It can’t happen in back-to-back years can it?
What Auburn and Missouri accomplished in 2013 was so impressive; they earned respect and had the two biggest turnarounds in college football in remarkable fashion. Two sinking ships found lifeboats after neither even made a bowl game the year before and after combining for an 8-16 record. For Auburn, it was Gus Malzahn, Nick Marshall and dynamic play of Tre Mason. For Missouri it was overall team health, Henry Josey and the defensive end duo of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam wreaking havoc in SEC backfields.
So, which SEC sleepers could surprise us in 2014?
One team I would start with is the Florida Gators.
So much talk centers around Will Muschamp and his comparisons to Ron Zook. Zook never had an 11-win season, but he also never had a four-win season. Skeptics are loud about Muschamp, and they have every right to be.
But Florida’s ready to turn the page and could be in for a big turnaround.
Despite cussing the style of play, Muschamp hired new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper to install a spread attack with tempo. Has Muschamp gone mad? I see it as swallowing his pride and making the changes in order to get Florida back to where it belongs. Roper’s offense will fit Florida’s personnel much better, especially quarterback Jeff Driskel. Driskel’s best asset is his legs, and Roper will use them. The Gators have shuffled the offensive line and looked much improved this spring, and some wide receivers are actually starting to emerge, including Demarcus Robinson and Chris Thompson. The backfield duo of Kelvin Taylor and Adam Lane will also create production.
Can Muschamp allow Roper to play with tempo knowing his defense could face more snaps because of it? It’s a valid question, and one that may not be answered early in the season. But you also have to think Florida’s defense will face fewer snaps than last year with a more effective offense moving the chains, regardless of tempo.
Muschamp is an elite defensive mind, and we can project the Gators to have another elite defense, even with key personnel losses. The defensive line is talented and loaded with depth, headlined by DE Dante Fowler, and the secondary should be strong again, led by elite corner Vernon Hargreaves and veteran safety Jabari Gorman. The linebacking unit doesn’t have many big names, but they have impact players and quality depth, with perhaps the best being sophomore Jarrad Davis.
One area Florida must improve in is special teams. Punting and field goals were at times brutal. After having dominant special teams play throughout the Urban Meyer era, a considerable drop off happened last season under Muschamp’s watch. Florida hit just 12 of 22 (54.5 percent) field goals and finished 11th in the conference in punting. That can’t happen when the margin of error is so slim.
Florida’s toughest task will be navigating a brutal schedule that faces both LSU and Alabama in the SEC West, along with the usual SEC East suspects…and not to mention annual fixture FSU.
Still, I like Florida to have the SEC’s biggest turnaround in 2014.
What’s another team that could surprise in 2014? I’m going with Mississippi State.
If there ever was a season when teams could sneak up and grab the SEC West it could be this year. Both Alabama and LSU could experience slight setbacks amidst rebuilding seasons. Yes, Auburn will be tough, but MSU usually plays Auburn tough, and the game returns to Starkville this season. MSU could have the SEC’s most favorable schedule and should posterize their non-conference opponents, and the Bulldogs face Kentucky and Vanderbilt in the SEC East. Conducive for a nine- or 10-win season, I’ll say.
Why MSU over Ole Miss? The Rebels are already expected to create more noise this season, especially after the top recruiting classes have had a year to groom and develop. Ole Miss’ roster is loaded, and the Bulldogs would be considered the bigger surprise within the division.
Dak Prescott is enjoying early Heisman love among college football’s talking heads, and he returns one of the top receiving casts in the conference, along with three offensive line starters and a deep backfield. Prescott is a year more experienced and developed, and he’s a bull running the football. I love Jameon Lewis’ game, too, and he could be the SEC’s most versatile player, similar to Odell Beckham last season. He’s a burner with the ability to shake the check right off your Nikes in the open field.
Geoff Collins may be the SEC’s most underrated defensive coach, and under his watch last season, the Bulldogs’ defense turned heads even with big-time secondary personnel losses. This year, the Bulldogs return a nice core nucleus of talent and several impact starters. Defensive lineman Chris Jones and linebacker Benardrick McKinney headline the unit. Of 25 players who saw time in 2013, 22 of them are back for more. That’s experience, and that’s a defense that’s ready to be led by Collins.
MSU’s biggest question may be in special teams. The Bulldogs’ finished dead last in field goals, hitting just 13 of 21, the conference’s only team to hit less than 50 percent. MSU also finished 13th in punting. Dan Mullen feels great about his offense and defense, but special teams could make or break a 10-win season.
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