Cook: Sizing up SEC teams' chances of seeing big show - The Randolph Leader: Sports

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Cook: Sizing up SEC teams' chances of seeing big show

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Posted: Wednesday, June 1, 2011 1:00 am

It's fun sometimes to think about what the rest of the nation feels about the Southeastern Conference.

After five consecutive national championships, I'm pretty sure the rest of the country would like nothing better than seeing the SEC shut completely out of the BCS National Championship Game. In fact, I have a feeling the rest of the country would like to see the SEC completely shut out of the BCS bowls other than the Sugar Bowl.

I'm also pretty sure that is not going to happen this year. Oh sure, the league might actually not win or even play in the title game this year, but with the way things have been going the last few years I wouldn't take that bet.

Most preseason magazines have Alabama and LSU as the two SEC teams that are most favored to make a run toward the national championship, although Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia might have an outside shot at surprising the country with a title run. That doesn't even consider Auburn, the defending champions.

Without Cam Newton and Nick Fairley, very few people believe Auburn can be a player on the national scene again. I'm not so sure. As well as Newton, the Tigers need to replace that outstanding offensive line from last season, but there is still talent on the Plains. And don't forget the Tigers' running back duo of Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb, possibly the best 1-2 punch in the SEC.

Still, Alabama and LSU have the best chances to show up in the BCS title game at the end of the season because they have the biggest collection of talent in the conference. While offense steals the headlines, it is still defense that wins championships. The best defense is played in the Southeastern Conference, and nobody plays defense like Alabama or LSU.

Alabama has the best set of linebackers and secondary in the league.

Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are the Tide's two best linebackers, but Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley have plenty of talent. This talented group is the best in the league if not the country. Hightower is back at full speed after injuries derailed his 2009 season and hampered him throughout the 2010 season.

 "I feel a lot better," Hightower said following the Tide's spring game. "I just feel like my old self. I'm back in shape and my weight is down and I am playing a lot faster. It feels great after all the hard work I put in."

The Crimson Tide secondary of Dre Kirkpatrick, Dee Milliner, Mark Barron and Robert Lester is, again, the best in the SEC and the best in college football. Barron led the SEC in interceptions in 2009 with seven and Lester came from almost out of nowhere to lead the league in 2010.

As good as Alabama's secondary is, LSU's is not that far behind despite losing Patrick Peterson, the No. 5 pick in the National Football League Draft. There is immense talent still in Baton Rouge with cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu.

"I think our secondary is going to have numbers and going to have competition," said LSU coach Les Miles. "I think that's going to benefit us."

Claiborne is the biggest star on the Bengal Tigers' defense, but linemen Kendrick Adams and Sam Montgomery and linebacker Ryan Baker could also play key roles in LSU's quest to win the SEC West. LSU also recruited a five-star defensive tackle in Anthony Johnson, a 6-4, 298-pounder from New Orleans who will likely see plenty of playing time as a true freshman.

Another team that is expected to play strong defense this season is South Carolina. Defense is not what the Gamecocks are usually known for, but this year could be a different story.

South Carolina has a strong defensive front, especially with the nation's No. 1 recruit-Jadevon Clowney, 6-6, 250. Combined with Devin Taylor, the pair might be the best pass rushing ends in the SEC and perhaps the nation. The Gamecocks' secondary is also solid, ranking only behind Alabama and LSU, although two true freshmen, Brison Williams and Martay Mattox, could be forced into the starting lineup.

"We're a long way from being able to line up in this conference," said defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson. "When you look at the big picture, I think we're a long, long way from being a quality defense."

That might be a matter of opinion. Even if you are perhaps second, third or fourth in the SEC, you still could be one of the best in the nation. When it comes to playing defense, nobody plays it like the Southeastern Conference.

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