The SEC has owned college football over the last decade. The only real question is which conference is in second place? The SEC had won seven straight national titles coming into 2013. They would get a shot to make it eight in a row as Auburn came out of nowhere and won the SEC to set up a game against Florida State in the BCS Championship.
It appeared that the SEC completely overmatched the ACC through the first portion of that contest as the Tigers jumped out to a 21-3 lead. However, the Seminoles would convert a fake punt that turned the momentum in their favor, and they eventually came back to win 34-31. Heisman Trophy winner Jameis Winston found Kelvin Benjamin on a game-winning touchdown strike with only 13 seconds to play in one of the most thrilling championship games of all-time.
Missouri also surprised last year and won the SEC East out of nowhere. Will there be two more huge surprises in 2014? Here is how I have the SEC playing out this season with my projected standings and records for each team.
SEC West Predictions
1. Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC) – The Crimson Tide have won three national titles in the past five years, but none of them came when they were ranked No. 1 in the preseason AP Poll. Well, Florida State will be the No. 1 team this year, so they have that going for them. Also, the last two times that Nick Saban has had a first-year starting QB, Alabama has won it all. The Tide only play one SEC road game this year against a team that had a winning conference record last season. I do have them losing to LSU or Ole Miss on the road, but one SEC loss will be enough to win the West in 2014.
2. LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC) – The Tigers became the first team in the SEC to have a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard receivers last year. Their offense is sure to take a step back as all four of those guys are gone, but I look for the defense to make up for it. LSU has been a national title contender in recent years because of defense, and they’ll get back to that philosophy in 2014 with seven starters and eight of the top 11 tacklers returning on D. They do have to play Auburn and Florida on the road in back-to-back weeks, but they draw Alabama at home this year, which automatically makes them an SEC West contender.
3. Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3 SEC) – The Ole Miss Rebels enter year three under Hugh Freeze, who has completely turned around this program. This should be his best team yet with 15 starters back from three excellent recruiting classes. The schedule sets up well as the Rebels avoid the top three teams in the East in Florida, South Carolina and Georgia. The road schedule is very manageable with trips to Vanderbilt, Texas A&M and Arkansas that they should win. They also get Alabama at home, which could help them become the surprise team in the West. They have nine starters back on defense, making this one of the best stop units in the conference.
3. Mississippi State (9-3, 5-3 SEC) – The Bulldogs are the other team that I believe could surprise in the West. They were not all that impressive last year, going just 7-6 after winning their final three games of the season, but they have the most returning starters (16) in the entire SEC this year. Dak Prescott is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country when healthy. They schedule sets up well as they draw the worst two teams from the SEC East in Kentucky and Vanderbilt. They will likely lose at Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, but I have them running the table the rest of the way for a solid 5-3 finish within the conference.
5. Auburn (8-4, 4-4 SEC) – The Tigers were very fortunate last year to get to the national title game. The same thing happened back in 2010 when they had seven wins by a touchdown or less en route to going 14-0. Last year, the Tigers had six wins by a TD or less. While this team is talented with 14 starters back, I look for them not to get all of the lucky breaks in 2014. They also draw Georgia and South Carolina from the East, and they have to play Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia and Mississippi State on the road. Auburn will be one of the most disappointing teams in the SEC in 2014 as expectations are high off last year’s surprise run.
6. Texas A&M (6-6, 2-6 SEC) – Johnny Manziel had another Heisman-caliber season in 2013, but could only lead the Aggies to a 9-4 record this time around. With Manziel, wide receiver Mike Evans and offensive tackle Jake Matthews being selected in the first round of the 2014 NFL Draft, the Aggies have a ton of production to replace. The offense will take the biggest hit with only five starters back, but the defense should be much better with nine starters returning from a soft unit that gave up 32.2 points and 476 yards per game last year. Texas A&M does draw South Carolina and Missouri from the East. I have it going 0-4 on the road in SEC play with losses to South Carolina, Mississippi State, Alabama and Auburn. The losses are simply too big for the Aggies to compete at a high level in 2014.
6. Arkansas (5-7, 2-6 SEC) – While I expect the Razorbacks to be one of the most improved teams in the SEC statistically, I just don’t see it showing up that much in the win-loss column. They have 14 starters back and enter the second year under Bret Bielema, who is a run-first coach that needs some time to get his recruits in place. The schedule is very tough as the Razorbacks draw Georgia and Missouri from the East. Fayetteville is a tough place to play historically, but with Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss all visiting this year, the Razorbacks would be fortunate to come away with one home win. That means their most winnable games come on the road against Texas A&M, Mississippi State, Missouri and Auburn.
SEC East Predictions
1. Florida (10-2, 6-2 SEC) – Last year was a season that the Gators would like to forget. They were decimated by injuries, and their disappointing 4-8 campaign included a first-ever loss to an FCS opponent in Georgia Southern. So, you are laughing right now at my choice of Florida to win the SEC East? That’s understandable, but I look for improved health and 14 returning starters to lead to a big turnaround. Remember, this team went 11-2 in 2012 behind a top-notch defense, and the stop unit will be one of the best in the SEC again. The Gators do draw both Alabama and LSU from the West, which are the two games they will likely lose, but they only have three true SEC road games. They get South Carolina at home and play Georgia on a neutral field. Two wins in those two contests will have them winning the tiebreaker and going to the SEC Championship Game in 2014.
1. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2 SEC) – The only thing missing from Steve Spurrier’s résumé since joining South Carolina is an SEC Championship. He has guided the Gamecocks to three straight 11-2 seasons. They are sure to be an SEC East contender once again in 2014 with 14 starters returning. There are some big losses, however. Quarterback Connor Shaw threw 24 touchdowns to one interception last year and willed this team to victory after victory. Shaw has graduated, while defensive end Jadeveon Clowney was taken No. 1 overall by the Houston Texans in the 2014 NFL Draft. The offense is sure to miss Shaw, and the defense only has six starters back. I do have the Gamecocks beating Georgia at home but losing to Florida on the road, which will have them settling for a tie for first in the SEC East, but losing out in the title game via tiebreaker.
1. Georgia (10-2, 6-2 SEC) – Like Florida, the Bulldogs were destroyed by injuries to several key players. Quarterback Aaron Murry went down, and the top two running backs in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall each missed time. The offense still managed 36.7 points and 484 yards per game, but the defense had just three starters back last year and yielded 29.0 points per contest, which was the most at Georgia since 1905. The defense will be vastly improved with eight starters back, and the offense should be explosive with Gurley and Marshall back to lead the way. Unfortunately, I have the Bulldogs suffering a road loss to South Carolina and a neutral site loss to Florida to miss out in the SEC Championship game due to the tiebreaker.
4. Tennessee (6-6, 3-5 SEC) – Butch Jones has put together back-to-back excellent recruiting classes, so the Vols are really only a year or two away from seriously contending for an SEC East title. They only have 10 starters back this year, but those young, talented recruits should start paying off in a big way as early as 2014. The problem is that they draw both Alabama and Ole Miss from the West. This team could be 0-5 in SEC play and 3-6 overall with three games to play. Then, they get Kentucky and Missouri at home, and finish with Vanderbilt on the road. I look for the Vols to win all three of those games to get back to a bowl game for the first time since 2010.
4. Missouri (7-5, 3-5 SEC) – The Tigers had an absolute dream season last year by finishing 12-2 and winning the SEC East. That came a year after going 5-7 in their first campaign as an SEC team. What was most impressive about that 12-win season was the fact that 11 of those victories came by double-digits. Unfortunately, the Tigers lose nearly all of their key players from last year, including quarterback James Franklin, top rusher Henry Josey, and the top three receivers. Only eight starters return for Missouri. The only thing saving it is a soft schedule as it draws the worst two teams from the West in Arkansas and Texas A&M. The Tigers get Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Arkansas at home, and Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road. All five of those contests are winnable, but I only have them coming away with three SEC victories in 2014.
6. Kentucky (4-8, 1-7 SEC) – Like Jones at Tennessee, head coach Mark Stoops has put together two straight solid recruiting classes to really put Kentucky on the map. This team should be much-improved statistically after going 0-8 in SEC play last year while getting outscored 118-291. The Wildcats have 15 starters back, including 10 of their top 12 tacklers on defense. They will have one of the better defensive lines in the SEC after yielding 197 yards per game and 4.9 per carry on the ground a year ago. The schedule is tough as they draw both LSU and Mississippi State from the West. They will likely beat Vanderbilt at home, and while they will be more competitive in their other seven SEC games, I have them losing all seven to finish 1-7 within the conference.
7. Vanderbilt (4-8, 0-8 SEC) – You simply cannot replace a head coach like James Franklin. Vanderbilt had just one nine-win season in 122 years before Franklin led it to back-to-back 9-4 campaigns the past two seasons. With only 10 starters back, the Commodores will almost certainly fall back to the SEC East basement, which is where they could be found consistently before Franklin arrived. They lose wide receiver Jordan Matthews, who became the first wide receiver in SEC history with 100 receptions last year. Six of the top eight tacklers are gone from a defense that returns only four starters. The SEC home schedule is brutal with Ole Miss, South Carolina and Florida all visiting Nashville. The Commodores will even be an underdog to Tennessee at home in the finale, and they’ll be a dog in all eight conference games. I have them falling to 0-8 within the SEC in Derek Mason’s first year on the job in 2014.
SEC Championship Game: Alabama Defeats Florida
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