SEC pre-spring power rankings

Today at the NFP marks the second of seven pre-spring conference power rankings, continuing the series with the SEC.

Click here for the ACC pre-spring power rankings, which ran on Monday.

After spring practice season, we will revisit these rankings before the dog days of summer kick in.

Here is the schedule for the rest of the week:

Wednesday: Big Ten
Thursday: Pac-12
Friday: Big 12
Saturday: Big East
Sunday: non-AQs

Click here to see when your favorite SEC team begins spring practice.

AJ McCarronAfter his strong play in the BCS title game, big things are expected of Alabama QB AJ McCarron in 2012.

1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide sit atop the rankings after claiming the BCS national championship over LSU in dominating fashion. Quarterback AJ McCarron and running back Eddie Lacy 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 will be gone. However, keep in mind that the Tide entered last season having lost four first-round picks to the NFL and arguably got better. Remember, reloading is Nick Saban’s specialty, so keep an eye on junior college cornerbacks Travell Dixon and Deion Belue in the secondary as well as linebacker Nico Johnson. Replacing nose guard Josh Chapman may be the biggest spring concern.

2. LSU: The Tigers arguably are the best overall team in the league heading into 2012, but the Tide will assume the top spot until they lose. 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 — when it isn’t relying on a deep and effective stable of running backs. And that defense? It will remain one of the best in the country because of its depth and returning experience. Linebacker will be a position to keep an eye on this spring, with soon-to-be junior Tahj Jones perhaps primed to excel in John Chavis’ defense.

3. Georgia: The Bulldogs’ 3-4 defense flourished in the second season under coordinator Todd Grantham, holding LSU without a first down in the first half of the SEC title game. And the offense 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 health of running back Isaiah Crowell will go a long way toward answering that question.

4. Arkansas: The one major question facing the Hogs is whether they can snag a victory over either Alabama or LSU — West division foes that aren’t leaving their schedule any time soon. While Bobby Petrino’s squad had some close calls last year (Ole Miss and Vanderbilt), this team is getting better each season under Petrino’s watch. But taking the next step defensively will need to occur under new coordinator Paul Haynes, who arrives from Ohio State. Expect a little more risk-taking on that side of the ball, where steady veterans such as Jake Bequette and Tramain Thomas need to be replaced. Offensively, Cobi Hamilton must emerge as a top receiving option with Jarius Wright, Joe Adams and Greg Childs gone.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks have brought in top-quality defenders in their last few recruiting classes, so the focus this offseason will be on the offensive side of the ball despite losing defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson to the head job at Southern Miss. Stud running back Marcus Lattimore is ahead of schedule in his rehab from his ACL injury, but it’s doubtful we will see him take contact this spring. Replacing receiver Alshon Jeffery will be difficult, so Ace Sanders, Damiere Byrd and Shamier Jeffery — Alshon’s younger brother — will be looked upon to have a big impact. And quarterback Connor Shaw’s development is the straw that stirs the drink for this team’s offensive fortunes. If he continues to develop as a passer, South Carolina could return to the SEC championship game.

6. Florida: The Gators desperately need to find consistent playmakers on offense, which will be new coordinator Brent Pease’s primary focus this spring. Receivers Andre Debose and Quinton Dunbar will receive every opportunity to emerge as top options. It would also help if the offensive line protected the quarterback no matter who is taking snaps. Rising sophomores Jacoby Brissett, Jeff Driskel and Tyler Murphy will fight for the starting QB job as head coach Will Muschamp searches for his new offensive leader.

7. Texas A&M: The Aggies will 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. His first duty, along with coordinator Kliff Kingsbury, will be to decide who will replace Ryan Tannehill at quarterback. Sophomore Jameill Showers has the inside track, but redshirt freshmen Johnny Manziel and Matt Joeckel will also get reps as well as early enrollee Matt Davis. Sumlin’s second major job will be to make the Aggies a tougher team in the second halves of games and to make sure a rushing attack can complement his high-octane passing game.

8. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were one of the better stories in 2011 under first-year head coach James Franklin, who many Maryland fans wish was their head coach these days. The emergence of quarterback Jordan Rodgers was huge for this offense, but he’ll need to continue to develop and put his bowl game performance in the past. The return of running back Warren Norman from a knee injury will be huge to complement a passing game that should continue to get better. And defensively, Franklin will always have this unit playing tough and physical.

Derek DooleyCan Derek Dooley quiet the critics in Knoxville?

9. Tennessee: This is the biggest season of Derek Dooley’s coaching career with the Volunteers. Offseason unrest on the coaching staff must be put on the backburner, and new defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri must be able to bring a little Alabama flair with him while keeping the unit playing at the high level it did under former coordinator Justin Wilcox, who is now at Washington. Quarterback Tyler Bray has the weapons at receiver, but the team ranked 116th nationally in rushing while recording just 11 touchdowns on the ground in 2011. Marlin Lane and Rajion Neal, as well as Devrin Young and Tom Smith, will need to provide some semblance of a rushing attack.

10. Auburn: The Tigers will be getting comfortable with new coordinators on both sides of the ball — Scot Loeffler and Brian VanGorder will be running the offense and defense, respectively. Look for the offense to employ a variety of formations, with a dependence on Onterio McCalebb in the run game with Michael Dyer now at Arkansas State. But could rising sophomore quarterback Kiehl Frazier run with the starting job? Defensively, the Tigers will be much more aggressive with a lot of the same faces back from last season’s inexperienced unit.

11. Missouri: The Tigers have 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 that’s a nice boost. Gary Pinkel’s spread offense will have to be a little bit more physical if it’s going to work in the rugged SEC. Quarterback James Franklin leads a talented offense, but the defensive speed in the new league will be an adjustment.

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, who is excelling with Texas. Cornerbacks Jonathan Banks and Corey Broomfield return, but there is concern at the safety position after Nickoe Whitley tore his Achilles’ late last year. Offensively, Tyler Russell is now the fulltime starting quarterback with Chris Relf gone, but the Bulldogs must get junior college newcomers Dylan Holley and Charles Siddoway ready to play right away with so many questions up front.

13. Ole Miss: The Rebels will begin a new era under Hugh Freeze, who comes over from Arkansas State. The quarterback battle will be at the forefront, as holdovers Randall Mackey, Zach Stoudt and Barry Brunetti will have to hold off junior college transfer Bo Wallace, whom Freeze coached in 2010 at Arkansas State. Freeze will employ a spread offense with an emphasis on the run. But the offensive line is a huge question mark. Defensively, Ole Miss struggled mightily in 2011. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford is back after missing last season with a torn ACL. But the defense finished 110th nationally with just 13 sacks last fall, and it wasn’t a very opportunistic unit in forcing turnovers.

14. Kentucky: The Wildcats need to be strong along the offensive line, as they’ll be led by returning starters Larry Warford and Matt Smith. And last year’s backups have starting experience. Could Trevino Woods win the left tackle spot? Quarterback Morgan Newton will miss the spring while he recovers from shoulder surgery, so can backup Maxwell Smith make a move with first-team reps? Defensively, it will be beyond difficult to replace Danny Trevathan, and the Wildcats lost six starters in all from their linebacking corps and secondary combined.

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