The start of the 2013 college football season is just a few days away, and in all likelihood it will once again be dominated by the nation's top conference, the SEC.
Having laid claim to each of the last seven BCS National Championships, nine in all, the SEC has no shortage of title contenders this season as well. Of course there's back-to-back champ Alabama, the No. 1 team in the preseason AP Top-25 and the clear favorite to become the first three-peat champion in the BCS era (1998-present). Despite the offseason issues surrounding Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel, the return of the Heisman Trophy winner gives the Aggies a legitimate shot at the title. No. 12 LSU is expected to make significant waves, and over in the SEC East, Georgia (No. 5), South Carolina (6) and Florida (10) are all equipped to take a step up and tackle the Tide as the league's best.
The usual suspects aside, there are a handful of teams in the SEC that appear to have the goods to sneak up and grab some headlines of their own.
Rather quietly, Mississippi State has built a quality program under head coach Dan Mullen, earning a bowl bid in each of the past three seasons. The Bulldogs made a splash on the national scene early in the 2012 season by winning their first seven games and climbing all the way to No. 13 in the AP poll. Even though their luck started to run out once the schedule got more difficult -- suffering losses to Alabama, Texas A&M, and LSU -- they still finished with a solid 8-5 record, and an improvement in 2013 isn't out of the question.
The offensive nucleus remains largely unchanged this season for the Bulldogs. LaDarius Perkins is one of the most trusted every-down backs in the conference and is fresh off a season in which he rushed for 1,016 yards and eight touchdowns. Quarterback Tyler Russell showed during the team's seven-game win streak that he can be as efficient as anyone, throwing 15 touchdowns against only one interception during the run, and if he can avoid the second- half slide that plagued him in 2012, big things could be on the horizon for Mississippi State.
While Texas A&M thrived in its transition to the SEC a season ago, Missouri struggled to adapt to its new conference after coming over from the Big 12, going 5-7 overall with just two wins in league play, missing out on a bowl bid for the first time since 2004. The good news for the Tigers is that they've enjoyed a sustained level of success under head coach Gary Pinkel, who has gone 90-61 since taking over head coaching duties in 2001, so the difficult 2012 campaign could prove to be the exception rather than the rule.
Missouri suffered more than its fair of share of injuries, losing many of its offensive linemen as well as quarterback James Franklin at different junctures of the campaign. Even when he was healthy, Franklin underwhelmed in 2012, completing less than 60 percent of his passes for 1,562 yards, with 10 TDs and seven interceptions, so if he can climb back closer to his 2011 form (.633, 21 TDs, 11 INTs), the team should be much better. The return of three impressive receivers (Dorial Green-Beckham, Marcus Lucas, L'Damian Washington) should also help the offense improve, but unless the defense makes a drastic change for the better (28.4 ppg, 390.7 ypg), expecting more than a marginal step forward would be ambitious.
No team in the SEC has made bigger strides in the last couple of years than Ole Miss. During the 2010 and 2011 seasons, the Rebels combined to go just 1-15 in the SEC and quickly became an afterthought in the Western Division, but with the insertion of head coach Hugh Freeze in 2012, they jumped up to 7-6 overall (3-5 SEC), culminating in a victory over Pittsburgh in the BBVA Compass Bowl. Their success could have been even greater a year ago had it not been for a brutally tough schedule, as all six of their losses came against teams that finished the season ranked in the Top-25 (Texas, Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia, Vanderbilt, LSU).
Ole Miss found success in 2012 despite being one of the youngest teams in the conference, which will of course be beneficial for the upcoming season as it welcomes most of its top playmakers back. Bo Wallace is a fantastic dual- threat at quarterback, tallying 30 total touchdowns a year ago, and he will have an even better year if he can cut down on his turnovers (SEC-high 17 interceptions). Wallace's rapport with wideout Donte Moncrief (66 rec, 979 yards, 10 TDs) is well-established, and the two should continue to create highlight-reel plays. The defense has tons of potential as well, as linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche (82 tackles, 13 TFL, three sacks, three INTs, four FF) is one of the top defensive players in the country. If the Rebels continue to improve at the rate they showed in Freeze's first year, the rest of the league had better watch out.
Another feel-good story from 2012 was the outstanding season turned in by Vanderbilt. The Commodores flew under the radar for most the year and quietly closed with a seven-game win streak, their longest since 1948, to finish at 9-4 overall and 5-3 in conference. The milestone-filled campaign concluded with a No. 23 ranking in the AP poll, putting them in the year-end poll for the first time in more than 60 years, but the squad nonetheless comes into the 2013 season under-appreciated and among the unranked.
The lack of love in the preseason poll is not completely unwarranted. The team did lose both its starting quarterback (Jordan Rodgers) and the most productive running back in program history (Zac Stacy), but it also retains arguably the league's most dominant receiver in Jordan Matthews, who is a year removed from hauling in 94 balls for 1,323 yards and eight touchdowns. The primary reason for the team's success last year was a stout defense, which ranked among the best in the nation in yielding just 18.7 ppg, and with Kenny Ladler, Javon Marshall, Chase Garnham, Karl Butler, Rob Lohr, Walker May and Andre Hal all returning, the unit could be in for a repeat performance this season, which could very well catapult Vandy to the upper-echelon in the SEC.