Primary strength: Even though they must replace Heisman Trophy finalist Trent Richardson at tailback, the Crimson Tide should have the most sound offense in the league with returning quarterback AJ McCarron and a front containing Barrett Jones at center, Chance Warmack and Anthony Steen at guard and D.J. Fluker and Cyrus Kuoandjio at tackle.
Primary weakness: The defense is loaded with potential, but only four starters return. Linebacker Nico Johnson and safety Robert Lester are All-SEC candidates, as are Jesse Williams and Damion Square up front, but Alabama has to come together quickly defensively with an opening matchup against Michigan in Dallas and a third game at Arkansas.
Incumbents: QB AJ McCarron, C Barrett Jones, TE Michael Williams, DT Jesse Williams, LB Nico Johnson, S Robert Lester
Primary strength: The Razorbacks have the league’s premier quarterback-tailback tandem with Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis, and the loss of three receivers to the NFL should be softened with the return of Cobi Hamilton and tight end Chris Gragg. With this being an even-numbered year, both preseason No. 1 LSU and No. 2 Alabama must visit Fayetteville.
Primary weakness: Interim coach John L. Smith is infinitely more likable than peevish predecessor Bobby Petrino, but Petrino had built a top-10 program before his ouster this spring. It remains to be seen how the Razorbacks will respond with Smith to that first dose of adversity, and the defense has to hold its own to have a chance against Alabama and LSU.
Incumbents: QB Tyler Wilson, RB Knile Davis, WR Cobi Hamilton, TE Chris Gragg, LB Tenarius Wright, LB Alonzo Highsmith
Primary strength: For a program that was notorious for smothering defenses 25 years ago under Pat Dye, the Tigers have been lacking in recent seasons, even giving up bunches of points in its BCS title run two years ago. That situation should be improved this year with the return of nine defensive starters and the arrival of new coordinator Brian VanGorder.
Primary weakness: The Tigers struggled offensively against LSU, Georgia and Alabama down the stretch before shining in the Chick-fil-A Bowl against Virginia. That was Gus Malzahn’s finale as coordinator, and now Scot Loeffler inherits a unit that didn’t have good quarterback play last year and returns Onterrio McCalebb, who is fast but hasn’t shown he’s an every-down back.
Incumbents: RB Onterrio McCalebb, TE Philip Lutzenkirchen, C Reese Dismukes, DT Jeffrey Whitaker, DE Corey Lemonier, LB Daren Bates
Primary strength: The Gators return 10 defensive starters from a unit that finished eighth nationally last season. Defensive linemen Ronald Powell, Sharrif Floyd and Dominique Easley each were top-10 overall prospects in the 2010 signing class, and each flourished this spring. Powell suffered an ACL tear in April but is on track to rejoin the team during the season.
Primary weakness: New offensive coordinator Brent Pease had no problem lighting up the scoreboard with Boise State, but he inherits two quarterbacks — Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel — who scuffled last season as true freshmen who were thrown into the fire. The offensive line is solid, but what has happened to all those great Florida tailbacks and receivers?
Incumbents: OT Matt Patchan, PK Caleb Sturgis, DT Sharrif Floyd, DT Dominique Easley, LB Jon Bostic, S Matt Elam
Primary strength: Larry Warford and Matt Smith give the Wildcats two solid linemen up front for an offense that also returns quarterback Morgan Newton, tailback CoShik Williams and receiver La’Rod King. Kentucky scored 10 or fewer points in six of its eight league games last season, so the Wildcats will have to be vastly improved just to be competitive.
Primary weakness: Kentucky lost linebackers Danny Trevathan, Ronnie Sneed and Ridge Wilson from last year’s defense, as well as safety Winston Guy and cornerbacks Randall Burden and Anthony Mosley. The Wildcats last season could not overcome the personnel losses offensively from the year before, and now it’s the defense that will be put to the test.
Incumbents: OG Larry Warford, C Matt Smith, QB Morgan Newton, WR La’Rod King, DT Mister Cobble, S Martavious Neloms
Primary strength: The foundation remains from last year’s 13-1 team, and that starts up front with four returning offensive linemen and a defensive front headed by ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Tailbacks and defensive backs are stout as well, even with the recent departure of cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. Alabama visits Tiger Stadium on Nov. 3.
Primary weakness: LSU achieved a lot last season despite uncertainty between quarterbacks Jordan Jefferson, who was atrocious in the BCS championship, and Jarrett Lee, who got benched last November in favor of Jefferson. So how will Zach Mettenberger handle the pressure-cooker, especially with Mathieu no longer providing great field position?
Incumbents: RB Spencer Ware, WR Odell Beckham, OT Alex Hurst, DE Sam Montgomery, LB Kevin Minter, S Eric Reid
Primary strength: Considering the Rebels lost 15 consecutive SEC games under former coach Houston Nutt, a change had to be made. Hugh Freeze coached Arkansas State to a 10-2 record in 2011, and he has brought the refreshing feeling that tends to accompany these switches. Ole Miss has 13 of 22 starters back, but the talent level is likely 14th in the league.
Primary weakness: The Rebels ended last season with five consecutive losses, including a 27-7 homecoming embarrassment against Louisiana Tech, so where does one begin? Academic casualties (receiver Nickolas Brassell) and injuries (linebacker D.T. Shackleford and safety Charles Sawyer) this year haven’t helped matters, so any good news is welcome in Oxford.
Incumbents: RB Jeff Scott, WR Donte Moncrief, TE Jamal Mosley, LB Mike Marry, S Charles Sawyer, S Aaron Garbutt
Primary strength: The Bulldogs do not have the talent across the board to match the SEC heavyweights, but their roster does have its share of standouts. Johnthan Banks is probably the best cornerback in the league, and there are weapons at receiver with seniors Chad Bumphis, Arceto Clark and Chris Smith. Also, the nonconference schedule is not taxing whatsoever.
Primary weakness: Mississippi State went 9-4 two years ago with a physical ground game, but that could be hard to construct this year following the departures of quarterback Chris Relf, tailback Vick Ballard and three starting linemen. Quarterback Tyler Russell has proven he can provide more downfield throws, so developing offensive balance will be important.
Incumbents: WR Chad Bumphis, WR Arceto Clark, OG Gabe Jackson, DE Kaleb Eulls, LB Cameron Lawrence, CB Johnthan Banks
Primary strength: Gary Pinkel has coached the Tigers to 48 victories the past five seasons, giving them needed stability in their transition into the SEC. Quarterback James Franklin could be the league’s most exciting newcomer, having thrown for 2,865 yards and rushing for 981 last season. If he’s not, then it may be 6-foot-6 freshman receiver Dorial Green-Beckham.
Primary weakness: When it comes to joining the SEC, the Tigers picked a bad time to rebuild the defensive front. Missouri allowed 30 or more points five times last season, but none of those occurred late in the year, when the Tigers turned a 4-5 mark into an 8-5 finish. September will be daunting with consecutive games against Georgia, Arizona State and South Carolina.
Incumbents: QB James Franklin, WR T.J. Moe, OT Elvis Fisher, LB Andrew Wilson, LB Zaviar Gooden, CB E.J. Gaines
Primary strength: Steve Spurrier coached the Gamecocks to an East title in 2010 and to 11 victories last season, so when was the last time you heard about the Chicken Curse? Connor Shaw is a capable quarterback and Marcus Lattimore is back at tailback, and the defense promises to pack a punch with the end tandem of Devin Taylor and Jadeveon Clowney.
Primary weakness: Lattimore returns from a torn ACL, so will he be the same as before? The receivers must remain effective following the departure of Alshon Jeffery, as must the secondary without C.C. Whitlock, Antonio Allen and Stephon Gilmore. Then there is that schedule and crossover games against LSU and Arkansas, two national top-five teams from last year.
Incumbents: QB Connor Shaw, RB Marcus Lattimore, WR Ace Sanders, DE Devin Taylor, S DeVonte Holloman, S D.J. Swearinger
Primary strength: The SEC West could have three of the nation’s top five offensive lines with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M. Junior tackle Luke Joeckel is the leader up front for the Aggies, who allowed just nine sacks last season and were flagged for holding only twice. Ryan Swope had 1,207 receiving yards a year ago, and new coach Kevin Sumlin is innovative and a winner.
Primary weakness: Quarterback was a strength last year with Ryan Tannehill, but he is now property of the Miami Dolphins. Jameill Showers is his apparent successor, and he will have to minimize mistakes to keep the Aggies competitive against the league’s elite. Texas A&M allowed 134 points in a three-game stretch last year, and that obviously won’t float in the SEC.
Incumbents: RB Christine Michael, WR Ryan Swope, OT Luke Joeckel, LB Jonathan Stewart, LB Sean Porter, LB Damontre Moore
Primary strength: James Franklin quickly got his Commodores believing last season and became the first Vandy coach to produce a bowl invitation in his first season. The offense averaged 26.7 points a game and returns nine starters, including quarterback Jordan Rodgers and 1,193-yard rusher Zac Stacy, and the Commodores don’t face Alabama or Arkansas this time around.
Primary weakness: Replacing the leadership and talents of Chris Marve will be challenging, while cornerback Casey Hayward and safety Sean Richardson were drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Maintaining the momentum from a year ago is obviously important, and that will be put to the test quickly when the Commodores host South Carolina this Thursday night.
Incumbents: QB Jordan Rodgers, RB Zac Stacy, WR Jordan Matthews, DE Walker May, DT Rob Lohr, CB Trey Wilson