Posted: Thursday August 23, 2012 11:43AM ; Updated: Thursday August 23, 2012 3:23PM
Andy Staples
Andy Staples>INSIDE COLLEGE FOOTBALL
SEC 2012 Conference Report
Will the SEC produce a seventh consecutive national champion? Which new league member will find the most success? Are Florida and Tennessee poised to return to elite status? Andy Staples answers that and more in his SEC conference preview. For more coverage, visit our preseason content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.
 
How They'll Finish
 
EAST Conference Overall
South Carolina 7-1 11-1
Georgia 6-2 10-2
Missouri 4-4 8-4
Florida 4-4 7-5
Tennessee 3-5 7-5
Vanderbilt 2-6 5-7
Kentucky 0-8 3-9
 
WEST Conference Overall
Alabama 7-1 11-1
LSU 7-1 11-1
Auburn 5-3 9-3
Arkansas 5-3 9-3
Mississippi State 3-5 7-5
Texas A&M 2-6 6-6
Ole Miss 1-7 4-8
Championship Game: Alabama beats South Carolina
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Tyler Wilson
2011 stats: 3,638 passing yards, 24 TD, 6 INT
2012 projection: 3,850 passing yards, 30 TD, 8 INT
He won't have Bobby Petrino calling his plays or Joe Adams and Jarius Wright catching his passes, but Wilson remains the SEC's most polished signal-caller. The return of tailback Knile Davis should force defenses to play the Razorbacks honestly, so Wilson should see enough man-to-man coverage to post robust numbers again.
Debate: Can Arkansas perform without Bobby Petrino?
Wilson headlines SI.com's preseason All-SEC Team
 
Defensive MVP
 
LB
Jarvis Jones
2011 stats: 70 tackles, 19.5 tackles for loss, 13.5 sacks
2012 projection: 75 tackles, 20 tackles for loss, 12 sacks
Opponents can't run a play without first identifying where Jones is, and UGA likes to move Jones around to force QBs to decide in the seconds before the snap whether they really want to run the called play. That seed of doubt makes Jones the most dangerous defender in the SEC. This, by the way, is the reason South Carolina is considering playing Jadeveon Clowney at linebacker on occasion. Clowney's ceiling may actually be higher, but Jones has already proven his offense-wrecking capabilities to a greater degree.
 
Impact Freshman
 
WR
Dorial Green-Beckham
2011 stats (high school): 119 catches, 2,233 yards, 24 TD
2012 projection: 58 catches, 950 yards, 8 TD
Green-Beckham won't abuse SEC corners the way he did high school defenders, and he won't be targeted as much while playing with veteran receivers. But the 6-foot-6, 220-pounder is talented enough to deliver a freshman season similar to the ones turned in by Alabama's Julio Jones and Georgia's A.J. Green in 2008. Green-Beckham's combination of size and speed should allow him to flourish in an offense that rolls up big numbers.
Staples: SEC orientation for newcomers Missouri, Texas A&M
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Joker Phillips
Last season: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Career at Kentucky: 11-14 (4-12 SEC)
Tennessee's Derek Dooley was another candidate to appear in this spot, but his team seems talented enough to play its way out of a hole. Phillips' situation is far more dire. This week, Kentucky released updated season ticket sales figures. While the news wasn't as grim as it was late last month, it remains ugly. Season ticket sales are down 20.8 percent from last year and 32.5 percent from 2009. Losing is bad, but fan and donor apathy might be worse. These days, it is sometimes prudent for an athletic director to make a coaching change just to prime the donation pump. Unless Kentucky has a miracle season, a change might be the only way to get the money flowing again.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Alabama vs. Michigan
Saturday, Sept. 1
8 p.m. ET, ABC
Call it what you want. The Old Money Bowl. The Oversigning vs. Undersigning Bowl. A TV Executive's Dream Come True. No matter the name, this is a clash of two brand-name programs with national title aspirations. If there is any justice in this world, we'll get more nonconference games like this one. Alabama should win, but the matchup between the Crimson Tide's defense and Michigan quarterback Denard Robinson is intriguing.
 
Washington at LSU
Saturday, Sept. 8
7 p.m. ET, ESPN
Want to find out how much (or if) LSU misses cornerback Tyrann Mathieu? A visit from Huskies quarterback Keith Price should provide a good test. Price threw for 3,063 yards with 33 touchdowns and 11 interceptions last season. Washington, meanwhile, will learn whether its offseason defensive coaching overhaul helped. The Huskies were last seen getting torched by Robert Griffin III in the Alamo Bowl. New LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger might have some fun against Washington's secondary, or he might not need to do anything except hand off to the Tigers' talented stable of backs.
 
South Carolina at Clemson
Saturday, Nov. 24
TBD
It says a lot about what has happened in two conferences that this game now occupies the spot usually reserved for Florida-Florida State. Should South Carolina win the SEC East, it could enter this game still in contention for the national title. Clemson, the 2011 ACC champ, should be better this year, and the Death Valley crowd would love nothing more than to watch the Gamecocks get the 1984 Navy treatment.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
Alabama at Arkansas
Saturday, Sept. 15
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
This is the Razorbacks' chance to prove they belong in the national title discussion. Beat Alabama, and they might surge to No. 1 in the polls. But if the Hogs lose to the Crimson Tide for the sixth consecutive season, that climb gets much steeper.
 
Georgia at South Carolina
Saturday, Oct. 6
TBD
This looks like the de facto SEC East title game, except that it might not be even if these are the two best teams in the division. Georgia's SEC West opponents are Auburn and Ole Miss. South Carolina's SEC West opponents are LSU and Arkansas. It's a must-win for the Gamecocks, but not necessarily for the Bulldogs.
 
Alabama at LSU
Saturday, Nov. 3
8 p.m. ET, CBS
If you thought fans in the rest of the country hated the SEC before, just wait for the week of hype leading into this latest Game of the Year of the Decade of the Century of the Millenium of the Epoch of the Era. It might help decide who plays for the national title, or it might not. Maybe they'll have to play twice -- again. (We'll pause here as all those non-SEC fans throw their computers from the nearest window.)
Estes: Alabama seeks to match Nebraska's three titles in four years
 
Five Key Questions
 
Will the SEC win its seventh consecutive national title? The league seems even better set up this year than in any of the previous six. Alabama, LSU, Arkansas, South Carolina and Georgia all have elite talent and could beat an elite team from another league in the BCS title game. But at what point is the league too deep at the top? At some juncture, the members of the SEC will beat one another up to the point that the league plays its way out of national title contention. At least, that would be the case if there wasn't a four-team playoff on the way in two years that will double the number of teams that get a chance to play for the national title. Could this be the year that the SEC's best pound one another to the point that they eliminate themselves from title contention? Probably not. There has to be a one-loss team in there somewhere.
Which of the SEC's new members will find success sooner? In the short run, the answer is Missouri, but in the long run, it may be Texas A&M. This season, Missouri will get Georgia at home in a suspension-weakened state on Sept. 8. Should Missouri win that game, the SEC East race will get much more interesting. Meanwhile, the Aggies have a midseason slog that includes a visit from LSU on Oct. 20 followed by consecutive road games at Auburn, Mississippi State and Alabama. That isn't a recipe for immediate success. But Kevin Sumlin is a smart, energetic coach working in a fertile recruiting area. If he can convince some of the best recruits in the Lone Star State to turn their backs on the Big 12 and play in the SEC, Texas A&M could be a player in the West in a few years.
Does anyone stand a chance beyond the big three in the SEC West? Don't sleep on Auburn, which has a defense full of talented players who got through their growing pains last season. New coordinator Brian VanGorder, who ran the Atlanta Falcons defense from 2008-11, brings one of the game's great mustaches back to the league for the first time since 2004. (We're not counting his one-month stint at South Carolina. Neither are Gamecocks fans, who loved the job Ellis Johnson did.) Defensive end Corey Lemonier is one of the SEC's best pass rushers, and defensive tackle Jeffery Whitaker is an athletic 300-pounder who can play the run and the pass well. After losing Gus Malzahn, the Tigers could look quite different on offense, but they don't lack for speedy playmakers. Senior Onterrio McCalebb and sophomore Tre (La Soul) Mason should ease the premature departure of Michael Dyer as Auburn shifts to a more run-focused offense. Is Auburn ready to run the gauntlet and win the West for the second time in three seasons? Probably not. But don't be shocked if the Tigers beat at least one of the big three and make the race more intriguing.
So who really is the best back in the SEC? This question has no correct answer at the moment. Arkansas senior Knile Davis insists it's him, but South Carolina's Marcus Lattimore can make a legitimate argument. Meanwhile, Alabama's Eddie Lacy hasn't had a chance to stake his claim while patiently waiting his turn behind Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson. And let's not forget LSU's backs. The top four (Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard) combined for 2,338 yards and 30 rushing touchdowns last year. Each probably could start at one of 100 other programs. One of the most intriguing subplots of the season will be the backs' race to prove Davis either correct or incorrect.
Will Florida or Tennessee return to elite status? It may seem like forever, but Florida went 13-1 in 2009. Meanwhile, Tennessee's 2007 SEC East title seems like it happened in another lifetime. So which one of these two traditionally successful programs is best set up for a return to its former glory? The answer should come Sept. 15 when the Gators face the Volunteers in Knoxville. Florida has a deep defense but a ton of question marks on offense. Tennessee has a quality quarterback (Tyler Bray) and a tremendous receiving corps -- made less tremendous by the announcement Thursday that Da'Rick Rogers is suspended indefinitely -- but a number of unanswered questions on defense. Georgia and South Carolina aren't getting any worse, so neither of these teams can afford an early stumble. The winner of the head-to-head can keep hope alive. The loser may be in trouble.
 
SEC Video Preview
Debate: Can Arkansas bounce back after scandal?
Source: SI
Andy Staples and Stewart Mandel discuss how Arkansas will do in 2012 without Bobby Petrino at the helm.

 
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