Even the nation’s best programs enter the season knowing facets of the game must break right for them to live up to potential. This is our look at what the SEC West teams need to do to meet or exceed expectations in 2013.
- Win the first two: A neutral-field, season-opening game against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and a road game at Texas A&M in Week 2 make up the toughest two-game stretch the Tide will likely face all season. Of course, Alabama coach Nick Saban has proven he can have his team ready for the start of seasons. The Crimson Tide hasn’t lost a September game since Saban’s first season in 2007. The Alabama-Texas A&M game at Kyle Field is among the most highly-anticipated games in the country this season.
- Be skillfully offensive: While there are three spots along the offensive line to be filled this season, the skill players retain largely intact. QB A.J. McCarron headlines the returners and he has big-time weapons in RB T.J. Yeldon and WR Amari Cooper, who arguably rank atop the SEC at their respective positions. WR Kevin Norwood also has established himself as a talented playmaker and there is a bulk of talent behind Yeldon at tailback. It isn’t like Saban to rely on offense to carry his team and, based on his track record, he won’t have to this year, either. But Saban will have the option of trusting a senior quarterback and brilliant skill players if he sees fit.
- Don’t break the chain: It hasn’t seemed to matter how many defensive players Saban and Alabama graduate on a year-to-year basis. The Crimson Tide continues to roll. Last year was no different, both with on-field dominance and NFL Draft presence. Alabama loses five starters from 2012, including CB Dee Milliner, LB Nico Johnson and NT Jesse Williams. All that means is Saban has players waiting in the wings who have worked hard and are chomping at the bit to take their turns – and then leave for the NFL.
- Present a united front: It’s ironic, considering offensive guru Bobby Petrino is largely responsible for assembling this team, but Arkansas’ biggest strength entering the 2013 season is on defense. The front four for the Razorbacks is among the best in the conference. Few teams will be able to pressure opposing quarterbacks like Arkansas, which can stuff the run as well. DEs Trey Flowers and Chris Smith make up one of the best duos in college football.
- Run, baby, run: QB Brandon Allen won the starting position seemingly because he avoided mistakes. Shortly after first-year coach Bret Bielema announced that Allen at least led in the position battle, QB2 Brandon Mitchell announced his intention to transfer. That means Allen is the only real option to start the season. Spreading the field and passing has rarely been Bielema’s M.O., though. He has predicated offenses on power run games and play-action passing. Expect RB Jonathan Williams to have chances to emerge as a prominent SEC tailback.
- Regain swagger: Arkansas went 21-5 during Petrino’s final two seasons in Fayetteville and was primed for a run at the SEC West last year before Petrino was relieved of his coaching duties. That spirit and attitude didn’t appear during 2012 and the Razorbacks plummeted to a 4-8 season. For everything Bielema needs to turn around on the field, his ability to improve morale and confidence might be his most critical mission.
- Find a QB: Kiehl Frazier started the season as Auburn’s quarterback. He didn’t last long, turning the position over to Clint Moseley five games into the season. Three games later, true freshman Jonathan Wallace took over. Fortunately for the quarterbacks – and the Tigers – first-year coach Gus Malzahn has made a career out of renovating the position. Even more importantly, Malzahn recruited Frazier and hand-picked junior-college transfer Nick Marshall. Quarterback was not Auburn’s only problem in 2012, but the non-existence of production from the position certainly didn’t help.
- Stop somebody – anybody: New defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has built a strong reputation by producing top-flight SEC defenses. That, of course, is saying something. Johnson has his work cut out for him this year. He inherits a defense that gave up an average of 50 points per game over the final three SEC games. Auburn has talent on defense, but – as evidenced by allowing 150 points to Texas A&M, Georgia and Alabama – perhaps lacked heart in a despondent season. The Tigers must find answers at linebacker, but have a reasonably strong defensive front.
- Go fast, start fast: Malzahn is best known for his hurry-up, no-huddle offense. Though at times when Malzahn hasn’t run the show, coaches have taken out select words from that description. That won’t be the case now that he runs the show. While Auburn adjusts to Malzahn’s pace, it will need to get off to a fast start in order to return to a bowl game in 2013. The Tigers open with three potentially tough but ultimately winnable games. Washington State, Arkansas State and Mississippi State all visit Jordan-Hare Stadium to open the season. If Auburn starts 3-0 it has an outstanding chance to go bowling in Year 1 under Malzahn..
- Get Zach Mettenberger comfortable: Last year LSU struggled in the passing game. Part of that falls on Mettenberger, who has a strong arm but lacks accuracy at times. A bigger part, however, focused on receivers dropping passes and inconsistent pass protection along the offensive line. Even if RB Jeremy Hill misses extended time after getting arrested on battery charges during the offseason, the Tigers still have plenty of talent at tailback. RB Kenny Hilliard, nephew of former New Orleans Saints RB Dalton Hilliard, would be among the next to be called upon. Mettenberger has the talent to take his game to another level. Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron will be responsible for making it happens.
- Reload, don’t rebuild, on defense: Yes, LSU lost a lot on defense. No, it’s not worried. The Tigers are another program that has shown an uncanny ability to replace one star with another future star who builds a household name by midseason. DTs Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson have a chance to be special early on as starters.
- Beat ’Bama: LSU knows the road to Atlanta runs through Tuscaloosa. This year that statement runs more literally than others, considering that the Tigers visit Bryant-Denny Stadium in November. Success in Baton Rouge is dictated by winning division, conference and national championships. To win any of the three, LSU likely must take down the Crimson Tide.
- Russell up: The Tyler Russell who quarterbacked the first 11 games last year looked like an all-conference performer. However, there were two more games to be played and Russell didn’t fare nearly as well during them. Now a senior, Russell has one more chance to leave a lasting legacy by helping the Bulldogs climb the ranks in the SEC West. For him to do so, he must quickly adapt to a young receiving corps.
- Secondary a primary concern: The Bulldogs replace starting CBs Johnthan Banks and Darius Slay and will likely need immediate help to do so. Mississippi State turned to junior-college transfer CB Justin Cox to help the situation. Fortunately, S Nickoe Whitley returns.
- Find that big win: Mullen has taken State to three bowl games during his first four seasons in Starkville. The knock against him has been simple: He enters the 2013 season just 2-14 against top SEC West teams Alabama, LSU, Auburn and Arkansas. Those two wins came over hapless Arkansas and Auburn teams of 2012. State’s difficulties in big divisional games have become cause for concern.
- Pressure opposing QBs: DEs C.J. Johnson and Channing Ward provide the talent to provoke sleepless nights for opposing quarterbacks. Add to the mix Robert Nkemdiche – one of the top prospects in America last year – and the Rebels defensive line has the potential to be a pressure cooker off the edges.
- Protect your home turf: The start of the Ole Miss schedule is brutal. The Rebels play four of their first five games on the road with back-to-back games at Texas and at Alabama. Then Ole Miss returns to Oxford for six consecutive home games, including mid-October home tilts against Texas A&M and LSU. If the Rebels win all their home games they will avoid regression.
- No gambling: The good from QB Bo Wallace is obvious. He spent last year as arguably the second-most explosive player in the SEC behind only Texas A&M QB Johnny Manziel. However, his risk-taking ways left him with almost as many interceptions throw (17) as touchdown passes (22). Wallace also rushed for eight TDs, but he needs to get his mistakes under control. If Wallace can cut down on turnovers, the Ole Miss offense can soar to new heights.
- Find answers along the defensive front seven: Lost in all the hype of QB Johnny Manziel chasing back-to-back Heisman Trophies and the Aggies’ chances of winning the SEC West is the fact that A&M lost a ton on defense. The front seven, especially, will be made up of unproven commodities. DE Damontre Moore’s importance to the 2012 team can’t be overstated. Furthermore, Texas A&M graduated its two top linebackers – Sean Porter and Jonathan Stewart. If the front seven can play beyond its experience, there’s enough talent everywhere else to contend for the SEC crown.
- Remain road warriors: While the Week 2 bout with Alabama will set the tone for the SEC West, the Aggies’ four road games will go a long way toward determining their overall success. Among those contests is a potentially pivotal matchup toward the end of the season against LSU. Another, at Ole Miss, is a potential trap if A&M isn’t careful. The Aggies went 6-0 on the road last year, including a victory over No. 1 Alabama, so they have shown they can win away from Kyle Field. Doing so again could propel them onto a BCS-bound course.
- When in doubt, believe in Johnny: If all else fails, having the reigning Heisman Trophy winner taking every snap for your offense is a pretty nice luxury, huh? In case you haven’t noticed, Manziel has game-changing abilities. Ask Alabama. Or the rest of the SEC. Just when opposing defenses think they have a beat on Manziel, he escapes like a thief in the night only to reemerge in the end-zone. He can beat teams with his arm just as easily with his legs. A slight regression would only be natural considering Manziel ventured into previously unchartered terrain as a freshman. But don’t look for him to go too far – he will still be the most electric player in the SEC. The Aggies also feature weapons to surround Manziel – notably RB Ben Malena and WR Mike