Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama has more question marks this year than maybe at any other point in time in the Nick Saban era. It starts at quarterback. Sims or Coker? Saban doesn’t even seem to know. If neither of them can distinguish themselves as the starter, then Alabama may be in danger of not winning ten games. However, the stable of backs and receivers in Tuscaloosa is truly remarkable, and if the retooled parts of the line are as good as their predecessors or better then Alabama will be back atop the West in 2014. Defensively, the secondary has the most questions, but the talent is there. For Alabama the same holds that has the last few years, if the new starters live up to their projections then Alabama will be atop the SEC in 2014.
The Tigers may very well be better than they were last year, and they were very good last year. However, they could be better, and still have a worse record. Several fourth quarter comebacks, peaking at the right time, and two of the more remarkable finishes I’ve ever seen helped the Tigers to a 12-2 record and an SEC championship in 2013. Probability states you can’t count on those comebacks all happening again in 2014. In scholarly terms, this is called regression to the mean. Fortunately for Auburn, their “mean” is still extremely good. Nick Marshall is one of the better QBs in the conference, and even with the losses of Tre Mason and Greg Robinson, Gus Malzahn will run wild in the SEC more than likely. The receiving corps is intact, as well as the line, except Robinson. The defense needs to improve, and very well may. Jake Holland is the only loss at linebacker, and most believe this is addition by subtraction.
Texas A&M Aggies
Most experts are predicting a slide for the Aggies in 2014, on account of being in a transition period between losing Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans and waiting for the maturation of the last two recruiting classes. The Aggies have the talent and coaching to compete in the SEC right now, however. They were top 5 in almost every offensive category in 2013, rushing yards being the main exception, but they do replace a ton. The defense was not successful, to put it lightly, in 2013 however. They may have been the worst defense in the SEC. They only return five starters from that defense, most of which is in the secondary, which may actually be a blessing. The schedule could be worse as they get LSU at home, although they do travel to South Carolina tonight and Auburn and Alabama later in the season.
Les Miles’ squad is very similar to Alabama, in the respect that there are plenty of questions and lots of talent. They are replacing even more offensive skill players than the Tide though, although the line is largely intact. Plenty of hope has been placed in true freshman running back Leonard Fournette a.k.a. the next Adrian Peterson. The vaunted Tigers defense returns seven starters in 2014, and that should win them some games early while the offense gets its sea legs. Plus, aside from Wisconsin and Mississippi State their early schedule is very easy until they travel to Auburn on October 4th.
Ole Miss Rebels
The Rebs have lots of buzz going into Hugh Freeze’s third year in Oxford. A big reason is “Broadway” Bo Wallace and the maturation of that highly touted 2012 recruiting class. Two of the players in that class that need to have big years for the Rebels to have a chance to win the division are LT Laremy Tunsil and WR Laquon Treadwell, and they should. Treadwell will need to match and improve upon his production from last year to replace Donte Moncrief. Tunsil will need to protect Bo and open up holes for the speedy Rebel backs. Nine starters return on defense, led by the Nkemdiche brothers, and if they can take a step forward in 2014 they should be a top 15 defense.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Will this be the year that Mississippi State finally makes the leap from legitimate upset threat to legitimate division title contender? Potentially. Most of that rests on the health and performance of Dak Prescott. Prescott also has his whole receiving corps and three offensive linemen returning to help out. The defense was very good in 2013, especially up front, and eight of those starters return. The Bulldogs have lots of depth defensively. Lots of returning starters, and a manageable schedule, make State a few upsets away from competing for the West, as it stands I still think they end up somewhere in the middle of the pack of the SEC.
Offensively, the Hogs should improve in 2014. The rushing game should be very good again, and the passing game can’t get much worse, nor should it. Brandon Allen should improve under center, and the Alex Collins/Jonathan Williams rushing tandem would be a top duo in most conferences. But, this isn’t most conferences (cue obligatory SEC chant). Defense is where teams separate themselves from the pack in the SEC though, and the Razorbacks weren’t very good at it in 2013. They do return seven starters and have lots of depth, especially at secondary, though. Improvement should happen for the razorbacks, but a very difficult schedule won’t reflect major schedule improvement.
South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks are another team surrounded by buzz heading into 2014. They are many experts’ favorite to win the East, and some even think they have playoff potential. I also think they come out of the East, a lot of that having to do with a favorable schedule and experienced quarterback play. While Dylan Thompson hasn’t been a full-time starter, he has seen plenty of the field since he’s been in Columbia. RB Mike Davis and an experienced line figure to give the Gamecocks a solid rushing attack in 2014. The D-line and corners are gone, but a full returning linebacking corps and experienced safeties provide this defense with a nice blend of experience and youth.
If the Dawgs stay healthy in 2014, the possibilities are endless. They are loaded with talent, but replacing four-year starter Aaron Murray won’t be easy. Hutson Mason should be a capable quarterback, especially with the stable of running backs he has at his disposal. Todd Gurley is being considered the biggest non-QB Heisman contender, and Keith Marshall, Brendan Douglas, Nick Chubb, and Sony Michel all have the potential to contribute. The front seven returns a lot, but with two safeties and a corner leaving the team in the offseason the secondary is barer than it ought to be. Fortunately, the secondary is new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s forte, and he’s been the DC of the last three national champions.
Great success in close games last season was a large reason why Mizzou found themselves in the SEC championship game a season ago. Attrition and a regression to the mean are a large reason why Missouri will fall back toward the middle of the pack in the East in 2014. Maty Mauk will be fine at QB, but whom will he throw to with three leading receivers and leading rusher Henry Josey gone? Add that to the loss of stud defensive ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam and corner E.J. Gaines, and regression on both sides of the ball seems likely.
Florida was like the anti-Auburn in 2013. Bad luck, players not producing at expected levels, and collapsing at the wrong time led to a steeper fall than anyone could have predicted. Jeff Driskel figures to return as they starter, and if he can ever live up to his high school ratings (something Florida QBs have been dreadful at since Tebow left) then Florida is fine at quarterback. They rushing game should be fine with three 4-star running backs returning and the receiving corps is very talented as well. The line will be a little green in 2014, but that may be a plus as they weren’t particularly effective last season. They are immensely talented and return seven starters defensively. The thing they need to improve upon most is in generating a pass rush.
Perhaps no team has made more progress in the last three years, than Vanderbilt under the direction of James Franklin. Franklin has gone to Penn State, but Derek Mason looks to continue what Franklin started. The offense wasn’t great in 2013, but QB Patton Robinette has some experience. The loss of WR Jordan Matthews hurts though. The good news on the O-Line though is that four starters return, the bad that the one loss is All-SEC LT Wesley Johnson. The defense was solid in 2013, but they will have to replace a solid secondary in order to replicate that success in 2014. Only ten returning starters total could lead to growing pains in Mason’s first season in Nashvegas.
Butch Jones’ second year on Rocky Top will be rocky once again, but talent is there for bounce back too. A big key for the Vols will be keeping Justin Worley healthy. Marquez North and Marlin Lane figure to be the biggest playmakers for the Vols in 2014, however an unexpected line may have trouble protecting Worley and creating opportunities for North and Lane. The secondary is experienced and was pretty good in 2013, but the front seven had issues and is in the midst of an overhaul. This is either going to be a positive or a negative, but it’s hard to say which it will be. If it’s a negative Tennessee is in trouble for 2014.
The Wildcats are in the unfortunate position of rebuilding under second-year coach Mark Stoops, and unfortunately if you aren’t in the elite in the SEC. Rebuilding is immensely difficult, but they have gotten more talented since Stoops’ arrival. The receiving corps and line remain largely intact, and Maxwell Smith performed well at QB last season when he was on the field. They return a lot in the back seven, and that group will need to improve on getting offenses off the field on passing downs in order to be successful defensively in 2014.