By Stephen Evans
“It’s easier to win the national championship than the SEC. Ask Nick Saban.”
Perhaps tongue-in-cheek, perhaps not, those are the words of longtime SEC head coach Steve Spurrier when discussing the rigors of playing in the nation’s toughest conference. Winners of the past six BCS national championships, the SEC got even tougher during the summer, adding former Big 12 members Texas A&M and Missouri.
The 2012 season kicks off with six SEC teams ranked in the Associated Press Preseason Top 25. The USA Today Coaches’ Poll ranks seven SEC teams in its Top 25. Both have five SEC squads in the Top 10 – LSU, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, and Arkansas. The following is a preseason look at each of the 14 SEC teams, listed in this writer’s predicted order of finish:
LSU Tigers: Only time will tell if this LSU team has truly flushed away last season’s national championship game debacle. To add insult to injury, LSU must now forge ahead without all-everything DB Tyrann Mathieu, who was dismissed from the team during fall camp. Without Mathieu, the Tigers enter 2012 without three of the four members of their ballhawking 2011 secondary. However, there is hope on the horizon in the form of 6-5, 230-pound junior quarterback Zak Mettenberger. The strong-armed gunslinger should improve LSU’s anemic passing game. He will be aided by what might be the best stable of running backs in the country. The Tigers return all five of their running backs that averaged 203 yards per game on the ground last season. A favorable early schedule should allow Mettenberger to get his feet wet in time for the Tigers’ primetime showdown with Alabama on November 3 in Death Valley.
Alabama Crimson Tide: Alabama won the game that really counted last season, dominating LSU in the national championship game after losing to the Tigers in the regular season. Back-to-back championships have not happened in the BCS era, though the Crimson Tide believes they have the team to do it. For the Tide to repeat, they will have to replenish what was the nation’s best defense. Alabama lost seven defensive starters, including first round draft picks Dont’a Hightower, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Mark Barron. On offense, the Tide welcomes new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier. He won’t be able to ride Trent Richardson like Bama has the past three seasons, but quarterback A.J. McCarron returns, as does a mauling offensive line. Yes, Bama must reload, but it has plenty of pieces to put together another run at a national championship.
Arkansas Razorbacks: This can’t be what quarterback Tyler Wilson had in mind. Instead of opting for the NFL Draft and likely competing for a starting job in the NFL right now, Wilson decided to remain at Arkansas for his senior season and attempt to slay the dragons known as LSU and Alabama. But, a spring soiree between head coach Bobby Petrino and a 20-something staffer rocked the Razorbacks football program, ousting the architect of the Arkansas offense. Despite the turmoil, Wilson remains one of the top quarterbacks in college football, and many of the pieces of the high-powered attack remain, though now under the watch of head coach John L. Smith. The Razorbacks are also buoyed by the return from injury of Knile Davis, the SEC’s leading rusher in 2010. As usual, however, the defense is the question. An early season match-up against Alabama on September 15 will provide many answers.
Texas A&M: New coaching staff. New quarterback. New conference. That’s not exactly a recipe for success, but that’s the road Texas A&M must travel as it begins life in the SEC. The Aggies dumped Mike Sherman after a 7-6 campaign in 2011 for the sparkling, exciting new offense and enthusiasm of Kevin Sumlin. But for Sumlin’s offensive approach to translate to the SEC, quarterback Johnny Manziel, who to the surprise of some won the quarterback job this fall, must quickly adapt. The same goes for the A&M defense. The Aggies led the nation in sacks per game a year ago and return Sean Porter and Damontre Moore, but this group must now prove it can stand up to the pounding that SEC offenses deliver. The season likely hinges on September SEC games against Florida and Arkansas. Win those and the Aggies could be looking at a third place finish in the West, which last season was good for a No. 5 national ranking.
Mississippi State: Dan Mullen’s name continually pops up when big-time coaching jobs come open. If he is as good of a coach as many people seem to believe, his constantly underachieving Bulldogs have to break out at some point, right? Maybe this is the year. For that to happen, they have to beat someone in the SEC West other than Ole Miss. State is 0-12 under Mullen against those SEC West foes, but a defense that returns everyone except first round pick Fletcher Cox should keep the Bulldogs in many games. Offensively, State turns the reigns over to Tyler Russell. With his skills and Mullen’s passing game pedigree, the Bulldogs hope to be more proficient offensively. Add to that a favorable schedule that includes four winnable home conference games, and this might finally be the year that Mississippi State takes that long awaited step forward.
Auburn Tigers: Gene Chizik — the real deal or a fraud? He came to Auburn after going 5-19 in two seasons at Iowa State. Then after an 8-5 season at Auburn he rode Cam Newton to a 14-0 national championship campaign, only to fall back down to 8-5 last year. It’s time for the real Gene Chizik to step forward. The Tigers enter the season with a pair of new coordinators – Scott Loeffler on offense and Brian VanGorder on defense. However, despite terrific recruiting classes, the talent at Auburn has been slow to develop, including at the quarterback position, where neither Kiehl Frazier nor Clint Moseley has been impressive this fall. With Gus Mahlzahn gone, the Tigers turn to a more traditional offensive approach, but must do so without two-time 1,000-yard rusher Michael Dyer. If neither quarterback emerges, expect the Tigers to fall back in the pack of the SEC West and the seat to begin to warm under Chizik.
Ole Miss Rebels: The Rebels fired Houston Nutt, passed on Gus Mahlzahn, and failed to land Rich Rodriguez or Mike Leach. They probably could have had Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart. Instead they settled for Hugh Freeze, he of the Arkansas State Red Wolves (and two years as head coach at Lambuth). If you think that coaching search dragged on, wait until you see this season. Last year’s starting quarterback Randall Mackey is now a running back, and neither Barry Brunetti nor Bo Wallace have garnered praise for their work at the quarterback position this fall. Defensively, it’s hard to imagine a group that will be much better than last season’s last-in-the-league squad. Ole Miss opens with three of its first four games against Central Arkansas, UTEP, and Tulane. That may well be the Rebels’ only opportunities for victory in 2012.
Georgia Bulldogs: Mark Richt always seems to be on the hot seat. This year’s no different. A 10-3 mark last year, including a SEC East championship, and a preseason Top 10 national ranking in 2012, have expectations through the roof. Now it’s up to Richt to not screw it up. Georgia returns senior quarterback Aaron Murray who, when he’s on, can be one of the league’s best signal callers. He will have to be on more than ever this season, as the Georgia rushing attack will be a work in progress after starter Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team. Crowell’s departure came during a tumultuous off-season. Defensive backs Sanders Cummings, Bacarri Rambo, and Branden Smith will all miss time for disciplinary reasons. But, if the Bulldogs can get their house in order, the path to the SEC championship game is favorable. For the second straight year, the Bulldogs avoid LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas in the regular season. They better make it count.
South Carolina Gamecocks: For someone known as a prolific quarterback guru, Steve Spurrier sure has had his problems with developing a solid, consistent signal caller in Columbia. However, he believes he has finally found his man in Connor Shaw, and if that’s the case, the Gamecocks might have finally found their man to lead them to the SEC championship game. As important as the quarterback position will be, however, the future of this USC team lies with the health of running back Marcus Lattimore. The SEC’s top rushing threat, Lattimore missed the final six games in 2011 after injuring a knee in October. You get the feeling that it’s now or never for South Carolina, a preseason Top 10 team that returns seven starters on offense and six starters off of a defense that ranked third in the nation last season.
Florida Gators: Remember the high octane offense of Steve Spurrier and the Tim Tebow show that wreaked havoc on opposing defenses? Those days are gone. In 2012, the Florida Gators will go only as far as their defense takes them. Nick Saban protégé Will Muschamp had his Gator defensive group headed in the right direction during his inaugural season as head coach. The Gators are poised to be even better in 2012, returning 10 starters from a top 10 defense. Offensively, Boise St. offensive coordinator Brent Pease landed in Gainesville after the Charlie Weis experiment blew up in Muschamp’s face. Pease will be tasked with getting one of the two Florida quarterbacks ready to play, a task Weis could not handle. Florida’s offense was worst in the SEC last year. That shouldn’t be the case this year, but it remains light years away from the Fun ‘n’ Gun days in The Swamp.
Tennessee Volunteers: What’s going on in Tennessee? Derek Dooley, known for his Lou Holtz-style poormouthing of his team, has been unusually positive and upbeat about the future of his program. Is he really this excited, or is he trying to convince everyone, maybe even himself, that he can coach a winning team? This is sink or swim for Dooley, and he will at least have quarterback Tyler Bray to lead the charge. Bray will also get All-American wide receiver Justin Hunter back from injury, which will pay dividends for a Tennessee offense that scored 13 points or fewer in six of the last eight games last season. The Vols will be breaking in their fourth defensive coordinator in five years. That’s not good, but the hope is that Sal Sunseri, another Nick Saban disciple, can turn around their fortunes.
Missouri Tigers: The SEC welcomes its third set of Tigers to the conference, but forgive the newest Tigers if they aren’t exactly smiling. That’s because Missouri will learn quickly about life in the SEC. The first half of the 2012 schedule includes games against Georgia, South Carolina, and Alabama. If they survive that, they then get road games at Florida, Tennessee, and Texas A&M to close out the year. The Tigers, who finished 8-5 in the Big 12 last season, including winning their last four games, will be depending heavily on the health of quarterback James Frankin. Frankin is rebounding from spring shoulder surgery and now must prove that he can withstand the constant barrage of SEC defenses. He will likely have do so without standout running back Henry Josey who is still recovering from a devastating knee injury suffered last season. To counter that blow, Mizzou adds fantastic wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, the No. 1 recruit in the nation last year.
Vanderbilt Commodores: Yes, head coach James Franklin has done a great job in bringing passion and enthusiasm to the Vanderbilt football program. The Commodores’ 2-6 SEC record in 2011 was considered a success, and their 6-6 regular season record even got them into the Liberty Bowl. But how much farther can Vandy really go? Franklin believes his team can go much farther, and he will have to ride Aaron Rogers’ little brother Jordan and 1,000-yard rusher Zak Stacy to the finish line. The second year head coach has done a great job making his team believe it can win, but those good vibes won’t be felt outside of Nashville until it actually proves its mettle against SEC teams other than Ole Miss and Kentucky.
Kentucky Wildcats: Joker Phillips can thank John Calipari for taking some of the heat off of his back. With the Wildcats’ basketball championship still fresh in the minds of Kentucky fans, much of the attention has been taken off of the football program. And that’s a good thing for Phillips, because his Wildcats won’t be making Kentucky fans proud anytime soon. Phillips is 4-12 all-time against SEC teams, and that record won’t get much better this year. The Wildcats face question marks at nearly every position, including quarterback, where Morgan Newton is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Last season the quarterback play was so bad that Phillips moved a receiver to QB, ran the Wildcat, and actually took down Tennessee. It’s not likely to get much better in 2012.