A preview of SEC football teams

08/28/2014 2:00 PM

08/27/2014 11:37 PM

Alabama is the odds-on favorite to win the Southeastern Conference for the second time in three seasons — although the media has correctly picked the league champion just six times since 1992. The South Carolina Gamecocks narrowly edged the Georgia Bulldogs as the Eastern Division favorites. Auburn quarterback Nick Marshall, Georgia tailback Todd Gurley and Alabama running back T.J. Yeldon were the preeminent picks for SEC Player of the Year.

SEC EAST | 2013 CHAMPION: MISSOURI

FL ORIDA GATORS

Coach: Will Muschamp (22-16, 3 seasons)

Players to watch: QB Jeff Driskel, RB Kelvin Taylor, WR Ahmad Fulwood, WR Demarcus Robinson, DE Dante Fowler Jr., CB Vernon Hargreaves III

Overview: A rash of injuries, offensive ineptitude and a "woe is me mentality" torpedoed Florida’s 2013 season, as the Gators missed bowl eligibility for the first time in 22 years. Former Duke coordinator Kurt Roper was brought in to transform UF’s pitiful offense in a put-up or shut-up season for Muschamp. The schedule is brutal once again, but Florida does play nine of 12 games in state.

Key games: at Alabama (Sept. 20); vs. LSU (Oct. 11); vs. Georgia (Nov. 1); vs. South Carolina (Nov. 15); at Florida State (Nov. 29)

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Coach: Mark Richt (126-45, 13 seasons)

Players to watch: RB Todd Gurley, RB Keith Marshall, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Chris Conley, OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB Jordan Jenkins, MLB Ramik Wilson

Overview:Injuries decimated the Bulldogs in 2013, but they return the best set of playmakers in the conference led by tailback Todd Gurley. Redshirt senior Hutson Mason takes over at quarterback for SEC record-setter Aaron Murray. If former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can straighten out UGA’s issues in the secondary, the Dawgs should compete for a league title.

Key games: vs. Clemson (Aug. 30); at South Carolina (Sept. 13); vs. Florida (Nov. 1); vs. Auburn (Nov. 15)

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Coach: Mark Stoops (2-10, 1 season)

Players to watch: RB Jojo Kemp, WR Javess Blue, DE Alvin ‘Bud’ Dupree, DE Za’Darius Smith

Overview: Following consecutive top-25 recruiting classes, the Wildcats are slowly building a competitive roster, but the team still lacks depth and blue-chip talent to compete with the conference’s big boys. Kentucky hasn’t made a bowl game since 2010, and an overnight turnaround seems unlikely. The Cats are still a program rebuilding, and appear in store for more growing pains.

Key games: vs. Vanderbilt (Sept. 27); at Tennessee (Nov. 15); at Louisville (Nov. 29)

MISSOURI TIGERS

Coach: Gary Pinkel (102-63, 13 seasons)

Players to watch: QB Maty Mauk, WR Bud Sasser, RB Marcus Murphy, DE Markus Golden, DE Shane Ray, DT Matt Hoch

Overview: The Tigers struggled in their first go-round in the SEC, but they shocked the nation last fall when they nearly reached the national title game. Although Mizzou returns just eight starters, Mauk is among the league’s best quarterbacks and a pair of talented bookend pass rushers should keep the Tigers competitive. A return trip to Atlanta is doubtful but no longer improbable.

Key games: at South Carolina (Sept. 27); vs. Georgia (Oct. 11); at Florida (Oct. 18); at Texas A&M (Nov. 15)

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Coach: Steve Spurrier (77-39, 9 seasons)

Players to watch: RB Mike Davis, QB Dylan Thompson, WR Shaq Roland, LB Skai Moore, SS Brinson Williams

Overview: The Gamecocks have won 11 games for three straight seasons, and yet a conference championship continues to elude them. Despite the loss of Connor Shaw -- the winningest quarterback in school history -- South Carolina’s attack should remain stout with Heisman candidate tailback Mike Davis and the league’s best offensive line. The winner of the early season USC-UGA matchup could determine the front-runner in the Eastern Division race.

Key games: vs. Texas A&M (Aug. 28); vs. Georgia (Sept. 13); at Auburn (Nov. 1); at Florida (Nov. 15); at Clemson (Nov. 29)

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Coach: Butch Jones (5-7, 1 season)

Players to watch: WR Marquez North, WR Von Pearson, LB AJ Johnson, LB Kurt Maggitt

Overview: The Volunteers upgraded their skill-position talent with a top-10 recruiting class, but a slew of ballyhooed prospects (RB Jalen Hurd, WRs Josh Malone and Von Pearson) won’t matter much if the Vols can’t control the line of scrimmage. UT is the only team in the country to lose every starter on the offensive and defensive lines.

Key games: at Oklahoma (Sept. 13); vs. Florida (Oct. 4); vs. Alabama (Oct. 25); at Vanderbilt (Nov. 29)

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Coach: Derek Mason (first year)

Players to watch: RB Jerron Seymour, RB Brian Kimbrow, OLB Caleb Azubike

Overview: Mason inherits a team in transition despite three consecutive trips to the postseason. The Commodores are switching to a 3-4 defense, and must replace the coaching acumen of James Franklin and the production of all-conference performers Wesley Johnson (OL) and Jordan Matthews (WR).

Key games: vs. South Carolina (Sept. 20); at Georgia (Oct. 4); vs. Florida (Nov. 8); vs. Tennessee (Nov. 29)

SEC WEST | 2013 CHAMPION: AUBURN

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Coach: Nick Saban (79-15, 7 seasons)

Players to watch: QB Jacob Coker, RB T.J. Yeldon, RB Derrick Henry, WR Amari Cooper, S Landon Collins, DL A’Shawn Robinson, LB Trey DePriest, TE O.J. Howard

Overview: Despite losing a pair of first round picks and two-time national champion quarterback AJ McCarron, the Crimson Tide remain the class of the league with such a glut of talent. Alabama must reload in the secondary, but the Tide are stacked with playmakers and pass rushers and hope to reestablish their identity as a juggernaut. If Coker backs up the hype, Alabama is poised to vault its way into the inaugural college football playoff.

Key games: vs. West Virginia (Aug. 30); vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 18); at LSU (Nov. 8); Auburn (Nov. 29).

ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS

Coach: Bret Bielema (3-9, 1 season)

Players to watch: RB Alex Collins, RB Jonathan Williams, QB Brandon Allen, DE Trey Flowers, P Sam Irwin-Hill

Overview: The Razorbacks on their fourth defensive coordinator in four seasons and face a brutal 2014 schedule. Bielema hopes a prolific ground-and-pound offense can generate victories, but Arkansas will continue to struggle without an improved aerial attack. The Razorbacks tallied just seven wins the last two seasons, and bowl eligibility will be an uphill battle again this fall.

Key games: at Auburn (Aug. 30), at Texas Tech (Sept. 13); LSU (Nov. 15)

AUBURN TIGERS

Coach: Gus Malzahn (12-2, 1 season)

Players to watch: QB Nick Marshall, RB Camerson Artis-Payne, WR Sammie Coates, LB Robenson Therezie, CB Jonathon Mincy, DT Gabe Wright

Overview: Auburn was 13 seconds away from an implausible national title, but these Tigers aren’t sneaking up anyone. Malzahn’s 2014 group could actually be more talented than last year’s team, as Auburn’s defense is deeper while its offense returns the conference’s top quarterback and a loaded set of playmakers. The schedule is daunting, so navigating through a November gauntlet plus facing the East’s top two teams could prove too much.

Key games: vs. LSU (Oct. 4); vs. South Carolina (Oct. 25); Texas A&M (Nov. 8); at Georgia (Nov. 15); at Alabama (Nov. 29)

LSU TIGERS

Coach: Les Miles (95-24, 9 seasons)

Players to watch: RB Leonard Fournette, OT La’el Collins, FS Jalen Mills, LB Kwon Alexander, OG Vadal Alexander

Overview: Youth will be served in Bayou this fall. LSU’s defense should rebound from an inconsistent 2013, but the Tigers must replace a 3,000-yard passer, a 1,000-yard rusher and two 1,000-yard wideouts on offense. LSU possesses some of the top blue-chip talent in the country, but the rate of their development will determine the Tigers’ standing at season’s end.

Key games: vs. Wisconsin (Aug. 30, Houston); at Auburn (Oct. 4); at Florida (Oct. 11); vs. Alabama (Nov. 8)

MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS

Coach: Dan Mullen (36-28, 5 seasons)

Players to watch: QB Dak Prescott, WR Jameon Lewis, RB Josh Robinson, LB Benardrick McKinney, DT Chris Jones, CB Taveze Calhoun

Overview: The Bulldogs return 18 starters and could be a sleeper contender in the SEC West. Prescott is one of the top duel-threat quarterbacks in the nation, while Jones anchors a stout defensive front. MSU, which has gone to four straight bowl games, has a favorable schedule and Mullen is confident this could be his first 10-win team.

Key games: at LSU (Sept. 20); vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 4); vs. Auburn (Oct. 11); at Ole Miss (Nov. 29)

OLE MISS REBELS

Coach: Hugh Freeze (15-11, 2 seasons)

Players to watch: QB Bo Wallace, WR Laquon Treadwell, LT Laremy Tunsil, DT Robert Nkemdiche, DB Tony Conner, DB Cody Prewitt

Overview: The Rebels tout a stocked roster, returning a three-year starter at quarterback, their top two tailbacks and one of the best wide receivers in the country. Defensively, Ole Miss should continue to improve with the maturation of players like Nkemdiche and Conner. But a shaky and inexperienced offensive line could ultimately sink the Rebels’ hopes for double-digit wins.

Key games: vs. Boise State (Aug. 28, Atlanta); vs. Alabama (Oct. 4); at LSU (Oct. 25); vs. Mississippi State (Nov. 29)

TEXAS A&M AGGIES

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (20-6, 2 seasons)

Players to watch: RB Tra Carson, RB Trey Williams, WR Ricky Seals-Jones, WR Speedy Noil, DB Deshazor Everett, DL Myles Garrett

Overview: Johnny Manziel was among the most electric college football players ever, but life after Johnny Football could prove bumpy. The Aggies lost three first round picks, and the offense may not be able to mask their issues defensively (last in the SEC in 2013). The cupboard isn’t bare in College Station, but with so much unproven talent TAMU is likely a year away from reentering the title chase.

Key games: at South Carolina (Aug.28); at Mississippi State (Oct. 4); at Alabama (Oct. 18); at Auburn (Nov. 8); vs. LSU (Nov. 27)

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