College Football Preview: Will Tide Roll in SEC?

College Football Preview: Will Tide Roll in SEC?

Teams: Alabama (West), Arkansas (West), Auburn (West), Florida (East), Georgia (East), Kentucky (East), LSU (West), Mississippi (West), Mississippi State (West), Missouri (East), South Carolina (East), Tennessee (East), Texas A&M (West), and Vanderbilt (East)

Best Team: Alabama

Best Coach: Nick Saban (Alabama)

Top Players: QB Johnny Manziel (TAMU), QB AJ McCarron (Alabama), QB Aaron Murray (Georgia), RB Todd Gurley (Georgia), RB TJ Yeldon (Alabama), WR Amari Cooper (Alabama), WR Jordan Matthews (Vanderbilt), OT Jake Mathews (TAMU), OT Cyrus Kouandjio (Alabama), DE Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina), DT Anthony Johnson (LSU), LB CJ Moseley (Alabama), LB AJ Johnson (Tennessee), S Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix (Alabama)

Top Storyline: Alabama’s pursuit of a three-peat.

Nick Saban is building a program unlike any we have seen in recent years. The Alabama Crimson Tide have now won three of the last four national titles, dominate in recruiting, and seem an unstoppable force in the college football world.

For fans of other SEC teams, there is still a glimmer of hope. The last two seasons, the Tide have won championships, but lost to SEC foes in the regular season and nearly lost to Georgia in the SEC Championship. They are beatable. Moreover, the dominance of the conference is not just from Alabama, but Auburn, Florida, and LSU have all contributed to the streak of seven straight titles.

In 2013, there is a clear divide in the SEC with three teams in each division having a legitimate shot of winning the conference (Alabama, TAMU, and LSU in the West and UGA, USC, and Florida in the East). There is plenty of talent in the rest of the conference as well, and those teams will work hard to climb up the pecking order.

Still, Alabama remains the undisputed class of the conference. Senior quarterback AJ McCarron (2923 passing yards and an impressive 30-3 TD-INT ration) will likely be a more featured leader of the offense in his final year, and I expect him to put up bigger numbers than previous Alabama quarterbacks, particularly with a strong corps of receivers led by sophomore Amari Cooper (1000 receiving yards).

If McCarron does throw the ball more, it will not be because of lack of faith in the running back position. Sophomore TJ Yeldon could be a Heisman contender in his own right after running for 1131 yards as a back up to Eddie Lacy. Yeldon leads a stable of star backs, and they will run behind a line that, while not as good as last year’s, still has junior tackle Cyrus Kouandjio.

However, the Crimson Tide are not feared for their offensive potency. It is Saban’s defense that is suffocating. Senior linebacker C.J. Moseley (107 tackles, 4 sacks, 4 TFLs, and 2 interceptions) is an elite force at linebacker and arguably the nation’s best as is junior safety Ha’Sean Clinton-Dix (37 tackles and 5 interceptions). Both are playmakers on defense, and they are surrounded by a stellar supporting cast. Junior linebackers Trey DePriest (59 tackles and 4 TFLs) and Adrian Hubbard (41 tackles, 7 sacks, and 4 TFLs) are the two most likely to break out this season.

Prediction: This is certainly not the best team Saban has had at Alabama, but it could be the best offensively and also one of the more complete teams. There are very few holes on this team, and it is hard to imagine the Tide not in the title game to fight for a three-peat. The September 14 match up at Texas A&M will be heavily watched, but Saban’s teams avenge their losses, and I do not see the Aggies winning again. November 9 against LSU will be another big one, but the SEC title game, most likely against Georgia, Florida, or South Carolina, will likely be the toughest test for the Tide. Still, I think Alabama goes undefeated and is the favorite for yet another title.

Unfortunately for those who want to see someone knock of the Tide, the 2013 version of the Georgia Bulldogs are not quite as good as the 2012 team. However, as a unit, their offense is unquestionably better. Senior quarterback Aaron Murray has as much poise as anyone in the country, and he will keep the Bulldogs in any game. He returns all five of his offensive linemen, most notably future first rounder sophomore tackle John Theus, and junior receiver Malcolm Mitchell (572 yards) should lead a solid receiving corps that will include two standout tight ends in senior Arthur Lynch and sophomore Jay Rome.

Despite the opportunities in the passing game, the strength of this offense is in the running abilities of sophomores Todd Gurley (1385 yards) and Keith Marshall (759 yards) who are likely the nation’s top tandem.

With most of its big playmakers gone, it is the Georgia defense that appears set to struggle. However, the unit is loaded with former big time recruits who have been eager for a chance to shine. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins (31 tackles, 5 sacks, and 3 TFLs) should be a terror off the edge this season, and senior defensive end Garrison Smith should be a leader on this defense. Returning junior cornerback Damian Swann (53 tackles, 2 sacks, 1.5 TFLs, and 4 interceptions) is one of the best in the conference, but look out for true freshman safety Tray Matthews who will be something special by the time he leaves Georgia.

Prediction: After a few disappointing seasons and two quick losses in 2011, Mark Richt was on the hot seat. Then, his team won ten straight, and last year they barely missed the title game. They face a much tougher road in 2013 as the play at Clemson to open the season and have difficult home games against South Carolina, LSU, and Florida in conference play. There is no way they get through those four games unscathed, but, if they lose only one, they should be back in the SEC title game.

Despite all the drama, it is simply impossible to ignore “Johnny Football” (3706 passing yards, 1410 rushing yards, and 47 total touchdowns) and Texas A&M. As a freshman last season, he was electrifying en route to a Heisman Trophy, however, his off the field antics and immaturity could cause him to stumble in 2013. Still, he has too many skills and too many weapons around him to fail. Senior running back Ben Malena (808 yards) returns as does dynamic sophomore Trey Williams (376 yards) who will likely have an expanded role. Moreover, his receiving corps, which lost some key contributors, still has sophomore Mike Evans (1105 yards) whose length makes him a potent threat. True freshmen Ricky Seals-Jones and Jaquay Williams are also likely to be significant contributors given their athletic ability. Senior tackle Jake Mathews, easily one of the best in the country, returns to protect Manziel’s blindside as well. Defensively the Aggies may struggle with senior linebacker Steven Jenkins (79 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 TFLs, and 1 interception) the leading returner.

I believe that junior quarterback Jeff Driskel (1646 passing yards and 413 rushing yards) will be one of the nation’s most improved players for the Florida Gators this fall, and the team certainly needs him to be. The quarterback has inexperienced receivers after junior Quinton Dunbar (383 yards) and will break in a new running back in Mack Brown, who will do better than one might think after only rushing for 102 yards last season. Look for senior utility player Trey Burton to play an even bigger role in the offense to compensate for lack of weapons. The defense, however, should once again be a strong suit despite losing a number of impact players. Former #1 overall high school recruit Ronald Powell will line up at linebacker for the Gators who also return star defensive tackle Dominque Easley (26 tackles, 4 sacks, 4.5 TFLs) and are loaded with talent in the front seven. The defensive backfield should be stellar and junior Marcus Roberson is the best of the group, which, as a whole, could be the best in the nation.

Prediction: Out of conference, Florida plays two top ACC foes in Miami and Florida State. Additionally, road games against LSU and South Carolina as well as a home game against Georgia present a lot of problems. It is hard to see the Gators not losing at least two or three of those games. Florida is 10-2 at best, a solid posting for Muschamp given the stars he lost, however, he will have to step up his recruiting efforts on the offensive side of the ball.

The success of Alabama has caused LSU to slide slightly from the public eye. However, the LSU Tigers return their best offense in years. Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger (2609 yards) has a cannon of an arm and junior receiver Odell Beckham (713 yards) and Jarvis Landry (573 yards) have a tremendous amount of speed. Additionally, while sophomore running back Jeremy Hill will face minor discipline for off the field antics, he will still play a big role in this offense, and junior Anthony Hilliard and senior Alfred Blue would start for most teams. They will all run behind a great line anchored by junior tackle La’el Collins. Despite the strong offensive, the Tigers’ defense is not as good as usual. However, defensive tackle Anthony Johnson (30 tackles, 3 sacks, and 7 TFLs) could see a big jump in numbers as he is a dominant interior presence. Additionally, senior safety Craig Loston (55 tackles, 3 TFLs, and 3 interceptions) is one of the top defensive backs in the country.

Prediction: Fall asleep on LSU at your own peril. However, the Tigers are likely to be forced into the role of spoiler in 2013. In addition to the strenuous schedule of West division teams, LSU plays at Georgia and against Florida this season, not a fair deal in the schedule. It is unlikely that LSU escapes with any fewer than two losses. The opener against TCU should also be interesting, but I cannot imagine LSU not winning that game.

The South Carolina Gamecocks have become synonymous with junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney (54 tackles, 13 sacks, 10.5 TFLs), the most feared man in college football. While NFL teams may seek to lose in order land Clowney, the Gamecocks will soak up one last year. However, outside of the freakish defensive end, South Carolina has little to distinguish itself from an average power conference team. Senior quarterback Connor Shaw (1956 passing yards and 435 rushing yards) is competent, and junior receiver Bruce Ellington (600 yards) is a solid playmaker, but this team’s success begins with the disruptive force that Clowney is on the other side of the ball. Look for junior defensive tackle Kelcey Quarles to benefit even more in 2013.

Prediction: South Carolina got a sweet deal landing Arkansas and Mississippi State as West division foes. Still, they have plenty to deal with in their own division, and rival Clemson is a tough way to end the season. The Gamecocks look like a 9-3 team… with a dominant defensive end.

One team to watch is the Auburn Tigers which have nowhere to go but up after an abysmal 3-9 season in 2012. New coach Gus Malzahn has created a sense of optimism for the Tigers, and he has brought in a couple of JUCO players destined to make a big difference. Quarterback Nick Marshall is a dynamic athlete who can big plays happen, and he will be joined in the backfield by junior Tre Mason (1002 yards) and JUCO transfer Cameron Artis-Payne who is more of a bruiser. At receiver, tight end CJ Uzomah could be a real difference maker for the Tigers who do not return much proven depth at the position. The offensive line is mostly intact after a rough year in 2012, and, with Malzahn, the offense, should be humming. The big question mark is the defense. however, the defensive backfield, led by senior cornerback Chris Davis (46 tackles) should be solid leaving the run defense as the major area of concern. Do not be surprised if three true freshman defensive linemen: Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, and Elijah Daniel contribute early and often.

Prediction: The Tigers could come out of nowhere in 2013 and really surprise some people after being utterly irrelevant, passive, and dominated in SEC play in 2012. However, this team seems to have an attitude adjustment, and Marshall, though possessing a different style, may remind people of the last JUCO quarterback to play for Gus Malzahn. This team may win a few that no one expects them to. An 8-4 season could be in reach.

Another team rising in the West is the Ole Miss Rebels who surprised many with a 7-6 record in 2012 and shocked the world with a stellar recruiting class last February. Junior quarterback Bo Wallace (2994 passing yards and 390 rushing yards) showed flashes of brilliance last season but turns the ball over too much. In 2013, his receiving corps, however, should be even better as his top three receivers return including junior Donte Moncrief (979 yards). Look out for freshman Laquon Treadwell to make a difference early, and he could be a special player for the Rebels. Defensively, the Rebels will feature the Nkemdiche brothers. Sophomore linebacker Denzel ((82 tackles, 3 sacks, 10 TFLs, and 3 interceptions) leads the way for Ole Miss while younger brother, defensive end Robert, was the Breitbart Sports #2 prospect in 2013. Both Nkemdiche’s will start, and both will create havoc for their opponents.

Prediction: Ole Miss has made tremendous strides as a program under Hugh Freeze, however, this is a tough league, and they could hit the same mark as a year ago: 6-6 in the regular season. The most intriguing matchup will be October 5 at Auburn as the two battle for fourth spot in the SEC West pecking order.

For the first time in a long time, the Volunteers program has the feel of sanity to it with new coach Butch Jones at the helm. However, offensive skill players are lacking at this juncture. However, the Volunteers return arguable the nation’s best offensive line unit, led by junior tackle Antonio Richardson. Defensively, the should be strong as well with junior linebacker AJ Johnson (138 tackles, 1 sack, 7.5 TFLs) roaming the field. True freshman Cameron Sutton will start at corner, and he could be tested as his first eight games include contests against playcalling mastermind Bobby Petrino’s WKU, Oregon QB Marcus Mariotta, Florida QB Jeff Driskel (see above), Georgia QB Aaron Murray, South Carolina QB Connor Shaw, and Alabama QB AJ McCarron.

Prediction: This is a team that will eventually push to join the UF, UGA, and USC at the top of the division. Nevertheless, this team is still a couple years away. A tough draw plus an out of conference game against Oregon will make it a battle for UT to get bowl eligible. However, I think they barely get there at 6-6.

Dan Mullen is another coach who has greatly improved his Mississippi State program but is struggling to become a legitimate contender in the SEC. With senior quarterback Tyler Russell (2897 passing yards) and running back LaDarius Perkins (1024 rushing yards) retuurning, the Bulldogs should have solid firepower offensively. On defense, MSU returns sophomore Benardrick McKinney (102 tackles, 1 sack, and 3.5 TFLs) as well as senior defensive end Denico Autry (42 tackles, 4 sacks, 5.5 TFLs). However, this group will miss last season’s incredible defensive backfield.

Prediction: The four teams at the bottom of the SEC West are close and the Bulldogs could push for that fourth spot. However, I do not see them as quite as talented as either the Rebels (who they play 11/28) or the Auburn Tigers (who they travel to on 9/14). Opening contest against Oklahoma State is likely to be a good gauge of where the SEC is versus other conferences. This looks like a 5-7 team to me.

I do not see there being any way for Vanderbilt to repeat the success of last season. Some weapons are there (Austyn Carta Samuels is a solid player, Brian Kimbrow can be explosive, and Jordan Matthews is a stud.), however, this team may heavily miss Jordan Rodgers and Zac Stacy after the Commodores overperformed last season. Outside of Matthews (1323 yards), who is exceptional, the best returner is senior linebacker Chase Garnham (84 tackles, 7 sacks, and 5.5 TFLs).

Prediction: Vanderbilt went 9-4 a year ago, but, while potentially bowl eligible, Vanderbilt would have to sneak in. The Commodores could go 6-6, which, given the program’s history, still has to be a success for James Franklin and the program.

New year coach Mark Stoops has generated more excitement about Kentucky football than many ever fought possible. His energy has been infectious, and he should coach a strong defense. Senior linebacker Avery Williamson (135 tackles, 3 sacks, and 1,5 TFLs) is the leading returner, but watch out for JUCO defensive end Za’Darius Smith. The Wildcat is a stellar young player and could play a big role. Offensively, senior running back Raymond Sanders (669 rushing yards) is the best returner.

Prediction: Kentucky should top last season’s two win total. However, it will not be by much. Three to four wins are the ceiling for the Wildcats.

Gary Pinkel and the Missouri Tigers will look for more from senior quarterback James Franklin who has been inconsistent over his career. Still, Franklin is pivotal to this offense as is former #1 overall recruit Dorial Green-Beckham (395 yards) who disappointed in year one.  Outside of those two Tigers, there  are few difference makers on this roster capable of SEC impact. Defensively, cornerback EJ Gaines (74 tackles, 7 TFLs, and 1 interception) is a top returner.

Prediction: If Green-Beckham can flip a switch, he has the ability to be dominant. However, unless Franklin to DGB is heard often in 2013, winning four or five games and potentially getting shut out in conference could be where the Tigers are headed.

Since entering the league Bret Bielema has done nothing but run his mouth. You cannot do that in this league until you prove something on the field. The Razorbacks do not have much talent left from a bad 4-8 team in 2012. Making matters worse, Bielema’s scheme is a major change. While others may get early touches, I expect freshman Alex Collins to be the main ball carrier by season’s end. On defense, senior tackle Byran Jones (52 tackles, 1.5 sacks, and 3.5 TFLs) and senior end Chris Smith (52 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 3.5 TFLs) are the best of an improved unit.

Prediction: Nick Saban and Gus Malzahn, Bielema’s main targets, will look to embarrass Arkansas, and there are a number of teams in the conference who can do it. While it remains to be seen whether Bielema can have success in the SEC, it is certain it will not come in year one. The Razorbacks may win their first four, all non-conference opponents, but I do not see them winning an SEC game.