With four different teams (Auburn, Alabama, LSU and Florida twice) winning national titles in the past five years plus three Heisman Trophy winners (Tim Tebow, Mark Ingram and Cam Newton), winning the SEC championship has become the single most important factor in determining leading candidates for college football's top team and individual honors. The Scout.com SEC publishers have tabbed Alabama as the overall favorite to win the league championship and make its way to another BCS title game. LSU drew strong support both as the second choice in the SEC West and for the overall title with South Carolina getting the nod over Georgia for the SEC East championship. All 12 teams are previewed below in their predicted order of finish.
The inclination is to look at Alabama losses, the marquee Crimson Tide players who have departed. Bama must replace Heisman Trophy winner Mark Ingram at tailback, defensive end Marcell Dareus, all-time leading receiver Julio Jones, and quarterback Greg McElroy, key performers on teams that won 36 games and a national championship over the past three years.
Nevertheless, coach Nick Saban's Tide is being picked to be among the best teams in the nation in 2011 because Bama returns the key ingredients for championship teams. A year ago, Alabama was rebuilding a defense that had lost nine starters, six who played in the NFL. This year that defense returns 10 starters from one that was statistically among the best in the SEC. The Alabama offense returns four outstanding starters in the offensive line, tight end Michael Williams, and two proven wide receivers. Finally, both the punter (Cody Mandell) and the placekickers (Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley) are back.
Saban has stacked top recruiting classes on top of one another in his previous four years at Alabama and the cupboard is full of big, fast players.
Attention is on quarterback, where McElroy had almost every meaningful snap the past two seasons (going 24-3). The job will go to either sophomore A.J. McCarron or redshirt freshman Phillip Sims. Though the lack of experience at the position is worrisome, the talent level is elevated.
Ingram is missing at tailback, but there is talent and depth, led by Trent Richardson (the "two" in Bama's one-two punch the past two years) and Eddie Lacy.
They will operate behind an offensive line that includes three-year starters and all-star candidates at center (William Vlachos) and left tackle (Barrett Jones, who moves from right guard).
There is no Julio Jones at wide receiver, but Marquis Maze and Darius Hanks will be joined by other speedsters in that corps.
Alabama's secondary has provided the top two interception men in the SEC the past two years and both safeties – Mark Barron and Robert Lester – return. One surprise is that Dequan Menzie is expected to start ahead of returning starter Dee Milliner at cornerback (with Dre Kirkpatrick at the other). The linebackers are big and fast, led by Capital One Bowl MVP Courtney Upshaw on the outside and Dont'a Hightower, fully recovered from knee surgery, on the inside. Sophomore C.J. Mosley appears to be the next superstar Tide linebacker. Up front, Josh Chapman (nose tackle) and Damion Square (end) are back as starters, and the Tide has great depth, including the addition of two junior college All-America transfers (Jesse Williams and Quinton Dial).
Last year Alabama played six games against SEC opponents which had an open date before playing the Tide. This year that number is down to three. Bama plays the top two contenders for the SEC Western Division title, LSU and Arkansas, in Tuscaloosa.
SEC Football Preview: Alabama
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