A modern-day college football dynasty brings with it plenty of attention, and Alabama will certainly be the recipient of a copious amount of praise this offseason.
Despite significant roster turnover—particularly on the offensive line and throughout that defense—the Crimson Tide has earned the benefit of the doubt, and will likely enter the season with the No. 1 ranking and as the favorite to win the BCS title.
But head coach Nick Saban's crew is very fortunate to be in this position to begin with. The Crimson Tide needed an Iowa State upset of Oklahoma State to force a rematch with LSU in the title game after the 2011 season, and had Ohio State taken its bowl ban after the 2011 season—when it should have—it probably would have been the Buckeyes taking on Notre Dame in South Florida for the crystal football last January.
While Oklahoma head coach Bob Stoops harps on the unfounded perception that the back end of the SEC brings the whole conference down, the top end teams in the conference has established themselves as elite.
In addition to losses to LSU and Texas A&M in 2011 and '12, respectively, the Tide had to scratch and claw to get through Georgia and LSU last year; a year that saw six SEC teams finish in the top 12 of the final USA Today Coaches' Poll.
It's not "Alabama and everybody else" in the SEC.
Six teams will enter the 2013 season with legitimate national championship aspirations, and with a little luck, could find themselves in Pasadena this January in a position to extend the SEC's streak to eight straight BCS National Championships.
Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies are the SEC's version of the new girl at school. They came out of nowhere last season with an 11-2 record, an upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa and a Heisman Trophy. Now, everybody is looking in their direction.
But with that bigger magnifying glass comes more pressure. Will the Aggies show their flaws this season now that everybody is paying attention?
Don't worry about the offensive line. There's enough talent in the skill positions on offense to allow head coach Kevin Sumlin and new offensive coordinator Clarence McKinney to scheme around some shortcomings.
The only issue is the front seven, but if defensive coordinator Mark Snyder can get pressure from defensive end Julien Obioha, linebacker Steven Jenkins or any of the newcomers stepping into more leadership roles, the Aggies have the secondary to be opportunistic on defense.
With a schedule that gives the Aggies two tuneups before hosting the Crimson Tide and bye weeks before road trips to Ole Miss and LSU, the Aggies are very deserving of preseason hype.
Rebuilding year, reloading year...whatever you want to call it, the fact that LSU's roster is loaded with talent is indisputable.
Don't fall into the trap of writing LSU off. Even suspended running back Jeremy Hill doesn't see the field, the Tigers are fully capable on offense to light up scoreboards and stat sheets thanks to a veteran cast returning across the board, the arrival of new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron and another offseason of preparation for quarterback Zach Mettenberger—who's better than his reputation suggests.
My colleague Michael Felder and I talked about the Tigers' defense this spring. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is a master at fitting his personnel into his scheme and allowing their raw athleticism shine through.
Bye weeks before and after the road trip to Alabama, which falls right before the game at home vs. Texas A&M, will allow the Tigers plenty of time to work out the kinks before hitting the tough stretch of the schedule.
If the Tigers can get back TCU in the opener, it could probably even withstand a loss in late September at Georgia and still be in the hunt.
The Bulldogs came within five yards of winning the SEC title and playing for it all last season, and 2013 should see head coach Mark Richt and his team take another step forward.
The only discernable difference between this offense and the one that finished last season third in the SEC in total offense is the absence of wide receiver Tavarres King.
But the return of Michael Bennett—who was quarterback Aaron Murray's favorite target last season prior to tearing his ACL—coupled with the emergence of junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph should keep offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's offense clicking on all cylinders—especially now that No. 1 wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell will spend the entire season on offense.
After all, having the luxury of turning around and handing it off to either Todd Gurley or Keith Marshall is a "rich man's problem" for Murray.
Defensively, there might—might—be a few speed bumps for the new personnel, but outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is a rising superstar, as are safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews. Georgia was forced into shootouts last season due to its defense's inability to stop the run, and it seemed to work.
If the Bulldogs can maneuver through an August and September that sends them to Clemson in Week 1, and sends South Carolina and LSU to Athens in Weeks 2 and 5, respectively, Georgia won't just be "in the mix," they'll be the national title front-runner.
They'll do it, too.
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina is the forgotten team in the SEC East, despite the fact that the Gamecocks have posted back-to-back 11-win seasons and been on the periphery of the BCS National Title hunt in each of those seasons.
The 2013 season should be no different.
Sure, there are some questions at linebacker, but the Gamecocks' defense is stout on the front and the back end—especially if defensive end Jadeveon Clowney puts up Heisman numbers, as expected.
Whether it's Connor Shaw, Dylan Thompson or both taking the snaps for head coach Steve Spurrier this spring, the Gamecocks have a talented running back duo of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds returning, and leading receiver Bruce Ellington leading a strong receiving corps.
The biggest difference between this South Carolina teams and the Gamecocks from 2011 and 12 is a favorable schedule. That schedule sends them to Georgia in Week 2, which pleases the Head Ball Coach, and gives them a bye week before hosting Florida.
That schedule could move the Gamecocks from the periphery to right in the thick of the BCS National Championship hunt.
I'm not as high on the Gators as other folks, mostly because their biggest issue—the passing game—didn't get fixed this spring.
But they did go 11-1 in the regular season last year, so almost by default they need to be in the discussion until proven otherwise—despite that 33-23 egg the Gators laid against Louisville in the Sugar Bowl.
It's still going to be a run-first offense for offensive coordinator Brent Pease. That running game is in good hands with Matt Jones and Mack Brown, and could get a boost if the light bulb turns on for early enrollee Kelvin Taylor.
Defensively, the Gators were just suffocating last season, and has a solid core returning with defensive lineman Dominique Easley, BUCK Dante Fowler, linebacker Ronald Powell and cornerbacks Louchiez Purifoy and Marcus Roberson.
It's not just "Alabama and everybody else."
The SEC has cannibalized itself in each of the last two seasons. Luckily for Alabama, it got the luck needed around the country to get back in position for the national title.
The 2013 season should be no different. Whether it's propaganda or not, the top end of the SEC beats itself up throughout the season. That makes for a wild roller coaster ride that should be fun to watch.
If the streak of national titles isn't broken this season, it might continue for a long time. Perception is reality in college football, and the perception that the SEC is the top conference in college football will likely get two teams into the four-team playoff once its instituted following the 2014 season.
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