Tag: CFB

Conference Contenders Start to Square Off This Weekend In College Football

Once again, a week that had few promising games on paper ended up delivering plenty of drama.

North Carolina State gave top-ranked Florida State all it could handle and then some before finally succumbing in the final quarter and losing 56-41.

Sixth-ranked Texas A&M overcame a 28-14 halftime deficit with two touchdowns in the fourth quarter against Arkansas, then won the game in overtime to stay undefeated on the year.

Georgia also had a bit of a tense game, outlasting a pesky Tennessee squad 35-32 behind 208 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns from Todd Gurley.

Missouri got some revenge on SEC East foe South Carolina. The Gamecocks ruined Mizzou’s undefeated season a year ago, but the Tigers came out on top this time, rallying from a 20-7 deficit with under eight minutes to go in the fourth quarter to win 21-20. The Tigers scored the go-ahead score on fourth down with 1:36 remaining.

Oklahoma State outlasted Texas Tech in a shootout, 45-35, while Stanford’s defense muzzled the Washington Huskies in a 20-13 victory.

UCLA finally looked like the preseason Pac-12 title contender many predicted it would be. The Bruins absolutely demolished Arizona State, 62-27
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Week 5 College Football Storylines: Time to Settle Old Scores

Week 4 provided plenty of tests for some of the nation’s best teams. Auburn narrowly escaped Manhattan, Kansas with a win, defeating Kansas State 20-14 in a game the Wildcats probably should have won. Kansas State committed three turnovers and missed three field goals.

Florida State managed to come back against a game Clemson squad and win in overtime without suspended quarterback Jameis Winston. Trailing 17-10 in the fourth quarter, Sean Maguire found Rashad Greene for a 74-yard touchdown with six minutes left. Clemson fumbled the ball deep in Florida State territory with under two minutes to go and then failed to convert a 4th-and-1 on their overtime possession. Karlos Williams’ 12-yard touchdown scamper sealed the win for Florida State and kept the Seminoles’ undefeated season alive.

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Week 3 Storylines: Panic in the Midwest, Showdown in the Southeast

We’re only two weeks into the season–and Cincinnati still has yet to play a game for some reason–but there have already been some developments that could have major playoff implications. The Pac-12 has served notice that it’s going to be a major player in the playoff race while another major conference has sent the opposite message. A tradition-rich yet seemingly-forgotten program has staked its claim to the Group of Five’s New Year’s Day slot.

Oregon cleared a major hurdle by racing past Michigan State in the weekend’s marquee game. In a matchup of top-ten teams, the Ducks rallied from a nine-point deficit in the third quarter and won easily, 46-27. A week after exploding on offense to demolish Fresno State, the USC Trojans showed they can also with defense by defeating Stanford 13-10 on the road. Given UCLA’s lackluster start to the season, it’s beginning to look like the Ducks and Trojans are headed for a showdown in the Pac-12 title game.

BYU hasn’t been getting much attention, but that should change after the Cougars ran roughshod over Texas for the second year in a row. A 28-point third quarter allowed BYU to pull away en route to a 41-7 victory over the Longhorns. The Cougars play Central Florida, Boise State, Utah State, and California, so if they keep this up, they’ll make things difficult for the playoff committee.

Looking ahead, there isn’t a whole lot going on in Week 3. However, the one good game is a doozy. SEC East rivals Georgia and South Carolina square off in a battle that could go a long way towards determining who wins the division and gets a chance to play in the SEC championship game.

Recapping Week 2: B1G Faceplant

For a conference that has been rather defensive about its perceived reputation of late, last weekend could not have come at a worse time for the Big Ten. The league has taken plenty of heat for not being able to win marquee non-conference games, and this past weekend did little to convince people otherwise.

Michigan State gave Oregon all it could handle for awhile, but then the Ducks exploded for 28 unanswered points in the second half against the Spartans’ vaunted defense to win going away.

Preseason-favorite Ohio State lost at home to unranked Virginia Tech, 35-21, the Buckeyes’ first loss in a home opener in 36 years. To make matters worse, it was the largest crowd in school history. The Buckeyes have now lost three-of-their-last-four games.

It could be worse, though. At least the Buckeyes aren’t Michigan. The Wolverines lost to despised rival Notre Dame, 31-0. It was the most lopsided Irish win the series–which goes on hiatus indefinitely–and the first time Michigan has been shut out in 365 games.

Northwestern continued its awesome start to the season, going 0-2 after losing to MAC foe Northern Illinois. The dumpster fire that is Purdue football showed little sign of abating as the Boilermakers were soundly defeated by Central Michigan.

Even the league’s wins were unimpressive. Iowa needed a late rally to get past  Ball State 17-13 while Nebraska narrowly escaped McNeese State 31-24 with less than a minute to go after Ameer Abdullah scored a 58-yard touchdown after breaking a tackle by seemingly every defender on McNeese’s roster.

Wisconsin was sluggish against Western Illinois, leading only 9-3 at the half, and Maryland had to rally to beat South Florida 24-17.

There has been some talk that the Big Ten may not qualify a team for the playoff, which seems premature considering the season is just two weeks old, but the conference’s resume is looking awfully thin at this point. If the decision comes down to say, an Oklahoma State team that ran the gauntlet of the Big 12 and gave Florida State all it could handle versus an Ohio State squad that lost to Virginia Tech and nearly lost to Navy, the playoff committee will choose the former.

Future Jeopardy Answer of the Week

You’re probably heard of the South Carolina Gamecocks. After all, it’s a pretty unique name.

But what is a gamecock, and why is it the mascot for the University of South Carolina?

Well, have you ever heard of cockfighting? A gamecock is a rooster used for fighting, and they are fierce, aggressive birds.

According to the University of South Carolina’s athletics website, the school’s teams have been known as the Gamecocks for over 100 years. Cockfighting was quite popular in the 1800s, and South Carolina was a major producer of combat-ready roosters. As if that weren’t enough, General Thomas Sumter–famed Revolutionary War hero and the man for whom Fort Sumter in Charleston is named–was known as “The Fighting Gamecock” by the British for his ferocity in battle, so the term has a rich association with the Palmetto State.

Tailgate Adventure of the Week

Speaking of the Gamecocks, they have one of the coolest and most unique tailgating venues in the nation: the Cockaboose Railroad.  Just outside the south side of Williams-Brice Stadium is a set of railroad tracks holding 22 stationary cabooses. Each car is unique, but all have amenities such as flat-screen TVs, heating/air conditioning, electricity, running water, and rooftop party decks. They are often used to watch away games, too.

The cabooses were installed in March 1990 by a couple of local residents and put on sale for $45,000 apiece. Twenty were sold within two days, and of the original 22 owners, 12 still own their cars to this day.

So if you’re ever in Columbia on game days, be sure to swing by and check out the Cockaboose Railroad.

 

Week 3 Game of the Week

Georgia at South Carolina

The sixth-ranked Bulldogs travel to Columbia to take on #24 South Carolina in an early SEC East showdown.

The Gamecocks entered the year with a top-ten ranking and plenty of hype, but a blowout loss to Texas A&M followed with a less-than-impressive showing against East Carolina have cooled people’s attitudes towards South Carolina.

Georgia opened the year with an impressive beatdown of Clemson, vaulting the Bulldogs into the top ten and running back Todd Gurley to the top of many Heisman frontrunner lists. Georgia had a bye week last week, so the Bulldogs should be healthy and well-rested for their division foe.

The games between these two teams are always entertaining and never lacking in drama. The winner gets an early leg up in race for the SEC East crown as well as a boost to their playoff hopes. The loser will have quite the hole to climb out of. South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier takes immense glee in tweaking the noses of the Bulldogs (although, to be fair, he does that with pretty much any SEC team), but the Gamecocks lack the star power to keep up with Gurley and the Bulldogs.

Prediction: Georgia

 

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Can Auburn Do It Again? 2014 SEC Preview

The SEC is entering unfamiliar territory in 2014. For the first time in nearly a decade, the nation’s premier college football conference will not have the defending national champion. Florida State ended the conference’s 7-year streak of dominance when it defeated Auburn in last year’s national championship game, but don’t consider it the end of an era. The league is as good as ever and will certainly boast a plethora of national playoff contenders.

However, the loss did reveal a chink in the SEC’s armor. No longer is the conference a sure thing where you can automatically pencil in its champion for a title game slot. Florida State is still out there, and a strong case can be made that the Pac-12 is a deeper league.

Plus. the SEC is experiencing a significant turnover at quarterback. Gone are guys like Aaron Murray, James Franklin, Johnny Manziel, Connor Shaw, Zach Mettenberger, and A.J. McCarron. Mississippi’s Bo Wallace is the most experienced quarterback in the conference. The new guys are going to have some big shoes to fill, and it puts the conference’s teams at a disadvantage if they have to go against someone like Jameis Winston or Marcus Mariota.

There are plenty of other questions facing the conference, as well.

Was Auburn a one-year wonder, or can the Tigers do it again? What about their in-state rivals, the Alabama Crimson Tide? How will they respond after getting handled by Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl and having to replace A.J. McCarron?

Was Missouri’s SEC title a one-time thing, or are the Tigers for real? Can South Carolina finally get over the hump and win the league, even without Jadeveon Clowney and Shaw? Can Georgia stay healthy?

Texas A&M lost Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans. Will the Aggies still be potent on offense without them? Can their defense be less sieve-like?

Can Ole Miss take the next step and be a conference contender? Can Mississippi State live up to the hype and make some noise?

How about longtime league powers Tennessee and Florida? Can they get back to their winning ways? Will Vanderbilt remain relevant without coach James Franklin?

2013 Year in Review

For much of 2013, it was business as usual for Alabama. The Crimson Tide were their usual dominant selves, starting out 11-0 and at the top of the polls. However, the season didn’t end as planned. A stunning loss to archrival Auburn–in which Auburn scored a late TD to tie it then returned a missed field goal 109 yards to win the Iron Bowl in dramatic walk-off fashion–was followed by a crushing 45-31 defeat at the hands of Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl.

The “Pick Six” was just the latest in a number of amazing moments in Auburn’s miracle season. The Tigers went worst-to-first and had a number of incredible finishes along the way. A fortuitous deflection off a tip on 4th-and-18 with 36 seconds left led to a Hail Mary touchdown to give the Tigers a victory over Georgia and set up that clash against Alabama. In the SEC title game, the Tigers put up over 500 yards rushing against the best defensive line in the SEC. They fell short against Florida State, but the ride was one that will be remembered for ages.

Missouri answered the skeptics who felt the Tigers couldn’t compete in the SEC. Gary Pinkel’s squad finished 12-2 on the year, winning the SEC East and giving Auburn all it could handle in the SEC championship game. Michael Sam was the league’s defensive player of the year and anchored the best defensive line in the conference.

South Carolina has been consistently good the past few years but has been unable to get over the hump and take that next step in the SEC. The Gamecocks went 11-2 and finished fourth in the country, yet they failed to win their division and didn’t play in the SEC championship game. The Gamecocks handed Missouri its only conference loss of the regular season and beat Clemson for the millionth year in a row, but an upset at the hands of Tennessee handed the division title to Missouri.

LSU churned out another 10-win season, finishing the year 10-3 and handing Auburn its only conference defeat. Zach Mettenberger threw for over 3,000 yards with 22 touchdowns; Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr. had big years with each posting over 1,100 receiving yards. The defense was good but not up to LSU’s usual standards, especially when it came to run defense.

Texas A&M couldn’t quite match its breakout 2012 season. Johnny Manziel was as spectacular as advertised, but a young, porous defense held the Aggies back as they finished 9-4.

Another team that couldn’t quite deliver on the hype was Georgia, although that wasn’t through any fault of their own. The Bulldogs were decimated by injuries; top receiver Malcolm Mitchell was lost for the season in the first game, and eventually star quarterback Aaron Murray and standout running back Keith Marshall were lost as well. Even then, the Bulldogs even nearly defeated Clemson and would have beaten Auburn if not for that incredible Hail Mary touchdown.

Vanderbilt continued its relevance, ending the season on a five-game winning streak that allowed the Commodores to finish 9-4 and ranked in the top-25.

Ole Miss & Mississippi State started the year slow, but a late season surge allowed the Bulldogs to become bowl-eligible. The Bulldogs nearly beat Auburn, lost by ten to Texas A&M, and hung tough against Alabama.

Tennessee has fallen on hard times since replacing Philip Fulmer. Butch Jones was brought in to rebuild the once-mighty program, and his year showed plenty of promise. The Volunteers signed a top-ten recruiting class, beat South Carolina, and narrowly lost to Georgia. Tennessee still failed to make a bowl game, but a really young team took its lumps while preparing for a bright future.

New Kentucky coach Mark Stoops made headlines with a top-notch recruiting class, but the Wildcats are a major rebuilding project. Kentucky was still dreadful on the field, as the Wildcats won just two games and went 2-10. However, there were signs of progress. It’s going to take awhile, but for the first time in eons, there is hope at Kentucky.

After the whole Bobby Petrino/John L. Smith fiasco, Arkansas brought in Wisconsin coach Bret Bielema to turn the program around. What happened in 2013 wasn’t what Hog fans had in mind as the Razorbacks were a lowly 3-9. The season started off promising, with Arkansas winning its first three games. Then, Bielema’s wife posted her infamous “#karma” tweet after a controversial Wisconsin loss. Turns out she was right, as karma struck swiftly; Arkansas lost nine straight.

At least the Razorbacks can use off-field distractions and a new coach as an excuse. Florida was coming off an 11-win season and started the year 4-1, but injuries and ineffective offense were the culprits as the Gators dropped their last seven games to finish 4-8. The low point was a 26-20 loss to FCS Georgia Southern, a game in which two Florida players blocked each other on the same play.

Looking Ahead to 2014

SEC East

Georgia is Dangerous

Aaron Murray is gone, so Hutson Mason gets his chance at quarterback for Georgia. He was unspectacular in the season-opening win against Clemson, but he won’t have to be with the playmakers the Bulldogs have on offense. This unit is loaded and explosive. Todd Gurley is a beast–the junior posted 293 all-purpose yards and 4 touchdowns against Clemson–and on the short list of Heisman contenders. Keith Marshall returns from an ACL injury, and freshman Nick Chubb rushed for 70 yards, including a 47-yard touchdown run, in Saturday’s game. Mitchell is still working himself back from injury, but with Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, and Justin Scott-Wesley, the Dawgs have plenty of playmakers at receiver.

Jeremy Pruitt was brought over from Florida State to replace the departed Todd Grantham as defensive coordinator, and he’ll have to shore up a shaky secondary. Georgia’s front seven has the potential to be really good, though. Linebacker Jordan Jenkins had 12 tackles for loss and five sacks last season, and defensive end Ray Drew tallied 8 tackles for loss with 6 sacks.

If Georgia can survive its first two games, then the schedule shapes up pretty nicely. The Bulldogs have already beaten Clemson, and they’ll next have to go to a South Carolina team that had hype but got blown out in its opener against Texas A&M. A road contest against Missouri won’t be easy, and who knows what Florida is going to do this year, but other than those games and a home game against Auburn, Georgia should be clear favorites in every game.

Is this the Year South Carolina Puts it All Together?

The Gamecocks lost a lot of star power in the offseason, starting with number one overall draft pick Jadeveon Clowney, but plenty of other players return to a deep, experienced team. Quarterback Connor Shaw is gone, but his replacement, Dylan Thompson, has seen significant playing time filling in for Shaw over the years. Running back Mike Davis is a star (1,183 yards rushing, 11 touchdowns; 342 receiving yards), and while the Gamecocks lost top receiver Bruce Ellington, every other receiver returns.

South Carolina’s defense was hard hit as well. Aside from Clowney, linemen Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton are both gone. There are plenty of blue-chip recruits waiting in the wings, but none are proven. It’s much the same situation in the secondary; the top three cornerbacks are gone, and the replacements are inexperienced but have a high upside. The safeties are experienced, though, and the linebackers should be among the conference’s best. The unit got torched by Texas A&M, but considering the insane numbers the Aggies have put up–especially against Alabama–maybe that says more about the Aggies’ offensive prowess than South Carolina’s defensive deficiencies.

South Carolina’s early schedule does them no favors. They already received a shellacking from Texas A&M, have to face a tough East Carolina team, then host Georgia. If they can get past that, however, they should be in good shape. They get Missouri at home. A road trip to Auburn will be tough, but road games against Florida and Clemson are winnable. The opener was disheartening, but if the Gamecocks can rebound from that and beat Georgia, they’ll be the favorites in the SEC East.

Can Missouri Defend Its Title?

People are discounting Missouri after last year’s surprising run to the SEC championship game, but as Lee Corso would say, “Not so fast, my friend!” Don’t count the Tigers out. Sophomore Maty Mauk is the starting quarterback after a promising freshman season that saw him show plenty of promise in filling in for injured starter James Franklin. Mauk threw 11 touchdowns against 2 interceptions last year, but he’ll need to vastly improve his completion percentage (51.1 percent). In the season opener against South Dakota State, he completed nearly two-thirds of his passes, so that’s promising.

Running back Henry Josey is gone after running for 1,166 yards and 16 touchdowns in 2013, but Russell Hansbrough is back after rushing for almost 700 yards. He ran for 126 yards on 20 carries in the opener. Senior Marcus Murphy also returns after contributing 600 rushing yards of his own in 2013, so the running game should be in good hands. It will need to be because the top three wideouts needs to be replaced.

Mizzou boasted perhaps the conference’s best defensive line last year with ends Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, the league’s defensive player of the year. Those two are gone, but Markus Golden and Shane Ray are back after combining for 11 sacks last season. The secondary is a bit of a concern. Braylon Webb is a standout at safety, but the cornerbacks are relatively unproven.

It’s tough to see Missouri repeating as division champs with how freakishly good Georgia looks and the fact that Mizzou has to travel to South Carolina, but the Tigers should still be pretty good. A road contest against Texas A&M will be tough but not quite as daunting (the Tigers are familiar with College Station from their Big 12 days), but every other game but those three is winnable. Nine wins seems pretty likely, and it’s not outside the realm of possibility that Mizzou pulls an upset or two.

Florida’s Offensive Woes

Kurt Roper was hired from Duke to revamp the Florida offense. The Gators will benefit from the return of quarterback Jeff Driskel, who missed most of 2013 due to injury. Mack Brown (no, not THAT Mack Brown) and Kelvin Taylor each ran for 500 yards last year, but Quinton Dunbar is the only returning player who caught more than 20 passes and had more than 130 receiving yards. There are plenty of guys who were highly recruited in high school, but Florida’s offensive struggles the pass few years temper any optimism.

Florida’s defense should once again be good. The unit is full of high-upside guys, and the secondary ought to be outstanding. Florida always recruits well, and even with last year’s debacle of a season, the defense was still one of the better ones in the country.

Schedule-wise, there is no way Florida goes 4-8 again. Aside from the annual rivalry game with Florida State, the non-conference schedule is a joke: Idaho, Eastern Michigan, and Eastern Kentucky. The Gators do have to play Alabama, but they get South Carolina and Missouri at home. Florida should get to a bowl game, but with that offense, it’s hard to see the Gators doing much more than that.

Tennessee’s On the Way Back, Just Not This Year

Justin Worley returns after missing time last year due to injury, and he played pretty well in the opener, throwing for 273 yards and 3 touchdowns with no interceptions. He has plenty of young, talented receivers to work with. Josh Smith, Jason Croom, and Marquez North all showed promise as freshman last season, and when you add junior Pig Howard, Tennessee has a nice group of receivers to throw the ball to. Running back Rajion Neal and his 1,124 yards and 12 touchdowns on the ground must be replaced, but Marlin Lane rushed for 500 yards last year. A big concern is an offensive line that has just six games of starting experience combined.

The defensive line must be rebuilt as well. It’s awfully young and lacking in experience, which is a huge concern in the SEC. Linebacker is also a position full of youth and inexperience, but middle linebacker A.J. Johnson is a steadying force. The secondary should be in good shape, though.

Tennessee figures to be much-improved, but a brutal schedule combined with rebuilding both lines means that progress wont’ show up on the scoreboard. Getting past Utah State was huge and impressive–the Aggies have been one of the best mid-major teams in the country over the past couple years–but Tennessee now has to contend with another quality mid-major in Arkansas State. After that, the Volunteers have to go to Oklahoma and Georgia. They also have road trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina along with a home game against Alabama. Six wins and a bowl trip is certainly doable, though.

Can Vanderbilt Sustain Success Without James Franklin?

Former Stanford defensive coordinator Derek Mason was hired to replace James Franklin, and while it’s just one game, the debut was not promising. Vanderbilt got destroyed at home by Temple, 37-7. The Commodores were pretty much inept on offense and committed seven turnovers. You know that saying that if you have two quarterbacks, you have none? Well, Vanderbilt used three in the opener and produced zero offensive points. Patton Robinette say some action last year but was hit-or-miss. Johnyy McCrary was 0-for-3 against Temple with a pair of interceptions while Stephen Rivers threw for 186 yards but completed less than 50 percent of his passes.

The running game should be okay, but the passing game must make do without star receiver Jordan Mathews and number two wideout Jonathan Krause. The top returning target is running back Jerron Seymour, who had 19 catches for 126 yards; the top wideout caught 15 passes for 123 yards.

Mason was instrumental in turning Stanford’s defense into one of the most feared units in the country, and he should have some pieces to work with at Vanderbilt. He is transitioning from a 4-3 scheme to a 3-4, so expect some growing pains. The linebacking corps will be the strength of the defense, as the secondary must undergo a rebuilding year after all four starters from last year graduated.

There is no way Vanderbilt wins nine games again, but a bowl game isn’t out of the question, assuming the Temple game was an aberration and not a sign of things to come. The Commodores have most of their toughest games at home, and road games against Kentucky and Mississippi State are winnable.

Just Keep Making Progress

Kentucky has plenty of potential, but this is a young team that will make its share of mistakes. Patrick Towles won the starting job and had a nice performance in his 2014 debut, albeit against Tennessee-Martin. The receiving corps is deep and gained plenty of experience after being thrown into the fire last year, and the running backs are an intriguing mix of youth and experience. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard rushed for 116 yards and 2 touchdowns on just two carries in the opener.

Kentucky’s defense was awful last season and should struggle again this year. Ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith combined for 16 sacks, but the middle of the line is suspect. The secondary returns plenty of experience, but that’s not necessarily a good thing since they were among the worst in the country.

The Wildcats should surpass last year’s total of two wins, but not by much. Ohio, Vanderbilt, and Louisiana-Monroe appear to be the only somewhat winnable games remaining on the schedule, and even those could go against Kentucky.

SEC West

Roll Damn Tide

A.J. McCarron is gone, but that shouldn’t cause too much trouble for the Crimson Tide. Not to take anything away from McCarron, but Alabama’s offense isn’t predicated on other-worldly quarterback play. Senior Blake Sims beat out Jacob Coker for the starting job, and he was solid if unspectacular in a season-opening win over West Virginia. With players like running backs T.J. Yeldon, Derrick Henry, and Kenyan Drake, and receivers Amari Cooper, Christion Jones, and DeAndrew White, Sims won’t have to be amazing, just smart.

Alabama’s defense is consistently among the best in the country and full of future NFL talent, but some cracks have started to appear of late. Texas A&M has shredded the Tide ‘D’ the past two seasons, and Oklahoma’s Trevor Knight scorched it in the Sugar Bowl. Even more concerning, West Virginia–4-8 a year ago–had little trouble moving the ball at will against Alabama as Clint Trickett finished with 365 yards passing. Heading into the season, secondary was a major concern, and the unit’s performance against West Virginia did little to ally those concerns.

Still, this is Alabama and Nick Saban. The Crimson Tide are without question one of the best teams in the country and the favorite to win the SEC. Alabama has to go to Ole Miss and LSU but gets A&M and Auburn at home. Getting out of the SEC West, let alone the SEC, isn’t easy, but one has to like ‘Bama’s chances.

Start of Something Special or Just a Fluke?

Auburn took a little while to get going, but once things clicked, the Tigers offense was pretty much unstoppable. Quarterback Nick Marshall returns and is a potential Heisman candidate. The senior threw for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns while rushing for 1,193 yards and 12 touchdowns. Star running back Tre Mason is gone, but Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant both rushed for over 600 yards last year. The offensive line returns four players with starting experience, too, so this rushing attack should be as devastating as ever. If there is a weakness to this offense, it’s in the passing game. Marshall originally started his career as a defensive back, so he isn’t as practiced as most quarterbacks. He has improved immensely, though, and does have his top returning targets back, including big-play wideout Sammie Coates and the hero of that Georgia game, Ricardo Louis.

Auburn’s defense suffered some significant losses, and their production must be replaced. Star lineman Dee Ford is now in the NFL, and corner Chris Davis–who returned that field goal against Alabama–is gone as well. Gus Malzahn and his staff have recruited well, but all that potential isn’t proven yet. The pieces are certainly there, but the defense needs to gel in a hurry as Auburn faces a brutal schedule. A Thursday night game against Kansas State in Manhattan, Kansas has trouble written all over it. The Tigers have to face Georgia from the East–in Athens, no less–travel to Ole Miss, and end the season at Alabama. They do get LSU, South Carolina, and Texas A&M at home, although none of those are easy games.

Post Johnny Football

Well that was quite the debut. Granted, it’s only one game, but it looks like Texas A&M is going to do just fine without Johnny Manziel. All his replacement, Kenny Hill, did in his first collegiate start was break Manziel’s single game passing yardage record with a 511 yard, 3 touchdown performance against South Carolina. The Aggies piled up 780 yards in their 52-28 win over the Gamecocks.

Hill will have plenty of help. A trio of experienced running backs, led by junior Trey Williams, should provide a competent ground game, and despite losing receiver Mike Evans to the NFL, A&M has plenty of options at receiver. Malcome Kennedy caught 14 passes for 137 yards in the season opener, and four other wideouts had at least 50 yards receiving. Throw in a talented, experienced offensive line, and the A&M offense will be as potent as ever.

The thing that held the Aggies back in 2013 was a porous defense, and that was the major question mark heading into this season. The unit was full of freshmen and sophomores who were unproven, and it showed. The defense did get better as the year went along, so it should be improved this year. How much so, will determine how far the Aggies go this year. The Aggies did give up two long passing touchdowns to South Carolina and 28 points overall, so the jury is still out.

Winning the opener against South Carolina was huge, and A&M shouldn’t have much difficulty until the second-half of the season when they have to play at Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and at Alabama followed by a season-ending stretch of at Auburn then home games against Missouri and LSU. However, if the Aggies can play at that level all season, the sky’s the limit.

Rebuilding in Baton Rouge (So Another 10-win Season?)

LSU lost a lot on offense, at least in the passing game. The Tigers must replace last year’s starting quarterback along with both starting wideouts. Sophomore Anthony Jennings won the starting job and threw for 239 yards and 2 touchdowns with no interceptions in the season opener against Wisconsin. However, he only went 9-for-21. The receivers are in the same boat: young and talented, but devoid of experience. The leading returning receiver, Travin Dural, had 7 catches for 145 yards in 2013. The running backs are experienced, though. Kenny Hilliard rushed for 110 yards on 18 carries with a touchdown, and Leonard Fournette arrived on campus with all sorts of hype.

The defense suffered losses along the line and at linebacker, but luckily, five-star recruits seems to grow on trees in Baton Rouge. The secondary is deep, talented, and experienced, but the pass rush must improve. Rush defense is still a concern after Wisconsin rushed for 268 yards. Granted, the Badgers boast one of the best rushing attacks in the country, but that spells trouble since LSU will be facing some pretty good ground games in the SEC.

Make no mistake, the Tigers are talented, but the bevy of youth and having to break in a new quarterback will result in some growing pains. LSU likely won’t contend for the conference crown but should be a top-15 team again. Watch out for the Tigers next year, though.

Young, Talented Rebels Look to Take Next Step

With the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, a boatload of top-tier talent, and a nasty defense, expectations are high in Oxford for the Ole Miss Rebels. Senior Bo Wallace threw for nearly 3,500 yards a season ago with 18 touchdowns, but he must improve his consistency and take fewer sacks. If he can do that and stay healthy, Ole Miss has the makings of a good offense. A trio of returning tailbacks combined for 1,600 yards last year, and while star receiver Donte Moncrief is gone, Laquon Treadwell is back after a promising freshman season. He’ll be joined by Vince Sanders, a senior who was limited in 2013 by injuries.

Former number one recruit Robert Nkemdiche anchors a defense brimming with talent. Safety Cody Prewitt had six interceptions a year ago while linebacker Serderius Bryant tallied 12.5 tackles for loss. There are experienced players or blue-chip recruits all over the two-deep roster for Ole Miss, and this defense should be one of the most exciting in the conference.

Meeting last season’s total of eight wins shouldn’t be a problem, but surpassing it will be a challenge. The Rebels would have to take a game from Alabama, Auburn, Texas A&M, or LSU. Ole Miss did beat LSU last season, but that was at home. The Rebels have to go to LSU and A&M, which won’t be easy. Both Auburn and Alabama come to Oxford, but asking Wallace & Co. to keep up with Auburn or move the ball consistently against Alabama is probably too much.

A Heisman Contender in Starkville

Quarterback Dak Prescott gets the keys to the Mississippi State offense and has been generating some Heisman hype. While that is unwarranted, it is easy to see why people are high on the dual-threat quarterback. He rushed for 897 yards and 13 touchdowns last year despite not being the full-time starter, and he also threw for nearly 2,000 yards with 10 touchdowns (albeit against 7 interceptions). The Bulldogs have plenty of good, experienced receivers, led by Jameon Lewis (64 receptions, 923 yards in 2013), and junior running back Josh Robinson rushed for 459 yards and 3 touchdowns last year in a backup role.

The strength of this team, though, is its defense. It was really good a year ago, and pretty much everyone is coming back. Linebacker Benardrick McKinney had 7 tackles for less and 3.5 sacks as a sophomore, and returning corners Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love combined for 6 interceptions and 11 pass breakups.

The Bulldogs have a pretty nice schedule, too. There are seven winnable games, and then they get Texas A&M and Auburn at home. Going to LSU and Alabama is impossible, but a home upset and maybe knocking off Ole Miss on the road means an 8-9 win season, which would be rather welcome in Starkville.

#Karma

Just like Bielema’s Wisconsin teams, Arkansas could run the ball. Alex Collins ran for over 1,000 yards as a freshman while junior Jonathan Williams returns after posting 900 yards of his own. The offensive line is experienced, so expect the run game to be strong again. The passing game struggled, though, as Brandon Allen completed less than 50 percent of his passes and threw for only 1,500 yards with 13 touchdowns against 10 interceptions. Tight end Hunter Henry returns after a solid freshman season, but two-of-the-top-three receivers from last year are gone.

Arkansas’ defense was atrocious in 2013. The silver lining is that plenty of young players saw significant playing time a year ago, so between a year’s worth of experience and a defensive coaching staff that was overhauled in the offseason, the defense should be better.

Even with improvement, it’ll be tough for the Razorbacks to show it with a tough schedule. Arkansas already got drubbed by Auburn to open the season, and the Hogs still have to go Texas Tech and play mid-major power Northern Illinois. Arkansas’ home slate includes Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss, and they have to go on the road to Texas A&M, Missouri, and Mississippi State. It’s shaping up to be another long year in Fayetteville.

 

 

East Champion

Georgia

The Bulldogs just have too much firepower. Todd Gurley is arguably the best player in the conference, and that defense will be good enough. The secondary is shaky, yes, but the passing games in the SEC are going to be affected by all the new quarterbacks around the league. South Carolina should be solid on both sides of the ball, but they just can’t match Georgia big play for big play. Same with Missouri. Nobody in that division has as much potential as Georgia.

 

West Champion

Auburn

This is a tough one because there are a number of teams that can stake a legitimate claim here. Alabama has the talent, pedigree, and track record. So does LSU. Texas A&M can score on anybody.

What it’s going to come down to is that these teams are going to beat up on one another. Alabama has shown themselves vulnerable to some high-powered spread offenses while A&M hasn’t been able to hold up defensively. Auburn is the one team that can really go toe-to-toe offensively with A&M, and they’ve proven they can beat Alabama. The Tigers emerge as the last one standing.

 

Conference Champion

Georgia

Another tough call, but Georgia is just a more well-rounded team. There are fewer questions in the passing game, and the defense is more proven. In a shootout, Georgia has the weapons to hang with Auburn. Plus, the Bulldogs would have won last year if not for a miracle touchdown off a deflection. Georgia’s due for some good luck.

 

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