Alabama and Georgia will likely be the heavy favorites to win their divisions again in 2013, but the competition within the SEC is greater than ever. During the 2012 season 35.1 percent of the Southeastern Conference games were settled by seven points or less with seven teams finishing ranked in the Associated Press Top 25. Of those seven teams five ranked in the Top 10.
Which SEC team will be "King of the Hill" in 2013? It will likely come down to talent and experience as it almost always does in the SEC. No conference at the FBS level accumulates the level of talent found annually in the Southeastern Conference. According to Scout.com, the SEC signed 32.7 percent of the nation's 4-star and 5-star players in the last three recruiting classes. The Pac 12 is second with 17.2 percent followed by the Big 10 at 15.9 percent.
This significant recruiting advantage allows teams within the SEC to reload more efficiently than traditional powers from other conferences.
Looking back over the past four recruiting classes, Alabama, Florida and LSU are the top three SEC teams in terms of the total number of 4-star and 5-star players signed. Though Alabama and LSU lost numerous key starters, their talent level should allow them to remain more than just competitive in 2013. The Georgia Bulldogs checked in at No. 4 and the Auburn Tigers finished at No. 5. Though recruiting is the lifeline of any college football team, player development is the key to transforming talent into success on the field.
Alabama, Georgia and Florida had the highest number of preseason All-SEC players evaluated by prognosticator Phil Steele. Alabama had 16 players on Steele's four-team level of rankings with Georgia and Florida having 12 each. Interestingly enough, Ole Miss had 10 players on Steele's preseason conference team and Auburn had only five. LSU's early departures for the NFL draft really hurt the Bayou Bengals in terms of returning talent and depth for 2013.
Among SEC teams this year Auburn returns the highest number of players with at least 20 games of experience. Florida, Ole Miss and Mississippi State are all tied at No. 2.
The South Carolina Gamecocks have the fewest returning players in the SEC with 20 games of experience. Florida's combination of talent and experience makes the Gators a dangerous team again out of the East and a bona fide competitor with Georgia.
In terms of seniors, Tennessee, Ole Miss and Florida had the most on their rosters entering 2013. Once again, Florida combines senior leadership with talent and experience level, projecting the Gators to be one of the more successful teams in the conference this season. Auburn was No. 11 in the SEC in terms of seniors on its roster, an obvious concern for a team lacking leadership during 2012.
In terms of returning letterman, Ole Miss, Kentucky and Texas A&M have the highest number returning for 2013. Ole Miss, Auburn and Georgia return the highest number of starters from 2012. It appears Ole Miss could be a dark horse in the SEC West with the returning experience but the Rebels still have to overcome their No. 8 ranking in terms of talent signed during their last four recruiting classes.
Five SEC quarterbacks who were ranked in the nation's top 40in terms of pass efficiency are back this season. The group includes A.J McCarron of Alabama, Aaron Murray of Georgia, Conner Shaw of South Carolina and Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M, who all finished in the nation's top 20.
With the Southeastern Conference fielding the toughest defenses in the nation, exceptional quarterback play is required to make a run at winning a conference championship. The average national passing efficiency ranking of the starting quarterback from the last nine SEC championship teams is 17. Six of the last nine championship quarterbacks had passer ratings in the nation's top-20.
McCarron of Alabama and Aaron Murray of Georgia were the nation's top two most efficient quarterbacks and they return for their senior campaign. This is an enormous advantage for both programs for their hopes to repeat as division winners in 2013. Heisman Trophy winner Manziel was the most exciting player in college football last season, but he will have the additional burden of carrying a team that lost key starters from 2012. Florida and LSU obviously have the talent to be competitive in the conference, but those teams will need quarterbacks Jeff Driskel and Zach Mettenberger to become more efficient to win the conference championship. In the same regard, Auburn has talent and experience, but the quarterback play is questionable for now.
How they rate this year...
In terms of ranking the SEC teams with a power rating involving talent and experience only, my top four for this season are Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Auburn. This overall rating doesn't take player development and quarterback play into consideration.
Georgia will be counting on its record-setting quarterback, Aaron Murray, to have a big senior season.
Ranking the teams based on their average rankings in the six categories of talent and experience, the top four are Ole Miss, Georgia, Alabama and Tennessee. The Rebels of Ole Miss finished No. 1 in returning starters, No. 2 in players with 20 games of experience, No. 2 in seniors, No. 1 in returning lettermen, No. 8 in recruiting and No. 4 in preseason All-SEC personnel. If Bo Wallace continues to improve at quarterback, Ole Miss could be a 9-10 win team in 2013.
Adding quarterback play to the equation projects Alabama, Georgia, Florida and Ole Miss as the top four teams in the Southeastern Conference for 2013. Texas A&M checks in at No. 5 and Auburn drops to No. 7. This is why quarterback play for Auburn could make the difference between a 5-7 win season or a 7-9 win season for the Tigers.
Auburn and Ole Miss have the most combined returning starters on the offensive and defensive lines, which provides a good foundation for improvement. Most of the attention to Hugh Freeze's Ole Miss team was on offense during 2012, but the Rebels improved on defense, too. The Rebels boosted their rankings in total defense and scoring defense from 2011 to 2012. Last season eight teams from the SEC finished in the nation's top 25 for forcing negative plays and turnovers. The Rebels were No. 4 nationally and No. 1 in the SEC in forcing negative plays and turnovers. They were No. 94 nationally the season before.
Dee Ford, who will be a senior defensive end for Auburn, is a returning starter.
Each year new players develop and become impact performers for every team, which can alter preseason expectations and projections. In that same regard established players sometimes take a step backwards, failing to play at the same level they did the season before. This is what makes the collegiate game so interesting and exciting to watch.
For now Alabama and Georgia appear to be the favorites to win their respective Divisions, but there is room for improvement for other teams to advance and to make it an interesting race to become the best conference in college football. Look for Florida to strongly challenge Georgia in the East and don't be shocked to see Ole Miss second in the West. The key for the Rebels is playing Texas A&M and LSU at home, two opponents they lost to in 2012 by a combined nine points.