By Brandon Daniel @Brandon_Rant on May 12, 2014
In 2013, we witnessed one of the craziest seasons in SEC history, culminating with the Auburn Tigers and Missouri Tigers playing in the league championship game. Those two teams, who no one predicted to be in Atlanta, gave us one of the most entertaining seasons in recent memory. Will 2014 hold more surprises? We won't know till the fall, but here's what the landscape looks like as we move into a new season.
Mark Stoops came into a bare cupboard in Lexington and the 2-10 record in 2013 is proof of that. He’s a good coach and Kentucky should take a couple of steps forward this season. However, it's unlikely that the Wildcats will have enough to compete in the SEC East with talented teams like Florida, Georgia and South Carolina in the division. It will take some time to recruit the talent to compete, so expect another tough year in 2014.
Bret Bielema’s first season as coach of the Razorbacks didn't exactly go as planned. The program still reeling from Bobby Petrino’s malfeasance and gave up more points in conference play than any other SEC team. However, with star running back Alex Collins returning and another year to recruit, Arkansas may find its way up this list by the end of the season.
Dan Mullen has been consistent in his tenure at Mississippi State. The Bulldogs have had a winning record every year except Mullen’s first year in Starkville. QB Dak Prescott returns after gaining some experience when fifth-year senior Tyler Russell went down early in the season. With a non-conference schedule full of cupcakes and none of the SEC East powerhouses on the schedule, Mississippi State could be in for another solid season.
Vanderbilt suffered arguably the most crushing loss of any program in the SEC when head coach James Franklin bolted for Penn State. He led the Commodores to unprecedented territory, winning nine games in back-to-back years. Franklin was a unique fit in Nashville and his presence will be sorely missed. With his attitude and leadership gone, the Commodores will most likely take a step back in 2014.
Butch Jones has taken over a program in a tailspin since Lane Kiffin deserted Knoxville after only one season. Jones has stepped in and after a tough first season, reeled in a top-10 recruiting class according to many national rankings. With talent starting to be rebuilt and another year to install his system, Tennessee may begin inching its way towards the top of the SEC this year.
Gone from College Station are NFL first-rounders Johnny Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans. That’s a lot of offensive production to replace. Add to that the fact that the Aggies gave up more points than any other team, and they will probably take a step back in 2014. Look for Kevin Sumlin to be focused on rebuilding in the fall with the Aggies likely to improve as the season goes on.
Hugh Freeze has come in and totally changed the culture in Oxford. He has the team and fanbase believing, and has recruited extremely well. With a ton of returning talent on defense and one of the most experienced quarterbacks in Bo Wallace behind center, the Rebels could be a dark horse in the SEC West race. To this point, the Rebels have been mostly hype. This needs to be the season they break out and really contend in the West.
Mizzou had a banner year in 2014, coming out of nowhere and winning the SEC East. Maty Mauk gained considerable experience when James Franklin went down and should serve the Tigers well in 2014, but the losses may be too much to overcome. Defensive forces Kony Ealy and Michael Sam are gone, along with RB Henry Josey. Add to that the fact that Dorial Green-Beckham was kicked off the team, and Missouri may be in for a considerable drop-off.
The Gators have been an enigma over the last couple of seasons. In 2012 they won 11 games, but the offense struggled while the defense kept them in the hunt. Last season, the offense was dreadful and only got worse when QB Jeff Driskel was lost for the year due to injury. With a new system in place and a healthy Driskel, Florida is looking toward a rebound year and to contend in the SEC East.
Les Miles and his Tigers lost a lot of offensive production in Zach Mettenberger, Odell Beckham, Jr, Jarvis Landry and Jeremy Hill. However, they have the talent to replace that production, especially with freshmen Brandon Harris and Leonard Fournette expected to earn serious playing time in the fall. With an always-talented defense, LSU should find itself in the hunt again, especially when their experience catches up to talent.
Steve Spurrier has finally got the Gamecocks to the point where they are reloaders and not rebuilders. Gone are stars like Jadeveon Clowney, Connor Shaw and Bruce Ellington, but the Gamecocks return guys like Dylan Thompson and Mike Davis. While you don’t simply replace a guy like Clowney, Spurrier should have enough talent to put the Gamecocks in contention again in 2014.
The Bulldogs endured a tough 2013 because of injuries and saw a season of promise slip away. The good news is that most of that talent returns in 2014, and the defense should be much improved by the presence of new DC Jeremy Pruitt. With Hutson Mason able to gain some experience at the end of the season and mostly everyone else returning on both sides of the ball, Georgia should be the favorites to win the East in 2014.
Alabama, like many of the best teams from last season, lost a lot of talent to the NFL Draft. With Nick Saban as coach and top recruiting classes year after year, this doesn’t seem to matter. The Crimson Tide will be in the thick of it, especially if newcomer Jacob Coker lives up to expectations. The season may once again come down to another epic showdown in the Iron Bowl with rival Auburn for the SEC West crown.
The Auburn Tigers made an improbable run from worst to first, winning the SEC and playing in the national title game. Due to guys like Tre Mason, Greg Robinson and Dee Ford being gone, Auburn likely won't see the kind of luck it experienced in 2013. That said, with Nick Marshall returning and tons of young talent, the Tigers should be tough again and come into the season as the team to beat in the SEC.
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