BY MICHAEL LEESE
ALABAMA Alabama has won back-to-back BCS National Championships, and three of the last four. This year, the Crimson Tide welcomes back six starters on offense, led by quarterback A.J. McCarron. The top three receivers are back and T.J. Yeldon returns to be the feature back, after rushing for 1,130 yards last season. Three solid starters must be replaced on the offensive line, but head coach Nick Saban has done an outstanding job recruiting upfront. The Tide should have one of the best balanced offenses in the country. On defense, seven starters return to a unit that gave up only 10.9 PPG last year. With one of the best linebacking groups in the country, I fully expect the defense to come close to last years outstanding numbers. The schedule sets up well if they get past Virginia Tech and Texas A&M in the first two games. A November matchup at home with LSU will also be key! I beleive the Crimson Tide will roll into Pasadena to meet Texas in the BCS National Championship Game.
- KEY GAME……SEPTEMBER 14, AT Texas A&M
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DB John Fulton, NT Brandon Ivory, DE Jeoffrey Pagan
- MY PREDICTION – 8-0 CONFERENCE, 12-0 OVERALL
TEXAS A&M Johnny Manziel HAD an amazing season last year, accounting for more than 5,000 yards from scrimmage. He’s been cleared to play and has Aggies fans thinking National Championship. The Aggies offense has a chance to be even better than last year’s team that scored 44.5 PPG. Defensively the Aggies return five starters. They lose their top two tacklers, and the linebacker corps was hit hard by graduation. Head coach Kevin Sumlin is confident he has capable replacements, but I think the defense takes a bit of a step back, as they are undersized by SEC standards. The schedule sets up well, with most of the tough opponents are at home. I just don’t think they can get past a hungry Alabama team that’s seeking revenge.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 14, HOSTING ALABAMA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..RB Brandon Williams, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, LB Donnie Baggs
- MY PREDICTION 7-1 CONFERENCE, 11-1 OVERALL
LSU Les Miles enters his ninth year in Baton Rouge with eight starters back on offense, led by senior QB Zach Mettenberger. Last year, he threw for 2,609 yards with only 12 scores last season. Running backs Jeremy Hill and Kenny Hilliard return to the backfield after combining for over 1,200 yards last season. The top four receivers also return. The defense is what concerns me this year — the Tigers must replace the entire defensive line! Miles has made this an emphasis in both the spring and summer practice sessions. The schedule features an opener against TCU, and road games at Georgia and Alabama. LSU will have another good season but fall short of a West Division crown.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 28 AT GEORGIA
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..DE Jermauria Rasco, DT Anthony Johnson, DT Ego Ferguson
- MY PREDICTION – 5-3 CONFERENCE, 9-3 OVERALL
MISSISSIPPI Hopes are high after Hugh Freeze led the Rebels to a bowl victory last year in his first season as head coach. Quarterback Bo Wallace will lead an offense that returns nine starters from last year! The Rebel offense churned out 31.5 PPG last season and should have no trouble duplicating that mark. Running back Jeff Scott and receivers Donte Moncreif and Vince Sanders figure to have big seasons. Ten starters return to a defense that allowed 27.6 PPG last season. Those numbers should only get better with all the experience back, plus the additions of several recruits expected to play immediately. My concern for the Rebels is a brutal schedule. They play both Alabama and Texas on the road — the teams that I have playing in the BCS National Championship Game. They also face Texas A&M, and LSU at home.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 19, HOSTING LSU
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..TE Christian Morgan, DE Robert Nkemdiche, DT Lavon Hooks
- MY PREDICTION – 4-4 CONFERENCE, 7-5 OVERALL
AUBURN Gus Malzahn returns as the head coach, after having served as the offensive coordinator before taking the head coaching job at Arkansas State last year. He welcomes back seven starters on offense. The quarterback battle has been hotly contested, and Nick Marshall and Kiehl Frazier could both see action early. Tre Mason returns in the backfield as he led the team last season with 1,038 yards. Last year, the offense clearly struggled, scoring only 18.7 per game. Malzahn will surely improve upon those numbers. The Tigers also figure to be much better on the defensive side of the ball. They get eight starters back, including the entire secondary. They should be much tougher against the run as well this year, as last year they allowed 4.9 yards per carry. I look for Auburn to return to a bowl game this year!
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 5, HOSTING OLE MISS
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH ……WR Sammie Coates, DE Carl Lawson, LB Cassanova McKinzy
- MY PREDICTION – 3-5 CONFERENCE, 7-5 OVERALL
ARKANSAS Brett Bielema takes over the reins in Fayetteville after leading the Wisconsin Badgers to three straight Rose Bowls. He inherits a team that averaged only 23.5 PPG last season. His first concern will be to find a starting quarterback. At this point it looks like playing time will be split between Brandon Allen and A.J. Derby. The Razorbacks also lost their top two running backs, top two receivers and three offensive linemen. The defense is in better shape as eight starters return. The secondary will be the strength of the defense as everyone is back. They also get a couple of big names back on the front seven who missed time last season. They should easily improve on last years 30.4 PPG. The schedule is also tough as they must travel to Florida, Alabama, Mississippi, and LSU, and too many holes on offense will lead to a long first year for coach Bielema.
- KEY GAME…..OCTOBER 12, HOSTING SOUTH CAROLINA
- THREE KEY NEWCOMERS…..RB Johnathon Williams, DT Robert Thomas, LB Otha Peters
- MY PREDICTION – 5-7 OVERALL, 1-7 CONFERENCE
MISSISSIPPI STATE Dan Mullen has done a terrific job here, leading the Bulldogs to three straight bowl games. He welcomes back senior signal caller Tyler Russell, who had a nice season throwing for 2,897 yards and 24 scores. They also get back the top six rushers from last season led by 1,000 yarder LaDarius Perkins. The offensive line also returns intact, but they do lose the entire receiving core from last year. The defense also takes a big hit as the secondary was gutted by graduation, and they lose two defensive linemen. Several young players will play a major role on this side of the ball. Last year’s defense allowed only 23.8 PPG, but I see that number headed north this season. A very tough schedule prevents the Bulldogs from going bowling for the for a fourth straight year.
- KEY GAME…..SEPTEMBER 14, AT AUBURN
- THREE PLAYERS TO WATCH…..WR Robert Johnson, DT Nick James, LB Mathew Well
- MY PREDICTION 1-7 CONFERENCE, 4-8 OVERALL