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SEC: 2013 Football Preview – Bama yet….again…

The SEC is playing the role of villain to the tee. Apparently, the conference loves the villain role, because they have yet to give it up. Going 7 years strong. Frankly, I see number 8 coming to fruition. It’s far from a guarantee, but as good as the SEC has been over the year, this may be the deepest it’s been with teams that have a legit chance to raise the Crystal Football. Just how deep is the SEC? Bama is self explanatory. Lets leave them out. Lets look at Georgia, who were 5 yards away from beating Bama in the SEC Title game. Lets talk South Carolina, who has arguably the best defender we’ve seen in a long time. While a lot of people are forgetting LSU, I’m going to remember them, even though they lost so much. How could I forget the team, that has the reigning Heisman winner, and that actually beat Bama? Texas A&M. That doesn’t mean everything is good with the league, however. That same A&M team is dealing with accusations against Johnny Manziel, that could cost him games. I don’t think it will, but you never know. I honestly hope it doesn’t. There have been arrests, suspensions, and some injuries. What about the rest of the league? How will they fare? Well, lets check it out.

SEC WEST

1. Alabama Crimson Tide, has won 3 of the last 4 national titles under Nick Saban (4 straight for the state of Alabama – Auburn 2010). Their quest for 4 out of 5 begins in the Georgia Dome against the Virginia Tech Hokies. The last time these two met was in the Georgia Dome, in 2009. Bama won that one 34-24. The notion from so many around the country seems to be, that Bama is invincible. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. Bama lost to A&M last season, and had close calls at LSU and vs Georgia. This season, the Tide returns 13 starters (6 offense, 7 defense). The biggest of these is Sr. QB- AJ McCarron. His role will undoubtedly increase from a game manager, which most call him, to a guy that will have to win games with his arm. His decision making ( 3 INT’s in 2012) will have to continue to be good, due to the losses on the offensive line. McCarron, has plenty of weapons to throw to. So. WR- Amari Cooper is a Heisman candidate, and there are plenty to go with him. Could be Bama’s deepest receiver corps ever. Of course, there is the running game. So. RB- TJ Yeldon returns after running for 1131 yards his freshman season. Defensively, the Tide returns 7, but it’s most important losses were up front and in the secondary. Bama, showed vulnerability to the intermediate to deep pass at times. Partly due to the secondary, and mostly to its lack of pass rush from its front line. If there is a chink in the armor, that’s it.  The schedule sets up well for Bama. Everyone is awaiting the showdown at Texas A&M – 9/14. On paper, the only other games that could derail Bama’s SEC and National title hopes are Va Tech and LSU – 11/9. Upset alert? Ole Miss – 9/28

2. LSU Tigers, have a tendency to get in their own way. Let me rephrase. LSU, has a tendency to get in it’s own way, and Les Miles helps them do it. If, that makes sense. Miles, is an overall good coach, but he’s overzealous in his play calling and decision making at times. The Tigers had Bama beaten in Death Valley, but let it slip away with some questionable play calling. Fake punts. Fake kicks. On-side kicks. You name it. LSU, is always one of the more talented teams in the country, and it’s crazy for their coach to resort to this type of game plan. Speaking of talent, LSU lost a boat load of it. But, this is LSU. They don’t rebuild. They reload. The Tigers are not thought of as highly, as usual. I think this is a mistake. Sr. QB- Zach Mettenberger returns, after a season where he had some bright spots. However, LSU’s claim to fame is their running game, and their D. The stable of running backs goes at least 4 deep, and even though the Tigers lost so much on D, they have the potential to be nasty after they get their feet wet. The schedule, however, is not LSU’s friend this season. In addition to at Bama, and A&M from the west, there is Florida (whom they play every year) and at Georgia. To some this eliminates LSU. I think it hurts their title hopes, but I think they beat A&M, and Florida to keep themselves in the SEC West race. Upset alert? at Ole Miss – 10/19.

3. Texas A&M Aggies, look like they’re going to have to prove they can play through adversity. Soph QB- Johnny Manziel, has been the talk of the town, and not in a good way all summer. The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, alleged to have taken payment for signing autographs. It just came down today, that there would be a suspension for one half, which is totally bizarre. However, there has been nothing else from the NCAA or A&M. I think and hope he’ll play. The Aggies only return 11 starters from last years team that shocked the SEC and the world. Of course, Manziel is back and in conjunction with head coach, Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies will find a way to score points, and score very quickly. The Aggies are missing key components from their 2012 squad, but Sumlin’s system is second to none. I do think the SEC will catch up a little more to what A&M is doing. In A&M’s 3 games ( Fla, Ala, and LSU) that really mattered last season, the Aggies got out to fast starts in the first half, were for the most part shut down in the 2nd half, by all three defenses. Each eam adjusted at halftime. A&M will have a lot of success, but I think their offensive numbers drop some. Schedule wise, A&M avoids all the East contenders. Which will help. If, Manziel is clear to play all season, A&M will have their chances to recreate the magic of last season. Upset alert?  at Ole Miss – 10/12

4. Ole Miss Rebels, are everyone’s sleeper team in the SEC. The Rebels have 19 returning starters, and one of the best recruiting classes they’ve had in years. Will that be enough to contend this season, in the west? Probably not, but I can easily see the Rebels knocking someone off and spoiling their chance for a title. Of the 19 starters, 9 are on offense. Jr. QB- Bo Wallace was pretty impressive at times in 2012. Connecting on 64% of his passes is nothing to sneeze at, and he had nearly 400 yards rushing. The Rebels also have experience at running back and wide receiver. Senior, Jeff Scott returns after running for over 800 yards and Junior, Donte Moncrief returns to give Ole Miss some of the SEC’s best speed on the outside. Defensively, the Rebels were middle of the pack last season, but should improve with the likes of Frosh DL-Robert Nkemdiche ( #1 recruit in the nation) on board. Head coach, Hugh Freeze has Ole Miss headed in the right direction. Fast. Whomever, has the Rebels on their schedule had best beware. If you hadn’t noticed, I have them in the upset alert on the schedule of several teams.

5. Auburn Tigers, have sort of new coach, Gus Malzahn in the fold. Auburn fans everywhere, are hoping Malzahn can create the magic that was 2010, when Cam Newton and the rest of Auburn’s offense, ran his fast break system to perfection. Eerily, just as Newton was fresh out of junior college in 2010, there is another juco QB to take over Malzahn’s offense in 2013. Juco transfer, Nick Marshall was named the starter earlier in fall camp by Malzahn. Marshall, isn’t as highly regarded as Newton, but he’s well thought of and Auburn fans will be happy if he can remind them of Cam at all. 1,000 yard rusher, Jr – Tre Mason returns and should find a lot more open space to run, in Malzahn’s system. Defensively, the injury bug hit, and the Tigers never recovered giving up 34 point/game. Those numbers should improve, as Malzahn and his staff put together a very nice recruiting class, considering they were late getting on the recruiting trail. There is hardly anything about this team, that would remind you of the championship in 2010, but Auburn fans are getting that excitement. With good reason. It’s going to take a while to complete, but Malzahn has the Tigers pointed in the right direction.

6. Arkansas Razorbacks, get the nod here due to them playing Auburn and Mississippi St. at home. I think they lose to Auburn, but beat State to stay out of the bottom of the west. The Hogs also have 8 starters back on defense, for first year coach Bret Bielema. Bielema, comes down from Wisconsin in a shocking move. There’s no doubting his coaching ability. The Badgers went to 3 consecutive Rose Bowls while he coached there. It’s going to take a while, before the Razorbacks will be able to think about BCS bowl or playoff appearances, but Bielema has proven a lot. Soph QB- Brandon Allen played sparingly in 2012, but gets the nod to be the starter this season. Allen, is one of only 4 returning starters on offense. So, the Hogs will probably struggle offensively. Defensively, with the 8 starters back and a middle of the pack D last season, improvement can probably be expected. I have Arkansas in this spot, but the bottom 3 teams in the west are pretty similar. Wouldn’t surprise me if the order is totally flip flopped.

7. Mississippi St. Bulldogs, are on a quest for their 4th consecutive bowl appearance. Pretty good. Right? There are still grumblings in Starkville about head coach, Dan Mullen. I think Mullen has done a good job, but there are a few that aren’t so sure in Maroon n White. I’m not sure what they’re expecting. Three straight bowl appearances, and they’ve beaten Ole Miss 3 out of the last 5 seasons. Of course, that could be changing with what’s going on in Oxford. Nonetheless, the Bulldogs enter 2013 returning 12 starters (7 offense, 5 defense) from 2012. Sr. QB- Tyler Russell is back after passing for 2897 yards and a 59% completion rating. Russell, was a lot better after finally having the keys to the offense, all by himself. Sr. RB- LaDarius Perkins return after going over 1,000 yards rushing. So, there is talent and experience returning. The problem is teams like Auburn have gotten better. Plus, they play at Auburn this season. Does that mean State isn’t good and won’t win football games? Absolutely not, but the final 5 games of the season are brutal for the Bulldogs. I’d like to see anyone navigate at South Carolina, at A&M, Bama, at Arkansas, and Ole Miss. Tough stretch that could cost the State their 4th consecutive bowl appearance.

SEC EAST

1. South Carolina Gamecocks, were my pick to win the SEC East last season. Yep. I’m going with them again. Last season, came down to a 3 week stretch. Georgia, at LSU, at Florida. My theory for USC winning the east was beating Georgia and splitting the other two. Beat Georgia? Check. Resoundingly (35-7)? Check.  The Gamecocks could only get that one. South Carolina certainly had their chances to beat LSU, but when they didn’t they were too beat up to do anything with the Gators, and were blown out in The Swamp the next week. This season, there is no LSU on the schedule, and they get Florida in Columbia. However,there is a pretty tough three week stretch this season. Three straight road games at Arkansas, Tennessee, and Missouri will not be easy. I can see the Gamecocks losing one of those, but it’s a lot more manageable schedule than last season. There is certainly plenty of talent returning. Sr. QB- Connor Shaw returns under center, along with do-it-all Jr. WR/KR Bruce Ellington, and of course, Jr. DE- Jadeveon Clowney. Head coach, Steve Spurrier is quick to point out that there aren’t a lot of seniors, but that shouldn’t be a problem. Clowney, who is a Heisman favorite, anchors a defense that gave up 21 point/game last season in SEC play. Those numbers could get better this season. Consistent offense has been the achilles heel for South Carolina over the years. If, they get that right, the sky’s the limit. I have the Gamecocks in the SEC title game, because I think they beat Georgia in week two. Georgia has a tough game at Clemson week 1, then has to get ready for a USC team, that will have two extra days of rest. On the national scale, I can definitely see the Gamecocks getting to the BCS title game. The season finale vs Clemson could be huge.

2. Georgia Bulldogs, were so close, yet so far in the SEC title game last season against Alabama. I’m anxious to see if Georgia has put the end of that game out of their heads. There was so much that went right, to have the heartbreak of the last few seconds. This season, looks very promising, as well. The Bulldogs return 12 starters (9 offense, 3 defense). The returning 9 starters on offense, could be one of the best units in the nation. Sr. QB- Aaron Murray decided to return to school, when he could have been a high 1st round pick in the NFL Draft. I dig the move for Georgia, but I hope Aaron Murray has made the right decision for Aaron Murray. That being said, the Bulldogs offense is going to rock this season. Soph. RB’s- Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall return, give the Dawgs’ possibly the best running back duo in the country. The question is on defense. Georgia, returns only 3 off last year’s defense. The eight players that head coach, Mark Richt has to replace them are very highly regarded, but they’re so young. The schedule has the Dawg’s travelling to Clemson week one, in what will be a huge game, to say the least. LSU, returns to the schedule. Good for the Bulldogs, that they get them ‘Between the Hedges’. Of course, there is Florida. I’m not very high on the Gators, however. The season comes down to week vs South Carolina. Whatever happens at Clemson, the Bulldogs have to forget about it and get ready for another titanic battle week two. Could be Mark Richt’s toughest coaching job, yet.

3. Florida Gators, and head coach, Will Muschamp are in a very important season for their program. Muschamp, has to prove he’s the man for the job in Gainesville. Florida had a very successful 2012, but there are question marks. Especially, after the thumping they were handed, at the hands of the Louisville Cardinals in the Sugar Bowl. I don’t think that particular game was much to worry about, but the Gators lack of consistent flow offensively is. Jr. QB- Jeff Driskel returns after a season with nearly 1700 yards through the air, and a surprisingly good 64% completion rate. I would have thought his completion percentage was much worse. The Gators were slightly better later in the year, but that was with RB, Mike Gillislee, who had one of the more underrated performances, from a running back last season. The biggest problem with Florida’s offense may be, that there just aren’t skill players on this team, that we were so used to seeing in Gainesville. That’s a problem in the SEC. Another problem the Gators had, was putting inferior teams away. To me, that’s directly linked to it’s inept at times offense. All that said, the Gators were just a 6 turnover game away from beating Georgia, and replacing the Bulldogs in the SEC title game. Can Florida get there this season? Absolutely, but I don’t see it. I think the South Carolina game will seal their fate. There is also a trip to LSU, that probably won’t go well. The Gators will be good, especially defensively. Just not good enough in the rugged SEC.

4. Tennessee Volunteers, starts the Butch Jones, head coaching era. Jones, comes to Tennessee from the same post at the University of CIncinnati. After 3 years at Cincy, and 3 years at Central Michigan, which produced 4 won or shared conference titles in the 6 years. This year the Vols, return 13 starters (5 offense, 8 defense), from last year’s 5-7 team. The Vols should be much improved in 2013, it just may not produce many more wins. A bowl game is definitely possible, because the schedule works out pretty good for them. In the SEC games I deem winnable, the Vols have Auburn and Vandy at home, and Missouri and Kentucky on the road. Georgia and South Carolina, are both at Neyland Stadium also. We’ll see if the UT can’t steal one of those. Jr. QB- Justin Worley takes over at QB, and he has some nice weapons to throw to at receiver. The Vols, also had a pretty good recruiting class, considering the small amount of time Jones had to get it together. The recruiting class created some good feelings on Rocky Top, now let’s see if it extends to the field.

5. Vanderbilt Commodores, are this low due to their schedule, only. Vandy plays at South Carolina, Texas A&M, and Florida. They also host Georgia. It will be very tough for Vandy to win any of those. Then, there’s the Tennessee game at the end of the season. That game is in Knoxville. That’s why I give UT a slight edge in the standings over Vandy. Does that mean the Commodore’s are taking a step back, as far as their growth as a program? Absolutely not. Vandy, is very impressive, and I wouldn’t doubt they could steal a game or two out of that list. Head coach, James Franklin has done an amazing job. Sr. QB- Austyn Carta-Samuels takes over at QB, after Jordan Rodgers guided the team for most of last season. Vandy, probably won’t have one of their best receivers at their disposal. Jr. WR- Chris Boyd is suspended along with 3 other players due to an alleged assault of a woman on campus.  Sr. WR- Jordan Matthews does return to give Vandy some experience at wideout. Soph. RB- Bryan Kimbrow returns to carry the rock. Vandy won 9 games last season. I just can’t see that happening this season. The schedule is too daunting, but that doesn’t mean the ‘Dores aren’t on the right path.

6. Missouri Tigers, in their first season in the SEC, won 5 games last, but only two in league play. Sr. QB- James Franklin is back, he has one of the more promising receivers in the nation, to get the ball to in Soph. Dorial Green-Beckham. They both are included in the 14 returning starters for Mizzou. I really believe the Tigers are more talented, than they showed last season. While, Texas A&M handled the transition from the Big 12 tothe SEC very well, Mizzou was totally the opposite. Head coach, Gary Pinkel, has to figure out a way for the Tigers compete. If not, that hotseat that Pinkel is already on will get boiling hot.

7. Kentucky Wildcats,  have gone to the Stoops family tree for their new coach. Mark Stoops, has taken over for Joker Phillips, who lost the job at the end of the season. Stoops has a tough job ahead of him, to day the least. The Wildcats won 2 games all last season and one of those was over Samford, an FCS team. The Cats return 14 starters to see if they can improve on last years record. One huge game will be Western Kentucky. The Hilltoppers shocked Kentucky last season. A win over WKU, who coached now by Bobby Petrino could set the tone for the rest of the season. The Big Blue have to take their rebuilding one step at a time. There’s no reason Kentucky can’t be a bowl team on a consistent basis.

SEC Title Game: Alabama over South Carolina

Player of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney

Game of the Year: (Tie) South Carolina at Georgia, Alabama at Texas A&M, SEC Title Game…..

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