As the BCS era of college football came to an end, so did the SEC’S streak of seven consecutive national titles. The BCS era nearly ended the way it started, with an SEC school defeating Florida State. The Seminoles, a team that easily could have been and should have been in the SEC, lost to Tennessee in 1998 and Auburn looked to be on their way to beating them this past January at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena. That is, until Heisman Trophy winner, Jameis Winston led his offense down field for the game deciding TD, with only seconds left.
Now, we enter the Playoff era. Will the SEC continue their dominance? Will Auburn defend their SEC title? Or, is this the year Ole Miss finally makes it to Atlanta? What about a team like Florida? Could they do what Auburn and Missouri did last year? Lots of questions. I’ll do my best to answer as I preview the 2014 SEC season.
SEC EAST – Projected order of Finish
1. Georgia Bulldogs – Rarely, has the injury bug hit a team harder than it hit head coach, Mark Richt’s club in 2013. It started week 1 against Clemson when receiver, Malcolm Mitchell tore his ACL. It seemed like there was someone going down every week. However, recruiting has been just fine in Athens. Thus, the Bulldogs are still extremely talented and are a serious contender in the SEC. Senior QB, Hutson Mason takes over for Aaron Murray. Mason, finished last season after Murray went down to injury, leading the Dawgs to a victory over rival Georgia Tech. Mason, is a capable thrower, but he will spend a lot of his time on the field handing the ball off to Todd Gurley, who also had injury issues of his own last season. Gurley, is a serious Heisman candidate and is widely looked as being the best running back in the SEC. Keith Marshall, is also back to give the Dawgs one of the best running back tandems in the nation. At receiver, it’s still questionable when Mitchell will be ready, but Michael Bennett and Chris Conley have proven they can get the job done. Expect the Dawgs to put points on the board.
The hiring of Jeremy Pruitt as defensive coordinator was an excellent move. Pruitt, has coached defense on the last three national championship teams (Bama 2011, 2012 FSU 2013). He should be welcomed with open arms in Athens. On one hand, 2013 was a disappointing season defensively. Georgia gave up over 31 points per game. On the other hand, the offensive explosion in the SEC last season probably had a lot to with that. Georgia, is a lot more experienced this season, returning eight starters. Senior linebacker, Ramik Wilson led the SEC with 10.2 tackles per game and also added four sacks. Senior, Amarlo Herrera, who wasn’t far behind Wilson in tackling returns to give Georgia one of the better linebacker units in the SEC. There’s also experience at corner with senior, Damian Swann. The Dawgs schedule is very favorable. They visit South Carolina week 3, but they get Auburn at home this time around. Its very possible Georgia will be favored in every other game. Projected record: 11-1
2. Florida – To say, this season is critical to head coach, Will Muschamp would be a huge understatement. After having their first losing season since 1979, missing a bowl game for the first time Since 1990, and losing to the likes of Georgia Southern along the way, it’s become panic time in Gainesville. Muschamp, can take solace that he has Junior Quarterback, Jeff Driskel back and healthy. Not only is he back on the field, but he should also be back in his element. In high school, Driskel played in a spread offense. The pro-style offense the Gators have deployed the last couple of seasons doesn’t fit him. Plus, the personnel didn’t really fit that style of play. Kurt Roper, takes over as offensive coordinator after leaving the same post at Duke. He should open things up some and that should help Driskel a lot. The Gators are still relatively thin at the skill positions when compared to Florida teams of the past. But, players like senior wide receiver, Quinton Dunbar should see their stats increase. At running back, the Gators have sophomore Kelvin Taylor (Former Florida and NFL great, Fred Taylor’s son) leading the way after gaining over 500 yards as a freshman. Taylor, also made the All-SEC freshman team.
Defense, has been the strong point of the team, and that should remain the same in 2014. Few teams have the speed and athleticism that the Gators possess. Juniors, Dante Fowler and Jonathan Bullard are perfect examples of that, as they look to be one of the best defensive line tandems in the league. Senior, Michael Taylor and junior Antonio Morrison will help make up a very solid corp of linebackers. Vernon Hargreaves, is one of the best corners around, as referenced by his 11 pass break ups and three interceptions in 2013. Despite all the issues with the offense last season, the defense stood up and only surrendered 20 points per game. Third in the SEC behind Bama and Mizzou. This season, the Gators have both Bama and LSU on their schedule. No other team from the east has more than one of the west’s big three (Bama, Auburn, LSU). However, Florida gets South Carolina and Mizzou in the Swamp which could be huge. This year’s ‘Cocktail Party’ against Georgia could be one of the biggest games of the season and could decide the east. Projected record: 9-3
3. South Carolina – Connor Shaw is gone, but Dylan Thompson has plenty of experience and will now take over Steve Spurrier’s offense in Columbia. Thompson, at times has looked more like the prototypical QB we’ve been used to seeing run Spurrier’s offense since his days coaching at Florida. Not Shaw. However, despite injuries and inconsistencies from Shaw, Thompson could never fully capitalize and take over the starting job. Junior running back, Mike Davis returns after gaining almost 1,200 yards last season and should make Thompson’s transition easier. But, while junior Shaq Roland and Senior Damiere Byrd give Thompson capable receivers to throw to, it’s questionable whether either one is a true go-to guy. The offensive line, however looks like the strongest unit after losing only one of their 2-deep rotation. Their experience should smooth things out some on offense.
The offense needs to score some points to help a defense that lost quite a bit. Jadeveon Clowney is a huge loss, but so is Kelcy Quarles whose 9.5 sacks from his linebacker position led the team last season. This year, seniors JT Surratt and Sharrod Golightly will have to step up from their defensive end and linebacker positions, respectively. In all, six starters return for a defense that ranked a rather disappointing 4th in the league in scoring defense at 22 ppg. The Gamecocks schedule works out pretty well, as they should be favored in every game except a trip to Auburn. If, Thompson pans out at QB, the Gamecocks will be a strong contender. It’s their defense, however, that may decide whether or not they get to Atlanta. Projected record: 9-3
4. Missouri – Last year’s surprise team in the east is in a bit of a transition mode in 2014. Sophomore Maty Mauk, takes over for James Franklin at quarterback. But, of course Mauk an All-SEC freshman got plenty of work in replacing the oft-injured Franklin last season, and he did quite well. Mauk’s numbers in some respects were better than Franklin’s. So, there should be little or no drop-off. There will likely be drop-off at the receiver position however, as Dorial Green-Beckham (DGB) was kicked off the team for conduct detrimental to the team. The Tigers also lost their other top two receivers from last year. Senior Bud Sasser, is the leading returning receiver, who averaged over 13 yards per catch in 2013. Mizzou also has to replace Henry Josey and his 1,200 rushing yards. Junior, Russell Hansbrough showed he’s a capable replacement with over 700 yards rushing of his own last season. While, the Tigers are very young at the skill positions, there’s a lot of experience up front which help Mauk and the offense even further.
Missouri only returns eight starters (4 offense 4 defense) from last season. Of the four returning on D, senior defensive end Markus Golden may bring the biggest impact. Golden, had 6.5 sacks last season. Missouri’s defense got nowhere near the respect it deserved, but the reality is they were one of the best units in the SEC. Only Bama gave up less points. With all the Tigers lost it would be easy to think 2014 is just a rebuilding season. In some ways it is, but there is still enough talent for Mizzou to challenge for the east. Especially, since they don’t to play Bama, LSU, or Auburn from the west. Look out. Another surprise season from Mizzou is not out of the question. Projected record: 7-5
5. Tennessee – Things are starting to look up on Rocky Top. A top 5 recruiting class can do that. Word is, Butch Jones and the Vols are well on their way to another stellar class. This year, the Vols return 10 starters ( 5 offense 5 defense) from last season. Senior, Justin Worley is back at QB and has already been named the starter. Sophomore, Joshua Dobbs who saw action last season is also back.Worley, has an impressive group of recivers to throw to led by sophomore, Marquez North. An All-SEC freshman selection, North led the Vols in receiving yards and with his 6-4 220lb frame is a nightmare for opposing defenses. Senior, Martin Lane looks like the man to tote the rock. He averaged a respectable 5.3 yards per carry in 2013.
Defensively, the Vols are still rough around the edges after a less than stellar 2013 campaign where they gave up over 30 points per game. The leading tackler from last season, senior linebacker, AJ Johnson is back. Also, back is sophomore corner Cameron Sutton, who made his mark as a freshman with 7 pass break-ups and two interceptions. Senior corner, Justin Coleman also returns giving UT two solid corners to work with. In fact, all four starters in the secondary return, which should help cut down on the big plays from opposing offenses. Highlighting Tennessee’s season is a trip to Oklahoma in week 3. That should be interesting, even though on paper it looks like the Big Orange wouldn’t have a chance. Projected record: 6-6
6. Kentucky – The Wildcats have only won two games each of the last two years. However, head coach Mark Stoops is starting to get the attention of top recruits. Unfortunately, that probably won’t do much for this season. There’s transition at QB, where sophomore Patrick Towles will get the starting nod after redshirting last season. At running back, Jojo Kemp returns after averaging 4.6 yards per carry last year, but there’s little experience behind him. Keeping him healthy will be vital. Kentucky does have some experience at wide receiver with senior, Javess Blue who led the Cats in receiving with nearly 600 yards and sophomore Ryan Timmons, who saw quite a bit of action as a freshman.
Kentucky returns a total of 15 starters. Eight of them are on defense. Senior, Alvin Dupree led the Wildcats in tackles and sacks last season. Dupree, will be looked upon to lead the SEC’s worst defense from a year ago back to respectability. Kentucky is a lot more experienced. So, things should be better on that side of the ball. The Cats should be much improved overall. Their non-conference schedule sets up well for them to increase their win total, but will they be able to knock off an SEC foe besides maybe Vandy. Probably not, but don’t be surprised if it does happen and the Cats get to 4 wins or so. Projected record: 4-8
7. Vanderbilt – New head coach, Derek Mason has a tough job ahead of him, but it’s not like he’s not used to coaching at a place where football takes a backseat to academics. Mason, comes over from Stanford where he was defensive coordinator. He replaces James Franklin, who moved on to Penn St. This season, Mason has only 10 returning starters. Redshirt freshman, Johnny McCrary looks to have the upper hand on sophomore, Patton Robinette for the QB position. Junior, Jerron Seymour returns at running back after rushing for over 700 yards last season. So, there is some experience there. But, the Commodores lost the top three receivers from last season. In fact, the leading returning receiver is Seymour with 19 grabs.
The Dores’ return only four on defense. Leading the way are senior, Darreon Herring and junior Caleb Azubike. Herring, is Vandy’s leading returning tackler and Azubike returns after recording four sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Senior, Kyle Woestmann is back after recording a team high six sacks in 2013. Vandy’s linebacking corp is solid and very experienced. There is experience up front, also with seniors Vince Taylor and Barron Dixon. Vandy fans have enjoyed back to back 9-4 seasons. Something that had never been done before in Nashville. Unless something crazy happens that streak will end this year. But, Mason looks like an excellent fit. Look for 2014 to be a down year, but Vandy’s future looks very bright. Projected record: 4-8
SEC WEST – Projected Order of Finish
1. Alabama – After a disappointing end to the season, which included one of the most dynamic ways to end a game (Auburn’s Chris Davis and his TD return to win Iron Bowl) anyone has ever seen, Nick Saban isn’t a happy-camper. Or, is he? Saban, seems to relish opportunities like this and usually the result is a championship. In 2008, Bama lost to Florida in the SEC title game and Utah in the Sugar Bowl. That was all the motivation Bama would need as they went unbeaten and beat Texas in the BCS Title game. This team, while extremely talented, has more holes than that team did. One hole is QB, where Florida State transfer, Jacob Coker and senior Blake Sims are still battling to replace AJ McCarron. Needless to say, choosing the right guy will be crucial, but whomever wins the job will have some of the best skill players in the nation to throw and hand off to. Junior receiver, Amari Cooper could stick his head into the Heisman race, Christion Jones and DeAndrew White have proven to big play receivers, OJ Howard could be scary at tight-end, and TJ Yeldon returns to lead one of the best running back tandems in the SEC. Yeldon, must keep focused. Sophomore, Derrick Henry is coming on fast and could easily be the starter before the season is over. The offensive line lost two to the NFL. One being left tackle, Cyrus Kouandijo, who will be replaced by true freshman Cam Robinson. The way he handles himself will go a long way in determining how far the Tide rolls.
Defense is always a strength in Tuscaloosa. 2014, should be no different. This could be one of the better Bama teams up front in recent memory. Sophomore, A’Shawn Robinson leads the way up front. He led the team with 5.5 sacks last season. Gone at linebacker is CJ Mosley. Filling his shoes won’t be easy, but look out for freshman Reuben Foster. He will be a force along with Trey DePriest at linebacker. Bama, also had lots of problems last season in the secondary. Junior safety, Landon Collins takes over full time for Ha Ha Clinton-Dix as the quarterback of the defense. Collins, has shown just how talented he is, but how will he fare as the leader of a secondary that gave up a ton of big plays last season? Most of that was lack of a pass rush, but some of it was poor ball skills by the younger players. The talent is there, but can they get the job done? Fortunately, the schedule isn’t too daunting. Trips to Ole Miss and LSU will be tough, but if they can at least split those and beat Auburn, the Tide should roll to Atlanta and the SEC title game. Projected record: 11-1
2. Auburn – The defending SEC champs won’t sneak up on anyone this season. Luckily for them, they probably won’t have to. The Tigers take a backseat to no one in terms of talent and head coach Gus Malzahn looks to be much more than a one year wonder. In fact, what Malzahn is building in Auburn is very special. Speaking of special, that’s the word that best describes the season QB, Nick Marshall had last year. Although, he’s not the best passer around, he fits what Malzahn wants to do perfectly. Marshall, won’t start game one due to traffic stop in which authorities found marijuana. Marshall, is suspended so the highly touted Jeremy Johnson will start. Tre Mason, is in the NFL now, but Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant bring back lots of experience. Freshman, Roc Thomas was highly recruited and will get some action also. Sammie Coates, is back to lead an underrated corp of receivers. Left tackle, Greg Robinson was supposed to be the only loss to a stout offensive line, but left guard Alex Koran went down to injury and is out for the year.
Defensively, the Tigers gave up a lot of big plays, especially early in the season. But, the defense played well enough to slow down Georgia, Bama and FSU by the end of the season. Coming up just short of winning the national title. In 2014, the Tigers should be much improved, but they’ll have to do so without sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson, who may be out for the season. The Tigers do have depth up front, with Gabe Wright and LaDarius Owens back from last year. There is strength at linebacker with Cassanova McKinzy, and Robert Therezie. McKinzy, really made a name for himself as he was responsible for chasing Jameis Winston most of the night in the BCS title game. Senior, Jonanthon Mincy returns at corner and senior Jermaine Whitehead returns at safety to give Auburn experience in the secondary. To me, Auburn is the best team in the SEC right now due to having a returning starter at QB and a lot of skill around him. It’s just hard to see Auburn running the table with a schedule this strong. They have five tough road trips including Kansas State, and of course Georgia and Alabama to end the season. Still, with Malzhahn’s offense and an improving defense the Tigers will be tough to beat. Projected record: 10-2
3. LSU – The Bayou Bengals are yet another team that has to replace their QB. In fact, the battle between sophomores, Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings is still ongoing. Jennings, does have experience. He played last season when Zach Mettenberger went down to injury, but its the opinion of most that Harris is LSU’s QB of the future. The backfield is always deep and talented. That won’t change in 2014. Freshman, Leonard Fournette, the number one recruit in the country according to many services looks to start right out of the gate. There will be plenty of help from seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard. The NFL draft has hit LSU hard at receiver the last couple of years. Rueben Randle, Jarvis Landry, and Odell Beckham Jr. are all in the NFL. Freshmen, Malachi Dupree and John Diarse were highly thought of in high school, but neither have played a college down. Luckily, there’s plenty of experience up front which should soften the blow of losing all of that talent.
The Tigers had a down year, by their standards on the defensive side of the ball. Senior Jermauria Rasco returns to anchor the defensive line and junior, Kwon Alexander is back to lead an experienced corp of linebackers. There’s experience at safety with senior Roland Martin, and junior Jalen Mills, who led the Tigers with three interceptions a year ago. LSU, gets Alabama and Ole Miss at home, but must travel to Auburn and Florida in back to back weeks. It will be interesting to see how Les Miles brings this relatively young team together. Projected record: 9-3
4. Ole Miss – The Rebels are still the only team in the SEC West to never win the division and make it to Atlanta. This season may be the best shot at that happening since Eli Manning played QB there. The talent is there and so is the experience. Senior QB, Bo Wallace returns from a season where he threw for nearly 3,000 yards. Wallace, had 18 TD’s, but also had 10 interceptions. Not a terrible ratio, but the turnovers were huge and seemed to come at the worst times. Sophomore wide receiver, Laquon Treadwell, who led the Rebels in receptions is back. Although, Treadwell led in receptions, his 8.4 per catch average means making a big play was a rarity. Junior running back, I’Tavius Mathers is also back after leading the Rebels in rushing last season. His numbers should get better behind an offensive line that, even though they lost quite a bit, still has plenty of talent that received considerable playing time.
While, the Ole Miss defense centers around Robert Nkemdiche there’s plenty of talent on that side of the ball. The Rebs were middle of the pack defensively in 2013, which was an improvement from 2011 and 2012. This year, nine of those starters return, making them one of the most experienced defenses in the SEC. So, improvement can probably be expected agaim this season. Nkemdiche, a 2nd team freshman All-American causes huge problems for offensive lines even if his stats don’t show it much. Constant double teams on him open up things for players like senior linebacker, Serderius Bryant or sophomore safety, Tony Conner to make plays in the backfield. Bryant, led the Rebels with 9.5 tackles for loss and also added three sacks in 2013. Senior free safety, Cody Prewitt is back after leading the SEC with six interceptions and receiving 3rd team All-American honors. Head coach, Hugh Freeze and his team has a leg up on most west contenders. The Rebels play Tennessee and Vandy from the east which means they miss playing any of the east’s top four teams. They also get Bama and Auburn at home. Look out for Ole Miss. Not only in the SEC, but the national scene as well. Projected record: 9-3
5. Mississippi State – While, things are looking up in Oxford, so are things in Starkville. Head coach, Dan Mullen’s team returns 16 starters (8 offense 8 defense) from a team that surprised some by getting to a bowl and defeating Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Junior QB, Dak Prescott is a guy that doesn’t get a lot of notoriety, but is a solid dual-threat QB. Prescott, led the Bulldogs in rushing by a wide margin, and that was while splitting QB duties with Tyler Russell for part of the season. When Prescott decides to throw, he has senior wide receiver, Jameon Lewis to make the big plays. Lewis, led the teamnwith over 900 yards receiving, but also received All-SEC honors as a kick returner. Senior, Robert Johnson should give the Bulldogs a very capable number 2 receiver. Junior running back, Josh Robinson will likely receive the bulk of the carries after Prescott. State has a senior laden offensive front with four seniors and one sophomore.
The Bulldogs had very respectable numbers in all but two games last season. One of those games was against ‘ Johnny Football’ and Texas A&M. But, who didn’t give up huge numbers to the Aggies? A nice showing last season gives a lot of hope for even better things this season, when 8 starters return. Sophomore defensive tackle, Chris Jones returns after receiving 1st team freshman All-America honors and starting only 3 games. Senior, Kaleb Eulls returns to play next to Jones at the other tackle position. Junior linebacker, Bernardrick McKinney is back after leading the Bulldogs in tackles, tackles for loss, and sacks in 2013. There is plenty of experience in the secondary with two seniors and two juniors. Junior corner, Taveze Calhoun led the unit with four pass break-ups and three interceptions. Mississippi State, like Ole Miss, doesn’t have to play any of the east’s contenders. In fact, the Bulldogs draw Vandy and Kentucky. Likely to be the two worst teams from the east. There are road games at Bama and LSU, but they get Auburn at home. If things fall their way don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs are still in contention late in the season. Projected record: 8-4
6. Texas A&M – The Johnny Manziel era is now over in College Station. But, something tells me that Kevin Sumlin has a plan to effectively replace him and that process won’t take long. Sophomore QB, Kenny Hill will get the start to open the season. He beat out freshman QB, Kyle Allen, a very highly recruited player that threw for over 8,000 yards in high school. He is a true freshman, but he did take part in spring drills. Allen, is thought by most to be the heir apparent Manziel. For now, Hill takes the helm. The Aggies lost quite a bit on offense including 2 of their top 3 receivers. Senior, Malcome Kennedy returns to give Hill some experience. At running back, juniors Trey Williams and Tra Carson will lead the way behind an offensive line anchored by another of the famous Matthews family. This Matthews was a 1st team All-America selection in 2013.
The Aggies could stop virtually no one on defense last season, but they do have 9 starters back this year. A&M, gave up a whopping 37 points per game last season. Of course, part of the reason was the offense scored so quickly a lot of the time. Regardless, that number needs to come down drastically. Sophomore linebacker, Darian Claiborne is and senior safety Howard Matthews are back as the leading returning tacklers from last season. Matthews, also led the Aggies in interceptions with three. The feeling from most is that the Aggies will take a giant step back without Manziel. Sumlin, is too good a coach. Expect a drop, but not a big one. Don’t be surprised if the Aggies win a game they’re not supposed to by season’s end and make a bowl. Projected record: 6-6
7. Arkansas – The Hogs have only won just seven games in the last two years. That’s a far cry from their average of 10 wins in the previous three seasons. Head coach, Bret Bielema came into year on in Fayetteville with a lot of confidence. That confidence was shaken early, but there were signs of improvement by season’s end. He came very close to having two 1,000 yard rushers and even though they had nothing to show for it, the Razorbacks were very competitive in the last four games of the season. All against bowl teams (Auburn, Ole Miss, Miss St., and LSU). Bielema, has both of his leading rushers back. Sophomore, Alex Collins rushed for over 1,000 yards and junior Jonathan Williams rushed for over 900. At quarterback, junior Brandon Allen is back at the controls after a very mediocre 2013 season.
As with the offense, there are seven returnees on defense. The top two tacklers from 2013 are back. Senior linebacker, Braylon Mitchell and senior safety Alan Turner lead the way for a team that gave up a league worst 38 points per game in SEC play. Second team All-SEC performer, Trey Flowers will have to duplicate his 2013 numbers from his defensive end position, if the Hogs hope to improve that number at all. Arkansas, should be a much improved team in Bielema’s second year, but with their schedule it may take an upset or two to surpass last year’s win total. Projected record: 3-9