Les Miles and the LSU Tigers are coming off of a historic season. The Tigers faced one of the countries toughest schedules in 2011 facing #3 Oregon, #25 Mississippi State, #16 West Virginia, #2 Alabama, and #16 Georgia all on the road and they won all of them. The one game the Tigers came up short was the rematch against #2 Alabama in the BCS Championship. Finishing 13-1 is a great accomplishment for the Tigers, but it’s not what they wanted and coming into the 2012 season, they’ll be looking to finish the season 14-0.
The Tigers will be led by Junior quarterback Zach Mettenberger and a slew of hard-nosed running backs. After suffering immensely in the passing game last season, Mettenberger hopes to give the Tigers a boost down the field. The Tigers will also rely heavily on running backs Michael Ford (756 yds, 7 TDs), Spencer Ware (707 yds, 8 TDs), Alfred Blue (539 yds, 7 TDs), and Kenny Hilliard (336 yds, 8 TDs). Not many offenses can boast a slew of backs with those types of numbers, and while they’ll be very important in opening up the offense for Mettenberger, the wideouts will also have to play a large role for the Tigers this season. Mettenberger’s primary target will be Odell Beckham Jr., who had 475 yards last season. Those yards would have been a lot better had the Tigers had a quarterback that could get the ball to him.
The LSU defense is returning 6 starters after losing cornerbacks Morris Claiborne and Ron Brooks, strong safety Brandon Taylor, and defensive tackle Michael Brockers to the NFL. Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu will be expected to make as many plays this season as he did last season and will have everyone watching him which could allow for another Tiger player to step up. The player to keep your eye on is safety Eric Reid, who made the interception in the first Alabama game. Reid is underrated and will end up being a huge part of the Tiger’s defense this season.
Alabama is coming off of a phenomenal 12-1 season and a BCS Championship. Nick Saban will be looking to repeat this season and, like always with Saban, it’s possible.
The Tide are led by Junior quarterback AJ McCarron, who did just about everything right last season completing 219 of his 328 attempts for a total of 2634 yards and 16 TDs. McCarron finished the season with a quarterback rating of 147.3 (ESPN). McCarron won’t have quite the backfield that Mettenberger will have coming into 2012, but as the Tide have proven, one running back is more than enough. Running back Eddie Lacy will be the Tide’s leading back this season after losing stud back Trent Richardson to the NFL (3rd overall). McCarron’s main targets this season will be Junior wideouts Kenny Bell and Kevin Norwood.
The Alabama defense is returning 6 starters. The Tide had an unbelievable defensive draft class losing Safety Mark Barron (7th overall), Cornerback Dre Kirkpatrick (17th overall), Linebacker Dont’a Hightower (25th overall), Defensive End Courtney Upshaw (35th overall), Defensive Tackle Josh Chapman (5th rd), and Cornerback DeQuan Menzie (5th rd). After reading that, one could assume that Alabama is returning zero starters on defense and that the whole team is playing in the NFL. For that reason, Alabama is picked by most people to finish behind LSU in the SEC West, along with the fact that the game between the two is in Baton Rouge this year.
The Arkansas Razorbacks were ranked 3rd in the country at one point last season behind only their SEC West foes, LSU and Alabama, but should the Hogs be ranked that high this season? That’s the question everyone is wondering after Bobby Petrino was fired. Petrino was replaced with interim coach John L. Smith, who has had coached at Louisville and Michigan State.
The Hogs will have Senior quarterback Tyler Wilson at the helm again this year. Wilson had a great season last year completing 277 of 438 attempts for a total of 3638 yards and 24 TDs. Wilson’s main targets Jarius Wright and Joe Adams have moved on to the NFL, and with Marquel Wade injured Wilson will be struggling to find targets outside of Senior wideout Cobi Hamilton. The Razorbacks will have running back Knile Davis back this season though. Davis injured his ankle before the start of the 2011 season and never fully healed well enough to return to the field during the season. Davis seems to be pretty healthy as you can see in this video where he squats Bobby Petrino’s motorcycle. The Razorback defense won’t be spectacular this season considering they only have two linebackers on the whole team, but it should be good enough to keep them in the the top half of the SEC West and somewhere in the top 20.
The Bulldogs could probably be higher on this list considering they are heading into a season where I could see them winning 8 or 9 games. The only losses being LSU, Alabama, and Arkansas. Dan Mullen and the Bulldogs have a good shot at knocking off Auburn at home, Kentucky on the road, Tennessee at home if they can stop Tyler Bray, Texas A&M at home, and Ole Miss on the road. Not to mention a shot at taking out Arkansas at home too.
The Bulldogs will be led by Junior quarterback Tyler Russell, who in the time that he played last season, averaged 130 yards a game. Russell won’t have running back Vick Ballard (5th rd) to rely on as a distraction in the passing game, but will have Junior back LeDarius Perkins, who had 422 yards in 87 carries. Tyler Russell will have some pretty solid targets at wide receiver with Seniors Arceto Clark and Chad Bumphis coming back. The Bulldogs ranked 35th in total defense in the 2011 season and are returning 7 starters.
Gene Chizik and Auburn are looking to start over again this season. Last season wasn’t the best for the Tigers, who faced one of the toughest SEC schedules, but it wasn’t terrible. The Tigers return a ton of starters this season.
Junior quarterback Clint Moseley Jr, Senior running back Ontario McCalebb, and Senior wideout Emory Blake will be the offensive leaders for the Tigers. Moseley had a decent season after taking over for Barrett Trotter half way through. McCalebb will be the feature back this season after Michael Dyer left the team. McCalebb rushed for 641 yards last season and had 5 touchdowns behind the 1200 yard rushing Dyer. While Emory Blake is the elder wideout for Auburn, it’s Sophomore Trovon Reed that will be getting most of the attention. Reed, a highly touted recruit in 2010, had only 164 receiving yards last season, but is expected to become a feature in the Chizik offense.
The Aggies are entering a new era and are hoping to survive their first season in the SEC. As coach Kevin Sumlin told media members during SEC Media Days, his “realistic expectations are to win”. The Aggies are facing the last 6 BCS Championship teams, so the road to “wins” won’t be easy for the Aggies. If the Aggies can manage to pull off a win against the Florida Gators early in the season, they may finish ahead of the team listed below them here.
After losing quarterback Ryan Tannehill to the draft (Tannehill on Hard Knocks), the Aggies will be relying on Sophomore Jameill Showers to get the ball to their star receiver Senior Ryan Swope. The positive for the Aggies is that they return 9 offensive starters and 8 defensive starters. Good luck Aggies, it’s going to be a rough year.
The Rebels…Bears…whatever they are, are also starting a new era. Hugh Freeze has a large task ahead of him in turning around a program that was driven into the ground by Houston Nutt. Freeze left his Arkansas State team after just one season and an 8-0 conference record.
The Rebels are returning Junior quarterback Barry Brunetti, who saw most of his action in the last game of the 2011 season against Mississippi State. Looking at this season, the Rebels may be able to squeak out one or two conference wins, but anything beyond that would seem to be a pipe dream.