By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
While predictions are often a shot in the dark, it is still fun to look ahead and try to predict the future. Here is our annual look at how the SEC might shape up in the coming year, with the bestowing of our annual preseason awards.
SEC Player of the Year: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. This pick is phone-it-in easy, even if Manziel may not be the best pure quarterback in the SEC. His offensive numbers will be off the charts and the cult of personality that surrounds him will help lead him to all the major awards. The only person who can stop Manziel is Manziel – but he’s been doing his best this offseason to do just that, as reports of untoward behavior at parties and camps continue to surface. Runner-up: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia. The Bulldogs are weak on defense, and most of Murray’s offensive supporting cast return. The Bulldogs will ask him to do (or overdo) what’s necessary to win.
SEC Coach of the Year: Nick Saban, Alabama. If Alabama succeeds in going 13-0 in 2013, how can you not give this award to Saban, especially if Alabama were to follow it up with a third consecutive national championship? No coach in America is as good at the job as Saban is. Runner-up: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina. Spurrier has been unfortunate to be coaching in the SEC at the same time as Saban, because the focus on Alabama has covered up the job Spurrier has done in Columbia. Not only are the Gamecocks a national title contender, Spurrier swallowed his pride and rebuilt his offense around concepts he hadn’t always found familiar. Any list of SEC coaches that doesn’t put Spurrier right on Saban’s heels is invalid.
SEC Coach With the Hottest Seat: Gary Pinkel, Missouri. Welcome to the SEC, Mr. Pinkel. Now get ready to leave it. Pinkel has a gaudy career win-loss record (163-98-3) but if the Tigers get trainwrecked like they did in their inaugural SEC season, Pinkel will be replaced. Pinkel’s brand of football is too soft for the SEC, and the Tigers essentially whiffed in recruiting this past year. The program is not moving forward. Runner-up (tie): Les Miles, LSU; and Dan Mullen, Mississippi State. There truly is no second hot-seat coach in the SEC this year, but Miles and Mullen are a year away from it if anything goes wrong at their respective schools. Miles’ major problem is that he is still coaching in Saban’s shadow, and the Tiger program has been slowly regressing the last two years. Mullen is a victim of his own personality (pregame speeches on the Jumbotron, call-outs of rival Ole Miss), and now he has an NCAA record as well. He’s probably the best MSU can ever hope to get, but with Ole Miss rolling now, he’d better keep an updated resume handy just in case.
Player Most Important To His Team: A.J. McCarron, QB, Alabama. Just like last year, the thing that separates McCarron most from Manziel at Texas A&M and Murray at Georgia is the backup quarterback situation. Both Manziel and Murray have backups who can run their teams’ full offense in their absence. At Alabama, Blake Sims in the game means a different game entirely. Runner-Up: James Franklin, QB, Missouri. Franklin’s name appeared in this same slot last year, and Missouri quickly found out just how important he was after his injury. None of Missouri’s backups looked even remotely competent.
SEC Team Most Likely To Fall Short of Expectations: Texas A&M. The Manziel hype machine reached fever pitch after the Aggies’ upset of Alabama last year, and it has yet to abate. Nothing short of 13-0, 8-0 is going to satisfy critics. Unfortunately for Texas A&M, Manziel’s offseason has been one of dubious focus, and some observers have conveniently overlooked the fact this team had a lot of holes in it anyway, thanks to graduation and the NFL Draft. Even if Manziel has improved from 2012, the rest of the team has taken a step back. Runner-Up (tie): Florida, Mississippi State. Mississippi State fits the profile if the expectations in question are either 8-4 or 9-3. The Bulldogs don’t have many offensive weapons left, and lost quite a bit on defense. Florida had everything go right for it in 2012, but the Gators return the one of the lowest percentage of starters of any SEC team and still don’t have much of an offense. A couple of key injuries could spell doom for either team.
SEC Team Most Likely To Surprise Us All: South Carolina. With Florida’s resurgence and Georgia loaded on offense, the SEC East looks like a two-team race until one takes a close look at the Gamecocks. Where South Carolina lost starters, they were largely replaced by backups who played quite a bit in the past. It wouldn’t take much for South Carolina to slip past either Georgia or Florida into the SEC title game, given the fact the Gamecocks probably have the best defense of the three. Runner-up: Kentucky. Again, adjust your sights to exactly what the term “surprise” means in this context. Getting to a bowl would constitute a surprise for the Wildcats, who are pegged by most in the 3- to 4-win range. But Kentucky got a major upgrade in coaching over the offseason, and the defense actually could be quite good depending on how much the secondary improves.
SEC Team Most Likely To Make a Run At a National Championship: Alabama. The Crimson Tide has been there a lot lately, it has the potential for good leadership and it has a veteran quarterback and stingy defense. The biggest challenge for the coaching staff will be keeping complacency at bay. Runner-up (tie): Georgia, Texas A&M. The SEC is very competitive at the top this season, and Florida, LSU and South Carolina are all contenders as well. But Georgia should be especially hungry in light of how the Bulldogs lost the 2012 SEC Championship Game. Texas A&M, meanwhile, will always be a threat as long as Manziel is calling the shots.
SEC Team Most Likely To Fall Apart: Tennessee. Not much is expected of the Vols, anyway. But Butch Jones’ resume is by no means that of a proven head coach, and aside from the offensive line, this team doesn’t have much to write home about. Vanderbilt (more on the Commodores in a second) easily out-talent Tennessee at the skill positions, and although Tennessee has some veterans in its defense, those players have been part of the problem and not the solution in recent seasons. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for Tennessee to lose 10 games. Runner-up: Vanderbilt. The Commodores set a high-water mark in 2012 with 9 wins, showing what is possible when everything that can go right, does. A new quarterback and a thin defensive line are potential problem spots
Newcomer Most Likely To Make a Big Impact: Jason Hatcher, DE, Kentucky. When you’re Kentucky, getting Southern Cal commitments to flip on National Signing Day is pretty big news. Hatcher is a top-tier talent, and most observers expect him to immediately start for Kentucky or be no worse than the first guy off the bench. In Hatcher’s favor is that, somewhat unbelievably, the Kentucky defensive line is already expected to be one of the best in the conference. That means Hatcher won’t get an automatic double-team when he’s in the game. Runner-up (tie): Marquez North, WR, Tennessee; and Rbert Nkemdiche, DE, Ole Miss. North was a huge coup for the new Tennessee staff to sign. Given the virtual wasteland that is the Tennessee football program at the moment, North will get every opportunity to play in 2013 and probably start. Nkemdiche, meanwhile, is a virtual lock to start at Ole Miss, and has immense potential.
SEC Offensive Player of the Year: Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M. Everything A&M does will go through Manziel, both literally and figuratively. The Aggies must rebuild its WR corps, as well as replace RB Christine Michel. Manziel is at his best when the plan goes south, so he figures to get plenty of opportunities to freestyle while the Aggies jell on offense. Runner-Up: Aaron Murray, QB, Georgia. If the Bulldogs don’t average 30-35 passes a game, it will probably be a signal that Murray has gotten hurt somewhere along the way. The Bulldogs still need to improve the running game somewhat, all stats aside, and with the receiving corps Murray has to work with, look for Mark Richt’s staff to lean heavily on the veteran quarterback.
SEC Defensive Player of the Year: Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina. Provided there’s nothing to Clowney’s reported contact with a sports agent, he’s the closest thing the SEC has to an unstoppable force. Clowney’s performance in the Outback Bowl against Michigan immediately thrust him to the top of award watch lists for 2013. Runner-Up: C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama. Mosley is the perfect anti-spread offense linebacker, a mixture of safety and traditional inside backer who is the prototype for the direction in which most defenses are moving. Should Mosley avoid injury, he will be among the leaders for Butkus Award consideration.
Most Underrated Player Award: Ben Malena, RB, Texas A&M. Malena averaged nearly 6 yards per carry as a junior, and despite his small size, is the prototype for a running back in a spread scheme. He’s also tough and surprisingly good at getting out of tackles, despite his size. He is exactly what Ole Miss wish it had in Jeff Scott. Runner-Up: Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida. Driskel was widely considered one of the worst of the potential starters at quarterback in the SEC prior to the 2012 season, but he steadily refined his game and helped lead the Gators to an 11-2 record. He completed 63.6% of his passes and threw only 5 interceptions the entire year. If he makes as much improvement from his sophomore to junior season as he did from his freshman to sophomore year, he’ll be among the best in the SEC in 2014.
Public Enemy “Don’t Believe the Hype” Award: Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri. He certainly has the raw talent to improve, but Green-Beckham’s freshman year was littered with unfulfilled potential, and he lined up as a slot tight end almost as much as a corner wideout. With T.J. Moe graduated, Green-Beckham must step up in 2013 and help take the heat off Marcus Lucas. Runner-Up: Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss. Wallace is almost purely the product of Hugh Freeze’s offensive system, which will undergo plenty of scrutiny now that opponents are seeing it the second time around. Wallace is tough and can make the occasional play on his own, but his field vision isn’t the best and he often forces throws.