I know Missouri and A&M aren’t official members yet because they have not played a game, but come on, it’s time to start embracing them. After all, they did beat ACC and Big Ten teams, right?
Anyway, exiting 2011 and heading into the way-too-long off-season of early 2012, here are how the 14 teams stack up right now heading into 2012 in the SEC power rankings style. Remember, this is a projection based on next year, not how they finished this year.
14. Ole Miss
12. Mississippi State
New Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze certainly has his work cut out for him. He takes the reign of a program that has lost its last 14 SEC games. Wow. The good news is he returns a slew of talented freshmen in CJ Johnson, Donte Moncrief and Nick Brassell…Kentucky ended the year on a high note by beating the Tennessee Vols in front of the home crowd in Lexington. That was the first time in a long, long time that has happened, and I know Kentucky fans are very proud of the accomplishment. However, Joker Phillips has to right this ship immediately, or he might be looking at unemployment in 2012. Morgan Newton and Maxwell Smith return at quarterback, and it will be a toss up as to who can win that job…Mississippi State had an underachieving 2011. The Bulldogs didn’t have the offense everyone thought they would have, mainly because the quarterback position did not pan out like most had hoped. LaDarius Perkins returns and so does backup quarterback Tyler Russell, but defensive tackle (stud) Fletcher Cox is going to the NFL. This could be a team that surprises and gets overlooked in 2012; however, I just can’t put the Bulldogs higher than 12th right now.
9. Texas A&M
You’re probably yelling inside seeing that Vanderbilt is ranked lower than Tennessee when the Vols didn’t even go to a bowl game. I have much respect for James Franklin and what he accomplished this season for the Commodores. Vanderbilt returns quarterback Jordan Rodgers, running back Zac Stacy and wide receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews. The Commodores can make a little noise in the East next year with this talented offensive cast returning…Missouri is the first newbie of 2012 to be ranked on here, and they return a legitimate quarterback in James Franklin. Franklin is a spread option quarterback, and it will be interesting to see how this offense performs in the SEC. However, Missouri does have a particularly easy schedule, and I can see them getting to eight or nine wins if they catch some breaks…Texas A&M will be welcomed very nicely in the West, I assume. However, they are entering into the toughest half of any division in the country. No one can prepare for that. The Aggies have a new coach, a new offense and a lot of ground to make up recruiting-wise. And the meat of this team, namely Ryan Tannehill and Jeff Fuller, are gone in 2012. It could be a tough welcome to the SEC in 2012 for the Aggies.
Tennessee could be the surprise team of the SEC East next year. I think they will make some noise, but there is several question marks, most notably if Da’Rick Rogers will be okay to play next year and if Justin Hunter’s knee will recover well enough to make a serious impact like the beginning of last year. It’s been an interesting off-season for the Vols, and it’s not over yet. I like Derek Dooley, I’m just not convinced he is the guy for Tennessee. That’s just me, though. He could literally come out and win the SEC East next year, and it would not surprise me…Will Muschamp had a very tough year in his first year at Florida; however, the defense finished in the top 10 in the country in total defense. There are a lot of young players on both sides of the football for Florida; so, the future looks bright. However, the future is a couple of years away. Expect Florida to make some noise next year, but replacing Jeff Demps and Chris Rainey will be a problem. There are a ton of question marks on offense for the Gators in 2012…Auburn returns very young and talented players next year. The Tigers will be, of course, without running back Michael Dyer, who transferred to Arkansas State, and they will be without offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn as well. However, the whole key to the 2012 Auburn Tigers will revolve around the quarterback position. Who will run the offense? Kiel Frazier, Clint Moseley and Barrett Trotter will fight it out next year.
5. South Carolina
South Carolina had a wonderful year in 2011, and they received much respect for their strong finish and first 11-win season in program history. They, however, lose their best player on offense in Alshon Jeffery and the best player on defense in Melvin Ingram. With that being said, the Gamecocks return a much-improved quarterback in Connor Shaw and a veteran stud running back (if healthy) in Marcus Lattimore. Defensively, USC will be solid as well, and they probably have the best defensive player (next to Tyrann Mathieu) in Jadeveon Clowney. The guy is a freak…I’m going to go out on a limb here for Arkansas because I think they will be good next year. They return quarterback Tyler Wilson and running back (recovering from ankle injury) Knile Davis. Even though the Hogs are losing talent and depth on both sides of the ball, they will score some points. I like the way this team runs its offense, and Wilson should be the best quarterback in the SEC next season…The Georgia Bulldogs are expected to finish top three next year. So, what’s new? They always have talent, but I think this defense is just getting cranked up for a big-time season in 2012. SEC leading sacker Jarvis Jones returns, along with a cast of defenders who are fast and physical. Oh, and the Dawgs return Aaron Murray and a cast of wide receivers. Who will play running back, though?
The Alabama Crimson Tide are losing a lot of talent to the NFL draft; however, don’t expect this offense, or defense, to take a huge step back. I know they won’t be 2011 good, but Nick Saban has recruited very well, and he will field a very good football team. I think the West will come down to the Tide and Tigers once again. The offense returns a ton of talent and experience along the line, a maturing quarterback in AJ McCarron and a running game that has the ability not to lose a step with Eddie Lacy being the primary back. This team will be fun to watch to see just how they recover from losing talent to the NFL…LSU should be the preseason No. 1 team in the country. The Tigers probably have the best chance to return to the big dance because of all the talent they return on offense and defense. The best defender in the conference and game-changer Tyrann Mathieu is back, along with four legitimate running backs that any team in the SEC would gladly take on their team. Les Miles will be crazier than ever, and the out-of-conference schedule is not as tough as it was this year…not that it made a difference, anyway. LSU could be the team to represent the SEC in the BCS National Championship once again in 2012.
Whoever wins the SEC, here’s to hoping the SEC wins its 7th National Championship.