The Tigers proved last year that they are good enough to beat anybody in country in spite of their quarterback play. This year a JUCO transfer by way of Georgia, Zach Mettenberger, steps in and could give LSU more offensive firepower with his big arm. Don't expect LSU to vary too much from their trade-mark ground and pound offense but they will have an option in Mettenberger if they need him. LSU had four defensive players drafted in the first four rounds but they remain loaded on that side of the ball. Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, Sam Montgomery, Barkevious Mingo and Eric Reid are just a few names that come to mind. Just like last year, the SEC Championship will run through LSU in 2012.
This team reminds me a lot of the 2010 Alabama team that finished 10-3. They had six defensive players drafted in the 2012 NFL Draft (Barron, Champman, Hightower, Kirkpatrick, Mezie, Upshaw). Even though Nick Saban is a wizard at recruiting, it's going to be tough to replace the experience and leadership of those six players. In the 2010 draft, Bama also had six defensive players drafted into the league. Another similarity is that both the 2010 and 2012 team have a returning National Championship winning quarterback. One big difference is that the 2010 team had more experienced talent at the WR and RB positions (Julio Jones, Mark Ingram, Trent Richardson) then this years team does. Under Nick Saban, Alabama is always a threat to win the SEC (and more). My advice is to catch this team early before the young guys get settle in on defense and at the skill positions on offense.
Outside of Alabama and LSU, Georgia has the best defense in the SEC. Last year was just the second year of the Todd Grantham era at Georgia but you could see a visible difference in the toughness and play-making ability of the defense. This year you should see that defense take the next step as Georgia has really lined up some depth in their front seven. Georgia must manage through some early season suspensions but that should be manageable with the talent that they've stockpiled. On offense, Georgia is deeper at RB and WR than they've been in a while. They also have a QB in Aaron Murray that is a gamer and if he takes the next step in 2012 he could lead the Dawgs to the SEC title. Georgia's season could ride on a young OL, but look for Georgia to make some noise this year.
#4 South Carolina
South Carolina and Georgia are 1a and 1b in the east. My main concern with the Gamecocks is the talent they lose on defense. They lost four key contributors off of the defense which will be looking for some play-makers to step up in the back seven. They have the best pair of DEs in the conference in Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor but others will have to step up around them. On offense, Connor Shaw came into his own last year but will need to improve in his downfield passing in order to help the Gamecocks win the big games. Marcus Lattimore returns and it will be interesting to see how quickly he can regain his old form. WR Alshon Jeffrey also leaves this year and he takes 45% of the Gamecocks receiving yardage with him. Look for the Gamecocks to contend for the East title again this year and with their date with Georgia getting pushed back to later in the year it has the ability to be a huge game in not just the SEC, but also in college football.
Arkansas found out the hard way what everybody else already knew about Bobby Petrino. He's not to be trusted. With Petrino, Arkansas probably makes this list one or two spots higher. Without him, it's a case of wait and see with the Razorbacks. Arkansas is loaded in the offensive backfield with Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis, Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo. They lose a ton of receivers (Adams, Childs, Wright) but they still have talent and at Arkansas it's really more about scheme than elite level talent at the receiver position. What scares me about Arkansas is the defense. Yes, I know they changed defensive coordinators but rarely do you see a big jump in defense in the first year of a coordinator. Don't forget the Razorbacks lose a ton of talent on defense in DE Jake Bequette (10 sacks in 10 games), Jerry Franklin (101 tackles, 10 TFL), Tramain Thomas (91 tackles, 5 picks) and Jerico Nelson (70 tackles). Arkansas will be good this year but they won't be good enough to get past Alabama and LSU.
The vibe out of Florida is a lot more positive this year then it was last year. I think we will see Florida playing with more fire and passion this year. The key for Florida is if one of their young QBs can step up and become a leader and who will step up around them on offense. Florida losses their top two rushers and play-makers in Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps and their returning pass catcher was a tight end with 28 catches. Look for Florida to be better this year and to be more consistent but they are still at least a year away from competing for the East title.
Auburn is a wild-card. Auburn lost so much talent and senior leadership last year that you knew they would fall. Fall they did as they went from National Champions to 8-5 and struggled to beat Utah State. This year Auburn breaks in two new coordinators and they also should have a new QB in Kiehl Frazier. Interestingly enough, Auburn really didn't trust Frazier to throw the ball last year. As a true freshman he played in 13 games, ran the ball 76 times but threw just 12 passes. His development will be key for Auburn. Auburn also must replace the loss of RB Michael Dyer but they have some good young talent in the backfield that should pick up the slack for the most part. On defense, Brian Van Gorder will have a group that will play a lot of sophomores and juniors. I think you will see Auburn play smarter and better on the defensive side of the ball but don't expect them to be lights out. Remember, this is an Auburn defense that gave up over 197 plays for ten yards or more last year (and 52 for more than 20). Auburn is very young and the defense isn't getting fixed overnight.
One of the most interesting storylines will be seeing how the Tigers adjust to the SEC. Last years Missouri team had a ton of talent and I had them pegged as one of the top teams in the Big 12 but they started the year just 4-5. They have a good dual threat QB in James Franklin who will be a handful for SEC teams provided he is healthy. The Missouri offense in general is going to be good and they will put some points on the board. The key for Missouri this year is defense. In the games they played against top 25 opponents last year they gave up an average of 37.3 points per game and 524 total yards per game. If Missouri wants to compete in the SEC this season, their defense must take a big step up.
#9 Texas A&M
The Aggies are one of the toughest teams to rank. They have a new coach, a new QB, lose their leading rusher and lose a great receiver in Jeff Fuller. Oh yeah, they also have new coordinators on both sides of the football. One interesting thing to watch is OC Kliff Kingsbury. He played for Mike Leach and should employ a lot of the same tactics that Leach really fine tuned at Texas Tech. The Aggies have a lot of options on offense for Kingsbury to work with in Ryan Swope, Uzoma Nwachukwu, Christine Michael and incoming freshman Trey Williams. All eyes will be on the QB position and the defense. Starting a brand new QB in the SEC doesn't always work out well and when it's with a new coach and coordinator it could be doubly tough. A&M has the talent to finish third or fourth in the SEC West but I could also see things breaking bad for them if they don't get off to a good start.
Oh Derek Dooley, what have you done for me lately? In fact, what have you ever done? Dooley's career coaching record is 28-34 and he has a losing record at both schools that he's held the position of head coach. This is the year for Dooley, it's make or break. The Vols have the offensive firepower in Tyler Bray, Da'rick Rogers, Justin Hunter and Marlin Lane Jr. Consistency, composure and depth have all been issues on Dooley's teams in the last couple of years. Tennessee struggled to get off the field on third down last year and they struggled to cause turnovers. Changing those two things would help the Vols take a step back towards the top of the SEC East. I think Tennessee will be good enough to beat a lot of teams on some days but I don't think they are ready to put a full season of quality football together. Another factor is that Dooley has also had massive staff turnover as he retained just two coaches off of last years staff. Will this much turnover be a positive or a negative in the one year that Dooley has to right the ship?
#11 Mississippi State
It was just one year ago that Dan Mullen was a young up and coming hot shot head coach. Then Manny Diaz left for Texas and Mark Hudspeth went to Louisiana. Without them the Bulldogs lost two games off their win total (both conference games) and finished a ho-hum 7-6 overall and just 2-6 in the SEC. The biggest thing about Mississippi State is they didn't seem to be as physical and tenacious as they had been in Mullen's first couple of years. They no longer seemed to play like the underdog with something to prove. Will that change this year? Tyler Russell should take over full-time at QB this year. Is he ready to get the Bulldogs back to 9-4?
I was tempted to put Vanderbilt higher but I'm going to put them in my "show me" bucket. Vandy had a nice season last year (for Vandy) as they went 6-7 but won just two conference games. The biggest thing about Vandy is that they were in games and weren't getting blown out. They played Georgia, South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Arkansas all very tough. A couple of bounces or plays that could have gone their way and their record might have had a few more wins. The thing I like about Vandy is Jordan Rodgers. He's not going to put up stats like his brother but he plays the game with a type of moxie that is contagious and he makes the players around him better. Vandy also has some offensive weapons in Zac Stacy, Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Why I'm not that confident about Vandy is their defense. Vanderbilt lost it's four best players off it's defense. It lost it's three top tacklers (Chris Marve, Sean Richardson, Casey Hayward), it's leading sacker (Tim Fugger) and it's top interceptor (Hayward). Losing that much talent and senior leadership is just too tough for a team like Vanderbilt to lose and get better.
#13 Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze, you have your work cut out for you. Houston Nutt left you a mess. Freeze does inherit some talent that will be a nice fit for his system (Jeff Scott, Nickolas Brassel, Donte Moncrief) but he doesn't have anybody to get them the football. Ole Miss was pathetic on defense last year and issues like they had just don't work themselves out over-night. Ole Miss is in rebuilding mode. They will compete better on the field but the mantra for the fans this year should remain "win the party".
Kentucky was awful last year. Last in the league in scoring offense, last in total offense and first in inept quarterback play. The biggest concern for me is that Joker Phillips was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky before he took over as head coach so that should have been the side of the football that maintained a good level of performance. The Wildcats lose the heart and soul of their defense in Danny Trevathan and lost a total of three of their top four tacklers. Trevathan, a linebacker, led the team last year in interceptions and sacks (he only had 3 sacks). I don't see things getting too much better for the Cats this year. Be glad you have Calipari because you won't be celebrating on Saturday's this fall.