New-look SEC gunning for title again
LSU, Bama still lead way in past decade's premiere conference
The Southeastern Conference has lined up a few contenders for Lucky No. 7.
Defending national champion Alabama and last season's 13-game juggernaut LSU remain the headliners of a league that has won the last six BCS titles. And that's despite the Crimson Tide and the Tigers losing a combined six first-round NFL draft picks.
Other SEC -- and national -- powers are trying to catch up.
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Arkansas, which ended last season ranked fifth, and Georgia return star quarterbacks. Steve Spurrier fields another formidable-looking South Carolina team. Plus, the Razorbacks and Gamecocks get star running backs back from injuries.
Even those suffering from SEC fatigue might not want to miss that prime-time Nov. 3 three-match in Baton Rouge. The Tide and the Tigers split last season with Bama grabbing Round 2 with a 21-0 blitz in the BCS title game in New Orleans.
The rivalry carried over onto Twitter with sniping between Tide quarterback AJ McCarron and LSU Heisman finalist Tyrann Mathieu -- in June.
"I can tell you that no game is won in a Twitter page," LSU coach Les Miles noted.
What's new this year is Big 12 Conference defectors Texas A&M and Missouri step into the SEC. They'll both try to show they belong.
"Only way you're going to get respect is winning games, OK?" Missouri coach Gary Pinkel said. "That's the only way it's going to happen. I got no problem with that. You've got to prove yourself."
FLORIDA -- Key players: RB Mike Gillislee, WR Andre Dubose, LB Jon Bostic, DL Sharrif Floyd. Returning starters: 7 offense, 10 defense.
Notes: Gators try to rebound from mediocre season. ... Brent Pease replaces offensive coordinator Charlie Weis, and has the personnel to mount a more physical running attack. ... Defensive linemen Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley are trying to return from knee injuries.
GEORGIA -- Key players: QB Aaron Murray, WR Tavarres King, DB Bacarri Rambo, LB Jarvis Jones. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: RB Isaiah Crowell is gone. Cornerback Sanders Commings and cornerback Branden Smith -- and perhaps Rambo -- face suspensions. ... Malcolm Mitchell, last season's No. 2 receiver, opens at cornerback and will likely play both positions. ... Lightweight nonconference schedule includes Buffalo, Florida Atlantic and Georgia Southern.
KENTUCKY -- Key players: QB Morgan Newton, OL Larry Warford, WR La'Rod King, S Martavius Neloms. Returning starters: 6 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Coach Joker Phillips might be on the hot seat after 4-12 SEC mark in first two seasons. ... QB Morgan Newton was held out of contact in spring after having surgery on his right shoulder. ... Defense must replace SEC's two leaders in tackles per game, LB Danny Trevathan and S/LB Winston Guy.
MISSOURI -- Key players: QB James Franklin, LT Elvis Fisher, WR Dorial Green-Beckham, CB E.J. Gaines. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: The SEC's third group of Tigers enters the league hoping to prove skeptics wrong. ... Franklin is expected to be fully recovered from spring shoulder surgery after flirting with 3,000-yard passing, 1,000-yard rushing season. ... It's unclear if RB Henry Josey (knee) will play.
SOUTH CAROLINA -- Key players: QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, DE Jadeveon Clowney, DE Devin Taylor. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: A second consecutive top-10 finish seems possible. ... If Lattimore returns to pre-knee injury form, it could more than make up for the loss of WR Alshon Jeffery. ... Pass rush remains formidable even minus NFL first-round pick DE Melvin Ingram.
TENNESSEE -- Key players: QB Tyler Bray, WR Da'Rick Rogers, LB A.J. Johnson, LB Herman Lathers. Returning starters: 10 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Derek Dooley's rebuilding project continues after one SEC win last season. ... Volunteers have dangerous receivers but must replace RB Tauren Poole. ... Tennessee reloaded with several JUCO transfers, including onetime Alabama defensive lineman Darrington Sentimore and WR Cordarrelle Patterson.
VANDERBILT -- Key players: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson. Returning starters: 9 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: The Commodores have adopted coach James Franklin's feisty attitude, but face uphill climb from 2-6 SEC mark that still marked solid progress. ... Rodgers, Green Bay Packer Aaron's younger brother, seems to have regained Franklin's confidence after bowl game benching.
ALABAMA -- Key players: QB AJ McCarron, C Barrett Jones, LB Nico Johnson, S Robert Lester. Returning starters: 6 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: Quest for third national title in four years faces daunting scheduling, including opener with Michigan in Arlington, Texas, and visits to LSU and Arkansas. ... New offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier is unlikely to change pound-before-pass philosophy. ... Defense that topped all four major categories nationally must replace seven starters with 188 combined starts.
ARKANSAS -- Key players: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, LB Alonzo Highsmith. Returning starters: 8 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Coach John L. Smith trying to keep Bobby Petrino's offseason ouster from slowing program's momentum. ... All-SEC RB Knile Davis returns after ankle injury sidelined him in 2011. ... Razorbacks hosting LSU in Fayetteville for the first time since 1992. ... Six members of Smith's staff in new roles.
AUBURN -- Key players: QB Kiehl Frazier, WR Emory Blake, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates. Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Frazier is the odds-on favorite to claim starting job ahead of Clint Moseley. ... Tigers have new coordinators in Scot Loeffler (offense) and Brian VanGorder (defense). ... Two-time 1,000-yard rusher Mike Dyer is gone, and so is Gus Malzahn's no-huddle offense.
LSU -- Key players: QB Zach Mettenberger, CB Tyrann Mathieu, DE Sam Montgomery, DT Bennie Logan. Returning starters: 7 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Mettenberger, a former Georgia player, has drawn strong reviews from coach Les Miles and teammates and might represent a sizable upgrade at QB. ... Offense has runners galore, led by Spencer Ware and Michael Ford, and offensive line has five players who have logged 102 collective starts. ... Secondary loses Morris Claiborne, but returns stars Mathieu and Eric Reid. ... Ends Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo combined for 17 sacks. ... Tigers spent 11 weeks at No. 1 last season.
MISSISSIPPI -- Key players: WR Donte Moncrief, RB Jeff Scott, DB Charles Sawyer, LB Mike Marry. Returning starters: 7 offense, 7 defense.
NOTES: Randall Mackey has moved from QB to WR with emergence of Barry Brunetti, JUCO transfer Bo Wallace. ... WR Nickolas Brassell has left the team because of academics, and four others had work this summer to assure eligibility.
MISSISSIPPI STATE -- Key players: QB Tyler Russell, LG Gabe Jackson, CB Johnthan Banks, LB Cameron Lawrence. Returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Bulldogs have won back-to-back bowl games for first time since 1999-2000 -- not to mention three consecutive Egg Bowls with rival Mississippi. ... Coach Dan Mullen predicts "a huge year" from Russell. ... Mississippi State 0-12 under Mullen against SEC West teams other than Ole Miss.
TEXAS A&M -- Key players: LT Luke Joeckel, RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, LB Sean Porter. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: QB Jameill Showers is apparent leader in race to replace Ryan Tannehill, the No. 8 NFL draft pick. ...Coach Kevin Sumlin, whose Houston clubs twice led the nation in total, passing and scoring offense, brings a fast-paced attack to College Station. ... Top pass rushers Sean Porter and Damontre Moore return from team that led nation in sacks per game.