For old, new teams alike, SEC will be full of the unexpected this season

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NEW YORK -- Gary Danielson is set to begin his seventh season as the lead college football analyst for The SEC on CBS.

Six seasons covering the SEC. Six BCS national championships. Not bad. The thing I like about Danielson is that he has a little edge to him. He doesn't conform to conventional wisdom and you really can't pigeonhole where he is going to come down on any particular topic.

Every year I sit down with Gary to get his thoughts on the top storylines in SEC football for the upcoming season. This week we were in New York with Tim Brando and Spencer Tillman to tape the CBS Sports college football preview show that will run Saturday at 1 p.m. ET.

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1. A lot of people are underestimating the impact that the loss of Tyrann Mathieu will have on LSU.

"Yes, there will be a good player who will take that spot who represents all of the strong recruiting classes LSU has put together. I hear people say that he's not their best cover corner and that it will only affect the special teams.

"But that discounts his ball-hawking ability on the field and his ability to disrupt what other teams are doing on offense. Every offensive coordinator in the SEC that I talked to circled the fact that they had to know where Mathieu was on the field at all times. Just think of all the games he turned around with forced turnovers. He is a difference maker."

2. The biggest difference between the Alabama of last year and this year is not the seven new defensive starters. It's the schedule.

"Last year, Alabama played a road schedule [Penn State, Florida, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Auburn] that was pretty quarterback-light when it came to the opponents. They took good advantage of that and allowed their quarterback [AJ McCarron] to grow up while winning games. This year, it is conceivable they are going to have to score more points -- which they are set up to do, because in every road game they are going to face a pretty good quarterback: Michigan [Denard Robinson], Arkansas [Tyler Wilson], Missouri [James Franklin], Tennessee [Tyler Bray], LSU [Zach Mettenberger].

"I think Alabama will be fine because they are talented and so well coached. But it's going to be a little different for Alabama this year."

3. People are really downgrading the importance of Bobby Petrino at Arkansas.

"These great programs don't run on autopilot like a 747. An upper-tier SEC football team is like a fighter jet -- you have to have somebody who can make adjustments during a game. When Arkansas lost Bobby Petrino, they lost their fighter pilot, who was really good at making adjustments on the fly.

"Yes, [QB] Tyler Wilson is a very good player, but my sense is that it is going to be good for opponents to play them later rather than earlier. As the season goes along it is going to be tougher to hold that thing together."

4. The new guys are going to be surprised by the intensity of this league.

"Texas A&M and Missouri certainly played against good football teams in the Big 12. But what changes for them is that every week in the SEC is like a game with Texas or Oklahoma.

"Just looking at the schedules, the SEC could have 11 bowl teams this season. That number is within reach. And when you face that kind of intensity every week, it wears on you after a while.

"But I will say this. I do think the new guys will be the key to the championship. One of them is going to beat somebody that they are not supposed to beat and they are going to do it early."

5. Georgia's Aaron Murray is a bigger key to his team's success than any other quarterback in the SEC.

"Georgia is pretty talented on defense, and when you're that strong in the front seven you always have a chance. I think the move of [wide receiver] Malcolm Mitchell [to cornerback] is a tremendous move. I was not a fan of [dismissed running back] Isaiah Crowell. I thought he was a soft player. They will be fine at running back.

"The key to Georgia's season is going to be the play of Murray. He runs hot and cold. Can he put together one of those seasons that allow the coaches to depend on him? If Murray [a junior] gives a senior year-type performance, then Georgia has the type of schedule that allows them to have a very good year. That second game at Missouri [on Sept. 8] is the one I'm watching."

Several other points from Danielson:

 On South Carolina running back Marcus Lattimore, returning from a serious knee injury: "Running backs always say they are a 100 percent but you don't know until they get back into contact. I pray that he is 100 percent because he is an NFL back. Will he run as hard and as fearless as he did before? Will outside influences get into Lattimore's head?"

 On Auburn, switching from the spread offense to a power running game under new OC Scott Loeffler: "Auburn continues the trend of teams realizing that if they are going to recruit the elite athlete, they must show they can get them ready for the pros. You can't depend on having a Cam Newton every year. To play that way, you have to be willing to punt a few times and trust your defense. You have to make sure your quarterback doesn't beat you. It's a totally different mindset."

 On Florida and Tennessee: "They are my wild cards. I love those two teams. This Tennessee-Florida game [on Sept. 15] might be the best one in the seven years I've done this because it is going to be a high-stakes game for both teams. There are some tremendously gifted players on offense for Tennessee. If [QB] Tyler Bray is who I think he is, he'll have a great year. Tennessee is loaded at wide receiver and has some veterans on the offensive line. This is a highly motivated football team.

"Florida also needs this game badly. This is the second year under [Will] Muschamp, who is also changing the playing personality of that team. Their defense is really loaded and now the kids at Florida have a better understanding of what Muschamp wants to do."

The Tony Barnhart Show begins Aug. 28 at 9 p.m. on The CBS Sports Network.


Tony Barnhart is in his fifth season as a contributor to CBSSports.com. He is a college football analyst for CBS Sports and The CBS Sports Network. Prior to joining CBS he was the national college football writer for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution for 24 years. He has written five books on college football.
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