While I expect that somethings will remain the same in the SEC this season — the irrelevance of Kentucky football, Alabama’s rule over the conference and Steve Spurrier ribbing someone at SEC Media Days — there’s some obvious alterations that will take place in 2013 as well.
For the most part, I strongly believe that the massive and unstoppable juggernaut known as the Saban Dynasty and Alabama Crimson Tide football will once again power its way into the National Championship game against the “product”, i.e. this season’s unlucky title game victim.
Of course, there are a number of obstacles that could prevent that from happening, namely Texas A&M and a quarterback called “Mr. Football”, along with whoever awaits in the SEC Championship Game...which last year actually shaped up to be the true national title match more than the farce on display when ‘Bama discarded Notre Dame.
But the Crimson Tide, bulging with 5-star talent across the roster and returning plenty of veteran players, should be in strong contention for college football’s first ever three-peat as national champs. One place there should be a huge change will be on the Plains, where offensive genius and celebrated hero Gus Malzahn returns to head the program he and Cam Newton led to a national championship in 2010.
After a 3-9 season that included an 0-8 mark in conference play in 2012 — where Auburn resembled a stumbling, punch-drunk prize fighter instead of a team two seasons removed from a BCS title — expect the glitzy, Star Wars offense Malzahn has installed at every one of his previous stops to improve the Tigers’ record and re-invigorate the Auburn faithful.
Meanwhile, Ellis Johnson, who built strong defenses at Mississippi State, South Carolina and Alabama, should have the Tigers playing more physical after a year that saw Auburn ranked 13th in the SEC in total yardage allowed.
After a successful SEC debut in 2012 and showing the league they had earned their new spot by handing Alabama their only loss of the season, Texas A&M is expected to challenge the Crimson Tide’s dominance behind sophomore Heisman quarterback Johnny Manziel.
The Aggies will also have to contend with plenty of changes of their own, from losses at receiver, the offensive line and on defense, to staff changes and the fact that everyone else in the conference will now see A&M coming. Nevertheless, look for a strong 2013 in College Station.
If there’s a true dark horse in the SEC this year, it has to be Ole Miss.
In his first year in Oxford, Hugh Freeze reshaped Ole Miss football on and off the field, then built the framework for future success by landing the No. 6 recruiting class in the country.
The Rebels are on the rise — and could easily not only surprise, but make life miserable for teams across the conference who don’t take them seriously.
Changes are also in store for LSU. Unfortunately, it’s the type of changes that won’t thrill the Tiger faithful who have grown accustomed to LSU’s powerhouse prestige.
After 11 players bolted for the NFL following the 2012 season and left just 10 starters to lead the 2013 Tigers, the divide between talent and experience in Baton Rouge is the largest it has ever been in Les Miles’ tenure. Although I don’t anticipate LSU posting a 6-7 season, nine wins could be the most Tiger fans can hope for this year.
This could very well be the last year of the Dan Mullen era at Mississippi State — or at least the beginning of the end. Granted, Mullen has done a fair job in Starkville, which is not the easiest place in the conference to win at. He’s recruited well, averaged eight-win seasons in the past three years and is well-respected by his peers.
The problem for Mullen is that his Bulldogs have a habit of starting strong (winning 6-7 games by the midseason mark), then faltering during the later part of the year — where teams like ‘Bama, LSU, Ole Miss and A&M hang out.
That’s a bad habit State needs to break and break quickly...otherwise Mullen may receive his walking papers. Taking up residence in the SEC West cellar this year is Arkansas — whose problems appear even more confounded than they were under during the disaster era that was know as the John L. Smith experiment.
Bret Bilema arrived in Fayetteville during the offseason after many successful years of leading the Wisconsin Badgers. Three problems exist for Bilema, however, in his quest to restore the Razorbacks into top competition. Leaders like Tyler Wilson, Knile Davis and Cobi Hamilton are gone, Bilema is a sub-par recruiter (His 2013 class ranked 29th, 12th in the SEC) and SEC and Big-10 defenses are nothing alike.
W. Brian Hale is the sports writer for the Daily Mountain Eagle. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.