Over the last seven years, the Southeastern Conference has earned a reputation as the best college football league in America. And over the last four seasons, the Alabama Crimson Tide have established themselves as the most dominant program in the nation's most dominant conference.
Alabama is once again the favorite going into 2013, but don't crown the Tide just yet. There are formidable SEC West contenders in LSU and Texas A&M, and the team that emerges from the East race, probably Florida, Georgia, or South Carolina, won't go quietly into the Georgia Dome night. With weapons such as quarterback A.J. McCarron, wide receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon, 'Bama will have an explosive offense. But the offensive line will be relatively green, and on defense, the team must replace the likes of Nico Johnson, Dee Milliner, Robert Lester and Jesse Williams. Can the Crimson Tide overcome the transition?
The competition for a conference -- and possibly national -- title isn't the only reason to watch SEC games this fall. Known for strong defense and rushing attacks, the conference actually has an elite group of quarterbacks. In addition to McCarron, Georgia's Aaron Murray and Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel aren't just game managers. These guys are all setting school records, and any one of them could be a first-team All-American at the end of the year. One of the year's best storylines will be watching to see who has the best performances week in and week out.
Of course, the season wouldn't be complete if there weren't some off-field storylines, too. Manziel's autograph scandal will no doubt follow the Aggies wherever they go. The debate over how to handle future scheduling will continue to make headlines, and the arguments on college athlete stipends will be voiced by anyone with a microphone or keyboard. Don't be surprised if some other unforeseen issue crops up, too.
It's impossible to predict with confidence what will happen this SEC season, but one thing is certain: It will be an entertaining ride.
Seven games to watch
Ole Miss at Vanderbilt, Aug. 29
This one likely won't have an impact on the conference race, but it's the first SEC game of the year. That's a good enough reason to watch. Various analysts have picked both the Rebels and Commodores as possible surprise teams in 2013, and the winner of this Thursday night contest will be off to a good start.
Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 7
Since Steve Spurrier has brought the Gamecocks to a new level of success, the early-season matchup against Georgia has regularly been a key factor in the SEC East race. Carolina has won the last three, but Georgia has overcome the losses and advanced to Atlanta in the last two seasons.
Alabama at Texas A&M, Sept. 14
Nick Saban. Johnny Football. Scandal. Rematch.
This game has it all.
Texas A&M was the only team to conquer Alabama during the Crimson Tide's run to their third national title in four years, and the Aggies managed to do it at Bryant-Denny Stadium. A&M gets the Tide at home this time around, which should be a significant advantage, but Saban thrives in revenge games.
Which X-factor will have a bigger impact?
LSU at Georgia, Sept. 28
LSU and Georgia are two of the SEC's historic powers, but they've only faced off 29 times, ever. The Tigers and Bulldogs could be mirror images of each other: LSU should be great on defense with a suspect offense, and Georgia has one of the SEC's best offenses and a totally unproven defense. Mark Richt's team should have a leg up at home, but there's no telling what will happen when Les Miles is involved.
Florida vs. Georgia (Jacksonville), Nov. 2
After Florida dominated the World's Largest Outdoor
Cocktail Party Ice Cream Social for years, the pendulum has swung in the Dawgs' direction.
Georgia wrecked Florida's perfect regular season last year, and depending on both teams' results against South Carolina, the contest in Jacksonville could be determine who wins the East title. It will certainly determines which fan base gets bragging rights for the next year.
LSU at Alabama, Nov. 9
This has become THE GAME year in and year out in the SEC. The Tigers and Crimson Tide have been longtime rivals anyway, but when Saban, a former LSU head coach, signed up to take over at Alabama, the heat was really turned up. The two schools have combined for five BCS titles, with Saban winning four (one at LSU, three at 'Bama). Right now, these are two of college football's absolute elite, and it doesn't look like that will change anytime soon.
Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 30
No, the Iron Bowl hasn't really been must-see TV recently, as the Crimson Tide have won the last two matchups by a combined score of 91-14. But in 2009 and '10, fans were treated to a couple of classics. Alabama stayed on the path to a title in '09 with a late, game-winning TD drive, and Auburn rallied from a 24-0 deficit a year later en route to its own championship. With Gus Malzahn back on the Plains, this year's contest should more closely resemble the games from three and four years ago.
Six Twitter accounts to follow
Five spots to visit
Only five? Please help us fill out this list in the comments.
- City Grocery in Oxford
- Egan's in Tuscaloosa
- The Station Inn in Nashville
- Trappeze Pub in Athens
- The War Eagle Supper Club in Auburn
Four players to love
Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina DE
You know why you love Clowney; we know why you love Clowney. Let's just roll the tape.
Aaron Murray, Georgia QB
If you like to see records fall, you should follow Murray's progress in 2013. The senior has been starting for the Bulldogs since his freshman year, and by the time this season is over, he will own just about every significant passing mark at Georgia and in the SEC.
Tre Mason, Auburn RB
Mason is the son of Vincent Mason, who made a name for himself in the hip hop group De La Soul, and some Auburn fans like to call the running back "Tre La Soul." That's reason enough to love him.
Even more impressive than his lineage was Mason's production in 2012. Auburn's offense was positively wretched, but he still managed to put together a 1,000-yard season. That's pretty impressive, considering the Tigers averaged just 305 yards per game (235 in conference play). Given the Tigers' passing-game options and Gus Malzahn's return, we'll be enjoying plenty of Mason (and Cam Artis-Payne) this season
Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M QB
Some -- maybe most -- fans would argue Manziel deserves to be on a "players to hate" list instead of this one, but anyone neglecting to appreciate Johnny Football because of his issues away from the gridiron is missing out on one of the most entertaining football players we've ever seen.
No, he won't win the Heisman again in 2013, but if he's on the field, Manziel will continue to compile ridiculous numbers and execute mind-boggling plays. If you love college football, you should love watching No. 2 play.
Three coaches to know
Nick Saban, Alabama
Yeah, everybody knows this guy, but that's because they should. When Saban speaks, the rest of the conference listens. That's what happens when a coach wins three national titles in four years.
Before Saban suggested it, no one mentioned the possibility that up-tempo offenses could be dangerous for players. Now, it's one of the hottest topics in the national college football landscape. In addition to running the best program in the country, Saban plays a big part in shaping the national debate on issues.
Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
Spurrier has led three programs (Duke, Florida, South Carolina) to previously unknown heights. Under his watch, the Gamecocks have compiled back-to-back 11-win seasons after making their first SEC Championship Game appearance in 2010. You know the Ol' Ball Coach would love nothing more than to take Carolina to the college football mountaintop before he hangs up his visor, and if he's going to do it, he might not have a better chance than this year.
Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
While Saban and Spurrier represent the cream of the old-guard crop in the SEC, Sumlin is the coach who seems most likely to lead the next generation of coaches in the conference. Really, he's reminiscent of an early-90s Spurrier: He's young, brash and runs a high-octane offense that the SEC's defensive-minded coaches hate. If he has Johnny Manziel for the full season in 2013, A&M has to be considered a real title contender.
And don't forget about the four newcomers. Gus Malzahn is back on the Plains to turn Auburn around, and Bret Bielema will try to establish a new, physical style of play -- real American football -- at Arkansas. Tennessee hopes Butch Jones can lead the Volunteers back to elite status, and Mark Stoops aims to take Kentucky to heights previously unseen.
Two things to treasure
Saturday night in Tiger Stadium
Night games in Death Valley. They provide the most hostile environment for opposing teams in the country. After fully lubricating themselves with a full day of tailgating, roughly 90,000 LSU fans cram into the stands and rattle visiting offenses with one of the loudest -- if not the loudest -- atmospheres in the country. Any team that has left a night game in Baton Rouge with a win has accomplished a rare feat.
The eagle flight at Jordan-Hare Stadium
Before every Auburn game, an eagle flies around the stadium and lands at midfield while the crowd chants "Warrrrrrrrrrrrr EAGLE! HEY!" It's really a sight to behold, and there isn't really any tradition like it anywhere else.
One thing to remember (about each team)
... are you really going to pick against the Tide? If they make the BCS title game again (and really, that's the toughest part), do you really think that, as things stand on paper in early June, Ohio State is a good bet to take down the Tide? Oregon with its new head coach? Stanford? Notre Dame? Louisville?
Bret Bielema inherits a team that is probably too young at key positions to succeed at any high level, but it is talented enough to return to the postseason after a one-year absence. It will certainly take him a little while to build the type of program that he was maintaining at Wisconsin in recent years, especially in the zero-sum universe of the SEC West; for Arkansas to go up, somebody has to go down, and aside from maybe Mississippi State, who in the West looks like they're ready to go down? Still, Arkansas made a hell of a hire, and it should pay off eventually. Just erase your 2012 expectations from your mind a bit and embrace the rebuilding project.
The Gus Malzahn hire really does make sense in so many ways. He brings an identity to an offense that needs one, and while he has only been a head coach for one season, he pushed a lot of the right buttons in that one year at Arkansas State. He is a known entity in the SEC, he will keep recruiting going awfully strong, and even if he doesn't reach a bowl in his first season, he should have this team deep, experienced, competitive and fun pretty quickly.
If they are once again a top-five team (and yes, despite the lack of aesthetics and the awful first-half showing against Louisville, they were just that), then barring a potential upset, this schedule could boil down to two games: the trip to LSU and the Cocktail Party rivalry game versus Georgia. Win one of those two, and you're probably in the SEC title game, one step away from the national title game. But if the lack of pass offense is more problematic, if the young defense allows for a few more early deficits, and Florida only puts a good product on the field instead of a great one, then suddenly it's going to be a battle just to reach eight wins.
But despite the offense, the combination of a green defense and a rough early slate will probably prevent the Dawgs from reaching last year's late heights. Richt just has to hope that, the next time his timing is right, Georgia can gain about five more yards.
When you fall apart to this degree, a quick fix almost certainly isn't going to happen. It will probably be another painful season in Lexington, but the combination of experience and improved recruiting might ensure that Kentucky becomes interesting as early as 2014.
I know exactly why people are a little down on LSU this year, but I just can't convince myself to join them. I see a top-10 team here, with strong-as-always special teams, a defense with a secondary good enough to compensate for losses on the line, and an offense that will probably look good (better than in 2012, at least) throwing the football. The Tigers aren't going to win the SEC West, but whatever average is for Les Miles at this point, he should see at least another average season this fall.
Dan Mullen has done a solid job at Mississippi State. He inherited a program that had been to just one bowl in eight years (and had won more than even four games just twice in that span) and has been to a bowl and found his team ranked in the Top 25 for at least part of three straight seasons. But while a five- (or even six-) win season would have represented remarkable progress in years past, it would now be a further sign of regression from Mullen's 2010 peak. With potential young stars in players like Chris Jones, linebacker Richie Brown, corner Will Redmond, receiver Fred Ross, future quarterback Cord Sandberg [UPDATE: He's now playing pro baseball], etc., MSU will continue to have a reasonably high ceiling (especially for MSU) in the years to come. But everybody in the SEC West has a pretty high ceiling, and Mullen has failed to distinguish his team from others in the last couple of years. A hard job seems to be getting harder.
The 2013 schedule is full of both opportunity and landmines. A trip to Indiana and visits from strong two mid-majors (Toledo and Arkansas State) could spell doom if Mizzou has an off week, but at the same time, Alabama is off the schedule, and Florida, South Carolina, and Texas A&M must all visit Columbia. A Top 20-30 team could win eight or nine games against this schedule. A team that ranks 58th, as Mizzou did last year, could win four. Predictably, I assume the middle ground: six or seven wins. A season like that won't get Gary Pinkel fired, but it also won't convince recruits that the corner has been turned.
Typically when a team improves so dramatically in one year, regression toward the mean is likely the next season. Teams also don't typically come out of nowhere to sign a top-ten class after languishing at a much lower level in the preceding years. But Ole Miss is in no way typical. We knew that before Hugh Freeze even came to town, and we definitely know it now. I'm pretty optimistic about this team, but one probably doesn't make much money betting on the Rebels, one way or another.
If South Carolina is ever going to make a run toward the national title game, it will probably be in 2013, with a manageable schedule and Clowney still in uniform. But I just don't trust the Gamecocks enough to predict that. The early trip to Georgia will test a defense that is still breaking in new pieces, and I don't see South Carolina surviving a three-week October road trip against three competent, potentially interesting teams (Arkansas, Tennessee, Missouri) without at least one upset loss. I certainly see the Gamecocks winning double-digit games for the third straight year -- and for a school that had done so only once before 2011, that is a feat that shouldn't be taken for granted -- but I don't see them threatening for the national title.
Honestly, this should be a pretty good team. The passing game is cause for alarm, and until we see the defense playing at a more aggressive level (and doing it relatively successfully), we don't know that it will. But if you look at players and units as blank canvases, you have to like the potential just about everywhere. The offensive line will be good to great, the front seven should conform well to Jancek's 4-3, the running backs will be competent to good, and the secondary, if healthy, should improve. Butch Jones has had a very positive offseason in terms of P.R., and he should find a lot to like about the personnel he inherits.
I don't think A&M will be as good as it was last year -- injuries could be a problem this time around, both lines will regress at least a bit, the receivers and linebackers are terribly green, and we haven't even mentioned the fact that 2012 offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury is now the head coach at Texas Tech -- but it might not need to be. Just beat Alabama on September 14, and it will take a pretty decent-sized upset to knock you out of the BCS top two before the late-November trip to LSU. And hell, even if you lose to Alabama, you're still potentially in decent shape for a title run. This doesn't feel like a title-caliber team to me this year, but that might not matter.
I'm going back and forth by the second. But only thinking Vandy might go 6-6 is staggering if you think back to where this program was just 24 months ago. Again, the margin for error is still small, but one gets the impression that the Commodores are done with being cannon fodder for quite a while. Anchor down.