SEC Football 2013: The 6 Teams That Are Legitimate National Title Contenders

Danny Flynn@FlynnceptionSenior Analyst IJanuary 18, 2013

SEC Football 2013: The 6 Teams That Are Legitimate National Title Contenders

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    There was never really any question about which conference was truly the most powerful league in college football. But Alabama helped quiet any critics who questioned just how strong the SEC was with a resounding 42-14 blowout victory over Notre Dame in the BCS Championship Game.

    It was the Tide’s second straight title and its third in the past four years, and it was the seventh straight national championship won by an SEC team.

    The conference is truly in class of its own at this point, and there seems to be a great chance that the league will take home its eighth straight title in 2013.

    Here’s a look at the six SEC teams that have a legitimate shot at winning a BCS championship next season.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Winning back-to-back national championships is a rare feat in sports.

    Winning three titles in a row? Well, that puts a team in the history books with some of the greatest sports dynasties of all time.

    That’s the opportunity that awaits Alabama in 2013.

    Just like last offseason, the Tide will have plenty of holes to fill yet again in the coming months.

    Future NFL draft picks such as RB Eddie Lacy, OC Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, OT D.J Fluker, DT Jesse Williams, LB Nico Johnson, CB Dee Milliner and SS Robert Lester will all have to be replaced.

    Remember, though, this is Alabama we’re talking about. Nick Saban never rebuilds; he simply reloads with his next crop of future stars.

    On offense, QB AJ McCarron, RB T.J. Yeldon and WR Amari Cooper will form one of the most dangerous trios in college football. McCarron developed into a true offensive leader and a supremely efficient passer in 2012, while Yeldon and Cooper were two of the most productive freshmen in the country.

    On defense, linebackers C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard, two All-American candidates, will lead a defense that will return seven starters from a unit that ranked first in the country in scoring defense, total defense and rushing defense this past season.

    There’s certainly enough talent coming back for Alabama to compete for a third straight championship, and as we saw in 2012, Saban’s squad can certainly handle having the target on its back.

South Carolina Gamecocks

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    South Carolina will be bringing back the best defensive player and arguably the best overall player in the country, DE Jadeveon Clowney, to lead its defense in 2013.

    Clowney is a dominant defensive difference-maker, who is coming off a sensational sophomore campaign in 2012. The former No. 1 prospect of the 2011 recruiting class racked up 13 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles this past season.

    The explosive edge-rusher will be the leader of what should be one of the best defensive lines in college football. It’s a unit which will also include fellow DE Chaz Sutton and tackles Kelcy Quarles and J.T. Surratt.

    On offense, the Gamecocks will obviously miss star RB Marcus Lattimore and speedy slot receiver Ace Sanders. However, dual-threat quarterback Connor Shaw has the potential to become a breakout star in 2013.

    With Shaw leading the way on offense, and with Clowney leading the way on defense, the Gamecocks will have two of the premier playmakers in the SEC to build around for next season.

    The big question is, after two straight 11-win seasons, can Steve Spurrier’s squad take the next step and become a true championship contender in 2013?

Georgia Bulldogs

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    No one would have blamed QB Aaron Murray if he had made the decision to leave Georgia after his junior year and declare for the 2013 NFL draft. Murray had led the Bulldogs to two straight SEC East division titles and 22 wins over the last two seasons. There really wasn’t much left for him to prove at the college level.

    Instead, however, Murray made the decision to return to Athens for one more year in order to improve his draft stock and chase a BCS championship and a Heisman Trophy.

    With the experienced veteran signal-caller back to lead the offense, the Bulldogs will now go into the 2013 season as one of the top-ranked national championship contenders in the country.

    Murray will be joined in the backfield by the dynamic running back duo of freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who combined to rush for over 2,100 yards and 25 touchdowns in 2012.

    Not only will Georgia have one of the most powerful running back tandems in the country, the Bulldogs will also have one of the best wide receiver duos as well, comprised of sophomores Malcolm Mitchell and Michael Bennett.

    Obviously, the offense will have plenty of firepower. However, there are some big questions that need to be answered on the defensive side of the ball following so many key losses.

    The Bulldogs will have to replace eight defensive starters, including future high NFL draft picks such as linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, NT John Jenkins and safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams.

    If Georgia wants to compete for a BCS title in 2013, the Bulldogs are going to have to ride their powerful offensive attack, because their defense is going to be loaded with inexperienced and unproven starters.

LSU Tigers

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    No team was hit harder by early declarations for the 2013 NFL draft than LSU.

    The Tigers lost a whopping 10 underclassmen early to the NFL. The toughest losses were on defense, where impact players such as defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon and FS Eric Reid will all have to replaced.

    All hope is certainly not lost, though.

    Like Alabama, LSU has plenty of young future star defenders such as DE Jermauria Rasco, defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins, safety Micah Eugene and linebackers Ronnie Feist, Kwon Alexander and Deion Jones.

    They also have a potential breakout star in safety Craig Loston, who looks like he’s ready to step up and become a true leader in 2013.

    On offense, the big key will be how much QB Zach Mettenberger can improve in his second season as a starter. Mettenberger had a highly inconsistent campaign in 2012, completing just 58 percent of his passes and throwing just 12 touchdowns.

    Luckily, the big, strong-armed 6’5’’, 230-pound junior signal-caller will have plenty of talent surrounding him next season.

    The running back trio of Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard will be one of the deepest backfields in the country, and the receiver duo of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry has the chance to be absolutely lethal.

    The offensive line will miss experienced starters such as tackles Chris Faulk, who was sidelined for most of the 2012 season with a knee injury yet still declared for the 2013 draft, and Alex Hurst and center P.J. Lonergan. But guards La’El Collins and Trai Turner have a chance to be two of the standout linemen in the SEC.

    Les Miles has enough talent at his disposal to build a championship contender in 2013. But it remains to be seen whether or not the Tigers can regain the type of hunger and swagger that they had during their 2011 run to an SEC championship.

Texas A&M Aggies

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    Texas A&M took the SEC by storm in its first season in the league, winning 11 games, with the most notable victory of course being the huge upset of top-ranked Alabama in Tuscaloosa. The Aggies exceeded modest preseason expectations in 2012, and it’s breakout star QB Johnny Manziel who deserves much of the credit for the team’s surprising success.

    In just his first season as a starter, Manziel proved that he’s one of the most explosive playmakers in the country, as he totaled over 5,100 yards of offense and accounted for 47 touchdowns.

    Manziel is sure to be one of college football’s main cover boys this offseason. But he certainly isn’t the only great player that the Aggies are welcoming back.

    OT Jake Matthews passed up the chance to be a top-15 pick in the 2013 NFL draft in order to return to College Station for his senior year. Matthews will likely start next season as the favorite to win the Outland Trophy, an award his former teammate Luke Joeckel won in 2012, and he’ll be one of the early top contenders to be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft.

    Manziel and Matthews are both clearly All-American candidates. But another player to watch for on offense is WR Mike Evans, who caught 82 passes for 1,105 yards as a freshman this past season.

    On defense, the Aggies lose five of their top six tacklers from 2012, including future top-10 NFL draft pick DE Damontre Moore. However, given how explosive the offense should be next season, it’s not as if the defense will have to be dominant in order for A&M to win games.

    Ultimately, this is a team that’s clearly going to miss key contributors such as Joeckel, Moore, WR Ryan Swope and LB Sean Porter. However, the Aggies still have enough returning talent, especially on offense, to make a run at both an SEC championship and a national title in 2013.

    What will be the most fascinating thing to see is what Manziel can do for an encore.

    The fact that he became the first freshman to ever win a Heisman Trophy is remarkable. However, we’ll just have to wait and see if Johnny Football can handle all the hype he’s surely going to receive throughout the offseason.

Florida Gators

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    Florida’s 2012 season certainly ended on a disappointing note, as the Gators were shocked by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl. However, the 11-win campaign still has to be deemed a success, and it’s something the team can build on going into 2013.

    Will Muschamp will have his work cut out for him this offseason, trying to replace plenty of key contributors from this past season such as RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, DT Sharrif Floyd, linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins and safety Matt Elam.

    Luckily for Muschamp, his predecessor, Urban Meyer, stockpiled plenty of talent before he left Gainesville, most notably a highly touted 2010 recruiting class that will now have the chance to shine.

    The defense has holes to fill, but it’s also a unit that will feature plenty of potential standout playmakers such as DT Leon Orr, defensive ends Dominique Easley and Dante Fowler, linebackers Ronald Powell and Antonio Morrison and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson.

    The offense will definitely miss the presence of Gillislee in the backfield, which will make the maturation and development of QB Jeff Driskel all the more important.

    If Driskel develops into a reliable leader and puts the offense on his back, the Gators have enough talent on defense to win their first SEC championship since 2008.