Here’s an early look at how the 2011 SEC power rankings may look to open the season:
1. Alabama: With added experience in the secondary, look for the Crimson Tide to be more consistent next season and not have some of the breakdowns on defense that plagued them in 2010. A.J. McCarron steps in for Greg McElroy at quarterback, and Trent Richardson will get his shot as the centerpiece of the running game.
2. LSU: Former Georgia quarterback Zach Mettenberger will push Jordan Jefferson for the starting job this spring, which will be good for Jefferson. The young returning talent on defense is especially impressive with the likes of Tyrann Mathieu, Sam Montgomery, Eric Reid and Morris Claiborne all showing star potential.
3. South Carolina: The Gamecocks lose very little from their 2010 Eastern Division championship team. It looks like Steve Spurrier is going to open up the quarterback competition between Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw. The one-two punch of running back Marcus Lattimore and receiver Alshon Jeffery should be as good as any in the league, and the defense returns all of its key performers.
4. Arkansas: Ryan Mallett has decided to turn pro after back-to-back 30-touchdown seasons, but Tyler Wilson showed in the Auburn game this season that he can also be a star. He’ll have a talented cast of receivers to throw to, and coach Bobby Petrino thinks the Hogs will be better on defense next season than they were this season.
5. Mississippi State: If you’re looking for a program with a lot of momentum, look no further than Mississippi State. The Bulldogs will bring back the nucleus of the team that hammered Michigan in the bowl game. Quarterback Chris Relf has improved tremendously, and coach Dan Mullen has this bunch believing. Chris Wilson takes over the defense with Manny Diaz making the move to Texas.
6. Florida: First-year coach Will Muschamp steps in for Urban Meyer at Florida and tries to restore that edge that was missing last season. The Gators plan to shift to a pro-style offense, and there’s still no definitive word on whether John Brantley will return. There shouldn’t be any shortage of talent. Meyer brought in top-5 classes nationally every year he was there.
7. Auburn: For a team that just won a national championship, this is a pretty dramatic fall. But with the likelihood that quarterback Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley will both turn pro, the Tigers face some major personnel losses. They will also have to replace their entire offensive line and several key starters on defense. The good news is that Gene Chizik has recruited very well and continues to do so.
8. Georgia: Clearly, Georgia coach Mark Richt is down to his last chance to fix the Georgia program. Having a quarterback like Aaron Murray to build around is always nice, but the Bulldogs need to be better at running the ball next season. It will be the second year in the 3-4 defense under Todd Grantham, so there should be more consistency on that side of the ball in 2011.
9. Tennessee: One of the things that should help Tennessee is that the schedule gets easier in 2011. That offensive line, which was starting three true freshmen to end last season, will be more mature, a year wiser and a year stronger. The Vols have an impressive base of young offensive talent. The key now is finding more defensive linemen and replenishing the secondary.
10. Ole Miss: The Rebels have to get back to where they were defensively the first two years under defensive coordinator Tyrone Nix when they were attacking people and causing turnovers. Some crippling injuries killed them last season, and they just didn’t play very well in the secondary. Houston Nutt’s old pal David Lee takes over the defense.
11. Kentucky: Joker Phillips’ second season as the Wildcats’ head coach figures to be one of his most challenging, especially if Randall Cobb decides to turn pro. Morgan Newton and Ryan Mossakowski will battle for the starting quarterback job, and the Wildcats will look to replace most of their key playmakers on that side of the ball.
12. Vanderbilt: After heading up the Maryland offense for the past three seasons, James Franklin moves in as the Vanderbilt head coach. One of his first orders of business is settling on a quarterback, not to mention some guys at receiver who can add some pop to the Commodores’ passing game. Vanderbilt also fell off defensively this past season.