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Will Auburn repeat as SEC champs?
The SEC’s national title streak was stopped at seven with Florida State’s victory over Auburn on Jan. 6. But all was not lost for the SEC, as the conference finished the BCS era with nine championships, and the playoff era will only help the SEC get more teams into elite bowls.
Turning the page to 2014, the balance of power is clearly in the West Division. Alabama and Auburn should be preseason top-five teams, LSU is likely to be ranked in the 10-15 range, while Texas A&M and Ole Miss may also begin the year in the top 25. Mississippi State is a team on the rise next season, and Dan Mullen’s team could surprise in 2014.
While the picture is relatively clear in the West, things are cloudy in the East. For starters, which team should be the favorite? Is it Georgia? The Bulldogs return most of their key personnel, but Hutson Mason is in his first year as the starting quarterback. Also, is the hire of Jeremy Pruitt enough to elevate the defense? South Carolina loses a handful of key players on defense, and underrated quarterback Connor Shaw is also out of eligibility. Missouri must replace end Michael Sam, quarterback James Franklin and cornerback E.J. Gaines. But new starter Maty Mauk and receiver Dorial Green-Beckham will be one of the top pass-catch duos in the SEC.
Tennessee is expected to improve under second-year coach Butch Jones, and Florida has more talent than its 4-8 record last year indicated. Kentucky is also making progress under Mark Stoops, while Vanderbilt figures to be in bowl contention despite the loss of coach James Franklin.
Early East Division Predictions for 2014
There’s not much separating Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri in the East next year. A slight pre-spring edge goes to the Bulldogs, but a strong case can be made for South Carolina or Missouri. New quarterback Hutson Mason was able to make two starts at the end of 2013 due to Aaron Murray’s season-ending knee injury, and the senior will be surrounded by one of the top supporting casts in the SEC. Running back Todd Gurley is back, while receiver Malcolm Mitchell and running back Keith Marshall return from knee injuries. Replacing three starters is arguably Georgia’s biggest concern on offense next year. With eight new starters, the defense was expected to struggle in 2013. The Bulldogs ranked eighth in the SEC in yards allowed and gave up 29 points per game. But this unit should show significant improvement next year, as Jeremy Pruitt has been hired away from Florida State to coordinate the defense and there’s a ton of talent returning. The linebacker duo of Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd should be among the best in the nation.
2. South Carolina
The Gamecocks have three consecutive 11-win seasons and should be in the mix to win the East Division in 2014. But this team isn’t without question marks. Quarterback Connor Shaw has expired his eligibility, and Dylan Thompson will take over the reigns under center. Thompson has played well in a relief role and threw for 222 yards in a win over Missouri last season. Running back Mike Davis returns, and the Gamecocks should be solid on the offensive line with four starters returning. The defense suffered a few significant personnel losses in the trenches, as end Jadeveon Clowney and tackle Kelcy Quarles left early for the NFL Draft and Chaz Sutton expired his eligibility. Cornerback Victor Hampton also declared for the NFL. South Carolina has to play at Florida, Clemson and Auburn next year, but Georgia and Missouri visit Williams-Brice Stadium.
Despite the departures of quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, Missouri will be back in the mix for the SEC East title. Replacing Franklin under center will be Maty Mauk, who finished 2013 with 1,071 yards and 11 touchdowns. Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy are slated to replace Josey’s production, while the receiving corps is in good hands with Dorial Green-Beckham, Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt. Left tackle Justin Britt and guard Max Copeland will be missed on the offensive line. Scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Gary Pinkel’s team, but can the defense match last year’s production? Ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy are gone, and cornerback E.J. Gaines also expired his eligibility. The Tigers have to play at South Carolina, Florida and Texas A&M, but Georgia visits Faurot Field.
There wasn’t much that went Florida’s way last year. The Gators started 4-1, but injuries and an inconsistent offense eventually doomed this team to a 4-8 final mark. Will Muschamp fired offensive coordinator Brent Pease and line coach Tim Davis, bringing in Kurt Roper from Duke to call the plays and Mike Summers from USC to replace Davis. Roper and Summers should help the offense, but the Gators also need more from quarterback Jeff Driskel and the receiving corps. Running back Kelvin Taylor is a solid piece to build around, and there’s no question Florida has recruited well. It’s time for some of that talent to turn into production on offense. Even with cornerback Loucheiz Purifoy and linebacker Ronald Powell leaving for the NFL, the Gators should be one of the best in the SEC on defense. Crossover games with LSU and Alabama will be tough, but Missouri and South Carolina visit the Swamp.
As expected, Butch Jones’ first season in Knoxville wasn’t easy. Tennessee finished 5-7 for the third consecutive year, but this team was just a couple of plays away from making a bowl. The Volunteers lost by four to Vanderbilt and by three to Georgia. Improvement should be noticeable in 2014, especially as Jones continues to reel in one of the nation’s top recruiting classes. Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson will battle for the starting quarterback spot, and the coaching staff has to find a way to replace all five starters on the offensive line. The question marks aren’t limited just to offense, as the Volunteers allowed 6.08 yards per play in SEC games last season. More talent and overall depth is needed on that side of the ball, but the coaching staff has a few pieces to build around, including linebacker A.J. Johnson and cornerback Cameron Sutton.
James Franklin set the bar high in Nashville. The Commodores played in three consecutive bowl games and posted back-to-back nine-win seasons under Franklin. Can the next coach elevate Vanderbilt once again? Regardless of who is on the sidelines, the Commodores have a few significant holes to fill. On offense, receiver Jordan Matthews will be tough to replace. Matthews accounted for 112 receptions out of Vanderbilt’s 243 completions in 2013. Not only is Matthews out of eligibility, but Jonathan Krause is set to depart, leaving Jordan Cunningham (15 receptions) as the team’s No. 1 receiver. Quarterbacks Patton Robinette and Johnny McCrary are promising, while running back Jerron Seymour is a potential 1,000-yard rusher in 2014. The defense also loses some key players, including tackle Jared Morse, end Walker May, linebacker Chase Garnham and all four starters in the secondary.
Mark Stoops has the Wildcats trending in the right direction. Recruiting is going well, and Kentucky is upgrading their facilities. Even though the Wildcats did not win a SEC game last year, this team was more competitive than it was in 2013. Kentucky lost by six to Mississippi State and by seven to South Carolina. With more talent, the Wildcats will be able to close the gap even more in 2014. Settling the quarterback spot and filling a few holes on defense are the top priorities for Stoops this spring. The Wildcats have Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith returning for 2014, but incoming freshman Drew Barker is a name to watch in the quarterback derby. Defensive tackles Donte Rumph and Mister Cobble, along with linebacker Avery Williamson will be tough to replace.
Early West Division Predictions for 2014
Flip a coin between Alabama and Auburn for the top spot in the West next year. For now, a slight edge goes to the Crimson Tide, largely due to next year’s matchup being in Tuscaloosa. After losing the final two games of 2013, Nick Saban decided to shake up the coaching staff, and former USC coach Lane Kiffin will call the plays in 2014. Kiffin has to settle on a quarterback, whether that’s Blake Sims, David Cornwell, Cooper Bateman or Alec Morris. And of course, there’s a possibility a transfer could change the outlook of the quarterback battle. While the offense settles on someone under center, the team can lean on a deep stable of running backs. The one-two punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry could be the best in the nation in 2014. As usual, Alabama will be strong on defense. But linebacker C.J. Mosley, safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, linebacker Adrian Hubbard and end Ed Stinson are big losses. If the Crimson Tide is going to get back to the national championship, they have to navigate road dates at LSU and Ole Miss.
As we mentioned above, it’s a close call for the top spot in the West for 2014. A compelling case could be made for either Auburn or Alabama. The Tigers and Crimson Tide are essentially 1A and 1B in the West right now. Auburn made the unlikely jump from 3-9 to nearly winning the national championship last season, and there’s little reason to doubt this team can make a similar run in 2014. Quarterback Nick Marshall is the perfect fit for Gus Malzahn’s offense and should improve with another offseason to work in this scheme. Running back Tre Mason and left tackle Greg Robinson are big losses, but four other starters are back on the line, and Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant are capable replacements at running back. The biggest concern for Auburn this spring will be the defense. The Tigers allowed 29.6 points per contest in nine SEC games, and end Dee Ford, tackle Nosa Eguae, cornerback Chris Davis and linebacker Jake Holland are significant departures. But Malzahn is recruiting well, and three sophomores (Elijah Daniel, Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams) will be the new leaders up front. Late-season road games against Georgia and Alabama should determine whether or not Auburn repeats as the West Division champ.
For the second consecutive season, LSU was hit hard by departures to the NFL Draft. This year, the Tigers lost receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, defensive tackles Ego Ferguson and Anthony Johnson, running back Jeremy Hill and offensive lineman Trai Turner. Although LSU has recruited well, it’s inevitable the early departures could hurt this team’s depth at some point. In addition to the NFL Draft early entrants, the Tigers need to replace quarterback Zach Mettenberger, who was one of the most-improved players in the nation in 2013. Anthony Jennings is the frontrunner to replace Mettenberger, but this team will likely rely on its rushing attack next year. LSU is bringing in the nation’s top running back in Leonard Fournette, and four starters return on the line. The Tigers returned only three starters on defense in 2013 and still finished third in the SEC in fewest yards allowed per game. Even with the departure of both starting defensive tackles, safety Craig Loston and linebacker Lamin Barrow, LSU should rank near the top of the conference in total and scoring defense once again.
4. Ole Miss
Hugh Freeze has Ole Miss trending up after 15 wins in his first two seasons in Oxford. The Rebels reeled in one of the nation’s top-five recruiting classes last season, and Freeze should see that talent develop into All-SEC contributors in 2014. The offseason should help quarterback Bo Wallace return to 100 percent after shoulder surgery slowed his development last year. Wallace won’t have Donte Moncrief available after he left early for the NFL Draft. But the Rebels are stockpiling an impressive group of weapons, starting with Laquon Treadwell and Vince Sanders at receiver, along with Jaylen Walton and I’Tavius Mathers at running back. The offensive line will be overhauled this offseason, but the return of guard Aaron Morris from a season-ending knee injury is a huge plus. The Rebels won’t lose much on defense. And this unit should improve with Robert Nkemdiche and Tony Conner returning for their sophomore seasons. With Alabama and Auburn visiting Oxford next year, Ole Miss could play a key role in shaping the outcome of the West Division.
5. Texas A&M
With the Aggies recruiting at a high level, Kevin Sumlin’s team will be back in the mix for a SEC title in the next few years. But with Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans declaring for the NFL Draft, Texas A&M is due to take a step back in the win column in 2014. Who replaces Manziel is a huge question mark, but again, there’s talent in place. Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill will push senior Matt Joeckel for the starting spot. Allen is regarded as one of the top prospects in the 2014 signing class. Even with Evans leaving and tackle Jake Matthews expiring his eligibility, the winner of the quarterback battle will have a strong supporting cast. Regardless of how well the offense performs, Texas A&M has to find answers on defense. The Aggies allowed 499.1 yards and 36.5 points per game in eight SEC contests. Youth and inexperience factored prominently into the struggles, so another offseason under coordinator Mark Snyder should help this unit eliminate some of the mistakes. And there’s plenty of help on the way from one of the nation’s top recruiting classes.
6. Mississippi State
Looking for a potential sleeper in the SEC West next year? Take a look at the Bulldogs. No, we don’t expect Mississippi State to win the division. But if there’s one team that could easily outperform its preseason rank in 2014, the Bulldogs would have our vote. Dan Mullen has raised expectations in Starkville, and the 2014 squad could be the best of his tenure. Dak Prescott looks like the answer at quarterback, and receiver Jameon Lewis figures to be in the mix for All-SEC honors. The biggest loss on offense is replacing standout guard Gabe Jackson. Nearly everyone is back from a defense that finished fifth in the SEC in total defense. Tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Benardrick McKinney are two players to watch next year.
The SEC West is college football’s toughest division, so improvement could be minimal in the win column for Arkansas in Bret Bielema’s second year. Before spring practice starts, Bielema needs to fill two voids on his coaching staff, including the defensive coordinator position after Chris Ash left for Ohio State. The Razorbacks need a jump in production from quarterback Brandon Allen in 2014, and the junior will have plenty of help from running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, along with tight end Hunter Henry. Center Travis Swanson will be tough to replace. Defensive end Chris Smith has expired his eligibility, but the pass rush should be set after Trey Flowers decided to stay for his final season. The rest of the defense largely returns intact, with tackle Darius Philon due for a breakout year. One positive for Arkansas last season was this team didn’t quit despite the losing record. The Razorbacks lost by 10 to Ole Miss, followed by an overtime defeat to Mississippi State and a four-point loss to LSU. Arkansas should be better in 2014, but improvement may only result in a 4-8 or 5-7 mark overall.