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NCAA Football SEC Football

SEC Football Power Rankings: Spring Practice Edition

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Will Anyone Threaten Alabama's Reign in the SEC?

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John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Spring practice is nearly in full bloom in the SEC, with 12 of the 14 member schools getting in their workouts and trying to answer as many questions as possible leading into the 2013 season. One of the lingering questions inside the conference is if anyone can unseat Alabama this year as the Crimson Tide look to capture a third straight BCS National Title.

With spring games set to take part over the course of three different weekends in April, I wanted to assess the conference from top to bottom and identify who the top challengers to Nick Saban’s team would be and try to find who could be this year’s Texas A&M.

In the nation’s best conference, it’s entirely plausible to be the fifth or sixth best team and rank inside the top ten in the nation. Last year, five from the conference ranked inside the top 25 in the preseason rankings, six teams won at least 10 games — no other conference had more than three— and nine of 14 teams made it to a bowl game.

The conference will be aiming for its eighth straight championship, and has been home to the Heisman trophy winner in four of the past six seasons including last year’s winner, Johnny Manziel. After dissecting each team’s roster and identifying the team’s respective strengths, weaknesses and schedules, I have little doubt that the conference will make it eight straight championships. I can make a case for five teams in this conference to hold the crystal ball trophy at seasons end, and has the Heisman front-runner yet again.

I will be updating these rankings after the last spring games are played Apr. 20 and have an updated list on Apr. 22, so if you don’t like where your team ranks in the inaugural rankings, keep in mind that these will fluctuate between now and Aug. 31. Injuries will happen, freshmen will emerge, and you can never count out a player pulling a Tyrann Mathieu and get kicked off the team on the precipice of the season’s start.

Comment below in the comment section and let me know who you think I have too high and who is ranked too low.

Patrick is a college football writer for Rant Sports and radio host on Sportstownchicago.com. Follow him on Twitter and add him to your Google network.

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14. Kentucky

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Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 13

I really like Mark Stoops and think he’s a fantastic hire to replace Joker Phillips, but that may not show up in his first year in the win-loss column in 2013. I think the Wildcats are going to be markedly improved and will play tougher and smarter under Stoops, but until he can get a couple recruiting classes into Lexington and upgrade the talent base, it’ll be tough getting wins in the nation’s best conference. Maxwell Smith and La’Rod King can form a nice duo in the passing game, but plenty of other questions remain on offense. It’s going to be a tough year for Wildcats fans, but don’t be discouraged because Stoops is the right man for the job.

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13. Arkansas

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Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 20

The Hogs are eager to erase the memory of a 4-8 season in 2012, and will have a new head coach (Bret Bielema) and a new quarterback (Brandon Allen or Brandon Mitchell). The team is in a bit of a transition period this year and after losing its top two rushers and three leading receivers, it could be a bumpy ride in 2013. But with Bielema at the helm, I am confident he will have the team ready to get back to a bowl game in 2014. The defense has potential to be fairly strong and will need to carry the team in 2013, which has not been the norm in Fayetteville of late.

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12. Tennessee

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Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 20

The Derek Dooley era has mercifully come to an end in Knoxville, and Butch Jones inherits a team that lost its quarterback and four top receivers. Jones has brought a lot of optimism and energy to this sleeping giant of a program, but I think he’s going to have to get a lot of Tennessee’s wins on the recruiting trail this year. He's already off to a great start in that department. They could have a top-10 class when signing day rolls around. However, the on-field product may be a bit of a work in progress this season as he looks to determine if Justin Worley is the answer at quarterback or if freshmen quarterbacks, Joshua Dobbs, Riley Ferguson or Nathan Peterman is the better option. Jones is a great coach and his resume proves that.

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11. Auburn

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Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 20

The Tigers should be one of the most improved teams in the conference this season with Gus Malzahn bringing his no-huddle offense back to the Plains. That bodes well for Kiehl Frazier, who is expected to reclaim his job as the team's starting quarterback. I can see the team doubling up their three-win total of a year ago if Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 defense is able to get a lot of production out of a young defensive line, including No. 2 overall recruit, Carl Lawson.

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10. Missouri

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Dak Dillon-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 20

It’s no secret that the first season in the SEC was a disappointing one for Missouri, but I think the second year will be a little better and one that ends with a bowl appearance. James Franklin is poised for a bounce-back year at quarterback after an injury-plagued junior season and should revert to the form he displayed when he was one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation as a sophomore. The return of Henry Josey at running back and a breakout second season from Dorial Green-Beckham should cool the hot seat of Gary Pinkel. Replacing Sheldon Richardson on defense will be a tall order, but top recruit Josh Augusta may be up to the task.

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9. Vanderbilt

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Don McPeak-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 13

After being a sleeper team in the conference last season, James Franklin’s team enters 2013 with high expectations, and the ‘Dores are definitely fighting for respectability as well as staying power. They could begin the season ranked inside the top 25, which is a remarkable feat. But to stay there, they will have to determine if Austyn Carta-Samuels is talented enough to compete at quarterback in the SEC after transferring from Wyoming where he started for two years. Zac Stacy is gone after rushing for 1,141 yards and 10 touchdowns, but look for a running back-by-committee approach to attempt to duplicate those numbers. Brian Kimbrow is my pick to lead the team in rushing this season.

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8. Mississipppi State

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Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

Spring Game: April 20

Tyler Russell returns for his senior year at quarterback after setting school records in yards (2,897) and touchdowns (24) last season, but it may be difficult repeating that success this year with all of his top targets gone. The Bulldogs had an impressive haul of wide receiver recruits, but it may be asking too much for them to step up right away, meaning Joe Morrow and Robert Johnson will have to be big contributors. LaDarius Perkins returns after running for 1,024 yards and will be needed to take pressure off the passing game.

Defensively, the 'Dawgs lose three starters in the secondary, including Johnthan Banks, last year’s Thorpe award winner and the school’s leader in interceptions. Finding ways to get pressure on the quarterback and stopping the run will be issues for this defense, as they struggled in that department last year and will need sophomore Quay Evans to emerge at defensive tackle. Replacing Cam Lawrence's leadership and production at linebacker may be a yearlong process.

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7. LSU

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Derick Hingle-USA TODAY SPORTS

Spring game: April 20

Is this the year that LSU actually gets legit production out of the quarterback position and the offense carries the team, rather than the notoriously strong Tiger defense? With Cam Cameron hired to be the new offensive coordinator, he will be in charge of developing Zach Mettenberger and finding production out of a questionable cop of wide receivers. Defensively, the team has to replace a lot of star power, including its entire defensive line, middle linebacker Kevin Minter and All-American safety Eric Reid. The Tigers have been able to reload in years past, but will this be too much of an overhaul in one off-season to overcome?

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6. Ole Miss

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Spruce Derden-USA TODAY Sports

Spring Game: April 20

The Rebels made headlines on the recruiting trail when they signed No. 1 recruit, Robert Nkemdiche, but can they parlay that into a successful 2013 season? I think the answer is yes, and it starts with Bo Wallace, who enters his second season as the team's quarterback, and will have one of the conference’s best receivers to throw to in Donte Moncrief. Defensively, the team will be led by a young defensive line that should get better with every week as they gain more experience. Denzel Nkemdiche and a healthy D.T. Shackelford lead an underrated group of linebackers. Hugh Freeze has his team moving into the upper echelon of the conference.

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5. Florida

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Rob Foldy-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 6

Jeff Driskel will begin his second starter as the starter and has to show he can be productive, and stay healthy to fulfill his potential and take the Gators to another BCS game. If he can develop a rapport with young receiver Demarcus Robinson and get production out of the tight end position, the passing game can be very good. I am thinking the combination of Matt Jones, Mack Brown and Kelvin Taylor more than make up for the departed Mike Gillislee at running back.

Defensively, the Gators lose a few of their top playmakers, but will be restocked with young and talented players. Antonio Morrison is a star in the making, and the linebacker will lead the Gators defense most likely from the middle after playing on the outside as a freshman in 2012. The Gators may take a small step back on defense in the early part of the season as all the new faces develop chemistry, but should be one of the conference's best by season’s end.

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4. Georgia

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Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 6

Fewer units had as many as defections this off-season than Georgia’s defense, where Todd Grantham will essentially have to replace an entire unit. One remedy to filling so many holes is taking in freshmen and transfers during the early-enrolling process, and they did just that with 13 early-enrollees. It would be unfair for this many new, young and inexperienced players to replicate what the veteran-laden unit accomplished last year when they won the SEC east, so they will have to rely on the offense this year to return to Atlanta.

The return of Aaron Murray at quarterback was a boost to Mark Richt's club, and he will be paired once again with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, giving the Bulldogs the best backfield in the entire conference. The two rising sophomores at running back would be the reason why Georgia gets back to Atlanta for a third straight conference championship game.

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3. South Carolina

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Jeff Blake-USA TODAY Sports

Spring game: April 13

All-World defensive end Jadeveon Clowney will challenge for the Heisman trophy in what likely will be his last collegiate season. He is a one-man wrecking crew on defense and capable of leading the Gamecocks to another top-15 defense, if not higher. On offense, there will be a two-man quarterback rotation with Conner Shaw and Dylan Thompson splitting time behind center, but that’s not a bad thing as each is capable of winning games. Finding a featured back will be a bigger question with the top two rushers gone from last year, but look for Brandon Wilds to emerge this spring after missing all of 2012.

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2. Texas A&M

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John Reed-USA TODAY SPORTS

Spring game: April 20

The Aggies lose Luke Joeckel, Damontre Moore, Ryan Swope and Christine Michael, but all that matters in College Station is that Johnny Manziel is back and ready to defend his Heisman. The pressure will be on Manziel as a redshirt sophomore to be the hunted and not the hunter this year, and the element of surprise won’t play to their advantage. Kevin Sumlin’s squad beefed up in recruiting this year to be perennial powers in the conference after a successful first year. If they can beat LSU this year and pull off another victory over Alabama, this team can win the BCS National Championship.

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1. Alabama

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Derick Hingle-USA TODAY SPORTS

Spring game: April 20

The two-time defending champions will have to replace three starters along the offensive line and some key defenders, including Dee Milliner and Jesse Williams, but Nick Saban’s team will not be complacent as they shoot for a three-peat. The return of quarterback AJ McCarron could provide the most potent aerial attack in Alabama history, with Amari Cooper reminding fans of Julio Jones. T.J. Yeldon leads a young and talented group of running backs, and will more than make up for the loss of Ed Lacy. Another trip to the SEC Championship Game waits if they can get through the gauntlet that is the SEC west. I think the bigger question isn't whether Alabama wins another championship, but rather how much longer Saban has until he decided to retire. The rest of the SEC may hope it's sooner rather than later, but I don't see him leaving anytime soon while he has it so good in Tuscaloosa.