SEC post-spring power rankings

Now that spring practice has come and gone, why not tweak the SEC power rankings?

The teams always look a little different coming out of the spring. New players emerge. Injuries, suspensions and dismissals occur, and coaches bemoan depth issues at key spots.

The top of the league remains unchanged. Alabama’s the best team in the SEC until proven otherwise. Florida’s the second-best team until proven otherwise.

Yes, both teams lost great players. But both teams also have immensely talented players waiting in the wings behind those players they lost.

After Alabama and Florida, it’s anybody’s guess. Having been to most of the spring camps the past two months, I can see how a case could be made for Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU and South Carolina all to be ranked No. 3.

Here’s my best college try as we head into the summer:

1. Alabama: Don’t be fooled by how few starters return on defense. Defensive end Marcell Dareus and linebacker Dont’a Hightower are future first-round draft picks, and this program has recruited like crazy the past two years. The offense may be the best Alabama has put on the field in a long time. You can bet the Tide will be balanced, too. Having two backs the caliber of Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson on the same roster tends to open up a few things for the offense.

2. Florida: Junior quarterback John Brantley certainly looks like the real thing. We’ll find out for sure this fall. How everybody plays around him on offense may be the most important component for the Gators. The schedule sets up nicely, meaning all of the new faces on defense will have a chance to build up some confidence before that Oct. 2 trip to Alabama.

3. Arkansas: The Hogs move up a spot from the pre-spring rankings. Coach Bobby Petrino is convinced that his defense will be improved and said the competition between the offense and defense this spring was the best it’s been. That’s saying something, too, when you consider how potent Arkansas is offensively. The Hogs are going to light up scoreboards in the fall.

4. LSU: There wasn’t that air of confidence surrounding the quarterback position coming out of the spring at LSU. Jordan Jefferson simply didn’t take the job and run with it like a lot of people around the program thought he would. The Tigers made more of a commitment to running the ball better this spring and will again be good on defense. But to be a 10-win team or better, Jefferson has to take his game to another level.

5. Auburn: Arkansas and Auburn find themselves in similar positions. Both need to improve on defense to have a legitimate shot of contending for the SEC championship. The Tigers are still facing a numbers problem on defense, although it’s not as severe as it was last season. They’re counting on several players from this signing class to come in and provide some depth. Quarterback Cameron Newton was one of the best acquisitions of the offseason. He’ll bring a different dimension to this offense.

6. Georgia: Even though the Bulldogs lost a few key players this spring, namely quarterback Zach Mettenberger and outside linebacker Montrez Robinson, they get the nod over South Carolina and move up to the sixth spot. Redshirt freshman Aaron Murray will be a first-year starter at quarterback, but he has 10 starters returning around him. Ultimately, it will be up to the defense to see if the Bulldogs can make a serious run at the Gators in the East.

7. South Carolina: The Gamecocks were ranked in the top half of the league in the pre-spring rankings. That’s before Steve Spurrier went after quarterback Stephen Garcia publicly. Maybe Garcia will respond and have a great year. The Gamecocks return 15 starters, and you know Ellis Johnson’s defense will be good again. But if Garcia goes the other way, Spurrier will head into the most anticipated season since he’s been in Columbia with a true freshman (Connor Shaw) as his quarterback.

8. Ole Miss: Tyrone Nix’s front seven on defense is what gives the Rebels the nod over their in-state rivals for the No. 8 spot. A defensive line led by Jerrell Powe and Kentrell Lockett should be one of the best in the league, and the Rebels’ linebackers are extremely underrated. It may be slow going for the offense until some guys grow up. The middle of the offensive line will be new, and somebody needs to emerge as the go-to playmaker.

9. Mississippi State: It’s tempting to move the Bulldogs even higher. After all, they did beat Ole Miss by two touchdowns when they met last November. Dan Mullen said he would be disappointed if Mississippi State’s not in a bowl game next postseason. The defensive line should be greatly improved, and it sounds like Mullen is comfortable with playing two quarterbacks. That Thursday night home game against Auburn the second week of the season will be huge for this club to generate some early momentum.

10. Tennessee: It’s strange seeing the Vols this far down in any kind of ranking of SEC teams, but that’s what happens when your roster is gutted the way it has been the past couple of years and you’re on your third head coach in a little more than 14 months. Even getting to .500 next season will be a challenge for the Vols, who will have five new starters on the offensive line, a first-year starter at quarterback and no depth at defensive tackle.

11. Kentucky: The Wildcats have thrived on being picked low the past two years and then proving everybody wrong. Only four other teams in the SEC have been to bowl games each of the past four years. The problem heading into the 2010 season is that they lost so many key defensive players from those teams. Quarterback Mike Hartline’s return from a knee injury should help the passing game, which was non-existent after he went down last season.

12. Vanderbilt: The offense can’t be any worse than it was a year ago, right? Those who saw the offense go 13 straight possessions before finding the end zone in the Black and Gold spring scrimmage may beg to disagree. Vanderbilt coach Bobby Johnson has shuffled some responsibilities on his offensive staff, and even though the Commodores will again be salty on defense, it’s hard to move them out of the cellar until they prove they’re going to be able to score points in this league.