One more title on the docket
With the new College Football Playoff set to begin in 2014, the SEC is looking to say goodbye to the BCS by saying hello to its eighth straight crystal football.
The SEC has won nine of the 15 BCS championships, and it would be fitting for the conference that won the first BCS title to take home the final one.
And the league has the horses to do it.
It all starts with Alabama. The Crimson Tide will enter the fall as one of the favorites to take home the final BCS title. That would be three straight for Nick Saban & Co. and the fourth in the past five years.
It's gaudy. It's greedy. It's Alabama.
The Tide are equipped with an elite quarterback in two-time BCS champion AJ McCarron, who will have plenty of offensive toys around him. Potential All-American Amari Cooper leads what should be an explosive receiving corps, while T.J. Yeldon appears more than ready to be the go-to back in the offense. Saban was also pleased with an offensive line that replaced three NFL draft picks this spring.
As usual, the defense has elite talent sprinkled around, but it's still "a work in progress," as Saban puts it. Something tells me it'll be just fine come Aug. 31.
Oh, and you think this team is worried about complacency? It's not even a word in Tuscaloosa.
"We don't have that situation at our place," Saban said. "Last year, the team had to make a decision of what the legacy of that team wanted to be, and they sort of took that challenge and did a nice job with it. This team is going to have to do the same thing."
The rest of the country also has to pay attention to Florida, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina and Texas A&M. And maybe there's a 2010 Auburn lurking in the weeds.
All five of those teams have the talent to take home the final BCS prize, but none is perfect.
Georgia and Texas A&M have the pieces to consistently blow scoreboard lighting, but will they have the defenses to keep up?
Florida will still run and defend well, but the passing game is an enigma. Can the Gators get back to double-digit wins with a small margin for error again?
South Carolina brings a balanced offense back and has the pleasure of fielding the country's best defender in defensive end Jadeveon Clowney, but there are a lot of holes at linebacker and in the secondary.
And LSU's defense was picked apart by the NFL draft, but the line should be strong again and the offense should be much better thanks to quarterback Zach Mettenberger's spring development.
All of these teams will begin the year ranked in the Top 25, but all -- including Alabama -- have flaws. But so did the past seven national champions.
SEC teams just seem to find a way, and it only makes sense that the conference will figure out a way to take one more for the road.
What we learned this spring
1. Saban, Tide not letting up: It's true that Alabama is on the threshold of making college football history, and it's also true that the Crimson Tide are once again oozing with talent entering the 2013 season. But in Nick Saban's world, there are no rearview mirrors, and he doesn't see real well down the road, either. In other words, he's pushing as hard as ever, and that was never more apparent than after the spring game when he said bluntly that some players on Alabama's team were "too comfortable with their circumstances." Complacency is a dirty word in this program, and the good thing for the Tide is that two of their best players are also their best leaders. Getting quarterback AJ McCarron and linebacker C.J. Mosley back for their senior seasons was a huge coup. Two straight national championships were nice, but three straight would be even better.
2. Speeding up the offenses: Everywhere you look -- well, just about everywhere -- they're wanting to play faster on offense, run more plays and keep defenses on their heels so they have a hard time substituting situationally. Kevin Sumlin and Texas A&M shook up the SEC a year ago in the Aggies' first season in the league by averaging 558.5 yards and 44.5 points thanks to a fast-break offense that operated at the speed of light. Hugh Freeze livened things up offensively at Ole Miss with a similar offensive approach last season, and more are sure to follow in 2013. Gus Malzahn is back in the league at Auburn, and he's not happy unless the Tigers are running 90 plays a game. Tennessee is speeding up things with Butch Jones taking over as head coach, and even at LSU with Cam Cameron now running the show offensively, the Tigers plan on picking up the pace next season.
3. What talent drain? The SEC had a staggering 63 players taken in last month's NFL draft, including 25 underclassmen. That record haul included 12 first-rounders and 32 players taken in the top three rounds. Losing that much talent would take its toll on any conference, right? You'd think so, but glancing around the league this spring, it's obvious that the SEC won't be hurting for talent in 2013. Stop and think about everybody who comes back. Texas A&M quarterback Johnny Manziel won the Heisman Trophy last season. South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would have been the No. 1 pick in the draft this year had he been eligible to come out, while Alabama's Cyrus Kouandjio, Texas A&M's Jake Matthews and Tennessee's Antonio Richardson are three of the best offensive tackles in college football. Alabama's Amari Cooper was the country's best receiver by the end of last season, and Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J. Yeldon combined for nearly 2,500 rushing yards as true freshmen.
Best Of The SEC
Best performance: Alabama's Amari Cooper was already one of the best returning receivers in the college game, maybe the best receiver. He only got better, bigger and stronger this spring and was like a machine when it came to catching passes and making plays. Cooper is such an explosive player, but his ability to run crisp routes and separate from the defender will make him that much more dangerous next season.
Best performance by a true freshman: Georgia was looking for help across the board on defense after losing seven players who were drafted on that side of the ball. Enter true freshman safety Tray Matthews. The early enrollee was the hit of spring practice and passed out more than a few bone-jarring hits along the way. He's exactly what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was looking for at free safety and has a big future ahead of him in this league.
Best comeback: After two seasons away from football because of lingering knee issues, it was great to see Ole Miss linebacker D.T. Shackelford back on the practice field this spring. Just his presence in the huddle and the way he relates to his teammates will make the Rebels a better team. He's their emotional leader.
Best comeback II: Don't sleep on Missouri running back Henry Josey, who looked good this spring after missing the past year and a half with a knee injury so severe that it required three surgeries. He's the kind of home run threat the Tigers were lacking on offense last season and hungry to prove that he's still got it.
Best rebirth: It's a close call between Auburn junior Justin Garrett and Tennessee senior Dontavis Sapp. Garrett was a reserve linebacker with one career start, but emerged as a perfect fit at the hybrid "Star" position in Ellis Johnson's new 4-2-5 defense. Sapp had started just two games at Tennessee, but separated himself as the Vols' most consistent defender this spring at one of the starting linebacker spots.
Best group of promising true sophomores: At Florida, they can't wait to see what "Buck" defensive end Dante Fowler Jr., linebacker Antonio Morrison, defensive end Jonathan Bullard, running back Matt Jones and offensive tackle D.J. Humphries have in store for 2013.
Best quote: Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin, countering the perception that the Aggies will be a marked team in 2013 after winning 11 games in their first season in the SEC, quipped, "We're playing in a league with a team that's won three out of four national championships. We didn't beat LSU. We were third in our division and didn't play in a BCS bowl. That's the way I see it."
Best player nobody is talking about: Vanderbilt senior offensive tackle Wesley Johnson has started games at left tackle, right tackle, left guard and center during his career (38 career starts). He's never had a holding penalty and given up just 6.5 sacks or one every 157 snaps on 1,021 attempts. What's more, Johnson has been on the field for every offensive touchdown the Commodores have scored over the past three seasons. He's easily one of the most underrated players in college football.
Best post-spring "What were you thinking?" move: LSU running back Jeremy Hill managed to get himself indefinitely suspended after, according to a police report, punching a guy in the side of the head outside a bar and then celebrating with high-fives after somebody else knocked the victim out. It only gets worse when you consider that Hill was already on probation. For the record, his attorney says Hill was heckled about his past legal troubles, which precipitated the incident.
Best revival of hope: The Kentucky fans showed up in force for Mark Stoops' first spring game. A crowd of 50,831 flocked to Commonwealth Stadium, which was about 30,000 more than the Wildcats drew for a couple of games last season. And, please, no jokes about a hoops scrimmage being held at halftime. The Kentucky fans are genuinely excited about Stoops' vision for getting the program back to respectability and the way he's recruiting.
Projecting the SEC
Spring practices have wrapped up across the country, and there's not much more data we can pull into our projection model for the fall. At Football Outsiders, factors such as five-year program ratings, returning starters, quarterback reliance and more have featured into the projections. We'll publish final projections based on play and drive efficiency in the Football Outsiders Almanac later this summer, but we can take a sneak peak at preliminary projections through the lens of our drive-based FEI ratings.
For this series, we first ran preliminary projections for team, offense and defensive efficiency. Then we calculated win likelihoods in each scheduled game, producing a projected record and win total range. Running the win likelihoods through 1,000 simulated seasons, we then calculated the frequency with which each team claimed a conference crown.
Today we're looking at the projections for the SEC, which features a handful of top programs with one team clearly favored to win the league title.
To read the rest of the projections for the SEC, click here .
Non-AQ games to watch
Post-spring power rankings
1. Alabama: Nick Saban is equipped with yet another national championship contender. Yes, it would be his third straight at Alabama and fourth in five years. An all-star cast returns on offense, led by veteran quarterback AJ McCarron and topflight receiver Amari Cooper. The offensive line lost three draft picks but had a good spring, and the defense is still loaded.
2. Texas A&M: The Aggies lost some important offensive pieces, including offensive coordinator Kliff Kingsbury and left tackle Luke Joeckel, but there are still a lot of weapons to use. Johnny Manziel is still in town, and he'll have a loaded running back stable to work with as well as a host of talented, young receivers led by Mike Evans. The real worry has to be on defense, where five starters are gone from the front seven.
3. Georgia: We all know that the Bulldogs will score a lot of points this fall. Aaron Murray has his entire offensive line back, the league's top running back duo (Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall) and a slew of receiving targets, led by Malcolm Mitchell. But the defense is very young. There is talent, but replacing 12 players who started or saw significant time will create early growing pains.
4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks return good balance on offense, starting with two quality quarterbacks in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson and running back Mike Davis. The defense also has the luxury of having Jadeveon Clowney anchor what should be a very solid defensive line. The two-deep at linebacker is gone and there are holes in the secondary, so youth could be an issue.
5. Florida: Nobody will question the talent Florida possesses on defense. The Gators lost two first-round draft picks there, but Will Muschamp & Co. should reload with solid younger talent. But how good will the offense be? Quarterback Jeff Driskel will be a year older in the offense, the line should be better and the Gators will be stout running the ball, but there are no consistently reliable receiving targets.
6. LSU: Gradation and the NFL draft ravaged LSU's defense. Questions loom at linebacker and in the secondary, but coach Les Miles left spring pretty pleased with the defensive line. The offense should be improved with quarterback Zach Mettenberger's development, a solid line and all the receiving targets returning. But if running back Jeremy Hill's legal trouble sidelines him (he was suspended indefinitely after being charged with battery last week), the Tigers could be in trouble.
7. Vanderbilt: Coach James Franklin has to be pretty excited with the personnel he has coming back. He has competition at quarterback and running back, but receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, along with a stout offensive line, will help this offense go. The defense got stronger up front this spring, and there are quality starters at linebacker and in the secondary.
8. Ole Miss: Coach Hugh Freeze wants to make sure expectations are tempered in Oxford after last season's success and a monster recruiting haul. He lost just three starters from last season's team, and guys are motivated to top last year's 7-6 season. But injuries hurt the team this spring, and depth issues still exist at receiver and along both lines.
9. Auburn: The return of Gus Malzahn as coach has people on the Plains very excited. The offensive personnel fits his spread offense, and Ellis Johnson has instilled a new attitude on defense. The Tigers have to figure out their quarterback situation, and there are no proven receiving threats. Auburn will be better, but this team still has a ways to go.
10. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs had a Jekyll and Hyde 2012 but also lost some key parts to last season's squad. Quarterback Tyler Russell has to work with a new receiving corps, while the secondary has to replace three starters, including Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks. It sounds as though the defensive line made major strides this spring, especially ends Denico Autry and Ryan Brown.
11. Missouri: The Tigers didn't lose a lot from last season's 5-7 squad, but the offense dealt with a quarterback battle and protection problems from its offensive line. That's not good for a team that stumbled offensively all last season. The defense seemed to impress up front, but Mizzou is replacing two starting linebackers with a gang of inexperienced players.
12. Arkansas: Under new coach Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks got tougher across the board this spring. Bielema also found his quarterback in redshirt sophomore Brandon Allen, and both lines seemed to progress. But there are still questions at receiver, running back and with the lack of depth at linebacker. Plus, that regular-season schedule is just ugly for any first-year coach.
13. Tennessee: Butch Jones did a good job of supplying some much-needed energy within this football team, but he sure does have his hands full. Gone are the starting quarterback and basically all of last season's receiving production. He has a strong offensive line, and the defense seemed to adjust to the 4-3 scheme, but these players have to be much more consistent going forward.
14. Kentucky: Coach Mark Stoops has received a ton of support from Big Blue Nation, but he knows that his team has a long way to go. He has to find his quarterback and offensive playmakers. He has to replace three starters in the secondary and is thin at linebacker. The good news is that the defensive line will be the core of this team, which is huge for the first-year coach.
Alabama: The offense should be ahead of the defense this season. For more on the Crimson Tide, click here.
Arkansas: The Hogs' clear strength coming out of spring was their defensive line. For more on the Razorbacks, click here.
Auburn: A new defense by Ellis Johnson is bringing optimism to the Plains. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Florida: There's good depth at running back, but receiver issues continue to crop up. For more on the Gators, click here.
Georgia: Newcomers to Athens are already making their mark on offense and defense. For more on the Bulldogs, click here.
Kentucky: New coach Mark Stoops has to be very happy with the foundation he has along his defensive line. For more on the Wildcats, click here.
LSU: Get ready for the ball to be flying around a little more often in Baton Rouge. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Mississippi State: There are big expectations for senior quarterback Tyler Russell. For more on the Bulldogs, click here.
Missouri: The offensive line might be the key to the season. For more on the Tigers, click here.
Ole Miss: Some serious talent is on its way to Oxford this season. For more on the Rebels, click here.
South Carolina: Steve Spurrier has a good problem with two quality quarterbacks. For more on the Gamecocks, click here.
Tennessee: The adjustment to a new staff has gone pretty well. For more on the Volunteers, click here.
Texas A&M: Johnny Manziel is back, and he has plenty of talent in the backfield with him. For more on the Aggies, click here.
Vanderbilt: The offensive line is improved, but who will play quarterback? For more on the Commodores, click here.