The SEC will begin their quest for a 7th straight National Championship when college football gets kicked off this fall. Defending BCS National Champion Alabama Crimson Tide had an offseason filled with retooling, but they aren’t the only ones. The Florida Gators and LSU Tigers are looking for new starting quarterbacks while the Arkansas Razorbacks are trying to overcome the scandal surrounding former head coach Bobby Petrino. Another year, and more challenges to overcome for the teams in America’s most prestigious conference. That won’t change the fact that the SEC Champion will likely be competing for the Coaches’ Trophy once again.
But just where does each team fall inside the SEC power rankings? Let’s take a look.
14. Ole Miss Rebels
Houston Nutt is out of Oxford, Mississippi, taking some good but a lot of poor play with him. New head coach, Hugh Freeze, was a nice choice to take over but the team is rife with concern. The Rebels are years away from competing in the SEC West, the most difficult division in the nation’s most talented conference.
13. Kentucky Wildcats
Head coach, Joker Phillips‘ name is as cool as the other side of the pillow but his Wildcats have been the laughing stock of the SEC East for some time now. Quarterback Maxwell Smith showed some bright spots during last season but his development this spring has been minimal. With a tough schedule, the Wildcats are going to have to stay flawless in their non-conference matchups if they want to be bowl eligible. That means a win on the road in week one against a more talented Louisville team.
12. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen has brought new life to Starkville and the program is trying its hardest to break into the upper tier of the SEC. They just aren’t there yet. The Dawgs have talent on offense including quarterback Tyler Russell and receiver Chad Bumphis but there are question marks on the defensive side. Mississippi welcomes Auburn in week two for an early test but the road gets even rockier later on. Trips to Alabama and LSU along with a homestand against Arkansas all happen in a four week span. That would make any team cringe.
11. Vanderbilt Commodores
James Franklin and the Commodores made noise last season, pushing Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee to the edge. While Vandy couldn’t finish the job in most cases, the team still managed to enter bowl season for only the second time since 1982. The Commodores success is anchored on the defensive side of the ball where the team ranked 29th in the nation in points against. Sixteen starters return and Vandy misses the big three out of the West. That’s a recipe for improvement in 2012.
10. Tennessee Volunteers
Quarterback Tyler Bray was impressive last season, even with injuries ravaging his receiving corp. Da’Rick Rodgers and Justin Hunter look to be back at full strength and that could make for a explosive passing game for head coach Derrick Dooley. Good thing cause the Volunteer’s head coach began to feel a little heat under his seat after some criticism last season. A win against Florida to open conference play would break a 7-game Gators win streak and would go a long way towards competing in the SEC East.
9. Texas A&M Aggies
A series of “firsts” await the Aggies this season. It will be the first time with new head coach, Kevin Sumlin, the first season as a member of the SEC, and the first time Ryan Tannehill, Cyrus Gray and Jeff Fuller won’t be around to lead the offense. There are a lot of new faces on campus in College Station but there is no time to ease into their new conference. The Ags begin the 2012 season with a trip to Louisiana Tech to take on last year’s WAC champion before welcoming a talented Florida team in week 2. Alabama, Arkansas, and LSU all lurk further down the road. That’s quite the warm welcome.
8. Missouri Tigers
Missouri, like Texas A&M, will be entering their first season in the SEC. The Tigers were supposed to be sporting a powerful passing attack, but now that quarterback James Franklin missed most of the spring because of a surgical procedure on his throwing shoulder there are some question marks. It doesn’t help that backup quarterback, Corbin Berkstresser, was arrested and indefinitely suspended, either. Outside of the quarterback problems, the Tigers only return 11 starters, 5 on offense and 6 on defense.
7. Auburn Tigers
The Tigers lost offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn and running back Michael Dyer at the end of last season. New coordinators Scot Loefler and Brian VanGorder are more than capable but success will depend on developing the underclassmen. More than half of Auburn’s roster is made up of freshman and sophomores. The defense is talented and the Tigers should have less quarterback controversy with Kiehl Frazier having a clear edge for the starting job. The Tigers also get almost every big game of the season within the friendly confines of Jordan-Hare Stadium. That should make things a little easier for the youthful roster.
6. Florida Gators
The Gators are looking to finally turn things around in Gainesville. It has been rough sailing for the Gators since the departure of Tim Tebow. In Will Muschamp‘s second year as head coach, the team looks ready to compete in the SEC East once again. Ten defensive starters return from a unit that was already very talented in 2011. Success will likely hinge on the success of the quarterback, whoever that is. Right now, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett are in a heated battle for the starting position. Fans will place quite a bit of pressure on the shoulders of the quarterback that emerges as the starter.
5. Georgia Bulldogs
Georgia was going to be the clear favorite to win the East, but that was before the running back sensation, Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team. Aaron Murray may be the best quarterback in the SEC but its going to be tough to carry the team if a running game isn’t developed in Crowell’s absence. Luckily for Bulldog fans, Mark Richt and company miss the big three out of the SEC West, once again.
4. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks had a dramatic offseason with the firing of Bobby Petrino. The offense will be explosive, but Petrino brought the Razorbacks into the national spotlight. Can the Razorbacks have the same swagger without him? It will certainly be interesting to see if they can. The two biggest games of the year for Arkansas are both at home: Alabama on September 15th and LSU to end the season on November 23rd. Besides that, the Razorbacks should be favored in every other game. Watch out for the trip to South Carolina on November 10th.
3. South Carolina Gamecocks
Steve Spurrier has had difficult time finding a quarterback he likes in Columbia. After a strong spring, Connor Shaw looks ready to fill that role. If Marcus Lattimore can return from his knee injury, the offense will be just fine. The defense will be even better. Up front, the Gamecocks’ defense may be the best in the entire SEC. The only question marks are in the secondary where several underclassmen will likely get the start. Regardless, South Carolina looks primed to be the preseason favorite to take the SEC East title.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
The defending National Champion Crimson Tide had quite a bit of retooling to do during the offseason, especially on the defensive side of the ball. However, Nick Saban consistently reels in elite recruiting classes to replace the exiting talent. The defense has progressed through the summer and should be ready to go come fall. Offensively, quarterback AJ McCarron return with several solid running backs able to line up behind him. The team will be ready to compete but the road to repeating will be tough with trips to LSU and Arkansas.
1. LSU Tigers
The Tigers were the best team in the nation…during the regular season. After the offense forgot to show up in the National Championship (credit to Alabama as well), the Tigers went to work to find a new starting quarterback. Zach Mettenberger emerged through spring practices and has received praise from Les Miles. The Tigers should be as good as they were last year and they get the Tide at home. With a loaded defense, another title run is well within their grasps.