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2014 SEC Predictions

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SEC · Pac-12 · Big 12 · ACC · Big Ten
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Skinny

Only three of the SEC's 14 teams have a quarterback that started eight games or more last season. Three schools (Alabama, Texas A&M and Georgia) are arguably replacing the best signal callers in the history of their respective programs. With this in mind, the league appears to be as wide open as it has been in many years.

Alabama has the most stacked roster, in addition to an easier schedule compared to most other SEC squads, but it has a new offensive coordinator (Lame Chafin') and a new starting QB (likely Jacob Coker) who wasn't at spring practice.

Coker doesn't have to be great because he's surrounded by talent galore, including studs like RB T.J. Yeldon, RB Derrick Henry, WR Amari Cooper and others. The transfer from FSU has only seen playing time in mop-up duty, so we'll see how he fares against live bullets.

According to Phil Steele's schedule rankings, 'Bama has the SEC's easiest schedule, one that ranks No. 61 in the country. Eleven SEC schools fall into the Top 35 of Steele's difficulty rankings.

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LSU
's QB battle will be between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings, who got his first career start in a 21-14 Outback Bowl win over Iowa. Jennings threw the game-winning TD pass off the bench to beat Arkansas in a nail-biter, but Harris had a monster spring game performance and could be the man.

Look for Les Miles's team to get back to defense and running the football, unlike last season when the Tigers aired it out with Zach Mettenberger and didn't perform defensively like most of DC John Chavis's previous units at both LSU and Tennessee.

As always, LSU has plenty of depth at the running back position. Terrence Magee, Kenny Hilliard and true freshman Leonard Fournette will split the carries. Fournette was the nation's top prep back in the 2014 class.

Auburn might be better than last year, but the schedule is a killer. Steele ranks it as the nation's fifth toughest. Gus Malzahn's team has five daunting road assignments at Kansas St., at Mississippi St., at Ole Miss, at Georgia and at Alabama. If AU can win four of those games, that would be an incredible accomplishment.

The start of training camp came will bad news. Third-year sophomore offensive guard Alex Kozan will miss the entire 2014 campaign to undergo back surgery. Kozan started all 14 games in 2013 and garnered first-team Freshman All-American honors.

Nick Marshall won't start the opener at home vs. Arkansas due to a summer arrest for marijuana possession. But Marshall will play against the Hogs and should be in store for another banner year. Other than the third play of the BCS title game when he under-threw a pass that would've been an easy touchdown in an eventual loss to FSU, Marshall was outstanding in his first year as a starting QB.

The transfer from Georgia had a 14/6 TD-INT ratio and rushed for 1,068 yards and 12 TDs. AU loses RB Tre Mason but the backfield will be fine with Corey Grant (six rushing scores, 9.8 yards per carry in 2013) and Cameron Artis-Payne (six TDs, 6.8 YPC). Marshall has all of his top WRs back, including All-SEC candidate Sammie Coates.

I have Ole Miss at No. 9 in my initial Power Rankings and with some good fortune, Hugh Freeze's team could find itself in the mix for a potential trip to the SEC Championship Game, which would be a first for the school. The Rebels have never played at the Ga. Dome but will make their debut in their season opener on Thursday (8/28) against Boise St.

Ole Miss won't be facing as stout a squad as the one Chris Petersen brought to Atlanta where Kellen Moore led the Broncos to a blowout win over Georgia in 2011, and that's a good thing for the Rebels, who won't have All-American candidate Robert Nkemdiche, who will be serving a one-game suspension.

There's so much to like about this team starting with Freeze, who has brought a certain moxy to the program that has been projected from the recruiting trail to the field. Seriously, when on earth have any of us ever heard of Ole Miss plucking one of the nation's top WR prospects out of Chicago? That's what happened in 2013 with Laquon Treadwell, who is poised for a huge season after hauling in 72 receptions as a true freshman.

Bo Wallace returns for his third season as the starting QB. He threw for 3,346 yards in 2013 with an 18/8 TD-INT ratio. Wallace also rushed for six scores and he has a pair of talented junior RBs in I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton, who combined to rush for more than 1,000 yards and nine TDs after starter Jeff Scott was injured last year.

But the defense is the most impressive unit on this squad. They held their last seven opponents to 24 points or fewer last year. Safeties Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner are two of the nation's best, while Robert Nkemdiche is one of the country's premier pass rushers. Ole Miss also has a pair of LBs that are All-SEC candidates in Serderius Bryant and Denzel Nkemdiche.

The Rebels draw Vandy (in Nashville) and Tennessee (Oxford) from out of the SEC East, and they finally get 'Bama at home after playing competitive games, albeit with misleading final scores, at Bryant-Denny Stadium in back-to-back seasons.

Mississippi St. is another team that should be vastly improved and capable of making some noise in the West. The Bulldogs return eight starters on each side of the ball, and their defense allowed only 23.0 points per game in 2013 despite giving up 59 to LSU and 51 to Texas A&M.

Junior QB Dak Prescott is the real deal and the key for the Bulldogs, who should collect four easy victories in non-conference play. Dan Mullen's team will be a home favorite in SEC games versus Arkansas and Vandy, and it gets an open date ahead of an Oct. 25 game at Kentucky.

Although Prescott missed playing time due to multiple injuries and was coping with the death of his mother in late October, he rushed for 829 yards and 13 TDs. He also had 10 TD passes. Prescott has all of his top WRs back in the mix.

Texas A&M has an excellent offensive line and talented RBs, but the QB position is a major question mark. Kyle Allen and Kenny Hill are fighting for the starting job. Regardless of how the offense produces, it won't matter much if the Aggies don't vastly improve on defense.

Texas A&M allowed 32.2 PPG last season, losing home games against Alabama and Auburn when its offense scored 42 and 41 points, respectively. Nine starters were supposed to be returning, but three of those players have been dismissed from the program over the summer. The biggest loss is LB Darian Claiborne, who as a freshman was third on the team in tackles (89) and had 5.5 tackles for loss.

Arkansas appears to be the only SEC West team with zero hope of making it to Atlanta. The Hogs go into 2014 on a nine-game losing streak, but Bret Bielema knew he was undertaking a massive rebuilding project. I have no doubt that Bielema was a quality hire and will get the Razorbacks back into contention, but it's not going to be this season.

The Hogs have a terrific combo of RBs in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, and they'll work behind an outstanding offensive line. Therefore, Arkansas is going to be able to run the ball effectively, but it obviously needs improvement out of the passing game. Brandon Allen played with an injured shoulder for most of the last season, so we'll see how looks now that he's healthy.

The defense has an elite pass rusher in DE Trey Flowers, but this unit has a lot of holes. Robb Smith is the fourth DC the Hogs have had in four years. He'll need improvement from the cornerbacks, who gave up entirely too many big plays in 2013.

In the SEC East, I think we're going to have a three-team race between South Carolina, Georgia and Florida. These three schools feel good about their QB situations even though they didn't have major impacts last year.

UF's Driskel went down with a broken leg that ended his season in the first quarter of Week 3. After UGA's Aaron Murray tore his ACL, Hutson Mason got his first two career starts and engineered a comeback win at arch-rival Ga. Tech in the regular-season finale. Dylan Thompson was fantastic in 2012, lighting up Clemson in one of his two starts and throwing the game-winning scoring strike to beat Michigan at the Outback Bowl. But in a start at Mizzou last year and in extended duty at UCF, Thompson was inconsistent.

Mason's job will be made easier by two of the nation's top RBs in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. He also has a veteran group of WRs, although we should note that the status of Malcolm Mitchell is in question after he injured his knee a few days ago.

Georgia has a new DC in Jeremy Pruitt, who came over from FSU where he was DC after working on Saban's staff at Alabama. Pruitt has an extremely talented set of LBs, including All-American candidates Ramik Wilson and Leonard Floyd.

South Carolina lost Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and a pair of solid cornerbacks, but Steve Spurrier's program reloads at this point in his tenure. There are no more rebuilding years in Columbia. The Gamecocks had never won 11 games in a season prior to the HBC's arrival, but now they've won 11 in three consecutive seasons.

South Carolina returns eight starters on offense and six on defense. Spurrier will have his best offensive line during his 10-year tenure and he's got on e of the nation's best RBs in Mike Davis, who rushed for 1,183 yards and 11 TDs while averaging 5.8 YPC in 2013. Thompson has plenty of solid targets, including WR Shaq Roland, WR Damiere Byrd and a pair of huge tight ends in Rory Anderson and Jerell Adams. From the SEC West, South Carolina draws Texas A&M at home and has to travel to Auburn. The 'Cocks get UGA, Missouri and Tennessee at home, but they have to play at Florida and at Clemson.

Will Muschamp's hot seat is boiling but you'd never know it by his behavior at SEC Media Days. The fourth-year head coach was completely comfortable and confident that his team is poised to flip the script from last year's 4-8 nightmare, including an unfathomable loss to Ga. Southern.

The 2013 Gators endured a rash of injuries like nothing ever seen before in school history. The only QB with experience (Driskel) went down in Week 3, the best defensive player (Dominique Easley) tore his ACL after only four games, both starting OTs were lost for the year and the season-ending injuries eventually went north of a dozen.

UF has two of the nation's best defensive players in CB Vernon Hargreaves and DE Dante Fowler. Muschamp is one of the best defensive minds in the coaching business, and it's a given that this unit is going to be salty.

Muschamp hired Duke OC Kurt Roper, who has installed an up-tempo spread offense that utilizes the shotgun and is better suited to Driskel's skills. The o-line should be solid and RBs Kelvin Taylor and Matt Jones appear poised to have big seasons. The biggest question mark is a WR group that has been beyond disappointing in recent years.

Missouri lost a ton of talent from last year's SEC East champs. The Tigers return just four starters on each side of the ball. They have a pair of dynamic RBs in Russell Hansbrough (6.0 YPC) and Marcus Murphy (6.5 YPC), and rising sophomore QB Maty Mauk went 4-1 and was impressive in five starts after James Franklin was injured.

Mauk can make plays with his legs, but he needs to be more accurate and improve on his 51.1 completion percentage. And he won't have the brilliant set of wideouts he worked with last season. The defense lost studs galore, but it still has one of the league's best pass rushers in Markus Golden.

Tennessee has recruited extremely well under Butch Jones, but this team appears to be at least another year away. The Volunteers have one of the country's best LBs in A.J. Johson and a solid secondary. However, they are weak up front on both sides of the ball.

Nearly the entire offensive line must be replaced. Justin Worley has proven he's not an elite QB in this conference, but (if he wins the job) he does have a pair of developing playmakers in 'Pig' Howard (assuming he's reinstated as expected) and Marquez North. But UT's daunting schedule will most likely leave it needing at win at Vandy in the regular-season finale in order to avoid being left out of the postseason for a fourth straight year.

Can Vanderbilt continue its rise without James Franklin? You can make a valid argument that no coach in America could've accomplished what Franklin did in Music City in just three years. But he's off to Penn St., replaced by Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason.

The Commodores bring back six starters on offense but just four on defense. A fourth straight bowl bid will be determined by what happens in games at Kentucky and vs. Tennessee, but it's highly unlikely Vandy can match the nine wins it has produced in back-to-back seasons.

Like Jones at UT, Kentucky's Mark Stoops is doing a great job on the recruiting trail. Nevertheless, the Wildcats are still one or two years away from competing for a spot in the postseason.

Fearless Predictions

2014 Win-Loss Projections
School Record Win Total (5Dimes) Bowl Projection
West Division
Alabama 11-2 10.5 #4 vs. #1 FSU in National Semifinals
Auburn 9-3 9 Belk Bowl vs. ACC
LSU 9-3 9 Independence vs. ACC
Ole Miss 9-3 8.5 Capital One Bowl vs. Big Ten/ACC
Mississippi State 9-3 7.5 Birmingham vs. American
Texas A&M 8-4 7 Texas Bowl vs. Big 12
Arkansas 3-9 4.5 -
East Division
South Carolina 10-3 9.5 Orange Bowl vs. TBD
Florida 9-3 7.5 Outback Bowl vs. Big Ten
Georgia 9-3 9.5 Peach Bowl vs. Big Ten runner-up
Missouri 8-4 7.5 Liberty vs. Big 12
Tennessee 6-6 5.5 Music City vs. ACC
Vanderbilt 5-7 5.5 -
Kentucky 4-8 3.5 -


Games to Watch

1-Auburn at Alabama - (Nov. 29) We saw the greatest edition of the storied Iron Bowl rivalry last year with the kick-six on the final play of the previously tied game. People can debate where it should rank in terms of college football's all-time greatest games, but there's no doubt it had the best finish (forget Cal-Stanford and the band and countless others). This year's game in Tuscaloosa could decide the SEC West again and the winner could be in line for a bid to the first Final Four.

2-Georgia at South Carolina - (Sep. 13) South Carolina saw a three-game winning streak over UGA stopped in Athens last season. The Bulldogs get two weeks to prep for the Gamecocks, who face Texas A&M and East Carolina at home beforehand. The winner will be in the driver's seat in the SEC East.

3-Alabama at Ole Miss - (Oct. 4) The Rebels have an excellent chance to go into this game with a 4-0 record, which would make this the biggest game in Oxford since Eli's playing days. They will have to play extremely well, but Freeze's bunch has the talent to pull this upset at home.

4-Auburn at Mississippi St. - (Oct. 11) AU will be playing its fourth game in four weeks and could fall into a slight letdown scenario after taking on LSU at home the prior weekend. The Bulldogs have a solid shot at being 4-1 going into this contest with an open date and then three games as favorites looming. In other words, MSU will be gunning for Auburn, a team that had to go more than 80 yards in less than two minutes to capture a last-second victory over the Bulldogs on The Plains last year.

5-Florida vs. Georgia - (Nov. 1) Georgia owned Florida in the 1980s. When Spurrier took over at UF in 1990, he went 11-1 against UGA. Even The Zooker went 2-1 versus the Dawgs. The Gators' domination would go on until 2011 when UGA won the first of three in a row. Muschamp went 0-4 vs. UF as a player at UGA, and now he's 0-3 vs. UGA as head coach at UF. This game will likely have SEC East ramifications and might be a must-win for Muschamp to make it to a fifth season in Gainesville.

Players to Watch

1-Leonard Fournette (LSU RB) -- If this true freshman is as advertised, then LSU's rushing attack is going to be dynamite. And the Bayou Bengals are going to need a strong ground game because they are very inexperienced at the QB position. Fournette was ranked the No. 1 RB in the 2014 prep class.

2-Dak Prescott (Mississippi St. QB) -- Prescott dealt with personal tragedy and several injuries last season, yet nearly led the Bulldogs to an upset at Auburn in his second career start. He was the catalyst in the team's three-game winning streak to close 2013. If he had been healthy in a home game against Alabama, MSU might have taken the Tide down.

3-Jeff Driskel (UF QB), Dylan Thompson (S-Car QB) and Hutson Mason (UGA QB) -- All three are capable players that have had their moments. As noted above, whoever plays the best in 2014 most likely gets his team to Atlanta.

4-Derrick Henry (Alabama RB) - How nasty did this guy look in the Sugar Bowl loss to Alabama? He has it all -- size, speed, power and then some. We all know T.J. Yeldon is legit, but I expect Henry to become the featured back in the Tide's offense this year.

5-Robert Nkemdiche (Ole Miss DE) - If Ole Miss is going to make its debut at the SEC Championship Game, Nkemdiche needs to be a first-team All-American. He also needs to make game-changing plays (like sacks and forced fumbles vs. 'Bama and vs. Auburn) and he's more than capable of doing so.

6-Mike Davis (S-Car RB) and Todd Gurley (UGA RB) -- If both can stay healthy, their respective teams are going to be in great shape.

7-Maty Mauk (Missouri QB) -- He won't have the weapons at his disposal that he enjoyed last year. But if he has a monster season, perhaps Mizzou can be a fourth candidate out of the SEC East to possibly win the division.

  
HEADLINES
Edwards: Florida at Alabama
David: Total Notes - Week 4
Marshall: Tech Trends - Week 4
Williams: ACC Report - Week 4
Edwards: Oklahoma at West Virginia
ASA: Big Ten Report - Week 4
Williams: Pac-12 Report - Week 4
Sportsbook: Saturday's Top Action
Rogers: Bad Company - Week 4
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