Welcome to the Southeastern Conference power rankings, where everything is made up and the points don’t matter.
SEC football finally returns Thursday as Texas A&M travels to South Carolina to take on the Gamecocks. The remainder of the week includes top games like LSU-Wisconsin, Alabama-West Virginia and Arkansas-Auburn.
The conference looks drastically different from 2013 with major turnovers at quarterback, running back and offensive schemes as a whole. The teams who can best handle the changes will be the ones vying for Atlanta in December.
The Crimson Tide is again the favorite to win the SEC. It was picked by nearly half the writers at SEC Media Days in July, and it ranked in the top three nationally in every major poll.
Quarterback A.J. McCarron is gone, and the competition between Blake Sims and Jacob Coker still hasn’t settled. Whoever it is should be fine, blessed with eight returning starters and weapons like receiver Amari Cooper and running back T.J. Yeldon.
But there is that 2014 Sugar Bowl. It was one game, but the 45-31 loss to Oklahoma made the Tide’s defense look human. Defensive stars Ha Ha Clinton-Dix and C.J. Mosely are also gone. I’ll remain cautious despite ranking this team No. 1.
The departure of Bulldog legend Aaron Murray will be tough, but with nearly everyone else on the team coming back, Georgia is prepped to make a run.
Hutson Mason proved he can replace Murray after coming in when Murray tore his ACL in November. Mason won Georgia’s final two games, including a 20-point comeback against rival Georgia Tech.
The offense starts with junior running back and Heisman candidate Todd Gurley, but it also features players like running back Keith Marshall and receiver Malcom Mitchell, who missed most of 2013 because of an injury.
The biggest surprise may come on defense, where the Bulldogs allowed 29 points a game last season. Nine starters return, however, each more experienced and under the new leadership of Saban disciple Jeremy Pruitt.
You don’t get a season of destiny two years in a row.
Auburn may be the defending conference champion and have a good core returning, but it also had many semi-miraculous wins. At some point, the breaks stop going your way, and Auburn is due for a bad loss.
If quarterback Nick Marshall can learn to throw more consistently, perhaps Auburn can weather the storm. The team still has games at Georgia and Alabama — two teams it barely defeated last season.
4. South Carolina
The Gamecocks will be loaded on offense this season with nearly every skill player and four offensive lineman returning. Dylan Thompson takes the reins at QB, but the senior has started and succeeded in many games in the last two seasons.
The defense will need to find a new voice with leaders like Jadeveon Clowney and Victor Hampton now in the NFL. If the defense holds, Thompson and running back Mike Davis could give Steve Spurrier his first SEC title in Columbia.
I know, LSU fans, you’re tired of the Peach Bowl. I’m sure the team is too, but I need to see changes before ranking the Tigers higher.
Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris need to learn quickly if they want to run Cam Cameron’s offense the right way. If not, the Tigers’ best option may be to get behind a superb offensive line and let the squadron of backs do work.
I’m also confident LSU will have an improved defense this season — because come on, it’s got to be better than last season’s.
6. Texas A&M
Life without Johnny Manziel is going to be tough for all of us. In College Station, they’re just hoping the results aren’t disastrous.
Nobody in their right mind thinks new starting quarterback Kenny Hill will duplicate Manziel’s numbers, and that’s fine. The Aggies have another great offensive line and a more experienced defense than last season to help.
7. Ole Miss
The Black Bears are stacked defensively with 2013 All-American Cody Prewitt leading the way. This year may be a huge step for one-time No. 1 recruit and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche.
Quarterback Bo Wallace and receiver Laquon Treadwell will try to sustain the fast-paced offense from 2013. There may be trials early on, with three new starters coming in on offensive line.
Let it be clear: This is not the team that won the SEC East in 2013.
More than half of last season’s team is gone, including leaders in passing yards, rushing yards, receiving yards, sacks and interceptions. Quarterback Maty Mauk did well in the games he started last season, but how he transitions to such turnover will be the biggest factor.
9. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs turned into a dark horse for many people with 16 starters coming back, including talented quarterback Dak Prescott. I still think they’re a middle-of-the-pack SEC team at best, but improvement is coming.
If Prescott improves his accuracy this season to keep defenses honest and opening up the field, pencil in seven or eight wins for this team.
Few things encapsulated the phrase “dumpster fire” like the 2013 Florida offense. With his job on the line, coach Will Muschamp seemed to admit this and hired Kurt Roper to take over as offensive coordinator.
We know with Muschamp the defense is going to be there. If Roper can bring his achievements from Duke, the Gators could pull off some upsets.
Former coach James Franklin’s departure will hurt, but I love the hiring of Derek Mason. He was an integral part of Stanford’s recent accomplishments, and he already has his players behind him.
On the other hand, the Commodores lost star receiver Jordan Matthews and will transition to a 3-4 defense, so expect some struggles.
The Hogs have a great pair of backs in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, but it’s still terrifying everywhere else. Quarterback Brandon Allen is the epitome of inconsistent, and the defense allowed more than 30 points a game last season.
Couple this with playing in a loaded SEC West, and Arkansas is in trouble.
This team is loaded with talent. It’s also loaded with youth — up to four freshmen may start for the Volunteers on offense.
With few returners on both sides of the ball and a nonconference game at Oklahoma, I don’t see Tennessee making a bowl this season. But with another great recruiting class, it can make a jump in 2015.
Nov. 14, Kentucky fans. Your beloved basketball team returns. Until then, I’m sorry.
Tommy Romanach is a 22-year-old mass communication senior from Dallas. You can reach him on Twitter @troman_28.