We’re just a week away from the kickoff of college football around the country, and things may never have been as unsettled as they are right now around college football’s best conference. The SEC. There are at this late date still as many as five teams that have yet to decide on who they’re starting quarterback will be. Of those five teams, only Florida and South Carolina are looked at as not being a threat to win the SEC, or a candidate for the College Football Playoff. The list was longer just a few days ago and included three teams that made their decision over the last few days. In Baton Rouge, LSU has decided to go with sophomore Brandon Harris. Texas A&M, and head coach Kevin Sumlin will rely on Kyle Allen, and the Kentucky Wildcats will have Patrick Towles leading their offense. The SEC has rarely been a conference that’s had a lot of premier passers anyway, so the impact these quarterback battles have on their respective teams may be minimal. The league is however, loaded with talent at just about every other position.
Bama was able to capture the title last season. They’re third in the Nick Saban era and an SEC leading 24th in school history. The Missouri Tigers continued their surprising run since becoming a member of the SEC, winning their second consecutive SEC East title. Mizzou, was no match for the Tide, however. Bama beat the Tigers 42-13 to earn a trip to the first ever College Football Playoff. The Tide went in as the number one seed, but lost to Ohio State 42-35 in the semifinals, making 2014 the second season in a row to have a non-SEC (or state of Alabama) national champion. Will that change in 2015? Only time will tell. For now, let’s just take a look at what 2015 could look like in the SEC.
PROJECTED ORDER OF FINISH
1. Missouri Tigers – When studying over info for last season’s preview, the most important signs I look at pointed to Mizzou winning the SEC East. The most notable sign was their schedule. I ignored those signs because something about Mizzou winning the SEC East two years in a row just didn’t seem to make sense. Turns out it made a lot of sense. Gary Pinkel, did it again and silenced the rest of SEC Nation again. I’ve got news for you. Most everything sets up for the Tigers to do it a third time in a row. The schedule again does not include Alabama, Auburn, or LSU from the west, and there are also unanswered questions about every other contender in the east. The Tigers also have a senior quarterback. Something few teams anywhere can say. Maty Mauk, has had his ups and downs, but the bottom line is the Tigers won 11 games last season. Russell Hansbrough, who led the Tigers in 2014 rushing for 685 yards in split duty, will handle the running back duties. The Tigers only averaged 27 points per game last season, but they in turn only gave up 21. Defensive linemen Shane Ray and Markus Golden, two players that were huge reasons for that success, are in the NFL now, but Pinkel has found a way to replace players of this magnitude in the past. Look for junior defensive tackle Harold Brantley to take the lead of this defense. The Tigers could easily be 6-0 heading into an October 17th showdown at Georgia. That game or a home date vs Tennessee will probably decide the east.
2. Tennessee Volunteers – The Vols are the talk of fall camp and for good reason. Head coach, Butch Jones, definitely has the Volunteers headed in the right direction. The Vols can boast of having an experienced signal-caller. Joshua Dobbs, came on the scene late last season in the Alabama game. He led the Vols on a nice second half rally that came up short, but was able to keep the job and led the team to three victories in their last four games. Dobbs, can beat you with his arm or legs, and has many weapons at his disposal. Jalen Hurd’s 899 yards rushing as a freshman was one of the SEC’s best, and junior Marquez North and senior Pig Howard are a dynamic tandem at wide receiver. However, it was just announced that Howard has been suspended and will miss the first game of the season against Bowling Green. There’s star-power on defense, as well. Derek Barnett, as a freshman All-SEC performer finished near the top of the SEC with 10 sacks, and Cameron Sutton is one of the best corners around. The Vols have a non-conference showdown at home against Oklahoma in Week 2. That could tell us all we need to know about the Big Orange. Their SEC schedule sets up a bit better than Georgia’s in that they play at Bama, but they miss Auburn. They get another west contender, Arkansas, at home. Plus, the Dawgs have to travel to Knoxville. However, the turning point of the season is likely in a trip to the Swamp. A loss could ruin the season early. But, a win could make things fall into place for a run to Atlanta.
3. Georgia Bulldogs – Mark Richt’s team still has the most talent in the division. It’s been that way for the last several seasons. Pretty much ever since Urban Meyer left Florida. Yet, the Dawgs have only broken through to Atlanta twice in that span. If, they’re going to make it this season, it will be most likely on the arm of unproven sophomore QB, Brice Ramsey. He does have weapons to get the ball to. Senior wide receivers, Malcolm Mitchell, and Justin Scott-Wesley are not only experienced, but they complement each other well. Of course, the Bulldogs have at their disposal, maybe the best weapon in all of college football, Nick Chubb. The sophomore running back came on the scene after Todd Gurley’s injury and took the SEC and nation by storm. Chubb, only started the last eight games of the season, but amassed 1547 yards on the ground. This year in college football looks like the year of the running back. With so many great ones around the country, Chubb takes a backseat to none of them. In fact, he may be the driver. Defensively, the Dawgs were much improved as a whole, in defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s first season in Athens. However, there were times, like the South Carolina and Florida games that the defense let the team down. The Florida debacle was a disaster. Giving up 38 points to that Florida team, with the Gators going 99% run vs pass is inexcusable. Plain and simple. Games like that are why it’s difficult to predict Georgia to win championships. If the defense has let downs like that in what is a pretty tough schedule with a visit from Bama and visits to Auburn and Tennessee, then the Dawgs are in trouble. If, the defense performs well consistently and Ramsey is solid at QB, the sky’s the limit. It’s that simple.
4. Kentucky Wildcats – Here is another team that’s on the rise in the SEC East. You’re not going to find a lot of star-power in Lexington. Although, Patrick Towles does have some skill where he can use his arm and feet to beat you at QB. But, the job head coach Mark Stoops has done recruiting is remarkable. Are they able to recruit with the Alabama’s, LSU’s and Georgia’s of the world? No. But, there has definitely been an upgrade. There are14 starters (7 off – 7 def) returning. Besides Towles on offense, Stanley Williams is back to carry the rock. Williams, was second behind Towles in rushing with 501 yards, in a system that allows two or three guys to get equal carries. The Wildcats obviously use the quarterback a lot in their run game and Towles handles it well. The question is, can he be consistent enough getting the ball down field? The Cats’ have to improve defensively, however. They gave up over 31 points per game. Kentucky averaged only 29 on offense. Yet, Kentucky still finished 5-7. They could have easily been 6-6 and Bowl eligible, if they hadn’t let the Florida game get away from them in The Swamp. The Gators visit newly renovated Commonwealth Stadium this season. So, does Mizzou who the Cats lost a tough 20-10 game to last season. There are visits to Georgia and Mississippi State, and visits from Auburn and Tennessee. If, Kentucky can get one of those and get winnable games like Mizzou, Florida, at South Carolina, and Louisville, the potential for 6 to 7 wins is definitely there.
5. Florida Gators – New head coach Jim McElwain has his work cut out for him. To be honest, I wasn’t that high on McElwain being the hire in the first place. Sure, he’ll be fine, but is that Urban Meyer fine? Anything less could be a problem. Sure, he’s an upgrade over Will Muschamp. But, how much of an upgrade? The hire just begs the question; could Florida have gotten a more marquee head coach? I think they could have. Only time will tell, but one thing that’s not questionable is that Muschamp left him a program in complete disarray. With that said, that doesn’t mean there isn’t talent in Gainesville. There’s plenty of it. But, most of that talent, especially on offense, does not match the type of system McElwain is going to try and implement. With Jeff Driskel gone, redshirt freshman Will Grier, and sophomore Treon Harris are fighting it out to be the starter at QB. Harris, has more experience. But, that was in a totally different system. Grier, looks like the odds on favorite because he’s more of a fit. But, it’s hard to find a lot of confidence in either. Again, for my money, Harris should get the nod. However, he’s not going to fit McElwain’s offense. The one saving grace for the Gators is their defense. However, there has been decline even in that area over the last two seasons where they went from giving up 14 points per game in 2012 to 21 points per game the last two seasons. The Gators have maybe the best cover corner Inn the nation, in junior Vernon Hargreaves. But, they will have to replace one of the best pass rushers in Dante Fowler. The Gators get Tennessee at home, which helps. Also, there is a visit from Ole Miss, which will be winnable but tough. A tough six-game stretch starting with Kentucky and ending with Georgia at the Cocktail Party will decide this team’s fate.
6. South Carolina Gamecocks – Steve Spurrier, says he’s not old and thinks he’ll coach a while longer. This season may change his mind. No longer are the Marcus Lattimore’s, the Jadeveon Clowney’s, or the Alshon Jeffrey’s walking around Columbia. There has been a definitive drop in talent level, and it showed last season. The Gamecocks still managed to finish 7-6, and ended the season with a nice win over Miami in the Independence Bowl. But, they lost to Clemson for the first time in forever, they somehow lost to Tennessee for the second season in a row, and even lost to Kentucky. While, Pharoah Cooper is looked at as being one of the best receivers in the SEC, he’s only one of four returning starters. Connor Mitch, looks like he’ll start at QB. The sophomore only played in two games last season. With eight returning starters, the defense should do better than their 30 point per game average last season. There just isn’t the star talent that we’ve been used to seeing. The schedule doesn’t set up well. The Gamecocks get a revenge hungry Georgia team ‘between the hedges’, they go to Missouri and Tennessee and face LSU at home and go to Texas A&M from the west. The Gamecocks look very similar to Kentucky and Florida. Either of these teams could finish as high as fourth, or as low as sixth.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores – Times are tough in Nashville, but you wouldn’t know it if you’re talking to head coach, Derek Mason. The second-year coach is as upbeat and optimistic as ever. It’s just too bad that’s not the case with his football team. One positive he can look at about this team, however, is experience. Eighteen returning starters will be a huge help. Sophomore, Johnny McCrary will be the starter at QB. McCrary, had a decent end to 2014, in starting the last five games and throwing for nearly 1,000 yards. He has sophomore Ralph Webb, who ran for over 900 yards as a freshman, returning to carry the rock. He also has a couple of nice pieces in sophomore CJ Duncan, and junior Latevius Rayford returning at receiver. There is actually some talent on defense as well. Nigel Bowden and Darreon Herring are quality linebackers, and senior Caleb Azubike is a force from his defensive end position. The defense could get a shot in the arm also, from Mason taking over the defensive coordinator duties. Something had to happen after giving up over 33 points per game last season. Again, there is some talent, but depth is an issue. All in all the ‘Dores should be improved this season. It just may not look like like it in the win/loss column.