• Primary strengths: The Crimson Tide set program records for yards and points last season and return quarterback AJ McCarron, who led the nation in pass efficiency, as well as 1,000-yard rusher T.J. Yeldon and 1,000-yard receiver Amari Cooper. Seven starters return from a defense that led the nation in fewest points allowed at 10.9 per game.
• Primary question: How will the three new starting offensive linemen do in replacing Chance Warmack, D.J. Fluker and Barrett Jones? Nick Saban has been pleased with the progress of Arie Koaundjio, Austin Shepherd and Ryan Kelly, but will there be any kind of dip considering the talent and experience of the three who left?
• Familiar faces: QB AJ McCarron, TB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, LT Cyrus Kouandjio, LB C.J. Mosley, S HaHa Clinton-Dix
• Primary strengths: The Razorbacks have not been known as a defensive juggernaut in recent years but should be better up front with the return of tackle Bryan Jones and ends Chris Smith and Trey Flowers. The Hogs also have one of the league’s best offensive linemen, senior center Travis Swanson.
• Primary question: Quarterback Tyler Wilson has moved on, as have tailback Knile Davis and receivers Cobi Hamilton and Brandon Mitchell. Brandon Allen is now the top quarterback for the Razorbacks, but will he be as effective as his predecessors? Allen will direct an old-school attack under the guidance of new coach Bret Bielema, who used a solid ground game to take Wisconsin to three consecutive Rose Bowls.
• Familiar faces: C Travis Swanson, WR Mekale McKay, FB Kiero Small, DT Bryan Jones, DE Chris Smith
• Primary strengths: New coach Gus Malzahn has plenty of familiarity with his offensive personnel and has nine starters returning, including 1,000-yard rusher Tre Mason. New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson brings a lot of SEC experience and has a front filled with proven veterans and a freshman trio who could be very productive in the future.
• Primary question: The Tigers were a disaster at quarterback last season, so can Nick Marshall or Jeremy Johnson, neither of whom has taken a snap in the SEC, make this program relevant again just three years after its BCS championship? Auburn has its entire secondary back to go along with the talent up front, but how the Tigers do at linebacker could be key as well in determining how big of a rebound they can make.
• Familiar faces: TB Tre Mason, C Reese Dismukes, DE Dee Ford, DT Gabe Wright, CB Chris Davis
• Primary strengths: Will Muschamp’s Gators developed a physical toughness last season that was lacking at the end of the Urban Meyer era. Florida had a between-the-tackles running game that returns key linemen Chaz Green, Jon Halapio and Jon Harrison. The Gators lost eight defensive starters but return three good ones with tackle Dominique Easley and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Jaylen Watkins.
• Primary question: Florida won 11 games last season despite an offense that struggled to stretch the field. Can quarterback Jeff Driskel become more consistent and can tailback Matt Jones be a worthy successor to Mike Gillislee, and can both start off strong after missing most of preseason camp? How defensive end Ronald Powell plays coming off ACL surgery also will be important.
• Familiar faces: QB Jeff Driskel, OL Jon Halapio, P Kyle Christy, DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy
• Primary strengths: The Wildcats have created some excitement under new coach Mark Stoops, as evidenced by nearly 51,000 people attending the spring game. Kentucky has six starters back on each side of the ball, including three in each line. The three offensive linemen back could help as new coordinator Neal Brown installs an up-tempo offense.
• Primary question: Since Kentucky went 0-8 in league games last season, losing seven by double digits, there are concerns across the board. Can the Wildcats keep pace in the mighty SEC, especially since they lost several respected players, including guard Larry Warford, receiver La’Rod King and safety Martavious Neloms?
• Familiar faces: RB Raymond Sanders, OT Darrian Miller, DT Donte Rumph, DE Alvin “Bud” Dupree, LB Avery Williamson
• Primary strengths: LSU is one of the few SEC programs that can withstand a massive NFL exodus. The Tigers return quarterback Zach Mettenbrger, reinstated tailback Jeremy Hill and receiver Odell Beckham, and they have three offensive linemen back as well. The defense has just four starters back but a potential star at every level — tackle Anthony Johnson, linebacker Lamin Barrow and safety Craig Loston.
• Primary question: Mettenberger’s college career is checkered, but the senior has the size and talent. Can he produce a year worthy of all-star consideration? Defensive coordinator John Chanvis has been masterful during his time in Baton Rouge, but does he have another banner year in store in light of all the early NFL defections he’s had to replace?
• Familiar faces: QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Odell Beckham, DT Anthony Johnson, LB Lamin Barrow, S Craig Loston
• Primary strengths: The Rebels stunned the SEC last season by going 7-6 after a 2-10 debacle in 2011. Quarterback Bo Wallace returns in Hugh Freeze’s fast-paced system, as do tailback Jeff Scott and receiver Donte Moncrief. The defense has a whopping 10 starters back and adds 6-foot-4, 297-pound end Robert Nkemdiche, the consensus No. 1 high school player in America this past recruiting season.
• Primary question: Will the Rebels feel some entitlement after last season’s success, or can they challenge Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M? Wallace played last season with a separated shoulder and underwent surgery earlier this year, so that will be something to monitor as well. All signs point to an even bigger year in Oxford, but early road tips to Vanderbilt, Texas, Alabama and Auburn could be hazardous.
• Familiar faces: QB Bo Wallace, WR Donte Moncrief, DE C.J. Johnson, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, CB Charles Sawyer
• Primary strengths: The Bulldogs have enjoyed success under Dan Mullen with three consecutive bowl trips and are trying to become the first MSU team to make it four in a row. There is stability at quarterback with senior Tyler Russell, and LaDarius Perkins returns for his senior year after rushing for 1,024 yards last season. The defense has two solid ends with senior Denico Autry and junior Kaleb Eulls.
• Primary question: Can MSU respond from the biggest skid in the Mullen era? The Bulldogs won their first seven games last season but lost five of their last six, including double-digit defeats against Alabama, Texas A&M, LSU, Ole Miss and Northwestern in the Gator Bowl. Receivers Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith have moved on, as have cornerbacks Darius Slay and Jim Thorpe Award winner Johnthan Banks.
• Familiar faces: QB Tyler Russell, TB LaDarius Perkins, OG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, LB Benardrick McKinney
• Primary strengths: The Tigers have a proven coach, Gary Pinkel, an experienced quarterback, James Franklin, and a potentially explosive receiver, Dorial Green-Beckham. Pinkel had guided Missouri to six straight seasons of at least eight wins until last year’s 5-7 collapse.
• Primary question: Four offensive linemen return, but can they be competitive against the SEC’s defensive fronts? And can the defense, which kept the Tigers close in tough losses against Vanderbilt and Florida, survive the loss of tackle Sheldon Richardson, a first-round NFL pick? Most of Missouri’s tossup games in SEC play are on the road.
• Familiar faces: QB James Franklin, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, WR L’Damian Washington, LB Andrew Wilson, CB E.J. Gaines
• Primary strengths: Coach Steve Spurrier and junior defensive end Jadeveon Clowney would be enough to make South Carolina a strong East contender again, but the Gamecocks also have efficient quarterback Connor Shaw and talented receiver Bruce Ellington. Shaw has guided the Gamecocks to a 17-3 record in his career as the starter, including a 10-0 mark at Williams-Brice Stadium.
• Primary question: Can the Gamecocks develop a successful ground game with Marcus Lattimore now in the NFL? Shaw is the top returning rusher with 435 yards, with Mike Davis the top returning tailback after amassing 275 yards. South Carolina plays only two linebackers in its 4-2-5, but the top four linebackers from last season are gone.
• Familiar faces: QB Connor Shaw, WR Bruce Ellington, DT Kelcy Quarles, DE Jadeveon Clowney, S Brison Williams
• Primary strengths: The Aggies racked up an eye-popping 558.5 yards and 44.5 points per game a year ago and return quarterback Johnny Manziel, tailback Ben Malena, receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews, who is flipping from the right to the left side. Evans had 1,105 receiving yards last season, while Malena quietly rushed for 808 yards and 5.9 a carry.
• Primary question: Can this program survive the chaos that Manziel has created since Texas A&M’s 41-13 Cotton Bowl rout of Oklahoma? Only five defensive starters return, but the biggest concern entering Saturday’s opener is the status of Manziel, who allegedly received cash for his signature — an NCAA no-no. As of this printing, Manziel was practicing with his team and eligible to play.
• Familiar faces: QB Johnny Manziel, WR Mike Evans, RB Ben Malena, OT Jake Matthews, CB Deshazor Everett
• Primary strengths: The Commodores have established a winning mentality after registering nine victories last season, and they are the only team in the SEC that has its entire coaching staff back. With Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, Vanderbilt has a receiving punch that is second to none in the league, and the senior tandem safety Kenny Ladler and cornerback Andre Hal head a potentially strong secondary.
• Primary question: The Commodores lost quarterback Jordan Rodgers and tailback Zac Stacy, so will Austyn Carta-Samuels and the duo of Brian Kimbrow and Wesley Tate fill the void? The defensive line had its way with the offensive line earlier this month, so that can be viewed as a glass half empty or half full. • Familiar faces: WR Jordan Matthews, WR Chris Boyd, K Carey Spear, CB Andre Hal, S Kenny Ladler
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...