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2012 College Football Preview: SEC
By Jonathan Hull

 

The SEC is much like Game of Thrones.

Maybe you've seen the hit HBO series about a mythical land where several different men, and a 14-year-old girl, claim themselves as rulers over a group of countries called the seven kingdoms?

This is the SEC. A different ruler keeps rising up to claim the BCS title for itself. First it was Florida, then LSU, Auburn and Alabama had to get into the act as well. These are the kings of college football until someone from another land proves capable of rising up and usurping the power from them.

If you've read my Pac-12 preview, you obviously know I believe a group of Trojans from the West Coast will accomplish that feat. But which king will the Trojans have to relieve of their crown in order to claim the first BCS Championship not won by a SEC team since 2006?

Here's my team-by-team breakdown of the SEC:

East

1. Georgia (Projected: 11-1, 7-1 in conference)

Top players: QB Aaron Murray, WR Tavarres King, DT John Jenkins, LB Jarvis Jones, DB Bacarri Rambo, LB Alec Ogletree, CB Sanders Commings, LB Michael Giliard, CB Branden Smith, RB Ken Malcome, DB Shawn Williams, DE Abry Jones, DE Cornelius Washington, WR Malcolm Mitchell

Bowl projection: Capital One

Analysis: There were big expectations for Georgia entering last season as well, but the Bulldogs opened the season with back-to-back losses to Boise State and South Carolina. They then won their next 10 games before losing to LSU in the SEC Championship. Georgia returns 15 starters, including nine on the defensive side of the ball. This will be one of the best defenses in the country with playmakers at every tier on the unit. Offensively, the Bulldogs still have Aaron Murray at QB. Murray finally started to reach his potential last season, but he will be handing the ball off to a different RB. Isaiah Crowell was suspended from Georgia, and sophomore Ken Malcome is the favorite to pick up most of the carries. Regardless of who Murray is handing the ball off to, the Bulldogs are the favorite to win the East.

2. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2)

Top players: RB Marcus Lattimore, DE Jadaveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor, OC TJ Johnson, LB DeVonte Holloman, DB DJ Swearinger, QB Connor Shaw, WR Ace Sanders

Bowl projection: Chick-fil-A

Analysis: While Marcus Lattimore was healthy last season, the only thing the Gamecocks seemed to be lacking was consistent QB play. Once Lattimore got injured, they finally started to get consistent QB play. Junior Connor Shaw finished the year strong and showed he can be a dual-threat complement to Lattimore, who is already garnering serious Heisman hype this season. Lattimore had more than 800 yards and 10 TDs in four games last season. Shaw ended up being the Gamecocks second leading rusher, which shows how much South Carolina missed Lattimore. This is still a defense full of playmakers. DE Jadaveon Clowney showed he was worthy of the hype he had coming out of high school. Devin Taylor is often forgotten by the media, but not by opponents. Taylor and Clowney make up the best DE tandem in the country. If the Gamecocks end up winning the East Division, it should surprise no one.

3. Florida (10-2, 6-2)

Top players: DT Sharrif Floyd, LB Jelani Jenkins, LB Jonathan Bostic, DB Matt Elam, OT Xavier Nixon, WR Andre Debose, TE Jordan Reed, DE Dominique Easley, OG Jon Halapio, RB Mike Gillislee

Bowl projection: Outback

Analysis: This projection might be the best case scenario for the Gators. Regardless, I'm expecting them to bounce back finally from the loss of Tim Tebow and Urban Meyer. Much of this projection has to do with the schedule. Florida plays just four games on the road all season with three in conference play. Those three games are Texas A&M, Tennessee and Vanderbilt. Georgia is of course at a neutral site. Also missing from this schedule is Alabama  and Arkansas. The Gators host LSU. This is a very manageable schedule and if this team doesn't turn in at least nine wins, coach Will Muschamp should have some questions to answer.

4. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4)

Top players: WR Jordan Matthews, RB Zac Stacy, QB Jordan Rodgers, WR Chris Boyd, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson, OT Andrew Bridges, OT Wesley Johnson, OG Ryan Seymour

Bowl projection: Gator

Analysis: The Commodores were the surprise of the SEC last season. They didn't pull off any upsets, but did manage to play Georgia within 5 points, Arkansas within 3 and Florida within 5. In Vandy's second year under James Franklin, the team appears poised to pull off an upset this season. With home games against Florida, Auburn and South Carolina in the season opener, there are plenty of worthy victims. It's doubtful the Commodores have the element of surprise this season, though. But they may not need it. This is a team with some genuine talent, including its own version of the triplets on offense with QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy and WR Jordan Matthews. Vandy has a great shot of making a bowl game in back-to-back seasons for the first time in the program's history.

5. Tennessee (6-6, 2-6)

Top players: CB Prentiss Waggner, WR Justin Hunter, OG Dallas Thomas, LB AJ Johnson, OT Ja'Wuan James, QB Tyler Bray

Bowl projection: Liberty

Analysis: If the Vols can get a full season out of QB Tyler Bray, who knows how good they might end up. Bray was impressive before being injured last season, and even without top receiver Da'Rick Rogers who was kicked off the team, he's still got a strong WR corps to work with. The offense scored more than 12 points twice in eight SEC games last season. That statistic changes drastically for the better with Bray on the field. The Vols are a team to watch out for.

6. Missouri (6-6, 2-6)

Top players: QB James Franklin, WR TJ Moe, OT Elvis Fisher, CB EJ Gaines, RB Kendial Lawrence, LB Andrew Wilson, DE Brad Madison

Bowl projection: Independence

Analysis: James Franklin is already getting a lot of love from the SEC media as one of the best QBs in the conference. Franklin is certainly a playmaker, and he's got a great weapon to utiliez in WR TJ Moe. But the Tigers are going to miss RB Henry Josey, who is already lost for the season with an injury. Kendial Lawrence was solid as a backup last season, but has to step into the starting role right off the bat this year. Defensively, the Tigers lost some playmakers and they aren't up to par with the SEC defenses. Still, this is a team that should find itself bowl eligible at the end of its first SEC season.

7. Kentucky (4-8, 1-7)

Top players: OG Larry Warford, DB Martavius Neloms, QB Maxwell Smith, RB CoShik Williams, DE Collins Ukwu, WR La'Rod King

Bowl projection: None

Analysis: There's a lot of questions for Kentucky to answer as the season begins. For starters, who will be the QB. Maxwell Smith held the position some last year as did Morgan Newton. Smith is listed at the top of the depth chart for now, but there's no guarantee it will stay that way. The offense's best weapon is WR La'Rod King, but who will get him the ball? The defense lost two great playmakers in Winston Guy and Danny Trevathan. Replacing them won't be easy. It was the defense that got Kentucky most of its wins last season. The Wildcats can't rely on that this year.

West

1. LSU (12-0, 8-0)

Top players: DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, DB Eric Reid, OT Chris Faulk, OT Alex Hurst, DT Anthony Johnson, OG Josh Williford, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon, DT Bennie Logan, RB Spencer Ware, RB Kenny Hilliard, WR Odell Beckham

Bowl projection: BCS Championship

Analysis: As you can see from my projection, LSU is the team I expect to attempt to make it seven staight national championships for the SEC. And yes, I'm keeping LSU in this spot despite the suspension of Tyrann Mathieu. That's just one player and this defense is loaded with or without him. Would the Tigers be better with Mathieu? Of course. Is the defense that much worse without him? No. Truly it's on offense where the Tigers have to improve in order to win a national title. Zach Mettenberger is the new QB, but the Tigers are better off running the football with RBs Spence Ware and Kenny Hilliard. The OL should be good enough for them to move the ball on the ground.

2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1)

Top players: OC Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, OT DJ Fluker, LB CJ Mosley, DB Robert Lester, CB Dee Milliner, LB Nico Johnson, DT Jesse Williams, WR Duron Carter, QB AJ McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy, TE Michael Williams

Bowl projection: Sugar

Analysis: Alabama lost some major pieces from last year's BCS Championship squad. Most of those losses came on the defense side of the football. But the cupboard is far from bare. Safety Robert Lester is back as is LB Nico Johnson. On offense, the Crimson Tide are obviously going to miss Trent Richardson, but they do have the best OL in the country with Barrett Jones being the best lineman in the country. RB Eddie Lacy is going to be productive and QB AJ McCarron should be better. The Tide have what it takes to beat LSU. So why did I pick the Tigers? Because the game is being played at Death Valley.

3. Arkansas (9-3, 5-3)

Top players: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Chris Gragg, OG Alvin Bailey, OC Travis Swanson, DT Byran Jones, DB Eric Bennett, LB Alonzo Highsmith, RB Dennis Johnson

Bowl projection: Cotton

Analysis: There are some picking Arkansas as the team to rise up out of the SEC and compete for the national title. The Razorbacks certainly have the offense to do so, and the distractions caused by the departure of head coach Bobby Petrino are being played down. That's partly due to hiring a veteran interim coach like John L. Smith. Tyler Wilson is going to put up some big numbers at QB once again, but the running game is going to be considerably stronger with Knile Davis back after missing last season with an injury. The defense has its playmakers, but this team is all about its offense, which is why it's hard to pick the Razorbacks to win the conference.

4. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4)

Top players: CB Johnthan Banks, OG Gabe Jackson, LB Cameron Lawrence, WR Arceto Clark, DT Josh Boyd, QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins

Bowl projection: Music City

Analysis: Dan Mullen has done wonders in turning around the Bulldogs so quickly, and just because they lost some great players like DT Fletcher Cox and RB Vick Ballard, we shouldn't expect the Bulldogs to slip too far. Mullen is a great offensive mind and chances are he will find ways to get the Bulldogs on the scoreboard. The defense is still good enough, too. Johnthan Banks is in the conversation for best CB in the nation and LB Cameron Lawrence doesn't get enough acclaim, eithere. Mississippi State remains relevant in the SEC bowl picture.

5. Texas A&M (7-5, 3-5)

Top players: OT Luke Joekel, OT Jake Matthews, RB Christine Michael, LB Sean Porter, WR Ryan Swope, OC Patrick Lewis, DE Damontre Moore, QB Johnny Manziel

Bowl projection: BBVA Compass

Analysis: The Aggies must break in a new QB after seeing Ryan Tannehill go No. 8 overall in April's NFL Draft, but freshman Johnny Manziel couldn't ask to come into a better situation. Sure, he's going to be playing in the SEC, but he's also got a strong OL in front of him, including bookend OTs Luke Joekel and Jake Matthews. He's also got a quality receiver in Ryan Swope to rely on, and if Christine Michael can prove healthy, a talented RB lining up next to him. Not to mention, he'll be running an offense under the direction of Kevin Sumlin, who has never had a QB post poor numbers. It's on defense the Aggies will have to play catch-up in the SEC. Sean Porter is a good OLB, and can get to the QB, but there's a lot of questions around him. The Aggies will be bowl eligible this season, but aren't close to ready to compete with the conference's elite.

6. Auburn (5-7, 2-6)

Top players: DE Corey Lemonier, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, WR Emory Blake, LB Daren Bates, OG John Sullen, RB Onterio McCalebb, QB Kiehl Frazier

Bowl projection: None

Analysis: The Tigers are overrated to start the season. They have considerable questions at QB and are implementing a new offense. RB Onterio McCalebb is a good back, but he's not Michael Dyer, who left to go to Arkansas State along with offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. Corey Lemonier is a star at DE, but the rest of the defense is mostly lacking. Auburn has a pretty challenging schedule as well. The Tigers could  make a bowl game, but don't expect them to be in contention for anything more.

7. Ole Miss (2-10, 0-8)

Top players: DB Charles Sawyer, WR Donte Moncrief, LB Mike Marry, RB Jeff Scott

Bowl projection: None

Analysis: Hugh Freeze has his work cut out for him. The cupboard really is bare at Ole Miss for the first-year head coach. When a coach has to wait right up to a couple days before the opening game of the year to announce his starting QB, you know the situation is dire. Plus, RB Jeff Scott is injured and will miss at least the season opener. If Scott can get healthy, he's the Rebels best offensive threat. This is going to be a long first season for Freeze. Winning a single game in SEC play might be considered successful.

SEC Championship

LSU over Georgia -- Georgia matches up better with the Tigers than they did a year ago, but LSU continues to have too much on defense for the Bulldogs. LSU is the champion the SEC will send out to defend its streak of BCS titles. Unlike in Greek history, though, the Trojans are the ones doing the invading. Can LSU successfully defend the SEC turf?

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