The BCS era in college football is officially over. After 16 years of delivering the closest thing to a “true” national champion the sport has ever seen, it’s time for a better, but still flawed, system to take over. Instead of focusing on who’s No. 1 and 2, fans will be focused on the 4, 5 and 6 spots, as the four best teams in the land will battle it out for the ultimate prize. These four teams will be chosen by a selection committee, much like the NCAA Tournament, so expect a whole new brand of controversy when the first four are chosen. Rarely in the BCS era were there two undefeated teams left standing, leaving one or two teams with a single blemish on their records asking, “Why not us?” In this new system, those cries will grow louder as it’s pretty clear cut which two teams are the top two in the country. But those last two spots will likely be debatable every season.
So the new system won’t be perfect. Who cares? It’s going to be great for the fans. The bowl games surrounding the Playoff will be better – bringing back big-time games to New Year’s Day – and the playoff itself is going to be a Titan among sporting events. As the BCS ended, so did the SEC streak of seven straight national champions when Auburn lost 34-31 in an instant classic to the Florida State Seminoles. There is no cause for alarm, however. The SEC should have a representative or two in the Playoff every year and, if anything, this will provide the conference with an opportunity to prove that they are indeed the finest conference in college football.
Can Gus Malzahn continue the magic at Auburn? Can Alabama find the right man to put under center? Does Les Miles have a few tricks under that mad hat of his? These are just a few questions that can only be answered when teams take the field at the end of the month. It’s sure to be a season full of surprises, but we tried our best again this year to project where your favorite team will finish.
RELEASE THE EAST
2013 is a season Gator fans wish they could erase from the record books. Anything and everything that could go wrong did go wrong, and they stumbled to their first losing season since 1979. Even the special teams, a usual strength for the Gators, were terrible last year. Will Muschamp has proven his teams can get stops on defense, but putting points on the scoreboard has been a huge problem.Muschamp’s solution to the lack of offensive firepower was to hire Duke offensive coordinator Kurt Roper, who has installed a spread attack that is the polar opposite of the 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust system fans have endured the last three seasons. With a deep and talented backfield that includes Kelvin Taylor, Mack Brown, Matt Jones and a few freshmen that could burst onto the scene, the Gators have the talent and experience to get things done on the ground. The X-factor lies in the passing game. Can Jeff Driskel emerge as the star he was expected to be when he first arrived on campus? A few receivers will have to surface as consistent playmakers for that to happen and, if they do, the Gators could exceedexpectations in 2014.
The Georgia Bulldogs had the talent and experience on the roster last year to win it all. But by the time the Clemson game ended, they had lost their best playmaker at receiver in Malcolm Mitchell for the season, and the injuries just kept coming. Todd Gurley missed several games; Keith Marshall blew his ACL and was lost for the season; and as more and more playmakers went down, the offensive production decreased. Defensively, the Dawgs underachieved again under Todd Grantham and he left town, before he was asked to leave, after his unit allowed a program record for points in a season and the most yards per game (375.5) in Mark Richt’s tenure at Georgia. His replacement, Jeremy Pruitt – fresh off of a national championship season as Florida State’s defensive coordinator – will take on the task of trying to get the talent Richt has recruited to shut down opposing offenses on game day. Aaron Murray may be gone, but Hutson Mason has the talent around him to make Georgia’s offense dynamic enough to be the favorite to win the Eastern Division. But they will need the defense to catch up if they want to make this season really special in Athens.
Things got off to a slow start in the Mark Stoops era at Kentucky, but the good news for Stoops is you won’t encounter a much more patient fan base in the SEC than Lexington’s faithful. Time is exactly what he needs to turn around a program that is in the cellar of the conference and, through strong recruiting efforts, he seems to be bringing in the talent capable of doing just that. On the offensive side, three new quarterbacks are fighting for the job with sophomore Patrick Towles holding a slight edge for the starting job after spring practice concluded. With four solid running backs and all five starters returning at the wide receiver position, improvement should be expected when the Wildcats have the ball. The defense is anchored by two top-tier defensive ends in 6’6”, 264-pound Za’Darius Smith and 6’4”, 267-pound Bud Dupree. The duo combined for 13 sacks last year and ought to improve on that number this season. The talent still isn’t there for the Cats to have a breakthrough season, but they should double their win total from 2013.
The Tigers shut the mouths of all the doubters last year with a bust-out 11-2 season that included an Eastern Division Championship. Gone is quarterback James Franklin and running back Henry Josey, but sophomore QB Maty Mauk still has plenty of talent around him with three starters returning on an athletic offensive line. The defense will be without dynamic pass-rushers Michael Sam and Kony Ealy, but the defensive line should still be the biggest strength of that unit. The depth enjoyed in Columbia last season won’t be at Gary Pinkel’s disposal, so staying healthy is paramount to the Tigers making a run at another Eastern Division title.
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Steve Spurriers Gamecocks have won 11 games in each of the last three seasons and while most of that credit is given to No. 1 draft pick Jadaveon Clowney, Conner Shaw deserves a lot of praise as well. Both their offensive and defensive leaders are no longer on the team, leaving Dylan Thompson to take the reins of the offense and a committee of unproven defenders responsible for filling the massive void Clowney leaves behind. Thompson has plenty of experience and a workhorse that will line up behind him at running back in Mike Davis, who will undoubtedly alleviate the pressure on the new, full-time gunslinger. The receivers have a chance to be a special unit and the offensive line could be the best Spurrier has ever put on the field at Carolina. The defense will be the question mark and with Texas A&M and Georgia awaiting them in the first three games, they will need to gel quickly or hopes of a fourth-straight 11-win season could fade fast.
Butch Jones had his work cut out for him when he accepted the job at Tennessee and – while he has made vast improvements on the recruiting scene – the young talent will have to grow up in a hurry to change the Vols fortunes in 2014. Marlon Lane returns at running back but all five starting offensive linemen from last season have departed, so the running lanes won’t likely be as generous this year. The receivers will be improved, led by standout Marquez North, but the burning question is who will be getting the ball to North and a new batch of potential playmakers? Justin Worley was steady last year but unimpressive, while true freshmen Riley Ferguson is talented, but a gamble Jones might not be willing to take. On defense, the Vols have plenty of room for improvement – the biggest concern being a need for speed. This lack of speed caused them to look completely overmatched against teams like Oregon and Auburn. Look for Jones to roll the dice on some younger, faster players in order to get his defense over the hump. 6-6 will be tough to reach, but if the Vols can split back-to-back games against Georgia and Florida, they can get there and back to a bowl game in 2014.
If you win nine games in back-to-back seasons at Vanderbilt, the suitors will start calling, and when Penn State called James Franklin, he said yes. It’s a huge loss for a Vanderbilt program that was moving in the right direction, but first-year coach and the only newcomer to the SEC coaching ranks this season, Derek Mason, is ready to take on the challenge. Unlike most new skippers at Vanderbilt, Mason inherits an experienced team that knows how to win. His biggest challenge is finding playmakers at wide receiver and settling in on a quarterback. Patton Robbinette played well last year, but will be challenged by redshirt-freshman Johnny McCrary and LSU transfer Stephen Rivers. Mason is changing the scheme on defense to the 3-4 systems he implemented at Stanford, so expect the Dores to be a disciplined and hard hitting squad. Reaching a fourth-straight bowl game is a realistic expectation for Vandy, but they must find playmakers that can stretch the field if they want to top a .500 overall record.
Projected Final Standings: SEC Eastern Division
- South Carolina
WESTERN STATE OF MIND
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
You couldn’t ask for a much more dramatic ending to Alabama’s championship run than the kick-six that occurred on the plains of Auburn last season. It was an image that either made you rejoice or lose your lunch, depending on your allegiances, but one that will live on in what is already a storied rivalry. The Iron Bowl could, once again, decide the SEC West, but other contenders lurk in the shadows. Alabama doesn’t rebuild; they reload. But this year, there will be a new quarterback under center and, while the competition is fierce, there will be little to no experience with A.J. McCarron’s backup, Blake Sims, or the highly touted Florida State transfer, Jacob Coker, under center. Fortunately, regardless of who wins the job, talented skill players and experience will surround them up front. This should allow either player to get acclimated quickly, but look for the Tide to rely on the running game in the opener against West Virginia. On defense, you simply can’t replace a player like C.J. Mosely at linebacker, but when you recruit like Nick Saban, you can fill Superman’s shoes with three lesser superheroes and that’s just what he’ll do. This defense might not be as dominate as those of years past, but it will still be elite, and it is hard to imagine a playoff without Alabama involved.
Many among college football’s disciples are still scratching their heads over Bret Bielema’s decision to leave Wisconsin for Arkansas last offseason. After a winless season in conference play and a 3-9 overall record in 2013, the Hogs will continue the rebuilding process this season in a stacked Western Division of the SEC. Their offensive success will depend largely on the development of quarterback Brandon Allen, who played injured most of last season and struggled to develop consistency with his receivers. Running back Alex Collins returns after a stellar freshman campaign in which he racked up 1,026 yards on the ground, but he will need the passing game to develop in order to keep opposing defenses from stacking the box to stop him. On the other side of the ball, Robb Smith takes over as defensive coordinator, making him the fourth person to hold that position in the past four years. With a talented defensive line, experienced linebackers, and depth at the cornerback position, the Hogs should be improved on defense and improved overall. Even with those improvements, another winless season in conference play is still highly probable.
In one year, Gus Malzahn revived a program that looked lost in 2012, taking his players all the way to the BCS National Championship game against Florida State. Nick Marshall returns at quarterback and will be one of the conferences elite signal callers this season. Dynamic running back Tre Mason is gone, but experience and talent are abundant in the Tigers’ backfield with seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant back for their senior seasons. Battling them for playing time will be redshirt-freshman Peyton Barber and five-star recruit Roc Thomas. With a dynamic receiving unit led by Sammie Coates and an offensive line returning four starters, Auburn will once again score points at will. The scary thing to consider is that Auburn’s defense was one of the worst in the nation last year, and they stand to be much improved in their second year under Ellis Johnson. Look for sophomore Carl Lawson to have a big year rushing quarterbacks with a little help from his friends Montravious Adams and Gabe Wright causing problems in the middle. Auburn won’t have the element of surprise this year, but they could be a better football team and are certainly contenders for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.
Les Miles certainly has the Bayou Bengals in a reload – not rebuild – position in Baton Rouge, but this year could be a real struggle for the Tigers on offense. They will be replacing every starter at the skill positions with talented-yet-inexperienced players. The quarterback battle could linger into the regular season with sophomore Anthony Jennings and freshman Brandon Harris still neck and neck at the end of spring practice, so look for Miles to lean on the running game while his young quarterbacks and receivers develop. This should allow Leonard Fournette to burst onto the scene at running back, but the outcome of LSU’s season will depend on its stingy defense. That defense will keep them in the hunt for the SEC West, but too much inexperience will cost the Tigers enough games to keep them out of the SEC Championship game.
OLE MISS REBELS
Hugh Freeze enters his third season in Oxford with more depth and experience than he has ever fielded at Ole Miss. The Rebels have playmakers on offense and a senior quarterback, Bo Wallace, who has with the ability to make them a factor in the SEC West. They are strong upfront with future NFL lineman Laremy Tunsil leading the way at left tackle and, though wide-receiver Donte Moncrief left a year early for the pro’s, sophomore Laquon Treadwell is poised to fill his shoes and then some. On defense, Robert Nkemdiche leads a defensive line that should be able to make SEC quarterbacks shiver. The defense will be improved and the playmakers are on campus, but just as last season, Bo Wallace is the X-factor. His career has been plagued by bad decisions and costly turnovers. If he shines in 2014, Ole Miss can go as far as he can take them.
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Dan Mullen enters his sixth season in Starkville with high expectations surrounding his Bulldogs. Led by duel threat quarterback Dak Prescott, the MSU offense is bursting with playmakers at wide receiver and running back that will make Mullen’s spread option attack tough to stop. Defensively, this could be one of the best units in the SEC. With eight returning defensive linemen who played in at least 10 games last year, three returning starters at linebacker and even more depth in the secondary, this could be the year the Bulldogs breakthrough in the West. With a light draw (Kentucky and Vanderbilt) on their cross-divisional conference games, the schedule is also set up for success, but road games against LSU, Alabama and rival Ole Miss should put at least a few marks in the loss column.
Life after Johnny Football begins on the road in Columbia, S.C., for the Aggie Nation and Head Coach Kevin Sumlin. In many ways, surely it’s a relief for everyone involved in the program. The media circus is gone, but so are the dazzling results Manziel created on the field. Sumlin is confident, however, that whoever takes the reins of his “air raid” offense will be capable of winning a lot of football games. Inexperience is unavoidable, whether Kenny Hill or Kyle Allen are under center, but solid recruiting classes will provide stability up front and all around the man who wins the job. Recruiting has been kind to the defense as well and – with one of the most highly touted groups of linemen in the nation now on campus – the Aggies have the meat and potatoes needed to generate a fierce pass rush. Don’t be surprised if A&M is in the hunt for the West, but the schedule and inexperience suggest it will be at least another year before they are once again front-runners.
projected final standings: sec western division
3. Mississippi State
6. Texas A&M