Predicted Order of Finish
1. South Carolina
4. Mississippi State
Top Storylines to Watch in the SEC
Whose year is it this time? Lately, there's no doubt the SEC has dominated college football. Whether it's Florida, Alabama, LSU, or Auburn, the conference has owned the big games in the sport, and it will probably continue to, even if rumors of expansion end up unfounded. This year, it appears the West is best again, as Alabama and LSU (before players ran into trouble in the final days before the season starts) look like favorites in the national championship picture, and it's not like Auburn is going to stink in its title defense. I have to go with Alabama, with Trent Richardson running the ball and hopefully staying healthy this season. The Tide have sophomore AJ McCarron at quarterback now, but expect him to be just as solid and efficient as Greg McElroy was. Throw in that defense, one that includes studs like Dont'a Hightower, CJ Mosley, Dre Kirkpatrick, and Dee Milliner, and it makes sense that a team breaking in a new quarterback could be favored.
As for LSU ... News as I was writing this post that LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson and a teammate have allegedly run afoul of the law doesn't help the Tigers' cause in the West. Neither does the tough break dealt to offensive coordinator Steve Kragthorpe, who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's. For LSU to succeed -- assuming Jefferson doesn't skate on whatever charges end up being filed -- they obviously have to find a new quarterback. Jefferson was often the object of scorn from the fans over his uneven play, but he was starting because he was the Tigers' best option. Now, we'll see if Jarrett Lee or Zach Mettenberger can take over and get the job done. It's not like LSU has a layup of an opener. They play Oregon at a neutral site. So right out of the chute, the quarterback situation will be emphatically tested, and their national championship hopes could disappear quickly if things don't go well.
Auburn's title defense will probably not go wonderfully. The Tigers picked a good time to win a national title, because this team was decimated by departures and graduation. Look for running back Michael Dyer to shoulder a huge load in the offense, coming off a 1,000-yard season as a true freshman. No Cam Newton means Barrett Trotter is likely to run the Tigers' offense. Trotter isn't as big or athletic, but he can throw, and he's no slouch running the ball. Just with the missing pieces (eight starters gone on each side of the ball), it's going to be tough for Auburn to repeat last year's run. A schedule that features roadies to Clemson, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU, and Georgia probably makes it impossible. Auburn should be a bowl team, so they won't repeat Texas' fall from the title game to 5-7, but they aren't going to be a BCS bowl team, it doesn't appear.
What will Charlie Weis' impact be at Florida? The former Notre Dame coach takes over the Gators' offense under new head coach Will Muschamp. While it didn't exactly crash in the first year post-Tebow, Florida wasn't nearly as good in 2010. They dropped 100 yards and a touchdown per game off their 2009 averages, with the yardage losses split between rushing and passing (the passing game took a slightly bigger hit). Seniors John Brantley and Jeff Demps will man the backfield again, and with Weis on board, it seems this offense will transition to more of a pro-style attack. Throw that change in with only ten returning starters and Muschamp's lack of head-coaching experience, and you have the recipe for a tough season in Gainesville. Florida has highly-touted players all over, but they need to replace four offensive line starters and three defensive line starters. Muschamp has four winnable games in September, but October starts with a visit from Alabama, and it doesn't get much easier from there.
The Rest of the Story
I'm not sure if Stephen Garcia can stay out of trouble long enough, but I know that South Carolina is the best team in the SEC East. The Gamecocks have come a long way the last year or so, and a lot of it is due to recruiting. Steve Spurrier got a huge contribution out of true freshman back Marcus Lattimore last year, and defensive end Jadeveon Clowney is poised to do that this year. ... Georgia could be a real darkhorse contender. The Bulldogs have talent all over the field, some potential impact freshmen, and a schedule that features the toughest games -- South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Auburn -- at home, with Florida in Jacksonville as usual. Isaish Crowell could be this year's Lattimore. ... Tennessee hasn't been good in a while, but they'll make a positive stride this season. 13 starters return, Derek Dooley appears to have his quarterback in Tyler Bray, and the Volunteers play five of six at home to start the season. I don't see them being nearly good enough to challenge South Carolina or Georgia, but they'll improve. ... If you're looking for a potential sleeper, don't discount Kentucky. The Wildcats lose starting quarterback Mike Hartline and ten-touchdown back Derrick Locke, but return ten starters to a defense that was pretty good a year ago. That defense stands to improve dramatically. It starts up front, where they're experienced, but still a tad young. ... I expect that new coach James Franklin will do a good job with the Vanderbilt program, but I don't think it will be instant gratification. The Commodores were a mess last year, and while they have a ton of experience with 19 starters, it will take time to adjust. ... I like this Arkansas team, but they'll miss Ryan Mallett at quarterback. The loss of running back Knile Davis to an injury is devastating, too. We'll see what Bobby Petrino can do with junior quarterback Tyler Wilson. ... It was nice to see Dan Mullen get Mississippi State to a bowl last year, and it seems they have a good-enough team to get to one again. But how good will they be? They'll miss Chris White on defense and Derrick Sherrod on the offensive line, and it doesn't help them that a road game at Auburn and a home date with LSU are on the docket in the first three weeks. ... Despite the presence of transfer quarterback Jeremiah Masoli, last season was a disaster at Mississippi. The Rebels went 4-8, only 1-7 in league play, and allowed 35 points per game. Now, Houston Nutt has to replace seven defensive starters, and he has to find a new quarterback. In the SEC, this doesn't sound like a road map to a bowl.