2014 SEC Football Predictions
In the last national championship of the controversial BCS era, the mighty SEC's seven-year reign of dominance was finally halted by Jameis Winston and Florida State. The powerhouse SEC, though, should be the best conference again with more than enough teams to compete in the new College Football Playoff.
Alabama will be in the national title picture again, along with hated in-state rival Auburn. The Tigers hope to knock off the Crimson Tide again and make their third national title game in five seasons.
While Alabama and Auburn are the heavy favorites in the West Division, Steve Spurrier’s South Carolina Gamecocks and an underrated Georgia Bulldog team can’t be counted out in the East Division.
There is no rule that limits a conference to only two teams in the new playoff system, meaning there are more than enough spots for the SEC to take part in the six major bowl games.
The SEC has the elite teams to compete for a national title, but which one will break away from the pack and put the SEC back on top?
SEC West-Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama Crimson Tide
Prediction: 12-1, 7-1 (1st in SEC West)
Alabama was 11-0 and appeared to be on its way to another BCS National Championship game last season before losing a 34-28 heartbreaker in the Iron Bowl at Auburn. Not only was the country surprised to see Alabama playing in the Sugar Bowl instead, former starting quarterback AJ McCarron and the Crimson Tide were dominated by Oklahoma 45-31.
Regardless of how the 2013-14 season ended, expect Nick Saban and Co. to be in the hunt for its fourth national title in six seasons.
The biggest question heading into the season will be who starts under center. McCarron, a two-time starting national championship quarterback, was drafted into the NFL and leaves the starting job wide open. Jameis Winston’s former backup Jacob Coker joined the team in the summer and will compete with senior Blake Sims, a converted running back. Coker is the favorite to win the job and will have two years of eligibility remaining.
With much of the focus on the quarterback position, first-year offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will have dynamic players in both the running and passing game. Junior All-SEC running back T.J. Yeldon, who rushed for 1,235 yards and 14 touchdowns last season, returns along with sophomore Derrick Henry. The receiving corps will consist of explosive junior wide receiver Amari Cooper (45 catches, 736 yards, four TDs) and seniors DeAndrew White and Christion Jones. Up front, the Crimson Tide will need to fill the left tackle position vacated by Cyrus Kouandijo, but they return three other starters from last season, giving Alabama a reliable offensive line.
The Alabama defense gave up only 13.9 points per game last season (fourth in the country), but it was the worst opponent scoring average since the 2007 season. The Tide recorded only 17 total sacks and surrendered 45 points to Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl, the most points given up in the Saban era. There shouldn't be any worry concerning Kirby Smart’s defense, though.
Potential All-SEC sophomore defensive end A’Shawn Robinson (5.5 sacks) and senior nose guard Brandon Ivory, who has been suspended for the time being, will head the defensive line. The linebacking unit will be without two-time All-American linebacker C.J. Mosley, but senior Trey DePriest, a two-year starter, will ease the transition at middle linebacker with potential All-American talent. Other starting linebackers include Denzel Devall, Reggie Ragland and Xzavier Dixon.
In the secondary, hard-hitting junior strong safety Landon Collins will be the heart and soul after recording 70 tackles and two interceptions last season. The question in the secondary lies with cornerback Eddie Jackson, who tore his ACL in the spring.
The schedule should set up nicely for the Alabama. It opens up with a struggling West Virginia program, which went just 4-8 last season, in Atlanta then hosts Florida Atlantic, Southern Miss and Florida.
A road trip Oct. 4 at Ole Miss could be a challenge in the Crimson Tide's first true road game of the season, but they haven't lost to the Rebels since 2003. They'll then host Texas A&M at home Oct. 18 and be in for a much easier win without having the task of defending Johnny Manziel for a third straight year. The real challenge comes at SEC West rival LSU on Nov. 8 and at home against hated in-state rival Auburn, which destroyed its national title hopes last season.
Alabama will only surrender one loss during their regular-season schedule before heading to Atlanta for the SEC Championship game.
SEC West-Auburn Tigers
Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 (2nd in SEC West)
After an embarrassing 3-9 (0-8 in SEC) 2012 campaign, Auburn was just 13 seconds away from winning its second national championship in four years last season. Gus Malzahn’s squad won an astounding 12 games before losing to Florida State 34-31 in the final BCS National Championship game.
It should be no surprise to see the Tigers in the hunt for an SEC and national title again this season with junior quarterback Nick Marshall behind center.
Marshall’s dual-threat ability is what made Auburn’s offense so difficult to defend last season—much like Cam Newton did back in 2010—and he'll be an All-SEC-caliber player heading into the season. While his running ability has been more than impressive (1,068 rushing yards), his passing ability needs to improve.
The Auburn rushing attack racked up an impressive 328.3 rushing yards per game last season (1st in the country). Tre Mason made his way to the NFL, but the backfield will still have weapons with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant, as well as redshirt freshman Peyton Barber and incoming 5-star recruit Roc Thomas.
Junior Sammie Coats (902 yards, seven TDs) will be the main target in the Tiger passing game, which will also consist of Ricardo Louis and junior college transfer D’haquille Williams. The offensive line returns three starters, including third-team All-American center Reese Dismukes. All-SEC left guard Alex Kozan is expected to miss the entire season after offseason back surgery, but the main question on the line will be who replaces the second overall pick in the 2014 NFL Draft, Greg Robinson.
Auburn finished 86th in the country, surrendering 420.7 yards per game last season. But expect improvement in Ellis Johnson’s 4-2-5 scheme in Year 2.
With the loss of All-SEC defensive end Dee Ford to the NFL and sophomore defensive end Carl Lawson likely out for the season after knee surgery, a lot of responsibility will be placed on potential All-SEC senior defensive tackle Gabe Wright. Middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy, who led the team with 75 tackles last season, will lead the linebacking corps along with junior Kris Frost. The "Star" position will be occupied by senior Robenson Therezie, while an experienced secondary will consist of seniors Jonathon Mincy and Jermaine Whitehead.
Auburn will get an early Thursday night road test against Bill Snyder’s pesky Kansas State Wildcats on Sept. 18. Two weeks later, The Tigers will look to seek revenge at home against LSU, whom they suffered their only regular season loss to last season.
The schedule figures to get harder after LSU, with an away game at Mississippi State (Oct. 11) and a home game against SEC East title contender South Carolina (Oct. 25). Auburn will enter the gauntlet in November, with road games at Ole Miss (Nov. 1), Georgia (Nov. 15) and hated rival Alabama (Nov. 29).
The schedule may be brutal, but expect this team to lose two regular-season games at most and be in one of the major six bowl games in the new College Football Playoff.
SEC West-LSU Tigers
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied-3rd in SEC West)
There shouldn’t be any worrying down in Baton Rouge. LSU always seems to have talent on both sides of the ball. The Tigers have lost only 13 games in five seasons and averaged just 2.7 losses in Les Miles’ nine years. The main focus will be replacing the talent on the offensive side and being consistent. If LSU can avoid any big letdowns, it has a chance to make a run in a difficult SEC West.
The offense is tasked with replacing quarterback Zach Mettenberger (3,082 yards and 22 TDs), running back Jeremy Hill (1,401 yards and 16 TDs) and wide receivers Jarvis Landry (1,193 yards and 10 TDs) and Odell Beckham (1,152 yards and eight TDs). The quarterback position will be filled by either sophomore Anthony Jennings or true freshman Brandon Harris. Jennings, a dual-threat quarterback, stepped in at the end of last season when Mettenberger went down with a season-ending knee injury and led LSU on a memorable game-winning drive over Arkansas. He did struggle in a 21-14 Outback win over Iowa, though, completing 7 of 19 passes for only 82 yards.
The running game will be led by former backups Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard, who combined for 936 yards and 15 TDs last season. Highly-touted freshman Leonard Fournette could also be in the mix. Sophomore Travin Dural (145 yards and two TDs) will lead an inexperienced receiving corps, while the most experienced unit on offense will be the O-line. Four starters return, including second-team All-SEC left tackle La’el Collins and freshman All-American right tackle Jerald Hawkins.
LSU returns six starters on defense and will have the talent to shut down opponents, much like last season when it held opponents to 22 points per game (21st in the country) and 340.7 total yards per game (15th in the country). The D-line returns both defensive ends, senior Jermauria Rasco (56 tackles, four sacks) and Danielle Hunter (57 tackles and three sacks). Sophomore Christian LaCouture and junior Quentin Thomas are the likely candidates to take over at the tackle positions.
The linebacking corps will be headed by senior middle linebacker D.J. Welter, who was the second-leading tackler on the team last season with 80 tackles. The other returning linebacker, Kwon Alexander, will switch from the the strong side to the weak side. In the secondary, junior Jalen Mills will switch from cornerback to free safety.
LSU’s quest for a run at a national title starts in Houston against a talented Wisconsin squad trying to make a splash in the national spotlight as well. After a tough season opener, the Tigers should be in the clear until they travel back-to-back weeks to Auburn (Oct. 4) and Florida (Oct. 11). They'll then have the opportunity to host Ole Miss (Oct. 25) and rival Alabama (Nov. 8), whom they lost to last year.
Escaping through conference play with only one blemish might earn it an SEC West Division title, but chances are this less-experienced Tigers team will be tripped up a few times this season. Without a doubt, LSU will be a national title contender come 2015.
SEC West-Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss Rebels
Prediction: 9-3, 5-3 (Tied-3rd in SEC West)
It’s Year 3 for head coach Hugh Freeze, and expectations haven’t been this high in Oxford since 2009. From 7-6 in 2012 to 8-5 in 2013, the SEC West could have a dark horse on its hands as Ole Miss returns 16 starters. The offense returns potential All-SEC senior quarterback Bo Wallace, while the defense, led by freshman All-American sophomore tackle Robert Nkemdiche, looks to cause problems from opposing offenses.
The Rebel offense is highly dependent on Wallace, who is second in Ole Miss history in career passing yards (6,340). He’ll need to run the show, but his weapons in both the running and passing game will cause stout SEC defenses trouble. The backfield returns its two top rushers from last season, I’ Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton. Mathers led the Rebel rushing attack with 563 yards and three touchdowns, while Walton rushed for 523 yards and six touchdowns.
Highly touted Freshman All-American sophomore wide receiver Laquon Treadwell had a solid freshman year by catching 72 passes for 608 yards and five touchdowns. Second Team All-SEC tight end Evan Engram and wide receiver Vince Sanders will be other options for Wallace in the passing game as well. The line will have question marks heading into the season with three starters needing to be replaced. The responsibility will be placed on sophomore left tackle Laremy Tunsil, who will be the leader up front after earning First-Team Freshman All-American honors.
With talent on the offensive side, the defense could be that much more dangerous with nine healthy returning starters. It starts with a secondary that could be among the best in the SEC this season. Third-team All-American senior free safety Cody Prewitt (71 tackles and six INTs) and second-team Freshman All-American Tony Connor (66 tackles, one INT), who plays at the Husky (safety) position, will head the unit and look to lock down opposing receivers.
Returning team-leading tackler senior linebacker Serderius Bryant, who recorded an impressive 78 tackles and 9.5 sacks, will head the linebacking corps, while the line will be headed by Nkemdiche. Nkemdiche, a former No. 1 recruit, along with a healthy C.J. Johnson at defensive end, will give the Rebels a stronger pass rush.
Ole Miss opens the season up in Atlanta against a now-subpar Boise State team that’ll be playing its first game without head coach Chris Petersen since 2005. Ole Miss should be 1-0 when it heads to Vanderbilt for a second consecutive year. The Rebels outlasted Vanderbilt 39-35 last season and will likely do so again against a Commodores team with fewer weapons.
There is no reason why this Ole Miss team can’t be 4-0 when it hosts Alabama on Oct. 4. After a potential first loss to the Crimson Tide, the rest of October will be a nightmare with road contests at Texas A&M (Oct. 11) and LSU (Oct. 25), as well as a home game against Auburn (Nov. 1). What's promising for Ole Miss is that it played all four teams in a row tough last season. Besides losing to Alabama 25-0, Ole Miss lost to Auburn and Texas A&M by a combined 11 points and upset LSU at home, 27-24.
If Hugh Freeze and Co. can manage to get through October with only two losses and avoid a letdown against Arkansas and Mississippi State at the end of the season, there is no reason Ole Miss won’t win nine-plus games for the first time since 2009.
SEC West-Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M Aggies
Prediction: 7-5, 3-5 (Tied-5th in SEC West)
The million-dollar question heading into the 2014 season will be how much of a drop-off there will be in the post-Johnny Manziel era. Not to mention, the Aggies will be without standout All-American wide receiver Mike Evans, who darted early for the NFL. With much gone from the offense, the defense will be more experienced with nine returning starters after finishing dead last in the conference in total defense (109th in the country). Kevin Sumlin will have his greatest challenge since taking the helm at Texas &M.
Not only is Manziel gone, but backup Matt Joeckel took his talents to TCU in the spring. The starting quarterback position will fall to either highly recruited freshman Kyle Allen and sophomore Kenny Hill, who had 22 pass attempts last season. Former Oregon transfer Tra Carson will take the lead in the backfield, after rushing for 329 yards and seven touchdowns last season for the Aggies. Junior Trey Williams (407 yards and six TDs) and junior Brandon Williams (269 yards and one TD) will contribute in the backfield, too.
A lot was lost in the passing game from last season, but there is a lot of potential for this inexperienced receiving corps. Senior Malcome Kennedy, who recorded 658 yards and scored seven touchdowns last season, is the veteran of the group. And 6’5" redshirt freshman deep threat Ricky Seals-Jones and freshman Speedy Noil could give the Aggies the spark of energy it needs. The best unit on the offense will be the offensive line, which returns four starters from last season. Potential All-American senior left tackle Cedric Ogbuehi will be joined by center Mike Matthews, left guard Jarvis Harrison and right tackle Germain Ifedi.
After last season’s performance, the only way the Aggie defense can go is up. Giving up a whopping 32.2 points per game won’t be good enough this season without Manziel outscoring opponents with an astounding 44.2 points per game (fifth in the country). There will be a lot of promise on the defensive line with all four starters back and the addition of 5-star recruit Myles Garrett.
The linebacking corps was the weakest unit on the defense last season. This year, it will have more experience and be improved with sophomore Jordan Mastrogiovanni and senior Donnie Baggs. Former weak-side linebacker Darian Claiborne (89 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss) will be missed after transferring to Texas Southern because of off-field issues.
The secondary will be led by senior cornerback Deshazor Everett, who has the ability to shut down receivers and be an All-SEC candidate. The rest of the secondary will be a mystery heading into the season.
Texas A&M won’t get a game or two under its belt before going through a brutal SEC schedule. The Aggies open up at SEC title contender South Carolina and will deal with a hostile crowd at Williams-Brice Stadium. They'll then get three games to get their offense in order before facing Arkansas in Arlington on Sept. 27.
In October, Texas A&M plays both Mississippi schools and ends the month with a big road game at Alabama, whom it defeated back in 2012. Once November hits, Sumlin’s team may be at only a five-win total. A win over Louisiana-Monroe, as well as a victory over Auburn, Missouri or LSU, would at least give the Aggies a respectable seven-win season.
SEC West-Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Prediction: 7-5, 3-5 (Tied-5th in SEC West)
Mississippi State struggled last season but managed to fend off both Arkansas and Ole Miss in overtime to advance to its fourth consecutive bowl game under sixth-year head coach Dan Mullen. After barely finishing 3-5 in conference play, expectations will be higher this season when the Bulldogs take the field at an upgraded Davis Wade Stadium.
The success of the Bulldogs has been placed on the shoulders of junior dual-threat quarterback Dak Prescott. Prescott threw for 1,940 yards and led the team in rushing with 829 yards and 13 touchdowns. While much of the pressure is on Prescott to be the X-factor on offense, he’ll have weapons around him to make plays as well. Prescott will hand the ball off to junior Josh Robinson and senior Nick Griffin, who battled knee injuries all of last season.
Look for the receiving corps to play a big role in the offense with Prescott’s top four targets back. Senior Jameon Lewis will likely be his top target after racking up 923 receiving yards and five touchdowns last season. Tight end Malcolm Johnson (391 yards and two TDs) and wide receivers Robert Johnson and De’Runnya Wilson will get in on the action as well. Even with talent in the running and passing game, nothing will be possible without a solid offensive line. The mystery heading into the season will be how the line performs without guard Gabe Jackson and just two returning starters back.
A lot will be riding on a defensive line with experience and depth. Eight of Mississippi State’s defensive lineman played in at least 10 games last season. Not to mention, former 5-star recruit Chris Jones, who recorded 32 tackles and three sacks, will have higher expectations in his second season at tackle. The linebacking unit returns two of its three starters, including potential All-SEC candidate junior Benardrick McKinney, who led the team with 71 tackles and 3.5 sacks, as well as senior Matthew Wells. In the secondary, much of the responsibility will lie on junior Taveze Calhoun (45 tackles and three interceptions) to lock down opponents, along with two other starters from last season, Jamerson Love and Kendrick Market.
Mississippi State’s only obstacle in September will be a road game at LSU (Sept. 20), where it has not won since 1991. Texas A&M and Auburn will be tough to defeat in back-to-back weeks in early October, but the Bulldogs will get both teams at home. They lost by a combined 14 points to the Aggies and Tigers last season.
November will end up making or breaking Mississippi State, much as it did a year ago. Besides traveling to Alabama on Nov. 15, Mullen’s squad has the opportunity to win four of its final five games with matchups against Arkansas, UT-Martin, Vanderbilt and Ole Miss. Hitting fewer than seven wins would be a huge disappointment in Starkville.
SEC West-Arkansas Razorbacks
Prediction: 5-7, 2-6 (7th in SEC West)
From coaching in two straight Rose Bowls at Wisconsin to just three wins in his first season in Fayetteville, Bret Bielema could be having second thoughts about his decision to leave Madison. Not to mention Arkansas was held winless in conference play for the first year since 1942. Expect improvement this season from good ole Pig Sooie, but a bowl game is likely a year away.
Bielema is all about having a football team that runs that ball. Luckily the Hogs will head into the 2014 season will one of the best backfields in college football. The dynamic duo of SEC Freshman of the Year Alex Collins (1,026 yards, four TDs) and junior Jonathan Williams (900 yards, four TDs) could be the game-changer Arkansas needs to win close games, which it failed to do last season.
Quarterback Brandon Allen (1,552 yards, 13 TDs), who battled a shoulder injury most of last season, must be able to complete more than 49.6 percent of his passes if the Razorback offense is going to thrive. Allen’s main target will be Freshman All-American tight end Hunter Henry (409 yards and four TDs), but don’t be surprised to see senior wide receiver Demetrius Wilson, who sat out last season with a torn ACL, make a difference in the passing game. The Hogs' O-line will have size with returning starters right tackle Brey Cook (6-7, 328), right guard Denver Kirkland (6-5, 348) and Dan Skipper (6-10, 315), who will make the switch from left guard to left tackle).
Robb Smith will take over an Arkansas defense headlined by second-team All-SEC senior defensive end Trey Flowers and senior safety Alan Turner. Smith, previously with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a linebackers coach, inherits a defense that ranked 88th in the country in scoring (30.8 points per game) and 76th in total in defense (413.4 yards per game). Just four starters return, including Flowers (44 tackles, five sacks, 8.5 tackles for loss), who will head the Hogs' D-line. Look for sophomore defensive tackle Darius Philon to be a burst of energy off the line, along with 343-pound junior tackle DeMarcus Hodge. Like Flowers, senior linebacker Braylon Mitchell, who finished second on the team with 77 tackles, will be the lone returning starter in the linebacking unit. Turner, who led the team with 97 tackles, and senior cornerback Tevin Mitchel will be the leaders in a secondary that should be much improved from last season because of depth at cornerback and veteran players.
The country gets to witness right out of the gate how much improvement was made in the offseason, as the Hogs make a difficult trip to BCS runner-up Auburn. Arkansas will get a breather the following week against Nicholls State, but the schedule will get tougher with nonconference matchups against Texas Tech on the road and Northern Illinois at home. Going 2-2 in its first four games would be ideal before playing old Southwest Conference rival Texas A&M in Arlington.
A bye week after Texas A&M will at least give the Hogs time to prepare with home games against SEC title contenders Alabama (Oct. 11) and Georgia in Little Rock on Oct. 18. Heading into November with three wins is a solid bet for Bielema's bunch, and look for Arkansas to win two more games against either Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss or Missouri to hit a five-game win total to end the season.
SEC East-South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina Gamecocks
Prediction: 10-3, 6-2 (Tied-1st in SEC East)
South Carolina has been one of the most consistent teams in the country by going 11-2 in each of its last three seasons. Steve Spurrier has done everything in Columbia besides win an SEC or national championship.
The last time the Gamecocks won the SEC East Division and played for a conference title was in 2010 against Auburn, when they were manhandled 56-17. South Carolina is always one game away it seems, but with a lot of veteran talent on both sides of the ball this season, there is always a chance of making a run at a national championship.
It will be senior quarterback Dylan Thompson’s team now, after making appearances the last two seasons when then-starting quarterback Conner Shaw went down with injuries. Last season, Thompson completed 52 of 89 passes for four touchdowns and three interceptions. The experience and intelligence is there, it’s now just executing as a full-time starter. Fortunately for Thompson, he’ll have more than enough weapons to make plays both on the ground and through the air.
1,000-yard rusher and second-team All-SEC junior tailback Mike Davis (1,183 yards, 11 TDs) will be key in the success of the Gamecocks offense again. Wide receiver Bruce Ellington is gone, meaning it will be up to senior Damiere Byrd and junior Shaq Roland to cause problems for opposing teams' secondaries. Byrd can hurt defenders with his speed, while Roland uses his 6-1 frame to create separation from defenders. Sophomore Pharoh Cooper will be another option for Thompson to get the ball to. The line will likely be the best unit on the offense and be among the best in the country. Senior left guard A.J. Cann is one of the top guards in college football and will anchor a big line that returns three other starters from last season.
A physical South Carolina defense, which surrendered only 20.3 points per game last season, lost both first-team All-Americans Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles to the NFL. The only returning starter on the D-line is senior tackle JT Surratt (33 tackles and 1.5 sacks).
There could be questions in the defensive backfield heading into the season as well. Safety Brison Williams may find himself playing cornerback during the season with the lack of experience the Gamecocks have at that position. The linebacking unit will likely carry the Gamecocks' defense this season. Sophomore weak side linebacker Skai Moore, who led the team with 56 tackles, will get help from other returning starters, Kaiwan Lewis and Sharrod Golightly.
The Gamecocks will host its annual opening Thursday night game against Texas A&M, who will be Manziel-less for the first time since 2011. As usual, though, their SEC East Division title hopes will hinder on its matchup against Georgia in Week 3. South Carolina has defeated Georgia in three of its last four meetings.
Spurrier’s squad could be undefeated when it travels to Auburn on Oct. 25. A win over the Tigers would set up an interesting end to the regular season. South Carolina plays Tennessee at home, which it lost to last season, and travels to Florida and in-state rival Clemson. If the Gamecocks lose only one conference game, they should find themselves in Atlanta playing for an SEC title.
SEC East-Georgia Bulldogs
Prediction: 10-2, 6-2 (Tied-1st in SEC East)
Georgia had the playmakers offensively to make a run at a national championship last season, but injuries to key players, lack of experience defensively and close losses caused Mark Richt and Co. to finish with a disappointing 8-5 record. Once again, though, the Dawgs have hopes of winning their first SEC title since 2005.
The offense loses Georgia all-time leading passer Aaron Murray, who threw for a whopping 13,166 yards in his career under center. Senior Hutson Mason will get the nod at quarterback after starting against Georgia Tech and Nebraska in the Outback Bowl with Murray out with a season-ending ACL injury. In his two-and-a-half games under center, Hutson completed 67 of 110 passes for five touchdowns and three interceptions. Luckily for him, he’ll have support from potentially the best backfield in the country.
Juniors Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall will be looking to make a statement after battling through injuries last season. Gurley rushed for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns in 10 games, while Marshall ran for 246 yards and one touchdown in five games.
The receiving corps had its fair share of injuries last season. Malcolm Mitchell went down with an ACL tear in the opening quarter of the season, and Justin Scott-Wesley tore his ACL five games in against Tennessee. Both will return, along with the Dawgs' two leading receivers, Chris Conley and Michael Bennett, who combined for 1,189 yards and eight touchdowns. The Georgia line returns just two starters from last season, junior tackle John Theus and senior center David Andrews, while first team All-SEC junior Marshall Morgan will be relied on in the kicking game.
Jeremy Pruitt will take over a Georgia defense that gave up a program record of 29 points per game and an astonishing 375.5 yards per game last season. Pruitt, who left the same job at Florida State, will have almost every returning starter back on defense.
The Georgia linebacking unit is filled with All-American talent and has the tools to be a game-changer on the defensive end. SEC leading tackler senior middle linebacker Ramik Wilson had an impressive 133 tackles and four sacks last season. Wilson will be joined by senior Amarlo Herrera (112 tackles), junior Jordan Jenkins (45 tackles) and sophomore Leonard Floyd (55 tackles, 6.5 sacks), who are among the best in the conference.
On the other hand, the secondary needs improvement in the takeaway and avoiding big plays departments. Senior Damian Swann is the best bet to lead a secondary that has dealt with problems in the offseason with Josh Harvey-Clemons being kicked off the team and Tray Matthews being arrested. The defensive line, led by Ray Drew (43 tackles, six sacks), will have every returning starter back.
Once again, the Dawgs open the season with two matchups that could ruin their national title run. Revenge will be on Georgia’s mind in Week 1 against Clemson after losing in Death Valley 38-35 last season. A bye week will follow its matchup with Clemson before facing SEC rival South Carolina on the road, where it has not won since 2008.
After the first two games, the Dawgs' only trap game should be at Missouri (Oct. 11) until they face rival Florida in Jacksonville on Nov. 1. Georgia's last real test of the season will be Nov. 15 at home against Auburn. The conference schedule sets up nicely, meaning Georgia could be a contender for one of the final four spots in the College Football Playoff.
SEC East-Missouri Tigers
Prediction: 8-4, 4-4 (3rd in SEC East)
Many predicted Missouri to miss out on a bowl game for a second consecutive season until it started the season off 5-0 and went into No. 7 Georgia and pulled off a big 41-26 upset. Fourteen-year head coach Gary Pinkel’s seat began to feel a little less hot as the Tigers pulled off an improbable SEC East Division title and won 41-31 over Oklahoma State in the Cotton Bowl. Missouri loses a lot of its playmakers on both sides of the ball, but should be able to have another solid season.
The Missouri offense, which racked up a school-record 490.7 yards per game and 39.1 points per game last season, loses its starting quarterback, leading rusher and top three receivers. Sophomore Maty Mauk is more than ready to take the reins under center after appearing in 10 games and starting four games for an injured James Franklin. Mauk went 3-1 as a starter and completed 68 of 133 passes for 11 touchdowns and two interceptions.
1,000-yard rusher Henry Josey is no longer in the backfield, meaning it will be up to junior Russell Hansbrough (685 yards, four TDs) and senior Marcus Murphy (601 yards, nine TDs) to get the running game going. Missouri’s receiving corps will have the most to prove after losing L’Damian Washington to the NFL and former 5-star recruit Dorial Green-Beckham to off-field problems. The main targets will be Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt, who combined for just 614 yards and two touchdowns. Three starters are back up front, including potential all-SEC center Evan Boehm.
The defense loses two talented pass-rushers in Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, who combined for 21 sacks last season. One might think the line would be bare after losing two players of that caliber, but there is a lot of hype surrounding senior defensive end Markus Golden, who recorded 6.5 sacks and eight quarterback hurries as a backup. Golden will be joined by junior end Shane Ray (4.5 sacks, 11 quarterback hurries), senior tackle Matt Hoch (41 tackles, three sacks) and senior nose guard Lucas Vincent (34 tackles, 1.5 sacks).
Kentrell Brothers (70 tackles, three INTs) will make the switch from outside to middle linebacker to replace last season’s leading tackler Andrew Wilson (113 tackles). Brothers, who comes into the season after shoulder surgery in April, will head a linebacking unit consisting of unproven and young players. The safety positions will be solid with senior safety Braylon Webb (89 tackles, three INTs) and Ian Simon, but the cornerback spots will be questionable after losing All-SEC cornerback EJ Gaines.
Let’s see if mighty Mizzou can run through the SEC schedule for a second season in a row. A home game against Central Florida should be its only challenging nonconference game, and the Knights will be without Blake Bortles and Storm Johnson. The Tigers open conference play at South Carolina, to which it blew a 17-point fourth-quarter lead in a double-overtime loss last season.
A bye week will follow Missouri's game at South Carolina before it hosts Georgia and travels to Florida. After the Tigers' seventh game, their toughest game will be a road trip to Texas A&M, which means winning the final five games of the regular season is realistic. An SEC East title may not be in store this year, but another higher-tier bowl game will be.
SEC East-Florida Gators
Prediction: 7-5, 3-5 (Tied-4th in SEC)
Florida went from being 11-2 and Sugar Bowl bound to 4-8, its worst season since 1979. A 26-20 loss to FCS Georgia Southern was likely the Gators' worst loss in school history. Will Muschamp will be on the hot seat heading into the 2014 season after a stressful 2013 campaign. Nothing will help Muschamp more than getting production out of the offense. Losing Jeff Driskel in the third game of the season didn’t help the Gators' cause last season, but ranking dead last in the SEC in scoring (18.8) and total offense (316.7 yards per game) is unacceptable in Gainesville. The defense will rank among the best in the country and play a major role in getting Florida back to a bowl game.
Muschamp brings in former Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who will run a spread offense that includes Driskel being able to run more no-huddles and shotgun formations. This is the type of offense that Driskel will be able to feel more comfortable in and potentially thrive in. While Driskel returns behind center, six other starters are back as well.
The backfield will be complete with its top three rushers back, Kelvin Taylor, Mack Brown and Matt Jones. Taylor, an All-SEC True Freshman pick, went for 543 yards and four touchdowns last season. The receiving unit will hope to improve after a disappointing 2013 campaign. Wide receiver Quinton Dunbar is back, after only recording 548 yards and no touchdowns last season. Sophomores Demarcus Robinson and Ahmad Fulwood will look to make a big impact in the receiving game. The line has experience with left tackle D.J. Humphries, left guard Tyler Moore and center Max Garcia.
The Gator defense did all it could do to win games last year and held opponents to only 315 yards per game (eighth in the country). Everyone on the defensive front is back, including potential All-American junior defensive end Dante Fowler and junior defensive end Jonathan Bullard. The linebacking corps will be filled with veteran talent as team-leading tacklers Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrison look to cause havoc for opposing teams’ offenses. The secondary will be in good hands with third-team All-American sophomore cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III (38 tackles, 11 pass breakups, three INTs), who will be one of the top cornerbacks in the country. The rest of the secondary is unproven.
Florida will hope to work out the kinks in its first three games before making the tough trip to Tuscaloosa, where it has not defeated Alabama since 1998. The Gators will get a bye week before traveling to Tennessee and hosting both LSU and Missouri.
Two wins in three of those matchups would put Muschamp’s team in solid bowl contention heading into their final five games. Florida will have a bye week before facing rival Georgia in the annual “World’s Largest Outdoor Game" on Nov. 1. It has lost the last three meetings to the Dawgs by a combined 15 points. A win at Vanderbilt the following week will be needed for a confidence-booster, as well as bowl eligibility, before hosting division contender South Carolina (Nov.15). The final two games will be against Eastern Kentucky and hated in-state rival Florida State.
The Gators may not be in the national spotlight this season, but finishing over .500 and playing in a bowl game is a step up from last season.
SEC East-Tennessee Volunteers
Prediction: 6-6, 3-5 (Tied-4th in SEC)
The Vols haven’t been bowl eligible in four years, but will it finally happen in Butch Jones' second season at the helm? The schedule is difficult and there will be no returning starters back on the offensive or defensive lines. Senior quarterback Justin Worley should be the guy to take command of the offense, while potential All-American senior linebacker A.J. Johnson will be a big playmaker after recording 106 tackles and 8.5 tackles for loss last season. Tennessee proved it could play with the best as it upset South Carolina 23-21 at home last season, but what will come of “Rocky Top” in 2014?
Worley looks to be the solid choice at quarterback after passing for 1,239 yards, 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. He has the most veteran experience, but sophomore Joshua Dobbs will be in the running as well. 1,000-yard rusher Rajion Neal is gone, meaning a backfield that averaged 188.4 yards per game last season will be led by senior Marlin Lane (534 yards, four TDs) and highly touted freshman Jalen Hurd. The receiving corps will be led by Marquez North, who led the team with 496 receiving yards and one touchdown. Joining North will be Alton “Pig” Howard (388 yards, three TDs) and junior college transfer Von Pearson. An entire new startling line will be headed by senior left tackle Jacob Gilliam.
The linebacking unit will be the strongest attribute to the Volunteer defense with Johnson skipping the NFL draft and Curt Maggitt back after missing the entire 2013 season due to injury. The secondary has three starters back after giving up 164.9 yards per game (109th in the country). The backfield includes strong safety Brian Randolph (75 tackles, four INTs) and cornerback Justin Coleman. The defensive front lacks depth, but sophomore defensive end Corey Vereen could be a breakout player for the Vols this season.
Tennessee starts with tough nonconference games right out of the gate. Utah State and Arkansas State aren’t easy opponents leading up to a difficult away game at highly ranked Oklahoma. With a bye week following a tough game in Norman, the Vols face Georgia, Florida, Chattanooga, Ole Miss, Alabama and South Carolina. With two wins in five of these matchups, Jones will have his team in a solid position for bowl eligibility if it can avoid an upset against Kentucky and defeat either Missouri or Vanderbilt. A bowl game will be possible if Tennessee can somehow manage to win in tight ball games, unlike last season when it went 5-7 and lost two games by a combined seven points.
SEC East-Vanderbilt Commodores
Prediction: 6-6, 2-6 (6th in SEC East)
The departure of former head coach James Franklin to Penn State will likely hurt a Vanderbilt program that won nine games in back-to-back seasons and made three consecutive bowl games for the first time in school history. Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason will have high expectations right away as he tries to lead the 'Dores to a fourth straight bowl game.
The Vanderbilt offense lost all-time leading wide receiver Jordan Matthews and Jonathan Krause. With big losses in the receiving corps, look for tight end Steven Scheu to get more looks this season. The passing game won’t be as strong, so there will likely be more pressure on the run game and junior Jerron Seymour, who accounted for 716 yards and 14 touchdowns last season. The quarterback position looks to be sophomore Patton Robinette’s after leading the 'Dores in close wins and a BBVA Compass Bowl win over Houston. That’s unless redshirt freshman Johnny McCrary or LSU transfer Stephen Rivers somehow manage to win the job. The offensive line should be the strongest unit on offense, despite losing All-SEC offensive lineman Wesley Johnson. The line returns the four other starters, though, including veteran center Joe Townsend.
Vanderbilt fans are hoping Mason brings the same defensive mentality he had while at Stanford. The 'Dores held opponents to an impressive 354.8 yards per game (23rd in the country), but lost eight starters from last season. A 3-4 defensive scheme will be used under first-year defensive coordinator David Kotulski, who also heads in from Palo Alto after handling the Cardinal linebacking unit. Senior Vince Taylor (6-2, 310 lbs) will hope to be dominant in the nose guard position, while potential All-SEC senior linebacker Kyle Woestmann and top returning tackler Darreon Herring look to be tough at linebacker. The secondary has questions after losing all four starters. Junior cornerback Paris Head and junior safety Andrew Williamson have experience by combining for 42 tackles last season in backup roles.
There isn’t much to analyze in Vandy’s 2014 schedule: defeat all four nonconference opponents (Temple, UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion) and knock off Kentucky and either Florida, Mississippi State or Tennessee. It would be a huge letdown for the program if the 'Dores don’t win six or more games this season.
SEC East-Kentucky Wildcats
Prediction: 4-8, 1-7 (7th in SEC East)
Year 1 for Mark Stoops didn’t go as planned. The 'Cats went 2-10 for the second straight season. But in Stoops' defense, he didn’t have the talent and depth. The new “Air Raid” offense didn’t necessarily take off as planned under former Texas Tech offensive coordinator Neal Brown, either. The offense averaged only 193.3 yards per game (98th in the country) and scored just 20.5 points per game (107th in the country). The defense struggled, too, surrendering 31.2 points per game (89th in the country). Stoops should be more successful in Year 2 with a majority of his starters back and incoming talent.
The quarterback situation is up for grabs in fall camp. Sophomore Patrick Towles is the favorite at the moment, but expect freshman Drew Barker and redshirt freshman Reese Phillips to make a run at the starting quarterback spot as well. With a quarterback who's never started a game, the running game must be a game-changer for the Wildcat offense. Team-leading rusher Jojo Kemp (482 yards and three TDs) will head the backfield, along with Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard and freshman Josh Clemons.
The passing game returns its top four receivers from last season. Senior Javess Blue will be the main target after catching 43 passes for 586 yards and four touchdowns last season. Blue will be joined by Ryan Timmons, Jeff Badet and Demarco Robinson. Another strength for the offense will be the offensive line, which loses only one starter from last season. Senior tackle Darrian Miller has All-SEC talent.
The defense should be much improved with a majority of its starters back in action this year. Up front, the end positions will be solid with second-team All-SEC senior Bud Dupree and senior Za’Darius Smith. The two combined for 120 tackles and 13 sacks last season. Khalid Henderson returns to the linebacking unit but will no longer be joined by middle linebacker Avery Williamson, who is in the NFL after accounting for two 100-plus tackle seasons. The secondary will be more experienced and have depth with talented recruits. Blake McClain will hope to be a playmaker after a strong spring showing while JUCO transfer A.J. Stamps steps in at safety.
If the “Air Raid” offense gets going and the defense can step up, Kentucky could have more than two wins for the first time in three years. A season-opener against Tennessee-Martin followed by a matchup with Ohio should give the 'Cats a 2-0 record heading into “The Swamp” on Sept. 13.
The Gators struggled last season but still managed to defeat Kentucky 24-7. Not to mention chances of winning don’t look good when you haven’t won in Gainesville since 1979. A win over Florida would be a huge boost heading into SEC play with home games against Vanderbilt (Sept. 27) and South Carolina (Oct. 4). A win over nonconference foe Louisiana-Monroe and an upset win over Mississippi State or at Tennessee could be the four wins it so desperately needs.
Anything more than four wins would be remarkable for this team, but getting that one conference win, which it hasn’t done since taking down Tennessee in 2011, is a must.
SEC Championship: Alabama over South Carolina
The Crimson Tide’s dream of advancing to a second straight SEC Championship ended on Auburn's Chris Davis’ field-goal touchdown return as time expired last season. Now Saban and Co. are ready to win their second SEC Championship in three years. They’ll have competition out of the SEC East Division with a Steve Spurrier team that returns to Atlanta for the first time since 2010 and will be hungrier than ever after missing out the last three seasons.
Both have solid rushing attacks and physical defenses, but it will be an uphill battle for the Gamecocks. Crimson Tide playmakers T.J. Yeldon and Amari Cooper will make big plays when needed and blow past South Carolina to guarantee Alabama a spot in the semifinals of the new College Football Playoff.