Who will be stealing the headlines in 2013?
2012 was once again a dominant one for the SEC in terms of national prestige. Multiple programs featured insanely talented ballplayers all over the football field in once again taking over the national top 10 BCS Polls.
That being said, not every team enjoyed the type of success their fans had either been expecting or hoping for. Who will each fan base be watching come the 2013 football season? The year will be upon us far more quickly than we think and with it will bring a slew of new head coaches for some teams and new starters for all.
Check out one player to watch for each of the 14 SEC teams as programs gear up for a offseason of hard work -- with an eye on potential greatness.
As a quick disclaimer, we have listed the teams by their overall conference finish in 2012, starting with Kentucky at the bottom and Bama perched on top.
Jalen Whitlow, QB, Kentucky Wildcats
Everything is going to be new in Lexington in 2013, from the change at head coach all the way on down. Former coach Joker Phillips opened the year with the fragile Maxwell Smith under center in 2012, but the year ended with youngster Jalen Whitlow under center. If Whitlow can continue to show the toughness and day-by-day improvement he did towards the end of his freshman campaign, new head man Mark Stoops should tab the dual-threat man as his full-time starter.
Stoops is a defensively-oriented guy, and for the most part, it has been those experts that have enjoyed success as a head coach in the SEC -- take a look at Saban, Muschamp and Miles' track records after focusing on the defensive side of the football as assistants.
Thus, Stoops may not want to go with the spread out, four- and five-wide receiver looks preferred by Phillips and tailored to Smith's set of skills. Whitlow has shown he is not afraid to get his jersey dirty in being thrown directly into the fire as a frosh. With a rebuilding club boasting a suspect offensive line, the young gunner could be the biggest playmaker on Kentucky in 2013.
Tre Mason, RB, Auburn Tigers
While the rest of the Auburn Tigers team -- and coaching staff -- was busy throwing their season into the dumpster and lighting it on fire, Mason was busy compiling a 1,000-yard sophomore season. He just barely cracked the barrier, racking up 1,002 yards on 171 carries for a 5.9 yards per carry average.
New head coach Gus Malzahn is Auburn's old offensive coordinator, and if coaching Cam Newton to a Heisman Trophy is any indication, the man understands how best to utilize his personnel.
There is going to be a fierce quarterback battle between Kiehl Frazier, Jonathan Wallace and even Clint Moseley as the three combined to throw seven touchdowns and 15 interceptions (that is no joke, all three stunk) last year. Obviously, Malzahn won't have too much faith in any one of the three until one proves himself this offseason.
The same cannot be said for Mason. The young baller easily outrushed Ontario McCalebb, in spite of the fact that McCalebb was the senior and had been looking to climb the school's all-time rushing yards leaderboard.
If Auburn manages to win more than the three games they mustered this past season, Mason will be a huge reason why.
AJ Johnson, LB, Tennessee Volunteers
The Vols limped -- to put it lightly -- to a 1-7 finish in the SEC in 2012. The record led to the firing of coach Derek Dooley and the subsequent hiring of former Cincinnati coach Butch Jones.
One player Jones should lean heavily upon is linebacker AJ Johnson. In just his sophomore season, Johnson led the team with an astounding 138 total tackles in 2012. He also topped all Vols with 8.5 tackles for a loss.
Heck, if Tennessee surprises the nation and makes a massive improvement in 2013, don't be surprised to hear whispers of a dark horse Heisman candidacy for Johnson. We all know how difficult it is for an exclusively defensive player to win the Trophy, and that is what makes this linebacker's future so intriguing. Johnson also scored six rushing touchdowns in 2012 as the Vols' Wildcat quarterback.
The UT defense was terrible in 2012, and the rebuilding starts with Johnson, who has a chance to be a star. Had his team won 10 games with Johnson's aforementioned tackle and touchdown numbers, you would not need this article to get acquainted with the linebacker as he would already be a household name.
Brandon Allen, QB, Arkasnas Razobacks
With senior passer Tyler Wilson graduating following a disastrous season for Hogs Nation, new coach Bret Bielema will presumably go with Brandon Allen under center in 2013.
The 6-foot-3, 212-pounder is the definition of a homegrown talent; Allen is from Fayetteville, and in his upcoming sophomore season he should make his nearby childhood buddies proud.
Allen saw limited action behind Wilson in 2012, completing 21 of his 49 pass attempts for 186 yards with one touchdown and three picks.
Bielema's time at Wisconsin was defined by running the ball. However, the Razorbacks were playing from behind so often that Wilson was forced to air it out nearly every week. The program is not expected to blow anyone way in Year 1 of the Bielema regime, meaning there will be games in which Allen will have to show off whatever moxie he has got.
If he can wow the home crowd with some big numbers in the always-tough SEC, he will be a hero in his hometown. Can't ask for much more than that as the replacement for one of the best quarterbacks in school history.
James Franklin, QB, Missouri Tigers
Mizzou underwhelmed in its first season in the SEC thanks to a porous-at-times defense and a running game that performed a vanishing act at several points throughout the season. However, the team's eventual 2-6 in-conference record seemed to be largely due to the fact that their star dual-threat quarterback, James Franklin, simply was not ready for the type of punishment he eventually received from the nation's top defensive fronts.
The last thing any football player, let alone a team captain, should have to deal with mid-season is answering questions about his heart and his physical toughness.
Texas A&M was supposed to have been the new SEC program to fail in their first season, but their quarterback, Johnny Manziel, showed a toughness that Franklin lacked. He missed three games in 2012, and at one point was literally called soft by his own head coach, Gary Pinkel.
In the Tigers' two games prior to the season finale, a win over Tennessee and a close loss to a hot Syracuse squad, Franklin threw six touchdown passes and only one pick. He then sat out the team's last game, against none other than A&M.
Franklin watched from the sidelines as Manziel solidified his Heisman campaign in throttling Mizzou, 59-29.
If Franklin fails to step up in his senior year, he will go down as a wasted talent and Missouri will have struggled in-conference once again.
Donte Moncrief, WR, Ole Miss Rebels
After beating rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl to finish 6-6 and gain postseason eligibility, all eyes will be on quarterback Bo Wallace going forward.
However, all eyes in opposition defensive backfields had better be on Moncrief, because the 6-foot-3, 216-pound sophomore is going to explode in 2013.
After piling up decent numbers all season long, it became obvious that Moncrief had simply been saving his best for last. Against national powerhouse LSU and the Bulldogs, the receiver piled up 161 yards and 173, respectively. He caught a total of five touchdowns in the two games, giving him a studly 10 on the season.
Both he and Wallace were only sophomores in leading Ole Miss from the dungeons of the SEC cellar with a 2-10, 2011 campaign to the six wins and a bowl game in 2012.
With an entire offseason to continue to work on running routes and perfecting his timing with Wallace, there is no reason why Moncrief can't be the conference's top wide receiver in 2013.
Ladarius Perkins, RB, Mississippi State Bulldogs
More cowbell? Nope -- what the Bulldogs really needed as they slipped at the end of the season was much more of Ladarius Perkins.
The junior running back's statistics closely mirror the win-loss results of his team.
In sprinting out to a 7-0 start for the first time since 1999, Perkins broke the 100-yard barrier four times and scored eight touchdowns.
The rest of the way, Mississippi State went 1-4. In that time, how many 100-yards games did Perkins have? Zero.
In fact, in a blowout loss to Alabama, Perkins averaged a putrid 2.5 yards per carry. In the Egg Bowl loss to Ole Miss to close out the regular season he was not much better in posting a 2.8 average.
Mississippi State is poised to build on its eight-win, 2012 campaign. Ladarius Perkins, however, as a senior team leader, cannot fade down the stretch. Instead, he will have to be the one who carries the Bulldogs to even bigger and better things.
Chase Garnham, LB, Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt, under coach James Franklin, has enjoyed unprecedented success in reaching back-to-back bowl games for the first time in school history.
However, both Franklin's quarterback, Jordan Rodgers, and the school's all-time leading rusher, Zac Stacy, are departing seniors.
In order to keep from suffering a letdown of a 2013 season, the 'Dores defense will be asked to step up to alleviate some of the growing pains the team is sure to suffer on offense. That is where Chase Garnham comes in.
Back in 2010, Garnham was Vandy's only true freshman to even see the playing field, and he saw action in every single game. The man, at 6-foot-3 and 234 pounds, has the size and the speed to be a force at linebacker for his program, but in 2011 he finished third on the team in total tackles with a mere 77. Two defensive backs, Javon Marshall and Kenny Ladler, finished ahead of him.
If Graham can dominate as the team's senior leader on defense, he will make headlines in a conference that is always stacked at the linebacker position. He obviously has a nose for the football, as he led Vandy with 11.5 tackles for a loss in 2012.
Most importantly, he has the opportunity, if he can pile up the tackles and continue to wreak havoc in the backfields of opposing offenses, to lead his team to yet another bowl berth in 2013.
Jadeveon Clowney, DE, South Carolina Gamecocks
Clowney tied for the national lead in sacks with 13, finished second in tackles for loss with 21.5 and piled up 50 total tackles even though very few running backs were ever headed in his direction.
One might assume there is not much left for the superstar defensive end to accomplish, but Clowney does not see it that way. He has already vowed to make his third season with the Gamecocks his last, and he is gearing up to make it one to remember.
Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te'o proved that exclusively defensive players deserve at least Heisman consideration when he finished second in the 2012 Trophy voting. Come 2013, Clowney should be receiving the same sort of attention as the nation's premier defensive player.
His numbers may be hindered by the fact that opposing coaches are going to be triple-teaming him and running away from him even more next year. If the Gamecocks' stats department is smart, they will start keeping track of the number of holding penalties called on the offensive linemen trying to block Clowney next season. Some random big name is sure to grab his jersey on darn near every single play.
The man is dominant, and if South Carolina can get over the hump and into the SEC Championship Game, expect to see Clowney in New York City for the Heisman presentation soon afterwards.
Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M Aggies
Johnny Football captured the imagination of the country in his redshirt freshman season in 2012, becoming the first diaper dandy to win the Heisman Trophy.
His 4,600 total yards were more than Tim Tebow or Cam Newton were ever able to put together while in college and he enjoyed the 2012 season's signature moment. The Aggies' win over then-No. 1 Alabama, in Tuscaloosa, basically propelled the unassuming Texan to superstardom.
You know all about what he was able to accomplish in A&M's first year in the SEC.
What can he, and his teammates, provide for an encore in 2013?
Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU Tigers
Coach Les Miles always brings in spectacular talent, and there are several LSU ballers that are poised to break out in 2013. This holds especially true if several defensive stars stick around another year instead of turning pro.
However, the chances of the Tigers reaching the national title game in 2013 largely hinge on quarterback Zach Mettenberger.
If Mettenberger continues to put everything together like he did to close out the 2012 season, he will be the star fans in Baton Rouge were hoping for when he transferred in from junior college.
LSU's always stacked defense was forced to carry the team in the early going as it took Mettenberger a while to get acclimated to SEC football. However, once he did, it was lights out. In the team's final four games, a devastating loss at Alabama followed by wins over Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Arkansas, Mettenberger posted more than 200 passing yards in each. Prior to the season's last month, the only times Mettenberger had broken the 200-yard plateau had been in wins over Idaho and Towson -- not exactly football powerhouses.
All eyes will be on the dude who is not afraid to sport a ratty mustache on national television. How tough can football actually be when you've already made a fashion decision like that?
Matt Jones, RB, Florida Gators
Dual-threat quarterback Jeff Driskel should be poised for a breakout 2013 junior campaign after putting a full season of action under his belt.
However, every member of Gator Nation understands one thing about their team: Coach Will Muschamp wants to run the ball. A lot. Against anyone.
Thus, if the Gators are going to continue to dominate the way their 11-1 record and Sugar Bowl berth indicate, someone is going to have to replace leading rusher and departing senior Mike Gillislee.
A year older than Jones, Mack Brown may be the man Muschamp tabs as the starter. However, in terms of raw talent and hype coming into Gainesville, Jones should be the team's breakout star in 2013.
As just a true freshman in 2012, Jones was given 49 carries, third-most on the team behind Gillislee and Driskel. He averaged a team-high for running backs with a 5.3 yards per carry average en route to a solid 259 yards in the limited action he saw.
As previously mentioned, Muschamp's coaching style is inclined towards making the featured running back a star. In 2013, that featured back could be Jones, a young man who has the talent to make headlines.
Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia Bulldogs
Gurley shared carries with teammate and fellow true freshman Keith Marshall in 2012, and both broke out for massive yardage totals in their first year on campus.
In fact, so popular did the two become that fans in Athens quit calling either of them by their respective names and simply dubbed Georgia's two-headed rushing monster "Gurshall" after Hershel Walker, the program's all-time greatest running back.
By the end of the season, however, it had become apparent that Gurley was coach Mark Richt's weapon of choice out of the backfield. The split between the formerly indistinguishable runners was most apparent in the SEC Championship game.
In Georgia's heartbreaking, 32-28 loss, Gurley took 23 carries for 122 yards and two touchdowns. He averaged 5.3 yards per carry against Bama's seemingly impenetrable defensive front. On the other hand, Marshall was only given the ball twice, going for an underwhelming three yards on the afternoon.
If Gurley earns Richt's approval as the team's feature back in 2013, the sky's the limit -- the man piled up 1,260 yards and 16 touchdowns only a few months out of high school. With the rest of the offseason to lift and get faster against his elite, D-I teammates, could he make a run at the Heisman?
That, of course, remains to be seen, but Georgia fans are guaranteed to be watching.
AJ McCarron, QB, Alabama Crimson Tide
When McCarron helped lead the Tide to the BCS National Championship as a sophomore in 2011, he had mostly ridden that Crimson wave to the crystal ball. In 2012, McCarron took on a much larger role, leading the nation in passer efficiency with a 173.1 rating.
He has already announced that he will be back for his senior season, and for the first time since he stepped foot in Tuscaloosa, all eyes will be on the 6-foot-4, 210-pounder.
How will he respond?
If his play as the MVP of the title game in his second year and his leading Bama back to the championship game is any indication, he will be ready.
And that will be, once again, bad news for the rest of the SEC and the nation.
Who do you think will break out in 2013? Sound off below!
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