With powerhouses like Alabama, LSU, South Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Arkansas, it's no secret the SEC is the nation's strongest collection of teams. Even squads like Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Mississippi State are poised to push for top-25 status in 2012. In addition, Texas A&M and Missouri are set to join the conference, with A&M bringing a Houston-style offense and Missouri arriving with the nation's top receiver recruit in Dorial Green-Beckham. Although strong defense drives the conference - LSU, Georgia, Alabama, South Carolina, Florida and Mississippi State could be top-20 defenses - there's still plenty of fantasy potential on offense, as running backs Marcus Lattimore (South Carolina), Knile Davis (Arkansas) and Eddie Lacy (Alabama) and receivers Justin Hunter (Tennessee) and Cobi Hamilton (Arkansas) are potential top-five players at their respective positions.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
1. Marcus Lattimore, RB, South Carolina
Lattimore is expected to be at full strength for Week 1 after suffering a season-ending knee injury in 2011. An immensely skilled all-around workhorse, Lattimore is a good bet to average at least 20 carries and three catches per game, and he has the athleticism and power to extract big numbers out of that workload. He probably doesn't have as much upside as Arkansas running back Knile Davis, but he has fewer durability worries. And with Arkansas, Wofford and Clemson as his last three opponents in 2012, Lattimore will be a big hit in the fantasy playoffs.
2. Knile Davis, RB, Arkansas
No player in the country is even close to possessing Davis' combination of size, strength, speed and explosiveness. The problem is he runs with so much power at such high velocities that he exposes himself to a lot of contact, making him the biggest injury risk among the top-tier running backs. If he can stay healthy, though, his productivity is jaw-dropping. He missed all of last season with an ankle injury, but in 2010 he ran for 1,028 yards (6.4 YPC) and 12 touchdowns in the final seven games, destroying every defense in his path, including teams like Ohio State and LSU as well as road matchups against South Carolina and Mississippi State.
3. Eddie Lacy, RB, Alabama
Lacy was one of the nation's best big-play threats the last two years while backing up Mark Ingram and Trent Richardson, and in 2012 he finally gets the chance to take over as Alabama's top runner. With 1,080 yards (7.2 YPC) and 13 touchdowns the last two years, Lacy should yield explosive results as a workhorse back. Unfortunately, he's unlikely to see workloads as big as those seized by Ingram and Richardson, as Alabama has two highly impressive runners behind him in Jalston Fowler and T.J. Yeldon. Still, Lacy should push for 20 carries per game this year, in which case anything less than 1,400 yards and 14 touchdowns on the ground alone would surprise. He's capable of much better.
4. Justin Hunter, WR, Tennessee
Hunter is probably the nation's best pro prospect at wide receiver, and even as he comes back from a 2011 ACL tear he's poised to set opposing defenses on fire right away this year. He has one of the nation's more promising quarterbacks in Tyler Bray, and he totaled 302 yards and two touchdowns in his first two games as a sophomore last year. He had 415 yards (25.9 YPC) and seven touchdowns on just 16 catches the year before that, so don't think for a second that he's a fluke. He's the best player in one of the nation's most effective passing games.
5. Cobi Hamilton, WR, Arkansas
He might not be quite the athlete that Hunter is for Tennessee, but Hamilton has a real shot at emerging as the SEC's most productive receiver in 2012. The big (6-foot-3, 209) wideout is an imposing talent, and he's set to see his numbers skyrocket with Jarius Wright, Greg Childs and Joe Adams no longer in town. The Arkansas passing game will put up numbers and, along with tight end Chris Gragg, Hamilton is one of just two remotely proven returning receivers on the team. With Wright, Adams and Childs combining for 2,009 yards and 15 touchdowns last year, their departures mean that Hamilton should more than double his 2011 totals of 542 yards and four touchdowns.
Jamiell Showers, QB, Texas A&M
Although Showers hasn't started a game for Texas A&M, the redshirt sophomore might have more fantasy upside than any quarterback in the conference. Of course, since he has such little experience his floor is also near the bottom of the conference, but as long as he holds on to his starting role he should be a good fantasy option, even if he struggles in real football terms. That's because Texas A&M's new coach is Kevin Sumlin, who spent the last four years overseeing Houston offenses that averaged 47.5 pass attempts per game. Sumlin figures to make the play calling a bit less aggressive in the SEC, but Showers still likely will hit 3,000 yards passing if he starts 12 games.
Nick Griffin, RB, Mississippi State
There wasn't much work for Griffin to do while Vick Ballard was around at Mississippi State, so the Bulldogs mostly kept him hidden. This season, though, Griffin needs to step up as the team's primary inside runner because Ballard is gone to the NFL. Although LaDarius Perkins is the team's most proven returning runner, he doesn't possess the build to take up a big workload. That means Griffin and Perkins will split carries, with Griffin presumably taking the most physically demanding situations (short yardage and goal-line carries). The opportunities will be there for Griffin - the only question is whether he has the skills to capitalize.
Warren Norman, RB, Vanderbilt
Zac Stacy is one of the nation's best running backs and clearly Vanderbilt's top runner entering the season. It's easy to forget that Norman was better than Stacy the last time he was healthy. Knee troubles wiped out Norman's 2011 season and are an enduring concern, but if he's healthy for 2012 he's too good to keep off the field. He ran for 1,242 yards (5.6 YPC) and seven touchdowns in his first 20 games at Vanderbilt while adding three kick return touchdowns. Norman should be good depth in SEC-only leagues, at least.
Tyler Russell, QB, Mississippi State
Although he's nowhere near the runner Chris Relf was for Mississippi State, Russell should be a much more viable fantasy option. And with Relf's exit, he no longer has to share snaps. Russell has intriguing potential as a passer and what looks to be a skilled and deep receiver group. He has 1,669 yards (8.5 YPA), 13 touchdowns and 10 interceptions the last two years and should be even more efficient as he enters his fourth year with the program. Russell's offensive line is a concern, though.
Dorial Green-Beckham, WR, Missouri
The No. 1 wide receiver recruit from 2012, DGB is a physically imposing target at 6-6 with the quickness and speed to run past defenders. He's drawn comparisons to Calvin Johnson, A.J. Green and Julio Jones, but expecting the immediate impact that trio made is probably not wise. Missouri has three good receivers already in T.J. Moe, Marcus Lucas and L'Damian Washington. Green-Beckham, though, should be a force in SEC-only leagues.
T.J. Moe, WR, Missouri
Moe is quick and precise and knows how to move the chains, making him one of the nation's best possession receivers. As a fantasy option, however, his upside is limited. Moe is a part of a talented group of Missouri receivers and will have a lot of targets stolen by the likes of Green-Beckham, Lucas and Washington. His catches rarely go for much yardage (11.5 career YPC), and he has just 10 career touchdowns on 148 receptions. It's difficult to see being worth a pick outside of SEC-only or deep PPR formats.
Spencer Ware, RB, LSU
Ware is a talented athlete and the favorite to lead LSU in carries, but considering the Tigers might have the nation's most talented backfield, that carry total might not be especially high. Ware was the team's least efficient runner last year, too. Although he had a team-leading 177 carries, he totaled just 707 yards and eight touchdowns. Michael Ford, Kenny Hilliard and Alfed Blue, meanwhile, combined for 1,631 yards and 22 touchdowns on just 267 carries. Ware should be owned in most formats since his rushing average should improve in 2012, but he's not worth a major investment.
Zac Stacy, RB, Vanderbilt
Stacy proved he's definitely one of the nation's best running backs, bolting for 1,193 yards (5.9 YPC) and 14 touchdowns last year in his first season as the team's lead back. The problem is his numbers almost will certainly decline this year, perhaps in drastic fashion. Warren Norman is back after missing 2011 with a knee injury, and he was better than Stacy prior to the injury. The two will probably combine for a little less than 25 carries per game this year, meaning Stacy figures to see his carry average drop by two or three per game. While he'll remain productive and should be owned in all formats this season, he might be no better than a bench player outside of SEC-only leagues.
Tyler Wilson, QB, Arkansas
Wilson probably isn't worth the draft pick it will take to get him in most leagues. Since he's arguably college football's best real-life quarterback, he'll inevitably be overrated in the fantasy realm. He only threw 24 touchdowns in 13 games last year, and it's difficult to see him running for four touchdowns again. He also lost three of his best four receivers from 2011, and he could see his pass attempts decrease slightly with the return of star running back Knile Davis. Arkansas averaged 30.4 carries per game the last two years when Davis was hurt or playing as a backup, as opposed to 36.4 per game in the seven games he was the workhorse in 2010.
Jordan Matthews, WR, Vanderbilt
Matthews had an excellent 2011 season, establishing himself as one of the nation's best deep threats. He was red hot in the season's second half, totaling 661 yards and four touchdowns the last six weeks. The problem is his strong finish has inflated his fantasy value entering 2012, as most drafts will see owners paying the second-half price for Matthews rather than the early-season price. Matthews' early season was far less impressive, as he had just 117 yards and a touchdown in the first seven games. With that kind of volatility, Matthews probably isn't worth more than a bench spot outside of SEC-only leagues.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
RB Eddie Lacy (7), RB Jalston Fowler (62), TE Michael Williams (31), K Jeremy Shelley (12), Defense (9)
QB Tyler Wilson (41), RB Knile Davis (6), WR Cobi Hamilton (5), TE Chris Gragg (4), K Zach Hocker (5)
WR Emory Blake (40)
RB Mike Gillislee (36), TE Trey Burton (30), K Caleb Sturgis (21), Defense (10)
QB Aaron Murray (18), RB Ken Malcome (51), WR Tavarres King (42), Defense (7)
K Drew Alleman (14), Defense (1)
RB LaDarius Perkins (75), TE Malcolm Johnson (12), Defense (18)
QB James Franklin (40), WR Marcus Lucas (63)
QB Connor Shaw (20), RB Marcus Lattimore (5), Defense (8)
QB Tyler Bray (22), RB Marlin Lane (63), WR Justin Hunter (4), WR Da'Rick Rogers (17), TE Mychal Rivera (40)
QB Jamiell Showers (39), RB Christine Michael (18), WR Ryan Swope (15), WR Uzoma Nwachukwu (33)
QB Jordan Rodgers (44), RB Zac Stacy (50), WR Jordan Matthews (56)