In a week filled with college football conference previews and predictions, we finally give you our preview of the best conference in college football- the SEC.
People may poke fun at the SEC for their arrogance and their latching on to the success of their Godfather- the Alabama Crimson Tide- but at the end of the day, you can’t argue with success.
The SEC has seven straight National Championships in their ear. They can’t hear you.
What they can hear, however, is the noise coming from inside of the walls of the college football’s premier conference. They can hear Georgia, Florida, Alabama, and South Carolina gearing up for another year and another set of battles.
The question is, will one of those teams rise to the top and lift the conference’s seventh straight crystal ball or will an outside foe finally take down the SEC and claim the throne for their own?
Can Alabama do the unthinkable and pull off a three-peat? Can they win their fourth title in five years? Can Nick Saban become the greatest coach in the history of college football?
That all remains to be seen, but we can try to break things down and take a look at the 2013 edition of the SEC.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Projected Record: 12-0
Projected SEC Record: 8-0
There is little to no doubt that the Alabama Crimson Tide and head coach Nick Saban will climb to the precipice of history and reach their third straight National Title game and their fourth National Title game in five seasons. Their biggest concern this season, however, is not becoming complacent.
It’s hard to not be complacent when you’ve won three National Championships in four years. It’s hard not to be complacent when you’re returning the starting QB who has won you the past two titles. It’s hard not to be complacent when you recruit the way Nick Saban does and fill huge holes left by former starters with even bigger and better players.
And yet, there’s no way that they’ll be complacent. He’s Nick Saban. They’re Alabama. It’s just not going to happen.
Offensively, the story this season revolves around senior QB AJ McCarron, who may just be the most underrated and most efficient player in college football.
In last year’s championship season, McCarron put up unworldly numbers: 211 for 314, 2,933 yards, 30 TD, 3 INT, 175.3 QB Rating.
Wrap your mind around the 10-1 touchdown to interception radio for a second.
Not only is he incredibly efficient, but he doesn’t make mistakes. It’s really unbelievable.
Of course, in the past couple of seasons McCarron has relied on a balanced offense with a strong running attack to add to his success and this season should be no different thanks to running back TJ Yeldon.
Last season as a freshman behind Eddie Lacy, Yeldon piled up 1,108 yards on just 175 attempts and scored 12 touchdowns. This season, Yeldon has the backfield to himself and will look to continue to grow as one of the nation’s top rushers.
Unfortunately, there is a huge question mark for the Alabama offense and it affects both McCarron and Yeldon- what is going to happen with the offensive line?
The bottomline is that the Crimson Tide lost four elite offensive linemen in the 2013 NFL Draft and that’s essentially irreplaceable. The hope is that this new group can replicate the offensive production that the last group was capable of creating, but that isn’t at all likely.
McCarron and Yeldon will still be elite talents, but without help on the line the Crimson Tide offense will be much less productive than they have been in the past.
As for the defense, losing Dee Milliner will definitely hurt, but Nick Saban and Kirby Smart still run the defensive show and therefore, Alabama will be just fine.
Linebacker CJ Moseley will return for his junior year and lead this defense while maintaining his great individual production as well. In 2012, Mosley finished with 66 solo tackles, two interceptions, eight tackles for loss, and four sacks in his best season yet as a member of the Tide defense.
Of course, even with a stud like Mosley returning, it’s still Kirby Smart that is the MVP of this defense. Smart’s pattern-matching scheme has proven to be the most ingenious and effective defense in the country and as long as he’s in Tuscaloosa, the Tide’s defense will be of a historic caliber.
The most interesting part of these Alabama season is absolutely their matchup in College Station with the Texas A&M Aggies. After an embarrassing home loss to freshman Johnny Manziel and the Aggies last season, Alabama has had this game scheduled, highlighted, and literally placed throughout their entire football facility.
The tape of the 2012 matchup between these two teams is shown repeatedly in the Alabama football compound- in each meeting room, each weight station, on each and every single TV- to remind the Tide just what happened a year ago.
It’s going to be a blood bath. If there’s one thing you don’t do, you don’t upset Nick Saban. He will make you pay and make you pay handily.
That matchup with Texas A&M is going to be a message for Johnny Football, Texas A&M, and the entire country. You don’t mess with the Crimson Tide more than once. Period.
After that matchup, the schedule is a cakewalk until the SEC Championship Game. It remains to be seen who the Crimson Tide will face in that game, but an appearance in it is all but official.
Alabama should be the favorite to repeat in the SEC, but in a conference like this, it’s certain to be close.
Projected Record: 11-1
Projected SEC Record: 7-1
After Alabama clinched last season’s National Championship, the nation forgot exactly what had happened just a month prior.
Down 32-28, the number three Bulldogs were on the 34 yard-line with just 23 seconds left in the game. 22 yards later, the Bulldogs were on the eight yard-line with 15 seconds left.
With the game on the line, Murray dropped back, looked right, and threw the ball. Halfway through it’s flight, the ball was tipped and fell into the hands of a Georgia receiver who caught it and slid down. The clock worked it’s way down to zero and the Bulldogs chances of a National Championship Game appearance, as well as an SEC Championship, were over.
One decision- the decision to not catch the tipped pass- could have taken the Georgia Bulldogs who made their way to Miami for the BCS National Championship Game and not the Crimson Tide.
While the heartbreaking loss certainly weighs heavily on the Bulldogs, this year is all about redemption. That redemption starts with Aaron Murray in his senior year with Georgia.
Murray has put up some very impressive numbers in his three seasons as a starter, but none were better than his last. In 2012, Murray racked up 3,893 yards and 36 touchdowns on his way to that near-SEC Championship season. If Murray can improve at all on those statistics, the Bulldogs could be right back in the Georgia Dome against that same Alabama team.
While Murray is a top-five quarterback in the FBS and maybe the top quarterback in the SEC, he does have help behind him and in front of him.
In terms of the running game, again, the Bulldogs seem elite. Their starter, sophomore Todd Gurley, had a tremendous freshman season in which he ran for 1,385 yards on 222 attempts and 17 touchdowns. Meanwhile, his backup and fellow freshman, Keith Marshall, ran for 759 yards and eight touchdowns of his own. That tandem, in addition to Murray, gives this offense an incredibly balanced attack.
As for the offensive line, they return all five starters from last season.
Murray, Gurley and Marshall, and the entire offensive line are returning from this season. There’s no reason they shouldn’t be even better than they were in 2012.
The only question mark comes with the wide receivers, who actually did lose their premier player in Tavarres King. That being said, however, the Bulldogs have young talent in the form of Malcom Mitchell and Michael Bennett who are ready to lead the way on the outside.
The defense is what will make or break the Bulldogs in 2013 and as much as that’s a cliché, it’s absolutely true.
After essentially losing nine starters this offseason, Georgia will be looking for answers with this young and inexperienced group.
They could very well become a major problem and lead the Bulldogs to a subpar season, but defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has hope that his early enrollees will be fast enough learners to hit the ground running in 2013.
If the defense holds it’s own, there’s no telling how far they can go. If the defense falters, there’s no telling how terribly this team will struggle.
Aaron Murray deserves a chance in his senior season and hopefully his defense will be ready to give it to him.
Projected Record: 10-2
Projected SEC Record: 6-2
The Florida Gators are flying WAY under the radar in 2013.
You can blame that on the egg they laid in the 2012 Sugar Bowl against the Louisville Cardinals, but let’s not forget that this Florida team lost one game last season- to Georgia- and did something Alabama could not- beat Texas A&M.
After a rough start in the Swamp, Gators head coach Will Muschamp has put together a very quality program in Gainesville- a program that can contend in the premier conference in college football.
It starts with Jeff Driskel, the Gators junior QB who wasn’t all that good in 2012. A true athlete, Driskel was a dual-threat and 2012 but was more efficient with his arm than he was with his legs. On 156 completions, Driskel passed for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns, and five interceptions, with a QB rating of 132.2. On the ground, he accounted for 408 yards and four touchdowns.
Driskel must be more efficient in all aspects of the game because he no longer has Mike Gillislee.
Gillislee was the big offensive weapon for the Gators in 2012 at the tailback position, running for 1,152 yards on 244 carries and scoring 10 touchdowns. Sophomore Mike Jones is going to have to carry the load on the ground while proving that he is the man for the job.
The good news for the Gators offensively is that their offensive line is great. Two transfer offensive linemen, Tyler Moore from Nebraska and Max Garcia from Maryland, bolster an already good offensive line and set up Driskel and the backfield for big success.
In a conference with great offensive talent, the Gators may tout one of the better defenses in the concert.
The biggest help for the Gators defensive group comes from Ronald Powell, who will return after missing all last season with a knee injury. In 2011, Powell was an All-SEC player as a defensive line and outside linebacker who logged six sacks for the tremendous Florida defense that season.
If Powell can come back effectively from his injury, that may be the boost the Gators need to be one of the best defensive teams in the country.
There is yet another All-SEC-capable linebacker on defense and that is sophomore Antonio Morrison.
Morrison has had a rough offseason with multiple arrests, but seems to be truly apologetic and ready to perform at an elite level.
Overall, the Gators schedule sets up favorably for a big-time run and a possible SEC Championship birth. It might come down to the “World’s Biggest Cocktail Party”- the battle between Florida and Georgia- in November, as to which team will represent the SEC East in the Championship game.
Projected Record: 9-3
Projected SEC Record: 6-2
*DISCLAIMER: Written before game with North Carolina on 8/29/2013.
You might be surprised to see the Gamecocks behind Georgia and Florida in the SEC East, but Jadeveon Clowney is only one player.
Clowney- the consummate favorite to be the top pick in the 2014 NFL Draft- has wowed just about everyone with his incredible speed, strength, and athleticism. Oh yea, and that hit against Michigan didn’t hurt. But Clowney is one player at one position and the Gamecocks are going to need much more than one player to succeed in this elite conference.
Fortunately, they do. They have plenty of talented players outside of Clowney, and the first is QB Connor Shaw.
After sitting behind the embattled Stephen Garcia for a couple of seasons, Shaw was given the reigns in 2012 and showed just how a great a quarterback he can be.
Passing for 1,956 yards on just 154 attempts, Shaw proved to be a very efficient QB in week one. He wasn’t asked to do too much, as the lowly number of attempts show, but when he was called upon he performed very well. This season, we’ll be seeing a lot more of Shaw and maybe the increase in reps will throttle him to the top of this QB-heavy conference.
While he is definitely a good passer, Shaw has shown his aptitude for the rushing attack as well. After a 2011 that produced 525 yards on 135 carries and eight touchdowns, Shaw’s 2012 rushing numbers took a minor hit, as he produced 435 yards on 131 carries and just three touchdowns. Good numbers nonetheless, Shaw’s improvement as a passer may have affected his ground game.
This season, it’s expected that Shaw will take a massive leap forward in both his passing and rushing totals on his way to a breakout senior season.
While Shaw will take a step forward, the rest of the Gamecocks offense may have taken a step back, as two major players are no longer with this South Carolina program.
Of course, the first loss was running back Marcus Latimore, who suffered that all-too-gruesome injury against Tennessee that ended his senior season and South Carolina career prematurely.
In just nine games last season, Lattimore had 662 yards on just 143 carries before the infamous knee injury occurred. He was well on his way to another quality season when it all just came to a screeching stop. Drafted by the 49ers in the 2013 NFL Draft, Lattimore is making his way back to the field and we all certainly wish him the best through his intense rehabiliation.
The bottomline is, however, that you don’t replace the 2,677 yards and 38 touchdowns that Lattimore piled up throughout his career and yet, sophomore running back Mike Davis will attempt to do so.
After rushing for just 275 yards on 52 attempts last season, the 5’9, 215 pound Davis will take the reigns as the starting running back. If he can come anywhere near Lattimore’s level of production, this Gamecocks offense may be one of the best in the SEC.
On top of losing their top rusher, the Gamecocks are also losing their top receiver, Ace Sanders.
Sanders finished 2012 with 45 receptions for 531 yards and nine touchdowns, leaving the 2013 team with a huge question mark on the outside.
Luckily, they continue to sport tremendous depth on the outside with Bruce Ellington, Damiere Byrd, and Nick Jones all looking to take over for Sanders.
Finally, we make our way back to Clowney and the defense.
Clowney is a once in a lifetime defender that instantly makes this group one of the best in college football.
In 2012, Clowney put together an astounding 13 sacks- 4.5 of which were against their in-state rival, the Clemson Tigers- and 23.5 tackles for loss in just his sophomore year in a South Carolina uniform.
An All-American consensus choice in 2012, all eyes will be on Clowney as he makes his way through his final season in college football and heads to the 2014 NFL Draft.
Clowney isn’t the only player on the defensive line, however, that’s going to make an impact. While Jadeveon makes him look inferior- as he would anyone- senior end Chaz Sutton is primed for a big season after amassing five sacks last season. Kelcy Quarles and T.J. Surratt will lineup on the interior of this line and consummate the constant QB attacking for this Gamecocks line.
In a league saturated with elite QB’s, we all know which team is going to get to them the most.
As for the rest of the defense, it’s pretty darn good as well. The secondary is a very good group of young talent and veteran leadership and even the neophyte linebackers will benefit from the dominant defense line.
The biggest problem with South Carolina this season is undoubtedly their schedule. The offense is somewhat unproven and that could be a concern, but the schedule is what should worry Gamecocks fans the most.
To start the season, the Gamecocks face off against the rival North Carolina Tar Heels before heading to Georgia for a battle with the Bulldogs in just their second game of the year. They then have to face the always brutal SEC schedule that includes a home matchup with the Florida Gators- the only team to beat South Carolina in 2012.
Finally, the end things as they always do against their arch-rival Clemson Tigers at home in Columbia.
Unlike many teams, the Gamecocks don’t get a chance to gel before entering the heart of their schedule, they hit the ground running right away with North Carolina and Georgia.
For a team with so many holes to fill on the offensive end, those games may end up the kryptonite in an otherwise flawless effort. Of course, the games with Florida and Clemson don’t help either, but if the Gamecocks can get past their early season schedule without a loss, they could be on the road to an SEC Championship appearance.
Texas A&M Aggies
Projected Record: 10-2
Projected SEC Record: 6-2
The real story about Texas A&M revolves around their young defense and cupcake schedule- not Johnny Football.
While Manziel is college football’s most intriguing story line, there is so much more to this Aggies team than an over-hyped, spoiled brat who became the first freshman to ever win the Heisman Trophy.
The reality is, that even without Manziel, this team would steamroll the majority of the teams they play.
Head coach Kevin Sumlin has demanded efficiency from his offense and boy has he seen it.
The Aggies produced a total of 7,261 yards of total offense last season and there’s not all that much that will prevent them from doing so in 2013. Aside from the loss of left tackle Luke Joeckel- the second pick in the 2013 NFL Draft- the majority of the playmakers from this Aggies team are ready to pick up where they left off.
Of course you have Manziel, who was suspended for only a single half in their opening matchup with Rice, who is more than capable of lighting the FBS on fire for the second year in a row.
The historic 2012 for Manziel produced 3,076 passing yards and 26 touchdowns through the air and 1,571 yards and 21 touchdowns on the ground, for an incredible total of 5,277 yards of offense and 47 total touchdowns- absolutely unbelievable numbers for anyone and especially for a freshman.
While Manziel did the heavy lifting on the offensive end, running back Ben Malena was a more than capable option out of the backfield, accounting for just over 800 yards on the ground.
Should Malena continue that output, and Manziel live up to the hype, there’s no reason to think that this Texas A&M offense couldn’t be historic again in 2013.
The defense is going to be a project, as losing six starters is never an easy task to overcome.
On the line, Spencer Nealy and Damontre Moore will leave enormous holes- holes that will need to be filled quickly should the Aggies want to stop the Yeldon-like rushing attacks of the SEC.
Two more starting linebackers need replacing and Tommy Sanders, along with Donnie Baggs, better be up to handle that tremendous job.
Finally, Dustin Harris and Steven Terrell leave another two massive holes that will hopefully be filled by newly-crowned starting safety Floyd Raven and sophomore De’Vante Harris.
The reality is that while the offense could be great, the defense simply doesn’t match-up. In a conference that contains LSU and Alabama, you’re going to need defense to win games.
Coincidentally, Alabama and LSU are the only games that the Aggies will lose this season, thanks to an uncharacteristically-lax schedule.
Outside of Alabama and LSU, the Aggies play Rice, Sam Houston State, SMU, Arkansas, Ole Miss, Auburn, Vanderbilt, UTEP, Mississippi State, and Missouri.
There’s no Florida, there’s no Georgia, there’s no South Carolina.
The schedule sets up favorably, now we just have to wait for the questions about Manziel and the defense to answer themselves.
Projected Record: 9-3
Projected SEC Record: 5-3
Talk about a team with an absolutely brutal schedule, the LSU Tigers will face the three-headed monster of Florida, Georgia, and Alabama this upcoming season in addition to starting the season off in the “Jerry-Dome” in Arlington, Texas against the 20th-ranked TCU Horned Frogs.
Nevertheless, LSU has Les Miles and Les Miles always seems to get the job done. At 85-21 in his eight years in the Bayou, Miles has already become a Tigers legend. Whether it’s eating grass, calling trick plays, or recruiting out of his mind, Les Miles has won a lot of games in the Bayou and is looking forward to doing so again, despite his tough schedule in 2013.
Miles made yet another move that could cement his legacy in Baton Rouge. He brought in former NFL Head Coach and Offensive Coordinator, Cam Cameron, to right this offense after a couple of less-than-stellar seasons.
Already, his work is beginning to generate hype.
Zach Mettenberger, the Tigers second-year starting QB, has shown signs of vast improvement with Cameron at the helm and will need to be as good as advertised if LSU wants to play with the big boys this season.
In 2012, Mettenberger passed for 2,609 yards and just 12 touchdowns on 207 attempts. Those are the numbers that need to be elevated, should he want to compete with the elites of this conference.
He can’t have games like last year’s matchup with Florida, in which he completed just 11 of 25 passes for 158 yards, and the win against Texas A&M, when he completed just 11 of 29 for 97 yards.
This conference is way too good and way too powerful to put up those kinds of numbers, but maybe with Cameron’s tutelage, Mettenberger will step up and deliver.
While Mettenberger may be questionable heading into the season, the Tigers rushing attack will certainly be there. Jeremy Hill is ready to explode onto the scene after 755 yards and 12 touchdowns last season, as is senior Alfred Blue who is coming back from injury.
Realistically, this offense will go as far as Cameron takes it. Mettenberger could pose a huge problem for the Tigers or could be a tremendous strength. It comes down to his comfort with Cameron’s offense and how far Cameron has pushed him this offseason.
If he develops in a big, big way, there’s no doubt that this team could be as good as last year’s unit. If he drops back into mediocrity, Les Miles and the gang could be headed to one of their worst seasons in recent memory.
John Chavis is undoubtedly one of the best defensive coordinators in the country, there is no doubt. His problem this season, however, will be to replace seven of the nation’s best and bring a young defense to an elite level.
The defensive line is a completely different unit this season and will need to somehow garner the production of the last group. It may take a while, but again, with Chavis anything is possible.
After losing Barkevious Mingo, the number six overall selection by the Cleveland Browns in April’s 2013 NFL Draft, the Tigers are surprisingly strong at linebacker. Lamin Barrow and Tajh Jones will look to make an All-SEC type impact on the outsides, while D.J. Welter will man the middle.
Finally, the secondary may be one of the strongest in this conference. The combination of Craig Loston, Jalen Collins, and Jalen Mills recorded seven total interceptions last season and are looking to build on that number to help this LSU team get back to the SEC Title game.
As previously mentioned, it’s the schedule- along with the offensive questions- that will surely put away this LSU team and keep them from SEC Title contention. TCU, Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M, and Alabama highlight nearly half of the LSU schedule this season and with their offensive woes, they could lose four or more of them.
However, Les Miles is Les Miles and will find a way to pull at least two of those games out of his hat.
Projected Record: 8-4
Projected SEC Record: 4-4
*DISCLAIMER: Written before game with Ole Miss on 8/29/2013
Well, there’s the SEC and then there’s the rest of the SEC.
Vanderbilt is somewhere in the middle trying to catch the big boys of the conference year-after-year.
James Franklin is taking them in the right direction and quickly becoming one of America’s best college coaches in the process.
When Franklin arrived in Nashville, the Commodores were a directionless sad-sack, seemingly destined for the pit of the SEC’s belly each and every year. Just two seasons later, Franklin is 15-11 and on pace to take his team into the SEC 1- as it should be henceforth known.
For now, however, they will lead the SEC 2 this season as they try to take the next step towards “SEC1-dom” this year.
Offensively, the Commodores will replace Jordan Rodgers- the brother of Aaron Rodgers- with Austyn Carta-Samuels, who spent last season in the backup role.
After two successful seasons as the starter with Wyoming, Carta-Samuels decided to make the move to Nashville and sit a year behind Rodgers, just learning the Franklin system. That year could greatly benefit him this season as he’s not only experienced, but now comfortable in the offense.
In addition to his comfort with the system, Carta-Samuels has some of the best receivers in the SEC.
Yes the SEC, not only the SEC2.
The leader of this group, Jordan Matthews, proved to be an absolute star in this offense, catching 94 passes for 1,323 yards just a season ago. He’s joined by Chris Boyd, who caught 50 passes for 774 yards last season, to make maybe the best receiving duo in the entirety of the SEC.
Then you have Wes Johnson, offensive lineman extraordinaire, who will finalize the incredible group that surrounds Carta-Samuels on this Vanderbilt offense. Johnson can play all five offensive line positions and is therefore able to maximize the efficiency of this group. He may not be the best lineman in the SEC, but he’s surely the most useful.
While the offense is all but set, the defense still has to come into its own.
A good secondary could definitely be benefited by solid production on the defensive line. Should that be the case, the Commodores could sport one of the best pass defenses in all of college football.
Leading that group is the three-headed monster of Andre Hal, Kenny Ladler, and Javon Marshall, all of whom finished last season with over 45 tackles.
If the defensive line can step it up, the Commodores could be as good on defense as they are on offense and that would be pretty scary.
In terms of schedule, the Commodores do have a tough one. An early season matchup with South Carolina in Columbia, a home game against the Georgia Bulldogs, a matchup with Johnny Football in College Station and a subsequent trip to the Swamp should set up the Commodores for four SEC losses. They could, however, scoot by one of those opponents and surprise no one. They are that talented.
While the projections say 4-4 in the SEC, the Commodores could easily be 5-3 or even 6-2 and in the midst of the SEC1.
Ole Miss Rebels
Projected Record: 6-6
Projected SEC Record: 3-5
*DISCLAIMER: Written before game with Vanderbilt on 8/29/2013
Ole Miss underwent an unbelievable revamping this past offseason and the seeds of this Rebel-renaissance will start to show as early as this season.
Second year head coach, Hugh Freeze, after finishing his first season in great fashion- (the Rebels beat the Mississippi State Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl)- Freeze tore up the recruiting trail and may have changed the history of Ole Miss football forever.
Landing an unprecedented three five-star players, including the number one player in the nation Robert Nkemdiche, Freeze put together the number one recruiting class in the nation and the best class in the history of the Ole Miss football program.
While there will be no comment on just how Freeze got nine four-star and three five-star players to his school, he did it and the adventure has begun.
This season, however, things won’t be as good as they should be in the near future.
The basis of the offense lies on the offensive line and in the backfield with the running backs. Returning four of five starters already, the Ole Miss offensive line added five-star, 6’5 295 pound monster Laremy Tunsil who could start right away. Clearly, this experienced and physical group up front will pave the way for whatever the Rebs will do on offense this season.
In the backfield, there’s talent and depth- the combination that so many schools yearn for.
Jeff Scott, I’Tavarius Mathers, Jaylen Walton, are all returning players who will make an impact, but there’s a trio of rooks that are not too far behind. Mark Dodson Jr., Kalio Moore, and Jordan Wilkins were all recruited as four-star backs and could all see playing time this season. Of course, the returnees should have a good hold on the spot, but these freshman are about as talented as they come.
The real question about this offense lies at the QB position.
Just how good is Bo Wallace?
Signs say that he can be really, really good.
In his sophomore year with the Rebels, Wallace passed for 2,994 yards and 22 touchdowns, but also threw 17 picks on the year. If that last number can take a significant cut, there’s just no saying how good Wallace can be.
As is the case with many teams, the Ole Miss offense should be good, but the defense is questionable at best.
Oh yea, and watch out for Laquon Treadwell, the other five-star starter on offense. The speedy, little WR will absolutely make an impact for Wallace and this offense. He’s going to be special.
The talent on this defense starts with Nkemdiche and may end with Nkemdiche, which is certainly a problem. Nkemdiche will start and make an impact right away on the defensive line, but when there’s not much to write home about anywhere else on the defensive depth chart, it’s a cause for concern.
If someone outside of Nkemdiche- or his brother in the secondary- steps up, Ole Miss could have a surprisingly good season.
The Rebels have a couple of tough match-ups this season, but none may be more interesting than the battle with the Texas Longhorns in Austin. The Longhorns are on the fence in terms of their Big 12 title chances and this game my prove to be one of the better ones this season.
Of course, Ole Miss plays Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU which is as tough as it gets, but it’s the battle with the Bulldogs in the Egg Bowl that will make or beak this season. Should they win that game, they’ll finish .500. Should they lose, the season will be considered a consummate failure.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Projected Record: 6-6
Projected SEC Record: 3-5
Mississippi State made a lot of national noise last season, as they started 7-0. And then?
They ran into what shall be henceforth known as “the wall”- Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU.
Of course the Bulldogs weren’t as talented as these teams, but it was weird to see that they were so deflated that they lost to an inferior Ole Miss team in the Egg Bowl. Then came the Gator Bowl against the Northwestern Wildcats, in which the Bulldogs looked absolutely dejected, as maybe they should have been.
So the 7-0 team turned into the 1-5 team very quickly. Can the Bulldogs rebound and be better in 2013 than they were in 2012?
Having Tyler Russell as your starting QB is a step in the right direction, however.
Russell was very, very good in his junior season with the Bulldogs and could be even better next season.
231 completions lead to 2,897 yards, 24 touchdowns and all sorts of Mississippi State records last season and that was only his first real season as a starter. Imagine what he can do with that experience and all of the help he has around him.
That’s right, there is a ton of help for Russell on this offense.
On the offensive line, all five should-be starters have starting experience and in the backfield, they have a 1,000 yard rusher in LaDarius Perkins and plenty of suitable backups. It’s the receivers that will need to step up along with Russell if the Bulldogs want to have a chance this season.
Defense, oh that pesky little defense. Again, the defense is where the problems come.
Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay- both NFL draft picks- formed maybe the best duo of secondary players in the entirety of the SEC. Replacing them will be an impossible task. Cameron Lawrence- the team’s leading tackler and second-team all SEC choice- is no longer the man in the middle. He’s going to be tough to replace.
Who could possibly take a stab at replicating the production of these three studs?
At the linebacker position, it’s sophomore Bernardrick McKinney who produced 102 tackles and 4.5 tackles for loss in 2012.
At corner, it’s Justin Cox and Jamerson Love. Cox is a big corner and a JUCO transfer with a lot of experience, while Love has studied his predecessors as a backup.
While these will be the guys to replace the positions, will they be the guys to replace the production? That is the question.
The Bulldogs have an interesting opening game with Oklahoma State in Houston’s version of the “Cowboy Classic” at Reliant Stadium. Then there are the away games with South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss and the home battle with LSU. I’m sure the Bulldogs are thrilled that the Crimson Tide don’t appear on the schedule and that alone could give them a solid chance to be as good as they were in 2012.
Projected Record: 6-6
Projected SEC Record: 3-5
Wow. That’s all you can say when you look at the Volunteers schedule. You must feel for first year Butch Jones and his coaching staff as they embark on this daunting adventure.
Try this on for size.
Oregon, Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. All in one season. Ouch.
But, nevertheless, Butch Jones will do his best to make a memorable mark in his first season in Knoxville.
The offense is a tale of two very different situations for two very different position groups.
We’ll start with the positive- the offensive line is maybe the best in the entire country. Returning starters Antonio Richardson, James Stone, Zach Fulton, and Ju’Wan James have all battled the best this nation has to offer on defense and will be right back at it in 2013. Marcus Jackson is the only newbie and even he seems to be a very serviceable rookie.
We’ll finish with the negative- the wide receivers situation.
In 2012, Tennessee may have had the best receivers in the entire country. Unfortunately, the NFL took notice and now the Volunteers are without Cordarelle Patterson, Justin Hunter, and Zach Rogers. Again, you don’t replace these players, but you do your best to have a serviceable group on the outside.
That’s exactly what Vincent Dallas, Jacob Carter, and Pig Howard will try to do. While they are all returning players, none had more than 15 receptions last season and none posted over 150 yards. If they can somehow step up, it would obviously be a plus.
But, who will throw to these guys? It seems as if Tennessee has been without a good QB since Erik Ainge and that may be no different this season.
Junior QB Justin Worley won the job, but that means nothing. In two seasons with Tennessee, Worley has completed 63 passes for 738 yards and only a single touchdown with five interceptions.
He’s unproven and untested, so it remains to be seen just where this offense will head.
The change in defensive philosophy in the Jones era is going to cause growing pains this season, but could ultimately be the best for this team’s future.
Tennessee will be switching from the 3-4 to the 4-3 this season and that puts the defensive front at risk for the majority of those growing pains. The good news is that there’s enough talent for them to be effective.
Daniel McCullers leads that defensive line after a 39 tackle season in 2012 and is joined by Maurice Couch and Daniel Hood to create the giant-triumverate up the middle.
The line is talented and the linebacking corps look to be solid as well, but it’s the secondary that is the biggest cause for concern.
A group that finished 13th in the conference in pass defense will certainly need to improve if they don’t want to be embarrassed by some of the nation’s best passers.
Overall, Tennessee is going to be a decent bunch with Jones at the helm, but there schedule won’t allow that to shine through.
Essentially, they’re either going to win and win big or lose and lose big, according to the “two-sides” of their schedule.
Side one is simple and should be cause for blowout after blowout:
Austin Peay, Western Kentucky, South Alabama, Auburn, Kentucky and Missouri.
Side two, as previously mentioned, is a suicide mission:
Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama and Vanderbilt.
You can clearly dictate between the six wins and the six losses that the projected record indicates. Unfortunately, the majority of those losses are also SEC opponents and will keep Tennessee far, far out of the SEC Championship chase.
Projected Record: 5-7
Projected SEC Record: 1-7
In 12 seasons with the Tigers in Columbia, head coach Gary Pinkel is still going strong.
He now ranks third in terms of wins and is the third longest tenured coach in Missouri history. The latter doesn’t seem to be changing any time soon.
As much as Missouri likes to keep the status quo on their sidelines, they underwent some massive changes in 2012 when they entered the SEC.
Truth be told, they were a bit outmatched and continue to be outmatched heading into this season.
In their first year of SEC play, the Tigers won just two games- an overtime thriller with Tennessee and a laugher against the Kentucky Wildcats- as they transitioned from a wide open conference with no defense in sight to a conference with some of the best defenses college football has ever seen.
This year, while the Tigers and Pinkel may be a bit more comfortable, they may endure a lesser fate in the SEC than they did last season.
On offense, the key is QB James Franklin.
There’s no doubt that Franklin is a very good QB, just check his career numbers- 4,533 yards and 32 touchdowns through the air, 1,219 yards and 19 touchdowns on the ground.
Last season, he just couldn’t stay healthy and his injuries forced him into his worst year as a collegiate athlete. On just 234 attempts, Franklin completed 139 passes for 1,562 yards and 10 touchdowns.
Now, those numbers could certainly have been deflated by the defenses of the SEC, but the reality was that Franklin wasn’t himself.
This season, he’s rearing and ready to consummate a stellar career in Columbia and join the elite ranks of the SEC QB committee.
Meanwhile, there’s another player in the backfield for Missouri who is also coming off of injury.
His name is Henry Josey.
As a sophomore in 2011, Josey ran for 1,168 yards on just 145 carries for an average of 8.1 yards per attempt. Then it happened.
A horrible injury left Josey with a torn ACL, MCL, and patellar tendon and ruined what was supposed to be a Heisman-caliber 2012 campaign in the SEC.
Well, Josey is back and ready to rpove that he hasn’t lost a step and belongs amongst the elite running backs of the SEC.
If Franklin and Josey can rebound from injury the way they are supposed to, Missouri can certainly have one of the better offenses in the SEC. The problem is, injuries always provide big, huge, massive “if’s” and often end up in the unfavorable direction.
Of course, the wide receivers are set thanks to one player, Dorial Green-Beckham.
Beckham, the prize of the 2012 recruiting class, chose Missouri over some of the nation’s most alluring programs in the country and made an impact right away for the Tigers.
Even without a solid QB to throw him the rock, Green-Beckham caught 28 passes for 395 yards and five touchdowns- four of which came in the last three games of the season.
This season, with Franklin back, Green-Beckham is set to breakout and become the best receiver in the SEC or maybe even the country.
The Franklin, Josey, Green-Beckham project will keep the offense exciting, but what is going on with the Tigers on the other side of the ball?
Well, when you lose Sheldon Richardson, things get tough.
Richardson- the 13th pick of the 2013 NFL Draft by the New York Jets- was one of the nation’s best defensive tackles and simply can’t be replaced right away.
The Tigers do, however, return three other starters on that line that make it a very formidable group.
At the next level, there’s more to replace. Zaviar Gooden and Will Ebner leave two holes at the linebacker position that will need filling and senior Donovan Bonner- who made just five starts in 2012- along with Andrew Wilson will be set to fill them.
The secondary may be as good as- if not better than- the defensive line, as they too return three formidable starters from last season. Matt White, E.J. Gaines, and Randy Ponder are set to lead this secondary into the teeth of the pass-happy SEC and solidify a good defensive group for the Tigers.
If there were to be a surprise team in the SEC, it may be the Tigers.
Last season was filled with injury and injuries can ravish any team, but with a healthy group, who knows just where the Tigers can go.
They will start 4-0, beating Murray State, Toledo, Indiana, and Arkansas straight respectively. Where they go from there is the question.
Back-to-back road tests at Vanderbilt, followed by home games with Florida and South Carolina, will certainly determine the course of their season. While they could upset one of those teams, it’s certainly unlikely.
Tennessee, Ole Miss, and Kentucky could put them at 7 wins before their matchup with Texas A&M, but that would mean that the Tigers have reached their proverbial ceiling.
With this team, it’s really enigmatic. While the projection says 5-7, this team could certainly flip that script and be a surprisingly solid team in year two of their SEC adventure.
Projected Record: 5-7
Projected SEC Record: 1-7
Coach Bielema, you’re no longer in the Big Ten.
Bielema seems to be full of excitement and zest going into his first season in Fayetteville, but little does he know the challenge that he’s up against.
Last season, after leading Wisconsin to a Rose Bowl berth*, Bielema- in a shcoking move- headed for the SEC and confessed to being an “SEC guy” all along.
It’s hard to imagine that Bielema saw anything outside of the name of the conference and the paycheck when he made the move.
He won’t come close to replicating the success he had at Wisconsin, at least in the very near future.
It starts with the absence of Tyler Wilson, the now Oakland Raider QB who had a brilliant career at Arkansas.
In five years with the Razorbacks, Wilson amassed 7,765 yards and 52 touchdowns in the air- 45 of which came in his last two seasons.
You don’t replace Wilson immediately, but sophomore Brandon Allen will certainly try.
Unproven and untested, it remains to be seen what Allen will bring to the Razorbacks, outside of tremendous size.
At 6’3, 210 pounds, he certainly has the tools to become a good QB, but the experience isn’t there.
And experience is what you need in the SEC.
To be frank, the offense is going to struggle immensely in 2012.
Allen will be tossed to the wolves in his first year as a starter and it’s going to get ugly. Florida, South Carolina, Alabama, and LSU will all sink their teeth into Allen on their chase to the National Championship, but that may be unimportant.
The important thing for this offense is just to get experienced. To get acclimated to Bielema and to the talent in this conference. It’s going to be tough to watch, but in the end it’s necessary.
It turns out that the problem with the defense is the same as the problem with the offense- a complete and total lack of experience.
While the defensive line is in tact and has a bit of valuable experience, the linebackers are a totally unexperienced mess. Two sophomores and a senior should be the starters, but even the senior, Jarrett Lake, hasn’t held a significant spot on this roster in his three previous years.
Not only will a lack of experience hurt, a lack of fit may hurt as well. In other words, these guys don’t fit the prototypes of each linebacking position. Most of the linebackers, including Lake, are threats on the outside, but none can really play up the middle. It will be Bielema’s responsibility to help these linebackers play in comfortable roles and mix and match in different schemes.
The secondary, just as is the case with the linebackers, are a mess as well. Two starters from last season, Will Hines and Tevin Mitchell, may not retain their starting spots in Bielema’s system, leaving a completely unclear situation in the defensive backfield.
To add onto the experience-problem, Arkansas schedule is just brutal.
They may go 4-0 to start off the year, but will then hit the dreaded “wall” that haunts the SEC.
Texas A&M at home, Florida away, South Carolina at home, and Alabama away cement maybe the toughest four game stretch in all of college football and, needless to say, the Razorbacks will come away winless.
While the schedule does get easier, the Razorbacks finish the season in Baton Rouge against LSU and that game may force the Razorbacks into a winless SEC season.
Again, there’s no way that Bielema checked this roster before taking the Arkansas job. If he did… no, there’s absolutely no way he did.
Bielema might have made the mistake of his career as he went with the all-style, no-substance approach. He desperately wanted an SEC job, but he lacked the patience to find the right one.
Arkansas, outside of some unforeseen brilliance from Bielema, could be in the gutter for a long, long time.
Projected Record: 5-7
Projected SEC Record: 1-7
Gene Chizik’s stay in Auburn could be considered a terrible-yet-very successful one. Not often does a coach find Cam Newton, win a National Championship, and then completely fall off the wagon the way that Chizik did in Auburn.
Now, it’s Gus Malzahn’s team.
You might remember Malzahn as an integral part of the Tigers 2010 National Championship, filling the role of offensive coordinator brilliantly.
It was Malzahn who took Cam Newton and Gene Chizik to the promised land before he landed a job with the Arkansas State Red Wolves and lead them to a Sun Belt Championship season.
Malzahn- in just a year away from Auburn- proved that he was overwhelmingly the man for the job. He knows the school, knows the personnel, and knows exactly where he wants to take the Tigers over the next couple of seasons.
While his goals are lofty, he has to start somewhere.
As Malzahn is an offensive guy at heart, he enters a very favorable situation offensively. It’s not so much that there’s intense talent, but there is an intense familiarity with Malzahn’s offense and that can go a very long way.
Where there is familiarity and comfort in this offense as a whole, there isn’t much familiarity from Nick Marshall- the recently named starting QB for the Tigers.
Marshall transferred to Auburn after being dismissed from the University of Georgia football team in 2012.
It almost sounds like an ex-Heisman winner for Auburn under Malzahn… interesting.
The comparisons between Marshall and Newton have been free-flowing since Marshall was named the starter, and maybe rightfully so.
Both are tall, athletic QBs who play for Auburn after off-the-field issues forced them leave the SEC and attend junior college.
It’s almost too easy. The story writes itself.
Marshall is already proclaiming he wants to win a Heisman and a National Championship in his first year at Auburn and follow directly in the footsteps of his predecessor.
Malzahn, if no one else, believes the hype.
He named Marshall the QB ahead of two returnees and proclaimed that Marshall can toss the ball 80 yards through the air.
While Marshall and Malzahn are creating hype through their words, the reality is that Marshall has an impossible hill to climb to mirror Newton.
If he does so, he could become one of college football’s greatest legends.
Marshall will have some help to achieve his lofty goals as Tre Mason returns as one of the SEC’s elite running backs out of the backfield.
In a breakout junior season, Mason rushed for just over 1,000 yards- 1,002 to be exact- on just 171 carries and scored eight touchdowns.
The undoubted leader of this offense last season, it will be interesting to see just how heavily Malzahn relies on Mason to be this teams playmaker.
The way he has spoken of Marshall, Auburn may forget Mason’s elite 2012 and just chuck the ball all over the field. Only Gus knows.
As for the defense, Gus Malzahn will rely heavily on defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to turn things around and bring a great recruiting class to it’s full potential.
Elijah Daniels, Carl Lawson, Ben Bradley, and Montravius Adams were all big time recruits for the Tigers in 2013 and are looking to make an impact on the defensive line right away in their freshman season.
If Johnson brings this group up to snuff, this could become one of the better d-line’s in the SEC within the next couple of seasons.
As for the rest, Johnson’s 4-2-5 defensive system will cause growing pains for the back seven.
The Tigers are happy with their secondary, but definitely not adjusted to having five players in the defensive backfield. The linebackers need more size, as with only two players at the position, they need to fill more space, but overall the group has potential.
Look out for junior Justin Garrett to become the star of this defense in the next couple of seasons. Garrett is an incredible balance of both size and speed and these traits will not only allow him to play in the five-man secondary, but to also play as one of the two linebackers. With such versatility, Garrett could very well be the crowned jewel of this unproven defense.
Overall, the schedule is a very tough one for Auburn. Out-of-conference battles with Mike Leach and Washington State, as well as a battle with Malzahn’s old squad, Arkansas State, could prove problematic for the Tigers.
And then, of course, comes the “wall” yet again. LSU, Texas A&M, Georgia, and arch-rival Alabama all don the Auburn schedule in 2013 and could push them into a winless SEC season.
However, if Marshall is as good as advertised, who knows just where this team could go.
If it were up to Malzahn and Marshall himself, they might just say they’ll contend for a National Title. While that’s up in the air, let’s just take it one game at a time with this Auburn Tigers team.
Projected Record: 2-10
Projected SEC Record: 0-8
The Joker Phillips era was a short and disappointing one.
The Mark Stoops era has already eclipsed it in just a few short months.
Stoops, the former FSU defensive coordinator and brother of Bob and Mike Stoops, has brought an energy to the Wildcats that we’ve yet to see in Lexington.
A whopping 50,000 Wildcat fanatics showed up to the Spring Game. Recruits are signing up in hoards to play under Stoops and be a part of this Kentucky program. The football team may- unbelievably- have higher priority at this point than Calipari and the men’s basketball squad.
While that may change come October, it’s a testament to the kind of coach Mark Stoops is.
Last season, in his final year with the Seminoles, Stoops and his defense ranked just behind Alabama for the second best in the country- allowing just 254 yards per contest. He helped the Noles to overcome their disappointing offense and produced an Orange Bowl title before taking the job offer in the SEC.
Let’s take a quick look at the aforementioned recruiting class.
In 2013, Stoops brought in three four-star prospects from as close as Louisville and as far Mississippi. Thus far in 2014, the Wildcats have eight four-star commitments and fifteen three-star verbals, earning them the rank of #7 in the nation in recruiting for 2014 by Rivals.com.
If things continue in this way, who knows just how good Kentucky will be down the road. If they are anything like Stoops is showing, Kentucky could be a legitimate college football power in just a couple of seasons.
This year however, Stoops will have to work a ton of energy should the Wildcats win any games.
The Wildcats are working on implementing the Air Raid system and adding yet another wrinkle to the many offenses of the SEC, but will need time for things to gel.
Of course, they need a quarterback to do so and right now, it doesn’t seem as if they even have one.
Stoops has failed to name a starter heading into the season opener with Western Kentucky and won’t do so until that player trots out onto the field when the Wildcats get the ball.
As of right now, the competition is three-fold between Max Smith, Patrick Towles, and Jalen Whitlow- all of whom are just sophomores with little experience.
The edge right now, according to many of those surrounding Kentucky football, goes to Smith, as it should.
Before injury, Smith tallied 966 yards and eight touchdowns in just three games with the Wildcats last season. If he can stay healthy, and we multiply those numbers by four, we may be looking at one of the SEC’s best.
Of course, the three games he played in were not against all-too-quality opponents, but his numbers still could have been impressive, should he have played in all twelve contests last season.
His replacement, Towles didn’t fair nearly as well, finishing the season with 19 completions on 40 attempts, 233 yards, and one touchdown on the year.
His worst performance came against the Vanderbilt Commodores, in which he went 8 of 23 for just 93 yards.
With all of Towles’ struggles, Jalen Whitlow came to save the day and did a decent job over the last couple of months of the season. On 161 attempts, Whitlow threw for 801 yards and three touchdowns, while having a fine game against Tennessee in the final game of 2012- in which he threw for 225 of his 801 yards.
While the QB situation is certainly an enigma, you have to imagine that Stoops will give the more-talented Smith the job, at least to start out the year.
As for the rest of the offense, there’s not all that much.
At the running back position, Raymond Sanders III and Jonathan George combined for over 1,000 yards, but in this new Air Raid attack, it remains to be seen just how many touches this tandem will be afforded.
The offensive line is weak in the middle, but strong on the sides, furthering the significance of the Air Raid scheme to this Wildcats roster.
The receivers? They’re going to be mostly Stoops’ 2013 recruits, unproven but exciting. In the Air Raid, the receivers are obviously very important and their performance could totally alter the effectiveness of this offense this season.
Finally, we reach the defense. Stoops is a defensive guy and will surely enlighten the 2013 edition of this Kentucky defensive group.
Again, however, it’s going to be the 2013 recruits that are going to make or break this group.
With Stoops at the helm, the former should be expected.
In at least two aspects of the defense- the line and secondary- there are going to be many fresh faces.
Up front, it will be Za’Darius Smith- a JUCO Transfer- and Jason Thatcher- a freshman- who will take the majority of the load.
In the defensive backfield, it will be freshman Marcus McWilson and JUCO transfer Nate Willis who will ball-hawk in the secondary.
In terms of the linebackers, well, there’s not all that much there. Stoops will undoubtedly improve the unit, regardless, but should he want excellence, Stoops must address the position in his 2014 recruiting class.
While there is excitement abounding in Lexington thanks to Stoops, the Kentucky schedule could quickly squash that optimism.
A rough out-of-conference schedule that includes Western Kentucky and Miami (OH) will lead to another difficult out-of-conference foe and maybe the most undesirable stretch of games possible.
Louisville, Florida, South Carolina, and Alabama line up all in a row for the Wildcats after the first two games of the season and could undoubtedly leave the Wildcats winless with just five games left.
Luckily, that final five game stretch begins with Alabama State and the Wildcats will not finish the season winless.
Stoops will unfortunately have to keep the momentum of this offseason going through this brutal schedule and that in itself may be an incredibly exhausting task.
For Kentucky, this is just the first step in what could be a transformative couple of years in the Mark Stoops Era.
How They’ll Finish:
- Georgia Bulldogs 11-1 (7-1)
- Florida Gators 10-2 (6-2)
- South Carolina Gamecocks 9-3 (6-2)
- Vanderbilt Commodores 8-4 (4-4)
- Tennessee Volunteers 6-6 (3-5)
- Missouri Tigers 5-7 (1-7)
- Kentucky Wildcats 1-11 (1-7)
- Alabama Crimson Tide 12-0 (8-0)
- Texas A&M Aggies 10-2 (6-2)
- LSU Tigers 9-3 (5-3)
- Ole Miss Rebels 6-6 (3-5)
- Mississippi State Bulldogs 6-6 (3-5)
- Arkansas Razorbacks 5-7 (1-7)
- Auburn Tigers 5-7 (1-7)
SEC Championship Game:
Alabama Crimson Tide vs. Georgia Bulldogs.
Alabama over Georgia, 24-21.