Before I get to the picks, I feel like I need to begin with a personal note. I have mentioned before that my wife is in the Navy. Well, she received orders this summer that will be sending us overseas to Naples, Italy this coming winter. I don't know how much writing I'll be able to do after the SEC Championship Game, and I don't know to what degree I'll be able to continue while I'm over there. It could open the door for a lot more from me, but it also might prevent me from being able to follow SEC sports closely enough to continue. No matter what the future holds, I thank each and every one of you for your attention and support over the years. It's been fun.
Now, onto the picks.
SEC football this year will be a rolling, rollicking mess. In past years, it has seemed pretty easy to tell what is coming. The 2011 season, for example, was a death march until the big Alabama-LSU matchup. The 2009 season was supposed to be the Alabama and Florida show, and indeed they were the only teams to win at least 10 games. This one doesn't fit an easy mold.
I'm not sure there's a truly complete team anywhere in the conference. Because of that fact, we will see a lot of, "I can't believe they beat Team X but lost to Team Y" going on. Keep that in mind as you look over the picks.
This is still the tougher side of the conference, especially with Auburn's ascendance under Gus Malzahn. I could make a case for any of five teams to head to Atlanta out of this division, and that portends some chaos. Without much to separate teams from each other, we could end up with the champ having two losses. And if the champ has two losses, then it'll be up to the East to produce a team for the playoff.
The division won't be quite as good as it was in 2010, but it will have a similar feel to what it had that year. One team is well behind, and the rest are somewhere on the spectrum from good to great.
At some point this year, someone is going to outgun the Tigers while they're on the road. Kansas State and Mississippi State don't have the firepower to pull it off. Ole Miss might, but I have the Rebels winning a different big game and I don't think they're getting two. Alabama certainly could do it, but under the circumstances I've worked out, the Tide would win the division. I think Auburn wins the division, so the honors go to Georgia.
Why am I so certain that Auburn wins the West again? Well for starters, I'm not. However when in doubt—and I have lots of doubts about everything this season—I look at head coaches and quarterbacks. Auburn has the best of both of those on this side of the house, so they're my pick to go to Atlanta.
Alabama still has the best overall roster and Nick Saban, so it is going to be an Iron Bowl win away from winning the division and being in line for the playoff. Anything less will be a disappointment. Playing off of the "it feels like 2010" theme, an up-and-coming team is going to play at a level it's not yet ready to sustain and knock off the Tide. It was South Carolina then and Ole Miss now. Sure Bama has a bye heading into it, but Ole Miss basically has two with a bye and then Memphis. Besides, bye weeks don't actually matter a ton in and of themselves. They're most critical when you have important players who need extra time to heal up, and injuries aren't predictable.
Another year, another Les Miles team that's among the best in the nation. It's still going to lose a game it shouldn't—I have basically everyone except the division winners doing so this year—but given the personnel losses, this is not a bad result. In fact, LSU could end up the season's spoiler if it beats Auburn like it did a year ago. Given what I have here, the league would have to lean on an East team to restore its national championship status. I'm not sure any of the East teams can win in Atlanta, though, much less two playoff games beyond that.
One note: no one has repeated as conference champ since the late '90s, and the media have only picked the SEC title correctly four times since 1992. Auburn won the league last year and Bama was the media pick, so there's a decent chance neither of them will win the league. If John Chavis can shut down Auburn's spread again and LSU beats Florida as it probably should, then LSU wins the West at 11-1 and both of those trends continue. That result is well within the realm of possibility.
MSU basically doesn't have an excuse for not having a breakthrough season in the win column. Its four non-conference games are gimmes. Its two East opponents are rebuilding, as is Arkansas, while the Bulldogs are stocked with experience and pretty good talent by its standards. That should be seven wins right there. Not even getting to .500 in the rest of the games will get Dan Mullen his first nine-win regular season with a chance to hit ten in the bowl. It's all right there, guys. No excuses.
I see Ole Miss as being like South Carolina in 2010: on the cusp of breaking through but not quite there yet. It's why I foresee inconsistency like beating Bama at home and then promptly losing on the road at A&M the next week (hashtag: #WAOM). I don't expect there to be a big difference in overall quality between the Mississippi schools, so whoever wins the Egg Bowl gets to be fourth with nine wins while the other is in fifth with eight. Flip a coin.
I am well aware of the talent on hand in College Station, but it will take years to dig out of the hole that the defense was in last year. I have seen teams have disappointing years on defense and become elite the next. My own Gators, for instance, in 2007 to 2008. That was a defense that fell to the 30s in S&P+, though, not the 70s. You also don't just replace a combo like Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans without skipping a beat. Nearly every coach experiences a down year in his third or fourth season at a school thanks to time bombs from the transition blowing up, and this is that year for Kevin Sumlin. A&M could still be one of the top 40 or so teams in the country and be comfortably sixth in the division. That's life in the SEC West.
Arkansas is simply being done in by a brutal schedule. I think it's good enough to win on the road against a midde-of-the-pack Big 12 team and beat NIU, which is one of the best non-Power 5 programs. I am just not sure where an SEC win is coming from. The most vulnerable West team is Texas A&M, but the Aggies should be able to outscore the Hogs. Missouri is probably the more vulnerable of the two East teams, but it's on the road. This team will be better than it was a year ago, and, unlike 2013, I will not be surprised if it does win a conference game. I just don't think that it will.
It pains me a little to see this division struggle so much when the SEC East I grew up with was winning the conference more often than not. South Carolina is the most complete team of any, but it's not so overwhelmingly good that any of three other teams couldn't win the thing and go to Atlanta instead.
This season is kind of a throwback to the old days of the East, where there was a significant gap between the top three (or four, now) and the bottom three. Tennessee is going to struggle with replacing both lines. Vandy is going to miss Jordan Matthews dearly, and installing the new defense will take some time to get right. Kentucky is still, well, Kentucky, but at least it'll have 50% more wins!
Much like how I have the Iron Bowl deciding the West, I've got the South Carolina-Georgia game deciding the East. Georgia may have a bye heading into the game, but again, the importance of byes is overstated. Steve Spurrier has been perfect at home since the 2011 loss to Auburn, so I give the edge to the home team with full continuity over one breaking in a new coordinator that early in the year. The Gamecocks will lose one somewhere, with the road game at Auburn being the obvious choice. Florida could be tricky, but Spurrier will be up for it. The greater concern might actually be for a let down game at Vandy a week after UGA. This team has had plenty of nonsensical losses even after Spurrier got them cranking (Kentucky 2010, Auburn 2011, Tennessee 2013), so watch out.
Todd Grantham was better than Willie Martinez as a defensive coordinator, but his units seemed to be less than the sum of their parts. Jeremy Pruitt is probably a great hire, but he had more to work with at FSU than he does now, particularly in the secondary. This year could be a repeat of 2011 when the team lost its first two and ran the regular season table from there, but I think the Bulldogs will get another loss either to Florida or Missouri. I flipped a coin (literally) and it said Florida, so there you go. A loss to Auburn is a possibility too, of course. This will be a good, possibly great, Georgia team, but it's not elite and won't be a real playoff challenger by November.
|30-Aug||vs.||S. Dakota St.||W|
I haven't followed Mizzou football closely for very long for obvious reasons, so this feels a bit like a guess. I am not sure how well this program can handle losing as much personnel-wise as it did, but it has some compelling pieces coming back in Maty Mauk, Markus Golden, and Shane Ray. Mauk easily could be challenging Nick Marshall for the title of best quarterback in the SEC by the end of the year, so I'm a bit optimistic on this team for that reason. It'll probably still be inconsistent enough to do something like lose on the road to A&M late, but it won't fall down to the 7-5 range or anything.
It's impossible to predict the future, but it's extra impossible with this team. I hate to say it, but at some point, Jeff Driskel will miss time to injury. He's yet to make it through an entire season unscathed, so it's nearly certain that he'll miss more time. There are two true freshman and a guy who's simply not a I-A quarterback behind him, so the list of teams Florida can beat without Driskel is short. When and for how long Driskel will be injured will be a major factor in determining how many games the Gators will win. I've picked these games based on a 2012-like scenario where Driskel only misses winnable games. The team will be much improved and should be able to conjure up some 2012-like magic against LSU, but if it does, it's going to have a let down loss to Mizzou the next week. Is this enough to keep Will Muschamp employed? With wins over LSU and Georgia, I'd say so. But it's not hard to imagine 7-5 or even 6-6, and those won't keep him safe.
Non-conference scheduling makes all the difference. If that first game was Georgia State instead of Utah State, this is a 5-7 team. However, Chuckie Keeton is going to wreck the defense and spring the upset. If that Oklahoma game was against Tulsa instead, well, that gets them up to 6-6 and a bowl. UT will be better than some bowl-bound teams, but it's going to experience another long winter. The reclamation project is going to take time, and I think everyone can see that Butch Jones is making progress where Derek Dooley was not. That progress is just not going to show up in the win column this year.
Now is when we begin to find out whether Vanderbilt has truly been making real forward progress or if James Franklin simply was a magician. I think it's a bit of both, but it's still about time for a down year. Not many teams will miss a single player as badly as Vanderbilt will miss Jordan Matthews, and for as much roster improvement as Franklin oversaw, this is not yet a program that can reload. I've been very wrong about Vanderbilt before and may be now.
There will come a time when the easiest thing in the SEC picking game is not penciling in losses for Kentucky in every SEC game plus Louisville. That time is 2015, not 2014.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
In a similar feel to last year's game, it'll be a shootout with Auburn's running game wearing down a defense making the difference. Auburn becomes the first team to repeat as SEC champ since Tennessee in 1997-98.
SHOTS IN THE DARK
ACC: Florida State over UNC
Big 12: Oklahoma
Big Ten: Ohio State over Wisconsin
Pac-12: Oregon over USC
Final Four: Auburn, FSU, Ohio State, Oklahoma (alphabetical)
National Champ: FSU