEC champion isn’t playing in the BCS Championship? How about a two-loss SEC champion if the BCS Championship game has a one-loss BCS team vs. an unbeaten one?

The SEC’s problem this season isn’t that it’s going to be too good -- it’ll still be the best conference in the nation, even in a down year -- it’ll be that it’s just good enough with the right mix of reloading stars and the right schedules to all but guarantee that no one will get through unscathed, and there could be a two-loss SEC champion.

Alabama might be everyone’s No. 1 team going into the season, but almost the entire defense has to be rebuilt. That might not be that big a deal considering Nick Saban brought in a slew of four and five-star talents over the past few seasons that are ready to step up and shine. The schedule, however, is an issue. In an extremely unfair quirk, six teams (South Carolina, Tennessee, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Auburn) get a bye week before facing the Tide.

Remember, it took everything in the bag for last year’s ultra-motivated juggernaut to get by Tennessee and Auburn, and it took a dogfight to get past South Carolina and LSU. Rebuilding teams, even talented ones like Bama, don’t get all the same breaks twice in a row in the SEC, and it wouldn’t be the slightest bit shocking if the defending national champion lost two games, with road trips at Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee and LSU, to go along with home dates against Florida, Ole Miss and Auburn, and still won the SEC title.

Florida has many of the same issues. The talent is national-title good, but the team is still a year away from being jaw-dropping. The Gators have yet to go unbeaten under Urban Meyer (and, shockingly, has only one unbeaten season in their history, going 5-0-1 in 1911), and this doesn’t appear the be the year that will change with Captain Underpants, Jockey spokesperson Tim Tebow, off doing his Jim Palmer impersonation, and with so many changes on both sides of the ball. Throw in a schedule with road trips to Alabama, Tennessee and a revamped Florida State, and tough battles with an improved Georgia, LSU and South Carolina, and there should be at least one loss on the slate, and probably two, before a possible SEC title appearance.

Georgia is going to be really, really good, but this doesn’t appear to be a team ready to go on an unbeaten run. The same goes for LSU, Ole Miss, Arkansas and Auburn. So, again, will you sleep well at night if the SEC champion isn’t playing for the national title?

The argument can and will be made that a two-loss Alabama or a one-loss Florida would still be the favorite to win a BCS Championship game over an unbeaten Ohio State, Boise State, Texas or Oklahoma, and it’ll be fascinating theater to see if this actually happens.

Of course, Alabama could steamroll everyone by 24, meet a one-loss Florida in a rematch of the Oct. 2 showdown, and everything would be nice, neat and clean.

Team that will surprise

Georgia – If any coach in America actually knew the name of the Georgia starting quarterback, the Dawgs might have been given more respect in the early coaches’ poll. The preseason No. 21 team has top-10, possibly top-five talent, with the deepest, and possibly best, offensive line in America, a loaded defensive front seven, fantastic running backs and receivers, and the best kicking game in college football. If Aaron Murray is merely serviceable, the Dawgs might be playing in Atlanta in early December.

Team that will disappoint

Alabama – Remember, this is all relative. Considering Alabama has won 24 regular-season games in a row, is the defending national champion, has gone 26-2 over the past two seasons, has almost everyone of note back on offense, and is the preseason No. 1 team, anything less than a third straight BCS appearance and a second straight date in the BCS Championship will be seen as a disappointment. The Tide will still be really, really good, but it might go 10-2 in the regular season.

Game of the year

Florida vs. Georgia, Oct. 30 – The Florida-Alabama game on Oct. 2 will be the biggest SEC regular-season game of the year on a national scale, but it really might not mean that much. If both the Gators and the Tide finish the regular season with just one loss, or the winner is unbeaten, they’ll play again in the SEC Championship, and the winner will probably end up in Glendale, Ariz. However, the winner of the Florida–Georgia battle will almost certainly represent the East in the SEC title game considering Tennessee is down, Kentucky and Vanderbilt aren’t going to challenge, and South Carolina is merely decent. The winner of the former Cocktail Party, if everything else goes to form, could be one step away from playing for the whole ball of wax.

Five big-time players who deserve a bigger spotlight

1. OLB/DE Justin Houston, Jr. Georgia
2. CB Patrick Peterson, Jr. LSU
3. LB Chris Marve, Jr. Vanderbilt
4. WR Darvin Adams, Jr. Auburn
5. LB K.J. Wright, Sr. Miss State

Coach on the hot seat

GET READY

With 2010 kickoff just days away, check out our series of college football team previews.

Les Miles, LSU – Georgia’s Mark Richt probably can’t afford another 8-5 year, and he certainly can’t afford another blowout loss to Florida (losing the past two years by a combined score of 90-27), but Miles is in a stickier situation. The guy has a national title, and it could be argued that he did a decent job getting nine wins (with the four losses to Florida, at Alabama, at Ole Miss and Penn State) out of a team that looked like Tarzan and played like Jane. But with nine losses in the two seasons since winning the BCS Championship, there’s a sense that things are slipping. Alabama has re-emerged as the cream of the SEC crop, Arkansas is getting better, Auburn is lurking and Ole Miss appears to have staying power. Miles is still bringing in the talent, and it’s not like a losing season is around the corner, but he could desperately use a 10-win campaign with a victory over an Alabama on Nov. 6 and/or a win over Florida on Oct. 9 to show that his team is still strong.

Five nonconference games the SEC had better take very seriously

1. Georgia at Colorado, Oct. 2
2. Mississippi State at Houston, Oct. 9
3. Fresno State at Ole Miss, Sept. 25
4. Southern Miss at South Carolina, Sept. 2
5. South Florida at Florida, Sept. 11

Bold predictions

The SEC will have 11 bowl eligible teams, but the champion will have two losses. … At least three SEC schools will have a different head coach at this time next year. … At least two SEC schools will be on probation next year at this time, and, considering it’s already on double-secret probation for past sins, Alabama will have a brighter spotlight on it after the Marcell Dareus issues. ... Auburn’s Cameron Newton will be the hot player going into the 2011 season. … CFN will receive a bazillion e-mails about how we don’t have do-it-all Auburn playmaker Mario Fannin among our SEC Top 30 players; they’ll all be correct, I’ll respond to all of them by saying, “But who do you take out?” and then he’ll be ranked 14th in the season-ending ranking. … Ole Miss QB Jeremiah Masoli will battle Arkansas’ Ryan Mallett for First Team All-SEC honors. … Tennessee will have a disastrous first two months and will go unbeaten in November. … Florida won’t use the spread for the ground game as much as Urban Meyer is letting on.

Five best pro prospects

1. CB Patrick Peterson, Jr., LSU
2. WR Julio Jones, Jr., Alabama
3. QB Ryan Mallett, Jr., Arkansas
4. RB Mark Ingram, Jr., Alabama
5. DT Jerrell Powe, Sr., Ole Miss

Five biggest shoes to fill

1. QB John Brantley for Tim Tebow, Florida
2. S Rod Wilks for Eric Berry, Tennessee
3. LB Dont’a Hightower for Rolando McClain, Alabama
4. CB Moses Jenkins for Joe Haden, Florida
5. LB Cornelius Washington for Rennie Curran, Georgia

Tagged: Florida, Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi State, Mississippi, LSU, Auburn, Arkansas, Vanderbilt, Georgia, Patrick Peterson, Ryan Mallett

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