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Manziel, Clowney headliners in SEC's bid for No. 8

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The players are providing the star power in the Southeastern Conference's drive for an eighth-straight national title not those millionaire coaches.

Hop in the backseat, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, and enjoy the ride.

There's plenty of headliners on the field, starting at quarterback with Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, Alabama's AJ McCarron and Georgia's Aaron Murray plus a bounty of dangerous receivers. Tailbacks Georgia's Todd Gurley and `Bama's T.J. Yeldon are superb sophomore runners.

Defensively, South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney and Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley lead the way.

That bounty of talent gives the SEC ample hope that the league can maintain its seven-year grip on the BCS title.

Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, and Clowney are regarded as favorites to claim the league's fifth Heisman in seven years.

But like Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said of his team, it's time to ''hit the reset button.'' Or at least the challengers of Saban and the two-time defending national champion Tide are hoping that button is working. So are the other power conferences, for that matter.

Saban's peers aren't backing down.

LSU's Les Miles: ''I like us in any game.''

South Carolina's Spurrier, in humble-confident mode: ''We may fall flat on our face but that's what we're going to try to do, try to win the conference.''

Win the SEC, and a national title shot seems likely to come.

Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith's take on the SEC: Crystal balls don't win crystal trophies.

''There's no telling which team is going to come from where with the amount of talent,'' Smith said. ''Nobody can predict the future.''

5 THINGS TO WATCH

1: CHASING THE TIDE: Alabama might be the team to beat nationally after claiming three of the past four championships, but navigating the competitive SEC is a challenge for any team. Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M are in pursuit, and so are Georgia, South Carolina and Florida. All four finished last season among the nation's top nine teams. It's hard to count out still-talented LSU, even after 11 underclassmen departed for the NFL. The Crimson Tide, though, remains loaded with talent and has a talented group of tailbacks and receivers to go with the always sturdy defense led by the All-America linebacker Mosley.

2. MADE-FOR-TV GAMES: This list clearly begins with the Sept. 14 rematch in College Station between Alabama and Texas A&M, the only team to beat the Tide last season. That game was a Heisman moment for Manziel. Alabama gets a bye week to change gears for the no-huddle offense. A week earlier, defending East champion Georgia tries to avenge a 35-7 loss to South Carolina. Florida and LSU, perhaps somewhat overlooked in the preseason, meet on Oct. 12 a year after Will Muschamp's team managed to end the Tigers' 18-game regular-season win streak, 14-6. The season gets started Aug. 29 with Mississippi visiting Vanderbilt, not ordinarily a scintillating matchup but a chance for both to make an early statement.

3. SEC NEWBIES: Arkansas nabbed a proven winner in Bret Bielemma, Auburn landed offensive whiz Gus Malzahn, Kentucky got a spark with Mark Stoops and Tennessee turned to Butch Jones, who is already making waves on the recruiting trail. Now, if only all four of the league's new head coaches can find a starting quarterback. In the meantime, it's no coincidence that those teams had the SEC's four most generous defenses before the bosses made changes at the top. The result: A combined mark of 3-29 in league play, $15 million in buyouts and fresh starts.

4. RISING STOCK: Vanderbilt is coming off its best record since 1915, going 9-4 two years after a second straight two-win season led to the hiring of James Franklin. Back-to-back bowl game is also a first for the Commodores, who have gone from doormats to respected foe under the ever-confident coach. They're led by one of the SEC's top wide receivers in Jordan Matthews. Mississippi's turnaround in Hugh Freeze's first season was impressive, too. The Rebels won seven games, including the BBVA Compass Bowl. Freeze then made even bigger waves with a highly touted recruiting class. Back are quarterback Bo Wallace and linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.

5. YOUTH MOVEMENT: From five-star newcomers to talented players with a year under their belt, the SEC is full of youngsters with the potential to emerge as stars. Missouri wide receiver and prized 2012 signee Dorial Green-Beckham racked up 21 catches for 267 yards and four touchdowns in the final five games. Alabama's Yeldon ran for 258 yards in the SEC and BCS championship games plus freshman runner Derrick Henry, linebacker Reuben Foster and tight end O.J. Howard could develop significant roles. Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, defensive tackle Lavon Hooks and wideout Laquon Treadwell are freshmen to watch, along with Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive ends Carl Lawson (Auburn) and Chris Jones (Mississippi State)- among others.

Predicted order of finish:

EAST

1. Georgia

2. South Carolina

3. Florida

4. Vanderbilt

5. Missouri

6. Tennessee

7. Kentucky

WEST

1. Alabama

2. Texas A&M

3. LSU

4. Mississippi

5. Auburn

6. Mississippi State

7. Arkansas

Title game winner: Alabama

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Online:

AP college football site: http://collegefootball.ap.org/

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Follow John Zenor on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jzenor

Tagged: Florida, Alabama, Mississippi State, Mississippi, LSU, Auburn, Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Georgia, Texas A&M, Missouri, Texas, Bo Wallace, Johnny Manziel

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