SEC Football: Power Ranking Teams by Best Returning Players

Luke Brietzke@FireEverybodyContributor IIIJanuary 29, 2014

SEC Football: Power Ranking Teams by Best Returning Players

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    With all the talent leaving the SEC this offseason, predicting next year seems as daunting a task as ever.

    The time for NFL declarations is over, leaving several programs looking to fill holes they didn’t realize they would have to fill. Finding remarkably talented players still shouldn’t be tough, though. Players like Georgia tailback Todd Gurley, Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, South Carolina tailback Mike Davis and Missouri receiver Dorial Green-Beckham show that declarations of demise are premature.

    The West seems destined to be brutally tough in 2014, as it has been several times in recent seasons. Alabama and Auburn could battle it out at the top of the division again this season, just as they do on this list.

    National signing day is exactly a week away, and it will give numerous programs the infusion of talent they need. These SEC power rankings, however, do not take incoming players into account. This list uses only the players who were on campus in 2013 and return next season—not incoming freshmen, junior college transfers or graduate school transfers.

    Here is a rundown of the SEC’s top teams by returning players.

14. Kentucky Wildcats

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    Frederick Breedon/Getty Images

    2013 Record: 2-10

    Key Returning Players: DE Alvin Dupree, CB Ashely Lowery, DE Za’Darius Smith, QB Jalen Whitlow, RB Jojo Kemp, G Zach West, T Darrian Miller, WR Javess Blue

    Key Losses: LB Avery Williamson, RB Raymond Sanders, DT Donte Rumph, DT Mister Cobble



    Kentucky’s defense suffered key losses, but it could actually be better in 2014. That’s because significant contributors return, including defensive ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith. That duo combined for 120 tackles, 16 tackles for loss and 13 sacks.

    The entire secondary, including Ashely Lowery and Blake McClain, returns as well. However, linebacker Avery Williamson leaves behind a tremendous void that Kentucky might not be able to replace in one season.

    Offensively, the Wildcats return plenty of starters. Neal Brown’s attack needs to find more production from the same group of players in 2014.

    Kentucky managed to score 30 points in a game just twice last season—against Miami (Ohio) and Alabama State. The offense finished 109th in the nation in scoring offense with just 20.5 points per game.

    A quarterback battle that will seemingly never end could easily rage into a third season. Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith both have strengths, but neither has seized total control of the job. Tailback Jojo Kemp, on the other hand, made a strong debut as a true freshman. Receiver Javess Blue led the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns.

13. Tennessee Volunteers

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    2013 Record: 5-7

    Key Returning Players: WR Marquez North, RB Marlin Lane, LB A.J. Johnson, WR Alton “Pig” Howard, S Brian Randolph, QB Joshua Dobbs, QB Justin Worley

    Key Losses: RB Rajion Neal, T Antonio Richardson, T Ju’Wuan James, G James Stone, G Zach Fulton, DT Daniel McCullers, DE Corey Miller, LB Dontavis Sapp



    Coach Butch Jones is starting to accumulate skill-position talent at Tennessee. He could have work to do on the lines, though. Four of five offensive linemen are gone, meaning turnover will be a key theme in 2014. The Volunteers must also replace three defensive linemen.

    In other words, those skill-position players need to progress quickly and perhaps in spite of their lines—on both sides of the ball.

    The quarterback position will be wide open this spring. Joshua Dobbs, Justin Worley and Nathan Peterman all started games in 2013. The only quarterback who didn’t play—freshman Riley Ferguson, who took a redshirt—could emerge as the starter.

    Tailback Marlin Lane gets his chance to step in for Rajion Neal, who ran for 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns last season. Marquez North and Pig Howard showed tremendous potential as receiving threats for whoever wins the starting position.

    On defense, leading tacklers A.J. Johnson and Brian Randolph will be back in 2014.  

12. Vanderbilt Commodores

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    2013 Record: 9-4 (won BBVA Compass Bowl)

    Key Returning Players: DE Caleb Azubike, DE Kyle Woestmann, QB Patton Robinette, RB Jerron Seymour, C Joe Townsend, LB Darreon Herring

    Key Losses: WR Jordan Matthews, T Wesley Johnson, QB Austyn Carta-Samuels, S Kenny Ladler, CB Andre Hal, DE Walker May, WR Jonathan Krause



    First-year coach Derek Mason inherits a team in need of new playmakers.

    Few receivers meant as much to this offenses as Jordan Matthews. He and Jonathan Krause are now gone, as is quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels. Replacing tackle Wesley Johnson won’t be easy, either. Johnson, an all-conference performer, started for the Commodores over all four seasons.

    Quarterback Patton Robinette got game experience when Carta-Samuels missed time with injury, but he’s far from a polished passer.

    Tailback Jerron Seymour supplanted Wesley Tate as the team’s featured back. Seymour, who scored 14 touchdowns last year, appears on track for a solid career, especially if Mason brings with him a propensity to run the ball.

    Defensive ends Caleb Azubike and Kyle Woestmann are stars. But they need help to emerge around them, as safety Kenny Ladler and cornerback Andre Hal graduated.

11. Arkansas Razorbacks

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    2013 Record: 3-9

    Key Returning Players: RB Alex Collins, TE Hunter Henry, DT Darius Philon, DE Trey Flowers, T Denver Kirkland, LB Braylon Mitchell, QB Brandon Allen, RB Jonathan Williams, G Brey Cook, CB Tevin Mitchel, S Alan Turner, WR Keon Hatcher

    Key Losses: C Travis Swanson, DE Chris Smith, WR Javontee Herndon, LB Jarrett Lake, RB Kiero Small, S Eric Bennett



    Four freshman—tailback Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry, tackle Denver Kirkland and defensive tackle Darius Philon—gave Arkansas hope in 2013. Collins had an impressive collegiate debut, rushing for 1,026 yards and four touchdowns. He and Jonathan Williams combine for one of the strongest returning one-two punches in the conference.

    Brandon Allen returns as well, but he has a long way to go if he wants to become a good SEC quarterback. At least he has Henry and receiver Keon Hatcher to throw to.

    Losing center Travis Swanson hurts, but Arkansas returns talent along the offensive line, including Kirkland and guard Brey Cook.

    Arkansas showed some defensive toughness in its final two games of the season, narrowly missing upsets of Mississippi State and LSU. Defensive end Trey Flowers is the star of the group. He recorded 13.5 tackles for loss and five sacks in 2013.

    The Razorbacks return leading tacklers Alan Turner and Braylon Mitchell as well.

10. Texas A&M Aggies

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    2013 Record: 9-4 (won Chick-fil-A Bowl; finished No. 18 in AP poll, coaches poll)

    Key Returning Players: T Cedric Ogbuehi, CB Deshazor Everett, WR Malcome Kennedy, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, RB Trey Williams, S Howard Matthews, RB Tra Carson, S Floyd Raven, DE Julien Obioha.

    Key Losses: QB Johnny Manziel, T Jake Matthews, WR Mike Evans, LB Steven Jenkins, NT Kirby Ennis, LB Nate Askew, CB Tramain Jacobs, CB Toney Hurd.



    The biggest stars of an offense that carried Texas A&M to nine wins are gone. But many of the starters from a defense that looked sieve-like too often in 2013 return.

    In other words, the Aggies will look vastly different in 2014.

    It will be up to the progression of returning starters and an adaptable offensive scheme to determine if the program makeover will be a success.

    Start with the offense, where quarterbacks Matt Joeckel and Kenny Hill will battle for the unenviable task of replacing Johnny Manziel. Malcome Kennedy and Ricky Seals-Jones highlight a group of receivers that took a hit when Mike Evans declared for the NFL draft, but it should still feature good options.

    Four of five offensive linemen return, including tackle Cedric Ogbuchi. That could help if coach Kevin Sumlin opts to rely on a run game with a myriad of players from which to choose.

    Trey Williams, who rushed for 7.0 yards per carry, could emerge as the primary back, while Deshazor Everett will rank among the SEC’s top cover corners. Safety Howard Matthews is the team’s leading returning tackler and he also posted a team-high three interceptions.

    The rest of the defense—and, more specifically, the front seven—need to take a huge step forward in coordinator Mark Snyder’s second season.

9. South Carolina Gamecocks

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    2013 Record: 11-2 (won Capital One Bowl; finished No. 4 in AP poll, coaches poll)

    Key Returning Players: RB Mike Davis, LB Skai Moore, WR Shaq Roland, LB Sharrod Golightly, WR Nick Jones, LB Kaiwan Lewis, WR Damiere Byrd, QB Dylan Thompson

    Key Losses: DE Jadeveon Clowney, QB Connor Shaw, CB Victor Hampton, DT Kelcy Quarles, WR Bruce Ellington, DE Chaz Sutton, CB Jimmy Legree, G Ronald Patrick



    Heisman Trophy candidate Mike Davis headlines the returning players for South Carolina. The junior tailback, who accounted for 1,535 total yards of offense and 11 touchdowns, will run behind four returning starters on the offensive line.

    Quarterback Connor Shaw graduated as the program’s all-time wins leader, but Dylan Thompson is game-tested and seemingly ready to step in to the role. He will have receivers Shaq Roland, Nick Jones and Damiere Byrd and tight end Rory Anderson all returning.

    Receiver Pharoh Cooper showed great versatility and athleticism during his freshman year, allowing coach Steve Spurrier to get creative with his play-calling.

    On defense, the same linebackers who looked like the team’s Achilles' heel to start the year need to carry the weight to open 2014. It took time for the unit to gel, but Skai Moore, Sharrod Golightly and Kaiwan Lewis became solid contributors by season’s end.

    The defensive line loses three of four starters, including Jadeveon Clowney. Staring cornerbacks Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree are both gone as well, meaning defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward will have work to do during the offseason.

8. Florida Gators

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    2013 Record: 4-8

    Key Returning Players: CB Vernon Hargreaves, DE Dante Fowler, RB Kelvin Taylor, LB Antonio Morrison, QB Jeff Driskel, LB Michael Taylor, S Cody Riggs, WR Quinton Dunbar

    Key Losses: DT Dominique Easley, CB Loucheiz Purifoy, CB Marcus Roberson, WR Solomon Patton, S Jaylen Watkins, LB Ronald Powell



    It’s time for Florida to put the disaster that was the 2013 season in the rear-view mirror. The 2014 rendition looks like it could be significantly improved. Several defensive starters return, headed up by superstar cornerback Vernon Hargreaves. 

    Defensive end Dante Fowler, like Hargreaves, turned in an all-SEC performance last year. Folwer’s 10.5 tackles for loss and three forced fumbles led the Gators.

    Linebackers Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrison return as well, giving Will Muschamp’s defense a chance to show marked improvement.

    Florida could have fielded an even scarier roster had defensive tackle Dominique Easley and cornerbacks Loucheiz Purifoy and Marcus Roberson decided to come back.

    Offensively, first-year coordinator Kurt Roper faces a challenge in attempting to provide a massive overhaul. He at least has one key piece in tailback Kelvin Taylor, who flourished with additional touches toward the end of the season.

    Running backs Matt Jones and Mack Brown give the Gators options in the rushing game.

    But no piece will be more crucial to the needed improvement than quarterback Jeff Driskel. Any chance Driskel had for a breakthrough campaign in 2013 ended when he suffered a season-ending leg injury during the SEC opener against Tennessee.

    Three offensive linemen, including guard Max Garcia, are back for Florida as well.

7. Ole Miss Rebels

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    Rogelio V. Solis/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5 (won Music City Bowl)

    Key Returning Players: S Cody Prewitt, T Laremy Tunsil, QB Bo Wallace, LB Serderius Bryant, WR Laquon Treadwell, DE Robert Nkemdiche, LB Denzel Nkemdiche, RB Jaylen Walton, DE D.T. Shackelford, TE Evan Engram, LB Trae Elston, RB I’Tavius Mathers

    Key Losses: WR Donte Moncrief, RB Jeff Scott, LB Mike Marry, WR Ja-Mes Logan, G Jared Duke, C Evan Swindall, T Pierce Burton, QB Barry Brunetti



    The youth movement at Ole Miss started early. Players like receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive end Robert Nkemdiche and tight end Evan Engram starred as freshmen.

    Quarterback Bo Wallace hopes to shake off an up-and-down 2013 and turn in his best season as a senior. He will have the entire offseason for his shoulder to properly heal. He should have help from Treadwell and tailbacks Jaylen Watkins and I’Tavius Mathers.

    However, the Rebels lose Donte Moncrief and must find three new starters along the offensive line.

    Defensively, safety Cody Prewitt emerged as an elite SEC player by producing six interceptions last year. Linebacker Serderius Bryant led the team with 78 tackles and 12.5 tackles for loss in an all-SEC campaign.

    Nine defensive starters return to give Ole Miss a chance at playing a dark-horse role in the SEC West.

6. Missouri Tigers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 12-2 (won SEC East; won Cotton Bowl; finished No. 5 in AP poll, coaches poll)

    Key Returning Players: WR Dorial Green-Beckham, QB Maty Mauk, RB Russell Hansbrough, C Evan Boehm, DE Markus Golden, DT Lucas Vincent, LB Kentrell Brothers, RB Marcus Murphy, WR Bud Sasser.

    Key Losses: DE Michael Sam, CB E.J. Gaines, QB James Franklin, DE Kony Ealy, RB Henry Josey, T Justin Britt, WR L’Damian Washington, WR Marcus Lucas, S Matt White, LB Andrew Wilson.



    Missouri won the SEC East in 2013. Now, it’s time to see if the Tigers can reload on an SEC level.

    Starting with 247Sports’ No. 1 national prospect in 2012, receiver Dorial Green-Beckham, helps. Green-Beckham showed great rapport with quarterback Maty Mauk during their limited time together. The two will need to strengthen their bond since receivers L’Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas are now gone.

    So, too, is leading rusher Henry Josey.

    Four of five offensive linemen return and will block for Josey’s former running mates, Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy. Hansbrough and Murphy combined for 1,286 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns last year.

    The bigger losses come on defense. Replacing linebacker Andrew Wilson, cornerback E.J. Gaines and safety Matt White will prove challenging.

    Missouri’s difference-making pass rush suffered significant blows as well, with defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy headed for the NFL. Sam won the SEC Defensive Player of the Year in 2013.

    Markus Golden and Lucas Vincent have the talent to step in and produce at high levels along the line. Now, they have to prove it.

    Linebacker Kentrell Brothers has the makings of a star.

5. LSU Tigers

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    Chris O'Meara/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 10-3 (won Outback Bowl; finished No. 14 in AP poll, coaches poll)

    Key Returning Players: T La’el Collins, DE Danielle Hunter, CB Tre’Davious White, DE Jermauria Rasco, LB D.J. Welter, LB Kwon Alexander, S Jalen Mills, QB Anthony Jennings

    Key Losses: QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, WR Jarvis Landry,  WR Odell Beckham, DT Anthony Johnson, DT Ego Ferguson, G Trai Turner, S Craig Loston, LB Lamin Barrow



    Perhaps no team took a harder hit from players leaving for the NFL draft than LSU. Jeremy Hill, Alfred Blue, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham, Trai Turner, Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson all skipped their senior seasons rather than returning to Baton Rouge.

    As a result, young talent must mature quickly for the Tigers to contend for the SEC championship.

    It’s a good thing four of five offensive linemen—including tackle La’el Collins—return, because the offense will see new faces at every skill position.

    LSU ran for 2,945 yards last year. Hill and Blue combined for 1,777 of them. Tailbacks Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard are proven, capable runners. They will both have to hold off tremendous incoming competition to earn the lion’s share of the carries in 2014.

    Senior quarterback Zach Mettenberger threw for 3,082 of the Tigers’ 3,263 passing yards.

    Departed players also accounted for 2,619 of LSU’s 3,263 receiving yards.

    At least quarterback Anthony Jennings got a taste for what’s to come, having started—albeit with mixed results—against Iowa in the Outback Bowl.

    Travin Dural is the leading returning receiver. He caught seven passes for 145 yards.

    LSU always seems to have talent waiting to replace players going to the NFL. However, the Tigers have now had 18 players in the past two seasons make their exodus from the program to the pros, several on defense. Don’t be confused, though. Tremendous defenders are still numerous in Baton Rouge.

    Defensive ends Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco could be the best duo in the conference.

    Cornerback Tre’Davious White and safety Jalen Mills seem to be budding superstars. D.J. Welter, the team’s leading returning tackler, isn’t spectacular but he gets the job done. He should have plenty of support at the position with Kwon Alexander back and Kendell Beckwith moving to his more natural position after spending 2013 at defensive end.

    Remember, for this set of power rankings, only returning talent is considered. That means incoming players, such as running back Leonard Fournette, rated by 247Sports as the No. 1 prospect in the nation, don’t count toward this countdown.

    LSU will lean heavily on incoming talent to help avoid a 2014 fall. Fortunately for coach Les Miles’ team, the expecting signing class should be a tremendous haul.

4. Mississippi State Bulldogs

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    David J. Phillip/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 7-6 (won Liberty Bowl)

    Key Returning Players: DE Chris Jones, QB Dak Prescott, DT Preston Smith, WR Jameon Lewis, LB Benardrick McKinney, TE Robert Johnson, CB Jamerson Love, S Kendrick Market

    Key Losses: G Gabe Jackson, S Nickoe Whitley, LB Deontae Skinner, DE Denico Autry, RB LaDarius Perkins



    An impressive finish to the 2013 season helped catch attention for a Mississippi State team that returns loads of talent.

    Quarterback Dak Prescott is providing the program with a face on the national level. A powerful, hard-nosed runner who has room to grow as a passer, he is even showing up on 2014 Heisman Trophy radars. He will have some help on that quest, including the returns of leading receivers Jameon Lewis and tight end Robert Johnson.

    Three of five offensive linemen will be back in 2014, though the unit takes a hit with the departure of Gabe Jackson. Meanwhile, Josh Robinson and Ashton Shumpert seem the most likely candidates to assume the vacant starting tailback position left behind by LaDarius Perkins.

    An unheralded defense played poorly against LSU and Texas A&M but surrendered no more than 24 points the rest of the season. State’s defense looked especially strong in losses to Auburn and Alabama and in a win over rival Ole Miss.

    Defensive end Chris Jones, 247Sports’ No. 18 prospect in the nation, immediately lived up to the hype. He registered seven tackles for loss, three sacks and 10 quarterback hurries as a true freshman. He and fellow defensive lineman Preston Smith give the Bulldogs a tremendous one-two punch.

    Linebacker Benardrick McKinney led the team in tackles and returns in 2013. Cornerback Jamerson Love led the team with seven pass breakups and 10 passes defended. He also snagged three interceptions.

3. Georgia Bulldogs

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    Stephen B. Morton/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 8-5 (lost Gator Bowl)

    Key Returning Players: RB Todd Gurley, LB Ramik Wilson, RB Keith Marshall, LB Jordan Jenkins, WR Malcolm Mitchell, NT Ray Drew, LB Leonard Floyd, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, LB Amarlo Herrera, CB Shaq Wiggins

    Key Losses: QB Aaron Murray, TE Arthur Lynch, T Kenarious Gates, G Dallas Lee, G Chris Burnette



    Georgia returns virtually its entire defense, including leading tacklers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera.

    The stabilizing force of inside linebackers should enable the continued progression of Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins as difference-makers on the outside. A talented defensive line, headed up by nose tackle Ray Drew, clears up space for the linebackers to shine.

    The secondary struggled at times in 2013 but progressed and returns all four starters, including safety Josh Harvey-Clemons.

    Offensively, the Bulldogs return perhaps the nation’s top running back in Todd Gurley. Tailback Keith Marshall also returns after missing most of 2013 with a knee injury. He and Gurley mean opposing defenses can’t relax at any time.

    Quarterback Hutson Mason will attempt to ease the transition away from four-year starter Aaron Murray. It won’t be an easy task, but at least he returns four receivers who spent time as starters. Malcolm Mitchell, who suffered a season-ending knee injury in the season opener against Clemson, might be the best of the bunch.

    Tight end Arthur Lynch, a first-team all-SEC player in 2013, will be sorely missed in the passing game.

    Georgia must replace three starting offensive linemen, but Gurley has the ability to help alleviate pressure off both the new starters on the line and the first-year quarterback.

2. Alabama Crimson Tide

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    Patrick Semansky/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 11-2 (lost in Sugar Bowl; finished No. 7 in AP poll, No. 8 in coaches poll)

    Key Returning Players: RB T.J. Yeldon, WR Amari Cooper, G Arie Kouandjio, C Ryan Kelly, WR Christion Jones, DE A’Shawn Robinson, NT Brandon Ivory, LB Trey DePriest, RB Kenyan Drake, RB Derrick Henry, TE O.J. Howard, S Landon Collins

    Key Losses: LB C.J. Mosley, QB AJ McCarron, T Cyrus Kouandjio, S Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, S Vinnie Sunseri, DE Jeoffrey Pagan, LB Adrian Hubbard, G Anthony Steen, CB Deion Belue



    It’s important to remember that only returning players are factored into this power ranking, thus eliminating incoming quarterback Jacob Coker.

    Tailbacks T.J. Yeldon, Kenyan Drake and Derrick Henry—the breakout star of the Sugar Bowl—will run behind three returning offensive linemen. Plus, whoever gets the nod at starting quarterback can throw to the likes of receivers Amari Cooper and Christion Jones and tight end O.J. Howard.

    Jones emerged as a national star in the return game in 2013 as well.

    The defense took a bit of a hit with three quarters of the secondary leaving the program, including safety Ha Ha Clinton-Dix. However, having talent like safety Landon Collins waiting in the wings is a luxury few programs in the nation are afforded. Even replacing all-conference linebacker C.J. Mosley becomes easier because of prized 2013 recruit Reuben Foster’s presence. Oh, and Trey DePriest returns to stabilize the position as well.

    Defensive end A’Shawn Robinson might be the next superstar product from defensive coordinator Kirby Smart.

    Alabama will have plenty of fresh-but-talented faces on the field next year, but the Crimson Tide never seems to hurt for playmakers. The 2014 season will be no different.

1. Auburn Tigers

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    2013 Record: 12-2 (won SEC championship; lost BCS National Championship Game; finished No. 2 in AP poll, coaches poll)

    Key Returning Players: QB Nick Marshall, C Reese Dismukes, WR Sammie Coates, DT Gabe Wright, LB Cassanova McKinzy, LB Kris Frost, G Alex Kozan, WR Ricardo Louis

    Key Losses: RB Tre Mason, DE Dee Ford, T Greg Robinson, CB Chris Davis, FB Jay Prosch, DT Nosa Eguae, P Steven Clark, K Cody Parkey



    The talent Auburn returns in 2014 gives Gus Malzahn a chance to keep the magic alive into year two. Four out of five offensive linemen return to block for quarterback Nick Marshall, whom B/R's own Barrett Sallee thinks should get more preseason Heisman buzz.

    Marshall returns plenty of help as well. Pass-catching targets Sammie Coates, C.J. Uzomah and Ricardo Louis will all be back. And though tailback Tre Mason leaves, Auburn will still have key offensive weapons such as running backs Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne.

    A defense that improved over the second half of the season returns leading tackler Cassanova McKinzy. Replacing defensive end Dee Ford and top cornerback Chris Davis—among others—will be difficult. But an infusion of defensive line talent found in the 2013 signing class should help. Montravius Adams, Carl Lawson and Elijah Daniel will offset the losses along the line.

    Perhaps the biggest concern for Auburn comes on special teams, where it must replace punter Steven Clark—an underrated weapon—and kicker Cody Parkey.