1. Vanderbilt Commodores
Only Florida had better all-around special teams than Vanderbilt in 2012, and the Commodores could progress into that same conversation by the end of 2013. Special teams coordinator Charles Bankins is working with a talented group, including dangerous return man Jonathan Krause, kickoff returners Andre Hal and Brian Kimbrow, and kicker Carey Spear.
Spear was reliable for the Commodores last season, connecting on 20-24 field goal attempts — including a perfect 13-13 from 39 yards and in — as well as all 27 of his extra points.
The departure of punter Richard Kent is the only significant check against the Commodores, though it is a biggie. Kent was an All-SEC selection in 2012.
2. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State cracked the top 40 nationally in kickoff return, at 23.1 yards per attempt. Leading returner Jameon Lewis averaged 25.9 yards per attempt, and took one kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown last season. Baker Swedenburg is among the nation’s premier punters, sporting 37 career boots inside 20 yards. Swedenburg rarely afforded opponents the opportunity to return his punts; just 13 were taken all last season. The few chances opposing returners were afforded produced scant few yards, as the Bulldogs covered for an unbelievable 0.5 yards per punt return — far and away, tops in college football.
A question mark is kicker Devon Bell, who struggled on his field goal attempts beyond 30 yards. Bell connected on just 10-17 from that mark. Bell’s touchback percentage on kickoffs was only 20.
3. Florida Gators
Few teams can point to the value of special teams quite like Florida. The Gators won more than once last season largely on the strength of their special teams, both in wreaking havoc on South Carolina and Jelani Jenkins blocking a late La.-Lafayette punt.
Gone is 2012 Lou Groza Award finalist Caleb Sturgis, one of the most reliable kickers in college football over the last few seasons. The Miami Dolphins fifth round selection Sturgis is difficult to replace, and neither Austin Hardin nor Brad Phillips impressed according to spring practice reports.
UF does return All-Conference punter Kyle Christy, one of the highest yard per attempt performers in the nation a season ago. The Gators also welcome back electrifying returner Andre Debose.
4. Auburn Tigers
For all the rebuilding Gus Malzahn and his staff are faced with in Year One, special teams make for a solid foundation to his new team. Auburn excelled in all phases of special teams a year ago, and return most of the vital pieces in 2013. Chief among them is kicker Cody Parkey, who averaged a remarkable 68.8 percent touchback rating on his kickoffs. Parkey’s returned kicks produced very little; in fact, Auburn had the best kickoff coverage in the SEC, allowing only 16.6 yards per. Punter Steven Clark was below 40 yards per attempt on average, but it didn’t hurt the Tigers — despite its defensive inadequacies, AU actually covered punts better than any team in the nation except Mississippi State, allowing fewer than 1 yard (.8) per opportunity.
Running back Onterio McCalebb, who doubled as a dangerous kick returner, is gone. However, punt returner Quan Bray is back. He averaged 12.4 yards per attempt a season ago.
5. LSU Tigers
America will sorely miss the best Australian import since Summer Heights High, punter Brad Wing. Seriously, how many punters have enough chutzpah to draw a taunting penalty on a touchdown rush? Perhaps Wing employed the same logic in leaving LSU early for the NFL. Whatever his motivation, he leaves a void on the Tiger special teams.
Wing’s replacement does have the cushion of playing alongside one of the elite coverage units. The deep Tiger defense supplemented punt coverage to the tune of 3.5 yards per return, and just a touch over 18 yards per kickoff opportunity.
On the opposite side, Odell Beckham filled in for Tyrann Mathieu as punt returner quite nicely, running back a pair of kicks for touchdowns.
6. Missouri Tigers
Special teams were a strength for Mizzou in its inaugural SEC campaign. Returner Marcus Murphy received All-American recognition after running back an absurd three punts for touchdowns (albeit two were against FCS Southeastern Louisiana — but two punt returns for scores in and of itself is really impressive). He also took a kickoff back to the house. Murphy might be the most electric return man in college football come 2013.
7. Texas A&M Aggies
A&M excelled in most every phase of special teams last season, and returns several key contributors in that facet of the game. Taylor Bertolet boomed 65 touchbacks for a 63 percent average. For a team that scores touchdowns as prolifically as A&M, the defense spends a lot of time on the field. A kicker who can limit the opposition’s opportunities is invaluable, and Bertolet was that for the A&M special teams. When teams did have the chance to take back Bertolet kicks, they had little success. Texas A&M boasted one of the best kickoff coverage defenses in the SEC, allowing just a little over 18 yards per attempt.
He was, however, less consistent in his field goal and extra point duties, going 13-22 on the former and 68-75 on the latter.
Kick returner Trey Williams averaged 22.3 yards per attempt last season, and returns for 2013. The Aggies lose primary punt returner Dustin Harris.
8. Alabama Crimson Tide
It stands to reason a program as stocked with four-and-five-star recruits as Alabama would have premier talent filling out its special teams. Alabama isn’t bad in its special teams coverage by any means, but at 6.5 yards per return on Cody Mandell’s 44.3 average yards per punt, the Crimson Tide ranks No. 34 in the nation. Very rarely does any phase of Nick Saban’s team not rank in the top 10.
The Tide loses Jeremy Shelley, a stalwart of the special teams and perfect placekicker through 2012. He connected on all 69 of his PATs, and all 11 of his field goal attempts. Cade Foster is back to handle kickoff responsibility. He forced touchbacks on over 46 of his attempts. Yet, Alabama gave up a surprising 21.6 yards per return opportunity.
9. Georgia Bulldogs
Malcolm Mitchell, expected to move into a more prominent role on the wide receiving corps, handled both punt and kick return duties a season ago. He was servicable in both phases, though more so as a kickoff returner.
Freshman kicker Marshall Morgan struggled mightily, connecting on just eight of his 14 field goal attempts all season. Morgan also missed on four extra point attempts. Fellow freshman Collin Barber was much more steady at punter, booming 19 kicks inside the 20 yard line. However, the Georgia punt coverage was surprisingly porous. The Bulldogs ranked No. 102 in the nation, with 11.1 yards surrendered per attempt — somewhat perplexing, given the bevy of talent on the roster.
10. Ole Miss Rebels
Senior punter Jim Broadway is gone, as is long-time Rebel placekicker Bryson Rose. A key contributor from a season ago back in the mix is freshman Jaylen Walton 24.7 yards per kickoff return in 2012, including one for a score against Texas.
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
Wide receiver Ace Sanders was outstanding as the Gamecocks punt returner, but is gone for the NFL in 2013. Only Victor Hampton had any opportunities last season among 2013 returning players, and he took just a pair of punts. Kick returner Bruce Ellington is back though, having averaged better than 22 yards per opportunity.
Another team stacked on defense, South Carolina used its depth to stymie opposing in the return game. Punter Tyler Hull returns, but the Gamecocks lose placekicker Adam Yates.
12. Tennessee Volunteers
Cordarrelle Patterson was named to the All-SEC team for his returning ability, but left the Vols with a year of eligibility remaining. Punt returner Devrin Young is back in the mix though, coming off a 2012 in which he averaged 9.7 yards per attempt.
Michael Palardy will work in all facets as kicker and punter, after splitting appearances with Derrick Brodus in 2012. Last season, Palardy connected on 9-12 field goal attempts and 37-40 PATs. Palardy had 16 punts inside 20 yards a year ago.
13. Arkansas Razorbacks
The Razorbacks lose punter Dylan Breeding, one of the NCAA’s top 10 in 2012. His replacement should have the luxury of decent coverage, though. Arkansas cracked the top 30 in yards surrendered in the punting game, and was No. 57 on kickoff returns.
Placekicker Zach Hoker was 32-32 on PATs, but only 11-18 on field goal attempts. Punt returner Nate Holmes was good for 6.3 yards an attempt in his freshman season.
Arkansas falls this low not because it’s particularly bad, but rather the league’s special teams units are demonstrably deep. The rebuilding Razorbacks must prove their ability.
14. Kentucky Wildcats
Kentucky had its issues in special teams last year. Placekicker Craig McIntosh was perfect on PATs, but missed nearly half of his field goal attempts (8-15). With four kicks and punts blocked, Kentucky was also one of the most vexed teams in that regard during 2012. The Wildcats also ranked near the bottom of defending returns, allowing over 22 yards per attempt on kickoffs. Because placekicker Joe Mansour fell below 50 percent on his kickoffs-to-touchbacks, that tranlates to the UK defense often facing unfavorable field position. All told, new special teams coordinator Bradley Dale Peveto faces an uphill climb to get UK where it needs to be competitively.