Lessons learned by each SEC team during the 2015 season
It was Mark Twain who allegedly professed that he never let his schooling interfere with his education. Some of the best life lessons come outside the college classroom. In the case of the SEC, such hardships and personal discovery occur every week on gridiron.
Here is what each SEC team learned in 2015 — and a look at how a few of those schools can handle the teachings of which they’ve been imparted.
2015 record: 14-1 overall, 7-1 SEC
Bowl: CFP National Championship, 45-40 over Clemson
Skinny: Alabama learned you don’t need an AJ McCarron or Greg McElroy to win a national championship.
Jake Coker capably guided the Crimson Tide to Alabama’s fourth title in the past seven years by handing off to Heisman winner Derrick Henry and steadily improving his accuracy throughout his only season as a starter in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama will have a new look next season without Henry and Coker. And the learning process will quickly begin anew.
2015 record: 8-5, 5-3 SEC
Bowl: Liberty Bowl, 45-23 over Kansas State
Skinny: The lesson Arkansas learned in 2015 is the same one it didn’t learn from in 2014:. Slow starts can sink your season before it begins.
Arkansas is 10-4 combined in the final seven games of the 2015 and 2014 campaigns, and a collective 5-7 in the first six contests.
The Hogs closed 2014 with shutout wins over No. 20 LSU and No. 8 Ole Miss. In 2015, they finished on a 6-1 streak with wins over No. 19 Ole Miss and No. 9 LSU.
See a pattern emerging?
Arkansas’ 2016 out-of-conference slate not only includes name-brand TCU but also Alcorn State, Louisiana Tech and Texas State — all whom will be looking to be the 2016 version of the Toledo Rockets.
If Bret Bielema’s squad can survive that stretch relatively unscathed — with a new starting quarterback and running back — then we might be talking about the Hogs taking that next step in the fourth year in Fayetteville.
2015 record: 7-6, 2-6 SEC
Bowl: Birmingham Bowl, 31-10 over Memphis
Skinny: The 2015 Tigers learned that perhaps Jeremy Johnson was a bit over-hyped. The Davey O’Brien and Maxwell awards — among others — each had the Auburn quarterback on their 2015 preseason watch lists.
At one point in July, Johnson was a 10/1 odd-favorite to win the Heisman Award, by Bovada.
But the rising senior struggled mightily at times as the Tigers slid from No. 6 in the Associated Press poll to last place in the SEC West. He’ll battle Sean White and JUCO transfer John Franklin for the job this spring. Something tells us he’ll enter the 2016 season to less fanfare, regardless.
2015 record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC
Bowl: Citrus Bowl, lost 41-7 to Michigan
Skinny: The lesson is don’t go off-campus for training supplements. Florida was rolling until Will Grier’s suspension threw a monkey wrench into what was ultimately an SEC East-winning season.
The good news for Jim McElwain as he enters his second year is that he’s apparently stocked his cupboard of quarterbacks with several talented options. That corps centers around Austin Appleby and Luke Del Rio as well as Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask.
2015 record: 10-3, 5-3 SEC
Bowl: TaxSlayer Bowl, 24-17 over Penn State
Skinny: Georgia learned that is was witnessing the end of an era, as Mark Richt called in his final play after 15 years and 145 wins in Athens. Richt led the Bulldogs to the postseason every year he coached Georgia. His legacy at Georgia is solid, but missing that one key piece. Now it’s Kirby Smart’s job to see if he can get the Bulldogs over the proverbial hump.
2015 record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC
Skinny: The 2015 season showed us that Kentucky is not where it needs or wants to be yet under Mark Stoops. The Wildcats started 4-1 but failed to secure the two more victories needed to become bowl eligible for the first time since 2010.
Kentucky has four winnable games in 2016 against non-conference opponents who combined to finish 20-30 last season. This is Stoops’ fourth season, and if he can’t get the Wildcats into a bowl by learning how to put away teams in 2016, the temperature of his seat in Lexington is sure to rise dramatically.
2015 record: 9-3, 5-3 SEC
Bowl: Texas Bowl, 56-27 over Texas Tech
Skinny: We learned LSU fans love Les Miles and that Leonard Fournette should be extra motivated for next season.
Despite leading the nation in rushing in yards per game (162.8), Fournette was left off the Heisman dais after posting un-Fournette-type numbers in critical losses to Alabama and Arkansas.
We also learned Miles still has some fire left. Miles responded to his near-firing by inking one of the best recruiting classes — No. 3 nationally, according to 247Sports — during his 11 years in Death Valley. Will Miles still have this job come this time next year? That could very well revolve around whether Fournette strikes the Heisman pose.
2015 record: 9-4, 4-4 SEC
Bowl: Belk Bowl, 51-28 over N.C. State
Skinny: We learned how valuable Dak Prescott truly was. Now that he’s gone, we’re going to learn a lot more about Mississippi State next season. The lesson might be to enjoy what you had while you had it, because no clear quarterback is line to succeed the best player in program history. Nick Fitzgerald appears to have the edge over Damian Williams, Nick Tiano and Elijah Staley. Regardless of who is under center, here’s hoping the pressure of filling Prescott’s cleats isn’t too overbearing.
2015 record: 5-7, 1-7 SEC
Skinny: Missouri discovered that it can all fall apart rather quickly in the SEC. After consecutive SEC East titles, the Tigers flopped into the division’s cellar as external strife on campus became the main narrative of the season.
On the field, Mizzou learned that you can’t win if your offense can’t stay on it. Missouri finished No. 122 in the nation on third downs, moving the chains a paltry 30.34 percent of the time. While the Tiger quarterbacks and running backs deserve their share of the blame for the team’s ineptitude on offense, the Mizzou offensive line ranked among the worst in the nation.
If Barry Odom can fix the line in his first year, perhaps Missouri can return to the divisional conversation, especially given its stellar defense. Until then, the lessons of 2015 remain rather painful ones.
2015 record: 10-3, 6-2 SEC
Bowl: Sugar Bowl, 48-20 over Oklahoma State
Skinny: We learned that we were wrong about Chad Kelly. Sure the East Mississippi-transfer led the Lions to an undefeated 12-0 record and a National Junior College Athletic Association title in 2014, but his inglorious exit from Clemson for bad conduct left many with their doubts about Jim Kelly’s nephew.
Kelly made his uncle proud in 2015, leading the SEC with 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns, in addition to 500 yards rushing and 10 more scores on the ground. His return for his senior campaign makes the Rebels a contender in the SEC West.
2015 record: 3-9, 1-7 SEC
Skinny: Emotion can only take you so far; eventually you have to play some defense. We learned Shawn Elliott is a passionate guy when it comes to his Gamecocks. The former (and once again current) South Carolina offensive line coach took over for the suddenly-retired Steve Spurrier midway through the season.
And while the interim coach knew how to drive his team into a pregame frenzy, the Gamecocks’ wave of fervor resulted in just one win in six attempts — and was infamously punctuated by a loss to The Citadel.
How did South Carolina respond to Elliott’s, let’s call it, exuberance? The hired Will Muschamp — a man with potentially a more volatile personality and a better defensive acumen — to replace him. You be the judge.
Safe to say South Carolina interim head coach Shawn Elliott is fired up for his debut. https://t.co/atAffVaLhG
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) October 17, 2015
— Cameron Plezia (@Camplezia) December 8, 2015
2015 record: 9-4, 5-3 SEC
Bowl: Outback Bowl, 45-6 over Northwestern
Skinny: We learned the 2015 season was the calm before the storm in Knoxville. Allegations of misappropriations and lewd behavior have swirled around Butch Jones’ program since Tennessee finished a feel-good season with six consecutive wins, including a decisive victory over Northwestern in the Outback Bowl.
The Volunteers are a popular early pick to unseat Florida as the incumbent SEC East champs, but the Vols appear to have their program set on “implode mode.” Tennessee is set to return the majority of its 2015 squad, but it remains to be seen how the turmoil surrounding the program will affect life in Rocky Top going forward.
2015 record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Bowl: Music City Bowl, lost 27-21 to Louisville
Skinny: There’s some unrest in College Station. We learned of the discord in December as Texas A&M watched both their five-star quarterbacks leave town a week apart.
Their defections cast a light on Kevin Sumlin’s program, which Kyle Allen described as having a cultural hangover from the Johnny Manziel era.
The QB exodus opens the door for Jake Hubenak, who will compete against Oklahoma-transfer Trevor Knight and incoming freshman Nick Starkel for the starting job and ambassador for a change in culture around College Station.
2015 record: 4-8, 2-6 SEC
Skinny: We learned that defense isn’t the issue in Nashville.
The Commodores ranked No. 6 overall in the SEC (No. 28 nationally) in total defense. Derek Mason’s squad simply couldn’t score enough, limping to No. 124 in the country in scoring offense (15.2 PPG).
Kyle Shurmur appears to be the quarterback tasked with the revival. We’ll learn in 2016 whether he was up to the task.