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Dec. 11, 2011
The SEC of 2012 won’t look like the SEC of 2011, even if teams duplicate their 2011 records. Texas A&M and Missouri are joining the party, and SEC teams will have to adjust to the arrival of their new cousins.
In addition to the new challenges those two teams will bring, at least 11 of the other 12 SEC schools will be looking to make changes of some kind. All will have to replace key playmakers.
Given the old football of truism that if you’re not getting better, you’re getting worse, here’s a look at all 14 SEC teams for 2012 and the short-term trends for each.
Editor’s notes: An asterisk next to a player’s name represents an underclassman who could return for a senior season. Teams are listed in the order they finished in SEC standings in 2011.
Key losses: QB Jordan Jefferson, WR Reuben Randle*, LB Ryan Baker, CB Morris Claiborne*
Analysis: Whatever happens in the BCS Championship Game, LSU figures to have a better team in 2012 than it did in 2011. The one key component of this analysis is LSU’s quarterback situation. Both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee will graduate, leaving Georgia transfer Zach Mettenberger as the only real option. Mettenberger, according to Georgia insiders, was considered by the Bulldog staff to have a higher ceiling than current starter Aaron Murray. If that’s the case, LSU will be just fine on offense. On defense, the linebacker corps must be rebuilt, and this could develop into a concern. But LSU has stockpiled enough talent at the position to make a smooth transition.
Key losses: RB Trent Richardson*, LB Dont’a Hightower*, LB Courtney Upshaw, CB Dre Kirkpatrick*, DT Josh Chapman, S Mark Barron
Analysis: This is the hardest team to analyze on the list, and receives a “falling” grade mostly because a flat grading isn’t possible. The issue here is the fact Alabama could lose as many as eight starters on defense. The last time that happened, Alabama went from 14-0 in 2009 to 10-3 in 2010. Although a tough out in 2010, Alabama was vulnerable on defense thanks to sheer immaturity. Alabama’s complex defense takes time to learn. Presuming Dre Kirkpatrick leaves and FS Robert Lester elects to stay, Alabama will have to replace seven starters, including three defensive backs, three linebackers and a nosetackle. Alabama ought to be able to replace the linebackers with little trouble, and depth is better in the secondary than two years ago, but nosetackle could be an issue. Alabama will also have to replace its starting wideout trio of Marquis Maze, Darius Hanks and Brandon Gibson, but presuming Duron Carter is ready to go, Alabama’s younger receivers have shown great promise. A potential problem spot overlooked by many will be the replacement of Brad Smelley at H-back. Alabama’s roster is stocked with tight ends more suited to the Y position on the line rather than the flexible H-back. Even with a slight downward trend in its future, Alabama is expected to compete for the conference title.
Key losses: WR Joe Adams, WR Jarius Wright, DE Jake Bequette, LB Jerry Franklin, S Tramain Thomas, LB Jerico Nelson
Analysis: So many offensive weapons will graduate, it’s hard to see Arkansas be as potent on offense in 2012 as it was this year. Cobi Hamilton could return and RB Knile Davis is expected back, but Arkansas still needs to do something about its offensive line. The back seven of the defense will be absolutely gutted, and when Jake Bequette was out of the lineup early in the year, the Razorback pass rush faltered badly because of it. Keeping DE Tenarius Wright healthy will be key, as will finding a replacement for do-everything LB Jerico Nelson. Things could go from bad to worse if QB Tyler Wilson elects to go to the NFL a year early. Given the number of times he got a helmet under his chin this year, he might be wise to explore the possibility. Bob Petrino’s staff has done a good job covering up poor recruiting, but sooner or later it catches up with you.
Key losses: WR Emory Blake*, LB Eltoro Freeman, S Neiko Thorpe, OT Brandon Mosley
Analysis: This isn’t so much about what Auburn loses as it is what Auburn keeps. Assuming Emory Blake takes an early exit to the NFL, Auburn’s offense will have only two weapons, RB Michael Dyer and TE Philip Lutzenkirchen. The quarterback position is a grease fire from top to bottom. The offensive line loses three starters. With Ted Roof no longer Auburn’s defensive coordinator, the Tigers have a chance to improve on defense. For that matter, it’s hard to imagine Auburn getting any worse. But again, playmakers are sparse. DE Corey Lemonier and LB Daren Bates will likely land on the preseason all-SEC list, but the defensive backfield is a mess. Auburn’s biggest problem, assuming Gus Malzahn stays as offensive coordinator, is that defensive coordinators turned the corner on his offense in 2011 and things won’t automatically get better in 2012. Auburn needs an infusion of ready-to-play-now playmakers. Without them, the Tigers can expect another 7-5ish season in 2012.
Key losses: C Quentin Saulsberry, OT Addison Lawrence, RB Vick Ballard, S Charles Mitchell
Analysis: Let’s keep this simple and assume Dan Mullen is not leaving Mississippi State to take another job. If he does, all bets are off. If he stays, the Bulldogs figure to field one of the toughest defenses in the SEC next year. None of the four 2011 senior starters are irreplaceable, although MSU needs to develop another safety quickly for depth purposes. Offensively, though, the Bulldogs will be bad. An already-depleted offensive line loses three starters, along with QB Chris Relf and RB Vick Ballard, one of the most underrated backs in the league. On the flip side, WR Chad Bumphis is back, as is RB LaDarius Perkins. Tyler Russell should slide into the QB’s job easily, but the Bulldogs’ depth situation hit DEFCON-1 when Dylan Favre inexplicably announced his intentions to transfer. With the offensive line in shambles, this becomes a big deal considering Russell has been nicked up several times already in his career. State also will have to replace PK Derek DePasquale, who has been reliable.
Key losses: RB Brandon Bolden, OT, Bradley Sowell, OT Bobby Massie*, S Damien Jackson, DE Kentrell Lockett
Analysis: Hugh Freeze will have his hands full at the helm of Ole Miss next year, particularly if Bobby Massie elects to jump to the NFL. This is a team with literally nothing. QB Randall Mackey has good running skills, but couldn’t stay out of the doghouse and needs a lot of polish as a passer. At least Freeze is more likely to craft an offense that fits his talent rather than try to force spread-type talent into a pro-style offense, as Houston Nutt tried to do. Defensively, this will be a team lacking leadership and experience. It’s almost impossible to imagine a 2-10 team being worse next season, but it’s entirely possible with Ole Miss thanks to the talent level.
Key losses: QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Cyrus Gray, S Trent Hunter, DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, PK Randy Bullock
Analysis: This will be a season of much change for Texas A&M, but many things will stay the same. The offense won’t have to change much to conform to new head coach Kevin Sumlin’s philosophy. Texas A&M was very balanced on offense in 2010, ranking 21st in rushing offense and 18th in passing offense nationally. The biggest challenge here will be replacing QB Ryan Tannehill. RB Cyrus Gray is another tough one to replace, but Christine Michael had a solid 2011 campaign as Gray’s backup. The offensive line and receiver corps returns mostly intact. The team’s biggest failing in 2011 was in pass defense. Against the run, Texas A&M was a surprising 13th nationally. But against the pass, the Aggies stopped no one. Worse yet, this was a veteran defense that will shed several seniors after the bowl game. The Aggies will also have to replace Lou Groza Award winner Randy Bullock at placekicker. Texas A&M likely will not be bowl-eligible in 2012.
Key losses: C Ben Jones, OL Cordy Glenn, DE DeAngelo Tyson, CB Brandon Boykin, S Bacarri Rambo*, PK Blair Walsh, P Drew Butler
Analysis: Georgia loses several players but, aside from the kickers, nothing that the Bulldogs can’t replace from the current roster. Offensive line depth will be an issue, as will finding a reliable receiver to play opposite Malcolm Mitchell. But those were issues in 2011, too, and Georgia worked around them. The biggest question mark of all is RB Isaiah Crowell, who finished the season hurt and in the doghouse somewhat. The running back position has been so much of a soap opera for Georgia lately, Susan Lucci committed to the Bulldogs over Thanksgiving. If Georgia can square away that position, the Bulldogs should run away with the SEC East title in 2012 and perhaps give LSU and Alabama something to think about come bowl time.
Key losses: WR Alshon Jeffery*, G Rokevious Watkins, DT Travian Robertson, DT Melvin Ingram, ROV Antonio Allen
Analysis: There’s little chance South Carolina can duplicate a 10-win season in 2012, given that the Gamecocks have had only a couple of them in the program’s history. Trends just aren’t on the Cocks’ side. The bigger issue is a loss of talent. Defensively, South Carolina will lose six senior starters and could lose more than that if a handful of juniors decide to pursue early entry. Offensively, a lot depends on what WR Alshon Jeffery wants to do. If Jeffery heads to the NFL as expected, the Gamecocks will be left looking for weapons in the passing game. QB Connor Shaw appears to be an upgrade – especially in the mental department – over Stephen Garcia, and the return of Marcus Lattimore will be huge. But the offensive line needs work, and South Carolina must also replace PK Jay Wooten. Look for something around 8-4 next season.
Key losses: RB Chris Rainey, RB Jeff Demps, WR Deonte Thompson, PK Caleb Sturgis
Analysis: Florida almost has to improve in 2012. There is too much talent here to again go 6-6. It won’t be hard to replace QB John Brantley, simply because Brantley could never stay healthy enough to be a dependable weapon for the Gators. Losing offensive coordinator Charlie Weis to Kansas might look like a bad thing on the surface, but Weis was an ill fit from the start. He had more experience than head coach Will Muschamp and became a distraction both in the media and on the sideline. Florida has talent it can develop at quarterback, but the running back position will be even more important. The Gators need to find a big back they can use along with rising senior Mike Gillislee. Florida still hasn’t developed a go-to wide receiver, but there are plenty of candidates available. The best news for Florida is the Gators were a young team in 2011 and lose very little to graduation. If Muschamp is even a halfway decent coach, the Gators could challenge for the division title in 2012.
Key losses: TE Brandon Barden, DE Tim Fugger, DT T.J. Greenstone, LB Chris Marve, CB Casey Hayward, S Sean Richardson
Analysis: Vanderbilt loses quite a bit to graduation this year, but given the upgrade in coaching the Commodores got when James Franklin hit town, it’s hard to imagine the Commodores not improving in his second year at the helm. Franklin developed Jordan Rodgers into a viable SEC quarterback, and Zac Stacy became a frontline SEC running back. The offensive line will return almost entirely intact, but Vanderbilt still needs some weapons in the passing game, and the loss of tight end duo Brandon Barden and Austin Monahan won’t help. Losing LB Chris Marve in the middle of the defense will be the Commodores’ greatest challenge on that side of the ball, while replacing CB Casey Hayward and SS Sean Richardson will be almost as tough. What gives Vandy fans the most hope is Franklin’s recruiting. He was solid in his first season despite not having much time to put together a class, but this year the Commodores are challenging to break the top 15 nationally. If that happens, there could be so many freshmen starting next September that no one will recognize the team in its current form.
Key losses: LB Danny Trevathan, CB Randall Burden, S Winston Guy, P Ryan Tydlacka, OL Chandler Burden, WR Matt Roark
Analysis: Kentucky ended its season on a feel-good note, beating Tennessee for the first time in 27 years. But the reality is, this team underachieved all season, particularly on defense, and head coach Joker Phillips enters 2012 on the hotseat. The Wildcats’ biggest problem is that QB Morgan Newton is largely a bust. If rising sophomore Maxwell Smith can’t take the job in the spring, Phillips will likely be history by year’s end. The team’s best offensive player is a guard, and the defense will be gutted by graduation. Six of the back seven players will be new and the Wildcats lose eight senior starts on defense altogether. Kentucky also won’t have punter Ryan Tydlacka to dig the team out of trouble any longer. If the QB position continues to be a problem, Kentucky could be facing a 10-loss season.
Key losses: RB Tauren Poole, DT Malik Jackson, LB Austin Johnson
Analysis: Although Tennessee is a young team and returns most of its players in 2012, this could be the Volunteers’ “dead cat bounce” season before really hitting the skids in 2013. A lot depends on whether WR Da’Rick Rogers is allowed back onto the team. Head coach Derek Dooley has come under a lot of undue criticism for his team’s performance, but one area in which the criticism has been completely deserved is in his wishy-washy approach to discipline. Safety Janzen Jackson was on the team and off the team so many times it was hard to keep track of his status, and Rogers now finds himself in the same purgatory. If Rogers comes back and WR Justin Hunter recovers from a major knee injury, the Volunteers will be in business in the passing game. QB Tyler Bray is overrated by most, but he can throw a good deep ball. Defensively, the Vols have to get better. Tennessee had good numbers in pass defense, but made few big plays. The secondary is just so-so, and the Vols rarely pressured opposing quarterbacks. Up front, Malik Jackson graduates, which will be a killer. Expect UT to struggle stopping the run. If Bray gets hurt again – not out of the question given Tennessee’s porous offensive line – it will be all over.
Key losses: TE Michael Egnew, OT Dan Hoch, OG Austin Wuebbels, DE Jacquies Smith, NT Dominique Hamilton, S Kenji Jackson
Analysis: Missouri’s biggest opponent next season will be the guy handing out diplomas in the spring. This was a veteran team in 2011 that struggled a bit thanks to a change at quarterback and injuries that hit the offensive line and linebacker corps. Offensively, the Tigers actually finished 12th in the country overall by redefining its offensive strategy around the run. Missouri ranked 11th in rushing, and most of those components will return in 2012. Defensively, the Tigers were mediocre in everything. But they’ll take a step back in 2012 thanks to needing nearly a complete rebuild of the defensive line. Missouri will lose three starters along the defensive line and could lose a fourth if junior DE Brad Madison decides to take a look at the pros. Like Texas A&M, getting bowl-eligible in 2012 will be a chore.
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