We are just days away from kickoff of the 2013 college football season, and to prepare Sports on Earth is spending all week publishing everything you need to know about each conference in America. The schedule:
Here is everything you need to know about the SEC:
1. There are two unquestioned stars who rise above the rest in the SEC, neither of whom plays for two-time defending national champion Alabama. The problem, for 13 teams, is that an absurd percentage of the rest of the conference's great players will suit up for the Crimson Tide. No matter how much the Tide loses to the NFL, there is always talent to step in and keep Nick Saban's machine rolling. Once again, the SEC is the best league in America, and there's really no argument to be made otherwise. The Pac-12 and Big 12 are deep with good teams, but the SEC has six teams deserving of top-10 rankings.
2. What's scary is that after three national championships in four years, this should be the best offense Saban has had at Alabama. Saban's teams win with big, physical and fast defenses. This sometimes causes us to forget just how good his offense can be when it needs to. On top of having the nation's No. 1 total defense and scoring defense in 2012, Alabama also scored 38.7 points per game, ranking 12th nationally, and averaged 6.95 yards per play, good for fifth. Three star offensive linemen and 1,322-yard rusher Eddie Lacy are all off to the NFL, yet everything is in place for the offense to not skip a beat: AJ McCarron had a 30-3 TD-INT ratio last year; T.J. Yeldon was every bit as good as Lacy; Amari Cooper is the best wideout in the nation not named Marqise Lee; linemen Cyrus Kouandjio, Anthony Steen and Ryan Kelly could all be All-Americans; athletic freshman O.J. Howard could give Alabama a versatile playmaker at tight end. You get the picture.
3. But for all the talk about how invincible Alabama is during this run of championships, it's not as if it exists on some untouchable plane above the rest of the SEC. Before blowing out Notre Dame in the BCS title game, Alabama just barely escaped Atlanta with the SEC championship and might have lost had Georgia had even five more seconds. In fact, Georgia's offense is every bit as good as Alabama's, and the Bulldogs actually led the nation in yards per play. Only McCarron had a higher QB rating than Georgia's Aaron Murray, and the one-two freshman punch of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined to rush for more than 2,000 yards and 25 touchdowns, each averaging more than six yards per carry. Plus, the receivers are in better shape with junior Michael Bennett back from a torn ACL that ended his season early last October.
4. Georgia may be favored in every game this year, but we'll learn a lot the first few weeks, with a trip to Clemson and home dates with South Carolina and LSU. It's that South Carolina game that will go a long way toward deciding the SEC East, although Georgia still won the division last year despite an embarrassing 35-7 loss to the Gamecocks. Expectations are understandably high in Columbia, where Steve Spurrier has evolved into a coach who wins with defense and a strong running game, a long way from the successful Fun 'n' Gun days at Florida. Obviously, the centerpiece is defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, who may the best in player in college football and one of the most talented defensive players ever. He's far and away the best player at South Carolina, which boasts a talented roster but has significant losses to fill, especially at linebacker. Still, Clowney is enough to alter an offense's entire game plan, and teammates on the line Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton are good enough to take full advantage of the special attention blockers must pay to Clowney.
5. As Spurrier coaches a more conservative team, the post-Spurrier, post-Meyer Florida has followed a similar model under Will Muschamp. The Gators lost even more talent than the Gamecocks on defense, but they're better equipped to replace it and should come close to matching the success of last year, when they ranked fourth in yards per play allowed. It starts in the secondary, as Florida might own the best collection of defensive backs in America, led by safety Jaylen Watkins and corners Loucheiz Purifoy, who may also play offense, and Marcus Roberson, not to mention potential star true freshman Vernon Hargreaves III. Combine the deep and talented secondary with a pass rush featuring Dante Fowler, Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley, and passing against Florida may a near-impossible chore, at least for anyone not named Teddy Bridgewater.
The 20 Best Players in the SEC
1a. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
1b. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
3. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
4. Jake Matthews, OT, Texas A&M
5. C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama
6. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
7. A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama
8. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
9. Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia
10. Anthony Johnson, DT, LSU
11. Cyrus Kouandjio, OT, Alabama
12. Loucheiz Purifoy, CB/WR, Florida
13. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S, Alabama
14. Antonio Richardson, OT, Tennessee
15. Dominique Easley, DL, Florida
16. Marcus Roberson, CB, Florida
17. Adrian Hubbard, LB, Alabama
18. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
19. Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
20. Denzel Nkemdiche, LB, Ole Miss
6. The separation between tiers in the SEC is obvious, especially in the East. Georgia, Florida and South Carolina sit at the top, and in the middle exists Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Missouri, who should all hover within a game of .500 overall. Vandy, in a rare situation, enters the season with high expectations after its first nine-win season since 1915, but the Commodores will have a tough time duplicating that success with a schedule that includes road trips to South Carolina, Texas A&M and Florida, plus Georgia at home. Simply being bowl eligible again -- always a mark of success at Vanderbilt -- will keep James Franklin among the hottest coaching names in the country.
Tennessee, meanwhile, replaced Derek Dooley with Butch Jones after a 5-7 season in which it lost to Vandy 41-18, which is an inexcusable act for folks in Knoxville in what has historically been one of the most lopsided rivalries in the sport. With an even more brutal schedule that includes Oregon, Florida, South Carolina, Georgia and Alabama, the Vols may enter this year's Vandy game needing to win to keep their bowl hopes alive. Then there's Missouri, which looked overmatched in its first SEC season, going 5-7 to possibly land Gary Pinkel on the hot seat. The Tigers are better positioned this year, hopefully with more playmaking ability on offense, with the SEC East's other James Franklin healthy at QB, RB Henry Josey back from a one-year injury absence and former star recruit Dorial Green-Beckham hopefully emerging at receiver after a slow debut.
7. And then there's Kentucky, which is on the road to respectability but won't get there yet, or even close to it. New coach Mark Stoops has made waves with impressive recruiting and a reinvigorated fanbase that showed up in droves for the spring game, but those recruits aren't in Lexington yet. This is a team that scored 17.9 points per game and went 2-10 last year with wins over Kent State and Samford (and a loss to Western Kentucky). Stoops may turn out to be a home-run hire in the long run, but aside from a couple guys like linebacker Avery Williamson, the Wildcats don't have the players to match the rest of the SEC.
8. Ole Miss is headed down the path that Kentucky wants to follow. Regardless of whatever outlandish claims Houston Nutt wants to make, Hugh Freeze has been responsible for big change in Oxford, where the Rebels improved from 2-10 to 7-6 and are suddenly a recruiting force. They are not yet among the SEC West's contenders, but they're good enough, with the right combination of returning experience and young talent, to pull off an upset after losing to LSU and Texas A&M by only nine points total last year. QB Bo Wallace must cut down on his 17 interceptions, but he has talent around him in solid tailback Jeff Scott and NFL-caliber wideout Donte Moncrief, and on defense, top recruit Robert Nkemdiche is ready to join his brother, sophomore LB Denzel Nkemdiche, in taking the SEC by storm.
9. Down the road in Starkville, don't blame Mississippi State if it starts to get envious. With the hiring of Dan Mullen, the Bulldogs had thought they were in position to break through like Ole Miss may do now, and while Mullen is a solid 29-22 in four seasons, 2013 feels like it's going to be a step backward, even with a solid returning QB in Tyler Russell. The Bulldogs were dangerously overrated in the first half of last season, starting 7-0 against a bunch of also-rans before Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU provided a three-game reality check. Now, with an opener against Oklahoma State and better competition in the bottom half of the SEC West, the Bulldogs will have to fight to get to a fourth straight bowl.
10. That better competition should come from Auburn and Arkansas after each melted down in 2013. Auburn jettisoned national title-winning coach Gene Chizik, wisely bringing back former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn to get the program back on track after the offense's freefall to 114th in scoring. The Tigers will go with mobile juco transfer Nick Marshall at QB, as he beat out last year's starters Jonathan Wallace and Kiehl Frazier (who volunteered to move to safety) for the job. You never know what you'll get out of a new quarterback, but between Malzahn's mind and the presence of a talented tailback in Tre Mason, Auburn's offense will surely look a lot better than it did last year, when it failed to win a conference game two years after winning the national title. At Arkansas, the Bobby Petrino saga and subsequent debacle under interim coach John L. Smith are history, with three-time defending Rose Bowl participant Bret Bielema stunning everyone by leaving Wisconsin for Arkansas, which has often felt like the Wisconsin of the SEC. Rebuilding will take some time with a young Razorbacks roster, but Bielema's teams are known for being physical, and Arkansas at least has good players to work with on both lines, headlined by center Travis Swanson and defensive end Chris Smith.
Five SEC Heisman Candidates*
*Working under the assumption that Manziel will have a hard time winning twice.
1. A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama
2. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
3. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
4. Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina
5. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Five Breakout Players
1. Jordan Jenkins, LB, Georgia
2. Robert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss
3. Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
4. Demarcus Robinson, WR, Florida
5. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
11. For everyone in that deep pool of second tier SEC teams to get to the postseason, a couple of upsets of the power six programs will need to happen. There are some weaknesses at the top, and nobody, except maybe Alabama, is a foolproof national title favorite. At South Carolina, it seems like the presence of Clowney has maybe pushed the Gamecocks into slightly overhyped territory. That's not to say that South Carolina can't win the SEC East or can't win as many as 11 games; but Mike Davis needs to emerge to fill a big hole at running back, QB Connor Shaw needs to stay healthy (even if backup Dylan Thompson is a competent replacement), someone needs to fill the shoes of speedy all-purpose receiver Ace Sanders; and the back seven on defense needs to find playmakers. South Carolina can play with anyone in the country, but it doesn't have quite as much margin for error as the other headliners here,
12. The Gamecocks aren't the only ones looking for playmakers, of course. For an 11-2 team, Florida's offense was abysmal last year, ranking 92nd in yards per play (just behind Auburn, actually). It might not get much better. Tailback Mike Gillislee and tight end Jordan Reed are gone, and now the Gators will likely have to use Purifoy on both sides of the ball. They'll be fine at running back, led by sophomore Matt Jones (assuming he's healthy), and the hope is that star recruit Demarcus Robinson will emerge to alleviate the concerns at wideout.
13. LSU is in a similar situation, even with eight starters returning on offense. Cam Cameron, who the Ravens dumped during a Super Bowl season, will try to breathe life into the offense, which always has talent but is maddeningly inconsistent. He has pieces to work with, at least: Zach Mettenberger has a year of experience under his belt and was at his best in November against Alabama. Like it or not, troubled running back Jeremy Hill is still on the team after an impressive freshman season, and will be rejoined by Alfred Blue, who returns after losing most of last season to a knee injury. And both receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry have flashed potential. With a lot of turnover on defense, now's the time for the Tigers to finally live up to their potential on offense.
14. LSU's schedule will test them, from TCU in the opener to a road trip to Georgia a few weeks later. As LSU tries to improve offensively, Georgia must find a way to replace almost its entire defense, including star pass rusher Jarvis Jones and first-round pick Alec Ogletree. The promising Jordan Jenkins appears next in line at outside linebacker in place of Jones, but problems in the secondary could spell trouble early in the season.
15. Jones is the better player, but Texas A&M's Damontre Moore may prove more irreplaceable. Moore had 12.5 sacks and led the team in tackles last year, meaning his production will be impossible to replace for a defense that struggled against the pass. The secondary, led by corner Deshazor Everett, could turn out OK, but it's going to be put in a tough spot if the Aggies can't find a pass rush. No returning player had more than two sacks in 2012.
1. Georgia (11-1, 8-0)
2. Florida (10-2, 6-2)
3. South Carolina (9-3, 5-3)
4. Vanderbilt (7-5, 3-5)
5. Missouri (6-6, 2-6)
6. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6)
7. Kentucky (3-9, 0-8)
1. Alabama (11-1, 7-1)
2. LSU (10-2, 6-2)
3. Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2)
4. Ole Miss (8-4, 5-3)
5. Arkansas (6-6, 2-6)
6. Auburn (6-6, 2-6)
7. Mississippi State (5-7, 2-6)
16. Enough about the negatives, though, for teams that could all finish in the top 10. Texas A&M's defensive progress is important, but a team with an offense led by Manziel can compete against anyone. I spent the entire offseason not worried about Manziel's ability to handle the pressure of his hyperstardom, but it's hard to imagine anyone reading Wright Thompson's ESPN the Magazine profile and not coming away at least a little bit concerned. Few players, if any, have ever faced the expectations and pressure placed on the shoulders of Johnny Football, and we technically still don't even know if he'll be eligible, thanks to the all-around ridiculous autograph scandal. Still, assuming he's on the field, Manziel played stunning football last year as a freshman, and while he loses All-American left tackle Luke Joeckel, he still has a great line led by Jake Matthews, a deeper pool of running backs and a star receiver in Mike Evans. Duplicating last season's numbers will be nearly impossible, but until proven otherwise it feels wrong to expect anything but greatness on the field from Manziel.
17. Schedule-wise, there aren't any excuses. Texas A&M plays a ridiculous eight home games, with East matchups against Missouri and Vanderbilt. But, of course, we know the one game that could define the season: Alabama at Texas A&M on Sept. 14. Manziel won the Heisman in Tuscaloosa last year, and if he has any chance of winning it twice, he'll have to beat Alabama again. Nick Saban has surely had Manziel on his mind for a long time, but if anything it might be the Crimson Tide's advantage on offense against Texas A&M's defense that gives it the clear edge over the Aggies.
18. The LSU-Alabama game will be just as important as Texas A&M-Alabama. As soon as 11 Tigers declared for the NFL draft early, the narrative moved toward a down season in Baton Rouge, especially given its brutal cross-division schedule against Georgia and Florida. Don't bet on it. As always, the defense has plenty of talent to reload, led by tackle Anthony Johnson, linebacker Lamin Barrow, safety Craig Loston and cornerback Jalen Mills (one of the biggest losses is actually punter Brad Wing, given how important controlling field position has been for Les Miles' teams). If the passing game can be a little more consistent and the running backs stay healthy and out of trouble, LSU can beat anyone, including Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
19. With that said, there is no argument for any team but Alabama to be considered the most talented team on paper heading into the season. That doesn't mean Alabama can't lose a game or lose the conference. The Tide is far from a lock to win the national title, as we saw last year when it needed help from Kansas State and Oregon to get into the championship. Still, Alabama has to be the preseason favorite, with a defense full of NFL talent at every position -- although there are some concerns at cornerback -- and, as discussed, perhaps Nick Saban's best offense. And Nick Saban himself.
20. Despite Alabama's numerous advantages, the SEC race should still be as entertaining as any other league in the country. The East is wide open between three teams, Texas A&M has made the Alabama-LSU rivalry into a three-way battle again in the West and just about everyone but Kentucky is capable of pulling off a surprise somewhere. SEC fans love to gloat about their conference dominance, and fans everywhere else get annoyed by the attention and the hype. But the best all-around football game in college football last year was Alabama-Georgia in the SEC title game, and it's no accident. Whoever wins the SEC will probably win it all, again. Eight and counting.