Alabama Crimson Tide: Johnny Manziel
Ranking the offensive players
1. QB Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M): Alabama hasn't faced a Heisman Trophy winner since Tim Tebow starred at quarterback for the Florida Gators. And while UA didn't come out on top of the first meeting with Tebow in the SEC Championship, it did in the second. Alabama fans are hoping for similar results after a heartbreaking defeat to Manziel and the Aggies last season. Stopping an athlete with his unique skill set and ability to make plays out of nothing won't be an easy task, though.
2. RB LaDarius Perkins (Mississippi State): He did so largely under the radar, but Perkins was second in the SEC in all-purpose yards and out-rushed every running back in the SEC West not wearing crimson last season, tallying 1,016 yards on 205 attempts. With All-SEC offensive guard Gabe Jackson leading the way, he should be in for a banner senior year.
3. QB Logan Thomas (Virginia Tech): Thomas has been up and down in his career under center, but no one doubts the senior's arm strength and athleticism. He threw for just as many yards as AJ McCarron did last season (2,976), despite playing in one fewer game. And he finished 18th in the ACC in rushing with 524 yards. His ability to stretch the defense vertically through the air and horizontally with his feet will give Alabama headaches.
Scott Halleran/Getty ImagesAt 6-foot-5, Aggies receiver Mike Evans can dominate opposing defensive backs. Having Johnny Manziel as a triggerman helps, too.
5. QB Bo Wallace and RB Jeff Scott (Ole Miss): When they're executing the read-option and pushing the tempo, Wallace and Scott are hard to stop. Neither is what you'd call an NFL talent, but together they can keep a defense on its heels, as they did against Alabama last season. If they get going downhill and can convert on third downs, it will mean trouble for UA.
6. RB Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue (LSU): Alabama's duo of tailbacks has commanded the lion's share of attention in recent years, but LSU has quietly perfected its rotation of ball-carriers as well. And Hill and Blue should be respected as they're both prototypical NFL backs in terms of size and speed. Hill averaged 5.3 yards per carry, and Blue had two 100-yard performances in his first three games before missing the rest of the season with an injury.
7. WR Odell Beckham (LSU): He was a steady playmaker last season when he caught 43 passes for 713 yards, but he hasn't been much of a threat to score, settling for four touchdowns in his career. With new offensive coordinator Cam Cameron in place and Zach Mettenberger a year wiser, Beckham could see his role expand as the Tigers look to inject some explosiveness into the passing game.
8. OT Jake Matthews (Texas A&M): More than weapons in the passing and running game, someone will need to protect Manziel from opposing defenses. Matthews is as capable an offensive tackle as you'll find in the SEC. If Alabama hopes to get its revenge against Texas A&M, it will have to find a way to get around Matthews and the Aggies offensive line.
9. RB Dennis Johnson (Arkansas): Bret Beilema leaned heavily on his running game at Wisconsin the past two seasons, handing his former running back Montee Ball the ball 663 times over that time. Now at Arkansas, Beliema will likely look to do the same with Johnson, who led the Razorbacks with 757 yards and eight touchdowns last season.
10. HC Gus Malzahn (Auburn): Malzahn turned Chris Todd into a respectable quarterback, morphed Michael Dyer into an All-SEC performer and helped Cam Newton to one of the best single seasons in college football history. Auburn's new head coach has a knack for getting the most out of his players and we'll likely see a few surprises for the Tigers this season, whether it's running back Tre Mason, quarterback Jonathan Wallace or an unknown commodity like wide receiver Ricardo Louis.
Ranking the schedule
1. Texas A&M (Sept. 14 in College Station, Texas): It may not be the Alabama-LSU Game of the Century Trilogy, but the Week 2 date with Texas A&M will be the Tide's Game of the Year in 2013. Why? If for nothing other than revenge. Johnny Manziel and the Aggies had the ball bounce their way in a thrilling finish last season, and Alabama will be eager to prove the loss a fluke. Kevin Sumlin's squad might take a step back after losing its franchise tackle (Luke Joeckel) and best defensive player (Damontre Moore), but don't doubt the talent assembled in College Station. Alabama might have been favored at home, but on the road it's anyone's guess.
2. LSU (Nov. 9 in Tuscaloosa, Ala.): If these two teams are undefeated at this point in the season, we could be talking about extending the Trilogy of classics between SEC rivals. But having lost so much on both sides of the ball, it's difficult to imagine the Tigers making it through the likes of Georgia and Florida without a loss. Les Miles is a magician, but even his tricks have their limits. Replacing seven starters on defense won't be as easy task, and the offense will need time to adjust under new coordinator Cam Cameron.
3. Virginia Tech (Aug. 31 in Atlanta): If the Hokies are going to challenge in the opener, it will be have to be because of Logan Thomas. The senior quarterback turned down the NFL, and after watching him in the Hokies' spring game, his stock doesn't look so solid. He threw three interceptions against what will be a good but probably not spectacular defense. Thomas is one of four returning starters on an offense under the direction of coordinator Scott Loeffler, who struggled mightily at Auburn last season.
4. Ole Miss (Sept. 28 in Tuscaloosa): Give Hugh Freeze credit. What the Rebels did holding Alabama to its lowest offensive production of the season in 2012 was impressive. And given what Freeze's offense can do with Bo Wallace at quarterback pushing the tempo, it's easy to see Ole Miss giving the Tide fits again. The flow of talent coming into Oxford, Miss., is starting to level the playing field.
5. Mississippi State (Nov. 16 in Starkville, Miss.): Unlike last season, we'll know just how good the Bulldogs are before they face Alabama. (See dates with LSU, South Carolina, Texas A&M). And maybe some toughening up is exactly what they'll need to get ready for a challenge. But the loss of their top two cornerbacks (Johnthan Banks, Darius Slay) and the No. 1 receiver (Chad Bumphis) might be too much to overcome. The good news is Tyler Russell is back under center and LaDarius Perkins returns at tailback, and they'll be helped by an offensive line with four returning starters.
6. Arkansas (Oct. 19 in Tuscaloosa): Bret Bielema might be regretting his comments about Alabama when he travels to Tuscaloosa to face Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide. It's probably not wise to poke the bear in your first season, even if you're supposed to be doing it behind closed doors to like-minded fans.On the field, Bielema and his new staff have their hands full, replacing 11 starters.
7. Auburn (Nov. 30 in Auburn, Ala.): It's the Iron Bowl, which means anything can happen. And it will be on Auburn's home turf, which means a Super Bowl atmosphere for a program that will likely have nothing to lose. Gus Malzahn should fare better than his predecessor after cleaning house, but the cupboard was left pretty bare. Cam Newton is on campus, but only for classes. Making him eligible might be the only thing that could save what will be a rocky season for Auburn.
8. Tennessee (Oct. 26 in Tuscaloosa): Butch Jones has re-energized the program, but much like Malzahn at Auburn, he wasn't left with much to work with. Tyler Bray is gone, as is core of the offense with Justin Hunter, Cordarrelle Patterson and Mychal Rivera out the door as well. The defense isn't in much better shape, as it returns a secondary that finished 111th in pass defense. The good news is the Vols should have one of the best offensive lines in all of college football. It's a start.
9. Kentucky (Oct. 12 in Lexington, Ky.): Mike Stoops is building from the ground up in Lexington, and that hard work is showing on the recruiting trail. But it will take time before it shows up on the football field, where it counts. Until the Wildcats start bringing in SEC talent on a consistent basis, they won't compete in big games like Alabama. It will be a while before Kentucky can make the climb from last in scoring offense and next to last in scoring defense in the league.
10. Colorado State (Sept. 21 in Tuscaloosa): Jim McElwain has familiarity with Alabama. Give him that much. He'll try to prepare his players for what to expect in Tuscaloosa, but nothing he can say will truly get his team ready for the dramatic change of scenery. Colorado's four wins last season came against dreadful competition (Colorado, Hawaii, UNLV, Mexico), but the silver lining is McElwain returns a whopping 19 starters.
There are already two games on the schedule this season -- between TCU and LSU, and Oklahoma State and Mississippi State. What else would I like to see?
Let me start by saying that renewing the Texas-Texas A&M and Missouri-Kansas rivalries are a given. I'm omitting those matchups, but I'd love to see them.
Let's get started:
Oklahoma State vs. Alabama: OSU narrowly missed out on playing for the national title back in 2011, and both are among their conference favorites again in 2013. When the BCS "snubbed" the Pokes after the 2011 regular season, OSU coach Mike Gundy half-jokingly suggested these two play for the right to play LSU in the title game. It would be fun to see this one finally played out on the field.
Baylor vs. LSU: Straight up offense vs. defense. That's the Big 12 vs. SEC debate at its heart. Baylor just might be the Big 12's best offense, and LSU will put together another strong defense. These are the matchups we want to see. The Big 12 has faltered on the big stage, helping the SEC stretch its run of national titles, but seeing Bryce Petty sling it around against an athletic defense would be a lot of fun.
Texas vs. Arkansas: Arkansas' exit from the Southwest Conference helped usher in the birth of the Big 12 after the SWC crumbled. Texas has bigger rivals like Oklahoma and Texas A&M, but these two played some of the greatest games in college football history, and as an Arkansas native, I've seen up close how much Razorbacks fans detest the Longhorns to this day. The result would be a great game and a hyped atmosphere.
TCU vs. Texas A&M: Texas A&M fans take exception to the idea that TCU was an on-field "upgrade" over the Aggies in the Big 12. The Aggies largely struggled in the Big 12 after some early success and a Big 12 title under R.C. Slocum. Since leaving for the SEC, the Aggies have gone nowhere but up, and ended 2012 as the hottest team in college football. Aggies quarterback Johnny Manziel has a Heisman Trophy. Could he shred the Frogs? Want to prove TCU is not an upgrade? Beat TCU on the field.
Kansas State vs. Florida: Kansas State is perpetually underrated and wins with a bunch of junior college guys, and high school players overlooked by major programs. Florida won big under Urban Meyer, but has been largely overrated since Meyer left and was whacked by Louisville to end 2012. The Gators would be suiting up an army of recruiting stars, but could Bill Snyder, the Manhattan Magician, grab a win for the Big 12?
Here's what he's looked at so far:
Now, we're taking a look at Kiper's top quarterback and cornerback draft prospects. We'll start with the quarterbacks and look at the corners later today.
Matthew Stockman/Getty ImagesAlabama's AJ McCarron falls in the top five of Mel Kiper Jr.'s top 2014 NFL draft QB prospects.
Manziel is getting all sorts of draft attention after his record-breaking, Heisman-winning season. He's the most talked about quarterback in the country and while he doesn't have an elite arm, he's extremely athletic and slippery. He's looking to develop more into a passer, but his ability to improv will continue to help him when his arm can't.
McCarron is someone who could have left for the NFL this year, but decided to stay in school. He makes great decisions with the ball (he threw 30 touchdowns to three interceptions last season) and certainly knows how to win. He has two national championship rings and is going for his third straight. He hasn't been asked to do a lot at Alabama, but he's put up some pretty good numbers and is easily the most talented quarterback Saban has had at Alabama.
Wallace has a tremendous amount of athleticism, but he had a lot of decision-making issues last year. He threw for nearly 3,000 yards, but threw 22 touchdowns to 17 interceptions. Fixing his turnover issue is the biggest thing Wallace has to work on this fall. He has good arm strength and can get out of trouble situations with his feet.
Then you have Murray, who isn't getting a lot of draft love. He flirted with heading to the NFL, but also decided to stay in school. Murray's height (listed at 6-1) has hurt his draft status, but he has a solid arm, moves around well with his feet and has really improved his decision making. He had the stigma of not coming up in big games, but showed improvements in 2012 with his second-half effort in the Dawgs' win against Florida and with the way he played against Alabama in the SEC championship game. He'll probably end the 2013 season with a handful of SEC/Georgia records and should become the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four straight seasons.
Other draft-eligible quarterbacks I'm keeping an eye on this fall:
- Jeff Driskel, Florida: He wasn't great last year, but there's no denying Driskel has talent. He's more comfortable with the playbook, and he has a lot more confidence. He must have more command and develop better chemistry with his receivers this fall.
- James Franklin, Missouri: He spent most of last season battling injuries, but finally isn't dealing with excruciating shoulder pain. His confidence was up this spring and that will go a long way this fall.
- Zach Mettenberger, LSU: He really came along in November and has all of his receiving targets back. People at LSU feel like he's much more comfortable with Cam Cameron's guidance.
- Tyler Russell, Mississippi State: He's had an up-and-down career with the Bulldogs, but when he was on last year he was extremely efficient. He lost all of his receivers from last year and can't press like he did late last season.
- Connor Shaw, South Carolina: It's hard to find a tougher quarterback out there. Shaw has dealt with a lot of injuries, but when he's been on the field, he's had a lot of success. Here's a chance for him to really improve his draft stock.
I'm not sure it's realistic to expect that kind of haul next year, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2014 draft class.
So, similar to a year ago, I've come up with our list of the SEC's top 20 draft prospects for 2014.
This isn’t a mock draft. Likewise, it’s not a ranking of who I think will be the best players in the SEC next season. Rather, it’s a projection of who will be the most coveted NFL prospects from the SEC when the 2014 draft rolls around in April. In coming up with this list, I’ve talked to several draft analysts as well as NFL personnel, SEC coaches and others who are clued in to the whole draft process.
Some players will obviously play their way onto this list next season, while others will play their way off it. Injuries undoubtedly will be a factor, and then occasionally, guys will come from nowhere to be first-round picks.
Among the prospects I nailed this time a year ago were Alabama cornerback Dee Milliner, Alabama offensive guard Chance Warmack, LSU defensive end Barkevious Mingo and LSU safety Eric Reid.
Among those I missed the boat on were Texas A&M offensive tackle Luke Joeckel, Missouri defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson, Florida defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and Alabama offensive tackle D.J. Fluker.
I had Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson No. 1 overall and South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore in my top five. So it never goes exactly the way anybody predicts, especially 11 months before the draft.
Here goes with our 2014 list. Again, we’re not suggesting all 20 will go in the first round or even the first two rounds. It’s simply the order we think they will come off the board in next April’s draft and includes only draft-eligible players:
1. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina, Jr.: The ultimate game-changer on defense, Clowney would have been a first-rounder had he been draft-eligible after his freshman season. Clowney then excelled in 2012, elevating his status as the 2014 No. 1 favorite.
2: Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama, Jr.: A potential top-five pick in next year's draft, the 6-foot-6, 310-pound Kouandjio is everything you're looking for in a left tackle.
3. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M, Sr.: We know Matthews has the bloodlines, but he also has the game. He's shifting over from right tackle to left tackle for his senior season.
4. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee, Jr.: The man they call Tiny has the size and athleticism to be a franchise left tackle. Clowney said Richardson was one of the best tackles he faced a year ago.
5. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU, Jr.: There's a reason they call him Freak. They just seem to breed great defensive linemen at LSU, and Johnson is next in line.
6. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB, Florida, Jr.: He's a pure cover cornerback with good size and an explosive athlete to boot. The Gators also will play him at receiver next season.
7. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M, RSo.: Yes, Manziel is shorter than the NFL typically likes its quarterbacks, but do measurables really matter when you make as many plays as Johnny Football does?
8. Dominique Easley, DT, Florida, Sr.: Easley is fully recovered from the torn ACL he suffered at the end of the 2011 season. He's sliding inside to tackle next season and will be a force for the Gators.
9. Adrian Hubbard, OLB, Alabama, RJr.: We saw his ability to get to the quarterback in flashes last season. Look for Hubbard to take that next step in 2013 and become a premier finisher.
10. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama, Sr.: As the saying goes, he's a football player. Mosley is a sure tackler. He's excellent in coverage and is always money whenever Alabama needs a big play.
11. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama, Jr.: In the past four drafts, Alabama has produced four first-round selections in the secondary. Clinton-Dix could be the top safety off the board next year.
12. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M, RSo.: In his first season in the SEC, the 6-5, 225-pound Evans was sensational with 82 catches and 1,105 yards. He'll be even better his second time through.
13. AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama, Sr.: Sure, he's been surrounded by great talent, but McCarron also has an NFL arm, delivers in the clutch and takes care of the football.
14. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt, Sr.: The 6-3, 205-pound Matthews is so smooth that he makes it look easy. And talk about productive. He averaged 109.6 receiving yards in eight SEC games.
15. Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss, Jr.: One of the more underrated players in the SEC, the 6-3, 215-pound Moncrief has a knack for finding the end zone with 14 touchdowns in his first two seasons.
16. Daniel McCullers, DT, Tennessee, Sr.: This mountain of a man (6-8, 360 pounds) is still developing, but he should make an imposing nose tackle for a team that uses a 3-4 defensive scheme.
17. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida, Jr.: The "other" Florida cornerback also has big-time skills and was second in the SEC in passes defended last season with 14.
18: Chaz Sutton, DE, South Carolina, RJr.: Clowney will get most of the attention next season, but don't be surprised if Sutton blows up and has a monster senior season.
19: Gabe Jackson, OG, Mississippi State, Sr.: Jackson thought about coming out early this year. He returns as one of the top offensive guards in college football.
20: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia, Sr.: The opinions are mixed on Murray, who's bearing down on several SEC records. His numbers speak for themselves, and so does the way he approaches the game.
Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel is an easy choice as the SEC's top quarterback heading into the 2013 season. He won the Heisman Trophy last season as a redshirt freshman.
But what if you were picking the best NFL draft prospect at quarterback from this league for next year?
ESPN's Brock Huard has done just that, and he has Georgia's Aaron Murray at the top of his list . In fact, Huard has Murray No. 3 nationally behind Louisville's Teddy Bridgewater and Clemson's Tajh Boyd.
Obviously, the Texas A&M and Alabama fans won't agree with Huard, but Murray is one of those quarterbacks who has probably drawn more criticism than he's deserved. There's a reason he's thrown for 10,091 career yards, 95 touchdowns (and 32 interceptions). He's talented, tough, smart and durable, not to mention the only quarterback in SEC history to have thrown for 3,000 yards in three straight seasons.
But as Huard points out, the big challenge for Murray in 2013 will be playing his best football in the Bulldogs' biggest games. In games against Alabama, Florida and South Carolina, Murray has a combined 2-5 TD-to-INT ratio.
Huard has Alabama's AJ McCarron No. 6 overall in his ranking of the top quarterback draft prospects for 2014 and Manziel No. 7.
Manziel, who will be a third-year sophomore, is a lot higher on other people's draft lists for 2014. He obviously doesn't have ideal size, but his ability to create and make plays when there seemingly aren't any to make is a trait they're looking for at all levels of football.
The even harder question in the SEC is: Who would be the fourth quarterback on that list?
Again, these aren't necessarily the top SEC quarterbacks going into next season, but quarterbacks with a chance to emerge as NFL draft choices.
Alabama lost nine draft picks, including three first-rounders, but Nick Saban has a host of talent returning on both sides of the ball, and the Tide's schedule isn't too daunting after the first two games.
But there are teams that will test the Tide's road to a national championship trifecta in 2013. Colleague Travis Haney picked five teams from around the country that could challenge Alabama's title hopes this fall. Ohio State topped his list, while Texas A&M made it from the SEC.
No surprise there with the Aggies. Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel returns with a bundle of riches to accompany him in the Aggies' backfield.
Johnny Football might not have Luke Joeckel protecting him, but Jake Matthews provides quite the safety net with his move to left tackle, and there is still talent and experience up front. Mike Evans leads a young but talented group of pass-catchers.
The defense is a concern, with five members of last season's front seven gone, but the Aggies will still be equipped to win most shootouts.
A&M benefits from getting Alabama at home early in the season, but has to play Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU and Missouri on the road. Even beating Alabama early doesn't guarantee the Aggies will make it to Atlanta over the Tide.
Here are four other SEC teams that could wreck Alabama's title train this fall:
The Gators will yet again be elite on defense. First-round draft picks Sharrif Floyd and Matt Elam might be gone, but Dominique Easley moves back to his more natural position at defensive tackle and could one of the best at his position this fall. Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy could be the top cornerback duo in the SEC, while inside linebacker Antonio Morrison has the makings of being a budding star.
The offense is still a concern, especially with the lack of proven receiving talent, but quarterback Jeff Driskel has found a lot more confidence in his second year under offensive coordinator Brent Pease, and he'll have a much tougher offensive line and another loaded backfield to work with.
Sure, the defense is younger and less experienced, but people in Athens are excited about the younger guys taking over. They were very receptive to coaching and showed continued improvement this spring. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins has playmaker written all over him, while freshman Tray Matthews could be the next big thing at safety. Having Damian Swann back at cornerback is huge.
Offensively, Georgia will be able to score on just about everyone. Aaron Murray is looking to be the first SEC quarterback to throw for 3,000 yards in four seasons, and should leave with a handful of SEC/Georgia records. He has five offensive linemen returning, the best one-two running back punch (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and plenty of receivers to throw to, including Malcolm Mitchell, who has moved back to offense full-time.
Yes, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but Les Miles seemed pretty happy with where his defense was -- especially his defensive line -- at the end of spring. Jermauria Rasco could be a big-time player at defensive end for LSU, while linebacker Lamin Barrow has the talent to be an All-SEC performer. The return of cornerbacks Jalen Collins and Jalen Mills should continue the Tigers' trend of having an elite secondary.
The offense should be better, too. Zach Mettenberger is way more comfortable in the offense and has developed better chemistry with his receiving targets, which all return from last season. He'll have a solid offensive line in front of him and a loaded backfield. Although, it will be important to see what happens to the suspended Jeremy Hill, who could be the Tigers' top offensive weapon.
Jadeveon Clowney hasn't left, and the Gamecocks should once again be stacked along their defensive line. South Carolina does have to replace its two-deep at linebacker and has a couple of holes in its secondary, but we all know that a good defensive line can mask weaknesses behind it.
And the offense should be pretty balanced this fall. South Carolina possesses two solid quarterbacks and a talented running back stable led by rising sophomore Mike Davis. Bruce Ellington is back at receiver, and it sounds like the very talented Shaq Roland is finally starting to come around and should be a valuable receiving target this fall. This team has the personnel to make it back to Atlanta.
But in his spare time, he’s also serving as a media consultant for his girlfriend.
Maybe you’ve heard of her.
She’s Katherine Webb, the former Miss Alabama who posed in this year’s Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and was recently referred to by Vanity Fair as the “modern-day Cindy Crawford.”
McCarron offered a hearty chuckle when told Webb emerged from the Discover BCS National Championship more popular than him.
“Probably so,” he said. “She’s been asking me for advice the whole time. Even though she was Miss Alabama and all that, she had never been through any of the paparazzi deal, and it all came at her at once so fast.
“She’s still learning how to handle everything and will text me or call me for advice. I just have to tell her, ‘Listen, I've been going through this for three years almost.’ I do my best to help her every way I can.”
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Start date: March 16
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
- Battling complacency: Alabama is gearing up for yet another title defense. Will complacency finally rear its ugly head? Not if Nick Saban has anything to do with it. The head coach will no doubt remind players of the targets on their backs and what little they've accomplished as presently constituted.
- Opening up the passing game: The return of AJ McCarron, coupled with a talented, deep crop of receivers, could mean a more wide-open passing game in Tuscaloosa. If true freshman tight end O.J. Howard develops as some expect, the offense could become even more dynamic.
- Offensive line makeover: Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker are gone. And with them the best offensive line in college football has vanished. Veterans Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen return, but few experienced players are waiting in the wings for Alabama.
-- Alex Scarborough, TideNation
Start date: March 10
Spring game: April 20
What to watch:
- Bielema’s stamp: They won’t remember 2012 very fondly in Arkansas. It started with Bobby Petrino’s embarrassing ouster last spring and ended with a forgettable 4-8 season. The Hogs are starting all over with Bret Bielema, who led Wisconsin to three straight Rose Bowl appearances. This spring will be Bielema’s first real chance to put his stamp on the program and introduce the Hogs to his brand of power football.
- Offensive overhaul: Bielema was known at Wisconsin for running the football behind big, physical offensive lines. His offensive coordinator, Jim Chaney, has more of a passing pedigree. It will be interesting to see how it all comes together offensively for the Hogs, who are losing their top passer, top two rushers and top three receivers from last season. Brandon Allen and Brandon Mitchell will vie for the starting quarterback job.
- Defense takes the lead: The Hogs won under Petrino thanks to their high-scoring offense, and at times, in spite of their defense. But in 2013, the defense may have to carry a lot more of the load. First-year coordinator Chris Ash inherits a veteran front, some young talent at linebacker and a secondary that also should be much improved. It’s a unit that will need to mesh quickly, and that starts this spring.
It’s as much a part of the league as fierce rivalries that divide families, championship teams that rise to legendary status and tradition-soaked Saturdays at such iconic venues as Tiger Stadium, Bryant-Denny Stadium and most recently, Kyle Field.
Four new head coaches will take to the field this spring in the SEC -- Bret Bielema at Arkansas, Butch Jones at Tennessee, Gus Malzahn at Auburn and Mark Stoops at Kentucky.
Of the 14 head coaches in the SEC, eight have been in their jobs for two seasons or fewer.
They say that NFL stands for “Not For Long.” Well, the same could be said about the SEC.
The one thing that hasn’t changed, at least recently, is that Alabama keeps on winning national championships. The Crimson Tide have won two in a row and three of the past four.
Their 42-14 rout of Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship placed the Tide in rarefied air. Not since Notre Dame in the late 1940s had one team won three outright national titles in a four-year span.
The worst-kept secret in college football is that the SEC has produced the past seven national champions. That drumbeat has become all too familiar for everybody outside SEC Country.
But within the league, an equally familiar question is beginning to circulate with increasing fervor: Can anybody catch Alabama?
The No. 1 class ranking was just a distinction. Simply hauling in top recruits won't get a team too far. UA coach Nick Saban knows this well. As he and his staff were building the class, they had goals in mind. The road map was simple.
"We didn’t change the recruiting strategy," Saban said. "We define the kind of players that we want, and they have critical factors at each position. I think we added fast-twitch, pass-rushing athletic guys to the defensive line category as being a higher priority because of spread offenses, more spread offenses, more athletic quarterbacks -- those types of things, the same things that NFL teams are talking about when they play against RG3 or [Colin] Kaepernick or Russell Wilson from Seattle, who are athletic and run the ball. We have to be able to adapt to that kind of athleticism and that means we have to be more athletic to do that."
In other words, Saban is gearing up for three more years of Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. The Aggies were the only team to beat Alabama in 2012, and after watching the future Heisman Trophy winner carve up his defense, Saban is ready to react.
So start casting those votes in our SportsNation poll, and we'll go over the results in the next few days.
Here are the five candidates:
Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama: He looked like a crimson-and-white bulldozer running over Notre Dame defenders on his way to 140 rushing yards in Alabama's 42-14 victory over Notre Dame in the Discover BCS National Championship. His 20-yard touchdown romp three minutes into the game set the tone for what was an utter mismatch.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Johnny Football put on a post-Heisman Trophy show with a Cotton Bowl-record 516 yards of total offense in the Aggies' 41-13 demolition of Oklahoma. He accounted for four touchdowns and set an FBS bowl record with 229 rushing yards on 17 carries. Manziel joined Vince Young as the only two players in history to rush for more than 200 yards and pass for more than 200 yards in a bowl game.
Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia: His start to the game was shaky, as Murray threw two interceptions in the first quarter. But he came roaring back to set Georgia bowl records with 427 passing yards and five touchdowns in the Bulldogs' 45-31 victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Murray was lights-out on third down and threw two of his touchdown passes in the fourth quarter to break a 31-31 tie.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama: McCarron obviously likes the big stages. After winning Most Outstanding Offensive Player honors in last season's BCS National Championship, he followed up that performance with four touchdown passes against Notre Dame last week to lead the Tide to their second consecutive national title. He directed touchdown drives on each of Alabama's first three possessions and was 8-of-9 passing in those three drives.
Ace Sanders, WR, South Carolina: In what turned out to be Sanders' farewell to the Gamecocks, he scored three touchdowns in their 33-28 win over Michigan in the Outback Bowl. He had a 63-yard punt return for a touchdown and caught a pair of scoring passes. He also had a clutch fourth-down catch to keep South Carolina's game-winning drive alive and finished with nine receptions for 92 yards.
What can we expect in the SEC in 2013?
Let me look into my crystal ball and give you a few bold predictions to write down in ink. OK, maybe in pencil:
The SEC will make it eight in a row: Yep, the SEC will run its streak to eight straight national championships, leaving the rest of college football to wonder whether it should create its own league. Who’s it going to be? We can’t give everything away this early.
Everybody will predict the SEC’s streak will end: This is the surest bet out there. Get ready to hear all the pundits spouting off about how the SEC’s run is finally coming to an end. Promises, promises.
Alabama won’t go unbeaten: It won’t be the end of the world for the Crimson Tide, who lost a game each of the past two seasons and still managed to win the national championship. Getting through the SEC gantlet unscathed simply doesn’t happen very often.
Kim Klement/USA TODAYJadeveon Clowney will be a force to contend with next season.
Manziel-mania: Where do we start with Johnny Football? For one, he will lead the SEC in rushing again even though defenses will do everything they can to keep him in the pocket, and he will be the most must-see player in college football. But we're not ready to jump out there and predict that he will win a second straight Heisman Trophy. At least, not yet. There's a reason only one person has done that.
Auburn bounces back: Gus Malzahn has hired a first-rate staff on the Plains, and the Tigers aren’t lacking for talent. Look for them to bounce back and win eight games next season.
Record-setting Murray: Now that he’s coming back for his senior season, Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will obliterate just about every SEC career passing record. Murray has 10,091 passing yards. The record is 11,528, held by Georgia’s David Greene. Murray has 95 touchdown passes. The record of 114 is held by Florida’s Danny Wuerffel. Murray has 696 completions. The record is 895, held by Florida’s Chris Leak. The one record Murray won’t challenge is career interceptions. He has 32 entering the 2013 season, but Georgia’s Zeke Bratkowski threw 68 picks from 1951 to '53.
South Carolina’s starting quarterback: Good luck with that one. Connor Shaw will miss the spring because of foot surgery, and Dylan Thompson was clutch against Clemson and then against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. Something says the Head Ball Coach will find a way to play them both. Just a hunch.
Bayou Blues: Nobody is predicting that LSU will fall completely off the radar next season. There’s too much young talent in the program, and Les Miles’ track record of consistency speaks for itself. But with a killer schedule and 10 underclassmen leaving early for the NFL draft, the Tigers will fail to win 10 games for the first time since 2009.
Going bowling: We predicted a second straight bowl appearance for Vanderbilt this time a year ago and heard a few snickers around the league. Who’s laughing now? The Commodores will make it three straight bowl appearances in 2013.
Breaking out: If you’re looking for some of the top breakout players in the league next season, keep an eye on Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, Vanderbilt offensive tackle Wesley Johnson, Florida defensive end Dante Fowler, Alabama noseguard Darren Lake, LSU linebacker Kwon Alexander, Tennessee defensive tackle Daniel McCullers and South Carolina tight end Jerell Adams.
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: What will Johnny Football do for an encore? After becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy, after setting the SEC record for total yards (5,116), all eyes will be on Manziel in his second year as the Aggies' quarterback. He'll be without offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, left tackle Luke Joeckel and two big receiving targets. But Manziel will probably still be one of the slipperiest players in the country. If he grows more as a passer, watch out, because he'll be even more dangerous in 2013.
During Muschamp's second season at Florida, he helped lead the Gators to an 11-1 record and a 7-1 record in SEC play. Florida ended the season No. 3 in the BCS standings and will play Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. The Gators also defeated four teams that finished the season ranked in the top 12 of the BCS standings.
As for Sumlin, in his first year at Texas A&M, the Aggies went 10-2 (6-2 SEC) and upset No. 1 Alabama in Tuscaloosa. A&M also owned the SEC's No. 1 offense and quarterback Johnny Manziel broke the SEC record for total offense in single season and is a Heisman Trophy finalist. The Aggies are headed to the AT&T Cotton Bowl to take on Oklahoma.
The coaches also named Manziel, who threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns to eight interceptions and rushed for an SEC-high 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns, the SEC's Offensive Player of the Year and Freshman of the Year.
Here are the individual awards voted on by the SEC's coaches:
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
CO-SPECIAL TEAMS PLAYER OF THE YEAR
*Caleb Sturgis, Florida
*Ace Sanders, South Carolina
FRESHMAN OF THE YEAR
SCHOLAR-ATHLETE OF THE YEAR
Barrett Jones, Alabama
JACOBS BLOCKING TROPHY
Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
CO-COACHES OF THE YEAR
*Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
*Will Muschamp, Florida