By: Kristen Ashly
Although seven SEC teams won their bowl games last season, saving their winning record, Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and LSU all lost their bowl games. The once strong SEC followers now question their loyalty. Most of the nation had longed for the back-firing of SEC supporters’ hubris for years, and found it in the dawning of a new year. Going back to 2013, the SEC has now lost five straight BCS or New Year’s Six bowl games.
The conference’s biggest loss, however, might be the benefit of the doubt. Instead of penciling in the SEC as the best conference in football going into the 2015 season, analysts are now wondering if other conferences have indeed caught up.
Expect enhanced scrutiny on SEC teams’ games against other major conference opponents this year. This year, SEC will be under a microscope. Can it live up to the dissection?
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama is once again the favorite for the SEC. Returning just 10 starters, the second fewest in the SEC, isn’t a big concern for the Tide. Not only does the Crimson Tide load up on recruiting talent every year, but their last two national championships have come in years where they’ve been at the bottom of the preseason experience ranks. Alabama’s ground game should be as deadly as ever with bruiser Derrick Henry and speedster Kenyan Drake back. Florida State transfer Jake Coker, a once highly touted recruit who’s waited behind the likes of Jameis Winston and Blake Sims, is the favorite in a quarterback competition.
With the Tide’s top three receivers from a year ago gone, five-star wideout Calvin Ridley will have the same opportunity to explode onto the scene in his freshman season in Tuscaloosa that the likes of Julio Jones and Amari Cooper did before him.
The Team to Watch
With the West division stuffed full of parity, some metrics give Georgia the highest percentage chance of any team to win the SEC because of its superiority over the East. Georgia is the SEC’s winningest team since the turn of the century, a span in which Mark Richt has won the third-most games of any coach ever at a school for 15 years.
Mark Richt has said repeatedly the quarterback battle is anyone’s to win. However, plenty of Bulldogs observers have said that despite Faton Bauta’s strong spring and the summer arrival of Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert, the job is actually redshirt sophomore Brice Ramsey’s to lose. If Ramsey can’t cement himself as the starter, questions will be asked about what exactly Georgia will get under center in 2015. Also be on the look out for how well the nation’s No. 1 overall recruit, Trenton Thomspon, fits within Jeremy Pruitt’s defense.
Coach Mark Stoops may not have gotten Kentucky to a bowl game for the first time in four years like fans wanted in his second season, but he did snap a longer skid.
Assuming Patrick Towles asserts himself as the team’s starting quarterback as expected, the biggest question mark for the Wildcats is how they’ll replace defensive ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith. Jason Hatcher seems poised for a breakout season as a pass-rushing outside linebacker in the Kentucky’s new 3-4, but senior Farrington Huguenin and a host of other candidates must prove what looked like a productive spring for this unit can be carried over into fall.
This choice will ruffle some feathers.
Patton Robinette’s surprise post-spring departure means this might be the widest-open quarterback race in the SEC. Sophomores Wade Freebeck and Johnny McCrary have actual game experience, but redshirt freshman Shawn Stankavage is in the mix, and four-star freshman Kyle Shurmurcan’t be ruled out, either. Be prepared for the Commodores to take their time choosing the right leader, which will pay off this season.
While you can’t blame Vanderbilt fans for keeping an eye on Shurmur in the hopes he can rescue the quarterback situation, the biggest gain of Derek Mason’s 2015 class was landing four-star Josh Smith, a top-150-overall recruit and the No. 3 inside linebacker in his class. Thanks to players like Nigel Bowden, inside linebacker is one of the rare positions where Vandy actually appears set, but Smith may be too good to keep off the field all the same.
Arkansas Razorbacks- With the pieces all seemingly in place on offense, the biggest question for the Razorbacks is how they’ll replace 2014 breakout stars Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight. A big camp from the likes of tackle Bijhon Jackson, end Jeremiah Ledbetter and sophomore linebackers Khalia Hackett and Henre Toliver could sooth concerns that top returning tackler Brooks Ellis won’t be counted on too heavily.
Auburn Tigers- Auburn absorbed major blows to both lines of scrimmage before the 2014 season even started when defensive end Carl Lawson and guard Alex Kozan were both lost for the year to injury. If Lawson is ready to fulfill his five-star, second-team freshman All-American potential, and Kozan is ready to show off the form that helped the Tigers lead the nation in rushing in 2013, both Tigers lines will be poised to dramatically improve on 2014.
Florida Gators- Though the quarterback race will get plenty of ink in Gainesville over the next few weeks, Will Grier seemed to have enough of a leg up on Treon Harris coming out of spring camp that the bigger question mark might be what Jim McElwain can get out of his inexperienced, paper-thin offensive line. McElwain has added some quality bodies to his options over the summer, but they’ll have to adapt quickly.
LSU Tigers- Well, at least the Tigers have a shred of continuity at quarterback — a year after Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris came into fall camp going head-to-head for the starting job, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris come into fall camp going head-to-head for the starting job. But after a season of mediocre-at-best play under center, is either improved enough to get the Tigers back into title contention?
Mississippi State Bulldogs- Following the exit of Josh Robinson and arguably the team’s top three offensive linemen, Dan Mullen’s running game once has something to prove
Missouri Tigers- If Gary Pinkel’s going to keep the Tigers’ amazing two-year run of SEC East titles going, he’s going to need to account for two massively depleted units at wideout and the defensive line.
Ole Miss Rebels- After three seasons of the Bo Wallace experience, Hugh Freeze will be forced to name a new starting quarterback for the first time in his Rebels tenure. Is he up for the task?
South Carolina Gamecocks- Though Jon Hoke’s attempt to overhaul the Gamecocks’ dreadful 2014 defense might have the largest ramifications for South Carolina’s chances of a bounce-back season, this is still a Steve Spurrier team, which means the biggest headlines will be reserved for the quarterbacks.
Tennessee Volunteers- With 18 returning starters including quarterback Josh Dobbs, the Vols arguably have fewer personnel questions than any other team in the SEC. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t problems to troubleshoot, particularly on the offensive line, where the Vols opened holes for just 3.63 yards-per-carry, the second-worst mark in the SEC. Can new offensive coordinator Mike Debord get more out of his linemen?
Texas A&M Aggies- Ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall must prove they can stuff the run as well as they rush the passer; senior Alonzo Williams must get some semblance of help at tackle, and sophomore linebacker Otaro Alaka must build on the promise flashed as a freshman.
Games to Watch
Sept 19- Auburn at LSU
The game could be make or break for LSU’s season, depending on what happens the previous week at Mississippi State. Previous games between the two teams have been landslide victories for both sides, but analysts predict this game will be a lot closer.
Oct 3- Alabama at Georgia
Arguably the best crossover game in the SEC. Both teams are dressed appropriately to win, despite a tense rivalry of neighboring states.
Nov 7- LSU at Alabama
Nick Saban vs. Les Miles is the best head-to-head coaching in the SEC. Though Alabama has won the last four meetings, games between the two teams rarely disappoint.
Nov 28- Alabama at Auburn
No rivalry runs hotter right now, especially from two teams that are shoe-ins for the College Football Playoff race. This will be Alabama’s first trip back to Auburn since “Kick Six” in 2013. Watch for intense team chemistry.
Don’t agree with the picks? Comment below.
Kristen Ashly is an editor and contributor for Nuts & Bolts Sports. Shoot college football breeze with her on Twitter @KristenAshly.