SEC position rankings: Special teams

We took a little hiatus from the position rankings last week while attending the SEC media days.

We’ll pick back up today with special teams. Place-kickers and punters are important, especially those with experience, but so are dangerous return men. We also looked at net punting and the way teams covered kicks last season.

Here’s how we would rank the special teams units in the league heading into the 2012 season:

1. LSU: Where are the Tigers not loaded for 2012? They again should be outstanding in the kicking game with place-kicker Drew Alleman and punter Brad Wing both returning. Alleman was 16-of-18 on field goals last season, and Wing averaged 44.4 yards per punt. The Tigers were third nationally in net punting (41.15 yards), and Tyrann Mathieu is back after averaging 15.6 yards on punt returns and taking two back for touchdowns.

2. Florida: Coach Will Muschamp said last week that Caleb Sturgis was the best kicker in the country. Sturgis was a Lou Groza Award finalist last season and made 22-of-26 field goals. He was one of only two FBS kickers to make three field goals of 50 yards or longer. The Gators also have an assortment of speed in their return game. Andre Debose was second in the SEC in kickoff return average and took one back 99 yards for a touchdown.

3. Auburn: The Tigers have a trio of dangerous return men in Onterio McCalebb, Tre Mason and Quan Bray. McCalebb and Mason both returned kickoffs for touchdowns last season. Junior punter Steven Clark was a Ray Guy Award finalist last season. He was third nationally with 33 punts inside the 20. Junior place-kicker Cody Parkey returns after making 13-of-18 field goals. Auburn led the SEC in kickoff coverage and tied for third in net punting.

4. Arkansas: The Hogs love their kicking combo of junior place-kicker Zach Hocker and senior punter Dylan Breeding. Hocker was 21-of-27 on field goals, and his 40 touchbacks ranked second nationally. Breeding led the SEC in punting with an average of 45.3 yards per kick. Joe Adams won’t be weaving his magic on punt returns any more, but Dennis Johnson is equally dangerous when he’s back there as the deep man.

5. Ole Miss: The Rebels have one of the top senior kicking duos in the conference returning. Bryson Rose was 9-of-11 on field goals, while Tyler Campbell averaged 43.6 yards per punt and was second in the SEC with 28 punts downed inside the 20. Ole Miss was second in the league in kickoff coverage and fifth in net punting. Jeff Scott is also back after averaging 17.2 yards on punt returns, including a 67-yard touchdown.

6. Missouri: Senior Trey Barrow earned second-team All-Big 12 honors last season as a punter when he averaged 44.8 yards per punt, which ranked him ninth nationally. He also filled in later in the season as the place-kicker and was 7-of-9 on field goals, but was outplayed this spring by redshirt freshman Andrew Baggett. E.J. Gaines and T.J. Moe are both veteran return men.

7. Texas A&M: Senior Dustin Harris is one of the top return men in college football. He led the country last season in punt return average with an 18.6-yard average. The big loss is Lou Groza Award winner Randy Bullock, who made 29 of his 33 field goal attempts, including 13-of-16 from 40 yards or longer. Redshirt freshman place-kicker Taylor Bertolet has some big shoes to fill.

8. Alabama: Kicking field goals wasn’t one of the things defending national champion Alabama did best last season, but Jeremy Shelley came through in the BCS National Championship Game and returns for his senior season. Junior Cody Mandell was ninth in the SEC in punting a year ago, and the Crimson Tide were shaky in kickoff coverage. They also have to replace Marquis Maze in the return game.

9. Vanderbilt: Junior Warren Norman is healthy again and ready to showcase the same form that earned him SEC Freshman of the Year honors when he returned three kickoffs for touchdowns. Incoming freshman Brian Kimbrow could also provide some fireworks in the return game. The Commodores didn’t make any field goals longer than 40 yards last season, but were third in the SEC in net punting.

10. Mississippi State: Junior punter Baker Swedenburg is the most proven component of Mississippi State’s special teams. He averaged 41.8 yards a kick last season, and the Bulldogs were sixth in the league in net punting. Senior Brian Egan and freshman Devon Bell will compete for the place-kicking duties after Derek DePasquale made 12-of-18 field goals last season.

11. Kentucky: Senior place-kicker Craig McIntosh has gone from walk-on to one of the most dependable place-kickers in the SEC. He made 12-of-14 field goals last season and also took over the kickoff duties later in the season. Replacing punter Ryan Tydlacka won’t be easy, and the Wildcats’ return game was non-existent in 2011. They were last in the SEC in punt return average (1.8 yards).

12. South Carolina: The Gamecocks need to make more happen in the return game and hope Ace Sanders and Bruce Ellington can fill that void. They also will break in two new kickers. Landon Ard is a redshirt freshman place-kicker, and there’s still a battle raging at the punter position. South Carolina was last in the SEC in kickoff coverage a year ago and 11th in net punting.

13. Tennessee: The Vols were last in the SEC in net punting last season, and covering kicks, period, has been a problem for some time on Rocky Top. They’re also looking for more consistency when it comes to kicking field goals. Junior Michael Palardy was 9-of-14 last season. Making more happen in the return game would help, too. Speedy sophomore Devrin Young may be the answer.

14. Georgia: The Bulldogs were a train wreck on special teams last season. They couldn’t cover kicks, and senior place-kicker Blair Walsh had an off year. Now, Walsh is gone along with veteran punter Drew Butler. That means the Bulldogs will have a new place-kicker and a new punter, and their most dynamic weapon in the return game, Brandon Boykin, also has to be replaced.