SQ SEC Football Preview
The college football season is less than a month away from kicking off, and most teams have already begun their fall camps. Just in time for the regular season, our writers have cooked up previews for all of the conferences in the FBS. We last covered the Big Ten, and today we will take a look at the SEC.
What Happened in 2014:
Conference Champion: Alabama
Coach of the Year: Gary Pinkel, Missouri
In just three years as part of the conference, Missouri has won back-to-back SEC East titles under Gary Pinkel. Pinkel led the Tigers to a 7-1 record in conference play last season, and the second straight SEC title game appearance for the team. The 2014 divisional title was the team's fifth since 2007, tying Alabama and Florida State for the most in that span.
Offensive Player of the Year: WR Amari Cooper, Alabama
Cooper set a school and SEC record by catching 124 passes last season, while also leading the conference in receiving yards (1,727), receiving yards per game (123.4) and touchdown receptions (16). The stellar receiver was also named a Heisman finalist, finishing third in the final balloting. However, Cooper managed to take home the Fred Biletnikoff Award, which is given annually to the nation's top receiver.
Defensive Player of the Year: DE Shane Ray, Missouri
Ray was one of the nation's most dynamic pass rushers in 2014. In just his first season as a starter, Ray racked up 13 sacks and 22.5 tackles for loss; both were tops in the SEC. The defensive end also forced three fumbles and recorded five QB hurries. Clearly on the radar for every NFL scout, Ray was a first round draft choice by the Denver Broncos in 2015.
Three Memorable Games:
1. Auburn 44 vs. Alabama 55, Nov. 30th - Every season, fans of the SEC, and college football in general, look forward to this game; 2014 was no different. Just by looking at the combined score of 99 points, you can tell the action was nonstop, with both teams trading blows back and forth. Auburn held a 33-21 lead early in the third quarter, but it was not to be as the Crimson Tide would stage a huge comeback. Alabama's offense went on an all-out air assault, scoring 34 points over a 23 minute span, giving the team the Iron Bowl victory.
2. Alabama 20 vs. LSU 13 (OT), Nov. 9th - Facing LSU down in Death Valley never makes for an easy matchup, and this game held true to that. It was a defensive battle throughout the game, with Alabama clinging to a 10-7 lead at the end of the first half. After tying the game in the third quarter, kicker Colby Delahoussaye
nailed a field goal to put the Tigers up 13-10 with just 50 seconds remaining.
It wasn't over though, as Blake Sims would march the 'Bama offense down the field completing four of seven passes for 50 yards, putting the team in field goal range. The Tide tied the game and went on to score on its first OT possession, and stopped LSU on the ensuing drive to win the game.
3. Ole Miss 7 vs. LSU 10, Oct. 25th - LSU shouldn't have been anywhere close to winning this game after turning the ball over four times. But thanks to the inability of the Ole Miss offense to really get anything going on offense, the Tigers were able to hang in long enough. The Rebels even held a 7-3 lead midway through the fourth, but LSU's offense put together a heck of a drive when it went 95 yards on 13 plays.
A three-yard touchdown pass from Anthony Jennings put the Tigers up 10-7, capping the drive. Ole Miss had a chance to tie the game with nine seconds remaining, but Bo Wallace would throw a costly interception, effectively ending the game.
Looking Ahead to 2015:
Conference Favorite: Auburn
While the SEC media had a hard time deciding on who the true conference favorite should be, we find it a little easier to pick Auburn heading into the year. How can you go wrong picking a Gus Malzahn offense coupled with a Will Muschamp defense? And while it's easier said than done, Auburn has the pieces to once again be crowned conference champions.
Jeremy Johnson will make Auburn a true threat in the passing game, while running back Roc Johnson (214 yards, 4.98 yards per carry) and receiver D'haquille Williams (45 catches, 730 yards) are poised to have breakout seasons. And with Carl Lawson returning, the Tigers should have a better pass rush than it did last season, garnering just 10 sacks in eight SEC games.
Conference Dark Horse: Georgia
The past few seasons Georgia has been that team that shows so much promise, but slips up just enough to cost itself a shot at the title. Head coach Mark Richt is a winning coach, but never seems to win the big game. That could change in 2015 though. Georgia is again picked to win the SEC East, the second time in the past three seasons it's been chosen as the divisional favorite.
The offense again will be dominated by the ground and pound attack of Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Keith Marshall. Under center, the 'Dawgs recently named transfer Greyson Lambert the starter, whose main priority will be to hold on to the football and avoid costly mistakes. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt should continue to see his defense improve over the course of the season after giving up just 20.7 points per game in 2014.
Most Improved Team: Tennessee
Hurry up, the bandwagon is almost full for the Vols' 2015 season. Butch Jones has a lot of people believing in Tennessee this season, and there's quite a few reasons to like his squad this year. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs seemed to ignite a spark in the offense last season after being injected as the starter. Dobbs went 4-2 as the team's starter over the final six games, throwing for 1,206 yards and nine touchdowns. Jalen Hurd is a budding star at running back and should rush for around 1,000 yards this season.
The Tennessee defense has taken great strides over the past three seasons, improving its scoring offense by 11.5 points per game (35.7 in 2012, 24.2 in 2014). And with one of the nation's premier pass rush duos in Curt Maggitt
and Derek Barnett (combined for 21 sacks and 35.5 tackles for loss in 2014), opponents will undoubtedly hate facing this attack.
Freshmen to Watch:
1. Byron Cowart, DE, Auburn - ESPN ranked this guy as their No. 1 overall recruit for a reason. Cowart is a beast off the edge that registered 24 sacks and 36 tackles for loss over the final two seasons of his high school career. He chose to follow Muschamp to Auburn, believing he can be the next great defensive end under the coach. There's no doubt he'll get plenty of playing time this season as getting to the quarterback was an issue for the Tigers last season.
2. Martez Ivey, OT, Florida - Florida desperately needs help rebuilding its offensive line after it was depleted following the 2014 season, and Ivey is expected to contribute immediately. Although he recently just had his knee scoped, the big fellow hasn't been ruled out of the season opener against New Mexico State. Ivey is slotted as the backup left tackle, which will be a good spot to get his feet wet.
3. Trent Thompson, DT, Georgia - Thompson is expected to be a contributor off the bat for the Bulldogs in 2015. The No. 1 overall recruit, according to 247Sports, is an explosive athlete that has been showing glimpses of greatness in practice. The defensive tackle came up with an eye-popping 74 tackles for loss over his final two seasons as a prep standout.
Offensive Player of the Year Prediction: Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
The SEC will be dominated by the running back in 2015, and there's no better player to pick to win the Offensive Player of the Year Award than Nick Chubb. Chubb was the SEC's Freshman of the Year in 2014 after rushing for 1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns. The stellar freshman led the SEC with an average of 7.01 yards per carry as well. He's an explosive runner that is nearly impossible to stop, and can single-handedly take control of the offense.
Defensive Player of the Year Prediction: Derek Barnett, DE, Tennessee
It's quite easy to pick Barnett in this spot after the season he put up last season. Barnett accounted for 10 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss in 2014, making it look effortless to get into the backfield time and time again. He's one of the keys that could make this a very interesting season for Tennessee. Barnett was a second-team All-SEC media pick prior to this upcoming season.
Three Games to Watch:
1. Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 26th - This could be Tennessee's most important game of the season. The Vols have lost 10 straight to the Gators, and if they're going to get on the right track, marching out of Gainesville with a victory would make a pretty powerful statement. For the Gators, this is chance for Jim McElwain to make a name for himself early and for him keep the fanbase at bay. Gators fans have become accustomed to beating Tennessee over the years, and a loss now might stir some the wrong way.
2. Alabama at Georgia, Oct. 3rd - This is one of the best cross-divisional matchups the conference will see in 2015. Georgia's got a great shot to compete for a conference title this season, and a win against the Crimson Tide will go a long way to make the team believe it can do that. The last time these two teams met was the 2012 SEC title game that ended in heart break for the Bulldogs.
3. Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 28th - Saving the best for last, the 2015 Iron Bowl will be one of the most anticipated games all season. This rivalry has gone to new heights over the past few years and could reach a new peak this season. Now that Gus Malzahn has paired up with Will Muschamp and Nick Saban with Lane Kiffin, this will be the most epic battle between coach and coordinator duos. If Muschamp can improve the Auburn defense just enough, that could very well be the difference in this game.