By Jess Nicholas
Last year, TideFans.com rolled out its first truly new preseason feature in years, the Emerging Trends analysis. It was an attempt to take a view from 30,000 feet of the SEC landscape and open a discussion on both the short- and long-term futures of each team.
While we got most things right in our 2014 report, there were still some areas of the landscape that were obscured by clouds as we looked down upon them. Perhaps in 2015, the view is getting clearer. Here’s a look at the emerging trends for SEC teams in 2015.
SEC East (alphabetical order)
Reasons: One could argue that Florida is on the way back up now that it has removed Will Muschamp as its head coach, but new head coach Jim McElwain has an even bigger problem on his hands in the near future – talent, or lack thereof. Muschamp’s recruiting wasn’t terrible, but he combined several misevaluations with an almost complete lack of player development, particularly on the offensive side of the ball. It wouldn’t be much of a surprise, therefore, for Florida to continue to trend downward in 2015 before rebounding in future years. There is also the issue of McElwain himself, and whether he’s the guy to take over an SEC powerhouse program. McElwain had great success at Colorado State and set himself up as a coach to watch, but no one ever knows what’s going to happen in a Power 5 league until the lights go on. McElwain is not considered a great recruiter, and his personality is different from the typical SEC coach. The schedule isn’t terribly favorable, either.
Possible pitfalls: The Gator offensive line is among the worst of any major school in the country in 2015. It will be dependent on walk-ons and true freshmen to even form up a decent depth chart. The running back position is unimpressive, and there are issues at tight end. In addition, Florida’s front seven on defense (or front six; the Gators intend to employ a 4-2-5 base) is uneven and thin in spots. The quarterback position is also up for grabs, and there are questions at kicker. Basically, this team has proven DBs and nothing else. A losing season looms.
Reasons: Much has been made of Brian Schottenheimer replacing Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, but the offense will continue to be Mark Richt’s design. The line is solid, the receivers and tight ends are in good shape and the running back group is perhaps the best in the country. The outside linebackers are tops in the conference, the defensive backs are a tough unit and the Bulldogs are solid on special teams. But the biggest reason Georgia is going up may be the fact that much of the rest of the SEC East seems to be regressing. Florida, South Carolina and Missouri all have brewing issues, and media darling Tennessee must prove itself on defense. Tennessee will be back before the others, but everyone is looking up at the Bulldogs for now.
Possible pitfalls: Georgia still hasn’t named a quarterback, and Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert, the most likely to win the job, hasn’t been a dynamic player. He threw more interceptions than touchdown passes at UVA last year and would need to improve a great deal before becoming a starter on an SEC contender. Inside linebacker could be a position of concern as well, and then there is the usual concern of whether Mark Richt is actually capable of leading the program.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick up
Reasons: While Mark Stoops has improved the Wildcats’ recruiting, Kentucky only beat one decent team in 2014 (South Carolina) and lost six straight games to close the year. Stoops’ belief that he can run an up-tempo spread in Lexington has mostly been a mistake. Kentucky has continued to rank on the underside of mediocre in all statistical categories since he arrived. The one bright spot in the equation is the slight improvement in pass defense that has taken place, and a veteran secondary should help Kentucky keep things closer in 2015. But the loss of defensive ends Bud Dupree and Za’Darius Smith and the continued softness in the middle of the defense will likely keep Kentucky from making significant strides forward
Possible pitfalls: Quarterback Patrick Towles was a revelation in 2014, but he still only threw 14 touchdown passes the entire year. Kentucky just wasn’t explosive on offense. The front seven on defense could be real problem area for Kentucky, especially since the position of greatest depth, nosetackle, is a dying art form in college football thanks to HUNH-variant offenses.
Reasons: We’ve underestimated Gary Pinkel’s team twice before, but if Missouri is much better than .500 in 2015, it will be one of Pinkel’s finest coaching jobs ever. Alabama exposed the Tigers’ offensive line in the 2014 SEC Championship Game, and that’s supposed to be the strength of the Missouri offense. If QB Maty Mauk doesn’t continue to improve, Missouri will be in trouble, as there is no depth behind starting RB Russell Hansbrough. Defensively, Pinkel has been able to craft playmaking defensive ends and outside linebackers out of red-chip recruits for years, but those positions are green once again and the loss of DT Harold Brantley to injury for 2015 was a killer.
Possible pitfalls: The wide receiver corps has almost no experience. Tight end Sean Culkin has limited upside as well. Defensively, Missouri thinks Marcus Loud and Charles Harris can be the next great rush ends, but their success in the spring could also mean that the Tiger offensive tackles need work. PK Andrew Baggett has more talent than he’s shown to date, and needs to improve.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick down
Reasons: Where fortunes turned for South Carolina in 2014 was on defense, where the Gamecocks ranked 105th against the run and 92nd overall. Lorenzo Ward lost full control over the defense as a result, and Jon Hoke has dumped the 4-2-5 for a more traditional 4-3. If South Carolina is to stop the downward trend it’s on, it will start with a defensive line that badly underachieved a year ago. The linebacker group is thin, as well. On the flip side, the offensive line has a good nucleus returning, and WR Pharoh Cooper is perhaps the conference’s top player at the position.
Possible pitfalls: The quarterback position is always up in the air when Steve Spurrier is involved. It was a major shock that Dylan Thompson wasn’t forced to share the job in 2014. While he ran up a bunch of nice stats, he wasn’t a game-changer. Connor Mitch won the job coming out of spring, but Perry Orth, Michael Scarnecchia and incoming true freshman Lorenzo Nunez will all be fighting for the job in fall camp. If none definitively claim it – or worse, if Spurrier rotates quarterbacks like a carousel – the Gamecocks could be in trouble. The secondary is also a mess, with players switching roles and positions.
Reasons: Talent. Even if Butch Jones clowns out completely, he will have turned Tennessee’s recruiting around for the next guy. The Volunteers will have one of the most veteran rosters in the conference in 2015 and an offense led by a potential breakout star at quarterback, Joshua Dobbs. Tennessee also shored up its defensive line over the offseason, and the secondary should be a force after surprising nearly everyone in 2014. The running back tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara could wind up being one of the best in the conference.
Possible pitfalls: Jones, first and foremost. He’s over-the-top and his track record is spotty. Other than that, linebacker depth is still an issue, but the biggest potential on-field issue is the offensive line. While four starters return from 2014, that’s not necessarily an advantage given how terrible this group was in pass protection a year ago. And if either Hurd or Kamara gets hurt at running back, there’s really no one to replace them.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick down
Reasons: Time will tell whether head coach Derek Mason just had a bad debut, or whether he’s really as bad as he looked in year one. He attempted to force Vanderbilt’s spread offense into a pro-style look, and also switched the Commodores’ 4-3 defense to a 3-4. The defensive switch stayed, but the Commodores are back to a three-wide spread look on offense. Among Mason’s other snafus included a quarterback merry-go-round that never stopped turning, the inability to get star RB Jerron Seymour to buy into the new plan, and the malapportionment of assets on defense. Special teams figure to be spotty again, as well.
Possible pitfalls: Mason is still learning, but if Vanderbilt goes 3-9 again he might not get another season to figure it out. The coaching staff needs to make better decisions. On the field, the front seven needs to continue to adjust to the 3-4 scheme; on offense, the QB battle between Wade Freebeck and Johnny McCrary could devolve into ugliness if the coaches don’t set clear expectations.
SEC West (alphabetical order)
Reasons: Like last year, it’s hard to trend up when you’re already making the end-of-year playoffs. Alabama’s defense figures to be better in 2015 than it was a year ago, but there are plenty of questions on offense heading into the fall. Nick Saban shuffled his coaching staff again and early returns appear to suggest the potential for improvement. It’s hard to imagine Alabama advancing much beyond where it did in 2014 thanks to an uncertain quarterback situation and depth concerns at running back, plus the annual concern at placekicker. On the other hand, it will be difficult to knock Alabama far off its perch, thanks to the best defensive line in football and an offensive line that could be better than the one a year ago that lost two starters to the NFL.
Possible pitfalls: If the improvement Alabama saw in the secondary in the spring was just smoke and mirrors, things could get tough. The QB battle was framed by the expertise of the secondary, which didn’t allow any of the signal-callers to show much. The receiver group is a total unknown at the moment, but the QB battle has everyone’s attention. Alabama could end up starting two or even three different players there this fall – which would be a sign of disarray.
Reasons: Bret Bielema showed that yes, a boring I-formation offense can still work in the SEC. Arkansas went 6-6 in the regular season, but also came within an eyelash of taking out Texas A&M, Alabama, Missouri and Mississippi State before eventually losing those games. Arkansas managed to make a solid quarterback out of Brandon Allen, who threw 20 touchdowns against only 5 picks, quietly putting up a solid stat line. Arkansas returns two primo running backs, a solid offensive line and some talent in the secondary, but there are holes elsewhere. Don’t look for massive improvement in 2015, but Arkansas isn’t a pushover anymore.
Possible pitfalls: Defensively, Arkansas punched above its weight last year and largely made those punches stick. But the loss of Trey Flowers and Darius Philon on the defensive line is going to be tough to overcome, and the linebacker unit remains thin and not as athletic as its peers. Offensively, Arkansas needs more production from its wide receivers, and the special teams are suffering from just a simple lack of athletic depth. The schedule is challenging as well.
Reasons: Auburn gets hammered by Alabama fans for too often viewing its own world through a crimson lens, but the Tigers do it to themselves. Two years ago, Auburn hired former Alabama defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson, largely because of his relative success against Nick Saban. Johnson was fired in the offseason after two disappointing campaigns, and Auburn then threw a bunch of money at Will Muschamp, Saban’s former protege. While Muschamp figures to be an improvement over the past-his-prime Johnson, he’ll also be taking Auburn from a 4-2-5 defense to a 3-4 over/under, which means growing pains are inevitable. Offensively, Auburn is going back a few years to the days of Chris Todd, thanks to QB Jeremy Johnson being a throw-first guy and not able to run the frenetic, option-based attack the way Nick Marshall did. Basically, Auburn has better overall talent, but with this much change going on, it’s hard to depend much on making much of a positive impact in its first year.
Possible pitfalls: The offensive line could be OK, or it could be very, very bad. Only LT Shon Coleman is a proven frontrunner, although Auburn is high on RT Avery Young. The real question is how this line will do in pass protection now that Johnson is the quarterback. Defensively, Auburn has underachieved for years up front and particularly at linebacker. The last time those units played up to potential, Tommy Tuberville was the head coach. The starting group figures to be OK, but depth is a concern. The defensive backfield gets more responsibilities in Muschamp’s system, which could expose a couple of the players Auburn is depending on there.
Reasons: Suddenly, Les Miles’ job is in trouble. The Tigers will be depending on major improvement at the quarterback position if they’re to get back to the top of the SEC West. LSU plans to ride a strong defense and running game, but it no longer has defensive coordinator John Chavis. Instead, Kevin Steele comes over from Alabama, but Steele’s track record as a coordinator is decidedly mixed. With Arkansas and the Mississippi schools getting better and Texas A&M tapping into the region’s talent pool, LSU runs the risk of backsliding if it becomes viewed as a stagnant program. Miles’ increasingly conservative preferences on offense isn’t doing LSU any favors.
Possible pitfalls: Anthony Jennings looked good in the spring at QB, but if he can’t keep up the momentum in the fall, there could be trouble. The Tigers were mediocre against the run in 2015 and trading Chavis for Steele won’t help there. The corners of the defense are green, while for the first time in years, there are some concerns about certain members of the secondary. The offensive line could also be vulnerable on its right side.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick down
Reasons: Recruiting is going full-blast for the Rebels – and the NCAA may be interested in just how big that blast is – but Ole Miss hasn’t seen it translate into anything beyond a couple of upset wins. If the Rebels finish in the bottom half of the SEC West in 2015, questions are going to begin to arise about Hugh Freeze’s coaching acumen. On paper, Ole Miss should be fine – 10 returning offensive starters, 7 on defense – but this is a team that didn’t do a particularly good job of stopping the run in 2014, it has no depth at running back, and its offensive style doesn’t seem to be able to convert in the running game when it needs to.
Possible pitfalls: The quarterback position is a mess at the moment. JUCO transfer Chad Kelly hasn’t shown the maturity to handle the job. DeVante Kincaid would give Ole Miss a true running threat at the position and allow the Rebels to run an option look, but his passing is suspect. Ryan Buchanan has yet to prove himself. At running back, the Rebels are hoping 166-pound Jaylen Walton can stay healthy. There are questions on special teams, and the Rebels will be breaking in new cornerbacks.
Reasons: The fact Dan Mullen convinced QB Dak Prescott to return to school is the only thing keeping Mississippi State from a quick return to the cellar. The Bulldogs return only 8 starters combined, and there is a distinct lack of proven players anywhere on the field other than maybe defensive line. The offensive line is expected to struggle, but Mullen has made chicken salad out of worse in the past. Overall, though, it’s hard for Mississippi State to maintain success long-term even in the best of conditions thanks to its small recruiting base and lack of cachet. The biggest question will be whether the fans give Mullen enough time to valley and peak once more.
Possible pitfalls: They’re all over the place, but here are the highlights (lowlights?): Holes and depth issues in the secondary, unimpressive running backs, no depth at receiver, questions on the offensive line, iffy special teams.
Trending: Sideways, maybe a tick up
Reasons: Talent-wise, Texas A&M was hit hard by graduation after the 2014 season and will take a step backward in 2015. But the quarterback situation is cause for excitement, the receiver corps is getting better, and most of all, Texas A&M welcomes defensive guru John Chavis, who the Aggies pried away from division rival LSU. As a long-term play, this should work out for the Aggies but in the short term, Texas A&M has a talent problem on its hands. Aside from the defensive line, Chavis will have his hands full keeping the opposition under 30. As for the offense, the Aggies figure to have a solid offensive backfield and receiver corps, but the offensive line will need time.
Possible pitfalls: The offensive line is the biggest worry on that side of the ball. It didn’t perform well in 2014 and then lost two starters. There is no experience behind Kyle Allen at quarterback, but the real concerns are on defense. If the linebackers struggle early, it will keep the defense on the field too long, and depth issues on the defensive line could fully surface then.
Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN
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