Post-Spring Game Power Rankings: SEC Edition
Who is Alabama's Biggest Threat at Ending the Tide's Title Streak?
The SEC wrapped up the last of its spring games over the weekend and now that all 14 teams in the conference have taken to the field it’s time to rank the teams from top to bottom. When I took stock of the conference I was able to see three clear divisions among the league. They were the championship contenders, the middle class teams which were made up of bowl-caliber teams but not necessarily elite teams and the final tier were the teams in rebuilding mode.
Four teams hit the gridiron with new head coaches and the hope that surrounds these programs were evident by the outstanding attendance numbers at their respective spring games including a record 83,401 at Auburn. To say that SEC fans are passionate about their football would be a colossal understatement. Another massive understatement is that it will be sheer torture waiting four months for each of these teams to get back on the field.
Spring football gives us a glimpse into the 2013 season, but drawing too many conclusions from a glorified scrimmage with two-hand touch is a dangerous proposition. That’s why some don’t put too much stock into spring game statistics or attendance figures, because neither equates success when the regular season rolls around.
Some teams left their spring games in good shape while others have a lot of work to do in fall camp in order to be competitive. But in the meantime these power rankings should be a good preview for how the teams stack up against each other and provide good discussion among the excellent fan bases that comprise the nation’s best football conference. Compare my post-spring rankings with my pre-spring practice rankings and view how my rankings differ from Rant Sports' other SEC writer here.
14. Kentucky Wildcats
I am a big fan of first-year head coach Mark Stoops and think he is going to do some great things at Kentucky, but this year is going to be a tough one for the Wildcats. I love that the fans turned out to Commonwealth Stadium in droves for the 'Cats spring game and the 50,000 in attendance are excited for the future of the program.
I hope they will be patient though and understand it won't be a quick fix, but Big Blue Nation has the right man to lead the turnaround of the program. He's already making major strides on the recruiting trail and if he can land a commitment from in-state quarterback Drew Barker, then he will have a signature recruit and face of the program for the next four years.
13. Arkansas Razorbacks
Bret Bielema's first season at Arkansas will be an evaluation period as he determines which players are going to be building blocks for the future of the Razorbacks program. One building block it appears will be Brandon Allen who has maintained a slight lead over Brandon Mitchell. Allen has been playing his best football in the last week of spring practice to give him momentum heading into the fall. I do, however, have questions about the rest of the offense and if there is enough speed on defense to contain some of the high-powered offenses in the conference.
Bielema has a great track record of success and he will get the program trending upward once again, but I'd look for that renaissance to take place in 2014 and not 2013. However, it wouldn't surprise me to see this prediction look awfully bad come October because of the physicality of Bielema's teams in the past. Right now, though, they have their work cut out for them to make the climb up the rankings.
12. Missouri Tigers
Much like a few teams in the conference the quarterback competition has been the major storyline for Missouri this spring, and if a decision were to be made today it would easily be senior James Franklin with Maty Mauk serving as his backup. I think Franklin is going to look like the player he was two years ago as a sophomore and not the injured and inconsistent version Tigers fans saw in 2012. Two players that will help Franklin (assuming it's him to start at quarterback) are Dorial Green-Beckham who needs to live up to the potential as the top recruit in the nation after a disappointing freshman campaign, and the return of running back Henry Josey after missing the last year and a half.
Josey was one of the nation's most electrifying tailbacks in 2011 before a devastating knee injury, but he was back on the field for the spring game and carried the ball eight times. Defensively, Michael Sam and Xavier Rhodes look like the teams best defenders. But I'm not confident enough at this juncture to say the Tigers will be back in a bowl game. This season should be better than last year, but a lot is riding on the health of Franklin.
11. Vanderbilt Commodores
What James Franklin has accomplished in his two years at the helm for Vanderbilt is nothing short of remarkable. The 15 wins and back-to-back bowl appearances is nothing short of unfathomable considering the history of the program, but I think this is the year when Vanderbilt comes back to reality a bit. Gone is quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy, and I don't have much confidence in Austyn Carta-Samuels at quarterback this season. Franklin may still have enough to get to six wins, which is still great for Vanderbilt, but a repeat of the nine wins from last year isn't going to happen.
10. Auburn Tigers
The first spring game for Gus Malzahn as the head coach at Auburn was something that will go down in the history books after they set an A-Day record with more than 83,000 fans in attendance. Sadly, it was the final roll call for the famed oaks at Toomer's Corner, but looking on the bright side, the fans at Jordan-Hare Stadium got to see the new generation of Tigers and running back Cameron Artis-Payne electrified the record crowd with his skills rushing and receiving. The quarterback position is still in flux, but if a decision had to be made after the spring game it would be Jonathan Wallace getting the nod over Kiehl Frazier.
Much like two of the three teams below the Tigers on this list it will be a rebuilding year under a new coaching staff, but I have little doubt in my mind that Malzahn will have the Tigers much more competitive this season than the train wreck that was the 2012 campaign. I wouldn't be surprised to see the team challenge for bowl-eligibility this season and overachieve a bit in year one of the rebuilding plan. Malzahn has a lot of young talent to work with and is already putting together a nice class for 2014, so the future looks bright.
9. Tennessee Volunteers
By now you've probably noticed a theme at the bottom of the rankings, and that's all four of the teams that made new coaching hires this offseason are occupying spots in the bottom five spots. Naturally, when coaches get hired it's because the team played poorly the year before and inherit teams that are not in a great position to have immediate success. I'm playing a hunch here and maybe this comes back to bite me in the fall, but I really like what Butch Jones has been able to do in his short time at Tennessee.
Yes, I know the Volunteers had an awful defense last year and I know they must replace the production at wide receiver and tight end with their top four receivers gone and they don't have an established quarterback. However, I love their offensive line--which is the best in the conference--and think Rajion Neal is capable of being a 1,200 yard back in this league.
Just like the 61,000 in attendance at Neyland Stadium for the Orange and White game Saturday, I'm putting my trust in Jones and think they are the biggest surprise among those with new head coaches this season. Making rankings like this you require a bold prediction or two and this qualifies as that.
8. Mississipppi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen's teams at Mississippi State have been perceived by many in the national media as having overachieved during the past three years that resulted in a 2-1 bowl record and 24 wins, but I disagree because those were teams sprinkled with professional players on both sides of the ball. However, if this team can get to eight wins after the mass exodus from the secondary and wide receiver positions this year, then that would be his best coaching job to date in Starkville.
Call me crazy, but I think the Bulldogs behind Tyler Russell and LaDarius Perkins pull off a surprise or two in 2013 and get seven or eight wins. It won't be easy with the murderers row on their schedule, but a fourth straight bowl appearance looks to be in their future. It can be argued that this is the golden age of football for the Bulldogs and a lot of the credit goes to Mullen who is a relative unknown outside of the southeast.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
Is there a cooler man in the country than Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze? The answer in Oxford and much of Mississippi is a resounding no, but you simply can not discount the job of Freeze has done in his one season. A bowl win and a top-five recruiting class has seen expectations soaring throughout the fan base and I think they can meet some of the lofty goals in 2013. The reason I am so optimistic is obviously I'm a firm believer in Freeze and his coaching philosophy, but also think highly of Bo Wallace, Donte Moncrief and Denzel Nkemdiche who are among the best at their position in the conference. The offensive line returns four starters and the reinforcements coming this fall in the form of Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell, Laremy Tunsil and Tony Conner give much needed depth to the roster.
I would caution the Rebels fans to not to get too overzealous and get too confident, because top recruiting classes don't instantly guarantee nine-win seasons. It does give hope and loads of promise for big things to come, but at the moment, this is a team that needs to go out and prove the hype is warranted. I think they will. I also think this is the lowest this team will be ranked for quite some time.
6. LSU Tigers
Heading into the LSU spring game I had a lot of questions about the defense and how they could replace the number of starters that departed. After Saturday's game I feel confident saying that the Tigers' defense isn't rebuilding, but rather they are reloading and should once again have one of the best units in the conference and therefore the nation. Ego Ferguson, Christian LaCouture, Craig Loston and Daniel Hunter look to lead the defense in 2013 after strong performances in the spring game.
The offense started slow, but after some adjustments by quarterback Zach Mettenberger really turned it on and put up stellar numbers. Mettenberger finished with 236 yards on 12-of-19 passing and threw two touchdowns. He only played the first half which makes those numbers look even more impressive. Receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry combined for 334 yards on 12 catches and reached the end zone twice.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina will enter the season with the best player in the country in Jadeveon Clowney and while he is an absolute nightmare for opposing offenses to control, the Gamecocks have their own concerns about their own offense. Alleviating some of those concerns has been the play of running back Mike Davis and wide receiver Shaq Rolland who have been stars this spring. I still have lingering concerns about Conner Shaw and think Dylan Thompson is a better alternative at quarterback, but I think both will get opportunities this fall and into the regular season.
Defensively, the team needs to determine who will line up at the Mike, Will and all-important "Spur" linebacker positions. But as long as Clowney is on the field and healthy, this team is going to win double-digit games under Steve Spurrier. They are a dark horse candidate to win the east, but I can't put them ahead of their top competitors right now.
4. Florida Gators
Not much separates Florida from the Gamecocks, but I'm counting on Jeff Driskel staying healthy all season long and taking a big step in his development as a quarterback this year. He is incredibly talented and has flashed his dual-threat ability at times, but injuries have kept him from fully realizing his potential. He won't have a lot of help at wide receiver this year, but will have a stable of highly skilled running backs led by Matt Jones that should wear down opposing defenses all season long.
The defense loses a number of stars on all three levels, but they get Ronald Powell back from his ACL injury that cost him all of the 2012 season at the "Buck" position, Loucheiz Purifoy is one of the better cornerbacks in the league and Antonio Morrison is a budding superstar at middle linebacker.
Replacing Matt Elam is going to be difficult with Cody Riggs in line to replace the All-American at safety. Finding a successor for Shariff Floyd won't be as challenging with Dominique Easley moving from end to tackle and should be a monster this year.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
The offense for Georgia looked to be in midseason form when they had their spring game earlier this month and Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall make up the best backfield in the conference. Some questions remain along the offensive line and it wouldn't be a surprise to see underclassmen push some starters from last year's unit for playing time. Michael Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell need to be healthy at wide receiver this year and if they are this could be the best offense the program has seen under Mark Richt. I still have some concerns for the defense particularly at nose tackle and in the secondary, but like LSU and Florida there is plenty of talent in the pipeline ready for an opportunity to shine.
2. Texas A&M Aggies
The biggest surprise from last year was Texas A&M, but they are the hunted this year and won't take anyone by surprise this year. Entering the spring game I had some concerns and questions about Johnny Manziel's supporting cast and for the most part the Aggies answered them loud and clear.
Jake Matthews and Cedric Ogbuehi will be stalwarts at offensive tackle, Mike Evans and Derel Walker will be huge weapons in the passing game and Ben Malena and Brandon Williams are a nasty duo at running back. The biggest questions I have moving forward are depth along the defensive line and in the kicking game.
If the Aggies can pull off another win over Alabama, then their path to the SEC Championship Game and a potential BCS National Championship appearance looks likely.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
The biggest question I have for Alabama in 2013 is not how they will replace three All-Americans on the offensive line, if anyone can fill the void left by Dee Milliner at cornerback or if the Tide can find a dominant pass-rusher. But rather the biggest obstacle keeping Nick Saban's team from playing for a third straight BCS National Championship is if the team gets complacent and isn't hungry to work as hard as they need to get through the gauntlet that is the SEC.
The personnel is once again loaded and quarterback AJ McCarron may be the biggest challenger to Manziel when it comes to the Heisman trophy. T.J. Yeldon is more explosive and dynamic at running back than Eddie Lacy and the passing game is loaded at wide receiver with Amari Cooper and the return of Chris Black. Defensively, I have confidence in Kirby Smart and Saban to replace Milliner and find a consistent pass-rush from a number of underclassmen who have been waiting in the wings for their opportunity.