I can't remember coming to a season quite like this one. I think ten of the 14 conference teams are likely to be better this year than last year. Florida could go either way, while I think Alabama, Mississippi State, and Missouri won't be quite as good as they were in 2014.
But everyone else? Better. Improved. Taking steps forward. The question for them is less about whether they'll be good but rather how much they'll improve. With the way the schedule worked out this year, it may not matter for some of those teams' records.
These picks more than ever are based on matchups and the way games appear on the slate. I think I've got a general read on most teams, but I always can be wrong.
I've already made it clear that I think this division is a crazy, confusing logjam. Someone with a pretty good team is going to finish last and feel bad about it. It should come as no surprise then that I see this thing as being a jumbled mess. By the way, I worked out the three-way tiebreaker for second following the conference's rules, so that will explain the order of the teams.
Here's the thing though: I have Ole Miss beating Florida on the theory that the Gators won't be able to score a point on the Rebels' defense. That said, UF is a bad matchup for the Rebels, who have to go on the road to Gainesville. Ole Miss will have to win with the pass this year, and Florida has potentially the best secondary in the country. If that secondary can prevent the Rebels from being able to throw and maybe even score a non-offensive touchdown or two, then we're looking at a four-way tie for first at 5-3. If you work that tiebreaker out, Alabama wins the division with Ole Miss in second and Auburn in third.
I freely admit I could have every team at least two or three spots in the standings off from where they'll end up. Whether I do or not, I think this is finally the year where everyone in the division beats each other up enough that no one will emerge with one or no losses.
I think it's unlikely that Ole Miss will see nearly every one of its important players go down again, which means this loaded team with almost everyone important back should be elite. The first-year starting quarterback won't win his first road game in Tuscaloosa, but by the time the trip to Auburn comes around, he should be well settled in. If so, then the Rebel defense will have the capacity to carry the team to a win there with that quarterback throwing to plenty of great options against thin Tiger secondary—particularly if AU's defensive backfield gets banged up.
The bye week coming late will hurt, as it doesn't land until November 14. They'll probably start to run low on gas and drop the game against Arkansas's brutal offense on their tenth consecutive week of playing. Other than that and the early road game against Bama, the schedule works out fairly well. Getting Vandy and rebuilding Florida from the East is a boost, and Ole Miss is a huge beneficiary of Bruce Feldman's Body Blow Theory. Auburn plays the Rebels a week after Arkansas, A&M plays them the week after Bama, and both LSU and Mississippi State play them after getting the Tide and Hogs in consecutive weeks. The stars aren't aligning for an undefeated run, but for a West title? Maybe so.
You can count me in the camp that isn't worried about the transition to the Jeremy Johnson-led offense. I even am one of those people who think it could be better, and it's not only from Johnson's passing ability. If Jovon Robinson is everything he's billed to be, then the run game will get a boost as well. As I said in my Auburn preview post, though, Muschamp struggles against Georgia. I think he'll get bested by Arkansas's offense too, and having to play Ole Miss the week after that will be thoroughly unpleasant. The pieces will really come together next year, but for some reason, I think they're not quite in place for 2015. Finishing second in this West division is nothing to be ashamed of, though.
If you plan to beat the Tide by running, well, you won't. Sorry about that, Georgia, Arkansas, LSU, and Mississippi State. If you can throw a bit, you've got a chance. Facing a pair of teams that will be able to throw it around plenty on the road is a bad draw for this team, which will lose at least one game it shouldn't because of Lane Kiffin forgetting to run the ball and leaning on a passing attack that will sorely miss Amari Cooper. That very well could be the game against Tennessee, especially since the Vols are coming off of a bye. I think of that game a bit like the one against South Carolina in 2010 (which, admittedly, was a road game for the Tide): a team making The Leap but not quite there yet gets a confidence-inspiring win over a slightly down Alabama team.
As far as temporary down years go, a three-loss campaign isn't a bad one. That it even counts as much of a down year tells you how high Nick Saban has set the bar in Tuscaloosa.
Someone has to lose this tiebreaker and end up in fourth, and it's LSU. Its defense will take a couple of steps back, especially with the defensive line not looking like one of the better ones of recent years. That will hurt the Tigers in losses to Auburn and Alabama. It would hurt them against the Razorbacks too, but I see that as being a classic "can't handle prosperity" game for the Hogs as I've got them coming off of handing Ole Miss its first loss of the year. I'm not sure the team will win the road game in Oxford either. The offense will be better with Brandon Harris running the show, and that should offset defensive regression. A bowl win gives the team ten wins and a nice bounce back year after 2014.
The Razorbacks are on a nice upward trajectory. After winning zero SEC games two years ago and two last year, they'll get four this year. Toss in a soft non-conference slate and that's eight wins. The defense won't be quite as good as it ended up being last year thanks to personnel losses, but the offense will be tough for anyone to withstand, much less stop. I think they'll finally get a road win there with the game against what I figure is a tired Ole Miss team, but otherwise I've got them dropping their games away from home. As for the loss to Mississippi State, I think that's a game where Dak Prescott takes over. Give the Hogs that win, though, and then they're in a four-way tie for second where, given the rest of the results as picked, they actually finish in the second spot. One game separating second from fifth: it's the West in 2015, folks.
With youth at key positions and a brand new scheme on defense, I see this team as being very inconsistent. Arizona State may win the entire Pac-12, so losing the opener away from home isn't a shame. In fact, I have the team losing every game away from home except the road game at Vandy. A&M will show some flashes, like in my predicted upset of Alabama, but dropping the next one to Ole Miss on the road will be a letdown game. Falling to a South Carolina team that can hurt the potentially shaky secondary will be a growing pain, while Auburn is now where A&M figures to be in another year. The 2016 season is what the 2015 season for the Aggies is really all about.
The significant loss of experience is too much for me to ignore. You can't overrate the value provided by a good core of players who have played together for years on the college level. Besides, Dan Mullen's pattern has so far consisted of ups and downs. The 9-4 (4-4) 2010 season had a 7-6 (2-6) season follow it, then a 8-5 (4-4) year in 2012 had a 7-6 (3-5) record follow it. Last year's 10-3 (6-2) season will have a 7-5 (3-5) campaign follow it. The pattern might even break with an eight-win season following a bowl win. This team should be able to pull that off, given that it'll be way below where it otherwise would be in the bowl order.
The other half of the conference is still the weaker one, but there are signs it's getting better. Georgia and Missouri are in good hands and have been for a while. Tennessee is on the way up, and Kentucky, though moving more slowly because it's Kentucky, also seems to be improving. South Carolina has dropped back some but will never be terrible while Steve Spurrier is around, while Jim McElwain's performance at Colorado State suggests he'll get Florida turned around sooner than later. And Vandy... well, it's Vandy.
The team I'm least certain about in regards to individual games is Kentucky. I think the Wildcats will get to a bowl, but which six (or more) games will be wins is hard for me to settle on. Beyond that, I've got the Bulldogs taking things this year despite having a bad West draw.
The biggest question mark for the team is at quarterback, but if there's one position you can count on being good under Mark Richt, it's that one. And while I'm not thrilled about how much NFL stink Brian Schottenheimer has on him at this point, he's going to be running Richt's offense. That offense, by the way, has quietly been one of the best in college football the past few years, and it is usually good for giving Muschamp a lot of problems.
I said that Arkansas had the best running back duo in the nation before Jonathan Williams went down, but stretch it out to three, and it's hard to vote against Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, and Keith Marshall. They will be enough to win most of these games, but not the one against Alabama's terrifying defensive front. The defense in the second year of Jeremy Pruitt will continue to improve and should be one of the nation's best. Also: there's a nice sneaky scheduling move of putting Georgia Southern right before Georgia Tech to get an extra week of practice against the option. UGA has the division's first or second-best defense with its best run game. I've bet on shakier circumstances than that for division titles.
This a projection towards the top of the Vols' potential. If they get bit badly by the injury bug, they'll be more like 7-5 or 6-6. I'm not sure they'll be ready to beat OU (who I think will be improved with new coaching hires) so early in the season, but they should finally break their losing streak against Florida a couple of weeks later. Their breakthrough win will be getting Bama off of their bye, but I don't think they'll sweep all of their road games (hence the Mizzou loss). With Joshua Dobbs throwing to a bunch of talented receivers and Jalen Hurd punishing front sevens, the offense is potent. The defense is decently strong at each level. It's not UT's turn to return to Atlanta, but it can build off of going to a bowl last year.
The Tigers will finally have a D-line that isn't otherworldly, and I can't trust the scattershot Maty Mauk with essentially an entirely brand new receiving corps. They won't fall off a ton, but they won't three-peat as East champ either. The ground game should be fine with Russell Hansbrough, and the secondary will stop a lot of passing attacks. Big time run games will cause the defense problems, and you can see that in the way I picked the losses. Nick Chubb, Mulllen's power run game, and Bret Bielema's behemoths will take them down. I tossed in a loss to South Carolina because Mizzou has had a lot of trouble with Spurrier's teams, plus the strange factor that the Tigers have been more vulnerable at home the past couple of seasons. Otherwise, it's still a good season even if it's a step down from the past two years.
It's all on the defense with this team. Do you have a great running back like Hurd, Hansbrough, Leonard Fournette, Chubb, or Dalvin Cook? Congrats, you'll probably beat Florida. You probably will if you have a smothering defense too, like Ole Miss. Will you rely on the pass to win your games like Kentucky and South Carolina will? Then sorry, you probably won't beat this team. The Gators could snipe a few more wins if Jim McElwain's offense can avoid turning the ball over, but just treading water and not missing the postseason will be a win for a program in such a disordered state on one side of the ball.
I do think the Gamecocks will be better than last year, but I'm not sure how many more wins that'll bring. I can see a rebuilding defense having problems with UK early, and I must confess that I'm not all that confident about the Clemson W at the end. LSU was a bad draw as a West rotational team, as the Tigers' excellent secondary should be the difference. Getting a bye while A&M has to deal with Ole Miss sort of makes up for that, though. The defense won't be nearly as bad, but it lacks the stars it used to. The program isn't sinking, but record-wise, it won't be advancing either.
Again, I have very little confidence in this prediction. Having the lesser of its two West opponents be a road game and the other be Auburn hurts predictability, and playing South Carolina on the road does too. One win might be Florida on September 19, but as I said before, I think UF's pass coverage will take care of that one. UK is improving slowly, but it started so far behind and hasn't yet shown an ability to beat a team with a lot more talent than it has (though it almost did last year in Gainesville). Tell me they go to a bowl at 6-6, and I'll believe you. I'll also ask for the game-by-game breakdown.
The Derek Mason era exploded in the hangar last year, and it's going to take some time to get things right. Vandy is one of the ten SEC teams I expect to be better than last year, but getting one of the better Group of 5 teams in WKU right off the bat is a bad draw. Having to go to Houston instead of hosting the Cougars might be the difference in that one as well. Mason is trying to win at VU by having relatively conventional tactics on both sides of the ball. It may have worked at Stanford where he was an assistant, but it's probably not going to at Vandy.
SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME
Georgia's defense will keep the Ole Miss passing attack in check, while Chubb's MVP performance on the other side of the ball carries the day. For the first time since 2005, UGA is SEC Champ. For the first time since 2008, an East team prevails in Atlanta.
SHOTS IN THE DARK
ACC: Georgia Tech over Florida State
Big 12: Baylor
Big Ten: Ohio State over Minnesota
Pac-12: Oregon over Arizona State
Final Four: Baylor, Georgia, Ohio State, Oregon (alphabetical)
National Champ: Ohio State