2014 SEC preview: Alabama leads conference packed with contenders

Tuesday August 19th, 2014

How They'll Finish
East West
South Carolina 10-2 (6-2) Alabama 11-1 (7-1)
Georgia 10-2 (6-2) Auburn 9-3 (5-3)
Missouri 9-3 (5-3) LSU 9-3 (5-3)
Florida 8-4 (5-3) Texas A&M 8-4 (4-4)
Vanderbilt 6-6 (2-6) Miss. State 8-4 (4-4)
Kentucky 5-7 (1-7) Ole Miss 8-4 (4-4)
Tenn. 4-8 (1-7) Arkansas 4-8 (1-7)

Conference championship: Alabama defeats South Carolina

    Offensive MVP
    2013 stats: 203 carries, 1,183 yards, 11 rushing TD
    2014 projected stats: 250 carries, 1,462 yards, 15 rushing TD
    This is a tough call, because there are a ton of great backs in this league. Georgia’s Todd Gurley and Alabama’s Derrick Henry and T.J. Yeldon might be physically superior to Davis, but those players will split carries with other elite backs. Henry and Yeldon have one another, while Bulldogs junior Keith Marshall or freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel can spell Gurley. For South Carolina, Davis will do most of the heavy lifting. With quarterback Connor Shaw gone and Dylan Thompson taking over, Davis has to carry even more of the rushing load. Shaw was happy to keep the ball on occasion; Thompson will probably hand off more often. The good news is Davis will have an excellent offensive line paving the way. If the Gamecocks live up to their preseason hype, Davis will play a huge role in that success.

    Defensive MVP
    2013 stats: 70 tackles, 4 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
    2014 projected stats: 75 tackles, 6 tackles for loss, 2 interceptions, 2 forced fumbles, 2 fumble recoveries
    Alabama coach Nick Saban discussed Collins’ development with reporters last week. “He’s got a much better understanding from the experience that he gained last year of what his role is and what he needs to do. He’s always been a guy that makes a lot of plays,” Saban said. “We’re inspired by his leadership, as well as the kind of player he is, as well as the person that he’s been. I think every player on our team would reiterate the same.” For a coach who is fairly stingy with public praise, that’s tantamount to gushing. And with good reason. Collins is a Swiss Army Knife of a safety who makes defensive coordinator Kirby Smart’s job easier. If he helps fill the leadership void left by the departure of linebacker C.J. Mosley, Collins is even more valuable.

    Impact Freshman
    2013 stats (high school): 1,792 rushing yards, 16 rushing TD; 45 catches, 745 receiving yards, 6 receiving TD
    2014 projected stats: 150 carries, 900 yards, 10 rushing TD
    Fournette already looks like a three-year NFL veteran. He plays well beyond his years, too. He’ll be relied upon early, but Billy Gomila of As The Valley Shook wrote in an excellent analysis, Fournette probably won’t post Adrian Peterson-as-a-freshman-type numbers. The biggest reason? Terrence Magee, who averaged 7.2 yards a carry last season. There are plenty of carries to go around at LSU, but coach Les Miles tries hard to distribute them so no back gets worn down. Like Davis, Fournette will run behind an excellent veteran offensive line. That should make the transition from St. Augustine (La.) High to college much easier.

    Coach On The Hot Seat
    Will Muschamp, Florida
    2013 record: 4-8 (3-5 SEC)
    Career record: 22-16 (13-11 SEC)
    Last month I asked Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley if he had any concrete criteria that would convince him to keep or fire Muschamp. I published his answer in the feature I wrote on the Gators’ bounce-back efforts in the college football preview edition of the magazine. Here’s part of it: “I’ve never, ever, ever, ever, ev-er -- in my 23 years as athletic director -- told a coach he had to win X number of games or you have to beat this team or you have to go to this bowl,” Foley said. “We need to be better. We need to be in the hunt. We’ll be able to tell at the end of the fall.”
    If things go bad, Foley will likely know sooner than that. Muschamp hired coordinator Kurt Roper away from Duke to run an offense that is a departure from Muschamp’s previously stated preference of a pro-style scheme with a quarterback mostly under center. Roper runs an up-tempo spread that will keep Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel in the shotgun. Driskel, who was recruited to lead Urban Meyer’s offense, is probably better suited for this scheme. Ditto for many of Florida’s other skill-position players. Whether they improve enough to succeed against a rough schedule that includes visits to Tuscaloosa and Tallahassee is another question entirely.

Three key nonconference games

Wisconsin vs. LSU (in Houston), Aug. 30 (ESPN)

Allow me to complain for a moment that this game isn’t taking place in Baton Rouge. Meanwhile, the return game in 2016 will be played at Lambeau Field instead of Camp Randall Stadium. I understand the financial reasons for neutral-site games (guaranteed TV money each school can pocket in both seasons), but it’s a loss for the fans in attendance. On the field, LSU’s highly touted freshmen (Fournette, wide receiver Malachi Dupre and maybe quarterback Brandon Harris) will get their first taste of college football against the team favored to win the Big Ten West Division. Badgers tailback Melvin Gordon (7.8 yards a carry in ‘13) should give the Tigers’ defense a better idea of how it will fare against a murderer’s row of backs in the SEC.

GLICKSMAN: LSU is No. 14 in SI's preseason Top 25 rankings

Auburn at Kansas State, Sept. 18 (ESPN)

With games against South Carolina and Georgia from the East, the Tigers got the toughest conference schedule draw in the SEC. They didn’t make things easier by scheduling a Thursday night clash with Bill Snyder’s team in Manhattan.

South Carolina at Clemson, Nov. 29 (TBD)

The Gamecocks have won five in a row in this series. Depending on how the rest of South Carolina's season has gone, this one could be watched closely by the College Football Playoff selection committee.

Three key conference games

Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13 (CBS)

This game probably should have decided the SEC East for the past three seasons, but the winner didn’t take the division in any of those years. This is the first truly high-stakes conference game this season, and it should be decided on the ground. Expect Georgia to feed its backs against a South Carolina defense that has allegedly turned its linebackers from a weakness in 2013 into a strength in ‘14. Meanwhile, the Gamecocks will try to pound the Bulldogs with Davis to set up shots over the top of Georgia’s inexperienced secondary.

ELLIS: Can Mark Richt finally lead Georgia over the top?

South Carolina at Auburn, Oct. 25 (TBD)

Fortunately for the Tigers, the Gamecocks visit after an open date. Unfortunately for the Tigers, South Carolina comes during a six-week stretch that also includes games against LSU, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M. If Auburn survives that gauntlet and remains in contention for the SEC West title, it has a real chance at playing in another national championship game.

Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29 (TBD)

Remember how crazy that last second was? Just imagine how fun 60 more minutes will be.

Peter Aiken/Getty Images

Five key questions

Will someone follow in the footsteps of D.J. Shockley? For those unfamiliar with extremely recent SEC history, Shockley is the former Georgia quarterback who waited four years behind David Greene before leading the Bulldogs to a conference title as a fifth-year senior starter in 2005. This season, Georgia’s Hutson Mason (four years behind Aaron Murray) and South Carolina’s Dylan Thompson (four years behind Stephen Garcia and Connor Shaw) have each waited their turns and now inherit the keys to loaded offenses. Both will hand off to excellent backs. While Thompson will play behind a more experienced line, Mason will throw to a more experienced receiving corps.

Can Alabama plug in a quarterback to replace AJ McCarron? The Crimson Tide have all of the other offensive pieces in place to compete for an SEC and a national title. But Alabama coaches haven’t named a quarterback yet. Senior Blake Sims remains locked in a competition with Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, and Saban isn’t offering many hints. “Until someone clearly wins the job, we’re not going to make a decision,” Saban told reporters on Saturday. Sims had the benefit of going through spring practice under new Tide offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin and Saban said he seems more comfortable in the offense. However, Coker has the more impressive skill set. With Henry, Yeldon, wideout Amari Cooper and tight end O.J. Howard manning the skill positions and with a steady line, Bama needs a quarterback who will make the correct decisions -- not necessarily one who can throw 60-yard ropes. If one of the pair can do both, he’ll likely win the job and lead a potent offense.

Is an SEC East encore possible for Missouri? Absolutely, even if the Tigers lost a lot. Missouri must deal with the departures of quarterback James Franklin and defensive ends Michael Sam and Kony Ealy. Coach Gary Pinkel also threw potential first-round wide receiver Dorial Green-Beckham off the team after an incident that produced an ugly police report but no charges. Still, that doesn’t mean the cupboard is bare in the SEC’s westernmost Columbia. Redshirt sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk got plenty of seasoning last year when he started four games in place of the injured Franklin. Markus Golden (13 tackles for loss in 2013) is the next in a long line of excellent pass rushers. Meanwhile, the return of Russell Hansbrough (six yards a carry in ‘13) and Marcus Murphy (6.5 yards a carry) should keep the run game steady.

The Tigers will need to find new stars at receiver following the dismissal of Green-Beckham and the departure of L’Damian Washington, and they won’t be nearly as big at the position. (Green-Beckham, Washington and Marcus Lucas were all at least 6-foot-5.) Mizzou won’t be small, though. Bud Sasser (6-2, 210) is the most experienced of the bunch, and Darius White (6-3, 205), who transferred from Texas in ‘12, has played his way into a starting job.

College Football
Jameis Winston headlines SI.com's 2014 Preseason All-America Team

Can LSU be competitive with true freshmen at key skill positions? The idea of true freshmen starting at quarterback, tailback and receiver would seem ludicrous if the Tigers didn’t have such a good offensive line. LSU brings back four starters, led by 315-pound senior left tackle La’el Collins. Consider this: When Fournette runs left, he’ll be behind Collins and 340-pound three-year starter Vadal Alexander. That’s a lot of beef protecting the freshman. The experience question is actually thornier on the interior defensive line. LSU has veteran ends in Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco, but tackle is young and thin following the loss -- at least temporarily -- of junior Quentin Thomas to a bicep injury. Sophomore Christian LaCouture, who backed up Anthony Johnson and Ego Ferguson last fall, is the Tigers’ most experienced tackle. LSU usually has a four-man rotation locked and loaded at defensive tackle, but just like on the offense, some inexperienced players will have to learn quickly.

Can Texas A&M’s defense improve? Aggies cornerback Deshazor Everett was brutally honest at SEC Media Days when a reporter asked him this question. “I mean, could we get much worse?” Everett asked rhetorically. In 2013 the Aggies finished last in the SEC in scoring defense (32.2 points a game), total defense (475.8 yards a game) and yards per play (6.36). Everett is correct. They probably have to get better. Even though Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin dismissed three likely starters for various offenses, the group should still be more experienced. Texas A&M defensive coordinator Mark Snyder spent most timeouts last year looking at wide-eyed freshmen who weren’t ready for the moment. Those players now understand the speed of the game and what is expected of them.

For example, Snyder ideally would have redshirted inside linebacker Jordan Mastrogiovanni in ‘13. The Dallas native arrived on campus weighing 225 pounds, and Snyder would have preferred to give Mastrogiovanni a year to put on weight and acclimate to college offenses. Necessity forced Mastrogiovanni to start against Alabama and Duke and play key downs in other games. Now, Mastrogiovanni weighs 244 pounds, and after starting against the Crimson Tide, nothing in the college game will shock him. Meanwhile, the Aggies hope the addition of freshman defensive tackle Zaycoven Henderson will give them the gap-stuffer they’ve lacked losing Kirby Ennis to injury last October. Henderson is 6-1 and 315 pounds, and he could probably get even bigger without losing any quickness.

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