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SEC: Very Early Predictions for 2012

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By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on twitter) and Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)

Very Early 2012 SEC East Predictions

1. Georgia Bulldogs

Key Returnees: QB Aaron Murray, RB Isaiah Crowell, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Michael Bennett, WR Marlon Brown, WR Tavarres King, DL Arby Jones, DL John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree LB Cornelius Washington, LB Michael Gilliard, DB Bacarri Rambo, DB Shawn Williams, DB Sanders Commings, DB Brandon Smith

Key Losses: TE Orson Charles, OL Cordy Glenn, OL Ben Jones, OL Justin Anderson, DT DeAngelo Tyson, CB/RET Brandon Boykin, K Blair Walsh, P Drew Butler

The story on offense should be pretty clear heading into 2012 for the Dawgs. Aaron Murray and a host of electric young skill players will return to a unit that has to replace its three best blockers. Can UGA establish the run better with an older, and more mature Isaiah Crowell, and new star Keith Marshall? The offensive line could be the only thing keeping Georgia from the national championship game.

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If UGA does have a special season in 2012, it will be because of the defense. Todd Grantham in two short years turned the Dawgs into one of the stingiest units in the nation. And he has 10 starters back with elite level talent and depth at nearly every position. All-American candidates Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo lead the way on the backend.

Special teams will take a big hit for Mark Richt as both kickers and return dynamo Brandon Boykin have moved on. However, the schedule is powerful reason why Georgia is the early favorite to win the East. Richt’s squad misses the three best teams from the West in LSU, Alabama and Arkansas — all of whom could be preseason top-10 teams. Trips to Missouri (to start SEC play) and South Carolina will be the toughest road tests of the year.

2. South Carolina Gamecocks

Key Returnees: QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, RB Brandon Wilds, WR Ace Sanders, TE Justice Cunningham, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, DT Kelcy Quarles, LB Shaq Wilson, DB D.J. Swearinger, DB DeVonte Holloman

Key Losses: OL Rokevious Watkins, WR Alshon Jeffery, DE Melvin Ingram, DT Travian Robertson, LB Rodney Paulk, CB Stephon Gilmore, LB/S Antonio Allen, C.C. Whitlock

Dismissing Stephen Garcia in the middle of the season might have been the best decision Steve Spurrier has made at South Carolina. The only disappointment is that new quarterback Connor Shaw didn’t get a full year of seasoning. The dual-threat quarterback played his best football down the stretch in 2011 and will welcome back the best running back in the nation when Marcus Lattimore returns to the field in 2012. Replacing Alshon Jeffery’s talent will be virtually impossible, but replacing his underwhelming (at times) production won’t. If the pass protection can improve, this entire offense has an opportunity to be much better in 2012.

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Defensively, the front line has some holes to fill with the loss of Melvin Ingram and Travian Roberston, but Devin Taylor is back and Jadeveon Clowney proved his lofty recruiting status was totally justified. Toss in Kelcy Quarles and Carolina will have another stellar D-Line. Replacing some of the key pieces in the back seven, as well as the loss of coordinator Ellis Johnson, will determine if this defense can rank in the top-10 nationally once again.

The real issue with South Carolina, despite coming off its first 11-win season in school history, will be the schedule. The cross-over slate features a trip to LSU and a visit from Arkansas – two of the preseason top-10 teams in the nation. The schedule was the reason Athlon Sports picked Georgia to win the East in 2011 and a repeat decision is likely from America’s Premier Sports Publisher.

3. Missouri Tigers

Key Returnees: QB James Franklin, RB Kendial Lawrence, RB Henry Josey (injury), WR T.J. Moe, WR Marcus Lucas, WR L’Damian Washington, DL Brad Madison, DL Sheldon Richardson, DL Brayden Burnett, LB Andrew Wilson, LB Will Ebner, LB Zaviar Gooden, DB E.J. Gaines, DB Kip Edwards, DB Matt White, DB Kenronte Walker

Key Losses: WR Wes Kemp, TE Michael Egnew, OL Elvis Fisher, DE Jacquies Smith, DT Dominique Hamilton, DT Terrell Resonno, LB Luke Lambert, DB Kenji Jackson

The SEC’s other James Franklin enters America’s best conference with the potential to be an all-conference performer at quarterback. Whether or not his style of play can be effective against the extraordinarily talented SEC front sevens still remains to be seen. The good news is Gary Pinkel has plenty of talent coming back in the backfield and out wide for Franklin to utilize. But a great offensive line is a necessity to succeed in this league and how quickly this new group can gel will have the biggest impact on the offense. 

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One look at the NFC playoffs in San Francisco and fans should understand how well Pinkel has recruited the defensive line. The Aldon-Justin Smith combo has proven that Mizzou has been one of the stronger Big 12 teams in the trenches since he arrived in Columbia. Brad Madison and Sheldon Richardson return to lead what should be one of the better units in the East — or at least one that is on par with Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. Can they hold up week-in, and week-out against SEC power rushing attacks? Only time will tell, but Missouri isn’t entering a new conference empty handed.

Hosting four of its first five conference games will help to ease Missouri into SEC play. However, the maiden voyage through the southeast culminates with three straight road games in three of the most hostile stadiums in the country: At Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M. The second half of the year will likely determine if the Tigers are successful in their first SEC campaign.

4. Florida Gators

Key Returnees: QB Jacoby Brissett, QB Jeff Driskel, RB Mike Gillislee, ATH Trey Burton, WR Andre Debose, WR Quinton Dunbar, TE Jordan Reed, OL Xavier Nixon, OL Jonotthan Harrison, OL Matt Patchan, OL Jon Halapio, DL Sharrif Floyd, DL Ronald Powell, DL Dominique Easley, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins, LB Michael Taylor, DB Matt Elam, DB Josh Evans, DB Jaylen Watkins, DB Cody Riggs

Key Losses: QB John Brantley, RB Chris Rainey, RB Jeff Demps, OL Dan Wenger, DT Jaye Howard

Another year, another offensive scheme. Will Muschamp hired former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease as his new offensive guru. In case you are counting at home, that makes four coordinators in four seasons in Ganiesville. And Pease’s first order of business is to find a quarterback. Uber-recruits Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will likely compete for the starting job, but how do their skills fit with the new scheme? And can Pease find offensive playmakers to help out – which sounds unfathomable at a school like Florida. How quickly Pease settles into his new office will likely determine if the Gators challenge for an SEC title or lose another five games.

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While the offense has huge question marks heading into 2012, the defense has all the potential to be a dominant unit. It finished eighth nationally against the run, allowed only 20.3 points per game (20th nationally) and returns NFL talent at every position. This team has a chance to be very stout in 2012.

There are few breaks, as is the case with most SEC schools, on the Gators’ schedule. Muschamp starts the year visiting a rebuilding Texas A&M team and a developing Tennessee squad. LSU also comes to The Swamp in October in cross-over play with a very tough but potentially manageable finish to the year: So