SEC football preview, part I

Over a five-part series, I will break down the upcoming Southeastern Conference football season. The past seven BCS champions have come from the SEC and most expect this season will bring #8. I will rank the teams from #14 to #1 in order of strength.

Starting at #14 (or the weakest team in the league heading into 2013) are the Kentucky Wildcats. Gone is Joker Phillips and ‘in’ is Mark Stoops as head coach. Stoops (brother of Oklahoma Coach Bob and former Arizona Coach Mike) comes to Lexington after a successful stint as defensive coordinator at Florida State. He certainly has the pedigree to win. He certainly has the energy and the attitude, but does he have the horses?

The quick answer is ‘no.’ UK is a long way from competing after a dismal 2-10 2012 campaign. Kentucky returns only four starters from an offense that ranked last in the SEC and 116th out of 120 nationally in scoring. While the Cats are unsettled at quarterback, they do have a quality SEC rusher in Raymond Sanders. Injuries have slowed him but the senior is looking for a breakout year in 2013. Defense may be ahead of the offense led by LB Avery Williamson and DE Bud Dupree.

UK must settle on a QB. Sophomore Jalen Whitlow is the frontrunner. Finding a quarterback will require deciding on a direction offensively. Whitlow is a running threat, while Maxwell Smith and Patrick Towles are better passers. Still, the road is very long for Kentucky. Winning more than one conference game definitely seems a stretch.

Coming in at #13 is last season’s preseason darlings who had one thing after another go against them. Now the Arkansas Razorbacks look for a new start under former Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema. Arkansas was in everyone’s top-10 a year ago, and then the Bobby Petrino scandal happened; then Louisiana-Monroe happened; then 52-0 happened. You get the point.

The Hogs are starting over from a 4-8 2012. Over are the days of airing the ball out. Bielema won 69 games in seven years and the last three Big Ten championships by running the ball. With all the notable skill talent gone anyway, now is as good a time as any to start again. Jonathan Williams will start the season as the featured runner. But watch for Alex Collins, the nation’s #1 RB prospect out of high school this year and a huge early recruiting coup for Bielema, to show his wares early.

Bielema’s track record suggests Arkansas will surprise, but the schedule and inexperience in key spots suggests it will take time for the Razorbacks to contend again.

One new conference entrant had a memorable season. The other is the Missouri Tigers, #12 on the list. Mizzou’s move to the SEC caused many to scratch their heads and downright angered a large number of long-time supporters of the university. Attendance suffered, interest suffered, and so did the level of play on the field—5-7, and 2-6 in conference.

The SEC’s other James Franklin, Missouri’s starting QB, was awful at times last season. With eight starters, plus the dynamic receiver Dorial Green-Beckham returning, Mizzou should score some points.

But the defense allowed 28 a game last year and that was with first round pick Sheldon Richardson at tackle. For the Tigers to improve, Franklin must be the dual-purpose threat they expect and Green-Beckham must live up to the hype he had not that long ago.

Coach Gary Pinkel is on the hot seat. A devastating October schedule should seal his fate.