SEC Football: 5 Teams Who Are Sure to Regress in 2014
If you play in the SEC and you're not doing everything you can to get better throughout the year, it's going to show. While a number of premier teams in the conference have enjoyed successful seasons in 2013, not everybody is going to improve upon their win total in 2014.
It's just how it goes, and though fans will often choose to remain hopeful and optimistic about their program's future, things happen, and dreams of 10-win seasons can quickly become pleads for bowl eligibility.
How do you define regression? Is it which bowl game you land in, whether you beat your rival or maybe the win total compared with the previous year?
We're going to focus on that last definition, which automatically rules out Kentucky and Arkansas from the discussion. Neither team had a win in conference play, and with only five wins total between the two, odds of regression are slim.
With a numbers of players still deciding whether to enter the NFL draft, this exercise becomes more complicated. But we're going to make educated guesses and select five teams that will be taking a step back in 2014.
All stats via ESPN unless otherwise noted
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M might be the preseason favorite to win the title. A more likely scenario, however, is quarterback Johnny Manziel leaving for the NFL along with wide receiver Mike Evans, leaving the offense with some major questions to answer.
Add to the mix the departure of tackle Jake Matthews, and even an improved defense isn't going to help put out a better overall product than the one we saw in 2013.
To that point, the defense was a mess, allowing more than 30 points per game. It should be better, and perhaps an infusion of young talent on offense will take College Station on an Auburn-like run.
But the odds are that 2014 will be a bit of a rebuilding year. We all saw what Manziel did with the offense, and his ability to almost single-handedly take over games was unparalleled by any other athlete in the game.
When he did turn on the magic switch, however, it was often with the help of Evans.
So while there are some key decisions to be made among the top offensive talent, the odds are the Aggies will see a decline next season. It's more likely that the win total will drop to around seven wins as opposed to four or five, but with the way the offense was exposed a bit in the final two games, improvement just doesn't seem to be on the immediate horizon.
Missouri is one of the few teams in college football that might see fewer wins in 2014 despite not losing much of the on-field product.
The problem for the Tigers is that they play in an SEC East division that was probably weaker than it's been in quite some time, especially with the injuries on both Florida and Georgia's rosters.
Let's be clear, before this starts to sound like a column on why Gary Pinkel's team was overrated, that what Missouri accomplished in 2013 was remarkable, and the team itself can clearly hang with anybody in the country. This Tigers squad would've contended for the division title in 2012 as well.
But with what should be an improved division, another 10-win season is going to be tough to come by. The offense, fortunately, shouldn't see much of a drop in production because of the experience quarterback Maty Mauk gained while James Franklin was injured.
But in looking at the depth chart, you'll see the defense loses some key players, including defensive end Michael Sam. Add that to the losses at linebacker and in the secondary, and the key to the Tigers' run in 2013, its defense, is almost gone.
Missouri should be great next season, and with an experienced offense, there's a chance Mauk will lead the Tigers to another SEC East title. But while this team may not experience a decrease in talent, the 10-win mark will not be reached for the second year in a row.
If Vanderbilt coach James Franklin really does have the Commodores' program on the rise, then 2014 might be the biggest bump in the road.
Let's begin with the losses on both sides of the ball, which is a major reason why this team will fail to reach eight wins once again in 2014.
The depth chart is kind to the offense, as a number of key players, especially along the offensive line, will be returning. But the biggest loss will be at wide receiver, where Jordan Matthews ends his career as one of the most dominant playmakers in school history. He's going to be difficult to replace, and without a go-to guy who can consistently win one-on-one matchups, it's hard to open up the passing attack.
Bigger issues lie on the defensive side of the ball, however, as seven starters will need to be replaced, including the entire secondary. In a league that has seen more and more elite quarterback play in recent years, that's going to be a problem.
What the Commordores have going for them is a coach committed to winning and who isn't satisfied with merely being OK. That sort of leadership will continue to manifest itself in the coming years, and Vanderbilt doesn't seem like it's going to hit a rough spot and fall off the map entirely.
But after an eight-win season, it's hard to see this team reaching that mark in 2014, especially if the SEC East sees improvement from a team like Florida.
Admittedly, Georgia is probably the diciest selection of the group because the Bulldogs had a chance to really groom a number of talented young players in the wake of a rash of major injuries.
That experience could lead into a strong offseason and an even stronger 2014. However, the one thing holding this squad together all year was quarterback Aaron Murray, and without his presence, the passing attack may struggle out of the gate, regardless of the hopes people have for backup Hutson Mason or whoever eventually becomes the starter.
As for the young defense that fans were so excited about, it'll be a year older and a year wiser. But that doesn't automatically mean better, and it's a unit that still gave up nearly 30 points per game, which included 34 to Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale. What good are returning starters if all they are is a year older?
The key is going to be improvement and development throughout the offseason. Many of the young guys on defense and wide receivers on offense will have the benefit of seeing themselves on game film, as opposed to starting fresh following a redshirt year.
But the schedule isn't going to suddenly become easy, and if the play of the quarterback can't take enough pressure off of running back Todd Gurley, the offense could struggle.
Again, there's a chance the Bulldogs will make this slide look pretty foolish in nine months' time, and if that's the case, good for them. But there are too many questions at the moment to predict an improvement in the win column.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama is similar to Missouri in that it might be just as good next season as it was in 2013 but still fail to reach 11 wins.
The reasons are simple: The defense loses some key leaders at every level, and the offense loses quarterback AJ McCarron.
For all of the Alabama fans claiming McCarron was always underrated, we'll find out for sure when the team charges into the future without him. Either way, the Crimson Tide lose a leader, and someone who's never lost his poise, even in a pair of national title games. His absence cannot be understated.
On defense, losing C.J. Mosley is similar to losing McCarron; the unit will be without a veteran leader and perhaps the best overall playmaker on that side of the ball. Then there's Deion Belue departing from the secondary as well as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, whom Bleacher Report's Matt Miller has going 16th in his latest mock draft.
Back to the offense, where fans will also be getting their final look at receiver Kevin Norwood when the Crimson Tide take on Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl. Though he may not have the raw talent of a Christion Jones or Amari Cooper, his ability to make plays in the clutch will be sorely missed.
Nick Saban's team will still be among the very best college football has to offer in 2014 because of all of the returning playmakers on offense and a defense that reloads instead of rebuilding. But LSU isn't going anywhere, and neither is Auburn.
This is still a Top 10 team, but it's going to be tough to reach the 11-win mark yet again without the leadership of McCarron and Mosley.