Returning stars make SEC favorites again

Returning stars make SEC favorites again

Published Jan. 9, 2013 7:05 p.m. ET

It's not a question of "if," it's a question of "whom."  

No objective observer would bet against the SEC making it eight national titles in a row. The only two conferences with more firepower are the AFC and the NFC. The only question now is: which team will win the 2013 SEC Championship and become the odds-on favorite to take home the next BCS title?

For those screaming "Stanford" or "Ohio State," I would direct you to the Notre Dame fans who predicted a nail-biter in South Florida this time around, or to the early-season skeptics who emphatically stated that SEC teams would beat up on each other and open the door for USC or Florida State.

If the past seven seasons have taught us anything, it is that steel sharpens steel. Rather than knock each other out of BCS contention, SEC teams have become hardened playing within the conference.

Now the question becomes: Which SEC team will be left standing after they knock heads next fall?  

The West is wide open. While good money will favor Alabama, most of the much-vaunted offensive line that pushed the Fighting Irish around in the BCS title game will be playing on Sunday in the NFL. Chance Warmack and D.J. Fluker will join Barrett Jones in this year's draft, leaving many critical spots for Nick Saban to fill.

But Saban is the best recruiter in the country. No one expects Alabama to field anything less than another strong, fast, and imposing line next year, even if it's filled with freshmen.  

Once again LSU will be the Tide's main challenger in the West. The Tigers return QB Zach Mettenberger and a solid stable of receivers, but they will lose a ton of defensive talent to the NFL including Eric Reid, Kevin Minter, Barkevious Mingo and Tharold Simon. With those guys gone, coach Les Miles will need to find some magic on the offense if LSU hopes to return to the SEC Championship Game.  

The wild-card team and the biggest surprise in the West could be Texas A&M. The Aggies lose a lot on the offensive line and Johnny Manziel's favorite receiver Ryan Swope will graduate, but coach Kevin Sumlin has the greatest recruiting tool in the conference in Johnny Football. Who wouldn't want to play for the Aggies now?  

The East is a coin toss.

Georgia would be considered a favorite to make its third consecutive appearance in Atlanta assuming the Bulldogs don't lose more players. With the departure of Kwame Geathers, Jarvis Jones and Alex Ogletree to the NFL Draft, Georgia will return only four starters on defense.

But the 'Dawgs will field an offense with Aaron Murray and the dynamic running back duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. If coach Mark Richt, another masterful recruiter, can reload on the defensive side, Georgia should have another shot at a title.  

Georgia will have to get past the best defensive player in the nation to do it, though. Jadeveon Clowney and the South Carolina Gamecocks could break through assuming coach Steve Spurrier can figure out who he wants to play quarterback.  

Since making it to the conference championship game in 2010, the Gamecocks have beaten Georgia twice only to sit at home in December and watch the Bulldogs lose to LSU and Alabama. Given the momentum they have gained after beating Michigan in the Outback Bowl, the Gamecocks could make a run late for the title.

Early predictions have next year's SEC title game being a repeat of the last one: Georgia versus Alabama with the Tide taking it in a close one. But it's far too early to tell.

Only one thing is certain: The SEC will field another bumper crop of great teams in 2013 with the conference champion likely playing for a much bigger title in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 6, 2014.