By Ryan Mayer, CBS Local Sports

The SEC has had an incredible run atop the college football world as the best conference in the country.  However, since having their run of seven straight national champions broken in 2013 when Florida State beat Auburn in the final BCS Championship game, we’ve seen a shift in the power in college football. Last season, Alabama came into the College Football Playoff as the #1 team and got run out of the stadium by Ohio State. The Crimson Tide have been the standard bearers throughout much of this run, but one constant that is definitely missing throughout the conference: experienced top flight QB’s.

Over the years, the conference has had its share of top QB’s: Cam Newton, Matt Stafford, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger, Johnny Manziel, etc. This season, there seems to be a question mark under center with at least half the teams.  Between that and teams breaking in new coordinators or head coaches, could this be (gasp) the year the SEC is left out of the playoffs? It’s a distinct possibility.

Preseason Media Poll

East Division

1) Georgia

2) Tennessee

3) Missouri

4) South Carolina

5) Florida

6) Kentucky

7) Vanderbilt

West Division

1) Alabama

2) Auburn

3) LSU

4) Arkansas

5) Ole Miss

6) Texas A&M

7) Mississippi State

Conference Contenders

Georgia- The Bulldogs enter the season as the favorite to win the East yet again, but haven’t lived up to expectations the past two years allowing Missouri to steal the division title from them. This season Georgia returns 4 of 5 starters along the offensive line and RB Nick Chubb who burst onto the scene last year with 1,547 yards in replacing injured starters Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. That combination will help ease either Brice Ramsey or Virginia graduate transfer Greyson Lambert into the QB spot. If the Bulldogs can’t get it done this year, Mark Richt may feel his seat get a little warmer.  Fans aren’t happy with the teams perceived underachievement over his tenure.

Auburn- The Tigers went 8-5 last year and lost their QB, RB, and top 3 WR’s. Why are they here and expected to win the conference you ask? Because of their defense surprisingly enough.  They return star end Carl Lawson after an ACL tear kept him out all of last year, and LB Casanova McKinzy and safety Jonathan Ford two of their top tacklers from last season are back.  The Tigers also brought in Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator after he was ousted at Florida, and for all his faults as a head coach, Muschamp knows how to coach defense.  The questions come on offense where Jeremy Johnson is expected to be very good but has yet to play a game.

Alabama- No contender list for this conference would be complete without the Crimson Tide.  The defensive front seven looks very solid, but as it has the past couple of seasons, the secondary has question marks. Cyrus Jones missed spring practice with a hip injury, and the rest of the secondary is unproven. Meanwhile, offensively, QB Blake Sims, RB TJ Yeldon, and WR Amari Cooper are gone and need to be replaced.  Sound familiar? Yet the Tide are in this spot because of Saban’s ability to recruit and we expect him to find replacements.

Ole Miss- This is where the voters and I disagree. The Rebels return 14 starters from last year (7 on each side) including the entire offensive and defensive lines. They also get star WR Laquon Treadwell back following his horrific injury against Auburn. The question, continuing with the theme is at QB where transfer Chad Kelly battles with sophomores Ryan Buchanan and DeVante Kincade for the spot.  Whoever wins the job will control the Rebels fate.

Sleepers

Tennessee- The Volunteers have been waiting a long time to get back to this spot and head coach Butch Jones has done a fantastic job rebuilding the program. The Volunteers return 17 starters to go along with another top recruiting class.  Joshua Dobbs is back at QB and he has his top seven WR’s from last year back. The defense is young age-wise but got plenty of experience last year, and in the wide open east division, they’ve got a shot.

Arkansas- Bret Bielema has turned this program around very quickly. The Razorbacks have a massive offensive line that is perfect for the ground and pound style of their head coach.  That’s not to say they don’t have a competent QB, they do in Brandon Allen, but their strength is on the ground.

Missouri- The Tigers will continue to enter the season unnoticed by most for reasons I don’t understand.  There has to be a certain level of respect earned when you’ve made the last two SEC title games in oh by the way your first three years in the conference. Maty Mauk returns under center and the 5th best rusher in the SEC in Russell Hansbrough is back at RB behind an offensive line that brings back 3 starters. Missouri has shown the last two years that all it takes is one slip up from the top dogs and they stand ready to take the division title.

The Rest

LSU- Tigers fans hold your hate mail.  I know you will have a top defense again because you always seem to.  Leonard Fournette is a legit Heisman candidate. But, how long can you survive with the likes of either Brandon Harris (inexperienced) or Anthony Jennings (inefficient had a 48.9% completion percentage last year) at QB? Plus a slate of @Bama, vs. Arkansas, @Ole Miss in consecutive weeks is brutal.

Mississippi State- They return the best QB-WR tandem in the conference in Dak Prescott and De’Runya Wilson, but they are two of just seven returnees this season.  I don’t have them last in the West like most, but it’s going to be tough to reprise last year’s success.

South Carolina- The Gamecocks had a rough season last year and it’s not looking any better for the Head Ball Coach this season. The defense should be better than last year when they were, well abysmal but, the QB spot is unsettled and the offensive line is young. You’re likely looking at another 7-6 type season for Steve Spurrier and company.

Florida- The Gators bring in new coach Jim McElwain after a couple of successful seasons at Colorado State. Two big issues for him to address, first name a starting QB from either sophomore Treon Harris or junior Will Grier. Secondly, there were only 6 scholarship offensive lineman returning after the spring. That means the line will be inexperienced and protecting a young QB.  Recipe for a long season in the Swamp.

Texas A&M- The Aggies were worst in the league defensively last season allowing 450 yards per game. That caused head coach Kevin Sumlin to recruit John Chavis away from LSU to take over as the new defensive coordinator.  Chavis will have talent to work with especially sophomore defensive end Myles Garrett who broke Jadaveon Clowney’s SEC record for sacks as a freshman with 11.5. On offense, Sumlin recently confirmed that Kyle Allen will be the starter once again.  Allen was very good after replacing Kenny “Trill” Hill in 10 games he threw for 1,322 yards 16 TD’s and 7 INT’s while completing 61% of his passes.

Kentucky- The Wildcats are on the right track after a 5-7 year last season in Mark Stoops’ 2nd year and look to make a bowl game this year.  That will largely depend on QB Patrick Towles becoming more consistent.  He was good in the team’s 5-1 start (10 TD 4 INT) then below average (4 TD 5 INT) in the 1-6 finish to the year. Hope is definitely arriving in Lexington in light of over $165 million being poured into the program for stadium renovations and a new practice facility.

Vanderbilt- Last season was a huge step backward for the Commodores under new head coach Derek Mason.  They were 122nd of 125 teams in total offense and never really found a starting QB.  It’s back to the rebuilding process for the Commodores.

Must Watch Games

September 5- #20 Wisconsin vs. #3 Alabama (Dallas, TX) 8 pm

September 19- #6 Auburn at #14 LSU 3:30 pm

September 19- #17 Ole Miss at #3 Alabama

October 3- #3 Alabama at #9 Georgia

November 14- #9 Georgia at #6 Auburn

November 28- #3 Alabama at #6 Auburn

November 28- #9 Georgia at #16 Georgia Tech

Conference Title Prediction

Alabama vs. Tennessee

When it comes down to it, with all of the question marks at QB heading into the year in the West Division, I have to go by which defense I trust the most and that’s Alabama. Tennessee is my pick here not because it’s trendy or because it’s out of the box.  It comes down to schedule, and while both Georgia and Tennessee get Alabama, but the Volunteers avoid Auburn while the ‘Dawgs do not. Having said that, Missouri will probably find a way into the title game again because well, that’s just what they do.

Ryan Mayer is an Associate Producer for CBS Local Sports. Ryan lives in NY but comes from Philly and life as a Philly sports fan has made him cynical. Anywhere sports are being discussed, that’s where you’ll find him. Agree/Disagree? Thoughts, comments, complaints? Email or tweet him. 

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