2014 NCAA Football Preview: Southeastern Conference

August 18, 2014

This article marks the slightly over halfway point in Around The Corn’s college football preview series.

Just nine days until the games begin!

Let’s take a look at the Southeastern Conference.


The year 2014 didn’t exactly start out great for college football’s most dominant conference, as the SEC went 3-2 in bowl games January 1 or later and lost the most important one for the first time since 2000. But truly great entities have a way of bouncing back, and that’s definitely one way to describe what the conference has done since its humbling defeat in the national title game.

Eight teams from the SEC are ranked in the preseason AP Top 25 poll. In case you’ve been living under a rock the past eight months, ESPN will be launching this little side project called the SEC Network to broadcast games, news and all other things Southeastern Conference, all the time. And to top it all off, the conference that basically owned the BCS national title trophy over the past decade is most concerned with whether getting two teams into the new four team playoff is possible. Meanwhile, the four other “Power Five” conferences are crossing their fingers hoping to get one.

Yes, it is and has been a good time to be an SEC football fan. The college football playoff probably won’t change that. But even if you focus all of your hate towards the conference and its seemingly obnoxious fans, you have to admit one thing: it’s great entertainment. Top to bottom the best football is still played in the South, and despite all my pleading and begging, most of you would rather watch Kentucky vs. Mississippi State over Marshall vs. Rice.

Even though Florida State won the national title, the target is still on the backs of the top SEC teams this season. That’s the reward you get for winning seven straight national championships.

Team(s) With the Best Shot at a Playoff Bid


There aren’t many places in the country outside of Tuscaloosa where finishing 11-2 and playing in the Sugar Bowl is considered a major disappointment. But such is the case for any Nick Saban team of recent memory and this year the Crimson Tide are gunning for redemption. Gone is media proclaimed “game manager” AJ McCarron, and for the first time in awhile Alabama will have a competition for the starting quarterback job on its hands. However, the offense should still be humming thanks to running backs T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry, who will likely comprise another fearsome Tide tandem in the backfield. Don’t be surprised if Yeldon is one of the leaders out of the gate in the Heisman race, because he will be expected to carry the load while the team figures out whether Jacob Coker or Blake Sims will be the signal caller.

Defensively, the Crimson Tide are reloading. Eight starters left after the 2013-2014 season and Alabama will be relying on almost an entirely new cast to live up to the high standards that have been set by past Saban defenses. For this reason the team isn’t the favorite to win the national title, but the defense could very well be the reason the Crimson Tide actually win it. There is talent at every position and many of the probable starters have had a couple of years to learn the system. Just another season of expectations for Nick Saban & Co.


Gus Malzahn revitalized an anemic Auburn offense in just one season, turning the Tigers into national title contenders with a variation of the triple option offense. Luckily for Malzahn, Auburn should continue its run as one of the most potent offenses in the SEC thanks to the return of quarterback Nick Marshall and the majority of the offensive line. Having a core of guys who know how to run the offense, especially something as complex as the triple option, is so important in this league. Even the loss of Heisman finalist Tre Mason will be largely mitigated by the fact that the Tigers have two backs returning that rushed for more than 600 yards last season in seniors Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant.

The defense was a soft spot for the Tigers last year, and it will likely be the difference between a playoff spot and a regular bowl game this season. A healthy number of starters return from last year and there won’t be any learning curve from having a new defensive coordinator, but in some areas Auburn was downright awful. If the secondary does a better job against the pass, the Tigers will be in the mix for the SEC title and a playoff bid. If the defense sees little improvement, they won’t. Auburn won’t be sneaking up on anyone this year and needs to be solid on both sides of the ball.


Life in the SEC East isn’t a cakewalk, but the Bulldogs will gladly take a schedule without Alabama and LSU every year. Games against South Carolina and Auburn are the toughest on Georgia’s slate for 2014, and the division title will all come down to whether Mark Richt’s defense is good enough to get a few crucial stops against those teams’ offense. An astounding 10 starters return to a defense that should be much improved if only because of familiarity. On the offensive end, Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall make up the best backfield in the conference (sorry, Alabama) provided that both are healthy. Their presence should help in the continued development of senior quarterback Hutson Mason, who won’t be coming in completely inexperienced being a senior and also having filled in as the starter when Aaron Murray went down with a knee injury late last season.

As much as it helps not having to face Alabama or LSU, not many teams in the country can say its first two games or more difficult than Georgia’s. We saw last year just how much of a toll facing Clemson and South Carolina in consecutive weeks can have on a team, and although one loss doesn’t doom Georgia like it did in the BCS system, injuries as a result of those games could. As long as the Bulldogs remain healthy, they have a chance to crack the top four in the rankings.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Mississippi State

Expectations are high for the other SEC team in Mississippi, but the Bulldogs are flying under the radar a bit despite having one of the best dual threat quarterbacks in the conference. At 6’2″, 230 pounds, junior Dak Prescott is a load to bring down and uses that to his advantage, currently holding the lead for rushing touchdowns in the SEC among active quarterbacks. If Prescott continues to develop as a passer and junior running back Josh Robinson steps up to further bolster the run game, Mississippi State could propel itself into the top half of almost every major statistical category on offense.

Head coach Dan Mullen has put together some intriguing teams in the past, but 2014 may finally be the year his Bulldogs break through with some major upsets. With games on the road against Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, things will not be easy. But it gives this team something great to strive for, which may be all it needs to succeed. The defense should again be strong, keeping the Bulldogs in games against the big boys of the West Division. If the offense plays to its capability, this team could put together a special season in Starkville.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Leonard Fournette (Fr.), LSU running back

Every year college football is introduced to a corps of super freshman who seem unfazed by the increase in competition that the FBS division brings over high school. Assuming he begins to see his number of carries increase early on in the year, true freshman Leonard Fournette could be one of those players. Blessed with an insane combination of size and speed (6’1″, 224 pounds and ran a 10.68 second 100 meter dash in high school), Fournette had coaches all over the country salivating as the No. 1 overall recruit for 2014 according to ESPN.

Les Miles surely has some tricks up his sleeve to maximize the potential of Fournette, especially since the Tigers will be experimenting with a new quarterback to begin the year. While he may not be the feature back from game one, don’t be surprised if by midseason this guy is sharing the highlight reel for running backs alongside T.J. Yeldon and South Carolina’s Mike Davis on the SEC Network. Talent at the running back position rarely comes into college this refined.

Out-Of-Conference Game to Watch

LSU vs. Wisconsin (August 30th)

If you’re a fan of the power run game and good defense, then this is your can’t miss matchup of the opening weekend. Not much at all separates the Tigers and Badgers personnel wise, so this should be a close one for four quarters. It will be interesting to see if either team gambles and tries to open things up with the passing game, as it is likely that both defenses will be instructed to stop the run first and foremost.

Under head coach Gary Andersen the Badgers have become quicker than in past years, so don’t expect LSU to be able to rely solely on “SEC speed” to dispatch of this Big Ten squad. Chances are this game will come down to a few crucial plays either by result of mistakes by the defense or timely play-calling by the coaching staff. I like the LSU/TCU game from last season as a template for how this game may play out.

In-Conference Game to Watch

Auburn vs. Alabama (November 29th)

The Iron Bowl had hands down the best finish of any football game in 2013, so while you shouldn’t expect the 2014 version to be as drama filled, it is still one of the marquee matchups of the season. Both teams should have one of the top rushing attacks in the country when this game is played, so a lot of the storylines will revolve around T.J. Yeldon and the slew of Auburn backs that will contribute to the triple option offense. But this game will come down to the defense and perhaps even special teams play for the second year in a row.

In addition to the intensity created by the rivalry and the memories of the 2013 edition, the Iron Bowl should once again decide the champion of the West Division. Unless LSU is able to steal a win against one of these two teams earlier in the year, there is a good chance that both Alabama and Auburn will have perfect conference marks heading into this one.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. South Carolina (11-1, [7-1])

2. Georgia (10-2, [6-2])

3. Florida (8-4, [5-3])

4. Missouri (8-4, [4-4])

5. Tennessee (4-8, [2-6])

6. Kentucky (4-8, [1-7])

7. Vanderbilt (4-8, [0-8])

West Division

1. Auburn (11-1, [7-1])

2. Alabama (11-1, [7-1])

3. Mississippi State (10-2, [6-2])

4. LSU (8-4, [4-4])

5. Mississippi (7-5, [3-5])

6. Texas A&M (7-5, [3-5])

7. Arkansas (4-8, [1-7])

Championship Game (South Carolina vs. Auburn)

Winner: Auburn

Questions from the Readers

This is a section dedicated to the readers, where I will answer the questions you have sent me through Facebook, Twitter (@KBecks_ATC) or email (kbecks@aroundthecorn.com). Unfortunately, there were no questions sent regarding the SEC or its teams. Feel free to ask multiple questions, as I will answer any appropriate question that is submitted in time. Thanks guys.

– K. Becks

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