SEC: 2013 team previews

Arkansas team preview

August, 16, 2013
8/16/13
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First-year coach Bret Bielema takes over at Arkansas, and the Hogs are on the docket today in our SEC preview.

Coach: Bret Bielema (68-24 overall, first season at Arkansas)

2012 record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC

Key losses: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Dennis Johnson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, S Ross Rasner

Key returnees: FB Kiero Small, C Travis Swanson, DE Chris Smith, DE Trey Flowers, DT Byran Jones, CB Tevin Mitchel

Newcomers to watch: RB Alex Collins, OT Denver Kirkland, TE Hunter Henry, LB Martrell Spaight

Biggest games in 2013: Texas A&M, Sept. 28; at Florida, Oct. 5; South Carolina, Oct. 12; at Alabama, Oct. 19; at LSU, Nov. 29

[+] EnlargeBret Bielema
Wesley Hitt/Getty ImagesBret Bielema moved from Wisconsin to Arkansas on the belief the Hogs can compete for national titles.
Biggest question mark: Shoring up all three linebacker spots remains a priority. The three players projected to start right now have been in the program for a while -- senior Austin Jones in the middle, senior Jarrett Lake on the weak side and redshirt junior Braylon Mitchell on the strong side -- but none of the three has ever started a game. Much of their experience has come on special teams. The same goes for redshirt junior Daunte Carr, while sophomore A.J. Turner (wrist) hasn’t been fully healthy. The Hogs feel like junior-college newcomer Spaight and true freshman Brooks Ellis can be key contributors, but the search continues for the right combination among a group of players who have very little SEC experience on defense.

Forecast: Bielema jumped at the chance to be the coach at Arkansas because he believes the Hogs can compete for national championships. How long it will take for them to get there, or if they will get there, is anybody’s guess. But Bielema says confidently that he didn’t come to Arkansas “to be great in three years.” He’s reminded his players more than once that the Hogs were picked last in the Western Division at SEC media days, which was more a reflection of how badly they floundered last season following the Bobby Petrino scandal. But before Petrino set sail on that fateful motorcycle ride two springs ago, Arkansas had won 21 games in two years and played in the Allstate Sugar Bowl following the 2010 season.

So it’s not out of the realm that Arkansas could climb back into the SEC’s upper echelon. The dicey part will be doing it this season. Bielema believes deeply in running the football and being physical on offense, but he brought in Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator to help provide some balance. Junior quarterback Brandon Allen has been impressive throwing the ball this preseason, and the Hogs also like their one-two punch of Jonathan Williams and Collins, a true freshman, at running back. Get ready to see a lot of new faces, period, this season. Bielema said as many as 10 true freshmen could play.

The strength of the team should be the defensive line. Ends Smith and Flowers are big-time pass-rushers, and there’s also some experience on the interior of that line. Getting off to a good start and building some momentum is critical. Remember what happened against Louisiana-Monroe in the second game last season? Plus, the Hogs face a brutal league schedule. In a four-week stretch from Sept. 28-Oct. 19, they face Texas A&M, Florida, South Carolina and Alabama. Florida and Alabama are both on the road, and there are also trips to Ole Miss and LSU later in the season. Winning championships might be the goal, but a more realistic goal this first season would be getting to a bowl game.

Auburn season preview

August, 15, 2013
8/15/13
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Today we're looking at Auburn, as the Tigers look to get back to being competitive in the SEC West with the return of Gus Malzahn.

Coach: Gus Malzahn (9-3 overall, 0-0 at Auburn)

2012 record: 3-9, 0-8 SEC

[+] EnlargeTre Mason
John Reed/US PresswireGus Malzahn and Auburn will be counting on big production from running back Tre Mason this season.
Key losses: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates

Key returners: RB Tre Mason, OT Greg Robinson, C Reese Dismukes, WR Ricardo Louis, DE Dee Ford, DT Angelo Blackson, CB Chris Davis, S Demetruce McNeal

Newcomer to watch: Freshman defensive end Carl Lawson has impressed the staff since stepping on campus and has the tools to help improve Auburn's pass rush this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Washington State, Aug. 31; Mississippi State, Sept. 14; Ole Miss, Oct. 5; at Arkansas, Nov. 2; at Tennessee, Nov. 9

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: With the news that Kiehl Frazier is moving to safety, Auburn's quarterback battle is down to three players. Right now, it looks like newcomers Nick Marshall and Jeremy Johnson are pulling ahead of sophomore Jonathan Wallace, who started the final four games for Auburn last season. Marshall and Johnson have been very impressive this fall and split first-team reps during Tuesday's scrimmage. Regardless of who starts, Malzahn will have his eighth different starting quarterback in eight years.

Forecast: Auburn returns a handful of starters on both sides of the ball, but neither side was very good at all last season. Auburn ranked last in the SEC in total offense and 13th in total defense. Auburn barely scored 18 points per game and allowed nearly 30. All of that has to change in 2013, and with Malzahn back on the Plains, many believe it will.

Offensively, with the return of the spread offense, the Tigers will no longer be trying to put a square peg into a round hole. The Tigers had spread players last season, but were running a very uncomfortable pro-style attack that drastically set the offense back. While this team still has to figure out who its starting quarterback will be, the offense will likely revolve around running back Tre Mason, who was Auburn's only offensive weapon last season, rushing for 1,002 yards and eight touchdowns. He can be a downhill threat and has the ability to make plays in space.

A solid offensive line returns, but the Tigers are still looking for more consistency at receiver. The hope is that former big-time recruit Ricardo Louis' big spring translates to the fall, and that Quan Bray and Trovon Reed reach their big-play potential.

Defensively, coordinator Ellis Johnson wants a much more aggressive unit with his 4-2-5 scheme and might have budding stars in "Star" Justin Garrett and cornerback Chris Davis. There is talent up front, but the defensive line has to be much more disruptive this fall, and the secondary can't allow the big plays that crippled it in 2012.

There's no question that Auburn has the talent to return to a bowl game, but it's all about development. The Tigers just didn't have it during the last two years of the Gene Chizik era, but Malzhan and Co. have made it a priority. Johnson should have the defense in much better shape, while an improved offense will be a major reason why the Tigers return to the postseason in 2013.

Georgia season preview

August, 13, 2013
8/13/13
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Although Georgia must replace a big group of defensive standouts -- including first-round NFL picks Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- the Bulldogs still enter the season as a favorite to win the SEC East for the third straight season.

Georgia

Coach: Mark Richt (118-40 career, all at UGA)

2012 record: 12-2 (7-1 SEC)

Key losses: OLB Jarvis Jones, ILB Alec Ogletree, N John Jenkins, S Bacarri Rambo, S Shawn Williams, WR Tavarres King, CB Sanders Commings

Key returnees: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, WR Malcolm Mitchell, CB Damian Swann, DE Garrison Smith, OLB Jordan Jenkins, WR Michael Bennett, TE Arthur Lynch

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTray Matthews is one of the new players the Bulldogs expect to play right away in their defense.
Newcomer to watch: True freshman free safety Tray Matthews is the obvious pick here, having arrived in January and claiming a starting role during spring practice. But Matthews is one of a large group of newcomers who will make an impact -- particularly on the Bulldogs’ rebuilding defense. Newcomers are sure to play early in the secondary and at linebacker, but the most new faces might be up front, where Toby Johnson, John Atkins, Chris Mayes and possibly Leonard Floyd are all among the expected contributors.

Biggest games in 2013: Florida is always a big midseason game, but the first month of the season is the make-or-break period for Georgia. The Bulldogs open with a high-profile nonconference matchup at Clemson, host South Carolina -- which owns a three-game winning streak against Georgia -- in Week 2 and close out September with a home game against LSU. That tough slate could easily derail Georgia’s season immediately, but if Georgia makes it to October with a 3-1 or 4-0 record, the Bulldogs might rank among the top contenders for a spot in the BCS championship game.

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: With 12 key defensive players gone from last season, Georgia has holes to fill at every defensive position. Todd Grantham’s reconstructed unit is extremely talented, but can it function adequately during the difficult first month of the season? The defense had a good spring and has been solid thus far this preseason, so the group is gaining confidence. If it can be competent early, Murray, Gurley and the Bulldogs’ high-scoring offense should be able to do the rest.

Forecast: Try as they might to change the subject, last season’s near-miss against Alabama in the SEC championship game -- with a spot in the BCS title game at stake -- remains a regular source of conversation between fans/media and the Bulldogs.

Richt and his coaching staff have made the consistent point that last season is over and looking backward can easily breed complacency. The team seemed to take that message to heart, as Murray reported that attendance at summer workouts and passing sessions was the best it has been in his five-year career. Whether that workmanlike attitude will translate to improved consistency early in the season is the factor that might define the season. Georgia hasn’t reached the season’s midway point without a loss since 2005, the last time the Bulldogs won the SEC title, and facing Clemson, South Carolina and LSU early makes ending that trend an enormous challenge.

The good news for Georgia is that it has nearly everyone back from the highest-scoring offense in school history, with Murray returning for his fourth season as the starter, Gurley and Keith Marshall leading the backfield and all five starters on the offensive line. And, yes, the defense has holes to fill, but it’s stocked with breakout candidates like Jordan Jenkins, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, Matthews and a number of defensive linemen.

We’ll know almost immediately whether this is a team that can actually contend for the conference title -- and perhaps its bigger goals. Its potential is enormous, particularly if it gets off to a fast start.

Kentucky season preview

August, 12, 2013
8/12/13
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Today, our SEC preview shifts to the Kentucky Wildcats.

Coach: Mark Stoops (0-0)

2012 record: 2-10, 0-8 SEC

[+] EnlargeMark Stoops
University of Kentucky AthleticsMark Stoops will be looking to develop some players in his first season at Kentucky.
Key losses: RB CoShik Williams, WR La’Rod King, OG Larry Warford, C Matt Smith, DE Collins Ukwu, DE Taylor Wyndham, S Martavius Neloms, S Mikie Benton

Key returnees: QB Jalen Whitlow, QB Maxwell Smith, RB Raymond Sanders, RB Dyshawn Mobley, DT Mister Cobble, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin Dupree, LB Avery Williamson

Newcomer to watch: Junior college transfer Za'Darius Smith had a great spring and summer and should be able to make an immediate impact at defensive end this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Western Kentucky (in Nashville), Aug. 31; Louisville, Sept. 14; Florida, Sept. 28; Missouri, Nov. 9; at Vanderbilt, Nov. 16; Tennessee, Nov. 30

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Wildcats might have three quarterbacks competing for the starting job, but figuring out who will catch passes from any of them is still a mystery. There is a lot of potential at receiver, but there isn't any real production or consistency coming back. Junior Demarco Robinson and sophomore Daryl Collins were expected to break out in 2012, but combined for just 45 catches and 468 yards with no touchdowns. Highly recruited freshman Ryan Timmons and junior college transfer Javess Blue will have every opportunity to be fixtures at receiver this fall.

Forecast: Stoops has quite the task in his first season with the Wildcats. The good news is that the defensive-minded coach will have a lot of talent and experience to work with along his defensive line. Past coaches waited and waited for defensive tackles Mister Cobble and Donte Rumph to reach their potential. Now, it seems like both are ready to do that and more this fall. Helping them out will be Alvin "Bud" Dupree, who is one of the league's best pass-rushers and moved from linebacker to end when the Wildcats went from a 3-4 scheme to a 4-3. Having Za'Darius Smith and freshman Jason Hatcher at the ends should make this line even more athletic this fall.

There are mixed reviews at running back. Even with the loss of Josh Clemons for the second straight year, the Wildcats have senior Raymond Sanders and sophomore Dyshawn Mobley, who is returning from hernia surgery. Both had good springs, but with Clemons' injury and the departure of Justin Taylor, both have to remain healthy because there isn't much depth at all.

There's a three-headed quarterback battle that carried into camp. Sophomore Jalen Whitlow left spring with the edge, but he still has to beat Maxwell Smith, who began last season as the starter before injuries took his season, and classmate Patrick Towles.

Players have to step up at receiver and tight end, and the Wildcats are thin at linebacker after Dupree's move to the defensive line. Three starters from the secondary are gone; Kentucky is getting some help, but it's coming in the form of the 2013 signees.

Stoops knows he has a lot of issues to work through in his first season, and while a bowl game could be a lofty goal, there's no doubt the Wildcats will be more competitive in 2013. Stoops certainly wants to win this fall, but a lot of the season will be devoted to development for the future.

LSU season preview

August, 11, 2013
8/11/13
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Our SEC preview series shifts today to the Bayou and the LSU Tigers.

Coach: Les Miles (113-42 overall, 85-21 at LSU)

2012 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC

Key losses: DE Barkevious Mingo, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid

[+] EnlargeJarvis Landry
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsThe Tigers hope to use more of their passing attack this season, including leaning on Jarvis Landry's skills at wideout.
Key returnees: QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Jarvis Landry, WR Odell Beckham Jr., OT La’el Collins, DT Anthony Johnson, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston

Newcomers to watch: LB Kendell Beckwith, TE Logan Stokes, WR Travin Dural, WR Quantavius Leslie, DE Lewis Neal

Biggest games in 2013: TCU (in Arlington, Texas), Aug. 31; at Georgia, Sept. 28; Florida, Oct. 12; at Alabama, Nov. 9; Texas A&M, Nov. 23

Biggest question mark: The amount of talent LSU lost on defense last season to the NFL was staggering, but few teams in the SEC have reloaded on that side of the ball the way the Tigers have under fifth-year coordinator John Chavis. That’s the challenge this season, particularly when it comes to finding guys who can rush the passer and make big plays off the edge. LSU should be fine on the interior with the tandem of Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson, but there’s not a proven finisher at end. Junior Jermauria Rasco and sophomore Danielle Hunter are both primed to move into that role and have breakout seasons, while freshmen Lewis Neal and Tashawn Bower will also be worth watching.

Forecast: Amid all the talk about Alabama going for its third straight national championship and the circus surrounding Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, LSU has sort of been the forgotten team in the West race. Deep down, LSU coach Les Miles doesn’t mind being in the shadows entering the 2013 season because it’s been an excellent source of motivation for his team. Try mentioning to any of the players that this could be the year the Tigers fall off a bit. At LSU? The Tigers may have lost several great players, but they also breed great players, and that’s been their mantra on the Bayou.

One of the big questions of the offseason was recently resolved when star running back Jeremy Hill was reinstated to the team following his legal troubles. Miles has said only that Hill would be punished internally and hasn’t specified if he will miss any games. Getting Hill back was big for the Tigers, who were already deep at running back. But the 233-pound Hill has the size, power and speed that should fit perfectly into Cam Cameron’s offense. Having Hill in the backfield will make LSU’s play-action passing game that much more effective, and the plan is for senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger to throw the ball down the field more this season. The Tigers need to throw it better, period, after finishing 11th in the SEC last season in passing offense and tossing just 12 touchdown passes in 13 games.

As Miles has alluded to more than a few times, LSU is the only team in the West this season that has to face both Florida and Georgia from the East. The Tigers also have to play at Alabama, so the schedule may be LSU’s biggest hurdle in terms of making a run at the SEC championship.

Missouri season preview

August, 9, 2013
8/09/13
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Today we’re looking at Missouri as it attempts to improve upon its middling results in its first season in the SEC.

Missouri

Coach: Gary Pinkel (163-98-3 career, 90-61 at Missouri)

2012 record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)

Key losses: DT Sheldon Richardson, WR T.J. Moe, RB Kendial Lawrence, LB Wil Ebner, CB Kip Edwards, OL Elvis Fisher, S Kenronte Walker, LB Zaviar Gooden

Key returnees: QB James Franklin, DL Kony Ealy, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, WR L’Damian Washington, RB/KR Marcus Murphy, LB Andrew Wilson, K Andrew Baggett, CB E.J. Gaines

[+] EnlargeHenry Josey
AP Photo/L.G. PattersonA devastating knee injury forced Henry Josey to miss the 2012 season, but he's back to power the Tigers' running game.
Newcomer to watch: Instead of a brand-new player, let’s focus on a returning potential star: running back Henry Josey. Josey missed all of last season after suffering a knee injury 10 games into the 2011 campaign, but he had an outstanding spring and could breathe some life into the Tigers' rushing attack. He was an All-Big 12 pick in 2011, rushing for 1,168 yards and 8.1 yards per carry before the injury.

Biggest games in 2013: Missouri might be 4-0 entering its SEC opener, Oct. 5 at Vanderbilt. But the month of October will likely define the Tigers’ season as they follow the Vandy visit with a trip to Georgia (Oct. 12) and home dates against Florida (Oct. 19) and South Carolina (Oct. 26).

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: Can Missouri play physically enough up front to compete with the SEC’s best? The Tigers dealt with too many injuries last season -- particularly along the offensive line -- and were often overwhelmed at the line of scrimmage as the season progressed. Pinkel’s team has outstanding skill-position talent, but the SEC is a toughness league and Missouri might struggle to rise in the SEC East until its depth and talent up front is sufficient.

Forecast: Multiple BCS computer rankings formulas listed Missouri’s schedule as the nation’s most difficult a season ago, thanks to cross-divisional SEC games against BCS champ Alabama and co-No. 5 Texas A&M, plus Eastern Division matchups with co-No. 5 Georgia, No. 8 South Carolina and No. 9 Florida. It doesn’t look too much easier this fall, but the Tigers at least get to drop Alabama for Ole Miss. And the opening month of games against Murray State, Toledo, at Indiana and Arkansas State should allow Mizzou to get off to a strong start.

With a healthier offensive line and quarterback, a second-year breakout candidate in Green-Beckham and Josey returning to the backfield, the Tigers’ high-tempo offense should be productive. The defense returns six starters from a group that ranked 10th in the SEC in total defense (390.7 YPG) and 11th in scoring defense (28.4 PPG), but losing Richardson to early entry into the NFL draft will make it difficult to improve upon those numbers.

The Tigers dropped three games by a touchdown or less despite all of the injuries last season, so it’s not unreasonable to believe a healthier club can reach bowl eligibility -- as Pinkel’s program had in each of the previous seven seasons before last fall. Missouri still has plenty to prove from a physicality standpoint, however, as Georgia, South Carolina, Alabama and Texas A&M all beat the Tigers by at least three touchdowns last season. But if it can start 4-0 and at least snag a victory or two from teams like Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Tennessee, the Tigers should go bowling again.

Ole Miss season preview

August, 8, 2013
8/08/13
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Today, we're looking at Ole Miss, which enters the 2013 season under the heavy weight of expectations.

Ole Miss

Coach: Hugh Freeze (37-13 overall, 7-6 at Ole Miss)

2012 record: 7-6

Key losses: OG A.J. Hawkins, RB/WR Randall Mackey, DT Gilbert Pena, K Bryson Rose

[+] EnlargeHugh Freeze
AP Photo/Bill HaberHugh Freeze and the Rebels had the No. 5 ranked recruiting class in 2013. How big of an impact will those freshmen make this season?
Key returnees: LB C.J. Johnson, LB Mike Marry, WR Donte Moncrief, OG Aaron Morris, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, CB Charles Sawyer, RB Jeff Scott, QB Bo Wallace

Newcomer to watch: WR Laquon Treadwell

Biggest games in 2013: at Vanderbilt (Aug. 29), at Alabama (Sept. 28), vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 12), at Mississippi State (Nov. 28)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The enthusiasm is sky high around Oxford, Miss., these days as Hugh Freeze has injected life into a program that had spent much of the past decade floundering in the SEC. Thanks to a surprisingly competitive 2012 season and a recruiting haul that turned heads around the country, the Rebels are back on the map. But with recognition comes expectations. And despite Freeze's best attempts at trading short-term hopes for long-term goals, his team has to sustain the momentum the program has built and remain competitive despite an obvious lack of depth and a difficult schedule. The young talent he's assembled on campus -- big names like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil -- won't have long to adjust to the limelight and learn how to play at the next level. How Ole Miss does this season might depend on it.

Forecast: For all the attention Ole Miss has gotten nationally of late, the fact remains that the Rebels finished the 2012 season a .500 team trying to get into a bowl game. Playing competitive football against the likes of Alabama and LSU is one thing. Winning those games is another thing altogether. With many of its key pieces returning from a season ago, Ole Miss has the talent to challenge the league's best, but conquering a stacked SEC West seems improbable the way the schedule is laid out with early challenges against Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Texas A&M all coming in the first six weeks.

Until the SEC changes its rules, Ole Miss is going to push the tempo on offense. And with quarterback Bo Wallace back under center and potential All-SEC running back Jeff Scott and wide receiver Donte Moncrief around him, the Rebels have the right parts to orchestrate their supercharged attack. How Wallace matures and how his repaired shoulder heals will determine how far the offense goes. He told reporters at SEC media days that he's pain free, but the coaching staff has been cautious in practice, limiting the number of throws he makes each day. Getting healthy is his first step. Making better decisions and cutting down on his 17 interceptions from a year ago is the next.

If Ole Miss wants to take the next step, it must come on defense, where the Rebels finished 11th in the SEC stopping the pass. Denzel Nkemdiche is blossoming into a star at linebacker, Antonio Conner has a high ceiling at safety and defensive end Channing Ward has shown flashes of brilliance. C.J. Johnson and Mike Marry aren’t household names yet, but they soon could be. The key, however, is the improvement of the secondary. Losing Nickolas Brassell hurts, but the good news is there’s almost no turnover as its top three interception leaders return.

South Carolina season preview

August, 7, 2013
8/07/13
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Today we're looking at South Carolina, which enters the 2013 season as one of the favorites in the Eastern Division.

Coach: Steve Spurrier (208-77-2 overall, 66-37 at South Carolina)

2012 record: 11-2

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireSouth Carolina QB Connor Shaw leads a talented offense.
Key losses: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, LB Shaq Wilson, FS D.J. Swearinger, DE Devin Taylor

Key returnees: DE Jadeveon Clowney, WR Bruce Ellington, QB Connor Shaw, CB Victor Hampton, DT Kelcy Quarles

Newcomer to watch: C Cody Waldrop

Biggest games in 2013: vs. North Carolina (Aug. 29), at Georgia (Sept. 7), vs. Florida (Nov. 16), vs. Clemson (Nov. 30)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: South Carolina’s offensive line is huge -- the smallest of the projected starters is 314 pounds -- so there should be little issue in opening holes for the running game. However, the group has to improve in pass protection. The unit has given up 68 sacks over the past two seasons. The Gamecocks have particularly struggled against quicker pass-rushers, which is a bit surprising since the line works against Clowney throughout camp and spring practice. There’s some talent at receiver, but it might not develop if the line continues to have trouble containing the rush.

Forecast: South Carolina has put together back-to-back 11-2 seasons for the first time in school history, but all that has gotten the Gamecocks are Capital One and Outback bowl appearances. South Carolina made the SEC title game in 2010, but was edged out in the Eastern Division by Georgia the past two seasons. The Gamecocks are good enough to win the division in 2013 thanks to a favorable schedule, provided they don’t trip up during a mid-October road trip.

The Gamecocks feel they have a star-in-waiting in tailback Mike Davis, who filled in admirably when Lattimore went down with another season-ending knee injury. He’ll be running behind a mammoth offensive line that could be the best run-blocking unit in the league. Quarterbacks Shaw and Dylan Thompson are a solid duo.

The receivers aren’t big, but they are fast and elusive. The group is led by the 5-foot-9, 196-pound Ellington (40 catches last season). Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland and Nick Jones give the offense the big-play potential it lost when Sanders decided to leave after his junior season.

But it’s on defense where the Gamecocks really shine, and it begins with Clowney -- a Heisman candidate who is projected to be the No. 1 overall draft pick in 2014. He’s a dangerous pass-rusher who can change the game in one play. He’s got help from Quarles, who was a freshman All-American in 2011, and Hampton. Quarles is a run-stuffer which some pass-rush ability. Hampton is South Carolina’s top cover cornerback.

There are questions at linebacker, where the Gamecocks are counting on some unproven players and a key performer, Cedrick Cooper, coming back from a knee injury.

South Carolina avoids LSU, Alabama and Texas A&M. The Gamecocks do play at Georgia in Week 2, and if they win that game the season will likely come down to the Florida game in Columbia.

Tennessee season preview

August, 6, 2013
8/06/13
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Today, we take a closer look at Tennessee in Year No. 1 under Butch Jones.

Coach: Butch Jones (50-27 overall, first season at Tennessee)

2012 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC

Key losses: QB Tyler Bray, WR Justin Hunter, WR Cordarrelle Patterson, LB Herman Lathers, CB Eric Gordon

[+] EnlargeButch Jones
Randy Sartin/USA TODAY SportsButch Jones faces five of the preseason top-10 teams from the coaches' poll in Year 1 at Tennessee.
Key returnees: RB Rajion Neal, OT Antonio Richardson, OT Ja'Wuan James, OG Zach Fulton, DT Daniel McCullers, LB A.J. Johnson

Newcomers to watch: WR Marquez North, TE Woody Quinn, CB Riyahd Jones, CB Cam Sutton

Biggest games in 2013: at Oregon, Sept. 14; at Florida, Sept. 21; at Alabama, Oct. 26; Vanderbilt, Nov. 23

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The Vols lost nearly all of their proven offensive firepower from last season, particularly in the passing game. Justin Worley still has to lock down the starting quarterback job, but he’s at least played some. Whether it’s Worley or one of the freshmen at quarterback, the Vols are going to need the skill people around them to step up their games, and in many cases, to play beyond their years. The good news is that it looks as though prized freshman receiver Marquez North will be able to help immediately, and fellow true freshman Ryan Jenkins could also factor into the rotation at receiver. Rajion Neal and Marlin Lane are back at running back, but the Vols will be counting on a lot of new faces to make plays for them on offense this season.

Forecast: Jones is Tennessee’s fourth head coach in six years, and his passionate brick-by-brick approach has been a hit for a win-starved fan base. The Vols have suffered through three straight losing seasons, and simply getting to a bowl game will be a chore in Jones’ first season. One of the biggest things working against him is a brutal schedule which includes games against five teams in the top 10 of the preseason coaches’ poll. Three of those games are on the road, too, against Oregon, Florida and Alabama.

A year ago, the Vols scored points in bunches, but couldn’t stop anybody. They were plagued by busted assignments and confusion on defense. New defensive coordinator John Jancek has gone back to a 4-3 scheme and tried to simplify things. Getting linebacker Curt Maggitt healthy is a must, but he’s on track to be full go by the opener. The Vols also need a big year from massive defensive tackle Daniel McCullers, who’s in the best shape of his career.

The strength of the team will be an offensive line that should be among the best in the country. The Vols will lean heavily on those guys and hope they can dictate the flow of games while some of the younger skill players come into their own. The month of November will be critical. It’s probably going to take a 3-1 mark in the final month to go bowling, making home dates with Auburn (Nov. 9) and Vanderbilt (Nov. 23) worth circling in orange. It's been a while since the Vols have beaten somebody they weren't expected to beat. In fact, they've lost 14 of their past 16 SEC games. So knocking off a Florida, Georgia or South Carolina in Jones' first season would further convince the Big Orange Nation that he's indeed the man to re-establish the Vols as an SEC power.

Texas A&M season preview

August, 5, 2013
8/05/13
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Today, we're looking at Texas A&M as the Aggies try to expand on their success in their first season in the SEC.

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (46-19 overall, 11-2 at Texas A&M)

2012 record: 11-2

Key losses: OT Luke Joeckel, DE Damontre Moore, LB Sean Porter, LB Jonathan Stewart, WR Ryan Swope

Key returnees: WR Mike Evans, DB Toney Hurd, QB Johnny Manziel, OT Jake Matthews, OT Cedric Ogbuehi

Newcomer to watch: RB Brandon Williams

[+] Enlargejm
Doug Finger/The Gainesville Sun/LandovThe Aggies' season will hinge on quarterback Johnny Manziel's eligibility.
Biggest games in 2013: vs. Alabama (Sept. 14), at Ole Miss (Oct. 12), vs. Vanderbilt (Oct. 26), at LSU (Nov. 23)

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The status of quarterback Johnny Manziel. Looming over the Aggies is the NCAA investigation of Manziel, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner, about whether he accepted payment for signing autographs. There's concern whether his eligibility for the upcoming season will be affected. If it is, the Aggies would have to turn to either junior Matt Joeckel or redshirt freshman Matt Davis at quarterback.

Forecast: If Manziel is cleared of any wrongdoing, then the Aggies are legitimate SEC West, SEC championship and perhaps BCS National Championship contenders. They'll likely be favored in every game except their home matchup against Alabama on Sept. 14, and perhaps the game at LSU on Nov. 23, one of the two teams they lost to last season.

Aside from Manziel, the biggest on-field questions for the Aggies are on defense. Three of their most productive players from 2012 -- defensive end Damontre Moore, and linebackers Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart -- are now in the NFL. The Aggies are young and inexperienced in the front seven, and the status of two starting defensive backs (cornerback Deshazor Everett and safety Floyd Raven) are still to be determined after offseason arrests.

Still, with the return of Manziel, leading receiver Mike Evans and three offensive linemen, the Aggies have the offensive personnel to compete with any team in the country. They proved as much in their upset of eventual national champion Alabama in Tuscaloosa, Ala., last season. If the defense can make the kind of strides it did a season ago, when the Aggies had depth questions and concern about size up front in a line-of-scrimmage league, then Texas A&M can seriously contend.

If Manziel's eligibility is affected as a result of the NCAA investigation, the Aggies have no quarterback on the roster who has started a college game. Joeckel and Davis will battle it out in training camp. While the Aggies can be a good team without Manziel, dreams of reaching the highest heights will be severely limited if he is forced to miss more than two games.

Vanderbilt season preview

August, 4, 2013
8/04/13
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Today, we're looking at Vanderbilt, as the Commodores look to build off a historic 2013 season.

Coach: James Franklin (15-11)

2012 record: 9-4 (5-3, SEC)

Key losses: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, OT Ryan Seymour, DT Rob Lohr, LB Archibald Barnes, CB Trey Wilson

[+] EnlargeD. J. Swearinger andJordan Matthews
Don McPeak/US PresswireVanderbilt wide receiver Jordan Matthews (left) will lead an explosive Commodores offense.
Key returnees: WR Chris Boyd, WR Jordan Matthews, RB Wesley Tate, OT Wesley Johnson, DE Walker May, LB Chase Garnham, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler

Newcomer to watch: Wide receiver Jordan Cunningham was rated the No. 13 receiver in the country in the 2013 recruiting class and will have every opportunity to see solid playing time this fall.

Biggest games in 2013: Aug. 29 vs. Ole Miss, Sept. 14 at South Carolina, Oct. 19 vs. Georgia, Oct. 26 at Texas A&M, Nov. 9 at Florida and Nov. 23 at Tennessee

Biggest question mark heading into 2013: The tight end position is a major concern for the Commodores. Only three tight ends were on campus this spring, and all lacked consistency. The recent dismissal of junior college transfer Brandon Vandenburg was a big blow to the position. Redshirt sophomores Kris Kentera and Steven Scheu are the top guys at the spot, but neither has stepped up to take the position and neither has shown that he's ready to.

Forecast: The Commodores return 17 starters from a team that tied a school record for both single-season wins (nine) and SEC victories (five). Last year's team also scored more points (390) than any Vanderbilt team since 1916, and owned a top-20 defense. The Commodores have every reason to be thinking about competing for more than just another winning record in conference play, but these players are too focused to talk about or think about an SEC championship or even a bowl game.

What they can focus on is having a lot of firepower coming back on offense, including receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, who combined for 2,097 yards and 13 touchdowns last year. Matthews could have easily left early for the NFL draft last year, but returns as one of the SEC's best receivers. A new quarterback will be taking snaps, with Austyn Carta-Samuels taking over, but he'll have a strong, deep offensive line that has a handful of players ready to rotate in and out each game.

The defensive line is strong, starting with ends May, Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike. There's more speed and experience up front than last year. There's also good depth at linebacker, starting with one of the top LBs in the league in Garnham, and quality starters in the secondary. Hal (CB) and Ladler (S) are two of the best players at their positions.

The Commodores have made tremendous strides under Franklin, and this team seems primed to take down one of the big boys in the SEC East. Vandy plays Georgia at home, while games against Florida and South Carolina are on the road. With a harmless nonconference schedule, another eight-win regular season certainly isn't out of the question for the Commodores.

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