The college football season ended Monday night with Ohio State’s win over Oregon, which means now is the perfect time to start talking about next season.
A glut of Top 25s (all honestly labeled as “way too early”) already have been published, but we’re going to look deeper than that by predicting the finish of the SEC’s Eastern and Western Divisions more than 200 days before the first game of the 2015 season kicks off.
GEORGIA - Just hand the ball to Nick Chubb
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The Bulldogs have to find a quarterback but the only real requirements for the job are the ability to take the snap from center, rotate their upper body, correctly identify the No. 27 (Nick Chubb) and put the ball between the 2 and 7. Georgia has talent (doesn’t it always), a new offensive coordinator (former Steve Spurrier quarterback and veteran NFL coach Brian Schottenheimer), and maybe the nation’s next “name” defensive coordinator (Jeremy Pruitt). It’s time to put up or shut up in Athens. (Hint: Watch out for young QB Brice Ramsey.)
MISSOURI - Quarterback Maty Mauk returns
While South Carolina and Georgia have dominated the division’s “talking season” for a while now, but Missouri just keeps going to the SEC title game whether anybody notices or not. Quarterback Maty Mauk returns. Defensive coordinator Dave Steckel is gone, but the Tigers may not miss him after hiring former Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom to replace him. Defensive end Shane Ray is entering the NFL Draft early, but Missouri hasn’t had any trouble finding more pass rushers in the time it has been in the SEC.
SOUTH CAROLINA - Questions surround quarterback and defense
On Tuesday, USA Today gave a letter grade to every team in major college football for the 2014 season and called the Gamecocks “the nation’s biggest disappointment” along the way. Now it’s up to South Carolina to reverse that perception. This season’s fall and the questions surrounding quarterback and defense probably will keep South Carolina out of next season’s preseason Top 25, but the Gamecocks are a combined 4-2 against Georgia and Missouri in the last three years and should enter the division fray with plenty of confidence.
FLORIDA - Quarterback remains a major question mark
If Jim McElwain can get something out of the Gators offense, Florida will beat somebody it shouldn’t next season. He will have to make magic to do that, though. Quarterback remains a major question mark as Treon Harris presumably returns in the starting role. Running back Matt Jones is a solid piece, but the offensive confidence was wrecked during the Will Muschamp era. The defense will be led by cornerback Vernon Hargreaves after defensive lineman Dante Fowler’s early entry into the NFL.
TENNESSEE - Butch Jones still has a lot of bricks to add
The Volunteers will be the hot “darkhorse” pick next season after a 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. It’s a testament to the power of the Volunteer brand that a win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl is enough to make people think the Big Orange is back, but Butch Jones still has a lot of bricks to add before he’s got that program rebuilt. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd and good young pieces, but there’s been no evidence yet they are transcendent enough to lift Tennessee into the East fight.
KENTUCKY - Wildcats on steady decline since beating USC
What happened to the Wildcats team that beat South Carolina 45-38 on Oct. 4 in Lexington, Ky. On that night, hopes for Kentucky football had maybe never been higher. Since that night, the Wildcats only win has come against Louisiana-Monroe. Kentucky lost six straight to end the regular season. The stalwarts of what was a dangerous defense at times last year – defensive end Za’Darius Smith and linebacker Bud Dupree are gone, there’s not a name on the Kentucky roster that will scare an opponent this season.
VANDERBILT - Derek Mason starts over in second season
James Franklin made it look fun during his three-year run at Vanderbilt. His replacement, Derek Mason, made it look like torture in his first year replacing Franklin. After a 3-9 season, Mason fired offensive coordinator Karl Dorrell and defensive coordinator David Kotulski. He hired Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin to replace Dorrell and announced he would take over as defensive coordinator. Now, about that depth chart. Running back Ralph Webb and tight end Steven Scheu will make noise but not enough.
AUBURN - New QB Jeremy Johnson is a perfect fit
Nick Marshall is gone, but Jeremy Johnson might be even better at quarterback in Gus Malzahn’s offense. Johnson was Alabama’s Mr. Football in 2012 and threw for 31 touchdowns as a high school senior. In limited action last season, he had a passer efficiency rating of better than 200. Maybe more importantly for the Tigers (since offense is never really a concern on Malzahn’s team), Will Muschamp is now in town. Muschamp has a great track record with defenses, but so did Ellis Johnson before he was fired by Malzahn last year. If the Tigers can improve their defensive personnel, they will play in Atlanta.
ARKANSAS - The beef on the Razorbacks’s O-line returns
While the Tigers may win the West with Malzahn’s dizzying run game, the Razorbacks might win it with a run game based purely on physics. Arkansas had the second-heaviest offensive line in the SEC last year at an average weight of 325. Only one of them is moving on, and the returners are likely to only get bigger. Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema is a believer in mass and having that mass block for backs like Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins. Arkansas won three of its last four last season, including thrashing Texas 31-7 in the Texas Bowl.
ALABAMA - RB Derrick Henry will have to carry offense
It seems wrong to have the Crimson Tide anywhere other than at the top of any and all preseason lists. Yes, Alabama won the SEC title last season and entered the College Football Playoff as the No. 1 seed, but there was a distinctly non-dynasty feel to that club. Quarterback Blake Sims, running back T.J. Yeldon, wide receiver Amari Cooper (not to mention starting WRs DeAndrew White and Christion Jones), three offensive linemen and safety Landon Collins all will be gone from that team. Running back Derrick Henry might be good enough to carry the entire team, and he might have to.
LSU - RB Leonard Fournette a Heisman contender
Speaking of one-man shows, say hello the LSU offense. The Tigers tried Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris again but never could get what they needed at quarterback. The good news is freshman running back Leonard Fournette late in the season began to look like the mythic creature Les Miles was making him out to be. Fournette had nearly 300 yards in his final two games and will be a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender this season.
TEXAS A&M - John Chavis arrives from LSU to rescue defense
For the last month, all many SEC fans wanted to talk about was where Will Muschamp would land. In the meantime, Aggies head coach Kevin Sumlin snuck into Baton Rouge and took John Chavis off the LSU staff. Quarterback Kyle Allen, who replaced the now-transferring Kenny Hill midseason, returns to lead an offense that will again be dangerous. If Chavis does with the defense what he has done at Tennessee and LSU, the Aggies could finish a lot higher on this list.
OLE MISS - Rebels continue fade started in Peach Bowl
Call it a habit, but it’s hard to have faith in the Rebels to follow up on what was a breakout 2014 season for a while. Quarterback Bo Wallace is gone, leaving underclassmen to battle for the job. Whoever wins the job will open the SEC season at Alabama and also will have to play at Auburn and at Mississippi State. Maybe the 42-3 beating the Rebels suffered in the Peach Bowl isn’t an indication that the bloom is off that rose, but that was an ugly loss.
MISSISSIPPI STATE - Can QB Dak Prescott re-create the magic?
There were a lot of seniors on that roster last year, including 12 who started. Quarterback Dak Prescott was not one of them, but he lost his underrated backfield mate when junior running back Josh Robinson decided to leave school with one year of eligibility left. If the Bulldogs can replace three really good offensive linemen and Prescott can recreate the magic of his 2014 season, Mississippi State might back up last year’s effort. If not, it’ll be back to the bottom of the West.