Alabama’s Quest for Cornerbacks
Finding flaws on Alabama these days is nitpicking. But trust us — given Nick Saban’s track record of coaching defensive backs, the performance of his cornerbacks the last couple of seasons has to irk him as much as anyone. The Alabama corners the last three seasons have been arguably the only non-elite group on the defense.
Alabama finished last season ranked seventh in the SEC in pass efficiency defense, its lowest ranking in that category since the Tide went 7-6 in Saban’s first year. Alabama ranked first in that category every year from 2009-11 and third in 2012 and ’13. Moreover, during the last two seasons, Alabama has more touchdown passes allowed than interceptions.
One school of thought would be that with the arrival of Texas A&M and other spread attacks in the SEC West, Alabama is enduring a dip because the offenses are getting better in the division. At the same time, Ohio State averaged 7.1 yards per pass against the Tide in the Sugar Bowl semifinal, and West Virginia averaged 8.1 yards per pass against Alabama in the opener. In other words, this trend isn’t occurring just because Texas A&M’s quarterbacks have Alabama’s number.
If Alabama is going to solidify this position, the 2015 season would be a good time to start. The Crimson Tide lose starting safeties Landon Collins and Nick Perry from what has been a position of strength. Cornerback Cyrus Jones, a second-team All-SEC selection, is back, but the other corner position is unclear. Sophomore Tony Brown is the favorite, but he will have to win the job in preseason camp.
There is plenty of talent at Saban’s disposal: Alabama signed two of 247Sports’ top five cornerbacks in both the 2014 and 2015 recruiting classes.
Arkansas Rebuilds the Defensive Line
The way Arkansas finished 2014 may signal that the Razorbacks have already turned the corner and are ready to contend in the SEC West again. The Hogs won two of their last three SEC games and defeated Texas 31–7 in the Texas Bowl. An experienced backfield returning for Bret Bielema’s third season is reason for optimism in Fayetteville.
A word of caution, though: There might be a few speed bumps in Arkansas’ return to prominence thanks to some key losses along the defensive line.
The Razorbacks’ defense was instrumental to the late-season run, posting back-to-back shutouts against LSU and Ole Miss in November. The consecutive shutouts were the first for an unranked team against ranked opponents in college football history and the Hogs’ first in back-to-back conference games since 1965, when Arkansas was a member of the Southwest Conference.
Arkansas ranked second in the SEC in total defense last season at 323.4 yards per game, but the Hogs ranked seventh on a yards-per-play basis. This makes sense considering Arkansas’ ability to control the clock with long, run-oriented drives to keep opposing offenses off the field.
The Razorbacks are built to eat the clock on offense again, and they may need to be just as effective in that area in 2015. Arkansas has a ton of rising juniors on defense, but the Hogs also lost some key players on that side of the ball. In particular, the defensive line took two major hits with tackle Darius Philon leaving early for the NFL Draft and end Trey Flowers exhausting his eligibility. The development of linemen JaMichael Winston, Taiwan Johnson and Bijhon Jackson might be the difference between a team vying for a mid-level bowl game and one that’s a factor in the SEC West.
The back seven of the defense also has a couple of holes. Senior linebacker Martrell Spaight and safety Alan Turner are gone, leaving a void of senior leadership that must be filled by new linebackers coach Vernon Hargreaves. The departure of the well-regarded Randy Shannon to the staff at Florida also can’t be overlooked.
Florida's Quarterback Dilemma
The days of Florida quarterbacks being near-automatic stars are long gone. The Gators have struggled to be even competent at the position since Tim Tebow left in 2009. The Gators benched junior Jeff Driskel in October last season and finally got a bit of momentum under then-freshman Treon Harris, who led Florida to an upset of rival Georgia and a bowl win vs. East Carolina.
Under normal circumstances, a rising sophomore quarterback who showed encouraging progress last season would be a good building block for a first-year coach. Yet the quarterback situation Jim McElwain inherits is loaded with intrigue. With Harris at quarterback, the previous staff passed the ball almost as a last resort. Harris completed more than five passes in a game only three times in the final seven games. Harris finished the season with 332 rushing yards on 75 carries. He’d be a good fit — if Florida planned on running the spread option.
Judging by his track record, McElwain would seem to favor a traditional balanced attack with a drop-back quarterback. Garrett Grayson passed for 7,702 yards in his final two seasons as a starter at Colorado State, and McElwain coached AJ McCarron and Greg McElroy at Alabama. McElwain’s new offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, also favors pro-style offenses.
With Driskel no longer an option — he transferred to Louisiana Tech — McElwain will choose between Harris and Will Grier, a redshirt freshman. A 6'2", 220-pound native of Davidson, N.C., Grier was a top-50 prospect in the 247Sports Composite and the No. 2 pro-style quarterback in the ‘14 class. Don’t be surprised if Grier emerges as the Gators’ No. 1 QB.
Carl Lawson’s Return to the Auburn Defense
The most important newcomer for the Auburn defense is Will Muschamp, the ex-Florida coach who is on his second tour of duty as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The most important “new” face is Carl Lawson. And Lawson isn’t really new — he just spent all of his time last season recovering from a knee injury.
Lawson sustained a torn ACL in spring practice last April and was announced as being out for the season in July. Now healthy, Lawson is the key figure of the Tigers’ defensive rebuild. The Alpharetta, Ga., native showed promise as a true freshman for the Auburn team that reached the national title game against Florida State. A freshman All-America selection, Lawson finished the 2013 season with four sacks and 7.5 tackles for a loss that season and was expected to anchor the defensive line in 2014.
Lawson missed the season, and Auburn never found a consistent pass rush. The Tigers had 10 sacks in SEC play, and four of those came in one game against Ole Miss. With Dee Ford and Lawson in 2013, Auburn had 19 sacks in SEC games, third-most in the league. Defense was never a problem for Muschamp at Florida, so it will be interesting to see how the new coordinator deploys a healthy Lawson.
Georgia's Future at Quarterback
For the most part, Georgia has been able to count on above-average to superb quarterback play under Mark Richt. The Bulldogs’ coach has guided two of the most productive passers in SEC history (David Greene and Aaron Murray) and a No. 1 overall draft pick (Matthew Stafford). Hutson Mason was capable last season, but his primary role was keeping defenses honest when he wasn’t handing the ball to Nick Chubb and Todd Gurley. That’s still the primary job description for Georgia with Chubb returning.
For the first time since Richt has been at Georgia, his quarterbacks coach won’t be Mike Bobo, who replaced Jim McElwain as the head coach at Colorado State. To replace Bobo — who was rarely a fan favorite — Richt brought in Brian Schottenheimer, who has coached quarterbacks but never on the collegiate level.
A year ago, Richt was able to replace the SEC’s career-leading passer with a senior in Mason. Now, the situation isn’t quite so clear. Brice Ramsey (above), the odds-on favorite to start, backed up Mason as a freshman last season and got into several games in garbage time. Former scout team quarterback Jacob Park and dual-threat Faton Bauta are also in the mix. Both Ramsey and Park were fringe top-100 prospects, and Bauta was a three-star ranked outside of the top 400.
If you’re looking for a sign that Georgia’s not totally confident in its quarterback, consider the Bulldogs’ forays into transfer recruiting. The Bulldogs were one of the teams interested in Notre Dame’s Everett Golson, who landed at Notre Dame. Georgia did land Greyson Lambert, who started nine games at Virginia last season.
The new quarterback dynamic comes at an interesting time for Richt. He’s the longest-tenured coach in the SEC and has returned the program to Vince Dooley levels. Yet he hasn’t won the league title since 2005. A Belk Bowl rout of Louisville sealed 10 wins and a top-10 finish in 2014, two things that helped provide for a quiet offseason. If Georgia doesn’t get strong quarterback play this season, the heat may start up again.
Mississippi State's Offensive Rebuild
The situation at Mississippi State looks great — provided that the first glance at the Bulldogs stops at the quarterback. The return of Dak Prescott (above), who spent about two-thirds of last season in the Heisman Trophy discussion, may be enough to warrant a top-25 spot for the Bulldogs on its own.
Take Prescott off this team, though, and Mississippi State might be a consensus pick to finish seventh in the SEC West. The Bulldogs must replace six senior starters on offense, including three linemen. That doesn’t include running back Josh Robinson, a junior who declared for the NFL Draft. Robinson, not Prescott, was arguably Mississippi State’s most valuable player for a stretch in October and early November.
The situation on defense is even more dire. Mississippi State must replace seven senior starters, plus early draft entry Benardrick McKinney.
Mississippi State got a rude awakening last season when its depth wasn’t able to hold up through the course of the season. The Bulldogs lost three of their last four — at Alabama, at Ole Miss and to Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl. If a team that awash with seniors couldn’t keep up with the best at the end of the season, a team relying on new faces to take over could face an uphill climb.
Prescott is back, but he’s going to need to be the hero week-in and week-out for Mississippi State to remain a threat in the SEC West.
LSU's Thinning Defensive Line
Early departures to the NFL Draft have decimated the entire LSU roster — the Tigers have lost 20 early entries in the last three seasons — but no area has been hit harder than the defensive line.
And as well as LSU continues to recruit, this attrition has affected the product on the field. LSU’s run defense has been in steady decline for four consecutive seasons. The Tigers finished seventh in the SEC in run defense last year, allowing an unthinkable 152.7 yards on the ground per game.
That still didn’t stop defensive end Danielle Hunter and linebacker Kwon Alexander from going early to the draft. With Hunter and senior Jermauria Rasco gone, LSU must replace its starting ends. Attrition forced LSU to start a freshman (Davon Godchaux) and a sophomore (Christian LaCouture) at the tackle spots last fall, and the same youth could be in play at end this season.
New defensive line coach Ed Orgeron is a Louisiana native, a relentless recruiter and a proven line coach. All the pieces are in place to reverse the Tigers’ downward slide, but this could be another transition year before LSU gets back to being the lineman factory it has been for most of the last decade.
Missouri's Search for New Pass Rushers
Perhaps doubters will learn their lesson about Missouri in 2015. The Tigers have won the SEC East in each of the last two years, defying most preseason picks. The anchor for the Mizzou program hasn’t been the high-powered spread offense that carried the Tigers to prominence in their Big 12 days. Instead, it’s been Mizzou’s ability to develop pass rushers.
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Shane Ray was a three-star recruit, and Michael Sam was a two-star. Yet both finished their careers as the SEC Defensive Player of the Year. Missouri led the SEC with 42 sacks in 2014 and 41 in ‘13. No team in the league in that span has more than 37 sacks in a season.
Sam graduated after the 2013 season, and Ray left early for the NFL Draft. Mizzou also must replace Markus Golden, a senior who had 16.5 total sacks the last two seasons, and two-year starting tackle Matt Hoch. The turnover leaves Missouri with nose guard Harold Brantley as the lone returning defensive line starter.
Sophomores Charles Harris and Marcus Loud are the heirs apparent to Ray and Golden, but they have 2.5 career sacks between them, and they were two- and-three star recruits, respectively. Perhaps long-time defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski deserves the benefit of the doubt in developing players, but the departures at end and tackle the last two seasons have left mighty big voids. Good thing for Missouri that the new faces will have time to develop — the Tigers’ first major test will be Oct. 3 against South Carolina.
Ole Miss Rolls the Dice on Chad Kelly
For the last three seasons, Ole Miss has been on a steady rise, from 7–6 in Hugh Freeze’s first season to 8–5 in his second to 9–4 and a top-20 finish in his third. The quarterback for all three seasons was Bo Wallace. The most steady hand Wallace was not, but three bowl games in three seasons at Ole Miss shouldn’t be easily dismissed.
The Ole Miss quarterback position now may be handed to another junior college product who has been no less unpredictable — only off the field rather than on it. Chad Kelly passed for 3,906 yards and 47 touchdowns at East Mississippi Community College last season, but only days after he signed with Ole Miss, Kelly was arrested for fighting with bouncers outside of a Buffalo, N.Y., nightclub.
Before that, Kelly was dismissed from Clemson after arguing with coaches during spring practice. In other words, Kelly is a bit of a loose cannon. The nephew of Pro Football Hall of Fame quarterback Jim Kelly is also a talent who Freeze believes is worth the risk for his ascendant program. And Freeze knows he’s rolling the dice with his quarterback. He’s said he hopes Kelly doesn’t “embarrass” the program.
Kelly still has to beat out sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan, both of whom played as freshmen last season. But the fact that Kelly is on the roster at all is a sign that Freeze believes Kelly will be the right guy on Saturdays. The question may be with the other six days.
Derek Mason Learning on the Job
On-the-job learning is not easy, especially at the toughest job in the SEC. Derek Mason learned that much in his first season at Vanderbilt. The Commodores went 9–4 in back-to-back seasons in the last two years under James Franklin but fell to 3–9 in the first season under Mason.
Mason was wildly successful as the defensive coordinator at Stanford and brought with him optimism that he’d be able to apply the lessons learned during the Cardinal’s rise to the top of the Pac-12 and build upon the momentum started by Franklin. The results were those of a Vanderbilt team of a different era. The Commodores went 0–8 in the SEC, losing by an average of 18.1 points per game in conference play.
Beyond the losing, the season showed plenty of signs of a coach learning how to be the CEO of an SEC program. Vanderbilt had as many as four quarterbacks in contention for the starting job for long stretches of the season. At the end of the year, Mason replaced both coordinators and his strength and conditioning coach.
The most dramatic change is Mason taking over the defense himself, entrusting the entirety of the offense to Andy Ludwig, who has been a coordinator at Wisconsin, San Diego State, Cal, Utah, Oregon and Fresno State.
It’s a gamble, and one Mason is making on himself. If the defense doesn’t improve, he can’t fire the coordinator. And if Vanderbilt’s game management suffers, his ability to be both a head coach and a coordinator will be heavily scrutinized.