The last time the SEC went back-to-back years without a national title was back in 2004 and 2005. While Alabama came up short in the four-team playoff with a loss to Ohio State, the SEC was still the best conference in the country in 2014. They had the most bowl teams (12), the most bowl wins (7), the best non-conference record (51-12), and had five teams ranked in the top 19 of the final AP Poll.
The SEC has led all conferences with the most players sent to the NFL Draft each season since 2007. It’s going to be hard to see that changing with the way these powerhouses recruit year in and year out. Almost half the teams in the SEC would have a great chance to win any other conference. That’s why there’s no doubt that the SEC champion each year should make the four-team playoff, especially if they come from the stacked West division.
The SEC West may be the strongest it has ever been from top to bottom in 2015. You could make an argument for up to six of the seven teams in that division to win it. The East is by far the inferior division, which has allowed Missouri to surprise the last two years and win it. The Tigers went on to lose to Alabama 42-13 in the SEC Championship Game to prove that they can’t compete with the West’s elite. How will these divisions play out in 2015? Here are my predictions.
SEC West Predictions
T-1st: Alabama (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
The Crimson Tide don’t need a ton of returning starters like most teams to be successful. That’s because they consistently come away with the top recruiting class in the country under Nick Saban. They are primed to capture their eighth straight 10-win season in 2015 despite having just 10 returning starters. They have seven back on defense, and this may be the best stop unit in the country. My concern is with the lack of experience on offense with only three returning starters. They have to play the top two teams from the East in Tennessee and Georgia. I expect the Crimson Tide to lose two SEC games this season, but they get both Ole Miss and LSU at home, and wins in those two contests will give them the tiebreaker into the SEC Championship Game.
T-1st: Ole Miss (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
Hugh Freeze has done a tremendous job of making Ole Miss relevant again. The Rebels were 7-0 last season and ranked #3 in the country following their win over Alabama, but injuries then took their toll. Laquon Treadwell broke his ankle against Auburn while going in for the would-be touchdown in the closing seconds. The Rebels never really recovered, but they still finished 9-4. Now, Freeze has his best team yet with 16 returning starters. Chad Kelly was an absolute stud in leading his team to the NJCAA Title, so I don’t believe the loss of QB Bo Wallace will be that big. Kelly has a great chance to be successful right away with nine starters back on offense. The defense allowed just 16.0 points per game last year and should be one of the best in the country with seven starters back. The Rebels avoid the top three teams from the East, but they do play Alabama and Auburn on the road. I have them losing those two games and finishing in a tie for first in the West, ultimately losing out on the tiebreaker to Alabama.
T-1st: LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
The Tigers have won double-digit games seven times in Les Miles’ 10 seasons on the job. It was a rebuilding year last season in Baton Rouge as the Tigers lost a 3,000-yard pass, a 1,000-yard rusher, and two 1,000-yard receivers from 2013. The end result was an 8-5 record and a 4-4 mark in SEC play. The Tigers were held to 13 or fewer points in three of their losses. The quarterback play must get better, and it figures to be in 2015 because whoever is under center will be surrounded by arguably the best playmakers in the SEC in Leonard Fournette, Travin Dural, Malachi Dupre and company. The Tigers welcome back 15 starts in all and will get back into SEC West title contention. They do play both Alabama and Ole Miss on the road, but they have won five of their past seven trips to Tuscaloosa. I’ll call for LSU to finish 6-2 and tied for first in the West, but it will ultimately lose out on the tiebreaker to get into the championship game.
4th: Texas A&M (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
Kevin Sumlin is one of the most underrated coaches in the country. He had a very young team last year and the Aggies managed to go just 8-5. But with 16 returning starters now and several sophomores who gained valuable playing time as freshmen last year, the Aggies are the biggest sleepers in the West. The offense will be elite with eight starters and loads of talent at the skill positions. But the biggest reason the Aggies are contenders will be the improvement of their defense. Sumlin managed to bring in defensive coordinator John Chavis, who held the same position at LSU over the past six years. Eight starters and 10 of the top 13 tacklers are back from last year. Plus, the Aggies only have three true SEC road games. I’ll call for them to go 5-3 within the conference and to be right in the title discussion all the way up to their season finale at LSU.
5th: Auburn (8-4, 4-4 SEC)
I’m not as big on Auburn this year as most. They were extremely fortunate to make two national title games over the past five years. They won seven games by a touchdown or less in 2010 when they went 14-0, and went 6-1 in games decided by a TD or less while losing to Florida State in the title game in 2013. The Tigers went just 8-5 last year, but they were better than their record as they were second in the SEC in outgaining opponents by 82.3 yards per game. But the offense parts ways with QB Nick Marshall and all of its top playmakers from last year while bringing back just four starters. The defense will be improved as Will Muschamp hs the luxury of coaching eight returning starters. I have the Tigers losing all three of their road games at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M, while also losing one of Alabama, Georgia or Ole Miss at home to finish 4-4 in the SEC.
6th: Arkansas (7-5, 3-5 SEC)
The Razorbacks were the best 7-6 team in the country last year. They shut out then-No. 20 LSU (17-0) and then-No. 8 Ole Miss (30-0) in back-to-back weeks. Four of their six losses came by a touchdown or less to SEC opponents in Alabama, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Missouri. The Razorbacks should be just as good, if not better, in 2015 with 15 returning starters. The offense is in good hands with nine returning starters, led by senior QB Brandon Allen and two 1,000-yard rushers from last year in Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. I am concerned that the defense will take a step back with just six starters returning and the losses of Martrell Spaight (128 tackles, 10.5 for loss) and Trey Flowers (68 tackles, 15.5 for loss). The schedule is also brutal as the Razorbacks get just three true SEC home games. They should beat Auburn, Mississippi State and Missouri at home, but will be an underdog in all four of their road games at LSU, Alabama, Ole Miss and Tennessee. I have them going 3-5 in the SEC against this tough slate.
7th: Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6 SEC)
You could make a case for any team winning the SEC West except for Mississippi State. It is coming off a tremendous 10-3 season that could have been even better. The Bulldogs were 9-0 and ranked #1 in the country for four straight weeks. But they would lose road games to Alabama and Ole Miss to close out the season and cost themselves a shot at the four-team playoff. Then, they put forth a lackluster effort in a 34-49 loss to Georgia Tech in the bowl. Now, the Bulldogs have just seven starters back in 2015 and are by far the least-experienced team in the SEC. At least Heisman trophy contender Dak Prescott returns, but he’s simply going to be asked to do too much. I have the Bulldogs listed as underdogs in seven of their eight SEC games, but I’ll call for them to finish 2-6 within the conference.
SEC East Predictions
1st: Tennessee (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
The Volunteers endured a six-year stretch in which they went 33-41 overall, including 14-34 in SEC play with just two bowls to show for it. But head coach Butch Jones has proven to be the perfect man for the job as he has brought in three straight top-notch recruiting classes to Knoxville. The Vols had zero returning starters along the offensive and defensive lines last year. The started 3-5 against a brutal schedule, but then went 3-1 to close out and dominated Iowa in the bowl. The Vols’ fortunes changed once Josh Dobbs took over at quarterback. He led them to a 4-1 finish while leading the offense to 45 or more points three times. Now, Dobbs is among 18 returning starters, which is tied for the most in the SEC. I have the Vols listed as underdogs in only two games this season, and they get to host Georgia, which will likely decide the East. Tennessee returns to relevance in 2015 by winning the East title.
2nd: Georgia (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
Georgia is the favorite to win the East, but it has been most of the time over the last handful of years because of the lack of competition. I would argue that it was the best team in the East last year as it beat champ Missouri 34-0 on the road, but upset losses to South Carolina and Florida cost it a shot at the conference title. The Bulldogs now return 13 starters, and their offense should be a running machine once again. Nick Chubb (1,547 yards, 14 TD) headlines a loaded backfield, and four starters and 78 career starts return along the offensive line. The defense only allowed 20.7 points per game last year and will have a hard time matching those numbers with only six starters back. What has me picking against Georgia to win the East is that it draws Alabama and Auburn from the West, plus it has to play Tennessee on the road. I have it losing those three games to finish 5-3 within the conference and one win short of the title again.
3rd: Missouri (7-5, 4-4 SEC)
The Tigers went 5-7 in their first season in the SEC and appeared to be overmatched. However, they have proven that has been far from the case by coming out of nowhere to win the East the past two years. They went 12-2 in 2013 and 11-3 last year, which included a 7-1 SEC record during the regular season. They only had eight starters back last year and were picked by the media to finish 6th in the East. Gary Pinkel has proven that you cannot count his team out as he enters his 15th season in Columbia. The Tigers have more experience back in 2015 with 12 returning starters. Unfortunately, I believe Maty Mauk is a liability at quarterback after completing just 53.4 percent of his passes last year. The offense was poor last year, but the defense bailed it out time and time again while allowing just 21.1 points per game. The defense loses arguably its two best players in Markus Golden and Shane Ray to the NFL. The Tigers do benefit from the easiest SEC schedule on paper as their opponents went a combined 26-38 (40.6% ) last year. The draw the two worst teams from the West in Arkansas and Mississippi State, and play Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee at home. While the schedule sets up well for them to compete for another title, I believe the lack of overall talent has the Tigers finishing 4-4 in the conference and third in the SEC East.
T-4th: South Carolina (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
Head coach Steve Spurrier’s incredible streak of three straight 11-win seasons came to a screeching halt last year. The Gameocks needed to beat Miami in the bowl just to finish 6-6. It was clear that they were in trouble when they lost 28-52 to Texas A&M in the opener. The defense played poorly all season, allowing 30.4 points and 433 total yards per game. The stop unit goes from a weakness to a strength this season with eight returning starters. Unfortunately, the offense will take a step back with just four starters back and a new quarterback. They also lose their top two offensive linemen and running back Mike Davis. Road games at Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Missouri will keep the Gamecocks from SEC East title contention. They’ll be a dog in five of their eight SEC games, thus I have them finishing 3-5 within the conference.
T-4th: Florida (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
Oh how Gators fans miss Urban Meyer right about now. The Will Muschamp experiment did not work. The Gators went 7-5 in his final season last year, though three of their five losses did come by five points or less, so they were probably better than that final record would indicate. Jim McElwain was a great hire to revive the offense, but it’s not going to happen overnight, especially with just four returning starters on offense this year. The defense will once again have to carry the load, and that won’t be a problem with seven starters back and one of the top defensive lines and secondaries in the country. But they draw two of the top three teams from the West in LSU and Ole Miss while getting just three true SEC home games. The schedule is going to make life difficult on McElwain in his first season in Gainesville.
6th: Kentucky (6-6, 2-6 SEC)
The Wildcats opened 5-1 last year and were nearly 6-0 with a triple-overtime loss at Florida as their only setback. They appeared destined for a bowl game, but would go 0-6 the rest of the way against the meat of their schedule. The blew a lead late against Louisville in the season finale and lost 40-44 in the ultimate heartbreak. But things are looking up in Lexington because of the job that Mark Stoops has done in recruiting. He now has all of his players in place as he enters his third season at Kentucky. He welcomes back 14 starters to what will be his best team yet. But the Wildcats will be underdogs in seven of their eight SEC games, though they do have winnable home games against Florida and Missouri. I’ll call for them to go 2-6 within the SEC and to beat Louisville at home in the season finale to get to 6-6 and back to a bowl for the first time since 2010.
7th: Vanderbilt (4-8, 1-7 SEC)
Derek Mason had massive shoes to fill when he replaced James Franklin last year. Franklin had won nine games in back-to-back seasons, and the Commodores have only won nine games three times in the 122-year history of their program. Franklin left the cupboard pretty bare for Mason when he bolted for Penn State. The Commodores only had 10 starters back last year and started mostly freshmen and sophomores. They went 3-9 with their only wins coming against UMass, Charleston Southern and Old Dominion. Now, with 18 starters back, there’s no question that they will be one of the most improved teams in the country. The problem is that it’s not going to show up much in the win-loss column because they have so much ground to make up after getting outscored by 16.1 points per game last year. They’ll be underdogs in all eight of their SEC games, and non-conference games against Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Houston are no gimmes, either. I’ll call for a 1-7 finish in SEC play and a 4-8 record overall for the Commodores, whose Vegas win total is set at only 3 games.
SEC Championship Game: Alabama Defeats Tennessee