CFT 2014 Preseason Preview: SEC Predictions

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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.

SEC EAST

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.

SEC WEST

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 ManzielMike 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

Josh Rosen gets the stats, Sam Darnold the win as No. 11 USC tops crosstown rival UCLA

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UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen grabbed all the gaudy stats, but USC signal-caller Sam Darnold managed the win.

The primetime battle of potential No. 1 overall picks in next year’s NFL Draft didn’t quite live up to the hype for fans or scouts alike, but the No. 11 Trojans completed their regular season on Saturday night with a hard-fought 28-23 win over their crosstown rivals at the L.A. Coliseum in a contest that was far from the shootout that was expected coming in.

Darnold had his moments behind center and flashed several reasons why NFL front office types are so enamored with him, hitting some nice touch passes over the middle and scrambling for numerous big plays outside of the pocket. The numbers weren’t quite up to his season standards with 264 yards through the air and no touchdowns but the redshirt sophomore did find the end zone on a scramble.

That he scored on the ground probably wasn’t too surprising given that UCLA is the worst rushing defense in the country but every yard had to be earned in the chippy rivalry game between the two schools 15 miles from each other. Running back Ronald Jones didn’t see as many carries as you would expect down the stretch but managed 122 yards and two scores to keep the chains moving on a pretty consistent basis.

The best play for the cardinal and gold might have actually come on special teams, as Michael Pittman used a little misdirection on a punt return to scoot 72 yards nearly untouched for a touchdown and the game’s first points.

As good as USC was at times on the night, they didn’t runaway with the win like many expected for a team on the fringes of playoff contention. A lot of that had to do with Rosen, who again kept his side in things with a 421 yard outing with three touchdowns and a pick — numbers that could have been even better if not for a few plays here or there. That aerial attack helped open things up for a normally dormant ground game, with Soso Jamabo rushing for 62 yards and Bolo Olorunfunmi adding another 56.

It wasn’t enough to bring the Victory Bell back to Westwood however, as the annual trophy will remain just south of downtown for the eighth time in the past decade. The Bruins still have a shot at going to a bowl game if they can beat fellow in-state rival Cal next weekend but their margin for error to reach the postseason is still incredibly slim given how improved the Bears are this year.

The Trojans meanwhile, finally get some well deserved rest after capping off an 8-1 campaign in conference play and a perfect record in the division. After a week of rest — the first of the year since they had no bye week — they’ll head to the Pac-12 championship game at Levi’s Stadium for a rematch with either Stanford or Washington State. The team remains way outside looking in with regards to the College Football Playoff chase at the moment but after a third straight win over their crosstown rival, that probably is the furthest thing on their minds as another picture perfect night in Los Angeles comes to a close.

Bryce Love (mostly) quiet as No. 22 Stanford retains control of the Axe

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Baker Mayfield‘s antics in Lawrence provided Stanford’s Bryce Love a sliver of an opportunity to climb back inside the minds of Heisman voters.

Unfortunately for him, Love’s injured ankle didn’t allow him to take advantage of that opportunity.

Love struggled for much of the night, posting a quiet (by his standards) night of 14 carries for 101 yards and a touchdown, as No. 22 Stanford topped California 17-14 in Palo Alto. His final carry of the night came with 14:16 left in the fourth quarter.

That’s not to say Love was totally quiet, though. Love broke free for a 57-yard touchdown run in the third quarter, giving Stanford a 17-6 lead at the time.

With Love hobbled, Stanford handed the keys of the offense over to quarterback K.J. Costello and backup running back Cameron Scarlett. Costello hit 17-of-26 passes for 185 yards with a touchdown and an interception. His touchdown, a 17-yarder to Kaden Smith, broke a 3-3 tie with 8:17 left in the first half and put Stanford up for good.

Scarlett carried 14 times for 61 yards, which doesn’t seem like much until you realize he toted the ball on 11 consecutive plays, which allowed the Cardinal to expire all of Cal’s timeouts and kill the final 7:25 remaining in a 3-point game.

Cal had chances to win the game, though. Matt Anderson had a 47-yard field goal doink off the upright in the second quarter, and Ross Bowers drove Cal into Stanford territory at the midway point of the fourth quarter before he was intercepted by Stanford’s Ben Edwards. Bowers finished the night hitting 20-of-29 passes for 182 yards, and Patrick Laird led all runners with 20 carries for 153 yards and a touchdown.

The win gives Stanford eight straight wins in The Big Game, the longest winning streak by either side in a rivalry that dates back to 1892.

The win means Stanford (8-3, 7-2 Pac-12) can clinch the Pac-12 North if No. 14 Washington State beats No. 18 Washington in the Apple Cup on Saturday on Saturday. (Stanford completed Pac-12 play early in order to host No. 8 Notre Dame.) Cal (5-6, 2-6 Pac-12) must win at UCLA on Friday to reach a bowl game in head coach Justin Wilcox‘s first season.

WVU QB Will Grier reportedly out several weeks with broken finger

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If you saw it live, or even on replay, you could sense this was coming.

In the first quarter of Saturday’s loss to Texas, Will Grier dove toward the left pylon in an attempt to get West Virginia on the scoreboard.  What was initially thought to be a touchdown was instead determined to be a fumble out of the end zone resulting in a touchback, giving the ball back to UT.  That was the least-distressing development on the play as, somehow, Grier got up from a dive with a finger on his right (throwing) hand pointing in a direction God never intended.

Asa result of that gruesome injury, Grier has been ruled out for several weeks, ESPN.com reported.  The same website is also reporting that Grier flew to Charlotte after the game and is expected to have surgery in that city Sunday.

A WVU official told CFT that a determination on Grier’s availability for a bowl game will likely be determined by when the game is played, meaning an official decision isn’t expected until next weekend at the earliest.

Grier, who has one more season of eligibility remaining, came into Week 12 second in the country in touchdown passes with 34.  With the Florida transfer sidelined for the foreseeable future, sophomore Chris Chugunov will get the start against fourth-ranked Oklahoma in the regular-season finale next Saturday.

After replacing Grier, Chugunov completed 14-of-26 passes for 189 yards, one touchdown and no interceptions in the 28-14 loss.

QB Justin Herbert returns to lineup for Oregon as Ducks bottle up Khalil Tate and Arizona

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Oregon has been listless offensively the past few weeks without starting quarterback Justin Herbert but his return to the lineup injected plenty of life into Willie Taggart’s team in a 48-28 win over Arizona that also made the Ducks bowl eligible at the same time.

Herbert’s numbers were not flashy or spectacular given the offense he plays in but they were a huge boost given how poorly backups played in his absence after breaking his collarbone early in the year. He finished the night with just 235 yards through the air (along with an interception) and a touchdown pass while also making an impact with his wheels, surprising nearly everybody in Autzen Stadium with a 40 yard scramble for a touchdown in the first quarter.

As nice as it was to have the signal-caller back, his teammate Royce Freeman did most of the heavy lifting as he no longer faced a loaded box full of defenders. The senior made his first trip to the end zone since September (coinciding with Herbert’s injury) to move past LaMichael James as Oregon’s all-time leader in total touchdowns. He also passed TCU legend LaDainian Tomlinson for 10th on the FBS career rushing yards list early in the game and managed to end the night with 134 on the ground and a total of four scores. Backup Tony Brooks-James added another 124 yards as the Ducks’ rushing attack was humming like days of old.

Perhaps the more eye-opening aspect of the victory was the UO defense though. The bottled up dynamic Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate better than just about any Pac-12 defense has this year and held him to only 32 yards rushing. Forcing the dual-threat star to become a passer was the game plan and the Ducks executed it at a high level, limiting him to 159 yards passing with a score and a pair of interceptions.

Running back Nick Wilson rushed for 73 yards and two touchdowns but it wasn’t enough for the Wildcats, whose most notable play was probably a pick-six by Dane Cruikshank that was negated by a taunting penalty in the first half as he finger-waged his way to the end zone. The offense later punched it in but it was emblematic of a frustrating night for Rich Rodriguez and his coaching staff.

Both teams have gone through their up’s and down’s this season and while it looked as though Arizona was on the upswing entering Saturday night, perhaps it’s Oregon who can claim the same thanks to their starting quarterback looking healthy and as back in business.