How much longer can the SEC continue its reign of dominance?
The question has lingered for the past several years.
Yet there’s legitimate reason to believe the 2014 season stands to be the greatest challenge yet for the league, which will have either won the final BCS championship or will have won seven of the final eight.
The early postseason indicates virtually all—if not actually all—of the conference’s head coaches will return. Many coaches and offensive coordinators of the top programs will find themselves cultivating new quarterbacks while replacing multi-year starters.
This year proves again that one season does not necessarily indicate what will come next season. Ask Auburn and Missouri. Or Florida.
With the 2013 season not even complete yet, projecting next year certainly presents challenges. Here’s an early attempt.
Numerous multi-year starters played their final regular-season games. Many will play in the NFL next year.
Not even the SEC can withstand the talent and experience it will lose at the game’s most important position this year.
Alabama’s AJ McCarron, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Missouri’s James Franklin, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw and, almost certainly, Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel will all be gone. So, too, will Vanderbilt QB Austyn Carta-Samuels.
Auburn QB Nick Marshall seems a lock to be named preseason first-team All-SEC next year. Some talent remains at the position. Namely, Ole Miss QB Bo Wallace and Mississippi State QB Dak Prescott. Florida’s Jeff Driskel will also be back.
However, several of the conference’s top programs will replace their triggermen.
Attracting quality talent rarely proves a challenge for the better programs. Cultivating it, however, often leaves teams with growing pains.
Quality rosters will insulate capable quarterbacks, whose talent will shine through in some games. At other times, though, crippling mistakes will cost good teams important contests.
Most of the laughter at SEC defenses will vanish this season.
Cynics will detract from the improved defensive play by blaming inconsistent—and largely worse— quarterback play.
The defensive talent well didn’t run dry over the course of two or three years, though. Not only does the SEC feature some of the highest-rated defensive recruits, but many elite defensive coordinators also reside in the league as well.
Last year, 18 SEC underclassmen defensive players declared for the NFL draft. Several will this year, too, almost certainly including South Carolina DE Jadeveon Clowney.
Only 10 underclassmen defensive players from the SEC rank in ESPN.com’s top 200 NFL prospects. Lower marks from NFL scouts should mean fewer attempts to leap to the league early.
More players returning means more experienced starters in good systems, which should equate to stronger units.
Remember earlier this year when Florida opened the season as a Top 10 team?
The Gators survived several close calls in 2012 and, realistically, played over their heads in a few big games in a deceivingly average division. However, they reached the Sugar Bowl, creating absurdly high expectations in Gainesville.
Anyone who watched near-upsets that season by Louisiana-Lafayette or Missouri knew the team didn’t feature talent similar to the better Steve Spurrier- or Urban Meyer-led Florida teams.
In the same vein, the defense coach Will Muschamp fielded to start the 2013 season featured far more talent than the team’s 4-8 record would indicate.
It’s not as if that talent disappears overnight.
An injury-depleted defense could return significant star power, especially if CBs Marcus Roberson and/or Loucheiz Purifoy opt to return next season.
Florida will also get back QB Jeff Driskel, who suffered a broken leg early in the third game of the season.
Muschamp has yet to name his next offensive coordinator. Finding one might not be easy considering said coordinator will realize a bad season would result in a complete lack of job security.
Still, it’s Florida, and a talented coach willing to take a chance will find his way to Gainesville.
Just as Florida received far too much credit coming off of an 11-2 season, it’s getting piled on far too much after an injury-filled 4-8 campaign.
The Gators aren’t likely to win the SEC East, but they should bounce back into a nice bowl game.
Halfway through the season, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn realized he didn’t need much of a passing attack to win big in 2013.
Rather than continuing the development of QB Nick Marshall and the aerial game, Malzahn focused on sharpening the read-option.
Over the final five games, Marshall attempted at least 17 passes just once. He averaged 13 passes per game over that stretch.
The gamble paid off in a big way. Now Auburn is one win away from a national championship.
However, Malzahn, an offensive-minded perfectionist, won’t allow the Tigers to enter the 2014 campaign with the same inconsistent intermediate passing game.
Yes, Auburn could pass downfield. Marshall’s strong arm and the speed of key receivers—primarily WR Sammie Coates—allowed the Tigers to hit on several long plays.
Remember, Marshall didn’t practice with Auburn for the first time until summer camp opened. He still has not been through a spring practice under Malzahn or with the Auburn receivers.
That changes in a matter of months.
When it does, Malzahn will take the time to establish a more reliable passing attack.
That’s hardly what opposing defensive coordinators want to hear.
Inconsistent play at quarterback will level the playing field in 2014, making dominance hard to find.
Auburn figures to enter the season as the favorite to win the SEC. Yet the Tigers are three remarkable plays at the end of games away from being a four-loss team.
That’s not to say Auburn will take a tremendous step back in 2014. Conversely, Gus Malzahn’s team will likely be better, especially if defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson develops returning starters at linebacker and safety.
However, expecting all of the close games to go any team’s way in consecutive seasons is unrealistic.
Road games at Georgia and Alabama to end the conference season leave the Tigers with daunting challenges.
Alabama loses its two most important players, QB AJ McCarron and LB C.J. Mosley. Those two leaders will leave a void difficult to replace quickly.
Don’t cry for the Crimson Tide, which will remain flush with talent. Taking a small step back, however, seems inevitable.
LSU, Georgia, Missouri, South Carolina and Texas A&M find themselves replacing quality, multiple-year starting quarterbacks as well.
Moving away from Auburn, too much uncertainty—especially at quarterback—hovers over other usual contenders. The ensuing up-and-down play will make it difficult for any team to dominate in 2014.
A more competitive SEC certainly won’t hurt television ratings. It won’t, however, help the case of the conference fielding a truly elite team.