SEC PREVIEWS: Year 2 of Muschamp era

As if winning five straight national titles wasn't enough to declare the Southeastern Conference's college football supremacy, the league managed to take it one step further last season when the BCS title game matchup between Alabama and LSU guaranteed a sixth straight national champion from the SEC before the championship game was even played.

So how does seven in a row sound? Well it will be hard to bet against the SEC continuing its dominance, especially with LSU returning 15 starters from last year's squad and BCS champ Alabama still loaded on the offensive side even with the loss of standout running back Trent Richardson.

Yet the big story in SEC Football 2012 is the addition of Missouri and Texas A&M to the conference, something that figures to make it even tougher to get through the league schedule unscathed. While neither Mizzou nor the Aggies are expected to contend for SEC divisional titles, they both bring solid programs to the league. Missouri was ranked No. 1 in the country five years ago before losing to Oklahoma in the 2007 Big 12 title game, and A&M's Kyle Field is one of the most difficult venues in the country for visiting teams, something Florida, Arkansas and LSU will have to contend with this fall.

The Scout.com publishers believe that LSU and Georgia will repeat as division champions this year with LSU picked to win the SEC Championship. Previews of all 14 SEC teams are about to be featured on GamecockAnthem.com, and today we look at Mississippi State.



SEC EAST

Florida (PREDICTED FINISH: 3RD IN EAST)


Three years after back-to-back seasons produced a 25-2 record plus a national title, Florida has taken a steep dive from the top of the college football world. Even more unsettling to Gator fans is that there is no solid evidence the program will regain that lofty status in the near future.

When a team finishes with a 6-6 regular-season record and none of those wins comes against a Division 1-A team that finished with a winning record, it's hard to pick a watershed moment during the season that led to the final result. We'll never know if things might have been different if quarterback John Brantley hadn't gone down with an ankle injury late in the first half of the Alabama game, but they certainly could have been.

Let's face it, had the Gators finished 8-4 or better during the 2011 season, everybody would have been looking at 2011 as an acceptable transition year from Urban Meyer to Will Muschamp. Yet had this team finished 8-4 instead of 6-6 it wouldn't have changed the underlying problems within the program that will take time to correct.

Make whatever judgments you want about Muschamp's first year as a head coach. As with most first-year coaches, Muschamp had to play with the hand he was dealt in terms of both returning players and incoming recruits. That included a roster short on senior scholarship players (eight) and overall scholarship athletes (72 versus the maximum of 85).

Even if Brantley had been healthy all last season, the Gators would have still gone into the 2012 season with an inexperienced starting quarterback. That Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel got some meaningful playing time in Brantley's absence will be a plus going forward, but whomever starts next fall will still be a relatively untested quarterback asked to perform at a high level in the nation's toughest conference.

That quarterback will also be employing a new offensive system, since the departure of Charlie Weis to Kansas means the Gators will have their third different offensive coordinator in three years. And what about the rest of the talent on the offensive side of the ball? Is it good enough to take some of the pressure off the new starting quarterback?

Muschamp brought in Brent Pease from Boise State to take over the Gator offense. Pease helped develop one of the nation's most exciting offensive attacks at Boise and with the continued transition from Meyer's spread-attack to the pro-style offense Muschamp prefers, the Gators are expected to be show a renewed power running game.

Any improvement on offense, which ranked 105th nationally in total offense last season, will be directly related to improvement on the offensive line, where the Gators were inconsistent and often manhandled last season.

Both Driskel and Brissett had outstanding springs, and although Muschamp will not pick a starter until the fall, both sophomores appear capable of stepping in and directing the offense.

The running game, which ranked 73rd nationally in 2011, has been revamped now that speedsters Chris Rainey and Jeff Demps are gone. Senior Mike Gillislee fits the mold of the more physical, power-style running game Muschamp prefers, and along with Trey Burton, Mack Brown and fullback Hunter Joyer, there appears to be enough talent to pick up the tough inside yardage.

In order for the running game to flourish, some playmakers will need to step forward at wide receiver so there is offensive balance.

There is plenty of speed with Andre DeBose, Frankie Hammond and Quinton Dunbar returning and the strongest position on the offense could be tight end where Jordan Reed, A.C. Leonard and highly-touted freshman Kent Taylor provide tough matchup problems for defensive secondaries.

Defensively, Florida was solid throughout the 2011 season, and lost only three seniors (Jaye Howard, William Green and Moses Jenkins). There is every reason to believe that this unit should be one of the best in the SEC, if not the entire country.

The biggest issue heading into the fall will be the health of linemen Ronald Powell and Dominique Easley.

Powell suffered an ACL injury in the spring and is not expected to return until after the regular season is underway, while Easley, who was injured in the Florida State game last November, missed the spring but is expected back for the start of fall practice. Those two, plus sophomore defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd formed the nation's top set of defensive line recruits three years ago, and their progress last season was a big reason why Florida's defense was so stingy despite having to play extended periods of time because of the Gators' inconsistent offensive play.

The Gators will be very strong in the back seven with Jon Bostic and Jelani heading up a solid linebacker corps while safety Matt Elam is a standout in a secondary that was extremely young last season, but improved dramatically as the season progressed.

After being granted a sixth year of eligibility, Caleb Sturgis returns as one of the nation's top placekickers (22-of-26 with three 50-yard plus field goals in 2011).

Muschamp built his reputation as one of the nation's top defensive coordinators, and the Gator defense figures to be one of the nation's best in 2012, but without vast improvement from the offense, that may not be enough to push Florida back to the top of the SEC East division.

PREVIOUS PREVIEWS:

EAST
Missouri (4)
Tennessee (5)
Vanderbilt (6)
Kentucky (7)

WEST
Auburn (4)
Mississippi State (5)
Texas A&M (6)
Mississippi (7)

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