2013 SEC Preview
August 5, 2013
By Marc Lawrence
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If ever an argument of who the best football conference in the country is begins to get out of hand, the case quickly closes shut with this staggering fact: A whopping 32 picks in the first three rounds of this year's draft called the SEC home last season.
Think about that. An entire round of NFL picks, over the first three rounds of the 2013 draft, were selected from the SEC.
In the end, 63 players in this year's draft, or over 25% of the selections, were players from the Southeastern Conference.
In fact, a total of 65 first-round selections have landed in the NFL since 2006, including eleven this year and nine last year. Thus cementing the SEC's case as the most fertile football breeding ground in the land.
If that's not evidence enough after winning seven national titles in a row, and eight of the last ten, the SEC is now 9-0 in BCS title games. The conference has now won 60% of the 15 BCS championships games.
When projecting a national champion this year, keep this sobering thought in mind: Nine of the last eleven BCS champions have owned a Top 10 ranked defense. Thus, as we've come to learn, the SEC builds elite defenses with waves of athletic defensive linemen.
It's also no coincidence the SEC produced 14 of the nation's 23 highest-paid assistant coaches last season, including seven of the top eight.
So while saddling up with an SEC team to make it the BCS title game once again this year would appear to be the high percentage play, the tougher question is 'who'?
Five different teams have captured the SEC championship game the last nine years, with only Alabama and Florida repeaters.
And then there's always LSU. Deeply talented as always and defensively ferocious, the Tigers relish being left out of the spotlight and figure to have plenty to prove after dropping back-to-back games to the Tide, including the 2011 title game.
So, as we like to say, until somebody steps up and ends its domination in the BCS championship game, "This is the SEC's world. We just live in it."
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback. Potential designated 'Play On' and 'Play Against' Best Bets follow each team's preview.
Team Theme: ONE STEP UP, ANOTHER STEP BACK
The Gators were the epitome of what happens to teams that either choose or are forced to play an abundance of lower classmen the previous season. After taking down Texas A&M in College Station, beating LSU, smashing South Carolina and flattening Florida State in Tallahassee, a 7-win disappointment in Will Muschamp's first season transformed to an 11-win success last year. The problem is, as College Football.com's Pete Fiutak put it, "They were doing just enough on offense not to lose, until they lost." With road games at Miami Florida, LSU, Missouri and South Carolina - and having to face five bowl teams in their final five games of the season - regression to the mean is written all over this team in 2013.
Stat You Will Like: The Gators' offense was ranked dead last in passing in the SEC last season.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Georgia (11/2)
Team Theme: HEDGE YOUR BETS
Two years ago, coach Mark Richt was living on the proverbial hot seat after a jaw-dropping 6-7 effort in 2010. A 22-6 effort since has not only cooled off his derrière but also found him inking a contract extension. He can thank senior QB Aaron Murray, the NCAA active career leader with 95 TD passes, fresh off a school-record performance in 2012 in which he passed for 3,893 yards and 36 scores. Joining him in the backfield are a pair of lethal RBs, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, who combined for 2,144 yards and 25 TDs as FRESHMEN last season. Behind a loaded offense and a squad that played 13 true freshmen in its season opener last year, this team is soaring.
Stat You Will Like: Mark Richt is 49-8 SU versus non-conference opposition, including 34-1 'Between the Hedges.'
PLAY ON: vs. South Carolina (9/7)
Team Theme: SPREADING CAT SCRATCH FEVER
After clawing around winning seasons the previous six years, and then suffering a 2-win campaign last year, the Wildcats emptied a Joker from the deck and hired Mark Stoops to right the ship. The former Florida State and Arizona defensive coordinator, and brother of Oklahoma's Bob and Mike Stoops, inherits a team that was among the most inexperienced last season - one that played a total of 27 freshmen. A byproduct of the youth and the injuries sustained a year ago is that 32 returnees have started at least one game during their collegiate careers. New offensive coordinator Neal Brown, the OC at Texas Tech for the last three years, will orchestrate an 'Air Raid' spread attack with more of an emphasis on the running game.
Stat You Will Like: The Wildcats will face nine teams with winning records last season, including all five games away from Lexington.
PLAY ON: as a dog vs. Western Kentucky (8/31)
Team Theme: BUG OFF
The injury bug bit the Tigers hard last season. Consider this: only ONE player on the OL started all 12 games last year, and he was a true freshman. QB James Franklin, who was in and out of the lineup with an array of injuries, saw his production slip from nearly 4,00 yards and 36 TDs in 2011 to 1,684 yards and 10 TDs last year. "The injuries were like nothing I've ever seen," said coach Gary Pinkel. "We have a lot of proven guys back and healthy, and with the younger guys pushing them, I expect there to be a lot of improvement." After facing the toughest schedule (Sagarin) in the nation last year, look for the Tigers to put a bite on the SEC this season.
Stat You Will Like: The Tigers led the nation in forced fumbles (21) last season.
PLAY ON: at Vanderbilt (10/5)
SOUTH CAROLINA (*6/5)
Team Theme: COCK SURE
As sure as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, Steve Spurrier promised to build this program into a national power - and he's delivered. With back-to-back AP Top 25 finishes for the first time in school history, and ranked for 47 consecutive weeks (only Alabama, LSU, Oregon and Oklahoma with more), the Gamecocks have become the first team in school history to record back-to-back seasons with double-digit wins. Having the nation's top DL in Jadeveon Clowney - the odds-on choice to be the No. 1 pick in next year's NFL draft - has Spurrier sleeping like a baby these days. With Alabama and LSU nowhere to be found on this year's itinerary, the Ol' Ball Coach likes his chances in 2013. Now, raise your hand if you're sure!
Stat You Will Like: QB Connor Shaw is 17-3 as a starter, including 10-0 at home.
PLAY ON: vs. Florida 11/16 - *KEY as dog
Team Theme: WELCOME, BUTCHIE BOY
Three straight 7-loss seasons spelled the end of the Derek Dooley era in Knoxville. Enter Butch Jones, whose 34-12 career mark in conference games (27-3 versus non-winners) would look mighty nice in this power conference. And if you're going to beat Jones, you'd better jump on him in the first half as his teams are 32-1 in games with a lead either at the half or after three quarters! Despite returning just 5 starters on the offensive side, four of them were members of an experienced OL that allowed just 8 sacks last season. The great state of Tennessee may have lost a legend with the passing of country superstar George Jones, but they added a rock-solid coach in Butch.
Stat You Will Like: The Vols will face five coaches that are in their first season with their respective universities in 2013.
PLAY ON: at Missouri (11/2)
Team Theme: BUILDING A BRICK HOUSE
There were no sophomore blues playing in Nashville last season where 2nd year head coach James Franklin improved from 6 wins to 9 with a season-ending victory over NC State in the Music City Bowl. As a result, Franklin's electric-offense scored the most points (390) in a season since 1915, while its 11.3 PPG average score margin was the highest since 1955. In fact, with the most wins (15) in school history over a two-year period since 1929-1930, Franklin was inked to a long-term contract extension for the second year in a row. Despite the loss of star QB Jordan Rodgers and RB Zac Stacy, this year's Vandy roster is dotted with 39 upper-classmen, including 18 seniors. Forewarned is forearmed.
Stat You Will Like: The Commodores coaching staff is one of only nine FBS staffs that return intact for the 2013 season.
PLAY ON: at South Carolina (9/14)
Team Theme: FOLLOW THE LEADER
With three NCAA titles the last four years, the Tide has set the FBS benchmark for winning. Amazingly, last year was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Alabama when instead all they did was build a larger trophy case. Surprisingly 2012 marked only the 2nd SEC title won by the Tide since 2000. And speaking of rebuilding, the offensive line lost three starters to the NFL. The hire of former FIU head coach Mario Cristobal as the new OL coach should add stability to a potential problem area. QB A. J. McCarron, this year's cover boy, returns as the nation's active leader in pass efficiency and was the MVP in the BCS title game last season. His 25-2 record as a starter with Alabama speaks volumes.
Stat You Will Like: McCarron has completed 66.7% of his passes for 5,956 yards, 49 TDs and 8 INTs. His one INT per every 86.25 passes in the best in SEC history.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite vs. LSU (11/9)
Team Theme: EXPERIENCE THE GREATNESS
When the Razorbacks hired former Wisconsin head coach Brett Bielema, a lot of people were surprised. Not Russell Wilson, former Badgers quarterback who promptly went on record when he said, "He's a tremendous coach with great knowledge of the game and an unbelievable person. Arkansas is getting a great human being and a great coach. He will do a great job and they will win a lot of games." In addition, his coaching staff is loaded with 174 years of coaching experience. Remember this: Bielema was 68-24 in his years as a head coach in the tough Big Ten at Wisconsin. The bad news is a demanding schedule that includes foes who won the last 7 national championships… but don't discount the chances of this 'mission team.'
Stat You Will Like: The Razorbacks' 2013 opponents were 99-54 combined in 2012, including 9 bowlers (the most in the SEC).
PLAY ON: at Mississippi (11/9)
Team Theme: TAKING CHARGE
From a national championship to the unemployment line in two years. That could certainly serve as the title of a Gene Chizik autobiography. It's what happens when you go from 14-0 to 3-9 two years later. Hence, the hire of Gus Malzahn, offensive fireworks maestro who, in addition to being a one-hit wonder at Arkansas State last year, was the architect of the Auburn offense in its championship season. Malzahn brings in Rhett Lashlee, his offensive coordinator with the Red Wolves, and Ellis Johnson, short-term head coach at Southern Miss last year and defensive coordinator the previous four years at South Carolina. Beware: the 'mission' Tigers welcome back the 5th-highest amount of players with returning starts (315) in the nation.
Stat You Will Like: The series history between the south's oldest rivalry, Auburn and Alabama, is deadlocked at 54-54-8 all-time.
PLAY ON: vs. Alabama (11/30)
Team Theme: TIGER BLOOD TRANSFUSION
It's a good thing Les Miles tied TCU for the most combined freshmen (28, including 15 true) with playing time last season. Otherwise, the record eight players selected from the defense in the first five rounds of this year's NFL draft would have gutted the team. Instead, the Mad Hatter will draw from a steady pool of blue-chip recruits to revamp a stop-unit that lost all four linemen in the process. On the other side of the ball, QB Zach Mettenberger needs to step up and deliver. Emerging from an outstanding spring camp, he appears to have the full command and respect of the offense. With only four road games on the itinerary, a seventh double-digit win season in the last nine years looks to be in the offing. As Charlie Sheen would sum it up, "Winning."
Stat You Will Like: Seven of the Tigers' eight conference games were decided by 8 or less points last season.
PLAY AGAINST: as a favorite at Mississippi (10/19)
Team Theme: DEEP FREEZE
Like the U.S. Mail, head coach Hugh Freeze delivered as promised in his debut with the Rebels, snapping a 14-game SEC losing streak en route to leading the Rebels to a winning season, including a rout of Pittsburgh in the Compass Bowl. Better yet, a deep and experienced team returns with 58 lettermen and 19 starters back for more, including QB Bo Wallace - the only quarterback in Ole Miss history not named Eli Manning to eclipse 3,000 passing yards in a season. In addition, leading rusher Jeff Scott and all nine wide receivers that lettered last year are back. The cherry on the cake came when Freeze landed a consensus Top 10 recruiting class in the offseason. Yes, Johnny Reb is back.
Stat You Will Like: The last SEC title won by the Rebels occurred in 1963.
PLAY AGAINST: at Auburn (10/5)
MISSISSIPPI STATE (*6/6)
Team Theme: FOR WHOM THE COWBELL TOLLS
You know your program has arrived when you're a participant in a Kickoff Game. That honor was bestowed on the Bulldogs when they were named to face Oklahoma State in the Texas Kickoff Classic this season. A fresh start is gladly welcomed as 2012 drew to a 1-5 close on the heels of a 7-0 start - and with it, gut checks are in place. The offense loses its top four wide receivers but welcomes 5th-year senior QB Tyler Russell and 12 of its top 13 offensive linemen. Star RB LaDarius Perkins returns for his senior season as well. If the secondary finds able replacements for the three departed starters, the four bowlers MSU faces in the final five games of the season could have a tough row to hoe.
Stat You Will Like: Mullen is 28-3 SU and 18-9 ATS versus sub .750 foes, and 1-19 SU and 5-15 ATS versus .750 or greater opposition.
PLAY AGAINST: at Arkansas (11/23)
TEXAS A&M (*6/5)
Team Theme: JOHNNY HEISMAN
When Johnny Manziel accepted the Heisman Trophy last December he became the first freshman to ever do so, and for that he can thank Ryan Tannehill for leaving early to the NFL. Manziel notched a signature victory when he led the Aggies to a win as 12.5-point dogs at Alabama, all part of a season-ending 6-0 SU and 5-0 ATS win skein. That makes them a hot team with a favorable schedule in 2013 - they have only a pair of two-game road outings, each of which are preceded by a pair of four-game home stands. That's rather unfair when you take into account head coach Kevin Sumlin's 15-0 SU and 13-1-1 ATS career mark as a home favorite of more than 6 points. Gulp.
Stat You Will Like: 12 seats are always left empty at Kyle Field to remember Texas A&M community members who died in a 1999 bonfire accident.
PLAY ON: as a dog at LSU (11/23)