The Crimson Tide is coming off a season-ending two game losing streak in which their vaunted defense allowed 79 points. The last time Coach Saban closed out a season on a two game skid, the Tide came back the following year with a vengeance – winning the National Championship in 2009. Alabama’s prognosis on offense is similar to Georgia’s – great returning offensive weapons, impressive line, but a significant question mark at QB. High hopes are riding on highly-touted transfer Jake Coker. If Coker can produce, the Tide’s offense is in business everywhere else – with T.J. Yeldon at RB, Amari Cooper at wr and an O-line dominated by all-SEC selections such as Arie Kouandjio. Still the unknown under center does make predicting the Tide difficult.
Fortunately for Bama fans, even if the offense requires time to gel, Kirby Smart’s defense should be dominating. This is a unit that pitched three shut-outs last year – and held nine opponents to 10 or fewer points. Last season’s occasional vulnerability to a hot passer – and Bob Stoops’ smack-talk – should give the Bama D something to prove this year.
The schedule is not a cakewalk – but it is markedly easier than last year. Bama gets Auburn at home. It has byes before traveling to Ole Miss and LSU. From the East, Bama faces Florida and at Tennessee. Out of conference opponents consist of three yawners and West Virginia. If there is a trap game, it could be Mississippi State immediately following Bama’s trip to Baton Rouge. I see the Crimson Tide at 8-0 heading into the LSU game – the November tilts with LSU, MSU and Auburn will be a gauntlet, but the Tide should have momentum by then.
Over/under: 10.5. Prediction: Over. I pick Bama to win the West.
Auburn’s 2013 campaign was remarkable. The Tigers missed a National Championship by a whisker. At the same time, Auburn was not exactly dominant – winning several very close games early in the year and winning by “miracle” versus both Georgia and Bama later in the season. Georgia and Bama are road games this season – and so is MSU. Georgia and South Carolina appear from the East. A Thursday night visit to Kansas State complicates matters. The schedule does Gus Malzahn’s squad no favors.
Auburn will have what most SEC teams lack – a proven QB in Nick Marshall. But Greg Robinson (the number 2 pick in the NFL draft) is gone, along with RB Tre Mason – and starting guard Alex Kozan is also sidelined for 2014 by injury. Last year’s weak link – the defense – looked to be improved, but Dee Ford is gone, and the new projected defensive stopper for the Tigers, Carl Lawson, has a significant injury to start the season. Auburn’s schedule is hard – the away schedule (at Kansas State, MSU, Ole Miss, Georgia, Bama) is particularly hard.
Over/under: 9.5. Prediction: Under. Last year I told you Auburn would be a surprise team in the West. This year, I think the Tigers will be very good – but the away schedule is a tall order.
LSU brings a lot of unknowns to the table in 2014. Their offense loses QB Zach Mettenberger, RB Jeremy Hill, and wrs Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham – all of whom produced big numbers last season. The buzz in the league regarding impact newcomers, however, centers around Tiger freshman RB Leonard Fournette. He will have a solid O-line to open holes for him. LSU always boasts a talented defense, but this year’s D-line is a cause for some concern with key departures to the NFL and several season-ending pre-season injuries on the line, including projected starter Quentin Thomas. The Tiger’s schedule includes at Florida and Kentucky from the East. Out of conference games include an opener with Wisconsin, and three cupcakes. This is a season where LSU can influence the West race mightily, but seems a cut below the front-runners. Circle LSU’s SEC-opener versus MSU as a critical match-up to see if LSU can hold off the improving West teams that seem to be gaining on them.
Over/under: 8.5. LSU at home may have the best odds of beating Bama this season. But there are a lot of hard games for a team replacing last year’s 3,000 yard passer, two 1,000 yard receivers and 1,000 yard rusher. Prediction: Over, barely. The game with Wisconsin could have national implications – the Badgers’ Big Ten schedule is incredibly easy. Wisconsin’s Big Ten opponents were 16-32 last year, plus newcomers Rutgers and Maryland are added to the slate. If LSU loses this opening game, Wisconsin could easily pose as a national playoff contender.
The Bulldogs should be the most improved team in the SEC West. With the competition being so tough – it remains to be seen whether their record will reflect the step forward. MSU returns more starters than any other SEC team. MSU QB Dak Prescott will lead the offense, along with WR Jameon Lewis. The defense returns eight starters.
Last year MSU’s six loses made the team look average – but all six L’s came against teams ranked in the top 18. This year the out-of-conference schedule is genuinely soft. From the East, the Bulldogs face us and UK. There is a chance MSU will be in real contention for the crown when the Bulldogs face Bama in Tuscaloosa in November. Moreover, the Bulldogs catch Bama the week after the Tide visits Baton Rouge. It may benefit us that we travel to Starkville the week after their showdown with the Crimson Tide.
Over/under: 7.5. Prediction: Over. MSU will be the SEC’s most experienced team going into 2014 and that usually counts for something. MSU will need to win some road games against good teams if it wants to rise to the upper echelon. SEC road games include LSU, Bama and Ole Miss.
Many are picking Ole Miss to have a break-out season. The offense returns familiar names like Bo Wallace, Laquon Treadwell, I’Tavius Mathers and Vince Sanders. The defense returns nine starters. This does sound like a recipe for success. Ole Miss faces us and UT from the East. The schedule, however, presents the threat of painful home losses: Bama, Auburn and MSU visit Oxford. The flip side of this rigorous home schedule is that if Ole Miss can defend home turf, this will be a huge year in Oxford.
Ole Miss narrowly upset LSU last year, and beat us on Jeff Scott’s late, improbable 75-yard TD run, and still finished 3-5. Hugh Freeze’s team has a true opportunity to shine this year – and Bo Wallace could become a national figure if Ole Miss lives up to the hype. The thing is, there has been a lot of hype from Oxford in recent years – and yet Ole Miss’ SEC record in the past three seasons is 6-18. Over the past five years, they are 11-29 in conference play. I sort of believe this year, but they will have to prove it.
Over/under: 7.5. Prediction: Over. Frankly, Vegas’ line on Ole Miss wins seems low. I do not think Ole Miss will win enough to justify the hype, but they will win enough to cover the over.
Something has to give in the West – and it could be the Manziel-less Aggies. After taking the SEC by storm upon arrival, things could get a little dicey in College Station in 2014. Nine starters return to a defense that was challenged last year – the Aggies gave up 28 points or more nine times. That does not include their bowl game where Duke posted 48. On offense, there is simply a lot to replace: three NFL first round draft picks. Kevin Sumlin has been recruiting well and his 2014 team will be competitive – but it will take a step or two back on offense. The West is tough, and to complicate matters A&M draws at SC and Mizzou from the East.
Over/under: 6.5. Prediction: Under. My over/under for A&M is lower than most and I still think they come in under. Reaching a bowl game with six wins, however, is doable.
The Razorbacks have the dubious distinction of being the only SEC team this season to play all eight conference games against a bowl team from 2013. There are no breathers on the conference schedule – and Northern Illinois and at Texas Tech ill-advisedly show up on the non-conference slate. The home SEC schedule is particularly dire: Bama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss.
Arkansas quietly – and winlessly – improved as 2013 progressed. By season’s end, the Razorbacks were playing tight, competitive games with LSU, MSU and Ole Miss. The running game is solid – the tandem of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins have a good line in front of them. A lot of starters are back on both sides of the ball. Things are looking up for Bret Bielema’s squad – but there is a long way to go.
Over/under: 4. Prediction: Push. The Razorbacks will win a conference game and scare some good teams. The schedule is too tough to allow for much more.
What will happen in the SEC EAST?