Way-Too-Early 2015 SEC Power Rankings
The 2014 season just wrapped up, but it's never too early to start looking ahead to the 2015 season.
A rather lackluster 7-5 bowl record, the absence of a national title for the second straight season and the first national title game without SEC representation for the first time since Vince Young led Texas to a title over USC in January 2006 has created an interesting storyline in the SEC.
No longer is SEC dominance a certainty, and the benefit of the doubt on the national scale has been wiped away by two straight seasons in which the conference has not won a major bowl (BCS/Group of Six).
Will Alabama repeat? There hasn't been a repeat SEC champion since Tennessee did it in 1997 and 1998, and the Crimson Tide will have plenty of talented teams vying for the top prize in the SEC.
Now that NFL draft early entrants have declared whether they're going or staying, let's rank the SEC heading into the offseason based on returning power, momentum and coaching changes.
14. Vanderbilt Commodores
Derek Mason's first season as Vanderbilt's head coach didn't go according to plan. The 'Dores finished 3-9, winless in the SEC and had a revolving door of quarterbacks that never allowed the offense to get into a groove.
What's more, Mason let go of both coordinators. Now the offense must start fresh with former Wisconsin coordinator Andy Ludwig, which means more quarterback uncertainty. Johnny McCrary looked good down the stretch, though, and if he can provide stability, the Commodores might be alright on that side of the ball.
The young defense must adjust to Mason calling the defensive plays, which is an unorthodox move that could pay off. Mason made a name for himself as Stanford's defensive coordinator, so why not take over and try to build the "Stanford of the SEC"?
Vandy's roster is young, and there's been quite a bit of coaching turnover this offseason, which leaves the 'Dores fighting an uphill battle in the improving SEC East.
13. Kentucky Wildcats
In the middle of the season, Kentucky sat at 5-1 and on the brink of bowl eligibility for the first time since 2010. Six straight losses followed, and the Wildcats were left at home for the holidays.
Shannon Dawson moved over from West Virginia to become Kentucky's new offensive coordinator in place of Neal Brown, who left to become the head coach at Troy. Dawson, an air-raid disciple of former Wildcat head coach Hal Mumme, has a fantastic quarterback to work with in Patrick Towles, some weapons on offense and a solid running game led by Jojo Kemp and Stanley "Boom" Williams to fall back on.
The question is on defense, where head coach Mark Stoops has to replace departed defensive linemen Za'Darius Smith and Alvin "Bud" Dupree, as well as safety Ashley Lowery. This off a defense that finished 13th in the SEC in scoring defense (31.3 points per game) and ninth in yards per play (5.50).
A bowl game? Kentucky will be on the brink again in 2015, but it will have to find some new playmakers on defense.
12. South Carolina Gamecocks
A 7-6 season and a trip to Shreveport isn't exactly what head coach Steve Spurrier expected when his team was picked to win the SEC East last July at SEC media days in Hoover, Alabama.
He better get used to it, though, because the 2014 season was more likely to be the start of a trend rather than the statistical anomaly.
Is there anything to suggest that South Carolina's primary problems—defensive line and secondary—have been fixed this offseason? There might be some help coming in the form of the 2015 recruiting class, but the coaching staff remained largely intact and players who were liabilities last year need to become leaders this offseason.
Offensively, it'll be the Pharoh Cooper show, as running back Mike Davis and quarterback Dylan Thompson moved on.
South Carolina enters the offseason with plenty of questions and not many answers and needs to take advantage of the SEC East being down before the rebuilding jobs at Tennessee and Florida are complete.
11. Florida Gators
Florida is the team that has the most upward mobility in these power rankings, because the talent is there for first-year head coach Jim McElwain.
He's just a quarterback away from making noise in the SEC East, but that has been a constant struggle for Florida ever since Tim Tebow exhausted his eligibility following the 2009 season.
Treon Harris was decent when he came in on the fly for an ineffective Jeff Driskel in the middle of the season, but he doesn't really fit what McElwain wants to do with his offense. Rising redshirt freshman Will Grier does, but he's still a freshman who will make mistakes.
Will Florida enter the free-agent quarterback sweepstakes this offseason to find a stopgap? If it does, a move into division-title contention isn't out of the question thanks to a stifling defense that features superstar cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III.
10. Mississippi State Bulldogs
The 2014 season was a prolific one for Mississippi State, as the program posted a 10-win season for the first time in its history, was ranked No. 1 for the first time ever and played in the Capital One Orange Bowl for the first time since 1941.
What will it do for an encore? It will take a step back, but not necessarily a giant leap.
Quarterback Dak Prescott will return for his senior season and will be joined by star wide receiver De'Runnya Wilson. Running back Josh Robinson, three starters on the offensive and defensive lines and star linebacker Benardrick McKinney are all gone, though, which will make it hard for the Bulldogs to stay consistent in 2015.
Prescott gives them a puncher's chance and keeps them in games. Even if Mississippi State wins seven or eight games next year, that's still sustained success, which has been hard to come by in Starkville.
9. LSU Tigers
Will LSU make a gigantic leap back to contention in the SEC West? If it is going to, it needs to find consistency from its quarterback, and since starting quarterback Anthony Jennings only completed 48.9 percent of his passes last season, it's a gigantic leap to assume things will be different in 2015.
Despite Jennings' struggles, Brandon Harris couldn't find the field consistently save for one start at Auburn, and he will again battle Jennings this offseason for the starting gig in Baton Rouge. Unless head coach Les Miles hits the free-agent quarterback transfer market, LSU's offense can't survive as the "Leonard Fournette show."
Defensively, the Tigers will be fine.
New defensive coordinator Kevin Steele and defensive tackles coach Ed Orgeron have plenty of talent to work with up front, return middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith will anchor the middle and the return of safety Jalen Mills and cornerback Tre'Davious White will solidify the back end of LSU's stout defense.
If only LSU could be two-dimensional on offense.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas' close to the 2014 season that saw it shut out Ole Miss and LSU during the regular season and saw the Hogs hold Texas to 59 total yards in the AdvoCare V100 Texas Bowl has cranked up the Hog hype train to the point where Sporting News has head coach Bret Bielema's crew ranked fourth in the country.
Not the SEC, the country.
Let's pump the brakes a little bit on the Arkansas hype train.
Yes, getting running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins back, along with four starters on that offensive line, is great, but the Hogs won down the stretch with defense. Defensive end Trey Flowers and linebacker Martrell Spaight—two critical pieces of the Hogs' success—exhausted their eligibility, and monster defensive tackle Darius Philon jumped to the NFL early.
Defensive coordinator Robb Smith was fantastic in year one in Fayetteville but has quite a challenge on his hands in 2015.
Arkansas is much more likely to take a step up to the eight- or nine-win plateau rather than making a full-fledged College Football Playoff run.
7. Texas A&M Aggies
If you're looking for a sleeping giant in the SEC West, it's Texas A&M.
Will new defensive coordinator John Chavis be the man who wakes it up?
He has plenty of talented players to work with on that Aggie defense, including defensive end Myles Garrett, linebacker Otaro Alaka and safety Armani Watts, in addition to linebacker A.J. Hilliard, who missed the majority of the season with an ankle injury.
What's more, Chavis doesn't have to be perfect, he has to be adequate, assuming that the offense progresses under rising sophomore Kyle Allen at quarterback.
Allen has an embarrassment of riches to work with at wide receiver, including Josh Reynolds, Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones. If offensive coordinator Jake Spavital can cut back on his pass-happy nature just a little bit and focus more on the run, the Aggies could surprise a lot of people and make a playoff run.
6. Missouri Tigers
Missouri shocked the SEC by winning back-to-back SEC East titles in 2013 and 2014, and it shouldn't be considered a pushover anymore, even by the top teams in the SEC.
But should it be considered elite?
The Tigers lose star defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden off of last year's squad, their top three wide receivers and speedster running back Marcus Murphy. Even more pressure will be on starting quarterback Maty Mauk's shoulders, and through two seasons, he has completed only 52.8 percent of his passes.
That can't continue if Missouri wants to three-peat in the East, because most of his weapons are gone and the roster attrition up front will make it hard for the defense to repeat last season's performance.
5. Georgia Bulldogs
The SEC East is wide open, but does that mean that Georgia can walk through the door for the first time since 2012?
If it does, it'll have to overcome massive roster attrition that includes quarterback Hutson Mason, wide receivers Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, inside linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera, defensive linemen Ray Drew and Mike Thornton and cornerback Damian Swann.
That's a lot of production at key positions to replace.
New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheiemer doesn't exactly have sterling NFL credentials, but he does have star running back Nick Chubb to rely on. Chubb carried the load in a pinch when Todd Gurley left the lineup (suspension/ACL), and he will have to repeat the feat if Georgia is going to make it back to the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta.
Sure, Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley are good receivers, and Brice Ramsey looked good in relief of Mason in the Belk Bowl. But the combination of injury concerns and inexperience should remove offseason hype from a Georgia program that's used to getting plenty of it.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
If Tennessee was a stock, you should buy.
Then finance a Maserati, because you'll be able to pay it off next year.
Tennessee is on the brink of restoring itself to SEC East power. Joshua Dobbs emerged as a legitimate dual-threat weapon down the stretch in 2014, and he did so despite several wide receivers, including Marquez North and Jason Croom, being out of the lineup due to injuries. Jalen Hurd emerged as a monster at running back and will be supplemented by the arrival of junior college transfer Alvin Kamara this winter.
Derek Barnett was one of two SEC players (along with Texas A&M's Myles Garrett) to break Jadeveon Clowney's freshman sack record, when he finished with 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss—the second-most TFLs in the conference. Curt Maggitt returns as the leader of the defense, as does safety Brian Randolph. They'll be joined by a stellar recruiting class that includes 5-star defensive tackle Khalil McKenzie.
The one glaring issue is the offensive line, but four starters will return up front and the one thing that offensive lines need to develop is continuity.
Tennessee hasn't been to the SEC Championship Game since 2007, but with a little work up front, it will get there in 2015.
3. Ole Miss Rebels
The 2014 season ended with a thud, as Ole Miss was routed by TCU 42-3 in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl in a game that wasn't nearly as close as the score indicated.
That doesn't mean it wasn't progress, though. A 9-4 record still proves that the program is heading in the right direction, and it still has a solid foundation on offense, with Laquon Treadwell coming back at wide receiver, along with Cody Core, Quincy Adeboyejo and tight end Evan Engram. The quarterback battle that includes DeVante Kincade, Ryan Buchanan and Chad Kelly will draw headlines, but if the Rebels can find a running game between the tackles, they'll be fine.
Defensively, they have defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche back, along with defensive backs Tony Conner and Mike Hilton.
Will Ole Miss win the West? It'll be in the discussion on the heels of a great defense and the ability of head coach Hugh Freeze to consistently find ways to move the football.
2. Auburn Tigers
Auburn looks like a monster next year, thanks to the arrival of new defensive coordinator Will Muschamp.
The former Florida coach comes to the Plains with one goal in mind—fix a defense that hasn't finished in the top half of the SEC in total defense since 2007, which was Muschamp's last year of his first stint as Auburn's defensive coordinator.
He has the pieces to be successful.
Linebackers Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy passed at the chance to play in the NFL, defensive end Carl Lawson will be back from an ACL tear to join defensive tackle Montravius Adams up front and the secondary—which tied for the most interceptions in the SEC last season (22)—returns its best player, cornerback Jonathan Jones.
Head coach Gus Malzahn's offense has produced 12 1,000-yard rushers in nine seasons as a college head or assistant coach, and he's got stars-in-the-making in sophomore Roc Thomas and junior college transfer Jovon Robinson. Quarterback Jeremy Johnson has a big arm, and wide receiver Duke Williams is returning, along with Ricardo Louis, Melvin Ray, Marcus Davis and several other targets.
After last season's tailspin down the stretch that saw Auburn drop four of its last five, the 2015 season can't come soon enough.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
The top dog in the SEC looks like it could stay in its perch for the second straight season, despite some massive roster attrition.
That's OK for Alabama, though. In fact, it's par for the course.
Running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake will slide right into more prominent roles after T.J. Yeldon moved on. There are plenty of wide receiver options with ArDarius Stewart, Cam Sims, Robert Foster and potentially incoming freshman Calvin Ridley. The question on offense is at quarterback, where Blake Sims' departure forced offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to hit the reset button to last season's quarterback battle.
Will it be Jake Coker, Alec Morris, Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell, Blake Barnett or a newcomer from the free-agent market? That remains to be seen, but head coach Nick Saban has the right coach—Kiffin—to make it work.
Safety Landon Collins' departure hurts and puts a lot of pressure on Laurence "Hootie" Jones, but Saban got good news this week, as linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive lineman Jarran Reed both passed on the NFL to come back.
Does Alabama have problems? Yes, particularly the lingering issue in the defensive backfield. Is the dynasty over? Yes, it has gone two straight years without a national title, and Ohio State is much closer to one now that it has one title and only three losses in three years.
But it's still a talented football team that can start a new dynasty in a hurry.
Don't be surprised if the SEC West—and, essentially, the SEC—comes down to the Iron Bowl between Auburn and Alabama.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and video analyst for Bleacher Report, as well as a co-host of the CFB Hangover on Bleacher Report Radio (Sundays, 9-11 a.m. ET) on Sirius 93, XM 208.