SI.com's Stewart Mandel breaks down the 2003 conference race and predicts the final standings.
Upstart SEC power Georgia brings back several familiar faces from its dream 12-1 season, including standout quarterback David Greene and All-America defensive end David Pollack, but the vulnerability of an entirely new offensive line could open the door for other contenders.
The most formidable would seem to be Tennessee, which, despite coming off an uncharacteristic five-loss season, has a plethora of talent on both sides of the ball, led by veteran quarterback Casey Clausen. Florida, in its second season under Ron Zook, may be heavily dependent on an influx of talented recruits, one of whom, Chris Leak, could replace Rex Grossman at quarterback.
Former Oregon head coach Rich Brooks takes over an overachieving Kentucky team that should remain at least competitive on the strengths of veteran quarterback Jared Lorenzen, while Lou Holtz must try to reverse South Carolina's fortunes without the benefit of much veteran help. Vanderbilt has an emerging star in running back Kwane Doster but not much else.
Expectations have rarely been higher at Auburn, thanks to a loaded defense anchored by linebackers Karlos Dansby and Dontarrious Thomas and a rare four-headed backfield of Carnell Williams, Ronnie Brown, Tre Smith and juco import Brandon Jacobs. Auburn's aren't the only set of Tigers in contention, though; LSU has won at least eight games in each of Nick Saban's first three seasons and should do more of the same if it can fill the void left by departed running backs LaBrandon Toefield and Domanick Davis.
Arkansas returns nearly every key player from its team that played for the SEC championship a year ago, including versatile quarterback Matt Jones, and could take things to the next level if it can add balance to a previously run-dominated offense. Ole Miss is also in search of a breakthrough in its last season with the celebrated Eli Manning at the helm.
Alabama, coming off another tumultuous offseason, may struggle to find an offensive identity early on in Mike Shula's tenure, while Jackie Sherrill appears to be on his last legs at Mississippi State.
Shawn Andrews, Arkansas right tackle : The 6-foot-5, 330-pound junior could be the most dominating offensive lineman in the country this fall.
Brandon Jacobs, Auburn running back : Rest assured Tommy Tuberville will find a way to get the bruising 6-4, 260-pound juco transfer some carries.
Mark Jones, Tennessee receiver : After three years at cornerback, the 5-9 speedster switched to receiver this spring and instantly proved dangerous.
Chris Leak, Florida quarterback : Sophomore Ingle Martin will begin the season as starter but look for Ron Zook's prized recruit to see action before long.
Demetris Summers, South Carolina running back : One of the state's most heralded recruits ever could make an instant impact for the Gamecocks.
Will Florida and Tennessee bounce back? It had been 14 years since both orange powers lost as many as five games in the same season. Vols coach Philip Fulmer seems confident 2002 was a hiccup for his program, but there are still lingering issues at receiver and on defense. As for the Gators, the jury's still out on Ron Zook, who's proved a master recruiter but needs to further define his vision for the on-field product.
Can Auburn handle the hype? The list of recent teams that went from preseason wonder to midseason blunder is considerable. No question Auburn has national championship potential on paper, but this is still a team that hasn't lost less than three games in a season since 1994. Coach Tommy Tuberville faces a tough chore keeping his players from putting more stock in their press clippings than their practices.
Does Eli finally have some help? He was hailed as a savior from the time he arrived at his father's alma mater four years ago, but even a quarterback with the skills and pedigree of Eli Manning can't get it done alone. After three straight years stuck at the seven-win plateau, the Rebels need to rediscover their long-absent running game and get more physical along the defensive line to send him out a hero.
Sept. 6: New Alabama coach Mike Shula could extend his honeymoon for eternity if the Tide can pull off a huge upset over Oklahoma.
Oct. 11: Three straight years Georgia has gotten the better of rival Tennessee, which looks to halt the slide when the Bulldogs visit Knoxville.
Oct. 25: No one ever runs away with the SEC West title, meaning Auburn-LSU at Death Valley is almost positive to carry implications.
Nov. 29: Last season marked the first time in over a decade that Florida-Florida State wasn't must-see TV; don't expect an encore.