The SEC is considered by far the best football conference in all of America. Given their recent success it's hard to find an argument that could ever support another stance. Teams in the SEC appear better than all the rest, the recruits seem bigger, faster and stronger in the south, and with the addition of Texas A&M the SEC recruiting footprint grows larger with better access to Texas recruits.
Teams such as Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Florida have consistently proven in recent history that you can expect an SEC team to vie for a college football championship. In such a competitive conference any team in any of the divisions could surprise anybody at anytime. LSU may seem to be the Preseason SEC favorites heading, but I'm thinking otherwise. With Alabama trailing just behind LSU in the Pre-Season polls at no. 2, it may not surprise many that I'm predicting this Alabama team to be the best in the SEC in 2012.
Roll Tide! There may not be any other expression in college football that so fluently sends chills down the spines of opponents (Rock Chalk being a close 2nd). Alabama has been a huge football influence the last 3 years as they have won that last 2 out of the last 3 BCS National Championships. Even the one they didn't win was won by a team in the state of Alabama (Auburn, 2011).
Head Coach Nick Saban is viewed as a demigod in the south and rightfully so. Saban has brought the Crimson Tide more wins than the previous 2 coaches combined, and their first National Championship since 1992. With Saban's ability to adapt to changing situations with high level talent, Alabama always seems to find a way to win and this season should be no different.
Being ranked no. 2 in the preseason has it's advantages as the pre season no. 1 rarely wins the BCS National Championship (USC in 2004). Having LSU fill that spot makes the upcoming season more interesting for the Crimson Tide as they have the benefit of respect without all the pressure that LSU will experience.
Quarterback: AJ McCarron may not be a Heisman Trophy worthy quarterback, but he has proven that he can run the Crimson Tide offensive quite effectively. Alabama's offense last year mainly revolved around running the ball, but AJ threw the ball when he needed to and did it efficiently. With a stellar completion rate of 66.8% backed up with 16 TDs and 2634 yards, AJ's ceiling only seems to rise as he starts his 2nd year as starter for the Crimson Tide. With the departure of RB Trent Richardson, the offense may rely more on McCarron's passing rather than running the ball. While Alabama has found more success running the ball these last couple of years, I believe the Tide will thrive with a strong stable of young WRs and that depth and talent may prove key if the Crimson tide intend on beating rival LSU.
Defense: Pardon the expression from "Moneyball" but DE Kirby Smart is the Greek God of defense. After his first year as Defensive Coordinator the Crimson Tide had only given up an average of 12 points per game. Whether it be his pure talent of constructing impenetrable front lines, or just the good fortune of great players at his disposal, one thing is certain, Smith can coach.
Even in 2010 when only 3 starters returned, Alabama boasted a defense that surrendered only 2 TDs per game. 2011 was by far his best year, but improving the no.1 defense may seem hard when you return only 5 starters in 2012. It's unclear who will be the leader of the defense this year, many say it will be safety Robert Lester. Whoever it is, they will be leading a defense that shouldn't disappoint as it adds 4 new players on the defense side, 3 of whom were top 100 recruits. This defense may not be as good as it was last year, but it should be the best in the SEC.
Receiving: For this segment I really wouldn't use the word "Weakness" as this team has withstood NFL departures and several other challenges in 2011. I would instead use the word "question marks". Alabama just doesn't have that many weak players, it's just uncertain as to how they will perform. Alabama losses it's top four receivers from last year to the NFL. Marquis Maze, Brad Smelly, Darius Hanks, and Trent Richardson all found homes in the NFL heading into the 2012 season leaving a hole that will need to be filled. Alabama fans are hoping that comes easily as the next crop of talent is ready to show what it can do. Starter WR Kenny Bell (255 yds. 2 TDs) and Starting TE Michael Williams (191 yds. 2 TDs) lead the returning receiving class with Kevin Norwood (190 yds.) and DeAndrew White (151 yds. 2 TDs) not too far behind. With the talent and the return of McCarron one would expect this group to rise to the occasion but it's still a bit of a question mark early on.
Running Back: History has shown that running the ball works for the Crimson Tide better than passing the ball. In 2009 and 2012 Alabama ran the ball more than it passed and both teams won a Championship that year. When you lose your starting RB who accounted for almost half of the TDs scored, you may become concerned over the question of who is going to follow that act.
RB Trent Richardson had a Heisman level year in 2011 with 1679 yds. and 21 TDs which leaves a hole of seismic proportions (I wouldn't want to be the guy who has to follow up that act). Luckily Alabama has RB Eddie Lacy waiting on the bench and ready for his debut as starting RB. Eddie should provide much of the running yards this upcoming year as he is the next best RB Alabama has. Eddie ran for 674 yds. and 7 TDs with only 95 carries, and with more carries coming his way, you can expect him to rush for over 1000 yds. in 2012.
The LSU Tigers enter the season with expectations that they will be the eventual BCS Champions. They are the Pre-Season no. 1 in the coaches' poll and most other major polls. The Tigers will have even more pressure than last year as they carry the burden of expectation once again and they are piggybacking off of a devastating loss in the 2012 BCS National Championship. That's not to mention the fact that the Tigers have a "rookie" QB starting this year. If he can't handle the heat, then LSU could be looking at another season falling short of expectations. That of course assumes the worst case scenario. QB Zach Mettenberger could be a great Quarterback and prove any doubters wrong. Until that day I'll take a wait and see approach when evaluating how this year will play out for LSU.
Defense: LSU's defense last year was almost the best in all of CFB. The only defense that was better than theirs was the eventual BCS Champions and SEC rival Alabama. There may be other defenses that analysts are talking about, but no other defense is more decorated heading into the fall. LSU has 5 starters returning on defense that was ranked 2nd in the BCS in 2011. Four of those returnee's have bring with them some pretty strong accolades from the 2011 season. All SEC DE Barkevious Mingo (47 TOTs 8 Sacks), All SEC FS Eric Reid (76 TOTs 2 INTs), AP All American DE Sam Montgomery (49 TOT 8 Sacks), and AP All American CB Tyrann Mathieu (77 TOT 1.5 Sacks 2 INTs) headline a defense full of future NFL players who are going to shape the LSU Defense into what it normally is on a consistent basis; unstoppable.
Running back: The offense of LSU, and much of the SEC, has revolved around running the ball and this year will no different for the Tigers. All SEC RB Spencer Ware (707 yds. 8 TDs), Michal Ford (756 yds. 7 TDs), Alfred Blue (539 yds. 7 TDs), and Kenny Hilliard (336 yds. 8 TDs) were a vital part of the offense last year as they contributed for more than half of LSU's Touchdowns. They all return for what should be another Running Back oriented team.
Quarterback: The Quarterback position has never had that much importance in the bayou as the defense and running game usually make up the emphasis of team and that will be the same for this year. That said, no other Quarterback in the nation will have as much pressure as Zach Mettenberger. Being the no. 1 team in college football always comes with pressure and it doesn't help Zach that he hasn't started one game in his LSU career. That could lead to a hard time adjusting to the SEC defenses.
Wide Receivers: LSU's receiving yards weren't all that great last year and losing Ruben Randle (917 yds. 8 TDs) will make the WR position seem a little more depleted. Odell Beckham (475 yds. 2 TDs) should have more opportunities this year, but if Mettenberger lays a goose egg, the ball will stay on the ground much like it did last year.
The Arkansas Razorbacks find themselves in a familiar spot heading into the 2012 season: the underdog. Arkansas is ranked behind, no. 1 LSU, no. 2 Alabama, and no. 6 Georgia. Like last season they ended up being the 3rd best team in the SEC, which is great, that and $5 will get you a cup of coffee at Starbucks. Razorback fans are tired of always being considered the stepping stone and underrated "red-haired little brother". This season the Razorback are in great possession to take advantage of the still "rebuilding" Alabama and LSU teams in the west as Arkansas only has a few limitations holding them back from taking on the East champion as they look to claim their first SEC Title.
Quarterback: The Razorbacks may boast the best Quarterback in the SEC this year and he may even make a run at the Heisman Trophy in 2012. To call Tyler Wilson's first starting year a "breakout" would be an understatement. The drastic improvement and first impression he made during his first starting season was tremendous. Wilson went from 453 yds. and 3 TDs in 2010 to and amazing 3638 yds. and 24 TDs in just his first season as starter. Losing his top 2 targets Jarius Wright (1117 yds. 12 TDs) and Joe Adams (652 yds. 3 TDs) will be a tough pill to swallow, but Cobi Hamilton (542 yds. 4 TDs) and Chris Gragg (518 yds. 2 TDs) are ready to take over the top spot plus the Razorbacks have a crop of young talent to back them up. Even if the skies over Fayetteville are filled with ariel explosions the Razorbacks also have back Knile Davis (1322 yds. 13 TDs) in the backfield to help secure a well-rounded unit.
Defense: If the Razorbacks want any chance of competing with Alabama and LSU they must bring a good defense to the table as Arkansas' offense won't pierce the iron wall defenses of Alabama & LSU every possession. Arkansas must be ready for the retaliation on the other side of the ball. Luckily the Razorbacks usually boast a good defense and last year's was ranked 33rd in the nation giving up a sparse 22.2 PPG. New Defensive Coordinator Paul Haynes welcomes the challenge he faces as the Razorback's Defensive mastermind but must also pay heed and keep in mind that defenses wins championships and the SEC.
Depth at RB: One of the SEC's best RB returns from injury this season and may raise a few red flags. Knile Davis should be back to his old self in 2012, but there is the concern that he may not be 100% starting out and potentialy more easily prone to injury. Ronnie Wingo (458 yds. 3 TDs) wouldn't be a bad replacement; he just wouldn't be as proven as Davis.
Uncertainty at Head Coach: With the Bobby Petrino saga ending in his firing the Arkansas Razorbacks made their ST coach their head coach, John L. Smith. Smith has a somewhat impressive stint with the Louisville cardinals then had a less than stellar career with Michigan St. Hopefully John can adapt to the SEC in time to take advantage of one of the best Arkansas teams in recent memory.
Expectations are always high in Athens come fall and some Bulldogs fans are getting fed up with Head Coach Mark Richt and his inability to reach those expectations. Many said that Richt was on the hot seat much of last year and with that pressure he actually pulled of a decent 2011 campaign getting his team to the SEC Championship. Ranked at #6 in the coach's poll, the Bulldogs have the best chance in the East to beat any of the teams in the very stacked west. If they don't make it to a BCS bowl this year, I think that Richt's seat will start to heat up.
Quarterback: Much like Arkansas' QB Tyler Wilson, the Georgia Bulldogs also know a thing or two about passing the ball. Aaron Murray has been a hot shot under center ever since his sophomore year, and while the yards stay consistent, the amount accounting for a touchdown has been much more frequent through his career Aaron threw for 3149 yards and 35 TDs last year and only looks to improve as his top 2 targets Tavares King (705 yds. 8 TDs) and Malcolm Mitchell (665 yds. 4 TDs) compliment an air raid offense that will test limits of the opponents defenses units and untimely push Georgia to an East title.
Defense: The SEC is all about defense and Georgia's defense last year wasn't all that special giving up close to 3 touchdowns per game. That image starts to change when you return 9 starters. AP All American OLB Jarvis Jones (70 TOT 12.5 Sacks) leads a defense that is sure to rival east division teams like South Carolina and Florida. Georgia's ability to pressure the Quarterback is a strong suit as they had 34 sacks in 2011. With Jarvis Jones returning it makes their defense even better. They'll need to cut down on their scoring defense, especially when they play in Columbia to face S. Carolina in order to secure the East.
Running Back: The Bulldogs were very uncharacteristically pass oriented compared to the other SEC teams last year. Georgia focused all of their movements through the air and very little on the ground. It will remain that way as long as Aaron Murray is in command. While they shouldn't be too worried about their running game, losing top RB Isaiah Crowell because of his inability to follow the rules as well as the loss of Carlton Thomas (361 yds. 2 TDs) to transfer do raise some concern. Brandon Harton (247 yds. 1 TD) is the most likely to take over the top rushing spot in 2012.
Discipline: Honestly the way things are being run in Georgia in terms of discipline, you would think it to be a middle school. The football teams best and most looked up to players are going awry right before Mark Richt's most important season. Top running back Isaiah Crowell is one of the more important losses to the team due to his own stupidity in a gun arrest. There are others on the defensive side like LB Chase Vasser who was arrested for a DUI, starting S Bicardi Rambo (56 TOTs) and LB Alec Ogletree (53 TOTs 3 Sacks) will reportedly be suspended for 2 games including the inaugural game against Mizzou. That could set the tone for the rest of 2012.
Other Teams to Watch out for:
Steve Spurrier is one of the more interesting teams in CFB. Steve likes to cause controversy and enrage people, like I said "interesting". A coach isn't ranked on personality though, it's based on how good a team you have on the field, and Spurrier's Gamecocks will be no different than his past teams. Future NFL Running Back Marcus Lattimore (818 yds. 10 TDs) leads the running game along with QB Connor Shaw (525 yds, 8 TDs), Brandon Wilds (486 yds. 3 TDs), and Kenny Miles (204 yds. 1 TD). Connor Shaw isn't the best QB in the SEC as he threw for only 1448 yds. and 14 TDs, but he knows how to run his own offense which is all the Gamecocks will need him to do. On the Defensive side South Carolina will have a great defense as usual returning 6 defensive starters, including All SEC DE Jadeveon Clowney (37 TOTs 8 Sacks) to a defense that was ranked 11th in scoring defense overall.
The Tigers are ranked #25 in the coaches' poll this year, and usually benefit from starting the year ranked a little bit lower just as they did in 2010. Auburn should have yet another competitive team this year as RB Onterio McCalebb (641 ds. 5 TDs) returns for what should be a very solid running game. Uncertainty still looms at the QB position as last year's starter Barrett Trotter is no longer apart of the Auburn Tigers as he fell way short in terms of following up on Cam Newton's act. He had a 55.1 % CMP with only 1184 yds. and a horrendous 11-6 TD-INT ratio. On the other side of the ball All SEC DE Corey Lemonier (47 TOT 9.5 Sacks) and 9 other returnees on a defense that must improve if they want to be in western division contention as the Tigers gave up 28.9 PPG last season. Auburn should be good in 2012, just not enough to beat Alabama or LSU.
Does anybody remember when Urban Meyer coached at Florida? Back then there were such things as "10 win seasons" in Gainesville. Hopefully the Will Muschamp project should smooth out over the course of time and actually surprise teams in the east division. This year Florida is #23 in the Coaches Poll, as that ranking is usually where they have been during the brief Muschamp era. Don't be fooled though, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia could all be ranked by years end and any could team could win the east. The good thing about Muschamp is that he was the previous Texas DC and that is still a big part of his teams. Florida will have an insanely good defense this year as they return 10 starters to a defense ranked 20th in scoring after giving up only 20.3 PPG. It wouldn't kill anybody in Gainesville if the Gators could bulk up on offense. This is a area where Florida struggled tremendously last year. You couldn't say for sure if they were a running or passing team because they weren't really that good in any of those statistical categories. The absences of RBs Chris Rainey (861 yds, 2 TDs) and Jeff Demps (569 yds. 6 TDs) will make the running game weak entering the season thus making the team shift focus towards their passing, which has a new quarterback this season. Jacoby Brissett (206 yds. 2-4 TD-INT) and Jeff Driskel (148 yds. 2 INT) are still battling it out for starting position, with Jacoby being the favorite so far. Whoever wins the starting position will have targets Andre Debose (432 yds. 4 TDs) and Jordan Reed (307 yds. 2 TDs) to throw to next season.
The Volunteers are just another of the very competitive east division teams that could play in the SEC Championship. Tennessee has a less than "Tennessee-like" year in 2011. If the Volunteers have a short memory then they should have a lot of time improving on their weak points, one major one being the irrelevance of the running game. Marlin Lane (280 yds. 2 TDs) is the Volunteers' best RB heading into the season. Really? 280 yds.? They must improve on the running game or they will get run over by the many running game orientated teams. With that being the only noticeable weakness we can now look on the bright side. The Volunteers defense should be at the top tier of the other SEC defenses as it returns 9 starters to a defense that gave up 22.6 PPG last season. Tyler Bray is getting a lot of hype entering the season as he is marginally cutting down on interceptions through his career. He looks to build off a 1983 yds. 17 TD career in 2011, and with an All SEC WR Da'Rick Rogers (1040 yds. 9 TDs) to throw to, you can expect just that as Tennessee looks to aim for a bowl game in 2012.
James Franklin may be one of the better coaches in the SEC solely due to the fact cause he found talent where many others couldn't, especially in the toughest league in America. QB Jordan Rodgers returns for his 2nd year starting and looks to improve on a 50% completion percentage with just 1524 yds and a 9-10 TD INT ratio. He does have his 2 best targets, Jordan Matthews (778 yds. 5 TDs) and Chris Boyd (473 yds. 8 TDs) to throw to as well as the support of an All SEC RB in Zac Stacy (1193 yds. 14 TDs). Vanderbilt is right in the thick of the east division with a defense that has 7 returning starters, Vanderbilt might find themselves bowl bound.
Historically the Bulldogs aren't a football powerhouse, and last season was a perfect example as they once again struggled in SEC play (2-6 in 2011). The QB duo that was Chris Relf (1212 yds. 10-9 TD-INT) and Tyler Russell (1034 yds. 8-4 TD-INT) must split as Chris is now gone and MSU gets the better of the two Quarterbacks. Running Back LaDarius Perkins (422 yds. 2 TDs) has some big shoes to fill, as RB Vick Ballard (1189 yds. 10 TDs) could not resist the temptation of the NFL. Wide Receivers Arceto Clark (442 yds. 4 TDs), Chad Bumphis (339 yds. 3 TDs), Chris Smith (330 yds. 2 TDs), and Malcolm Johnson (206 yds. 3 TDs) all make up the upper percentile of the returning receiving class. MSU can brag about their awesome defense that was ranked 16th overall in scoring defense and returns 7 starters, including All SEC CB Johnthan Banks (66 TOT 3 Sacks 5 INT), for a solid defense.
Players to Watch Out For:
WR: Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee
QB: Connor Shaw, South Carolina
DE: Melvin Ingram, South Carolina
LB: Sean Porter, Texas A&M
DT: Rob Lohr, Vanderbilt
CB: Morris Claiborne, LSU
TE: Mychal Rivera, Tennessee
S: Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
Most Important Games of the Season:
1. Michigan @ Alabama (sets tone for rest of season)
2. Alabama @ LSU
3. LSU @ Arkansas
4. Georgia @ South Carolina
5. Alabama @ Arkansas
Final Standings & Bowl Destinations:
1. Alabama (BCS National Championship)
2. LSU (Sugar Bowl)
3. Arkansas (Capitol One Bowl)
4. Georgia (Cotton Bowl)
5. South Carolina (Outback Bowl)
6. Auburn (Chick-Fil-A Bowl)
7. Florida (Gator Bowl)
8. Tennessee (Liberty Bowl)
9. Vanderbilt (Music City Bowl)
10. Mississippi State (Ticket City Bowl)
13. Ole' Miss