Top SEC challengers to Alabama

Johnny Manziel and the Aggies should be Alabama's top threat in the SEC next season. John David Mercer/US Presswire

The Alabama Crimson Tide played a near-perfect game Monday night in a crushing defeat of previously unbeaten Notre Dame. The win was an emphatic exclamation point on coach Nick Saban's third BCS championship title in four years, cementing his and Alabama's reign at the top of the college football world.

We produce a series of ratings each year called Program FEI (PFEI), a five-year weighted measure of college football drive efficiency. PFEI is a strong indicator of next-year success, which is why it is used as a primary factor in our annual projections. There are six SEC programs ranked among the top 20 in the latest PFEI ratings, but No. 1 Alabama has distanced itself from the others, as well as from every other top program in college football. The gulf between the best program and the next best has never been wider than it is now, according to this metric.

But that doesn't mean the best can't be beaten, as Texas A&M and Johnny Manziel proved this season in a thrilling win in Tuscaloosa that temporarily shook up the BCS standings. For as dominant as Alabama has been and projects to be, there is still a significant likelihood that it will trip at some point. Which SEC teams are best positioned to take advantage if it does?

We ran two sets of preliminary projections for the recently published 2013 SEC schedules. One projection was based exclusively on possession efficiency data from 2012. The other projection was based on Program FEI. The projection model will develop throughout the offseason to include roster change data and other transitional factors, but these two measures are our first glimpse at the SEC pecking order for 2013.

Here are the top conference challengers to the Tide for next season.

1. Texas A&M Aggies (PFEI No. 18)

2013 projection per 2012 FEI: 6.9 conference wins

2013 projection per PFEI: 4.9 conference wins

In 2012, the Aggies had as impressive a debut season in the SEC as could have been imagined. Led by Heisman winner Manziel, Texas A&M scored 44.5 points per game (fourth-most nationally) and ranked first in offensive efficiency (scoring versus average scoring expectation based on field position). Manziel was a dynamic performer in coach Kevin Sumlin's offense (the 2011 offense at Houston, where Sumlin previously was coach, also ranked first in offensive efficiency), and the Aggies improved throughout the season. Texas A&M posted its top four marks in opponent-adjusted offensive efficiency after Nov. 1.