By Jess Nicholas
Dec. 14, 2014
The 2014 season isn’t over, but this is a good pause point to discuss the way the regular season played out – and to take a look at where teams were projected to finish, versus how they actually finished.
Listed here are all 14 SEC teams, split into divisions, with their current records in bold type and our preseason predictions in italic type [ed. note: linked to the 2014 preview for the team]. And for those who have forgotten TideFans.com’s preseason picks for college football’s inaugural final four playoff, our picks included Florida State in second, Alabama in third and Ohio State in fourth. The team we missed? Read on to find out.
1. Alabama (11-1, 7-1) (11-1, 7-1)
WHAT WORKED: Alabama finished 11-1 and did it in typical Nick Saban fashion, losing a single SEC game before bouncing back and qualifying for end-of-year playoffs. Alabama just didn’t do it in the way most people expected. With the amount of depth and returning experience on the Alabama defense, most observers probably thought the defense would carry the offense, especially with new QB Blake Sims leading the charge while trying to fend off Jake Coker at the same time. Instead, it was the offense that exploded behind Sims, WR Amari Cooper and the playcalling acumen of Lane Kiffin, who proved to be a substantial upgrade over Doug Nussmeier, whose offense looked ultra-conservative by comparison. Kiffin’s insistence in turning Alabama into a deep-throwing, up-tempo team – Alabama averaged more plays per game than the kings of speed, Auburn – probably proved to be the difference in the long run. Alabama’s offensive line, while rarely dominating, was more consistent than in 2013 and allowed Kiffin to work from a complete play sheet. Newcomer P J.K. Scott nearly won the Ray Guy Award and over the course of the season, became the league’s top special teams player. Defensively, Alabama relied on heavier rotation of its defensive linemen, which covered for growing pains at inside linebacker.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Once again, the placekicking has been a sore spot. Adam Griffith injured his back early in the year and his accuracy suffered tremendously because of it. Alabama finally went to walk-on Gunnar Raborn late in the year for a couple of games. While Alabama’s rushing attack ranked 34th in the country – not a bad number – T.J. Yeldon’s health kept him from being a consistent force. Alabama battled inconsistency and injury issues at tight end, and even now, the Crimson Tide is unsettled at the cornerback position opposite Cyrus Jones. Alabama also finished on the negative side of the turnover margin line.
2. Mississippi State (10-2, 6-2) (7-5, 3-5)
WHAT WORKED: TideFans.com mentioned MSU as the potential darkhorse team in the SEC, but even we probably didn’t foresee it in the degree that it eventually came to pass. The Bulldogs won 10 games mostly behind QB Dak Prescott, a veteran offensive line that overachieved and a wide receiver corps that finally played up to its potential. Defensively, the Bulldogs were strong along the front seven, and RB Josh Robinson ran up nearly 1,500 all-purpose yards while showing impressive balance and durability. Prescott finally gave Dan Mullen an ideal type to have under center in his preferred spread-option attack, probably the first Mullen has coached since being Tim Tebow’s offensive coordinator at Florida.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: To the surprise of many, Mississippi State’s pass defense was terrible. The Bulldogs ranked 122nd in raw pass defense, although the Bulldogs did much better in efficiency defense (28th). Special teams were sketchy and unpredictable. The worst, though, was the way Mississippi State finished the year, losing to both Alabama and Ole Miss, with the Bulldogs looking in both games as if they weren’t quite ready for the big stage. This is a team that figures to lose a ton of productive players to the pros next spring, and if Prescott joins them, the 2015 season could be a long one.
3. Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3) (9-3, 5-3)
WHAT WORKED: Ole Miss’ defense became one of the most versatile and effective defenses in the country, particularly the linebackers and defensive backs. Hugh Freeze combined a hugely successful pair of recruiting classes with experienced red-chip players brought in by former coach Houston Nutt to form up a defense few opponents could figure out. Only Auburn looked to have any real success against the Rebel defense; a 30-0 loss to Arkansas was more the product of a team giving up once knocked out of the championship process. Offensively, the Rebels’ wide receiver corps was among the best in the conference until Laquon Treadwell’s injury, and the offensive line played far above expectations.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: The Rebels never developed an inside running game, something that Freeze probably has now figured out that he’ll have to have going forward. Quarterback Bo Wallace never developed into a consistent playmaker, and Ole Miss continued to struggle on special teams. Wallace’s meltdown in a loss to LSU, followed by Treadwell’s injury and late-game fumble against Auburn, effectively ended the Rebels’ season, and the lack of effort in a loss to Arkansas showed that Freeze is still having to deal with elements of his team that can’t handle adversity.
4. Auburn (8-4, 4-4) (9-3, 5-3)
WHAT WORKED: Auburn continued to be one of the conference’s most feared teams thanks to an offense that proved capable of exploding on any given play. RB Cameron Artis-Payne led the league in rushing, while a wide receiver corps led by Sammie Coates and D’haquille Williams created matchup problems for all opposing secondaries. Special teams began the year misfiring, but in typical Auburn fashion, had righted themselves by year’s end. The offensive line certainly missed Greg Robinson, but the job the remaining players did was certainly good enough.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Defensively, everything. Auburn has chewed through acres of defensive coaches lately and defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson was fired at season’s end. Despite a veteran makeup, Auburn’s defensive backs were again a liability and the linebacker group was average on its best day. An injury to DE Carl Lawson significantly cut into Auburn’s pass-rushing abilities, but the defensive line as a whole underachieved. Offensively, QB Nick Marshall wasn’t bad, but he didn’t progress from his junior year. Auburn also never found a tight end or a fullback, key positions in its offensive system.
5. LSU (8-4, 4-4) (10-2, 6-2)
WHAT WORKED: The surprise here is that LSU finished 8-4, given how poorly the offense played. But that’s because the defense was so solid. The Tiger secondary changed games all year, and once LSU inserted Kendell Beckwith into the lineup at middle linebacker, the second line of the defense went from porous to stupendous. Offensively, true freshman RB Leonard Fournette took some time to get rolling, but by the end of the year was one of the most feared backs in the SEC. LSU’s offensive line was again stalwart, and the receiving corps has talent. Special teams weren’t the best LSU has had, but the Tigers didn’t suffer for them.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Quarterback, quarterback and quarterback. LSU’s struggles could almost be solely pinned on the position, as neither Anthony Jennings nor Brandon Harris looked capable of doing the job. Jennings was a one-read quarterback who lost composure when the chips were down; Harris was overwhelmed in his lone start. LSU also fought depth issues and a pure lack of size at the defensive tackle position, something only better recruiting can fix. The Tigers also need an upgrade at tight end after decades of having some of the best players in the SEC at the position.
6. Texas A&M (7-5, 3-5) (8-4, 4-4)
WHAT WORKED: Good scheduling. Had Texas A&M’s out-of-conference schedule not been Lamar, Rice, SMU and Louisiana-Monroe, this could have been a disastrous year. The Aggies once again had one of the most prolific passing attacks in the country, and the special teams units were probably tops in the league when taken as a group. While the Aggies missed Mike Evans at receiver, they appeared to be able to grow a second crop of receivers right out of the ground.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: There was almost too many to list. The drama began early when QB Kenny Hill decided he needed to pick a nickname and trademark it in advance of becoming the next Johnny Manziel. He was benched midway through the season, though, and Kyle Allen looks to have the job on a permanent basis now. The Aggies attempted to develop more of a true rushing attack, but it didn’t work. Defensively, the struggles continued, mostly due to a linebacker corps that was more Conference USA than SEC in its makeup. Texas A&M couldn’t stop the pass despite having several NFL prospects in its secondary, and the defensive line was manhandled for much of the year. Coaches also talked of making TE Cameron Clear more of a weapon in the Aggie offense, but he was transparent for most of the season.
7. Arkansas (6-6, 2-6) (3-9, 0-8)
WHAT WORKED: Bret Bielema was determined to run the ball at all costs and starting at roughly the midpoint of the season, it finally began to work. The Razorbacks leveraged impressive depth at the running back position along with a massive offensive line and started pounding defenses into submission. But the biggest change took place on the defensive side of the ball, where Razorback defensive coaches turned a bunch of recruiting also-rans into one of the SEC’s stingiest units, showing particular prowess against the run despite a linebacker corps that was decidedly not special in any way. Bielema’s ability to identify and recruit good offensive linemen who aren’t considered blue chips may be the biggest advantage of all.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Arkansas can easily get to 8-4/9-3 territory with its current offense, but it’s not going to be a consistent contender for division and league titles until it can pass the ball. The talent deficiency at quarterback was noticeable, and it doesn’t appear to be getting better. The Razorbacks ranked 80th in red zone offense and it had a lot to do with quarterbacks that no defense felt the need to fear.
1. Missouri (10-3, 7-1) (7-5, 4-4)
WHAT WORKED: For the second year in a row, Missouri was the surprise team in the SEC East. The Tigers mostly did it with defense and by catching the SEC West rotation just right. The Tigers played Arkansas and Texas A&M, the West’s bottom two teams, but still managed to lose to lowly Indiana out of conference. The Tigers replaced Michael Sam with Shane Ray at defensive end and never missed a beat, continually harassing quarterbacks and causing trouble for spread offenses with its superior team speed. Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt stepped up their games at wide receiver, and special teams were good enough.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: QB Maty Mauk was decent in his debut season as a starter, but Missouri ranked 94th in passing offense, much the result of Mauk’s often-limited field vision. The Tiger offensive line was sketchy at best, with the guard positions being among the worst in the league. Defensively, Missouri didn’t have enough bulk to shut down most power offenses. While the Tigers did very well against Arkansas, both Georgia and Alabama trucked them and Gary Pinkel’s staff isn’t closing the gap in recruiting.
2. Georgia (9-3, 6-2) (12-0, 8-0)
WHAT WORKED: Defensively, the Bulldogs took some steps forward, which they’ll need to continue to do in future seasons. The Bulldogs were 2nd in raw pass defense and 11th in pass efficiency defense, despite fielding a secondary that few people respected in the preseason. The rushing attack was strong once again, with Georgia stockpiling running backs and deploying them one after the other, even as injuries claimed a couple during the season. Georgia ranked 4th in turnover margin and QB Hutson Mason was 9th in passing efficiency. The highlight of the season was a 34-7 smash-up of Auburn that proved Auburn’s hurry-up, no-huddle attack could be human after all.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Mason might have been an efficient quarterback, but he wasn’t capable of leading the Bulldogs back from the brink. Special teams, usually a Mark Richt hallmark, weren’t always the best. But the biggest problem of all was one that has plagued Georgia for years – a lack of defensive discipline. Georgia lost its poise against Georgia Tech, while also suffering bad losses to Florida and South Carolina. Georgia ranked 77th in rushing defense despite having plenty of talent in the front seven.
3. Florida (6-5, 4-4) (7-5, 4-4)
WHAT WORKED: Despite giving up 42 points to both Missouri and Alabama, Will Muschamp’s defense finished the year with strong rankings in all categories. The Gators did a good job stopping both the run (12th) and the pass (23rd) and finished 9th in total defense. Florida also committed to redeveloping its running game and although the Gators ranked just 41st in the country, the effectiveness of the Gator running backs was a lot better than 41st in crunch time.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Muschamp was fired just before the end of the season, mostly due to his inability to craft a competent offense during his tenure despite swapping coordinators on an almost-yearly basis. Florida couldn’t pass the ball, mostly because QB Jeff Driskel never developed after his freshman season. Treon Harris could be the long-term answer in a spread-type system, but he often struggled with Florida’s plan. Florida also suffered breakdowns in special teams at times, and Muschamp’s fate was sealed after being close several times without being able to get over the hump. The fact the Gators still finished third in the East is sort of astounding.
4. Tennessee (6-6, 3-5) (4-8, 1-7)
WHAT WORKED: Nothing was working until Tennessee finally pulled the redshirt off QB Joshua Dobbs in the middle of the Alabama game. From that point forward, Tennessee went from being a mildly challenging team to being a significantly tough out due to improvement in the offense. The Vols were 3-1 with Dobbs as the starter, losing only to division champion Missouri. Aside from Dobbs, Tennessee made most of its improvements on the defensive side of the ball, where several oft-injured veterans managed to keep it all together for the season. The improvement in the secondary was most welcomed, and Tennessee developed an edge rush.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: The Volunteers never developed a running game, ranking 100th in the country there. RB Jalen Hurd has potential in spades, and Dobbs is a dual threat, but a combination of the worst offensive line in the conference and some questionable playcalling from Butch Jones’ staff made running the ball a chore. Tennessee’s wide receiver group failed to take much of a step forward in development, which might be the more concerning issue. Despite the improvement on the defensive side of the ball, Tennessee ranked a dead-last 125th in the country in red zone defense.
5. South Carolina (6-6, 3-5) (11-1, 7-1)
WHAT WORKED: Honestly, not much – but the Gamecocks did manage to return to being more of an offensive team, something erstwhile offensive genius Steve Spurrier had not managed to do in recent years. The Gamecocks ranked 20th in the country in passing offense and showed more imagination than in recent years. The contributions of WR/RB/QB Pharoh Cooper will only get greater as the seasons pass along.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: This could fill an encyclopedia. South Carolina was by far the biggest disappointment in the SEC in 2014. QB Dylan Thompson might have had the raw numbers, but he disappeared in several big moments. Of much greater concern, though, was the defense. South Carolina dropped to 107th in rush defense and 91st in total defense, and it looked even worse than that on the field. The Gamecocks got worked over by Texas A&M – which was sort of the litmus test for terrible in the 2014 SEC – and managed to lose to the threesome of Kentucky, Tennessee and Clemson all in the same year. And their reward? The Gamecocks are bowling in Shreveport against Miami in front of what promises to be an audience of dozens.
6. Kentucky (5-7, 2-6) (3-9, 0-8)
WHAT WORKED: The first half of the season, in which Kentucky went 5-1 and had people buzzing about a possible trip to Atlanta. Had Wildcat fans snapshotted the season here, they would have seen a team that looked balanced on offense and improved on defense. Had Kentucky found a way to beat Florida in Week 3, a game that ended up going to triple overtime, the Wildcats would have been bowl-eligible. As for individuals, QB Patrick Towles looks like a legitimate future star.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: Everything else. Kentucky showed consistent – albeit mild – improvement across virtually all statistical categories, but it wasn’t enough and similar improvement next year still won’t be enough. The Wildcats finished 100th or worse in four NCAA statistical categories and 90th or worse in another six. The red zone and third-down defense were particularly challenging. Worst of all, Kentucky will lose several key components of its defense next year and while recruiting is improving, it isn’t improving fast enough.
7. Vanderbilt (3-9, 0-8) (6-6, 2-6)
WHAT WORKED: Nothing. Few people guessed that Derek Mason’s initial season at Vanderbilt would be such of a dud. Vanderbilt ranked above 60th in only two categories, raw pass defense (51st) and defensive 4th-down conversion percentage (55th). The highlight of the season was a last-minute win over New Hampshire.
WHAT DIDN’T WORK: On a scale of 1-100, with “1” being the lowest amount of head coaching acumen one can show, Mason ranked somewhere around a minus-263. He rotated quarterbacks incessantly. He changed both offensive and defensive styles despite not having the talent to run either new system. He showed no confidence in any player or coach, then fired his coordinators at year’s end. Mason’s tenure is looking eerily similar to that of Rod Dowhower, the previous measuring stick for bad Vandy coaches. The Commodores scored 20 or more points only four times in 2014. Let that sink in.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN