2012 NCAA Football Preview: Southeastern Conference

August 29, 2012
By K. Becks

This is the last “Big Six” conference preview that I will post. So if you’re not into the smaller conferences, this is pretty much where you and I part ways.

Just kidding. Please read the rest of my conference previews. But here is the Southeastern Conference preview.

Overview

Unless you’re a supporter of a team in the conference, everyone hates the SEC. Every year they’re labeled as the toughest conference in the nation, yet somehow one of its teams finds a way to run the table while no one else in other “softer” conferences can do so. No matter what sport it is, nobody likes a six-time defending champion.

Unfortunately for the rest of us, change doesn’t appear to be inevitable…at least this season. The SEC still has a slew of good teams that would, on most weekends, hold their own against the best that the other conferences have to offer. The only hope is this: that the conference can destroy itself. Of course, even that doesn’t guarantee anything, as we learned last season when LSU and Alabama squared off in the national title game in what was a rematch.

What are the chances that the entire SEC will have at least two losses? I think we know the answer to that. The best medicine for those sick of the SEC-dominance is catching the rare occasions when one of the conference’s best teams goes down. Like Tylenol, it makes the pain go away for a little while.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a National Championship Bid

Alabama

The defending national champions come into the season well-equipped to make another run at the BCS title game, but don’t consider it a foregone conclusion that the Crimson Tide will waltz right down to Miami. While still very talented, Alabama loses a lot of pieces from the defense that anchored its undefeated run through the 2011-2012 season, especially in the secondary. In addition, the Crimson Tide is without a familiar face in the backfield for the first time since before Mark Ingram.

Nick Saban & Co. is going to need some unknowns to step up this season, as well as a little bit of luck in order to make it back to the national title game. The schedule is not easy, with trips to Arkansas and LSU looming in addition to the season opener against Michigan. If recent history is any indication, the odds are stacked against the Crimson Tide running the table two straight years. The talent is still there to do so, however.

LSU

The loss of Tyrann Mathieu was disappointing for the Tigers, but it doesn’t make them a team that can no longer compete for the national title. This year, LSU actually has a quarterback that can throw in junior Zach Mettenburger. Last year, the Tigers were hampered by the inconsistency of Jordan Jefferson, especially in big games and should be much better off without him. Mettenburger gives LSU a viable passing game even with the loss of wide receiver Rueben Randle, which is something that it did not really have last year.

The defense will make or break the Tigers this season. LSU now has to replace both corners with the loss of Mathieu, and the depth at linebacker was already thin. It might seem like a shock to read, but if the Tigers lose a game they’re not supposed to this season, it will be because of the defense. Still, don’t expect LSU to be terrible on that side of the ball, because they are still more talented than most teams.

Arkansas

This could finally be the year where the Razorbacks breakthrough in the SEC West, and former head coach Bobby Petrino won’t be there to enjoy what he built. Arkansas may have the best offensive attack in the SEC thanks to quarterback Tyler Wilson. In addition, tailback Knile Davis returns from an ankle injury he suffered before last season which gives the Razorbacks a dangerous option in the run game.

Perhaps the greatest reason it could be Arkansas’ year is the fact that the games against Alabama and LSU are in Fayetteville. Those two teams, also national title hopefuls, are facing questions as to whether their defense will be as strong as it was last season. With the offensive weapons that the Razorbacks possess, few teams are better equipped to take advantage of those possible weaknesses. In the past two seasons, Arkansas has only lost to Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Ohio State, all of which went on to play in the national title game or a BCS bowl. This is the year that the Razorbacks can finally get over the hump.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Georgia

The Bulldogs play in the SEC East, clearly the weaker of the two divisions, so not making it to the SEC Championship Game would be a total disappointment for fans in Athens. No, the Bulldogs are a team that could surprise because they have the talent to run the table like some of their West division brethren.

I believe that Aaron Murray is the best quarterback in the SEC hands down, and could be one of the best quarterbacks in the entire nation. Murray is extremely confident in the pocket, and actually makes his receivers look bad when he throws them a ball on target and they just can’t handle it (which happened several times in last year’s SEC Championship Game). Assuming dropped passes don’t happen too much, Georgia will have one of the most dangerous passing attacks in the league and will score a lot of points if need be.

The Bulldogs have to go on the road to face their stiffest challenge in South Carolina, but only travel four times the rest of the season. The friendly schedule, paired with Murray’s command of the offense, should give the Georgia faithful plenty to cheer about this fall.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player To Watch)

Aaron Murray (Jr.), Georgia quarterback

You just read about how much I like Murray in the previous section, so there isn’t a whole lot to say here. Murray, who I predict will be one of the most sought after quarterbacks in the NFL when he is a senior next season, has the chance to do big things for the Bulldogs this season. His accuracy and arm strength are second to none in the SEC, and the fact that he has been the starter since his freshman season gives him an advantage over most defenses he will go up against.

Murray may have some trouble buying time to find his receivers, but it won’t be his fault. The offensive line is a concern for Georgia this season, and that is really the only thing separating the Bulldogs from being on my National Championship watch list. If Murray becomes a name ESPN starts throwing around like Tim Tebow or RGIII someday, don’t be surprised at all. This guy is the real deal.

Out-Of-Conference Game To Watch

Georgia Tech vs. Georgia (November 24th)

It’s always nice when a rivalry game ends up being one of my “Games To Watch”. Both the Yellow Jackets and Bulldogs are capable of making it to BCS bowl this year, so there should be far more on the line than bragging rights in this one.

This game could end up featuring a lot of offensive fireworks, but in totally different ways. Georgia Tech runs the triple-option, but still manages to put up a bunch of points. Georgia will have one of the best passing attacks in the nation which should allow them to keep pace with Georgia Tech’s scoring. Although Georgia has one of the better defenses in the nation as well, expect the winner to eclipse the 30 point mark, similarly to last year.

In-Conference Game To Watch

LSU vs. Arkansas (November 23rd)

The most important game of the season may come down to the last one for these teams, as the annual Battle for the Golden Boot between LSU and Arkansas could decide which team will represent the West in the SEC title game. Arkansas will be looking to take down the Tigers at home in consecutive tries, as the Razorbacks knocked off LSU in 2010 in Fayetteville when the Tigers were ranked 6th in the nation.

LSU’s defense will be the deciding factor in this game. By this point in the season, we will know whether or not the Tigers are struggling on that side of the ball or are again a defensive power, but Arkansas’ offense is simply too good for LSU to play poorly on defense and win. If LSU’s defense is up to the task of slowing down Tyler Wilson and the Razorback offense, this could end up being an instant classic.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Georgia (11-1, [7-1])

2. South Carolina (10-2, [6-2])

3. Missouri (8-4, [4-4])

4. Florida (7-5, [4-4])

5. Vanderbilt (7-5, [4-4])

6. Tennessee (5-7, [2-6])

7. Kentucky (4-8, [1-7])

West Division

1. Arkansas (12-0, [8-0])

2. LSU (11-1, [7-1])

3. Alabama (10-2, [6-2])

4. Auburn (6-6, [3-5])

5. Mississippi State (6-6, [2-6])

6. Texas A&M (5-7, [1-7])

7. Mississippi (4-8, [1-7])

Championship Game (Georgia vs. Arkansas)

Winner: Arkansas

Questions from the Readers

Q. How do you think the loss of Tyrann Mathieu will affect LSU’s chances of winning a title? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

A. Not as much as you might think, although LSU’s defense as a whole does affect LSU’s chances of returning to the national title game. Mathieu as well as fellow cornerback Morris Claiborne will be missed, but the Tigers were going to have some trouble anyways. The front four was really the only part of the defense that had no question marks, and that wouldn’t have been enough to stop teams such as Arkansas and Georgia if LSU managed to make it to the SEC title game.

I don’t think that one player can ultimately destroy a team’s chances of getting to the national title game, especially a defensive player. However, the loss of Mathieu does add another concern to the growing list of them for the Tigers.

Q. With 13 returning starters, including QB Tyler Wilson and RB Knile Davis, how come Arkansas isn’t getting respect as a national title threat? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

A. Clearly, you must not be referring to Around The Corn when you talk about lack of respect for the Razorbacks. I think that Arkansas has a golden opportunity this season, and I believe that Tyler Wilson and the rest of the offense will take full advantage of that opportunity. Some people don’t realize how much of a boost it is for an SEC team to play its toughest games at home, but I think that Arkansas will reiterate that sentiment this season.

The one concern for the Razorbacks on offense will be the health of Knile Davis. Davis has had issues with his ankle since his senior year of high school, breaking it twice already. He is a very important part of the offense in that he will take some of the pressure off the passing game, and an injury to him would be devastating. If Davis can remain healthy, I truly believe that Arkansas has what it takes to end up playing for a national title this season.

Q. On the flipside, how come South Carolina is ranked so high? I understand that Marcus Lattimore is coming back but there is no way of knowing how healthy he’ll be and they lost key pieces on offense and defense (i.e. Alshon Jeffrey and Melvin Ingram). Is it because LSU and Alabama aren’t on the Gamecock schedule or because they actually are that good? (Submitted by Coleman M.)

A. For the most part, the Gamecocks avoiding the two SEC West powers is the main reason why some people think South Carolina could be a dark horse national title contender. In addition, South Carolina has a viable passing attack thanks to Connor Shaw, who has performed quite well following Stephen Garcia’s rocky tenure.

There is also the argument that the loss of Jeffrey won’t be that devastating to the offense because he had somewhat of a down season in 2011, when the Gamecocks finished 11-2. However, I really like Georgia to win the SEC East and think that the Gamecocks will have a hard time with them at home, in addition to some tricky games that almost always seem to trip up Steve Spurrier’s team at least once a year.

South Carolina is good, but I don’t know if they are a team I would bet my life savings on to win even the SEC.

- K. Becks

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