With the departure of two of the Southeastern Conference’s most popular players to the NFL, Johnny Manziel (Texas A&M) and Jadeveon Clowney (South Carolina), the conference is on its way to a new identity for the 2014-2015 season. Many other familiar faces will also be gone from amongst the teams, such as A.J. McCarron (Alabama), Aaron Murray (Georgia), and Mike Evans (Texas A&M), to name a few, but there are plenty of new top recruits and current players to step in make their own marks in SEC history with their respective teams.
So with many of the teams locked and loaded for another push at an NCAA Football Championship, which team will rise to be the face of the SEC for 2014-2015?
Highest Momentum – After a disappointing loss in the BCS National Championship Game, Auburn has the most momentum propelling them to make a run at the new playoff format coming into play this season and run for a National Championship. Not only do they have the driving force of avenging the loss, they have the last second heroic win over Alabama, and the spectacular SEC Championship win over Missouri to carry over into the new season. They also have stability advantage at quarterback in Nick Marshall, who will be returning for his senior season. Something that Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, LSU, South Carolina, Missouri can’t say, as all lost their starting quarterbacks to the NFL and will be adjusting to new players in that role. Marshall’s mobility, speed, and leadership will be a factor for opposing defenses to contend with.
Conference Darling – The Alabama Crimson Tide is still the perennial favorite to win the SEC title in 2014-2015. Replacing A.J. McCarron at quarterback has been their biggest change on a prolific offense. Whoever is chosen to fill McCarron’s shoes for the upcoming season, whether it is junior Jacob Coker or fifth-year senior Blake Sims, will have a stable offense to run. The running game will continue to be solid as junior tailback T.J. Yeldon will be back in action and poised for another 1,000-yard season. Offensive targets will be plentiful at wide receiver with Amari Cooper and DeAndrew White in the passing game. When it comes to the Alabama defense, the defensive front seven are still intact. Minimal changes in players on defense adds to the advantage Alabama has, not to mention one of the easiest schedules in the SEC.
Balanced Success – South Carolina may have lost Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney to the NFL, but the effects of that loss have been minimal. The Gamecocks on both sides of the ball are good shape due to their recruiting efforts in recent years giving them an advantage in depth and talent. Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson, who backed up Connor Shaw the past two years, will take over the reins and running back Mike Davis will anchor the running game. Davis rushed for over 1,100 yards in 2013 and could easily match that mark in 2014 if he stays injury free. On defense, the talent is strong at the linebacker and safety positions. Look for senior strong safety Brison Williams’s leadership to ignite the defense.
Success from Offense – Because of significant changes on defense due to coaching changes or loss of players, teams such as Georgia and Missouri will need to heavily rely on their offense for their success. Both programs have lost their starting quarterbacks to the NFL, but have solid back-ups to plug into place for the upcoming season.
For Georgia, the burden will fall on the shoulders of senior quarterback Hutson Mason, junior tailback Todd Gurley, and a deep receiver core anchored by seniors Chris Conley and Michael Bennett. A dangerous combination should everyone remain healthy and injury free.
For Missouri, sophomore quarterback Maty Mauk, who stepped in for injured James Franklin a season ago, will be at helm. He proved last season that he can steer the offense and was successful in keeping Missouri in contention for the SEC East Division title. Capitalizing on his success and confidence from a year ago as well as reliance on the running game will be the key.
Success from Defense – Teams like LSU and Florida, who have major needs on offense, reliance on the speed and experience of the defense will be important. With the low production and success on offense for Florida in recent years, the Gators will be adjusting to a new offense from new offensive coordinator, Kurt Roper. This could mean another year of improvement and developing on the offensive side of the ball if they are unable to adapt to Roper’s system quickly. Therefore, having a strong defense to shoulder the burden will be the key. Improvements at the linebacker position and veteran leadership are the strong suits for this Florida team.
For LSU, the Tigers took a hit to their offense losing their starting quarterback, Zach Mettenberger, running back Jeremy Hill, and three receivers to the NFL. Although they have new and quality talent to replace the vacated positions, the talent is inexperienced and will be a rebuilding year on offense so the defense will be the focus of success. The tenacity and athleticism of the defense from the secondary and defensive ends that LSU is known for will need to set the tone in games this season. Cornerbacks Tre’Davious White and Rashard Robinson can be strong catalysts to this success.
Up for Grabs– For the remainder of the SEC, it is anything goes on how successful or the kind of season they will end up having. Tennessee, Kentucky, Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Texas A&M, all have depth issues, but are loaded with new or inexperienced talent that could yield future success in another year or so. The upcoming season is not a wash for them but will be a good preview of what improvements have been made and what to build upon. Out of the teams mentioned, Texas A&M has taken the biggest hit to their roster with the loss of starting quarterback phenom Johnny Manziel, wide receiver Mike Evans, offensive tackles Luke Joeckel and Jake Matthews to the NFL, and dismissed defensive players Isaiah Golden and Darian Claiborne. Ole Miss and Mississippi have the depth and look to improve on last season’s successes.
The future is bright for the SEC. There are no signs of the dominance of the SEC machine stopping in 2014.