The SEC’s dominance for the national championship ended last season, but the conference can still flex its muscles as the best in college football. The gap between the SEC and Pac-12 has narrowed, but the SEC will be tough to unseat as the No. 1 conference anytime soon.
As college football shifts to a new four-team playoff in 2014, the SEC is positioned to potentially have two teams in the new format. Alabama ranks as Athlon’s No. 2 team for 2014, with Auburn (No. 5), Georgia (No. 8) and South Carolina (No. 9) all viable options this year.
Picking the champion of both divisions will be a tough assignment this preseason. The East has more contenders for the top spot in its division than the West, but both sides of the SEC are strong. The East is headlined by Georgia and South Carolina, with Florida and Missouri also in the mix. The Gators are due to rebound after a disappointing 4-8 record last season, and the Bulldogs should have better injury luck in 2014 after a rash of key losses in 2013.
Alabama vs. Auburn for No. 1 in the SEC is one of college football’s top offseason topics, and the debate will continue into August. Athlon projects the Crimson Tide to get revenge on the Tigers this year and to play Florida State in the National Championship in early January. Why Alabama over Auburn? The Crimson Tide get the Tigers at home, and even though quarterback is a huge concern in Tuscaloosa, a strong running game and defense should carry Nick Saban's team until Jacob Coker is ready.
While Alabama and Auburn seem to be the clear contenders in the West, sorting No. 3-6 is difficult. Can LSU quickly reload once again? Will Ole Miss or Mississippi State take a step forward? Is Texas A&M’s defense ready to turn a corner? In the No. 3-6 race, keep an eye on quarterback play. Whichever team can settle its concerns under center the fastest will have an edge to challenge Auburn and Alabama.
Prep for the 2014 season, follow Athlon Sports and its college football editors on Twitter: @AthlonSports, Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven), David Fox (@DavidFox615) and Braden Gall (@BradenGall)
Inside the War Room: Key Questions That Shaped Athlon's 2014 Predictions
What gave Georgia the edge over South Carolina, especially since the game is in Columbia?
South Carolina has been one of the most consistent teams in the league over the last three or four years, but the 2014 Gamecocks have more key players to replace than any recent Steve Spurrier team. You have to start at the quarterback position. Connor Shaw was one of the most valuable players in the league the last few years, both with his play on the field and his leadership in the locker room. Dylan Thompson is a solid player who has performed well when called upon, but it’s doubtful he will bring the same intangibles to the position. South Carolina also must replace its best wide receiver (Bruce Ellington), two All-America defensive linemen (Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles) and both starting cornerbacks (Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree). Georgia suffered a big loss at the quarterback position with the graduation of Aaron Murray, but the Bulldogs have far fewer personnel issues elsewhere. And the defense, which underachieved in recent years, should be improved with the arrival of new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. Georgia also had several key injuries last season and struggled in the turnover department (-7). The Bulldogs have to travel to South Carolina but otherwise has the slight edge with the schedule; both teams play Auburn, but Georgia gets the Tigers at home. In the other game against the SEC West, Georgia travels to Arkansas (winless in the league in 2013), while South Carolina hosts Texas A&M. If the Bulldogs keep running back Todd Gurley healthy, and Mason settles into the starting quarterback job as expected, Georgia will be a wildcard contender in college football’s new playoff format. - David Fox (@DavidFox615)
What is a reasonable expectation for Tennessee?
Butch Jones’ second season on Rocky Top isn’t going to be easy. The Volunteers still have talent (No. 6 ranked roster in the SEC), but the schedule is brutal. Tennessee opens non-conference play with a dangerous Utah State team in the opener, followed by a trip to Oklahoma to play the Sooners two weeks later. It doesn’t get any easier in the SEC, as the Volunteers catch Alabama and Ole Miss in crossover play and travel to Vanderbilt to close out the regular season. As if the schedule wasn’t enough, Tennessee needs to replace all five starters on the offensive line, and there’s very little in the way of proven depth on the defensive front. The Volunteers have talent at the skill positions and should be able to get better play from their quarterbacks. Due to the holes on the depth chart and schedule, a good season for Jones is just getting to a bowl game. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
LSU has finished ahead of Ole Miss in the SEC West standings in each of the last five years and in 12 of the last 14 (with one tie). Why will it be different this year?
This was the toughest decision among all of the predictions in the SEC. LSU has been so good for so long, it would be easy to pencil the Tigers in for third behind Alabama and Auburn (or even ahead of one of them) and assume they have the talent to once again win 10 or 11 games. And they still might, but this team has some issues. The quarterback position is a bit of a mystery; Anthony Jennings is No. 1 on the depth chart heading into preseason camp, but don’t be surprised if true freshman Brandon Harris seizes control of the job. The Tigers also lost their top two wide receivers (Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham) and have issues at defensive tackle and linebacker. LSU was 5-3 in conference play last year, and considering the personnel concerns, slipping to 4-4 isn't out of the question. Ole Miss probably doesn’t have as much overall roster depth as LSU, but you could argue that the Rebels have fewer weaknesses heading into the 2014 season. The key for Ole Miss is senior quarterback Bo Wallace. If he plays up to his potential on a consistent basis — and of course remains healthy — the Rebels should enjoy their first winning SEC season since 2008, Houston Nutt’s first year in Oxford. - David Fox (@DavidFox615)
What is Florida’s ceiling?
Florida could be the most difficult team to forecast in the entire country. It would not be surprising if the Gators won the SEC East or if they finished fifth or six in the division. From a pure talent standpoint, Florida ranks among the top two or three teams in the league. But the majority of that talent is on the defensive side of the ball. The Gators are hoping the arrival of new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper (from Duke) can solve some of the issues on that side of the ball, but what are realistic expectations for an offense that was so bad last year? Jeff Driskel gives Roper a solid option at quarterback (if he stays healthy), but there are few proven playmakers at the skill positions, and the offensive line has lacked toughness the last two seasons. The schedule is a mixed bag; Florida has to play Alabama and LSU in crossover games, but LSU, which shouldn’t be as formidable this year, visits Gainesville. Also, the Gators host both South Carolina and Missouri, giving them a possible edge against two teams they will be jockeying with for position in the East. There is considerable pressure on Will Muschamp in his fourth season in Gainesville. It’s likely Florida will need to emerge as a legitimate contender in the East for him to keep his job. That’s quite possible, but the guess here is that the Gators are closer to fourth than first or second in the division. - David Fox (@DavidFox615)
Is 2014 a rebuilding year at Texas A&M?
Yes, it appears so. Let’s keep this in mind: Texas A&M went 4-4 in the SEC last year with Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. Without those three players on offense, just getting back to .500 in conference action would be a good season for coach Kevin Sumlin. Another huge concern for the Aggies remains on defense. Texas A&M allowed a whopping 6.7 yards per play in SEC games in 2013. With eight starters back and improved depth thanks to an outstanding recruiting class, the Aggies should be better on defense. But how much can this unit improve to take the pressure of off an offense that figures to have a few growing pains as Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen replaces Manziel at quarterback remains to be seen Texas A&M will take a step back in 2014. However, keep an eye on the Aggies throughout the year, as this should be a dangerous team in 2015. – Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
2014 SEC Team Previews
by Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson)
Big Questions at QB
Never before has the SEC had such a departure of talent at the game’s most important position. That sets up a lot of uncertainty in 2014. There was an inordinate amount of star power among SEC quarterbacks last year, with the numbers to back it up: Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, Connor Shaw and James Franklin.
Last year the SEC had five of the of the nation’s top 12 quarterbacks, as measured by pass efficiency rating, and eight of the top 36. Auburn’s Nick Marshall is the only one of those who is back this year.
Several new quarterbacks did get some early action, thanks to injuries: Georgia’s Hutson Mason got two starts and LSU’s Anthony Jennings one, though he still had to compete in the spring for the job. Missouri’s Maty Mauk received extensive action last year with Franklin hurt, and put up pretty good numbers (11 TDs, two INTs, 229 rushing yards.)
Then there’s Florida, which gets back Jeff Driskel after he suffered a season-ending injury early in the year. But marquee teams like Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M enter the year with big questions at quarterback. Then again, that doesn’t mean their seasons are doomed: Last year Marshall wasn’t named Auburn’s starter until just before the season began, and look what happened.
On the Other Hand
Bret Bielema and Nick Saban lost the argument this year on slowing down the up-tempo offenses. But their conference could still end up returning to its reputation for defense and running the football, at least this season.
Yes, Gus Malzahn still has Nick Marshall and his offense. But will Texas A&M be as prolific without Manziel, or Missouri without receiver Dorial Green-Beckham? In fact, not a single member of the AP All-SEC first-team offense is back.
But here’s who does return: Tailbacks Todd Gurley (Georgia), T.J. Yeldon (Alabama), Mike Davis (South Carolina) and Alex Collins (Arkansas). All but Gurley rushed for at least 1,000 yards last year, and Gurley was only 11 yards short despite missing three games.
The SEC also returns more players on defense — four who were on the AP first team, including the conference’s leaders in interceptions (Ole Miss cornerback Cody Prewitt) and tackles (Georgia linebacker Ramik Wilson.)
The SEC is one of the few major conferences sticking with an eight-game schedule. (At least for now.) So will that hurt its teams with the playoff selection committee?
SEC teams are not using their four open spots to load up on major opponents: This year only one SEC team (Georgia) is playing as many as two teams from one of the other four major conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12).
That’s not to say there aren’t marquee non-conference games, especially the opening weekend: Alabama plays West Virginia in Atlanta, LSU plays Wisconsin in Houston, Georgia hosts Clemson, and Ole Miss plays Boise State, also in Atlanta. Later on you have Auburn at Kansas State, Tennessee at Oklahoma, and then the annual rivalry games (Florida at Florida State, Kentucky at Louisville, Georgia Tech at Georgia).
Ultimately, the SEC’s reputation should help it by the end of the year. One wonders if selection committee members like Condoleezza Rice and Archie Manning are going to be crunching the Sagarin rankings and schedule strength ratings.
But if it’s close, how the SEC does in those marquee games the first few weeks could end up being critical.
The Big Debut Arrives
What do you give the conference that already seems to have it all? A television network to call its own. The SEC Network debuts in August and begins carrying football games this season.
The conference has pulled out a lot of stops for the channel, hiring Brent Musberger and Jesse Palmer to call games, Paul Finebaum to stir it up in studio, and filling the roster with other established and rising broadcasting names.
In the long run, it should be great for the network, and good for fans of the conference who want their SEC (specifically, SEC football) fix as much as possible. In the short term, however, there will be bumps. The first is getting on cable systems, which creates a delicate balance for the conference: It wants to entice cable systems by putting marquee games on the SEC Network, but it also wants fans to watch the game. (And doesn’t want to alienate CBS.)
It will also take some time to figure out what to put on the channel all the time. It won’t be quite like the early days of ESPN, with tractor pulls and Australian Rules Football. But the SEC Network also can’t just put non-revenue sports on all the time, for logistical and financial reasons. So expect plenty of airings of classic SEC games, and a lot of in-studio analysis shows, which will re-air liberally.
SEC Coordinator Carousel
by Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Alabama: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Doug Nussmeier; New: Lane Kiffin
Nussmeier left Alabama after two seasons to take the same position at Michigan. Kiffin was fired last October after three-plus seasons as the head coach at USC. He previously was the head coach for one season at Tennessee and for one-plus seasons with the Oakland Raiders.
Arkansas: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Chris Ash; New: Robb Smith
Ash left Arkansas to take a position as the defensive co-coordinator and safeties coach at Ohio State. Smith last season was the linebackers coach for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. Prior to that, he was the defensive coordinator at Rutgers.
Florida: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Brent Pease; New: Kurt Roper
Pease was fired after two years at Florida and is now the wide receivers coach at Washington, working for his old boss at Boise State, Chris Petersen. Roper previously was the offensive coordinator at Duke, and he also spent time at Tennessee, Kentucky and Ole Miss.
Georgia: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Todd Grantham; New: Jeremy Pruitt
Grantham left after four years at Georgia for the same job at Louisville. Pruitt was hired away from Florida State, where he was the defensive coordinator for the 2013 national champions. Pruitt was the 247Sports Recruiter of the Year in ’12 while on the Alabama staff.
Mississippi State: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Les Koenning; New: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy
Koenning is now the wide receivers coach at Texas. Gonzales coached wide receivers at Mississippi State in 2013. He will continue to do so while adding passing game coordinator to his title. Hevesy has been the offensive line coach and running game coordinator at Mississippi State since 2009. Head coach Dan Mullen will call the plays.
Texas A&M: Offensive Coordinator
Old: Clarence McKinney, Jake Spavital; New: Jake Spavital
Spavital takes over play-calling duties from McKinney, who is still on staff but will serve only as the running backs coach.
Vanderbilt: Offensive Coordinator
Old: John Donovan; New: Karl Dorrell
Donovan, who came to Vanderbilt from Maryland with James Franklin in 2011, followed his boss to Penn State, where he will coach tight ends and serve as the offensive coordinator. Dorrell, a former head coach at UCLA, most recently was the quarterbacks coach with the Houston Texans. He was the offensive coordinator at Northern Arizona in the early 1990s while new Vanderbilt coach Derek Mason was a defensive back for the Lumberjacks.
Vanderbilt: Defensive Coordinator
Old: Bob Shoop; New: David Kotulski
Shoop joined James Franklin at Penn State. Kotulski was the inside linebackers coach at Stanford the past two seasons, working for new Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason. He has been a defensive coordinator at Lehigh, Holy Cross, Utah State, Bucknell and Saint Mary’s.