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August 9, 2011

SEC preview: Will title streak be deep-sixed?

MORE: All-conference team | Unit rankings | Expert predictions

Forgive the rest of the college football world if they're a little sick of hearing about this: An SEC team has won each of the past five national titles.

SEC fans, of course, continue to revel in the accomplishment, telling everyone who will listen how great their conference is and will continue to be.

Bad news for folks not associated with the SEC: There are two legit national title contenders in the league this season.

Auburn won the 2010 title, and the Tigers were the only one of the recent SEC national titlists to open the season outside the top 10. The other four - Florida in 2006, LSU in '07, Florida in '08 and Alabama in '09 - opened in the top seven in The Associated Press poll and the top eight in the coaches' poll. None were No. 1, though.

This season, the league's top two contenders, Alabama and LSU, are second and fourth, respectively, in the coaches' poll. In all, eight league teams are in the top 25.

Once again, the West is the strongest division in the league. Five West Division teams - Alabama and LSU, along with Arkansas, Auburn and Mississippi State - are in the preseason top 25. Every team in the East lost at least four games last season, and all but South Carolina lost at least five; it wouldn't be a shock if that happened again.

There are two new coaches in the league, both in the East. Will Muschamp, a Georgia alum who had been Texas' defensive coordinator, is the new Florida coach, while James Franklin, who had been offensive coordinator at Maryland, is Vanderbilt's new leader.

On the field, think of this season as the year of the running back in the SEC. Every league team except Kentucky has a legitimate hope of having a 1,000-yard rusher. Conversely, this is not a league with a lot of proven quarterbacks or wide receivers.

The league will get a chance to prove its strength early. Two of the season's biggest non-conference games involve SEC teams in the first week of the season: Boise State vs. Georgia in Atlanta and LSU vs. Oregon in Arlington, Texas.

Chances are the SEC will get a chance to prove its strength in the final game of the season, too.

THE PLAYERS

BEST OFFENSIVE PLAYER: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery. Jeffery emerged as one of the nation's best wide receivers as a sophomore last season, catching 88 passes for 1,517 yards and nine TDs. While it's true he benefits from playing in the same offense as star TB Marcus Lattimore, Jeffery is hampered by not playing with a consistent quarterback. No matter: Jeffery is going to put up great stats again this season for the Gamecocks, then almost certainly head off to the NFL.

BEST DEFENSIVE PLAYER: Alabama SS Mark Barron. Barron is a big-play guy from his strong safety position. He is heading into his third season as a starter, and he led the Tide with 75 tackles last season. He also had three interceptions and six pass breakups. Barron is a key part of what should be the nation's best secondary this season.

OFFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: LSU QB Jordan Jefferson. Had Jefferson been a competent quarterback last season, LSU would've been in the BCS - and maybe even in the national title game. As it was, LSU went 11-2 in spite of Jefferson. He was OK as a sophomore in 2009, then regressed last season. If he can bounce back this season under new quarterback coach Steve Kragthorpe, LSU could be in New Orleans playing for the national title.

DEFENSIVE PLAYER ON THE SPOT: LSU LB Ryan Baker. We're spotlighting another Tigers player here - but for different reasons. Baker was steady last season, and he will have to be even better this season for a Tigers team that is undergoing a transition in its front seven. Baker is undersized at just 6 feet tall, but he weighs 236 pounds and packs a wallop. He has good speed and can run sideline to sideline. Last season, his first as a starter, Baker finished second on the Tigers with 87 tackles despite playing the first month of the season with a broken jaw that was wired shut. This season as a senior, he'll be expected to be the leader of the Tigers' front seven, and he should contend for all-league honors.

BREAKOUT OFFENSIVE STAR: Alabama TB Trent Richardson. Think back to 2009, when Alabama was counting on a former backup to take up the slack at tailback. All Mark Ingram did was win the Heisman and help the Tide win the national title. It's not unrealistic to expect the same thing from Richardson this season. He has rushed for 1,451 yards and 14 TDs in his first two seasons and easily could match those totals this season. Richardson attended the same high school as Emmitt Smith - Pensacola (Fla.) Escambia - and can start making a name for himself this fall.

BREAKOUT DEFENSIVE STAR: LSU E Sam Montgomery. If Montgomery is as good as we think he is, he'll flirt with 10 sacks and provide the Tigers' defensive front with a playmaker off the edge. T Drake Nevis was LSU's big-play lineman last season, but he's now in the NFL. Montgomery still is a bit raw when it comes to defending the run, but he has all the tools to be a top-flight pass rusher. If he puts everything together this season, LSU's defense will come close to matching last season's success.

BEST OFFENSIVE NEWCOMER: Georgia TB Isaiah Crowell. Georgia fans have been, well, crowing about Crowell since National Signing Day, and because of some player defections at tailback, it seems likely Crowell will trot out with the first-team offense when the Bulldogs open against Boise State. He has good size (5-11/215) and possesses breakaway speed. Georgia has some issues on offense, and it sure would help incumbent starting QB Aaron Murray if Crowell lives up to the high school hype. Crowell should get ample opportunity to do so.

BEST DEFENSIVE NEWCOMER: South Carolina E Jadeveon Clowney. He was the nation's No. 1 recruit, and though the Gamecocks seem set at end with Melvin Ingram (their leading returning sacker) and all-league choice Devin Taylor, Clowney almost certainly will see the field because of his pass-rushing ability (he had 29 sacks as a high school senior). His ability to hold up against the run remains a question, but he's going to be unleashed against opposing quarterbacks.

MOST OVERRATED PLAYER: LSU WR Rueben Randle. For a five-star talent coming out of high school, Randle sure hasn't done much. Yes, you certainly can place some of the blame on poor quarterback play; LSU hasn't really had a good quarterback since Randle arrived in campus. Still, in two seasons, he has just 46 total touches. Perhaps this will be his breakout season.

East Division

1. South Carolina [ Team Preview ]

2. Florida [ Team Preview ]

3. Georgia [ Team Preview ]

4. Tennessee [ Team Preview ]

5. Kentucky [ Team Preview ]

6. Vanderbilt [ Team Preview ]

West Division

1. Alabama [ Team Preview ]

2. LSU [ Team Preview ]

3. Arkansas [ Team Preview ]

4. Auburn [ Team Preview ]

5. Mississippi State [ Team Preview ]

6. Ole Miss [ Team Preview ]

Championship game

Alabama over South Carolina

THE COACHES

COACH ON THE HOTTEST SEAT: Georgia's Mark Richt. Richt is coming off the first losing record of his tenure, and some of the natives are mighty restless. The Bulldogs have lost 12 games in the past two seasons; the last time that happened was in 1995-96. In addition, last season's seven losses were the most for the Bulldogs since 1990. The SEC East looks as down as it has been since the league went to the division format in 1992, and folks will know early if this Bulldogs team has what it takes to challenge for the division title: They open with Boise State in Atlanta on Sept. 3, then play host to South Carolina in a huge division showdown the next weekend.

BEST STAFF: Alabama. Nick Saban may rub some people the wrong way, but the guy is a good coach - and he has a great staff. Both his coordinators - Jim McElwain on offense and Kirby Smart on defense - are in line to be head coaches sooner rather than later, and he also has some of the bets position coaches around in Burton Burns (running backs) and Sal Sunseri (linebackers).

BEST OFFENSIVE COORDINATOR: Auburn's Gus Malzahn. His "marriage" with QB Cameron Newton last season produced one of the most magical statistical seasons in college football history, and with all the big stats came a national title. Don't expect those types of numbers with Newton gone, but Malzahn's track record at Tulsa and with Auburn in 2009 shows he will wring the utmost from the talent he has on hand.

BEST DEFENSIVE COORDINATOR: South Carolina's Ellis Johnson. Johnson never seems to get the credit he deserves, though he annually oversees some of the best defenses in the nation despite having less-than-elite talent. He places a big emphasis on shutting down the run, yet still fields aggressive, attacking units.

BEST POSITION COACH: Alabama RB coach Burton Burns. Burns is a former Nebraska fullback under Tom Osborne, so it's no surprise his backs run hard and play tough. He's also a former Tommy Bowden assistant at Tulane and Clemson, and at those two schools and at Alabama, he has coached some of the best running backs in each school's history. Watch for Tide TB Trent Richardson to make a huge impact this fall.

LSU vs. Oregon in Arlington, Sept. 3

Boise St. vs. Georgia in Atlanta, Sept. 3

South Carolina at Georgia, Sept. 10

LSU at Mississippi State, Sept. 15

Arkansas at Alabama, Sept. 24

Alabama at Florida, Oct. 1

Georgia at Tennessee, Oct. 8

Florida vs. Georgia in J'ville, Oct. 29

LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5

Arkansas at LSU, Nov. 25

THE OTHER STUFF

TEAM THAT WILL SURPRISE: Florida. If the Gators get competent quarterback play from John Brantley - and that's a big "if," considering his performance last season - they will finish second in the East and contend for the division title. The defense could be quite good, and there is speed galore on that side of the ball. The offense is the question. We'll find out more about Charlie Weis' coaching acumen this season, considering what he has to work with on offense.

TEAM THAT WILL DISAPPOINT: Auburn. "Disappoint" is a relative term. The Tigers won the national title last season, but won't get a sniff of the BCS this season because they lost too much talent. Losing Newton is bad enough. But Auburn also lost the nation's best defensive lineman (Nick Fairley), three of its top four receivers, four-fifths of the offensive line, three-fourths of the defensive line, the two best linebackers, three starting defensive backs and maybe the best clutch kicker in school history. It wouldn't be a surprise if Auburn finished fifth in the West.

GAME OF THE YEAR: LSU at Alabama, Nov. 5. The league's two best teams will slug it out in Tuscaloosa. This could be a de facto elimination game in the hunt for the national title. The Tigers have won eight of the past 11 against the Tide, but two of Alabama's wins have come with Saban at the helm.

TOUGHEST SCHEDULE: LSU. The Tigers play Oregon in the opener at a neutral site, travel to West Virginia and also have to play Mississippi State, Tennessee and Alabama on the road. There are some positives: LSU doesn't have to play Georgia or South Carolina and gets Florida and Arkansas at home. All in all, though, LSU will have earned its good record if it wins 11 or 12 times.

EASIEST SCHEDULE: Mississippi State. The non-conference schedule is such that the Bulldogs are a lock to go 4-0 in those contests, which means that to get to a bowl, the Bulldogs only have to win two league games. The toughest league games (Alabama, South Carolina and LSU) are in Starkville. There are road trips to Auburn and Georgia, but both of those come in the first five weeks of the season.

SEC EXPERT PICKS

We asked our five football writers to answer a few questions about the SEC. Here are their responses:

WHO WINS THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Alabama
Tom Dienhart: Alabama
David Fox: Alabama
Mike Huguenin: Alabama
Steve Megargee: Alabama

WHICH TEAM WILL BE THE BIGGEST DISAPPOINTMENT?
Olin Buchanan: Florida
Tom Dienhart: Florida
David Fox: LSU
Mike Huguenin: Auburn
Steve Megargee: Auburn

WHERE DOES THIS LEAGUE RANK IN RELATION TO OTHERS?
Olin Buchanan: First
Tom Dienhart: First
David Fox: First
Mike Huguenin: First
Steve Megargee: First

THE BEST PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE?
Olin Buchanan: Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower
Tom Dienhart: Alabama LB Dont'a Hightower
David Fox: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
Mike Huguenin: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
Steve Megargee: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore

WHO WILL LEAD THE LEAGUE IN RUSHING?
Olin Buchanan: Alabama's Trent Richardson
Tom Dienhart: South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore
David Fox: Arkansas' Knile Davis
Mike Huguenin: Alabama's Trent Richardson
Steve Megargee: South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore

WHO WILL LEAD IN PASSING?
Olin Buchanan: Arkansas' Tyler Wilson
Tom Dienhart: Arkansas' Tyler Wilson
David Fox: Georgia's Aaron Murray
Mike Huguenin: Arkansas' Tyler Wilson
Steve Megargee: Arkansas' Tyler Wilson
WHO WILL LEAD IN RECEPTIONS?
Olin Buchanan: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
Tom Dienhart: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
David Fox: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
Mike Huguenin: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery
Steve Megargee: South Carolina WR Alshon Jeffery

WHO WILL LEAD IN TACKLES?
Olin Buchanan: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan
Tom Dienhart: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan
David Fox: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan
Mike Huguenin: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan
Steve Megargee: Kentucky LB Danny Trevathan

WHICH SCHOOL HAS THE BEST-LOOKING UNIFORM?
Olin Buchanan: LSU
Tom Dienhart: Auburn
David Fox: Georgia
Mike Huguenin: Vanderbilt
Steve Megargee: Georgia

WHICH SCHOOL IN THIS LEAGUE IS THE BEST JOB?
Olin Buchanan: LSU
Tom Dienhart: Florida
David Fox: Florida
Mike Huguenin: Florida
Steve Megargee: Florida

THE WORST?
Olin Buchanan: Vanderbilt
Tom Dienhart: Vanderbilt
David Fox: Vanderbilt
Mike Huguenin: Vanderbilt
Steve Megargee: Vanderbilt

FIRST TEAM OFFENSE
QB Aaron Murray, Georgia (6-1/211, So.)
RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina (6-0/231, So.)
RB Trent Richardson, Alabama (5-11/224, Jr.)
WR Greg Childs, Arkansas (6-3/217, Sr.)
WR Alshon Jeffery, South Carolina (6-4/233, Jr.)
TE Orson Charles, Georgia (6-3/241, Jr.)
T D.J. Fluker, Alabama (6-6/335, So.)
T Bradley Sowell, Ole Miss (6-7/315, Sr.)
G Barrett Jones, Alabama (6-5/311, Jr.)
G Larry Warford, Kentucky (6-3/340, Jr.)
C Ben Jones, Georgia (6-3/316, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM DEFENSE
E Jake Bequette, Arkansas (6-5/271, Sr.)
T Malik Jackson, Tennessee (6-5/270, Sr.)
E Devin Taylor, South Carolina (6-7/248, Jr.)
LB Ryan Baker, LSU (6-0/236, Sr.)
LB Jerry Franklin, Arkansas (6-1/245, Sr.)
LB Dont'a Hightower, Alabama (6-4/260, Jr.)
LBCourtney Upshaw, Alabama (6-2/265, Sr.)
CB Casey Hayward, Vanderbilt (5-11/190, Sr.)
CB Dre Kirkpatrick, Alabama (6-3/192, Jr.)
FS Robert Lester, Alabama (6-2/210, Jr.)
SS Mark Barron, Alabama (6-2/218, Sr.)
FIRST TEAM SPECIALISTS
K Blair Walsh, Georgia (5-10/192, Sr.)
P Drew Butler, Georgia (6-2/214, Sr.)
KR Brandon Boykin, Georgia (5-10/183, Sr.)
PR Joe Adams, Arkansas (5-11/190, Sr.)

Offensive backfield

1. South Carolina: TB Marcus Lattimore is a big-timer and depth is good at tailback. But senior QB Stephen Garcia still is a big question mark.

2. Arkansas: TB Knile Davis emerged as a force last season, and the Hogs have good depth at the position. Can QB Tyler Wilson get the job done?

3. Alabama: Here's another team with a star tailback and good depth. But there will be a new quarterback, and you can bet Tide coaches will emphasize the "no mistakes" aspects of being the starter on a national title contender.

4. Tennessee: Tauren Poole is coming off a solid season and should be even better this season. QB Tyler Bray looked good down the stretch last season.

5. Auburn: Michael Dyer and Onterio McCalebb should be a productive duo at tailback. But who's the quarterback?

6. Georgia: Sophomore Aaron Murray heads into the season as the SEC's best quarterback. But tailback is a huge question, and the Bulldogs hope true freshman Isaiah Crowell is the answer.

7. Mississippi State: Vick Ballard is a tough runner who has a nose for the end zone. But unless Chris Relf makes huge strides as a passer, Ballard will see a lot of eight-man fronts.

8. Florida: John Brantley returns as the starting quarterback, and perhaps a change in schemes will mean he becomes productive this season. TBs Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey have a ton of speed, but are they good fits for a pro-style attack?

9. LSU: Jordan Jefferson is the returning starter at quarterback, but is that a good thing? There is no established tailback, but there is a lot of talent at the position.

10. Ole Miss: Brandon Bolden is a solid between-the-tackles runner, but the Rebels could have a quarterback controversy on their hands.

11. Vanderbilt: Warren Norman heads a solid group of tailbacks. As for QB Larry Smith ... hmmm.

12. Kentucky: The Wildcats are going to miss TB Derrick Locke. And while QB Morgan Newton has some experience, he has no proven wide receivers with whom to work.

Receivers/Tight ends

1. Arkansas: The Hogs have four potential go-to wide receivers, and each is a legitimate deep threat. They will miss TE D.J. Williams, but that just means more receptions for the wide receivers.

2. South Carolina: WR Alshon Jeffery might be the best player in the league, and he makes this a dangerous unit by himself. But a No. 2 - and a No. 3 - receiver must emerge.

3. LSU: Maybe a revamped offensive staff will mean more chances for this crew. Rueben Randle and Russell Shepard haven't come close to living up to the high school hype, but they sure look to have all the necessary physical tools.

4. Alabama: Julio Jones is gone, which means this unit takes a big hit. But Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks should be an effective duo, and there is some intriguing young talent on hand.

5. Georgia: The Bulldogs really are going to miss A.J. Green. TE Orson Charles could end up leading the Bulldogs in receptions. WR Tavarres King needs to step up.

6. Florida: The talent seems to be there. Can a new offensive staff get that talent to produce? Big things are expected from redshirt freshman WR Quinton Dunbar.

7. Mississippi State: Chad Bumphis heads a so-so group. It would help if Relf were a better passer.

8. Auburn: Emory Blake will go from No. 3 receiver to go-to guy, and he has the talent to have a big season. TE Philip Lutzenkirchen should be a more visible weapon this season.

9. Tennessee: No returning wide receiver had more than 16 receptions last season. But while depth also is a question, sophomore WRs Da'Rick Rogers and Justin Hunter could form a devastating 1-2 punch.

10. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost their two best receivers, and La'Rod King needs to prove he can be a go-to guy.

11. Ole Miss: This is an underwhelming group. RB Brandon Bolden is Ole Miss' leading returning receiver.

12. Vanderbilt: If Ole Miss has an underwhelming group, we don't know a phrase to use to describe these guys. TE Brandon Barden is a good one, though.

Offensive line

1. Alabama: Four starters are back, and you can be sure Tide coaches will try to ride these guys all season. Junior G Barrett Jones is the standout, and sophomore T D.J. Fluker is a rising star.

2. LSU: No one really stands out, but this is a tough, physical group. Four starters are back.

3. Ole Miss: This is a massive bunch - the five projected starters average out to 6 feet 6 and 330 pounds. The tackle duo of Bobby Massie and Bradley Sowell should be the best in the league. Four full-time starters return, and Arkansas transfer Matt Hall (6-9/340) won a job at guard during spring drills.

4. South Carolina: C T.J. Johnson and T Rokevious Watkins (who moved from guard) are the standouts on a unit that returns three starters. Guard could be a trouble spot, though.

5. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs lost their two best linemen, but this still should be a solid group. G Gabe Jackson is a rising star.

6. Arkansas: The Hogs will be strong in the interior, but the tackle spots bear watching. Both starting tackles will be new, and it's likely that one will be a true freshman.

7. Georgia: T Cordy Glenn (who moved from guard) and C Ben Jones will vie for all-league honors. But both guard spots have new starters, and depth is an issue.

8. Florida: The Gators' line underachieved last season, and just two starters are back. But if two injury-prone five-star recruits - T Matt Patchan and G James Wilson - can stay healthy, this could be a surprisingly strong unit.

9. Tennessee: This is a young group, and depth is a big problem. But if everyone stays healthy, the Vols will be fine here.

10. Kentucky: G Larry Warford is a big-timer, and he and Stuart Hines form a good duo at guard. Four starters are back.

11. Auburn: Four starters are gone from the national title team. Holdover T Brandon Mosley is solid, and fellow T A.J. Greene began last season as a starter before getting hurt. Depth is a problem in the interior, and a true freshman seems likely to start at center.

12. Vanderbilt: Every starter returns, and there is potential at tackle with Ryan Seymour and Wesley Johnson.

Defensive line

1. South Carolina: Travian Robertson is one of the best tackles in the SEC, and an end rotation of Devin Taylor, Melvin Ingram and uber-recruit Jadeveon Clowney should put a hurting on opposing quarterbacks.

2. Alabama: There is no one as good as Marcell Dareus, who turned pro early, but this is a solid group with good depth.

3. LSU: The Tigers will miss star T Drake Nevis. There is a lot of young talent, but the bulk of it is unproven. Tigers coaches like the potential of Es Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo.

4. Florida: The Gators should be extremely tough in the middle with a four-man tackle rotation of Jaye Howard, Omar Hunter, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley, and coaches are high on E Ronald Powell, who was the No. 1 recruit in the 2010 class. But depth at end is a huge concern, which is why some of the tackles occasionally will play end.

5. Arkansas: E Jake Bequette will contend for all-league honors. While there is no standout at tackle, the Hogs have the makings of a solid four- or even five-man rotation there.

6. Mississippi State: Star E Pernell McPhee is gone, but Ts Fletcher Cox and Josh Boyd could be quite nasty inside. There are depth concerns at end.

7. Georgia: Nose tackle was a problem last season, but coaches think JC transfer Jonathan Jenkins can solve those problems. DeAngelo Tyson is glad Jenkins signed; he will move from the nose to his more natural position of end this season.

8. Auburn: There will be three new starters, but this could be a surprisingly tough group. There especially is potential at tackle with sophomores Kenneth Carter and Jeffrey Whitaker.

9. Tennessee: T Malik Jackson has all-conference talent, but he is going to miss at least the first two weeks of fall drills with an injury. If he is out for an extended period, the Vols are in trouble.

10. Ole Miss: E Kentrell Lockett was granted a sixth season of eligibility, and his presence would be big because of his pass-rushing skills. The Rebels need some young guys to come through in the interior.

11. Kentucky: There is no standout along the line, and that's the kiss of death for an SEC defense.

12. Vanderbilt: The unit has to get much tougher against the run. There has been no pass rush, either.

Linebackers

1. Alabama: This might be the best group in the nation at the position. Dont'a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw will vie for All-America honors, and depth is excellent.

2. LSU: The Tigers lost leading tackler Kelvin Sheppard, but Ryan Baker should step easily into the featured linebacker role. He's a little on the short side (he's listed at 6-0), but he runs well and packs a wallop. Overall, this is a small but fast group.

3. Arkansas: The Hogs have two starters back in MLB Jerry Franklin, who should be an All-SEC guy, and Jerico Nelson, who plays a hybrid safety/outside linebacker spot. There is good depth and some youngsters who should make an impact.

4. South Carolina: The return of Shaq Wilson in the middle is important; he led the team in tackles in 2009, then missed most of last season with a hamstring injury. This is a veteran group that has had injury issues.

5. Florida: Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins are two solid building blocks for the new staff; Jenkins is a big-time athlete who can really run. But depth is an issue.

6. Georgia: The Bulldogs run a 3-4 set, and will have three new starter at the position. Coaches are high on ILB Alec Ogletree, who made 34 tackles last season as a true freshman backup safety. Can any of the outside 'backers on the roster rush the passer?

7. Tennessee: Returning starter Herman Lathers fractured his ankle in early June, and his status for the season is unclear. The Vols might need a freshman or two to play important minutes.

8. Kentucky: Danny Trevathan led the SEC with 144 tackles last season. The starters are OK, but depth is questionable.

9. Auburn: The top two linebackers are gone, and the Tigers need some young guys to come through.

10. Vanderbilt: Chris Marve is a star. Tristan Strong looks fully recovered from a 2009 knee injury and should provide a boost playing alongside Marve.

11. Ole Miss: D.T. Shackelford tore his ACL during spring practice and could miss the season, which puts a hurting on a unit that lacks depth.

12. Mississippi State: This is, by far, the biggest position concern for Mississippi State, which lost all three starters here. And there were good starters, too. Clemson transfer Brandon Maye may be the guy in the middle. Thing is, Clemson coaches weren't exactly sad he left.

Secondary

1. Alabama: All four starters return, and this should be the best secondary in the nation. The Tide have the best safety duo in the country in SS Mark Barron and FS Robert Lester. Cornerback should be a position of strength, as well.

2. LSU: Even without stud CB Patrick Peterson, the Tigers will be fine. Morris Claiborne and Tyrann Mathieu have the potential to be the best cornerback tandem in the league.

3. Mississippi State: All four starters return, and CB Johnthan Banks and SS Charles Mitchell should contend for All-SEC honors. Depth is good, too.

4. Tennessee: FS Janzen Jackson was reinstated over the summer, and his return makes this a good unit. While he has had some off-field issues, he is a talented player who makes plays. The cornerback group is a good one.

5. Georgia: This should be a solid unit. There is a nice group of corners, headed by Brandon Boykin. And FS Bacarri Rambo, who has moved from strong safety, should be a feared hitter at his new spot.

6. Arkansas: FS Tramain Thomas should contend for all-league honors. The Hogs gave up just 13 TD passes last season, but they also managed just 11 picks; these guys have to become playmakers.

7. Florida: CB Janoris Jenkins might have been the league's best defensive player, but he was booted from the team after a second marijuana arrest earlier this year. Big things are expected from sophomore SS Matt Elam, but the new staff also needs one or two freshmen to play - at the least - reserve roles.

8. South Carolina: Both starting safeties will be new, and that could be a problem. CB Stephon Gilmore should contend for All-SEC honors. Despite a good pass rush, South Carolina allowed 241.9 passing yards per game and surrendered 23 TD passes last season.

9. Vanderbilt: CB Casey Hayward had six interceptions and 11 pass breakups last season; he was tied for fifth in the nation in interceptions, and the 11 breakups led the SEC. SS Sean Richardson is solid, as well.

10. Kentucky: SS Winston Guy is the leader in the secondary; he had 106 tackles and three interceptions last season. But the corners are nothing special.

11. Auburn: Just one starter returns, and Neiko Thorpe is moving from corner to free safety. This is another spot where the Tigers need some untested players to make an impact.

12. Ole Miss: This group was abysmal last season, and the Rebels signed three JC transfers in an attempt to upgrade the unit. Holdover CB Charles Sawyer has talent but needs consistency.

Special teams

1. Georgia: This is the best special teams unit in the nation. K Blair Walsh and P Drew Butler should be leading contenders for the Groza and Ray Guy awards, respectively. Boykin is an excellent return man. And the Bulldogs' coverage units were superb last season.

2. Arkansas: The kickoff coverage is the only thing that must improve. K Zach Hocker and P Dylan Breeding are a good combination, and the return men are dangerous.

3. Alabama: The Tide return both kickers, who combined to go 19-of-25 last season. P Cody Mandell must improve. The return units are strong, and the punt coverage should be, too. Kickoff coverage needs to be tightened up a bit.

4. Ole Miss: P Kyle Campbell should contend for All-America honors. K Bryson Rose lacks a big leg - he didn't attempt any kick longer than 41 yards last season - but he made 16 of his 18 tries last season. The return teams have potential, but the coverage units need vast improvement.

5. Vanderbilt: This might be the best unit on the team, even if returning K Ryan Fowler isn't that good. P Richard Kent is solid, the return men have some explosiveness and the coverage units were OK last season.

6. Florida: K Caleb Sturgis is back after missing most of last season with a back injury. He has a strong leg but is erratic. There will be a new punter, but the return teams and coverage units should be fine.

7. Mississippi State: K Derek DePasquale is accurate, though he doesn't have a strong leg. There will be a new punter, and the Bulldogs need to shore up their kickoff coverage.

8. Tennessee: The coverage units were good last season, but there are questions elsewhere. The Vols will be breaking in a new punter, and K Michael Palardy was a part-timer last season.

9. Kentucky: P Ryan Tydlacka is a good one, and K Craig McIntosh has a good leg. The rest of the special teams are questionable. The coverage teams were pitiful last season.

10. LSU: The Tigers will have a new kicker, a new punter, a new kick returner and a new punt returner. The punt coverage was excellent last season, but the kickoff coverage was shaky at times.

11. Auburn: The coverage units were good last season, and that should continue. But that's the extent of the good news. There will be a new kicker, a new punter, a new kick returner and a new punt returner.

12. South Carolina: Spencer Lanning is gone, and he handled the kicking and the punting. The Gamecocks were mediocre in the return game last season and need an upgrade. The coverage units were adequate last season.

Coaching staff

1. Alabama: Nick Saban is an able tactician and a great recruiter, and he has a big-time staff as well. Coordinators Jim McElwain (offense) and Kirby Smart (defense) should be head coaches soon.

2. South Carolina: Steve Spurrier still knows what he is doing on offense, and Ellis Johnson might be the most underrated defensive coordinator in the nation.

3. LSU: Les Miles is the brunt of a lot of jokes and - truth be told - he's an easy target. But he also has a national title ring, and in defensive coordinator John Chavis, he has one of the best in the nation. The offensive staff shakeup was needed.

4. Auburn: There are two good coordinators in Gus Malzahn (offense) and Ted Roof (defense), but those guys really will earn their pay this season because of a massive loss of talent.

5. Georgia: Mark Richt has had a nice sustained run of success, but he is feeling the heat. Todd Grantham did a nice job with the defense last season.

6. Arkansas: Bobby Petrino has one of the most innovative offensive minds in the nation. Willy Robinson needs to get more out of his defense.

7. Ole Miss: Houston Nutt seems to do his best work when his back is to the wall, and it's to the wall this season. He shook up his offensive staff; will it pay off?

8. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen did a great job last season. Can he sustain the success?

9. Tennessee: Getting the Vols to a bowl last season was an impressive feat for Derek Dooley. But he still has a lot of heavy lifting to do.

10. Florida: New coach Will Muschamp made a splash with his hiring of Charlie Weis as offensive coordinator. Muschamp made his bones as a defensive coordinator, and his fingerprints figure to be all over that side of the ball.

11. Kentucky: Getting to a bowl has become old hat for the Wildcats, and that's a remarkable statement. Second-year coach Joker Phillips knows his defense must get better.

12. Vanderbilt: New coach James Franklin has a lot of enthusiasm. Why do we think coaching the Commodores will suck the life out of him? Oh, yeah - because it has done just that to most of his recent predecessors.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.



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