Alabama (5) – ‘Bama will be playing for its third title in four years, and returns quarterback A.J. McCarron in its quest to repeat as BCS National Champions. While the Crimson Tide lost numerous star players to the NFL, they’ve once again re-upped with a loaded recruiting class. As we all saw last year, SEC teams with one loss (even to a team in its division) are never eliminated from contention, so ‘Bama’s extremely difficult schedule (Michigan, Arkansas, Mizzou, LSU, Auburn) may not prove to be fatal to its chances. The biggest question is whether the young Tide can learn the ropes quickly enough to compete in the uber-tough SEC West.
LSU (6) – Save for one fateful day in January, the Tigers were the best team in the country last year. And LSU’s 21-0 loss to Alabama in the BCS National Championship can’t be sitting well with any of its returning players, so watch out in 2012. The Tigers biggest weakness last year was quarterback play, as neither Jordan Jefferson nor Jarrett Lee seemed to be the answer. So, LSU is turning to Zach Mettenberger, the former Georgia standout booted off the team two years ago. The Tigers’ schedule is also a little easier this year, with non-conference games against North Texas, Idaho, Washington and Towson.
Georgia (7) – Not many teams lose two games to start and end the season yet reach double-digit wins, but that’s what the Bulldogs did last year. As we explained a few months ago, the Dawgs SEC schedule lines up very nicely, as they avoid LSU, Alabama and Arkansas. If Georgia can win the SEC East and pull the upset to knock off the SEC West champ, it could find itself playing on January 7th. One potential problem for the Dawgs? Running back Isaiah Crowell was kicked off the team earlier this year and has transferred to Alabama State, meaning Georgia needs to find a new ball carrier.
South Carolina (8) – Does anyone even realize that the Gamecocks won 11 games last year? Steve Spurrier has turned the other USC into a football powerhouse, one that may be playing for a national championship sooner rather than later. South Carolina had the nation’s 11th ranked defense in 2011 and will be returning most of its starters. It also returns Heisman candidate running back Marcus Lattimore, who was lost early in the year to a devastating knee injury. Its schedule is brutal, with games at Florida, LSU and Clemson and home match-ups against Mizzou, Georgia and Arkansas.
Why No Others? – Realistically, any team that wins the SEC has a very good chance at playing for the national title. But the conference has been a bit top-heavy in recent years, with just a handful of teams dominating consistently. Arkansas finished last season ranked 5th, but unless it can beat both LSU and Alabama, it doesn’t have a chance at the SEC Championship Game.