After six straight BCS national championships, all eyes will be on the SEC in 2012 once again. The conference has dominated college football for the better part of the last decade, and there's little reason to believe that next season won't be even better. The biggest question isn't whether there will be an SEC team playing for the crystal football in January of 2013, but rather, which one?
The Alabama Crimson Tide will have a good shot at defending their national title next season, and the LSU Tigers will be loaded once again for another run at the championship, but front-running isn't a common SEC tradition. In fact, the SEC hasn't had a repeat conference champion since the Tennessee Volunteers won in 1997 and '98. In the last six seasons, four different SEC East programs and four different SEC West programs have played in the conference title game. If the Tigers and/or Tide falter next season, there are a handful of teams best positioned to take their place.
With the recent release of the 2012 SEC conference schedules, fans got their first look at how conference expansion will make an impact on the title game chase. We won't have Football Outsiders' projections ready until recruiting season and spring practice wrap up in a few months. But we can make initial forecasts based on current ratings and Program FEI data -- our formula that has proved to be a strong predictor of next-year success -- for comparison (for an explanation of PFEI, click here).
Based on our data, here are the SEC's five most promising national title contenders (outside of Alabama and LSU), ranked in order of their likelihood of challenging the Tide and the Tigers for SEC supremacy, and competing for the BCS championship.
1. Georgia Bulldogs (PFEI No. 14)
2012 projection based on 2011 ratings: 5.8 conference wins (1st in SEC East)
2012 projection based on PFEI ratings: 5.4 conference wins (2nd in SEC East)
If Mark Richt hasn't sent a gift basket to the SEC offices yet, it had better be at the top of his to-do list. For the second straight season, Georgia won't face the three best teams (LSU, Alabama and Arkansas) from the SEC West.
Imbalanced scheduling made a world of difference in 2011 -- South Carolina went undefeated in the SEC East, including a head-to-head win against Georgia, but the Bulldogs won the division by playing weaker cross-division foes than the Gamecocks. Based on 2011 FEI ratings, Georgia will play the easiest conference schedule in the SEC, and based on PFEI, it isn't much tougher.