2014 SEC Preview
August 3, 2014
By Marc Lawrence
2014 Southeastern Conference Football Preview
Here We Go Again
According to Scout.com’s top 100 prospects of the 2014 recruiting class, 37 of the nation’s top players committed to SEC schools.
The Big Ten and the ACC secured 17 prospects each, the Pac-12 snagged 16 and the Big 12 landed only seven.
The SEC brought in 21 five-star athletes. The Big Ten, ACC, Pac-12 and Big 12 combined to bring in 21 five-star athletes.
And therein lies the primary reason for success in the SEC.
No Argument Here
If ever an argument of who the best football conference in the country is begins to get out of hand, the case quickly closes shut with this staggering fact: At least one SEC player has been selected in each of the past 153 rounds of the NFL draft, dating back to 1993, with a whopping 55 picks chosen in the first three rounds of the last two drafts.
When C.J. Mosley went to the Ravens with the 17th pick, Alabama’s skein of having a player selected in the top 10 ended at five years – tying Southern California for the longest streak ever.
LSU had nine players drafted this year - the same number as last year.
The Cincinnati Bengals picked three SEC players this year, extending to 17 the consecutive drafts in which they've selected an SEC player. It's the longest current streak for any NFL team.
And finally, when the Houston Texans selected Jadeveon Clowney with the first pick of the 2014 NFL Draft, the South Carolina defensive end became the 18th SEC player to be the No. 1 choice, thus cementing the SEC’s case as the most fertile football breeding ground in the land.
If that’s not evidence enough after winning 7 of the last eight national titles, and 8 of the last eleven, the SEC is finished the BCS era 9-1 in title games.
When projecting a national champion this year, keep this sobering thought in mind: Ten of the last 12 BCS champions have owned a Top 10 ranked defense.
Thus, as we’ve come to learn, the SEC builds elite defenses with waves of athletic defensive linemen.
It’s also no coincidence the SEC produced 6 of the nation’s 12 highest-paid assistant coaches last season, including two - Alabama’s Kirby Smart and LSU John Chavis – who earn more than a $1M per season.
What’s more stunning is that the average assistant payroll of 13 SEC teams last year - Vanderbilt is a private school and did not disclose its coaches salaries - was $3.8M, with LSU and Alabama writing the largest checks at $4.57M and $4.46M respectively.
Indeed, this is the SEC’s world. We just live in it.
Parting Ways… Get ‘Em While they’re Down
Last year the SEC placed 5 quarterbacks in the season ending national Top 12 passer ratings.
All five are gone, with only half of the teams in the conference featuring returning starting QB’s in 2014.
Note: Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
FLORIDA (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 7/4)
TEAM THEME: GATOR AID
How bad was the Florida offense last year, you ask? Aside from suffering their first losing campaign at the school in 34 years, the Gators ended the season ranked No. 119 in red zone offense. The question is how do the Gators ignite an offense that had no fuse last season? For openers, a 3rd new OC in as many years - Kurt Roper (Duke) - welcomes the return of 6’4 235 QB Jeff Driskel (broke his clavicle in Game Three against Tennessee last year). Driskel is fast and always a threat to run from Roper’s spread offense. First and foremost, though, they will need to stretch defenses with a passing game. Look for a bounce-back season in Gainesville from the red-faced Gators.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last Florida receiver to surpass 570 receiving yards in a season was TE Aaron Hernandez (850) in 2009.
GEORGIA (Offense – 6/2 Defense – 8/2)
TEAM THEME: A KNEE-DEEP FEAT
Mark Richt survived a terrible run of injury bad luck to his skill position guys last season, but still took the Bulldogs to a bowl as he has done every year in his career at Georgia. WR Malcolm Mitchell, who tore his ACL in the opener, was one of three starting receivers to go down the first half of the season, forcing three walk-ons into the starting lineup. RB Keith Marshall – who with Todd Gurley formed the ‘Gurshall’ tandem – blew out his knee and played in only five games. The crowning blow was star QB Aaron Murray’s late-season knee injury. QB Hutson Mason, a shining star in his two starts, steps into Murray’s big shoes. On the defensive front, new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt (Florida State DC last season) welcomes back 8 starters, including the entire linebacker corps. Beware of the Dawgs.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: 28 of the Bulldogs 45 losses under Richt have been by 7 points or less, including 10 of the last 15.
KENTUCKY (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 8/2)
TEAM THEME: OUR DAY WILL COME
Hopes were high for the Wildcats last season after the arrival of HC Mark Stoops, but fell woefully short in a 2-10 campaign, no thanks to facing nine foes that produced winning records in 2012, including all five away games. Sixteen returning starters – the most in the program since 2000 – would be cause for optimism, except that their stats from 2013 are pedestrian, to put it nicely, and the two wins they managed came against the likes of Alabama State and Miami Ohio. Still, Stoops exceeded expectations by having the 2nd-ranked recruiting class in the SEC this off-season, snatching 4-star 340-lb lineman Matt Elam from the grasp of Nick Saban.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Wildcats have lost 17 straight road games, going 4-13 ATS in those games.
MISSOURI (Offense – 4/3 Defense – 4/3)
TEAM THEME: WHAT GOES UP, MUST COME DOWN
It was an incredible year for Gary Pinkel’s squad as they came within a play or two from meeting the Seminoles in the national title game. Nobody predicted anything close to that for the Tigers after a 5-7 season in 2012. Nobody that is, except for us… here’s the quote from last year’s preview: “After facing the toughest schedule in the nation last year, look for the rejuvenated Tigers to put a serious bite on the SEC this season.” Personnel losses are heavy this year, though: QB James Franklin, top rusher Henry Josey, leading receiver L’Damian Washington, top tackler Andrew Wilson and sackmaster Michael Sam have all departed. Welcome back, Maty Mauk.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers held every foe, other than Auburn, under its season rushing average last year.
SOUTH CAROLINA (Offense – 8/4 Defense – 6/2)
TEAM THEME: NOT QUITE COCK SURE
Three consecutive 11-2 seasons – not bad for the ‘Ol’ Ball Coach’, although Steve Spurrier himself prefers to be called the ‘Head Ball Coach’. OBC, HBC… potato, po-tah-toe… if the OBC hopes to do that again, he will need to overcome the loss of not one, but two All-American defensive linemen in Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcey Quarles – and the departure of QB Connor Shaw (28-5 as a starter). New starting QB Dylan Thompson was Shaw’s backup over the last 2 1/2 seasons but saw plenty of playing time, going 3-0 as a starter. Speaking of experience, the ‘Cocks bring back the highest percentage of returning lettermen of any team in the land. That’s likely to perpetuate the fact that Spurrier has suffered only one losing season against the spread (2007, 5-6 ATS) in his tenure with Carolina.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Gamecocks are 15-0 SU and 8-4 ATS in their last fifteen non-conference games.
TENNESSEE (Offense – *5/0 Defense – 5/0)
TEAM THEME: ROCKY FLOP
Butch Jones’ inaugural season in Knoxville was disappointing, for sure. The Vols did beat South Carolina last year, their first victory over a ranked team since 2009, but that was really the only highlight of an unsatisfactory 5-7 campaign. The Tennessee program has lapsed into mediocrity since the departure of Phil Fulmer – the fact that the Vols’ 2-6 record last year in the SEC was their best since 2010 is all you need to know. Three straight 5-7 seasons is just not going to cut it in Rocky Top. Behind a green team with nary a returning starting lineman in sight on either side of the ball, look for their woes to continue.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Vols are 1-22 SU in their last 23 games versus ranked opponents.
VANDERBILT (Offense – 6/4 Defense – 4/2)
TEAM THEME: NOT SO VANDY
With James Franklin moving on to Penn State, Derrick Mason takes over in Nashville. Mason spent the last four seasons as the DC at Stanford, and brought in former UCLA HC Karl Dorrell as his OC and QB coach. Top rusher Jerron Seymour returns for his junior season after scoring 14 TD’s last year, but the entire starting defensive secondary will need to be retooled. The rejuvenated Commodore program has now gone to a bowl game in three consecutive seasons, winning nine games the last two years, and proving to get better with each passing season. The consequence of that success is a plethora of avenging foes waiting in the wings.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Commodores are 0-13 SU and 2-11 ATS in Game Six of the season
ALABAMA (Offense – 7/2 Defense – 5/1)
TEAM THEME: CRIMSON SLIDE
Mystery is a constant when trying to predict the plans of Nick Saban, as apparently there are six candidates to replace QB AJ McCarron, including Florida State transfer Jacob Coker. Whatever the final decision may be, there is some margin for error as the running game will again be prolific with the return of T.J. Yeldon and several other experienced backs. Through it all, Bama comes off back-to-back nightmare losses to end last season. Surprisingly, there was a precedent to last year’s finish: the last time the Tide finished a season with a pair of losses, Alabama rolled to Saban’s first of three national titles at the school with a 14-0 mark. College football had better beware!
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The last time Alabama was an underdog was in the 2009 SEC title game versus Florida – 55 games ago.
ARKANSAS (Offense – *7/3 Defense – 7/1)
TEAM THEME: A KICK IN THE ASS
After winning three consecutive Big 10 titles and playing in three straight Rose Bowls with Wisconsin, new HC Bret Bielema was literally knocked on his keister when, following a 3-0 start with the Razorbacks last season, Arkansas failed to win a game the rest of the way. An 0-8 record in the SEC was distressing, but five Freshmen All-Americans should provide relief. In fact, underclassmen made 98 starts and accounted for 90% of the Hogs' total offense. Hopefully that experience, along with star RB's Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, will provide the impetus needed to resurrect an offense and a defense that have both gone south each of the last three seasons.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Razorbacks tied with Notre Dame for 2nd fewest sacks allowed (8) last season.
AUBURN (Offense – *8/4 Defense – 6/2)
TEAM THEME: HOP ON THE BUS, GUS
The Tigers’ quick turnaround under Gus Malzahn last season was truly amazing. After the 2010 national championship season under Gene Chizik with Cam Newton as his QB and Malzahn as his OC, the Tigers bottomed out at 3-9 in 2012, resulting in Chizik’s firing. Malzahn – and his hurry-up attack – was hired in 2013 and he immediately led Auburn to the BCS title game where a Jameis Winston TD pass with 13 seconds to play put an end to the Tigers’ fairy-tale season. QB Nick Marshall returns with a slew of talented players, sans All-American RB Tre Mason and OT Greg Robinson. Notice has been served: Gus’ bus is revved up and ready to roll on.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Gus Malzahn is 15-0 ATS as a head coach after facing a conference opponent.
LSU (Offense – 6/4 Defense – 7/2)
TEAM THEME: NEXT MAN UP
Outside of the season opener in Houston against Wisconsin, LSU's non-conference schedule is cushiony-soft, a far cry from the SEC gauntlet that Les Miles runs every season. Regardless, the bar is set high once again in Baton Rouge despite heavy personnel losses. Gone are All-SEC performers like QB Zach Mettenberg, receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry, plus RB Jeremy Hill on offense, along with defensive stalwarts such as LB Lamin Barrow and DT Anthony Johnson. That would be enough to wipe out most teams. Still, Tiger fans are excited to welcome talented FR RB Leonard Fournette (another Michael Jordan claims Miles) and will expect nothing less than a 15th straight bowl appearance and another 10-win season, just like the previous four campaigns.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers had 9 players drafted each of the last two years (most of all FBS teams).
MISSISSIPPI (Offense – *6/2 Defense – 9/3)
TEAM THEME: DEEP FREEZE
Hugh Freeze enters his 3rd season at Ole Miss with a dependable field general leading his offense in SR QB Bo Wallace, who has compiled over 7,000 yards of total offense in his career (a school-record 3,701 last season). Wallace’s favorite target will be Laquon Treadwell, who caught 72 passes while garnering SEC Freshman of the Year honors in 2013. Meanwhile, the defense brings back all but two starters, including All-American safety Cody Prewitt (71 tackles plus 6 interceptions) and the Nkemdiche brothers – Denzel and Robert – who combined for another 69 stops. Sixty returning lettermen in 2014, and 59 last year, speak to the depth of this dangerous squad.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freeze is 20-2 SU and 16-3 ATS in games versus .500 or less opponents.
MISSISSIPPI STATE (Offense – *8/3 Defense – 8/3)
TEAM THEME: MULLEN IT OVER
After manhandling Rice in the Liberty Bowl to record a 4th straight winning season, the Bulldogs will benefit in 2014 from a soft early-season schedule that should have them rolling as they shift into their SEC campaign. Dan Mullen heads into his 6th season at the helm in Starkville and welcomes back sixteen returning starters, including dynamic QB Dak Prescott and his entire receiving corps. Prescott threw for nearly 2,000 yards and rushed for over 800 more in a breakout sophomore season – and overcame a shoulder injury in the Egg Bowl to engineer the game-winning drive in OT against archrival Ole Miss. Beware of the Bulldog.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bulldog offense set 7 school records last season, including total yards, passing yards, yards per game and passing yards per game.
TEXAS A&M (Offense – 5/4 Defense – 9/4)
TEAM THEME: JOHNNY BE GONE
The Johnny Football era at A&M has concluded with plenty of fanfare and excitement. Truth be known, Kevin Sumlin must be breathing a sigh of relief at some point. But not for long… there are many stars to be replaced, including a trio of NFL 1st round selections. Senior QB Matt Joeckel was right in the mix to replace Manziel, but he transferred in the spring to TCU. It’s the defense, though, that needs drastic improvement and while the return of nine starters on that unit is hopeful, ranking in the bottom 30 in many defensive categories just won't cut it, especially in the SEC. We’ll certainly learn a lot about Sumlin’s coaching ability this season.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Aggies played 20 first-time players, including 15 true freshmen, in their season opener last year.
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