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Can Texas A&M knock off Alabama for the West title?
With Alabama’s convincing victory over Notre Dame in early January, the SEC ran its streak of consecutive national champions to seven. The bad news for the competition? The SEC isn’t going anywhere. In fact, it’s bigger and better than ever. Texas A&M is a program on the rise after winning 11 games in its first season in the conference, while quarterback Johnny Manziel claimed the 2012 Heisman Trophy. In addition to the Aggies, Ole Miss showed big improvement last season, and Vanderbilt made consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in program history.
What does it mean for 2013? Expect much of the same from the SEC. The conference is poised for another national championship, as Alabama is a heavy favorite to win the BCS title next season. While the Crimson Tide is a clear No. 1 pick in the preseason, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M could all play their way into the national championship conversation.
After disappointing seasons at Tennessee and Auburn, both programs changed head coaches. Butch Jones joins the Volunteers after three seasons at Cincinnati, while the Tigers hired former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn away from Arkansas State. Those two aren’t the only new coaches in the SEC next season, as Kentucky hired Mark Stoops to replace Joker Phillips, and Arkansas surprisingly pulled Bret Bielema away from Wisconsin.
There’s no easy out in the SEC, and it’s possible the conference has 11 or 12 bowl teams in 2013.
Early SEC East Predictions for 2013
Key Returnees: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Michael Bennett, WR Chris Conley, TE Arthur Lynch, LT Kenarious Gates, C David Andrews, RG Chris Burnette, RT John Theus, DE Ray Drew, DE Garrison Smith, LB Jordan Jenkins, LB Amarlo Herrera, CB Damian Swann
Key Departures: WR Tavarres King, WR Marlon Brown, DE Cornelius Washington, NT Kwame Geathers, DT John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, CB Sanders Commings, FS Bacarri Rambo, SS Shawn Williams
The No. 1 spot in the SEC East should be a tight battle between Georgia, Florida and South Carolina in 2013. For now, the Bulldogs have a slight edge in Athlon’s very early predictions for next season. Quarterback Aaron Murray turned down the NFL for one more season in Athens, which is crucial for Georgia’s national title hopes considering the losses on defense. Linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree decided to leave early for the next level, while defensive tackle John Jenkins, cornerback Sanders Commings and safety Bacarri Rambo each expired their eligibility after the Capital One Bowl. Considering the personnel to replace on defense, the Bulldogs may need to win a lot of high-scoring games early in the season. Mark Richt’s team has a favorable home conference schedule, which features South Carolina and LSU in September. If the defense comes together early in the year, Georgia could make a run at a national championship.
2. South Carolina
Key Returnees: QB Connor Shaw, QB Dylan Thompson, RB Brandon Wilds, RB Mike Davis, WR Bruce Ellington, WR Damiere Byrd, WR Shaq Roland, LT Corey Robinson, LG A.J. Cann, RT Brandon Shell, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Chaz Sutton, DT Kelcy Quarles, DT Gerald Dixon Jr., CB Jimmy Legree, S Brison Williams
Key Departures: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, TE Justice Cunningham, C T.J. Johnson, DE Devin Taylor, DT Byron Jerideau, LB Shaq Wilson, LB Reginald Bowens, CB Akeem Auguste, S DeVonte Holloman, S D.J. Swearinger
There’s not much separating South Carolina and Georgia for the top spot in the early SEC predictions. The Gamecocks have won 22 games over the last two years and are poised to contend for a BCS bowl in 2013. Steve Spurrier isn’t shy about rotating quarterbacks, and South Carolina has two dependable options (Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson) to rely on next season. Considering there’s no clear go-to back, the offense will likely lean on Shaw and Thompson to win a huge SEC showdown in Week 2 against Georgia. The defense loses a handful of key players, but defensive end (and Heisman candidate) Jadeveon Clowney is back for one more season in Columbia. After facing a difficult conference crossover schedule over the last few years, South Carolina does not play Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M or Ole Miss – arguably the top four teams in the SEC West.
Key Returnees: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Matt Jones, FB Trey Burton, WR Quinton Dunbar, C Jonotthan Harrison, RG Jon Halapio, RT Chaz Green, DE Dominique Easley, DE Jonathan Bullard, DE Dante Fowler, LB Antonio Morrison, LB Michael Taylor, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Jaylen Watkins, CB Marcus Roberson, P Kyle Christy
Key Departures: RB Mike Gillislee, TE Jordan Reed, LT Xavier Nixon, LG James Wilson, DT Sharrif Floyd, DT Omar Hunter, LB Jelani Jenkins, LB Jon Bostic, S Matt Elam, S Josh Evans, K Caleb Sturgis
Are the Gators ready to emerge as an annual top-10 team once again? Or is Florida a year or two away from reaching that mark? That’s the big question facing this team in 2013. The Gators navigated a difficult schedule to finish 11-2 last season but was destroyed by Louisville in the Sugar Bowl and still averaged only 334.4 yards per game. With running back Mike Gillislee out of eligibility, Florida needs a big year from quarterback Jeff Driskel. After throwing for 1,646 yards and 12 touchdowns in 2012, the junior will be asked to shoulder more of the offensive workload. The Gators lost coordinator Dan Quinn to the NFL and must replace standouts in defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam and linebackers Jelani Jenkins and Jon Bostic. Even though Florida has talent on this side of the ball, it may be difficult to finish fifth in total and scoring defense once again.
Key Returnees: RB Warren Norman, RB Brian Kimbrow, RB Wesley Tate, WR Jordan Matthews, WR Chris Boyd, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, DE Caleb Azibuke, LB Chase Garnham, LB Karl Butler, LB Darreon Herring, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler, S Javon Marshall
Key Departures: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DE Johnell Thomas, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson, P Richard Kent
The Commodores enter 2013 with a seven-game winning streak and momentum on their side. Coach James Franklin has led Vanderbilt to back-to-back bowl games for the first time in program history and earning No. 3 is certainly within reach. Quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy must be replaced, but the offense caught a break when receiver Jordan Matthews decided to turn down the NFL for another season in Nashville. Bob Shoop is one of the SEC’s most underrated coordinators, and Vanderbilt should rank among the top-five defenses in the conference next year.
Key Returnees: RB Rajion Neal, RB Marlin Lane, LT Antonio Richardson, C James Stone, RG Zach Fulton, RT Ja’Wuan James, NG Daniel McCullers, DE Maurice Couch, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Jacques Smith, LB Curt Maggitt, CB Justin Coleman, S Byron Moore, S LaDarrell McNeil, DB Jaron Toney
Key Departures: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, TE Mychal Rivera, OG Dallas Thomas, DE Darrington Sentimore, LB Herman Lathers, CB Prentiss Waggner
After a disappointing three-year stint under Derek Dooley, Tennessee hopes new coach Butch Jones can get the Volunteers back on track. However, Jones is going to need some time to rebuild the roster, especially after quarterback Tyler Bray and receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson declared early for the NFL Draft. Although the skill positions need to be rebuilt, running backs Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are back, along with four starters on the offensive line. The defense was a disaster under Sal Sunseri last season, but new coordinator John Jancek has some personnel to work with, including massive nose guard Daniel McCullers and linebackers A.J. Johnson and Curt Maggitt.
Key Returnees: QB James Franklin, RB Henry Josey, RB Marcus Murphy, WR Marcus Lucas, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, WR L’Damian Washington, LG Evan Boehm, RT Justin Britt, DE Kony Ealy, DE Michael Sam, NG Matt Hoch, LB Donovan Bonner, LB/S Andrew Wilson, CB E.J. Gaines, CB Randy Ponder, FS Braylon Webb
Key Departures: RB Kendial Lawrence, WR T.J. Moe, WR Gahn McGaffie, OT Elvis Fisher, DE Brad Madison, DT Sheldon Richardson, LB Will Ebner, LB Zaviar Gooden, CB Kip Edwards, SS Kenronte Walker
Even though the Tigers check in No. 6 in the early SEC East predictions, they could surprise in 2013. Quarterback James Franklin was never 100 percent after offseason shoulder surgery, throwing for just 1,562 yards and 10 touchdowns. Expect the senior to regain the form from his junior year, which resulted in 3,846 total yards and 36 overall scores. The Tigers also regain the services of running back Henry Josey, who missed 2012 with a serious knee injury. Considering the departure of defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson and a couple of key players in the back seven, there’s more pressure on Missouri’s offense to deliver and likely win more shootouts next season.
Key Returnees: QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Patrick Towles, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Jonathan George, WR Demarco Robinson, WR Daryl Collins, LT Darrian Miller, LG Zach West, RT Kevin Mitchell, DT Donte Rumph, DT Mister Cobble, DT Tristian Johnson, LB Avery Williamson, LB Alvin Dupree, LB/S Miles Simpson, CB J.D. Harmon, S Ashely Lowery
Key Departures: WR La’Rod King, WR Aaron Boyd, C Matt Smith, RG Larry Warford, DE Collins Ukwu, DE Taylor Wyndham, CB Cartier Rice, S Martavius Neloms
New coach Mark Stoops certainly has some work to do to get the Wildcats back in a bowl game. Kentucky’s offense ranked as one of the worst in college football last season, averaging just 17.9 points a game. Injuries to quarterback Patrick Towles and Maxwell Smith never allowed the offense to get on track, while freshman Jalen Whitlow was thrown into the fire too early. All three quarterbacks are back in 2013, and Kentucky’s offense should be better under new coordinator Neal Brown. Stoops’ background on defense will immediately help a unit that allowed 391 yards and 31 points a game last season. The Wildcats played a handful of young players on defense in 2012, which should give some hope that Kentucky can make considerable progress on this side of the ball in 2013.
Early SEC West Predictions for 2013
Key Returnees: QB AJ McCarron, RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, WR Kevin Norwood, WR Christion Jones, LT Cyrus Kouandijo, OG Anthony Steen, C Ryan Kelly, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, NG Brandon Ivory, LB C.J. Mosley, LB Trey DePriest, LB Adrian Hubbard, LB Xzavier Dickson, LB Denzel Devall, CB Deion Belue, CB John Fulton, CB Geno Smith,S Vinnie Sunseri, S Nick Perry, S HaHa Clinton-Dix
Key Departures: RB Eddie Lacy, TE Michael Williams, LG Chance Warmack, C Barrett Jones, RT D.J. Fluker, DE Damion Square, NG Jesse Williams, LB Nico Johnson, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester
The Crimson Tide enters 2013 as a heavy favorite to win their fourth national title in five seasons. The biggest area of concern for coach Nick Saban will be an offensive line that must replace guard Chance Warmack, center Barrett Jones and right tackle D.J. Fluker. However, quarterback AJ McCarron is back after a standout junior season, while running back T.J. Yeldon and receiver Amari Cooper will be in the mix for All-SEC honors. Nose guard Jesse Williams, linebacker Nico Johnson, cornerback Dee Milliner and safety Robert Lester are big losses, but Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart shouldn’t have any trouble keeping the Crimson Tide’s defense ranked among the best in college football. The Sept. 14 showdown at Texas A&M could decide the SEC West title. Even though the Aggies got the best of Alabama in 2012, the guess here is the Crimson Tide gets revenge for last season’s loss.
2. Texas A&M
Key Returnees: QB Johnny Manziel, RB Ben Malena, RB Trey Williams, WR Mike Evans, WR Malcome Kennedy, OT Jake Matthews, LG Jarvis Harrison, RG Cedric Ogbuehi, DE Julien Obioha, NG Kirby Ennis, LB Steven Jenkins, LB Toney Hurd, Jr., CB Deshazor Everett, CB De’Vante Harris, S Howard Matthews, S Tramain Jacobs
Key Departures: RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, WR Uzoma Nwachukwu, LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, DE Damontre Moore, DT Spencer Nealy, LB Jonathan Stewart, LB Sean Porter, CB Dustin Harris, S Steven Terrell
The Aggies’ debut season in the SEC was a huge success. What will coach Kevin Sumlin and Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel do for an encore? How about a national championship? It’s certainly within reach for Texas A&M, as Manziel is back for his sophomore season, and the backfield is loaded with options with Ben Malena, Brandon Williams and Trey Williams. With Luke Joeckel moving to the NFL, Jake Matthews is expected to slide from right tackle to the left side. The defense is the biggest concern for Sumlin, as defensive end Damontre Moore left early for the NFL, and this unit ranked ninth in the SEC in yards allowed in 2012. The Aggies aren’t going to surprise anyone in 2013, but Sumlin has this team poised to make a run at the top five and a SEC Championship.
Key Returnees: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, RB Kenny Hilliard, RB Alfred Blue, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Kadron Boone, WR Odell Beckham, LG La’el Collins, RG Trai Turner, RT Vadal Alexander, DT Anthony Johnson, DT Ego Ferguson, LB Lamin Barrow, LB Deion Jones, CB Jalen Mills, CB Jalen Collins, S Craig Loston, S Ronald Martin, S Micah Eugene
Key Departures: RB Michael Ford, RB Spencer Ware, LT Josh Dworaczyk, OT Chris Faulk, C P.J. Lonergan, DE Lavar Edwards, DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, DT Josh Downs, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid
Although the Tigers have recruited as well as anyone in the SEC, replacing 11 early departures to the NFL won’t be easy. If LSU wants to challenge Alabama or Texas A&M for the SEC West title, quarterback Zach Mettenberger has to get better. He finished with 2,609 yards, 12 touchdown tosses and seven interceptions in 2012. Mettenberger will have plenty of help, as sophomore Jeremy Hill could be a 1,000-yard rusher, while the receiving corps is set with the return of Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is among the best in college football, and he will certainly have his hands full in 2013. The Tigers must replace defensive ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery, defensive tackles Josh Downs and Bennie Logan, linebacker Kevin Minter, cornerback Tharold Simon and safety Eric Reid. Considering all of the early departures to the NFL, LSU’s defense may struggle early but will get stronger as the year progresses. The Tigers also have a challenging schedule, which starts with a neutral site matchup against TCU, followed by road games in the SEC against Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama.
4. Ole Miss
Key Returnees: QB Bo Wallace, QB Barry Brunetti, RB Jeff Scott, WR Donte Moncrief, WR Ja-Mes Logan, WR Vince Sanders, LT Emmanuel McCray, LG Aaron Morris, C Evan Swindall, RT Pierce Burton, DE C.J. Johnson, DE Channing Ward, DT Isaac Gross, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, LB Mike Marry, CB Charles Sawyer, CB Senquez Golson, FS Cody Prewitt, S Trae Elston, DB Mike Hilton
Key Departures: TE Jamal Mosley, RG A.J. Hawkins, DT Gilbert Pena, DT Uriah Grant, LB Joel Kight
The Rebels were one of college football’s most-improved teams in 2012, going from 2-10 in 2011 to 7-6 last season. Hugh Freeze clearly has Ole Miss on the right track, and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Rebels begin 2013 in some preseason top 25 lists. In addition to a top-15 recruiting class coming to Oxford, Ole Miss returns nearly all of its key players for 2013. Quarterback Bo Wallace will miss spring practice due to shoulder surgery, but backup Barry Brunetti can benefit from the extra snaps. The defense made considerable progress in 2012, finishing seventh in the SEC in yards allowed and averaged 2.9 sacks a game. With more depth and experience next season, Ole Miss’ defense should take another step forward.
5. Mississippi State
Key Returnees: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, RB Josh Robinson, WR Robert Johnson, TE Malcolm Johnson, LT Blaine Clausell, LG Gabe Jackson, C Dillon Day, RT Charles Siddoway, DE Denico Autry, DE Kaleb Eulls, DE Preston Smith, DT Curtis Virges, LB Benardrick McKinney, LB Deontae Skinner, LB Matthew Wells, S Nickoe Whitley, S Jay Hughes
Key Departures: WR Chad Bumphis, WR Chris Smith, WR Arceto Clark, TE Marcus Green, RG Tobias Smith, DT Josh Boyd, LB Cameron Lawrence, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Darius Slay, SS Corey Broomfield
2012 was a tale of two seasons for Mississippi State. The Bulldogs started 7-0 but finished a disappointing 1-5 in their final six games. Why the collapse? The schedule got tougher during the second half of the season, and the defense gave up 30 or more points in five out of the last six games. Coach Dan Mullen promoted Geoff Collins to defensive coordinator, hoping a more aggressive scheme will result in improvement next season. In addition to making improvement on defense, the Bulldogs have to get more production from quarterback Tyler Russell. Mullen has elevated the program, but Mississippi State will have a hard time finishing in the top four of the SEC West next season.
Key Returnees: QB Kiehl Frazier, QB Jonathan Wallace, RB Tre Mason, WR Trovon Reed, WR Quan Bray, LT Greg Robinson, C Reese Dismukes, RG Chad Slade, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, DT Gabe Wright, DE Nosa Eguae, LB Cassanova McKinzy, LB Jake Holland, CB Joshua Holsey, CB Chris Davis, CB Jonathon Mincy, S Demetruce McNeal, S Jermaine Whitehead
Key Departures: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, LG John Sullen, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates
After a disastrous 3-9 record in 2012, Auburn has made all of the right moves to put the program back on track. New coach (and former offensive coordinator) Gus Malzahn is back after spending last season at Arkansas State, and his return is crucial for an offense that averaged just 18.7 points a game. Malzahn’s first order of business is choosing between Kiehl Frazier and Jonathan Wallace as the team’s starting quarterback. Neither player was particularly impressive but didn’t have much help from their supporting cast. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has a wealth of experience from his stops at Alabama, Mississippi State and South Carolina and should help Auburn’s defense make noticeable improvement in 2013. The Tigers aren’t going to challenge for the SEC West title but a bowl game is a reasonable expectation.
Key Returnees: RB Jonathan Williams, WR Mekale McKay, WR Javontee Herndon, WR Brandon Mitchell, WR Julian Horton, C Travis Swanson, OT David Hurd, DE Chris Smith, DE Trey Flowers, DT Byran Jones, DT Robert Thomas, LB A.J. Turner, LB Otha Peters, CB Tevin Mitchel, S Rohan Gaines, S Eric Bennett
Key Departures: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, RB Dennis Johnson, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Chris Gragg, OG Alvin Bailey, OG Tyler Deacon, DT Alfred Davis, LB Ross Rasner, LB Terrell Williams, LB Alonzo Highsmith
Time and patience. That’s the key words surrounding Bret Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville. Arkansas has a lot of roster turnover to overcome next year, starting at quarterback. Tyler Wilson has expired his eligibility, leaving Brandon Allen as the team’s likely No. 1 quarterback in the spring. Another problem for Allen will be the lack of a proven running back, along with the early departure of guard Alvin Bailey to the NFL. Jim Chaney was a good hire as the team’s offensive coordinator but points could be hard to come by in 2013. While the offense will be a work in progress, the defense has enough talent to be competitive next season. The Razorbacks have a solid defensive line with the return of Chris Smith, Trey Flowers, Byran Jones and Robert Thomas. And the secondary should be improved with a full year from cornerback Tevin Mitchel and safety Eric Bennett.
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