SEC Media Days 2014: Hits and Misses from Media's 2014 Preseason Predictions
The All-SEC first, second and third teams, as voted by those who cover the conference, were released on the final morning of SEC Media Days. Also released was the projected order of finish for each of the divisions and the league as a whole.
Alabama was voted the preseason favorite to win the conference, although that title has been a bit inauspicious. Per Jon Solomon of CBSSports.com, the media is 4-of-22 trying to pick the correct champion and 0-of-5 picking Alabama as said champion.
The Tide also led with eight players elected to one of the all-conference teams, including seven who appeared on the first team. Even after losing so much talent, this team knows how to reload.
But what else did the record 293 voters decide on? Where did they err, and where did they hit the nail right on the head?
Here is a quick recap.
Note: All recruiting info refers to the 247Sports Composite Rankings.
Hit: Texas A&M Ranked Sixth in the SEC West
This is less about Texas A&M than it is about the Nos. 4-5 teams in the SEC West, Ole Miss and Mississippi State.
It's also a little bit about Texas A&M.
The Aggies offense is young and dangerous, but their defense is middle-aged and not. The team ranked No. 109 in the country in yards per play allowed last season (6.36) and lost a good number of starters from that unit. Even with the blue-chip pedigree, is it fair to expect a potential true freshman quarterback (Kyle Allen) to carry the team?
Ole Miss and Mississippi State both have proven options under center (as we'll get to in a bit), and they both have defenses capable of complementing their offense. Texas A&M has been one of the hottest, sexiest schools in the country the past two seasons, but by virtue of its division, it deserves to start near the cellar.
Miss: Whoever Voted Arkansas to Win the SEC
Auburn caught lightning in a bottle last season, turning an 0-8 SEC record into an SEC title and trip to the BCS National Championship Game. It was truly a once-in-a-generation type of turnaround.
Or was it?
According to one SEC voter, it wasn't. The hitherto unidentified media member projected Arkansas, one year after going winless in the conference, to win the SEC in Bret Bielema's second season.
Which is crazy, because it wasn't even a fluky, because-they-were-in-the-SEC down season for the Razorbacks in 2013. They lost to Rutgers, for God's sake! And according to the F/+ ratings at Football Outsiders—a metric that adjusts for opponent—this was legitimately the 87th-best team in college football. Memphis, Hawaii, Virginia and Iowa State (combined record: 9-39) all placed higher.
Would the Razorbacks winning the SEC be possible? Sure. After what we saw last season, anything is possible. But that doesn't make it prudent—or even not insane—to predict it will happen in July.
Especially considering the schedule.
Hit: Robert Nkemdiche as Top Defensive Lineman
Robert Nkemdiche was billed as the next Jadeveon Clowney for obvious reasons. He was the first No. 1 overall prospect in the country to play along the defensive line since Clowney, so expectations were higher for him than any trench player between them.
That comparison, however, led some to erroneously call his freshman season a "letdown." His quantifiable numbers (34 tackles, 8.0 tackles for loss, 2.0 sacks) were slightly worse than Clowney's in 2011 (36 tackles, 12.0 tackles for loss, 8.0 sacks), which made it seem, at first glance, like he wasn't living up to the hype.
But Nkemdiche isn't the next Clowney. He never was, and he never will be. The comparison starts and ends with their recruiting pedigree and the fact that they are lineman. Clowney is a pure rush end (who might even play linebacker in the NFL), whereas Nkemdiche is a hybrid end/tackle. Many of his best plays do not appear in the box score.
As Bleacher Report's Michael Felder wrote last season:
Against the run, Nkemdiche proves his worth. He is an every-down defensive end because he is strong enough to the edge against offensive tackles on any given play. He is the rare freshman who can get full arm extension, turn blockers, disengage and work his way to the ball-carrier.
Nkemdiche is not the sack machine that people wanted when he came out of high school, but he’s been a treat to watch. The freshman does things in the run game that go unnoticed by casual viewers, but that frees up his teammates to make plays. He is a monster against the run, a rare trait for someone so young.
The media is sometimes prone to cutting corners. It looks for raw, unadjusted data to tell the story of things it hasn't watched, hoping that grounding its claims in "numbers" will give them ethos.
The SEC media resisted that temptation and gave Nkemdiche the credit he deserves after a fine freshman season.
Miss: Trey DePriest as Top Linebacker
This one is confusing on principle.
Trey DePriest had a fine junior season in 2013—enough so that he was voted to the All-SEC second-team defense.
Here's the thing, though: The two other linebackers who joined DePriest on the preseason All-SEC first team, Tennessee's A.J. Johnson and Georgia's Ramik Wilson, both made the All-SEC postseason first team in 2013. The same list DePriest made the second team on!
So it's hard to explain why DePriest (253) got substantially more votes than Johnson (186) and Wilson (147). Is it just because Alabama has to have the best linebacker in the league?
I get the projected leap for DePriest, who is being counted on to help replace a legend in C.J. Mosley. But besides that, what has he done this offseason to merit jumping Johnson and Wilson? What have Johnson and Wilson done this offseason to merit getting jumped?
Should DePriest have been on the first-team defense? Yes. Absolutely. Without a doubt. The voters got the three linebackers correct.
They just got the order wrong.
Hit: The Order of the Quarterbacks
1. Nick Marshall, 2. Dak Prescott, 3. Bo Wallace
Last year at SEC Media Days, there was a predictable hierarchy of quarterbacks. The order was up for debate, but the overwhelming consensus had Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray as the three top signal-callers in the conference.
But after losing that trio—along with Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw—the new ranking of SEC quarterbacks is in a state of flux. The voting for the all-conference passers could have gone in any number of disputable directions.
This pecking order, however, is about as fair as it could have gotten.
Nick Marshall's accuracy has been treated with skepticism, but he still took a team to the national title game last season (and made plays such as this in the season's biggest moments). Dak Prescott finished in the top 10 in ESPN's Total QBR metric, and Bo Wallace, despite injury and turnover issues, is the league's most experienced starter.
Other potential options like Maty Mauk might make this look foolish by season's end, but until Mauk has proved his worth without L'Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham and Marcus Lucas catching passes—as will be the case this season—it is hard to place him over any of the QBs that were listed.
Miss: Trey Flowers Left off the First Team
Trey Flowers overshadowed his teammate, Chris Smith, along the Arkansas defensive line last season, finishing tied for fourth in the SEC with 13.5 tackles for loss. No returning player in the league had more.
So why is he not on the first-team defense?
In fairness, this is a bit of a minor quibble. The four players listed on the first-team defensive line ahead of him—Nkemdiche, A'Shawn Robinson, Dante Fowler Jr. and Gabe Wright—are all deserving candidates. Still, I would take Flowers over Wright in a second, especially since the team does not require two tackles and two ends.
Think about it this way: If Wright had had the season he just had at Arkansas and Flowers had had the season he just had at Auburn, what are the chances the former would be listed over the latter?
"He represents everything you'd ever want," said Bielema of his star defensive end, per Jim Harris of SportingLifeArkansas.com.
But I guess that just wasn't enough.
Hit: The Middle of the SEC East
3. Florida, 4. Missouri, 5. Tennessee, 6. Vanderbilt
South Carolina and Georgia are clearly the two top teams in the SEC East, and Kentucky is clearly at the bottom. The four teams in between that trio, however, are not as simple to sort out.
And the SEC voters nailed it.
Yes, it is odd to put the reigning division champion (Missouri) behind a team that just went 4-8 (Florida), but the Gators should progress back to the mean in terms of injury luck, and the Tigers have to replace just about everything from last year's defense and receiving corps.
Yes, it is odd to put a team that's won 18 games the past two years (Vanderbilt) behind a team that's won just 10 (Tennessee)—and even odder to call that odd—but the Vols have been recruiting at a high level, and the Commodores have to replace arguably the best player (Jordan Matthews) and coach (James Franklin) in program history.
In both cases, the odd thing to do was the right thing to do.