- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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The 2013 college football season can’t get here soon enough, which means it’s not too early to take a stab at how it might shake out next season in the SEC.
Sure, the 2012 season just ended, but that’s yesterday’s news.
We’ve taken into account several factors in coming up with our early power rankings for next season, including returning starters, promising younger players, momentum heading into the offseason and favorable schedules.
Here we go:
1. Alabama: Can the Crimson Tide make it four national championships in five years? With quarterback AJ McCarron coming back and two of the best young playmakers in the league -- receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon -- Alabama should be plenty explosive on offense. Replacing Barrett Jones and Chance Warmack in the middle of that offensive line won’t be easy. Speaking of easy, Alabama avoids Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the East.
2. Texas A&M: The Aggies might have been the hottest team in the country at the end of the 2012 season. Maybe defenses will have a little better handle on Johnny Manziel the second time around, but Johnny Football will have a little better handle on defenses, too. If offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews return for their senior seasons, look out. Losing Damontre Moore on defense will hurt, but the Aggies like their young talent.
3. South Carolina: The Head Ball Coach has two quarterbacks he likes now, even though Connor Shaw will be out for the spring after having foot surgery. Dylan Thompson was Mr. Clutch for the Gamecocks against Clemson and against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. The Gamecocks are losing some key players on defense, but they return the most dynamic defensive player in the college game -- Jadeveon Clowney.
4. Georgia: The third, fourth and fifth spots were tough. Aaron Murray coming back for his senior season was big for the Bulldogs. There’s no substitute for having that kind of experience at quarterback in this league. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have his hands full retooling the defense with seven starters departing. Plus, Georgia has to prove it can beat South Carolina after losing three in a row to the Gamecocks, and it has a tough start to the 2013 season.
5. Florida: Sometimes bowl games can have too much impact, both good and bad, on where a team starts the next season. The Gators were wretched in their Allstate Sugar Bowl loss to Louisville, and on top of it, they’re losing defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd, safety Matt Elam and tight end Jordan Reed to the NFL draft. They’re still loaded with young talent on defense, but the key will be Jeff Driskel broadening his game at quarterback and the Gators getting better, period, in the passing game.
6. LSU: Who’s not coming out early for the Tigers? They’re losing a record nine underclassmen to the NFL draft, and six of those are on defense. Defensive coordinator John Chavis will be putting a ton of young players on the field next season, so LSU might have to lean more on an offense that came up empty too many times this season during key moments. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger needs a big offseason, and it doesn’t help that LSU has to play Florida and Georgia in the East next season.
7. Vanderbilt: The Commodores have made enough strides under James Franklin that they’ll have to deal with some real expectations in 2013. They finished No. 23 in the final Associated Press poll and bring back a lot of their key players. Receiver Jordan Matthews’ decision to stay in school was a coup for the Commodores. The quarterback battle will be worth watching with Jordan Rodgers graduating, and the defense is in excellent hands with Bob Shoop at the helm.
8. Ole Miss: Did anybody see coming what Hugh Freeze did with Ole Miss’ program in his first season? The Rebels managed seven wins and did it with freshmen and first-year players lining up all over the field. Freeze is also recruiting like gangbusters, so there’s more help on the way. Donte Moncrief is an explosive receiving threat, and if quarterback Bo Wallace can cut down on his turnovers, the Rebels should be even better on offense.
9. Auburn: It’s hard not to be impressed with the staff Gus Malzahn has put together at Auburn. The transition might be a little smoother because Malzahn already has a decent feel for the personnel on the team. He has proved that his offenses are going to score points in bunches. It will be interesting to see if quarterback Kiehl Frazier’s career is rekindled with Malzahn at the controls. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to find a way to get Auburn’s edge back defensively.
10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs get Oklahoma State in Houston to open the season, so we should have a pretty good feel for Dan Mullen’s club early. It was just the opposite this past season. Mississippi State feasted on a soft schedule early and then closed the season by losing five of its last six games. Quarterback Tyler Russell’s improvement was promising. But if the Bulldogs are going to make another run at eight wins or more, they will need to make more happen up front defensively.
11. Tennessee: The Vols hope one of the worst runs in school history is behind them. Derek Dooley was fired after losing 14 of his last 16 SEC games, and now it’s Butch Jones’ turn to see if he can get Tennessee pointed in the right direction. The Vols return what should be one of the best offensive lines in the SEC, but just about all of the firepower from the 2012 team is gone, including receivers Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson. There’s no way the defense can be worse than a year ago.
12. Arkansas: The Bret Bielema era begins at Arkansas, and the Hogs can’t wait to put the 2012 season in their rearview mirror once and for all. They will be starting over on offense with quarterback Tyler Wilson and receiver Cobi Hamilton both leaving, and there are still major questions on defense. Bielema’s track record says he will bring a powerful running game and a stifling defense to the Ozarks, but it will take more than one year.
13. Missouri: Injuries nagged at Missouri all season, particularly on the offensive line. But the bigger problem was that it simply didn’t look equipped physically to compete in the SEC. That has to change this offseason. The Tigers will have a new offensive coordinator and will have some key holes to plug on offense. One of the things that helps is that the schedule gets a little easier.
14. Kentucky: New coach Mark Stoops has the toughest job in the SEC. The Wildcats were winless in the SEC this past season and were forced to play a frightening number of younger players. Stoops’ arrival should create some new energy around the program, and surely the Wildcats won’t suffer as many injuries as they did this season. Nonetheless, getting to .500 and getting back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010 will be a stretch for Kentucky.