Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
The SEC is the most difficult conference to project heading into the new season, with a number of teams facing key losses. Georgia is a great pick for the East, but the Bulldogs have not been able to push past the West in year’s past; nothing leads me to believe that will happen this season.
LSU is the front-runner in the West, as it faces the fewest key departures, but there are some concerns with the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu that can’t be ignored.
Despite his dismissal, the LSU Tigers still have best defense from top to bottom in the conference. Add to that a big-time arm in Zach Mettenberger, and the Tigers are pushing for a second consecutive SEC title.
Zach Mettenberger—a former Georgia Bulldogs signal-caller—will step into the starting role for the Tigers at quarterback this fall after spotty play at the position for two seasons has led to 24 wins over the last two years.
Mettenberger is a major step up from Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson, and Les Miles expects big things from his newly-appointed quarterback.
Assisting Mettenberger in the backfield will be four returning impact running backs led by Michael Ford and his six yards per carry from a year ago. Two other juniors—Spencer Ware and Alfred Blue—will help fill out the balanced rushing attack, with big-bodied sophomore Kenny Hilliard providing some bruising gains this season.
Rueben Randle departs a very talented receiving corps that has severely under-produced the past few seasons, but returnees Odell Beckham, Jr., and Russell Shepard will be enough to fill the void.
The Tigers will have five starters returning along the offensive line, building the best returning group in the conference and arguably the country.
The defense is stacked, and it all starts upfront for the Tigers. Dangerous pass-rushing ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery return after combining for 28.5 tackles for loss and 17 sacks last season.
Helping fill out the end position will be studs Lavar Edwards, Jermauria Rasco and Chancey Aghayere.
The interior of the line is just as stacked, with senior Josh Downs and sophomore Ego Ferguson leading the charge.
The linebacker position is just as stacked as up front, with junior Kevin Minter returning. Juniors Tahj Jones and Lamin Barrow will fill out the remaining positions in the middle of the defense.
The defensive secondary took a blow with the dismissal of Tyrann Mathieu earlier this fall, but Tharold Simon and Jalen Collins are more than capable to fill the void left behind by the dynamic playmaker—they actually will be a step up in pass-coverage skills.
Eric Reid will lead the defense from safety, further solidifying the Tigers' ability to be the best defense in the country for 2012.
The Tigers have a very manageable schedule early; they do have a tough contest coming against Washington at home and a visit to Auburn in Week 3, but they should take care of business against cupcakes Idaho, Towson and North Texas.
The Tigers host Alabama this year in Death Valley, but they finish the season on the road against Arkansas.
The schedule and layers of talent found on the Tigers sideline make them the early favorite to repeat as SEC champions this fall.