- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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This year can be different for a lot of teams in the SEC.
A handful of squads return a good amount of talent on both offense and defense and appear to have what it takes to compete for titles in their respective divisions.
The double-digit winners from 2011 aren't the only ones with the chance to make a run at Atlanta, either. So what SEC team has a chance to be a real sleeper in 2012? Well, ESPN colleague KC Joyner has picked the Tennessee Volunteers to surprise folks next season.
For Joyner's research, he checked out teams that "had a good amount of talent but still had ample room for statistical improvement."
"The leading indicator for this analysis is which teams look to have the best chance of improving their net scrimmage yards per play, which is defined as offensive yards per play gained minus defensive yards per play allowed, by at least one yard."
For example, Utah State improved its NYPP by 2.7 in 2011 and saw its win total go from four in 2010 to seven in 2011. LSU's went up 1.2 and saw its wins go from 11 to 13. Houston made the biggest jump going from five wins in 2010 to 13 in 2011 with an increased NYPP of 1.9.
Tennessee decreased its NYPP by -0.39 in 2011, but returns offensive playmakers in quarterback Tyler Bray, and receivers Justin Hunter and Da'Rick Rogers. Before his season-ending knee injury, Hunter was one of the top deep threats in the SEC. Bray was also the SEC's top passer before the thumb injury he suffered against Georgia sidelined him for most of the second half of the season.
Add some of that returning defense talent, and Tennessee should look and play differently in 2012. Plus, that schedule isn't so bad for the Vols, either.
"Unlike in 2011, when it had to play all three SEC West powerhouses (Alabama, Arkansas, LSU), the Volunteers will play only one of those three next season (the Crimson Tide at home). In fact, there are only three contests that look like mismatches at the moment (the Bama game and road trips to Georgia and South Carolina), so if the statistical upgrade is there in 2012, the Vols will be set up well to make a run."