Assigning final grades to all 14 SEC teams in 2014
The regular season has officially come to an end, and Saturday Down South is grading all 14 SEC teams on their bodies of work this fall. Take a look:
The Crimson Tide survived the toughest division in college football history with just one loss, and that loss came on the road by one score against a team currently ranked No. 12 in the College Football Playoff Top 25 rankings (Ole Miss). Alabama is No. 1 in the nation for a reason, and the day the No. 1 ranking at the end of the regular season doesn’t justify an A for the season is the day expectations have grown to big to live up to. That day hasn’t come yet, and Alabama earns an A for ending the regular season as the best team in the land.
The Razorbacks ended the season as one of the hottest teams in the SEC, but they also ended the year with a modest 6-6 record. Arkansas was a few plays away from wins over Alabama and Mississippi State, showing even in losses it had the potential to be a great team. The Hogs never fully lived up to that potential, but they showed flashes of it, especially at the end of the year. They earn a B for the regular season for putting together and above-average campaign and finally ending the conference losing streak.
The Tigers had their ups and downs this season, but ultimately this team followed up last year’s SEC title with a four-loss season featuring some of the worst defensive performances in the conference for the year. Auburn was blown out by one of its biggest rivals (Georgia) and gave up an Iron Bowl record 55 points to Alabama. It looked like a title contender in a win over LSU, and its win over Ole Miss ultimately ended the Rebels’ title chances in 2014. Nevertheless, those signature wins are counter-balanced by the ugly losses to ranked teams, and the 8-4 final record warrants a C for an average season to follow last year’s masterpiece.
Aside from its win over Georgia and its near-upset of Florida State, the Gators were pretty mediocre once again in 2014. They did take a step forward in earning bowl eligibility, something they couldn’t do last year, but a 6-5 record will never appease a Florida fan base more familiar with competing for SEC titles than competing for modest bowl appearances. That’s the reason Will Muschamp was fired, and that’s the reason Florida earns a C for an average season. Anything less than a C is unwarranted due to the bowl berth and the winning record, but anything higher would be admitting expectations have dropped dramatically in Gainesville. The minus at the end of the grade is for firing the head coach mid-season, which is always a sign of a troubling campaign.
Georgia was as tough a team to get a read on as any in the SEC in 2014, posting stellar wins over Auburn, Missouri and Clemson while also laying eggs against South Carolina, Florida and Georgia Tech (the Yellow Jackets are a quality team but the Dawgs choked that game away). This year’s Georgia team had national championship potential, but it fell well short of that potential with three putrid showings this season. Still, the Dawgs had too many impressive wins to completely rip apart their body of work, which is why this year’s team earns a C for an all-around average season.
Many were left confused by Kentucky’s 5-7 season, featuring a 5-1 start and an 0-6 finish, but it’s not that hard to make sense of this year’s run by the Wildcats. When Kentucky opened the year 5-1 all it really did was beat up on weak teams, mostly at home. The Cats played three non-conference cupcakes, Vanderbilt (another cupcake) and two other SEC teams with a combined record of 12-11. It went 5-0 at home in those games and lost on the road at Florida. Then the second half of the season arrived, and Kentucky was forced to finally face worthy opponents like Mississippi State, LSU, Georgia, Missouri and Louisville. Kentucky went 0-6 in those games (0-4 on the road) and missed a bowl game as a result. Essentially, Kentucky was a middle-of-the-pack team this year capable of beating bad teams but not capable of upsetting good teams. Thus, Kentucky earns a C for 2014, but it should be noted that 5 wins and a C for the year still mark a step in the right direction for Mark Stoops an the Wildcats.
LSU’s 2014 season was average by all accounts. The Tigers scored signature wins over Wisconsin and Ole Miss, and they nearly upset No. 1 Alabama. However, they were also out-classed in losses to Mississippi State, Auburn and Arkansas, showing this team was not nearly as dominant as LSU teams of years past. This year’s Tigers beat a few ranked teams and remained competitive against a few more, but four losses is never going to appease the fan base in Baton Rouge. The Tigers should earn a C for an average season, but they receive a C+ simply because this team was exceptionally young and grew up right before our eyes as the season progressed. Few teams have more upside entering 2015 than LSU.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: B+
The last time Mississippi State won 10 games before its bowl game was during World War II, which is to say this might have been Mississippi State’s greatest season ever. So why do the Bulldogs not earn an A for their accomplishments? The answer is simple: They blew it at the end of the year. I understand the losses to Alabama and Ole Miss both came on the road against quality opponents, but if Mississippi State was truly one of the best teams in the nation it would have won at least one of those games and certainly wouldn’t have been out-played as severely as they were in both games. Ole Miss was as beat up as any team in the country when it hosted MSU last weekend, yet it was the Rebels who appeared to be the aggressors, not the Bulldogs. This year’s Mississippi State team looked like a playoff team until it was time to finally face playoff teams. It’s harsh, but if Mississippi State wants to be treated like a big boy it will have to deal with lofty expectations. The Bulldogs receive a respectable B+ for a great season capped off in a disappointing way.
Missouri earns the same B+ as Mississippi State but for the exact opposite reason. While the Bulldogs looked like a title team then failed to finish the job, the Tigers looked like a middle-of-the-pack squad that did finish the job in an ugly manner. Missouri was as unimpressive as any 10-win team in America, losing at home to Indiana and barely taking down Vanderbilt and Kentucky in SEC play. Yet somehow, some way the Tigers found a way to win the East for the second year in a row, and that ought to be reflected in their grade for the year. This year’s Missouri team didn’t look like a great team, but its a division champion nonetheless.
OLE MISS: B
Ole Miss had its best season since Eli Manning left for the NFL with this year’s 9-3 run, including wins over both Alabama and Mississippi State along the way. Injuries killed the Rebels in losses to Auburn and Arkansas, but when healthy this year’s team was among the best in the nation. Ole Miss closed the year with the nation’s No. 1 scoring defense, and it rolled through its first seven games before health issues became a concern. It’s tough to give a three-loss team any grade higher than a B, but it is worth noting the only other team to beat Alabama or Mississippi State this season came when those two teams played one another. Ole Miss had the best defense and two of the best wins in all of college football this year, and if it had stayed healthy its letter grade would likely be higher.
SOUTH CAROLINA: D+
Simply put, the Gamecocks were a disaster in 2014. The same South Carolina team that opened the year ranked in the top 10 in the national preseason polls closed the year with a 6-6 record and its first loss to Clemson since 2008. The defense, specifically the defensive line, was horrendous this season, allowing more than 430 yards and 31 points per game. The Gamecocks had the third-fewest tackles for loss of any team in the country this year, and although Dylan Thompson led the SEC in passing he also threw an SEC-worst 11 interceptions. Aside from Pharoh Cooper not much went right for the Gamecocks, and their letter grade would be even lower had they failed to reach a bowl game this winter.
You couldn’t have said this 10 years ago, or even five years ago, but Tennessee’s 6-6 season represents an above-average season and a step in the right direction for the Volunteers. Tennessee seems to have settled on its quarterback of the future in Joshua Dobbs, and it has a wealth of young freshman who will only continue to develop and improve in the coming years (Jalen Hurd, Derek Barnett, Ethan Wolf, etc.). Reaching a bowl game is huge for UT, as it earns them a few extra weeks of practice time and the national exposure that comes with a bowl appearance. Anything higher than a B would be a stretch for Tennessee, but the Vols certainly earned a promising grade for a strong finish to the regular season.
TEXAS A&M: C
This was a rebuilding year for the Aggies, and although they did reach a bowl game and win seven games in the grueling SEC West, they also experienced plenty of growing pains and a change at quarterback during the season. Texas A&M’s defense was among the worst tackling defenses in the SEC, and it ultimately got defensive coordinator Mark Snyder fired last week (not the best way to spend the Thanksgiving holiday). The Aggies also changed quarterbacks mid-year and had to adjust on the fly to a new freshman signal caller trying to gain timing with a freshmen-heavy wide receiver corps. The regular season had its ups and downs, but it should set A&M up for a better 2015. In 2014, however, the Aggies were merely average, earning a C for the year.
The Commodores earn a big, fat F for the 2014 season, and it’s pretty obvious why that grade is justified. Vandy regressed from back to back nine-win seasons and actually lost nine games in 2014, including all eight of its SEC contests. The Commodores lost seven of their eight conference games by double figures, and lost at home to Temple by 30 points to begin the year (the Owls are currently 5-6 with one game left to play). They played four different quarterbacks in the first six weeks of the year, and finished last in the SEC in scoring offense and scoring defense. Vanderbilt was terrible this year, and if anything that’s putting it lightly. Trust me, the F is justified.