The SEC: Who Will Challenge Alabama and LSU for the Heavyweight Title?

Wes BennettContributor IIIApril 5, 2012

The SEC: Who Will Challenge Alabama and LSU for the Heavyweight Title?

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    In the words of the pro wrestler Ric Flair " To be the man, you have to beat the man!" 

    The Crimson tide brought home their 14th national title and their second under head coach Nick Saban.

    Alabama Crimson Tide

    Chances are, the Tide will not be able to bring another Superman out of the phone booth in their backfield this year. Trent Richardson followed Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram into NFL glory. The huge and talented offensive line will be just as dominant, and the defensive front always seems to reload. But the Alabama defensive backfield has lost some serious first-round talent.

    One of the hardest positions to fill is cornerback because of the complexities of big-time college football.  The offensive coordinators in the SEC are varied and very skilled in exploiting weaknesses in the passing game. A.J. McCarron is back and proved in the national title game that he has ice water in his veins, catching the Tigers flat footed by passing on obvious running downs. We will see if Nick Saban turns him loose or if the Tide revert back to a between the tackles run game with Eddie Lacy.

    LSU Tigers

    The LSU Tigers also lost some big-time ballers to the NFL. One loss could be in the Tigers' favor, as inconsistent quarterback Jordan Jefferson has moved on in favor of Zach Mettenberger.  Jefferson was erratic during his career as the starter. Most feel like Mettenberger will give the Tigers a chance to expand their playbook and open running lanes for their backs.

    They will return a fast and physical defense in 2012, as well as a frenetic return game featuring All American Tyrann Mathieu, aka "The Honey Badger." 

    The Tigers finished as SEC West Champs only to implode on the field in the National Championship game. It remains to be seen if they will be able to hold off Arkansas to challenge the Crimson Tide for the west championship again.

The Challengers: Arkansas, Georgia and South Carolina

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    Arkansas Razorbacks

    The Arkansas Razorbacks return their All-SEC First Team quarterback, Tyler Wilson, in 2012. Wilson was largely unappreciated nationally, but threw for over 3,600 yards with 24 touchdowns while only tossing six picks. The Hogs also will get a rejuvenated Knile Davis back in the backfield after sitting out 2011 with a broken ankle. Davis led all SEC rushers with over 1,300 yards when healthy in 2010.

    Although the Hogs have lost receivers Joe Adams, Jarius Wright and Greg Childs to the NFL, they have signed receivers in abundance over the last two recruiting seasons. The cupboard is definitely not bare as Marquel Wade, and standout Cobi Hamilton return to stretch SEC defenses.

    The defensive line, which is stocked with seniors and juniors, will be the strength for the Hogs defense. Linebacker is a question, with stalwarts Jericho Nelson and Jerry Franklin moving on, as is the young secondary. 

    If new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes can inspire them to play as the did in the Cotton Bowl, they will be better than last year's defensive unit, which finished in the middle of the pack in national rankings.

    Georgia Bulldogs

    The Georgia Bulldogs got hot down the stretch last year behind quarterback Aaron Murray. But they must solidify their secondary after losing Paul Hornung Award winner Brandon Boykin to the NFL. Projected starting cornerbacks Sanders Commings (domestic violence) and Branden Smith (marijuana possession) have faced suspension this spring. Two others were dismissed from the team in January.

    The running game is strong behind Isaiah Crowell, with highly touted freshmen Keith Marshall and T.J. Gurley competing against the returning backups for playing time.

    If Murray should go down, the Dogs are thin at the quarterback position with only a redshirt freshman and a true freshman waiting in the wings, neither of whom have taken a snap for the team in a game that matters.

    South Carolina Gamecocks

    The South Carolina Gamecocks believe they have found their quarterback in Connor Shaw. He was a nice upgrade from the tumultuous Stephen Garcia. As much as Steve Spurrier may stiffen at the thought, the Gamecocks may run the ball even more in 2012. Alshon Jeffrey has moved on, and Shaw will not have his security blanket to turn to this season. Ace Sanders, Shamier Jeffery and Damiere Byrd are all nice receivers, but don't have the same game-changing potential.

    The Gamecocks faithful hope that two-sport dynamo Bruce Ellington will change his mind and return to the turf this fall to spark the team again. Ellington accounted for 780 all-purpose yards receiving, rushing, returning kicks and even passing.

    The defense will be solid again for South Carolina, but the team will be hard-pressed to repeat its 2011 success because of the schedule. The Gamecocks play LSU and Clemson on the road and will have to contend with strong Arkansas and Georgia teams at home.

The Contenders: Florida, Auburn and Mississippi State

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    Florida Gators

    Last year was a fluke, right? The Florida Gators will eventually recover from their Tim Tebow hangover to resume their place among college football's elite. Head coach Will Muschamp simply has too many recruits to sit mired in the cellar of the SEC. The Gators will show more chomp this season and will be a nightmare once again for the opposition.

    Auburn Tigers

     Auburn is another team who had to replace a superstar quarterback in Cam Newton. The challenge for the Auburn Tigers is big, as they replace offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and have to learn an entirely new offense this spring. 

    Kiehl Frazier is the front-runner to capture the starting quarterback job, but the Tigers must gain an identity this season to compete in the west. Will the Tigers be the team of last year or the juggernaut of 2010? Will head coach Gene Chizik prove that 2010 was not an aberration, or will those who opposed his hiring be proved correct? Stay tuned in 2012.

    Mississippi State Bulldogs

    The Mississippi State Bulldogs underachieved last season, as did quarterback Chris Relf.  Most people believe that Dan Mullins will right the ship this season and again run the ball down opponents' throats while playing stifling defense again as they did in 2010. Bruiser Vick Ballard has taken his game to the NFL, and the competition is on for the starting tailback job in Starkville.

    The Dogs have to give quarterback Tyler Russell some playmakers if they are going to jump into the dog fight for contention in the SEC West.

Club Fighters: Vanderbilt and Tennessee

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    Tennessee Volunteers

    The Tennessee Volunteers suffered through a tough campaign last season, as quarterback Tyler Bray went down early with a broken thumb. He will get Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers back this season with a chance to contend in the East. The Vols have a veteran offensive line flush with seniors and juniors.

    If the defense can turn around, they may challenge South Carolina and Florida for second in the Eastern Division. If not, then Coach Derek Dooley may have to turn in his orange trousers and look for a new job.

    Vanderbilt Commodores

    The Vanderbilt Commodores played with passion and guts last year under new head coach James Franklin. They gave maximum effort and seemed to believe that they had a chance in every game. That is good coaching. 

    Franklin also did well in recruiting this offseason, loading up on the offensive and defensive lines. Look for Vandy to give teams headaches again this season as it plays above its heads for their coach. 

    Who knows? Maybe Vandy has grown tired of being the SEC doormat and will give the traditional powers in the eastern division a run for their money.

Punchdrunk: Kentucky and Ole Miss

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    Kentucky Wildcats

    Big-time tackler Danny Trevathan has taken his talents to the green pastures of the NFL.  Who will step up for the Kentucky defense? The Kentucky offense ranked last in the SEC last season and 118th in the NCAA. That has to change this season if Kentucky is going to win. Joker Phillips has to find some playmakers for quarterback Maxwell Smith to throw to. 

    Kentucky must travel to the Swamp to face the Florida Gators and has an uphill battle as it faces a powerful Arkansas Razorback team in Fayetteville. It also must travel to play rivals Louisville and Tennessee in 2012. Will Kentucky get back to its winning ways? It must take care of business in the games that it is supposed to win.

    Ole Miss Rebels

    What can you say about the Ole Miss Rebels? Hope abounds this season, mainly because there is no place for the team to go but up after a very poor showing in 2011. The Rebels have a killer schedule, facing Texas, Texas A&M and Auburn at home with Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU on the road. New head coach Hugh Freeze takes over for Houston Nutt as the Rebels begin a new foundation in 2012.

    Quarterback Randall Mackey and running back Jeff Scott are back, as well as some good pieces at receiver. The Ole Miss players need to believe in themselves and play above their heads this season if they hope to make some noise.