Although Alabama plays LSU Jan. 9 for the BCS national championship to end the 2011 college football season, it is never too early to look forward to next year.
Many people already have LSU a lock to win the SEC next year. It is returning at least seven starters, including the Honey Badger, on one of the top-ranked defenses in the league. The Tigers return their top three running backs in Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard.
However, there are some big holes I'm concerned with the Tigers going into next year. They will be breaking in a new quarterback in, unlike Alabama. Zach Mettenberger has talent but he lacks the experience in the SEC. The SEC defenses will feast off Metternberger's mistakes.
Also, just like many teams in the SEC, the Tigers are losing a lot of underclassmen to the NFL draft. I believe they will lose shutdown cornerback Morris Claiborne, receiver Rueben Randle and offensive tackle Alex Hurst.
A lot of college football fans are scratching Alabama out of contention for the SEC championship next year for many reasons. They are saying Alabama is losing just too much talent in Trent Richardson, Donta Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron, Dre Kirkpatrick and other players to graduation or the NFL Draft. I believe Alabama is losing a ton of talent, but I also believe at the end of next year, Alabama will be right in the middle of contention for the SEC Championship.
Nick Saban has recruited very well in the last five years at Alabama, so talent will not be a problem. AJ McCarron is returning at quarterback and Eddy Lacy will be the primary runningback. Duron Carter, son of ESPN analyst Cris Carter, will be the main receiver next year. He is 6'4", 220 pounds, and is built just like Julio Jones.
The offensive line will not be a problem because Saban has brought in many 4- and 5-star big men more than ready to protect McCarron. The defense is losing a lot of key pieces but Saban and Kirby Smart will have the young players ready to play.
Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley will be players calling the shots and directing the defense. Damion Square and Jesse Williams will be anchoring the defensive line and Demarcus Milliner will be the star cornerback shutting down opposing receivers. There are holes to fill, but Alabama has enough young talent to step in and get the job done.
Georgia should be the early favorite to repeat as East champions. They are returning Aaron Murray, Isaiah Crowell and Tavarres King on the offensive side of the ball and the Bulldogs are actually starting to play defense in Athens. Georgia also misses out on playing LSU, Alabama and Arkansas for the second straight year.
The game against South Carolina should decide the winner of the East. The West should be a three team fight between Arkansas, LSU and Alabama. Tyler Wilson should command a good Arkansas offense but they just don't have the defense to compete with Bama or LSU. It should come down to the game in Baton Rouge on Nov. 3 between Alabama and LSU (deja vu?).
It should be a hard-fought defensive game again, and the winner of the game should be in contention for the SEC and also the national championship. LSU may be the very early favorite, but do not count out Saban and the Crimson Tide. Every year is an SEC championship or a disappointment year for the Tide.