SEC Football Preview

The SEC took its dominance of the national championship race last year to a new level, not only winning its sixth consecutive title, but having it sewn up prior to the BCS National Championship Game even being played, as Alabama-LSU paired up in a rematch for the title, a game that will take its place in history alongside the 1976 NCAA basketball final when Indiana met Michigan and ushered in a new era of conference rematches in the postseason. I have my doubts that this is a good thing, but it’s undeniably happening. Will the SEC make it seven in a row in 2012? Will they sweep the title game spots again? Let’s break down the SEC football race for the coming season…

Everything starts with LSU & Alabama with the way last year finished and the two schools are on top of the preseason polls this year. But though it may start in Baton Rouge and Birmingham there’s nothing saying it will finish there this time around. Both programs have substantial rebuilding projects ahead of them on the defensive side. LSU’s project got tougher with the recently announced suspension of All-Everything corner Tyrann Mathieu for drug use. It’s easy to say these programs just reload. That’s true to a certain extent—I’d rather rebuild here than have everyone back at Ole Miss—but it does make holding a spot in the nation’s top two tougher. Without Matheiu, LSU lacks a gamebreaker on the defensive side. Alabama needs to find one. It’s gamebreakers—not just good players, which both schools have in abundance—that swing the game or two every year where a top team is under the gun in an unexpected spot.

The powers-that-be are both better situated on offense. Each returns most of its offensive line. Alabama has quarterback A.J. McCarron back and in his second year as a starter he should be ready to assume greater responsibility for the offense. Eddie Lacy will have zero problem stepping in for Trent Richardson at running back. For LSU, returning back Spencer Ware is poised to have a big year, and though they have a new quarterback in Zach Mettenberg I doubt if anyone who watched either of last year’s LSU-Alabama games (zero touchdowns in eight quarters plus overtime) thinks Mettenberg has big shoes to fill. These two teams meet again November 3 in Baton Rouge with a trip to the SEC Championship Game and possibly more at stake.

It’s one thing to say the Tigers and Tide may be vulnerable. It’s quite another to come up with a compelling alternative, especially within their division. Arkansas has both teams at home and is stacked with returning talent. They’ve got an explosive offense, led by Tyler Wilson at quarterback and Knile Davis running the football. But the coaching situation is a mess after Bobby Petrino’s off-field problems got him fired and there is no way I’d take John L. Smith in any coaching situation against Les Miles or Nick Saban. Even at home with a more experienced team. Arkansas might spring one win against the powers, but they’ll also lose a game or two they shouldn’t.

The rest of the SEC West has its strength—Auburn, new addition Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Ole Miss—but nothing that would lead you to elevate them to the leader’s spot. Auburn’s got an experienced secondary and is pretty good elsewhere, making them the best of the group. But they’ve got quarterback instability and highly regarded offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is gone for the head job at Arkansas State. Texas A&M will score points with its entire offensive line back and an explosive back in Christine Michael, but the defense is young and learning the ropes in the SEC will be its own trial. Mississippi State has the defense to get into a bowl game and three good wide receivers. If new junior quarterback Tyler Russell, a former high school America, comes though, the Bulldogs could be interesting. But if Russell is so good, I’m wondering why it took him this long to start at a school that’s not exactly Southern Cal when it comes to churning out passers. And Ole Miss went 2-10 a year ago and is rebuilding under new head coach Hugh Freeze.

So if you’re looking for someone other than LSU or Alabama, go east young man, if I can turn Horace Greeley’s 19th-century quotation on its head. The SEC East promises an exciting race and that excitement will be produced by high-level parity, not parity born of mediocrity.

Let’s start with Georgia, who won the division a year ago, when they closed the regular season with ten straight wins and ended the absurd talk that head coach Mark Richt needed to be fired. The Dawgs defense is stacked and the skill positions are explosive, with junior quarterback Aaron Murray being the best in the league. Then fill in running back Isaiah Crowell and receivers Tavarres King and Malcolm Mitchell and you have the makings of an All-SEC team right there. The problem is getting the people to block. Richt has some rebuilding to do on the offensive line.

Steve Spurrier won the East two years ago with South Carolina and posted a 10-2 record last season, a year that ended with a blasting of Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl. Now Spurrier gets the immensely talented running back Marcus Lattimore back from a knee injury that cost him most of 2011. South Carolina isn’t stacked on the offensive line or defense, but they have enough back to compete and quarterback Connor Shaw gained valuable experience.

Florida went through a disappointing year under first-year coach Will Muschamp and expectations are not high for 2012. But I think the Gators are going to be in the mix. They’re replacing running backs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey, but with four starters back on the offensive line, the holes will be there for somebody. They’re also replacing quarterback John Brantley, although Brantley just didn’t work out to begin with. The defense is experienced up and down and this was Muschamp’s unique area of expertise when he was an assistant at Texas.

The rest of the SEC East will not produce the division champ, but there will be a good shot at bowl games and race-altering wins. Missouri joins the league and will have a good offense, led by top receiver T.J. Moe. Tennessee will have a great offense, with Tyler Bray pulling the trigger, targeting good receivers and protected by a good offensive line. If Derek Dooley can rebuild the defensive front he can produce a dark horse team. If nothing else, Dooley should win at least seven games and buy himself another year in Knoxville. Vanderbilt made solid strides as a program last year and returns most of its offense, led by running back Zac Stacy. The Commodore defense, which already had very good secondary people, will be competitive again this year. Book Vandy for 7-8 wins and a decent bowl slot. Kentucky might normally make a run at a bowl game, but third-year coach Joker Phillips will have to settle for rebuilding around a good defensive line and hoping he can steal a conference win or two.

PREDICTIONS: No team really stands out to me in the race, so I’m going to default to the coach in the SEC East and pick Spurrier’s Gamecocks, particularly if Lattimore is back at full steam. In the West, with both Saban and Miles elite-level generals, I’m deferring to the experienced quarterback and giving Alabama the edge, mainly because I think Mathieu’s suspension is too much to overcome. For the league title itself, I’m going to roll the dice and pick South Carolina. I think Spurrier’s moment has come and his program has clearly elevated itself beyond being a competitive bowl team over the last two years. They’re knocking on the door of a championship, and with the rebuilding in the SEC West, this is the year the Gamecocks knock the door down.