Note: In preparation for my upcoming season preview column and podcast, I researched and took notes on every power conference team in CFB. I’m sharing my notes here, for anyone who is interested. Please keep in mind that these are just notes. (I’ve tried to clean them up, but there are plenty of abbreviations and some of the grammar may be suspect.)
Let’s start with the premier conference in football, the SEC.
Team: A lot of players return from injury, but the focus is definitely on Jeff Driskel. Driskel lead them to a 11-2 season in 2013, but let’s not forget he struggled in his short 3-game stint last season before his injury. How good is he, exactly? That’s the question we’ll find out this year. The Gators have a young, talented wide receiver corps, a solid running game, and a very good defense. I am not, however, sold on Will Muschamp. Because of the tough schedule (see below), 8 wins is the Mason/Dixon Line for this season.
Schedule: Absolutely brutal. Beginning with Bama on 9/20, they face tough opponents week after week with little reprieve. In my opinion, they’ll play the two best teams in the country, three other top 10 teams, and another team that should end the year ranked.
Team: Senior Hutson Mason takes over at QB and I believe he’ll be competent if not good. The two-headed running back tandem of Gurley and Marshall enter their junior year, back from injury, and should be team leaders. The defense features a lot of talent but whether they can line up against some of the conference’s best offenses remains to be seen. The Dawgs had a lot of problems in the offseason, which resulted in Mark Richt having to get rid of several players from the team. To quote my friend Karl, “Mark Richt runs his program the right way, that’s why he’ll never win a championship.”
Schedule: Semi-favorable as SEC schedules go. South Carolina on the road in week 3 is challenging and hugely important. After that the tough games are spread out and they get their toughest test, Auburn, at home. If they play to their potential, they’re set up for a top ten finish and possible playoff run.
Team: It’s Kentucky.
Schedule: Tough. 1 “sure” win. 2 other games where they have a good chance. Probably won’t win in their last 6 games. Should be underdogs in 10 games and have a chance at being really, really bad. One day they’ll turn things around, but 2014 is not that year.
Team: The Tigers lose Sam and Ealey, two key guys on the defense, along with a bunch of other players. But Maty Mauk returns at QB after a valiant effort in 2013 replacing James Franklin. They will probably be worse than last year, but they don’t deserve to start the season unranked. I like them to battle for 3rd place in the East division.
Schedule: Favorable by SEC standards. Four easy games to start, then a tough away game at South Carolina. They get a bye week before Georgia, but have to travel to the Swamp to face Florida. Semi-easy second half of the year. Their biggest problem is having the 3 most important SEC East games back-to-back-to-back (though, as I mentioned, there is a bye week in the middle).
Team: The Gamecocks usually finish in the top ten, and this year they should once again be very good. Mike Davis is poised for a big year. I expect the defense to be solid even without Clowney. Dylan Thompson isn’t what I’d call a star quarterback, but if he avoids turnovers and distributes the ball to his playmakers, he can be effective. They have a chance to be very good this season.
Schedule: First game of year vs. Texas A&M. Then, on Sept. 13, a huge game at home vs. Georgia. Away games against Auburn, Florida and Clemson later in the year. Winnable games in between.
Team: Butch Jones seems to be a well-respected coach, which is nice after the whole Kiffin/Dooley disaster. But is Tennessee ready to play against the SEC’s best? Probably not. Jones has recruited well, but they’re at least a year away.
Schedule: Extremely tough. Watch out week 1 against Utah State. Sept. 13 at Oklahoma followed by Sept. 27 at Georgia is a difficult draw. Have to play Bama out of the SEC West – tough draw but at least it’s at home. The week after Bama they’re at South Carolina. They get Mizzou at home in late Nov. With some luck, and if they play well, they might end up bowl eligible, BUT, if they don’t play well they have a chance to lose all but 1 game.
Team: The loss of James Franklin leaves a huge question mark surrounding this team. I don’t know what to expect, but given the competition in the SEC East I think it’s far-fetched that they could compete for the division.
Schedule: Pretty good by SEC standards. Toughest games are home vs. South Carolina on Sept. 20 and at Georgia Oct. 4. If they continue to play the way they played under Franklin, they should have a good chance at another bowl game and maybe a couple upsets (of course, that’s a big “if”).
SEC East final thoughts:
I would be surprised if this division didn’t come down to South Carolina and Georgia. Their match-up early in the season will be critical to the SEC championship game positioning later in the year, and South Carolina has the edge as they’ll be playing at home. Missouri should take a small step back but is still a big challenge on anyone’s schedule. I expect Florida to improve somewhat but I’m not a Will Muschamp believer – that team had problems far beyond Jeff Driskel’s injury last year. Tennessee is probably a year or two away from being truly competitive. Vandy is a huge question mark with their new coach. Kentucky is Kentucky.
Team: The biggest question marks for the Crimson Tide will be the QB position and the addition of Lane Kiffin. I’m not worried about the quarterback. Coker is supposedly more talented than any recent Bama QB, according to Jimbo Fischer (for what that’s worth). He gave Jameis Winston a serious run for his money at Florida State. (So he should at least have the skills of, say, EJ Manuel.) As far as Kiffin – who the hell knows? Hiring him was a questionable decision, and I’m not sure how it helps the team, but you have to give Saban the benefit of the doubt.
Schedule: The West Virginia opener should be a blowout. Then they have a couple easy games before SEC schedule begins. Their SEC East draw is Florida (at home) and Tennessee (on the road): Not too bad. Once again they get 8 games at home. I’m not sure how that happens every year. Their SEC West home games include Texas A&M and Miss St. They’re on the road at Ole Miss. A night game at LSU on Nov. 8 is the biggest challenge of the year, as very few teams win in Death Valley at night (I’m assuming LSU will make that a night game). They finish at home Nov. 29 in a revenge game against Auburn. It’s a hard schedule, but they’re capable of handling it.
Team: Brett Beilema starts his second year. Can he revive a team that has been awful for a couple years? They do have talent, especially at running back, but this team is most likely a couple years from being competitive.
Schedule: In terms of opponents the schedule is brutal. Auburn, Texas A&M, Bama, Georgia, Miss St., LSU, Ole Miss and Mizzou, plus Texas Tech and Northern Illinois out of conference. The bright side is that many big games – A&M, Bama, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss – are at home. Opening the year on the road at Auburn is rough. Unless they improve drastically from last season, this won’t be a bowl year for Arkansas.
Team: Auburn returns 14 starters, including QB Nick Marshall, who starts the year as a Heisman contender. They lose Tre Mason but SEC running backs are a dime a dozen so that shouldn’t be a concern. OT Greg Robinson is another big loss, but Gus Malzahn has a system and chances are the Tigers will find a suitable replacement. Many people think, because Auburn had so many “lucky” wins last year, they’re bound to even out and take a step back this year. (IMO the only “lucky” game was against Georgia. They played even with everyone else including Bama and football is a game of breaks and inches.) I expect the team to be just as talented and tough as last year. Their success will hinge on how they handle the schedule.
Schedule: One of, if not THE, toughest schedule in the country. Open with Arkansas, which is no pushover for an opening game. Out of conference includes the always feisty San Jose State and LA Tech, plus Kansas State, who many consider a top 3 team in the Big 12. SEC East draws are at Georgia and vs. South Carolina, literally the worst draw you can get. Other huge games include vs. LSU on Oct. 4, vs. Texas A&M Nov. 8 and at Bama Nov. 29. I can’t picture them making the playoff with this brutal schedule, even though they could be one of the 4 most talented teams in the country.
Team: Freshman running back Leonard Fournette is supposedly a freak. He’s been called “the next Adrian Peterson” and even “the next Bo Jackson” although let’s slow down with that sort of talk. The QB position is always a question mark for LSU. From what I’ve heard, true freshmen Brandon Harris, a “4-star double-threat,” is outstanding. Whether he’ll get the start over Jennings is a question mark but I’m always in favor of going with the young guy, all else being equal. The Tigers win games with Jordan Jefferson – imagine what they could do with a top-notch QB. LSU is as talented as any team in the country, but depending on freshmen and new QBs isn’t ideal. They’ll be a much better team at the end of the year than they are at the start.
Schedule: Tough opener against Wisconsin on a neutral field in Houston. Next 4 games are all at home against three non-power conference opponents and Miss St. They should be 5-0, 4-1 at worst going into back-to-back games at Auburn and at Florida. A home night game against Bama on Nov. 8 (we know how LSU does in home night games). Close the season at Texas A&M. If LSU plays to their talent level and gets OK quarterback play, they can finish with 2 losses or less, be a top ten team, and maybe even find themselves in the hunt for the playoff.
Team: Bo Wallace is the only returning starting quarterback in the SEC West, which gives Ole Miss an advantage in the early part of the season. They were competitive last year and are probably good for 1-2 big upsets this year. But can they compete for SEC West title? Seems far-fetched.
Schedule: They open with a neutral field game against Boise State, then at Vandy, vs. LA-Lafayette, and vs. Memphis. That first month will tell us a lot about the team. If they want to be taken seriously in the SEC, they need to go 4-0. Then things get tough: vs. Bama, at A&M, vs. Tennessee, at LSU, vs. Auburn. For a successful season they need at least 2 wins during that stretch, better yet 3. They finish the year with a rivalry game vs. Miss St. Ole Miss should finish with a respectable record if they can maintain composure and not let the season get away from them during that tough mid-season stretch.
Team: Dan Mullen is a good coach, but does this team have the talent to succeed in a loaded SEC? Dak Prescott takes over at QB after splitting time last year. The team’s success hinges on his performance. A lot of people are high on him but I saw him as hit-or-miss last year. He’s not a top tier level passer, to put it lightly, but that doesn’t necessarily disqualify one from college success. We’ll see how much he’s improved. This is a team that would win the AAC outright, but is probably looking at a 5th or 6th place finish in the SEC West.
Schedule: Start with three easy games (although you never know if Southern Miss could give them a run). Then a tough stretch: at LSU, vs. A&M, vs. Auburn. At Bama and at Ole Miss in Nov. They have the easiest possible SEC East draw, at Kentucky and vs. Vandy. This schedule is as good as you can get by SEC West standards. They should end up bowl-eligible this year.
Team: No more Manziel. No more Matthews. No more Evans. You just can’t replace that kind of offensive talent overnight. Sophomore Kenny Hill will get the start at QB. He has a good pedigree and he’ll be pushed knowing that talented freshmen Kyle Allen is waiting in the wings if he screws up. Manziel was great but we should remember A&M succeeded before him under Tannehill and others. They’ve had a number of players drafted in the past few years. This is a team – not just a quarterback. That said, the defense struggled mightily last year and could be a major problem this season. I think A&M struggles somewhat this year in an absolutely stacked SEC West. They finish somewhere between 3rd and 5th with a decent bowl game (but no shot at playoff). A&M is going to be good for awhile. They had a top 5 recruiting class this year and their new locker room looks amazing. This may be a rebuilding year, but overall, they’re not going anywhere.
Schedule: Difficult. Open on a Thursday night at South Carolina. That’s a tough draw. At Miss St., at Bama, at Auburn. Home for LSU and Mizzou. Out of conference is easy although, games and SMU and UL-Monroe could be fun, high-scoring affairs. I’m seeing a 7-5 record and a trip to the Heart of Dallas Bowl, but perhaps a team that’s better than that record indicates.
SEC West final thoughts:
This year is set up perfectly for another clash of the titans between Alabama, Auburn, and LSU. Auburn might be the most talented of the three, but schedule could very well preclude them from competing for a playoff spot. For that reason, I will *tentatively* go with Bama. Texas A&M is in rebuilding mode. The Mississippi teams should play spoiler as per usual. Arkansas should show improvement but still struggle. It’s really unfair to have this many good teams in one division. Any of these teams, including Arkansas, would dominate the AAC.
SEC final thoughts:
Georgia/South Carolina vs. Bama/Auburn in the SEC championship game. Not a wild prediction but it makes sense as those teams are talented, experienced, have continuity from last year, and (excluding Auburn) schedules that set them up for a big-time run. At gunpoint I’ll go with Alabama over South Carolina. Strong running games and defenses rule this conference and these teams have them. Plus Saban/Spurrier have years of big-time coaching experience that could help their teams if they get into a tough spot. If LSU goes with their freshmen quarterback, and he plays as well as people have projected, I like them as a semi-darkhorse for the national championship. (Based on recent history, it’s hard to imagine LSU with a good QB.)
The winner of the SEC makes the playoff, obviously. But the second-place team should be a serious playoff candidate. It will be interesting to see how the playoff system works, if the SEC can get two teams in or if the panel would prefer to see more conferences have a chance. People who expect the playoff system to eliminate debate are in for a big surprise come December. I think the SEC’s second-ranked team will be the catalyst for many arguments when they ultimately fail to make the playoff.