LSU Tigers: Chris Boyd
1. Alabama (8-0, 5-0 SEC; last week: 1): The Crimson Tide were off last week, which sets up perfectly for Alabama's home showdown with LSU this weekend. Knock Alabama's cakewalk of an October all you want, but the Tide allowed just 20 points last month while scoring 45 or more in all four games.
2. Auburn (8-1, 4-1 SEC; LW: 2): The offense wasn't totally exciting in the win over Arkansas, but it's pretty clear that running back Tre Mason is knocking on the door of the elite running backs club in the SEC. He's third in the league with 921 rushing yards and leads the conference with 13 touchdowns. There's no need for Auburn to throw much when the Tigers are rushing for 5.1 yards per carry and crossing the 230-yard mark.
3. Texas A&M (7-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 3): We've been waiting to see a complete performance from the Aggies, and they looked pretty good on both sides of the ball against an overmatched UTEP team. Who cares what kind of talent the Miners didn't have; A&M needed this kind of game to start November. Behind six Johnny Manziel touchdowns and a defense that allowed just 198 yards and 3.2 yards per play, the Aggies rolled 57-7.
4. South Carolina (7-2, 5-2 SEC; LW: 4): The Gamecocks are a victory over Florida away from sitting back and rooting for Ole Miss and Texas A&M to knock off Missouri and for Auburn to take down Georgia. If all that happens, the Gamecocks, who dismantled Mississippi State 34-16 on Saturday, will be headed to Atlanta for the SEC championship game. Also, running back Mike Davis has been excellent and leads the SEC with 1,058 yards.
5. Missouri (8-1, 4-1 SEC; LW: 5): The Tigers throttled Tennessee 31-3 at home and still control their own destiny in the SEC East. Missouri hit the 500-yard mark on offense for the fifth time this season and harassed the Vols' offense all day, forcing three turnovers and allowing just 334 yards.
6. LSU (7-2, 3-2 SEC; LW: 6): The Tigers were off, which gives them an extra week to prepare for No. 1 Alabama. LSU has had a problem with focus in the last couple of games, but don't expect that to be an issue in Tuscaloosa, Ala. LSU won the last time it was there and gave Alabama a heck of a game last season. LSU, averaging 480 yards of offense per game, will be only the third team Alabama has faced that is averaging more than 400 yards.
7. Georgia (5-3, 4-2 SEC; LW: 7): Aaron Murray picked up his third consecutive victory over Florida and the Bulldogs are right back in the East race. They still need Mizzou to lose two more SEC games, but the Dawgs aren't out of it by any means. Georgia's 23-20 victory over the Gators wasn't exactly pretty with its second-half play, but the Dawgs put up 414 yards on the SEC's then-No. 1 defense.
8. Ole Miss (5-3, 2-3 SEC; LW: 8): The Rebels were off, but should still have some momentum churning after consecutive victories. The Rebels rank eighth in the conference in total offense (462.3) and sixth in total defense (379.4). Now, Ole Miss prepares to host an Arkansas team that has lost six in a row.
9. Florida (4-4, 3-3 SEC; LW: 9): It's been a very long and very frustrating season for the Gators. With their loss to Georgia, they are looking at a 6-6 season after winning 11 last year. But with Vanderbilt next, 5-7 certainly isn't out of the question. This team is struggling in all phases of the game, Will Muschamp is feeling the heat and it's clear that Florida's stale offense is too limited to drastically improve.
10. Tennessee (4-5, 1-4 SEC; LW: 10): Freshman Josh Dobbs is now the guy at quarterback, but he had a rough debut as the Vols' starter in the loss to Missouri. He threw for 240 yards, but had two interceptions and was sacked twice. This team still has a long way to go on both sides of the ball, but there has to be some encouragement with Dobbs' play. He certainly isn't perfect, and he needs a lot more help around him, but is composure has been better than expected.
11. Vanderbilt (4-4, 1-4 SEC; LW: 11): After being blown out by Texas A&M, the Commodores were off. This team really is hurting without Chris Boyd on offense, and injuries on defense haven't helped. But Vanderbilt is still very much in the postseason race and takes on a Florida team that has now dropped three games in a row.
12. Mississippi State (4-4, 1-3 SEC; LW: 12:): The Bulldogs' two-game winning streak ended with a blowout loss to South Carolina. The Bulldogs hung around in the first half, but were outscored 17-6 in the second half. It didn't help the Bulldogs that quarterback Dak Prescott threw three interceptions after throwing just three on the season coming in. With Texas A&M, Alabama and Ole Miss remaining, making a bowl game won't be easy.
13. Arkansas (3-6, 0-5 SEC; LW: 13): A very long season for the Razorbacks only got longer with their 35-17 loss to Auburn. The good news for the Hogs is that the defense had one of its better performances in conference play and the offense hit the 300-yard mark for the first time since Sept. 28. But there just aren't enough working parts on either side of the ball for this team to be competitive under Bret Bielema.
14. Kentucky (2-6, 0-4 SEC; LW: 14): After losing five in a row, the Wildcats got back into the win column with a 48-14 victory over Alabama State. The competition wasn't great, but Mark Stoops and this bunch will take any wins they can at this point. Banged-up quarterback Jalen Whitlow had an impressive day, rushing for 101 yards and two touchdowns and throwing for 186 yards and two more scores. One of his rushing touchdowns came on an 88-yard run in the first quarter.
- AJ McCarron isn't afraid to suggest to Nick Saban what play to run. Alabama's senior quarterback has been trusted with the play-calling duties at the line of scrimmage.
- Gus Malzahn says the high number of drops have been holding back Auburn's offense.
- Arkansas didn't move the ball through the air much against Southern Miss, and with a backup quarterback in it was easy to understand why. But this week the receivers are looking for more of an opportunity.
- Mean Green, er North Texas, isn't all that scary. But Georgia is looking to tighten up some loose ends in this weekend's non-conference game.
- Tennessee's disappointed offensive line is ready to bounce back after a tough game against Oregon.
- Tom Mason, SMU's defensive coordinator, says he has the worst job in America this week trying to stop Texas A&M's offense.
- Vernon Hargreaves III isn't looked at by the coaching staff as a true freshman. Not after the hot start he's off to. Now, he's a starter.
- Bo Wallace was volatile under center last season, leading the league in interceptions. But this year has been different for Ole Miss' starting quarterback. He has been making much better decisions with the football, and it has paid off for the Rebels.
- Les Miles wouldn't say if freshman running back Jeryl Brazil was suspended against Kent State this past weekend. But LSU's coach did say he might play against Auburn on Saturday.
- Vanderbilt coach James Franklin says he's encouraged by departed wideout Chris Boyd's replacements.
1. Alabama (1-0; LW: 1): OK, Alabama isn't perfect. Contrary to what AJ McCarron said, the offensive line looked ugly for most of the night in Alabama's win over Virginia Tech. It has to get better in a hurry. But when your defense and special teams are clicking like they were on Saturday, who needs offense?
2. South Carolina (1-0; LW: 4): Two players I've been saying to keep an eye on since the spring: Mike Davis and Shaq Roland. Both looked pretty good, especially Davis, in that opening win, and both will be fun to watch this weekend. The defensive front looked great, but can someone please give Jadeveon Clowney some vitamin C and an extra Gatorade?
3. LSU (1-0; LW: 6): Don't sleep on these Tigers. They're undervalued, but were very impressive in their 37-27 victory over a ranked TCU team in their own backyard. The defense still looks fast, and the offense racked up nearly 450 yards behind some explosive plays. The return of running back Jeremy Hill should make this team even better.
4. Texas A&M (1-0; LW: 2): Johnny Manziel looked good when he was actually playing football Saturday. He went through his progressions and didn't think "run" first. But his antics have to stop (just ask Kevin Sumlin), and that defense has to get much, much, MUCH better before Alabama rolls into town in two weeks.
5. Florida (1-0; LW: 5): It doesn't look like the Gators will miss much of a beat defensively after they suffocated Toledo and that uptempo offense. The offense? Well, it did look more polished and the passing game actually moved down the field, but the Gators were very vanilla. Expect that to change against Miami.
6. Georgia (0-1; LW: 3): We knew the defense would struggle against Clemson's high-octane offense, but the Bulldogs looked really bad in the tackling department. This group has to go back to the basics, and that isn't a good thing with physical South Carolina coming to town this weekend. Also, that offensive line has to protect Aaron Murray better because Todd Gurley can't do it all himself on offense.
7. Ole Miss (1-0; LW: 8): The future certainly looks bright in Oxford, Miss., but this program is hoping the present is just as bright. The Rebels kicked off the college football season with an electric, back-and-forth win over Vanderbilt. This offense looks built to go the distance, but depth is still a major concern. Health is key.
8. Vanderbilt (0-1; LW: 7): The Commodores lost a heartbreaker to the Rebels at home, but this team still looks as explosive as it was last year. The defense has some things to clean up, but defensive coordinator Bob Shoop should make sure that happens. Jordan Matthews has star status, but not having Chris Boyd on the other side of him hurts the offense.
9. Auburn (1-0; LW: 9): The Tigers had quite a fun opener. Both the offense and defense were up and down, but it had to be nice for Gus Malzahn to see his running game put up 295 yards on Washington State. The pass defense has some work to do and injuries won't help.
10. Missouri (1-0; LW: 11): The 58-point, 694-yard performance from the Tigers' offense looked more like what people in Columbia, Mo., expected to see more often last year. Granted, it was against Murray State, but that sort of outing will build some confidence within this group. It was good to see James Franklin and Henry Josey on the field and healthy again.
11. Arkansas (1-0; LW: 13): By looking at the box score, you'd think Bobby Petrino's offense was back in Fayetteville, Ark., after the Hogs put up 522 yards on Louisiana-Lafayette. The Hogs could run and pass, and the defense held the Ragin' Cajuns to just 274 yards. The Hogs still have a couple of cupcakes to face before things get interesting at Rutgers.
12. Tennessee (1-0; LW: 12): We really don't know what to take from Tennessee's thumping of a very overmatched Austin Peay team, but the Vols looked to have some real legs in the running game. How long that will last is a mystery, but it was a good start. Things get tougher this weekend when Western Kentucky and Bobby Petrino visit Rocky Top.
13. Mississippi State (0-1; LW: 10): That was a bad offensive performance by the Bulldogs in their 21-3 loss to Oklahoma State. Mississippi State was 2-for-16 on third downs and Tyler Russell threw for only 133 yards against a defense that ranked 113th nationally in pass defense last year. The Bulldogs held the Cowboys to just 146 passing yards, but allowed nearly 286 rushing yards.
14. Kentucky (0-1; LW: 14): That was not the opener Mark Stoops wanted or needed. The Wildcats looked overmatched against Western Kentucky and are still struggling mightily to find playmakers in the passing game. What had to really upset Stoops was that his defensive line, which was supposed to be this team's best unit, didn't get enough pressure up front and allowed the Hilltoppers to rush for more than 200 yards.
I mean, it's no big deal or anything, but I completely dominated the picks last year. The ATL Kid showed no mercy. Chris just didn't have the focus that you'd expect from a veteran. He started covering this league when I still had training wheels on my bike and chocolate stains on my shirts. (OK, those are still there.)
I spent the entire offseason gloating over how my beautiful 107-15 (.877) record looked down at Chris' 100-22 (.820) record and scoffed. But I also did some homework. I studied film. I might have had the championship belt around my waist, but today is a new day -- a new season.
Last year's picks mean nothing (except in the realm of blogger pride), so I have to start over. I'll starting lifting and running more in the mornings in order to get my mind and body right for the days ahead.
One championship was nice, but I'm looking for more rings and more bragging rights, and that all starts with a strong Week 1.
Let's get onto the picks:
NORTH CAROLINA AT SOUTH CAROLINA
Chris Low: It’s the Battle of the Carolinas, or as the Head Ball Coach would say, South Carolina vs. “Dabo’s Carolina.” Not sure Dabo’s Carolina will be able to block Mr. Clowney. Then again, can anybody? ... South Carolina 30, North Carolina 17
Edward Aschoff: This could be the team that gets Steve Spurrier back to the SEC championship game. Jadeveon Clowney and that talented defensive line will make things miserable for UNC's offense all night. ... South Carolina 31, North Carolina 17
OLE MISS AT VANDERBILT
Chris Low: There’s no getting around the rape case and how it will impact the Commodores, especially with junior receiver Chris Boyd being suspended. The Rebels are for real and will finally figure out a way to beat the Commodores after losing five of the last six in this series. ... Ole Miss 24, Vanderbilt 20
Edward Aschoff: Both of these teams are on the rise in the SEC and have higher expectations than usual entering the season. While the Rebels have struggled recently with the Commodores, there's more pressure on Vandy, and Ole Miss will claim its redemption. ... Ole Miss 27, Vanderbilt 24
WESTERN KENTUCKY VS KENTUCKY (in Nashville, Tenn.)
Chris Low: OK, no jokes about Bobby Petrino riding his motorcycle to the game. He gets his first of two straight chances to take down SEC teams, but the Wildcats will stand their ground in Mark Stoops’ debut. ... Kentucky 28, Western Kentucky 21
Edward Aschoff: Mark Stoops doesn't get a cupcake for his first game as Kentucky's new coach. I think it actually benefits him because he'll have a better idea of what he really has. And what he'll have is an opening-day winner. ... Kentucky 24, Western Kentucky 20
LOUISIANA-LAFAYETTE AT ARKANSAS
Chris Low: Louisiana-Monroe sent the Hogs reeling last season. Now, it’s Louisiana (the Ragin’ Cajuns) who’d like to get a little slice of Pig Sooie. Arkansas is too strong up front defensively to stumble in this one. ... Arkansas 27, Louisiana 17
Edward Aschoff: Bret Bielema and his Hogs are dealing with a lot of injuries, but he'll still have more talent on the field Saturday. We won't know a ton about this team, but starting off 1-0 ain't bad. ... Arkansas 27, Louisiana-Lafayette 17
AUSTIN PEAY AT TENNESSEE
Chris Low: There won’t be many breathers for Butch Jones in his first season at Tennessee, but the only drama in this one will be whether or not the Pride of the Southland Band has enough stamina to still be playing “Rocky Top” in the fourth quarter. ... Tennessee 45, Austin Peay 7
Edward Aschoff: Another new coach makes his debut with a team shrouded in mystery. Jones has a lot of inexperience to work with on offense and it'll be interesting to see how that up-tempo offense looks. ... Tennessee 31, Austin Peay 14
MURRAY STATE AT MISSOURI
Chris Low: It sounds like Henry Josey is healthy again, and all those SEC fans who didn’t get a chance to see him last season while he was sidelined are in for a treat. It won’t be a lot of fun for Murray State trying to tackle him. ... Missouri 38, Murray State 14
Edward Aschoff: The Tigers are healthier and carrying a big chip on their shoulders this season. A more complete Missouri team should take the field this weekend. ... Missouri 41, Murray State 13
WASHINGTON STATE at AUBURN
Chris Low: We know that Mike Leach thinks the bottom half of the Pac-12 is better than the bottom half of the SEC. Here’s his chance to prove it, although the Tigers should be greatly improved this season. ... Auburn 34, Washington State 21
Edward Aschoff: The Tigers have no choice but to get better with Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson taking over the defense. You should see lots of points in Malzahn's debut as the head coach. ... Auburn 38, Washington State 20
TOLEDO AT FLORIDA
Chris Low: The latest blow to the Gators was offensive tackle Chaz Green going down for the season, joining already injured running back Matt Jones and guard Jon Halapio. But when you don’t give up any touchdowns, it’s hard to lose. ... Florida 24, Toledo 6
Edward Aschoff: The Gators enter with a banged-up offense that already had a lot of questions. Toledo is far from a pushover, but Florida has the muscle to get by a tricky opening opponent. ... Florida 27, Toledo 10
RICE AT TEXAS A&M
Chris Low: By order of Texas A&M athletic director Eric Hyman, I will not make any comments concerning a certain Aggies’ quarterback. What I will say is that the Aggies will roll despite No. 2 being on the bench for a half. ... Texas A&M 48, Rice 10
Edward Aschoff: Johnny Football might be sitting out a half, but it wouldn't matter if he were sitting out the entire game. It's finally time for A&M to get back on the playing field. ... Texas A&M 48, Rice 17
MISSISSIPPI STATE VS OKLAHOMA STATE (Houston, Texas)
Chris Low: The Bulldogs want to bring more pressure on defense this season. They’re going to need to in this one, but they will have a hard time scoring with the Cowboys. ... Oklahoma State 37, Mississippi State 24
Edward Aschoff: A lot of questions remain for the Bulldogs, and it won't be easy for this defense to slow down Oklahoma State's high-powered passing game. ... Oklahoma State 34, Mississippi State 21
LSU VS TCU (in Arlington, Texas)
Chris Low: Les Miles isn’t saying whether Jeremy Hill will play in the opener. He’s “withholding” that information. Something else that will be withheld is TCU touchdowns. This LSU defense might be young, but it’s not lacking talent. ... LSU 28, TCU 16
Edward Aschoff: The Tigers might be the must undervalued team in the SEC. Miles always has his teams prepared for these out-of-conference games, and you'll see a more explosive offense that's fast and athletic and will overpower the Horned Frogs. ... LSU 31, TCU 17
ALABAMA VS VIRGINIA TECH (in Atlanta)
Chris Low: This is not your father’s Virginia Tech team. The Hokies simply don’t have enough firepower to keep it close against the two-time defending national champions. ... Alabama 35, Virginia Tech 10
Edward Aschoff: Alabama likes these big openers. The process is strong with Crimson Tide players and Virginia Tech is hurting. Alabama comes in more talented, and the Hokies just don't have the horses to keep up in Atlanta. ... Alabama 38, Virginia Tech 13
GEORGIA AT CLEMSON
Chris Low: It’s the most compelling opener of the season and should also be the most entertaining. If you like points, sit back and enjoy. The Dawgs will hold up a little better in the secondary and sneak out with a win. ... Georgia 35, Clemson 31
Edward Aschoff: This is the main event. Both teams have high-octane offenses and both have defenses littered with questions. Georgia has a lot of talent on defense, but it's young. This game is going to come down to which defense makes a play late -- and home-field advantage. ... Clemson 34, Georgia 31
And what's a better way to kick off one of the most glorious weeks of the year than debuting the first set of power rankings for the season?
Here's where all 14 SEC teams rank in my eyes heading into the first weekend of the season:
1. Alabama: The two-time defending national champion brings back an extremely talented defense and an All-American candidate at quarterback who will have a slew of weapons to work with. The question is if there's a team not named Alabama that can stop the Tide from winning its third straight BCS national title.
2. Texas A&M: Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel has received all the wrong kinds of attention this year, but as long as he's the Aggies' quarterback, A&M should again contend for the SEC West. Even with an ongoing investigation swirling around Johnny Football and his autographs, it doesn't sound like A&M plans to sit its star for Saturday's opener against Rice.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs lost a wealth of defensive experience from last year's team, but they still will operate with one of the nation's best offenses. There should be no shortage of points in Georgia's opening matchup against Clemson on Saturday, and it'll provide a nice test for the Dawgs' young defense.
4. South Carolina: There are questions at linebacker and in the secondary, but having arguably the SEC's best defensive line could help mask some issues behind it early. Oh, and Jadeveon Clowney is still roaming around out there. The Gamecocks also should have quite the balanced offense to work with this fall, even if two quarterbacks are sharing snaps at times.
5. Florida: The defense lost some key starters from last year, but it looks like year's defense won't miss much of a beat given the quality reps returners got last year. The offense is still a mystery, especially the passing game, as a consistent receiving target has to emerge. Also, not having running back Matt Jones after the first week would be a major blow.
6. LSU: The return of running back Jeremy Hill and the maturation of quarterback Zach Mettenberger mean the Tigers should have a better and more explosive offense in 2013. It'll help to have a solid line and all of Mettenberger's top receiving targets returning, but can that rebuilt defense help get LSU back into BCS contention this fall?
7. Vanderbilt: Off-field distractions could be clouding the minds of these players, but coach James Franklin has made sure to keep his guys as focused as possible. Expectations are higher than ever, as a very good -- and underrated -- defense returns, while the offense has the potential to be very explosive again. However, if starting receiver Chris Boyd misses time due to his suspension, Vanderbilt could be in trouble.
8. Ole Miss: The expectations are higher in Oxford than they have been in years, but second-year coach Hugh Freeze would like those tempered a bit. Nineteen starters return, including All-SEC candidates Donte Moncrief and Bo Wallace. It's hard not to think the Rebels will build off the success Freeze had in his first year. Depth is still an issue in certain areas, and the start of the schedule is brutal.
9. Auburn: With Gus Malzahn back on the Plains and Ellis Johnson working with the defense, the Tigers have the recipe to be better in 2013. No longer will coaches be trying to fit a square peg into a round hole on offense, and Johnson has proved to be a great at developing talent. Those are two things that lacked in last year's team. Also, Malzahn has said he's very comfortable with junior college transfer quarterback Nick Marshall, who fits his offense perfectly.
10. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen is looking to take the Bulldogs to their fourth straight bowl game. The talent is certainly there to do it, but the road to the postseason will be challenging. Mississippi State has to replace its top four receiving threats and three starters in the secondary, including Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. Having veterans Tyler Russell and LaDarius Perkins working behind a solid offensive line will help, but this team has to generate more pressure from its defensive line.
11. Missouri: The Tigers' SEC debut didn't go well at all last year, but injuries were a major factor. The offensive line is healthier, but communication issues in the spring really hurt the offense's growth. The hope is that the talent at receiver lives up to its potential, while the defense has to make strides at linebacker and in the secondary.
12. Tennessee: New coach Butch Jones has brought a lot of excitement to the program, and he's building for the future. But in the present, a lot of questions remain, especially on offense. So much receiving talent is gone, and recently named starting quarterback Justin Worley has little experience. The defense returns a lot of experience and should be better-suited to run John Jancek's 4-3 defensive scheme.
13. Arkansas: There's no question Bret Bielema's presence in Fayetteville has generated some much-needed excitement, but the personnel has to match Bielema's intensity. Right now, the name of the game is making sure players adapt to Bielema's more physical style. The inexperienced receiving corps has been ravaged by injuries plus a transfer, and the defense still has a lot of questions at linebacker and in the secondary.
14. Kentucky: New coach Mark Stoops has known since day one that fixing the problems at the offensive skill positions was going to be tough. A quarterback has to be found, consistency at receiver must develop, and the running backs have to stay healthy. Defensively, the line is one of the SEC's best, but there are holes at linebacker and in the secondary. A turnaround is possible, but this team has a long way to go.
The most productive receiving tandem in the league a year ago was the Vanderbilt combo of Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. They combined for 2,097 receiving yards, 144 catches and 13 touchdown receptions.
The good news for the Commodores is that they’re both back.
It’s tough to pick against a proven twosome like Matthews and Boyd, but below are some others to watch next season.
Amari Cooper/Chris Black (Alabama): You could add Kenny Bell to the equation, too. He was the Crimson Tide’s top deep threat before he was injured. Cooper was sensational down the stretch last season, and Black was the guy everybody was raving about last preseason before he got hurt. Throw in promising freshman tight end O.J. Howard, and AJ McCarron should have a wealth of targets to choose from next season.
Michael Bennett/Malcolm Mitchell (Georgia): Before Bennett was injured just prior to the South Carolina game last season, he and Aaron Murray were really developing some nice chemistry. At 6-3 and 208 pounds, Bennett has size, speed and knows how to get open. With a healthy Bennett back in the fold and Mitchell’s ability to get deep, the Bulldogs’ passing game could be even better than it was last season.
Mike Evans/Malcome Kennedy (Texas A&M): The Aggies also signed a trio of talented freshmen who will be on campus this summer. Evans has built off a terrific redshirt freshman season and has been a force this spring. He had more than 200 yards receiving in the scrimmage last weekend. Kennedy had the big catch against Alabama last season and is one of those guys who could really blossom as a fourth-year junior.
Dorial Green-Beckham/Marcus Lucas (Missouri): Everybody’s back for the Tigers with the exception of T.J. Moe. Green-Beckham didn’t take the SEC by storm as a freshman like some predicted, but probably too much was expected. He still caught five touchdown passes and will be much more of an every-down threat as a sophomore. The 6-5, 220-pound Lucas is also back after leading the Tigers with 46 catches and 509 receiving yards last season.
Jarvis Landry/Odell Beckham, Jr. (LSU): Dropped passes plagued the LSU receivers last season, but the entire passing game improved later in the year. Landry is coming off a monster scrimmage last Saturday and is a very good route-runner. He and Beckham combined for 99 catches (seven touchdowns) last season. Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Travin Dural, who missed last season with a knee injury. He has excellent hands and can stretch the field.
Donte Moncrief/Vince Sanders (Ole Miss): The Rebels’ fans are all excited to see coveted signee Laquon Treadwell, who was ranked by ESPN as the No. 1 receiver in the country. But there are already a few proven playmakers on campus, namely Moncrief. He caught 10 touchdown passes last season and just missed 1,000 yards receiving. He’s one of the SEC’s more underrated players. Sanders averaged 12.9 yards per catch and had four touchdown receptions, while senior Ja-Mes Logan was second on the team with 43 catches.
2. The SEC's dominance is still being challenged: Even though Alabama brought home the SEC's seventh straight BCS title, the SEC's perception is still being challenged. Social media has been buzzing with chants of "overrated" directed toward the SEC because Mississippi State, LSU and Florida all fell flat in their bowl games. Mississippi State lost by 14 to Northwestern, LSU lost to Clemson on a last-second field goal and Florida was run ragged by Louisville in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. Heading into bowl season, Florida and LSU weren't expected to lose, but they got away from their ground games and paid for it dearly. Still, the SEC went 6-3 (.667) in bowl games, including Texas A&M's 41-13 rout of Oklahoma in the AT&T Cotton Bowl, and Georgia and South Carolina downing Big Ten teams. Only the WAC (2-0) and C-USA (4-1) had better winning percentages, and neither had nearly as many bowl teams. So is the SEC down? Well, while the SEC took a couple of bad losses in bowl season, seven teams finished the year in the Associated Press Top 25, including five in the top 10. The Big Ten and Big 12 had losing bowl records, the Pac-12 went 4-4 and the ACC was 4-2. So, if the SEC is overrated, what are the other conferences?
3. Florida's offensive issues are still a major problem: All season, we wondered what we'd see from Florida's offense. However, for 11 games, even if the offense came up short, the Gators found ways to win. Against Louisville, the Gators went in reverse and never got right again. Jeff Driskel threw a pick-six on the first possession, and the offense imploded from there. Mike Gillislee, who was easily Florida's best offensive weapon, carried the ball just nine times. The Gators panicked, but when they had to pass, they couldn't.
This has to be a major concern for the Gators going forward, because Gillislee is graduating and tight end Jordan Reed declared for the NFL draft. Driskel has to find some major help in the passing game this spring/summer, or Florida's offense will get pummeled again. Driskel's health is now a major concern because backup Jacoby Brissett is transferring, leaving the Gators with no experience behind Driskel.
4. More eyes will be on Ole Miss ... and Vanderbilt: Before the season, no one gave Ole Miss a chance at the postseason -- or even five wins -- but the Rebels went out and had a tremendous first year under Hugh Freeze. If not for a couple of horrendous second halves, the Rebels might have won eight games during the regular season. After a dominating performance in their BBVA Compass Bowl win against Pittsburgh, the Rebels could be looking at a spot in preseason Top 25 polls. Most of this team, including what could be a stellar recruiting class, will be in Oxford next fall, so expectations will be much higher.
The same can be said about James Franklin's Vanderbilt Commodores. After a historic nine-win season that ended with a commanding bowl win over NC State, the Commodores will be expected to keep up this act after being even better in Year 2 of the Franklin era. Vandy will lose some talent up front defensively, and Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy will be gone, but a host of playmakers will return, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd.
5. Johnny Football's legend just keeps growing: After Texas A&M lost offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury to Texas Tech, Johnny Manziel's field maturity was really going to be judged in the AT&T Cotton Bowl against the Sooners. Well, all he did without one of his best mentors was set a bowl record for total yards (516) in the Aggies' rout inside Jerry's World. Manziel zigged and zagged as though Kingsbury was feeding him info through an earpiece. People don't understand how much Kingsbury helped Manziel with his composure during games, but Manziel did just fine without him. It shows how much he's grown during his Heisman year. Things will be different next season with some key players also missing on offense, but to see Manziel play like that without Kingsbury has to be very encouraging for Kevin Sumlin and the rest of the Aggies' coaching staff.
Well, Nick Saban and his gang of future NFL ballers proved to us once again that it is indeed Alabama's world, after claiming their second consecutive national title and third in four years Monday night. That ringing in your ears is just the sound of "Roll Tide" being repeated over and over in your head. I've learned there's nothing we can do about it.
But will 2013 bring college football a team that can really stop the Tide? I mean, REALLY stop Alabama from winning a third straight national championship? Well, ESPN's Mark Schlabach seems to believe that the road to Pasadena is paved in crimson and white, as he has Alabama No. 1 in his Way-Too-Early-Top 25 for 2013.
It's hard to blame him at this point. Sure, Alabama's offensive line won't be nearly as good with Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack leaving. And it will take even more of a hit if/when D.J. Fluker decides to turn pro. But with quarterback AJ McCarron, running back T.J. Yeldon (we're assuming Eddie Lacy and his sweet spin move are headed to the NFL), wide receiver Amari Cooper and a host of studs on the defense returning, Alabama will again be the team to beat.
But there are some quality teams in the SEC that will fight to dethrone Alabama, and Schlabach has four in his top 10. Texas A&M, which returns the Heisman-winning Johnny Football, ranks fifth, Georgia is sixth, South Carolina is seventh and Florida is 10th. The thing about all those teams is that they all return their starting quarterbacks, with Georgia's Aaron Murray being one of the best in the country alongside Johnny Manziel.
South Carolina will be one of the more balanced teams in the SEC next fall, and if Florida can actually find a passing game in 2013, watch out because that defense will still be fierce, even with a few junior defections.
LSU, checking in at No. 13, is the only other SEC team in Schlabach's top 25. The Tigers are expected to have a better offense, especially with Zach Mettenberger finally finding his comfort zone under center, but a poor offensive showing in the Chick-fil-A Bowl defeat to Clemson and the loss of junior running backs Michael Ford and Spencer Ware create an uneasy feeling around the offense. Plus, the defense just took a beating as a result of juniors departing for the NFL, especially up front. All-American punter Brad Wing also left.
The good news for LSU is that running back Jeremy Hill is returning, and he'll only be a sophomore.
It's a good list to start off with, but where in the world is Vanderbilt? The Commodores are coming off of a historic season in Nashville. There were nine wins that included a bowl victory, five conference wins and a seven-game winning streak. The quarterback and running back spots might be up for grabs, but Jordan Matthews is coming back, along with fellow receiver Chris Boyd. And most of the rest of the offense remains intact.
There was room for Vandy in there somewhere ...
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.
1. Alabama: The defense will get hit the hardest by graduation and the NFL draft, but Alabama's offense should be better. While it's almost a forgone conclusion that junior running back Trent Richardson will declare for the NFL draft, Alabama returns a veteran offensive line, has a good set of up-and-coming receivers and has some pretty talented running backs to work with, including pounder Eddie Lacy. Oh, and that quarterback ain't too bad, either.
2. LSU: The Tigers might have come up short in the big one, but it's not like LSU is going anywhere. That defense that ranked second nationally was made up by a slew of youngsters. LSU returns double-digit starters next year, including most of its front seven. A major bright spot for this team is that former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will now get his chance, and has skill that Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee lacked.
3. Georgia: The Bulldogs might return more starters next year than LSU. After surpassing expectations and challenging LSU for the SEC title, the Bulldogs should enter next fall as the favorites in the SEC East. Stud quarterback Aaron Murray returns and so do most of his weapons. With arguably the easiest schedule (again) in the SEC, Mark Richt will be expected to take his Dawgs back to Atlanta.
4. South Carolina: There won't be any sleeping on the Gamecocks in 2012. After getting 11 wins for only the second time in school history, South Carolina should compete for the SEC East for the third straight year. The Gamecocks return a slew of talent, especially on defense, and saw tremendous improvement in quarterback Connor Shaw. Also, running back Marcus Lattimore should be back and healthy after his devastating season-ending knee injury.
5. Arkansas: The Razorbacks will lose a lot of key players that have helped Arkansas get to where it is under Bobby Petrino. Defensively, five seniors will say goodbye, while the offense will lose three NFL wide receivers. However, that offensive line, which grew up as the season progressed, will be much better and star running back Knile Davis should be back and healthy. Quarterback Tyler Wilson is back, so there shouldn't be much dip in the passing game even with some new faces at receiver.
6. Auburn: Those youngsters on the Plains will be more mature and much improved in 2012. That has to be a scary thought for other SEC members. Auburn doesn't lose much from its 2011 team and gets a great addition to the defensive side of the ball in new defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. Offensively, there are weapons everywhere, but the key will be finding the right quarterback ... again.
7. Florida: Will Muschamp's first year as the Gators' head coach didn't go as planned, but there is still a lot of talent in Gainesville, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Florida loses just one starter on defense and should have one of the fastest, most aggressive defensive units around the SEC. Getting that offense going will be key to Muschamp's second year, but with all that turnover, it should be a fresh start for this unit.
8. Missouri: This new group of Tigers enters 2012 as a factor in the SEC East. Missouri returns nearly everyone from 2011, including quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, who both put up solid numbers in 2011. The Tigers will no doubt hit some snags as they transition into their new home, but with all the talent that returns, Missouri won't be a pushover in its first year in the SEC.
9. Tennessee: Derek Dooley has the pieces in place on both sides of the ball to compete in the SEC East. That young defense won't be so young in 2012 and quarterback Tyler Bray returns with his deep-threat sidekicks at wide receiver. With a solid offensive line, the next step for Tennessee is to find a consistent running back to help take the pressure off of the passing game. There's a lot of pressure on Dooley to get things done, and he has the talent to in 2012.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies have the pleasure of entering the SEC as a Western Division team. That's not exactly a warm welcome. It doesn't help that Texas A&M is losing a ton from its 2011 team. There could be six NFL draft picks who won't be back in College Station next season. Quarterback Ryan Tannehill and top safety Trent Hunter are gone, and so is receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael should do well as Cyrus Gray's replacement at running back, but the core of this team will be gone.
11. Vanderbilt: Year 1 of the James Franklin era was a success and there shouldn't be a lot of drop-off for the Commodores next season. Vandy loses top defenders Chris Marve, Tim Fugger and Casey Hayward, but a lot of veterans return on that side of the ball. Jordan Rodgers is back at quarterback, Zac Stacy returns at running back and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews will be back. Running back and specialist Warren Norman should be back too and the offensive line returns four starters.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lose a lot on both sides of the ball in 2012, but should have a top cornerback combo in Johnthan Banks and Corey Broomfield. Losing Fletcher Cox up front will leave a hole on the defensive line and saying goodbye to linebacker Brandon Wilson won't be easy. Tyler Russell will probably get the first crack at quarterback for the Bulldogs, but he will be without his safety net in running back Vick Ballard. The good thing is that the receivers are back, but this team will have to grow up in a hurry.
13. Kentucky: The offensive line will have some missing pieces in 2012 and the defense loses six starters, including star linebacker Danny Trevathan. Maxwell Smith and Morgan Newton will battle at quarterback, but with how 2011 ended, Smith might have the advantage. This team struggled mightily on offense and the problem was that there wasn't a lot of improvement throughout the year. The offseason should be dedicated to find ways to get this offense moving.
14. Ole Miss: Hugh Freeze steps into a tough situation at Ole Miss. His first order of business needs to be improving the discipline on this team. It was awful in 2011, and if Ole Miss wants to improve it has to clean that up. The defense should get a boost with leader D.T. Shackelford returning from his season-ending knee injury and offensive playmakers Jeff Scott, Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell are back. The offensive line loses some key components, and the quarterback situation is far from figured out.