Vanderbilt is looking to make back-to-back bowls for the first time in program history. After sharing snaps last season, dual-threat quarterback Jordan Rodgers has been handed the keys to the potent Commodore offense. Joining him is running back Zac Stacy, who rushed for 1,267 yards and 14 touchdowns last year. Wideout Jordan Matthews compiled 36 catches for 715 yards over the last seven games of last season and also returns. And the schedule for second-year coach James Franklin’s squad is favorable: Vandy heads to Ole Miss and hosts a beatable Auburn squad for its SEC West crossover games.
Last year’s 7-6 squad was UF’s worst since 1987. It was a transition year, as there was plenty of roster turnover and new systems being implemented. Can it really get worse for Florida? Probably not. Ten of 11 starters return from last year’s defensive unit, which was eighth nationally in total defense. Yes, unproven sophomores Jacoby Brissett and Jeff Driskel will be splitting time under center for the Gators, but a veteran offensive line returns to block for the two sophomores, who will have Mike Gillislee (5.9 yards per carry last season) and three returning starters out wide at their disposal.
Coach Dan Mullen has an experienced squad with 15 starters returning. Last season was a disappointment for the Bulldogs, who finished 7-6 after being ranked as high as No. 16 earlier in the year. Tyler Russell, who split time at quarterback last year, returns, as do the squad’s top three receivers. Top rusher Vick Ballard is gone, but his replacement, Ladarius Perkins, averaged 5 yards per carry last season. Seven starters return on defense, a unit that was fourth in the conference in points allowed (19.7). Also in MSU’s favor is a cupcake of a non-conference schedule and very winnable crossover games against Tennessee and at Kentucky.
The Aggies, who struggled to a 7-6 record in their final Big 12 season, now find themselves members of the NFL, err, SEC West. Gone from the schedule for TAMU are the Kansas’ and Texas Techs of the world as well as quarterback Ryan Tannehill and leading rusher Cyrus Gray. The schedule is brutal for the Aggies — consisting of trips to Alabama and Auburn, while playing host to Arkansas, Florida, LSU and Missouri. And they get to do it all with an unproven quarterback playing under a brand new coaching staff. Cracking the .500 mark will be a daunting task for the Aggies.
Bobby Petrino’s pride wasn’t the only thing to vanish when the disgraced former coach’s affairs with a student assistant cost him his job this spring – so did Arkansas’s national title hopes. Petrino’s replacement, John L. Smith, was 22-26 from 2003-2006 at the helm of Michigan State’s program. There’s a reason he was at the FCS level at his alma mater of Weber State before Arkansas came calling. The combo of Tyler Wilson and Knile Davis will keep the Razorbacks very good, but the loss of the guy responsible for turning around that program is not conducive to building upon 11-win seasons in the SEC.
Steve Spurrier’s squad experienced a program-best 11-2 season last year. Don’t look for the Gamecocks to build upon that in 2012. Gone is the team’s best receiver, best offensive lineman, two best defensive linemen, two best linebackers and three best cornerbacks from 2011. The Gamecocks also avoided SEC West powerhouses Alabama and LSU last season. They head to Baton Rouge this October. The cupboard is far from bare, especially with running back Marcus Lattimore, and this is a top-25 team, but an improved SEC East coupled with trips to Clemson, Florida and LSU figure to have Spurrier’s program taking a step back.