With the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M, the SEC is bigger and better than ever. While the Tigers and Aggies probably won't win the conference in 2012, the addition of both teams only adds to the depth in the legaue. The last six national champions have come from the SEC and the conference should have a good chance to add No. 7 in 2012.
Simply put, there's no shortage of talent in the SEC. Athlon ranked 75 players for this list but could easily rank 100 with the amount of returning talent in the league for 2012.
Compiling the top 75 players of any conference is never an easy task. However, Athlon established a criteria to help compile the rankings.
Here are five factors that contributed to the criteria for the rankings:
1. Projection on 2012 Performance
2. Importance to team
3. Positional importance
4. NFL Draft stock
5. Career performance
(Published August 9, 2012)
Athlon's Top 75 SEC Players for 2012
1. Barrett Jones, C, Alabama
Three years, three different positions. That’s how valuable Jones has been to Alabama’s offensive line during his career in Tuscaloosa. The Tennessee native started the first 25 games of his career at right guard and shifted to left tackle last season. He earned first-team All-SEC honors in each of the last two years and will slide inside to man the center spot with the departure of William Vlachos. Jones is the nation’s most versatile offensive lineman and the defending Outland Trophy winner should be one of college football’s top performers in 2012.
2. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
It is hard to argue that any one player in the nation has more upside than this 6-foot-6, 260-pound freak of nature. As only a freshman, Clowney posted 8.0 sacks and forced five fumbles. He earned Defensive Freshman of the Year honors in the SEC and claimed a spot on the Freshman All-American team after his 36-tackle, 11.5-tackles for a loss debut season. The only thing keeping the star defensive end from being the top player in the league is his mental grasp of the game. He is still an underclassmen and still has some maturing to do before he becomes the most dominate defensive player in the nation. It may not take too long, however.
3. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Before his season ending knee injury on Oct. 15, Lattimore was a Heisman frontrunner. The week before the injury, Lattimore was sixth in the nation in rushing with 129.8 yards per game. Lattimore’s health will be one of the major storylines in the SEC. If he’s fully healthy, the Gamecocks could make a run at their first SEC championship.
4. Sam Montgomery, DE, LSU
The powerful defensive end was named first-team All-SEC last season, and the junior will be one of the top players in the country this year. Montgomery made 49 tackles (with 13.5 for loss) in 2011 and led the Tigers with nine sacks. The South Carolina native is the latest in a long line of stellar LSU defensive lineman. He will combine with fellow pass rusher Barkevious Mingo to form one of the best defensive end tandems in the country in 2012.
5. Jarvis Jones, LB, Georgia
This pass-rushing outside linebacker was sensational in his first season with the Bulldogs. He led the SEC with 13.5 sacks on his way to consensus All-American honors. Jones totaled 70 tackles last season, with a conference-leading 19.5 of them behind the line of scrimmage. He also added two forced fumbles and two pass breakups for a Georgia defense that ranked No. 5 in the country a year ago. Look for Jones and the Bulldogs defense to wreak more havoc on opponents in 2012.
6. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
It’s a close call for the No. 1 quarterback spot in the SEC. Murray and Tyler Wilson are both deserving, but with Arkansas losing coach Bobby Petrino and receivers Joe Adams and Jarius Wright, the edge goes to the Bulldogs’ signal-caller. Through Murray’s first two years in Athens, he has thrown for 6,198 yards and 59 touchdowns. His interception total increased last year (8 as a freshman, 14 as a sophomore), which will be one area the coaching staff wants to see him improve in 2012. The Bulldogs have to replace a couple of key offensive line starters, and receiver Malcolm Mitchell may spend the majority of the first part of the year at cornerback. There are concerns about Murray, but we think he will end up with first-team All-SEC honors at the end of 2012.
7. Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
Wilson successfully stepped into Ryan Mallett’s shoes as Arkansas’ starting quarterback last season, carrying on the Razorbacks’ best run of passers in program history. Wilson’s 3,638 yards was the second-highest total in school history as he became the program’s first All-SEC first-team quarterback. After the sudden coaching change, Wilson also was a stabilizing presence on the roster. He and Mallett are the only two quarterbacks to pass for 3,000 yards in school history.
8. Johnthan Banks, CB, Mississippi State
While LSU’s Tyrann Mathieu will grab headlines for being one of the nation’s top playmakers at cornerbacks, Banks is quietly the SEC’s No. 1 coverman. He started all 13 games last season and earned first-team All-SEC honors, while recording 71 tackles and three forced fumbles. Banks is already drawing significant interest from the NFL, especially with his 6-foot-2 frame. The Mississippi native is an Athlon Sports first-team All-American for 2012.
9. Barkevious Mingo, DE, LSU
As a sophomore on an undefeated team, Mingo finished second on the team in sacks (8.0) and led the team in tackles for a loss (15.0). While he may not be as complete a player as his defensive end counterpart Montgomery, Mingo might possess more explosiveness off the edge. He is long at 6-foot-5 and 240 pound and can get up the field with great quickness. He has first-round NFL potential and should only build upon his second-team All-SEC performance of 2011.
10. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas
Expectations are high for Davis to return to the lineup at full speed after missing the 2011 season with a broken ankle. In 2010, Davis emerged over the final seven games of the season to rush for 1,028 yards and 12 touchdowns during that span. The Hogs’ will look forward to his power, speed and vision to return to the lineup after Arkansas ranked ninth in the SEC in rushing last season.
11. Luke Joeckel, OT, Texas A&M
Not too many players step into a BCS conference and start all 13 games as a true freshman. Joeckel did just that back in 2010 before earning first-team All-Big 12 honors last fall. The 6-foot-6, 310-pound bookend has played in all 26 possible career games and helped lead an O-Line that finished fourth nationally in sacks allowed per game last fall (0.69). The Aggies will experience growing pains shifting into the SEC, but the Joeckel-led offensive line shouldn’t be an issue.
12. Alex Hurst, OT, LSU
The 6-foot-6, 340-pound senior right tackle was a force last season in paving the way for the powerful LSU running game. Three different Tigers running backs reached the 500-yard mark last season, and LSU compiled 35 touchdowns on the ground. Hurst was recognized as first-team All-SEC by the league’s coaches in 2011, and he will be a top All-America candidate this season. Hurst and Chris Faulk should form the best tackle duo in the country in 2012.
13. Chris Faulk, OT, LSU
After redshirting in 2009, the big left tackle from Slidell, La., worked his way into a starting spot by the end of his freshman season. Despite dealing with a severe ankle sprain against Mississippi State, Faulk still started 13 of the 14 games en route to the BCS national championship game. He earned second-team All-SEC honors while protecting the blindside of both Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson. Behind Faulk and company, LSU finished second in the run-heavy SEC in rushing offense at 202.6 yards per game.
14. Corey Lemonier, DE, Auburn
As only a sophomore, the former top 100 recruit realized his potential by leading the Tigers with 9.5 sacks. The 6-foot-4, 240-pound rush end finished his second season on The Plains with 47 total tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss and 15 QB hurries. He was the lone star on a defense that struggled mightily a year ago, but could emerge as an All-American superstar now that new coordinator Brian VanGorder is running the ship. Look for him to build around the future NFL draftee from Hialeah, Fla.
15. Eric Reid, S, LSU
The hard-hitting safety became a force during his sophomore season, tying for the team lead in tackles (76) with cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. Reid also forced two fumbles, had two interceptions and recovered a fumble last season for John Chavis’ stellar defense. Reid was named the SEC Defensive Player of the Week after an excellent performance in LSU’s 9-6 victory at Alabama during the regular season. His critical fourth-quarter interception in that game was a top play of the 2011 campaign.
16. Tyler Bray, QB, Tennessee
The 6-foot-6 quarterback has shown a ton of promise over his first two seasons in Knoxville, compiling 3,832 yards and 35 touchdown passes in 16 games. However, Bray must find a way to stay healthy for an entire season. He threw for 17 scores against six interceptions in seven games last year and has an elite receiving crew coming back. If a Vols rushing attack that ranked 116th nationally last year improves, Bray could have a monster 2012 campaign.
17. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama
McCarron finished the 2011 season by playing some of his best football, throwing for 234 yards on 23 completions in the 21-0 victory over LSU in the national championship. He also threw for 184 yards and three touchdowns against Auburn and has not thrown a pick since the Nov. 12 victory over Mississippi State. With Trent Richardson moving onto the NFL, Alabama will put more on McCarron’s shoulders this season. New coordinator Doug Nussmeier should open up the offense a little more, which will allow McCarron to easily surpass last season’s totals and challenge for All-SEC honors.
18. Tharold Simon, CB, LSU
When is comes to NFL upside and potential, few nickelbacks have as much talent as the sophomore from Eunice, La. He finished third in the SEC with 10 pass break-ups in only two starts. He has a huge frame for a corner at 6-foot-3 and 193 pounds and many believe he is the best coverman on the LSU roster. In fact, much like Morris Claiborne did last fall, Simon will likely be locked-up with the opposition’s top wide receiver. It won’t take long for Simon to become a household name nationally in 2012.
19. Tyrann Mathieu, CB, LSU
Note: Mathieu was dismissed after this article was published.
The LSU defensive back is a really, really, really good player with a tenacious attitude. But his Heisman candidacy was built more on a popular YouTube video, creative nickname, two punt returns in blowout wins and the support of the best defensive back in the nation more than anything else. Mathieu can be a game-changer on special teams and finds himself around the ball constantly. He is a welcome addition to any secondary, but he is not an elite coverman (see BCS title game) and does not have an NFL frame at 5-foot-9 and 175 pounds. The evidence? He never checks the other team’s top receiver.
20. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
The talented receiver caught seven touchdown passes as a freshman in 2010 while averaging a staggering 25.9 yards on 16 receptions. The expectations for Hunter were sky-high last season before he suffered a torn ACL in the third game of the year at Florida. Hunter did total 302 yards and two scores in the first two games before his injury. If he returns to his former elite athlete level, Hunter will be one of the most explosive weapons in the SEC.
21. Bacarri Rambo, S, Georgia
Rambo may be absent for the start of the season due to a suspension, which would be a major blow to the Georgia defense. Rambo was an AP first-team All-American last season after recording 55 tackles with a team-leading eight interceptions. Rambo was the key playmaker for a secondary that helped Georgia finish fourth nationally in pass efficiency defense.
22. Larry Warford, OG, Kentucky
Warford is probably one of the nation’s most underrated players. He enters 2012 with 25 consecutive starts and has earned All-SEC honors in each of the last two seasons. At 6-foot-3 and 343 pounds, Warford has the size and strength to be a road grader on the ground, while helping to keep opposing linemen off the quarterback. The senior is an Athlon Sports first-team All-SEC selection for 2012.
23. Chance Warmack, OG, Alabama
Barrett Jones is clearly the No. 1 offensive lineman for Alabama, but don’t overlook Warmack. The steady senior has started 25 straight contests and earned second-team All-SEC honors last season. The Georgia native is regarded as one of the top offensive guards for the 2013 NFL Draft and should increase his stock with another outstanding year.
24. D.J. Fluker, OT, Alabama
Fluker has started 21 games in his first two years in Tuscaloosa but is on the verge of a breakout year. The Alabama native was a key cog in the Crimson Tide’s rushing attack, allowing backs to average 5.5 yards per carry and record 34 scores on the ground. At 6-foot-6 and 335 pounds, Fluker has the strength to dominate on the right side of the line and continues to improve as a pass blocker. Look for the junior tackle to push for first-team All-SEC honors this season.
25. Devin Taylor, DE, South Carolina
Taylor’s profile slipped a bit playing alongside All-American Melvin Ingram and freshman sensation Jadeveon Clowney, but he was an AP first-team All-SEC selection just two seasons ago. He finished 2010 with 7.5 sacks and 46 tackles. Last season, Taylor was third on the team with six. He’ll be a veteran leader for Clowney.
26. Da’Rick Rogers, WR, Tennessee
Few players are a bigger anomaly than Mr. Rogers. He has NFL size, speed, explosiveness and upside. He is a nightmare match-up for any NCAA defensive back and will make huge plays after the catch. But the knucklehead factor is strong with the 6-foot-3, 210-pound Calhoun, Ga., native. He has had multiple issues off the field and his dedication/commitment to his team and craft remain a large question mark. He also has a tendency to drop the easy pass. Should things fall right and Rogers stays focused, he could be the best WR in the SEC. If not, he might be the third-best WR on his own team.
27. Alvin Bailey, OG, Arkansas
There’s no question Bailey has the talent to be one of the top offensive linemen in the nation. However, he didn’t have the best spring, and the coaching staff isn’t guaranteeing him a starting spot for the opener. Bailey has started the first 26 games in his career and was selected as a second-team All-SEC selection last year. If the Oklahoma native plays up to his ability, he should finish higher on this list at the end of 2012.
28. Matt Elam, S, Florida
Elam is the key player in a secondary that could be one of the SEC’s best. Elam was one of only five Gators to start every game last season, recording 78 tackles with 11 for a loss and seven pass break ups.
29. Sharrif Floyd, DT, Florida
After starting 11 games at defensive end last season, Floyd moves back into the interior this year. The Philadelphia native made 46 tackles last season. He’ll look to use his big body (6-3, 303) to open up the Gators’ pass rush.
30. James Franklin, QB, Missouri
The biggest unknown surrounding Franklin is the status of his throwing shoulder. He was injured during spring practice but had successful surgery and returned in time to participate in the fall. Will Franklin have the same arm strength? How will the timing be with his receivers? Those are two key questions to watch for Missouri in fall practice. If healthy, Franklin should be one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks. He rushed for 981 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, while throwing for 2,865 yards and 21 touchdowns.
31. Jon Bostic, LB, Florida
The Wellington, Fla., prospect is now the elder statesman leader of the Gators defense. He led the team in tackles a year ago with 94 total stops and finished tied with second 10.0 tackles for a loss. He has played in 38 total games and made 19 career starts. His 6-foot-1, 250-pound frame makes him the most physical tackler on the Florida defense — a unit that will have to lead the team should it expect to compete in the East.
32. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
The son of Pro Football Hall of Famer Bruce Matthews helped pave the way for an Aggies offense that ranked No. 7 in the country and scored over 39 points per game last season. Texas A&M might not be able to equal that type of production in the physical SEC, but the transition will be much easier because of the quality of the A&M offensive line led by left tackle Luke Joeckel, center Patrick Lewis and a powerful right tackle in Matthews.
33. Dee Milliner, CB, Alabama
The Tide lose three starters in the secondary, including two first-round draft picks, but Milliner has experience with 16 starts in the last two seasons. Like many on the Alabama roster, he’s a one-time stud recruit taking his turn in the spotlight. Three interceptions last season indicate he might be ready.
34. Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt
Stacy set a school record for rushing yards (1,193) thanks to a burst over the second half of the season. Stacy rushed for 809 yards and 13 touchdowns in the final eight games of the season to earn second-team All-SEC honors.
35. Bennie Logan, LSU
The powerful defensive tackle will lead the interior of an excellent LSU defensive line in 2012. As a sophomore, Logan totaled 57 tackles and three sacks. He was named the SEC Defensive Lineman of the Week against Mississippi State last season after making five tackles, with three behind the line of scrimmage, in the 19-6 victory.
36. Robert Lester, S, Alabama
With Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick off to the NFL, the secondary needs a big year from Lester. The Alabama native been a starter over the last two years, earned second-team All-SEC honors in 2010 and has picked off 10 passes in his career. With inexperience at cornerback, Lester’s leadership will be valuable to a unit that could be under attack early in the year with games against Michigan and Arkansas. The senior is an Athlon Sports second-team All-SEC selection for 2012.
37. Jesse Williams, DL, Alabama
The big fella has had an interesting career path to BCS national champion. He is from Brisbane, Australia and attended Western Arizona C.C. before Nick Saban found him last fall. All he did was lock down the D-Line for the stingiest defense in modern college football history.
38. Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas
The 6-foot-3 wide receiver should be quarterback Tyler Wilson’s favorite target this season. Hamilton had 34 catches for 542 yards and four touchdowns a year ago, averaging 15.9 yards per reception. He has the size and speed combination to be one of the top wideouts in the SEC and a star for the Razorbacks in 2012.
39. Chris Gragg, TE, Arkansas
The veteran tight end had an excellent season in 2011, ranking third on the team in receptions. Gragg totaled 41 catches for 518 yards and two scores, and he was a star (8 catches, 119 yards, 1 TD) in the Mississippi State game. Arkansas will look for more of the same in 2012.
40. Ryan Swope, WR, Texas A&M
Swope was one of the Big 12’s top receivers last season, catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 scores. His six 100-yard games and 89 catches were a school record. Matching those numbers could be difficult in 2012, especially with Texas A&M breaking in a new quarterback and offensive scheme. New coach Kevin Sumlin’s spread offense should allow for Swope to have plenty of looks in the open field, but he needs the new quarterback to quickly settle into the starting role. Even if Swope’s numbers drop a bit, expect the senior to challenge for first-team All-SEC honors.
41. Philip Lutzenkirchen, TE, Auburn
Lutzenkirchen has 14 career touchdowns on 44 catches combined, while CBS broadcast team ensures we’ll never forget how to pronounce his name.
42. Malcolm Mitchell, WR/CB, Georgia
There were plenty of other big-name freshman in the SEC last fall, but none were as explosive or versatile as the Valdosta, Ga., product. After leading the team in receptions per game last fall, Mark Richt decided the speedy Mitchell will provide his best Champ Bailey impersonation. Expect to see Mitchell in the defensive backfield and in open space on offense. He is certain to be explosive no matter where he lines-up.
43. Josh Boyd, DT, Mississippi State
With Fletcher Cox departing to the NFL, Boyd will see more attention from opposing defenses in 2012. There’s no question he’s capable of handling the extra defender, as his 6-foot-3 frame allows him to provide plenty of push on the interior against opposing offensive lines. Boyd is an Athlon Sports second-team All-SEC selection for 2012 and should pickup where he left off in 2011.
44. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Lacy steps into the top running back role after rushing for 674 yards (7.1 yards per carry) last season. He’ll be a big-play back even if Bama drifts to a committee approach.
45. Nico Johnson, LB, Alabama
The forgotten man of the 2011 Alabama linebacking corps, Johnson finished fourth on the team in tackles. This on a defense that allowed an astonishing 183.6 total yards per game and 8.2 points per game. The 6-foot-3, 245-pounder from Andalusia, Ala., will be the veteran presence on the reworked Bama defense in 2012.
46. Brad Wing, P, LSU
The Australia native was amazing during his All-America season as a freshman in 2011. He averaged 44.4 yards on 59 punts, with 20 of them over 50 yards. Wing also placed 27 punts inside the 20-yard line and earned SEC Special Teams Player of the Week honors twice last season.
47. Alonzo Highsmith, LB, Arkansas
A junior college transfer and the son of the former Miami running back of the same name, Highsmith had 91 tackles and a team-leading 12.5 tackles for a loss in his first season in Fayetteville.
48. Jelani Jenkins, LB, Florida
The Northeastern prospect was an elite recruit and has proven to have athleticism to match. The only thing left for Jenkins to develop is a physical, nasty streak. Should he develop this aspect of his game, he has All-American potential – especially, with 23 career starts in two seasons under his belt.
49. Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia
The hard-hitting linebacker only played in eight games last season but still had a major impact. Ogletree compiled with 52 tackles (7.5 for loss), three sacks and two forced fumbles. He led the Bulldogs in tackles in each of the last five games, including 13 in the Outback Bowl against Michigan State.