HERMAN HICKMAN SAYS: Year in and year out the enthusiastic fans of the SEC territory see some of the best football in the country. This is going to be the hardest year of all to pick the top teams, as the conference seems to have the best balance in years. Perhaps they should be rated in groups. Top group of championship caliber: Tennessee, Georgia Tech, Mississippi, Auburn and Kentucky. At least a couple of these teams could emerge as national powers the way Tennessee did last year. Tough middle group: Florida, LSU, Vanderbilt, and Georgia. Upset crew: Mississippi State, Tulane and Alabama.
Tennessee could be the big disappointment in the conference and will have to fight for every big game they win. The backfield is manned by experienced operators, but the memory of the missing Johnny Majors looms large—not so much for his physical ability as for his canny play-calling and direction. The Vols' line will be lighter but speedy. Defensive strength may not be up to the 1956 edition, but the punting of Tailback Bobby Gordon, particularly on his devastating quick kicks, will force opponents to go a long way for touchdowns.
If Georgia Tech is not beaten down in the early season it could come on to be another outstanding team. In picking Tech on my Eleven Elevens and placing it in the top SEC group, I am going against the advice of the coaches and some top experts around the country. Graduation losses were heavy, so this young squad will make a lot of mistakes. But I have a suspicion that many new horses are in the stables, and the jockeys have the winning habit.
Mississippi is always a good bet to win the conference championship because of its schedule. On paper the Rebs may be favored in all their games, except possibly the one with Tennessee, which they could lose and still take the title. Their conference games are well spaced. Another solid reason for their fine prospects is that they have an outstanding quarterback in Raymond Brown.
Auburn has the best material in the conference. The Tigers have two of the best running backs in the country in Hoppe and Lorino, and either one of them can beat you quickly. Morale will be a big factor with them. If Auburn gets by the Tennessee game, it will really be tough. Quarterbacking is the problem.
Kentucky is picked by many as the dark horse in the conference. With a good line, its hopes are pinned on four or five key sophomores. On the other hand, the Wildcats have the toughest conference schedule.
Florida has a well-balanced squad with outstanding offensive backs, but the team has a habit of losing the big ones. Nonetheless, the Gators will have a lot to say about who wins the conference title, and they can beat anybody on a good day.
Louisiana State has two of the best backs in the conference in its big fullback, Jimmy Taylor, who was the SEC scoring champion in 1956, and a much-heralded sophomore speedster with plenty of size named Billy Cannon. Losses were heavy in the line, and there may not be the depth to play the tough schedule facing LSU.
Vanderbilt is a good bet to finish higher than most polls are now figuring. There is a potential All-America back in Halfback Phil King and their conference schedule is pretty well arranged. This outfit could finish third or fourth and not surprise me.
Georgia has better offensive backs with more speed than last year. It is an improved team playing a tough schedule. The first three games will make or break the Bulldogs—Texas, Vanderbilt and Michigan in a row.