Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn
It was another banner year for the SEC in 2012, as Alabama took home the seventh straight title for the nation's top college football conference. Only don't tell that to Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky, Missouri and Tennessee because they'd surely disagree.
But four of those five teams hired new coaches in an effort to turn things around, while the fifth head coach of the group—Missouri's Gary Pinkel—finds himself on the hottest seat in the SEC.
Which of the five SEC non-bowl teams from a year ago will most likely go bowling in 2013? The trio of Arkansas, Auburn and Tennessee are probably the front-runners, but it's going to be hard to bet against the Auburn Tigers.
The reason is simple: The adjustment to first-year head coach Gus Malzahn will be much smoother due to his familiarity with the program.
On offense, the Tigers will essentially hit the "reset" button. Sure, the rest of the staff is new, but this is still Malzahn's system with players that, for the most part, were recruited specifically for it.
The quarterback spot is obviously the one that everyone will talk about. Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace will battle this spring, and neither of them did anything last season to instill any confidence in Tiger fans.
Frazier, like the rest of Auburn's offense, looked totally lost last season under former offensive coordinator Scot Loeffler. But he was named the high school Offensive Player of the Year by USA Today in 2010 running a similar offense, and no player on the roster will benefit more from the change than Frazier.
Wallace led Auburn to two victories but also couldn't get Auburn on the scoreboard in shutout losses to Georgia and Alabama down the stretch. He possesses similar dual-threat attributes as Frazier and will certainly benefit from an offseason of work as a contender rather than a last resort.
If neither of them win the job this spring—and I don't expect that to happen—Nick Marshall, Jeremy Johnson and Jason Smith will all get the chance to win the job this summer. No matter who wins the job, it can't get much worse than 2012.
The wide receiver position is definitely a question mark, but Trovon Reed as a ton of potential, Sammie Coates can be a weapon, Quan Bray could be dangerous in the new system and the Tigers have several other highly touted receivers fighting for playing time this spring and summer.
Tre Mason, a 1,000-yard rusher from a year ago, will return, along with junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne and speedster Corey Grant. While Malzahn's offense is sometimes labeled as a wide-open attack, it's predicated on a stable, downhill running game. Auburn had that last year (when Mason was properly used) and will again in 2013.
Couple that with a veteran offensive line, and Auburn's offense should be significantly better in 2013.
Defensively, the Tigers got some big-time help on national signing day when defensive tackle Montravius Adams and defensive ends Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel signed on the dotted line with the Tigers on national signing day. The presence of those three will allow Auburn's defensive line—which is talented yet underachieving—to rotate throughout each game.
Linebacker has been an issue, but new defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson's 4-2-5 scheme will make outside linebacker Kris Frost a star, along with middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy. Plus, the Tigers have plenty of options for the hybrid "star" position that Johnson made famous at South Carolina.
The Tigers could get to six wins with either a win at Arkansas or Tennessee and could move up the bowl pecking order with both and an upset along the way.
That's not to say that Arkansas and Tennessee won't make bowl games as well. They could. But the schedule for each of them is rather daunting.
The Hogs have a brutal stretch in the middle of the season that takes them to Rutgers, home vs. Texas A&M, at Florida, vs. South Carolina and on the road to Tuscaloosa. That's not an easy string of games by any stretch of the imagination.
Which non-bowl team from 2012 will finish 2013 with the best record?
Tennessee gets the tough out-of-conference matchup at Oregon in Week 3, has its traditional cross-division matchup with Alabama on the road and also has to travel to Florida. Toss in games against SEC East powers Georgia and South Carolina, and there's not a huge margin for error for the Vols.
Kentucky still has plenty of work to do, and Missouri seems to be going backward. All five of the SEC's non-bowl teams from a year ago have their work cut out for them, and making it to college football's postseason will certainly be an accomplishment.
Auburn may have the highest mountain to climb to get back to that level, but it's also best suited to handle the transition process to its new staff.
Plus, the Tigers will be doing so with players who, at least in theory, are supposed to be elite. They've had four straight classes that have ranked in the top 12 nationally in the 247Sports.com composite index.
None of the five will likely contend for their respective division titles, but quite a few will be in the bowl mix with Auburn leading that charge.