What did each SEC team learn in 2015?
It’s been a little more than a month since Alabama celebrated its latest national championship inside University of Phoenix Stadium in Glendale, Ariz., but that doesn’t mean it’s too soon to review the 2015 season. For the Crimson Tide, it was mostly smooth sailing, but other teams endured plenty of turbulence. Over the week, SI.com will lay out the biggest lessons learned by each squad from the Power 5 conferences and explain how those lessons can be instructive for 2016. We began with the ACC, Big 12 and Big Ten and now turn to the SEC.
Alabama: A stellar running back can lead to a championship
Much of Nick Saban’s success at Alabama has hinged on a “next man up” mentality at running back. The Crimson Tide have continually passed the torch to another capable back as the last one departed to the NFL; last year’s Heisman Trophy winner, Derrick Henry, spent two campaigns as a backup to T.J. Yeldon in Tuscaloosa. But Alabama doesn’t have a sure-fire No. 1 back lying in wait for 2016. Bo Scarbrough, the stocky 6’2”, 240-pound rising sophomore, will garner plenty of hype, and the Tide signed a four-star freshman in B.J. Emmons. But as Alabama prepares to anoint a new starting quarterback for the third straight season, finding a bell cow in the backfield will be vital.
Arkansas: The Hogs don’t need to run to succeed
The Razorbacks kicked off 2015 as the only team returning two 1,000-yard rushers, Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. While Williams missed the season with injury, Collins still rushed for 1,577 yards and 20 touchdowns. But the lynchpin of Arkansas’s offense might have been senior quarterback Brandon Allen, who finished as the SEC’s most efficient passer with 30 touchdowns and only eight picks. The Hogs went 8–5, their best record under Bret Bielema. Now Allen, Collins and Williams are gone. Kody Walker is primed to take over at running back, but the next Razorbacks quarterback is less certain. Whoever wins the job between Austin Allen, Rafe Peavey and USC transfer Ricky Town could become a larger focal point of the offense than expected of past Arkansas passers.
Auburn: Expectations aren’t always a good thing
This time last year, the Auburn hype train was gaining significant speed. The Tigers entered the off-season boasting a respected new defensive coordinator (Will Muschamp) and a highly touted quarterback (Jeremy Johnson). But the preseason SEC favorites stumbled to a 7–6 finish and last place in the SEC West. Muschamp is gone, replaced by Kevin Steele, while Johnson—who struggled with turnovers in 2015—should battle for the starting job with Sean White. Auburn will likely fly a bit under the radar this fall, and that’s a good thing: The Tigers’ unexpected run to the 2013 title game followed a dismal final season (3–9) under Gene Chizik.
Florida: These Gators can win—with the right quarterback
The Gators looked revitalized in the first half of Jim McElwain’s inaugural season in Gainesville. They reached 6–0 for the first time since 2012 behind solid play from quarterback Will Grier. But after Grier’s October suspension thrust Treon Harris into the starting role, Florida’s offense never recovered and the team stumbled to a 4–4 finish. Now Harris it set to move to receiver this spring, which leaves four options on the Gators’ roster: Transfers Jack Del Rio and Austin Appleby and true freshmen early enrollees Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask. While the right guy can make Florida a contender in the East, the wrong signal-caller could spell trouble.
Georgia: New blood was needed in Athens
Many Georgia fans got their wish when longtime coach Mark Richt was fired after the 2015 season. Though Richt went 145–51 in 15 seasons with the Bulldogs, he hadn’t won an SEC title in a decade. Now new coach Kirby Smart, a longtime Alabama assistant under Nick Saban, is tasked with meeting high expectations. Smart nabbed his first big win with the No. 9 recruiting class in the country on National Signing Day. While Richt’s dismissal might be what Georgia needed, Smart is expected to contend in the SEC East immediately. How he handles the pressure will be a story of the upcoming SEC season.
Kentucky: Hot starts don’t equal success
In 2014, Kentucky started the year 5–1 before losing its final six games. Last season the Wildcats began the year 4–1 but dropped six of their final seven. Those second-half downturns have kept Kentucky from reaching a bowl under Mark Stoops. Now Stoops, who enters his fourth season in 2016, has to prove he can prevent another late-season drop-off. This fall the program has a favorable nonconference slate—Southern Miss, New Mexico State and Austin Peay—but must play Alabama in a divisional crossover game. With new starting quarterback Drew Barker and first-year offensive coordinator Eddie Gran, can the Wildcats learn from their past to avoid another midseason slump?
LSU: Leonard Fournette can carry the Tigers’ offense
Fournette offered strong hints of his potential as a freshman in 2014, but the running back evolved into one of college football’s top players last season. He set LSU single-season records with 1,953 rushing yards and 22 rushing touchdowns and led the country with 162.8 rushing yards per game. This fall, the return of Brandon Harris—the seventh-most efficient passer in the SEC in ’15—means the Tigers’ offense is likely to ride Fournette again. Don’t overthink this, Les Miles: Fournette is a once-in-a-generation talent. He will again headline an SEC contender in Baton Rouge.
Mississippi State: Losing Dak Prescott will hurt
One could argue Mississippi State must replace the best player in program history in 2016. Senior quarterback Dak Prescott leaves Starkville having set 38 individual school records while earning first team All-SEC recognition and helping the Bulldogs to 19 wins over the past two seasons. Can coach Dan Mullen find a suitable replacement for Prescott? Many expect sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, who appeared in seven games in ’15, to emerge as the frontrunner this spring. No matter who earns Mississippi State’s first start this fall, he will inherit massive shoes to fill.
Missouri: Stingy defense isn’t enough
Last season Missouri finished second in the SEC in total defense (4.32 yards allowed per play) and scoring defense (16.2 points allowed per game) behind coordinator Barry Odom, now the program’s new head coach. So defense wins championships, right? Not when your inept offense fails to score in double digits in six games. That offense plagued Missouri during its 5–7 season, the program’s worst since 2012, and will be the biggest issue on Odom’s off-season priority list. Drew Lock is the presumed starter at quarterback following Maty Mauk’s dismissal, and running back Russell Hansborough is now gone. What will the Tigers’ offense look like in 2016?
Ole Miss: The Rebels are close to SEC greatness
In 2014 and ’15 Ole Miss won nine games in consecutive regular seasons for the first time since 1962 and beat Alabama both years. But during that run, the Rebels failed to turn that success into a division title. While coach Hugh Freeze loses a few program-changers this fall in receiver Laquon Treadwell, offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil and defensive lineman Robert Nkemdiche, the coach also inked the third-best signing class of 2016. Meanwhile, gun-slinging quarterback Chad Kelly also returns. Ole Miss’s task is meeting the new standard in Oxford.
South Carolina: Stopping the run is key
Hiring a defensive-minded head coach (Will Muschamp) to replace Steve Spurrier might be just what South Carolina needs. That’s especially true against the run, where the Gamecocks finished last in the SEC in yards allowed per carry (5.13) in 2015. No SEC team gave up more rushing touchdowns than South Carolina (25) last year. The good news is Muschamp knows defense and inherits the program’s top tackler from a year ago, linebacker Skai Moore. But the Gamecocks had better improve quickly against an SEC East that includes rushers like Georgia’s Nick Chubb and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd.
Texas A&M: Two quarterbacks aren’t always better than one
Last season Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, both former five-star quarterback prospects, split time in a Texas A&M offense that finished ninth in the SEC in passing efficiency. After that unsuccessful game of musical chairs, both Allen and Murray transferred during the same week in December. Now Sumlin must make his offense work behind Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight or sophomore Jake Hubenak, who combined to attempt just 67 passes in ’15. The Aggies proved last season they couldn’t succeed with two quarterbacks. Can Sumlin, who is 17–15 in SEC play at Texas A&M, settle on one to turn things around?
Tennessee: The Volunteers need to learn how to close big games
By all accounts, Tennessee took a big step forward in 2015. It won nine games for the first time since ’07, and capped the season with a 45–6 rout of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. But Butch Jones’s third year in Knoxville might be remembered more for the losses than the wins. The Vols’ four setbacks came by a combined 17 points against teams that finished 43–12. Even worse, Tennessee held leads in all four games. This fall the Vols will be armed with another top-20 recruiting class and a host of returning talent, but none of it will matter if Jones and his staff can’t teach the team how to close big games.
Vanderbilt: Turnovers lose games
Derek Mason incrementally improved from 3–9 to 4–8 in his second season at Vanderbilt, but the Commodores still couldn’t take care of the football. Vandy finished last in the league in both turnover margin (-0.67) and total turnovers (25), with quarterback Johnny McCrary contributing 12 picks on his own. The ‘Dores are set to return 15 starters in 2016, including eight on a defense that recorded only 17 takeaways (11th in SEC) last season. It’s up to Mason, a former Stanford defensive coordinator, to teach his roster the importance of winning the turnover battle.