Six SEC teams could emerge as national championship contenders in 2014

Take a breath, SEC fans.

The BCS era dominated by the SEC is officially over, and we usher in the College Football Playoff next season, as well as the SEC Network starting in August.

RELATED: 18 SEC underclassmen have already declared early

The landscape around the SEC will undoubtedly change in 2014, as several starting quarterbacks and superb offensive talent will have graduated or declared for the NFL Draft, and I expect the league to resume its defensive moniker we’ve come to know and love.

It’s never too early to start talking about the 2014 season, right? Here are six early contenders to at least make it into the new College Football Playoff:

RELATED: 2014 SEC football schedules

Alabama Crimson Tide

Buzz: Nick Saban loses AJ McCarron and MLB CJ Mosley for sure, two veterans of his team, while he returns tremendous talent at the offensive skill positions. His defense is stacked with talent, but Saban is going to have to find a way to get better at developing corners who have better ball skills. The schedule works in the Tide’s favor again, as they have four true road games and get Florida, Texas A&M and Auburn at home.
Biggest question: Who will replace QB AJ McCarron?

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Auburn Tigers

Buzz: Regardless of what Tre Mason decides to do, Auburn returns one of the few veteran quarterbacks in the SEC in Nick Marshall. The defense will only get better, as there is a ton of young talent with returning experience. Give Gus Malzahn, Rhett Lashlee and Ellis Johnson another offseason, and this team will be even better in 2014. They should enter as the favorites in the SEC. But Auburn’s schedule is tougher next season, with road trips to Kansas State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
Biggest question: How much will Nick Marshall’s passing game evolve?

Georgia Bulldogs

Buzz: Georgia returns 17 of 22 starters in 2014, but they lose QB Aaron Murray and three starting offensive linemen. The defense returns 10 starters with another offseason in Todd Grantham’s young but very talented defense. QB Hutson Mason takes over the reigns of the explosive and balanced UGA defense, and Todd Gurley returns as arguably college football’s best running back. The schedule starts out tough again against top 25 teams Clemson and South Carolina, but they trade LSU for Arkansas in the SEC West, and Auburn travels to Athens.
Biggest question: How much will the defense improve under Todd Grantham?

LSU Tigers

Buzz: LSU is a program that’s an annual championship contender because of their stacked talent, and I’ll admit it, they are the biggest stretch of the six. The Tigers have recruited well, but the NFL Draft looks like it will hit the Tigers again. QB Anthony Jennings takes over the reigns from Zach Mettenberger, and offensive production from Odell Beckham and Jarvis Landry will have to be replaced. The defense has young talent that needs to be developed, but the Tigers will be a force once again. LSU always plays one of the toughest schedules in the SEC, and next year they travel to Auburn, Florida and Texas A&M, along with playing Wisconsin to open the season.
Biggest question: How/who will LSU replace production from Mettenberger, Landry and Beckham?

Missouri Tigers

Buzz: Don’t look now, but Missouri should be a major contender next season, too. Mizzou isn’t going anywhere, especially with QB Maty Mauk taking over for James Franklin, where the offense could perceivably be more explosive. Dorial Green-Beckham returns, along with very capable running backs not named Henry Josey, and we know Dave Steckel will put together another solid defense, but he’ll have to replace DEs Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, along with MLB Andrew Wilson and CB EJ Gaines. The schedule isn’t too nasty in 2014, playing Texas A&M and Arkansas from the West, and they travel to South Carolina, Florida and Tennessee.
Biggest question: Who will replace Kony Ealy and Michael Sam’s production?

South Carolina

Buzz: South Carolina continues to be the quietest 11-win team in college football, and it’s just the way the Gamecocks want to enter 2014 – under the radar. Although they lose Connor Shaw, Jadeveon Clowney, Kelcy Quarles, Bruce Ellington and Victor Hampton, there’s a strong nucleus of young talent returning, and RB Mike Davis will headline the offense. A strong offensive line returns, along with QB Dylan Thompson, who has serious game experience entering his senior year. If the Gamecocks replace the pass rush, look out. The schedule gets tougher next year by playing Texas A&M and Auburn in the West, but they host Georgia, Missouri and Tennessee.
Biggest question: What’s a bigger concern: replacing Shaw or replacing three defensive linemen, including Clowney and Quarles?

But who saw Auburn and Missouri playing in Atlanta this year? The SEC will keep us living on every Saturday once again in 2014.

Photo Credit: Mark Zerof-USA TODAY Sports

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