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Monday, April 29, 2013
SEC sleepers to keep an eye on in 2013

By Edward Aschoff

In the coming months, you'll be bombarded with watch lists, predictions and plenty of look-aheads to help that football appetite that baseball just can't cure.

ESPN colleague Travis Haney jumped on the look-ahead bus earlier with a glance at his top sleepers from each conference for the 2013 season Insider. North Carolina headlined his group and Auburn made the cut in the SEC.

It's hard to argue against the Tigers making a big jump in 2013. There is a lot of talent coming back that Gus Malzahn is very familiar with, especially on offense. And unlike last year's squad, these guys fit the offense. No longer will spread players have to deal with a pro-style offense.

So long square peg and round hole!

But it will be important that the quarterback situation gets figured out. And by figured out, I mean that one guy actually takes quality steps forward. Kiehl Frazier, who everyone is still waiting on to turn things around, is the favorite to land the starting job. He knows Malzahn -- and his offense -- and has been on the Plains for two-plus years now. It's now or never for Frazier.

However, rising sophomore Jonathan Wallace is gunning for him. He ended last season as the Tigers' starter and shared snaps with Frazier this spring. He's a similar player and will have every opportunity to win the starting spot this fall.

The good news for whichever quarterback takes control is that he'll have a pretty talented backfield to go with an experienced offensive line (four starters are back). Running back Tre Mason crossed the 1,000-yard mark last year and should have good help from former Alabama back Corey Grant and junior college transfer Cameron Artis-Payne.

A concern on offense is the fact that only one receiver returns with more than nine catches from last season -- Quan Bray.

Auburn's defense should be in good hands with Ellis Johnson running things on that side of the ball. The Tigers also return eight of their top 10 tacklers, including senior safety Demetruce McNeal. Veteran defensive linemen Dee Ford, Nosa Eguae, Angelo Blackson and Gabe Wright also return.

Another team that could surprise in 2013? How about the Missouri Tigers?

The offense that literally limped its way through a rough 5-7 first year in the SEC could be an afterthought in 2013. The offensive line that saw all but one player -- freshman Evan Boehm -- suffer some sort of injury last year just can't go through another season as banged up as it was, right? Plus, explosive running back Henry Josey is back after missing all of last season with a major knee injury.

Offensive coordinator David Yost is gone, but it seemed like the Tigers needed a fresh look offensively. Word out of Columbia this spring was that there was a lot more focus on offense. Expect rising sophomore Dorial Green-Beckham to have a much bigger role this fall, and veterans Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington will be counted on more to stretch the field.

Also, watch the quarterback spot. James Franklin spent more time banged up than looking like an SEC quarterback. But for the first time since he was a senior in high school his shoulder isn't in excoriating pain. His confidence has increased and he's actually healthy. Plus, he was really pushed by redshirt freshman Maty Mauk this spring. That battle should bleed into fall camp and will only make both better.

There has to be some concern about the defensive front with Sheldon Richardson gone and losing two starting linebackers stings. Having senior cornerbacks E.J. Gaines and Randy Ponder back should help boost that secondary.

With their schedule, the Tigers could head into SEC play 4-0 and they get Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Texas A&M at home. Getting back to a bowl and pulling a big upset this fall aren't out of the question for the Tigers.