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Using our college football simulation engine, WhatIfSports.com simulated thousands of college football games to create the 2014 SEC Preview. Team ratings, player ratings and depth charts are accurate as of August 21st. What you see in the Conference Standings table is the most likely outcome based on the computer simulations. The team-by-team schedules use Absolute Records, which you can learn more about below. Those same game-by-game simulations also generate average points per game for both teams.
All team previews are provided by CollegeFootballNews.com.
2014 SEC Predicted Conference Standings
For this analysis, thousands of college football games are simulated, with the sum of the winning percentages of those games being our final predicted record. As can be noted, sometimes a team is "favored" (wins more than 50% of the time) in a different number of our games than the expected record shows. We list this record as the Absolute Record. The assumption of the Absolute Record is that the more likely scenario always happens. Since we know that it does not, our expected record (in the table above) is far more accurate. Also, especially since we are rounding, it is possible for a team to win a game more often, yet score the same or fewer points on average. In those cases, for Absolute Records, we always take higher winning percentage and are not predicting a tie or a win by an underdog. This is another reason why the expected records are more accurate, as the teams are so evenly matched, the game could easily go either way.
Enough is enough. Win the national title already.
Could this be it? Could this be Georgia's turn at bat? Could this really be the year it all comes together again and there's a national championship shot there for the taking?
After years of speculation about Mark Richt's job status - started by a mega-disappointment of a 2009 season and followed up by a 6-7 clunker - the hot seat talk has cooled as he's now as settled in as he'll ever be considering the fickle nature of the SEC world.
All you can reasonably do is put a great team on the field every year and then hope for the best. Last year was all about the injuries that decimated a team that was more than good enough to win the East, but on the plus side - as is always the case with a season like 2013 - there are several battle-tested players across the board now creating decent depth.
Even with the disappointing - but understandable - 8-5 record and Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska, there's as much hope as ever for something big to happen.
The Clemson loss was a fight that could've gone either way, the Vanderbilt game actually would've gone the other way had the team been healthy, and the Auburn game tipped the absolute wrong way in an epic finish. It's not right or fair to go with ifs and buts in the SEC, but if Georgia had been relatively healthy, it's fair to think that last season would've been a third-straight double-digit win season and the ninth in 12 years.
Now, though, for Richt, going into his 14th year at the helm, it's time to start winning the really, really big games, and with this team coming back, it's time for Georgia to win the SEC championship - no matter what.
It's not the type of thing that coaches like to talk about, but star quarterback Aaron Murray's injury turned out to be blessing in disguise, giving Hutson Mason a solid few games of experience to be ready for this year. The linebacking corps started to come together, playmakers were found to fill in the gaps, and the adjustments were made to be good enough to hang with an Auburn and come close to fighting through to ten wins. But close doesn't count in the SEC, or in the games against the non-conference big boys.
Georgia was close in the shootout with Clemson - and lost. Georgia had Auburn dead - and lost. Georgia had chances to stop Nebraska - and didn't. Georgia almost came up with the big drive to beat Alabama and win the 2012 SEC championship - and lost. Five of the last six games Georgia has lost were by a touchdown or less, and the loss at Colorado in 2010 and the 2006 shocker to Vanderbilt were the only two clunkers in the Richt era against teams that finished their seasons with losing records.
Florida, Alabama, LSU, Auburn, and Tennessee all got the job done in the BCS era and won national titles. Georgia has surpassed Tennessee over the years, but it's time expect nothing less than a spot in the inaugural College Football Playoff and finally be included among the other big-name programs in the championship VIP room. It's time to put the high expectations back on Richt and Georgia and assume that this really is a program that has to think national title-or-bust.
And then hope and pray that everyone can stay healthy to make it happen.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Georgia Bulldogs
|3||@South Carolina Gamecocks||55||24-23|
|13||Charleston Southern Buccaneers||95||50-9|
|14||Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets||68||26-19|
2013 might have been the best season in the history of South Carolina football, but the program didn't win anything that actually mattered. Now it's time to drain the putt.
Steve Spurrier is known for being a fantastic golfer, among other things, but even going back to the great days at Florida, his teams have been great at getting the ball close to the pin, but they can't quite get it down.
Of course he did a phenomenal job in Gainesville and won a national title, but his Gators backed into it - Ohio State's comeback win over Jake Plummer and Arizona State in the 1998 Rose Bowl opened that door. With the Gamecocks, his teams always come achingly close to doing something truly special, and the ball lips out of the cup.
Last season will forever be remembered for the epic comeback win over Missouri, but in the end, it didn't mean anything because of a painful late loss to a mediocre Tennessee squad the week earlier.
The 2012 team was tremendous in an 11-2 campaign, but a close loss to LSU and a blowout to Florida turned out to be the difference. In 2011 it was a tight loss to an okay Auburn team that kept USC out of the SEC title fun in an 11-2 season. Oddly enough, the one mediocre year in the last four ended with an appearance in the 2010 SEC championship. It might have been a blowout loss to Auburn, but at least the team got there.
And now it's time to take the next step forward.
Spurrier is the greatest coach in South Carolina history and the last few years have led to the greatest era by far. As last season proved, with seven wins over teams that finished with winning records, great victories over Clemson and UCF - the Knights' only defeat of the season - and strong wins over Missouri and Wisconsin, this is a top program. To become elite, though, South Carolina has to win a conference title, or at least come close.
A one-loss season in the SEC probably gets you into College Football Playoff, and that means a Spurrier team has to do all of the little things right week in and week out. That's not always a given.
You don't get better by losing Jadeveon Clowney and Kelcy Quarles off the defensive front, but the recruiting has been good enough to restock the shelves in a hurry. The linebacking corps should be among the best in the SEC, and the secondary, while a bit of a question mark, is loaded with top-shelf athletes.
The offense might be without heart-and-soul quarterback Connor Shaw, but the line is the strongest in the Spurrier era by far, and the skill players are terrific with the backfield tandem of Mike Davis and Brandon Wilds about to start getting its due.
But does it all add up to another 11-2 season, or something more? 11 wins is a success by any standard, but South Carolina is past the point now of merely being happy that it doesn't suck. It might not be fair and it might not be right considering the harsh world of the SEC, but considering the Ball Coach is 69, the window might be closing soon.
Spurrier never won 11 or more games three years in a row at Florida, but now he's going for a fourth at South Carolina. With the schedule and all the holes to fill, it's not a gimme.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 South Carolina Gamecocks
|1||Texas A&M Aggies||56||25-23|
|2||East Carolina Pirates||72||28-19|
|13||South Alabama Jaguars||76||27-19|
It's not that hard to figure out why Florida had a disastrous year. It came down to three problems...
Injuries, injuries, injuries.
Yes, the offense gave away the Miami game with mistakes, and yes, there was little margin for error considering the team's style of play, but this isn't that hard. Florida went from being in the hunt for the national title in 2012 to a miserable 4-8 campaign with seven straight losses to close things out because top players were dropping left and right.
And it's not like there were any truly cheap losses, and - don't scoff - that sort of includes Georgia Southern.
Miami turned out to be a nine-win team, as was Vanderbilt. There's no shame in losing on the road at LSU, Missouri or South Carolina, the Georgia game was a fight under trying circumstances - but the Bulldogs were banged up, too - and Florida State turned out to be pretty good.
The Georgia Southern game? Late in a lost year against a devastatingly-quirky running game? Okay, fine, you can't lose to Georgia Southern, but that was a perfect storm type of moment with a devastating triple-option attack catching the Gators looking ahead to the Seminoles.
But considering all the top talents coming into Gainesville, and with so much NFL upside across the board, Florida is supposed to be fantastic no matter what. Still, it's not fair to judge head coach Will Muschamp or the state of the program based on what happened last year.
Who got hurt? Who didn't?
Jeff Driskel might not be Peyton Manning, but take any starting quarterback off an elite team in the third game of the season and things will take a sweeping left turn.
The Gators had a slew of problems, illnesses and injuries before the fall practices even started, and then came the cavalcade of disasters including Driskel's broken leg and DT Dominique Easley's torn ACL - he was considered a top ten NFL prospect before getting hurt before the season could get rolling. Top running back Matt Jones was knocked out for the year with a knee injury, star pass rusher Ronald Powell missed time with an ankle injury, starting offensive tackle D.J. Humphries suffered a knee injury, fellow offensive tackle Tyler Moore fell off a scooter, linebackers Michael Taylor and Antonio Morrison were hit by knee injuries, part QB/part WR Trey Burton hurt his shoulder, and on and on and on and on.
And even with all of the problems, and even with all the energy sucked out of the team, and even with an offense that couldn't find anything that worked, the Gators were right there with chances to beat Miami, LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Georgia Southern. Those were the types of games the team came up with in 2012, and those are the types of games a healthy team would've won.
On the plus side, several young players saw playing time trying to fill in the gaps, and now the 2014 Gators are loaded with depth and options like never before in the Muschamp era. So will this team be more 2012 or 2013, or somewhere in between?
The defense has to fill in the defensive back gaps, but the front seven should be its typically devastating self right out of the gate. The spotlight will be on the offense that's looking to be more explosive and more effective, and it should be with all the key parts returning to the backfield. The kicking game needs work, too, with 2012 superstar punter Kyle Christy needing to get his mojo back after a horrible year.
It'll be easy to dismiss and write off the Gators with all the question marks, its stodgy style of play, and its nasty schedule, but be careful. This is the type of team with the type of style that should be able to hang around every game with its defense, and it could bludgeon and wear down defenses with its power offense. The formula worked in 2012, and attitude and experience should mean everything.
And health should play a wee bit of a factor, too.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Florida Gators
|2||Eastern Michigan Eagles||83||27-15|
|4||@Alabama Crimson Tide||26||17-23|
|12||South Carolina Gamecocks||34||19-23|
|13||Eastern Kentucky Colonels||95||47-7|
|14||@Florida State Seminoles||26||18-27|
As much as 2013 might have been a shocker, doing it again in 2014 would be even more impressive.
It took a perfect storm of key things to happen for Mizzou to win the East and come within a few defensive stops of playing for the national title. Florida was destroyed by injuries, Georgia was banged up, South Carolina gagged against Tennessee, Johnny Football was playing on one leg when Texas A&M came to Columbia, and there weren't any games against Alabama, LSU, or Auburn - before the SEC championship, of course. But give credit to a coaching staff and a program for being really, really good. There's no such thing as a cheap SEC division title, and breaks or not, it was impressive.
Texas A&M might have taken the SEC by storm after coming over from the Big 12, but Missouri actually won something.
It's really, really hard to win a division title in the SEC - remember, Alabama didn't do that last year - and there are just enough problems and concerns to expect a repeat performance. That doesn't mean this can't be a successful season, and that doesn't mean there will be a major step back and be a 5-7 season like 2012. The bar is set higher now, and that means 2014 will see if the Tigers can reload instead of needing to rebuild.
But look at what they have to deal with.
Florida appears to be ready to rebound and South Carolina might be better - both of those games are on the road. Texas A&M is dangerous again and Tennessee has improved - both of those games are on the road, too. However, overall the schedule isn't that bad with no Alabama, LSU or Auburn to face, and the non-conference slate is difficult but manageable having to deal with a road game at Toledo along with home games against UCF and Indiana.
There's no Michael Sam or Kony Ealy getting into the backfield, and there's no Dorial Green-Beckham, L'Damian Washington or Marcus Lucas around anymore for the receiving corps. RB Henry Josey is gone, QB James Franklin is done, and the secondary that gave up 265 yards per game has to undergo an overhaul.
However, even with all of the key personnel losses, the Tigers are still loaded enough and talented enough to content. Mizzou always finds pass rushers, and it has a great tandem in Markus Golden and Shane Ray ready to shine. The receiving corps doesn't have a DGB, but Bud Sasser and Jimmie Hunt are talents. Maty Mauk might just be better than Franklin, and the combination of Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy will be more than fine in place of Josey. And as for the secondary...okay, that's still going to be an issue.
Mizzou doesn't want to think of it this way as a program, but it's playing with house money now for a while. Gary Pinkel was on a hot seat after 2012, but he has proven a few times that he can get within national title range. The Tigers are still dangerous, but now they have to show they can be consistent in the SEC.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Missouri Tigers
|1||South Dakota State Jackrabbits||95||47-8|
|5||@South Carolina Gamecocks||40||21-24|
|12||@Texas A&M Aggies||47||25-26|
Another year, another Tennessee rebuilding job, another season that's supposed to take the program a step forward to being back among the elite of the elite. However, this time, it really does seem like things are about to turn.
Missouri might have come from out of nowhere to go from a losing season to the SEC East title, and Auburn blew up after Gus Malzahn took over, but Tennessee hasn't been able to find the magic formula. The talent level hasn't been bad, and the schedule hasn't been a killer over the years - at least by SEC standards - but the process has been really, really, really slow.
2007 isn't that long ago, but it seems like forever since Tennessee was a powerhouse, going to the SEC championship and losing to LSU on the way to a 10-4 season. Since then, the Vols have just one winning season in the last six, and that came under Lane Kiffin's watch in 2009.
But it's more than that. It's more than just not being a winner. Tennessee isn't even close to being a real contender for the SEC title, and that includes last season when the East was banged up and down.
Oh sure, there was a terrific win over South Carolina last year, but for the most part, the program has feasted off the weak on the schedule and hasn't been able to keep up with the big boys. Head coach Butch Jones came in last year appearing to be ready to change all of that and turn Tennessee into a contender again. With his 2014 recruiting class, and with his energy when it comes to getting prospects and the plan that's in place, the success should be coming.
Can it happen this year? Can Tennessee be this year's really big story? If it is, it's going to take a few major surprises, because there are far more concerns and issues than positives.
The offensive line has to undergo a massive overhaul, losing everyone including tackles Antonio Richardson and Ja'Wuan James. Meanwhile, the quarterback situation isn't exactly a mess, but it's not a positive as the coaching staff continues to look for someone to take charge. Top rusher Rajion Neal is gone, the pop and explosion for the passing game needs to come from the new receivers, the defensive line is starting over, kicker/punter Michael Palardy is gone after a fantastic year.
Other than that, everything is fine.
After four straight seven-loss seasons, there's more talent and athleticism now, but again, that's coming from the new guys. The coaching staff is terrific, the program is built to be among the superpowers, and there aren't any barriers or excuses to not be an SEC champion.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Tennessee Volunteers
|1||Utah State Aggies||48||22-21|
|2||Arkansas State Red Wolves||63||25-20|
|8||@Ole Miss Rebels||43||18-21|
|9||Alabama Crimson Tide||32||16-24|
|10||@South Carolina Gamecocks||30||19-24|
Did Vanderbilt miss its window?
This isn't Duke worming its way through the ACC Coastal, and it's not Northwestern winning one or two key games and fighting for a big season. This is the SEC, and great seasons can still add up to a fat load of jack squat when it comes to actually competing for a championship.
Derek Mason could be Bill Belichick, Nick Saban and Vince Lombardi all wrapped up in one, but Vanderbilt is still in the SEC, it still has several disadvantages it has to overcome - even if James Franklin didn't ever want to hear any excuses about academic requirements or small school issues - and it still has to hope for the right breaks at the right time.
One problem: those breaks came last season.
Florida was a hot mess after suffering so many injuries, and Georgia was a shadow of its former self after getting banged up through the season. The Commodores let the Ole Miss game slip through its fingers late, had South Carolina and Missouri at home, and it didn't have to deal with Alabama, Auburn or LSU out of the West. A 9-4 season is impressive for a program not used to much consistent success, but that might have been the ceiling.
Franklin was a fire-breathing, no-nonsense, no-whining coach who came in demanding that Vanderbilt become a player in the SEC race, and while finishing fourth in a down SEC East might not have been what he was shooting for, it's still a hard act for Mason to follow.
Vanderbilt always rolls with the tide, and not the Alabama version. When the SEC is fantastic, the record usually reflects that going 4-20 in 2009 and 2010. When the Commodores can pull of a few upsets, and when the schedule isn't all that horrible, they go 18-8 in 2012 and 1013 with two midrange bowl wins. And that's okay.
Mason's main job will be to continually find the right parts to fit a system that works for his coaching staff and his team, and while Franklin-like energy might be a plus, it still comes down to execution. How can Vanderbilt compete with some of college football's elite teams in the best conference in America? It has to do everything right, and it needs a few magnetic players in key spots.
That could be a problem this year with star receiver Jordan Matthews gone and with an unsettled quarterback situation, but the offensive line should be a strength and there's good depth in the backfield to get the running game going early on. The passing attack might need a little while to come around.
The defense that was terrific against everyone except for the top offenses should be strong again up front in the new 3-4 alignment, but the secondary needs an overhaul. Franklin didn't leave the cupboard bare, but Mason and his staff have some work to do.
It might be tough to come up with a third straight nine-win season, but coming from Stanford, Mason knows what it takes to succeed at a smart school that has to work a little harder to succeed. Considering that just one of the last 13 Vanderbilt head coaches since 1953 come up with a winning season in his first campaign - Fred Pancoast in 1975, but you knew that - Mason might have to fight to open up that window again.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Vanderbilt Commodores
|2||Ole Miss Rebels||40||18-22|
|4||South Carolina Gamecocks||27||14-22|
|7||Charleston Southern Buccaneers||95||42-8|
|10||Old Dominion Monarchs||72||27-20|
|13||@Mississippi State Bulldogs||39||18-21|
Of course, Kentucky athletics focuses on basketball season first, recruiting for basketball season second, and the basketball offseason third, but as the attendance for the spring football game showed, things are starting to change. Is it really possible for football to at least share a piece of the bluegrass fun?
UK doesn't have to look any further than down the road at Louisville for the example of how the two major sports can both thrive. Hoops is obviously a big deal to the Cardinals, but the football program has been able to find its place, too. For Kentucky, it'll be hard to take too much of the attention away as long as John Calipari is continuing to load up with teams full of NBA talent, but there's a buzz and excitement about a football program that appears to be on its way up.
A second straight 2-10 season and fourth straight losing campaign might not seem like much, but big recruiting classes under head coach Mark Stoops, an enthusiastic fan base, and what seems like a real belief that things are starting to change appears to have energized everything around the football team. But now the wins have to follow, and unlike Louisville, Kentucky is in the SEC - it's not like there are a slew of layups to build up the record.
It's next to impossible to go from being a perennial free space to a player in the SEC without a whole bunch of talent, a lot of luck, and a few schedule breaks. Beating a decent-named team from time to time and going to average bowl games is nice, but Kentucky doesn't want to be Vanderbilt.
If South Carolina can do it - remember, the Gamecock program won a lot of jack squat before Ball Coach took over - then Kentucky can, too.
Unlike the SEC's USC, there actually is some history at Kentucky with Bear Bryant coming up a few great seasons including the fantastic 1950 campaign, and there were a few good years here and there, but with only 15 bowl appearances there's room for Stoops to carve out his own legacy in a hurry. How mediocre has UK football been? The last season with fewer than four losses was 1984 going 9-3, and since going 10-1 in 1977 there have only been nine winning campaigns in 36 years.
To rise up and start to be a major part of the SEC fun, like a South Carolina, there has to be a few big recruiting hauls, a whopper of a class at some point that shocks the system, and a little bit of success to show that there's a plan, it's working, and the winning will follow.
To make that step this year, Stoops has to rely on the experience of 51 returning lettermen, 16 returning starters, a little bit of depth to play around with, and just enough interesting athletes and playmakers to catch some of the big boys napping.
The offense has to be more explosive and has to start figuring out how to put up points, the defense has to stop giving up so many big plays and has to learn how to get off the field, and the team has to start making its own breaks. There were chances in close losses to South Carolina and Mississippi State last year, and there can't be losses like the Western Kentucky gaffe to kick things off, but this can't be another 2-10 year with the wins coming against the truly sad.
Kentucky football has the potential to go on the upswing fast, and Stoops appears to be the right coach, but the basketball team is destined for yet another Final Four, at the absolute least. This isn't a football school quite yet.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Kentucky Wildcats
|6||South Carolina Gamecocks||18||16-27|
|9||Mississippi State Bulldogs||38||18-23|
Are there signs of Alabama cracking? Did Nick Saban fix the problem, or is there another 2014 Sugar Bowl or 2013 Iron Bowl out there lurking?
Everyone will have Alabama in the preseason top three, partly because of the brand name and partly because the recruiting has been so jaw-dropping good that there's no way this team is going to be anything less than fantastic all season long.
While recruiting is hardly a sure-thing, it's foolproof if you get tremendous hauls year after year after year - the odds are always going to be in your favor if you recruit like Saban does. According to the Scout.com rankings, Bama was No. 2 in 2012, No. 4 in in 2013, and No. 1 last year. More than that, when Saban really wants a guy, he usually gets him.
So on pure talent alone, at the moment, there's Alabama, Florida State, and then there's a slight sub-level with the Ohio States and Texas A&Ms of the world hanging around the top of the food chain. That means there's no such thing as rebuilding for the Crimson Tide, and it also means that last season was a complete and utter disaster, even if it would've been classified as a dream campaign for most other programs. However, there's a problem, and it still needs to be taken care of.
Much of the attention this offseason was on the offense and the loss of QB AJ McCarron, but the attack cranked out close to 6,000 yards on the season, comes back fully loaded with NFL skill position players galore, and despite the two losses to close things out, destroyed Auburn and Oklahoma for over 1,000 yards of combined offense. Lane Kiffin is doing a nice job so far as the new offensive coordinator of simplifying things, but there's no real problem on that side of the ball.
For a program that will consider the season a failure if it doesn't win the national championship, it had better figure out how to stop a dangerously mobile quarterback, and it has most of the season to figure it out.
Johnny Manziel ended up winning the 2012 Heisman after what he did against Alabama, and even though the Tide took their defensive foot off the gas, Notre Dame's Everett Golson was relatively effective running around and making plays in the BCS championship blowout, too.
After an entire offseason of supposed focus on stopping the Texas A&M offense, Saban and the defensive coaches were pantsed by Mr. Football and company to the tune of 628 yards of total Aggie offense in the epic early season shootout. But that was supposed to be just Johnny Manziel being Johnny Manziel.
After lulling the world into a false sense of defensive security with great defensive performance after great defensive performance - missing Dak Prescott in the Mississippi State win probably helped feed the illusion - then came the Auburn nightmare, which will forever be defined by "Davis! Davis!! Davis!!!," but was really made possible by a late touchdown drive by Nick Marshall to tie it. When the Tide defense had to come through like it has done time and again, it didn't.
But Alabama was supposed to be motivated to get back on the field and make a big statement against Oklahoma - until Trevor Knight pulled his own version of Manziel.
Did Saban and defensive coordinator Kirby Smart figure this out? Because that's going to be the biggest question of the 2014 college football season.
Again, the talent is there, and it's undeniable. It's just a question of whether or not it can get the job done for what Alabama hopes is a 15-game season.
The Crimson Tide are going to look every bit the College Football Playoff sure thing for most of the season, thanks to a relatively favorable schedule with no offensive juggernauts to deal with - Ole Miss will be dangerous, though - until getting a Manziel-less Texas A&M at home in mid-October. LSU is great again, but it's going to be more of a powerful team than an explosive one, at least in the biggest games, and there's no Georgia, Missouri or South Carolina to deal with.
So will Alabama's amazing defensive numbers and rankings be real? Of course, but the world might not know whether or not this year's team has an Achilles' heel until the Auburn game, and then, possibly, against Marcus Mariota and Oregon.
But it all keeps going back to talent. NFL scouts are drooling over the Alabama running backs, the receiving corps is fantastic, and the line is once again outstanding. The defense is full of a who's who of four and five-star talent, and even the one slight problem of last year, the secondary, is at least full of upside.
Consider it a mortal lock. Alabama is going to win at least ten games for the seventh straight season, but can it go unbeaten for the first time since 2009? It sort of doesn't matter, and it might not make a difference whether or not the defense has been tweaked. All that anyone cares about is whether or not Saban is holding up the new College Football Playoff trophy in Dallas with confetti flying around him. The talent is there to make that happen.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Alabama Crimson Tide
|1||West Virginia Mountaineers||80||27-16|
|2||Florida Atlantic Owls||90||31-15|
|3||Southern Miss Golden Eagles||87||32-15|
|6||@Ole Miss Rebels||62||24-18|
|8||Texas A&M Aggies||50||27-26|
|12||Mississippi State Bulldogs||73||27-18|
|13||Western Carolina Catamounts||95||51-7|
Maybe this is one of those Les Miles teams that seems like it's taking a step back, but all of a sudden it comes together and becomes something truly special.
It's not fair in any way to say that two straight 10-3 seasons were disappointing, but for LSU, two straight 10-3 seasons were disappointing, and now, on the surface, it seems like the team might be in a rebuilding mode, even if that's not allowed.
In the SEC world, everything has to be perfect to be at the level that LSU fans are accustomed to. Few schools can honestly go into every season with no excuses, and with the recruiting classes, the home field advantage, the coaching staff, and everything else most teams dream of. LSU is one of those programs that isn't really allowed to have an eight-win year, and considering how Alabama keeps on rolling, no, 10-3 isn't good enough.
But sometimes even programs like LSU have to take a wee step back before going back to being championship good, and with another phenomenal recruiting class coming in, and several sure-thing stars among the true freshmen, it might take getting past a few growing pains.
Last year, the passing game found its groove with Zach Mettenberger bombing away to Jarvis Landry and Odell Beckham Jr., but all three of them are gone to the NFL. Also gone is top running back Jeremy Hill, and as always with LSU, several key defensive players. As always, though, there's more than enough superstar high school talent ready to rise up, and with this program, the next man up might be better.
Patience could be a problem this season with a recruiting class that includes the best overall prospect (running back Leonard Fournette) along with the top safety (Jamal Adams), the top middle linebacker (Clifton Garrett), one of the top receivers (Malachi Dupre) and defensive tackles (Travonte Valentine), and a quarterback (Brandon Harris) who could end up starting from Day One. And those are just the stars of the class - there are several other four-star talents coming in looking to contribute right away.
However, as amazing as LSU's 2014 class might have been, Alabama's - at least on paper - is probably better, and that's the problem. LSU can be really, really, REALLY good, and again, 10-3 just won't get it done.
So now it's up to Miles to use that to the team's advantage. It's okay to go with the "no one believes in us" cliche, because it's probably true. Alabama will be almost everyone's preseason SEC West pick, Auburn will be up there, and Texas A&M is now the fun program to keep an eye on. LSU will be ranked in the top 15, and it'll be considered part of the mix for the SEC title, but reputation and young talent will have a lot to do with that.
The passing game is going to be worse, the defense still has to prove itself again at an elite level after a disappointing season, and yeah, relying on true freshmen is asking for disaster.
So this season, 10-3 might just be good enough. Even if it's not.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 LSU Tigers
|2||Sam Houston State Bearkats||95||49-8|
|4||Mississippi State Bulldogs||70||24-18|
|5||New Mexico State Aggies||93||34-15|
|9||Ole Miss Rebels||62||24-19|
|11||Alabama Crimson Tide||39||20-23|
|14||@Texas A&M Aggies||56||26-24|
Yeah, there was some element of luck when it came to Auburn's terrific 2013 season.
It took a fortuitous bounce and one of the greatest finishes in college football history to beat Georgia 43-38 to keep SEC title hopes alive.
But the Tigers also put up 566 yards of total offense on the Bulldogs, helped by a fantastic performance from the offensive line.
Of course, it took one of the quirkiest plays and a few missed assignments for the Davis, Davis, Davis miracle to happen against Alabama to win the West and get to the SEC title game.
But the coaching staff had the presence of mind to put Chris Davis deep in the end zone to see if he could make something special happen. Also unfairly lost is the wonderfully executed late drive needed from the TIger offense to tie the score at 28.
Ohio State was off to play Florida State for the BCS championship. All the Buckeyes had to do was beat Michigan State in the Big Ten championship, but they didn't, and Auburn was able to back its way into the shot at the national title.
But the Tigers did their part by rolling up 545 yards of total offense in an unstoppable 59-42 SEC championship win over Missouri.
There were several big breaks and a few all-timer moments to help make Auburn the biggest surprise of 2013 - going from 3-9 to within a late drive of the national championship - but the team and program made their own good fortune and they put themselves in a position to succeed. If luck really is when preparation meets opportunity, then throw out the whole Team of Destiny idea and give Auburn credit for hiring Gus Malzahn - the great coaching staff with the great scheme had the players in place and put them in a position to succeed.
You don't luck into close to 4,600 rushing yards and 48 touchdowns a year after running for 1,781 yards and 16 scores, and you certainly don't luck your way into an SEC championship.
And now the big question is whether or not Auburn can sustain the success, and if anyone can figure out how to stop the offensive juggernaut.
The defense isn't going to be anything too special, and while there's an abundance of promise in a secondary that got torched last year, there will be times when the offense will have to pick up the slack and be unstoppable.
No problems there.
How do you get better by losing a Heisman-caliber running back like Tre Mason and an NFL franchise blocker in Greg Robinson? The Tigers appear ready to do it with quarterback Nick Marshall returning, a great line to work behind, more outstanding running backs ready to go, and a few interesting new parts - like JUCO transfer receiver D'haquille Williams - to keep the nation's 11th-best offense and No. 1 rushing attack rolling.
No. you don't get the same breaks twice, and Auburn won't have the special plays that made 2013 so special, but it'll have to settle for execution and performance to get the job done.
Just like it did last year.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Auburn Tigers
|2||San Jose State Spartans||83||33-19|
|4||@Kansas State Wildcats||56||26-23|
|5||Louisiana Tech Bulldogs||81||30-17|
|7||@Mississippi State Bulldogs||61||24-19|
|9||South Carolina Gamecocks||50||23-24|
|10||@Ole Miss Rebels||61||24-21|
|11||Texas A&M Aggies||52||27-26|
|14||@Alabama Crimson Tide||36||22-26|
So the fun is over, right?
The Johnny Manziel topszn variety show took its act to Cleveland, and now Texas A&M has to keep the program rolling. However, there's a part to this that no one wants to really acknowledge.
The Aggies might be better without Mr. Football.
It was easy to rely on Manziel's magic and all that he was able to do to take the program on his back and make it a player in the SEC right away. But what happened when No. 2 slowed down late in the season - the offense started to fizzle.
One of the big knocks on Manziel as a pro prospect is his likely inability to become a pure NFL pocket passer. His game was based on improvisation, movement and escapability. Once he got dinged up late in the season, the offense struggled against LSU and didn't get moving against Missouri. Now the Aggies have to balance things out a little more and can't just rely on its Heisman superstar. Now the team might be more complete, and now it might actually win something.
Manziel didn't win a national title. He didn't lead the Aggies to the SEC title, an SEC West championship, or a berth into the BCS. Last year, he helped take the team to a nine-win season and a bowl victory, just like Ryan Tannehill did in 2011.
Texas A&M football is more than just Manziel - head coach Kevin Sumlin is making it that way with great recruiting class after great recruiting class.
The Aggies finished seventh in the Scout.com 2014 recruiting rankings getting the nation's No. 1 quarterback (Allen), the No. 1 receiver (Devante Notl) and the No. 1 defensive end (Myles Garrett). A&M had the No. 6 class in 2013, and while it's early, it has 2015's fourth-ranked class.
This isn't just a flash. This isn't going to be a gimmick. Manziel's departure doesn't end anything.
Manziel had to be brilliant and had to keep bombing away because the defense couldn't stop anyone last season. The O put up 42 on Alabama and 41 on Auburn and still lost those two games. This time around, defensive coordinator Mark Snyder has more experience and more talent to work with - A&M won't have the nation's 109th-ranked defense again.
Meanwhile, the cupboard isn't bare on offense without Manziel, Jake Matthews and Mike Evans. There's talent to fit the system, and offensive coordinator Jake Spavital proved last season that there's life after Kliff Kingsbury. The offense only averaged 20 fewer yards per game last year than it did in 2012, and while it'll probably take a wee bit of a step back without Manziel, the backs will get more involved behind a terrific offensive line.
Life goes on in college football. Legends are always replaced, and if the program is solid, the train keeps on rolling.
Texas A&M is now one of those programs.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Texas A&M Aggies
|1||@South Carolina Gamecocks||44||23-25|
|6||@Mississippi State Bulldogs||58||25-23|
|7||Ole Miss Rebels||54||26-25|
|8||@Alabama Crimson Tide||50||26-27|
Every team likes to use the motivational "why not us?" phrase, but really, why not Ole Miss?
One problem - it's still in the SEC West.
Hugh Freeze has done a magnificent job of upgrading the talent level and putting the program in a position to potentially challenge for really, really big things, but he's about to run into the problem that all recent Rebel coaches have faced.
Alabama, Auburn, Arkansas, LSU, Texas A&M, and as the end of last year showed, Mississippi State.
But that's the deal, and Ole Miss has to try to fight through it to be a success. The pieces are in place to be far better with star power, NFL skill, and just enough depth to get by, but is it enough get past the really big boys? It would be great to beat an Alabama or upset an LSU, but to get through and become a major player, Ole Miss has to beat almost everyone in the toughest division in college football.
Ask Texas A&M - who has won almost nothing of significance - over the last two years what it means just to be really, really good in the SEC West.
But that's looking at Ole Miss as a potential SEC and national title contender, and while that's obviously the ultimate dream, just starting to make some more consistent inroads with the big boys in the West would be a fantastic step forward.
2003 was the last time the Rebels beat Alabama. There has been some success against LSU, and winning last year was great, but Ole Miss has only won three times since 2001. The Rebels are 2-6 against Auburn since 2003 and lost both games against Texas A&M as SEC brothers.
Can Ole Miss be the type of program that can maintain consistent success in the SEC? It'll never be Alabama or Florida in terms of sheer might, but it can become a yearly threat that might get its turn on the wheel in a year when everything breaks right.
If Missouri could rise up and take the SEC East, and if Auburn can go from 2012 disaster to 2013 national title-good in one season, Ole Miss can catch fire in one dream season, and it can become more of a steady player.
This year's team might not be there quite yet, but considering Arkansas is still figuring out what it's going to be, Mississippi State is good, not elite, and Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M are going through huge quarterback changes, maybe this could be the season that Freeze catches everyone flat-footed.
So, really, why not Ole Miss?
The offense that was so strong and so good at times throughout last year - at least until the end of the regular season - might lose some key pieces in receiver Donte Moncrief and Ja-Mes Logan, but Laquon Treadwell looks like something special.
Three starters are gone on the offensive front, but Laremy Tunsil will be playing on Sundays in the near future and guard Aaron Morris is back after suffering a torn ACL early last year. There's more than enough talent at running back to replace Jeff Scott, and Bo Wallace comes into the season as one of the SEC's most experienced quarterbacks.
The defense should be a killer with nine starters back including the brothers Nkemdiche - Robert at tackle and Denzel at linebacker. Add Serderius Bryant to the mix, and the Rebels - after a few suspension issues and the move of D.T. Shackelford to the middle - are loaded at linebacker and potentially even deadlier in the secondary with a deep group of corners good enough to make the loss of Charles Sawyer no big deal.
The expectations are rightfully high to rise up and be a ten-win team and be in the hunt for the West all season long, but now the program has to deal with the expectations that go along with all the positives. At the very least, though, compared to just a few years ago, Ole Miss is in the discussion.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Ole Miss Rebels
|1||Boise State Broncos||54||25-24|
|3||Louisiana Ragin' Cajuns||60||26-22|
|6||Alabama Crimson Tide||34||18-24|
|7||@Texas A&M Aggies||46||25-26|
|11||Presbyterian Blue Hose||95||49-8|
|14||Mississippi State Bulldogs||45||20-21|
It stinks that Mississippi State plays in the SEC West, the toughest division in college football, but if it was ever going to happen, if the program was ever going to turn in a huge year, this has to be it.
It's not like the division is going to be weaker, but with Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M all going through a wee bit of a reloading phase - especially at quarterback - and with Ole Miss, possibly, not quite there just yet with all of its talent, and with Arkansas still rising up and Auburn's defense still a question mark, there are signs that maybe, just maybe, the window might be open just a crack.
With 57 returning lettermen and 16 starters back - and more, depending on the alignment - this is the team and the season that head coach Dan Mullen has been building towards. There's talent, depth, signature stars to work around, and a little bit of momentum built after closing out last year on a three game winning streak including a victory over Ole Miss.
And there's the schedule - Merry Christmas. The memo about SEC teams needing to play a non-conference team with a pulse just got to Starkville, facing Southern Miss, UAB, South Alabama and Tennessee-Martin. Vanderbilt and Kentucky from the East, and no South Carolina, Missouri, Georgia or Florida? Yup, and Auburn and Texas A&M are home games. In other words, considering the talent in the division, even with Alabama and LSU to deal with on the road, it's as easy as could reasonably be asked for.
However, the Bulldogs have to deal with the nagging question of that schedule - are they really good, or are they the SEC's ultimate bum slayer?
The win over Ole Miss last season was huge, mainly because No. 2 on the list of top victories was a close call against eventual MAC champion, Bowling Green. How many wins over Alabama, Auburn and LSU have there been in the Mullen era? One, beating the woebegone 2012 Auburn team early on, but going 1-16 against the division's big three & Texas A&M.
That's not to say that there haven't been a few good wins here and there - the 2010 team tagged Georgia, Florida and Michigan, although those three weren't exactly juggernauts - and beating Ole Miss four times in five tries makes all the cowbells happy, but this is it. This is the year Mississippi State football has to rock, because things change in a massive way from year to year in the SEC - ask Auburn - and when it's your turn to be good, you can't miss it.
While it might have been nice to have a blocker back like all-star guard Gabe Jackson, four starters return up front. There's enough promise in the backfield to make up for the loss of top running back LaDarius Perkins, and if burgeoning superstar quarterback Dak Prescott takes his game up another few levels, the receiving corps will be there to explode.
The defense that finished 18th in the nation - but struggled against the big boys - loses star defensive back Nickoe Whitley, but Benardrick McKinney and the linebacking corps should be excellent, the line is stacked, and the pass rushing production should come in waves.
Outside of the kicking game, it's all there for Mullen and his program. There might not ever be a better chance to do big things.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Mississippi State Bulldogs
|1||Southern Miss Golden Eagles||87||30-16|
|3||@South Alabama Jaguars||65||25-20|
|6||Texas A&M Aggies||41||23-25|
|12||@Alabama Crimson Tide||24||18-27|
|14||@Ole Miss Rebels||55||21-20|
Considering what happened last year in the SEC, with Missouri rising up from out of nowhere and Auburn going from miserable to within one late stop of winning a national title, and with Texas A&M stunning everyone with its ascension in 2012, it's possible. It's possible to win in the SEC and be a major player in a hurry. Arkansas did it before, and now it might be on the verge of doing it again.
Ironically, considering head coach Bret Bielema's disdain for the spread and all things hurry-up, Arkansas might really be more like Auburn than it seems, at least in terms of rising up and reloading in a hurry.
Auburn had an odd 3-9 season in 2012 when nothing worked quite right, suffering a few close calls that could've easily turned a three-win season into something respectable. Gus Malzahn came in, installed a brilliant rushing attack, no one could stop it, and boom went the dynamite.
Bielema already has a year under his belt at Arkansas, but coming from a 3-9 campaign, he has the running game growing and the pieces being put together up front to potentially be devastating on the ground. Known for keeping the foot on the gas when his Wisconsin teams got things rolling, and with his final win for Bucky a 70-31 beatdown of Nebraska in the 2012 Big Ten championship, it's possible that he knows what it takes to make the Hogs Auburn-like in the rebound.
Like 2012 Auburn, 2013 Arkansas came extremely close to being a winner. The tumble started after gagging away a winnable game at Rutgers in a 28-24 loss, and the Hogs fought well in a close call against Texas A&M and in late battles with Mississippi State and LSU. Four games were decided by a touchdown or less - all losses - and if three of those had gone the other way, the narrative would've been far different coming into the season. A 6-6 Hog team would've been considered an up-and-comer and not a possible last place option in the loaded SEC West.
But Arkansas has a legacy of winning in the SEC, getting the running game going under Houston Nutt in a fun 2006 season - finished up by losing to Bielema's Badgers in the Capital One Bowl - and Bobby Petrino made the program BCS good before his fall. Now it's up to Bielema to take what he knows how to do and make Arkansas the big, bad bully that no one in the South wants to deal with.
It's still taking a little time going from the Petrino style to the true ground-and-pound that Bielema prefers, but he has a loaded backfield with three terrific runners in Alex Collins, Jonathan Williams and Korliss Marshall, and his line is starting to come together with some huge young road graders growing into their jobs.
A defensive coach by nature, Bielema might not have the D in place that he'd like, and he has lots of work to do to find the right combination in the secondary and secure a rebuilt line, but there were improvements as the season went on and now there's more depth and more athleticism to play around with.
But even if it all comes together, and even if Arkansas really is this year's Auburn, that doesn't necessarily guarantee anything in a division with Alabama, LSU, a tremendous Ole Miss team, a deep Mississippi State, Texas A&M, and Auburn, too.
If nothing else, Arkansas is going to have even more of an attitude, and it'll be the team everyone will have to gear up for - there won't be any finesse to deal with.
Bielema doesn't believe in any excuses, and he always thinks his teams can beat anyone. He'll get the chance this year with an improved team, and this time, he might be right.
- Pete Fiutak
2014 Arkansas Razorbacks
|3||@Texas Tech Red Raiders||39||22-26|
|4||Northern Illinois Huskies||49||24-25|
|5||@Texas A&M Aggies||31||21-28|
|7||Alabama Crimson Tide||17||17-29|
|10||@Mississippi State Bulldogs||37||19-23|
|13||Ole Miss Rebels||40||18-21|
Jake Westrich is the Digital Content Coordinator for WhatIfSports.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.