The preseason consensus is fairly well set, and it appears that everyone expects Alabama and Florida to be the top two teams in the conference. No surprises there.
Where there is conflict is in who is next. LSU settled uneasily into the spot last year as the only team other than the top two to finish above .500 in league play (and hit nine wins, for that matter). The candidates up this year appear to be near-unanimous SEC East runner up pick Georgia and a trio of teams from the West: LSU again with trendy picks Arkansas and Auburn.
We don't know who will end up third this year, but here's a look at how they stack up.
Arkansas is the clear leader here, with a likely 2010 All-American in Ryan Mallett. I gave LSU the second spot because both Jordan Jefferson and Jarrett Lee have at least played and won some games. I expect Jefferson to hold the spot all year, and, while he's not electrifying, he's not likely to lose games for the Tigers.
I put Auburn third because I think Cameron Newton's ceiling for this year is higher than Aaron Murray's thanks to Newton being a junior with some game reps under his belt (even if they were from garbage time a few years ago). Murray goes fourth by default for being a freshman, but it's entirely possible that both he and Newton will end up ahead of Jefferson by season's end if the latter doesn't improve.
This one is close and fairly subjective. I've got Georgia first because I think Washaun Ealey and Caleb King are a great tandem. They are highly effective, complement each other, and don't have anyone else challenging for their carries. It's a stable situation as long as they stay healthy.
Arkansas has a variety of options between Dennis Johnson, Ronnie Wingo, Broderick Green, and Knile Davis. None of them have been as consistent as UGA's backs though, so I've got them second as a unit. Auburn isn't too far off with the speedy Mario Fannin and Onterio McCalebb, but they'll be relying on true freshman Michael Dyer to bring the thunder. LSU limps in a distant fourth after having a poor showing running the ball in 2009 while losing Charles Scott, Keiland Williams, and Trindon Holliday.
Arkansas wins for sheer numbers here. Greg Childs is the headliner, but Joe Adams, Jarius Wright, and D.J. Williams are no slouches either. It's one of the best receiving corps in the country. I went back and forth over who is second, but ultimately I went with Auburn. Georgia has a lot of up-and-comers behind A.J. Green, but the Tigers have two guys who have definitely arrived in Darvin Adams and Terrell Zachery. Plus, Fannin is a dangerous option out of the backfield.
Georgia gets a reluctant third, though if you want to put them second, I have no quarrels with you. Green is one of the best in the nation, and Tavarres King should be pretty good. Orson Charles is a nice option from tight end, as is Aron White. If they come through on their potential, Georgia's unit should surpass Auburn's by the end of the year, but I don't know if I can put UGA second for now. LSU again is last. Terrance Toliver and Russell Shepard are a great duo, but it's question marks from there for the Tigers.
Georgia gets the nod for first here thanks to having lots of quality guys and an ungodly number of returning starts. Auburn clips Arkansas here thanks to Lee Ziemba and again, a ton of returning starts. Arkansas is pretty close though, and DeMarcus Love is not too shabby himself. LSU is last after a disastrous offensive line performance last year.
Defensive line is not a particularly strong position among this bunch, but LSU is safely in the lead thanks to veterans Drake Nevis and Lazarius Levingston. The Tigers could do with a few more sacks than they got last year, but it seems like this is a position LSU never has much trouble staffing with big and nasty guys. I gave Auburn the second spot despite the loss of Antonio Coleman because it has some guys like Antoine Carter and Nick Fairley who have shown some things in the past.
Georgia gets the third spot because, despite the presence of guys like Demarcus Dobbs, I'm concerned how the unit will do with the 3-4 switch. One big thing going in its favor is Todd Grantham's expertise as a defensive line coach. If they put in the work, he should have them whipped into fine shape by November. Arkansas's line wasn't particularly effective last season, and it lost its best player in Malcolm Sheppard.
I gave Auburn a slight edge over Georgia thanks to the stability that Josh Bynes and Craig Stevens bring. They were near the top of the league in tackles last season and should be again. That's not to say that Georgia is far behind, especially with Justin Houston manning one of the outside linebacker spots. It's going to take the unit some time to get used to the 3-4, and I think it will take a step back minus Rennie Curran.
LSU has perhaps the best linebacker on all of these teams in Kelvin Sheppard, but he's surrounded by inexperience. Les Miles has recruited well on defense, but we won't know what he's got in the young guys until we see them. Jerry Franklin certainly has the ability to be special for Arkansas, but the unit as a whole doesn't quite have what the other three do in terms of talent.
LSU has one of the best secondaries in the country, headlined by Patrick Peterson. Jai Eugene slides back to safety to make room for Morris Claiborne, a guy the coaches have loved since spring. Auburn has some depth and is getting some important guys back from injury, but the unit must improve in run support. Teams were able to gash the Tigers outside the tackles when the linebackers were blocked.
Georgia has a young but promising group. If Brandon Boykin continues to progress, he'll be one of the conference's top corners this year. I also liked what I saw out of Bacarri Rambo before his concussion against Auburn. Things got mighty toasty back there in 2009 though, as did things for Arkansas. I don't know if I agree with Chris Low's assessment of the Razorbacks DBs being the worst collection in the conference, but I don't share Phil Steele's optimism either.
Drew Butler. Blair Walsh. Did I mention Boykin returned three kicks for touchdowns last year? Georgia is a clear number one here. LSU is not that far back though thanks to the reliable Josh Jasper and the potential for fireworks in the return game with Shepard and Peterson. Auburn's Wes Byrum doesn't have as big a leg as Walsh and Jasper do, but he was deadly accurate last year. Demond Washington doesn't get much press, but he was a top ten kickoff returner last year. Arkansas's Dennis Johnson is a fantastic return man, but Alex Tejada's inconsistencies hold this unit back in comparison to the others.
In the end, it's... inconclusive. Auburn and Georgia come out slightly ahead, but no one is dusting or lagging the field. This is not a totally scientific way to do this, as the discrete number rankings don't allow for much nuance. There's also the matter of schedules to take into account, as well as the fact that I was very conservative when it comes to projecting individuals' improvement with these rankings.
So, who do you think will be third in the conference this fall?