Way Too Early SEC Power Rankings for 2013
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The 2012 season concluded on Monday night, when Alabama hoisted the crystal football at Sun Life Stadium to claim the BCS National Championship.
Head coach Nick Saban gave himself two days to celebrate, and then it was back to work getting prepared for 2013—a season in which his team will likely be ranked preseason No. 1 unless something goes incredibly wrong.
But how does the rest of the SEC look heading into the offseason? Our "way too early" SEC power rankings are in this slideshow (subject to change throughout the offseason, of course).
14. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky head coach Mark Stoops.
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First-year head coach Mark Stoops is going to have his work cut out for him in 2013, taking over a team that finished 2-10 (0-8 SEC) in 2012 and was outscored in conference by a whopping 25.25 points per game.
He will inherit the SEC's second-worst offense, but will benefit from the healthy return of last season's starter Maxwell Smith. Smith completed 103-of-150 passes for 975 yards, eight touchdowns and four picks in three-plus games last season, before a torn ankle ligament ended his season. He will join Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow in the battle for the top spot on the depth chart this spring.
Defensively, the Wildcats must replace several key pieces including defensive ends Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham and safety/cornerback Martavius Neloms.
Stoops inherited a dreadful defense when he took over as Florida State's defensive coordinator in 2010, and he will turn Kentucky around. But it's going to take some time.
13. Missouri Tigers
Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel.
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Missouri's inaugural season in the SEC didn't go according to plan.
Instead of showing the SEC what kind of offense led the Tigers to moderate success in the Big 12, head coach Gary Pinkel's crew fell flat on its face, finishing the season ranked 11th in the conference in total offense with 356.4 yards per game.
Gone is offensive coordinator David Yost in favor of Josh Henson, but the Tigers will lose wide receiver T.J. Moe and leading rusher Kendial Lawrence. Quarterback James Franklin was in and out of the lineup due to various injuries, but whether it's Franklin or rising sophomore Corbin Berkstresser taking the snaps in 2013, the Tigers will have to improve upon their 113.32 passer rating—the second-worst mark in the SEC.
Losing 6'4", 295-pound defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner, and cornerback Kip Edwards will be hard on that defense. But getting cornerback E.J. Gaines back for his senior season will help solidify that secondary.
12. Auburn Tigers
Auburn running back Tre Mason.
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The good news for Auburn is that, after a 3-9 (0-8 SEC) season, it can't get much worse.
Fortunately for the Tigers, they made the right choice in hiring Gus Malzahn to replace Gene Chizik. Malzahn was the architect of the hurry-up, no-huddle offense that was so successful at Auburn for two-plus years, before Chizik put the brakes on it to protect Auburn's young defense midway through the 2011 season.
Most of the players on Auburn's offense were recruited for Malzahn's system by Malzahn, so transitioning back shouldn't be too much of an issue. A team is only as good as its quarterback, and since neither returning signal-caller—junior Kiehl Frazier and sophomore Jonathan Wallace—have proven to be difference-makers, the Tigers remain low in the power rankings until one steps up.
The good news is that 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason returns in 2013 to stabilize the offense.
Defensively, Auburn needs to get back to the basics. The Tigers missed too many tackles in 2012, but the addition of defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson—who made South Carolina's defense one of the SEC's best from 2008-11—should get the Tigers back on track and have them sniffing a bowl game.
11. Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee running back Rajion Neal.
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New head coach Butch Jones is the right man for the Tennessee job, but Vol fans will have to have some patience with him and his coaching staff because they have their work cut out for them.
Jones inherits a defense that finished last in the SEC (471.3 YPG)—51 yards per game worse than 13th-place Auburn. Linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt are two very good pieces to build around, but losing defensive tackle Darrington Sentimore to the NFL hurts, and undergoing a second scheme change in as many years certainly won't help matters.
Quarterback Tyler Bray and wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter are all gone off of the offense, but Tennessee will return the best offensive line in the SEC and has essentially its entire running back corps back led by rising senior Rajion Neal.
The Vols will dance around a bowl game in 2013. It probably won't be ideal for Vol Nation, but if Jones can go bowling in 2013, it's a step in the right direction.
10. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema.
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Arkansas is losing a small village of key contributors from its 2012 team that finished 4-8 (2-6 SEC).
Gone are quarterback Tyler Wilson, running backs Knile Davis and Dennis Johnson, wide receiver Cobi Hamilton, tight end Chris Gragg, offensive lineman Alvin Bailey, linebacker Alonzo Highsmith and defensive back Ross Rasner.
Head coach Bret Bielema will get Arkansas competitive again, and the experience that signal-caller Brandon Allen received in Wilson's absence last season will certainly help, but next season is very much a rebuilding/re-tooling year for the Razorbacks.
The good news is that, with Javontee Herndon, Julian Horton and Mekale McKay at wide receiver, the Hogs are loaded with downfield threats, even if quarterback-turned-wide receiver Brandon Mitchell returns to quarterback.
9. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State quarterback Tyler Russell.
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After starting the season 7-0, Mississippi State stumbled down the stretch, losing five of its last six games, culminating with the 34-20 Gator Bowl loss to Northwestern.
The Bulldogs weren't so much beaten as they were exposed.
Quarterback Tyler Russell struggled down the stretch, tossing six interceptions in his final two games, including four in the Gator Bowl, in which he looked rattled from the moment he stepped foot onto the field. Luckily for Russell, running back LaDarius Perkins—who finished with 1,024 rushing yards and eight touchdowns—will return to stabilize the offense.
Defensively, the Bulldogs will lose cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, along with leading tackler Cam Lawrence at linebacker. This off a defense that struggled against the run down the stretch, giving up 200 yards per game on the ground over the last five games of the season.
The Bulldogs already lost state power, and head coach Dan Mullen (4-20 at Mississippi State against teams that finish with eight or more wins) desperately needs to get a signature win before it's too late.
8. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace.
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First-year head coach Hugh Freeze proved to be the perfect man for the Ole Miss job in 2012, posting a 7-6 record, re-establishing state power with the 41-24 win over Mississippi State and throttling Pitt 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
Quarterback Bo Wallace, who excelled in the hurry-up, no-huddle passing attack, and extremely underrated wide receiver Donte Moncrief—he of 66 catches for 979 yards and 10 touchdowns—will be back in 2013.
Defensively, there are some issues. The Rebels finished seventh in the SEC in total defense (375.8 YPG), but 11th against the pass (246.5 YPG), thanks to a very young secondary. A secondary's best friend is a solid pass rush, and another year of seasoning for defensive end C.J. Johnson should help out.
If the Rebels land No. 1 prospect Robert Nkemdiche to play alongside...look out SEC.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
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Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin was a couple of breaks away from posting eight or nine wins in his first season in Nashville in 2011, and then followed through with a nine-win season in Year 2.
The Commodores lose senior signal-caller Jordan Rodgers, but get star wide receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, and running backs Brian Kimbrow and Wesley Tate back off of an offense that averaged 41.6 points per game over the last five games of the season.
Defensively, the 'Dores should return six of their seven top tacklers, headlined by safety and leading tackler from 2012 Kenny Ladler.
Vanderbilt is recruiting well and has put itself in a position where it is competitive on a weekly basis in the nation's top football conference.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw.
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The South Carolina Gamecocks have won 11 games in two straight seasons, making this arguably the most prosperous era in program history.
Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson will battle for the starting quarterback job this fall after Shaw sits out spring practice while recovering from foot surgery. Both players have played well when given the chance during their careers, so whoever wins the job—or if head coach Steve Spurrier plays musical quarterbacks—the offense will be in good hands.
Replacing running back Marcus Lattimore may be an issue though. Mike Davis will likely get the first crack at the job, after rushing for 275 yards and two touchdowns in 2012. Whether it's Davis, Brandon Wilds or somebody else getting the majority of the carries, finding a reliable running back is Job No. 1 for the Gamecocks' offensive staff.
Defensively, the Gamecocks lose a ton of senior leadership, but do get Mr. All Everything Jadeveon Clowney back at defensive end. The back end of the South Carolina defense—junior cornerback Victor Hampton—is going to be relatively inexperienced, but having Clowney all over opposing quarterbacks will help matters.
5. Florida Gators
Florida Gators quarterback Jeff Driskel.
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Florida's 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl wasn't a case where the Gators didn't play inspired football in a game that they didn't want to be in. It was a case of the Gators being exposed.
Will Muschamp's team lived and died with its defense in 2012, and when the defense let the Gators down against the decidedly one-dimensional Cardinals, the offense simply couldn't mount a serious downfield threat to get the Gators back in the game.
Gone are safeties Matt Elam and Josh Evans, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins and defensive linemen Lerentee McCray, Sharrif Floyd and Omar Hunter off of that defense.
That puts enormous pressure on offensive coordinator Brent Pease and quarterback Jeff Driskel to find a passing attack. They simply can't be one-dimensional in 2013 and contend for the national title, and whether it's Driskel or somebody else, they have to find the quarterback to get the ball downfield and the playmakers to go get it.
4. LSU Tigers
LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
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With 10 underclassmen declaring for the NFL draft, head coach Les Miles is going to have more roster turnover in 2013 than he initially expected.
Defensively, there are some questions. The loss of three defensive linemen, a linebacker and two defensive backs early is going to put pressure on guys like defensive tackle Anthony Johnson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, cornerback Jalen Mills and safety Craig Loston. But if there's any team in America outside of Tuscaloosa that can reload, it's LSU.
Offensively, the Tigers lose two running backs but get leading rusher Jeremy Hill back, along with Kenny Hilliard and Alfred Blue. That should be enough to keep the offense stable. If quarterback Zach Mettenberger can become the downfield threat that he was during the month of November, it will keep the Tigers in games.
If he reaches his potential, the sky is still the limit despite the roster turnover.
3 Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray.
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Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray has led his team to two straight SEC East titles, and came within five yards of toppling Alabama and playing for the crystal football following the 2012 season. He will be back, alongside the two-headed monster of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall at running back, and wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell.
The big question for Georgia is on defense, where head coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham have to find replacements for three defensive linemen, star linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, and four contributors to the secondary.
But the dirty little secret that nobody is talking about is that Georgia couldn't stop the run with all of those pieces in place, and still managed to get alarmingly close to the title game.
Defensive end Garrison Smith, linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Jordan Jenkins, and defensive back Damian Swann will all have to step up and be leaders for the defense. If they can be opportunistic, and put the potent Georgia offense in good situations, Georgia will be back competing for the division title.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel and head coach Kevin Sumlin.
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Texas A&M burst onto the SEC scene in 2012 behind Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel at quarterback and the high-octane offense that made head coach Kevin Sumlin so famous.
That offensive prowess will likely continue in 2013 with Manziel back, along with running back Ben Malena, offensive tackle Jake Matthews and—assuming all potential signees sign and qualify—five wide receivers of 6'4" or taller.
In other words, the Aggies will give opposing defensive coordinators fits in 2013 just as they did in 2012.
Losing defensive linemen Damontre Moore and Spencer Nealy, linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart, and defensive backs Steven Terrell and Dustin Harris will hurt. But there's still a solid foundation with defensive end Julien Obioha, linebacker Steven Jenkins and defensive backs Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris.
Considering the way that Sumlin is recruiting, 2012 may be the start of even bigger things in College Station.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron.
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After what we've seen from Alabama over the last four years, there's nothing to suggest that the Crimson Tide dynasty is anywhere close to slowing down.
Defensive linemen Jesse Williams and Damion Square, linebacker Nico Johnson and safety Robert Lester, offensive guard Chance Warmack and center Barrett Jones are all gone. Joining them will be three underclassmen—offensive tackle D.J. Fluker, running back Eddie Lacy and cornerback Dee Milliner, according to CBSSports.com.
But with only nine scholarship seniors departing, the Crimson Tide will still have Heisman Trophy contender AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon, wide receiver Amari Cooper, linebacker C.J. Mosley and defensive back Ha Ha Clinton-Dix back to lead the Tide in 2012.
Head coach Nick Saban is so successful due to his "process" that resets the moment the season ends and always has his team playing against "perfection" rather than an opponent. Until that process fails, Alabama has solidified itself at the top of our power rankings.
Something tells me that won't be happening in the near future.