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SEC title string on the line; FSU, USC, Oklahoma to challenge

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The 2012 NCAA football season is ready to kick off this week. (Source: MGN) The 2012 NCAA football season is ready to kick off this week. (Source: MGN)

(RNN) - There always seems to be a surprise team and a disappointing team in the Southeastern Conference each season. Who will they be this year?

Here is a quick preseason glance at each team in the league and others in BCS conferences that will challenge SEC dominance of college football.

LSU

The Tigers won the league last year but stumbled in the BCS Championship rematch with Alabama. They return 12 starters, including the kicker and punter.

Of six returning offensive starters, four are on the offensive line, which is a good place to have them. One starter not returning is cornerback Tyrann "Honey Badger" Mathieu, who was dismissed from the team in August and faces an uncertain future as he participates in a drug rehab program.

Even without the Heisman finalist and last year's defensive player of the year, the Tigers defense will be excellent. LSU was ranked No.1 in the USA Today poll that came out before the Honey Badger dismissal and No. 3 in the AP Poll that came out afterward.

Given a favorable schedule, the strength of the team on offense and defense and a kicking game that remains superb despite losing Mathieu's return skills, LSU is the SEC's best hope for a seventh-straight national football title.

Others to watch:

Arkansas

The Razorbacks were a national championship contender until an embarrassing incident last spring.

It involved head coach Bobby Petrino, a crashed Harley-Davidson and Jessica Dorrell – a much-younger, former Arkansas volleyball star and engaged employee with whom he was having an adulterous affair.

One school of thought is the Razorbacks are better off without their judgment-impaired ex-coach. If they regroup under new boss John L. Smith, look out, because they have as much talent as any team in the country.

Running back Knile Davis, returning from injury, and QB Tyler Wilson are as good as anybody else in the game. Arkansas has a wealth of young talent in the receiving corps, including tight end Chris Gragg, who caught 38 passes last year.

Wilson has shown outstanding leadership, and he will play a big role in where this team finishes, which could very well be in Miami for the BCS Championship game.

Alabama

 The Crimson Tide lost a lot of experience, especially on last year's defense, but it will challenge in the SEC West.

QB A.J. McCarron is the best Tide signal caller in years. Running backs Eddie Lacy and newcomer T.J. Yeldon give coach Nick Saban the sort of one-two punch he loves at running back.

The offensive line is the best in the nation, with two legitimate All-American candidates. Last year's Outland Trophy winner Barrett Jones moved to center from left tackle to make way for Cyrus Kouandjio.  Left guard Chris Warmack has made some preseason All-America teams.

The defense lost seven starters, but those who return have plenty of playing time, as Saban likes to rotate his players to keep them fresh – and to give them experience when their time comes. The two biggest games are on the road: Sept 15 at Arkansas and Nov. 3 at Baton Rouge.

Georgia

The Bulldogs, who won the East Division last year before getting clobbered by LSU in the SEC Championship Game, return 15 starters, nine on defense.

Georgia has an easier path to a division title than any other league team. Its West Division opponents are Ole Miss at home and Auburn on the road.

The non-conference slate features a cupcake buffet of Buffalo, Florida Atlantic, Georgia Southern and ACC rival Georgia Tech. UGA travels to Missouri on Sept. 8.

The Dawgs' only real test comes Oct. 6, when they travel to South Carolina. If they get past the Gamecocks, pencil them into the SEC title game. But don't expect them to beat the West winner.

South Carolina

The Gamecocks have to be taken seriously, with Marcus Lattimore returning at running back and with the troubled Stephen Garcia gone at quarterback.

Conner Shaw, pressed into a starting role last year after Garcia's final meltdown, performed well and brings consistency and leadership to a position that has sorely lacked it. The South Carolina defense is young.

We'll know how good this team is within an eight-day span in October – Steve Spurrier's team hosts Georgia on Oct. 6 and travels to LSU on Oct. 13. Two wins, and look out. A win over Georgia and a loss to LSU keeps the Gamecocks in the hunt if they get by Arkansas in November.

The rest of the pack:

Florida

The Gators have the benefit of low expectations after last year's 7-6 outing and could well be the upstart in the league. The defense has 10 returning starters and new offensive coordinator Brent Pease should help a unit that had its ups and downs last year.

After that, the news gets worse. The schedule this year is nasty – LSU and South Carolina come to The Swamp, and there's the rivalry game in Jacksonville with Georgia before the Gators play at Florida State in the Nov. 24 season finale.

Games at Texas A&M and Tennessee and a visit from Missouri could be landmines. Nevertheless, don't be surprised if coach Will Muschamp's rebuilding program fast forwards and the Gators turn out to be this year's surprise team.

Auburn

The Tigers are capable of stirring the pot, but it's hard to pick the Tigers as more than a spoiler with their brutal schedule and an uncertain situation at quarterback.

AU gets a tough test in the season opener against Clemson, followed by a rugged trip to Mississippi State and back-to-back visits from West Division heavyweights LSU (Sept. 22) and Arkansas (Oct. 6). The Tigers also visit resurgent Vanderbilt and defending national champion Alabama this year.

Kiehl Frazier edged Clint Moseley for the starting quarterback job the week before the season – neither stands any chance of being mistaken for Cam Newton. On the upside, the Tigers started a lot of young players on last year's 8-5 team, and they have grown up.

They have 15 starters returning and the past couple of recruiting classes have been excellent. This is a good, improving but still young team.

Mississippi State

The Bulldogs, under fourth-year coach Dan Mullen, have a chance to improve on last year's 7-6 record mainly because of a far more favorable schedule. Auburn, Tennessee and Texas A&M are winnable home games, and they travel to Kentucky and Ole Miss, both of whom they should beat easily.

Seven starters are back on a fairly good defense with a strong linebacker corps. The offense lacks experience in the run game, but a good group of receivers can buy time until the running backs mature.

Vanderbilt

The Commodores and energetic, second-year coach James Franklin have 16 starters back off last year's team, including QB Jordan Rogers and a very good running back in Zac Stacy.

The team made it to the Liberty Bowl last year, and if things fall right could finish in the top half of the SEC East. However, lest we forget, the Commodores only finished 2-6 in the league last year, though they did scare the daylights out of Georgia, Arkansas, Florida and Tennessee.

Vandy has a favorable schedule, with Florida, Auburn and South Carolina coming to Nashville. But they have to travel to division-favorite Georgia. And the element of surprise is gone – this team will not be taken lightly.

Tennessee

The Volunteers had a dreadful year in 2011, but they have a flock of starters back.

The offense features a proven passing game, with QB Tyler Bray and a talented group of receivers. The running game is suspect but still should be better than last year's, which was awful.

The defense is poised to improve. The fans are getting restless, coach Derek Dooley needs to win and coaches under the gun often produce positive results. If the defense can perform at a higher level and the offense can avoid injuries and score the way it's capable, the Vols will be a bowl team.

Texas A&M

The Aggies' first-year coach, Kevin Sumlin, comes from Houston to take over a struggling program that produced a 7-6 season last year.

Texas A&M is not expected to do much in their first year in the SEC, and Sumlin doesn't like that. He fumed to a bunch of boosters about the lack of respect for the Aggies at their first SEC Media Days appearance last summer.

"Guys, based on every question I got, they don't think we have any defense," he said. "They don't think our offense will work, and we don't have a quarterback or kicker. Other than that we have no problem."

The crowd laughed, but Sumlin didn't. The Aggies have a schedule that could produce a signature win: They host Florida, South Carolina, Arkansas, LSU and Missouri this year.

They travel to Ole Miss, Auburn and Alabama. If the new coach can get his team to play with a chip on its shoulder, A&M might trip up one of the higher-ranked SEC opponents and earn a trip to a bowl game for the fourth straight year.

Missouri

The Tigers have a chance to make an early statement in the SEC on Sept. 8 when Georgia visits.

Mizzou is viewed as a middle-of-the-pack SEC team in their first year in the new league, but they have a pretty good team this year, and Georgia has a history of starting slowly. The offense averaged more than 400 yards last year, and versatile QB James Franklin is back and recovered from a shoulder injury.

He'll get to throw to newcomer Dorial Green-Beckham, who was the top-ranked high school receiver in the nation. Henry Josey gained 1,000 yards rushing last year and Franklin was just shy of 1,000 yards.

The defense is not really SEC-caliber, and the schedule is a monster, with trips to South Carolina, Florida, Tennessee and Texas A&M. Alabama, Vandy and Kentucky visit Columbia.

Kentucky

Wildcats coach Joker Phillips has an 11-14 record in his three years in the Southeastern Conference's toughest job. And yes, he's on the hot seat, which never seems fair when that happens to Kentucky football coaches, usually about four years into their term.

What do you expect when reporters ask the football coach how the basketball team's national title helped his recruiting, as they asked Phillips this summer at SEC Media Days?

Without last year's season-ending 10-7 win over Tennessee – which put UT coach Derek Dooley squarely on his own bright-orange hot seat – Phillips would have already been gone. Things don't look so great to save his bacon and prevent a third straight losing season, with only 11 starters back off the team that gave up 242 points in eight SEC games last year and averaged 260 yards per game on offense.

Ole Miss

The Rebels' new head coach, Hugh Freeze, has a good chance of improving on last year's 2-10 season, if only because 2011 was such a disaster.

They return eight starters back on offense, eight on defense and they really weren't as bad as that 0-8 SEC record would indicate. Freeze brings in transfer QB Bo Wallace, who played for him at Arkansas State before he transferred to junior college, where last year he passed for 4,600 yards and 53 touchdowns for East Mississippi Community College.

Whoever wins the starting QB job will be throwing to a really good group of receivers. The Rebels also return their leading rusher.

They'll have to win some games they're not expected to, if they want to make a bowl game this year. The more likely scenario is marginal improvement and a third straight losing season.

Big Ten

Pick to win: Wisconsin gets the nod in a wide-open race, only because the Badgers have the easiest path through a balanced league.

The Badgers should cruise to the title game, as their toughest league road game is at Nebraska on Sept. 29. The other tough league games are all at home: Michigan State on Oct. 27 and Ohio State on Nov. 17. Big wins in all those games will mean they're really good.

Others to watch: If Michigan beats Alabama in Dallas on Sept. 1, consider this forecast rewritten with the Wolverines as the league favorites.

They started looking like Michigan again last year, won 11 games and had a great recruiting year under second-year coach Brady Hoke. Michigan State has an excellent defense, but probably not enough offense to go the distance.

Ohio State is one of the country's most interesting teams with the arrival of head coach Urban Meyer, who apparently recovered from the exhaustion that caused him to leave a depleted Florida program.  It's probably a little early to anoint the Buckeyes as more than a long shot.

Nebraska is another talented team on the rise, but barring an unusually productive season from third-year QB Taylor Martinez, the Huskers are no more than a solid Top 20 team right now.

PAC 12

Pick to win: Southern California, hands down. Everybody in this league gains about a mile and puts up PlayStation scores every week, but the PAC 12 lacks parity and doesn't offer much of interest except for this one amazing team.

Southern California comes roaring back from probation and is bowl eligible for the first time since 2009. The Trojans have, arguably, the nation's best quarterback (Matt Barkley), two of the best wide receivers (Robert Woods and Marquise Lee) and with the acquisition of Penn State transfer Silas Redd, one of the best running backs.

They averaged nearly 36 points and more than 450 yards a game last year – and didn't play very well until midseason. If the defense can hold the other teams to oh, 40 points or less, these guys have a chance.

Others to watch: Oregon is the only other team in the PAC 12 this year – and the Trojans have the Ducks at home on Nov. 3. That game will, in all likelihood, do no more than determine whether the rematch for the league title and berth in the BCS Championship Game will be in Los Angeles or Eugene, OR.

One team or the other will probably have to win both times to make the BCS Championship Game, because only Alabama can back into national championship games.

BIG 12

Pick to win: Oklahoma, which has 15 starters back off last year's 10-3 team that shouldn't have lost that many games.

QB Landry Jones is a Heisman contender after an off season last year – he still threw for 4,463 yards. The Sooners defense, which has had a tendency to mysteriously become awful for periods of time, should gain consistency with the return of Mike Stoops, brother of head coach Bob Stoops, as coordinator. The schedule is dicey, though.

Others to watch: Texas, after two years of being awful, has nine starters back off the offense that led the league in rushing last year. If the Longhorns beat Oklahoma in Dallas on Oct. 13, consider them back.

Oklahoma State missed out on a chance to lose to LSU in the national title game by virtue of an inexplicable loss to Iowa State on the road last year. The Cowboys lost star QB Brandon Weeden, among others, and will cause some people trouble this year, but don't book reservations in Miami.

ACC

Pick to win: Florida State, which is ready to break out as a national championship contender. They get the nod over fellow Atlantic Division member Clemson, which allowed approximately 1 billion yards against West Virginia in the last Orange Bowl Classic.

The Seminoles had their year of disappointment last year and this season have 17 starters back. The defense is among the best in the nation, and the biggest challenge (Clemson) comes at home on Sept. 22.

Others to watch: Defending league champs Clemson broke out with eight straight wins last year before the wheels came off and it lost four of its last six games, including the postseason nightmare in Miami. The Tigers should be better.

The offense returns many talented starters and the defense has seven players returning. If they beat FSU on the road, look out - but don't bet on it. You can also watch North Carolina in the Coastal Division, but only if you like the color blue, because the Tar Heels' uniforms are a lovely shade of it.

They're pretty good, but not a contender. It'll be interesting to see how West Virginia does in this league after shifting from the Big East.

BIG EAST

Pick to win: South Florida is good enough to win this depleted league, even after looking terrible last year in close loss after close loss.

QB B.J. Daniels is fun to watch when he's on. The Bulls return 15 starters from last year's 5-7 team. If they can get past Louisville on the road on Oct. 20, they will be on track to win their first conference title and BCS bowl bid.

Others to watch: Louisville went 7-6 last year and has 15 starters back. The Cardinals are getting better under third-year head coach Charlie Strong. QB Teddy Bridgewater is back as a sophomore – he threw too many interceptions last year, but otherwise was pretty effective.

The league is balanced enough that somebody else could slip up and win it.

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