SEC fans can take off their earmuffs now.
By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak
The SEC West came up with the greatest regular season by any division in the history of college football, and then came the post-season and the balloon not only popped, it exploded with a massive bang.
Of course it was forgivable for Alabama to lose to eventual national champion Ohio State in the playoff, but to get run over like that in the Sugar Bowl was particularly galling.
Auburn losing a thriller to a strong Wisconsin squad in the Outback Bowl was no big deal, except that it allowed Big Ten fans to puff out their chests in their “SEC is overrated” screams.
LSU being unable to get by Notre Dame in the Music City could’ve been dismissed, except that the Irish were miserable over the second half of the season.
There was no shame in Ole Miss losing to a red-hot and inspired TCU in the Peach Bowl, and there wasn’t really a problem with Mississippi State losing to a fantastic Georgia Tech squad in the Orange Bowl, except that the Rebels were destroyed by the Horned Frogs in 42-3 fashion and the Bulldogs were ripped to shreds by the Yellow Jacket attack.
Lost in the narrative were excellent and good bowl wins by Arkansas and Texas A&M, and a good post-season from the East going 5-0, but no one seemed to notice because the conference failed on the really, really big stages.
But does it matter? It might if it comes down to the theoretical arguments comparing, say, Big 12 apples to SEC oranges come playoff time. The bowl season from the top West teams might have been enough to give some credence to others wanting to fight the SEC on the Best Conference debate, even if it’s ridiculous.
Playoff committee members, coaches, and athletic directors refuse to get into hypotheticals, but had Missouri beaten Alabama in the 2014 SEC championship – assuming an unbeaten Florida State, dominant Oregon and red-hot Ohio State coming over a blasting of Wisconsin would’ve been in – would Baylor or TCU have gotten the fourth playoff spot over the SEC champion? If the SEC is so good that it cannibalizes itself and produces a two-loss champion at some point, then what?
The SEC is still the best conference in college football, but now that has become an argument.
Kentucky is improving, and Vanderbilt is getting better – and those are your two bottom-feeders. If that’s as bad as it gets, the conference is going to be just fine.
Mississippi State was close to being in the playoff debate late in the season, and now it comes into the season as, very possibly, the seventh-best team in a seven team division.
Yes, America, it’s time to believe in the SEC West again because Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU and Ole Miss are all top 15-worthy, and Texas A&M and Mississippi State are good enough to be put in the preseason top 25. But the division has to prove it all over again – and that’s a problem.
Last season, Alabama played West Virginia. Texas Tech might not have been all that great, but it’s a name team and Arkansas came away with the win. Kansas State, Wisconsin and Boise State were also beaten by the SEC West, but will the division get respect again based off of neutral site games against Wisconsin (Alabama), Louisville (Auburn) and Arizona State (Texas A&M)?
As always, the East has its battles with Florida facing Florida State, Georgia playing Georgia Tech, Kentucky getting Louisville, Missouri dealing with BYU, South Carolina playing North Carolina and Clemson, and Tennessee hosting Oklahoma.
All that matters, in the end, is that the SEC champion has no more than one loss, and then the league will get its shot at taking the national title.
– The SEC – because of the parity – is probably closer to not getting a team into the playoff than it is getting two teams in.
– The SEC will go a third straight season without a national championship.
– Big Ten types – especially those from the greater Columbus metropolitan area – will scream and yell about how the SEC is getting too much national love and will say over and over and over and over and over again how the SEC was lousy in the bowl season.
– However, the SEC will be phenomenal once again in non-conference play. The SEC West will go 5-0 vs. Power 5 teams (Alabama over Wisconsin, Arkansas over Texas Tech, Auburn over Louisville, LSU over Syracuse, and Texas A&M over Arizona State). The SEC East will have a tougher time, but Georgia will beat Georgia Tech, South Carolina will beat North Carolina and Missouri will beat BYU – obviously not a Power 5 team, but close enough. The East will go 2-2 in the Florida vs. Florida State, South Carolina vs. Clemson, Kentucky vs. Louisville, and Tennessee vs. Oklahoma games.
– Florida’s defense won’t suffer a dramatic drop, but the offense won’t make the leaps-and-bounds step forward it needs to. Think Texas in Charlie Strong’s first year – this is going to take a little while.
– Jim McElwain has to show something impressive. Spurrier had the Fun ‘n’ Gun, and Urban was kicking in his version of the spread. The McElwain era needs some sort of early offensive signature.
– If Kentucky is finally good enough to beat Florida for the first time since 1986, it might be good enough to beat Auburn at home after getting a week off to prepare.
– Kentucky won’t be good enough to beat Florida for the first time since 1986.
– South Carolina, Alabama and Missouri are all tough, but they’re all home games for Georgia. Split the Tennessee and Auburn road dates, and there’s no excuse not to be at least 10-2.
– The Georgia linebacking corps will be the best in the SEC, and along with the Alabama defensive line, will be the most dominant defensive unit in the league.
– Next Pass Rusher Up. Missouri has built a factory for attacking defensive ends, and it’s not going to stop this year even after losing Shane Ray and Markus Golden.
– Mizzou will be 6-0 going into the showdown at Georgia.
– And if the Tigers aren’t unbeaten going into the date in Athens, it’ll be because they lost to a resurgent South Carolina.
– 2014 was an aberration. This year’s Gamecock team is going to be a factor in the East race helped by missing Alabama, Arkansas, Auburn and Ole Miss from the West.
– The South Carolina defensive ends will be in opposing backfields all season long. The team has fixed the pass rushing glitch.
– Tennessee has the talent, it has the coaching staff, and it has the hype. It doesn’t have the schedule, and in the SEC, that means everything.
– Vanderbilt is going to mess someone up. It’s still the 14th best team in a 14-team league, but after a disastrous first year under Derek Mason, there will be at least two SEC wins.
– Mississippi State came very, very close to being in the argument for the playoff last season. Even with the best quarterback in the league, and a strong team returning that might be a contender in the Big Ten West, it’s going to finish seventh in the SEC West.
– LSU might be the toughest top team to figure out. The talent is in place and the defense should be stronger, but the quarterback situation has to be far better and far stronger in bigger situations.
– However, LSU has won some very big things under Les Miles with very average quarterbacks.
– Leonard Fournette makes quarterbacks look better.
– Will Muschamp will mean a two-win difference for Auburn.
– Alabama is the best team in the West. Flip a coin between Auburn and Arkansas for the No. 2 spot, and don’t be shocked if the Hogs or Tigers are in Atlanta in December.
– Bret Bielema has built Arkansas up to where he needs and wants it to be. This is the right type of team to bully its way through the best division in college football.
– It’s a joke how much talent Texas A&M has stockpiled at receiver. You could throw for 3,000 yards and 30 touchdowns with this group.
– New A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis can’t make the quarterback play more consistent, but he’ll instantly upgrade a D that got ripped apart too easily. There’s too much talent and too much athleticism for the defense to be that bad again.
– Bo Wallace’s overall body of work was better than it got credit for, but Ole Miss didn’t start to succeed because of its quarterback. The QB situation will be fine – the Rebels will rock because of their defense.
– Alabama will win the SEC title again. The offense will be just fine, and when it’s not, the defense will pick up the slack.
Team That’ll Surprise
Missouri – Is it even possible for 1) the two-time defending SEC East champion to surprise and 2) for anyone in the SEC to do anything truly shocking in a positive way? There are plenty of holes, but if you’re looking for a big step back, it’s probably not going to happen. Missouri has a decent enough schedule to be in the mix for yet another title appearance with no Alabama, Auburn, LSU, Ole Miss or Texas A&M from the West, and with Tennessee, South Carolina and Florida both coming to Columbia. Everyone will pick the Gamecocks or the Bulldogs to take the East, and Tennessee will be the one everyone gushes over, but the Tiger pass rush will still be great, the running attack will be fantastic, and Maty Mauk is going into his third year as a main man under center.
Team That’ll Disappoint
Tennessee – LSU could have a sneaky-bad year if the quarterback situation doesn’t improve, and Mississippi State might take a tumble from last year’s lofty status, but considering the Vols are red hot this offseason, and the talent level has improved enough to make everyone think a huge improvement could and should be right there for the taking, be careful. This is going to be a really, really good team, but it might be seven-to-eight win good and not SEC championship great. The schedule is the biggest problem. Georgia and South Carolina are coming to Knoxville, but it’s asking a lot to win both games. Oklahoma is no joke this year – the pressure will be on early to win the huge home battle. Arkansas is going to be a bear, and having to go to Alabama, as always, is going to be nasty. Having to go on the road to Florida, Missouri, and – don’t laugh – Kentucky will all be landmines.
Game of the Year …
Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 28 – As always, close your eyes and point to any SEC game that doesn’t involve Vanderbilt and Kentucky and you might have one of the biggest games on the entire college football slate, but the Iron Bowl this season should be the star of all tremendous battles. Auburn might not be 2013-good, but it might not be all that far off with Will Muschamp taking over the defense and with so much firepower on offense. Alabama’s defense is going to be phenomenal once again, and the offense will come around without a problem. One way or another, the SEC West will be determined in the showdown in Auburn – and the College Football Playoff will probably be shaped by it.
5 Big-Time Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight …
1. LB Kentrell Brothers, Sr. Missouri
2. WR Pharoh Cooper, Jr. South Carolina
3. LB Josh Forrest, Sr. Kentucky
4. CB Jonathan Jones, Sr. Auburn
5. DE Jarran Reed, Sr. Alabama
Coach on the Hot Seat
Jim McElwain, Florida – Which SEC head coach is on the hot seat? In several different ways, all of them. McElwain obviously isn’t going to get fired with a bad year, but Florida needed to come up with a sexy hire and he isn’t necessarily it – yet. He might have SEC coaching experience at a high level as an assistant, but he didn’t win anything big at Colorado State and now is expected to rock and roll right out of the gate. Will Muschamp had a ton of bad luck, but he couldn’t find any offense and his teams didn’t play at the high level Florida fans are used to. This is the program of Spurrier, and Urban, and Tebow. If the Gators aren’t playing for the SEC title, they’re not doing their job. Good luck, Jim.
5 Non-Conference Games the SEC had better take very, very seriously
1. East Carolina at Florida, Sept. 12
2. UCF at South Carolina, Sept. 26
3. WKU at Vanderbilt, Sept. 5
4. Toledo at Arkansas, Sept. 12
5. Bowling Green at Tennessee
5 Best Pro Prospects
1. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Jr. Ole Miss
2. CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Jr. Florida
3. DT A’Shawn Robinson, Jr. Alabama
4. OT Laremy Tunsil, Jr. Ole Miss
5. DE Derek Barnett, Soph. Tennessee
5 Biggest Shoes to Fill
1. WR ArDarius Stewart for Amari Cooper, Alabama
2. DE Charles Harris for Shane Ray, Missouri
3. DE Alex McCalister for Dante Fowler, Florida
4. QB Jake Coker for Blake Sims, Alabama
5. DE Jason Hatcher for Bud Dupree, Kentucky
|2015 Team Previews|
|Ten Best SEC Players|
|1. RB Nick Chubb, Soph. Georgia|
|2. QB Dak Prescott, Sr. Miss State|
|3. CB Vernon Hargreaves III, Jr. Florida|
|4. DT Robert Nkemdiche, Jr. Ole Miss|
|5. RB Leonard Fournette, Soph. LSU|
|6. DE Derek Barnett, Soph. Tennessee|
|7. DE Myles Garrett, Soph. Texas A&M|
|8. DT A’Shawn Robinson, Jr. Alabama|
|9. OT Laremy Tunsil, Jr. Ole Miss|
|10. OG Vadal Alexander, Sr. LSU|