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. Auburn Tigers – Could Jeremy Johnson be as good or better in Gus Malzahn’ s offense than Cam Newton? If so, look out. That’s what the hope is in Auburn, and it’s nowhere near out of the question. Johnson, possesses all the skills and physical attributes to equal what Newton accomplished in his season at Auburn. That includes winning the Heisman Trophy, and possibly leading the Tigers to a National Championship. There are questions, however. This is a team that only went 8-5 last season. This is a team that found ways to lose to average Texas A&M and nearly lose to below average South Carolina at home. That was almost all, due in part to their defense. At least some of that should be fixed in 2015. Will Muschamp, takes over the defense and junior Carl Lawson returns from an ACL injury to wreak havoc on opposing QB’s. Lawson, was one of the nation’s best pass rushers in his freshman season, earning him freshman All-America honors. There are still questions in a secondary that was absolutely torched last season, but guys like Lawson, and senior linebacker Casanova McKinzy will give QB’s less time to throw. Senior wide receiver, D’Haquille (Duke) Williams, could be the key to Auburn’s success this season. Williams, has spent most of the spring and summer in Malzahn’s doghouse. So, his actions off the field are huge. With Sammie Coates leaving early for the NFL, Williams may Auburn’s lone deep threat and will definitely garner lots of double teams. When, Williams was out later season against Georgia, the Tigers sputtered offensively scoring only seven points. The Iron Bowl could decide the SEC and maybe even national title picture. Auburn’s schedule sets up a bit better than Alabama’s, which makes them my pick in the west.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide – Quarterback is the most obvious question, where it’s anyone’s guess who will get the starting nod. But, there are questions all over the place offensively and some defensively. Senior, Jake Coker, will probably be the starter against Wisconsin, but there are three other guys that have earned the praise of Nick Saban during fall camp, so much so that it would lead you to believe that any one of those guys could win the job. It could also be that Saban is trying to send a message to Coker that he may be the man, but he needs to step up his game. Either way, it’s hard to predict just what you’ll get from the QB. Having only three starters back on offense, and only one of them being from a skill position could be a problem. However, it’s kind of hard to picture Derrick Henry not being a starter. But, he wasn’t. Also, Kenyan Drake is back after an ACL injury ended his season prematurely. Offensive coordinator, Lane Kiffin could easily use Drake in a Reggie Bush type role that helped lead Bush to a Heisman Trophy. There’s also talent at wide receiver. They’re just unproven. The defense may have to carry this team for several games, and that shouldn’t be a problem maybe their trip ‘between the hedges’ in October. It’s hard to call a defense that gave up 18 points per game, in this day and age, a disappointment. But, thats kinda the story. The defense let them down against Ohio State and nearly against Auburn. That was mostly due to the secondary. That should change, it’s still kind of hard to gauge how much. However, the secondary may not get tested this until midseason when Bama faces Texas A&M. There may not be a better front seven in the nation, so the defense could be extra stingy. They’ll need to be. Bama’s schedule is the toughest in the nation. No other west contender plays Georgia and Tennessee. Bama, also travels to Auburn, Texas A&M, and Mississippi State. That schedule could be too tough to tame even for a talented, Nick Saban coached Bama ball club.
3. LSU Tigers – Brandon Harris, is the man in Baton Rouge. He was recently named the starting QB after battling with junior Anthony Jennings, who started twelve games last season. Jennings, has had major off the field problems, and is really pretty lucky he’s still on the team. Harris, should have been a no-brainer, but he was unable to lock the down the job until just a few days ago. The Tigers are set at running back with Heisman Trophy candidate, Leonard Fournette. All signs point toward him having a breakout season. For my money, Fournette is the most talented running back, and maybe even player in the nation. But, it may be hard for him to fully show it if the QB position isn’t solid. LSU has the receivers. Junior, Travin Dural, sophomore Malachi Dupree, and sophomore John Diarse are unquestionably one of the best receiving tandems in the nation. Harris, has the arm. Can he get it to them consistently? John Chavis, is no longer the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. He moved on to Texas A&M. Kevin Steele, takes over that position. Steele, has been around the SEC and the nation and should be a good fit. Look for safety Jalen Mills, and linebacker Kendell Beckwith to lead another talented group. Does anyone have a tougher November than LSU? At Bama, Arkansas, at Ole Miss, Texas A&M is treacherous, but the Tigers’ schedule is quite manageable and definitely looks easier to navigate than the schedule for Arkansas or Ole Miss. Which is why I give the Tigers the slight nod. If, Brandon Harris can be the leader of the offense that Les Miles needs him to be, the Tigers could surprise and win the division. It’s also not out of the question that this could be another 8-4 or even 7-5 regular season in Baton Rouge. A lot is riding on the arm of Harris. Can he handle it?
4. Arkansas Razorbacks – Bret Bielema, has it rolling in Fayetteville. Rolling downhill at that. When you play Arkansas, just as it was in his time at Wisconsin, you know you’re going to have Bielema’s team try to run it right down your throat. Things were set up to for the Hogs to have one of the better running back duos around. That changed when senior Jonathan Williams went down to injury. They still have Alex Collins, who ran for over 1100 yards last season, and Bielema has recruited well. So, there is some young, albeit unproven, that will get some reps. Senior, Brandon Allen, gives Arkansas stability at QB that many other teams can’t match. Defensively, the Hogs only gave up 19 points per game last season and could be even better this season. There are two big questions about the Razorbacks. The first is; will Allen be able to stretch the field enough to allow the running game to do its thing? The second is; the schedule. The Razorbacks have road dates at Bama, Tennessee, Ole Miss, and LSU. In order for the Hogs to have a chance to get to Atlanta, winning two or three of these are a must. It’s doable, but it’s also possible they could drop all four. Needless to say, the outcome of those games and a visit from Auburn will decide their season.
5. Ole Miss Rebels – Ok. Here’s something you haven’t heard about any of these teams. The Rebels need a QB. Junior, Chad Kelly, looks to be the guy. But, he’s yet to lock down the job. Or, at least Hugh Freeze isn’t saying he locked down the job, and that’s probably a problem. A season ago, the Rebels had the best defense in the SEC and one of the best in the nation. That is, until they ran up against Travone Boykin and the TCU Horned Frogs in the Chick Fil-A Bowl. Things don’t seem to be changing on that front. The Rebels did lose one of the best corners around in Senquez Golson, but guys like junior Tony Conner, and Trae Elston will do just fine in the secondary. The front-seven will be fine with guys like junior Robert Nkemdiche and sophomore Marcus Haynes wreaking havoc. It’s obvious Freeze has done some big time recruiting in Oxford. But, you have to wonder if that will show enough on offense. Sure, the Rebs have Laquon Treadwell back after that gruesome injury he suffered against Auburn last season. Treadwell, may be the best in the SEC and one of the best in the nation at receiver. Can Kelly get him the ball is the question? Another question is can the Rebels fix their running game. Last season, it was easy to put a lot of the blame on QB, Bo Wallace. But, fact is the running game never gave him any breathing room. Schedule wise, it’s going to be tough. The road games at Alabama and Auburn are tough enough. No other west contender has to do that. Then, there’s the Egg Bowl in Starkville against a Mississippi State team that should be much improved by the time Thanksgiving gets here. You have to consider Ole Miss a contender to get to Atlanta, but it’s hard to see them fulfilling that until the offense proves to be solid.
6. Texas A&M – The Aggies may be one of the harder teams to figure out in a division that may be incredibly hard to figure out. There’s no way you can’t like the passing attack with Kevin Sumlin running the show. But, questions remain as to how the Aggies running game will fare, and how much the defense will improve year one under John Chavis. There is talent defensively. Sophomore defensive end, Myles Garrett, finished second only behind Missouri’s Shane Ray in sacks with 11.5. Unfortunately, he didn’t have much help. That looks to change in 2015. The passing attack should again be quite lethal. Kyle Allen, has won the job after starting five games as a freshman last season. Allen, has a plethora of receivers to throw the ball to. Freshman, Speedy Noil is just that. Speedy. Junior, Josh Reynolds was the team’s offensive MVP last season, and there’s a crop of recruits that may make this one of the deepest units in all of college football. The Aggies are going to score points, but much like last year without a consistent running game, it may not reach it’s full potential. The Aggies schedule sets up and well could help them be the surprise team of the SEC. Bama and Auburn travel to Kyle Field, and their east opponents are South Carolina and Vandy. A seven or eight win season seems more likely, but a run to Atlanta is not totally out of the question.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs – It doesn’t seem like it was that long ago that the Bulldogs were in the midst of their best start to a season ever. They were ranked number one for the first time in school history, and they were able to hold on to that ranking for five weeks. Things don’t look to be quite as good in 2015 with only seven returning starters. One of those starters is Dak Prescott, who could make another run to New York for the Heisman Trophy ceremonies. He will have one of his primary weapons from last season, in junior wide receiver De’Runnya Wilson. Other than that, Prescott will be solely responsible for how good or bad the Bulldogs are on offense. Even more concerning is the fact that Prescott’s numbers fell off toward the end of last season. The Bulldogs were only able to score 10, 20, and 17 points in their final three SEC games. Two of those were losses. The defense took a hit pretty big hit as well. Benardrick McKinney, led the Bulldogs in tackles and was the leader of the defense. He’s in the NFL now, so someone else will have to step up for Dan Mullen. Beniquez Brown, is the most likely candidate. Brown, finished second behind McKinney in tackles. The Bulldogs get two chance for revenge and both games will be in Starkville. Bama, knocked them off and out of their number one ranking last season, and they get Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl. Returning the SEC’s best quarterback should count for something, but the inexperience at just about every other position is going to make things very tough. Still, Mississippi State will more than likely be much improved by season’s end and make the SEC West a seven bowl division once again.