#1 The Rivalries
College Football is all about rivalries and the rivalries in the SEC take a back seat to none. Unfortunately for the SEC, the rivalries have turned nasty recently and have been in the news for the wrong reasons. Just like they have been on the field by winning National Championships, Alabama has been a leader of some of these issues. From the jackhat Alabama fan who poisoned the trees at Toomer's Corner, to a USA Today handicapper (and Bama grad) claiming to have Cam Newton "bag man" tapes, and most recently an Alabama fan taking disgusting liberties with an unconscious LSU fan. Alabama is definitely at the forefront of some of these issues but they aren't the only ones (and to be fair, the Alabama fans I've met have always been nice to me). In the South, college football is big business and we have very passionate fans. We also have a lunatic fringe that is a bit larger than other areas on the country. And of course there is the Jerry Springer of the college football world, Paul Finebaum, fanning the flames and egging people on. Love him or hate him, he's out for ratings and fame and he will continue to scour the dirtiest garbage cans, most run-down trailer parks and lowest ditches to bring you college football controversies.
Whether it's on the field rivalries like Auburn/Alabama, Georgia/Florida, LSU/Alabama, Auburn/Georgia, Tennessee/Alabama, Ole Miss/Miss State, Tennessee/Florida or Auburn/LSU, or off the field issues by the fans or the media fanning the flames, it's clear that in today's age of the internet this is only going to get bigger.
With rivalries come NCAA investigations and inquiries. Let's be honest, most NCAA investigations (at least the big ones) don't come by what schools turn in on themselves. They come from other sources (read: rivals). Like they are every year, the NCAA will be something to watch around the SEC (as they are around the entire Nation right now: Miami, USC, Ohio State, Oregon and UNC are just a few schools that garnered some heat in the recent past).
#2 Coaching Hot Seat
Last season the Hot Seat was a topic du jour for Georgia Bulldogs Head Coach Mark Richt. It's really tough to survive the hot seat but Mark Richt did last year despite losing his first two games. Ole Miss's Houston Nutt wasn't so lucky as he got the boot. This year's "Hot Seat" poster child? Derek Dooley. While Derek Dooley is the poster child, let's face it...this is the SEC. Just about everybody is on the hot seat. If you have a losing season and your team is not Vanderbilt, then your coach is now on the Hot Seat. Florida will be an interesting team to watch here. Will Muschamp had his hands full in year one. If things don't improve in year two it will be very intriguing to see how the fanbase reacts after having so much success under Urban Meyer.
#3 National Championship Race
The SEC has won six straight National Championships with the last three coming from the state of Alabama. Will it be one of the two current SEC powers, Alabama or LSU, that reach up and grab the SEC's seventh straight National Championship? Will it be somebody from the next tier like Arkansas, Georgia or South Carolina? Or can somebody come from below that pack to swoop up and take the Crystal Trophy like Gene Chizik and Auburn did in 2010 when they took an 8-5 team from the previous year and rode Cam Newton and Nick Fairley to the Title?
#4 New Arrivals
In 1991, the SEC expanded to allow Arkansas and South Carolina into the conference. Both of those have been solid additions over time. Now the SEC expands for the first time since 1991 as they bring Texas A&M and Missouri into the fold. One of the most interesting storylines will be how these former Big 12 teams fit into the league and how they perform on the field.
Recruiting is big business. Six SEC schools spend over one million dollars every year for their entire men's sports programs (but you can be assured that football takes the majority of that cake). Tennessee spent in excess of 1.8 million dollars for the 2010-2011 school year (that's over $7,089 per player including every sport). Not only is it big business in terms of schools spending money but pay sites are continuing to pop up that charge a fee for fans to get "exclusive" information. Let's take Georgia for example. There are four sites that I can name off the top of my head that offer exclusive information for a fee (Rivals, Scout, ESPN and 247sports). This is in addition to very popular sites like the AJC and Leather Helmet Blog that provide coverage without making a dent in your wallet.
With recruiting becoming big business and continually getting bigger, the information around recruiting is more readily available then it every has been in the past. Twitter gives fans a chance to follow recruits (most are on Twitter) as well as following the previously mentioned sites. With all of this access and with fans ability to follow and communicate with recruits (it doesn't stop fans that this could be an NCAA violation) it puts added pressure on recruits to make their decisions. Some play it up bigger than others and sometimes (like in the cases of Gunner Kiel, Mike Davis, TJ Yeldon and Landon Collins) when recruits make decisions that fans don't like, we see the nasty side of college sports as spurned fans react very negatively directly to the recruits.
Recruiting is only going to get bigger and bigger. College Football is a year-round sport (especially in the SEC) and the growth of recruiting in the last several years has been off the charts and will only continue to grow as great tools like Direct Snap become more and more common place. Couple recruiting with the rivalries in the SEC and recruiting will always be one of the biggest storylines in the SEC.
#6 New Coaches
Hugh Freeze and Kevin Sumlin will be making their SEC debuts this season and all eyes will be on them. Freeze takes over an Ole Miss team that won only two games last year and won exactly zero SEC games. Sumlin takes over A&M after they went 7-6 in the Big 12. Now he's their new Head Coach and he has to guide them through the SEC instead of familiar waters.
Not only are Head Coaching moves going to be big storylines, but so will Assistant Coaching moves. Assistant Coaches are now making big money in the SEC and if the team doesn't perform, a lot of times it's the Assistant's that get fired before the coach. Auburn has changed both coordinators this year as they have hired Brian Van Gorder and Scott Loeffler. Arkansas also has new coordinators on both sides of the football. Tennessee hired Bama's Sal Sunseri to take over their defense. Alabama has had to replace their OC. Will Muschamp had to get a new OC when Kansas inexplicably hired Charlie Weis. South Carolina had to replace Ellis Johnson and on and on. Lots of changes have taken place at the coordinator positions and some of these hires will be key to who wins the SEC East and SEC West this season. Hire Willie Martinez and you probably won't be in Championship contention. Hire Todd Grantham, and your stock probably went up. Making the right hire is key and this year it will be very interesting to see who made the right hires.
Last year Re-Alignment talk dominated college football. We already referenced the SEC's "New Arrivals" in this column but look for more re-alignment this year. The Pac-12 will most likely eventually get to the Pac-16. The ACC is looking out for themselves first as they proved last year by poaching Syracuse and Pitt. The Big 12 is looking to sustain their league after losing A&M, Colorado, Missouri and Nebraska over the last couple of years. There are already rumors of Clemson and FSU looking to get out of the ACC. Re-alignment will once again be a big storyline in college football and the SEC will be involved in a lot of those rumors. Missouri in the SEC East really doesn't make sense in the long run, so look for two more teams to be added at some point (not necessarily this year) to even things out.
#8 Impact Freshmen
Recruiting is big business and when freshmen come onto campus as big recruits, they are expected to perform. In 2011 the SEC saw some significant contributions from Freshmen. Georgia's Isaiah Crowell finished sixth in the league in rushing. Georgia's Malcolm Mitchell, Vandy's Chris Boyd and Ole Miss's Donte Moncrief all made signficant contributions at the WR position. Some guy named Jadaveon Clowney was pretty good for South Carolina. Just two years ago, Aaron Murray (as a red-shirt frosh), Michael Dyer and Marcus Lattimore made big impacts for their respective teams. Most freshmen will come in and not have much of an impact in their inaugural season but some will make huge contributions to their teams. Keep an eye on the impact freshman for 2012 as the media will certainly be talking about them.
#9 Alabama Re-loading
Fresh off of a National Championship, what do you do next? As of right now, Bama has the #1 recruiting class in the Nation according to Rivals and #2 according to Scout.com. Under Nick Saban, Alabama doesn't rebuild, it re-loads. Bama has won two of the last three National Championships so you can expect them to be one of the biggest stories of this coming season. They lose the lynchpin of their offense in Trent Richardson, so it will be interesting to see who steps up to replace him. Can Eddie Lacy step right in, will it be Dee Hart coming off an injury, freshman phenom TJ Yeldon or somebody else. Bama also has a signficant amount of quality players to replace on the defensive side of the football. Last year Bama lost five players to the draft but only one of them was from the defense (first round pick Marcell Dareus). This year they've got Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, Courtney Upshaw and Dont'a Hightower all expected to go early in the draft. Re-loading a defensive without those four stars is going to be an interesting story.
#10 Can Georgia take the next step?
Mark Richt came into the season on the Hot Seat and Georgia left the season as a popular pick in everybody's "way to early" Top 10 for 2012. 2011 was a tremendous year of growth for the defense under second year DC Todd Grantham as they finished 11th in the Nation in rushing defense, 10th in passing defense and 5th in total defense. Georgia did what good teams do as they beat everybody on their schedule that wasn't as good as them. But they didn't do what great teams do and that is beat competition equal to or greater than them. Georgia finished at 10-4 on the year with all four losses coming to teams that ended up in the AP Top 11. Georgia only loses two players off of their two-deep depth chart going into 2012 (Brandon Boykin and DeAngelo Tyson) so the defense should be even more stout this season. On offense, Georgia must replace Orson Charles (who was a fantastic talent but under-utlizied in the offense) and two quality offensive linemen in Ben Jones and Cordy Glenn. Shoring up with OL will be the key to Georgia taking the next step.
Georgia's window is now as Florida and Tennessee appear to be down. Georgia also has a break in the schedule as they don't face Alabama, LSU or Arkansas for the second straight season. Can Georgia take advantage of their returning starters and favorable schedule to take the next step and win the SEC for the first time since 2005? It will be a story to watch.