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By Jess Nicholas, TideFans.com Editor-In-Chief
For the past 16 years, TideFans.com has broken out its crystal ball to select who we thought would be likely to win such awards as SEC Coach of the Year, or which coach would find themselves on the hotseat.
Change is needed from time to time, and this article – we’ll call it our 2014 Emerging Trends analysis – will serve to replace the venerable crystal ball, which has been dropped, cracked and cloudied too many times to be useful anymore.
Instead, each SEC team will get its time under the microscope, and we’ll attempt to offer some insight behind the numbers that will come in future articles as we head towards the start of the regular season.
Trending: Up (or at least, they better be)
Reasons: It’s hard to see Florida as being worse in 2014 than in 2013, but honestly, it could happen. Florida returns only three starters on offense and has a big question mark at the quarterback position, where Jeff Driskel simply must improve by several degrees. Head coach Will Muschamp is unquestionably the leader in the clubhouse for the title of SEC Coach With The Hottest Seat, and anything short of eight regular-season wins is going to result in his firing. New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is Muschamp’s third offensive coordinator in as many years and will be under immense pressure to save his boss’ job. In Florida’s favor is the fact the defense, which ranked 8th in the country in 2013, returns mostly intact. Florida will need to rebuild the secondary a bit, but six of the front seven return and the new starter is JLB Dante Fowler, who could be the best player on that side of the ball.
Possible pitfalls: If Driskel isn’t healthy, or gets hurt again, Florida will be lucky to make a bowl. Placekicker Austin Hardin also must improve on his 4-for-12 numbers from last year.
Reasons: There’s no good reason for why Georgia finished 8-5 last year with all the offensive weapons the Bulldogs had at their disposal. Even with the injuries Georgia had at the running back position, losses to Vanderbilt, Missouri and Nebraska could have easily been avoided, and the loss at Auburn due to a fluke play never should have happened. Georgia returns 10 starters from a year ago, but the defense underachieved badly, and Jeremy Pruitt was brought in from Florida State to take over the unit as a result. Georgia’s out-of-conference schedule includes both Clemson and Georgia Tech, so things aren’t going to be easy, and someone has to replace Aaron Murray under center. But it’s hard to see Georgia not improving over 8-5.
Possible pitfalls: Mark Richt’s management style will always be a potential trouble spot for Georgia. His buddy-buddy demeanor and lack of consistent discipline has been indirectly responsible for several Georgia losses over the years. On a more technical note, replacing four OL starters while simultaneously breaking in a new quarterback is never a good thing.
Reasons: First and foremost, Mark Stoops has something to prove from a coaching acumen standpoint. The Wildcats went 2-10 last season, at least partially due to the fact that Stoops insisted on running a tempo offense without tempo personnel. Air Raid-style offenses rarely work in the SEC due to the amount of speed in opposing secondaries, and Kentucky just doesn’t have the talent on offense to make an honest attempt at it. Defensively, Stoops was able to get the pass defense at least to the starting blocks of the right track, but the front seven got gashed the entire year and the loss of both starting tackles and the team’s middle linebacker may be too much to overcome. Offensively, Kentucky might play as many as four different quarterbacks, which is another way of saying the Wildcats don’t have a quarterback. If it was possible to rate Kentucky as “trending down,” we would have, but it’s hard to go lower than 2-10.
Possible pitfalls: The secondary will have a couple of new starters, and as a group, must prove able to hold their own until the new front seven coalesces. If that doesn’t happen, it’s Katy-bar-the-door time and Kentucky might set a few records for defensive futility.
Reasons: Missouri simply lost too much to graduation at the end of last season, not to mention the defection of WR Dorial Green-Beckham, whose immaturity finally caught up with him. As a result, Missouri will enter 2014 with nothing but question marks on both the outsides of its defense and the offensive skill group. The Tigers lost both defensive ends, both outside linebackers and both cornerbacks, and this was a defense that had a hard time stopping anything anyway. Offensively, Green-Beckham might have been a headcase, but he had become an effective headcase, and there’s not much of a chance that Bud Sasser is going to be able to replace him. Quarterback Maty Mauk should be fine, but the graduation of tailback Henry Josey leaves a huge hole that the Tigers likely will not fill.
Possible pitfalls: We’re speaking here in terms of whether Missouri can get bowl-eligible. The out-of-conference schedule includes improving Toledo and Indiana, as well as rising power UCF. Inside the conference, the schedule is manageable – Arkansas is one of the Tigers’ West opponents – but an injury to Mauk, LT Mitch Morse or MLB Kentrell Brothers would flip the scenario.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick down
Reasons: No Connor Shaw, no Jadeveon Clowney. That pretty much sums up the issue, although there are others. Chief among the second tier of concerns is the secondary, which is being rebuilt to a great degree. DT Kelcy Quarles’ departure will also be felt, especially considering South Carolina had trouble stopping the run last year even with Quarles in the game. As for the quarterback position, senior Dylan Thompson will get first crack at it, but everyone knows Steve Spurrier can’t miss an opportunity to crank up a quarterback controversy, which is why Connor Mitch is virtually guaranteed to get a shot. The running game should be stout, and South Carolina has a talented group of receivers and tight ends. The Gamecocks could win 10 games again, but that might be the very tip top of the range of possibilities.
Possible pitfalls: Defensively, this will not be a big team, and there is concern that 2014’s set of defensive ends won’t be able to live up to expectations. South Carolina used a lot of smoke and mirrors to cover up talent deficiencies in 2013, and more of the same will be needed this year.
Reasons: The “Down” rating comes with an asterisk, because Butch Jones has shown to be a capable recruiter and might eventually recruit himself out of the cellar even if he can’t coach himself out of it. In the short term, though, this might be the worst team in the league; only Kentucky stands in the Volunteers’ way of taking that title. The main reason for this? Turnover in the offensive line; namely, the fact that Tennessee has to replace all five starters from last year and might be looking at multiple walk-ons in the depth chart heading into the first game. Defensively, six of the front seven will also be either new, or will be veterans returning from injury. True freshmen occupy nearly half the expected spots in the two-deep, and the kicking game will also be in rookie hands.
Possible pitfalls: Everything. There’s a quarterback controversy brewing, the secondary returns mostly intact (hint: that’s not a good thing, check the 2013 stats) there is no playmaker at tailback, and – perhaps most important of all – Jones is far from a sure thing as the head coach. Tennessee’s schedule is also a nightmare, with Utah State a serious threat in the season-opener, and a road trip to Oklahoma coming in Week 3.
Reasons: James Franklin is the closest thing college football has to the next Nick Saban at this point, a dynamic recruiter and visionary leader who, had be stuck it out in Nashville a couple more years, might have actually gotten this woebegone program into the SEC Championship Game. Vandy did a good job in getting Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason to take over for Franklin, but it’s just impossible to imagine how the Commodores could back up a 9-4 season, especially with the losses this team suffered on defense. Vanderbilt will need to replace its entire secondary, find playmakers at wide receiver, and especially hope that LSU transfer Stephen Rivers is a suitable replacement at quarterback for Austyn Carta-Samuels. The worst part of losing Franklin, though, was it torpedoed the Commodores’ recruiting efforts, as Vanderbilt lost 12 commitments shortly after Franklin left for Happy Valley. Mason looks like a good long-term replacement for Franklin, but will he bolt Nashville after a couple of seasons?
Possible pitfalls: A lot hinges on Rivers, who never seemed to develop at LSU. Just as important, though, is the depth chart at receiver and tight end, which currently finds just one upperclassman in the two-deep at those positions. The ever-present depth concerns on defense could also become an issue with just one or two injuries.
Reasons: In sort of the reverse of Kentucky’s situation, it’s hard to trend up from where Alabama has found itself in recent years. Alabama’s season came apart in the loss to Auburn, but the issue for the 2014 team is not the way the 2013 team closed out the year, it’s a simple matter of replacing talent. The offensive skill positions are top-notch, and the defense appeared to come together in the spring. Although Alabama only counts five returning starters on the defensive side, several of the new starters had spot starting experience over the last two seasons. Alabama’s biggest impediment to taking the next step up – which simply stated is winning another national championship – might be the special teams, which looked disjointed in the spring. Other than that, there’s nothing Alabama needs to do that it hasn’t done multiple times in its past: replace a starting quarterback, get tougher on defense, stabilize a secondary. Alabama will enter the season as the preseason favorite to win the conference, and for good reason.
Possible pitfalls: If Jacob Coker isn’t the answer at quarterback, or if Blake Sims can’t improve on his choppy A-Day performance, Alabama will have to win in spite of the quarterback and not because of it. Whether that’s possible in modern-day football is another matter. The offensive line also needs to jell together quickly, and there were issues in the spring with the left side. Continued injury problems in the secondary won’t help.
Reasons: Long-term, Arkansas won’t stay in the 3-9/4-8 range for long. But in the short term, this is a team in need of serious help. Based on returning experience, the offensive line figures to be the team’s best unit, but even that unit isn’t very good. The defense was gutted by graduation, except for the secondary, which has talent issues. The wide receiver corps lacks explosiveness, there’s a new kicker in town and the quarterback situation is dismal. If starter Brandon Allen gets knocked out for any reason, it’s season over. Arkansas will go into its opener at Auburn on a nine-game losing streak, and shows no signs of avoiding advancing the streak into double digits.
Possible pitfalls: Aside from the quarterback issue, potential injuries in the defensive front seven would be next in line in terms of things that cause sleepless nights among the coaching staff. Depth all around just isn’t where it needs to be for this team to succeed.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick down
Reasons: Auburn is in a transition, somewhat, due to issues on defense and special teams. Freshmen will be expected to carry the load in the kicking game, but the same thing that ultimately cost Auburn the national championship in 2013 threatens to be the Tigers’ undoing in 2014 – namely, a defense that can’t stop the pass. There is plenty of experience in the Auburn secondary, but like Tennessee’s group, when the experience in question has been consistently poor in its execution (106th in pass defense in 2013), it’s not necessarily an advantage to have the same guys back. Offensively, Nick Marshall will need to be more dynamic as a passer in 2014, but he has solid weapons at receiver, tight end and running back. The offensive line is deep and experienced. On the flip side, there’s no question that Auburn got supremely lucky against Georgia and perhaps Alabama as well in 2013, and counting on luck is a fool’s game. Was this really a 12-2 team in 2013, or a 10-3/9-4 team that overachieved?
Possible pitfalls: The SEC is experimenting with an extra official on the field and a lot of the pressure the HUNH offense has put on officials the last couple of years will be dialed back by design in 2014. The defensive substitution rules have also been changed somewhat, and Auburn will be hurt more than most if teams take full advantage. As far as the Auburn team itself goes, the defensive line isn’t particularly deep on the corners, and if the Tigers can’t replace Dee Ford’s pass-rushing ability, a unit that badly needs to take a step forward might instead fall backwards.
Reasons: If LSU can fix the quarterback position – not a small task, but doable nonetheless – this team has to be considered a threat to win 10 regular-season games, something it didn’t do in 2013. A veteran offensive line, linebacker corps and secondary make this a sturdy team, and there are plenty of weapons on offense. The biggest point of concern outside of quarterback, where Anthony Jennings will try to be more Matt Mauck than Jordan Jefferson, is defensive tackle. Anthony Johnson never lived up to billing, but Ego Ferguson made up the difference by overachieving in his final year. LSU ranked just 35th in rush defense and it’s hard to imagine the Tigers improving in 2014 in the face of such personnel losses, but if the Tigers can figure out a way to do it, they’ll challenge Alabama and Auburn for the division.
Possible pitfalls: If Jennings can’t get more consistent, LSU might be in trouble. His bowl game performance wasn’t the best and things didn’t get much better during spring drills. The only real alternative is a true freshman, Brandon Harris. While most defensive observers will be focusing on the interior line, the secondary, specifically the safety positions, could be just as troublesome. Given that middle linebacker D.J. Welter is borderline, being weak up the middle of the entire defense could spell doom.
Reasons: Depth is solidifying thanks to the recruiting efforts of Hugh Freeze, and a defense with nine returning starters makes Ole Miss a darkhorse threat to compete in the SEC West in 2014. The receiver corps is steady, there is talent at the running back position and QB Bo Wallace, although not a top-end talent, is probably the best of a thin SEC QB crop. The linebacker corps and secondary look solid, albeit not spectacular. Still, this isn’t a team ready to take a big step up to the elite level just yet. The defensive line needs more beef in the middle, Wallace is a liability as often as he is a strength, and the kicking game is in the hands of babes. The biggest challenge of all, though, will be to stabilize an offensive line that will be breaking in three new starters and wasn’t that good to begin with in 2013.
Possible pitfalls: The defensive backfield exceeded expectations in 2013, so if those results were just anomalies, the defense could be in trouble. The defensive line also failed to live up to its potential in 2013 and if Ole Miss doesn’t get some improvement here, it could get ugly. The schedule also does the Rebels no favors.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick up
Reasons: Due to so-so recruiting, Mississippi State seems destined to remain a blue-collar team that is nothing more than just a tough out for top teams, but 2014 could be a different story. The Bulldogs fashioned a solid defense in 2013 and most of the key players return for 2014. The real reason for optimism, though, is QB Dak Prescott, who finally gives State something to shout about under center. He’s twice as dynamic as Chris Relf ever was, and when he took over for Tyler Russell mid-year, it had more to do with his much higher upside and lack of questionable decision-making than it did Russell’s injury history. Unfortunately for the Bulldogs, there are some positions at which they just don’t measure up to the Alabamas and LSUs of the world. MSU is average at best at running back and safety, special teams have been an albatross at times and athleticism at the wide receiver position will be an issue likely for the entirety of Dan Mullen’s Starkville tenure.
Possible pitfalls: If Prescott gets hurt, it’s not clear how well Damian Williams could fill the void. The reality of the situation for Mississippi State is that MSU is only a contender if the team avoids all injuries to key personnel, as depth is an issue everywhere. Additional concerns include Benardrick McKinney’s health at middle linebacker and pass-rush pressure from the defensive end slots.
Reasons: No more Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans or Jake Matthews. Texas A&M is still a talented team, but any Aggie fan who believes A&M won’t feel the effects of those three particular personnel losses needs to spend some time in the care of Nurse Ratched. Either Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill will take over at quarterback, and while neither is Manziel, Texas A&M should be in solid hands long-term. The bigger issue is what will happen at the other skill positions. The Aggies will be dependent upon true freshmen and former role players at receiver, while Tre Carson and Trey Williams should be solid at running back but not the threat that Ben Malena was – especially with defenses not having to account for Manziel. The problem that no one is really addressing at the moment, though, is the defense – all of it. Texas A&M had a terrible defense all around in 2013, and no one expects it to be much better in 2014. The secondary is awful, and the linebacker corps lacks athleticism. A&M should be marginally better up front. Special teams will keep them in some games, but the Aggies’ biggest asset at the moment is a friendly schedule that features just one decent opponent (South Carolina) prior to the start of October.
Possible pitfalls: Luke Joeckel gave way to former right tackle Jake Matthews at left tackle in 2013, and Texas A&M is hoping Cedric Ogbuehi can make the same move over in 2014. But Ogbuehi lacks the footwork Joeckel and Matthews had, and the move destabilizes the right side of the line. The quarterback situation will depend on things like if Kenny Hill continues to have off-field problems or if Kyle Allen can hold up to SEC defenses as a true freshman, but there is no way to overstate how important it is for A&M to get better – quickly – on defense.
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