Every SEC Team's Biggest Concern This Offseason
Household names like Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray and A.J. McCarron will no longer grace the sidelines of the Southeastern Conference due to a jump to the NFL or graduation, hailing an offseason that will bring significant changes not only to the SEC's teams but to its long-term power structure.
Following a season that will be remembered for its offense, half of the conference's teams lose their starting quarterbacks. Half of the SEC's leading wide receivers are also gone, as are a third of its top running backs.
As with any offseason, the coaches of the nation's most elite conference now turn their eyes toward player development and patching up holes left by departing players. Though some are still waiting to learn the fate of their most talented athletes, as many have yet to make their decision on whether to declare for the NFL draft, others are looking to make a leap up the ultra-competitive food chain with an experienced returning core.
Taking for granted that those who have not declared for the draft will return, we now look at what concerns each SEC team will need to address to stay competitive in both the conference and the nation.
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As the third-most accurate quarterback in the SEC, the graduation of A.J. McCarron leaves a massive gap in the Alabama offense.
McCarron completed 67.3 percent of his passes in 2013, losing just four games in his entire career in Tuscaloosa. And two of those were his final two games with the Crimson Tide.
Behind him is rising senior Blake Sims. Sims has never started and is a grand total of 23-of-39 passing in his career, seeing action at quarterback in just 18 games. The Tide's incredible stable of running backs returns intact, which should be reassuring considering Sims' tendency toward the air attack.
The position is thin, too. There is no one to back up Sims with any in-game experience, so head coach Nick Saban will be rolling the dice in 2014. Alabama's offseason will need to see some quick development and maturity of a leader at the quarterback position to keep opposing teams from stuffing the run against a very talented and deep corps of backs.
Arkansas: Team Chemistry
How do you feel, as an Arkansas upperclassman, having won just four of your previous 17 games?
The Razorbacks have dropped nine in a row, and head coach Bret Bielema is looking to rebuild a program in near disarray. Bielema's budding rivalry with Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn didn't work out so well for him and the former Wisconsin head coach is now entering a crucial second year with a need for his players' buy-in in the worst way.
Through his successes at Wisconsin, it's obvious Bielema knows his football. With a strong core of skill positions returning, you can bet he'll be working just as hard on his team's psyche as he will on their skills on the gridiron.
As potent as first-year head coach Gus Malzahn's offense was in his first season at the helm, it should compete for the nation's best in 2014 with the amount of experience and talent it has returning.
The Tigers defense, though, is another story.
Defensive mastermind Dee Ford, ranked second in the conference in sacks and tackles for loss, graduates along with two of the Tigers' top three tacklers in CB Chris Davis and DB Ryan Smith. For a team that was barely ranked in the nation's top half in scoring defense, these are huge blows.
Auburn will need LB Cassanova McKinzy, who led the team in tackles, to step up and Malzahn must find a playmaker in the defensive backfield that can challenge the impact that Ford had for the Tigers.
Florida: Program Psyche
A loss to FCS Georgia Southern on November 23, 2013 will forever stand as perhaps a historic low point for the University of Florida's football program.
That 26-20 loss was one of seven straight for head coach Will Muschamp and his Gators. Muschamp managed to save his job after firing offensive coordinator Brent Pease but lost backup quarterbacks Tyler Murphy and Max Staver, along with several other players to transfer.
Gator nation is none too happy and, seemingly, neither are the program's athletes. Muschamp has a talented class coming in to work with, though it may mean little in the long-term.
Most suspect that the embattled head coach must have a big year in 2014 to protect his job security, adding pressure to an already fragile situation. The Florida coaching staff has a tall task ahead of them in ensuring their players are on the same page and willing to put in the effort it takes to succeed in the SEC.
Georgia: Offensive Line
There's an awful lot returning for the Georgia Bulldogs, despite the graduation of All-SEC quarterback Aaron Murray.
Todd Gurley is poised to become one of the nation's top running backs, and the Bennett/Conley duo will be potent in the backfield.
Nearly everyone on the offensive front, though, will have to be replaced. A starting unit that allowed just 1.69 sacks per game included seniors at both guard positions and one at tackle, meaning talented backup-turned-starting quarterback Hutson Mason's on-field awareness will need special attention this offseason.
If long-time head coach Mark Richt can secure the offensive front, this team could do special things in the SEC East next season.
Kentucky: Defensive Pressure
Improvement is the name of the game in Lexington this offseason.
After two consecutive two-win seasons, there is much to be done. New head coach Mark Stoops managed to get the Wildcats competitive, with close losses coming to Louisville, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Tennessee, but there's a long road to hoe.
The Wildcats ranked 71st nationally in quarterback sacks, and that number likely won't improve in 2014. Lead tackler Avery Williamson, who ranked sixth in the conference with 102 tackles, graduates along with both starting defensive tackles and a backup.
As one of the least effective defenses in the country, Stoops will need to make some major adjustments in defensive personnel to maintain the program's slightly upward trajectory.
As one of the most underrated quarterbacks in all of college football, Zach Mettenberger certainly played his part in the Tigers' successes. The graduated senior passed for 3,082 yards this season for 22 touchdowns and a 171.4 passing efficiency.
In comes rising sophomore Anthony Jennings. Jennings saw action in just nine games this season, completing just 13-of-29 passes for 181 yards and a touchdown.
The team's focus will have to shift back to the run game, which should be excellent on the shoulders of 1,000-yard rusher Jeremy Hill. No team can survive unidimensionally, though, and head coach Les Miles will need to be sure his inexperienced signal-caller is prepared for the big time in 2014.
Mississippi State: Expectations
The relationship between Mississippi State, its now experienced head coach Dan Mullen and its fanbase has been something special over the years.
Mullen came to Starkville with no head coaching experience, but an offensive resume that would put most to shame. Associated with names like Alex Smith and Tim Tebow, MSU fans' high hopes were rewarded with nine wins in just his second year.
Despite rumored connections to positions at Florida, Michigan and Penn State, Mullen has stayed loyal to the Bulldogs and built a competitive program at a school that hasn't seen this level of success in, well, ever.
Mississippi State brings back a talented and experienced quarterback, a stable of talented running backs and an All-SEC wide receiver. Coupled with a (relatively) lighter league schedule, 2014 could set up nicely for a double-digit win kind of year for MSU.
Success brings dangers to head coaches, though, and Mullen is now expected to make a bowl each year. Despite just one bowl bid between the years of 2001 and 2009, expectations are rising for the MSU football program after four-straight bowl bids. Mullen is no doubt hoping the team delivers.
Missouri: Offensive Production
Bouncing from five wins to a Cotton Bowl victory is no small accomplishment.
Experience played a big role in Missouri's miracle season in 2013, and much of that experience is now gone. The Tigers lose potent quarterback James Franklin and his favorite target L'Damian Washington to graduation, with starting running back Henry Josey opting for an early jump to the NFL.
The cupboard isn't bare. Rising sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk actually surpassed Franklin's passing efficiency after stepping in due to the starter's injury, proving himself capable of the gig. Presumed starter at tailback, Russell Hansbrough, averaged six yards per carry this year on 114 attempts.
Getting all of this talent on the same page will be head coach Gary Pinkel's main focus this offseason. An offense is only as efficient as its communication, and that will likely need some work with the losses in Columbia.
Ole Miss: Special Teams
Much like rival Mississippi State, Ole Miss brings back a wealth of talent and experience and is poised for a big 2014 season.
Special teams played a deceptively large role in the Ole Miss revitalization this season, much of it due to punter Tyler Campbell. Campbell averaged 44.4 yards per punt, good for fourth in the SEC, and nailed it within the opponents' red zone 17 times.
Campbell graduates, as does both of the Rebels' first and second-string kickers. So too does punt returner Jeff Scott, who brought one back to the house in just seven attempts, averaging 12.7 yards per return.
If the Rebels can find a reliable returner and some legs on the kicking game, they could make 2014 a year to remember.
South Carolina: Passing Game
One of the most proficient quarterbacks in South Carolina history, graduating senior Connor Shaw started every game in 2013 and recorded a nearly unbelievable 24-to-1 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Ultra-athletic wideout Bruce Ellington, who accounted for 775 yards and 8 touchdowns in 2013, is taking the leap to the NFL, leaving some questions in the passing game.
They aren't without answers, though. Backup quarterback Dylan Thompson could use some work on his accuracy but has shown glimpses of talent, and the remainder of the Gamecocks' receiving corps return intact.
USC looks to be a force in the SEC East once again for 2014 as long as Thompson can get on the same page as his receivers and fully adapt to the program's offense.
Rare indeed is a kicker than can punt, and vice versa. Michael Palardy started in both roles for the Vols, ranking third in the SEC at 44.5 yards per punt and hitting 14-of-17 field goals.
His graduation means roleplayers without any game experience will be asked to step in to shoulder the kicking responsibilities. In close games, and the Vols played in four that were decided by a single score this season, a missed field goal or shanked punt can make all the difference.
Head coach Butch Jones will need to replace starting running back Rajion Neal and shore up his kicking game to surpass 2013's win total and make a bowl in 2014.
Texas A&M: Everything Offense
How do you replace a Heisman winner and another Heisman hopeful on the same team in the same year?
Not easily, that's how.
Johnny Manziel, the first-ever freshman to win the Heisman and two-time Heisman finalist, has announced he's departing for a likely first-round draft pick in the NFL, as is underrated Heisman hopeful wide receiver Mike Evans. Add in the graduation of starting running back Ben Malena and the team's lost its top quarterback, top two rushers (Manziel led the team) and two starting wide receivers.
This offseason will likely be a rebuilding project from the ground up on offense for head coach Kevin Sumlin.
Two consecutive nine-win seasons is quite unheard of in Nashville, and yet that's what in-demand head coach James Franklin has pulled off for Vanderbilt.
Next year, though, that seems pretty unlikely.
Just look at the losses, all starters, to graduation: quarterback, fullback, two wide receivers, offensive tackle, defensive end, defensive tackle, two linebackers, both cornerbacks and both safeties.
Some programs reload instead of rebuild, but Vanderbilt isn't one of those programs. It's not even likely a program that does reload could withstand this kind of attrition.
Franklin is an experienced, talented coach that will have a tremendous career no matter where he goes. He's got an awful lot on his hands this offseason, though.
This article was written before and simultaneous with the announcement that Vanderbilt head coach James Franklin has taken the same position at Penn State. This, obviously, will be of monumental concern for Vanderbilt along with the losses at skill positions.