Is there any point in even picking another conference to win the national title this year?
The physical and highly powered SEC has only won seven consecutive national championships in a row. In the remaining weeks of the 2012 season, six SEC teams were in the Top 10 of the BCS standings. The conference will continue to have depth again this season with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M fighting for the South Division title and Florida, Georgia and South Carolina battling it out for the East Division title.
Expect two BCS bids from the SEC for a third consecutive season and a conference race that will go down until the very end. Here is how the SEC Conference will look when it’s all said and done:
Alabama senior quarterback AJ McCarron.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Prediction: 13-0, 8-0 (1st in SEC West)
The Crimson Tide head into the 2013 season with three-peat on their minds after winning the last two titles. Nick Saban and Alabama have won three of the last four BCS National Championships and don’t appear to be stopping anytime soon.
The Alabama offense will be potent again with one of the most dangerous triple threats in the country consisting of senior quarterback AJ McCarron, sophomore running back T.J. Yeldon and sophomore wide receiver Amari Cooper. The Offensive line has question marks even though left tackle Cyrus Kouandjo and right guard Anthony Steen return. Sophomore Ryan Kelly will also take over at center after All-American center Barrett Jones departed for the NFL. It would not be a surprise if the line reloads with talent as usual, though.
The Crimson Tide defense, which returns eight starters from last season including All-American weak-side linebacker C.J. Mosley and 2013 All-American candidate free safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, was ranked first in the nation last season by only giving up only 250 yards per game. Linebacker Adrian Hubbard and cornerback Deion Belue are back and could be potential All-SEC candidates this year.
The schedule sets up nicely with bye weeks prior to traveling to Texas A&M and hosting LSU. The Crimson Tide avoid the toughest opponents from the SEC East Division: Florida, Georgia and South Carolina during their SEC Conference schedule. It appears they will be making a second consecutive appearance in Atlanta and face Georgia yet again. Will the Tide win a third consecutive BCS Championship?
LSU senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 (Tied-2nd in SEC West)
There are a lot of questions surrounding LSU as they enter the 2013 season. All eyes are on second year starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who did not exactly live up to the hype last season, and the defense must replace most of their starters from last season.
Mettenberger should improve his passing precision with new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. The running game looked to be a huge boost for the Tigers this season, but it is unknown if sophomore running back Jeremy Hill, who rushed for 755 yards last season, will be able to go this season after being suspended indefinitely for an arrest that took place in late April.
The receiving corps returns its top four starters from last season including Odell Beckham. The line should be solid with three starters returning.
While LSU returns most of its offense, they return just three on defense. The Tigers will have to replace their entire defensive line that included NFL draft picks Barkevious Mingo, Sam Montgomery and Beanie Logan. Middle linebacker Kevin Minter departed for the NFL as well.
With question marks on the defensive side, the secondary should still be talented with sophomore cornerback Jalen Mills and senior strong safety Craig Loston. Junior defensive tackle Anthony Johnson could also be one of the top defensive lineman in the SEC this season.
The Tigers have a tough schedule from Week 1. They have an intriguing opening week matchup with TCU in Arlington. In conference play, LSU travels to Georgia (Sept. 28), hosts Florida (Oct. 12), and heads to Ole Miss a week later, where they could be on upset alert. That’s not even the hardest part of their schedule. LSU must travel to Alabama on Nov. 9 and then host Texas A&M a week later. Even with questions surrounding this year’s LSU squad, don’t be surprised if Les Miles gets his team to 10 wins.
Texas A&M sophomore quarterback Johnny Manziel.
Texas A&M Aggies
Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 (Tied-2nd in SEC West)
It didn’t take long for Texas A&M to make a splash in college football’s toughest division, the SEC West. Kevin Sumlin’s Aggies became one of college football’s biggest surprises last season going an impressive 11-2.
You can’t help but talk about the most dynamic quarterback in college football, Johnny Manziel, who was the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy. It’s hard to imagine that Manziel could be even better this upcoming season without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury leaving for Texas Tech. Not only will Manziel be dangerous after breaking multiple records last season, but the Aggie backfield, receiving game and offensive line will be loaded with talent as well.
Ben Malena and Trey Williams return to the Aggie backfield from last year. Transfers Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Trey Carson (Oregon) will also join in on the backfield action as well. The receiving corps no longer has Ryan Swope, but will have a dangerous threat in sophomore Mike Evans, who could have a breakout 2013 campaign. Up front the Aggies will miss Luke Joeckel, but could be even more talented this year with the Matthews brothers (Jake and Mike), Jarvis Harrison, Germain Ifedi and Cedric Ogbuehi.
The Aggie defense was shaky at times last season, but found ways to make big plays when the game was on the line, especially at Alabama. The defensive front will have questions because of issues off-field for Kirby Ennis and injuries for Julien Obioha. The linebacking corps could be a concern even with outside linebacker Steven Jenkins returning and the secondary will have one of the best cornerbacks in the country in Deshazor Everett, if he is not suspended indefinitely after facing assault charges.
The Aggies should breeze through their first two games before their biggest game of the season on Sept. 14 at home against National Champion Alabama, who they upset last season in Tuscaloosa. Other than a tricky game at Ole Miss on Oct. 12 and traveling to LSU’s Death Valley on Nov. 23, the schedule should be favorable and the Aggies will have two losses at most by the end of the season.
Ole Miss senior running back Jeff Scott.
Ole Miss Rebels
Prediction: 7-5, 4-4 (4th in SEC West)
Under first year head coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss won an impressive seven games, including a bowl game win over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl.
What’s impressive about the recent success of this Ole Miss program is the recruiting job the coaching staff has done. They landed the No. 1 recruit in the nation Robert Nkemdiche, as well as Laquon Treadwell and top JUCO transfer defensive tackle Lavon Hooks.
Ole Miss returns eight on offense. Dual-threat quarterback Bo Wallace is coming off of January shoulder surgery and is looking to expand on his success from last season. Wallace passed for 2,994 yards and scored 30 total touchdowns. The running and passing game should be solid with returning starting running back Jeff Scott and wide receiver Donte Moncrief. Up front Ole Miss returns four starters, including center Evan Swindall and left guard Aaron Morris.
The defense is led by sophomore outside linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche, Robert’s older brother, who could be a potential All-SEC type player this season. The defensive unit also consists of returning starters in defensive end C.J. Johnson, who should be back after breaking his leg in the spring, and cornerback Charles Sawyer.
Ole Miss starts the season off with a difficult road game at up-and-coming Vanderbilt. They get FCS Southeast Missouri State the following week and then enter the gauntlet. The Rebels play at Texas, at Alabama, at Auburn and then home against Texas A&M and LSU. A rough 2-5 start is likely, but their last five games are all winnable. Look for the Rebels to hit a seven win total for the second consecutive year in a row. Ole Miss is a year or two away from being competitive in the SEC.
Prediction: 6-6, 2-6 (Tied-5th in SEC West)
Arkansas was viewed as an SEC Conference contender last season with one of the best quarterbacks in college football returning in Tyler Wilson. It became a nightmare, though. Interim head coach John L. Smith, who took over because of the Bobby Petrino incident, lost control of the situation in Fayetteville.
The second week upset loss to UL-Monroe and a 52-0 blowout loss a week later at home against Alabama basically ruined the Hogs season. With Smith out, it is time for incoming head coach Bret Bielema, who surprised many by leaving a successful Wisconsin program, to rebuild this Arkansas program.
The offense will be led by sophomore quarterback Brandon Allen. Allen may not be relied on as much to throw the ball, though. Bielema will incorporate more of a power running attack, something this Arkansas program has not been accustomed to in recent years. The rushing attack will be led by sophomore tailback Jonathan Williams—his backups will consist of Nate Holmes and Alex Collins. Up front, the Hogs have the best center in the SEC, Travis Swanson, but other than that, rebuilding is in the works.
The Hogs struggled on defense last season giving up 409.9 yards per game. They also were one of the worst passing defenses in the country giving up an astounding 285.8 yards per game. Seven returning starters are back from last season including senior defensive tackle Byran Jones and sophomore strong safety Rohan Gaines. There should be improvements on the defensive side, but the depth of talent could become an issue as the season progresses.
It’s realistic for Bielema’s squad to start the season off 4-0 and match their 2012 win total. The problem is that after their first four games they must play their first four conference games against Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. It’s likely the Hogs will be 4-4 after that slate of games and be forced to win at least two of their three toss-up games against Auburn, Ole Miss and Mississippi State to become bowl eligible at 6-6.
Auburn junior running back Tre Mason.
Prediction: 6-6, 2-6 (Tied-5th in SEC West)
It’s hard to imagine that Auburn won the the BCS National title just three years ago after what the nation witnessed last season. The Tigers went an embarrassing 3-9 and head coach Gene Chizik was fired.
Now it is former Auburn offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn, who helped lead the Tigers to a national championship before leaving to coach Arkansas State for one season, who is back at Auburn to get the football program back on track.
The Tiger offense was as Charles Barkley would say, “terrible” last season. They ranked 115th in the nation averaging 305 yards per game. The biggest question mark for Malzahn is which quarterback will step up and help his team win games?
Junior Kiehl Frazier, a dual-threat quarterback that was recruited by Malzahn when he was an offensive coordinator at Auburn, would be the obvious choice to be the starter. Unfortunately, Frazier struggled last season due to his poor passing. This means sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who split time with Kiehl last season, is in the running to be the starter as well. The backfield returns 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason and the receiving corps is a bit bare after losing Emory Blake.
The offensive line, which struggled last season returns four starters including Patrick Miller and Greg Robinson.
Ellis Johnson will take over the defense and will switch from a 4-3 defense to a 4-2-5 scheme instead. Junior Justin Garrett looked impressive in the spring and will play the hybrid safety/linebacker position known as the “Star”. The line, led by senior defensive end Dee Ford, is experienced and should be able to put pressure on the opposing team's quarterback. The secondary only recorded one interception last season, but returns cornerback Chris Davis and safety Jermaine Whitehead.
It should not be difficult to top last year’s win total of three. Auburn has a chance to start off 3-0 this season with home games against Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State. After that though, Malzahn’s squad will have to step it up. Home games against LSU (Sept. 21) and Ole Miss (Oct. 5), along with a road game at Texas A&M (Oct. 19) will be difficult. For the Tigers to become bowl eligible they need to win their non-conference games against Western Carolina and Florida Atlantic, as well as win at either Arkansas or Tennessee. The Tigers should be at least .500 at the end of the regular season and bowl eligible.
Mississippi State senior quarterback Tyler Russell.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Prediction: 5-7, 2-6 (7th in SEC West)
Last season, the Bulldogs started off with a magical 7-0 record, only to lose their last five of six games. Head coach Dan Mullen begins his fifth year in Starkville and it could be a season that tells if this Mississippi State program is headed in the right direction or not.
Fifth-year senior quarterback Tyler Russell passed for an impressive 2,897 yards and 24 touchdowns last season and is looking to improve this season. Russell will have senior tailback LaDarius Perkins (1,024 yards, eight TDs) in the backfield and have four returners on the starting line, including first team All-SEC guard Gabe Jackson.
Mississippi State had to replace their top four receivers from last season, meaning the receiving corps will be inexperienced. Fortunately, junior tight end Malcolm Johnson could be of help to Russell in the passing game.
The Bulldogs defensive line should be solid with senior defensive end Denico Autry and the linebacking corps will be fine with Benardrick McKinney back, who recorded 102 tackles last season. The secondary will miss last season's John Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks, as well as Darius Slay. Free safety Nickoe Whitley and strong safety Jay Hughes will be in charge this season.
Mississippi State starts off the season with a difficult matchup against Oklahoma State in Houston and then gets Alcorn State, Auburn and Troy. The Bulldogs need to be at 3-1 after September because the schedule, as last year, will begin to get difficult with games against LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M and Alabama. Out of Mississippi State’s last eight games, only two of them are sure wins (Bowling Green and Kentucky). Their sixth win will have to be against Arkansas (Nov. 23) or Ole Miss (Nov. 28). Unfortunately, that sixth win will not happen and the three year bowl streak will come to an end.
Georgia senior quarterback Aaron Murray.
Prediction: 11-2, 7-1 (Tied-1st in SEC East)
Five yards, that’s all Georgia would have needed to knock off Alabama and play for a BCS National Championship. Unfortunately, they came up just short, a trend that seems to be a part of Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia. Could this finally be the year Richt and company get over the hump though?
One of the best offenses in the nation and possibly in Georgia history returns 10 starters from last season including senior quarterback Aaron Murray. Murray, who decided to forgo the 2013 NFL Draft, passed for 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns last season. Not only will the offense have Murray, but also have the best backfield tandem in the nation with running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Malcolm Mitchell will lead the Georgia receiving corps and the O-line, which was mediocre at best last season, which has all of its starters returning.
Unlike the offense, the defense only returns three starters and will be without All-American Jarvis Jones and last year’s team leading tackler Alec Ogletree. The defense does show promise, though. Sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is an emerging star on this defensive unit and junior cornerback Damian Swann is a potential All-SEC player. We’ll find out how talented this Bulldog defense is right off the bat with three of their first four matchups against Top 10 caliber teams (Clemson, South Carolina and LSU).
With that being said, an explosive Georgia squad will be tested early with a tough road game at Clemson and two home games against South Carolina and LSU. If the Dawgs can get through the gauntlet and go 4-0 that would be a huge confidence booster. The only other big game for them would be against Florida (Nov. 2). In the end, Georgia will be in Atlanta playing for their third consecutive SEC Championship. Will a third time be a charm and can the Dawgs seek revenge on the Crimson Tide?
South Carolina junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Prediction: 11-1, 7-1 (Tied-1st in SEC East)
"The Hit", need I say more? The hit by All-American defensive end Jadeveon Clowney captured the college football nation with his bone-crushing, helmet-popping hit on Michigan running back Vincent Smith in the Outback Bowl last season. Needless to say, he is in the Heisman Trophy discussion for this upcoming season. Besides the Ol’ Ball coach Steve Spurrier having a potential No. 1 NFL draft pick back, there is talent on this Gamecock squad and an SEC East Division title is very much within reach.
The quarterback situation in not solved in Columbia yet. Talented senior quarterback Connor Shaw suffered injuries last season and is coming off left foot surgery. This gives junior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who threw the game-winning touchdown in the Outback Bowl, a chance to earn the starting job.
Don’t be surprised if Spurrier goes with a two-quarterback rotation.
The backfield will miss Marcus Lattimore and will rely on sophomores Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds. Bruce Ellington will lead an unproven receiving corps and the line will miss center T.J. Johnson even though everyone else is returning.
The defense dealt with injuries in the spring, but it doesn’t mean this Gamecock defense won’t be ready when the season gets on its way. Clowney is the clear leader on defense and will have defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles to complement him on the line. The linebacking corps has question marks with all three starters gone, but the secondary should be in good shape with junior cornerback Victor Hampton and two other starters back.
A win at Georgia in the second week of the season could be the deciding factor in what gets Steve Spurrier’s squad to Atlanta for the first time since 2010. They have a favorable schedule until November when they host Florida and Clemson. A win over Florida could clinch them a division title and a fourth consecutive win over Clemson may put them in the BCS title discussion. This is South Carolina’s chance to finally get over the hump.
Florida Junior cornerback/wide receiver Loucheiz Purifoy.
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (3rd in SEC East)
It did not take Will Muschamp long to get the Gators back in the national spotlight. One hiccup against rival Georgia costed them a chance to play for the SEC Championship, but they still managed to earn a BCS birth in the Sugar Bowl. Again, Florida will be in the running to win their first division title since 2009 this year. They must get by Georgia and South Carolina, though.
The Gator offense was not always pretty last season, but found ways to win ball games. The passing game ranked dead last in the SEC (146.3 yards per game) under current junior quarterback Jeff Driskel. Driskel proved he could be talented in the Gator rushing attack, but he will need to make improvements in the passing game.
Sophomore Matt Jones will be the leader in the backfield and Loucheiz Purifoy, who played only cornerback last year, will be on the offensive end with the receiving corps. The offense also won’t be able to rely as much on its kicking game with the loss of arguably the best kicker in Florida history, Caleb Sturgis.
With a subpar offense last season, the defense played lights out and were the reason why Florida was able to win close games. The stout Gator defense ranked fifth in the country in total defense (287.5 yards per game). The defense is led by senior Dominique Easley, who can play either end or tackle, and Purifoy, who will also play receiver but still be an All-American candidate at cornerback.
The Gators will have a difficult second week game as they travel to Miami (FL), who they have not faced since 2008. For conference games, the main three to look at will be at LSU (Oct. 12), vs Georgia in Jacksonville (Nov. 2) and at South Carolina (Nov. 16). The two SEC East Division games in November will make or break the Gators SEC title hopes.
Vanderbilt senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews.
Prediction: 8-4, 4-4 (4th in SEC East)
James Franklin has officially revitalized a Vanderbilt program that had been in the SEC Conference cellar for years. Last year, the Commodores had their first nine-win season since 1915 and will not be overlooked by opponents anymore.
The offense will miss quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy, who is Vanderbilt’s all-time leading rusher and had two 1,000-yard seasons. The offense will now likely be taken over by dual-threat quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels who transferred from Wyoming and started one game for the ‘Dores last season.
Wesley Tate, Brian Kimbrow and Jerron Seymour will take over running back duties in place of Stacy. The receiving corps is going to be the most dangerous aspect of this Vanderbilt offense. All-SEC senior wide receiver Jordan Matthews recorded 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns last season. The passing game will also include junior wide receiver Chris Boyd. The ‘Dores O-line led by senior left tackle Wesley Johnson, has made strides under Franklin and should continue to be of assistance to the offense.
In a conference that focuses heavily on defense, Vanderbilt is now fitting the mold of an SEC defensive unit. The ‘Dores finished fifth in the conference in total defense last season and will have expectations to do so again. Six starters return, including senior middle linebacker Chase Garnham and senior cornerback Andre Hal.
Vanderbilt opens their season with a Thursday night showdown at home against Ole Miss. This is a big game to get their 2013 campaign on its way. Vanderbilt has a solid chance of starting the season off 5-1 with their only loss coming at South Carolina. Mid-October is when things get interesting as they host Georgia (Oct. 19) and travel to Texas A&M (Oct. 26) and Florida (Nov.9). Their last three games are all winnable against Kentucky, Tennessee, and Wake Forest. The ‘Dores should hit the eight win total and be headed to their third straight bowl game.
Tennessee junior linebacker A.J. Johnson.
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 (5th in SEC East)
Butch Jones takes over a Tennessee program that has been rocky, to say the least, for the past five years. Since Phil Fulmer was fired in 2008, the program has gone through one year of Lane Kiffin and three years of Derek Dooley. It’s a high profile program that needs to be revitalized in order to keep their beloved fan base, as well as its recruit appeal.
An offense that put up 475.9 yards per game last season with quarterback Tyler Bray and a talented group of receivers may not be as explosive this season.
It’s likely Justin Worley, who started three games while Bray was injured in 2011, will win the starting quarterback job. The receiving corps lacks experience and could be the problem surrounding the Volunteer offense. The backfield returns its top two running backs, Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane. Both will be asked to be more productive this season. A talented Volunteer offensive line returns four starters, including talented potential All-SEC junior left tackle Antonio Richardson. It may be up to the line to win ball games this season.
The Volunteers basically return their entire defense from last season. That’s a good thing, right? It’s good to always have players with experience, but the defense last season ranked 13th or 14th in every defensive category in the SEC. New defensive coordinator John Jancek will switch from a 3-4 defensive scheme to a 4-3 this year in hopes of improving the defense. The one bright spot for the defense is the linebacking unit led by junior linebacker A.J. Johnson, who led the SEC with 138 tackles last season.
The schedule starts with Austin Peay and Bobby Petrino’s Western Kentucky squad. Starting 2-0 should not be too difficult, but it will be the following two weeks when they travel to hostile environments in Oregon and Florida. The schedule in October is as brutal is it can get. The Volunteers have two home games against Georgia and South Carolina, then a road game at Alabama. If Tennessee wants to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010, they must win at least three of their four games in November.
Missouri senior quarterback James Franklin.
Prediction: 5-7, 1-7 (6th in SEC East)
Missouri did not quite experience the same success as Texas A&M did as a first year member of the SEC. Gary Pinkel’s squad received a rude awakening by losing six of their eight conference games by an average of 19.2 points.
Senior quarterback James Franklin suffered injuries last season and is expected to be the starter once again. That is unless redshirt freshman Maty Mauk can somehow squeak his way into the starting lineup.
The Tiger rushing attack last season was one of the worst in the SEC, but redshirt junior running back Henry Josey could be the answer after sitting out last season with an injured left knee. Josey rushed for over 1,000 yards in 2011 before being injured at the end of the season. The receiving corps includes senior Marcus Lucas and one of the top recruits from 2012, sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham.
The Tigers defense gave up 28.4 points per game last season and will not have All-SEC Sheldon Richardson after his departure for the NFL. There will still be experience on the defensive line with junior defensive end Kony Ealy and junior defensive tackle Matt Hoch. An average Missouri secondary will be led by talented senior cornerback E.J. Gaines.
Going undefeated through September is a realistic possibility, but once October hits everything could turn to complete chaos. The Tigers have road games at Vanderbilt and Georgia, as well as home games against Florida and South Carolina. If Missouri can’t take at least two games in November against Tennessee, Kentucky or Ole Miss, the Tigers will not be bowl eligible for a second straight year and Gary Pinkel’s job will be in jeopardy.
Kentucky senior linebacker Avery Williamson.
Prediction: 3-9, 0-8 (7th in SEC East)
After going 13-24 over three years, Joker Phillips is out and Florida State defensive coordinator Mark Stoops is in. The “Air Raid” offensive attack is being brought back to Kentucky and a 3-4 defensive scheme will be switched to a 4-3.
New offensive coordinator Neal Brown heads back to Lexington where he started his college career as a player. Brown ran an “Air Raid” offense at Texas Tech the past three years and will be installing it at Kentucky. The quarterback situation is still up for grabs with a three-way battle between Sophomores Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Jalen Whitlow. Senior running backs Raymond Sanders and Jonathan George return in the backfield while Junior Demarco Robinson and sophomore A.J. Legree lead the Wildcat receiving corps.
Stoops brought defensive line coach D.J. Eliot with him from Florida State to take over defensive coordinator duties. The line should be the most talented unit of the Kentucky defense with junior defensive end Alvin Dupree and senior defensive tackle Donte Rumph returning. The best player on this Wildcat defense will be middle linebacker Avery Williamson who recorded 135 tackles last season and was the second leading tackler in the SEC.
Kentucky opens the season against Western Kentucky in Nashville. The Wildcats were upset by the Hilltoppers last season 32-31 in overtime. The Western Kentucky and Miami (OH) games are winnable, but the next four against Louisville, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama will be tough. If the Wildcats pull off any conference wins they will be against Missouri or Tennessee. A four or five win season for Stoops would be impressive.
Alabama's Amari Cooper catches the game-winning touchdown in last year's SEC Championship game.
An SEC Championship rematch from last year that ended with Georgia coming up five yards short for a trip to the BCS National Championship could be in the making. Two talented senior quarterbacks in Alabama’s AJ McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray will be on the big stage again along with their lethal offenses.
Will Mark Richt and Georgia finally get the monkey off their back and win a big game? The last time there was a rematch in the SEC Championship was in 2009 and Alabama knocked off defending national champion Florida for a spot in the BCS National Championship game.