LSU vs. Alabama
The Horn continues its series of conference previews by breaking down the SEC.
The SEC has a few key additions this year, with Texas A&M and Missouri joining the conference, but the order at the top remains mostly unchanged. The big names, which include both the national champion and runner-up (Alabama and LSU), are expected to have their usual strong years. They’re not safe from anyone in the SEC though, as the conference is just as stacked as usual. We’ll begin by noting the “contenders” and “pretenders”, and finish with conference and season predictions.
Projected Record – 11-1, 7-1
Key Players – CB Tyrann Mathieu, RB Spencer Ware, RB Michael Ford, DE Sam Montgomery
X-Factor – QB Zach Mettenberger
Look out for – RB Alfred Blue
The defending SEC champion LSU Tigers are still bitter from their loss to Alabama in the 2012 National Championship Game. While they may not hold claim to the title, “Best in the Land,” they’re still champs of the Southeastern Conference and will be looking to defend their conference trophy.
Their offense will be centered on the run game, as the Tigers have the best backfield in the SEC and one of the best in the country, in terms of depth. Spencer Ware, Kenny Hilliard, Michael Ford, and Alfred Blue can all run the ball well—and that may be an understatement.
But question marks at the quarterback position still exist. Zach Mettenberger should be able to fill the role as a game-manager in his first year as the LSU starter, but he’s lacking in experience. Luckily, they won’t be asking him to do more than he is capable of, which should allow him to gain a little bit of confidence before the Tigers hit the meat of their conference schedule.
The staples of defensive coordinator John Chavis’ unit are undoubtedly the D-line and secondary. Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simon, and Eric Reid provide all the security needed to hold down opponents’ passing games. Bennie Logan is the Tigers’ best player on an interior line that can be impenetrable at times. Combine that with the speed and power of Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo on the ends and you have arguably the nation’s best defensive line.
The uncertainty lies within the linebacking corps, which is plastered with youth, but equally as talented as the rest of the defense.
The Tigers will get South Carolina, Alabama, and Mississippi State at home. However, tough road games at Auburn, Florida, Texas A&M, and Arkansas may be what keeps LSU from escaping the SEC unscathed.
Projected Record – 11-1, 7-1
Key Players – QB AJ McCarron, C Barrett Jones, RB Eddie Lacy, LB Nico Johnson
X-Factor – S Robert Lester
Look out for – CB Dee Milliner
Defending national champion and SEC runner-up ‘Bama will be feeling the heat going into the 2012 season, and that pressure will mostly be self-imposed. Even though they won the BCS Championship last year, it has to be a little unfulfilling that they weren’t able to lay claim to the title of “SEC Champions”. That will be their primary goal this year as they embark on another rough season, the success of which may be defined by that always-anticipated matchup with LSU in the first week of November.
Of course, the gaping hole in the offense is the absence of running back Trent Richardson. But Eddie Lacy is a very capable back, and he’ll be receiving the bulk of the carries this season. T.J. Yeldon, Dee Hart, and Jalston Fowler will all be in the mix, though, so it will be important for Lacy to make a statement early on and create some job security for himself. Lacy will be behind an offensive line that returns four starters from last year’s excellent front, which Trent Richardson barreled behind on his way to 1,600 yards last year.
Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones has been in experimental mode throughout the spring as he’s making the transition from offensive tackle to center. Though with his talent and intelligence there is little worry in the Alabama folds. Jones is the anchor of an offensive line that may emerge as the best unit in the entire NCAA, as he’ll be surrounded by the likes of D.J. Fluker, Chance Warmack, and Cyrus Kouandjio.
What this offense’s success truly relies on, however, is the maturity of quarterback AJ McCarron. Many would love to see the sophomore improve on his 16 touchdown passes from a year ago.
The defense of Alabama will have to find a way to replace some of their key departures from 2011. Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are both gone, but Nico Johnson and C.J. Mosley seem prepared to make the Tide’s linebacking corps the same, feared group that it has always been. On the defensive front, Jesse Williams will make plenty of noise, but those around him are key to Alabama’s success in the trenches. With that being said, the main concern is the secondary unit. Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron, and De’quanMenzie all left for the NFL, and that has left Alabama with plenty of uncertainty in their defensive backfield. Senior Robert Lester will be relied on throughout the year, and Dee Milliner is capable of becoming a ball hawk. In short, there isn’t too much panic.
Alabama faces Michigan in their first game of the season, which will be a neutral site contest at Cowboys Stadium. Unfortunately, they also catch Arkansas (two weeks later), Tennessee, and LSU on the road. That’s the bad news. The good news: they don’t play Georgia, Florida, or South Carolina. Therefore, the rest of their schedule should be relatively manageable.
Projected Record – 11-1, 7-1
Key Players – QB Aaron Murray, S Bacarri Rambo, NG Jonathan Jenkins
X-Factor – Running Backs
Look out for – WR/CB Malcolm Mitchell
Isaiah Crowell’s dismissal from the team has been the biggest story on the Georgia campus. His absence absolutely depletes the running back depth and places a lot more pressure on his replacements. The duty will be left for Keith Marshall and Ken Malcome, as they’ll be expected to assume larger roles in the backfield. As for Aaron Murray, he may be feeling a bit more pressure as well. But nobody will expect anything less from him, as the junior quarterback is on a mission this year to become the best quarterback in the SEC. He will have to trim down his interception total from a year ago (14) and become more efficient, but he is poised to do big things. If he is to make strides in this offense, his wide receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Tavarres King will have to do the same.
But what may be the biggest concern is the offensive line. There are holes up front, but plenty of upside. Kenarious Gates, the junior tackle for the Bulldogs, is every bit of prepared to become the centerpiece up front. It is the players surrounding him that leave some fans a bit uneasy. We all know what ineffective line-play can do to an offense, especially one suffering the loss of its top running back. Aaron Murray was sacked 32 times last season.
The defensive secondary has early-season suspensions that it will have to overcome. Senior cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith will miss time, forcing safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams to pick up much of the slack. Their linebacking and defensive line units are a couple of the best in the SEC. Noseguard Jonathan Jenkins up front and linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree behind him are the three anchors of the Georgia front seven. Depth is plentiful here, so expect great things from this defense.
Still, the biggest advantage that Georgia holds has nothing to do with the players and everything to do with their conference schedule. The Bulldogs do not play Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, or Mississippi State. They get Florida at a neutral site, Georgia Tech and Tennessee at home, and they only have to travel four times. You could argue they have the easiest schedule in the SEC. Georgia couldn’t ask for more as a team that has question marks littering the offensive line and backfield. Some would expect them to handle much, if not all, of this schedule.
Projected Record – 9-3, 5-3
Key Players – RB Marcus Lattimore, DE JadeveonClowney, QB Connor Shaw, S D.J. Swearinger
X-Factor – LB/DE DeVonte Holloman
Look out for – DE Devin Taylor
You could make the argument that South Carolina is behind only Arkansas in terms of SEC teams being forced to make the biggest adjustments, both staff- and player-wise.
Most of the offensive side of the ball remains intact, with Alshon Jeffery being the biggest loss. But the defense will have to replace Stephon Gilmore, Travian Robertson, Melvin Ingram, and two other starters. Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson left for the head coaching position at Southern Mississippi, as well. Needless to say, the Gamecocks’ success will depend on how quickly they can get their revamped defense to gel together and produce on a week-to-week basis. Jadeveon Clowney and senior Devin Taylor are the two Gamecock defensive ends that will be anchoring a defensive line that is South Carolina’s surest unit on that side of the ball.
Truly, the best deal of news for South Carolina is the return of a now-healthy Marcus Lattimore at the tailback position. After undergoing knee surgery to repair the torn ligament and cartilage damage that cut his 2011 season short, reports out of Columbia are that he is at full speed and ready to go. But as with all knee injuries it’s best to temper expectations until we’re able to see actual in-game performances. Nonetheless, a Marcus Lattimore at 80-85% is better than what many other SEC schools have to offer, so he willimmediately shore up the Gamecock’s offensive backfield. Still, quarterbackConnor Shaw may determine whether South Carolina is a top-10 team or not. He threw six interceptions last season, but those were only in eight starts. He was good for about a pick per game, which is something he must fix if SC is to give their young defense any chance at succeeding.
South Carolina escapes ‘Bama, Auburn, and Mississippi State on their conference schedule, but they’ll have their fair share of road tests. The Gamecocks will play Georgia, LSU, and Florida in back-to-back-to-back weeks in October, with two of them (LSU and Florida) being road contests. Later they will wrap up their season against a good Clemson team on the road. It’s a tall order for a team that will be desperately searching for continuity come fall.
Projected Record – 8-4, 4-4
Key Players – QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton
X-Factor – LB Tenarius Wright
Look out for – WR Marquel Wade (if legal troubles are resolved)
Bobby Petrino is gone and John L. Smith is in. That is why Arkansas is listed as a sleeper in the SEC. It’s going to be a difficult process adjusting to a new head coach and culture, especially under the circumstances of which the changes occurred.
Much will lie on the shoulders of quarterback Tyler Wilson, who will be making his own case as the top SEC quarterback. He has all the talent to be that, and is surrounded by a great group of running backs. Knile Davis is set to return from a broken ankle that sidelined him for all of last season, and Dennis Johnson and Ronnie Wingo, Jr., each bring something to the table that will worry defensive coordinators. Wilson has one of the best receivers in the SEC, Cobi Hamilton, and they are hopeful that Marquel Wade will settle his legal issues stemming from a burglary that occurred in May.
The defensive side of the ball is not near as solid as the offense, though. Tenarius Wright has made the move from defensive end to linebacker, and he’ll be largely depended on inside. Consequently, there is a little bit of give and take. Wright’s move shores up things with the linebackers, but the defensive line will be left to answer plenty of questions. In the secondary, the Razorbacks will be relying on Tevin Mitchel to improve on his freshman season, along with junior safety Eric Bennett.
Luckily, Arkansas will get LSU and Alabama at home, along with a good Rutgers team in Week 4. Even so, the matchup with Alabama takes place only three weeks into the season. That’s not good news for a team adapting to a new head coach and trying to figure out where their strengths are on defense. The Razorbacks will also have to play tricky road games at Texas A&M and Auburn. Finally, they finish up the season at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, and at home against LSU. Let’s just say this isn’t as favorable a schedule as Georgia’s.
Projected Record – 8-4, 4-4
Key Players – QB Tyler Russell, OG Gabe Jackson, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Corey Broomfield
X-Factor – RB LaDarius Perkins
Look out for – S Nickoe Whitley
The Bulldogs have a few questions heading into 2012, but they are certainly not without talent. Tyler Russel is now the sure starter at quarterback, but it’s not set in stone. His job security hinges on his development. LaDarius Perkins is in much the same situation at tailback. He is the presumed starter, but others will be vying for carries. You could say that is a good problem to have for Mississippi state, as is says a lot about their depth in the backfield.
As always, though, the Bulldogs hang their hat on their defensive ability. They have a great set of cover corners, in Johnathan Banks and Corey Broomfield. On the D-line, the Bulldogs will miss Fletcher Cox, so Josh Boyd will be counted on to pick up most of the slack. He’ll be aided by JUCO transfer Denico Autry, whom the coaches have high hopes for at defensive end. Behind them, senior linebacker Cameron Lawrence is the centerpiece of the defense.
The Bulldogs face a schedule that presents a fair share of difficult matchups. They have to travel to LSU and Alabama in the second half of the season, but they won’t be facing Georgia, South Carolina, or Florida. They will also get A&M, Tennessee, and Arkansas at home. Difficult? Yes. Manageable? Definitely.
Projected Record – 8-4, 5-3
Key Players – S Matt Elam, DT Dominique Easley, LB Jon Bostic, LB Jelani Jenkins
X-Factor – Quarterback play
Look out for – LB Ronald Powell’s possible return
Will Muschamp will be in his second year as head coach at Florida, and he has his work cut out for him. Yet, the one area that they do have an advantage in is continuity. Will Muschamp brought in his staff last year, establishing his system. Now that they are returning 17 of their 22 starters from 2011, the Gators have to be feeling confident, especially with the way they ended last season in the Gator Bowl against Ohio State.
But first things first: they will have to decide on a starter at quarterback. Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will each be vying for the starting position. No matter who ultimately wins the battle, they will be forced to rely on what was a shaky offensive line in 2011. The good news is that four of those starters on the line are back and have made great strides, thus far. High expectations will also be following running backs Mike Gillislee and Mack Brown into 2012.
The defense is a bit more secure, with Matt Elam and Marcus Robison providing plenty of talent in the secondary. Again, they are young, but they have valuable playing-experience together. However, it’s Florida’s front seven who will be counted on the most in this run-heavy league. Dominique Easley and Sharrif Floyd will make huge impacts on the interior. Much of this unit’s success is contingent on how quickly (if at all) Ronald Powell can return to full strength and begin impacting games again. The linebacker/defensive end combo is recovering from ACL surgery performed in April, and the timetable is not all that promising at 4-6 months.
Florida will have early road tests at A&M and Tennessee, in weeks 2 and 3. They’ll then have to endure a schedule that includes LSU, South Carolina, Georgia, and Missouri, all of which are either at home or at a neutral site. They’ll end their season against rival Florida State in Tallahassee on November 24. It will definitely be tough sledding for Muschamp who should be praised if he is able to escape 2012 with an 8-4 record or better.
LSU – 11-1, 7-1
Alabama – 10-2, 7-1
Arkansas – 9-3, 5-3
Mississippi State –8-4, 4-4
Auburn -7-5, 4-4
Texas A&M – 6-6, 2-6
Ole Miss – 5-7, 2-6
Georgia – 11-1, 7-1
South Carolina – 10-2, 6-2
Florida – 8-4, 5-3
Missouri – 8-4, 4-4
Tennessee – 6-6, 2-6
Kentucky – 4-8, 1-7
Vanderbilt – 4-8, 0-8