- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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We are just days away from the college football season, so it's time to unveil our first batch of power rankings for the regular season.
A lot goes into our power rankings. It isn't just about how strong teams are right now. We look into our crystal ball as well to get a good read on how each team will finish the season -- before it has even started.
For each school, we look at talent coming back, coaching, roster changes, how teams have looked in practice now compared to the spring and uniform style. Well, maybe not that last part, but you get the point.
Here are our season-opening SEC power rankings for 2012:
1. LSU: The gap between the Tigers and Alabama got a lot smaller after Tyrann Mathieu's dismissal, so this could be viewed as 1A and 1B. Mathieu is a big loss for LSU on defense and special teams, but there is just way too much talent for this team not to make another title run. LSU's offense still has one of the best/deepest running games around and gets an upgrade with quarterback Zach Mettenberger. LSU also might have the best offensive line/defensive line combo in the nation.
2. Alabama: The defending champs lost a lot of star power on defense, but that unit should still be pretty darn good this fall. There could be some growing pains at times, but the Tide should still have one of the league's best defensive units this fall. The offense might be better and more balanced this fall, even without Trent Richardson. There is a good stable of backs, the nation's top offensive line and quarterback AJ McCarron has a little more explosiveness and athleticism to work with at receiver.
3. Arkansas: Bobby Petrino is gone, and that could be tough for the Razorbacks to overcome in the long run, but the team has bought in to what interim coach John L. Smith is saying. We still need to see how this team -- and Smith -- acts when adversity enters the picture. The offense has two of the league's best in quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back Knile Davis, who is back from a serious ankle injury. Wilson lost three NFL receivers, but his receiving corps doesn't lack talent. Questions still surround the defense, which lacked depth last season.
4. Georgia: A load of talent returns on both sides of the ball. Quarterback Aaron Murray could be a Heisman candidate, while linebacker Jarvis Jones might be one the country's best players, regardless of position. Isaiah Crowell is gone, but the Bulldogs seem happy with their stable of running backs and were probably going to run by committee again this season anyway. The defense will take a hit with a couple of key stars suspended to start the year, but this group has elite status. The schedule is set up again for a run to Atlanta.
5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return a filthy defense headlined by sophomore defensive end Jadeveon Clowney. The defensive line should be one of the best in the league with Clowney and Devin Taylor on the ends and Kelcy Quarles coming back in the middle. The secondary has issues, especially with Akeem Auguste going down, but safety D.J. Swearinger and hybrid safety/linebacker DeVonte Holloman are studs. Marcus Lattimore is one of the nation's best, and he appears to be 100 percent after his ACL injury. The hope is that quarterback Connor Shaw will help take some pressure off of him.
6. Florida: The Gators return a fierce defense that should be strong across the board. End/tackle Dominique Easley is coming off an ACL injury, but has the ability to be one of the top linemen in this league. But for Will Muschamp, his second-year success will be determined by what the offense can do. Questions are everywhere, starting with a quarterback battle that isn't close to being settled. There are unproven pieces at receiver and the offensive line, which returns most of last year's parts, struggled mightily in 2011.
7. Tennessee: The Vols have a chance to challenge Arkansas for the league's best passing game. Tyler Bray can throw it all around a bit and has two potential stars in Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson to throw to. However, Da'Rick Rogers is gone, which means the pressure is on Hunter, who is coming off an ACL injury, and Patterson, who is in from the juco ranks. The defense has a lot of experience and talent, but four new coaches are on board, including defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri. Seven new coaches are in Knoxville, and it's no secret that Derek Dooley's seat is very hot there.
8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of confidence in quarterback Tyler Russell, who can finally call this team his. He'll have quite a bit of experienced weapons to throw to, including seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith, who have combined to catch 221 passes for 2,782 yards and 22 touchdowns in their careers. The running game should be strong with LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin, while the offensive line is just hoping to stay healthy this year. The defense should be solid with a talented front seven and a very gifted secondary, starring potential All-American Johnthan Banks. The schedule is also very favorable in September and October.
9. Missouri: The newbies don't lack confidence, but on paper they lack size up front -- on both sides. The staff and players say it's not a problem, but let's see come mid-October. Quarterback James Franklin appears to be 100 percent after undergoing shoulder surgery and might be the league's best dual-threat QB. He's the key to a spread offense that returns a lot of speed. The defense is experienced and has a strong linebacker group. Ends Brad Madison and Kony Ealy could form a pretty good tandem this fall.
10. Auburn: The Tigers are still a young team and there are two new coordinators in town. Now that Kiehl Frazier has been named the starting quarterback, the offense can start molding around him. He'll have a solid group of running backs to work with, but the line is young and he needs more reliable receiving targets alongside Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen. The defense is loaded up front, headlined by end Corey Lemonier. But the defense as a whole still has a lot of questionable parts for new coordinator Brian VanGorder to work with.
11. Texas A&M: The Aggies have a new coaching staff, have to replace some key starters from last year and will be working with a very green quarterback in redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel. The good news for him is that the offensive line is very strong, starting with tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. Helping Manziel will be senior receivers Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu and stud running back Christine Michael, who is coming back from an ACL injury. The defense is moving to a 4-3, but is stacked at linebacker. The secondary is dangerously young and thin.
12. Vanderbilt: This team surprised a lot of people last year, but opponents won't be caught off guard by the Commodores in 2012. There is good offensive firepower coming back, with quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Plus, there is some good, young offensive talent. But the offensive line has depth issues and will have to use a lot of young guys this fall. The defense is also replacing some key components from last year's team.
13. Kentucky: The Wildcats saw their five-year postseason run end after having the SEC's worst statistical offense in 2011. Joker Phillips thinks he has more potential playmakers this fall and is excited about quarterback Maxwell Smith's potential. The offensive line is younger and can't afford an injury to either Matt Smith or Larry Warford. The defense will be strong up front, but is replacing all four linebackers and two starters in the secondary.
14. Ole Miss: New coach Hugh Freeze isn't working with a lot of numbers, as attrition from the past few years is catching up. The offense was one of the league's worst last year, and still has a quarterback battle between Bo Wallace and Barry Brunetti going on. The offensive line struggled mightily to grasp Freeze's spread this spring and has to improve quickly. Receivers Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan have a lot of upside, while the defense should be better, especially in the secondary. Still, depth is an issue overall.
1dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough