SEC Football: Ranking the 5 Teams with the Best Chance to Win Conference
College football begins again in 88 days, which means the optimism generated in spring practice burns strong.
You know—at least until midway through the first quarter of the season opener.
Everyone’s undefeated, and if the predictions of “realistic” SEC fans came true, every team would win at least five league games.
Of course, the math doesn’t quite add up in this case. And expectations of significant steps forward will be dashed—likely within the first month.
Anyone can technically win their divisions at this point. One only needs to look back just a year to realize surprises can happen even in the mighty SEC.
It’s hard to believe anyone had Auburn and Missouri in the SEC Championship Game a year ago.
Still, there are programs that simply won’t be in Atlanta on Dec. 6—to play in a football game anyway.
Looking at you, Kentucky.
While last year’s Auburn-Missouri final came as a surprise, the matchup doesn’t always come as a total surprise.
Picking Alabama to come out of the West, for instance, would have yielded positive results in four out of the past seven seasons.
Vanderbilt, conversely, hasn’t represented its division since—well—ever.
So while picking the most likely teams to win the SEC shortly after the calendar flipped to June might seem ambitious, handicapping the league isn’t impossible.
Here goes our best shot.
5. South Carolina
Ever since Tim Tebow left Florida, the annual early-season clash between Georgia and South Carolina has carried significant SEC East ramifications.
Ironically, in both of Georgia’s most two recent runs to the SEC Championship Game, it lost to the Gamecocks.
And last year, when South Carolina finished ahead of the Bulldogs in the division standings, Georgia actually got the better of Steve Spurrier’s team.
In other words, yes, the Week 3 Georgia-South Carolina contest (this year held in Columbia, South Carolina) matters, but it won’t be a make-or-break result.
This ranking has Georgia higher on the list of SEC favorites than the Gamecocks. That order flies in direct opposition of early futures odds at Vegas Insider, which listed South Carolina as the team from the East most likely to win the 2014 national championship (at 30-1).
The Bulldogs rank a few spots back at 35-1.
South Carolina replaces quarterback Connor Shaw—albeit with his battle-tested former backup, Dylan Thompson.
Tailback Mike Davis is back, though, and should once again fuel the attack.
Bigger concerns lie along the defensive line. Even novice SEC fans know freakishly athletic end Jadeveon Clowney—the No. 1 overall pick in the 2014 NFL draft—is gone. So, too, are the remainder of the starters along the line and top defensive back Victor Hampton.
Translation: The Gamecocks have some work to do on defense.
South Carolina has a tough draw from the West with Texas A&M in the opener and at Auburn, which won the SEC a year ago.
For the Gamecocks to make a serious run at the East title they need to at least earn a split in those two tilts.
At least the divisional schedule lines up well. South Carolina gets Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee at home with the toughest East road contest coming at Florida.
Of all the teams on this list, LSU might be the one we look back on and think it was underrated.
Then again, we could also look back after the Tigers finished fourth in the division wondering if they made this list in the first place simply on name alone.
Questions—specifically at quarterback, receiver and in the middle of the defensive line—must be answered before truly determining whether LSU can contend.
The quarterback position will be the focal point of scrutiny.
True sophomore Anthony Jennings relieved injured Zach Mettenberger to lead a dramatic comeback over Arkansas in the regular-season finale. In the Outback Bowl, though, Jennings flopped.
He repeated the performance during the spring, allowing true freshman Brandon Harris to be considered the favorite to win the starting position.
Ross Dellenger of The Baton Rouge Advocate reported that Harris emerged from spring as the front-runner.
LSU is loaded with very young talent, starting with Harris and incoming tailback Leonard Fournette, who seems destined for immediate superstardom.
The Tigers also return four offensive linemen and will field one of the top defensive end tandems—Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco—in the conference.
Defensive backs Tre’Davious White and Jalen Mills give coach Les Miles a pair of young, uber-talented stars in the making who already survived last year’s metaphorical baptism by fire.
Losses at offensive skill positions, however, leave reason for concern.
It isn’t just Mettenberger’s departure that could cause offensive coordinator Cam Cameron to lose sleep. The Tigers must also replace tailback Jeremy Hill and leading receivers Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry.
A favorable schedule will give LSU a reasonable chance to navigate the field of landmines that is the SEC West.
The Tigers get SEC West hopefuls Ole Miss and Mississippi State at home as well as Alabama.
Toughest league road tilts are Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M (to end the season).
Perhaps LSU only makes this list based on reputation, but there’s a reason the program has achieved such recognition—Miles finds ways to keep the Tigers at an elite level nationally.
Auburn stands to be a better football team in 2014, yet surviving its schedule with 10 regular-season wins could be an accomplishment.
Not only do the Tigers face an early Thursday night road game at Kansas State, they draw Georgia and South Carolina from the SEC East.
Then, of course, there is the challenging slate of divisional foes, including Alabama, Ole Miss and Mississippi State on the road.
At least Auburn gets LSU and Texas A&M at home.
The road tests would leave Auburn lower on this list in different years. However, the West’s perceived strength as the superior division teamed with question marks from the other divisional hopefuls makes Gus Malzahn’s team a reasonable bet to repeat as SEC champ.
If the Tigers pull off the feat, it would mark the first time in program history they have won consecutive outright league titles. (Auburn won at least a share of three consecutive SEC titles from 1987 to 1989, but only the 1987 championship was outright.)
Here’s the good news for Auburn: The defense improved toward the end of 2013.
A blend of impactful newcomers—such as safety Derrick Moncrief, who al.com’s Joel Erickson reported impressed in spring—and progressing young talent should lead to Ellis Johnson’s defense growing even stronger.
Look for true sophomores like defensive tackle Montravius Adams and defensive end Carl Lawson to enjoy success—and perhaps stardom—in expanded roles.
Offensively, the Tigers lose Heisman Trophy finalist tailback Tre Mason and tackle Greg Robinson, who went No. 2 in the NFL draft.
For the first time since becoming a college coach, though, Malzahn will work with the same starting quarterback in consecutive seasons.
Nick Marshall returns after a breakout 2013 campaign with his first spring practice at Auburn under his belt.
The entire league knows what he can do with his legs. Improved comfort and accuracy as a passer could make Marshall a lethal threat.
Tailback is a bit of a question mark, but the Tigers are loaded at the position and someone will emerge in Malzahn’s misdirection attack.
Receiver Sammie Coates ranks among the best in the SEC, even as the only target of subsequence last year.
The arrival and emergence of receiver D’haquille Williams could give Auburn as talented a tandem of receivers as there is in the league.
For Auburn to survive its title defense, it will need to shore up what was a shaky secondary and win some big games on the road.
Oh, and there’s also that critical game at the end of the regular season at rival Alabama that will loom large for both teams until Nov. 29 arrives.
Will Hutson Mason be more D.J. Shockley or Joe Tereshinski III?
With the season’s first two games coming against Clemson and at South Carolina, it won’t take long to figure it out.
Like Shockley and Tereshinski, Mason will only get one chance as Georgia’s starting quarterback.
Shockley made the most of his opportunity, leading the Bulldogs to the 2005 SEC title.
Tereshinski’s one-year shot didn’t go as well, with the quarterback suffering an ankle injury and—after returning—getting benched after Georgia lost consecutive divisional games in 2006.
Mason might feel the pressure, but the rising senior doesn’t have to do it all. He will have a terrific supporting cast on offense.
Tailback Todd Gurley opens the season as a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. He should get running mate Keith Marshall back as well once Marshall fully recovers from a knee injury that cost him most of the 2013 season.
Receiver Malcolm Mitchell suffered a setback during spring practice. If healthy, he would be Mason’s top target.
Even if Mitchell can’t go, though, the Bulldogs have plenty of depth at the position—assuming the program doesn’t suffer through the same rash of injuries that hit in 2013.
Georgia transitions its defense to new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who comes to Athens having led Florida State to the national championship last year.
Shoring up the secondary—and generating a steadier pass rush—should be Pruitt’s top priorities. He has the talent to see a reasonably quick turnaround.
After the brutal start to the season, Mark Richt’s team faces a manageable stretch before hosting Auburn in mid-November. The toughest games between mid-September and mid-November come in an Oct. 11 showdown at 2013 SEC East champ Missouri and the annual Florida tilt in Jacksonville (Nov. 1).
The Week 3 South Carolina game will go a long way toward determining if the Bulldogs can earn the trip to Atlanta on their quest to the program’s first SEC title since 2005—when Shockley led Georgia.
The last two times Alabama turned to new starting quarterbacks, Nick Saban’s team ended the year hoisting the national championship trophy.
Which option will open the year under center remains to be seen—though Florida State transfer Jacob Coker seems like a good bet.
Regardless of who gets named QB1, the Crimson Tide are loaded for another title run.
As much as some fanbases want to dwell on season-ending losses to Auburn and Oklahoma, Alabama was still just an average kicking day against the Tigers from heading into the SEC Championship Game at 12-0.
The loss of quarterback AJ McCarron will hurt, but it will also lead to more reliance on what should be a stout run game.
SEC fans already know tailbacks T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. True sophomore Derrick Henry could supplant both by season’s end.
Henry possesses tremendous power and freakish speed—especially for his size.
When Saban called upon Henry in the Sugar Bowl, the tailback rewarded his coach’s confidence to the tune of 100 rushing yards and a touchdown on eight carries and a 61-yard touchdown catch.
Receiver Amari Cooper is already a bona fide star in the SEC.
Special teams game-breaker Christion Jones could find a bigger role in the offense, as could DeAndrew White.
Regardless of Jones and White elevating their games, look for tight end O.J. Howard and redshirt freshman Robert Foster to enjoy breakthrough seasons.
Early departures hit the defense hard, but Kirby Smart has shown a propensity for reloading and coming back stronger.
Safety Landon Collins and defensive end A’Shawn Robinson are the newest names worth getting to know in Tuscaloosa. Both could easily find themselves on all-SEC teams at year’s end.
Linebacker Trey DePriest gives the Crimson Tide a steady presence in the middle. Position-mate Reuben Foster should be the next huge linebacker donning the crimson jersey.
The biggest reason Alabama should be considered the preseason favorite comes from the schedule.
Alabama gets three games to jell before facing a Florida team that won just four games a year ago.
The Crimson Tide face road tests at Ole Miss and LSU, but they get a pair of manageable games against Arkansas and Tennessee.
Auburn, Texas A&M and Mississippi State must all visit Bryant-Denny Stadium in hopes of taking down Alabama.
Between the considerable returning talent and the favorable schedule, Alabama takes its spot as preseason favorite to win the SEC in 2014.