Friday, August 22, 2014

Long and Suite Preview: The SEC

Thanks to great recruiting by coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss suddenly boasts stars like receiver Laquon Treadwell. Can the Rebels contend in the loaded SEC West?
By Joe Parello (@HerewegoJoe)

There are rumblings that the era of the SEC may be ending, but I wouldn't bet against the conference that has dominated college football for the past decade plus quite yet.

The SEC West still boasts four teams that can play with anybody in the country, and the top of the East looks to be as talented as ever, though there are some definite wild cards.

With the two Alabama powers and South Carolina chasing a national title, and the potential emergence of, gulp, Ole Miss, the SEC should have an exciting, if not traditionally dominant season. Replacing a boat load of quarterback talent will be the top priority conference wide, but the defense, and most importantly, speed are still there for some good ole fashioned SEC footbaw!

2014 Projections

SEC East

1. South Carolina
Last Year: 11-2, #4

The Ole Ball Coach has come oh so close to breaking through and winning the SEC at SC, but every year something seems to happen. Last season it was running into Georgia when the Dawgs were fully healthy and clicking, plus a confounding upset loss to Tennessee. South Carolina did, however, close out the year on a six-game winning streak that included a win over Missouri (the Tigers' only regular season loss), and double-digit victories over both Clemson and Wisconsin. They were also the only team to beat Central Florida all year, knocking off UCF in Orlando.

This year's team will need to replace quarterback Connor Shaw, who was far better than you remember, rushing for over 700 yards and six touchdowns, but throwing for 24 touchdowns with only one interception. In his place will be senior Dylan Thompson, who has played sparingly the last two years, including those wins over Missouri and UCF last season. The results have been mixed, and he doesn't appear to be the runner Shaw is.

Still, with a completion percentage hovering around 60 percent and hardly any time to find a rhythm, the potential appears to be there for Thompson to lead another effective offense. Running back Mike Davis returns after 1,200 yards and 11 touchdowns a season ago, and nine of SC's 10 leading receivers are back as well.

Six starters return on defense and, much like last year, the Gamecocks will have to do it without Jadeveon Clowney, the only difference being that Clowney actually isn't on the team this season. The loss of Kelcy Quarles and his 9.5 sacks will hurt much more, but all three starting linebackers and both safeties return from a unit that finished third in the conference in total defense.

Assuming Thompson can continue to hit his passes at a high percentage, Davis is a force on the ground again the defense continues to grow, Spurrier may just have his first SEC title this year.

2. Georgia
Last Year: 8-5, NR

Many have pegged the Dawgs as the favorites in the SEC East, but I'm just not buying it until I see senior quarterback Hutson Mason play a little more. After the injury to longtime starter Aaron Murray, Mason looked efficient against a weak Kentucky defense and great against Georgia Tech (after UGA fell into a 20 point hole), but came back down to Earth in the Gator Bowl against Nebraska, completing just 54 percent of his passes.

Mason will have all three of his starting receivers back to help him out though, and star running back Todd Gurley returns for his junior season. The backfield is loaded, but could also get a boost from highly touted freshman Sony Michel, a five-star recruit out of Plantation, Florida.

On defense is where the Dawgs are inspiring confidence. UGA returns eight starters from a middle of the pack SEC defense. Georgia was very young on that side of the ball, but grew up as the year went on, and now linebackers Ramik Wilson, a senior, and sophomore Leonard Floyd look ready to put together another stellar Dawg linebacking corps.

How far Georgia goes will depend on Mason's development, but if he gets going early, Georgia could sneak into the SEC Championship Game.

3. Florida
Last Year: 4-8, NR

I mentioned wild cards in the intro, and here's the biggest one. The Florida Gators had, by pretty much any metric, the worst season of the program's modern era last year. Finishing 4-8 with an embarrassing loss to FCS Georgia Southern and a humbling blowout at the hands of rival Florida State, the Gators missed out on bowl season for the first time since 1990.

But even that 1990 Gator team, led by first year head coach Steve Spurrier finished 9-2 (6-1 SEC), good for the best record in the conference. The Gators were simply ineligible for postseason play due to NCAA sanctions. If you really want to find the last time Florida wasn't good enough to play in a bowl game, you have to all the way back to the 6-5 Gators of 1985 (when not every winning major conference team made a bowl), and if you want to find the last Florida team to finish without a winning record, you have to go back to coach Charley Pell's first season in 1979 when the Gators finished 0-10-1.

Basically, it was a historically bad season, but there is plenty of reason for optimism in Gainesville. First of all, the Gators had unusually bad injury luck last season, and lost some pretty flukey games, like an early season defeat to Miami, despite out gaining the Canes by nearly 200 yards.

One would expect both of those things to turn around this season, and if quarterback Jeff Driskel can stay healthy, he'll have plenty of speed, and now, experience around him with seven starters returning on offense. The defense was outstanding throughout the first half of last season, ranking in the Top-5 nationally in most categories, but a string of injuries led to it being just "pretty good" the rest of the way. If Driskel has a steady hand with the offense, and coach Will Muschamp continues to put together solid defenses, the Gators are a great candidate for this year's "Most Improved Team" distinction.

The schedule opens with three winnable home games (Idaho, EMU, Kentucky) before things get dicey at Alabama, followed by a trip to Tennessee and home games against LSU and Missouri. Georgia (in Jacksonville), South Carolina and FSU finish things out on the back end of the slate. The Gators look like they could finish anywhere between 6-6 and 9-3, and Muschamp better hope it's on the higher end of that if he's to keep his job.

4. Tennessee
Last Year: 5-7, NR

The Volunteers showed signs of life under then-first year head coach Butch Jones in 2013, but ultimately fell short of bowl eligibility for the third consecutive season. Expect the Vols to be back in the postseason this year, as Jones brings back senior quarterback Justin Worley and a bevy of experience backing him up for year two of his system.

The offense should be vastly improved based just on that fact, but whomever starts, and finishes, the year at quarterback, will have a pair of young, talented receivers to throw to in sophomore Marquez North and highly touted freshman Josh Malone.

The defense returns five starters, including tackling machine middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, and all four members of last year's secondary. The Vols were below average on defense last year, but actually held opposing quarterbacks under 56 percent passing, a number that should drop further now that corners Cameron Sutton(So.) and Justin Coleman (Sr.) each have a year of starting under their belt.

The expected improvement of Tennessee comes from many prognosticators' faith in Jones and his system, which has worked at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati (following Brian Kelly at both schools). In his first year at Cincy, Jones and the Bearcats stumbled to a 4-8 record, but he followed that up by going 19-6 over the next two years, earning a share of the Big East title in both seasons.

Don't expect quite that meteoric rise, but the Vols shouldn't be home for the holidays again.

5. Missouri
Last Year: 12-2, #5

The Tigers were one of the great stories of college football last season. Mizzou began the year 7-0 with wins over Vanderbilt, Georgia and Florida, before a five overtime loss to South Carolina spoiled their dreams of a perfect season. But Missouri bounced back to win its next four, including a thriller against Johnny Football and Texas A&M, to qualify for the SEC Championship Game.

Missouri ultimately lost a shootout to another set of Tigers in that game, this one from Auburn, but ended the year on a high note, defeating Oklahoma State by 10 in the Cotton Bowl.

This year's team will look vastly different from last season's. Gone are star pass rushers Michael Sam and Kona Early, who combined for 20 sacks and 33.5 TFL in 2013, as is quarterback James Franklin and his 23 total touchdowns. The rebuilt Tiger defense will rely on senior Markus Golden, a situational pass rusher that showed the potential to be a full-time star last year.

Hard-hitting safety Braylon Webb will anchor the secondary in his senior season and Kentrell Brothers returns for his junior campaign at middle linebacker. The offense returns quarterback Maty Mauk, who filled in admirably against Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee and Kentucky, finishing the year with a sterling 11/2 TD to INT ratio.

The offense should still regress with only four starters returning and Mauk seeing his first full-time action, plus the defense can't hope to be as good as it was during 2013's magical run. The Tigers will still be competitive, but another trip to the SEC title game seems out of reach.

6. Vanderbilt
Last Year: 9-4, #24

The job James Franklin did at Vanderbilt was phenomenal, but when the coach left Nashville for Penn State, the Commodore brass ensured the team would continue competing in the brutal SEC by hiring one of the best defensive minds in the country. New head coach Derek Mason (not the receiver) comes from Stanford with an impressive resume and reputation for shutting down high powered offenses (Oregon, anyone?).

He'll have his work cut out for him in year one, though, as the Commodores return only four players with starting experience on defense. That may be just as well, though, as Mason will look to install his aggressive 3-4 scheme. Junior linebacker Darreon Herring is a great place to start, but many other play makers will have to emerge if Vanderbilt is again to contend with the conference's elite.

There is a three-way race going on at quarterback right now between sophomore Patton Robinette, and redshirt freshmen Johnny McCrary and Stephen Rivers, and whomever wins the job will have the luxury of four starting linemen returning up front. Finding guys that can make plays downfield after the loss of star receiver Jordan Matthews and the dependable Johnathan Krause will be a bit tougher, but talented sophomore Jordan Cunningham will be one to keep an eye on.

After a magical 2013, Vanderbilt is faced with installing new schemes and breaking in a boat load of new starters on both sides of the ball. There is some talent there, but finding the right fits for that talent can take time for even the best coaching staffs. Getting back to a bowl game would be a successful season.

7. Kentucky
Last Year: 2-10, NR

Coach Mark Stoops has Kentucky moving in the right direction with recruiting on the rise, but there just isn't enough talent in Lexington to win yet. What the Wildcats do have is experience, with 16 starters back, including senior receiver/kick returner Javess Blue.

Kentucky also returns four starters up front, led by star senior left tackle Darrian Miller. Quarterback is a major question mark, as is a defense that returns eight starters, but those guys weren't exactly stellar last year, finishing in the bottom-two of the SEC in most statistical categories.

Progress is coming, but it will be a slow push. Stoops should look for an improvement from last year's two wins, but a bowl game may still be out of reach.

SEC West

1. Alabama
Last Year: 11-2, #7

Bama had as deflating an end to a season as any team has ever had in 2013. After opening the year 11-0, the Tide lost The Iron Bowl to rival Auburn in the just about the craziest way possible, then were blown out of the building against Oklahoma in The Sugar Bowl.

That should make Nick Saban's bunch more dangerous than ever.

Don't get me wrong, there have been more experienced, championship ready Alabama teams over the last few years, but the feelings coming out of Tuscaloosa make you believe that the Crimson Tide are not out to win, but to dominate and clear Alabama's good name.

The Tide return seven starters from the SEC's second-best scoring offense, but must replace two-time national champion quarterback A.J. McCarron. In steps junior Jake Coker, a transfer from Florida State who left Tallahassee after losing a battle for the starting job with Jameis Winston. The rumor is that he narrowly lost the battle to Winston, giving Seminole coaches an extremely difficult decision... Not sure if I believe that, but he is definitely a talented, strong armed passer built in the mold of recent Bama QBs.

Coker will give Bama an extremely talented, if inexperienced quarterback to throw to star receiver Amari Cooper and hand it off to running back T.J. Yeldon. After rushing for nearly 1,300 yards last season, expect even bigger things from Yeldon in his junior campaign as three starters return along the offensive line, plus tight end O.J. Howard.

The defense has a bit less experience, but five starters still return from the SEC's best unit, plus sensational sub A'Shawn Robinson, who racked up 5.5 sacks and 8 TFL off the bench. Trey Depriest looks to follow in the footsteps of C.J. Mosley and Rolando McClain as Tide inside linebacker who captured the SEC's Defensive Player of the Year award, and the senior has the talent to do it.

The secondary will be led by junior free safety Landon Collins, the Tide's returning leader with six pass breakups and two interceptions a year ago. Two other returnees are back in the secondary, and the Tide should again boast one of the best pass defenses in college football.

Experience is a bit of an issue at quarterback, but with so much talent returning on both sides of the ball, plus an added edge after the bitter end to last season, look for Bama to emphatically take home a division and conference crown.

2. Auburn
Last Year: 12-2, #2

Auburn rode a magical wave of momentum (My goodness, has a team ever been so charmed?) all the way to the BCS Championship Game, coming up just short of its second national title in four years, but the Tigers should again contend for college football's top prize. Second year coach and offensive guru Gus Malzahn returns eight starters from the SEC's best rush offense, including dual-threat quarterback Nick Marshall and explosive receiver Sammie Coates.

Star running back Tre Mason must be replaced, but a stable of talented and somewhat experienced backs will fight it out to carry the offense and run behind a line that returns four starters from one of the country's best best groups.

The defense was bend-but-don't-break last year, and actually ranked third in the conference in pass efficiency against, while surrendering under 25 points per game.

Linebacker Cassanova McKinzy (best name ever) led the team in tackles last season, and should again be the sideline-to-sideline force Auburn needs on early downs. Defensive tackle Gabe Wright might be the team's best returning pass rusher, and the quick pressure he provides up the middle will make life easier for secondary that loses Chris Davis and his 15 pass breakups. Plus, his uh, ability to return short field goals for touchdowns.

The Tigers should be about as good as last season, and might even be better, but it's hard to believe that lady luck will smile so favorably on them again. Auburn is good, damn good really, but Bama is still the prohibitive favorite. But hey, anything can happen in The Iron Bowl.

3. Ole Miss
Last Year: 8-5, NR

Don't look now, but this might be the year that Ole Miss makes some serious noise. The Rebels could be explosive in the passing game, with quarterback Bo Wallace back for his senior campaign, and uber-talented sophomore receiver Laquan Treadwell (pictured above) back after leading the team in receptions as a true freshman.

Add in the return of both leading rushers and athletic left tackle Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss has the potential to be a Top-3 offense in the SEC. Meanwhile, the Rebels bring back just about everybody from a top-half SEC defense. Mississippi brings back nine starters, including all four of their ball hawking defensive backs. Linebacker Serderius Bryant was a revelation as a pass rusher last season, and Ole Miss believes it can create even more pressure, and more turnovers, this season.

At the end of the day, this is going to come down to Wallace and how far he develops as a passer. His numbers were decent last year (3,346 yards on 65% passing. 18 TD/10 INT) but he'll need to take a big step. With only a few teams in the conference bringing back any starting quarterback experience, Ole Miss has a leg up. It's a shame they play in the West, because this roster and coach Hugh Freeze would have a real puncher's chance in the East.

4. LSU
Last Year: 10-3, #14

LSU has talent, but let's face it, replacing a 3,000 yard passer, a pair of 1,000 yard receivers and a 1,000 yard rusher is never easy. That's the task the Tigers will have, and they'll have to do it in the brutal SEC West, no less.

The good news is that the defense returns seven starters from a solid unit and should again be one of the SEC's best. D.J. Welter is a special player at middle linebacker, and should make everyone in the front-7 better, while sophomore corner Tre'Davious White appears to be on the verge of joining the nation's elite.

This is a solid, maybe even good LSU team, but the West is so loaded with established talent, plus up-and-comer Ole Miss, that it's hard to see them truly contending for a divisional crown. Still, Les Miles is not to be underestimated, especially when he has an experienced defense to tinker with.

5. Mississippi State
Last Year: 7-6, NR

Mississippi State is a trendy pick to improve this year, mostly because it returns 17 starters (8 on both sides of the ball and kicker Evan Sobiesk). The best cause for hope in Dan Mullen's sixth year is junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who led the Bulldogs in rushing with 830 yards and 13 touchdowns, while throwing for nearly 2,000 yards with 10 touchdowns and seven interceptions.

If Prescott can cut down on turnovers and improve on his 58% completion percentage, the offense can jump into the SEC's top half, and the defense is actually decently accomplished as well. This is another team that falls victim to playing in the brutal West, because the Bulldogs have some talent and a ton of experience on both sides of the ball.

Don't be surprised if they jump up and finish a spot or two higher than this, but the talent just isn't there to play with the Alabamas and Auburns of the world.

6. Texas A&M
Last Year: 9-4, #18

The era of Manziel is over. We'll get into the intriguing Aggie quarterback saga below, but there are plenty of other things that will dictate A&M's success in 2014. Whomever wins the QB battle (again, read below for more) will have to lead a massive rebuilding prospect on that side of the ball. Six starters are gone, including three first round NFL Draft picks (Tackle Jake Matthews, receiver Mike Evans and Manziel).

There are some options at running back with juniors Tra Carson and Trey Williams both back after effective, but limited sophomore campaigns. Much less is certain at receiver, where senior Malcome Kennedy is the only returnee that had over 21 catches last year.

The defense is much more experienced, but is that a good thing? While the Aggies had the top offense in the SEC last year, they also ranked dead last in total defense. Nine guys return from that unit, but expect most of them to be pushed for their jobs by talented youngsters.

Texas A&M has a talented offense that lacks experience, and an experienced defense that lacks talent. Sounds like a middle-of-the-road team to me.

7. Arkansas
Last Year: 3-9, NR

Bret Bielema's debut in Fayetteville was a total disaster. The former Wisconsin coach looked on helplessly as the Razorbacks went winless in conference play, but at least a ton of underclassmen got their feet wet.

He'll hope they're ready to swim.

Junior quarterback Brandon Allen returns after an up-and-down 2013, and should have plenty of familiar faces to throw and hand the ball to. The offensive line returns standout tackle Brey Cook. Tight end Hunter Henry was a rare bright spot as a freshman, and will look to become the conference's best at his position this season.

Defensive end Trey Flowers appears to be the go-to-guy on a defense that finished last in scoring defense. A pass rusher with a ton of potential, Flowers will need to turn that raw talent into production in his senior year if the Hogs are to take a step back toward respectability.

Bielema has a more mature team this year, but you wouldn't be crazy to think he's missing the fantastic offensive lines (not to mention softer schedules) he enjoyed back at Wisconsin. Arkansas could be improved, but still might go winless in the SEC.

Players to Watch

Vernon Hargreaves III, CB, Florida

Hargreaves was a rare bright spot for the Gators last season as a true freshman, and many in Gainesville believe he has Joe Haden-type potential. That would certainly help Florida's defense return to form, after a sluggish finish to last year.

Filling in for incumbents Marcus Roberson and Loucheiz Purifoy, who both missed time with injuries, Hargreaves led the Gators with 11 pass breakups, and excelled in man coverage, while his feel for zone drops came along as the season progressed. He also showed the ability to come up and stop the run, finishing with 38 tackles, the second-most by a Gator DB, and most by a Florida corner.

After a year of getting his feet wet, don't be surprised if Hargreaves is one of the two or three best corners in college football by the end of his sophomore campaign.

Kenny Hill and Kyle Allen, QBs, Texas A&M

Hill, a sophomore, was recently named the Aggies' starting quarterback, but coach Kevin Sumlin has said the competition will continue into the season. Don't expect Allen, the nation's top ranked prep quarterback a season ago, to give up either. Whichever player emerges to start the majority of the season, it will be interesting to see how they fare replacing the legend that was Johnny Football in College Station.

Manziel isn't the only key player lost from the Aggie offense, so Hill and Allen will have to be more than simple caretakers if A&M hopes to again contend in the loaded SEC West. Hill is the faster of the two, but Allen is taller and appears to have the bigger arm. With huge shoes to fill, it will be interesting to see how the TAMU quarterback race plays out this year.

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