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Alabama, Texas A&M lead 2013 SEC conference preview

Photo: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Quarterback AJ McCarron will look to lead 'Bama to a third straight BCS championship in the '13 season.

Can Alabama make a run at a third consecutive national title? Will Texas A&M's Johnny Manziel live up to expectations created by his Heisman-winning freshman campaign? Can LSU reload after losing many of its star players to the NFL? Andy Staples answers these questions and more in his SEC preview. For more coverage, check out SI.com's 2013 college football preview content archive.

Note: The projected standings reflect the author's opinion, not SI.com's.

SEC Conference Report
 
How They'll Finish
 
EAST Conference Overall
South Carolina 7-1 11-1
Florida 6-2 10-2
Georgia 6-2 10-2
Vanderbilt 4-4 8-4
Tennessee 3-5 6-6
Missouri 2-6 5-7
Kentucky 0-8 3-9
 
WEST Conference Overall
Alabama 8-0 12-0
Texas A&M 6-2 10-2
LSU 5-3 9-3
Mississippi State 3-5 6-6
Ole Miss 3-5 6-6
Arkansas 2-6 6-6
Auburn 1-7 5-7
Conference championship: Alabama def. South Carolina
 
Offensive MVP
 
QB
Johnny Manziel
2012 stats: 3,706 pass yards, 26 TD, 9 INT; 1,410 rush yards, 21 TD
2013 projection: 3,900 pass yards, 30 TD, 8 INT; 1,200 rush yards, 18 TD
Obviously, this can only happen if Manziel plays. Given the current lack of solid information concerning the NCAA's inquiry into accusations that Manziel was paid for autographs, it remains a legitimate question as to whether Manziel will take the field when the Aggies open against Rice on Aug. 31. But if the defending Heisman winner plays, he'll be surrounded by as much or more talent than last year. He'll have had an entire offseason as the starter. (Insert your own courtside/Drake/Rick Ross/Vegas joke here.) More important, Texas A&M coaches will have designed the offense around Manziel's skill set. Last year, they didn't know exactly what they had until Manziel started scaring the daylights out of Florida's defense in the first half of the Gators' win in College Station. In 2012, Manziel had one of the best seasons a quarterback has ever had. In '13, he could match or better those numbers. However, if he does miss time -- either because the NCAA suspends him or because A&M sits him as a precautionary measure -- the list of guys who could be the SEC's best offensive player is fairly deep despite being concentrated mainly on two teams. It could be Alabama's AJ McCarron or T.J. Yeldon, or it could be Georgia's Aaron Murray, Keith Marshall or Todd Gurley.
 
Defensive MVP
 
DE
Jadeveon Clowney
2012 stats: 54 tackles, 13 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss
2013 projection: 55 tackles, 12 sacks, 23 tackles for loss
Clowney wrecked opposing offenses last year, and he still hasn't hit his ceiling. As long as he doesn't put things on cruise control before heading to the NFL draft, he'll be the most dominant defender in a conference full of dominant defenders. Clowney's numbers likely won't improve much because every offense will be geared toward slowing him, but that should benefit defensive line mates Chaz Sutton and Kelcy Quarles.
Staff: Jadeveon Clowney leads SI's 2013 Preseason All-America Team
 
Breakout Star
 
LB
Jordan Jenkins
2012 stats: 31 tackles, 5 sacks, 8 tackles for loss
2013 projection: 65 tackles, 11 sacks, 20 tackles for loss
Of all the questions Georgia's defense has to answer this year, "Who replaces Jarvis Jones?" should be the most difficult. It's actually the easiest. Playing behind Jones as a true freshman linebacker last year, Jenkins quickly proved that Jones was the only better pass rusher on the Bulldogs' roster. Now a year older, Jenkins is ready to pick up where Jones left off -- most likely in opposing offense's backfields.
ANDERSON: Georgia ranks No. 12 in SI's preseason Top 25
 
Impact Freshman
 
RB
Derrick Henry
2012 stats (high school): 462 carries, 4,261 rush yards, 55 TD
2013 projection: 175 carries, 1,108 rush yards, 12 TD
If Henry's projected stats look familiar, they should. They're Yeldon's numbers from last season. 'Bama featured backs are like Sith Lords. Always there are two, a master and an apprentice. Darth Yeldon was the apprentice to Darth Lacy, just as Lacy was the apprentice to Darth Richardson, just as Richardson was the apprentice to Darth Ingram. I'm guessing the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Henry -- who broke the national high school career rushing record at Yulee (Fla.) High -- has recovered from a broken fibula and will win the apprentice job. Whether it's Henry, Altee Tenpenny or Kenyan Drake, the results will likely be the same. But if I've guessed correctly, arise, Darth Henry.
 
Coach On The Hot Seat
 
Gary Pinkel
Last season: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Career at Missouri: 90-61 (2-6 SEC)
The first year in the SEC wasn't kind to Pinkel, who had built up a stockpile of goodwill during his mostly overachieving tenure in Columbia. Frankly, he seems a bad fit in the league. For recruiting purposes -- and sometimes just because they're slightly insane -- SEC coaches tend to have a lot of pizazz. (Even Alabama's Nick Saban has a type of driven, soul-eating pizazz.) Pinkel doesn't appear to have any pizazz of which he is aware. That won't matter if he bounces back and wins eight or nine games, because results are all that matters as long as those results are (mostly) wins. But if the Tigers struggle again, it might be time to find a more SEC-esque coach. That would be a shame, because then the world would have to live without the cyberspace wonderland that is GaryPinkel.com.
 
SEC Video Preview
Staples' three keys: SEC
Sports Illustrated's Andy Staples breaks down the three things to watch for in the SEC and says who could challenge Alabama this season.
 
Three Key Nonconference Games
 
Georgia at Clemson
Saturday, Aug. 31
8 p.m. ET, ABC
In 2012, these offenses combined to average 78.8 points and 980.3 yards a game. Both units bring back their quarterbacks and a host of supporting talent. Given that Clemson's defense remains a work in progress and Georgia's defense will be breaking in a lot of newcomers who, while talented, haven't played under lights so bright, it's safe to predict this game will challenge the limits of the scoreboard.
 
LSU vs. TCU (in Arlington)
Saturday, Aug. 31
9 p.m. ET, ESPN
Former Ravens and Chargers offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will make his LSU debut against Gary Patterson's defense, so we'll see right away how Cameron -- who last worked in college as Indiana's head coach in 2001 -- stacks up against one of the best defensive minds in the college game. Fortunately for Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger, TCU star defensive end Devonte Fields is suspended. It is unclear whether LSU tailback Jeremy Hill, who in many municipalities would be in jail after sucker-punching a man while on probation for a previous crime, will play against TCU. LSU coach Les Miles has yet to reveal whether Hill's punishment will include missing any playing time.
 
Florida State at Florida
Saturday, Nov. 30
TBD
This game and the Clemson at South Carolina game will both take center stage on Nov. 30. The ACC Atlantic and SEC East titles will have already been decided, but one or two of these four teams could be in the national championship hunt at this point. Whichever team that is will also have a conference title game on the horizon, so upset watch will be on in the rivalry games.
 
Three Key Conference Games
 
South Carolina at Georgia
Saturday, Sept. 7
4:30 p.m. ET, ESPN
Each team will challenge itself with an upper-tier ACC opponent in its opener, and then the Gamecocks and Bulldogs will begin the business of determining the SEC East champ in week two. South Carolina won the past two meetings, but Georgia won the SEC East in each of those years. Though we don't yet know how good the rest of the teams will be, the schedule imbalance seems to have flipped. This time, Georgia appears to face the must-win situation, while South Carolina appears to be the team that can lose and still have a chance to win the East.
 
Alabama at Texas A&M
Saturday, Sept. 14
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Because we don't know the resolution of Manziel's situation, we don't know the exact stakes of this game. Last year in Tuscaloosa, Manziel flummoxed Alabama's defense and the Aggies handed the Crimson Tide their only loss. This year, each team received an easier SEC East draw, meaning this game and the result of these teams' games against LSU likely will decide the SEC West.
 
Georgia vs. Florida (in Jacksonville)
Saturday, Nov. 2
3:30 p.m. ET, CBS
Both of these teams must face LSU in the West, and that gives South Carolina -- which drew the Tigers last year but doesn't this year -- a slight advantage in the SEC East. So the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party could be an elimination game in the race for the division crown.
 
Five Key Questions
 
Will the SEC end the BCS era with the final eight titles? Sheer probability and the fact that college football tends to be cyclical suggest the league's run of national titles must end at some point sooner than later, but the addition of two teams to the national championship mix following the 2014 season could give the SEC an even better chance of continuing its streak. Because this is the last season in which the national title will be decided by a one-game scenario, this seems to be the best chance for the field to win one. Stanford is constructed to compete with a team like Alabama. Meanwhile, Ohio State coach Urban Meyer would understand precisely what he'd be up against should the Buckeyes make the BCS title game against an SEC squad. After all, Meyer's 2006 Florida team started the SEC's streak. Or, just to troll the SEC-hating public, voters in the Coaches' and Harris polls could join the computers in placing two SEC teams in the title game. If that happened, we might get an eight-team playoff in four years.
Can LSU overcome the loss of so much talent to the NFL? The Tigers reload as well as anyone, but keeping LSU in the SEC title hunt after 11 early departures will require epic coaching performances by Miles, Cameron and defensive coordinator John Chavis. Much of the difficulty, as fans learned if they read anything about the SEC's spring meetings in late May, stems from the schedule. LSU is the only one of the league's recent perennial contenders that has to play Alabama and Florida every year. Add a September trip to Athens and a visit from a Texas A&M team that will be good with or without Manziel, and that's a big ask of a group of new starters.
ANDERSON: LSU ranks No. 14 in SI's preseason Top 25
What happens if Manziel can't play? True freshman quarterback Kenny Hill will more than likely inherit the keys to a very talented offense. Left tackle Luke Joeckel was the No. 2 pick in last April's NFL draft, and Jake Matthews, who slid from right tackle to left for this season, probably will be selected near the top of the draft in 2014. Cedric Ogbuehi, who moved from right guard to right tackle, might join him. Mike Evans is a 6-5, 225-pounder who led the Aggies in receiving yards last year, and he's joined this year by 6-5, 225-pound freshman Ricky Seals-Jones. In the backfield, Oklahoma transfer Brandon Williams and Oregon transfer Tra Carson are eligible to play after sitting out a year. They'll back up Ben Malena, who gained 808 yards last season while Manziel led the SEC in rushing. Meanwhile, sophomore Trey Williams has impressed coaches this offseason and could get his share of carries as well. Texas A&M's biggest questions -- other than the Manziel one -- remain on defense. The Aggies started camp with eight freshmen on the two-deep depth chart on that side of the ball, so the offense may have to pick up a lot of slack.
MANDEL: Texas A&M ranks No. 3 in SI's preseason Top 25
Have SEC offenses finally caught up with SEC defenses? Maybe. The up-tempo offenses at Texas A&M and Ole Miss gave defenses fits last year. The pro-style offenses at Alabama and Georgia should be among the best in the country. Consider the wealth of talent at the skill positions in Tuscaloosa and Athens. Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron has his usual complement of backs and the deepest group of receivers he's had as Alabama's starter. Meanwhile, Georgia quarterback Murray has backs Gurley and Marshall and a group of experienced wideouts. At South Carolina, the defense still seems a bit ahead of the offense. Florida might want to sit this question out.
Can any of the new coaches make an immediate dent? Kentucky's Mark Stoops and Tennessee's Butch Jones have energized their respective fan bases because of their recruiting and their energy, but both of those coaches know they don't have the rosters to hang with the best in the SEC yet. Jones has a better group -- his offensive line might be one of the best in the conference -- but he also has a schedule that includes Oregon, Florida, Georgia, Alabama and South Carolina. At Auburn, Gus Malzahn takes over an offense full of players recruited to run his scheme, but the Tigers still must get much better on defense. New Arkansas coach Bret Bielema might have the best chance at an immediate impact. The players coming of age in Fayetteville now signed when Bobby Petrino was at the height of his power, and Bielema has always been good at whipping a talented-but-not-quite-elite roster into giant-slaying shape. Unfortunately, the SEC West is home to some massive giants.
ELLIS: Predicting the first-year records for each of 2013's new coaches
 

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