2008 and 2013 have something in common: both seasons ended rough for Alabama. The Crimson Tide went undefeated in the regular season, but lost to Florida in the 2008 Southeastern Conference title game and Utah in the Sugar Bowl. Alabama was on the cusp of a three-peat last season, but it came to a halt after Auburn’s Chris Davis returned a missed field goal 109 yards for the game-winning touchdown. The Crimson Tide lost to Auburn 34-28 and fell to Oklahoma 45-31 in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. New faces will emerge for Alabama in 2014, none more important than offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Kiffin will look to spread out defenses, attack mismatches, and put up points.
Offensively, Alabama returns its core group led by running back T.J. Yeldon. In two seasons, Yeldon has totaled 2,343 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns. He is a preseason All-American and will be an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy. Yeldon will share the backfield with Derrick Henry, Kenyan Drake and others. While Drake is elusive, Henry is the power back. After a monster performance against Oklahoma, Henry is the talk of the town. He is poised for a breakout season in 2014. He was quiet off the field, but Kevin Norwood was the Tide’s primary receiver last season. He led all receivers with seven touchdowns in 2013. With Norwood now in the National Football League, Cooper becomes the veteran of the group. Despite early struggles, the ultra-talented Cooper finished strong last season and was first on the team in yards and tied for second in touchdowns. Cooper is the headliner, but Alabama possesses a lot of depth at receiver. With Christion Jones, DeAndrew White, Chris Black, O.J. Howard and others returning, the Tide will look to create matchup problems for defenses next season. Each season poses new challenges and questions. Offensive line, special teams and quarterback play are issues for Alabama. The Crimson Tide put points on the scoreboard, but the offensive line did not work well together last season. Alabama imposed its will against lower-level programs, but struggled against quality defenses. The Crimson Tide lose Cyrus Kouandjio and Anthony Steen to the NFL, but returns Ryan Kelly, Austin Shepherd and Arie Kouandjio to the fold. They will be counted upon to help Grant Hill, Leon Brown, Cameron Robinson and others learn the offense as well as work with Coach Mario Cristobal on conditioning. It appears that Florida State transfer Jacob Coker will be the guy that replaces AJ McCarron. Coker has a lot of potential, but he hasn’t thrown a pass for Alabama yet. With the pieces around him, Coker has a chance to have a special season with Alabama in 2014.
Alabama had its struggles on defense, despite finishing fourth in the nation in 2013. Dual-threat quarterbacks and up-tempo offenses disrupted the Tide’s rhythm. Against Texas A&M, Auburn, and Oklahoma, Alabama’s defense couldn’t keep fresh bodies on the field and failed to negate big plays. The unit lost a lot of talented players to the NFL including CJ Mosley, Adrian Hubbard, Jeoffrey Pagan, Ha’Sean “Ha Ha” Clinton-Dix and Vinnie Sunseri. Regardless of the losses, the Tide returns a strong core defense next season. Trey DePriest, Landon Collins, A’Shawn Robinson and Jonathan Allen will be the leaders in 2014. DePriest finished third on the team in tackles, while Collins finished second with 70 and two interceptions in 2013. Robinson and Allen combined recorded 54 tackles and six sacks last season. The 2014 recruiting class adds depth to the defensive line and linebacker positions. Jarran Reed, Da’Shawn Hand, D.J. Pettway, Tony Brown, Marlon Humphrey and Rashaan Evans will look to see the field a lot next season.
Kicking was Alabama kryptonite last season. Cade Foster failed to make field goals in crucial games in 2013. Punting worked well for the Tide in 2013. Cody Mandell was a weapon for Alabama. He averaged 47.1 yards per punt. 15 of his 39 punts pinned opponents inside the 20-yard line. Christion Jones is a game changer on special teams. He recorded three touchdowns last season and is a preseason All-American.
In conclusion: Complacency cost Alabama an opportunity to play for a national title. Nick Saban and company will look to keep its hungry next season. The Crimson Tide and Florida State have the most talent in the country, it will be up to Saban to keep this team focused after losing to in-state rival Auburn last season and almost allowing them the chance to take home the crystal ball.
Last year, we had the Rebels higher than any other publication. I may have jumped the gun a bit too early on that prediction, but obviously I still feel the same about the direction this program is going. With 16 starters back including 10 on defense—and another year for the young talent to mature—I believe Ole Miss is primed for a breakout year.
Bo Wallace returns once again, and this year his impact will be felt more than ever. Wallace has been one of the more talented QBs in the conference, but his inconsistency has killed the Rebels at times. Now that this team has cultivated talent and allowed it to mature, Wallace has no excuses. Except for Alabama, Ole Miss may be the most talented team in the conference and there is no reason why Wallace should be the player to hold them back given his skillset. Wallace threw for over 3,300 yards with a 65% completion rate. However, over the past two years Wallace has thrown 27 interceptions. This year the biggest loss will be Donte Moncrief at receiver. Fortunately, 1st team Freshman All-American Laquon Treadwell returns at Wide Receiver and should have a huge sophomore year. Also returning is Evan Engram, who made 2nd team SEC Tight End as a true freshman while playing in only eight games. And finally, Laremy Tunsil could make a run for the nation’s best offensive lineman this year at Left Tackle after only giving up one sack as a true freshman in 2013. This offense has impact players at every position group and could put up big numbers.
Defensively, the Rebels are loaded. In 2010 the Rebels allowed 35.2 points per game; 2011: 32.1 points per game; 2012: 27.6 points per game; and 2013: 23.7 points per game. I think this defense could limit opponents to less than 18 points per game this season. While the offense should be improved as well, I fully expect the identity of this team to lie on the defensive side of the ball. CJ Johnson returns at DE after only getting to play in 4 games last year with an ankle injury; the athletic Johnson will provide a huge impact in the pass rush. Also, former number one recruit Robert Nkemdiche will slide over to a more natural Defensive Tackle position, which in addition to making a natural jump in his second year on campus could allow him to really excel in this defense. The Linebacker corp should be very good as well. Serderius Bryant, Denzel Nkemdiche, and Christian Russell form a terrific trio. And finally, Trae Elston and Cody Prewitt make up one of the best safety duos in the nation. Overall, expect this unit to stay healthier in 2014 and really lock opponents down.
We paid for our bold prediction last year having the Rebels second in the SEC West. I do not think the prediction was a bad one. With tough injuries and green talent, Hugh Freeze’s team simply wasn’t ready to become one of the nation’s best teams. However, this year should be different. Last year we had Missouri finishing higher than any other publication and I see the same type of rise for the Rebels in 2014.
What a difference a year makes. In 2012, Auburn was the laughing stock of the Southeastern Conference. The Tigers suffered a 3-9 record and were winless in the SEC. They took a step back after Cam Newton and parted ways with Gene Chizik. Gus Malzhan became the head coach in 2013 and guided Auburn to an unbelievable turnaround. After three wins in 2012, Auburn notched a 12-win season in 2013. The Tigers won an SEC title and played for a national championship. Auburn caught some breaks along the way, including a 73-yard game-winning touchdown reception from Ricardo Louis (Georgia) and Chris Davis’s 109 yard game-winning missed kick return (Alabama). Malzahn’s unorthodox offense caught a lot of teams off guard in 2013. Auburn will look to build off that success and prove that last season wasn’t a fluke.
The Tigers were balanced offensively in 2013. Despite using a spread offense, Auburn dominated its opponents on the ground. The Tigers finished first in the nation, averaging 328.3 yards per game rushing. Tre Mason slashed and gashed opposing defenses, rushing for 1,816 yards and 23 touchdowns last season. With Mason in the NFL, Auburn will depend on Corey Grant, Cameron Artis-Payne and Ricardo Louis to share the load. Grant and Artis-Payne were productive in 2013. Both backs rushed for over 600 yards and combined for 12 touchdowns. Sammie Coates was Auburn’s primary receiver last season. Coates is one of the best receivers in the country and will be helped by the receiving threat Louis poses. Reese Dismukes and Greg Robinson anchored Auburn’s offensive line last season. The Tigers excelled in run blocking, but struggled with pass protection. Nick Marshall was sacked 18 times in 2013. Robinson is now in the NFL, but Auburn returns Dismukes, Patrick Miller, Xavier Dampeer and Devontae Danzey to the line next season. And finally, QB Nick Marshall was a nightmare for defensive coordinators to scheme against. Marshall finished 2013 with 1,976 passing yards and 14 touchdowns. On the ground, Marshall was just as effective. He recorded 1,068 yards and 12 touchdowns. Marshall had only four games last season in which he attempted 20+ passes. In 2014, the questions will be if he break down complex coverages and continue to develop his arm without the safety net that Tre Mason provided.
Auburn was good, but not great defensively in 2013. The Tigers defense allowed 24.7 points per game. Auburn’s defense excelled on third down last season. The Tigers allowed opponents to move the chains 33 percent of the time. Auburn’s defensive line was its strength in 2013. The Tigers recorded 32 sacks, including 12.5 from Nosa Eguae and Dee Ford combined. Eguae and Ford are in the NFL, but Auburn returns Carl Lawson, Gabe Wright, JaBrian Niles and others to the line in 2014. Cassanova McKinzy is Auburn’s leader at linebacker. He registered 75 total tackles last season. It looked suspect at times in 2013, but Auburn’s secondary was solid, especially in the National Championship game. The Tigers forced 13 interceptions for 112 yards and a touchdown. Despite losing Ryan Smith and Chris Davis to the NFL, Robenson Therezie, Jermaine Whitehead, Ryan White and Jonathon Mincy return next season. Therezie led the team with four interceptions and a touchdown.
Not a lot of people expected the Tigers to do well in 2013. Auburn was the hunter taking out every opponent it faced. Next season may be different as defenses are prepared for Malzahn’s system. The Tigers will look to obtain a successful season, but has the hunter become the hunted?
Les Miles’ Tigers enter 2014 with a lot of inexperience across the board. But here is a shocker: LSU is full of talent. Again. The Tigers brought in maybe the most high profile Running Back recruit since Adrian Peterson, Leonard Fournette, and there is a lot of buzz about what he will be able to do in 2014. Fournette is only one of the many new faces you will see in purple and gold this season. While LSU is very unproven, they still have the potential to play in the new College Football Playoff.
The passing attack is going to be the most difficult dimension of this offense to replace. It will take a hit. Zach Mettenberger had a great senior season in Baton Rouge and had the luxury of throwing to two of the best receivers in the country, Odell Beckham Jr. and Jarvis Landry. While the receiving corp will take a step back this year, it will not be a weakness. Malachi Dupre was the top WR recruit in the country and figures to start immediately. Travin Dural is the only receiver on the roster who caught a touchdown last year and will need to step up as he sees time every down. The offensive identity will almost certainly be its power running game. The Tigers have perhaps the best OL in the league led by potential 1st team All-American LT La’el Collins. Collins and company will open up holes for Fournette this year and hopefully relieve either QB Brandon Harris or Anthony Jennings. Both provide better mobility than Mettenberger, but Jennings is the true dual threat. Neither QB will be expected to do what Mettenberger did last season, although Harris flashed that type of potential in the spring. Expect a productive offense this year for LSU.
The defense had its worst performance since 2008 last year. They allowed a very average 3.9 yards per carry, which is very below average for this team. Although they lose some key players, I believe the defense will be on par with last year’s unit. DT Anthony Johnson, DT Ego Ferguson, LB Lamin Barrow, and S Craig Loston were some key players lost from last year’s roster. However, I expect the back seven to improve in production from last year. The linebacker corp has some great young talent. Kwon Alexander and DJ Welter return as good starters while highly-touted recruits like true freshman Clifton Garrett and true sophomore Kendell Beckwith fill the depth chart. Tre’Davious White could be the next great LSU DB as he was named to the SEC All-freshman team last year. Look for the defense to give up an average of about 21 points per game as they record another good year.
While I do not expect the Tigers to finish in the top three of the division, it’s not unthinkable. The hardest part about preseason predictions is projecting new faces. How much faith do you put in high school recruiting rankings? How much faith do you put in spring practices? It is far from an exact science. LSU is a bit of a wildcard and I am putting a lot of faith in what Miles has done in his tenure here. LSU could finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th and I would not be surprised.
Under head coach Dan Mullen, the Mississippi State Bulldogs have put together decent seasons but can’t quite get over the hump. After an 8-5 season in 2012, Mississippi State was poised to prove its critics wrong in 2013. However, the Bulldogs had a roller coaster year last season and finished at a disappointing 7-6. Despite the average record, Mississippi State defeated Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl 17-10 and Rice in the Liberty Bowl 44-7 to finish the season on a high note.
Quarterback Dak Prescott’s return in 2014 could give Mississippi State a chance to surprise a lot of people. The offense responded much better with Prescott under center versus Tyler Russell last season. Prescott is a good passer, but much of his damage came on the ground. For example, he totaled 829 yards rushing and 13 touchdowns, yet he only tossed for 1,940 yards and 13 touchdowns. The area he needs to improve most this season is ball placement; his inaccuracy led to his seven interceptions in 2013. Further, Mississippi State averaged 189.9 yards rushing per game in 2013. LaDarius Perkins took a step back last season, but still had some productive games. With Perkins in the National Football League, the Bulldogs will look to Ashton Shumpert, Nick Griffin and Derrick Milton to lead the backfield in 2014. Mississippi State’s receivers were able to space and stretch the field last season, especially Jameon Lewis who displayed a lot of versatility. He led the team with 923 receiving yards and five touchdowns. Also, Lewis rushed for three scores as a running back and tossed three touchdowns as a quarterback. Gabe Jackson was one of the anchors on Mississippi State’s offensive line last season. He helped the Bulldogs obtain a balanced run game and total 434.4 yards of offense. Mississippi State lost Jackson to the NFL, but returns Blaine Clausell, Ben Beckwith and Justin Malone to fold in 2014. The Bulldogs failed in pass protection in 2013, surrendering 20 sacks. It is imperative for Mississippi State to keep Prescott upright if they want to have success.
Benardrick McKinney is a huge piece returning on a defense for Mississippi State. He is the leader at linebacker and is on the Nagurski and Bendarik Award watch list. McKinney led the team in tackles with 70 and recorded 3.5 sacks in 2013. Mississippi State excelled on third down defense last season, but struggled in total defense. The Bulldogs allowed opponents to move the chains 35 percent on third downs, but gave up 23.0 points per game. Mullen will need to stress consistency on defense in 2014. Nickoe Whitley was the leader in the secondary in 2013 with his five interceptions. In addition, cornerbacks Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun will have to step up in 2014. Both Love and Calhoun combined totaled six interceptions last season.
2014 could possibly be the year that Mississippi State contends in the SEC West. In five seasons, Dan Mullen has taken the Bulldogs to four bowl games. The fans in Starkville want more to cheer about than cowbells, and the Bulldogs will have to deliver more than seven wins next season for that to occur.
Well America certainly doesn’t know as much about this year’s version of Texas A&M since ESPN has moved up to Cleveland in their constant pursuit of Johnny Manziel. Maybe that is a relief to some in the Aggies program, but probably not Kevin Sumlin. For as much of a headache Manziel was last season, the harsh reality of his absence probably reminds folks of his talent that will also be absent. In the meantime, we will just have to wait and see how long it takes for Sumlin’s great recruiting classes to blossom into great college football classes.
Fortunately, one of the nation’s top high school quarterbacks decided to try to replace Johnny Manziel. Kyle Allen, a five-star recruit from Arizona, will probably take over in his first year at college. If not, Kenny Hill was a highly-recruited QB and looked good in spring practice. Either way, both QBs show a lot of promise, but will not provide the same threat Manziel provided under center. For the third straight season, the Aggies will have maybe the best LT in football. Cedric Ogbuehi is a projected first round pick in next year’s NFL Draft and looked great at RT last year. This year he will slide over to LT to replace top-10 pick Jake Mathews, who replaced top-2 pick Luke Joeckel the previous year. The offensive line looks to be one of the strengths of this team. And finally, the skill position players are young, but very talented. That is starting to sound very repetitive, isn’t it? Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones could be 1st team Freshman All-Americans this year depending on the performance of whoever wins the starting QB battle.
Defensively, the Aggies were bad last year. The loss of Damontre Moore really hurt the pass rush, but the run defense was also porous. Fortunately, the defense can’t get too much worse since nine starters return. Deshazor Everett leads the secondary, which looks to be one of the better units on this defense after looking pretty bad last year. Nick Harvey was one of the best defensive back recruits in the country who could make an impact immediately. Similarly, Myles Garrett was one of the best Defensive End recruits who could give a much needed shot of adrenaline to this pass rush.
If Texas A&M is going to overachieve this year, it will be because Kyle Allen or Kenny Hill impresses under center. The talent is there on offense to put up a lot of points and the defense should be respectable in 2014. We will find out how big of a loss Kliff Kingsbury was last year as we monitor the development of these young QBs. My guess is that the Aggies are still a year or two away from being the offensive juggernaut that they were the past two seasons.
Arkansas was becoming an offensive juggernaut under Bobby Petrino before his unexpected departure. In four seasons (2008-11), the Razorbacks averaged an impressive 32.8 points per game. In addition, quarterback play thrived under Petrino; both Ryan Mallet and Tyler Wilson ended their careers recording over 7,000 passing yards and 50+ touchdowns. Arkansas was bowl eligible under Petrino from 2009 to 2011 but has failed to return ever since his leaving. Bret Bielema became head coach of the Razorbacks last season and, unlike Petrino, believes in balance on both sides of the ball. Despite production from Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, the Razorbacks scored a mere 20.7 points per game last season. Arkansas finished 2013 with a 3-9 record and was winless in the Southeastern Conference.
Arkansas returns a lot of offensive talent in 2014, headlined by the tandem of Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams. Both backs combined for eight touchdowns, and Collins rushed for 1,026 yards last season. Collins and Williams are preseason candidates for the Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards. Javontee Herndon was Arkansas primary receiver in 2013; he totaled 437 yards and four touchdowns. With Herndon in the National Football League, Hunter Henry becomes the next man up. Henry was a safety valve for Brandon Allen last season and caught 28 passes for 409 yards and four touchdowns. Additionally, at 6’2” 210 pounds, Keon Hatcher will be able to stretch the field for Arkansas, who had 346 yards receiving last season and two touchdowns. The Razorbacks also return wide receivers AJ Derby, D’Arthur Cowan and Jared Cornelius for 2014. Regardless of his 13 touchdowns, quarterback Brandon Allen still needs to prove he can run this offense. He struggled with ball placement and allowed the pressure to rattle him last season. Collins and Williams will relive him of some pressure, but if Arkansas wants to take the next step it starts with Allen. On the offensive line, Luke Charpentier, Brey Cook and Mitch Smothers return from last year and should provide solid play and strong leadership.
Defensively, Arkansas gave up 30.8 points per game last season. A.J. and Allen Turner each had 7 tackles to lead the team. Also, defensive lineman Trey Flowers totaled 44 tackles, five sacks and an interception last season. It will be up to Allen Turner and Trey Flowers to anchor the Razorbacks in 2014.
John Henson will handle the kicking duties for Arkansas next season. He takes over for Zach Hocker, who finished his career as Arkansas’ record holder in points (287).
Bielema is the coach that can get Arkansas on the right track. It will take a while for him to recruit the players needed for his system, but with his mindset the Razorbacks could be a program on the rise in the future.