With the 2012 college football season officially kicking off on Thursday, it's time to release the first power rankings for each conference.
Every Tuesday during the season I will release league power rankings, which you can find under the College tab at the top of this page. The six BCS conferences will all have their own power rankings, while I will also rank the best of the non-BCS squads.
With that in mind, let's take a look at how the SEC shapes up:
US PRESSWIREAlabama's Nico Johnson will be one of the players to step up on a reloaded defense.
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide remain atop the rankings after claiming the BCS national championship over LSU in dominating fashion last season. Quarterback AJ McCarron and running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon will pace an offense that should have more playmakers at the receiver position. Still, it will be very difficult to repeat when so much defensive talent is gone. But keep in mind that reloading is Nick Saban’s specialty, so keep an eye on the linebacker trio of Nico Johnson, C.J. Mosley and Adrian Hubbard. Replacing nose guard Josh Chapman is a challenge, but Jesse Williams could be up to the task.
2. LSU: The Tigers are arguably the best overall team in the league heading into 2012 despite losing dynamic defender/returner Tyrann Mathieu, but Alabama will assume the top spot until it falters. With quarterback Zach Mettenberger giving Les Miles and Co. a pure dropback passer, expect this offense to open up a bit more with receivers Russell Shepard, Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry. However, this team will still rely on a deep and effective stable of running backs. And that defense will remain one of the best in the country because of its depth and returning experience under coordinator John Chavis.
3. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are arguably the most intriguing group in the nation because of John L. Smith and his task of keeping this team focused. Can the Hogs snag an elusive victory over either Alabama or LSU — West division foes that the Hogs get at home in 2012? This team was getting better each season on Bobby Petrino’s watch, but taking the next step defensively will need to occur under new coordinator Paul Haynes. Expect a little more risk-taking on that side of the ball, where steady veterans such as Jake Bequette and Tramain Thomas have been replaced. Offensively, Cobi Hamilton must emerge as a top receiving option for quarterback Tyler Wilson, who is in for a big year.
4. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have brought in top-quality defenders in their last few recruiting classes, so there's a lot of talent on the defensive side of the ball for new coordinator Lorenzo Ward. Keep an eye on Jadeveon Clowney, who will kick inside to tackle on passing downs much like Melvin Ingram did in 2011. Stud running back Marcus Lattimore should be able to carry the load once again after coming back from his ACL injury, but who will step up at receiver for quarterback Connor Shaw, who continues to develop? If Shaw plays steady for a full season, which everyone expects, South Carolina could return to the SEC championship game.
5. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ 3-4 defense flourished in the second season under coordinator Todd Grantham, but there are real concerns in the secondary. Emerging receiver Malcolm Mitchell had to move to cornerback, and four defensive starters will be sidelined due to suspension at the beginning of the season. The 'Dawgs will have their hands full in their Week 2 SEC opener at Missouri. Still, Georgia returns perhaps the nation's best linebacker in Jarvis Jones. And even if Mitchell isn't lining up too much at receiver, the offense still has weapons around quarterback Aaron Murray. But can head coach Mark Richt’s team live up to the high expectations it will face after putting together a 10-game win streak to close the regular season? The unproven run game as well as the inexperienced offensive line will go a long way toward answering that question. No games against Alabama, LSU or Arkansas definitely helps the cause, however.
6. Florida: The Gators need to find consistent playmakers on offense, which was new coordinator Brent Pease’s primary focus this offseason. Can receivers Andre Debose, Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar emerge as consistent options for rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett or Jeff Driskel, the two quarterbacks still battling for the full-time starting job? The suspect offensive line impressed head coach Will Muschamp with its toughness this offseason, and that unit will go a long way in determining just how good the Gators can be this fall. Defensively, Florida returns several key starters from a unit that ranked eighth nationally in 2011. But keep an eye on the health of end Ronald Powell and tackle Dominique Easley.
7. Missouri: Inside the trenches, the Tigers had to replace their entire defensive line (except end Brad Madison) and three starters from the offensive line, though left tackle Elvis Fisher was granted a sixth year by the NCAA. And Gary Pinkel’s spread offense will have to be a little bit more physical if it’s going to work in the rugged SEC, but quarterback James Franklin has enough firepower to work with on offense to continue to be effective in a new league. The defensive speed in the SEC will be an adjustment, however, and a tough road slate looms. But if the Tigers can knock off Georgia in Week 2, they could be an SEC East darkhorse. I like the vibe coming out of Columbia, so they moved up a few spots from my post-spring power rankings.
8. Tennessee: This is the biggest season of Derek Dooley’s coaching career with the Volunteers. The offseason unrest on the coaching staff and dismissal of receiver Da'Rick Rogers must be put on the backburner or else this is a team that could implode. New defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri should bring a little Alabama flair with him, however, while keeping the unit playing at the high level it did under former coordinator Justin Wilcox. And quarterback Tyler Bray still has a top weapon at receiver in Justin Hunter. The team ranked 116th nationally in rushing while recording just 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2011, but Rajion Neal and a host of running backs should be able to provide a stronger rushing attack.
US PRESSWIREKiehl Frazier will get his chance as a full-time starter at Auburn.
9. Auburn: The Tigers continue to get comfortable with new coordinators on both sides of the ball — Scot Loeffler on offense and Brian VanGorder on defense. Look for the offense to employ a variety of formations, with a dependence on Onterio McCalebb in the run game with Michael Dyer gone. Sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier developed as a passer this offseason and has a chance to display his high-star ability coming out of the prep ranks. There is a lot of talent to pace a youthful but energetic defense, and the unit will be much more aggressive under VanGorder. But the big jump could occur in 2013. However, the Tigers are a group that can sneak up on some teams this fall.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies enter their new league with first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, who arrived in College Station after nearly leading Houston to a BCS bowl game. Along with coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, Sumlin turned the offense over to redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel, who will have a chance to run with the starting quarterback job. Sumlin’s major task will be to make the Aggies a tougher team in the second halves of games and to make sure a rushing attack paced by Christine Michael can complement the high-octane passing game. Left tackle Luke Joeckel leads an offensive line that returns four starters, but the secondary is suspect.
11. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were one of the better stories in 2011 under first-year head coach James Franklin. The emergence of quarterback Jordan Rodgers was huge for this offense, but he’ll need to continue to develop and utilize top running back Zac Stacy and receivers Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd. Defensively, Franklin will always have this unit playing tough and physical despite losing some key players, but linebacker Chase Garnham and defensive end Walker May should help keep this group solid.
12. Mississippi State: The Bulldogs need to improve defensively under Chris Wilson, whose unit didn’t play particularly well in its first season without Manny Diaz. Cornerback Jonathan Banks is a stud, though, and Corey Broomfield has moved from corner to help out at safety. Offensively, Tyler Russell is now the full-time starting quarterback with Chris Relf gone, but the Bulldogs have questions on the offensive line. However, Russell will have a veteran receiving corps to work with led by senior Chad Bumphis. Meanwhile, LaDarius Perkins and Nick Griffin pace the rushing attack.
13. Kentucky: The major concern for head coach Joker Phillips was finding playmakers this offseason, and he came away fairly optimistic with the emergence of receivers Demarco Robinson and Daryl Collins. The Wildcats need to be strong along the offensive line, though. Meanwhile, Maxwell Smith has snagged the starting quarterback job after taking advantage of former starter Morgan Newton being sidelined in the spring. Defensively, it will be beyond difficult to replace Danny Trevathan, and the Wildcats could be susceptible at linebacker and in the secondary.
14. Ole Miss: The Rebels have begun a new era under Hugh Freeze, who came over from Arkansas State. The quarterback battle remains at the forefront, as junior Barry Brunetti and junior college transfer Bo Wallace, whom Freeze coached in 2010 at Arkansas State, both remain in the mix. Freeze, of course, will be running a spread offense with an emphasis on the run. Top running back Jeff Scott returns and is vital to this offense, but he has to keep his academics in order. The offensive line is a huge question mark because of the transition to a new scheme. And this team struggled mightily on defense in 2011, finishing 110th nationally with just 13 sacks last fall, and it wasn’t a very opportunistic unit in forcing turnovers.
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