NCF Nation: Arceto Clark
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.
On to the league's wide receiver/tight end groups:
1. Tennessee: The Vols are equipped with two of the top wideouts in the league with Da'Rick Rogers, who was second in the SEC in receiving last year, and Justin Hunter, who might be the SEC's top deep threat. It sounds like Hunter will be 100 percent this fall after his ACL injury last year. Junior college transfer Cordarrelle Patterson is big, fast and possesses the big-play gene. The speedy Zach Rogers is back and is so is talented tight end Mychal Rivera.
2. Arkansas: Cobi Hamilton is now Arkansas' primary receiver, and he might be the league's most complete wideout. He can make the big-play and elude defenders along the way. While Marquel Wade's status is still unclear, if he does return, he'll be a major lift for this offense because of his playmaking ability in the slot. Julian Horton and Javontee Herndon have always impressed coaches in practice and now will get their chances to in games. Tight end Chris Gragg should be even more involved and is the league's top tight end.
3. Georgia: While Malcolm Mitchell could go back and forth between receiver and corner, when he's at receiver he's Georgia's top offensive threat and was one of the league's best as a rookie. There are vets behind him, starting with reliable senior Tavarres King, who had a very good spring, senior Marlon Brown, who seemed to take a big step in his game this spring. Sophomores Michael Bennett and Chris Conley combined for 48 catches for 608 yards and seven touchdowns last year. Unproven tight ends Arthur Lynch and Jay Rome will replace Orson Charles and Aron White.
4. Texas A&M: This isn't the fastest group out there, but there are some pretty reliable weapons, starting with star Ryan Swope, who could have left for the NFL after catching 89 passes for 1,207 yards and 11 touchdowns last year. Uzoma Nwachukwu was third on the team with 50 catches for 639 yards and three tight ends -- Nehemiah Hicks, Michael Lamothe and Hutson Prioleau -- return. Keep an eye on junior Nate Askew, who could be a downfield threat this fall.
5. LSU: Odell Beckham Jr. was one of the top rookies last year and could be even better in Year 2. He'll be joined by potential deep threat and big-play target Jarvis Landry, who developed some good chemistry with quarterback Zach Mettenberger this spring. Russell Shepard is talented, but he's been wildly inconsistent. Keep an eye on junior James Wright and incoming frosh Avery Johnson, who is the younger brother of Patrick Peterson. Also, tight end Chase Clement is on the John Mackey watch list.
7. Alabama: There is more speed out wide in Tuscaloosa, but there's a lot more youth. The Tide could turn to freshmen Chris Black, Amari Cooper and Eddie Williams to help develop a more downfield passing game. More will be expected from veterans Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood, while sophomore DeAndrew White possesses a ton of speed. Still no word on Duron Carter. Tight end Michael Williams was solid last year, but will be used even more this fall.
8. Mississippi State: There is a lot of experience here, but this group has still underperformed at times, especially senior Chad Bumphis, who has yet to live up to all the hype that followed him from high school. Seniors Chris Smith and Arceto Clark combined for 65 catches last year, while the staff is very excited about the big-play potential redshirt freshman Joe Morrow possesses. Tight end Malcolm Johnson serves as a very reliable tight end target, as well.
9. Missouri: The Tigers lost two starting receivers and stud tight end Michael Egnew, but three of the top five pass catchers are back, including inside threat T.J. Moe, who led Mizzou in receiving last year. Big things are expected from Marcus Lucas, who can stretch the field with his speed and physicality, and the coaches think L'Damian Washington can also be a downfield threat. Also, Dorial Green-Beckham, last year's top recruit, should make an immediate impact. Eric Waters is replacing Egnew, but has just two career catches and suffered a knee injury this spring.
10. Auburn: Emory Blake is one of the league's top downfield threats and has been one of Auburn's most consistent offensive weapons. So has tight end Philip Lutzenkirchen, who should be more of a passing threat with the addition of transfer fullback Jay Prosch. There is a lot of depth, but it's unproven. Trovon Reed was supposed to be a star, but had a lackluster second year. Seniors Travante Stallworth and DeAngelo Benton have 15 and 14 career catches, respectively. Quan Bray has shown potential and could have a bigger role this season and keep an eye on freshman Ricardo Louis.
11. Florida: The Gators have struggled here since 2009 and still lack proven playmakers. Andre Debose is probably the best bet to be one, but he's been very inconsistent. Quinton Dunbar has the speed to be an outside threat, but caught just 14 passes last year. And the coaches are still waiting for senior Frankie Hammond Jr. to turn things up. True freshman Latroy Pittman had a great spring and the coaches are excited about his potential. Tight end Jordan Reed is one of the most athletic players in the league and will be a bigger target with two young quarterbacks throwing the ball.
12. South Carolina: Now that Alshon Jeffery is gone, the Gamecocks have questions and inexperience here. The fast, athletic Ace Sanders is the only returning pass catcher with at least 20 catches from last year (29). The hope is Bruce Ellington will be more of a factor this fall. Tight ends Justice Cunningham and Rory Anderson combined for 26 catches and four touchdowns. Damiere Byrd has blazing speed, but caught just one pass last year. DeAngelo Smith had a solid spring, and the coaches hope he can be a downfield threat. A lot will be expected from incoming freshman Shaq Roland.
13. Ole Miss: Sophomore Donte Moncrief is a budding star in this league and thinks he'll be even better in Hugh Freeze's spread offense. Ja-Mes Logan caught 20 passes last year, but had a very good spring. But Nickolas Brassell was an academic casualty and Randall Mackey had to move over from quarterback. The coaches are looking for consistency from Terrell Grant and Vince Sanders, who are both pretty unproven. Tight end Jamal Mosley is expected to do more in the spread and averaged 13.8 yards per catch last year.
14. Kentucky: Joker Phillips' goal this spring was to find more playmakers and he thinks he did with sophomore Demarco Robinson, who had five receptions last year, and redshirt freshman Daryl Collins. The hope is that they'll take some pressure off of La'Rod King, who is really the only proven receiving threat on the team. Tight ends Ronnie Shields and Tyler Robinson did well this spring, but combined for just 10 catches last year.
Let’s take a look at what we came up with:
2. LSU: The Tigers might have lost Terrence Toliver, but they’ll still have weapons at receiver. Junior Rueben Randle is expected to be the go-to guy in LSU’s offense and is coming off a season where he caught 33 passes for 544 yards and three touchdowns. Russell Shepard was right behind him last season, catching the same amount of balls, but only totaled 254 yards and one touchdown. He looked sharper this spring and is looking to break out this fall. Tight end Deangelo Peterson should also get more attention this fall. He only caught 16 passes, but that number should increase.
3. South Carolina: For starters, the Gamecocks have the league’s best receiver in Alshon Jeffery. The 6-foot-4, 233-pound freak snatched just about everything that came his way last fall and registered 1,517 yards and nine touchdowns. He’s nearly impossible to stop in one-on-one situations. Senior Jason Barnes didn't make a major impact in 2010, but he does have 60 career receptions under his belt. The smaller Ace Sanders should be even better after bursting onto the scene with 25 receptions for 316 yards and two touchdowns. D.L. Moore, who caught 17 passes in 2010, should have a more expanded role as well.
5. Tennessee: Neither Justin Hunter nor Da'Rick Rogers had a ton of catches last fall, but that will change with a strong passing game in 2011. Hunter caught 16 passes, but registered 415 yards and seven touchdowns in the process. He’s a solid deep threat and playmaker. Rogers also only caught 16 passes, and while he didn’t have the yardage Hunter had, he made tremendous strides this spring. Tight end Mychal Rivera caught 11 passes in 2010 and with Luke Stocker gone he takes over as the Vols’ weapon at tight end.
6. Alabama: There aren’t a lot of questions surrounding the Crimson Tide, but receiver isn’t Alabama’s best area. Seniors Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks should get the brunt of the catches. They combined for 70 catches for 1,013 yards and six touchdowns last season. There is a long list of other inexperienced players who should grab some catches as well and former Ohio State receiver Duron Carter, who just transferred in, could be a factor this fall.
7. Florida: The Gators have talent at wide receiver, and Florida should have a more pass-friendly offense, but the group is very unproven. Frankie Hammond Jr. could be Florida’s best weapon at receiver with his speed and athleticism. Omarius Hines has the size and speed to be a major mismatch for defenders in the slot and on the outside. Freshman Quinton Dunbar was Florida’s top deep threat this spring and should get ample playing time. At tight end, Jordan Reed was called Florida’s best athlete and could end up being the Gators’ top playmaker. Trey Burton should catch a few more passes as well.
9. Auburn: There is still some talent left on the Plains at receiver. Sure, Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery are gone, but the Tigers will look to Emory Blake and Trovon Reed to make up for their departures. Blake is the leading returning receiver, while Reed will be used all over the field by Auburn’s coaches. He can be a threat in the slot and on the outside. Philip Lutzenkirchen will be more of a staple in the offense as the Tigers’ trusted H-back.
10. Ole Miss: Athletically, the Rebels are fine. However, this group is very inexperienced and was inconsistent this spring. The incoming freshmen will have every opportunity to take a starting spot and Tobias Singleton could be the best option of Ole Miss’ youngsters. Of the returners, Melvin Harris did the most in 2010, catching 30 passes for 408 yards and three touchdowns. Redshirt freshman Vincent Sanders will also get a chance to heavily contribute after making strong strides this spring.
11. Vanderbilt: Four of Vanderbilt’s five receiving leaders return, but the group wasn’t tremendously productive last fall. The Commodores didn’t have a receiver go over 320 yards last season and tight end Brandon Barden caught a team-high 34 passes for 425 yards. Vanderbilt's top two wideouts -- John Cole and Jonathan Krause -- are back, but the Commodores might have to turn to their youngsters for help.
12. Kentucky: The Wildcats lost a lot when do-everything Randall Cobb left early for the NFL and things didn’t get any better by losing No. 2 wideout Chris Matthews. Now, it’s back to the drawing board in Lexington. La'Rod King should be the top target for quarterback Morgan Newton, but he disappointed at times this spring. Matt Roark and E.J. Fields will compete for time, but both need vast improvement. The top athlete could be Brian Adams, but he spent spring playing for Kentucky’s baseball team.
Questions unanswered: The Bulldogs had the tough task of replacing three starting linebackers this spring. While the defense did well this spring under new coordinator Chris Wilson, it won’t be known how the Bulldogs’ new linebackers will fair until the season gets underway. Cameron Lawrence, who entered the spring as a starter, was the most productive at the position last year, so the rest of the unit should lean on him. Fellow starters Brandon Wilson and Chris Hughes combined for 30 total tackles last season. The Bulldogs will get boost at linebacker this summer when Brandon Maye, a three-year starter at Clemson, transfers in. The Bulldogs entered the spring looking to replace Pernell McPhee at defensive end. So far, no one has truly emerged, but rising juniors Trevor Stigers and Shane McCardell are battling for the spot McPhee left. The two combined for 23 tackles, including 6.5 tackles for loss
Spring stars: Running back Vick Ballard picked up where he left off last season, having a very nice spring. While Ballard is the unquestioned starter at running back, LaDarius Perkins has helped with the distribution of carries this spring. He’s a speedier and shiftier back, who adds a different dimension to the position. Bumphis has continued to be the most consistent receiver the Bulldogs have, but Clark really impressed during scrimmages this spring and should be a very reliable No. 2 for Relf this fall. Defensive back Corey Broomfield continues to be a threat. He scored a touchdown, forced a fumble and recorded a sack in a scrimmage this spring. Defensive end Sean Ferguson isn’t McPhee, but he held his own at defensive this spring. Now, finding someone to play opposite him is the next step.
Of note: Tight end Marcus Green was limited after partially tearing the ACL and spraining the MCL in his right knee last season in the second game. … Despite breaking his collarbone and missing last season’s Gator Bowl, Bumphis was full go this spring. … Sophomore Baker Swedenburg has done well this spring at punter after taking over for last season’s starter Heath Hutchins. … Though Johnthan Banks has gotten work at safety, coach Dan Mullen said that move might not be permanent. … Defensive back Jamerson Love (hand) and offensive lineman Sam Watts (leg) both suffered injuries late this spring. Safety Nickoe Whitley (knee) didn’t practice this week and could miss Saturday’s game.
Posted by ESPN.com's Chris Low
We take our weekly "Internal Affairs" look at the SEC. And by the way, judging by the performances from Florida and Georgia last week, I guess the Big 12 Conference isn't the only one capable of putting up big offensive numbers. The Gators and Bulldogs combined for 115 points and 889 yards of total offense in their blowout wins:
Less is more: LSU quarterback Jarrett Lee hasn't been as bad as some of the criticism the last week would suggest. It's just that four of his bad throws have turned into touchdowns for the other team. The Tigers aren't going to kick him to the curb, but they are going to give him less responsibility and will condense the playbook the rest of the season. The idea is to put less on his shoulders and give him fewer things to think about. Lee has been sharing snaps this season with Andrew Hatch, but Hatch is nursing an injury to his left leg. LSU coach Les Miles said true freshman Jordan Jefferson has continued to get increased snaps in practice and could play Saturday against Tulane.
Throwing to Demps: It's a given that freshman Jeffery Demps has changed the way defenses are playing Florida. You've got to account for his speed on every play. He's a touchdown waiting to happen. The newest wrinkle with Demps is using him more out of the backfield as a receiver. He catches the ball well and is a nightmarish matchup for any linebacker or safety trying to cover him. The other thing that having Demps in the backfield does is that it allows the Gators to keep Percy Harvin at receiver or in the slot, and they can move him to the backfield when they want to and not necessarily because they have to.
Catching Clark: Get ready for a heavier dose of true freshman Arceto Clark at Mississippi State. Last week in the win over Middle Tennessee, Mississippi State coach Sylvester Croom decided to take the redshirt off of Clark, and he only ran one time for 2 yards. Look for that role to greatly expand this week. He's a receiver the Bulldogs can do some different things with and will also likely get some chances returning kicks. Clark was recruited as a cornerback, but Croom talked him into moving to offense this summer. He has the kind of speed the Bulldogs have been lacking on the offensive side of the ball.
Pressing the Vols: Nobody has respected Tennessee's passing game this season, which is why the Vols have routinely seen eight men in the box. Look for South Carolina to load the box even more this Saturday. The Gamecocks have a lot of faith in their cornerbacks to cover in man coverage and will take their chances in going after Tennessee quarterback Nick Stephens, who's hit a few big-gainers to Denarius Moore, but hasn't consistently been able to make teams pay by completing passes down the field. He'll get every chance against the Gamecocks, who will dare the Vols to beat them deep.
Bosley back at center: It looks like senior Jason Bosley is back at his original position of center to stay. With Auburn going back to more of its power sets, the Tigers want one of their most physical blockers in the middle of things. Bosley and Ryan Pugh, who is now back at right tackle, had switched positions earlier in the season. When the Tigers moved Bosley initially, he was playing with an injured shoulder and having trouble snapping the ball, which was of particular concern when they were operating almost exclusively out of the shotgun. Auburn is looking for anything to jump-start an offense ranked 109th in total offense and 102nd in scoring offense.