And the SEC is more than happy to ride that into September as the hottest commodity not eligible for the Super Bowl. The fall of 2012 doesn’t show signs of a drop off for commissioner Mike Slive’s league.
Alabama and LSU are right back in the national championship discussion with a few more dark horses lurking in the shadows.
The news, however, isn’t all positive south of the Ohio. Scandal and tragedy within the membership created a few more storylines to consider before football returns Labor Day weekend.
Here’s a list of the top 10 issues surrounding the expanded SEC this summer.
10. Heat is on Derek Dooley
Derek Dooley enters his third year in Knoxville with the wind in his face. His new-guy discount is also running out and the locals will soon expect results on a Phil Fulmer, Johnny Majors level. Assistants are jumping ship and recruiting classes aren’t making a major splash. The Vols’ 1-7 record in SEC play was their worst in program history. The good news is, as previously mentioned, the East is ripe for the picking.
With quarterback Tyler Bray healthy again, maybe the Vols can rediscover that magic and fill Neyland Stadium on a consistent basis once again. But suffer another generational loss to the likes of Kentucky, and Dooley might be taking a long walk somewhere else.
9. Vanderbilt on the rise
Need proof the East is really screwy? Look to Nashville. James Franklin turned Vanderbilt into the fastest rising stock in the SEC.
The loser’s mentality is fading as the second-year coach finds a way into the headlines on a regular basis. They might even be the best team in Tennessee this fall with nine starters returning on offense and seven on defense. The 2011 team made it to the program’s second bowl game in 29 years and nearly beat top-10 Arkansas.
Vanderbilt also continues to succeed on the recruiting trail as Franklin swipes a few big names from traditional SEC powers. The Commodores are improving, but the success is closely linked to their coach. Lose Franklin and the losing will return.
8. Running backs still in charge
South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore was a legit Heisman contender early in 2011 before tearing his ACL. Arkansas’ Knile Davis was another name with high hopes before a preseason injury ended his year before it started. Both are healthy again to carry the burden for SEC running backs. Alabama has a deep stable of former top recruits who don’t have much experience behind Eddie Lacy.
LSU returns a stacked depth chart of bruisers that should keep the Tigers in the title hunt again this fall. There isn’t quite the star power after that. Michael Dyer’s exit will give young talent at Auburn the opportunity to join the elite in a hurry.
7. East going south
There once was a time when the East Division was stronger than the West. Steve Spurrier was in Gainesville, back then, and quarterbacks like Peyton Manning and Danny Wuerffel were making life difficult for everyone. Those days, however, are long gone.
Just about every measuring stick gives the West the edge these days. The East still holds an 11-9 advantage in SEC Championship Games, but the West took four of the last five. Alabama, Auburn, and LSU won the last three by a combined score of 130-40. Georgia, the 2011 East champion, would likely have finished fourth in the West as traditional powers like Tennessee and Florida struggled.
There’s no real sign of a turnaround on the horizon this fall. The West figures to hold the keys to the BCS once again.
6. Auburn plays through heartbreak, distractions
The headlines coming from Auburn lately have been unfortunate. Earlier this month, it turned tragic. The shooting deaths of former players Ed Christian and Ladarious Phillips stunned a community and a football program. Sad on another level, it added another distraction to an offseason full of them for the Tigers.
Not only did the program lose both coordinators and its star running back (Michael Dyer), there was an embarrassing trial of former players charged in an armed robbery. Dyer’s testimony regarding drug use didn’t help the cause.
By August, it’ll be back to football. But will the distractions affect what goes on between the white lines?
5. The next Heisman candidate is …
The SEC wasn’t just producing champions the last six years. Three of the last five Heisman Trophy winners came from the league. Tim Tebow (2007) was followed by Mark Ingram in 2009 and Cam Newton in 2010. Two of the five finalists were SEC stars last year, but Baylor’s Robert Griffin III took home the statue. So, this year …
Finalist Tyrann Mathieu is back, first of all. Quarterbacks Aaron Murray (Georgia), AJ McCarron (Alabama) and Tyler Wilson (Arkansas) could all make a claim. Don’t forget about South Carolina’s Lattimore either.
4. Veteran QBs have a say, too
Just about every team making a title claim has a quarterback returning. LSU, on the other hand, is likely better off not being on that list. Zach Mettenberger, a former Georgia passer, will be the newcomer in a veteran neighborhood. Every other West Division team except Texas A&M returns a quarterback who played with the first team at some point last year.
McCarron has a BCS title on his résumé and Georgia’s Murray won the SEC East. Both have NFL potential along with Arkansas’ Wilson. Conner Shaw (South Carolina) and James Franklin (Missouri) also have shown they can perform in big moments.
3. Arkansas turmoil
Everything was humming right along for the Razorbacks and coach Bobby Petrino. The program made steady progress in each of the past three years and were in position for another step forward this fall with Wilson and Davis back. It all went wrong when Petrino’s infidelity and unethical practices ended his reign following a motorcycle accident. Add in a few high-profile player arrests and things aren’t looking so rosy in Fayetteville.
How the team responds when the lights come on remains the great mystery of this summer. Interim coach John L. Smith had occasional success in previous jobs, but he was never known as the disciplinarian this job requires.
2. Alabama, LSU on track for Round III
The two powers of the West may have single-handedly expedited the BCS restructuring with its championship rematch in January. Survey the scene for this fall, and it’s not inconceivable for the two to repeat the BCS redo. USC, the other fashionable preseason pick, might have to face Oregon twice with a team that doesn’t know meaningful postseason play.
Parody elsewhere opens the door for another wacky season that could end in more controversy. A close loss for either side Nov. 3 in Baton Rouge could create a real mess in the national title picture.
1. Oh, hello Missouri and Texas A&M
Of course no storyline creates more intrigue and occasional controversy than conference realignment. Months of debate and public bickering ended with Missouri and Texas A&M making the SEC a 14-team entity. That created a whole new set of issues and problems with scheduling that lasted several more months.
In the end, Missouri ended up in the East Division even though its located 125 miles west of the Mississippi River. Both teams have made national title moves with Missouri falling one win short of a BCS berth in 2007.
Alabama will see both in Year 1 while Auburn will see only the Aggies. How they fit into the league dynamic should create a season’s worth of drama.