The SEC’s coaches don’t put much stock in the projections. As Nick Saban pointed out to the collected writers at last week’s media days, there’s a concrete reason why.
"Last year you’d actually been wrong, you know, like 17 out of 21 times. Now you’re wrong 18 out of 22," he said. "But you’ve also not picked the right team the last five years in a row."
Especially last year, when Auburn was pegged as fifth in the West and Missouri sixth in the East, only for them to meet in Atlanta in the conference championship game one year after combining for two SEC wins (all coming via the Show Me State’s Tigers).
So it should give the rest of the league plenty to be excited about that Saban-led Alabama was named the overwhelming favorite to win the West, while South Carolina edged out Georgia to take the East.
But is there a possibility of another Auburn or Missouri-liked rebound ahead? Here’s a look at five SEC teams that failed to make bowl games last season, ranked in how likely they are to shock their way to the Georgia Dome.
2013 RECORD: 2-10, 0-8 in SEC. Winless in the conference in back-to-back seasons, the Wildcats at least have experience with 15 returning starters — tied with Ole Miss for second most in the league — and boast a enviable defensive end combination with Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith.
While the Jojo Kemp-led ground game should improve, the quarterback situation between sophomore Patrick Towels, redshirt freshman Reese Phillips and true freshman Drew Baker — and potentially junior Maxwell Smith, who is working his way back from offseason shoulder surgery — remains a mess.
Complicating matters, Kentucky draws LSU and Mississippi State from the West and has to travel to Florida, Missouri and Tennessee in East play. It’s well within reason to see Mark Stoops bring an end to the program’s 16-game SEC skid and challenge for the program’s first bowl berth since 2010, but a sudden rise up the conference charts seems unlikely in Year 2.
2013 RECORD: 5-7, 2-6 in SEC. Give Butch Jones credit: he’s had little trouble recruiting since taking over in Knoxville.
His first class included two SEC All-Freshman Team members in wide receiver Marquez North and cornerback Cameron Sutton, along with linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Jones then followed that with a group of 32 players that was ranked fourth by Scout.com and includes a running back in Jalen Hurd who is expected to make an immediate impact.
But the Volunteers return just five starters on each side of the ball, including their entire offensive and defensive lines, and in all lost 28 lettermen last season. They also have the misfortune of facing Alabama and Ole Miss from the West (not to mention Oklahoma in non-conference play).
Based solely on opponents’ win-loss record from the previous year (the NCAA’s method, which SaturdayDownSouth.com broke down), Tennessee has the third toughest schedule in the nation behind only Arkansas and Virginia and it’s a slate Phil Steele ranks second.
It’s not a recipe for a turnaround.
2013 RECORD: 3-9, 0-8 in SEC. The rude awakening for Bret Bielema and his three straight Rose Bowl berths at Wisconsin in Year 1 in Fayetteville came in the form of losing his first four SEC games by an average of 32.3 points. He proceeded to post the school’s only 0-8 slate since joining the conference.
There were positives, most notably the ground game, which brings back reigning SEC Freshman of the Year Alex Collins (1,026 yards rushing) and junior Jonathan Williams (900 yards). They’re operating behind a veteran line led by right tackle Brey Cook and hulking left tackle Dan Skipper (6-foot-10, 315).
The development of QB Brandon Allen and his 49.6 percent completion rate and 10 interceptions to 13 touchdowns a year ago will be pivotal. As is a defense that while showing some improvement late last season and returning seven starters, still ranked 88th in points allowed (30.8) and was 104th in passing efficiency D (150.1).
Add in a schedule that, per the NCAA formula, is the country’s toughest, and is No. 3 on Steele’s list, and the Razorbacks could be a much better team with a minimal increase in the wins column.
2013 RECORD: 4-8, 3-5 in SEC. The Gators haven’t had back-to-back losing seasons since 1978-79, and with the worst three-year record of any Florida coach at 22-16, Will Muschamp’s job likely can’t sustain another year under .500.
But healthy after an injury-plagued 2013, Florida is positioned to be one of the country’s most improved teams.
The defense isn’t going to be a problem. Over Muschamp’s three seasons, the Gators have been ranked an average of eighth nationally and they have star power with All-American-level talent at end in Dante Fowler and corner in Vernon Hargreaves III.
How much new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper’s no-huddle, shotgun-heavy spread — QB Jeff Driskel said the Gators "were almost exclusively in shotgun during the spring" — can reinvigorate a 113th-ranked attack should be the determining factor in Florida’s season.
Driskel, once the nation’s No. 1 QB recruit, has a chance to utilize his mobility in the new scheme. Add the fact that Florida brings back Kelvin Taylor (508 yards), and a healthy Matt Jones (339) at running back, and the Gators could do some damage on the ground.
The schedule does include a trip to Alabama, but LSU and South Carolina are both in The Swamp. Outside of the Crimson Tide, the most difficult SEC game is at Tennessee.
If Florida shows the expected improvement, it should come as no surprise to see the Gators challenge for their first East title since the days of Tim Tebow.