1. Georgia (October 27)- The showdown formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party will play a big part in the winner of the SEC East. The Bulldogs have stability on both sides of the ball, but that took a hit last week when running back Isaiah Crowell was dismissed from the team. Ken Malcolme and Richard Samuel could fill the roles as the veterans of the group, or heavily recruited freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall could fill the role.Quarterback Aaron Murray gives the offense stability. The Bulldogs also feature a star in the making in sophomore Malcolm Mitchell at wide receiver to go with a veteran group in Tavarres King, Marlon Brown, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley.
The key for the team is replacing the offensive line, which lost three starters.
Linebacker Jarvis Jones, whose pass rushing skills are a nightmare for opponents, anchors the defense. He recorded 13.5 sacks and 19.5 tackles for a loss last season. He showed off his skill against Florida with a career-high four sacks and forced a fumble.
Georgia is also starting the season looking for a new kicker and punter.
2. Florida State (November 24)- The Seminoles' defense will anchor this team. It starts off the edge, as Brandon Jenkins and Bjoern Werner will bring pressure as two of the best defensive ends in the ACC. Jenkins considered going pro after a junior season that netted him a team-high eight sacks and 12 tackles for a loss.On the interior of the defensive line, there are plenty of bodies. Anthony McCloud, Everett Dawkins, Cameron Erving, Timmy Jernigan and Jacobbi McDaniel will split time on the field to keep the unit fresh.
Linebacker Nigel Bradham is gone, but Christian Jones and Vince Williams return to anchor a fast, physical group of linebackers. Cornerbacks Greg Reid and Xavier Rhodes both return, as well as free safety Lamarcus Joyner.
The offense is what needs to take another step for Florida State to have the kind of season it hopes. E.J. Manuel proved capable of handling the offense, but he didn't have the statistical season some expected, throwing for 2,666 yards, 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions.
Running back Devonta Freeman led the team with 579 yards last year, and he will be the horse in the backfield as he begins his sophomore season.
Rashad Greene led the Seminoles in receiving with 596 yards and seven touchdowns as a freshman. If Freeman and Greene both make the expected leaps from their freshman to sophomore season, the Seminoles' offense could see a big improvement. Eight of the nine leading receivers for Florida State last season are back this year.
3. Texas A&M (September 8)- First-year head coach Kevin Sumlin will be dealing with a first-year starter at quarterback to open the Aggies' first season in the SEC. There was talk that Jameill Showers had the lead for the quarterback job after the end of spring practice, but redshirt freshman Johnny Manziel is still in the running for the job.The skill positions decline after losing running back Cyrus Gray and wide receiver Jeff Fuller. Christine Michael will be the feature running back after rushing for 899 yards and eight touchdowns last season. Leading receiver Ryan Swope returns after posting 1,207 receiving yards and eleven touchdowns last season.
The Aggies also return all five starters on the offensive line, including All-Big 12 offensive tackle Luke Joeckel.
Texas A&M returns all four starting linebackers from last year's team, but they'll switch to a 4-3 defense under first-year defensive coordinator Mark Snyder. They'll need to be steady again as the Aggies search for consistency in the secondary. It was a constant problem during the 2011 season as they allowed 276.3 yards per game through the air, good for 109th in pass defense in the country.
4. Tennessee (September 15)- The Volunteers' offense has potential to be one of the best in the country. Tyler Bray his the stature and arm to garner speculation of him being an early selection in the NFL Draft if his decision-making improves this season. He'll have plenty of targets to throw to in Knoxville.Justin Hunter tore his ACL in Gainesville last season and missed the rest of the season, but he was putting up big numbers early in the season. That forced Da'Rick Rogers into action, and he recorded 1,040 yards and nine touchdowns through the air. The Volunteers also added five-star junior college wide receiver Cordarrelle Patterson.
The defense is the unit that needs to improve. First-year defensive coordinator Sal Sunseri has nine returning starters on a unit that will be learning his defense. Space-eating defensive tackle Malik Jackson and linebacker Austin Johnson, who led the Volunteers in tackles, are the only two that moved on.
5. Vanderbilt (October 13)- Head coach James Franklin has done what once looked impossible and energized the Vanderbilt fan base about its football program. A 6-7 record isn't acceptable at many places, but in Nashville, the fan base was excited to see progress. The Commodores return seven starters on each side of the ball for the 2012 season.The offense returns key pieces in quarterback Jordan Rodgers, who threw for 1,524 yards, nine touchdowns and ten interceptions. Zac Stacy is the returning running back after totaling 1,193 yards on the ground and 14 touchdowns.
The Commodores lost two NFL Draft picks from their secondary—Casey Heyward and Sean Richardson—but it should still be a strong unit. The depth at linebacker could be an issue. Archibald Barnes is the leading returning tackler on the team, but the Commodores need bodies to go along with him.