As the 2012 football season approached, the new faces were easy to see. Most of them were located in College Station and Columbia, Mo., where teams were waiting to enter the SEC after 15 years in the Big 12 and decades before in its precursors. And, of course, there was the ballad of John L. Smith, who took over after Bobby Petrino's decision to be a poster child for distracted driving.
This year, the new faces are a little bit more difficult to see, but they're still there. There are new coaches at fully one third of the "old" SEC teams: Arkansas, Auburn, Kentucky and Tennessee. All but one of them -- Auburn's Gus Malzahn -- are essentially brand new to the conference, never having played or coached a down in the SEC, even as an assistant.
Those coaches themselves are an eclectic mixed bag. Malzahn is known for trying to bring his inventive play design and up tempo style to teams led by old-school coaches, which usually ended with Malzahn being kicked to the curb as soon as the coaches rediscovered their inner conservatism. Malzahn is now running the show in Auburn and will have a chance to prove that his offense can work over the long haul.
Meanwhile, in Arkansas, Bret Bielema will try to bring the physical brand of football he perfected at Wisconsin to Fayetteville, hoping for results similar to his three consecutive B1G championships. But that will mean doing it for a year or two with personnel more suited for a Bobby Petrino-style offense, which is -- let's just say different than what Bielema is striving for.
Kentucky decided to go with someone who has never served as a head coach in Mark Stoops, in the hopes that the former Florida State defensive coordinator is more like Bob and less like Mike. He will also look to implement a radical offensive change in the Air Raid -- something that seems unlikely to be met with immediate success.
Tennessee did get a proven head coach for its program -- if by "proven head coach," you mean someone who was 50-27 in the MAC and the Big East. Butch Jones has a longer and more impressive track record than his predecessor did before getting the Tennessee job. But he remains something of a mystery to me.
There are also new names and faces at some of the programs expected to make the most noise in 2013. The Big Three in the SEC East -- Florida, Georgia and South Carolina -- would have just more than enough returning starters to put together a one-deep on defense. Georgia returns the fewest defensive starters in the league. Jadeveon Clowney is a great player to have, but he can only play for South Carolina, and he can only play one position for the Gamecocks. Don't be shocked if it looks more like the Big 12 East, at least for the first few weeks.
Meanwhile, one of the preseason favorites in the SEC West -- Texas A&M -- has the fewest returning starters of any SEC team. The favorite favorite, Alabama, is only three ahead of the Aggies, with 13 coming back to Tuscaloosa. The runaway winner in returning starters? Ole Miss, which has 18, including eight on an offense that was lighting up the scoreboard at the end of 2012.
So there might be fewer new teams in the SEC in 2013, but there's no lack of new faces, and those new faces don't lack importance. No matter who wins the SEC this year, it seems unlikely that they will do based entirely on the coaches and players who were there last year. The new guys might be harder to spot than in 2012, but the conference championship might ride on which ones end up being the most easily recognized.