The SEC had another stellar season on the football field. The conference won its seventh straight BCS national title thanks to Alabama and saw seven schools finish in the final Top 25.
The news hasn’t been as good for the league’s coaches since the season ended, though. While there have been a few bright spots as high-profile underclassmen decide whether they will enter the NFL Draft or return to college, it’s been mostly goodbyes around the league.
LSU head coach Les Miles leads the league in exit interviews with underclassmen, and it’s not even close. Eleven Tigers with college eligibility remaining have decided to enter this year’s pro draft. That’s 15 percent of the total number (74) of early entrants around the country.
The two biggest names SEC school’s retained were Alabama quarterback A.J. McCarron and Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray, but both those schools lost too much to be terribly happy about the overall transaction.
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To gauge how the high-profile departures, and retentions, could affect the 2013 football season, let’s start with the Gamecocks.
Running back Marcus Lattimore and wide receiver Ace Sanders, South Carolina’s leading rusher and receiver in 2012, each decided to leave school with a year of eligibility remaining. Lattimore, who had 662 yards in nine games before suffering a season-ending knee injury, undoubtedly is the more famous of the players, but it may be Sanders who is tougher to replace next season.
The Gamecocks are stocked with depth at running back in the form of Brandon Wilds, Mike Davis and Shon Carson and are expecting to add four-star high school prospect David Williams in February’s signing class.
Meanwhile, at wide receiver, things aren’t so set. Sanders caught 45 passes for 531 yards and nine touchdowns. That leaves Bruce Ellington, who gained more yards (600) but caught fewer passes (40) than Sanders, as the top returning receiver, and it’s not guaranteed that Ellington will be a returning receiver. He has yet to announce if he’ll return to the football team next year or devote all of his attention to basketball. Ellington said during the team’s bowl practices that he was still considering his future.
Damiere Byrd (14 for 366 yards), Nick Jones (12 for 197 yards), Shaq Roland (five for 80 yards) and K.J. Brent (three for 28 yards) are the only other returning wide receivers who caught a pass last season. The Gamecocks redshirted 6-foot-4 Kwinton Smith this year, and coach Steve Spurrier said last month that Smith is expected to be a contributor next season.
Sanders also will leave a large void in the team’s special teams. Sanders set the school’s single-season punt returns record with 429 yards and added two touchdowns, including a 63-yarder for a touchdown in the Jan. 1 Outback Bowl against Michigan.
While McCarron will be considered one of the nation’s top quarterbacks coming back next year, the Crimson Tide lost running back Eddie Lacy, offensive tackle D.J. Fluker and cornerback Dee Milliner. Lacy has the most name recognition of that trio, particularly after his 140-yard effort in the title game, but he’s probably the easiest to replace. Alabama has T.J. Yeldon waiting in the wings and has a verbal commitment from high school running back Derrick Henry, who could be the best freshman runner in the country next year.
The Gators could hardly afford to lose any offensive weapons, but tight end Jordan Reed, one of the country’s top pass-catching specialists at the position, is headed to the NFL. The bigger losses, though, come on defense, where safety Matt Elam, defensive tackle Sharrif Floyd and linebacker Jelani Jenkins are leaving early. Floyd probably will be the top pick of that trio, but it’s Elam Florida might miss most. Undersized but aggressive, he was the sparkplug of the Gator defense.
Murray chose to return in part because of the Bulldogs’ close-but-not-close-enough finish to the 2012 season. If he wants to push Georgia further this year, he’ll have to pull more of the weight because the defense is not going to be nearly as talented. Linebackers Jarvis Jones, who probably will be a top 10 overall pick, and Alec Ogletree are the most high-profile losses, but defensive tackle Kwame Geathers might be the biggest loss literally and figuratively. He backed up senior John Jenkins this year to hold the middle of the Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense, so now Georgia has to start from scratch in the middle of the defensive line.
The Volunteers' disappointing season was not the fault of their offense. Tennessee had some talented offensive players, and it showed. The problem now is a lot of them are leaving early. Tyler Bray’s departure is not a surprise and opens the door for South Carolina native Justin Worley to earn the starting quarterback job. Whoever wins the job will be without two of the nation’s best wide receivers in Cordarrelle Patterson and Justin Hunter.
The Tigers are known for always having plenty of depth, and it’ll be tested like never before in 2013. The group of underclassmen leaving LSU early reads like an All-SEC team – defensive linemen Bennie Logan and Sam Montgomery, linebackers Barkevious Mingo and Kevin Minter, running backs Spencer Ware and Michael Ford, and it goes on. Even the Tigers' punter, Brad Wing, left early.