CBSSports.com Senior Writer

SEC: McElroy watches Rhodes while 'Bama fights to stay on top

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There is a road to another title for Alabama, but first there is a Rhodes to consider for Greg McElroy.

Don't get nervous, 'Bama Nation. Your quarterback isn't going to get all distracted by academics as the Crimson Tide attempt the first back-to-back championships of the BCS era. Actually, McElroy has perfected his own double: While quarterbacking the nation's No. 1 team he is deep into the process of applying for a Rhodes Scholarship.

There's a visual for you: A Texan, by way of Alabama, passing through Tuscaloosa on his way to England.

"The Rhodes Scholarship is the first priority right now," McElroy said before fall drills.

Football and academics have uniquely intertwined in McElroy's dual pursuit of the prestigious scholarship and another national championship. McElroy will find out if he's a finalist for the Rhodes on Nov. 20, the Saturday before the Auburn game. Luckily, Georgia State agreed to move that day's game to Thursday, Nov. 18 giving McElroy and Alabama more time to prepare for Auburn.

"Coach Saban did that for me," the quarterback said, clearly kidding.

Two Rhodes winners will be chosen from the Tennessee, Alabama, Florida region. Funny how this rivalry thing works. On the field, McElroy doesn't have to be reminded he needs to beat Tennessee and Florida to get back in championship position. If McElroy wins he would study after his college career for a year, or two, in Oxford, England.

Wouldn't you know it? McElroy says the subject of his 1,000-word Rhodes essay is "talent on the football field ... is it learned or is it natural?"

Sounds deep and something that might integrate nicely with Alabama's football pursuits this season. 'Bama fans are much more familiar -- and concerned -- with duplicating 2009. Their team goes into 2010 as pretty much everyone's No. 1. The defense is weaker, the offense is stronger and they have the sport's alpha dog coach. When he isn't accusing agents of being "pimps", Nick Saban is sharpening that edge, even if it comes in a celebratory locker room in the Rose Bowl.

Nick Saban keeps a watchful eye on his quarterback during Alabama's spring game. (Getty Images)  
Nick Saban keeps a watchful eye on his quarterback during Alabama's spring game. (Getty Images)  
"Coach Saban came down on us immediately after the [Texas] game because we didn't play well in the fourth quarter," McElroy said. "That's the great thing about coach, he never allows you to sit and relax. I don't want to be able to have that complacency. I don't want that sense of relaxation. No one is going to hand us the trophy because of what we accomplished last year."

That mentality has hung in the air during the offseason. The alpha dog reacted strongly to being the sport's big dog after April's spring game.

"If this team is No. 1 it's because of what they did last year ...," Saban said. "If I was to vote, I wouldn't vote it [No. 1]. I would think there's somebody that has more players coming back and had a successful team last season that is going to be more ready to compete that way."

Saban stayed true to his word. He was one of four voters in the preseason coaches poll who didn't pick the Tide for the top spot.

It's going to be impossible, though, to tamp down those expectations. SEC media considered 'Bama so loaded on offense that backup tailback Trent Richardson joined Heisman winner Mark Ingram on the preseason all-conference team. Ingram already has bought into the concept of Richardson perhaps getting more carries this season. Many think that Richardson is the more talented of the two and could be Alabama's next Heisman winner.

"Mark is such a humble guy," McElroy said. "When he came back [from New York] it was like he didn't even win the Heisman. The air is more of a confidence. It's not so much of arrogance." An argument can be made that 'Bama won its latest championship while McElroy got comfortable playing the position (17 touchdowns, four interceptions, 2,508 yards). The fifth-year senior had a troubling midseason slump but rebounded nicely against Auburn and Florida at the end.

While McElroy was uneven, there wasn't enough made of receiver Julio Jones' struggles last season. Jones was hobbled for much of the season while trying to get in sync with a new quarterback. Jones ended with less than 600 yards and only four touchdowns. Look for a monster year in 2010.

The biggest controversy of the offseason, until recently, was the schedule. The Tide's final six opponents -- all in the SEC -- come off bye weeks. That situation is mitigated by the fact that both teams come off bye weeks heading into the Nov. 6 game at LSU. Alabama was also able to persuade Georgia State to move their game.

SEC Quick Hits
Best offense: Arkansas
Best defense: Alabama
Sleeper team: Auburn
Coach of the year: Gene Chizik, Auburn
Offensive player: Ryan Mallett, Arkansas
Defensive player: Dont'a Hightower, Alabama
Game of the Year: Florida at Alabama, Oct. 2
SEC Championship: Alabama over Florida
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The defense was going to be fine, even with the loss of nine starters, until the Marcell Dareus situation arose. As of Thursday, the NCAA was still looking into Dareus' possible involvement with agents during the infamous summer party in South Beach. Saban this week banned NFL scouts from practice in what amounts to a symbolic protest.

"I think it's a significant problem," said McElroy, whose dad Greg Sr. works for the Dallas Cowboys. "Agents are non-stop. Honestly, I think they should be held accountable ... They don't have anything to lose."

The same can't be said of the defending national champs. The Rhodes and the road awaits.

Offensive Player of the Year: Ryan Mallett, QB, Arkansas. There are worse things in football than to be 6-7, have a rocket arm and to be coached by an offensive savant. Mallett, if he is over his foot injury, should throw for 4,000 yards, easily, under Bobby Petrino. He'll have to. Arkansas' defense isn't going to win many games.

Defensive Player of the Year: Dont'a Hightower, LB, Alabama. Just a hunch, but 'Bama is not going to slip much on defense. Folks are acting like the loss of nine defensive starters is the end of the world. Remember Rolando McClain? Hightower might be his successor. Two years ago he was a freshman All-American. A year ago his season was shortened by a torn ACL. You think this guy isn't motivated?

Predicted order of finish

East

1. Florida: John Brantley has stuck around so long he has qualified for an NFL pension. Watching Tim Tebow for three seasons should be worth it. His turn comes with the Gators typically loaded. The offense will be more diverse without Tebow bogarting things. The defense loses some playmakers and its coordinator (Charlie Strong to Louisville). That won't keep the Gators from winning the East, but it will keep them from winning the SEC. Must-see game: Oct. 2 at Alabama. The winner will be a serious candidate for the national championship.

2. Georgia: This is too easy. Georgia seems to follow a weird pattern. When nothing is expected, they shine. When they're hyped, they tank. Two years ago Georgia was the preseason No. 1. The Dawgs lost to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech, finishing 10-3. Coming off an 8-5 season and upheaval on defense, not much is expected out of the Dawgs. But who else are you going to pick second in the East? If Aaron Murray or Logan Gray can get him the ball, A.J. Green should have a big season. Must-see game: Oct. 30 vs. Florida. It is late in the season, so a win over the Gators might push the Bulldogs to the East title.

3. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier looked like a beaten man last month at the SEC media days. He was actually bragging about graduation rates and the team's GPA. It was at that point that the legend known as The Ol' Ball Coach expired. Going into his sixth season with South Carolina, Spurrier has averaged seven victories per season. He could win eight this season but what would that prove? Spurrier still hasn't found a quarterback at Carolina and the defense continues to carry the team. Can't believe I'm writing this: The 'Cocks under Spurrier are ... boring. Must-see game: Sept. 11 vs. Georgia. What a classic last year, which Georgia won 41-37.

4. Kentucky: This was one of the best coaching changes in the country. There will be a seamless transition from Rich Brooks to Joker Phillips. The schedule actually sets up to the point that the Wildcats could squeeze out eight victories. Once again, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb will see plenty of touches as runners, receivers and returners. Must-see game: Nov. 27 at Tennessee. The Vols barely won last year, but this could be the year the Wildcats end a 25-game losing streak to the Vols.

5. Tennessee: There's a lot of hope in Knoxville. Unfortunately for Vol Nation, that hope should be redshirted until 2011, or '12. This is a team short on talent and depth. By the second week of October the Vols should have four losses. Derek Dooley has done everything right so far, including deftly handling that bar brawl fallout. That doesn't help him beat Florida this season -- or Oregon, or LSU, or Georgia. Must-see game: Nov. 27 vs. Kentucky. See above.

6. Vanderbilt: Half the division has a new coach, none more recent than the Commodores with now-legendary Robbie Caldwell. Let's hope Larry the Cable Coach can hang on. However, it's better in the SEC to have a quick line than be quick with a one-liner. Talked to one of his assistants who said, "If we can just get past Northwestern in the opener ..." Yeah, and? That might mean a 3-9 season. Must-see game: Sept. 4 vs. Northwestern. Vanderbilt isn't going to win many games, but it might pull off the opener.

West

1. Alabama: Let's say the defense gives up 15 points per game, instead of 11.7 as it did last season. That means it is a top 10 defense, instead of the No. 2 unit in the country. Now let's say McElroy makes the logical progression from learning the position in his first year as a starter to dominating the SEC. Also assume that receiver Jones, who played while injured much of 2009, becomes half of the most lethal QB-WR combo in the country. Another good sign: 'Bama is a combined 72-8-3 in years after finishing No. 1 in the wire service era (since 1936). That includes repeats in '64-'65 and '78-'79. Must-see game: Oct. 2 vs. Florida. See above.

2. Auburn: It's a long drop in the SEC from Florida and Alabama to the No. 3 SEC team. Auburn is that team with the potential to win 10 games. Quarterback Cam Newton is a ready-made playmaker after going through juco purgatory following his off-field problems at Florida. It's enough for me to believe in the Tigers having watched them take 'Bama to the final minutes last season. Now they're better. Must-see game: Oct. 16 vs. Arkansas. The race is on to see who is the second-best team in the West and this game will decide it.

3. Arkansas: Getting by with a mediocre defense in Conference USA and the Big East was doable for Petrino. Not in the SEC. Sooner or later, Arkansas is going to have to play some SEC-quality defense to get to the next level. Because the Hogs aren't quite there defensively yet, another eight-win season looks likely. That doesn't mean it won't be fun. Mallett will throw for more than 30 touchdowns. Hog Nation already is going ga-ga over the Sept. 25 game against 'Bama. Must-see game: Oct. 16 at Auburn. See above.

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4. LSU: It's hard to get behind the Tigers, who now have considerable quarterback concerns. Jordan Jefferson is heading into Year 3 without being much of a difference maker. How that translates to Les Miles' job security is uncertain. Without the playmakers of the past, the Tigers won't be a factor in the West but there is plenty of talent. Linebacker Kelvin Sheppard and corner Patrick Peterson will provide plenty of thrills in their final season. (Yes, I'm assuming Peterson, a junior, is gone after this year.) Must-see game: Sept. 25 vs. West Virginia. The two teams have never met.

5. Mississippi: Houston Nutt knows he is taking a huge risk on Jeremiah Masoli. For all of his talent, Masoli also could wreck team chemistry. He's there to make Ole Miss the surprise team in the conference. But he also hasn't faced SEC defenses. If Masoli messes up off the field, well, then Nutt looks nuts. Must-see game: Nov. 20 at LSU. The Rebels beat LSU last year. Can they do it again?

6. Mississippi State: The reality is that Mississippi State has had one winning season since 2000. The further reality is that the offense in Dan Mullen's first season had its best season at Mississippi State since that year. If the job doesn't beat Mullen down like it did Sylvester Croom, there are better days ahead for the Bulldogs. They just won't be this season. Mississippi State has to play Auburn, at LSU and Georgia in consecutive weeks. And that's only in September. Must-see game: Sept. 18 at LSU. The Bulldogs almost pulled off the upset last year.


Anyone in need of a credential from all the BCS title games? Dennis Dodd has them. In three decades in the business, he's covered everything from the Olympics to Stanley Cup to conference realignment. Just get him on campus in a press box in the fall. His heart lies with college football.
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