Everyone is chasing Alabama, Georgia in the 2015 SEC race
The college football world is in the process of shifting its focus to signing day, spring practice and early preseason rankings for 2015. While last year is still fresh in our minds, it’s never too early to think about next season.
The SEC had a disappointing bowl season, but the conference is loaded for another run at the national title in 2015.
Georgia opens as the slight favorite in the East Division, while it’s hard to pick against Alabama as the early frontrunner in the West. However, Auburn is a close No. 2 in the West. In a loaded division, it’s difficult to expect any team to run the table in 2015.
Could we see a couple of one-loss SEC teams in contention for a playoff spot next year?
Let’s take an early crack at predicting how the SEC divisions will shake out in 2015 (2014 records in parentheses).
Predicted SEC West standings in 2015
1. Alabama Crimson Tide (12-2, 7-1)
The SEC West is loaded once again. Alabama gets a slight nod as the pre-spring favorite, but the gap between the Crimson Tide and Auburn is slim. Talent isn’t an issue in Tuscaloosa, as Alabama has owned the top spot in the recruiting rankings from 2010-14 and is expected to ink the No. 1 class in 2015. However, there are a few glaring personnel concerns for this team going into next season. Who steps up to replace Blake Sims under center? Is it Florida State transfer Jacob Coker? Or could reshirt freshman David Cornwell or true frosh Blake Barnett compete for the starting job?
The supporting cast for the new quarterback is solid, but a go-to target must emerge to replace Amari Cooper at receiver. Alabama’s defense will be among the nation’s best once again in 2015. The front seven is loaded with talent and depth. However, the secondary is the biggest concern once again. Safety Landon Collins must be replaced, and coach Nick Saban needs another cornerback (or two) to emerge after giving up 19 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.
2. Auburn Tigers (8-5, 4-4)
The Tigers were unable to recapture the magic from the run to the national championship game in 2013 and fell to an 8-5 record last season. But Auburn wasn’t far off from double-digit wins, as coach Gus Malzahn’s team lost two games by three points (Texas A&M and Wisconsin). Auburn’s defense will receive most of the offseason attention.
The Tigers have allowed at least six yards per play in three consecutive years and gave up 68 plays of 20 yards or more (most in the SEC). New coordinator Will Muschamp is one of the offseason’s top assistant hires, and the former Florida coach inherits a group that returns a good chunk of talent. The defense should get a boost from the return of end Carl Lawson from injury. A few key pieces must be replaced on offense — quarterback Nick Marshall, running back Cameron Artis-Payne, receiver Sammie Coates and center Reese Dismukes — but expect Malzahn to keep this unit near the top of the SEC. Junior Jeremy Johnson is a rising star at quarterback.
3. LSU Tigers (8-5, 4-4)
LSU is just 9-7 in the SEC over the last two seasons, but the talent is there for a rebound in 2015. The passing game is still a major question mark until Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris consistently beats defenses with their arms. However, until the passing attack develops, the Tigers can lean on a veteran line and running back Leonard Fournette. The defense is under the direction of new coordinator Kevin Steele but should be a strength with the return of cornerback Tre’Davious White, safety Jamal Adams, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and tackle Davon Godchaux. LSU also has a manageable schedule, featuring crossover games against South Carolina and Florida, along with Texas A&M and Arkansas visiting Baton Rouge next season.
4. Ole Miss Rebels (9-4, 5-3)
The Rebels head into 2015 with similar question marks about the roster. The defense should be among the best in the SEC, but the offense has major question marks at quarterback and at running back. Is junior college recruit (and former Clemson QB) Chad Kelly the answer under center? Or will coach Hugh Freeze turn to DeVante Kincade or Ryan Buchanan? In addition to finding an answer at quarterback, the offense has to develop more consistency on the ground.
I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodson decided to transfer at running back, which leaves Jaylen Walton (5.5 ypc, 586 yards) as the No. 1 option. Having a healthy Laquon Treadwell at receiver and Laremy Tunsil at left tackle will be critical for the Rebels’ chances of winning the West in 2015. The defense has a few holes to address, but the line will be one of the best in the nation. The secondary loses standout safety Cody Prewitt and cornerback Senquez Golson, but the return of linebacker Denzel Nkemdiche and cornerback Tee Shepard from injury will help the defense maintain its 2014 production.
5. Arkansas Razorbacks (7-6, 2-6)
Bret Bielema’s rebuilding project at Arkansas is ahead of schedule after a 7-6 record in 2014. The Razorbacks were closer to 10 victories than some may have realized, as this team lost four games by a touchdown or less. Even though coordinator Jim Chaney left for Pittsburgh, the formula for success on offense isn’t going to change. Arkansas has a run-first mentality, with 1,000-yard rushers Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins leading the way on the ground. Also, the offensive line should be one of the best in the nation next year. Quarterback Brandon Allen improved in his second year as the starter but more weapons must emerge at receiver.
Robb Smith was one of the nation’s top assistant hires in the 2014 cycle, and the Arkansas defense did not allow an opponent to score more than 21 points in each of its last five games. Smith will have his hands full in the spring trying to find replacements for end Trey Flowers, tackle Darius Philon and linebacker Martrell Spaight.
6. Texas A&M Aggies (8-5, 3-5)
Since the Aggies joined the SEC, the offense has clearly been the strength of this program. However, has coach Kevin Sumlin finally found an answer for the defense? New coordinator John Chavis is one of the best in college football and comes to College Station after six years at LSU. Chavis will make a difference with Texas A&M’s defense, especially if Sumlin continues to reel in elite talent on the recruiting trail. End Myles Garrett will flourish even more under Chavis’ watch, and the defense doesn’t lose much from a unit that has plenty of room to improve after allowing 6.9 yards per play in SEC games last season.
Quarterback Kyle Allen is expected to build off his Liberty Bowl performance (294 yards, four TDs) in 2015. The receiving corps is loaded with talent, but the line loses tackle Cedric Ogbuehi and guard Jarvis Harrison.
7. Mississippi State Bulldogs (10-3, 6-2)
Regardless of which team is picked No. 7 in the preseason by the media, keep in mind that program will be a top-25 team in 2015. So whether it’s Mississippi State, Arkansas or Texas A&M, a team is going to be picked to finish last, yet could be ranked No. 20 in the final poll next year. That’s how loaded this division is. The Bulldogs return quarterback Dak Prescott — the likely first-team All-SEC signal-caller in 2015 — but there’s some work to do to fill out the offense. Running back Josh Robinson, receiver Jameon Lewis and tight end Malcolm Johnson depart, and the line loses three starters, including left tackle Blaine Clausell and center Dillon Day.
Manny Diaz has returned to Starkville to call the defensive signals, and just like the offense, the defense has holes to fill this spring. Each level of the defense has key contributors to replace, but the biggest loss is in the linebacking corps with the departure of Benardrick McKinney to the NFL.
Predicted SEC East standings in 2015
1. Georgia Bulldogs (10-3, 6-2)
There’s a lot of uncertainty among the East teams for next season, but it’s hard to pick against Georgia as the early favorite. However, the Bulldogs aren’t without question marks or personnel concerns. How will new play-caller Brian Schottenheimer adjust after spending the last 15 seasons in the NFL? Schottenheimer doesn’t need to overhaul the offense, as Georgia ranked second in the SEC (conference-only games) by averaging 6.4 yards per play in 2014. The ground attack should remain the staple of the offense, headlined by rising star Nick Chubb and Sony Michel next season. Brice Ramsey, Faton Bauta and Jacob Park will compete to replace Hutson Mason at quarterback.
The defense took a step forward under Jeremy Pruitt’s direction in 2014 and should be one of the best in the conference next year. A potential roadblock in Georgia’s SEC East title hopes could be its schedule. Alabama and Auburn — the likely No. 1 and No. 2 teams in the SEC next season — both play the Bulldogs in 2015.
2. Missouri Tigers (11-3, 7-1)
Even though Missouri has some significant personnel losses, it would be foolish to dismiss the Tigers from the SEC East title picture. After all, this team has won the division in back-to-back years and has one of the league’s top coaches in Gary Pinkel. Quarterback Maty Mauk had his share of ups and downs in his first year as the starter but finished with 25 passing scores.
Mauk will have plenty of help in the form of four returning starters on the offensive line and talented running back Russell Hansbrough in 2015. The receiving corps must be revamped after Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White expired their eligibility after the Citrus Bowl. The losses are heavier on defense, as coordinator Dave Steckel left to be the head coach at Missouri State, while All-SEC ends Markus Golden and Shane Ray and standout safety Braylon Webb are off to the NFL.
3. Tennessee Volunteers (7-6, 3-5)
There’s a lot of positive momentum building in Knoxville. Tennessee is a program on the rise entering coach Butch Jones’ third season, and the Volunteers are coming off their first winning season (7-6) since 2009. There’s no shortage of young talent in the program, and another offseason should help the development of players like quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Jalen Hurd and defensive end Derek Barnett. Dobbs and the growth of the offensive line will be critical to how high Tennessee can climb in the East next year.
The defense returns nearly intact, with cornerback Justin Coleman, tackle Jordan Williams and linebacker A.J. Johnson (suspended last three games) as the unit’s departing seniors. With Georgia visiting Knoxville next year, combined with personnel losses at Missouri and Florida, the Volunteers have a chance to surprise in the East.
4. Florida Gators (7-5, 4-4)
New coach Jim McElwain has plenty of work to do this spring. The Gators won seven games in 2014 and lost three contests by a touchdown or less. However, the expectations in Gainesville are higher than finishing 7-5, and this program has just one season of more than eight wins since 2010. McElwain’s background on offense should help a unit that averaged 4.9 yards per play in 2014. Quarterback Treon Harris showed promise in limited action, but the Gators are shorthanded on proven options at receiver, and the offensive line returns only one starter from the Birmingham Bowl depth chart.
Even though end Dante Fowler will be missed, the strength of Florida’s team will once again be the defense. Cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III is among the nation’s top defensive backs, and there’s talent returning in the front seven. McElwain’s arrival should help the offense, but the Gators may have to lean on their defense once again in 2015.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks (7-6, 3-5)
The Gamecocks went into 2014 with East division title aspirations, but coach Steve Spurrier’s team finished with its lowest win total (seven) since 2009. Both sides of the ball enter spring with question marks. The offense must replace quarterback Dylan Thompson, running back Mike Davis and the top two players on the line — tackle Corey Robinson and guard A.J. Cann. Brandon Wilds and David Williams should be an effective one-two punch at running back, and receiver Pharoh Cooper is one of the best in the SEC in 2015, but the losses up front and at quarterback will be tough to overcome.
The defense is in need of major repair after allowing 6.5 yards per play in SEC contests last season. That’s the bad news. On the bright side, South Carolina returns most of its personnel from the final depth chart. Can the returning talent improve after gaining experience and working with the staff in spring ball?
6. Kentucky Wildcats (5-7, 2-6)
Kentucky had a three-game improvement in the win column from 2013 to 2014 and missed out on a bowl by one victory. Third-year coach Mark Stoops has this program moving in the right direction and another step forward should come in 2015. New coordinator Shannon Dawson is tasked with elevating the offense after Neal Brown established a solid foundation over the last two seasons. Quarterback Patrick Towles accounted for 20 touchdowns in 2014, and if he can hold off redshirt freshman Drew Barker, the junior should be poised for a jump in production with the skill talent returning to Lexington next year. The Wildcats bring back Stanley "Boom" Williams, Jojo Kemp and Mikel Horton at running back, while Ryan Timmons, Garrett Johnson and Dorian Baker return at receiver.
While the offense won’t lose much from last season’s group, there are bigger question marks on defense. Ends Za’Darius Smith and Bud Dupree must be replaced, and the secondary loses safety Ashely Lowery. Dupree recorded 7.5 sacks in 2014 and was the team’s top force in the trenches.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores (3-9, 0-8)
James Franklin set the bar high for Derek Mason, and the first-year coach struggled in his debut on West End. The Commodores finished winless in SEC play for the first time since 2009, averaged just 12.8 points in conference games and allowed 5.7 yards per play. Mason decided to shake up the staff following the three-win season and hired veteran play-caller Andy Ludwig to coordinate the offense. Ludwig inherits a veteran offensive line and a talented running back in Ralph Webb, but the quarterback situation is filled with uncertainty. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck each started a game in 2014 and will contend for the job in the spring.
Mason is going to call the defensive signals in 2015 and returns the bulk of the depth chart from a unit that allowed 35.4 points in SEC games. The good news for Mason is there’s plenty of room to grow with a defense that featured several young players receiving major snaps last season.
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