PREDICTED ORDER OF FINISH
1) Georgia 10-4, 7-1; lost in Outback Bowl
Platform: If the Bulldogs get good play on their offensive line and from their freshman specialists, they will be favored in all 12 regular-season games. The trip to Missouri on the second weekend is tricky, but Georgia has a very favorable schedule overall and a defense that will either dominate games or keep the Bulldogs within reach if they experience the occasional offensive struggle.
2) South Carolina 11-2, 6-2; won Capital One Bowl
Platform: Steve Spurrier has the Gamecocks as talented as any team in the East, and there is now a winning mentality following the division title two years ago and last year’s 11-win campaign. Whether Marcus Lattimore will be back at 100 percent is a big question, and crossover games against LSU and Arkansas leaves Georgia as the more sensible pick in this year’s division chase.
3) Florida 7-6, 3-5; won Gator Bowl
Platform: The Gators will have to get their act together in a hurry with trips to Texas A&M and Tennessee the second and third weeks of the season. Brent Pease should turn out to be a solid hire as offensive coordinator, but he’s got a tall task in his first go-around with quarterbacks, tailbacks and receivers who have yet to dazzle. The defense is stout, so 13-10 wins may be in order.
4) Missouri 8-5, 5-4 (Big 12); won Independence Bowl
Platform: Gary Pinkel has coached the Tigers to six consecutive seasons of eight or more wins, and the offensive talent is there to make it seven straight. Quarterback James Franklin is dangerous when a play goes well or breaks down, but the Tigers did have an unpleasant preseason in terms of injuries up front. Defensive tackle is a concern and could get exploited in the new league.
5) Tennessee 5-7, 1-7
Platform: It’s hard to believe Eric Gordon’s interception return in overtime against Vanderbilt prevented the Volunteers from going 0-for-SEC last season. There are weapons in place for a lethal passing game, but Tennessee can not expect to improve by remaining one-dimensional. The Vols haven’t had a first-team All-SEC defender so far under Derek Dooley, and that may not change.
6) Vanderbilt 6-7, 2-6, lost in Liberty Bowl
Platform: In mere months, James Franklin assembled the most impressive Vandy team — playing the league’s big boys tough — since the 1982 bunch went 8-3 in the regular season. There are key players back offensively but key departures defensively. It is now a thin line when it comes to the Commodores going 4-4 and 2-6 in SEC play, but they won’t have the element of surprise this year.
7) Kentucky 5-7, 2-6
Platform: The biggest gap in the East likely will occur between sixth and seventh place. The Wildcats could not withstand the losses of tailback Derrick Locke and receivers Randall Cobb and Chris Matthews from an offensive standpoint a year ago, and now the defense must move on without linebacker Danny Trevathan and safety Winston Guy. Matching last year’s five wins would be a feat.
1) Alabama 12-1, 7-1; won BCS title game
Platform: Nick Saban followed his first two national championships with three-loss seasons and could do that again should the Crimson Tide fall away from home to Michigan, Arkansas and LSU. They won’t. This program is on solid footing and has an offense that will be difficult to stop and a defense looking to prove there will be no slippage. The schedule has challenges but is well-spaced.
2) LSU 13-1, 8-0; lost in BCS title game
Platform: There is no opener against Oregon, and the Tigers have a chance to roar to a 6-0 start should Auburn and Florida fail to get their offenses going. Everyone already is talking about the Nov. 3 matchup with Alabama, but will there be a mental carryover from January’s 21-0 blanking? AJ McCarron will have the big-game edge over Zach Mettenberger, and there’s no “Honey Badger.”
3) Arkansas 11-2, 6-2; won Cotton Bowl
Platform: The Razorbacks rang in this year by winning the Cotton Bowl and turning toward a BCS title run with a schedule that is a nonconference breeze and contains Alabama and LSU at home. Then came the Bobby Petrino fiasco, and now anything goes. Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis could lead the Hogs to 10 wins, but the change at the top and a so-so defense may result in at least three losses.
4) Auburn 8-5, 4-4; won Chick-fil-A Bowl
Platform: Regardless of what things look like under new coordinators Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder, Auburn has a lot of gaps to close after losing to Alabama, LSU, Arkansas and Georgia by a combined 125 points. The Tigers could be vastly improved, play those four teams much closer, and still finish with the same record. They do get LSU, Arkansas and Georgia inside Jordan-Hare.
5) Texas A&M 7-6, 4-5 (Big 12); won Meineke Car Care Bowl
Platform: The Aggies are proven offensively everywhere but quarterback, but new coach Kevin Sumlin is adept at handling such matters. There is plenty of room for ascension since Texas A&M won’t face their first hostile environment until Halloween weekend at Auburn. The only out-of-state trips for Texas A&M before then are to Ole Miss and to Shreveport for the opener with Louisiana Tech.
6) Mississippi State 7-6, 2-6; won Music City Bowl
Platform: Dan Mullen is aware of the stat. His Bulldogs are 3-for-3 when it comes to whipping rival Ole Miss during his tenure, but they are 0-12 against the rest of the SEC West. There is a monster focus on the Sept. 8 league opener against visiting Auburn, when quarterback Tyler Russell and his veteran receivers will try to get MSU off on the rare right foot. A third straight bowl is quite likely.
7) Ole Miss 2-10, 0-8
Platform: Folks close to this program believe Hugh Freeze left more talent at Arkansas State than he inherited in Oxford. When David Cutcliffe was fired after the 2004 season, he left behind linebacker Patrick Willis. There is no Willis defensively, and there are certainly no Eli Mannings or Dexter McClusters on offense. It is very possible that the Ole Miss league losing streak will grow to 23.
Best new delegate: Does anybody want to be SEC freshman of the year? Last year’s recipient, Georgia’s Isaiah Crowell, followed an 850-yard rushing season by getting arrested in late June on felony weapons charges, getting dismissed from the program and netting three carries for 11 yards recently in his first scrimmage with Alabama State. Crowell joined an offense last year that already was in good shape, and the same can be said now with Alabama tailback T.J. Yeldon, Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham and Georgia’s tailback tandem of Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley.
Chief of the staffs: Considering Alabama coach Nick Saban has produced two national titles in the past three seasons, this is not the most difficult hole to punch. Saban is 48-6 over the past four years, and his ability to beat down the opposition caused proven counterparts such as Phillip Fulmer, Tommy Tuberville and Urban Meyer to limp out of the league. He is a relentless recruiter who has elite signing classes working their way through Tuscaloosa and more waiting in the wings. The job former Florida coach Steve Spurrier is doing at South Carolina can not be overlooked either.
Future star: The SEC is loaded with pass-rushing menaces, headlined by Georgia’s Jarvis Jones and LSU’s tandem of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Longtime NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper has Southern California quarterback Matt Barkley heading his big board of this year’s college talent, followed by Jones and Mingo. Arkansas quarterback Tyler Wilson is a top-10 pick in next April’s draft, but we’ll go with either Mingo or Jones as the league’s top prospect. Each is likely to turn pro in January, which will put South Carolina defensive end Jadeveon Clowney at the top next summer.
Swing vote: Perhaps this year’s SEC race will come down to LSU winning again if Zach Mettenberger gets it done or the Tigers falling short because he didn’t. Mettenberger will have a microscope like nobody else as he joins a roster full of talent but needing solid quarterback play, something the Tigers didn’t get in the Superdome. There are Mettenberger admirers because of his arm strength but those who still are questioning his judgment following his dismissal at Georgia. Tennessee’s Tyler Bray is another quarterback who could really deliver or really disappoint.
Best constituency: Alabama fans flock to their spring game to showcase their devotion, but then there are the bad apples who poison trees in Auburn and place their privates on passed-out LSU fans. Georgia fans booed Isaiah Crowell in the SEC title game because he left the field with an injured ankle, and there were Saturdays last season when Auburn, Florida, LSU, South Carolina and Tennessee had a surprising slew of empty seats. So who has the best fans in the Southeastern Conference? The door may be open for Texas A&M’s tradition and loyal legions.
Get breaking news from the Times Free Press on Twitter at www.twitter.com/timesfreepress