Only five times since 1992 has the team picked to win the SEC championship done so. Alabama, last year’s conference champion, played second fiddle this year in the preseason poll to Auburn, which received more first place votes (96) than the Tide (80). Georgia was picked to win the East. The top vote-getters for the All-SEC preseason team were Georgia running back Nick Chubb, Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III and Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland.
SEC EAST | 2014 CHAMPION: MISSOURI
Coach: Jim McElwain (first year).
Players to watch: DB Vernon Hargreaves III, DL Jonathan Bullard, LB Antonio Morrison, QB Will Grier, LB Alex Anzalone.
Overview: McElwain, a former Nick Saban assistant, will try to resurrect UF the same way he turned Colorado State into a 10-game winner last season. Florida hasn’t played for the SEC title since 2009 and probably won’t again this year considering the holes they have on the offensive line. But the Gators should be good enough on defense (20th in scoring defense in 2014) to improve on last year’s 7-5 record and at least stay in contention for the division crown.
Key games: vs. Tennessee (Sept. 26), at Missouri (Oct. 10), vs. Georgia (Oct. 31), vs. Florida State (Nov. 28).
Coach: Mark Richt (15th season,136-48).
Players to watch: RB Nick Chubb, OL John Theus, OL Greg Pyke, WR Malcolm Mitchell, LB Jordan Jenkins, LB Leonard Floyd, LB Lorenzo Carter, S Dominick Sanders, K Marshall Morgan.
Overview: Even with quarterback uncertainty, some people think this Georgia team is good enough to win its first SEC title since 2005 — and that’s because the Bulldogs are pretty good everywhere else but under center. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer has arguably the best weapon in the SEC in Chubb, who averaged 7.1 yards per carry last season and finished second only to Herschel Walker for the most yards by a Georgia freshman. Six defensive starters are back from a unit that ranked fifth in the conference in scoring (20.7 points per game) and had a plus-16 turnover margin.
Key games: vs. Alabama (Oct. 3), at Tennessee (Oct. 10), vs. Missouri (Oct. 17), vs. Florida (Oct. 31), at Auburn (Nov. 14), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 28).
Coach: Mark Stoops (third season,7-17).
Players to watch: DB A.J. Stamps, K, Austin MacGinnis, C Jon Toth, CB Cody Quinn, QB Patrick Towles, WR Ryan Timmons.
Overview: Seven starters return on each side of the ball for Stoops, who improved Kentucky’s win total from two to five last season. The Wildcats have a new offensive coordinator and bring back 11 of their top-15 tacklers from a year ago. Making their first bowl game since 2010 still won’t be easy. Kentucky’s crossover games in the SEC are against Auburn and Mississippi State.
Key games: at South Carolina (Sept. 12), vs. Florida (Sept. 19). vs. Missouri (Sept. 26), vs. Auburn (Oct. 15), at Mississippi State (Oct 24), vs. Tennessee (Oct. 31), at Georgia (Nov. 7).
Coach: Gary Pinkel (15th season,113-66).
Players to watch: C Evan Boehm, LB Kentrell Brothers, QB Maty Mauk, RB Russell Hansbrough, LT Connor McGovern, LG Taylor Chappell, LB Michael Scherer, DE Charles Harris, S Ian Simon, CB Kenya Dennis, CB Aarion Penton.
Overview: The back-to-back SEC East Division champions are fifth nationally in wins since 2007 (only Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma and LSU have more) and have the fourth most first-round NFL Draft picks since 2009. Six starters are back on offense, including four on the offensive line, but the team’s top four leading receivers must be replaced. New defensive coordinator Barry Odom brings back six starters from a defense that ranked 23rd in total defense (346.4 yards per game), 19th in points allowed (21.1) and ninth in sacks (3.14 average) and 10th in tackles for loss (7.5).
Key games: vs. South Carolina (Oct. 3), vs. Florida (Oct. 10), at Georgia (Oct. 17), vs. Mississippi State (Nov. 5), vs. Tennessee (Nov. 21), at Arkansas (Nov. 27).
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Coach: Steve Spurrier (11th season, 84-45).
Players to watch: WR Pharoh Cooper, OL Brandon Shell, K Elliott Fry, DE Marquavius Lewis, DE Dante Sawyer, QB Connor Mitch.
Overview: After three consecutive 11-2 seasons and top-10 finishes in The Associated Press poll, the Gamecocks went 7-6 in 2014. Spurrier, 70, brought in NFL veteran Jon Hoke to serve as co-defensive coordinator after the Gamecocks allowed seven opponents to score 34 points or more last season. If Cooper, the top returning receiver in the SEC, can get some help, South Carolina could return to form and finish in the Top 25.
Key games: at Georgia (Sept. 19), vs. LSU (Oct. 10), at Texas A&M (Oct. 31), at Tennessee (Nov. 7), vs. Florida (Nov. 14), vs. Clemson (Nov. 28).
Coach: Butch Jones (third season, 12-13).
Players to watch: QB Joshua Dobbs, LB Curt Maggitt, DL Derek Barnett, DB Cameron Sutton, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, DT Kahlil McKenzie.
Overview: The Vols won five of their final six games in 2014 and now some are picking them as a dark horse to win the SEC East, especially after back-to-back top-five recruiting classes. Still, there is a lot of youth and inexperience around, and the schedule isn’t easy.
Key games: vs. Oklahoma (Sept. 12), at Florida (Sept. 26), vs. Georgia (Oct. 10), at Alabama (Oct. 24), vs. South Carolina (Nov. 7), at Missouri (Nov. 21).
Coach: Derek Mason (second season, 3-9).
Players to watch: RB Ralph Webb, LB Zach Cunningham, QB Johnny McCrary, TE Steven Scheu, C Spencer Pulley, DL Adam Butler, LB Darreon Herring, CB Torren McGaster.
Overview: Vanderbilt made it to three consecutive bowl games under James Franklin before he bolted for Penn State. The Commodores opened 2014 with a loss to Temple and never really recovered. Nine starters return on offense and 11 on defense for Mason, who decided to handle the defensive duties himself this year and hired Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin to be his offensive coordinator. They have a tough job ahead.
Key games: vs. Georgia (Sept. 12), at South Carolina (Oct. 17). vs. Missouri (Oct. 24), at Florida (Nov. 7), at Tennessee (Nov. 28).
SEC WEST | 2014 CHAMPION: ALABAMA
ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Coach: Nick Saban (ninth season, 91-17).
Players to watch: OL Cam Robinson, OL Ryan Kelly, RB Derrick Henry, RB Kenyan Drake, TE O.J. Howard, DL A’Shawn Robinson, LB Reggie Ragland, DB Cyrus Jones, DL Jonathan Allen, DL Jarran Red, DB Eddie Jackson, P J.K. Scott.
Overview: Seven starters return from a defensive unit that ranked sixth in scoring (18.4 points per game), but only two starters are back from an offense that ranked 29th in passing (277.9 yards per game), 37th in rushing (206.6) and 16th in scoring (36.9). The good news: Alabama’s recruiting classes under Saban have always been in the top three, so there are oodles of young, talented players around to plug holes. Filling the shoes of career receiving leader Amari Cooper will ultimately be the toughest task.
Key games: vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 5), vs. Ole Miss (Sept 19), at Georgia (Oct. 3), at Texas A&M (Oct. 17), vs. LSU (Nov. 7), at Mississippi State (Nov. 14), at Auburn (Nov. 28).
Coach: Bret Bielema (third season, 10-15).
Players to watch: TE Hunter Henry, OL Dan Skipper, OL Denver Kirkland, RB Alex Collins, OL Sebastian Tretola, QB Brandon Allen, WR Keon Hatcher, DE JaMichael Winston, WR Dominique Reed.
Overview: Leading rusher Jonathan Williams, a preseason second-team All-SEC selection, injured his left foot and was lost for the season in fall camp. That puts the burden on former South Plantation star Alex Collins to carry a heavier load. In all, eight starters are back on offense and six on defense from a 7-6, Texas Bowl-winning squad that finished last in the SEC West.
Key games: vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 26), at Tennessee (Oct. 3), at Alabama (Oct. 10), vs. Auburn (Oct. 24), at Ole Miss (Nov. 7), at LSU (Nov. 14), vs. Mississippi State (Nov. 21), vs. Missouri (Nov. 27).
Coach: Gus Malzahn (fourth season, 29-10).
Players to watch: WR D’haquille Williams, QB Jeremy Johnson, DL Carl Lawson, OL Alex Kozan, OL Avery Young, DB Jonathan Jones, LB Cassanova McKinzy, DL Montravius Adams, LB Kris Frost, DB Johnathan Ford, RB Jovon Robinson, DE Byron Cowart.
Overview: Despite coming off an 8-5 season and a disappointing 34-31 loss to Wisconsin in the Outback Bowl, they’re expecting big things at Auburn this season. Former Florida coach Will Muschamp will have to fix the defense for that to happen. Auburn gave up 26.7 points per game last season (63rd overall), and the secondary gave up a league-high 22 touchdown passes. Still, Malzahn and his speedy offense should thrive.
Key games: vs. Louisville (Sept. 5), at LSU (Sept. 19), vs. Mississippi State (Sept. 26), at Arkansas (Oct . 24), vs. Ole Miss (Oct. 31), at Texas A&M (Nov. 7), vs. Georgia (Nov. 14), at Alabama (Nov. 28).
Coach: Les Miles (11th season, 103-29).
Players to watch: RB Leonard Fournette, OL Vadal Alexander, WR Travin Dural, WR John Diarse, QB Anthony Jennings, DB Jalen Mills, LB Kendell Beckwith, DB Tre’Davious White, DL Davon Godchaux, DB Jamal Adams, P Jamie Keehn.
Overview: Former Dolphins coach Cam Cameron coached one of the best run offenses in the country last season behind Fournette, but his unit ranked 116th in passing (162.9) and 76th in scoring (27.6). Eight starters are back for Cameron. On defense, six starters are back from a unit that led the SEC in total defense and pass defense and ranked fifth in scoring defense (17.5). If Cameron’s offense can find more balance and scoring, the Tigers could surprise and win the division.
Key games: at Mississippi State (Sept. 12), vs. Auburn (Sept. 19), vs. Florida (Oct. 17), at Alabama (Nov. 7), vs. Arkansas (Nov. 14), at Ole Miss (Nov. 21), vs. Texas A&M (Nov. 28)
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Coach: Dan Mullen (seventh season, 46-31).
Players to watch: QB Dak Prescott, WR De’Runnya Wilson, RT Justin Senior, LG Justin Malone, DL Chris Jones, DB Will Redmond, LB Beniquez Brown, S Kendrick Market, CB Taveze Calhoun.
Overview: Remember when the Bulldogs spent about a month ranked No. 1 in the polls? Well, the media picked them to finish last in the division after last year’s 10-win dream season. Prescott, an All-SEC preseason first-team selection, is one of only four starters back from an offense that ranked 25th nationally in rushing (224.5 points per game). The defense, which ranked fifth in fewest points allowed (17.5), returns only three starters.
Key games: vs. LSU (Sept. 12), at Auburn (Sept. 26), at Texas A&M (Oct. 3), at Missouri (Nov. 5), vs. Alabama (Nov 14), at Arkansas (Nov. 21), vs. Ole Miss (Nov. 28).
OLE MISS REBELS
Coach: Hugh Freeze (fourth season, 24-15).
Players to watch: WR Laquon Treadwill, TE Evan Engram, OL Laremy Tunsil, DL Robert Nkemdiche, DB Tony Conner, DL Marquis Haynes.
Overview: Last year’s upset win over No. 1 Alabama and rise to No. 3 in the national rankings electrified the folks in Oxford, who have seen the program improve from seven to eight to nine wins in Freeze’s tenure. Nine starters return on offense for the Rebels, but one of them who isn’t back and must be replaced is quarterback Bo Wallace. On the flip side, seven starters and 25 lettermen return on a defensive unit that led the nation in scoring defense (16.0 ppg), fewest touchdowns allowed (24) and led the SEC in turnovers (32).
Key games: at Alabama (Sept. 19), at Florida (Oct. 3), vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 24), at Auburn (Oct. 31), vs. Arkansas (Nov. 7), vs. LSU (Nov. 21), at Mississippi State (Nov. 28).
TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (fourth season, 28-11).
Players to watch: OL Gerain Ifedi, C Mike Matthews, WR Josh Reynolds, DL Myles Garrett, KR Speedy Noil, P Drew Kaser, DL Daeshon Hall, DT Daylon Mack.
Overview: The Aggies have gone backward since Johnny Manziel and Sumlin teammed up for an 11-2 season and finished fifth nationally in 2012. They were crushed 59-0 at Alabama last season and finished the year 3-5 after a 5-0 start. Defense was clearly the problem. The Aggies finished 77th in scoring defense (28.1). If Sumlin gets that fixed, he has the offense to win double-digit games again.
Key games: vs. Arizona State (Sept. 5), vs. Arkansas (Sept. 26), vs. Mississippi State (Oct. 3), vs. Alabama (Oct. 17), at Ole Miss (Oct. 24), vs. Auburn (Nov. 7), at LSU (Nov. 28).