With seven straight BCS titles, a 17-11 bowl record over the last three seasons—the best mark among the big five conferences—and six teams in the final top 12 of last year's USA Today coaches' poll, the SEC has established itself as the nation's most dominant football conference.
But not every team in the conference can be elite.
Arkansas was a national title contender last offseason. Then former head coach Bobby Petrino crashed his motorcycle on a crisp spring evening and sent the 2012 Razorback seasons spiraling out of control. Mississippi State climbed as high as No. 11 in the BCS standings last season, before reality set in and the Bulldogs lost five of their last six.
Which teams will disappoint in 2013?
People put too much stock in Florida's 33-23 loss to Louisville in the Sugar Bowl, and that debacle has nothing to do with Florida's place here. The Gators, who were ahead of schedule in 2012, find themselves on this list because they didn't solve their biggest issue this spring.
They finished last in the SEC in passing offense with 146.3 yards per game. For the most part, they didn't need to pass all that much, thanks to a stifling defense and talented running game behind the recently departed Mike Gillislee.
While sophomore Matt Jones can be—and likely will be—a boss at running back this season, he's inexperienced and will be running behind an offensive line that was littered with injuries this spring.
That puts more pressure on quarterback Jeff Driskel and that talented, yet underachieving wide receiving corps. Florida finished last in the SEC in passing plays of 10 or more yards and 13th in passing plays of 20 or more yards.
Florida needs to stretch the field.
Quinton Dunbar reportedly emerged as a leader at wide receiver this spring, and whether it's Dunbar, Demarcus Robinson, Trey Burton or Andre Debose, somebody needs to repeat the feat this fall. Until somebody does, it's hard to view the Gators as a legitimate national title contender.
Unlike Georgia, South Carolina and some other SEC contenders, Florida didn't solve its major problem this spring. That's not to say that they can't before toe meets leather, but in the SEC—with the margin for error being so thin—Florida can't be purposefully one-dimensional and match or exceed last season's success.
After starting out 7-0, the Bulldogs sputtered to an 8-5 finish last season and weren't all that competitive down the stretch.
quarterback Tyler Russell and a solid running game behind LaDarius Perkins return for head coach Dan Mullen, but he must replace virtually his entire wide receiving corps and cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay.
Not an easy task.
If Bulldog fans expect to reach that eight-win plateau again, they're going to be disappointed. Mississippi State was a product of an easy schedule last season, and that schedule toughens up this year—particularly with Oklahoma State looming in the opener.
Under Mullen, the program is 5-21 against Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) opponents who finish the season with eight or more wins. With LSU, Texas A&M, Alabama, South Carolina and Ole Miss on the schedule, the Bulldogs' bowl fate will live or die with their ability to beat Arkansas and Auburn. While those two programs were disasters last season, there's no guarantee that they'll stay down forever.
Can Mullen finally get a "signature win?" Will the Bulldogs beat Arkansas and Auburn in the same season again? One of those has to happen if the Bulldogs are going to go bowling following the 2013 season.
Tennessee being on this list isn't necessarily a knock against the program or first-year head coach Butch Jones. Jones is a great coach who will get Tennessee back into contention for the SEC East title.
Just not this season.
While Tennessee's most visible issues are the ongoing quarterback battle and the search for impact wide receivers, its most pressing issue is on defense where the Vols finished last in the SEC in total defensive last season, giving up 471.3 yards per game.
The switch back to the 4-3 will benefit players such as defensive linemen Maurice Couch and Daniel McCullers, and linebackers Jacques Smith and A.J. Johnson. But there still will be inconsistencies along the way.
That's what's going to get Tennessee in 2013—inconsistency.
The Vols have cross-division games versus Alabama and Auburn, and play Florida in the Swamp a week after visiting Oregon, in addition to tough intra-division games versus Georgia, South Carolina and Vanderbilt.
A bowl game would be a monumental feat for Jones in Year 1, but I'm not sure that's going to appease a Vol Nation that has been desperate for a winner for the better part of the decade.
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