SEC Football: Predicting How Every Conference Team Will Finish in 2013
Earlier in August, we gave you possible SEC East and West division records based on toss-up games and how the chips fall for each program. Now it's time for rubber to meet the road and give you final records for each of the 14 SEC programs.
Will Alabama three-peat? Can one of the other top contenders emerge to extend the streak of SEC teams winning BCS National Championships to eight? Will the conference cannibalize itself and allow a team from another conference to hoist the crystal football?
Our final predictions for the nation's top football conference are in this slide show.
SEC West 7. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The season of hope turned into the winter of despair last season in Starkville as the Mississippi State Bulldogs—who started 7-0—dropped five of their last six games.
They enter the 2013 campaign looking to recapture some of that magic and have a good foundation with senior Tyler Russell at quarterback (2,897 yards, 24 TDs), LaDarius Perkins at running back (1,024 yards, eight TDs) and an underrated offensive line. But Russell threw nine of his 10 picks in those final six games and has a brand-new receiving corps this year.
Cornerbacks Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay, linebacker Cameron Lawrence and defensive lineman Josh Boyd are gone from the defense, but defensive end Denico Autry and linebacker Benardrick McKinney are solid pieces to build around.
Head coach Dan Mullen is 5-21 against FBS opponents that finish the season with eight or more wins during his four years in Starkville, and he desperately needs a signature win.
He won't get it this season.
Prediction: 4-8 (1-7 SEC)
SEC West 6. Arkansas Razorbacks
Former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema is the right man for the job in Fayetteville, but it's going to take some time for the transition to the new regime to take place.
Brandon Allen won the quarterback job during fall camp and has an underrated corps of receivers to throw to that includes seniors Javontee Herndon and Julian Horton. But Bielema's installing a smashmouth style with some inexperienced running backs in Jonathan Williams (231 yards) and freshman Alex Collins.
It's going to be hard to compete in his own division doing that no matter what with LSU and Alabama doing the same with better players—but even harder in Year 1.
The Razorbacks are solid up front on defense with Chris Smith (9.5 sacks) and Trey Flowers (six sacks) but need that pass rush to create opportunities for an inconsistent secondary.
A brutal schedule, major roster turnover and the transition make this a rebuilding year in Fayetteville.
Prediction: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)
SEC West 5. Auburn Tigers
Former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is back in Auburn after a one-year absence, but now he's calling the shots as the head coach of the Tigers.
Malzahn gets labeled as a spread guru, but his hurry-up, no-huddle offense is predicated on a punishing running game. Auburn is versatile in that department with Tre Mason (1,000 yards, eight TDs), Cameron Artis-Payne (spring game MVP) and speedster Corey Grant in the fold.
A veteran offensive line should help, but Auburn desperately needs new quarterback Nick Marshall to cut back on the 20 interceptions he threw last season at Garden City (Kan.) Community College. Marshall has the athleticism and arm strength to be a star, but he has to learn to trust Malzahn's system more than himself.
New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson brings his 4-2-5 scheme to the Plains, and if he can get some consistency up front against the run, the Tigers will be fine. A talented yet underachieving defensive line got a boost this summer from newcomers Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Elijah Daniel.
The Tigers will be competitive in virtually every game and prove that they're going in the right direction.
Prediction: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
SEC West 4. Texas A&M Aggies
The status of Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel was up in the air up until game week, after reports surfaced that he allegedly was paid for autographs, per Outside the Lines (via ESPN.com's Darren Rovell and Justine Gubar).
According to Billy Liucci of TexAgs.com, Manziel will serve a half-game suspension in the opener versus Rice, and will suit up for the rest of the season for the Aggies.
A&M's offense is going to look much different in 2013, thanks to a four-headed stable of running backs in Ben Malena, Brandon Williams, Trey Williams and Tra Carson—all of whom excel in different areas.
Toss in a wide receiving corps that features 6'5" Mike Evans (1,105 yards, five TDs), 6'5" Ricky Seals-Jones and 6'3" JaQuay Williams, and Manziel—or whoever takes the snaps—has options.
Simply put, Manziel shouldn't have to rush for 1,410 yards this year.
The front seven is full of holes, but linebackers Steven Jenkins and Donnie Baggs, and defensive tackle Julien Obioha are good enough to put pressure on an offense. If that translates to turnovers, that's all the Aggies need with the offense they have.
A&M will spring an upset on Alabama, but also stumble against LSU in Death Valley and to Ole Miss in Oxford. The latter will cause them to lose the third-place tiebreaker to the Rebels.
Prediction: 10-2 (6-2, SEC)
SEC West 3. Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss posted a respectable 7-6 record last season but was an eyelash away from being a nine-win team or better.
Eighteen of 21 starters return in 2013, including quarterback Bo Wallace (2,994 yards, 22 TDs), running back Jeff Scott (850 yards, six TDs) and wide receiver Donte Moncrief (979, 10 TDs). Wallace underwent offseason shoulder surgery—an injury that nagged him during last season. If that helps cut down on those 17 interceptions, look out SEC West.
Denzel Nkemdiche returns at linebacker to lead an underrated defense that is getting a talent injection with brother Robert Nkemdiche at defensive end and safety Tony Conner.
If the Rebels can withstand a brutal early-season schedule, they can make some noise in the SEC West. An upset over Texas A&M in Oxford will earn the Rebels the tiebreaker over Texas A&M for third place in the division, but they will have a worse record overall thanks to an out-of-conference loss to Texas.
Prediction: 9-3 (6-2 SEC)
SEC West 2. LSU Tigers
LSU lost eight starters on defense, but don't be fooled by the numbers: The Tigers have been in "next man up" mode for quite some time now.
Guys like defensive tackles Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, linebackers Lamin Barrow, Tahj Jones and Kwon Alexander, cornerbacks Jalen Mills and Jalen Collins and safety Craig Loston form a solid foundation for head coach Les Miles.
Quarterback Zach Mettenberger took a lot of heat last season, but he threw for more than 215 yards in each of the final four games of the regular season, gets essentially his entire wide receiving corps back, has a veteran offensive line returning and running backs Alfred Blue, Kenny Hilliard and Jeremy Hill to do the dirty work. Not to mention the Tigers upgraded at offensive coordinator with Cam Cameron.
It's been "LSU and Alabama" in the SEC West for the last two seasons, and that won't change this season. Get ready for Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa, because that game will again be the de facto SEC West title game.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)
SEC West 1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Yeah, picking Alabama to win the West is like betting on the Harlem Globetrotters over the Washington Generals at this point. But the Crimson Tide have earned the benefit of the doubt.
A ridiculous wealth of talent at running back led by T.J. Yeldon (1,108, 12 TDs), at wide receiver led by Amari Cooper (999 yards, 11 TDs) and at quarterback in senior AJ McCarron (2,933 yards, 30 TDs) return to Tuscaloosa. That versatility will allow the Tide to succeed in a variety of ways.
Alabama is strong up the middle, with Brandon Ivory up front, C.J. Mosley and Trey DePriest at linebacker and safeties Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Landon Collins and Vinnie Sunseri at the back. The question is at corner, where Deion Belue is stepping into the No. 1 spot at corner in place of Dee Milliner, and with Geno Smith, John Fulton or Bradley Sylve stepping into that other spot.
It's the uncertainty at cornerback that gives Alabama its one loss of the season at Texas A&M, but it won't be enough to keep the Crimson Tide out of Atlanta.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 SEC, SEC West Champs)
SEC East 7. Kentucky Wildcats
First-year head coach Mark Stoops has burst onto the scene in Lexington, re-energizing the Kentucky football program thanks to what could be a top-10 class in 2014.
Unfortunately, Stoops still has to coach the Wildcats during the 2013 season, and that could take some wind out of the sails of Big Blue Nation.
Dual-threat quarterback Jalen Whitlow turned heads this spring with a solid performance in the spring game, and both he and last year's starter out of fall camp, Max Smith, will see snaps in the opener. Smith is serviceable, and new offensive coordinator Neal Brown can tweak his system a bit to fit Whitlow's skills. The questions at quarterback aren't ideal for Stoops.
Because there isn't a lot of depth on that Wildcats defense for the O to rely on.
Donte Rumph is solid up front, junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith is a potential star at defensive end and linebacker Avery Williamson is reliable. But that's not enough talent or depth to be consistent in the SEC.
It'll be a long year in the Bluegrass State, but the best is yet to come.
Prediction: 3-9 (0-8 SEC)
SEC East 6. Tennessee Volunteers
The cupboard isn't exactly bare in Knoxville for first-year Tennessee head coach Butch Jones, but there are certainly plenty of questions to go around.
Most importantly, at quarterback.
Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Riley Ferguson and Josh Dobbs battled it out during fall camp for the top spot on Tennessee's depth chart and did so with essentially a brand-new cast of wide receivers. Worley will be the first one out against Austin Peay, but don't be surprised if Jones is quick to pull him in favor of one of the younger players—especially if Nathan Peterman plays well in game action.
Luckily for the Vols, an extremely talented offensive line and an underrated running back corps led by Rajion Neal (708 yards, 5 TDs) exist to stabilize the offense if the passing game is inconsistent.
Defensively, there's talent. But a third scheme change in three years (this time, back to the 4-3), is going to be challenging. Daniel McCullers is a stud up front, and linebacker A.J. Johnson (SEC-best 138 tackles) has All-American written all over him. A lot depends on the return of safety Brian Randolph from his ACL injury and his ability to lead that secondary back into respectability.
There's one big problem for Tennessee: A razor-thin margin for error. The Vols play five of the preseason top 10 from the USA Today coaches poll, including No. 1 Alabama and No. 3 Oregon on the road.
Prediction: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
SEC East 5. Missouri Tigers
It's a make-or-break year for Missouri head coach Gary Pinkel, and even if he leads the Tigers to a bowl game, it might not be enough for the 12th-year head coach to stay employed.
The Tigers' season likely rests in the hands of dual-threat quarterback James Franklin (1,684 total yards 10 total TDs, 7 INTs). Franklin was banged up a bit last season, but if he stays healthy, he has the ability to present headaches for opposing defensive coordinators.
Missouri's offense will get a boost from the return of running back Henry Josey (1,168 yards and 9 TDs in 2011), who missed all of last season with a knee injury. He's more of a threat on the edges, but the 5'10", 190-pounder is no slouch between the tackles. Toss in Marcus Lucas and potential superstar Dorial Green-Beckham at wide receiver, and the Tigers offense has potential.
They might not stop anybody, though.
E.J. Gaines is solid at corner, and Andrew Wilson is a serviceable linebacker, but the absence of Sheldon Richardson up front on the defensive line will be apparent and will be a big reason why the Tigers struggle with consistency.
Prediction: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
SEC East 4. Vanderbilt Commodores
This is arguably the golden age for Vanderbilt football in the modern era, and now third-year head coach James Franklin is riding the SEC's longest winning streak (seven) into the season looking to take the next step.
Will the Commodores take it and topple one of the big boys in the SEC?
They have the offense to do it.
Jordan Matthews is arguably the best wide receiver in the conference and can present matchup headaches for opposing defenses. The running game should be stable with a committee consisting of Wesley Tate (376 yards, eight TDs), Brian Kimbrow (413 yards, three TDs) and Jerron Seymour, lining up behind dual-threat Wyoming transfer Austyn Carta-Samuels at quarterback.
This offense put up 38 or more points in five of its last seven games last season, and as long as the defense led by linebacker Chase Garnham (84 tackles) and defensive back Andre Hal (two interceptions) can put it in good positions, it should repeat the feat in 2013.
The schedule is a bit tricky for the Commodores, which is a big reason why, on paper, it won't look like they took that next step when the season is over. But don't be fooled—they'll be in virtually every game, which is a major step for the 'Dores.
Prediction: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)
SEC East 3. Florida Gators
Florida will take a step back this year, due in part to inconsistency on offense and because of a brutal schedule.
The Gators' inability to stretch the field with the passing game makes for a stressful brand of football regardless of opponent. With Miami, South Carolina, Georgia, LSU and Florida State on the docket, a five-loss season is likely.
I like Matt Jones (275 yards, three TDs) at running back. Assuming he recovers from the viral infection that hampered the start of fall camp and will keep him out of the opener, he has all that it takes to be a superstar. But can he be as consistent as his predecessor, Mike Gillislee? That's a lot to ask.
Quarterback Jeff Driskel needs wide receiver help, and until he gets it consistently, the Gators will struggle. Quinton Dunbar may have taken a step forward this offseason, but this wasn't the first offseason where that's been discussed.
Defensively, they're in "next man up" mode. Ronald Powell is back and shifting to linebacker to make room for "Buck" Dante Fowler Jr. The secondary could be one of the best in the country with Loucheiz Purifoy, Marcus Roberson locking down the edges and senior Jaylen Watkins at safety. But if the Gators move Purifoy to wide receiver at times, that puts a ton of pressure on superstar freshman Vernon Hargreaves III.
The Gators will be competitive but not consistently get (or force) the breaks they got last season.
Prediction: 7-5 (5-3)
SEC East 2. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina has posted 11-win seasons in each of the last two years, and now it's time to take the next step and legitimately contend for the BCS National Championship.
Head coach Steve Spurrier has the pieces to do it.
Quarterback Connor Shaw is 17-3 as a starter in Columbia and, aside from being remarkably efficient, has the legs to be tremendous in the running game. He has rushed for an average 59.9 yards per game when former running back Marcus Lattimore is out of the lineup and scored eight of his 11 rushing touchdowns. Toss in Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds, and the Gamecocks' ground game is dynamic and versatile.
Bruce Ellington (600 yards, seven TDs) returns at wide receiver, and the Head Ball Coach is looking for a complementary piece during fall camp.
With Heisman contender Jadeveon Clowney, Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles up front, the Gamecocks will present problems at the line of scrimmage. That has a tendency to filter through the entire defense, which should benefit cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree.
A somewhat forgiving schedule keeps the Gamecocks in the discussion, but a loss at Georgia prevents them from taking that next step.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)
SEC East 1. Georgia Bulldogs
"Georgia's defense has too many holes."
"The schedule is too tough."
Georgia's defense will be fine. That crew led by Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins and Bacarri Rambo was horrendous against the run (182.14), and the Bulldogs were still five yards away from playing for the crystal football. The new-look defense led by linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera, safety Tray Matthews and defensive linemen Garrison Smith and Mike Thornton is better-suited to stop the run.
Even if it doesn't, it won't matter.
Georgia's offense returns essentially everybody except wide receiver Tavarres King but is getting a full season of Malcolm Mitchell in his place and Michael Bennett back from injury.
If the defense lets the Bulldogs down and forces them into a shootout, quarterback Aaron Murray (3,893 yards, 36 TDs) can handle it. If they want to play ground-and-pound, running backs Todd Gurley (1,385 yards, 17 TDs) and Keith Marshall (759 yards, eight TDs) will be all for it.
Georgia stumbles at home to LSU at the end of September but will win the division, upset Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and win the BCS National Championship over Ohio State.
Prediction: 11-1 (7-1 SEC, SEC Champs, BCS National Champs)