By John Zenor/The Associated Press
The Southeastern Conference must carry on without the last two Heisman Trophy winners, 10 first-round draft picks and a coach with two national titles.
Still, it’s hard to count out what Alabama’s Nick Saban calls “the national league of college football” after a five-year reign over college football.
“I just think it’s a very challenging league to play in,” Saban said. “I think it’s very difficult to have that kind of standard of excellence. But with the quality of players, coaches and programs that we have, it would not surprise me if we can continue to at least have someone in a position to have an opportunity to be in the championship game again.”
It might be his Crimson Tide. Or LSU. Maybe Arkansas. And what about South Carolina? Seriously.
First, all four of those would-be contenders must overcome quarterback questions.
Still, the Razorbacks and Gamecocks are no more of a long shot than Auburn was in becoming the fourth SEC team to win it all during the streak. One team that’s not in that conversation: Auburn, which must replace Heisman winner Cam Newton and defensive tackle Nick Fairley — and 14 other starters.
Alabama replaces four first-round picks, including 2009 Heisman winner tailback Mark Ingram. LSU is hoping up-and-down quarterback Jordan Jefferson finishes on a high note. Arkansas inserts Tyler Wilson in place of Ryan Mallett, and South Carolina’s Stephen Garcia might have competition.
Meanwhile, two-time national champ Urban Meyer has gone from Florida’s sidelines to the TV booth.
SOUTH CAROLINA — Key players: RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Alshon Jeffery, CB Stephon Gilmore. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Garcia, a 30-game starter, could face battle with Connor Shaw. … Seven straight seasons with non-losing records is a first since 1928-34. … Freshman DE Jadeveon Clowney could make instant impact. … LB Shaq Wilson returns to a defense that was 97th against the pass.
GEORGIA — Key Players: QB Aaron Murray, RB Isaiah Crowell, CB/KR Brandon Boykin. Returning starters: 4 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Coming off first losing season since 1996. … Sophomore QB Aaron Murray is preseason first-team All-SEC pick. … RB Caleb King faces challenge from five-star freshman Crowell. … LB Jarvis Jones, formerly of Southern California, is eligible. … Opens with Boise State (in Atlanta) and South Carolina.
FLORIDA — Key Players: QB John Brantley, RB Jeff Demps, DE Ronald Powell. Returning starters: 7 offense, 4 defense.
Notes: New coach Will Muschamp hopes Brantley will thrive in Charlie Weis’ offense after managing just nine touchdown passes. … Coach booted top CB Janoris Jenkins from team following arrests. … T Xavier Nixon is only returning starter on offensive line.
TENNESSEE: Key Players: QB Tyler Bray, RB Tauren Poole, DL Malik Jackson. Returning starters: 7 offense, 6 defense.
Notes: Youth movement continues with Vols offense relying heavily on sophomores — including Bray, WRs Justin Hunter and Da’Rick Rogers and several offensive linemen. … Defensively, Jackson is front seven’s only returning starter, but DBs have a combined 81 career starts.
KENTUCKY — Key Players: QB Morgan Newton, G Larry Warford, LB Danny Trevathan. Returning starters: 6 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Seeking sixth straight bowl appearance. … Must replace top playmakers Mike Hartline, Derrick Locke and Randall Cobb. … Former Cincinnati coach Rick Minter is co-defensive coordinator. ,,, Newton working with grad assistant and ex-Wildcat QB Andre’ Woodson. …Trevathan has nine straight double-digit tackle games.
VANDERBILT — Key Players: QB Larry Smith, CB Casey Hayward, LB Chris Marve. Returning starters: 11 offense, 8 defense.
Notes: James Franklin tries to breathe life into a program without a winning SEC mark since 1982. … Commodores have league-high returning starters. … Smith could face challenge from JUCO transfer Jordan Rodgers, brother of Super Bowl MVP Aaron Rodgers. … Marve is SEC’s active career leader with 306 tackles.
ALABAMA — Key Players: RB Trent Richardson, OL Barrett Jones, S Mark Barron. Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: A new QB — either AJ McCarron or Phillip Sims — a loaded defense and a potential Heisman candidate RB. … Alabama used similar formula to win national championship two years ago. … Tide has five preseason first-team All-SEC defenders, led by All-American safety Mark Barron. … Alabama makes its first visit to Penn State since 1989.
LSU — Key Players: QB Jordan Jefferson, WR Rueben Randle, CB Morris Claiborne. Returning starters: 8 offense, 9 defense.
Notes: Opens with BCS championship game loser Oregon in Dallas. … Jefferson could become first LSU quarterback to start in four bowl games. He’s working with new coordinator Steve Kragthorpe and behind four returning OL starters. … Transfer QB Zach Mettenberger went through spring practice.
ARKANSAS — Key Players: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, DE Jake Bequette. Returning starters: 6 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Fresh from its first BCS berth, but must visit Alabama and LSU. … Davis led nation at 6.48 yards per carry among runners with 200 rushes. … WRs Childs, Joe Adams, Cobi Hamilton and Jarius Wright have combined for nearly 6,500 yards. … Coaching staff remains intact for the first time since 2003.
MISSISSIPPI ST. — Key Players: QB Chris Relf, RB Vick Ballard, DL Fletcher Cox. Returning starters: 8 offense, 7 defense.
Notes: Relf has MSU’s highest career pass efficiency rating (136.87). … Bulldogs have a solid shot at finishing in the Top 4 in the six-team SEC West for only the second time since 2000 (2007). … Media guide header “This is Our State” shows Bulldogs think they’ve passed Ole Miss.
AUBURN — Key Players: QB Barrett Trotter, RB Mike Dyer, S Neiko Thorpe. Returning starters: 3 offense, 3 defense.
Notes: Trotter and Clint Moseley vie to replace Newton. … Tigers have league-low 38 returning lettermen and only four seniors who have logged significant time. … Will rely heavily on back-to-back top 5-ranked recruiting classes. … T Brandon Mosley lone preseason first-team All-SEC pick.
OLE MISS: Key Players: RB Brandon Bolden, LT Bradley Sowell, DE Kentrell Lockett. Returning starters: 9 offense, 5 defense.
Notes: Houston Nutt is 10-14 in SEC games at Ole Miss. … Lockett returns from knee injury after NCAA granted sixth year of eligibility and is preseason first-team All-SEC. … P Tyler Campbell’s 46.37-yard average led nation. … David Lee takes over as offensive coordinator.