- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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From billboards to an untimely joy ride, the SEC has seen a lot of change in recent months.
The black Missouri billboards sprinkled around the South, reading “PROUD TO BE SEC: MIZZOU” coupled with those not-so-discrete Texas A&M/SEC TV adds ushered in the arrival of the SEC’s new families. But their exodus from the Big 12 wasn’t the only big change for the league.
The league said goodbye to a load of defensive talent and lost a couple of head coaches -- and even more assistants. Still, for as much change that has been made, it seems the overall results will be the same.
“You have to give the SEC a lot of credit,” Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. “I tell a lot of people that we played in the Big 12, which is a great conference, but they just have more good team in [the SEC]. It’s remarkably competitive.”
LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Florida, four top-10 defenses from a season ago, return relatively intact this fall. Of those four, all but Florida will be involved in national championship discussions to start the season, especially LSU.
On paper, the Tigers might be the most talented team in the country. The defensive line possesses three potential first-rounders and the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is still lurking in a secondary stocked with talent and athleticism.
The offense has to be better with Zach Mettenberger taking over at quarterback. He possesses the skill to throw the ball pretty much whenever he’s asked to, so that will be a major upgrade. He’ll also have plenty of weapons with five able running backs to choose from -- including Michael Ford and Spencer Ware who were both ranked in the top 10 in SEC rushing -- and a talented, young receiving group.
The scary thought is that a lot of people around the program think Les Miles might have a better team in 2012.
Georgia has 15 total starters returning, including a potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Aaron Murray, and yet again has a favorable schedule. South Carolina looks like it’s a healthy Marcus Lattimore and a more polished Connor Shaw away from making it back to Atlanta.
While defending national champion Alabama is down a handful of defensive starters from last season, the Crimson Tide can’t be counted out. The defense has more than capable players ready to fill holes. Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley are ready to take over at linebacker, while Jesse Williams and Damion Square will lead up front. The secondary still has veterans Dee Milliner and Robert Lester and welcomes junior college studs Deion Belue and Travell Dixon.
“We’re going to be younger on defense. We don’t have as much experience, but we’ve got some good players,” coach Nick Saban said.
“I was pleased with the progress that we made -- not satisfied with where we need to be.”
Then, there’s Arkansas.
After Bobby Petrino's infamous motorcycle ride, the Razorbacks look to bounce back with an offense capable of pushing Arkansas to an SEC title and beyond. We still don’t know how effective interim coach John L. Smith will be, but he’ll have quarterback Tyler Wilson, running back Knile Davis and receiver Cobi Hamilton at his disposal, and that will make things easier.
With an improved offensive line and some talented, young receivers, Arkansas will score points. Now if only the defense can keep up …
There will no doubt be awkward situations ahead in the SEC. Making flights to Kansas City and Houston will seem wrong. Watching an entertaining coach’s news conference at Arkansas will feel unnatural. And not knowing what to expect from a Saban defense will confuse you.
But with everything that has changed, one thing that should remain is another championship run.
There’s still just too much clicking for the SEC.
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