Six years of taking on all-comers. Six years of dominance. When it comes to winning BCS National Championships, the SEC has that move trademarked. The nation’s top conference has achieved top billing the past six seasons due not only to its overall depth, but more specifically, to the overall depth of its upper-echelon teams. Since 2006, four different teams (Florida, LSU, Alabama, and Auburn) from the SEC have raised the AFCA National Championship Trophy at the end of the season
Heisman contender Tyrann Mathieu
Florida and Alabama can claim two national titles during this stretch of supremacy. According to former Illinois head coach and current CBS Sports Network college football analyst Ron Zook, LSU is his pick to be the third SEC team in seven years to win two national championships, though they’ll more than likely have to get past the Crimson Tide, who have dynastic visions of their own having won two of the last three BCS titles.
Though some questions might surround LSU at quarterback as they look to replace the experience and leadership at the position provided to them by Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee last season, Zook believes junior Zach Mettenberger is more than capable of leading the Tiger offense in 2012. In fact, he thinks Mettnberger could be the best LSU quarterback since JaMarcus Russell.
“He’s an awfully, awfully good player,” says Zook of Mettenberger. “With how good they are defensively and on special teams, they’re going to be able to give him a chance to get going. They’re going to be able to run the football, too. That offensive line is back and they’ve got a great schedule.”
Defensively, the Tigers ranked second nationally (behind only Alabama) in scoring and total defense last season. This season, LSU returns six starters to that defense, including first-team All-American and 2011 Heisman Trophy finalist, junior cornerback Tyrann Mathieu. In Mathieu, the Tigers have arguably the top player in the conference in Zook’s estimation.
“The guy who’s special to me is the ‘Honey Badger,’” said Zook, referring to Mathieu by his trendy, if not suitable, nickname. “He just makes plays in all phases. He’s a great player...and he doesn’t seem to do it out of position. Whether it’s special teams or the defensive side of the football, he plays huge.
“As a coach, you’d love to have him on your football team just because he does so much.”
In Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide have a number of holes to fill on both sides of the ball if they are to make it to Miami and defend their BCS crown. On offense, Alabama will have to replace the amazing production of running back Trent Richardson, who chose to forgo his senior season to enter 2012 NFL Draft where he was selected third overall by the Cleveland Browns. Though the Tide returns junior quarterback A.J. McCarron along with a veteran offensive line, Zook says that without Richardson, Alabama may miss an element of toughness on that side of the ball.
“The one thing Trent Richardson did for Alabama was make them a tougher team [offensively],” says Zook. “I think [Eddie] Lacy is a pretty good player, but I don’t think you can replace Trent Richardson. Getting ready for the NFL Draft, he (Richardson) was one of my top guys.”
Alabama quarterback AJ McCarron
Though finding an adequate replacement(s) for Richardson on offense will be difficult, arguably the greater task for head coach Nick Saban and the Alabama coaching staff will be replacing six starters from the nation’s best defense a year ago. Linebackers Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw, along with defensive backs Mark Barron and Dre Kirkpatrick, were all drafted within the first 35 picks of last year’s NFL Draft. Restoring the level of talent that was lost will undoubtedly take time, however the question for Zook is: How long?
“I still think the biggest thing Alabama has to fix -- and they will -- will be the defense,” remarked Zook. “It’s not that they don’t have great players -- they do -- but it’s just replacing the experience on the defensive side [that’s going to be difficult].”
Despite enduring a rocky offseason that saw Bobby Petrino get ousted as head coach, Zook believes Arkansas is a more than worthy challenger to LSU and Alabama in the SEC West Division.
“Arkansas, in my opinion, they can win [the conference],” says Zook. “They’ve got LSU and Alabama at home and I know everyone is concerned about play calling [without Bobby Petrino], but Paul Petrino was calling the plays before I hired him (at Illinois) from Arkansas, so they won’t fall off on play calling.
“Their main concern is going to be defense. Their defense played pretty well in the bowl game, but they’ve got to make sure that defense is playing up to speed. I think they’ve got a couple guys who are suspended early, but they could very easily be the team in the [SEC] West.”
Zook also thinks the Auburn Tigers have a chance to have a special season. “Quarterback is the biggest concern. That position is unsettled, but that’s not necessarily at bad thing. They’re installing a new offense. I think people will be surprised at how far they will have come along over the summer.
“Auburn has 18 starters back, which gives them a chance to be good. They have quality veterans on both sides of the ball. They have speed at tailback. Jay Prosch is also going to really help them running the football.
On defense, they’re good upfront, but young in the secondary. The Clemson game is key. If they lose, they’ll learn from it and will hopefully be that much better. If they’re able to win, it will give them great confidence going into SEC play.”
Jay Prosch transfers in from Illinois
While the SEC West is chock full of potential national title contenders, the SEC East has experienced a bit of a decline in recent seasons. Though Zook doesn’t anticipate any teams from the Eastern Division to seriously contend for the SEC Championship this season, he likes Georgia and South Carolina’s chances to make it to Atlanta on December 1. In particular, Zook is high on the Bulldogs, who he believes have schedule and the defense to make it back to the SEC Championship game for a second consecutive season.
“One of the things that Georgia has going for them is the schedule,” says Zook. “They don’t play LSU and they don’t play Alabama, so you’ve got to like that. Defensively, after talking to Mark (Richt) after their bowl game, he felt like he has the best defense he’s had since he’s been there.”
Prominent in the headlines entering the 2012 season in the SEC is the additions of Missouri and Texas A&M from the Big 12 Conference. Though both the Tigers and the Aggies can expect to be tested early and often this season in the SEC, Zook feels both teams are capable of holding their own once conference play begins in earnest. For Missouri, junior quarterback James Franklin is a big reason why Zook thinks the Tigers will be more than a handful for teams in the SEC East.
“I think [Missouri] has a heck of a quarterback and if you look over the last five or six years, they’ve really been a good football team, particularly on offense,” says Zook.
On defense, Zook believes the Tigers could be most vulnerable, though it’s a senior laden group that has experience and success playing against some of the best offenses in the country coming out of the Big 12.
In College Station, Texas A&M must find a successor at quarterback after Ryan Tannehill graduated and was draft No. 8 overall by the Miami Dolphins.
“[Texas A&M] gets their offensive line back, but they’ve got to find a quarterback,” says Zook. “You’ve got to have a quarterback if you’re going to win big in college football nowadays.”
As far as the long-term viability of both schools in the SEC, the advantage may be in Texas A&M’s favor according to Zook, who prefers the Aggies’ tremendous recruiting base.
Kevin Sumlin begins his first season at Texas A&M
“The only thing you’d say about (Texas) A&M is, with A&M being in Texas, the number of football players that come out of Texas [is greater] opposed to the number of players that come out of Missouri,” says Zook.
“Not that there’s not good football players that come out of Missouri -- there are -- but it’s just that there’s a greater number [in Texas] and you’ve got to believe it’s easier to recruit in state than have to leave your state to get players.”
Coach Zook’s SEC Picks
SEC Championship Game: LSU vs. Georgia
SEC Champion: LSU
SEC Player of the Year: DB Tyrann Mathieu
Watch Ron Zook on CBS Sports Network this fall. Find your local channel here.