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.