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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#44 Vanderbilt Commodores

NATIONAL FORECAST

#44

SEC East PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Derek Mason, First Year | OFF. COORDINATOR: Karl Dorrell | DEF. COORDINATOR: David Kotulski

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 44 Vanderbilt.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Offense for 2014:

Vanderbilt must replace a pair of wide receivers who accounted for 92 percent of the team’s production at the position, but the primary focus for first-year coach Derek Mason during preseason camp will be to identify a starting quarterback. Patton Robinette played a key role in some great moments last season — a comeback win over Georgia, a road victory at Florida, the winning touchdown at Tennessee — but the sophomore is far from a lock to earn the starting assignment. Robinette, a good athlete who lacks elite arm strength, will face stiff competition from redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary and Stephen Rivers, a transfer from LSU.

Whoever wins the job — and don’t be surprised if it’s Rivers — will be lacking proven playmakers at the wide receiver position. The new staff plans on incorporating tight ends (think Stanford) and running backs in the passing game, but the Dores will need some young wide receivers to take on much larger roles in 2014.

Mason is looking for big tailbacks to pound the ball between the tackles. He inherited what has to be the smallest running back duo in the SEC — Jerron Seymour (5'7", 200) and Brian Kimbrow (5'8", 185). Despite this duo’s shortcomings, the running game should be improved after a lackluster performance last fall.

Mason singled out the line as the strength of the offense during the spring. The Dores must replace All-SEC tackle Wesley Johnson, but otherwise this unit returns largely intact.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
Vanderbilt’s move to the 3-4 has forced some reshuffling on the front seven. Last year’s defensive ends are now outside linebackers. Last year’s defensive tackles are either ends or nose guards. The biggest beneficiary of the new scheme could be Vince Taylor, a 6'2", 310-pound senior. “Vince will be as good as any nose (guard) or interior player in this conference,” Mason says.

Mason and the defensive staff spent the spring reprogramming the Commodores’ talented corps of inside linebackers. “These guys need to be thumpers,” he says. “(Last year), they were edge players. They ran around blocks. That is not what we do.” Kyle Woestmann and Caleb Azubike, who were pass-rushing ends last season, should make a smooth transition to outside linebacker.

The Commodores must replace four seniors in the secondary who combined to start 110 games over the last four seasons. There is, however, a decent amount of experience returning. Many of the young defensive backs were forced into duty late last season due to injuries. Paris Head and Torren McGaster gained the most experience at corner last year, but Darrius Sims also saw some action as a true freshman. Mason also has been pleased with redshirt freshmen Taurean Ferguson and Tre Bell. Oren Burks was recruited as a linebacker but has been moved to safety. He received praise from Mason throughout the spring.

Previewing Vanderbilt’s Specialists for 2014:

Finding a reliable replacement for standout placekicker Carey Spear will be of paramount importance. Redshirt freshman Tommy Openshaw is atop the depth chart for now. Taylor Hudson handled most of the punting last year but lost his job late in the season to Colby Cooke.

Final Analysis 

Mason is in uncharted territory for a first-year football coach at Vanderbilt. Unlike the vast majority of men who have occupied his seat, Mason is not facing a massive rebuild. The former defensive coordinator at Stanford inherits a program that has won 18 games over the last two seasons and been to three straight bowl games. There is enough talent on the roster to extend the postseason streak to four, but some playmakers need to emerge on offense, and the defense must adapt to a very different style of play for this team to finish higher than sixth in the SEC East.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#42 Tennessee Volunteers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#42

SEC East PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, 5-7 (1 year) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike Bajakian | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Jancek

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 42 Tennessee.

Previewing the Tennessee Offense for 2014:

If Tennessee’s offense improves significantly in 2014, you can throw football cliches out the window — or something like that. Championships may be won at the line of scrimmage, but the Vols are losing all five starting linemen from a year ago and still should be more productive on offense.

Tennessee is pinning its hopes on an influx of speedy playmakers, like freshman wideout Josh Malone and junior college star Von Pearson. Combine that with second-year improvement from Jason Croom and Marquez North, and Tennessee coaches believe their receiving corps will be vastly improved.

The primary question is, who will get the ball to the playmakers? If the quarterback battle were a political race, Justin Worley would be the conservative, reliable but somewhat bland incumbent. Riley Ferguson was the brash young challenger — risky, but perhaps worth it. However, Ferguson transferred in late May, leaving Worley and sophomore Joshua Dobbs to compete for the starting job.

The running game will be tested behind an entirely new offensive line. Tennessee had 2,261 rushing yards a year ago, the most since 2004. Senior Marlin Lane will have to hope that the running lanes are as generous as they have been for most of his career. But Lane is a placeholder for Jalen Hurd, the elite freshman back who coaches hope will add a bigger, tougher dimension to the Vols’ ground attack.

Previewing Tennessee’s Defense for 2014: 

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
The SEC offers no place to hide for teams lacking speed in the back of their defense, and the schedule was particularly cruel to the Vols in 2013. Games against warp-speed teams Oregon and Auburn provided Exhibits A and B of Tennessee’s need to upgrade its speed. The changes might not be dramatic in 2014, but by improving some of the weakest links (like the nickel spot), coaches hope to notice a difference.

Speed is the new mantra now, so much so that Emmanuel Moseley, a gangly athlete who had no big-school offers when he was discovered by Tennessee, could be the starting cornerback as a true freshman. He’s truly fast. After two years of breakdowns tolerated only because there were no better options, expect some veterans to lose their jobs or be pushed for playing time.

Depth at the defensive line is a real concern, but this could be the year defensive end Corey Vereen appears on the national scene. He played on passing downs in 2013 but is likely to be an every-down player now. Linebacker A.J. Johnson and hybrid Curt Maggitt will anchor the defense. Johnson keeps putting up ridiculous tackle numbers (now 324 in three years), but more widespread respect has eluded him.

Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists for 2014:

Maybe it was a reflection of a rough year, but Butch Jones designated kicker/punter Michael Palardy as the team’s MVP in 2013. It might take three players to replace him. Freshman Aaron Medley could end up handling field goals, although George Bullock showed a solid leg in the spring. The punting job returns to Matt Darr after he lost it to Palardy in 2013. UT has a handful of young athletes who could impact the return game, but they’ll have to unseat senior Devrin Young.

Final Analysis 

Even after a 5–7 debut season, Jones has retained his relentlessly sunny attitude, and it seems to be infectious in Knoxville. But here’s the downer: While this team will eventually be better than the 2013 version, the roster turnover represented by 32 newcomers offers plenty of opportunities for things to go wrong. And this schedule (once again) offers little margin for error. Reaching six wins and a bowl game won’t be easy, but it will be a critical hurdle in keeping the Jones-fueled optimism alive and well in Knoxville.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#34 Texas A&M Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#34

SEC West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Kevin Sumlin, 20-6 (2 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Jake Spavital | DEF. COORDINATOR: Mark Snyder

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 34 Texas A&M.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Offense for 2014:

While there’s no replacing Johnny Manziel, Texas A&M’s coaching staff is confident that whoever emerges as the starter will possess the necessary skills to make A&M’s offense highly effective once again. The top two quarterback candidates (sophomore Kenny Hill and true freshman Kyle Allen) have combined for 22 passing attempts. Without Manziel, A&M may rely more heavily on its ground game, where Trey Williams is an explosive breakaway threat, and junior Tra Carson, who played at Oregon as a true freshman in 2011, may be the most valuable weapon. Carson is a particularly punishing runner.

While the Aggies will miss the imposing wide receiver presence of 6'5" Mike Evans, the 6'5" Ricky Seals-Jones may be the next go-to target. A&M also features senior Malcome Kennedy, its second-leading receiver from last year, as well as some talented young players like true freshman Speedy Noil, who was ranked as the nation’s No. 1 athlete prospect by one recruiting service. “As explosive as anybody I’ve ever seen,” A&M wide receivers coach David Beaty says of Noil.

The tradition of great left tackles at A&M continues, as Cedric Ogbuehi moves from right tackle to possibly follow in the first-round draft pick footsteps of Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews. The rest of the offensive front looks imposing as well. Junior Mike Matthews (Jake’s younger brother) is continuing to develop as an outstanding center, and Jarvis Harrison and Germain Ifedi return on a exceptional offensive front.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Defence for 2014:

Texas A&M's defense took a huge hit in early June with the dismissal of defensive tackle Isaiah Golden and linebacker Darian Claiborne. Both players were expected to start and were key cogs in a defense that needs to take a step forward in 2014. Had Golden returned up front, the Aggies would have returned all four starters on the line. Without Golden in the mix, combined with a struggling line, newcomers will make the biggest difference, as the Aggies added a tremendous recruiting class of defensive linemen highlighted by five-star end Myles Garrett. The newcomers join returning starters Gavin Stansbury, Alonzo Williams and Julien Obioha to provide defensive coordinator Mark Snyder some impressive depth.

The linebackers may have been the weakest link of a defense that ranked last in the SEC in total and rushing yards allowed per game. A&M was extremely young at linebacker last season, as three true freshmen — Darian Claiborne, Jordan Mastrogiovanni and Shaan Washington — received considerable playing time. A&M should receive a lift from the return of those players, as well as the addition of TCU transfer A.J. Hilliard and true freshman Otaro Alaka. Hilliard and Alaka's presence is even more critical with the dismissal of Claiborne.

The Aggies feature one marquee player in the secondary in senior playmaker Deshazor Everett, a lock-down cornerback. The rest of the backfield is filled with uncertainties. Fellow cornerback De’Vante Harris, for example, has been solid as a pass defender, but he has not been a particularly good tackler. 

Previewing Texas A&M’s Specialties for 2014:

Junior Drew Kaser led the SEC in punting last year (47.4-yard average) and is a legitimate Ray Guy Award candidate in 2014. Placekicker Josh Lambo was practically an answer to prayers last season, providing accuracy and consistency that had been a major issue in 2012. The Aggies also feature a big-play return specialist in Trey Williams.

Final Analysis

A&M’s stadium is undergoing a $450 million redevelopment that will make Kyle Field one of the premier venues in college football when construction is done in 2015. Until that time, however, Kyle Field remains a work in progress. The same could be said for the inhabitants of the facility. With a strong offensive line, a stable of promising, young skill players on offense and a defense that should improve, the Aggies could be a factor in the SEC West. But 2015 may be the year A&M steps back into in the national spotlight.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#33 Mississippi State Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#33

SEC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen , 36-28 (5 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy | DEF. COORDINATOR: Geoff Collins

The 2014 college football season starts on Aug. 27 and continues into mid-January with the first edition of the four-team playoff. Athlon Sports is counting down until kickoff with projections and previews for all 128 FBS teams. Here is our team preview for No. 33 Mississippi State.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense for 2014:

The high hopes for the Mississippi State offense are centered around the lofty expectations for quarterback Dak Prescott. The junior returns as the SEC’s active leader in rushing touchdowns (17) by a quarterback, three more than Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace  He’s also second in the conference in rushing yards by an active quarterback with 947. To take the next step, Prescott will need to improve his consistency throwing the ball down the field.

Brian Johnson, MSU’s new quarterbacks coach, likes what he sees from his star pupil. “When you see him, you can tell he’s a quarterback,” says Johnson, a former quarterback at Utah. “He carries himself with a certain demeanor that draws people to him. He has some special abilities and special tools.”

The expectations are just as high at running back, where LaDarius Perkins has passed the torch to Josh Robinson. Now a junior, Robinson arrived at spring camp 10 pounds lighter than he was in the fall. He said he lost weight in the offseason, but gained muscle. Physically he looks bigger.  Robinson will have help in the backfield from senior Nick Griffin, sophomore Ashton Shumpert and promising true freshman Aeris Williams.

Senior Jameon Lewis headlines a receiving corps with plenty of weapons. Lewis totaled 923 receiving yards last season — the second-most in school history — including a 220-yard performance in the Liberty Bowl. He hopes to build upon the momentum from last year by adding consistency. Despite his breakout season, Lewis still posted four games with three or fewer receptions.

The offensive line is one of the few areas Mississippi State has questions marks entering the 2014 season. The Bulldogs need to replace guard Gabe Jackson, who was MSU’s most talented player last season, and tackle Charles Siddoway. The Bulldogs went through the spring without finding definitive answers at either spot.  

Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense for 2014:
It all starts up front for Mississippi State’s defense. The Bulldogs return eight defensive linemen who played at least 10 games last season.  MSU excelled at stopping the run last year, but struggled getting to the quarterback. It only recorded 20 sacks — and four came against Rice in the Liberty Bowl. Improved depth along the line should help Mississippi State increase that number.

The coaching staff referred to the linebackers as the heart of the defense last year. It could be the same in 2014. The Bulldogs return two of their three starters, including leading tackler Benardrick McKinney. The junior looks to return to numbers he put up as a freshman when he recorded 102 tackles.

The Bulldogs are loaded at corner, where several young players were forced into action last fall. The staff has confidence in Taveze Calhoun, Jamerson Love and Will Redmond to contain some of the league’s top wideouts.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Specialties for 2014:
No unit struggled more for Mississippi State than special teams in 2013. MSU made 10-of-21 field goals, a 47.6 percent accuracy rate that ranked 120th in the country. The Bulldogs were one of four teams in the country that didn’t make at least 50 percent of their field goals. Last year’s kicker, Devon Bell, will now focusing on punting. Sophomore Evan Sobiesk, who made 3-of-6 last year, is the favorite to handle the field goals.
 
Final Analysis
Expectations are high in Starkville. Mississippi State enters the season with one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and a defense that has the potential to be among the best in the league. If suitable replacements are found on the offensive line and the special teams improves, the 2014 season could be the best in Dan Mullen’s six years at the school. 



COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2014 PRESEASON TOP 25

#2 Alabama Crimson Tide

NATIONAL FORECAST

#2

SEC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 79-15 (7 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kirby Smart

Alabama’s 2013 season ended on a down note, but as usual, the Crimson Tide is loaded for another run at the national championship. Coach Nick Saban continues to recruit at a high level, and the offense can lean on the one-two punch of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry until quarterback Jacob Coker settles into the starting role. The defense has a few holes to fill at cornerback, but Alabama will rank among the best in the nation once again. Also helping the Crimson Tide’s case to get back to the national championship is a favorable schedule, including a visit by defending SEC West champion Auburn in Tuscaloosa in late November. 

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Previewing Alabama’s Offense for 2014:

Alabama’s competition to replace AJ McCarron is expected to last all the way through fall camp and maybe a few games into the season. The highly anticipated arrival of Florida State transfer and former Jameis Winston backup, Jacob Coker, who will join the team over the summer and has two years of eligibility remaining, gives Alabama presumed frontrunner. His top competition will come from senior Blake Sims, an athletic, dual-threat quarterback who started his Alabama career as a running back and drew constant praise from Nick Saban throughout the spring.

Tailback T.J. Yeldon has been rock solid over the past two years, and he’ll be counted on again for another big season. His workload might not be as heavy, though, as the emergence of Derrick Henry makes an evenly split, two-man backfield seem realistic. Don’t forget about junior Kenyan Drake, either; he has game-breaking speed and is a bona fide weapon in space.

Junior wide receiver Amari Cooper is poised for big-time production. He’ll have a deep supporting cast around him, as DeAndrew White passed on the NFL Draft to return as the likely No. 2 option in Alabama’s passing game.

Senior Leon Brown looks to be the answer for the departed Anthony Steen at right guard, but the left tackle competition wasn’t resolved by A-Day. Promising true freshman Cam Robinson could follow in the footsteps of Andre Smith and start the season opener, but he’ll have to beat out third-year sophomore Brandon Greene. 


Athlon's Cover 2 Podcast Previews the Alabama Crimson Tide for 2014:

 

Previewing Alabama’s Defense for 2014:

 Order a copy of Athlon's 2014 SEC Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.
On the defensive line, it starts with sophomore end A’Shawn Robinson, who led the Crimson Tide with 5.5 sacks as a true freshman. There’s no shortage of options on the opposite side of the line, as junior college transfers Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway and sophomores Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson are poised for regular work. Senior Brandon Ivory returns for another season at nose guard, where he will be spelled by junior Darren Lake.

There’s no replacing Butkus Award winner C.J. Mosley, but senior Trey DePriest has embraced the unenviable task. The search for his running mate in the middle of Alabama’s defense could result in a three-man rotation at the two spots with junior Reggie Ragland and talented sophomore Reuben Foster. On the outside, junior Dillon Lee’s spring was marred by an arrest for driving under the influence, but he appears best positioned to replace Adrian Hubbard.

There’s one solid answer and many more questions in Alabama’s secondary, as junior safety Landon Collins, one of the best in the nation at his position, is the lone returning starter. The uncertain status of Eddie Jackson, who had emerged as the top corner in spring ball before he injured his knee, means juniors Bradley Sylve and Cyrus Jones will need to step up. At free safety, junior Geno Smith and fifth-year senior Nick Perry are the likely answers. 


Previewing Alabama’s Specialists for 2014:

With Cade Foster gone, Adam Griffith is poised to make a whole new set of memories as Alabama’s top — and only — option at kicker. Replacing Cody Mandell, one of the nation’s best punters in 2013, will be an even tougher task for freshman JK Scott, who joins the team over the summer. While there’s uncertainty at the specialist positions, there’s nothing of the sort at returner, where Christion Jones will reside for one more year.

Final Analysis 

Alabama might not enter the season as the odds-on favorite to win the national championship, and that’s probably a good thing for a team that lost its identity and grew complacent when it had a shot to win three in a row. Though questions abound on both sides of the ball, the Crimson Tide certainly have the talent to contend for another set of championships.

Five Reasons Why Athlon Sports is Picking Alabama No. 2:

1. Best schedule in the SEC?
With crossover games against Florida and Tennessee, along with a home date versus rival Auburn in late November, Alabama has a favorable path to an unbeaten record. Sure, road dates at LSU and Ole Miss will be tough, but one loss might be enough to win the West. In non-conference action, the Crimson Tide will have no trouble with West Virginia, FAU, Southern Miss or Western Carolina.

2. Best stable of running backs in college football
The SEC is loaded at running back this year, and the nation’s No. 1 backfield resides in Tuscaloosa. Georgia is also a strong candidate with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but an edge goes to Alabama. T.J. Yeldon is slated to hold the No. 1 spot on the depth chart after rushing for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. Derrick Henry showcased his potential with a breakout performance against Oklahoma, and the sophomore is expected to see a bigger workload in 2014. Kenyan Drake rushed for 694 yards last season and returns as the No. 3 back. This unit also features Altee Tenpenny, Jalston Fowler and incoming freshman Bo Scarbrough.

3. Is Jacob Coker the real deal?
Florida State is Athlon Sports’ pick to win the national title, but Alabama isn’t far behind at No. 2. The biggest concern for the Crimson Tide has to be at quarterback with the departure of AJ McCarron. None of the candidates appeared to claim the job in the spring, leaving Florida State transfer Jacob Coker as the starter in 2014. Coker is also working under new coordinator Lane Kiffin and has yet to make a start in his collegiate career. Despite the unknown factor surrounding Coker, there’s plenty of upside. The Alabama native has all of the measurables (6-foot-5, 230 pounds and a strong arm) and spent three years learning under quarterback guru Jimbo Fisher. With a punishing ground attack and a solid defense, Coker probably won’t have to win too many games on his own this year. With matchups against LSU and Auburn later in the year, that should allow Coker plenty of time to develop as Alabama’s No. 1 quarterback.

4. The front seven on defense
Stopping spread offenses has been an issue for Alabama, but the Crimson Tide’s elite recruiting up front could help with some of the concerns. Sophomore A’Shawn Robinson should be one of the top ends in the SEC this year, and junior college recruits Jarran Reed and D.J. Pettway will be expected to contribute right away. Brandon Ivory is a prototypical 3-4 nose guard, and there’s other options at end in the form of Jonathan Allen, Dalvin Tomlinson and freshman Da’Shawn Hand. With more athleticism up front, Alabama should have flexibility and speed in the trenches, which should help against spread teams. And it doesn’t hurt the linebackers are loaded with talent for coordinator Kirby Smart. Trey DePriest replaces C.J. Mosley as the team’s top linebacker, while Denzel Devall and Dillon Lee are two names to watch in the fall. With the concerns at cornerback, it’s important for the front seven to set the tone on defense.

5. Why Alabama over Auburn?
Alabama versus Auburn for the top spot in the West was a huge debate in Athlon’s prediction meetings. The Tigers knocked off the Crimson Tide last year and have plenty of returning talent to win the West once again. Alabama’s defensive issues versus spread teams were a concern, as well as special teams with the departure of kicker Cade Foster and punter Cody Mandell. However, with this game in Tuscaloosa and a revenge factor for the Crimson Tide, that might be enough to swing the division back in the Crimson Tide’s favor.

The Debate

Alabama's Quarterback Play or Auburn's Defense: Which is a Bigger Concern in 2014?

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