The SEC looks to close out college football’s BCS era with an eighth consecutive championship.
Alabama has won two in a row and is a heavy favorite to claim the title in 2013. The Crimson Tide return 14 starters, including Heisman Trophy candidates in quarterback AJ McCarron and running back T.J. Yeldon. The defense ranked No. 1 nationally in 2012 but must replace cornerback Dee Milliner and lineman Jesse Williams.
Chasing Alabama for the No. 1 spot in the SEC will be a trio of teams. Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M appear to be the Crimson Tide’s biggest challengers. The Aggies return reigning Heisman winner in quarterback Johnny Manziel, but the defense is a big question mark. Georgia’s defense has to be revamped, while the offense could be the best in the SEC. South Carolina didn’t suffer any huge losses from last year, but receiver Ace Sanders and end Devin Taylor, along with the linebacking corps won’t be easy to replace.
In addition to Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Texas A&M, Florida and LSU should be among the best 15 squads in the nation. The Tigers suffered some heavy departures on defense, but LSU always seems to reload on that side of the ball. Florida also suffered some key losses on defense, and the offense needs to find a spark in the passing attack.
Ole Miss and Vanderbilt rank just outside of Athlon’s top 25 teams for 2013, and both programs are steadily improving behind two of college football’s rising stars at head coach in James Franklin (Vanderbilt) and Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss).
Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas will all break in a new head coach this year. All four programs should benefit from the coaching change in 2013 over the next couple of seasons. However, each still has a ways to go before climbing into SEC title discussion.
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2013 Predictions
Three teams were discussed for the top spot in the SEC East. Why was Georgia the pick?
It was a tough call, but Georgia got the nod over South Carolina and Florida because of its prowess on offense. The Bulldogs feature an elite quarterback (Aaron Murray), two All-SEC-caliber tailbacks (Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall), a deep collection of wide receivers and a veteran offensive line. The Bulldogs, assuming the key players remain healthy, will score a ton of points this fall. Georgia must replace some outstanding players on defense, but the Dawgs still have plenty of talent on that side of the ball and there shouldn’t be too much drop-off. South Carolina should be very good on both sides of the ball and would be a worthy pick for No. 1, but we were a bit concerned about the lack of proven playmakers on offense. The concern for Florida is an offense that ranked 12th in the SEC last year with 334.4 yards per game. The Gators must become more balanced to emerge as a national title contender.
Alabama was the unanimous No. 1 pick in the SEC and the nation. Is there any reason to believe the Crimson Tide will stumble?
Not really. Alabama has recruited so well over the past five years and is so well-coached that it’s tough to find a reason not to pick the Crimson Tide to win yet another SEC title. The biggest cause for concern is the offensive line, which must replace three All-SEC first-teamers — Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Chance Warmack. However, the two returning starters — Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen — are preseason All-SEC picks, and there are plenty of talented players ready to emerge. The biggest hurdle on the schedule is a September trip to Texas A&M, but Alabama still won the SEC title last year despite losing to the Aggies in the regular season.
Most teams that suffered the type of personnel losses that LSU did would get penalized more heavily in the preseason rankings. Do the Tigers get the benefit of the doubt?
It’s fair to say we might make some assumptions about a program like LSU — which has been so good for the past decade — that we don’t make about other teams with less of a track record. This year’s team must replace nine key players on defense. That would cripple most programs, but LSU is not like most programs. The Tigers have been so consistently strong on defense that we can assume there will be enough quality replacements to keep the defense among the best in the league. Now, we don’t expect LSU to be as dominant as it’s been in the past three years, but we’d be surprised if the Tigers didn’t finish in the top-five in the SEC in total defense. Having said all that, we did pick LSU third in the SEC West and No. 12 overall — not exactly among the elite of the elite. That, however, has as much to do with our concerns about LSU’s rather ordinary offense as it does the exodus of talent on defense.
Vanderbilt is picked ahead of Tennessee in the SEC East for the first time ever. What was the rationale?
Vanderbilt was clearly the better team last year, and based on the personnel returning to both programs, there’s no reason to believe the 2013 season will be any different. The Commodores went 5–3 in the league last year and outgained their SEC opponents (plus-5.3 yards per game) for the first time in at least four decades. Tennessee stumbled through a 1–7 SEC record and was outgained by 80.3 yards per game. Despite suffering some key losses on offense — quarterback Tyler Bray and their top four pass-catchers — Tennessee should be improved under new coach Butch Jones. Vanderbilt, however, should still finish ahead of the Vols in the standings.
Are you projecting Auburn to bounce back?
The quick answer: Yes. The tougher question: How much? This was hotly debated in our meeting. We ended up picking the Tigers to finish sixth in the SEC West (up from seventh) and project a 2–6 league record (up from 0–8). We believe this team will be vastly improved, but it’s tough to find too many wins on the league schedule.
2013 SEC Team Previews
Talking Some Trash
You know Nick Saban is “The Man” on the SEC pedestal when multiple coaches take shots at him in the offseason. And you know Saban is feared enough that those coaches quickly take it back.
First, Vanderbilt’s James Franklin referred to the Alabama coach as “Nicky Satan” during a speaking engagement. He later apologized to Saban, and Franklin said he had been joking. (Which clearly he was.)
Then Arkansas’ Bret Bielema caused a stir by telling a local Razorback Club that “I didn’t come here to play Alabama. I came here to beat Alabama. You can take Saban’s record when he was at Michigan State and when he was a coach in the Big Ten and put it against mine, and it can’t compare.”
Bielema was technically correct: He was 68–24 overall and 37–19 in the Big Ten while at Wisconsin from 2006-12, while Saban was 34–24–1 overall and 23–16–1 in the conference at Michigan State from 1995-99.
But Bielema still felt the need to take to Twitter and say: “Alabama quotes were a joke to a question from a fan at pep rally. #wow.”
Saban didn’t respond publicly to either slight, which seems to be following a recent pattern in the SEC.
And the Bielema jabs weren't the last comment lobbied in Saban's direction this offseason. Florida offensive line coach Tim Davis referred to Saban as the "devil himself"at a booster club meeting in May.
Remember how Steve Spurrier and Phillip Fulmer threw verbal volley back and forth in the ‘90s? (Mostly Spurrier towards Fulmer.) And then how Lane Kiffin’s one year in the conference resulted in a memorable verbal war with Urban Meyer, and even Spurrier on one occasion?
The SEC has a rich history of coaching trash talk, but the tendency lately has been to turn the other cheek.
Take last year, when Spurrier was quoted as saying he was unhappy his game with Georgia was moved to later in the season because the Bulldogs usually had players suspended for the first two games. Georgia’s Mark Richt laughed off the shot, saying, “That sounds like Steve.”
It did sound like Spurrier, but in this day and age the fun and quotable coaches are becoming more and more rare. And Spurrier probably won’t be on the scene much longer.
But perhaps if Bielema and Franklin stick around the conference long enough, and enjoy a high level of success, the bulletin board will fill up a bit more.
The New World
This marks the final year of the BCS era. So why would the SEC, having won seven BCS championships in a row, have led the fight for a four-team playoff?
Because there’s nothing to suggest the conference won’t dominate the coming format, and make even more money in the process. SEC teams went 6–3 in bowls last year, and since 1996 the conference has a .614 bowl winning percentage. The only bowl season it had a losing record was 2002.
Yes, there have been some duds for the conference. Those have usually involved games against upstarts from outside the five major conferences: Florida losing to Louisville last season, Alabama falling to Utah in January 2009.
But the SEC is not only unbeaten in the last seven BCS Championship Games (not counting LSU losing to Alabama in 2012), but the conference has won four out of the past five Capital One Bowls, nine of the past 10 Cotton Bowls and three of the past four Outback Bowls. Those are the SEC’s top bowl tie-ins after the BCS. (SEC teams have lost three of the past four Sugar Bowls, but prior to that the league had won six of the previous seven.)
Given all that, the SEC is pretty confident it can still dominate the new system. That’s why it also pushed to de-emphasize conference affiliation when it comes to picking the BCS bowls that don’t involve the four-team playoff. Last year’s final BCS standings (prior to the bowls) had six SEC teams in the top 10.
So if that many teams potentially could have been in BCS bowls, but only two made it in the BCS last year, what reason did the SEC have to keep the old system? None, that’s why Mike Slive and company led the charge for change.