Season Preview: SEC has enough talent to keep its title streak going

NEW YORK (AP) — The players are providing the star power in the Southeastern Conference’s drive for an eighth consecutive national title not

those millionaire coaches.

Hop in the backseat, Nick Saban and Steve Spurrier, and enjoy the ride.

There’s plenty of headliners on the

field, starting at quarterback with Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel,

Alabama’s AJ McCarron

and Georgia’s Aaron Murray plus a bounty of dangerous receivers.

Tailbacks Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Bama’s T.J. Yeldon are

superb sophomore runners.

Defensively, South Carolina end Jadeveon Clowney and Crimson Tide linebacker C.J. Mosley lead the way.

That bounty of talent gives the SEC ample hope that the league can maintain its seven-year grip on the Bowl Championship Series

title.

Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy as a freshman, and Clowney are regarded as favorites to claim the league’s fifth Heisman

in seven years.

But like Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin said

of his team, it’s time to “hit the reset button.” Or at least the

challengers of Saban

and the two-time defending national champion Tide are hoping that

button is working. So are the other power conferences, for

that matter.

Saban’s peers aren’t backing down.

LSU’s Les Miles: “I like us in any game.”

South Carolina’s Spurrier, in humble-confident mode: “We may fall flat on our face but that’s what we’re going to try to do,

try to win the conference.”

Win the SEC, and a national title shot seems likely to come.

Georgia defensive end Garrison Smith’s take on the SEC: Crystal balls don’t win crystal trophies.

“There’s no telling which team is going to come from where with the amount of talent,” Smith said. “Nobody can predict the

future.”

FIVE THINGS TO WATCH

1: CHASING THE TIDE: Alabama might be

the team to beat nationally after claiming three of the past four

championships, but

navigating the competitive SEC is a challenge for any team. Johnny

Manziel and Texas A&M are in pursuit, and so are Georgia,

South Carolina and Florida. All four finished last season among

the nation’s top nine teams. It’s hard to count out still-talented

LSU, even after 11 underclassmen departed for the NFL. The Crimson

Tide, though, remains loaded with talent and has a talented

group of tailbacks and receivers to go with the always sturdy

defense led by the All-America linebacker Mosley.

2. MADE-FOR-TV GAMES: This list clearly

begins with the Sept. 14 rematch in College Station between Alabama and

Texas A&M,

the only team to beat the Tide last season. That game was a

Heisman moment for Manziel. Alabama gets a bye week to change

gears for the no-huddle offense. A week earlier, defending East

champion Georgia tries to avenge a 35-7 loss to South Carolina.

Florida and LSU, perhaps somewhat overlooked in the preseason,

meet on Oct. 12 a year after Will Muschamp’s team managed to

end the Tigers’ 18-game regular-season win streak, 14-6. The

season gets started Aug. 29 with Mississippi visiting Vanderbilt,

not ordinarily a scintillating matchup but a chance for both to

make an early statement.

3. SEC NEWBIES: Arkansas nabbed a

proven winner in Bret Bielemma, Auburn landed offensive whiz Gus

Malzahn, Kentucky got a

spark with Mark Stoops and Tennessee turned to Butch Jones, who is

already making waves on the recruiting trail. Now, if only

all four of the league’s new head coaches can find a starting

quarterback. In the meantime, it’s no coincidence that those

teams had the SEC’s four most generous defenses before the bosses

made changes at the top. The result: A combined mark of

3-29 in league play, $15 million in buyouts and fresh starts.

4. RISING STOCK: Vanderbilt is coming

off its best record since 1915, going 9-4 two years after a second

straight two-win

season led to the hiring of James Franklin. Back-to-back bowl game

is also a first for the Commodores, who have gone from

doormats to respected foe under the ever-confident coach. They’re

led by one of the SEC’s top wide receivers in Jordan Matthews.

Mississippi’s turnaround in Hugh Freeze’s first season was

impressive, too. The Rebels won seven games, including the BBVA

Compass Bowl. Freeze then made even bigger waves with a highly

touted recruiting class. Back are quarterback Bo Wallace and

linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche.

5. YOUTH MOVEMENT: From five-star

newcomers to talented players with a year under their belt, the SEC is

full of youngsters

with the potential to emerge as stars. Missouri wide receiver and

prized 2012 signee Dorial Green-Beckham racked up 21 catches

for 267 yards and four touchdowns in the final five games.

Alabama’s Yeldon ran for 258 yards in the SEC and BCS championship

games plus freshman runner Derrick Henry, linebacker Reuben Foster

and tight end O.J. Howard could develop significant roles.

Ole Miss defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, defensive tackle Lavon

Hooks and wideout Laquon Treadwell are freshmen to watch,

along with Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves and defensive ends

Carl Lawson (Auburn) and Chris Jones (Mississippi State)

— among others.

Predicted order of finish

EAST

1. Georgia

2. South Carolina

3. Florida

4. Vanderbilt

5. Missouri

6. Tennessee

7. Kentucky

WEST

1. Alabama

2. Texas A&M

3. LSU

4. Ole Miss

5. Auburn

6. Mississippi State

7. Arkansas

Title game winner: Alabama