Ranking the football teams in the SEC West in 2012

Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days in Hoover, Ala. on Thursday, July 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

Photo by Butch Dill

Mississippi coach Hugh Freeze speaks to the media at the Southeastern Conference NCAA college football media days in Hoover, Ala. on Thursday, July 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Butch Dill)

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The SEC West will finish 1. Arkansas, 2. LSU, 3. Alabama this year.

SEC: Very Early Predictions for 2012

2012 Very Early SEC West Predictions

1. LSU

Key Returnees: RB Spencer Ware, RB Michael Ford, RB Kenny Hilliard, WR Russell Shepard, WR Odell Beckham, LT Chris Faulk, C P.J. Lonergan, RT Alex Hurst, DE Sam Montgomery, DE Barkevious Mingo, DT Bennie Logan, LB Kevin Minter, CB Tyrann Mathieu, CB Tharold Simon, S Eric Reid, K Drew Alleman, P Brad Wing

Key Losses: QB Jordan Jefferson, QB Jarrett Lee, WR Rueben Randle, LG Will Blackwell, DT Michael Brockers, LB Stefoin Francois, LB Ryan Baker, CB Morris Claiborne, SS Brandon Taylor

A great regular season in Baton Rouge was overshadowed by an awful performance in the national title game against Alabama. The Tigers navigated a difficult regular season slate unbeaten, but that won’t wash away the disappointment from the 21-0 loss to the Crimson Tide in New Orleans. Although the loss still stings at LSU, the Tigers have to be ecstatic about what’s returning in 2012.

Quarterback play was a huge issue in the national title game and will enter 2012 as a question mark. Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee depart, leaving Zach Mettenberger as the team’s No. 1 option entering spring practice. Mettenberger saw limited action in 2011, completing 8 of 11 passes for 92 yards and one touchdown. Not helping Mettenberger’s cause was the departure of receiver Rueben Randle. With uncertainty surrounding Mettenberger, expect the Tigers to lean heavily on the rushing attack once again. Michael Ford, Spencer Ware, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard combined for 2,338 yards and 30 scores in 2011 and will be helped by the return of four starters on the offensive line. LSU should have one of the top rushing attacks in college football, but Mettenberger’s development will be crucial to winning a national title.

Despite the loss of a few starters, LSU isn’t going to suffer much of a drop-off on defense. The defensive line should be among the best in college football, especially with ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo returning after registering 17 sacks in 2011. Tackle Bennie Logan also returns after picking up 57 tackles last season. Two starters depart in the linebacking corps, but the backups have experience. Morris Claiborne was one of the top cover corners in the nation and may be missed more than some believe. However, the cupboard isn’t bare in the secondary, as Tyrann Mathieu, Eric Reid and Tharold Simon return in 2012.

2. Alabama

Key Returnees: QB AJ McCarron, RB Eddie Lacy, WR Kenny Bell, OL Barrett Jones, OG Chance Warmack, RT D.J. Fluker, DE Damion Square, DE Quinton Dial, DE Jesse Williams, LB Trey DePriest, LB Nico Johnson, LB C.J. Mosley, CB Dee Milliner, S Robert Lester, S Vinnie Sunseri

Key Losses: RB Trent Richardson, WR Marquis Maze, WR Darius Hanks, TE Brad Smelley, C William Vlachos, RG Alfred McCullough, OG Anthony Steen, LB Dont’a Hightower, LB Courtney Upshaw, NG Josh Chapman, CB Dre Kirkpatrick, CB DeQuan Menzie, S Mark Barron

The Crimson Tide will be replacing a plethora of key players, but is there really any doubt this team will be back in the mix for the SEC and national title?

Quarterback AJ McCarron was a key factor in Alabama’s national title win over LSU and he will be the focal point of the offense in 2012. McCarron threw only five picks and completed 66.8 percent of his throws in 2011. The junior will have to adapt to a new offensive coordinator (Doug Nussmeier) next year with Jim McElwain’s departure to Colorado State. With receivers Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks out of eligibility, the Crimson Tide needs Kenny Bell, DeAndrew White and Kevin Norwood to become the go-to weapons for McCarron, especially while a talented freshman class learns the ropes. Replacing Trent Richardson’s production at running back likely won’t come down to one player. Look for Eddie Lacy, Dee Hart and Jalston Fowler to share the initial workload in the backfield, while incoming freshman T.J. Yeldon will have an opportunity to work his way into the mix. The offensive line has to replace stalwart center William Vlachos, but Barrett Jones, D.J. Fluker and Anthony Steen are back.

After finishing first nationally in rush, total, scoring and pass defense, it’s nearly impossible to expect a repeat of those numbers in 2012 – especially with the loss of several key contributors. Coach Nick Saban and coordinator Kirby Smart will have their work cut out for them this offseason, as the defense loses linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, while Dre Kirkpatrick, Mark Barron and DeQuan Menzie all depart from the secondary. Jesse Williams and Damion Square return on the line, but the Crimson Tide needs to find a new nose guard with Josh Chapman and Nick Gentry departing. There’s no shortage of young talent, but it may take five or six games for the right pieces to fall into place for this defense.

3. Arkansas

Key Returnees: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Chris Gragg, OG Alvin Bailey, C Travis Swanson, DE Tenarius Wright, DT Byran Jones, LB Alonzo Highsmith, CB Tevin Mitchell, CB Isaac Madison, S Eric Bennett

Key Losses: WR Joe Adams, WR Jarius Wright, OG Grant Cook, OT Grant Freeman, DE Jake Bequette, LB Jerry Franklin, LB Jerico Nelson, CB Isaac Madison, S Tramain Thomas

The Razorbacks are coming off back-to-back double-digit win seasons for the first time since 1988-1989. Now that Arkansas seems to have closed the gap on LSU and Alabama, can it win the SEC West in 2012?

There’s a mixture of good and bad news for the Razorbacks’ offense next year. Running back Knile Davis is back after missing all of 2011 due to a leg injury, which should provide a spark for the rushing attack. However, Arkansas must replace three receivers, including playmakers Jarius Wright and Joe Adams. Quarterback Tyler Wilson turned down an opportunity to enter the NFL Draft and he should contend for first or second team All-SEC honors next year. The offensive line struggled at times during the 2011 season but figures to be improved in 2012.

If the Razorbacks want to close the gap and play for the SEC Championship next season, the defense has to continue to improve. New coordinator Paul Haynes did a good job containing Kansas State in the Cotton Bowl, but he will lose some of the unit’s key performers. End Jake Bequette, linebacker Jerry Franklin and safety Tramain Thomas will be missed and won’t make Haynes’ job any easier next year. Arkansas still trails LSU and Alabama in defensive strength, but it will be interesting to see how Haynes fares with a full year on the job.

4. Auburn

Key Returnees: RB Onterio McCalebb, WR Emory Blake, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, C Reese Dismukes, DE Corey Lemonier, DE Nosa Eguae, LB Daren Bates, LB Jake Holland, CB Chris Davis, CB T’Sharvan Bell, S Demetruce McNeal, S Erique Florence

Key Losses: RB Michael Dyer, RT Brandon Mosley, LB Eltoro Freeman, S Neiko Thorpe

One year after winning the national title, the Tigers slipped back to the pack, finishing with an 8-5 record and a victory in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia. After losing so many key players from the 2010 team, there was no doubt Auburn was due to for a fall. The Tigers will enter 2012 with new coordinators on both sides of the ball and a roster that is still one of the youngest in the conference.

Gus Malzahn’s up-tempo offense (and Cam Newton) was a big reason why Auburn claimed the 2010 national championship. However, Malzahn departed to be the head coach at Arkansas State, which certainly raises the question of whether or not the Tigers will continue with a similar offensive scheme in 2012. Regardless of scheme, settling the quarterback position is going to be crucial to Auburn’s success in 2012. Clint Moseley, Kiehl Frazier and incoming freshman Zeke Pike will compete for the job in spring practice. With the quarterback position in flux, the Tigers will lean heavily on the rushing attack in 2012. Michael Dyer also departed for Arkansas State, leaving Onterio McCalebb, Florida transfer Mike Blakely and Tre Mason to battle for carries. The offensive line loses tackles A.J. Greene and Brandon Mosley, but center Reese Dismukes is coming off a solid freshman campaign.

Youth and inexperience played a huge role in Auburn’s defensive struggles last season, but this group never really seemed to show much progress throughout the year. The Tigers ranked near the bottom of the SEC in rush, pass, total and scoring defense last season. Coach Gene Chizik made a good move when he decided to hire Brian Van Gorder from the Falcons to coordinate the defense. Van Gorder has some nice talent to work with on the defensive line, as Corey Lemonier, Jeffrey Whitaker, Gabe Wright and Nosa Eguae are all returning. The secondary has been a source of criticism over the last two years, but could benefit from a better pass rush.

5. Texas A&M

Key Returnees: RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, LT Luke Joeckel, C Patrick Lewis, RT Jake Matthews, DE Spencer Nealy, DT Eddie Brown, LB Jonathan Stewart, LB Sean Porter, LB Steven Jenkins, LB Damontre Moore

Key Losses: QB Ryan Tannehill, RB Cyrus Gray, WR Jeff Fuller, DE Tony Jerod-Eddie, CB Coryell Judie, CB Terrence Frederick, S Trent Hunter, K Randy Bullock

2012 represents a new era for Texas A&M athletics. The Aggies decided to leave the Big 12 for the SEC, joining the nation’s toughest conference for college football. While this is a big challenge, Texas A&M has the resources necessary to eventually compete in the SEC West. Could this move help the Aggies on the recruiting trail versus Texas? Only time will tell, but for 2012, Texas A&M has a lot of work to do in order to reach the postseason.

Along with the move to the SEC, the hire of coach Kevin Sumlin has built some positive momentum in College Station. Sumlin’s spread offenses at Houston were among the best in the nation, but the going will certainly be tougher in the SEC. Quarterback is a huge question mark entering spring practice, as Matt Joeckel, Matt Davis, Johnny Manziel and Jameill Showers will compete to replace Ryan Tannehill. With a young quarterback taking over, look for the Aggies to lean on the rushing attack and offensive line. Running back Christine Michael returns after missing the final four games due to a torn ACL. Michael will anchor the backfield, but Ben Malena will be a nice change of pace option. Whichever quarterback wins the job will have a solid group of receivers to throw to, including All-SEC candidate Ryan Swope.

It will be interesting to see how Texas A&M’s defense transitions to a 4-3 under coordinator Mark Snyder in 2012. After running the 3-4 under Tim DeRuyter, the switch may take a year or two to get the right bodies in place. Losing end Tony Jerod-Eddie is a tough blow for the line, but Spencer Nealy and Eddie Brown Jr. earned honorable mention All-Big 12 honors last season. The coaching staff needs to decide if Damontre Moore fits at end or linebacker, especially after he recorded 8.5 sacks in 2011. The linebacking corps should be a strength, as Jonathan Stewart, Sean Porter and Steven Jenkins return. The secondary was a weakness in 2011 and will be losing cornerbacks Terrence Frederick and Coryell Judie and safety Trent Hunter. Even though the SEC has struggled to get great quarterback play across the board, the secondary is going to be under fire early and often in 2012.

6. Mississippi State

Key Returnees: QB Tyler Russell, RB LaDarius Perkins, WR Chad Bumphis, LG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, DT Josh Boyd, LB Cameron Lawrence, LB Deonte Skinner, CB Johnthan Banks, CB Corey Broomfield, S Nickoe Whitley

Key Losses: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, LT James Carmon, RG Quentin Saulsberry, RT Addison Lawrence, DE Sean Ferguson, DT Fletcher Cox, LB Brandon Wilson, SS Charles Mitchell, FS Wade Bonner

The Bulldogs have emerged as a solid bowl team under coach Dan Mullen, but can the program take it to the next level? Mississippi State has yet to beat any SEC West team outside of Ole Miss under Mullen’s watch, which is something that has to change if the Bulldogs want to contend for a spot among the top three in the division.

While Mississippi State has made progress under Mullen, the going won’t get any easier in 2012. With Texas A&M joining the SEC West, the Bulldogs have another difficult obstacle to get bowl eligible. And there are a lot of question marks for this team going into spring practice. Quarterback play was an issue in 2011, with Chris Relf and Tyler Russell both getting significant snaps. Relf has expired his eligibility, leaving Russell as the team’s No. 1 quarterback. Running back Vick Ballard must be replaced, but LaDarius Perkins has averaged 5.3 yards per carry during his career and should be a solid replacement. Additionally, three starters must be replaced on the offensive line.

The Bulldogs allowed only 20 points a game last season, but ranked seventh in the SEC in rush defense, allowing 153.5 yards per game. The defense was dealt a blow when tackle Fletcher Cox decided to leave for the NFL, but fellow tackle Josh Boyd is back for his senior year. The Bulldogs caught a break when cornerback Johnthan Banks decided to return for his senior year, but the secondary must replace safety Charles Mitchell. This unit shouldn’t suffer too much of a drop-off, but could struggle to stop the run without one of its key defenders on the interior of the line.

7. Ole Miss

Key Returnees: RB Jeff Scott, WR Donte Moncrief, WR Nickolas Brassell, LB Mike Marry, LB D.T. Shackelford, FS Charles Sawyer, P Tyler Campbell

Key Losses: RB Brandon Bolden, LT Bradley Sowell, RT Bobby Massie, DE Kentrell Lockett, S Damien Jackson

A disastrous 2011 season brought change to Oxford. Out is Houston Nutt as the Rebels’ coach and in is former Arkansas State head coach (and Ole Miss assistant) Hugh Freeze. The new coaching staff has a lot of work to do to get the Rebels back in a bowl game and considering the returning personnel, it may be a year or two before that happens.

Three quarterbacks received snaps in 2011, but none performed well enough to claim the job entering spring practice. Randall Mackey, Zack Stoudt and Barry Brunetti all return for 2012, but will face competition from incoming JUCO Bo Wallace. Jeff Scott is the team’s top returning rusher (529 yards), but at 5-foot-7, the Rebels don’t want to give him 250-300 carries. The receiving corps has some promising youth returning, as Donte Moncrief and Nickolas Brassell – both freshmen last year – ranked No. 1 and No. 2 on the team in catches last year. The offensive line will be a concern next year, especially with Bradley Sowell out of eligibility and Bobby Massie declaring for the draft.

As if the offensive struggles weren’t enough last year, the Rebels were one of the worst in the SEC in defense. New co-defensive coordinators Dave Wommack and Wesley McGriff have to figure out ways to generate a pass rush after the Rebels averaged only one sack a game in 2011. Linebacker D.T. Shackelford missed all of 2011 due to a knee injury and his return should add some much-needed punch to the run defense. 

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Arkansas at LSU in 2001

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