The college football season has been in the rearview mirror for less than a month, but it’s never too early to look ahead to next season. Given the number of returning stars on both sides of the football for many teams in the league, it wouldn’t be crazy to think the SEC will have five representatives in the top ten of the pre-season polls. The league actually should get consideration to have five in the top five, but that won’t happen. Oregon and USC wouldn’t stand for it.
So here we go… Let’s talk about the SEC from top to bottom next season:
1. Alabama – Yes, the Tide is losing its superstar running back in Trent Richardson. But let’s not forget about Eddie Lacy, who averaged over five yards per carry last season. He could have made an even bigger impact had he not battled the injury bug for a good part of the season. It’ll be interesting to see if Lacy can be the next great back at Alabama. It’ll also be interesting to see how much better AJ McCarron becomes with the Tide’s recently hired pass-first offensive coordinator, Doug Nussmeier, who replaces Jim McElwain.
Bama returns a lot of key players on the offensive line, led by Barrett Jones. The defending champs also bring back a number of future NFL stars on defense, highlighted by C.J. Moseley, Nico Johnson and Robert Lester.
2. LSU – It may be a blessing in disguise that Jarrett Lee and Jordan Jefferson have both used up their eligibility so the Tigers’ quarterback controversy can go away. The biggest question now is can Zach Mettenberger fill the void? Really, though, with the talent in LSU’s offensive backfield it may not matter. Spencer Ware, Michael Ford, Alfred Blue and Kenny Hilliard could all be superstars if given the opportunity.
Defensively, losing Mo Claiborne hurts. But with Tyrann Mathieu, Tharold Simson and Eric Reid all returning in the secondary the blow is less painful. Plus, LSU has two of the best pass rushers in the game coming back – Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo.
3. Georgia – The Bulldogs are poised to make the biggest strides, in my opinion, of any team in the SEC next season. Not only does Mark Richt have his heralded quarterback, Aaron Murray, still suiting up in Athens, he returns a number of key offensive weapons in Isaiah Crowell, Richard Samuel, Malcolm Mitchell, Tavarres King and Michael Bennett.
Then there’s the other side of the football, which brings back even more talent – Jarvis Jones, John Jenkins, Alec Ogletree, Cornelius Washington and probably the best safety in the nation, Bacarri Rambo.
4. Arkansas – The Razorbacks may be ranked higher than Georgia in the pre-season polls, but they still have a lot to prove defensively to stay there. Give Bobby Petrino credit, though, for making a great hire with new defensive coordinator Paul Haynes. If Arkansas’ defensive performance in the Cotton Bowl is any indication, this is a team that could finally put it all together. The Hogs will be thin in the secondary but strong in the box with Tank Wright, Bryan Jones and Alonzo Highsmith all coming back.
Offensively, Arkansas will be Arkansas. Tyler Wilson is now a seasoned starter and Cobi Hamilton should be last season’s Jarius Wright. We’ll also hear more from tight end, Chris Gragg. Most importantly for Woo Pig Sooie nation, a healthy Knile Davis will once again be the featured back in an offensive that requires a lot of yards on the ground to open up Petrino’s high flying passing game.
5. South Carolina – No more Stephen Garcia headlines as we look ahead to next season. Thank goodness that drama is finally over. The Connor Shaw era began with some ups and downs, but toward the end of the season he proved that he does indeed belong as a starter in the SEC. Shaw has the potential to develop into one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country. And he’ll have a lot help on offense with Marcus Lattimore, Brandon Wilds and Ace Sanders all returning.
Defensively, the Gamecocks have big, bad Jadeveon Clowney back plus Devon Taylor, Shaq Wilson and D.J. Swearinger. Don’t be surprised if Spurrier’s team reaches the 11-win mark again (which will only be the second time in program history).
6. Auburn – You have to hand it to Gene Chizik – his team surprised a lot of people (including me) after finishing with an 8-5 record last season. Chizik now has two new coordinators with the departure of Ted Roof and Gus Malzahn. He also has to rely on Onterio McCalebb taking over for Michael Dyer who packed his bags to go with Malzahn. Barrett Trotter said audios as well, so new offensive coordinator Scott Loeffler will have to determine whether Clint Mosley, Kiehl Frazer or Zeke Pike will run the show.
7. Missouri – As of today, no one knows the status of DGB. If Mizzou can land him, I would put the Tigers ahead of Auburn. But since I really don’t see the nation’s top prospect going to Columbia, I like them right here in the seven spot. My biggest problem with Missouri joining the SEC is football passion. Oklahoma State (undefeated and ranked 4th in the country at the time) came to town and the game wasn’t a sellout. That’s embarrassing. Still, you have to respect the black and gold. Gary Pinkel returns his hot-shot quarterback, James Franklin, who finished last season 2,865 passing yards, a 63.8 completion percentage, 21 passing touchdowns, 981 rushing yards and 15 rushing touchdowns.
More good news for Coach Pinkel… he may have the best defensive front in the East. The bad news… his offensive line lacks experience. Still, the schedule sets up nicely for the Tigers to have a respectable inaugural season in the SEC.
8. Florida – Give Will Muschamp time and he’ll have the Gators back on track. Charlie Weis is gone but the transition should be smooth with Brent Pease taking over. His track record at Boise State is more than impressive. This is a guy who knows how to groom quarterbacks, and he’ll get that opportunity with Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett battling for the starting job.
Florida returns a ton of talent on the offensive and defensive fronts, plus veteran linebackers Jon Bostic and Jelani Jenkins. The case could be made that safety Matt Elam has the best star most potential of all the defensive returnees. The biggest question mark for Muschamp is filling the void in the offensive backfield. Jeff Demps is going to focus on track. Chris Rainey is a talented speed back. Can Trey Burton or newcomer Matt Jones be the power back this team desperately needed last season.
9. Tennessee – Will Dooley continue to wear the orange pants? That’s my biggest question. Seriously, things have to get better in Knoxville in a hurry. The reason I think they will is Tyler Bray and Justin Hunter, both of whom missed a lot of last season because of injuries, will be back. These are two of the best offensive weapons in the SEC and with a more experience offensive line next season could do some major damage. If both of these guys stay healthy, the Vols passing attack will thrive. Can the ground game improve from its bottom dwelling position last season? That will be a wait-and-see game.
Defensively, Tennessee should be improved with Sal Sunseri coming over from Alabama to lead the unit. Sunseri’s a hard-nosed coach with a reputation of developing elite players. He’s also considered one of the best recruiters in the nation. It’ll be interesting to see if Tennessee becomes the third team in the league to run a full-time 3-4 defense.
10. Vanderbilt – The Commodores have earned a lot of respect around the nation because of James Franklin. Now it appears he’ll have the 25th best recruiting class coming in this fall. How many of those young players will be able to contribute right away remains to be seen. But we do know Franklin has plenty of veterans to rely on to make next season successful.
Returning quarterback Jordan Rodgers and running back Zac Stacy headline an offense that will be even better at finding the end zone, especially with some key blockers up front returning. The news is just as good on the other side of the football with two veteran lineman back (Rob Lohr and Walker May) plus a very experienced secondary, led by senior cornerback Trey Wilson.
11. Texas A&M – Hello Aggies. Welcome to the SEC. Unlike Missouri, A&M seems like a perfect fit for “God’s Conference.” The SEC isn’t the only thing that’s new for Aggie Nation. They hired Kevin Sumlin from high-flying Houston to replace Mike Sherman. It will be fun to watch Sumlin’s spread attack take on the monster defenses of the SEC. It was an interesting hire considering the Aggies had no problem scoring points. They had a hard time stopping points being scored on them and finishing the game. Maybe Sumlin can turn them into finishers.
A&M did lose quarterback Ryan Tannehill and tailback Cyrus Gray but will have a veteran o-line returning, which should help this offense stay on track. The defense, however, may have some difficulty even with an experienced group of linebackers returning. The Aggies young secondary will be tested in the West going against all-SEC quarterback Tyler Wilson and a very good passing QB in AJ McCarron.
12. Missisippi State – Just when you thought things were on the up-and-up in Starkville, the Bulldogs disappointed with a 7-6 finish last season. Now Dan Mullen has to replace quarterback Chris Relf and running back Vick Ballard. The good news is LaDarius Perkins has the potential to be even better than Ballard and wide receiver Chad Bumphis is a legitimate downfield threat. Will the playmakers get the shots they need after losing three big bodies up front? That’s the question. Tackle James Carmon will be missed the most.
The biggest loss overall for the Bulldogs is undoubtedly all-american defensive tackle Fletcher Cox, who left early to play on Sundays. But even with Cox in the line-up last season, State’s defense didn’t perform as well as expected under new coordinator Chris Wilson. Perhaps year two will be better with two starting lineman, two starting linebackers and three guys in the secondary all returning. Cornerback Jonathan Banks should make the most noise of them all.
13. Ole Miss – Good luck Hugh Freeze. This is a program in disarray. It’s unfortunate you have no idea yet who your boss will be either. This athletic department needs a new athletic director to stabilize the mood in Oxford. For now, that’s Freeze’s job and he seems up to the challenge. And, boy, will it be a big one.
The Rebels were last in just about every key category on both sides of the football last season. With so many spots to fill, it will be interesting to watch this team during spring football. Four players will be battling for the quarterback position. Two offensive lineman have to be replaced. Jeff Scott should be the go-to back after leading Ole Miss with 526 rushing yards last season. But, still, that doesn’t seem like enough to be excited about… 4.6 yards per carry and six touchdowns. Again, good luck Coach Freeze.
14. Kentucky – If it wasn’t for basketball, Big Blue Nation might just throw in the towel. The Cats had the SEC’s two best tacklers on their team last season (Danny Trevathan and Winston Guy) and still had the 10th worst defense in the league. Now Trevathan and Guy are both gone, which means it could get even worse for Joker Phillips in Lexington.
If you think things were bad for Phillips on the defensive end, it was much worse offensively. UK was last in total offense, scoring offense, passing offense and next-to-last in rushing offense. Ouch.