There are some days as a sportswriter when there's barely enough time to get through all the pertinent issues and keep up with all the storylines floating around the landscape.
And then there are sleepy days like today.
On occasions such as this, I've found one method that consistently works for me as a writer and you as a reader – rank something.
Borrowing from that theme, today I compile my power ranking of all 14 SEC teams exiting spring football and heading into the summer. It does not in any way reflect the teams' schedules for next season nor is it meant to be a projected order of finish for 2013. This listing simply considers where each team finished a season ago, what they have coming back and how they progressed through spring. And, of course, as with anybody's personal rankings, there's a bit of a gut feeling mixed in there.
Starting from the top …
Hard to slot the Crimson Tide anywhere else following two straight national titles and three in four years. Nick Saban will again have one of the country's top teams in 2013, led by an attacking defense and an offense spearheaded by returning quarterback A.J. McCarron. Alabama may be most vulnerable along the offensive line, where three starters from the 2012 team were selected in April's Draft. That could mean more passing than SEC fans have become accustomed to in Tuscaloosa.
2. South Carolina
Steve Spurrier's squad will line up in 2013 with the best defensive player in the league (and probably the nation) in Jadeveon Clowney. It will also feature two SEC-level quarterbacks Spurrier can choose from in Connor Shaw and Dylan Thompson. With the offense in reliable hands, the Gamecock defense should be a monster again this fall with a stout defensive line that can win a lot of battles at the point of attack.
The Dawgs could easily be a spot ahead in this power ranking, but the silver britches appear to be a step behind South Carolina defensively after an exodus of talent to the NFL. Georgia's offense projects as one of the best in the NCAA, but in the SEC, the litmus test of a champion is more often determined on defense. And while defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has young talent ready to emerge, his group will have a way to go to ensure Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley & Co. aren't having to outscore folks in some of the team's marquee games.
LSU's personnel losses on the defensive side of the ball make Georgia's look quite small by comparison. The Tigers, like UGA, will have to get stellar production in a hurry from first-time starters like Ego Ferguson and Jermauria Rasco in order to live up to the defensive standard set by fifth-year coordinator John Chavis. Thankfully LSU will be able to lean on its best and deepest linebacking corps in recent memory. Offensively, quarterback Zach Mettenberger will have to shoulder more of the load while the offensive line should be improved, leading the way for a slightly more diverse attack under new coordinator Cam Cameron.
5. Texas A&M
This is a topic that will be debated throughout the summer, but I for one think regression is inevitable for the Aggies in 2013. Heisman winner Johnny Manziel lit the world on fire last fall, but he'll have to be nothing short of a miracle worker to get A&M back to 11 wins. There is plenty of offensive talent at the skill positions, but Manziel will have to break in a new left tackle with Luke Joeckel gone. The Aggies' ‘D' will also have to contend with the loss of a lot of bodies in the front seven. Texas A&M won several close shootouts a year ago. Even with bonafide talent returning, that will prove a difficult task to repeat. The Aggs will be good but perhaps just not elite.
The Gators are one of the more difficult teams to forecast heading into the 2013 season. Jeff Driskel returns at quarterback, but given the noticeable lack of dynamic skill players surrounding him, UF's offense could be ho-hum again. Defensively Will Muschamp's squad should again be sound and opportunistic. Like Georgia and LSU, the Gators will have to backfill for lost talent along the defensive line. Consider Florida at the top of the second tier of SEC teams right now.
Funny, but it's no longer a bold or daring pick to have the ‘Dores in the top half of your SEC Power Rankings. They've earned it. After thumping N.C. State in bowl season to get to nine wins, five of which came against SEC competition, James Frankin's crew is legit. They also return offensive weapons aplenty, including receivers Chris Boyd and Jordan Matthews to go with dual-thread signal caller Austyn Carta-Samuels. The defense returns some experience as well, meaning this Vandy team, with the right breaks, could finish as high as third in the improving SEC East.
8. Ole Miss
The Rebels took a big step forward as a program in 2012, getting to seven wins in Hugh Freeze's first season in Oxford despite being picked to finish at or near the bottom of the league preseason. They're also starting to recruit above their heads – or so it seems, so the talent will soon be back on level pegging with many teams in the conference. But here's the kicker for Ole Miss in 2013 (and you'll read and hear this a ton in the coming months): The Rebs bring back 19 of 22 starters from a season ago. Expect Ole Miss to be a thorn in the side of just about every team it plays this fall.
Perhaps more than any team in the conference, Arkansas wiped its slate clean and got a fresh start during the offseason. It began with the hiring of Wisconsin boss Bret Bielema. He's reportedly already brought a sense of toughness to the team this spring, and both sides of the line are the biggest beneficiaries to date. The Hogs will line up with a new starting quarterback as well in Brandon Allen. Some of the skill players may be new to the league, but look for Arkansas to begin its transformation into a physical bunch in 2013. Given their new coach's track record, they'll probably surprise a few people along the way.
The people on the Plains got a fresh start, too, by going back to a familiar face. With Gene Chizik out, former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn is back in, this time as head coach. He'll take over the reins of an offense he largely recruited during his previous stint with the program. It also doesn't hurt that Malzahn lured in Ellis Johnson as his defensive coordinator. Auburn will get back to playing an exciting brand of football and scoring points, and I predict it won't take that long. The Tigers will of course take their lumps, but they belong in the middle pack of SEC teams, not the bottom four, in my opinion.
11. Mississippi State
From one-time up-and-comer in the SEC to just another team that's struggling to keep a foothold, Mississippi State has been an interesting case study under Dan Mullen. Typically the defense is the saving grace for the Bulldogs, but even that unit looks to be a bit in rebuilding mode based on all the talent – mostly in the secondary – that left for the NFL and the results of the spring game. The offense could use more consistency from the talented Tyler Russell at quarterback. State tops the bottom dweller's in the league as things stand in May.
Man, Mizzou had a rough introduction to the SEC, especially in comparison to fellow newcomer Texas A&M. Gary Pinkel's Tigers finished 5-7 and out of bowl contention. Their prospects don't appear much greater in 2013 even with the return of James Franklin at quarterback. He's the expected starter under center, carrying a slight lead over Maty Mauk away from spring practice. Missouri will also have to do some reshuffling in the front seven to backfill for several key losses. Ultimately, if the Tigers can't learn to play defense at an SEC level, the growing pains may become an annual thing.
Like Arkansas and Auburn, Tennessee too grabbed a new head coach in the offseason, nabbing Butch Jones from Cincinnati. But the Vols' new sideline boss starts off with a team in worse shape than either of those two Western division squads. UT has to find a new quarterback with Tyler Bray gone and will have to replace nearly all of its receiving talent. The current leader in the QB clubhouse is Justin Worley. A lot will be riding on his shoulders. The defense is also undergoing a shift to the 4-3. It's not going to be a pretty season in Knoxville.
Rounding out the power rankings is the final team which got a new head coach in the offseason. Mark Stoops takes over in Bluegrass, and like Butch Jones, he's got a project on his hands. Stoops will have to identify new starting-level talent all over the gridiron, including quarterback, linebacker and in the secondary. The Wildcats are quite clearly in a rebuilding phase, looking to establish the type of depth necessary to be a bigger player in the East scene by 2014. In the meantime, it might be good to keep the ‘Cats off TV until basketball season returns.
What's your SEC Power Ranking look like?
SEC Power Rankings
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