Auburn's run to the 2013 SEC title was as a direct result of Nick Marshall's improved play as the season went on last fall. We have been led to believe that the Tigers will be even better on offense in 2014 – the breaks should probably be pumped on that just a tad.
No doubt Auburn won't be as lucky this season as they were against Georgia and Alabama last season. At 9-4 certainly Gus Malzahn wouldn't be seen as the genius we've been told he is over the last few years (he seems to get credit for Auburn's 2010 and 2013 season, but no blame for the 2009 and 2011 offenses – but whatever).
Where Auburn will be improved in 2014, or at least it should be, is on defense – particularly up front. What that defense will allow is more margin for error for the Tigers on offense, and that might be necessary in order to replace someone as productive as Tre Mason. Everyone scores in college football these days, and Auburn certainly is known as the leader of the pack on that front. And even though losing Mason will hurt – stopping Auburn will be the top challenge on Georgia's schedule in 2014.
2. South Carolina's Mike Davis When Mike Davis busted out a 75-yard run that directly led to his three-yard touchdown against Georgia to cut the Dawgs' lead to only four in the fourth quarter last year it was obvious just how explosive he can be. What probably wasn't noticed was that he racked up 149 yards on only 16 carries (9.3 ypc).
Some might say – hey, 9.3 yards a carry… that's because he had that 75-yard run. Um, yeah, that's the point. You still count long runs. Still, take that run out, and Davis still ran for nearly five yards a carry against a Georgia front seven that was pretty effective at stopping the run in 2013.
He will be the top running back Georgia will face in 2014. The challenge for Davis will be as follows – he's going to have to figure out how to play well without Connor Shaw, because this conference isn't yet sold on Dylan Thompson.
That Georgia and South Carolina ran on the other for 226 and 227 yards is an amazing testament to the fact that it seems like defense is optional in college football these days. As the turn of the century these two programs could barely manage 125 yards on the ground against one another.
South Carolina, as good as they have become, will be filling in some big shoes – mainly on defense – but the loss of Shaw will effect the Gamecocks' running game in a big way. Thompson can be an effective passer – he is not an effective runner. That will mean more carries for Davis this coming fall. If he plays like he did against Georgia last year the Cocks should be just fine.
3. Clemson Comes to Town
Much like South Carolina, Clemson is replacing some longtime veterans. Tajh Boyd, Sammy Watkins, Martavis Bryant and Rod McDowell – Clemson's leading passer, receivers and rusher are all gone. Needless to say Clemson is doing some rebuilding on offense.
But the Tigers have been able to score pretty much against everyone they've played over the last few years save games against South Carolina and trips to Tallahassee. So Clemson is going to score their points.
The Big Orange Circus is of the three-ring variety, but Chad Morris is going to have to get a new ringleader to get up and down the field they did last season. The Tigers, like many of the offenses Georgia faces this season, has some rebuilding to do on that side of the ball.
4. Missouri's Turf Circus
Dorial Green-Beckham's dismissal from the Missouri Tigers significantly damages their chances of returning to Atlanta. It also reinforces the problem many in the SEC are going through this fall – turnover of star players.
Most teams are dealing with the departure of a multi-year starter at quarterback. Missouri is no different. James Franklin, who was the triggerman for so many of Missouri's assaults on the scoreboard, is gone. But Aaron Murray, Connor Shaw, A.J. McCarron and Zach Mettenberger are gone, too. So perhaps Maty Mauk's experience in the middle of the 2013 season was a great dress rehearsal for the future in Columbia.
Still, one can't help but look at the departure of much of the offensive line as well as the top rusher and think the Tigers will be as good on offense as they were last year.
5. Georgia Tech's Option
Let's not act like Tech's offense isn't a challenge. Folks can run it down all they want to, and that's fine, but it is Auburn's offense without passing. And we saw last year in the first half what Tech can be like when they can pass.
The fact is that if you don't do what is required of your position when facing a triple-option team they can gash you – and quick. The problem for Tech is that Vad Lee, who seemed like both the most capable and least comfortable quarterback at the same time, is gone. His bizarre transfer after starting for a season leaves Tech to start their third quarterback in three years.
I'm not sure what the formula for success is on college football, but I'm pretty sure that it doesn't usually involve your starting quarterback willingly transferring. Things aren't going great on North Ave, but that won't make the challenge of dealing with Tech's offense any less painful.