5 Most Likely Matchups for the 2014 SEC Championship Game
No matter if it's instant classics like Alabama's 32-28 win over Georgia in 2012 or Auburn vanquishing Missouri in last year's barn-burner, the SEC Championship Game recently has been extremely exciting.
Over the past eight seasons, the game essentially has been a play-in for the BCS National Championship Game.
Heading into 2014, the road to the SEC West likely will run through the state of Alabama once again as the Crimson Tide and Tigers appear to be the class of the conference.
But there's a also a dark horse trying to gallop to Atlanta for the first time.
In the East, Missouri has lost too much to repeat last year's improbable run. With Florida trying to rebound from a 4-8 season, South Carolina and Georgia should duke it out for a berth.
But as last year's surprise matchup of Tigers proved, this conference is so deep, nothing is a guarantee.
Much of the star power that carried the league for the past few years is gone, and SEC teams will look for their next crop of stars to get them to the conference championship.
Let's take an early peek at the most likely matchups in Atlanta.
5. Auburn vs. Florida
The defending SEC champion Auburn Tigers make their first appearance on the list against what may seem to be an unlikely opponent.
Florida is coming off a 4-8 season that has head coach Will Muschamp's seat white-hot in Gainesville, but it was also one where the Gators were decimated by injuries, including one to quarterback Jeff Driskel.
UF gets its signal-caller back for his redshirt junior season and also changed offensive coordinators, hiring away Duke's Kurt Roper to call plays. Expect a major improvement in 2014.
On the surface, Florida's schedule looks daunting, but a closer look softens the edges.
Yes, the Gators play Alabama in Tuscaloosa. But they get LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home along with Georgia in Jacksonville.
If UF beats UGA and Carolina, it will own the tiebreaker and likely can still manage a couple losses. The Gators' Atlanta appearance also is aided by the unlikelihood of an Auburn-Georgia rematch.
Auburn, on the other hand, looks explosive again. It returns star quarterback Nick Marshall as well as improved depth and talent throughout Ellis Johnson's defense.
Head coach Gus Malzahn has never struggled producing 1,000-yard runners (11 in eight seasons), so replacing Tre Mason shouldn't be a major issue, especially with a stable that includes Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne, Peyton Barber and Roc Thomas.
There are holes on the offensive line that must be addressed, but Malzahn is innovative enough to scheme around issues.
If this matchup rolls around, Auburn cruises.
4. Ole Miss vs. South Carolina
Speaking of wild cards, how about the inclusion of the only SEC West team (besides newcomer Texas A&M) that has never played for the championship?
This could finally be Ole Miss' year.
Two strong recruiting classes have Hugh Freeze's Rebels loaded with talent, even if they're led by maddeningly inconsistent senior quarterback Bo Wallace.
They get the nod over LSU simply because the Tigers have lost so much offensive firepower (Zach Mettenberger, Jarvis Landry, Odell Beckham Jr., Jeremy Hill) as well as key defenders like Lamin Barrow and Ego Ferguson.
Oh, and a Rebs team that returns most of its star power is coming off a 27-24 win over the Bayou Bengals last year.
Unfortunately for Ole Miss, Alabama and Auburn are two imposing barriers blocking the road to Atlanta. To get there, the Rebs are simply going to have to do something they haven't done since 2003—beat 'Bama.
At least they get the Tide in Oxford.
South Carolina is a bit of an enigma. They'll have to replace heart-and-soul Connor Shaw as well as defensive stars Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles.
But the East is wide-open, and since the Gamecocks are coming off three consecutive 11-win seasons and play virtually the same schedule as Georgia, they get the slight edge.
Dylan Thompson can sling it, even if he's not as gritty as Shaw. He can put up big numbers if the Gamecocks see some reliable receivers emerge from a talented group.
Running back Mike Davis goes underappreciated in a league rife with runners.
This would be a fun game to watch, and Ole Miss could pull out a close one.
3. Alabama vs. Georgia
The last time Alabama and Georgia met, it almost led to the demise of Nick Saban's health.
"I'm ready to have a heart attack here," Saban said, according to ESPN.com, following the Tide's 32-28 survival over the Bulldogs in the 2012 SEC Championship Game.
In one of the best championship games you'll ever see, Aaron Murray completed four passes for 67 yards in a frenetic finish. But the last one was deflected at the line and caught by Chris Conley who slipped to the 5-yard line.
UGA had no timeouts remaining, and the clock struck 0:00.
The slug-fest led Saban—whose Tide eventually won the national championship—to proclaim:
I think it's a crying shame Georgia doesn't get to go to a BCS bowl game. They should get to go to a BCS bowl game. They played a tremendous game out there today. That was a great football game by both teams, and they could have won at the end just as soon as us. It came right down to the last play.
It likely wouldn't do the same if these teams met in '14.
Both teams must replace star quarterbacks in Murray and A.J. McCarron.
They each are flat-out loaded at running back with the Tide boasting T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake while Georgia has Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall, Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
But the biggest discrepancy comes on defense. Though 'Bama must replace C.J. Mosley and Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Saban has a stocked cupboard of talent.
Georgia was eighth in the league in total defense last year and has lost potential stars Tray Matthews, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shaq Wiggins since the close of 2013.
New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt is coming off a national championship at Florida State, but he has some massive gaps to fill. It's hard to see 'Bama not exposing that defense if these teams play.
2. Auburn vs. South Carolina
The rationale for giving South Carolina the benefit of the doubt in the East comes down to one simple thing:
With a schedule and personnel question marks comparable to Georgia's, the Gamecocks are more likely to get to Atlanta because they get to play UGA in Columbia.
Really, the two teams are that close.
Also, it's not out of the realm of possibility that Florida or Missouri could sneak into the picture. Though Tennessee and Vanderbilt are long shots, they aren't out of the question, either.
The West representative likely will come down (again) to the winner of the Iron Bowl. Since that game is in Tuscaloosa this year, the Tide gets the slight edge.
But if the Gamecocks and Tigers meet in the SEC Championship Game, it'll be a rematch of the 2010 game that saw Cam Newton and AU thump Steve Spurrier's crew, 56-17.
It won't be near that lopsided this year, but Auburn should win based solely off offensive firepower.
Nick Marshall has a solid group of running backs to hand to, and he adds elite junior college receiver D'haquille Williams (who had five catches for 88 yards in the spring game) to go along with deep threat Sammie Coates.
The Tigers are going to score points, and there are plenty of questions on South Carolina's defense—particularly on a defensive front that lost Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton, as well as a revamped secondary.
Carolina is going to take some licks in getting to Atlanta if it does. Auburn will provide another one.
1. Alabama vs. South Carolina
Auburn experienced a magical season in 2013, using two of the most unbelievable finishes in college football history to catapult Gus Malzahn into the national championship game in his first season as head coach.
To repeat that amazing run, AU will have to go into Tuscaloosa and beat the Tide on their own field.
It's doable, but Alabama—despite all it has to replace—still looks like the nation's most talented team on paper.
Sure, A.J. McCarron is gone, along with Cyrus Kouandjio, Kevin Norwood, Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, C.J. Mosley and many other playmakers.
But the Tide will be the beneficiary of 6'5", 230-pound quarterback transfer Jacob Coker from Florida State. Coker has all the tools and had his path blocked by Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston in Tallahassee, so he is now in Tuscaloosa ready to battle to replace McCarron.
All 'Bama needs is a quarterback who doesn't lose games. T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and star receiver Amari Cooper can help do the rest.
The Tide have questions on the offensive line and in the secondary, but considering Nick Saban signs top-three recruiting classes every year, Bama just restocks with talent.
If it can take care of Auburn and secure a showdown with South Carolina in Atlanta, UA will roll and enter the first season of the playoffs with a high seed on its quest to win another title.