If you want an early indication about the SEC Championship race in 2009 then you should watch the Cotton Bowl as Texas Tech battles surging Ole Miss. The Rebels finished 8-4 and second in the SEC West. The Rebels also have the best returning starter at quarterback in the divisionâ€”Jevan Snead.
Snead averaged 205 yards per game, was third in pass efficiency (ending behind Tim Tebow and Matthew Staffordâ€”the two best QBs in the conference.) Snead threw for 2,470 total yards on the season with 23 touchdowns.
If you look at the SEC and project Stafford heading to the NFL and Tebow staying at Florida, Ole Miss easily has the second best quarterback in the conference heading into 2009.
In the SEC East, the quarterback chaos continued at South Carolina and it shows no signs of abating in 2009. Georgia will be good, but the loss of Stafford would be a serious setback if the quarterback heads to the NFL (as expected.) Tennessee wonâ€™t challenge for the division. That leaves Florida, and I expect Tebow to return. A Tebow led Florida team should easily march to Atlanta representing the East.
2008 was the year of the horrible quarterback in the conference. Outside of Tebow, Stafford and Snead only one other quarterback exceeded expectations and that was Alabamaâ€™s senior quarterback John Parker Wilson. Wilson is gone. Arkansasâ€™s Casey Dick is gone. The train wreck at LSU should improve next year, but how that unfolds we wonâ€™t know until after Spring and Fall camps. Auburnâ€™s QB situation should improve with a new QB coach to help Kodi Burnsâ€”letâ€™s just say it wonâ€™t get worse on the Plains and could get substantially better.
The biggest battle could be in the SEC West as Ole Miss retains its quarterback and Alabama is forced to replace its senior leader.
That is why the Cotton Bowl could be such a major indicator of the Rebels viability. Bowl games arenâ€™t perfect predictors of the future, but they can provide some guidance heading into the spring.
First, how will the Ole Miss defense respond against the Texas Tech passing game? Second, can the Rebels reduce their turnovers and play consistently against top level competition? Third, how does Houston Nutt and the players handle the increased attention and expectations?
This yearâ€™s Cotton Bowl could be a barometer for how the 2009 SEC race unfolds. I know it will be one game I keep an eye.