What Each SEC Team Needs to Do to Finish with a Better Record in 2014
Every single SEC team has something it needs to improve on in 2014.
For some, it's tweaking something small in order to take that next step toward a championship-caliber team. Others must solve myriad issues just to get back to a bowl game.
Then there are those who just have to find a way to replace stars they lost to the NFL.
Coaches' jobs depend on fixing these shortfalls, and several teams won't make it into the postseason if these issues aren't addressed.
No matter how good every fan thinks his favorite team is, there's always something they'd like to see improved. No team is perfect, and after a run of dominance throughout the league, the SEC is rife with question marks heading into the season.
Let's take a look at what every SEC team needs to address to finish with a better record in 2014.
Alabama: Youth to Emerge in Secondary
Last year's Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma brought a glaring Alabama weakness to the forefront: It was super shaky against the pass.
Despite leading the league in total defense and finishing second to Florida in pass defense a season ago by allowing just 180.3 yards per game, the Tide struggled in some key moments.
Oklahoma quarterback Trevor Knight basically became a household name against 'Bama.
Now, UA must replace Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue, all key players at times last year. Safety Landon Collins is a star who should compete for the SEC's top defender, but he needs help—especially at cornerback.
As always, UA has tons of talent. The revolving door of players who tried to fill the corner spot opposite Belue last year (Cyrus Jones, Bradley Sylve and Eddie Jackson) all return, as do Maurice Smith, Nick Perry and Jabriel Washington.
Dynamic freshmen Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey's skills are too elite to keep off the field for long.
At safety, long-time role player Jarrick Williams should see a bigger portion of playing time, and Geno Smith could factor in, too. Hootie Jones and Ronnie Clark are especially-talented freshmen who could work their way into immediately playing as well.
As long as Nick Saban is around, there will be talent throughout the defensive back rotation. It's just a matter of the Tide finding the right mixture.
If they do, there are enough playmakers elsewhere to improve on last year's 11-2 record.
Arkansas: Find Consistent Quarterback Play
Bret Bielema would probably like to erase last year's 3-9 season from memory. The best way to move on from that is to surge into a bowl game in 2014.
To do that, rising junior quarterback Brandon Allen must take a giant leap forward.
The Razorbacks' passing game didn't show many signs of life in their spring game as Allen completed 12 of 21 passes for 108 yards and also committed a flurry of turnovers, according to the Arkansas News Bureau's Robbie Neiswanger.
"Not what we wanted to come out and do," Allen told Neiswanger.
On the heels of a 2013 where the Hogs were 11th in the league in total offense and dead-last in pass offense, averaging just 148.5 yards per game, that performance didn't instill much confidence in a passionate fan base.
Arkansas also threw just 15 touchdown passes all of last year.
The Hogs have one of the most impressive young runners in the league in Alex Collins. They just need to surround him with more talent.
There are a lot of questions elsewhere on the field, but the best path forward to making a bowl game is getting that passing game fixed.
It looks like, at least so far, it's still Allen's job. He just has to seize it.
Auburn: Nick Marshall Solves Accuracy Issues
Auburn fans have visions of a national championship dancing in their heads, and they should after last year's close loss to Florida State in the BCS National Championship Game.
All the pieces are there for another run—a stable of running backs to replace Tre Mason, an elite dual-threat quarterback in Nick Marshall, returning offensive linemen and a bevy of young stars on defense.
But Marshall has to improve his passing accuracy.
Everybody knows it. Even the coaching staff set goals for him, and according to AL.com's Brandon Marcello, Marshall is right on pace to those laid out by offensive coordinator Rhett Lashlee:
Marshall completed 64 percent of his passes in 7-on-7 drills and "almost" 70 percent in team drills during the Tigers' 15 spring practices in late March and April, Lashlee said. Those numbers are right on line with the goal Lashlee set for the fall, which would put him in a small club at Auburn. Only four starting quarterbacks at Auburn have completed 65 percent of their passes in a single season.
Marshall did enough to get by through the air in 2013, and Gus Malzahn's high-octane rushing offense ensured Auburn didn't even have to throw at all in a few games.
But with teams keying on the run this year, there will be times when the Tigers have to rely on Marshall's strong arm.
He'll need to complete more than 59.4 percent of his passes (his numbers from a season ago) this year if AU is going to win it all.
Florida: Rebound Season from Jeff Driskel
Florida's spiraling fall from a BCS bowl berth in 2012 to a 4-8 season in 2013 can be attributed to one thing: offense.
It's why former offensive coordinator Brent Pease was canned. It's why Duke's Kurt Roper was hired to replace him. And it's why head coach Will Muschamp is facing a win-now situation that likely will see him go the way of Pease if he doesn't.
Losing seasons aren't normally tolerated very long in Gainesville.
Getting redshirt junior Jeff Driskel back and healthy will go a long way toward Florida rebounding offensively. Driskel was lost for the year with an injury early last season against Tennessee, and the Gators were never the same.
Florida limped to a finish that saw it wind up last in the league in scoring offense, total offense, touchdowns scored and total offensive yards. The Gators were also next-to-last in rush offense and 12th in passing offense.
It was a forgettable year.
Now Driskel will maestro Roper's offense, a scheme that Bleacher Report's Barrett Sallee says Driskel is a perfect fit to run. Thus far, Driskel's career hasn't mirrored his recruiting status when he was the nation's top-ranked dual-threat quarterback in the class of 2011. His stats have been lackluster.
But Driskel and the Gators are on a mission.
"I think the whole team has a chip on its shoulder," Driskel told Sallee. "Our record doesn't show the kind of talent we have on our team, and I think we came back and attacked spring with the mentality that 'this is it.' We don't have years to waste, and nobody's going to feel sorry for us."
Georgia: The Jeremy Pruitt Project Takes Root Quickly
For a team as loaded with talent as Georgia to finish ranked 13th in the SEC with a minus-7 turnover margin is unacceptable. The same goes for forcing just 15 turnovers.
The Dawgs also wound up ninth in pass defense and sixth in rush defense.
It's obvious the Todd Grantham era had run its course between the hedges.
So, Grantham bolting to Louisville to join Bobby Petrino was met with a universal "meh" from Dawg Nation. He probably saw the writing on the wall.
Mark Richt proceeded to go out and hire defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt of the national champion Florida State Seminoles to replace him.
If that's not an upgrade, what is?
Pruitt has plenty of knowledge of SEC offenses thanks to his years learning under Nick Saban at Alabama. He also is one of the excellent up-and-coming recruiters as well as a perfect fit for UGA's talent personnel in the 3-4 scheme.
But with last year's woes and the recent transfers of former starting secondary members Tray Matthews to Auburn (per AL.com's Joel A. Erickson) and Shaq Wiggins to Louisville (per CBS Sports' Jeremy Fowler), Pruitt's job is that much harder.
The Dawgs finished an injury-riddled 2013 season 8-5, and they've got plenty enough firepower to improve on that. But the effect of Pruitt's hiring needs to be felt quickly, and UGA's defense has to get much better in a hurry.
Kentucky: Freshmen Must Emerge Quickly
Mark Stoops has an uphill battle undoing the mess left by Joker Phillips to bring the Wildcats back to respectability.
After a 2-10 2013 season, nobody expected he'd be able to accomplish what he did on the recruiting trail. Stoops finished a very respectable 22nd nationally in the '14 cycle, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
He also brought in 29 talented players to re-stock the shelf. Many of those will be thrown into the fray immediately.
The jewel of the class is 4-star quarterback Drew Barker, a player who B/R's Barrett Sallee believes should start immediately. Considering the only players blocking his way are Maxwell Smith, Patrick Towles and Reese Phillips, there are no real threats to strike fear in opponents' hearts.
Barker was the nation's sixth-ranked pro-style quarterback, and he possesses the size and skills to be a star, even if he has to take some early lumps.
Other players like 4-star receiver Thaddeus Snodgrass and running backs Stanley Williams and Mikel Horton could provide an offensive boost as well. Barker, Snodgrass and Horton have already been through a spring practice.
Defensively, the 'Cats beat 'Bama for elite defensive tackle Matt Elam, and the 372-pound behemoth will almost certainly compete to start right away. Fellow 4-star tackle C.J. Johnson, safety Darius West and weak-side defensive end Denzel Ware also look the part.
There were so many coveted signees coming to the Bluegrass that you'd think it was basketball season.
Now the question is this: Can they make an immediate impact?
LSU: Replenish Passing Game
Anthony Jennings has more experience and entered spring practice with probably the best chance to win an open quarterback battle on the Bayou.
Then, talented dual-threat signal-caller Brandon Harris went out and dazzled in the spring game, completing 11 of 21 passes for 195 yards and three touchdowns while adding 77 yards and another score on the ground.
"He has been doing great things all spring," Jennings told B/R's Carter Bryant of Harris. "I wouldn't expect anything different. He's a great athlete and is really smart with the football."
The race to be the Tigers' quarterback will be one of the most hotly contested position battles watched around the nation when fall practice starts. But on top of finding somebody to get receivers the football, LSU must find players to catch it.
Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry are gone to the NFL. Replacing them will be possibly the least-experienced wide receiving corps in all of college football.
The player with the most game action returning is Travin Dural, who had seven catches for 145 yards and two scores in 2013.
Dural had two touchdown grabs in the spring game, and he will lead a young (but supremely talented) unit for the Tigers that will feature elite-receiver Malachi Dupre, the nation's second-ranked high school receiver.
Quantavius Leslie, Tony Upchurch, Avery Peterson, Trey Quinn, D.J. Clark, John Diarse and Kevin Spears are all former prospects who could emerge and fit into the rotation.
But there are no clear guarantees when it comes to replacing LSU's air attack in 2014.
Mississippi State: Have All That Offensive Talent Produce
Mississippi State quarterback Dak Prescott is getting so much love from national media like ESPN.com's Travis Haney that it's hard to call him an off-the-radar candidate ready to break out.
But the Bulldogs are going to need the potential playmakers surrounding him to ease the load.
Every MSU receiver returns from a group that helped the Bulldogs to a 7-6 record in 2013, but the expectations are higher than that under Dan Mullen.
The league's top returning receiver—Jameon Lewis—will try to take another step from an impressive junior season where he finished with 64 catches for 923 yards and five touchdowns.
He was at his best as the season wound down as the beneficiary of Prescott's career day against Rice in the Liberty Bowl, catching nine passes for 220 yards.
De'Runnya Wilson had 26 catches in a surprise freshman season and looks like he can stretch the field. Robert Johnson and Joe Morrow are also around as pass-catching targets as well.
With MSU primed for a big defensive season, it also has a lot of puzzle pieces that need to come together offensively. If it does come together, the Bulldogs are going to surprise some people in a loaded SEC West.
Missouri: Replace Tons of Talent on Offense
While Mississippi State has virtually all its offensive playmakers returning, the Missouri Tigers are on the opposite end of the spectrum.
Quarterback James Franklin was a steady force, when healthy, during the Tigers' surprising 2013 season that saw them reach the SEC Championship Game, but Maty Mauk proved to be a worthy, able backup who is poised to take over.
It's everybody else who provides the question marks.
Gone are receivers L'Damian Washington, Marcus Lucas and Dorial Green-Beckham, the latter of which was dismissed from the team following an ugly incident.
DGB resurfaced Thursday as a member of the Oklahoma Sooners, according to an OU athletic department press release, but that won't help Mizzou in the least.
Running back Henry Josey also departed to test the NFL waters.
Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt combined for 614 yards and two touchdowns on 48 catches, and they'll be asked to shoulder the load in the absence of all that talent.
Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy are no slouches in the offensive backfield—they return 1,286 rushing yards and 13 touchdowns to replace Josey's production. Oh, and Mauk can do his share of running, too.
Gary Pinkel has done an excellent job of stocking some talent to fit his spread scheme, but that's a lot of production gone. If Missouri is going to improve on its 12-2 record from a season ago, everyone has to step up.
Ole Miss: Better Offensive Line Play
A season ago, Bo Wallace was mistake-prone, but he also ran for his life a lot.
Ole Miss lost six players from a veteran line, including three starters. Former star recruit Laremy Tunsil and guard Justin Bell are the only starters returning.
If the Rebels are going to finally break through and get to Atlanta, they'll need to find some major answers to help protect Wallace. This spring, Ole Miss was so thin along the front that two walk-ons were in the rotation.
It got even thinner when Austin Golson decided to transfer to Auburn to be closer to home. Ole Miss offensive coordinator Dan Werner told ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf this spring was a challenge:
That's the thing," he said. "We're still shuffling guys around, trying to get the best five in there. Again, because Aaron [Morris] wasn't there and we had a young man that was with us and decided to transfer, it sort of [changed]. We're just going to have to shuffle some guys around and get them in the right position
Morris missed spring recovering from a torn ACL, but he is expected to be back for the season. Robert Conyers also will be in the mix somewhere.
Signees like Roderick Taylor, Jordan Sims, Tyler Putman and Sean Rawlings will improve that depth if everything checks out for them to be in the rotation this fall, but relying on freshmen is a scary scenario.
The Rebels won seven games in Hugh Freeze's first season and eight last year. If they're going to take another step forward, the line has to produce.
South Carolina: Fill Holes on Defensive Line and in Secondary
After three consecutive 11-win seasons, South Carolina has a ton of defensive questions as the Gamecocks look to make it four in a row.
Not only do they have to replace Jadeveon Clowney (the top pick in the NFL draft), defensive tackle Kelcy Quarles and end Chaz Sutton, they're also switching to some 3-4 sets thanks to having an abundance of linebackers, according to The Daily Gamecock's David Roberts.
"I feel like we concentrated on the 4-2-5 and looked at the 3-4," Gamecocks defensive coordinator Lorenzo Ward said to Roberts. "We really like what we did out of the 3-4, so I think it will be a major part of our scheme next season."
Carolina still has some impressive defensive linemen like Gerald Dixon, J.T. Surratt, Darius English and Abu Lamin, but it no longer has the star power from last year.
At defensive back, GoGamecocks.com's Josh Kendall, David Cloninger and Dwayne McLemore consider Brison Williams the team's most important defender:
The leader of a secondary that has been rocked by graduation and early NFL entries, Brison Williams may have to shuttle from safety to corner the entire season. The corners will be filled with freshmen, the safeties with players that have been around but may not have played that much. Forever playing in his teammates’ shadows, this is Williams’ time to stand out. His role as a senior and the most experienced member of the new-look secondary make him the most valuable to the Gamecocks’ defensive success in 2014.
The Gamecocks signed a loaded stable of defensive backs, and several commitments such as Al Harris, Wesley Green, D.J. Smith, Chris Lammons and Darin Smalls are candidates to replenish the talent on the third level.
At least a couple of those guys have to play right away.
Tennessee: More Defensive Speed
The needs for Tennessee to improve and get to a bowl game are many—from better quarterback play to the quick maturation of the young defensive linemen to developing some consistently from a brand new offensive line.
But the biggest thing the Vols must improve on is team defensive speed.
A season ago, teams like Alabama, Auburn and Missouri blew past the Vols on the way to banner offensive days.
Now-departed senior linebackers like Dontavis Sapp and Brent Brewer were forced to start for depth purposes, but neither possessed SEC speed. Starting safeties LaDarrell McNeil and Brian Randolph had forgettable seasons as well containing big plays.
Once opposing playmakers reached the second level, big gains were close behind. In a crazy, big play-filled spring game, UT's offense rolled up 762 yards, so things didn't look much improved.
However, 14 of the 18 newcomers who arrived in time for summer session at UT project to be defenders.
According to the Associated Press (via USA Today), coach Butch Jones said the following this spring on his new class: "The great thing is we'll welcome 18 newcomers in June. It will almost be like starting the process over again. A lot of them will have to play as true freshmen. They have no choice. That's where we're at."
From defensive linemen like Michael Sawyers, Dewayne Hendrix and Derek Barnett to linebackers Dillon Bates and Gavin Bryant to a group of high-profile DBs in Rashaan Gaulden, Todd Kelly Jr., Cortez McDowell and Evan Berry, talent and speed will be upgraded.
But can they learn the scheme quickly enough to make an impact? Bowl hopes hinge on it.
Texas A&M: Stop Somebody (Anybody?) on Defense
Texas A&M won nine games in 2013, a remarkable accomplishment considering how atrocious its defense was.
That's a testament to Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans leading an incredible offense.
Neither of those guys return in 2014, which means the Aggies are going to have to get much better results from their defenders than they had a season ago.
It's going to be extremely difficult to be worse.
A&M finished last in the league in scoring defense (32.2 points per game), last in total defense (475.8 yards per game), last in rushing defense (222.3 ypg) and 12th in pass defense (253.5).
Coach Kevin Sumlin tried to address the issues through recruiting, nabbing some potential stars to join them such as the nation's second-ranked player, defensive end Myles Garrett.
A lot of that recruited talent will have every opportunity to play, especially after Sumlin dismissed Isaiah Golden and Darian Claiborne this offseason following various issues. Spring practice featured a lot of A&M's top players recovering from injuries.
Sumlin hasn't offered much since last year on the growth of the defense but did tell TexAgs.com's Billy Liucci the following (prior to Claiborne's ouster):
We'll see this fall. Like I said, it's hard to evaluate our front based on the spring, we had so many guys out—really, two linebackers out with Darian (Claiborne) and Tommy (Sanders); a lot of new guys coming in; a lot of highly rated defensive linemen coming in. That'll be the key, how we rotate those pieces and keep those guys fresh and how quickly we can get them up to speed, and then how much our safety play can improve, will say a lot about where we are as a defense.
Julien Obioha and Gavin Stansbury will need to step up to solidify the line, and Deshazor Everett has the ability to be an all-conference caliber at cornerback.
Beyond that, who'll lead is anybody's guess. But, again, it's going to be tough to be worse than a season ago.
Vanderbilt: Derek Mason Replicating James Franklin's Magic
Vanderbilt was rocked when coach James Franklin bolted Nashville to take over at Penn State following last season. The Commodores responded by tabbing Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason as the next head coach.
Mason's first few months on the job have been met with little fanfare, especially on the recruiting trail where he has just six commits in this year's cycle, good for No. 72 nationally.
Following a mass exodus of recruits from Franklin's class, the 'Dores finished 46th in the 2014 rankings.
While recruiting is vital, Mason will first be graded on how he handles the talent Franklin left him. Quarterback Patton Robinette returns along with a defense that looks like it may be better-suited than originally thought to switch to the 3-4 thanks to the versatility of Caleb Azubike, who'll now be an outside linebacker.
Franklin shrugged at a century of futility to produce back-to-back nine-win seasons and a 24-15 record in three years at VU, a stint that included consecutive wins over in-state rival Tennessee. He also recruited well enough for Mason to have some success while he's building his recruiting base.
But Franklin had a kinetic energy and connected to his players, who in turn, played well for him. There were few games VU wasn't in that it didn't pull through.
Will they have the same reaction to Mason? His tough-love, quiet demeanor hasn't translated in the recruiting rankings yet. It remains to be seen whether it will on the field.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee Lead Writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter here:
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