SEC fans won't stop saying it, and fans of every other conference are sick of hearing it. Unfortunately for everyone but the former, the matter isn't up for a vote - the SEC is indeed the best conference in college football. Wide receiver Amari Cooper and running backs Todd Gurley and T.J. Yeldon are each arguably the best players in the country at their respective positions, and Alabama, the 2012 national champion, probably had the nation's best defense each of the last four years. That's not even mentioning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, who was the best player in college football as a redshirt freshman last year. The conference even boasts three of the best breakout tight-end candidates in Mississippi State's Malcolm Johnson and the South Carolina duo of Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams.
TOP FIVE FANTASY STARS
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M
Manziel was the target of a lot of character scrutiny this offseason, but it's difficult to find substance in much of it. Manziel is tough as nails and fiercely competitive on the field, and he has too much determination to let celebrity news reporters get in his way. Before torching Oklahoma for 287 yards and two touchdowns through the air and 229 yards and two more scores on the ground in A&M's bowl game, Manziel threw for 3,419 yards and 24 touchdowns while running for 1,181 yards and 19 touchdowns in 12 games. He did that as a redshirt freshman in a new offensive system despite playing against three of the nation's five best defenses (Alabama, LSU and Florida). Manziel plays Alabama and LSU again this year, but he won't have to deal with Florida. He should be the top pick in any college fantasy football draft that includes the SEC in its player pool.
2. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Gurley decisively established himself as Georgia's workhorse running back as a true freshman last year, an especially big accomplishment considering fellow top talent Keith Marshall is on the team. Gurley pummeled defenses to the tune of 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns on 222 carries (6.2 YPC) while catching 16 passes for 117 yards last year in 14 games. Aside from a two-week hiccup when the Georgia offense stumbled against South Carolina and Kentucky, Gurley was matchup-proof in 2012. He totaled 370 yards and five touchdowns on the ground against Vanderbilt, Florida and Alabama. His entire offensive line returns this year and, with star quarterback Aaron Murray providing big plays in the passing game, Gurley should get plenty of opportunities to score.
3. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Yeldon is arguably more talented than Gurley and, indeed, he will probably get drafted ahead of Gurley in many leagues. But there are a couple things to keep in mind. One is that Yeldon, exceptionally talented as he is, is on a team with a great defense. Alabama blows out opponents quickly, and Nick Saban will have reason to rest Yeldon earlier in most weeks than Mark Richt will have to rest Gurley. The second is that the Alabama backfield has many mouths to feed. It's true that Gurley will lose carries to Keith Marshall, but Yeldon will share his backfield with Jalston Fowler, a potential goal-line vulture, as well as Kenyan Drake, Derrick Henry and maybe a couple more top freshmen. What this all means is that Yeldon's production probably won't be as consistent as Gurley's. That's worth factoring into your rankings because when Eddie Lacy had the starting Alabama running back job last year, he had 11 or fewer carries in four games, and he failed to run for a touchdown in five games.
4. Amari Cooper, WR, Alabama
Marqise Lee and Sammy Watkins tend to catch more hype, but Cooper is arguably as good or better than both. Cooper is an explosive vertical receiver with perhaps the best ball skills in the country, and that makes him exceedingly difficult to stop downfield. He finished his true freshman season with 58 catches for 999 yards and 11 touchdowns in 14 games, including 527 yards and six touchdowns in the final five weeks of the year. Cooper's upside at receiver is unmatched, and his enormous big-play potential allows him to make a fantasy impact even if he doesn't see as many targets as other receivers.
5. Mike Evans, WR, Texas A&M
While Cooper is the SEC's top playmaker at receiver, Evans is the conference's most consistent receiver. Give Evans a bump in PPR leagues, because he snagged 82 passes in 13 games last year as a redshirt freshman. He's an automatic first-down machine for A&M, and he should be even better this year since Ryan Swope and Uzoma Nwachukwu are gone from the offense after totaling 1,398 yards and 15 touchdowns last year. Evans is a good bet to double his 2012 touchdown total of five.
Tre Mason, RB, Auburn
Mason is an established commodity after a breakout 2012 season, but he's set to take his production to an elite level this year. The stocky speedster ran for 1,002 yards and eight scores in 12 games last year, averaging 5.9 yards per carry despite dealing with a dysfunctional Auburn passing game. He'll benefit from the addition of head coach Gus Malzahn this year, as Malzahn turned David Oku into a workhorse at Arkansas State in 2012. Oku led the Sun Belt with 16 rushing touchdowns a year ago, and Mason should breeze into double-digit touchdowns under Malzahn's guidance.
Malcolm Johnson, TE, Mississippi State
Johnson was expected to have a big role for Mississippi State last year, but an upper-body injury shortly before the start of the season caused him to fall short of expectations. He played in just eight games and caught just nine passes last year, but with 2012 starter Marcus Green gone, Johnson should have a much bigger role this year. He consistently showed big-play ability at tight end the last two years, taking 20 catches for 360 yards (18.0 YPC) and five touchdowns. Mississippi State's top-four reception leaders gone from last year, Johnson should see a very healthy target count in 2013.
Matt Jones, RB, Florida
Jones is a big, athletic runner who looks likely to take over the feature-back role held by Mike Gillislee in 2012. A plodding offense limited Gillislee to just 1,152 yards and 10 scores in 13 games last year, but Jones showed some spark off the bench by taking 52 carries for 275 yards (5.3 YPC) and three scores. With a manageable schedule in 2013, Jones should match Gillislee's per-game production. The only tough games for Jones look like LSU, South Carolina and Florida State.
Jonathan Williams, RB, Arkansas
Williams was very explosive as backup to Dennis Johnson and Knile Davis last year, and he's easily the most established Arkansas runner for 2013. That could mean big fantasy numbers because new coach Bret Bielema's Wisconsin-style offenses always churned out big fantasy producers at running back. Williams is a bit of a risk, though, because Arkansas landed a big recruit in Alex Collins, and there's no guarantee that Williams will hold him off. Still, Williams definitely impressed last year, running for 231 yards on 45 carries (5.1 YPC) and taking eight catches for 208 yards and two scores.
Jonathan Wallace or Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Whoever starts at quarterback for Auburn, in other words. Wallace has more FBS experience after a promising stint as starting quarterback last year, but Marshall arrives at Auburn as a hyped junior-college transfer. In either case, just like Mason should benefit from the approach that Malzahn applied to Oku, the starting Auburn quarterback should benefit like Ryan Aplin did under Malzahn's watch last year. Aplin averaged 255 yards per game while throwing 24 touchdowns in 13 contestss last year, adding 438 yards and six scores on the ground.
Ben Malena, RB, Texas A&M
Malena is a good player, a great fit for the prolific A&M offense and doubtlessly will be productive in 2013. The problem is he likely will be overvalued in fantasy drafts by those who expect him to pick up the workload of the departed Christine Michael. Michael ran for 12 touchdowns last year, so the appeal is obvious. The problem is that Malena, who ran for 808 yards and eight scores of his own, will only pick up a modest amount of Michael's workload. A&M will give a big promotion to top 2012 recruit Trey Williams (376 yards, five touchdowns last year), and behind Williams, transfers Brandon Williams (Oklahoma) and Tra Carson (Oregon) will demand carries, too.
Tyler Russell, QB, Mississippi State
Russell had a solid season in 2012 from a passer efficiency perspective, throwing 24 touchdowns compared to 10 interceptions, adding two more touchdowns on the ground. But he failed to complete 60 percent of his passes and averaged just 7.4 yards per attempt, and there's reason to expect regression in 2013 since Mississippi State lost its top-four reception leaders from a year ago. With a completely redone group of receivers, Russell could struggle even during the easy part of Mississippi State's schedule.
Connor Shaw, QB, South Carolina
Shaw is a very good college quarterback, but it would be incorrect to say he's durable. Shaw was injured most of last year, dealing with a shoulder issue early and then catching a foot ailment in the later part of the year. That opened the door for backup Dylan Thompson to prove himself, and he did just that. Although he completed just 52 percent of his passes, Thompson showed upside by averaging 8.1 yards per attempt, and he threw 10 touchdowns to just two interceptions. A rotation between the quarterbacks likely will occur even if Shaw stays healthy all year.
Jeff Scott, RB, Mississippi
Scott did reasonably well in 2012, running for 850 yards and six scores while adding 175 yards and another touchdown through the air. The problem is, at 5-foot-7, 170, Scott doesn't have the size to hold up under a workhorse role in the SEC, and he averaged just 4.3 yards per carry last year. It's unlikely that Scott will match his 2012 average of 16.4 carries per game this year because backups I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton are quite talented and need more carries after combining for 326 yards (6.5 YPC) and two scores a year ago.
Austyn Carta-Samuels, QB, Vanderbilt
Carta-Samuels got a brief look as a starter last year, but Vanderbilt quickly turned back to the underwhelming Jordan Rodgers. Although he averaged 8.3 yards per pass while throwing for 208 yards and a touchdown last year, Carta-Samuels was worse in his 2010 season as starter at Wyoming, throwing just nine touchdowns along with eight interceptions. Even with two good receivers in Jordan Matthews and Chris Boyd, Carta-Samuels doesn't give much reason for high expectations.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
Alabama Crimson Tide
RB T.J. Yeldon (11), WR Amari Cooper (9), DST (1)
RB Jonathan Williams (54), TE Austin Tate
RB Tre Mason (18), TE C.J. Uzomah (17)
QB Jeff Driskel (42), RB Matt Jones (63), DST (4)
QB Aaron Murray (24), RB Todd Gurley (10), WR Michael Bennett (54), TE Arthur Lynch (24)
RB Alfred Blue (58), DST (9)
QB Bo Wallace (32), WR Donte Moncrief (28)
Mississippi State Bulldogs
RB LaDarius Perkins (59), TE Malcolm Johnson (7)
RB Henry Josey (78), WR Dorial Green-Beckham (66)
TE Rory Anderson (8), TE Jerell Adams (32), DST (7)
Texas A&M Aggies
QB Johnny Manziel (1), WR Mike Evans (14), K Taylor Bertolet (3)
RB Wesley Tate (68), WR Jordan Matthews (22), K Carey Spear (13), DST (10)