A season of change has come for the Southeastern Conference.
Gone is the Bowl Championship Series, which the league dominated. Gone is perhaps the best stable of senior quarterbacks the south has ever seen. And with that, perhaps prematurely, gone is the thought nationally that the SEC will remain “the king of the hill.”
One should be advised, however, to hold off on the removal of the crown just yet. Despite Auburn’s last-second loss to Florida State in the 2013 BCS title game that ended the conference’s seven-year run of national championships, the SEC still has plenty of pop in its bat. Gunslingers like Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger, A.J. McCarron and Connor Shaw may have moved on, but the “bullpen” appears well-stocked, and another year of SEC envy from fans across the country not only seems possible, it seems quite probable.
As we enter the era of the College Football Playoff, here is a look at the best league in the land – 2014 edition. We’ll concentrate on Auburn and Alabama, with a few words and predictions on the others. In this state, with a few exceptions, does anyone really care about the other 12?
In the West Division, you have to start with Auburn, the defending league champion. Sure, 2013 at times appeared to be magical, but it’s always about the scoreboard. The development of Nick Marshall through the season was phenomenal, and his reported improvement in passing accuracy makes him even more of a threat. The schedule is difficult, and replacing three guys who will now be playing on Sundays can’t be understated, but the Tigers will be strong, perhaps even better than they were a year ago. PREDICTION: 10-1 headed into the Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa, with more to come about that later.
Alabama lost McCarron and C.J. Mosley, and a few more key contributors, but reloading has become commonplace in Tuscaloosa. Unlike Auburn, the schedule appears favorable, with the Crimson Tide most-likely being a decided favorite in at least three of the four road games. The trip to Baton Rouge will be a huge hurdle, but there doesn’t seem to be much else out there to derail the Tide until, well … I think you know. PREDICTION: 10-1 headed into, without being redundant, the final regular-season game of the year.
On a side note involving the Tigers and the Tide, let’s not get so close to the forest that we fail to enjoy the look of the trees. As football fans in Alabama, it appears that we are about to enjoy a period of time when BOTH Auburn and Alabama are at or near their best, with each having the goal of winning the national championship every year. We’ve had a year here or there when both teams were among the best in the country, but the stretch we’re currently in and should continue in is unprecedented. Enjoy it. And try to stay classy, Alabama.
LSU will be very good again, with a roster filled with incredible talent. The development of a potential freshman backfield featuring quarterback Brandon Harris and running back Leonard Fournette will be the key. PREDICTION: 9-3
What will Texas A&M do without Johnny Football? Probably still score a lot of points with a lot of returning talent on offense, but most likely will surrender its fair share on defense. Kevin Sumlin is a great recruiter, and the Aggies should remain a factor in the league for years to come. PREDICTION: 8-4
Ole Miss has a two-year starter back at quarterback, but inconsistency has been his problem. An excellent quarter followed by a poor one has led to more than a couple of Rebel downfalls. A young roster with great potential will have Ole Miss on the plus side of the ledger. PREDICTION: 7-5
Mississippi State returns dynamic quarterback Dak Prescott, and he’s just one of 18 starters back for the Bulldogs. The expectations seem to be once again unrealistically high, and if State doesn’t meet or exceed them, the chair in Coach Dan Mullen’s office will continue to get warmer. PREDICTION: 7-5
Arkansas will once again be the worst team in the West, but you’d never know it listening to Coach Bret Bielema. Always outspoken, the second-year coach believes his team will be better in 2014. With a new quarterback, and a roster that still doesn’t stack up with the best in the West, most don’t believe him. PREDICTION: 4-8
A quick look at the East Division (quick because, as stated earlier, Auburn and Alabama aren’t in it) reveals a tough nut to crack. If you’re buying that Florida will be healthy, Tennessee improved and Georgia, South Carolina and Missouri won’t miss a beat with relatively new quarterbacks, then you’ve got a neck-and-neck horse race on your hands.
Mark Richt has a fifth-year senior in Hutson Mason at quarterback and perhaps the best running back in the nation in Todd Gurley, and with eight starters back on defense the ‘Dogs should be tough. PREDICTION: 10-2.
This is a key year for Gator coach Will Muschamp, and with a healthy Jeff Driskel and 15 other returning starters, the belief here is that Florida will have the turnaround season this year somewhat reminiscent of Auburn’s in 2013. PREDICTION: 9-3.
Steve Spurrier wakes up every morning saying, “We’ve won 11 games each of the past three years, and that’s never been done before.” Dylan Thompson will replace Shaw at quarterback, and he is good, but the loss of some key contributors on defense, including superstud Jadeveon Clowney, will change Spurrier’s tune. PREDICTION: 8-4
Missouri was in the boat with Auburn as the shockers of 2013, but the guess here is it will come back down to earth in 2014. Maty Mauk, who performed admirably at quarterback last season while James Franklin was out with an injury, has full control of the wheel. PREDICTION: 7-5
Tennessee will be better this season, if for no other reason than head coach Butch Jones has improved the roster talent considerably. It’s way too early for the Vols to be a real factor in the division, however, although that could be coming sooner than most people think. PREDICTION: 7-5
While Vanderbilt could still be fairly good under new coach Derek Mason, and many believe Kentucky is improving under Mark Stoops, neither threaten the best in the SEC. PREDICTIONS: Vanderbilt 6-6; Kentucky 4-8.
Remember that Iron Bowl in Tuscaloosa I referred to earlier? It’s going to amount to a playoff game for the Tigers and the Tide once again, with the winner headed to Atlanta with a chance to win the conference title and a spot in the playoffs. Count on Alabama finding a way, just as its counterpart did a year ago, in both the Iron Bowl against Auburn and in the SEC title game against Georgia.
That would put one SEC team into the four-team playoff bracket. Could there be two? You bet there could, because when you’re dealing with the best league in the country, the more things change, the more they stay the same.