Ranking the Best Core of Returning Starters in the SEC in 2013

Barrett Sallee@BarrettSalleeSEC Football Lead WriterJanuary 28, 2013

Ranking the Best Core of Returning Starters in the SEC in 2013

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    The SEC is home to seven straight national titles, and one of the primary reasons the SEC has been so successful is the fact that the elite teams in the conference consistently produce top-tier talent with no major drop-offs from year to year.

    Having stars consistently step up into leadership roles when their time is called is one of the most important factors in determining quality programs and coaches.

    Which teams have the best core of returning starters in 2013? Our rankings are in this slide show.

    *Phil Steele's index of returning starters used as a base for the rankings.

14. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Offensive Returning Starters: 6

    Defensive Returning Starters: 7

    Kentucky is returning a relatively high number of starters from last year's team, but the fact remains that this team wasn't very good a year ago.

    Quarterbacks Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow will return, but the biggest question for the 2013 Wildcats is whether or not last season's starter, Maxwell Smith, can perform at the level he did early in the season prior to his season-ending ankle injury. Smith threw for 975 yards and eight touchdowns in four games last season and can stabilize a Wildcats offense that's desperate for playmakers.

    Running back Raymond Sanders will return behind an offensive line that returns three starters, but it's hard to say that the core is strong on a team that finished last in the SEC in scoring offense in 2012 (17.9 points per game).

    Defensively, first-year head coach Mark Stoops will have his work cut out for him replacing defensive ends Collins Ukwu and Taylor Wyndham, but the return of defensive tackles Donte Rumph, Mister Cobble and Tristian Johnson should help. Leading tackler Avery Williamson is back to lead the linebacker corps, but behind him, the Wildcats need some help in the secondary.

13. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    Offensive Starters Returning: 4

    Defensive Starters Returning: 7

    The 2013 season was likely going to be a rebuilding year in Fayetteville no matter who was roaming the sideline as the head hog, thanks to a massive senior class that left following the 2012 season.

    Offensively, wide receivers Julian Horton and Mekale McKay return in an attempt to stabilize the passing game, and Javontee Herndon played well as a reserve in 2012. But the Hogs don't have a solid quarterback, running back or much continuity along the offensive line. That's bad news for first-year offensive coordinator Jim Chaney.

    Defensive end Chris Smith, who finished fourth in the SEC in sacks in 2012 with 9.5, returns to anchor a defensive line that also features Trey Flowers and Byran Jones. The secondary, while awful last season giving up 285.8 yards per game, returns essentially every contributor minus cornerback Darius Winston.

12. Missouri Tigers

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    Offensive Starters Returning: 6

    Defensive Starters Returning: 6

    It's safe to say that Missouri's first season in the SEC didn't go according to plan. The Tigers finished the season 5-7, missed a bowl game and perhaps missed a big-time opportunity to make a major statement in its inaugural season in the nation's toughest football conference.

    The Tigers lose leading rusher Kendial Lawrence from last season along with star wide receiver T.J. Moe. But they should get back 2011 leading rusher Henry Josey and benefit from another year of seasoning for 2011 super-recruit Dorial Green-Beckham.

    The quarterback position is up in the air, but if either James Franklin or Corbin Berkstresser wins the starting job, the Tigers should be fine since both players have significant experience.

    Defensively, head coach Gary Pinkel's crew loses defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and linebackers Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner, but get back defensive back E.J. Gaines and the underrated Andrew Wilson.

11. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 7

    Returning Defensive Starters: 6

    Mississippi State is headed into an interesting season. The Bulldogs are 4-20 against teams that finish with eight or more wins under Dan Mullen, have been passed by Ole Miss in the battle for state pride and can't count on Arkansas and Auburn being down for long.

    The Bulldogs will return a solid core on offense led by running back LaDarius Perkins and four offensive linemen. But returning starting quarterback Tyler Russell didn't instill a ton of confidence down the stretch, and the departure of his top four receivers (three WRs and one TE) certainly won't help matters.

    Leading tackler Cam Lawrence is gone off of the defense along with defensive lineman Josh Boyd and stud cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay. The Bulldogs need defensive end Denico Autry to live up to the hype that followed him from junior college and linebacker Benardrick McKinney to build off of his freshman campaign.

10. Tennessee Volunteers

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 5

    Returning Defensive Starters: 8

    Tennessee got hit bad by the NFL bug, losing quarterback Tyler Bray, defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore and wide receivers Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter early to the NFL draft.

    But all is not lost on the offensive side of the ball, thanks to the return of four starters on an offensive line that finished third in the nation in sacks allowed in 2012. When healthy, Rajion Neal proved that he can be an every-down back in the SEC, rushing for 708 yards and 10 touchdowns last season.

    A lot of Tennessee's problems last season on defense could be traced to the transition from the 4-3 to the 3-4 under former defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. But while that defense is returning a solid core with linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt, defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and safety Brent Brewer, it's still a unit that is very much a work-in-progress.

9. Auburn Tigers

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 6

    Returning Defensive Starters: 8

    After securing three straight top-15 recruiting classes prior to 2013, talent isn't that much of an issue. But was the 3-9 debacle in 2012 a product of a team that quit on its coaches, talent that was remarkably overrated or something in between?

    The Tigers will return 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason, four starters on the offensive line and two of the three players who started at quarterback a year ago. Gus Malzahn turned around the Auburn offense in 2009 when he took over as offensive coordinator after the Tigers were inept the previous year. Considering most of the players in the system were recruited for his system, an encore is likely.

    A new defensive scheme under first-year defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson means that all eight returning starters are fighting for their jobs. A defensive front that features Dee Ford, Angelo Blackson, Nosa Eguae, Jeff Whitaker, Kenneth Carter and Gabe Wright will allow Johnson to keep players fresh throughout the game. They're going to have to improve their rush defense after finishing last season last in the SEC after giving up 197.58 yards per game on the ground.

    The secondary, led by Chris Davis, Jermaine Whitehead and Josh Holsey, was good at times last season, and another offseason of work should help.

8. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    Offensive Starters Returning: 7

    Defensive Starters Returning: 6

    Coming off of a 9-4 season, there's plenty of talent in Nashville for head coach James Franklin to build off of.

    The 'Dores will get star wide receiver Jordan Matthews back along with junior Chris Boyd. The duo combined for 2,097 receiving yards and 13 touchdowns a year ago. But losing starting running back Zac Stacy and quarterback Jordan Rodgers hurts. Vandy returns three starters on the offensive line, which should help new starting quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels.

    Kenny Ladler was a stud last season at safety, leading the team with 90 tackles. He, cornerback Andrew Hal and linebacker Chase Garnham should provide stability for a defense that's losing three starters up front.

7. Florida Gators

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 6

    Returning Defensive Starters: 5

    Florida wasn't hit as hard as LSU was with early departures for the NFL, but there is still plenty of roster uncertainty in Gainesville. Fortunately for head coach Will Muschamp, the core on defense is still solid.

    On offense, however, it's a different story. The Gators get three starters on the offensive line back along with quarterback Jeff Driskel and wide receiver Quinton Dunbar, but the passing game is going to have to improve tremendously from a year ago now that running back Mike Gillislee is gone. Driskel will benefit tremendously from a full offseason of work as the starter, but this Gator team lacks established playmakers outside.

    The defense was hurt by graduation and defections to the NFL, but the return of defensive lineman Dominique Easley should help the defensive line as underclassmen Jonathan Bullard and Dante Fowler step into bigger roles. Ronald Powell should return at "Buck" after missing last season with a torn ACL.

    The linebacking corps is relatively inexperienced, but the back end of the defense should be strong behind Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy.

6. LSU Tigers

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 8

    Returning Defensive Starters: 5

    A lot was made of the mass exodus of early entries into the NFL draft from LSU, but the Tigers still have a solid base of core guys that can make an impact offensively.

    The return of leading rusher Jeremy Hill, wide receivers Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. and four contributors along the offensive line should help starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger's progression as a starter.

    The big question facing LSU is on defense, where the defections and graduation will hit hardest. Getting Craig Loston back at safety is huge, and cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins will benefit tremendously from another offseason of work. If Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson step up on the defensive line and Lamin Barrow and Kwon Alexander do the same at linebacker, this defense could be pretty darn good.

    Hard to believe considering the turnover from a year ago.

5. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 7

    Returning Defensive Starters: 4

    The South Carolina Gamecocks have won 11 games in back-to-back seasons. If they want to make it three in a row, there are some questions that need to be answered.

    Luckily for head coach Steve Spurrier, two experienced quarterbacks will return in senior Connor Shaw and junior Dylan Thompson. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington needs to emerge as a downfield threat at wide receiver, and having four starters on the offensive line back should help whoever emerges as the feature running back in 2013.

    Junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will dominate headlines this offseason, but the Gamecocks got hit hard by attrition thanks to the departure of seven seniors. Clowney will be joined by Kelcy Quarles on the defensive line, and Jimmy Legree and Victor Hampton should stabilize the back end of the defense.

    There will be plenty of new faces. But with Mr. Clowney up front, the transition won't be terribly difficult.

4. Ole Miss Rebels

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 8

    Returning Defensive Starters: 10

    Ole Miss closed the year on a high note, blowing out Mississippi State 41-24 in the Egg Bowl and then doing the same to Pitt 38-17 in the BBVA Compass Bowl. That momentum will continue through the offseason thanks to a stellar recruiting class coming in and plenty of firepower leftover from the 2012 team.

    Quarterback Bo Wallace, running back Jeff Scott, wide receiver Donte Moncrief and four offensive line starters will provide a solid foundation and plenty of competition for the newcomers looking to make an immediate impact.

    The defense was young and pretty darn good last season, giving up 375.8 yards per game. C.J. Johnson should be a stud at defensive end, as will linebackers Denzel Nkemdiche and Mike Marry. The possibility of losing their jobs to incoming freshmen phenoms will prevent the veterans on the defensive side of the ball from becoming too complacent.

3. Texas A&M Aggies

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 6

    Returning Defensive Starters: 4

    Texas A&M entered the SEC with a bang in 2012, and the Aggies will likely keep that ball rolling into 2013. It may look a little different though. But despite the rather small number of returning starters, it's the quality of those starters that's really going to help the Aggies in 2013.

    Quarterback Johnny Manziel will return for his redshirt sophomore season along with the incredibly underrated Ben Malena at running back, 1,000-yard receiver Mike Evans and three starters on the offensive line, including Jake Matthews. Head coach Kevin Sumlin adjusted his scheme to fit his personnel a year ago, and even though five starters are gone, the core remains solid.

    Defensively, there are some questions. Losing defensive end Damontre Moore, defensive tackle Spencer Nealy and two linebackers is big, but defensive end Julien Obioha is a star in the making and the secondary is loaded with young talent like cornerbacks Deshazor Everett and De'Vante Harris, and safety Toney Hurd Jr.

2. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 10

    Returning Defensive Starters: 3

    There's a major disparity between returning talent between the two sides of the football in Athens, but that shouldn't prevent the Bulldogs from contending for the SEC East title again.

    Offensively the Bulldogs get quarterback Aaron Murray, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell and all five starters on the offensive line back. Talk about firepower. Wide receiver Michael Bennett should return after tearing his ACL in 2012, and fellow receiver Chris Conley came on strong down the stretch in 2012.

    Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will have plenty of weapons to work with in 2013.

    With only three starters returning, it's a bit of a different story on the defensive side. But the dirty little secret that nobody seems to be talking about is that Georgia wasn't that good last season on defense, finishing the season 12th in the SEC in rush defense (182.1 YPG).

    Amarlo Herrera and Jordan Jenkins should anchor that linebacker corps, and cornerback Damian Swann is a star in the making at defensive back. 

    Georgia's offense is going to be loaded, so all its defense needs to be is opportunistic. 

1. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Returning Offensive Starters: 6

    Returning Defensive Starters: 7

    Alabama doesn't rebuild, it reloads. The 2013 season will be another example of that time-tested cliche.

    AJ McCarron returns for his senior season at quarterback and will have the luxury of left tackle Cyrus Kouandjio, guard Anthony Steen and wide receivers Amari Cooper and Kevin Norwood with him on the offensive side of the football.

    Defensively, the Crimson Tide will return three of its four linebackers, including senior C.J. Mosley and junior Adrian Hubbard, as well as a talented defensive backfield led by safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. Losing two of the three starters on the defensive front will hurt, but Ed Stinson's return should help Kirby Smart's defense.

    Alabama head coach Nick Saban has mastered the art of the "next man up" mentality, and that mindset has helped the Crimson Tide win either the SEC West title or the BCS National Championship in four of the last five seasons.