Editor’s note: This year, we’re eschewing traditional conference previews for more bite-size nuggets of information and insight.
Bruce Feldman and Stewart Mandel have spent the summer visiting teams and speaking with coaches around the country.
What you find below are byproducts of those conversations and their own opinions.
Feldman: LSU Tigers. Yeah, the Tigers will be the youngest team in the conference, and perhaps the nation, with the skill talent they’ll be relying on this year. Those kids are also ridiculously talented and focused. Sure, there will be a hiccup or two from them, but this is still a dangerous team and they could be really scary by mid-October.
Mandel: Ole Miss Rebels. Hugh Freeze has recruited at a high level. He’s got an experienced quarterback, Bo Wallace, and elite-level players like WR Laquon Treadwell, OT Laremy Tunsil and S Cody Prewitt.
Feldman: Missouri Tigers. I don’t think the Tigers will fall apart, but after winning the East and going 12-2, I think they’re going to backslide into the bottom half of the East. They lost some stud wideouts and playmakers in the secondary and on the defensive line.
Mandel: Texas A&M Aggies. Replacing Johnny Manziel is not the issue. The Aggies need to upgrade last year’s atrocious defense but lost key members DE Gavin Stansbury, DT Isaiah Golden and LB Darian Claiborne this offseason.
Feldman: Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida Gators. No, seriously. Teammates have always liked and respected him and his toughness. The arrival of new OC Kurt Roper has sped up the offense and re-focused the 6-foot-4, 235-pound QB, who Roper says has first-round talent. Now Driskel’s playing behind the best O-line the Gators have had since he’s been there.
Mandel: D’haquille “Duke” Williams, WR, Auburn. The 6-2, 216-pound juco transfer impressed in the spring and has further solidified his starting spot in August. He’ll be one of Nick Marshall’s top targets as Auburn opens up its pass game.
Feldman: Speedy Noil, WR, Texas A&M. The Aggies lost a Top 10 WR in Mike Evans, but their receiving corps will actually be improved. Noil is a game-changer. He’s fast and extremely physical with great hands. Oh yeah, JC transfer Josh Reynolds, a lanky 6-2 former track guy, is ready to burst onto the SEC scene as well. Malcome Kennedy and Ricky Seals Jones will also keep some heat off the new kid.
Mandel: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. Billed as the sport’s top running back prospect since Adrian Peterson, Fournette will get no shortage of carries as the Tigers try to replace standout Jeremy Hill while breaking in a new quarterback and receivers.
HOT SEAT COACH
Feldman: Will Muschamp, Florida: Going from preseason Top 10 to 4-8 is brutal. So is a 1-5 mark against FSU and Georgia. Muschamp has hit the re-set button on his OC a third time. I think he got it right with Roper, but there are still a bunch of really rough games, including road trips to Bama and FSU, plus games against UGA, South Carolina and LSU.
Mandel: Muschamp. Coming off Florida’s first losing season since 1979, Muschamp must show considerable improvement to make it to Year 5, but he must do it against a schedule that includes Alabama, LSU and Florida State. Yikes.
THREE MAKE-OR-BREAK POSITION GROUPS
1) Alabama QBs: Almost everyone expects this will be Jacob Coker’s team. The FSU transfer arrives with huge fanfare — his old Nole coaches said he has the strongest arm of anyone they’ve ever worked with — but he’s still trying to beat out Blake Sims midway through camp. Neither has played much meaningful action in college, and they’ll be handled by new OC Lane Kiffin. The good news is no one will have a better collection of backs and receivers.
2) Georgia secondary: The Dawgs have been underachieving and underwhelming on D for a few years. Enter new DC Jeremy Pruitt, who comes from FSU and has pushed for a more active group but also has simplified the calls from old DC Todd Grantham and harped on the details. The backfield has had to be rebuilt from a team that gave up way too many big plays. There’s basically CB Damian Swann and a lot of other question marks. (UGA was 115th in plays allowed of 60 yards or longer.)
3) South Carolina D-line: It wasn’t just that the Gamecocks lost top pick Jadeveon Clowney, but they also need to replace Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton, too. The Dixons — Gerald, a 320-pound junior DT, and Gerald, a 275-pound sophomore end — should help, but a suspect defensive front will only put that much more pressure on the two new cornerbacks. Darius English, a 6-6, 245-pound sophomore, has some impressive athleticism, but this fall no one will change a gameplan for him like offensive coordinators had to do with Clowney.
THREE UNDER-THE-RADAR GAMES
1) Mizzou at Florida, October 18: As if Muschamp’s seat isn’t hot enough, his Gators have to face five teams ranked in the preseason Top 13. The Tigers are the sixth ranked opponent UF plays in 2014 and this game is sandwiched between Florida’s games with LSU and Georgia.
2) Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18: The Tigers have to visit a well-coached K-State team that is always very disciplined, although the Wildcats return only four starters on D.
3) Arkansas at Texas Tech, Sept. 13: Bret Bielema’s team plays seven ranked opponents, but Tech isn’t one of them. Regardless, the Red Raiders, led by budding star QB Davis Webb, should be favored. If Arkansas hopes to do better than last year’s 3-9 and begin to get some sort of momentum, the Hogs have to win this game.
MORE SEC INTEL
* Texas A&M’s defense was dreadful in 2013, and losing four projected starters to discipline problems this offseason won’t help, but five-star freshman Myles Garrett has been as advertised: a chiseled 6-4, 250-pounder who wowed coaches early in camp when he got the best of All-American OT Cedric Ogbuehi on consecutive one-on-one reps using two different moves.
* Mississippi State has produced a bunch of standout D-linemen the past few years, but sophomore Chris Jones — a 6-6, 300-pounder — may surpass them all in ability. MSU coaches have been thrilled by how much harder he’s been practicing and his refined technique.
* As brutal as Bielema’s first season in Arkansas was, he is stocking up on some promising players. Two true freshmen O-linemen who have really impressed him in camp: C Frank Ragnow and RT Brian Wallace.
* Georgia may have found the next Jarvis Jones in freshman Lorenzo Carter. The 6-6, 237-pound pass-rusher has already been a terror on the practice field and could line up at end or outside linebacker.
* Vanderbilt veteran Kyle Woestmann is poised for a big senior season after moving from defensive end to outside linebacker in coach Derek Mason’s 3-4 scheme. He’ll play much the same role All-American Trent Murphy did at Stanford.
* Mark Stoops is definitely upgrading the athleticism in Lexington. Two prime examples from training camp: Boom Williams, an explosive running back, and DB Kendall Randolph, another stud athlete who comes from Tallahassee, where Stoops and several assistants came from. Randolph has adjusted well to the nickel spot, displaying some outstanding play-making savvy.
* With all the hype around sophomore Robert Nkemdiche, remember the name Marquis Haynes. A former 6-10 high jumper and 100-meter sprinter in high school, he has bulked up to 226 pounds and has Rebel coaches thinking they “hit the jackpot” on the sleeper.