The confetti has barely been swept up off the Sun Life Stadium turf after Alabama’s celebration, but it’s never too early to turn our attention to 2013.
Can the SEC continue the longest streak for a conference in college football history with its eighth straight national championship? With the likes of Texas A&M’s Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray and Alabama’s AJ McCarron, the league will have the star power at the most important position on the field to deliver.
The big, bad SEC fields five of the 10 teams in this early look at the teams that figure to be in the mix next season. Keep in mind that NFL defections and unforeseen coaching changes could alter this group, but here’s where things stand as we look forward to the final season of the current BCS system.
1. Alabama 2012 record: 13-1, 7-1 in SEC
All-Americans Barrett Jones, Chance Warmack and (likely) D.J. Fluker are gone up front, but the offense remains loaded with McCarron, who set an Alabama record with 30 touchdown passes, two 1,000-yard rushers in Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon, and wide receiver Amari Cooper (59 receptions for 1,000 yards and 11 TDs). If Lacy turns pro, look for Kenyan Drake (6.7 yards per carry) to pick up the load.
The Crimson Tide also has pieces to replace along the defensive line, but with a unit that returns five players with multiple sacks — and BCS title game defensive MVP C.J. Mosley, one of the nation’s best linebackers — it should be business as usual in Tuscaloosa. 2. Georgia 2012 record: 12-2, 7-1 in SEC
Murray, who should own every major SEC passing record by the time he leaves Athens, is returning and will have plenty of toys to play with in RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, WR Malcolm Mitchell and TE Arthur Lynch. Plus, the entire offensive line will return.
While the defense does lose LBs Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, tackle John Jenkins and safety Bacarri Rambo, the star-studded group had its struggles, especially late in 2012. The key here is the decision of nose tackle Kwame Geathers, who could make this a potentially better but less heralded defense if he puts off the NFL for a year.
3. Oregon 2012 record: 12-1, 8-1 in Pac-12
Chip Kelly spurned the NFL to return to Eugene, and his offense will be as potent as ever with QB Marcus Mariota at the controls. Mariota dazzled in his first season, throwing for 2,677 yards and 32 TDs and rushing for 752 yards, while all-purpose monster De’Anthony Thomas (1,757 total yards and 18 TDs) will take over the lead RB role with the departure of Kenjon Barner. In all, the Ducks bring back seven players who had at least 11 receptions in ’12.
The defense loses all-Pac-12 lineman Dion Jordan and LBs Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso, but the entire secondary — including corner Ifo Ekpre-Olomu — returns to a squad that led the nation with 26 interceptions.
4. Ohio State 2012 record: 12-0 overall, 8-0 in Big Ten
The offense should only get better in its second season under Urban Meyer. QB Braxton Miller (1,271 rushing yards and 28 total touchdowns) and RB Carlos Hyde (970 yards, 16 TDs) will be operating behind a line that returns two all-Big Ten picks in tackle Jack Mewhort and guard Andrew Norwell.
Miller’s development as a passer (58.3 completion percentage) remains a concern, as does a defense that loses all four starters up front. But with All-American cornerback Bradley Roby, linebacker Ryan Shazier (a Big Ten-best 17 tackles for loss) and the main pieces from an offense that averaged 37.7 points per game, Meyer could follow his Florida script with a title in Year 2.
5. LSU 2012 record: 10-3, 6-2 in SEC
The depth at running back with Jeremy Hill (755 yards and 12 TDs), Kenny Hilliard (464 yards and six TDs), Michael Ford (392 yards) and Alfred Blue (270) and a defense that, despite a mass exodus that leaves at least six starting jobs open, still boasts experience at every level will make the Tigers elite.
What could set LSU apart is Zach Mettenberger, who showed flashes of being the QB the Tigers thought they were getting but struggled in the Chick-fil-A Bowl loss to Clemson. At this point he’s an uncertainty, but if he finds consistency LSU figures to be in the title mix.
6. Texas A&M 2012 record: 11-2, 6-2 in SEC
Manziel will make a run at Archie Griffin, the only two-time Heisman Trophy winner. But the big question is: Who will be protecting him?
Tackle Luke Joeckel is going pro and Jake Matthews could join him, which would make life difficult on Manziel. Regardless of their decisions, A&M returns its top receiver in Mike Evans (1,105 yards and five TDs) and RB with Ben Malena (808 yards and eight TDs) to go along with Manziel.
The defense loses its top two tacklers and the secondary must improve on a team that allowed an average of 250.7 passing yards per game in ’12, but it’s Manziel and Co. who will determine A&M’s chances.
7. Notre Dame 2012 record: 12-1
Manti Te’o is gone, and it seems unlikely the Fighting Irish can replace a player who tied the highest finish in Heisman history for a strictly defensive player. But the defense should have the talent to be among the game’s best yet again behind All-American candidates NG Louis Nix, DT Stephon Tuitt and LB Prince Shembo.
QB Everett Golson made serious progress in helping the Irish reach the BCS title game, and while it’s likely he’ll have to find another top pass catcher with TE Tyler Eifert off to the NFL, the offense should be better with a more experienced Golson at the controls.
8. Clemson 2012 record: 11-2, 7-1 in ACC
After averaging 41 points (sixth in FBS) and 512.6 yards (ninth) last season, the Tigers again will have one of the nation’s most formidable offenses behind the trio of QB Tajh Boyd and WRs DeAndre Hopkins and Sammy Watkins.
The ground game needs Roderick McDowell (674 yards and seven TDs over three seasons) to step into the role of lead runner, and the defense, which was 71st against the pass, has to sow improvement in its second season under coordinator Brent Venables. But with a trio of potential All-Americans on offense, the Tigers will have enough firepower to overcome their deficiencies.
9. South Carolina 2012 record: 11-2, 6-2 in SEC
Best defensive player? Certainly. But Jadeveon Clowney also may be the best player in the nation. Period. The Gamecocks defensive end, who had 23 1/2 tackles for loss and 13 sacks as a sophomore, again will be giving SEC QBs fits. He’ll be anchoring a defense that boasts plenty of experience in the secondary.
All three starting LBs are gone, but the real concern is with the running game, where sophomore Mike Davis (275 yards on 52 carries) will be asked to shoulder the load. Luckily the offensive line will be stout with four returning starters, and the QB tandem of Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson has shown it can deliver.
10. Louisville 2012 record: 11-2, 5-2 in Big East
It has been four seasons since the Big East had a team in the preseason top 10, but on the heels of its stunning and dominant Sugar Bowl win over Florida, the Cardinals have the potential to change all that.
Charlie Strong’s roster includes 16 returning starters, headlined by QB Teddy Bridgewater (3,718 passing yards, 27 TDs and a 68.5 completion percentage). The defense, which ranked 23rd in total defense and shouldn’t lose a starter, is severely underrated, but it remains to be seen if the Cardinals can develop a running game (102nd last season) to go along with Bridgewater.