SEC sleepers to watch in 2014

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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.

RELATED: Will Florida have the SEC’s best defense?

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.

RELATED: 7 SEC Heisman hopefuls post-spring practice

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.

Photo Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

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COMMENTS

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  • I don’t see MSU as having a better season than Ole Miss. State’s biggest win of the year last year was the Rebels, and I hate to say it, but that ain’t sayin much for them….

    • I don’t think he was saying that MSU will be better or have a better season than Ole Miss. I think he was saying that MSU could be the biggest surprise. I wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ole Miss have a big season

    • Ok you cant really use last year for this coming up year!!

    • Mississippi State was also ranked as having the toughest schedule in the conference last year at the end of the season. Ole Miss was their biggest win, but they faced some tough teams (including the rebels who have also made vast improvement since hiring Hugh Freeze). I’m hoping for the day to come soon that MSU and UM both become forces to be reckoned with in college football. Honestly, they probably already would be if they didn’t play in the toughest conference in D1.

      • I completely agree with you I would like to see both teams from Mississippi do really good even though I’m an ole miss fan. I just wish neither of us had the annoying trolls that talk crap constantly, but hey I guess that’s just a rivalry

        • It makes the egg bowls better! the last 2 years has been fun (even losing the one 2 years ago) and thats the way it should be. I want Mississippi Football back on the map and the only that happens if both schools go out there and the Bama’s and auburns and lsu and so on. i dont go out of my way to hate Ole Miss I respect what your head coach has done there and can’t wait till we meet again.

  • Why is it every time State gets a little love the black bear trolls come out??? Go back to preseason of last year and you’ll see I stated MSU would beat Ole Miss. My preseason
    prediction for this year is Ole Miss will barely make a bowl. QB play will kill them.

  • Don’t forget about them Hogs……

  • Since everyone is writing off Mizzou again in pre-season polls, wouldn’t it be safe to call them a ‘sleeper?’ Yes, they won the east, but apparently few think they can repeat or even be relevant.

  • I think MSU and Ole Miss will be as close to equal as they have been in a long time. Any Ole Miss fan that dismisses the momentum that State has right now is fooling them selves. Any State fan that expects Freeze and his revitalized Rebels to somehow implode this next year is also fooling them selves. The Egg Bowl will be for a lot more than state pride this year. Good time to be a Bulldog and Rebel. But I gotta end with a HAIL STATE!

  • I just wanna say.. yeah this year will be a rebuild for us, but last year was too.. and we still won 11 games.. suck it.