How can you pick against Alabama at this point? Nick Saban has his guys hitting on all cylinders and competing for a national title yearly. The weak point will be the O line. They lose 3 NFL caliber players across the front but return a talented group. The group is led by lone junior Anthony Steen and sophomore phenom Cyrus Kouandjio. I don’t expect to see much drop off with the talent they return. AJ McCarron also gets weapons aplenty in TJ Yeldon, Kevin Norwood, and Amari Cooper returning at the skill positions. The schedule sets up nicely this year. I really don’t think anyone can question an Alabama defense under Saban at this point. The lone road test is in the 2ndgame at Texas A&M but the revenge factor will keep the Tide motivated. They get their other remaining challenges at home (LSU, Ole Miss, and Tennesee). Factoring in returning talent plus the schedule and the Crimson Tide should be kings of the SEC again.
This is my surprise pick of the group. LSU lost a total of 10 underclassmen to the draft, not to mention graduating seniors and the Tigers will field a largely new team in 2013. O line is the biggest concern, particularly tackle, and they slide out La’el Collins from his guard spot and rising sophomore Vadal Alexander mans the other. The interior line has more upperclassmen and should be fine. Even though Michael Ford and Spencer Ware declared for the draft, Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue would have been ahead on the depth chart anyway. The defense took the bigger hit with Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo moving on to the NFL but I don’t expect the defense to take the dip that others do. LSU has elite athletes everywhere on the roster and Tommy Moffett will have those guys ready to go come fall. I expect LSU to field another elite defense next year. The real key to LSU is Zach Mettenberger. We saw flashes last year, such as the Alabama game, where he played lights out. I expect a much better Mettenberger this year with his gained experience and the Tigers riding him to challenging Bama for the Western Division crown. The schedule will decide LSU’s season. Road trips to Alabama and Georgia are crucial and a split is needed at the minimum. Their remaining tough tests are at home with Florida and Texas A&M coming to Death Valley.
3) Texas A&M
I have a feeling that A&M will be the trendy pick to challenge Bama for the west this year. I think they will be very good but I see a 3rd place finish in their future. They return Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel and most of his weapons. Running Back Ben Malena (919 total yards) and receivers Mike Evans, Thomas Johnson, and Malcome Kennedy (138 combined catches) all return ready to light up big numbers again. No doubt the biggest loss on offense was Luke Joeckel but graduated center Patrick Lewis departure also hurts. Jake Matthews staying and sliding to LT will help but as a whole can they protect Manziel like last year’s unit? The losses on the D line of Spencer Nealy and Damontre Moore hurt badly. This unit will have to step it up to replicate last year’s group. Linebacker was hit hard by graduation and will be another inexperienced group. Bottom line on A&M’s defense is that they lost most of their high end talent off of a middle of the road defense last year. They were 7th in scoring and 9thin total defense in the conference. Any dip in what they did last year and their chances of challenging for the west decline dramatically. Another factor against them is that every coordinator in the conference has had a whole offseason to break down A&M/Manziel tape. I think he will see a slight dip in production as well. Alabama and Vandy are both tough games they get at home. Their road slate includes trips to LSU, Ole Miss, and Arkansas. To have a prayer they must win 4 of those 5 but I can see them losing 2 at a minimum with 3 as a solid possibility. Don’t forget that 3rd in the SEC West is still makes A&M a really good team who could beat anybody on any given Saturday.