The quest for eight straight begins this week for football teams in the Southeastern Conference.
League schools have combined to claim the past seven national championships of the BCS era and head into Tuesday’s opening session of the three-day SEC media days in Hoover, Ala., with multiple candidates to extend the streak in the final season before FBS football programs adopt a playoff system.
Texas A&M, which posted an 11-2 record and finished fifth in last year’s final polls, joins Alabama, the two-time defending national champion, on the list of SEC schools expected to crack the Top 10 in the preseason polls. Four other teams coming off seasons with double-digit victories — Georgia, South Carolina, Florida and LSU — also are expected to open with Top 10 rankings or close to it.
Any team from that six-pack of contenders could allow the SEC to cap the BCS era with an eighth consecutive crystal football. Florida and South Carolina will be among the four schools at Tuesday’s dais, with A&M scheduled Wednesday and the trio of Alabama, Georgia and LSU among Thursday’s teams.
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In addition to the league-wide quest to extend the SEC’s recent BCS dominance, here are five storylines to follow this week and throughout the season:
Sept. 14 showdown
The winner of the Texas A&M-Alabama game in College Station should maximize poll position for a BCS title run, with the winning quarterback becoming the early frontrunner in the 2013 Heisman Trophy race.
A&M’s Johnny Manziel, a sophomore, won last year’s Heisman. Alabama’s A.J. McCarron, a multiyear starter, has led the Crimson Tide to two BCS titles and has the skills to collect some high-profile personal hardware in his senior season.
A&M spoiled Alabama’s otherwise-perfect 2012 season with a 29-24 victory in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and the Crimson Tide will have an open date on Sept. 7 to prepare for payback in 2013.
The game already has been selected as a CBS national telecast (2:30 p.m.) and projects to be one of the most expensive tickets of the season on StubHub.com.
Disregarding one post by a wannabe millionaire who seeks $999,999 per ticket, a recent price check on the site showed a resale range between $405 and $9,000 per ticket.
Rebuilding at Georgia
The Bulldogs’ prolific offense, which averaged an FBS-best 7.09 yards per play last season, returns its primary play-makers and five starting linemen from a team that fell to Alabama 32-28 in last year’s SEC title game.
But the defense returns only three starters and will be without last year’s FBS leader in tackles for losses (All-America LB Jarvis Jones, 24.5), last year’s leading tackler (LB Alec Ogletree) and most of last year’s starters in the secondary and defensive line.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, a former Dallas Cowboys’ assistant, must cobble together a productive unit to handle a front-loaded schedule with defining games against Clemson (Aug. 31), South Carolina (Sept. 7) and LSU (Sept. 28) among Georgia’s first four games.
If not, QB Aaron Murray and tag-team tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall may have to boost last year’s scoring average (37.8) to keep title hopes alive.
LSU’s roster turnover
Between graduation losses and a long list of early departees in the 2013 NFL Draft, the Tigers return only 10 starters from last year’s 10-3 squad.
But one of them is QB Zach Mettenberger, three others anchor a veteran offensive line and there is quality depth at running back.
The biggest void is in the defensive line, where no starters return but coaches are upbeat about the athleticism of DE Jermauria Rasco, DT Anthony Johnson, DE Danielle Hunter and others. LSU returns only three starters on defense, led by LB Lamin Barrow (104 tackles last season).
Without question, the Tigers have recruited well in recent years. But did they lose too much quality depth in one off-season to remain a viable SEC contender?
Of the SEC teams in the national title picture, none seems better suited on paper to hoist the crystal football than Alabama.
The Crimson Tide, BCS champs the past two seasons, returns eight defensive starters from a 13-1 team. Also back are three play-makers with eye-popping statistics from last season: quarterback A.J. McCarron (30-3 ratio of TD passes to interceptions), RB T.J. Yeldon (1,108 yards, 12 TDs) and WR Amari Cooper (59 catches, 1,000 receiving yards, 11 TDs).
McCarron, a senior, has led the team to two national titles as a starter and a stellar linebacker corps returns intact from 2012.
The validity of Alabama’s threepeat hopes should come into focus quickly. The Tide’s two biggest games away from Tuscaloosa, Ala., are Aug. 31 (Virginia Tech in Atlanta) and Sept. 14 (at Texas A&M).
Under the radar
If the SEC has a middle-of-the-pack team capable of ruining the hopes of a BCS title contender, it’s probably Ole Miss.
The Rebels return 15 starters from a 7-6 team, led by senior quarterback Bo Wallace, and took quantum leaps statistically on both sides of the ball last season.
Ole Miss finished 11th nationally in sacks (2.9 per game last season), up 99 spots from 2011, and averaged 31.5 points per game.
Lots of freshmen and JC transfers dot the preseason depth chart, including two projected impact signees: DE Robert Nkemdiche, the nation’s top-rated high school signee, and DT Lavon Hooks, a JC standout last season.