SEC preview: The West again the best (division), but the title chase in East should be good one

Hey, have you heard: SEC teams have won six consecutive national titles!

Yeah, OK, if you're not a fan of an SEC team, you're likely sick and tired of hearing about the league's "greatness." Thus, this won't make you happy: A seventh consecutive title is a distinct possibility.

Alabama and LSU played for the national championship last season, with Alabama dominating in a 21-0 victory. Those two teams again look to be head and shoulders above everybody else in the league, and while it's unlikely both will be in Miami for the national title game Jan. 7, it seems a good bet that one of them will. Both are in the top three of nearly every preseason poll, and their Nov. 3 showdown in Baton Rouge – already selected as a prime-time game by CBS – likely will be the national game of the year.

After 20 seasons as a 12-team league, the SEC will be a 14-team conglomeration this fall with the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12. Despite the ill-fitting geography, Mizzou is in the SEC East. A&M is in the West.

While the West race looks to be a two-team affair, the East title hunt has more mystery. Georgia and South Carolina look to be the top two teams, but Florida, Missouri and even Tennessee could make things interesting.

There are three new coaches, each in the West. Hugh Freeze takes over at Ole Miss after one superb season at Arkansas State. Kevin Sumlin is the new guy at Texas A&M after a successful four-season run at Houston. And John L. Smith now is in charge at Arkansas after the sudden flameout of Bobby Petrino. Smith is on a 10-month contract, but if he somehow can guide the Hogs to the West title, chances are he would be back in Fayetteville next season.

The order of finish

East Division: 1. South Carolina; 2. Georgia; 3. Florida; 4. Missouri; 5. Tennessee; 6. Vanderbilt; 7. Kentucky
West Division: 1. LSU; 2. Alabama; 3. Arkansas; 4. Texas A&M; 5. Auburn; 6. Mississippi State; 7. Ole Miss

The players

Best offensive player: South Carolina RB Marcus Lattimore. Lattimore's health is the key to the East

Division race. He will be the focal point of the Gamecocks' offense. Lattimore played in seven games last season before suffering a torn ACL; he still rushed for 818 yards and 10 TDs. That gives Lattimore 2,015 yards and 27 TDs in his first two seasons. He has been a workhorse when healthy, with five games of 25-plus carries and 10 games of 20-plus carries in his 20-game college career. He also has scored 30 total touchdowns in those 30 games. Lattimore especially loves playing against Georgia: 358 yards and three TDs in two games.
Best defensive player: Georgia LB Jarvis Jones. He signed with USC out of high school in Columbus, Ga., but suffered a neck injury as a true freshman in 2009. USC doctors would not clear him for spring ball in 2010 and he transferred home. He had 13.5 sacks last season, tied for second nationally. He also had 70 tackles, seven quarterback hurries and two forced fumbles. To be a great 3-4 defense, you have to have a stud pass rusher. Jones is a stud pass rusher and Georgia has a great 3-4 defense.
Offensive player on the spot: South Carolina QB Connor Shaw. While the Gamecocks' offense is going to focus on Lattimore, Shaw has to play solid football. He should be able to do so. For the first time since he was at Florida, Steve Spurrier has a quarterback he can feel comfortable with. Shaw completed 65.4 percent of his passes and tossed 14 TDs last season. He certainly won't wow any opponent with his arm, but he's a heady guy who understands the offense and has some running ability. If he falters, the Gamecocks are going to struggle offensively and too much pressure will be placed on their defense.
Defensive player on the spot: Alabama S Robert Lester. Lester is the only returning starter in Alabama's secondary. He also is coming off a somewhat disappointing season; he was better in 2010 than he was in 2011. If he underachieves, the secondary as a whole is going to struggle. Alabama had three new starters in the secondary in 2010 (Lester was one of them) and struggled at inopportune times. Will the same thing happen again?
Breakout offensive star: Alabama TB Eddie Lacy. Lacy will be the latest Tide tailback to go from key reserve to focal point of the offense, joining Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. Lacy ran for 674 yards and seven TDs last season, and a 1,200-yard season, at the least, looks like a given. Lacy, a Louisiana native, has to produce if the Tide offense is going to reach its potential.

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Breakout defensive star: LSU CB Tharold Simon. LSU had the SEC's (and nation's) best cornerback duo last season in Tyrann Mathieu and first-round pick Morris Claiborne; the Tigers would've had the best again this season with Mathieu and Simon. Without Mathieu, more pressure will be on Simon. He will be fine. Simon played a lot in nickel and dime sets last season, and he had two picks and 10 pass breakups. He might be the best corner in the league and will become nationally known this fall.
Best offensive newcomers: Georgia RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Sophomore Isaiah Crowell was booted over the summer, which means the Bulldogs will be counting on a true freshman tailback for the second season in a row. Gurley and Marshall are four-star recruits from North Carolina. Marshall rushed for 4,552 yards in his high school career in Raleigh; he enrolled early and participated in spring practice. Both should play – and play a lot. Fifth-year senior Richard Samuel also is available, but he has shown that he is not an elite tailback. The hope among Georgia coaches is that one (or both) of the freshmen will be. They will get ample opportunity to prove it, too.

[Related: LSU has the top-ranked special teams unit in the country]

Best defensive newcomer: Mississippi State DE Denico Autry. Mississippi State is looking for a pass-rushing end, and Autry is expected to be that guy. He had 11 sacks and an extraordinary 41 quarterback hurries at East Mississippi CC last season. The Bulldogs' secondary, headed by CB Johnthan Banks, is a good one; it could become even better if Autry (6-5/255) provides a consistent pass rush.

The coaches

Coach on the hottest seat: Tennessee's Derek Dooley. He sits on the hottest seat in the country. The

Vols are 10-14 in his two seasons, but the poor record isn't all his fault. He has had to live with the poor recruiting efforts made by predecessors Phil Fulmer and Lane Kiffin. The Vols have had just three players selected in the past two drafts combined; from 2006-10, Tennessee had a combined seven first-rounders. Still, three seasons to show your stuff now seems the going rate for a coach in the SEC, so now is the time for the Vols to show some improvement. The athletic director who hired him (Mike Hamilton) is gone, which doesn't help Dooley's job security.
Best coaching staff: Alabama. Nick Saban is the best head coach in college football, so it should not be a surprise that he has a great staff surrounding him. Defensive coordinator Kirby Smart doesn't get enough credit for his work. Burton Burns does an excellent job as running backs coach. Secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt should be a coordinator soon. Strength coach Scott Cochran (an LSU alum) does a great job. Worth watching is how new offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier works out this fall. He was hired off Washington's staff, but he didn't call plays with the Huskies.
Best offensive coordinator: Missouri's David Yost. The laid-back Yost has a distinctive haircut (or non-haircut, as it were), but he can coach – and he will show it against SEC defenses this fall. He was Mizzou's quarterback coach before adding OC duties in 2009, so he deserves credit for helping develop QBs Brad Smith, Chase Daniel, Blaine Gabbert and James Franklin. Yost also is Mizzou's recruiting coordinator and kicking coach. His predecessor as coordinator was Dave Christensen, who has led Wyoming to two bowls in four seasons.
Best defensive coordinator: LSU's John Chavis. "The Chief" has been around the SEC since around, oh, 1953 or '54, it seems. Actually, he worked at Tennessee from 1989-2008 and was coordinator from 1995-2008 before leaving for LSU. He likes an aggressive, attacking unit – he loves the zone blitz – and with the Tigers, he has a bunch of high-caliber athletes to do his bidding. At times, he takes too many chances, but a Chavis-led defense also is going to make a few big plays each game.

The schedules

Game of the year: Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3. Presumably, these teams will meet just once this season. The SEC West title should be on the line when Alabama invades Tiger Stadium for a night game. The game also likely will determine which SEC team has the best shot at the national title game.
Toughest schedule: Ole Miss. The Rebels have road games against Alabama, Arkansas, Georgia and LSU. There also are home games against Auburn, Texas and Texas A&M. Good luck, Hugh Freeze. Alabama also deserves notice. The Tide open against Michigan in Arlington, Texas, in the nation's best nonconference matchup of the season. The Tide play SEC West foes Arkansas and LSU on the road. Both of Alabama's SEC divisional crossover games (Missouri and Tennessee in back-to-back weeks) are on the road; no other team in the league faces that task.

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Easiest schedule: Mississippi State. The nonconference schedule is laughable: FCS member Jackson State, Troy, South Alabama (in its first season as a FBS member) and Middle Tennessee. That's one FCS team and three Sun Belt opponents. The Bulldogs miss the four best teams in the SEC East (Florida, Georgia, Missouri and South Carolina). They also get Auburn, Arkansas and Texas A&M at home. Yes, there are road games against Alabama and LSU, but the Bulldogs weren't going to win those even if they were played in Dan Mullen's backyard with Mullen and his family as officials. It's better to have Auburn, Arkansas and A&M visiting than the Tide and the Tigers.
The 10 best conference games:
10. Florida at Tennessee, Sept. 15
9. Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 24
8. Arkansas at Auburn, Oct. 6
7. South Carolina at Florida, Oct. 20
6. South Carolina at LSU, Oct. 6
5. Florida vs. Georgia in Jacksonville, Oct. 27
4. Georgia at South Carolina, Oct. 6
3. LSU at Arkansas, Nov. 24
2. Alabama at Arkansas, Sept. 15
1. Alabama at LSU, Nov. 3
The 10 best nonconference games:
10. Texas at Ole Miss, Sept. 15
9. Texas A&M at SMU, Sept. 15
8. Arizona State at Missouri, Sept. 15
7. Washington at LSU, Sept. 8
6. North Carolina State vs. Tennessee in Atlanta, Aug. 31
5. Auburn vs. Clemson in Atlanta, Sept. 1
4. Georgia Tech at Georgia, Nov. 24
3. Florida at Florida State, Nov. 24
2. South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 24
1. Alabama vs. Michigan in Arlington, Texas, Sept. 1

The preseason All-SEC team

First team
QB Tyler Wilson, Arkansas
RB Knile Davis, Arkansas
RB Marcus Lattimore, South Carolina
WR Cobi Hamilton, Arkansas
WR Justin Hunter, Tennessee
WR Da'Rick Rogers, Tennessee
T D.J. Fluker, Alabama
T Luke Joeckel, Texas A&M
G Larry Warford, Kentucky
G Chance Warmack, Alabama
C Barrett Jones, Alabama
E Corey Lemonier, Auburn
T John Jenkins, Georgia
T Bennie Logan, LSU
E Sam Montgomery, LSU
LB Jarvis Jones, Georgia
LB Cameron Lawrence, Mississippi State
LB Sean Porter, Texas A&M
CB Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State
CB Tharold Simon, LSU
FS Bacarri Rambo, Georgia
SS Matt Elam, Florida
Special teams
K Caleb Sturgis, Florida
P Brad Wing, LSU
KR Dennis Johnson, Arkansas
PR Dustin Harris, Texas A&M
Second team
QB Aaron Murray, Georgia
RB Eddie Lacy, Alabama
RB Christine Michael, Texas A&M
WR Odell Beckham, LSU
WR Ryan Swope, Texas A&M
TE Chris Gragg, Arkansas
T Chris Faulk, LSU
T Jake Matthews, Texas A&M
G Alvin Bailey, Arkansas
G Gabe Jackson, Mississippi State
C T.J. Johnson, South Carolina
E Jadeveon Clowney, South Carolina
T Sharrif Floyd, Florida
T Jesse Williams, Alabama
E Barkevious Mingo, LSU
LB Adrian Hubbard, Alabama
LB Jelani Jenkins, Florida
LB Alec Ogletree, Georgia
CB Sanders Commings, Georgia
CB E.J. Gaines, Missouri
FS Eric Reid, LSU
SS Shawn Williams, Georgia
Special teams
K Zach Hocker, Arkansas
P Steven Clark, Auburn
KR Tre Mason, Auburn
PR Johnthan Banks, Mississippi State

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