PTBN College Football 2014: The SEC

SEC

There’s two types of year in the South, football season and the time you spend counting down to football season. The NFL is king in America, except for a corner pocket of the United States that wouldn’t trade an SEC Championship for a Super Bowl if their life depended on it. Saturdays down South mean one thing: the Southeastern Conference. In January, Florida State reached the mountaintop for the third time, ending seven consecutive years of an SEC team reigning supreme. Auburn finished perhaps the most miraculous turnaround in college football history, going from 3-9 in 2012 to SEC champions and national runner-ups a year later. Of course, the Tigers will forever be stamped into our memory for one of the most spectacular plays of all time: Chris Davis taking it to the house as the clock expired against arch-rival Alabama. Alabama, on the other hand, didn’t finish licking their wounds in time to avoid an upset loss against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Auburn’s defeat at the hands of the ACC champions and Nick Saban showing he’s not infallible not once, but twice in the same season had some proclaiming the SEC’s vice grip on college football was over. There’s plenty of reasons to argue otherwise, and SEC demigod Paul Finebaum wasted no time, releasing his book My Conference can Beat Your Conference conveniently before the season kicks off to provide the millions, and millions of fans who live and die for SEC football ammunition to ward off the skeptics.

Is it a slight to the national runner-up Auburn that they’re not the odds-on favorite to win the SEC title this fall? Alabama enters 2014 as the second ranked team in the nation, behind only Florida State. Florida State versus Alabama is a game that many fans are foaming at the mouth to see in January for the national title. The rulers of the SEC kingdom battling one of the BCS era’s most prestigious programs is everything the college football playoff could hope for in its first year. Alabama represents the old guard of the SEC, college football’s ultimate dynasty. Florida State, one of the most prestigious programs of the BCS era represents all of the conference champions, undefeated teams and players snubbed in favor of their peers in the SEC the last decade. Unlike FSU, Alabama will earn its spot in the national title game by winning what should be, yet again, college football’s toughest conference top to bottom. The rest of the nation might have penciled in Alabama already (myself included), but it’s only August. The swords are sharpening and the rally cries are only just beginning in Athens, Baton Rouge, Auburn, Oxford, College Station and Columbia. This is the SEC, the biggest stage of them all.

SEC East

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Todd Gurley and the Dawgs have a national title on their minds.

1. Georgia

Last year was a disaster for Georgia, who entered the fall with their eyes on an SEC title and the national championship. Much of this was thanks to the stellar play of Aaron Murray, who hoped to take the program into the stratosphere in his last season as starter. Instead, injuries riddled the team, including a major, college career ending one to Murray and UGA limped to the finish line. Hutson Mason came to UGA with critical acclaim and high praise from national recruiting services, but it’s unlikely he can just replicate Murray’s performance in his first year as starter. Like South Carolina, an untested quarterback means the running game will get extra attention, and for good reason, Todd Gurley is one of the best backs in the country and would have been the best in the SEC had he not sat out much of last year due to injury.

On defense, the team returns nine starters and looks virtually unchanged from 2013. Most tantalizing for Dawg fans is the return of MLB Ramik Wilson, who’s got All-American potential. Next to Ramik is Leonard Floyd, the linebacker led the team with 6.5 sacks last season and should join Ramik on the All-SEC team. Defense is still very much valued in the SEC, and Georgia has among the best in the conference, and if the team stays healthy, their defense will surely be one of the best in the nation. Many have the Dawgs fighting for a playoff spot and vying for a national championship isn’t out of the question if the stars align. First, they’ll have to prove the team is under good hands at QB and stay healthy. If they stay healthy, there’s no reason to believe their defense doesn’t give them the edge in the division, even if South Carolina is the favorite in Vegas.

Key Players: WRs Chris Conley and Michael Bennett will be vital in Hutson Mason’s maturation as a starting quarterback in the SEC. While defenses key in on the incredibly deep backfield, having the wideouts step up and produce at a high level could make the offense not only multi-dimensional, but lethal.

Key Games: No time for warm-ups, UGA gets the dangerous Clemson Tigers in week one between the hedges. The Clemson game could be dangerous if the Dawgs are focused on their week two match-up in Columbia (SC) against the Gamecocks, a game many are assuming determines the SEC East. Hopefully the Dawgs are healthy and in good shape for their trip to Columbia (MO) on Oct. 11th, a game that could be tricky for the Dawgs. They’ll host the defending SEC champs Auburn at home on November 15th.

2. South Carolina

Steve Spurrier has turned South Carolina, who are new money to many SEC fan,s into a national powerhouse. Of course, if any coach could take one of the most inept programs in the conference and turn them into a regular pre-season top ten team, it’s the Ol’ Ball Coach, who’s as sharp with his tongue as he is with his mind for the game. The Gamecocks are not only a favorite in the SEC East, they’re a legitimate threat to win the conference and compete for a national title. In what’s been a recurring theme in Columbia, fans couldn’t help but feel the team ended a day late and a dollar short, missing out on the SEC title game and a BCS berth, despite a top five finish. It’s the lack of hardware that’s starting to get the garnet and black faithful a little restless, they’ve been hovering around the conference (and national) title picture for the last few years, only to fall painfully short. Last year, it was a surprising loss to Tennessee that kept USC out of the conference title game, despite having the tie-breaker over eventual SEC East champs Mizzou. This year, many are expecting a race between the Gamecocks and Dawgs that will go down to the wire. If South Carolina wants to lift its first conference championship trophy, it will have to not only repeat last year’s eleven wins, but avoid pitfalls against many of its improved division brethren.

The Gamecock offense will be led by senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who saw time last year in the starting role during the departed Connor Shaw’s time out due to injury. Thompson has had five years, and three wins as starter, to prepare for his time as the big man on campus. Like most of college football, teams in the SEC, especially the really good ones (like South Carolina) will go as far as their QB takes them. Connor Shaw was not only a tough and rugged quarterback who’s precision passing and dynamic feet terrified opposing defenses, he was a unifying and inspiring leader that pushed the team forward. Can Thompson replicate the intangibles of his predecessor? That remains to be seen, but he’s not going to have to go at it alone. Behind Thompson will be Mike Davis, who scored 11 TDs on over 1,100 yards rushing last season. Davis has found himself in the discussion not just for all-conference honors, but a spot on an All-American team before it’s all said and done.

Key Players: South Carolina won eleven games last year cashing its checks with one of the nation’s best defenses. Jadeveon Clowney is gone, but so are many of his unheralded friends. Fans are going to have to be glass half full types until some of the new faces prove their worth against some stout offenses in the SEC East. Among some of South Carolina’s new starters on defense are defensive tackle Gerald Dixon Jr., next to him on defense will be his half-brother Gerald Dixon. Yes, that’s right. In a sign of how unfamiliar the SEC universe is with the new-look South Carolina defense, the lone name on a pre-season all-conference team is standout DB Brison Williams. For a program known for its stout defense, there’s a lot up in the air this fall.

Key Games: All eyes were on Columbia, SC when the Cocks were destroyed at home, starting the season off on the wrong foot. They’ll hope to get revenge on Georgia at home on September 13th and will host Mizzou on September 27th. Both games should influence who reaches the conference title game. Trips to Auburn and Florida could prove to be challenging, especially if the Gators are improved. Finally, USC will travel to Clemson hoping to make it six straight against the Tigers.

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Maty Mauk could be one of the most exciting players in the SEC.

3. Mizzou

Missouri won five games and missed a bowl their first year in the SEC, the first time since 2004. Many had questioned after the five win season whether the longest tenured coach in the SEC, Gary Pinkel, was on his way out in Columbia. Pinkel had taken the Tigers from a doormat to perennial top 25 program in the Big XII, but the SEC is a different ballgame. In his rebuttal, Gary Pinkel won the SEC East in his second year in the conference and fought tooth and nail in the SEC Championship game, losing to national runner-up Auburn. In the Cotton Bowl, the Tigers bounced former conference foe Oklahoma State and produced a consensus All-American in the process, DE Michael Sam. It seems as though the Mizzou Tigers are a fit for the SEC after all, especially as the team ditched the gimmick riddled spread offense it relied on in the Big XII and incorporated more power running schemes and tight end blocking to compete with their new friends.

Mizzou will have a hard time replicating last year’s twelve win season, but there’s still a legitimate chance the team finds their way back in the SEC title picture. Tiger fans had waited impatiently for the debut of QB Maty Mauk since the day he signed his letter of intent and their dreams come true this season. Last year, filling in for the injured (and graduated) James Franklin, Mauk took over the offense and showed flashes of what could be in store for opposing defenses this year. The all-time high school passing leader, Mauk has a cannon arm and absolutely lethal feet. It’s too early to accept the “Maty Football” moniker that’s floating around Columbia, but it’s safe to say at least one all-conference linebacker will be left in his dust this fall. Had the team kept WR Dorial Green-Beckham, who was dismissed for disciplinary reasons, Mizzou may have been the favorites to repeat in the SEC East. On defense, the loss of All-American Michael Sam and DE Kony Ealy to the NFL seems to have critics expecting one of the SEC’s best defensive lines to fall in production. There’s a good chance that the duo of Markus Golden and Shane Ray on the defensive line can’t just match Sam and Ealy’s production, but be even better. Both Golden and Ray are already high on Mel Kiper Jr.’s draft boards before playing a down this fall. If the defensive line can repeat last year’s performance, the sky is the limit for Mizzou.

Key Players: Henry Josey did not have the national recognition of stars like Mike Davis, TJ Yeldon or Todd Gurley, but Josey was one of the most efficient, and dangerous backs in the SEC. His departure means it’s time for utility man Marcus Murphy to step up in a major way. Murphy was an All-SEC player on special teams in 2012 and last year was explosive around the edges and in open space. This fall, reports are Murphy hasn’t just been taking carries in the backfield, but has been lining up as a slot receiver as well. Behind Murphy is the stable of Russell Hansborough and Morgan Steward, rounding out what could be the SEC’s most underrated rushing attack.

Key Games: Mizzou will host Fiesta Bowl winners UCF at home on September 13th. On September 27th the Tigers travel to the other Columbia to face South Carolina, who they are yet to defeat as members of the SEC. Georgia will visit Faurot Field on Oct. 11th in a game many are picking as an upset special. Mizzou says goodbye to former Big XII pal Texas A&M for now after their game in College Station; they’ll get Arkansas as their permanent SEC West rival and will start the series in Columbia the Saturday after Thanksgiving.

4. Florida

Last year, Florida coach Will Muschamp entered the season with a lukewarm seat and now, it has to be piping hot. The good news was Florida had one of the best defensive units in the nation. The bad news, is the offense wasn’t just bad, it was really, really bad. Horrendous. Embarrassing. Especially considering the power behind Florida’s recruiting efforts, having such an anemic and woeful offense was inexcusable. Florida won four games last season, but there’s a quiet confidence among their fanbase that 2014 could be the season Muschamp, and the stout Florida defense gets the program back on track. It’s not going to be easy, but there’s enough talent, particularly on defense, to push for nine wins and a chance at the division title. On defense, All-American corner Vernon Hargreaves returns along with nine starters from last year. Defensive end Dante Fowler should find himself back on the All-SEC team by year’s end, rounding out the most complete defense in the conference.

On offense, there’s still serious issues, even if the Gators are routinely pumping four and five star players into the program. To Florida’s credit, the team was absolutely decimated by injuries in 2013, particularly at quarterback. There was one bright spot, running back Kelvin Taylor had a breakout year as a freshman and the sophmore will fit right in among the many stellar backs in the SEC East. Taylor’s backups, Mack Brown and Matt Jones show incredible promise as well, the depth in the backfield should take some heat off the quarterback this fall. With what looks to be an outstanding defense, the offense just has to produce consistently, not be great this season for Florida to find their way back into the top 25. There’s no reason to believe the Gators won’t be bowling in 2014, if they’re not, it’s hard to imagine Muschamp sticking around in Gainesville.

Key Players: The most important position on the field is also the one where the Gators have had the worst luck. QB Jeff Driskel turned down programs like Alabama and LSU to stay at home and play for the Gators, but so far, he’s had a rough go as the signal caller in Gainesville. Turnovers, poor decision making, inconsistency and injury are just a few of the words that could describe Driskel’s career so far, but coach Muschamp seems confident that this is the year the pro-style quarterback finally lives up to his billing. At 6’4″, 230lbs+, the tools are there and if Driskel has a good year, Florida could be inside the top ten by November.

Key Games: The Gators travel to Alabama on September 20th with a chance to shock the college football world. The Gators host LSU and Mizzou back to back on Oct 11th and 18th respectively. There’s no doubt the Gators have the rivalry game with Georgia circled on November 1st as well as their matchup with FSU on the final weekend of the season.

5. Vanderbilt

The Commodores have had quite the run as of late: three straight bowls and back-to-back nine win seasons. Much of this was thanks to now Penn State coach James Franklin, who’s work with Vandy made him one of the hottest coaching names in the country. After Franklin bolted for PSU and tried to take many of his recruits with him, it would have been easy for the ‘Dores to fall flat on their backs once again and go back to the cellar of the SEC. Instead, they made a very solid hire by Vanderbilt standards, bringing Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason on board to keep the momentum rolling. It’s not going to be easy, star WR Jordan Matthews is in the NFL after a stellar career at Vandy, becoming the SEC’s all-time receiving leader. So is last year’s starting quarterback, meaning the program has to rely on many unproven players on offense. The passing game might take a step back, but the Commodores have another star in the making in tailback Jerron Seymour who rushed for over 700 yards last fall. When all else fails, Mason should be able to rely on his running game as a fall back plan.

On defense, the team has lost almost all of its starters, so there’s reason to expect a rebuilding year. The Mason hire means the program might have become stronger in recruiting the defensive side of the ball, but it’s going to take a few years to reap those benefits. A name to watch on the Vanderbilt defense is Nifae Lealao, the defensive end from California turned down UCLA, USC, Arizona State, Stanford, Oregon and others to play in Nashville. Originally committed to Stanford, Lealao chose to follow Mason to Vanderbilt and gave this year’s recruiting class a shot in the arm. Considering the impressive talent on Stanford’s defensive line under Mason and the addition of Lealao, fans should be excited for the future.

Key Players: Jordan Cunningham is the new Jordan at WR and because of his predecessor, will have lofty expectations placed upon him. Cunningham was a coveted receiver out of high school, earning offers to Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Ohio State, USC and dozens of other prestigious programs before he stuck with Vanderbilt.

Key Games: Vanderbilt gets Ole Miss on Sep. 6th in a chance to make up for last season’s heartbreaking loss and take out a media darling in the process. The November 8th matchup with Florida at home could be a great opportunity for the Commodores. The trip to Starkville against Mississippi State could be another chance to take out a team many are predicting to go far this season.

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A.J. Johnson will terrify quarterbacks this fall.

6. Tennessee

It’s been a rough couple of years on Rocky Top, in their soul searching the Vols have turned their coaching job into a revolving door, but it seems that some progress is finally being made in Knoxville. Like Florida, the last few years have been embarrassing considering the sticker on the helmet and the droves of kids lining up to play for one of the nation’s most prestigious programs. Consider this: no player on the current UT roster has played in a bowl. That’s pretty shocking for a program that ran the SEC East for years and was regularly in the top five. There’s still some rebuilding to do, but last year’s five wins left some promising pieces on the table, this year the key will be avoiding the 20+ point beat downs.

One Volunteer made the SEC pre-season all-conference team, star linebacker A.J. Johnson. Johnson is one of the best handful of linebackers in the nation, but much of this year’s Tennessee team will rely on a mixture of unproven starters and bets hedged on young players playing well beyond their years. One exception would be QB Justin Worley, who’s experience has earned him the starting spot, for now, under center. Behind Worley on the depth chart is the intriguing Joshua Dobbs, who should see some snaps this year, if for nothing else than his athleticism. On defense, the team returns six starters from last fall, meaning coach Butch Jones had to spend some time retooling his personnel. The secondary will likely be the team’s strength again, with returning starter Brian Randolph at corner and LaDarrell McNeil at safety. Tennessee should find its way into a bowl this season and has an outside shot at eight wins.

Key Players: Running back Jalen Hurd is one of the biggest prizes of last year’s recruiting class. Even as a true freshman, he is an impact player right away. There’s some other freshmen on the roster that could step up and provide major minutes for the Vols, like defensive end DeWayne Hendrix.

Key Games: Tennessee has to travel to Oklahoma in week two in a game that could get ugly. The next week they travel to Georgia on September 27th to finish a brutal back-to-back road trip. The trip to Ole Miss on October 18th and hosting Missouri at home on November 22nd are chances for the Vols to squeak out an upset.

7. Kentucky

Coach Mark Stoops has done an impressive job on selling high school kids that the future’s bright in Lexington. Now, it’s time to produce some results. If those results are to come, they’ll come at the hands of new starting quarterback Patrick Towles. Towles has the physical tools that could make him an NFL draft pick, but winning some games at Kentucky and avoiding another last place finish isn’t going to hurt his stock, either. Two wins last year didn’t do much to reassure the skeptics that UK was making any real progress when it mattered, during the season. The recruiting is nice, but it’s time for the Cats to deliver on their promises.

The team will be strong in the backfield, returning starter JoJo Kemp is a name for SEC fans to keep in mind. They’re going to need the offensive line to step up for both Kemp and Towles to succeed, the OL was among the worst in the SEC. The offensive line is a difficult area to recruit and this could be where the new ball coach’s increased recruiting helps take the Wildcats to the next level in the future. On defense, the team has a surprisingly deep defensive line. Defensive end Bud Dupree is one of the most dynamic defensive players in the conference, a terror as an edge rusher or linebacker. There’s nowhere to go but up after a dismal two win season, but let’s hope the Cats make the SEC proud and push for five wins, or better yet, a bowl game.

Key Players: Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard gives the backfield some experience and athleticism. Heard averaged over 6 yards a carry as a backup for the Cornhuskers and was heavily recruited out of high school by many prestigious programs in the Midwest. Kemp is the starter, for now, but having an experienced, and talented back like Heard as a situational back can’t hurt.

Key Games: The opening games against UT-Martin and Ohio give UK a chance to match their two wins from last year right off the bat. The Cats get Vanderbilt at home on Sept. 27 and Louisiana-Monroe on Oct 11, putting them possibly at four wins. An upset at Tennessee or Lousville makes the season a great success.

 

SEC West

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TJ Yeldon will be the focal point of Alabama’s offense.

1. Alabama

The Tide fell last year, first to Auburn, then to Oklahoma. Nick Saban seemed to shrug off the Sugar Bowl loss as no big deal, saying his players viewed it as a consolation prize. He also hinted at his boys not being as ready and prepared as they should have been in the Iron Bowl, both gestures hinting at Saban’s mortality. He is, after all, not an infallible coaching god. He’s still a hell of a recruiter, and what Alabama did this year is just not fair. What they’re doing right now isn’t really fair, either. Most teams would be thrilled with Alabama’s “down year”, but Saban will be back, guns blazing this fall. The team is right in the thick of the national title hunt, coming in as the pre-season number two, behind Florida State and above defending SEC champs (and mortal enemy) Auburn. Like last year, the year before that and every year the program continues to dominate the college football landscape, every team has circled their game against Alabama and they will get every team’s best effort. In the SEC’s strongest division, and a division that by itself is arguably stronger than some power five conferences in their entirety, the Tide will need to stay focused and motivated into January if they want to meet the ‘Noles for the biggest prize of them all. Unlike Florida State, there are no off days for Alabama.

The offense will once again be loaded with star power, starting with TJ Yeldon, who’s got Heisman aspirations this season. Yeldon will likely duke it out with Georgia’s Todd Gurley to see which SEC halfback becomes a consensus All-American and maybe both get an invitation to New York. He’s not the only All-American skill player on the offense, WR Amari Cooper is a surefire first round draft pick and likely the best wideout in the SEC. Protecting the quarterback are potential all-conference linemen Arie Kouandijo, Ryan Kelly and Austin Shepherd. If it weren’t for some sense of equity, all three could be on the SEC’s all-conference team.

The defense is just as strong, with just as many marquee names. A’Shawn Robinson is arguably the best defensive tackle in the SEC. Trey DePriest is a first team all-conference linebacker. Christion Jones is on the pre-season all-conference team as a kick return specialist. Offense, defense, special teams, cheerleaders, it doesn’t matter, the Tide are loaded. Stopping Alabama from winning the SEC, and another national title, will take a combination of elite talent, Tide vulnerability and as Auburn learned last year, a fair bit of luck. On their “off” days, the Crimson Tide can still manhandle most of the nation’s better teams, so teams like LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss are likely hoping the SEC meat grinder takes its toll on Saban’s crew especially hard, leveling the playing field.

Key Players: AJ McCarron was one of the best quarterbacks in the nation. What he lacked in highlight reel ability he made up for in top notch leadership, composure and ice water in his veins. He was pretty damn good at throwing the football, too. The situation at QB this year isn’t devoid of talent, or potential, but even the mighty Tide can’t just plug and play a new quarterback into their system and expect McCarron’s productivity. It looks like Blake Sims will get the dream job of being Alabama’s starting quarterback, but considering who he’s replacing, and that guy’s resume, maybe it’s not such an enviable situation after all. With an outstanding offensive line, an All-American caliber running back and wide receiver to work with, it seems impossible to fail. As Sims takes his first hits from the speedy linemen of LSU, Ole Miss and others, he may think otherwise.

Key Games: For Alabama, anything less than perfection is failure. It should be expected based off of their talent that Alabama wins every game of the season, including the national title game. Like every season, two games are especially worth a watch for non-fans: at LSU (Nov. 8) and against Auburn at home on November 29.

2. Auburn 

Auburn’s season last year was like a movie, but not a made for TV movie, a half a billion dollar Michael Bay blockbuster type movie. The Tigers had fell on hard times in 2012, missing a bowl game and going winless in the SEC. Then last year, after dumping their coach and taking a chance on Guz Malzahn, the team’s spread option offense became one of the most mystifying, beautifully simple and dominating things in all of sports. It was this offense, led by QB Nick Marshall that had defensive coordinators scratching their heads and viewers at home watching the wrong guy on most plays. It seemed that the Tigers did the same thing on every play, and they did, and it seemed to work, over and over and over again until they reached the national title game. Marshall is back, so is the offense, now it’s on the vaunted defenses of the SEC to adjust. Will the team be able to literally run all over its opponents this year? More importantly, do they have the same magic in them that delivered two miraculous, once in a lifetime wins against Georgia and Alabama?

The loss of Tre Mason is significant, he became a household name last year as one of the best backs in the country and is now playing on Sundays. Just as important as Mason was the strength of the team’s offensive line. C Reese Dismukes is back, as are Alex Kozan and Chad Slade, making the offensive line just as good as rival Alabama, or anyone else’s offensive line and among the best in the nation. That’s important, since so much of the team’s success is predicated on rushing, and the effectiveness of that rushing attack opening up passing lanes for all-conference WR Sammie Coates. On defense, the defensive line will once again be formidable and worthy of respect in the SEC West. Defensive tackle Gabe Wright is a surefire pick for all-conference honors and could be an All-American if he builds off of last season’s success. The pairing of Wright and DT Montravius Adams makes the middle of Auburn’s defensive line the thing of nightmares. Auburn will no longer be taken for granted, especially by their nemesis, Alabama, so the pressure is on the Tigers to repeat last year’s run at the conference title. Until the results say otherwise, Auburn should be given serious consideration for a playoff spot.

Key Players: Nick Marshall had a glorious season marred by some slight off the field disciplinary issues. He got the token slap on the wrist, but Marshall needs to stay razor sharp this fall, without Mason behind him, he’ll rely on Cameron Artis-Payne to be the man toting the rock. Breaking in a new running back in such a run heavy offense predicated on timing and rhythm could bring with it some hiccups and if that’s the case, Marshall’s feet will be more important than ever.

Key Games: The trip to Manhattan, KS on September 18th could be an early end to Auburn’s run at the college football playoff. Two weeks later, the Tigers will play in succession LSU (Oct. 4), at Mississippi State (Oct. 11), South Carolina (Oct. 25), at Ole Miss (Nov. 1), Texas A&M (Nov. 8) and at Georgia (Nov. 15). They’ll get a week to go through the motions against Samford before the Iron Bowl on November 29th. Brutal. If the Tigers come out unscathed, or with a lone loss, they’re likely in the discussion for a playoff bid.

3. LSU

The other Tigers, of the Cajun variety, have quietly been hidden beneath the surface of the SEC West, where they’re perennial contenders. First, it was Alabama, then it was Johnny Football, then it was Auburn. Either way, the program has finished outside the top 25 only three times since the year 2000 and have won two national titles along the way. It makes sense then, that like every year, there’s no way you can gloss over LSU when talking about the SEC title picture. There’s no denying the team will be good, perhaps very good; LSU has won ten games for four straight years. The question is how good will the new-look Tigers be while losing so many starters? A top 15 team or a national title contender? With the craziest, most daring (and peculiar) coach in all of football, anything is possible. If this is the year LSU climbs back to the top of the SEC, they’ve got some work to do and some hurdles to overcome.

The team lost QB Zach Mettenberger, WR Odell Beckham, WR Jarvis Landry, and RB Jeremy Hill to the NFL. That’s the starting QB, the two best wideouts and the leading rusher. No matter who you are, that’s a significant challenge for the next guys up. There are two young, inexperienced players stepping up to play QB for the Tigers this year, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris. In typical Miles fashion, we’re not going to know who the true starter is, if there’s to be only one, until the games are played. Replacing Jeremy Hill is impact freshman RB Leonard Fournette. Even as a true freshman, Fournette should see significant time at running back for LSU. On defense, the team is still solid. Linebacker Kwon Alexander could find himself on the all-conference team with another stellar year and the team might have the best secondary in the SEC top to bottom. With the leading passer, rusher and top three receivers from last year gone, it’s hard to give LSU the nod over the defending SEC champs, but nothing is impossible with the Mad Hatter in charge. The Tigers should expect to keep their ten win streak alive.

Key Players: Like most of the SEC’s elite teams, LSU has a loaded offensive line. La’el Collins landed on the SEC pre-season team and he could be joined by Vadal Alexander if the team plays above expectations. The unsung heroes of the SEC, the big guys up front are what’s kept LSU hovering around the top ten for so many years.

Key Games: The team faces Big 10 powerhouse Wisconsin in week one in Houston. The trip to Auburn on Oct. 4th will undoubtedly have implications on the division title race. The rivalry matchup against Ole Miss will take place at home this year, where the Tigers look to exact revenge on the Rebels. They’ll get Alabama in Baton Rouge on November 8th.

NCAA Football: Texas El Paso at Texas A&M
Kenny Hill is the man in College Station.

4. Texas A&M

Johnny Football. Johnny Football. Did you like Johnny Football? Did you know Johnny Football is playing in the NFL? By the time you read this, you probably know what Johnny Manziel did last night thanks to breaking news on Sportscenter, but it’s true, Johnny Manziel is gone. Kenny Hill brings considerable talent and a worthy pedigree in following the greatest player to ever suit up for the Aggies, but it’s not the most enviable of jobs. Sure, the Aggies have a great shot at nine or ten wins this year, are bringing in another top notch recruiting class and are loaded at WR. That’s not the whole story, though;  when a program as rich in history as A&M is seriously debating naming Kyle Field after Johnny Manziel before he’s taken a snap in the NFL, you’ve got a lot to live up to. It’s not fair to Hill, either, because he could be an outstanding, all-conference, heck, All-American first round draft pick and still not be Johnny Football.

It’s not the new QB that has me a bit skeptical of A&M winning the SEC West this year, it’s a combination of how good the trio of Alabama, Auburn and LSU could be and also the deficiencies the team will once again have on defense. Last year, A&M were among the most exciting and entertaining teams to watch on TV, Johnny Manziel could find first round draft pick Mike Evans and connect for a touchdown anywhere, anytime, if Johnny wasn’t scrambling around like a madman himself. The team had serious issues on defense, though. To be frank, it wasn’t good. And it doesn’t look great this year, either. The defensive line had no push last year and while many of its stalwarts like Gavin Stansbury and Isiah Golden are a year stronger, it’s going to be tough breaching the Alabama backfield. 

Key Players: WR Ricky Seals-Jones is an elite wideout who will bring the best out of the new QB in his first year as starter. Replacing Mike Evans is just as tough a task as replacing Johnny Football, but the Aggies should be strong at both wideout and QB.

Key Games: The opener against South Carolina sets the season off the right way. Trips to Alabama (Oct 18) and Auburn (Nov 8) make winning the division tough.

5. Ole Miss

It’s more than a party in Oxford; Hugh Freeze is building the foundation for a special team in MississippiTop flight recruiting brought big time names like Robert Nkemdiche and Laquon Treadwell to Ole Miss when they could have joined any team in the country. Fans are hoping the game breaking ability of stars like Nkemdiche and Treadwell on both sides of the ball, along with seasoned veteran QB Bo Wallace turn the Rebels into one of the SEC’s surprise contenders this fall. They’ll get the benefit of the doubt in August, as the Rebels enter the season as a consensus top 25 team. Last year, the program’s talent was evident on the field, but so was the youth. If Ole Miss is going to step up and compete with the upper crust of the SEC West, they will need to play more consistent, disciplined football.

The offense is loaded at receiver, meaning Bo Wallace likely has a career year passing. Of course, Treadwell is the star, but TE Evan Engram might be the best TE in the entire conference. Look for a quietly stellar year from RB Jaylen Walton as opposing defenses focus on the passing game. While Nkemdiche is the household name on defense, it’s safety Cody Prewitt who’s the true superstar. Prewitt is an All-American candidate and could be the best safety in the country again in 2014. Robert’s brother Denzel Nkemdiche and Serderius Bryant lead one of the deepest linebacking corps in the nation. The Ole Miss defense is stacked and there’s enough pieces on offense to make this a special year for the Rebels. The onus is on Ole Miss to step up and play to their potential this fall, they can’t continue to hover around the top 25 on potential alone.

Key Players: Defenses will have their hands full with Treadwell, which means Vince Sanders and Quincy Adeboyejo could have great seasons in single coverage. With a great tight end, spreading out the ball will be key into opening up the Rebel offense and there’s plenty of options for the quarterback.

Key Games: The trip to Vanderbilt could give a young program like Ole Miss a chance to stub its toe early. If the Rebels want to make a run to the top of the division, the home schedule works out nicely, getting to host Alabama (Oct 4) and Auburn (Nov 1).

Jones
Chris Jones will lead Mississippi State’s defense this fall.

6. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs have had a tough time competing with the big boys in the SEC West. In this, they’re no different than their arch-rivals to the north, Ole Miss. It’s not easy recruiting big time talent to Starkville, Mississippi even if the school is one of the conference’s best hidden secrets on game day. Every so often, Dan Mullen has his boys on the cusp of what could be a great season and it may actually happen this fall. There’s going to be some extra attention on the Dogs, thanks to QB Dak Prescott. Prescott has earned plenty of praise this spring and summer after he led all SEC quarterbacks with 13 rushing TDs last season. Prescott is a great player to watch, he’s tough, he’s daring and as he grows as a passer, he’ll be absolutely deadly even against the best secondaries in the nation. In a conference where so many teams are breaking in a new player at quarterback, having a potential all-conference starter returning is a godsend.

The team routinely has one of the most athletic, and fast, defenses in the SEC. This year is no different, the defense should be the team’s bread and butter, with up-and-comers like defensive end Chris Jones, who made Athlon Sport’s pre-season All-America team. Jones is a player who can fit in at tackle, or defensive end and be just as disruptive in either role. There’s a good chance the Bulldogs take down rival Ole Miss again in 2014, but there’s not enough firepower on offense, outside of Prescott, to keep them level with programs like Alabama or LSU. If Mullen can pull out eight wins, the season will have been a success.

Key Players: While Prescott is one of the best mobile quarterbacks in the nation, the actual running backs at MSU failed to impress last year. The starter should be Josh Robinson who’s 450 yards leads all returning backs at State. A good year from someone in the backfield besides Prescott could make the season one to remember in Starkville.

7. Arkansas

It seemed as though Arkansas did all it possibly could to remedy the Bobby Petrino disaster by paying big money for proven commodity Bret Bielema. It’s too early to judge Bielema’s tenure, but last year was ugly, as in, Kansas or Wake Forest ugly, not SEC ugly. I could make a joke about Arkansas as a state, but I’ll just settle for this: the program is a dumpster fire right now. Still, it’s true, you can’t say Bielema is a failure, or resounding success, just yet. Arkansas fans, eternally optimistic, have themselves convinced they’re in the national title picture every year, and while that’s not true, there’s plenty of reasons to think they’re not going to be as historically bad as last fall.

Just in time for kickoff, returning QB Brandon Allen got a welcome back present in Fayetteville as hawg fans trashed his pickup truck. Surely, this will motivate and inspire Allen, who had a mediocre year last fall, to play out of his mind on Saturdays, in fear of retaliation. The good news is Allen doesn’t need to captain the ship by himself, because while Arkansas isn’t great, their running game is really, really good. The Razorbacks get 1,000 yard rusher Alex Collins back and while he’s enough on his own to make the running game potent, what’s behind him is just as good. RB Jonathan Williams nearly caught Collins last year with 900 yards and the junior will help lead one of the best running back committees in the nation this fall. The real questions are on defense, where Arky was awful last fall. Three wins is just putrid for a program that has the history, talent and recruiting profile of Arkansas. For Bielema, five wins should be the basement this year, otherwise, chalk it up as another failure.

Key Players: Arkansas will be thrown around on defense against the power running and pro-style offenses ruling the SEC West, but Trey Flowers is a very good defensive end. Having Flowers step up and be a star on defense could go a long way in reinvigorating one of the conference’s worst defensive lines.

Key Games: Arkansas plays defending SEC champs Auburn in week one on the road. The trip to Lubbock against Texas Tech could present an opportunity for a statement road win on Sep. 13. Ole Miss at home on November 22nd is their best chance at upsetting a top 25 team.

Author: Todd Gessling

Todd Gessling is a sports contributor for Place To Be Nation, an Atlanta native and proud graduate of the University of Missouri. Besides rooting for the Tigers, Todd is a fan of the Atlanta Braves, Hawks, Falcons and Nashville Predators and an avid follower of college athletics.Send Todd an email