SEC Football: Biggest Threats to Dethrone Alabama in 2015
The upcoming 2015 SEC football season is wide open. Several teams have the talent to unseat reigning champs Alabama, including Iron Bowl rival Auburn and a star-laden Georgia team that plays the Crimson Tide in Athens.
All that talent coach Nick Saban keeps assembling in Tuscaloosa makes UA a legitimate threat to be celebrating in Atlanta once again, but the Tide are far from a sure thing. They have several key playmakers to replace.
With no clear front-runner in either division, the almost certain twists and turns and intriguing matchups of the conference slate will keep everybody excited.
After a year of beating up on one another, the entire SEC West looks stout yet again. There are up-and-coming teams such as Arkansas and Tennessee emerging as threats, too.
Three different sets of Tigers (two of which fell off a bit last year) will almost certainly be in the picture, as will Texas A&M. And the state of Mississippi produced a couple of teams last year who shouldn't be written off quite yet.
But who are the top threats to topple the Tide? Let's take a look at a few legit contenders, taking into consideration team strengths, schedule setup and star power.
To find one of the biggest threats to Alabama's current reign, you don't have to travel far—approximately two hours and 45 minutes.
The Auburn Tigers are just a year removed from winning the SEC championship and finishing as the national runner-up to Florida State.
Last year wound up a bit rocky, as the Tigers' Ellis Johnson-led defense collapsed down the stretch, leading to his firing. In the season's final seven games, Auburn allowed fewer than 31 points just once, in a 31-7 win over Samford.
Head coach Gus Malzahn rectified that by snagging ousted Florida head coach and former Tigers defensive coordinator Will Muschamp to come back to the Plains. A return to respectability shouldn't be far behind.
With a slew of top prospects from the '15 recruiting class coming in and defensive end Carl Lawson returning from a knee injury that cost him all of 2014, a quick turnaround is possible.
Throw in quarterback Jeremy Johnson's immense ability and all of the offensive weapons around him, such as stud receiver Duke Williams, and there is plenty of optimism to rebound from 2014's 8-5 disappointment.
Bama will return to the scene of one of the most dramatic finishes in college football history when it goes to Jordan-Hare Stadium for the Iron Bowl. The Tigers also get Georgia, Ole Miss and Mississippi State at home.
Potential pitfalls await at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, but it's really a favorable setup. It's one that proved fruitful two seasons ago.
Though nobody has figured out how to keep Missouri from the SEC championship game, Georgia should be the beast of the East.
Of course, it all starts with a stable of running backs led by sophomore Nick Chubb, a player whose breakout freshman year has placed him in early Heisman discussions.
Classmate Sony Michel flashed brilliance at times in 2014, and redshirt junior Keith Marshall is a bit of a forgotten man.
Folks tend to overlook that Marshall was a stud before knee injuries sidelined him. Though a recent hamstring injury (according to Dawgs247's Jake Rowe) caused him to miss some spring time, he was full contact during recent practices.
New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer may elect to call 40 run plays per game, especially with the quarterback battle undecided.
Yes, there are some valuable offensive playmakers, as well as center David Andrews, to replace from the highest-scoring offense in school history. But there is enough young talent to do it.
Defensively, UGA recruited so well the past few years that it has many potential playmakers to outfit Jeremy Pruitt's 3-4 scheme. Stars such as Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter could make the Dawgs' D a terror.
Coach Mark Richt's team gets South Carolina, Alabama and Missouri at home. Vanderbilt, Tennessee and Auburn are the only true SEC road tilts, and while two of those will be tough, they're manageable.
Maybe this is the year the Dawgs don't have their patented slip-up.
Come on, admit it. You doubted them two years ago for sure when everybody in the country did. Then, you denied them again last season when they had to replace Michael Sam, Kony Ealy and all those receivers.
You'll scoff at them again this season, too.
But the Missouri Tigers have simply found a way to get into that SEC championship game the past two seasons.
This year, it appears Georgia and Tennessee have more star power. Florida and South Carolina are a couple of playmakers away from being serious contenders. And Mizzou, yet again, must replace a duo of star-studded defensive ends in Shane Ray and Markus Golden.
They've also got to find a new stable of pass-catchers for quarterback Maty Mauk.
A season ago, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White slid in for Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington and Marcus Lucas and performed well.
Speedy senior Wesley Leftwich and sophomore J'Mon Moore look like intriguing options to go along with potential elite playmaker Nate Brown. If Mauk improved his consistency over the offseason, he and Brown could make a dynamic duo.
The Kansas City Star's Tod Palmer is a believer in Brown, as are the Mizzou coaches.
"He'll be a matchup nightmare for any linebacker if Maty Mauk can deliver the ball accurately and on time," Palmer wrote. "Brown was the centerpiece of Missouri’s 2014 recruiting class, and Mauk (along with coaches and other receivers) raves about his ability."
The Tigers' top tacklers are back in a linebacking corps that could carry the defense, and Mizzou always has stud linemen. So, while the Dawgs and Vols have everybody around the nation buzzing about them contending, the Tigers are the seasoned, grizzled vets.
Until somebody knocks them off, they've got to be on this list. But they'll have to play a much better game against the Tide or Auburn than they have the past two years to be a threat.
Texas A&M is flying way under the national radar.
Horrible defenses kept the Aggies from competing for anything of any consequence during the Johnny Manziel days, and those struggles carried over into last season.
But coach Kevin Sumlin did an exceptional job recruiting to that side of the ball during the past two cycles. There almost has to be a massive improvement soon with all that talent.
The most important commitment Sumlin secured, however, was LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis.
The longtime coach has led some of the league's best defenses over the past two decades, and he will bring instant help to the Aggies. Few people are respecting the defensive talent he gets to work with in College Station, even if it is young.
Offensively, Sumlin has his star quarterback in Kyle Allen, who can fling it all over the football field to perhaps the top wide receiving corps in the league.
The Aggies need to find some dependable runners, but scoring points hasn't been the issue lately and shouldn't be again in 2015. Offensive coordinator Jake Spavital needs to strive for more balance from his unit, but A&M can score with anybody.
While A&M has to run the West schedule gauntlet, it gets a break with East division opponents Vanderbilt as well as South Carolina in what looks to be a rebuilding year.
With Ole Miss, LSU and Vandy being the only three true conference road games, this could be the Aggies' year to win the West.
Dak Prescott didn't come back to Mississippi State to be mired in mediocrity.
The star rising senior quarterback had a memorable 2014, leading the Bulldogs to a 10-3 record. But nobody in Starkville was happy with a thunderous thud finish where MSU lost to rival Ole Miss by two touchdowns in the Egg Bowl before getting dominated by Georgia Tech in the Orange Bowl.
That will be unacceptable this year.
There may be question marks for coach Dan Mullen's team after it had to replace defensive leaders and running back Josh Robinson, but the Bulldogs have replacements ready. Also, Prescott's superior talent can cover a lot of warts.
Receiver De'Runnya Wilson is a superior receiver who could be a star target for Prescott if he stays out of trouble.
Though Robinson is gone, MSU has a trio of running backs in Aeris Williams, Ashton Shumpert and Brandon Holloway who can help Mullen match up in any scenario while keeping fresh legs for all.
ESPN.com's Alex Scarborough noted 6'2", 218-pound junior Shumpert is the favorite to win the starting job because "he has the between-the-tackles style Mullen likes …so does Williams, who redshirted last season after being named Mr. Football in the state of Mississippi."
Defensively, it's going to be a struggle at times with so many new faces, but MSU wasn't good on that side of the ball last year, either (12th in the league). So, it's probable the Bulldogs improve defensively with the re-hiring of former defensive coordinator Manny Diaz.
There are a cluster of West teams from which it's nearly impossible to choose a favorite.
Arkansas is the trendy pick, and Ole Miss has a ton of defenders returning. LSU has Leonard Fournette and the best group of defensive backs in the league. But none of those teams has a quarterback with the star power of Prescott.
That's why the Bulldogs will still be firmly in the mix when Nov. 14 rolls around and a daunting final stretch of Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss closes the season. Games against the Tide and Rebels are at home.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter @Brad_Shepard.