By Cole Frederick /Messenger Sports Correspondent
The wait is over.
Summer is transitioning into fall, school is back in session and college football season is finally here. The SEC has had unparalleled success the past six seasons, bringing home six straight BCS National Championships. The state of Alabama has played an integral role in that run. Alabama and Auburn have combined to win the last three national titles, and the Tigers and Crimson Tide are primed for another championship run this sea-on.
While the SEC is ushering in two new teams this year in Missouri and Texas A&M, the focus will still remain heavily on Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. The defending national champions are one of the favorites to win this year’s title. If they’re successful, they will become the first team to win back-to-back championships in the BCS era.
This year’s version of the Crimson Tide features arguably the best offensive line in the nation. Led by do-it-all senior Barrett Jones, Alabama will look to physically exert itself in the trenches against opposing defensive lines all season. A.J McCarron returns at quarterback, and he will be joined in the backfield by a combination of running backs, including Eddie Lacy, Jalston Fowler and highly touted freshman T.J. Yeldon.
The receiving corps lost some familiar faces in Marquis Maze, Brad Smelley and Darius Hanks, but there are plenty of players that are capable of filling their shoes. DeAndrew White, Kenny Bell, Christion Jones and Michael Williams figure to play prominent roles in the passing game, while newcomer Amari Cooper turned some heads in training camp.
Defensively, the Tide will have to replace Dont’a Hightower, Courtney Upshaw, Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, but Saban recruited well enough to compensate for those losses. C.J. Mosely and Nico Johnson will play big roles at linebacker, and senior Robert Lester will lead the secondary. Jesse Williams will pilot a monstrous defensive line with the help of Damion Square and Ed Stinson.
Special teams will be a question mark again this year, as Cade Foster and Jeremy Shelley will share kicking duties. While this Alabama team will not be quite as strong defensively as last year’s dominating group, the foundation is there for another BCS title run.
Things are slightly murkier down in Auburn this year. The Tigers begin 2012 with two new coordinators, new schemes and new key position players. Brian Van Gorder will be making the defensive calls this season, taking over from the much-maligned Ted Roof. Scot Loeffler takes over for Gus Malzahn offensively, and Auburn will be switching from a no-huddle spread attack to a pro-style offense
Kiehl Frazier won the quarterback race, and although he played in several games last season, he was rarely allowed to throw the ball. He’ll have two big time targets to throw to in seniors Emory Blake and Philip Lutzenkirchen, who combined for twelve touchdowns a year ago. Onterrio McCalebb, Tre Mason, and Mike Blakely all will contribute from the running back position. Chad Slade, John Sullen, and Reese Dismukes return on the offensive line, although Dismukes is suspended to start the season for an arrest this month.
Defensively, the Tigers will be led by defensive end Corey Lemonier, who led Auburn with 9.5 sacks last season. Last year’s leading tackler Daren Bates returns at linebacker. In the secondary, several players figure to obtain playing time, including Ryan Smith, Ryan White, T’Sharavan Bell, Chris Davis and Jermaine Whitehead. Cody Parkey and Steven Clark return as kicker and punter, respectively.
While a SEC championship probably is out of reach this year, the Tigers certainly should be more competitive and possibly could play spoiler throughout the season.
SEC season predictions
2. South Carolina
5. Mississippi State
6. Texas A&M
6. Ole Miss
SEC Championship: LSU over Georgia
National Championship: LSU over USC
Week One Predictions:
Tennessee at North Carolina State (+3.5)* – After a tumultuous end to the 2011 season, many consider this game a must win for Derek Dooley and the Vols. N.C. State coach Tom O’Brien has high ex-pectations for his 2012 team, and this game will set the tone for both the winner and the loser. Ex-pect a highly contested game (with lots of points), and look for the Vols to squeeze this one out in the end: TENNESSEE 34, N.C. State 31.
Clemson at Auburn (+3.5)* – After Auburn de-feated Clemson in 2010 and Clemson defeated Auburn in 2011, the series tiebreaker will be held in Atlanta on Saturday. Both teams have new defensive coordinators (VanGorder at Auburn, Brent Venables at Clemson), and both squads are looking to use this game to launch themselves into a successful 2012 season. Both teams also will be missing key players due to suspension (Dismukes for Auburn, receiver Sammy Watkins for Clemson). Expect a tight game throughout, but look for Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd to make big plays in the fourth quarter to secure a Clemson victory: CLEMSON 30, Auburn 20
Michigan at Alabama (-14)** – Both teams are coming off BCS wins in 2011 (national title for Alabama, Sugar Bowl for Michigan), and expectations are high for each team going into this season. The X factor for Michigan will be whether Denard Robinson can make plays against a stout Crimson Tide defense. Expect Alabama to control the line on both sides of the ball, and look for the Tide to break away from the Wolverines in the second half: ALABAMA 34, Michigan 17
* denotes game played in Atlanta
** denotes game played in Dallas
Other SEC predictions:
GEORGIA (-38) 52, Buffalo 3
FLORIDA (-29) 38, Bowling Green 6
LSU 45 (-43), North Texas 3
OLE MISS 37. Central Arkansas 13
ARKANSAS 55, Jacksonville State 17
MISSISSIPPI STATE 41, Jackson State 6
MISSOURI 44, Southeastern Louisiana 13
LOUISVILLE 31, Kentucky 16