As the 2014 season draws near, we peek into our crystal ball and
guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. Today, we will be examining the SEC.
And while we’re at it, check out our CFT 2014 Preseason Preview Repository for our team’s looks at the upcoming season.
1. South Carolina (Last year: 11-2; beat Wisconsin in Capital One Bowl)
I’ve said it multiple times and I’ll say it again: this could very well be Steve Spurrier‘s best and deepest Gamecock team since taking over in Columbia a decade ago. The loss of starting quarterback Connor Shaw will certainly have some impact, but the fact that Dylan Thompson isn’t your typical first-year starter — he’s started three games and thrown passes in 17 others — should help soften the transition. Losing a pair of defensive line starters and two secondary starters won’t help matters either, but USC has recruited well at those positions the past couple of years and should have the on-paper talent to fill the voids. A total of 16 starters return, though, including workhorse running back Mike Davis. The Gamecocks are clearly the class of the East, and it would be more than a little surprising to not see them in Atlanta in early December after qualifying for the SEC championship game.
2. Georgia (Last year: 8-5; lost to Nebraska in Gator Bowl)
After watching uneven and subpar defensive performances not just last season but the past couple of years, Mark Richt looked to right that ship by going out and reeling in Jeremy Pruitt of the defending BCS champion Florida State Seminoles as defensive coordinator. Combine that with the returning talent — nine starters on that side of the ball — and the defensive woes of the past should be a thing of the, well, past. The loss of a four-year starting quarterback will sting, at least initially, but the fact that his replacement, Hutson Mason, started two games at year’s end to go along with Todd Gurley carrying the offensive load while Mason gets his starting sea legs should help in the transition to the post-Murray era. Having to travel to East favorite South Carolina won’t help the cause, but getting past that early-season hurdle could set the Bulldogs up for a return trip to Atlanta after a one-year absence.
3. Florida (Last year: 4-8)
The Gators could very well be the third-best team in the SEC East — and that may not be enough to save Will Muschamp‘s job. Beset with injuries and overall poor play — especially on offense — in 2013, UF tripped, bumbled and stumbled its way through the program’s worst season in nearly two decades. The offense was simply abysmal, especially in the passing game, which served as the impetus for Muschamp to swipe offensive coordinator Kurt Roper from Duke in the offseason. The early signs point to a rejuvenated offense in general and quarterback Jeff Driskel in particular under Roper. The defense, as has been the case under Muschamp, will be just fine; if the offense can merely climb to respectable, it should be enough for the Gators to get closer to 2012’s 10-win season than last year’s eight-loss abomination. The schedule is essentially a wash, with games at Alabama and Florida State offset by tough games against LSU and South Carolina in The Swamp. UF could be staring an eight-win season square in the face — and that should be enough for Muschamp to get a fourth year on the job. Anything less than that, and his future employment in Gainesville becomes dicey.
4. Tennessee (Last year: 5-7)
Surprise!!! Yes, this one could — and quite likely will — come back and bite me square in the arse, but what the hell. Call it a hunch. Or the fact that they finished with a better record than did the Gators, who I have listed above. Or a bad case of (insert serious mental disorder here). Whatever the case, I love what Butch Jones is doing in Knoxville and, while I might be a year early on this, I’m buying in. How mental am I? I’m predicting the Vols to finish fourth in the seven-team East, even as I’m fully aware of the fact that UT is the only team in the country that lost every starter on both the offensive and defensive lines. And then there’s the schedule: the opener at home against an underrated Utah State; a road trip to Oklahoma in Week 3; and SEC away games at Georgia, Ole Miss and South Carolina. Yep, I’m nuts. But I do like the defense and the receiving corps, and think that Justin Worley is ready to take a step up to the next level in a conference riddled with questions at the quarterback position, especially as he’s now solidified his hold on the job. Again, I may not be right, but I think I’m closer to that than wrong.
5. Missouri (Last year: 12-2; beat Oklahoma State in Cotton Bowl)
The Tigers return just seven of 22 starters — three on offense, four on defense — from last year’s surprise SEC East championship squad. Mizzou must find a way to replace its leading passer, rusher and three top receivers from a year ago, although the former is a little disingenuous as Maty Mauk showed he was the Tigers’ future at the quarterback position subbing for an injured James Franklin. Losing Dorial Green-Beckham to a dismissal, though, was a huge blow for Mauk as he assumes the full-time offensive reins for the first time. The good news is that, while Mauk is adjusting to his new role, Mizzou will feature a pair of running backs — Russell Hansborough and Marcus Murphy — who combined for nearly 1,300 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. The schedule makers didn’t do Mizzou many favors, with road trips to South Carolina, Florida, Texas A&M and Tennessee in the offing. The Tigers surprised
many most all observers by claiming a division title in just their second season in the conference; it’d be equally surprising if they came even remotely close to matching 2013’s success,
6. Kentucky (Last year: 2-10)
Despite just two wins last season, UK appears to be a football program on the upswing, especially if recruiting rankings mean anything. The past two recruiting cycles, UK has pulled in the No. 17 (2014) and No. 23 (2013) recruiting classes, and are currently rated No. 20 for 2015. Prior to Mark Stoops’ arrival, UK had just two recruiting classes — 2006 (No. 36) and 2009 (No. 41) — finish inside the Top 50 nationally since 2002. How long before that success planted on the recruiting trail bears fruit on the field? That remains unclear, although it could be 2015 before Stoops truly sees the fruit of his and his staff’s labor. Until then, it could be another rough football season at the basketball school, even as doubling up on last year’s win total would seem to be a modest and attainable goal.
7. Vanderbilt (Last year: 9-4; beat Houston in BBVA Compass Bowl)
I’m fully aware that the Commodores finished fourth in the East last year and won nine games, including the program’s first-ever back-to-back bowl game. I’m also fully aware that James Franklin was a huge part of that success, and Franklin and his coaching staff are currently in Happy Valley preparing for the upcoming season. Do I think Stanford’s Derek Mason was a subpar replacement? Most definitely not; he was one of the more underrated hires of the offseason. Do I think he can do what David Shaw did after Jim Harbaugh left The Farm after laying the foundation? No, because there’s simply not that type of foundation in place in Nashville. Inexperience on the skill player side of the equation, especially at quarterback and wide receiver, could be Vandy’s undoing.
1. Alabama (Last year: 11-2; lost to Oklahoma in Sugar Bowl)
Replacing a three-year starter at quarterback? Pffft, no problem for a Tide squad that boasts two Top-Five SEC running backs in T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry… and the SEC’s best wide receiver-tight end combination in Amari Cooper and O.J. Howard… and at least three returning starters along the offensive line… and a defense that, despite the return of just four starters, is littered with four- and five-star recruits throughout the depth chart and will, again, be one of the most stout in the conference… and, hands-down, the best coach in college football in Nick Saban. So, yes, the Tide will, as has ofttimes been the case over the past five-plus years, be the favorite not only in the division but in the conference, despite the presence of East/SEC title winner Auburn. The Tide is locked and loaded to bounce back from two straight losses to end the 2013 season by a squad that was viewed by some, including its head coach, to be an entitled bunch. A pissed-off Saban with a legitimate agenda and loads of talent at his disposal entering a season is a dangerous proposition not just for the SEC but for college football as a whole.
2. Auburn (Last year: 12-2; lost to Florida State in BCS title game)
There’s no way around it, no way to tap-dance whilst whistling past the biggest question when it comes to AU football in 2014: did the Tigers use a couple of years (decades?) worth of luck in their magical, unexpected, inexplicable ride to the BCS title game? Even the biggest homer out on The Plains would have to admit that the Tigers were “fortunate” to end the season where they did. Of their 12 wins, six were decided by eight points or less. In four games — Mississippi State, Texas A&M, Georgia, Alabama — they were trailing with less than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. The Georgia (“Prayer at Jordan-Hare“) and Alabama (“Kick-Six“) wins immediately earned nicknames for the sheer improbability of the endings. There’s little doubt that Gus Malzahn has, very quickly, turned AU around from the three-win embarrassment that was the final season of Gene Chizik in 2012. How much was sheer luck, the kind of once-a-decade (or two) happenstance that simply can’t repeat itself? Regardless of the answer — I’m guessing the talent is sufficient so as to make the question moot — Malzahn’s Tigers will be one of the more fascinating squads to watch throughout the 2014 season.
3. LSU (Last year: 10-3; beat Iowa in Outback Bowl)
Eight times in Les Miles‘ 10 season on the bayou, the Tigers have won at least 10 games. Included in that total is a streak of five straight. Don’t expect that skein to be broken in 2015. Gone is starting quarterback Zach Mettenberger, leaving LSU with arguably the biggest question mark in the conference at the most important position. Gone also are the top two receivers and leading rusher. Back, though, are four offensive line starters and seven defensive starters. Entering the fray as well is Leonard Fournette, one of the most hyped freshman running backs since Adrian Peterson burst onto the scene as a true freshman in Norman a decade ago. Fournette has the type of ability that will allow whomever emerges from LSU’s quarterback competition to ease into the job. Well, that and a defense that will be as physical and stifling as it always is. The schedule makers also smiled on LSU, with its toughest road trip likely proving to be a Oct. 4 date with Auburn at Jordan-Hare, although a regular season-ending trip to Texas A&M’s Kyle Field won’t exactly be a cakewalk.
4. Ole Miss (Last year: 8-5; beat Georgia Tech in Music City Bowl)
I was almost — almost — tempted to put the Rebels ahead of the Bayou Bengals, but simply couldn’t pull the trigger. Ole Miss is the “trendy” sleeper pick heading into 2014, and for good reason. There’s really not a lot to not like about the potential of the 2014 version of Hugh Freeze‘s 2014 Rebels. They will, once again, possess one of the best offenses in the SEC to go along with a defense that, quietly, is one of the best in a defense-heavy conference. The biggest hurdle the Rebels have is something completely out of their control: the division in which they reside. Since Texas A&M joined the SEC in 2012, the Rebels are just 2-6 against those four programs — a three-point home win against LSU last season and a win in 2012 against an Auburn team that would ultimately win three games and fire its head coach. And that’s without even mentioning that Ole Miss has lost four of the last five Egg Bowls against in-state rival — and divisional foe — Mississippi State. How Ole Miss can crack the Top Three the way the West is currently constituted is unclear. What appears to be clear is that they have the head coach who could do just that, whether it be in 2014 or in the coming years.
5. Texas A&M (Last year: 9-4; beat Duke in Chick-fil-A Bowl)
Where do we start? You lose Johnny Manziel… Mike Evans, one of the best receivers in the country… the best left tackle in the game in Jake Matthews… myriad defensive contributors due to suspension/dismissals/other forms of attrition from a unit that was really bad in 2013… all of that, and it could be quite the season in College Station coming off the success that was A&M’s first two seasons in the SEC. One known amidst the question marks is that Kevin Sumlin always fields a Top-10 offense as a head coach; even as just five starters on that side of the ball return, that shouldn’t change as Sumlin’s system remains a big consistent for the Aggies. That defense, though, needs to step it up a level or eight so that the offense doesn’t have to outscore its expected unevenness on that side of the ball. Games at South Carolina, Alabama and Auburn — the Gamecocks contest is the season opener — doesn’t bode well for the young but talented Aggies.
6. Mississippi State (Last year: 7-6; beat Rice in Liberty Bowl)
MSU’s placement of second-to-last is not an indictment of Dan Mullens‘ football program, but merely an indicator of just how deep the West is. If the Bulldogs were in the East, they could very well be the third-best team in the division. Given their current football lot, they’ll continue to struggle to get past their in-division rivals. Since going 5-7 in Mullens’ first season in 2009, MSU’s win total has ranged from seven (twice, including 2013) to nine (2010). With 16 returning starters back, including nine on defense as well as one of the most experienced returning quarterback starters in the conference (Dak Prescott), MSU could and should very well get in that very same win range for a fifth consecutive season. Whether that’s good enough for the fans and the administration remains to be seen.
7. Arkansas (Last year: 3-9)
In Bret Bielema‘s first season in Fayetteville, the Razorbacks won just three games; two of those wins came against FCS programs, the other against a Southern Miss team that was in the midst of what would become a 23-game losing streak. UA ended the season on a nine-game losing streak, finishing up Year 1 of the Great Bielema Southern Experiment at 0-8 in SEC play. Six of those nine losses came by at least 10 points, with two of them coming by a combined 97 points. It was a rough first season for Bielema and his charges; it doesn’t expect to get much better in 2014. The good news for Bielema and his coaching staff is that his boss, athletic director Jeff Long, is committed to them for the long haul; whether the long haul is three years or four years or even five years remains to be seen. One thing is certain: Bielema has a helluva tough job ahead of him, cleaning up the mess left by the controversy-stained departure of Bobby Petrino and the lost 2012 season under John L. Smith. Oh, and all the while sweeping the broom in the toughest division in any conference in the conference. Yeah, good luck with that.
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Alabama over South Carolina