Post-spring SEC power rankings
Taking votes and input from our staff and contingent of writers, here’s how we deem the SEC hierarchy heading into the 2015 season:
14. Vanderbilt Commodores
National media isn’t expecting much out of the Commodores during Derek Mason’s second season following 2014’s disastrous finish. The same problems that led to a winless SEC campaign linger and Vanderbilt’s lack of playmakers at the skill positions outside of primary running back Ralph Webb is a steep hill to climb in such a talent-rich league. The silver lining’s on defense where the Commodores’ collection of linebackers is arguably third-best in the East.
13. Kentucky Wildcats
Will the Wildcats shock the world and contend for a division title? Probably not, but they’re getting better if you put stock in last year’s commendable start. Kentucky needs an offensive star other than Boom Williams and we’re not sure if Patrick Towles can handle that kind of pressure against a schedule laced with land mines.
12. Florida Gators
Jim McElwain’s first season won’t be pretty on offense regardless of who starts at quarterback for the Gators. The roster was drained of more than half of its talent by the NFL draft and it appears this team will have to rely on many first-year players in college football’s toughest league. Stranger things have happened, but four new faces up front often spells doom in what Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin likes to call a ‘line of scrimmage league.’
11. South Carolina Gamecocks
The first of four downtrodden Eastern Division teams rounding out the rankings, the Gamecocks are hoping to avoid a colossal step back after coming within one game of reaching the SEC Championship Game three consecutive years prior to 2014’s collapse. Steve Spurrier hasn’t yet found a quarterback and new co-defensive coordinator Jon Hoke still isn’t sure what this team will have on his side of the ball. Coupled with the league’s toughest non-conference slate, seven wins sounds like quite a feat for this club.
10. Mississippi State Bulldogs
A near unanimous choice as the SEC’s biggest letdown coming off a second-place finish out West, we’re not convinced the Bulldogs have the depth along the offensive line to hang and there’s still crippling issues that need to be solved in the secondary. Dak’s back and that will help, but replacing 15 starters in the starting 22 is quite worrisome.
9. Missouri Tigers
Thanks to immense strength at the top and a couple promising up-and-comers, the two-time defending Eastern Division champs find themselves surprisingly low in the league’s 2015 pecking order. One of the few teams in the league to return its primary offensive core at center, quarterback and tailback, it’s a safe bet that Gary Pinkel’s group finishes in the Top 5 of this power ranking by season’s end. It’s what we’ve come to expect out of the overachieving Tigers.
8. Arkansas Razorbacks
Equipped with a quarterback heading into his third season as a starter and two 1,000-yard running backs, the Razorbacks’ offense has the tools to evolve into one of the league’s best this fall. No one is doubting Bret Bielema’s turnaround, but the challenging schedule and a new-look defense is the reason Arkansas sits in the middle of these rankings.
7. Texas A&M Aggies
We’re banking on Texas A&M’s defensive overhaul under John Chavis and a wealth of playmakers at the skill positions to count for seven or eight wins this season in College Station, Kevin Sumlin’s fourth as coach. Undervalued nationally over the last few months, quarterback Kyle Allen stepped into a leadership role this spring and didn’t let constant Kyler Murray talk shift his focus. Competition will be good for the highly-capable sophomore.
6. LSU Tigers
There’s no doubt Les Miles’ team is being held back by inconsistent quarterback play, but the rest of the roster has few holes. Kevin Steele’s first season as defensive coordinator following the Chief’s abrupt exit is an interesting dynamic to watch and is perhaps the reason none of us picked LSU higher than sixth in the 2015 power rankings.
5. Tennessee Vols
Our staff is split down the middle on Tennessee. Half of us have the Vols in the Top 5 while others penciled in a ninth or 10th-place SEC finish. Depth and inexperience is an issue behind a league-high 18 returning starters, but Tennessee’s equipped with the necessary weapons to battle for a division crown. Butch Jones has the pieces in place for the Vols’ best finish in quite some time if Joshua Dobbs plays at an All-SEC level and the defense continues its frenzied style of play up front.
4. Ole Miss Rebels
Hugh Freeze has built this team the right way, from the ground up with strength in the trenches, on the outside and at the skill positions on defense. The major talking point concerning one of the SEC’s most talented rosters however is at quarterback, a fierce race between Ryan Buchanan and Chad Kelly that most believe has already been decided. Kelly has learned the Rebels’ offense faster than the coaching staff expected and his development could be the ultimate turning point in whether or not Ole Miss hovers around the Top 10 throughout the season. Surprisingly, none of us at SDS expect the Rebels to slide. There’s simply too much talent in Oxford not to win nine or more games.
3. Georgia Bulldogs
The Bulldogs did receive two first-place votes from the panel, but most of us have Mark Richt’s team pegged as the East frontrunner and league’s third-best team overall. Georgia’s strengths are obvious in the backfield and on defense, but a challenging schedule makes a title shot daunting. Keep an eye on Jeremy Pruitt’s three studs at outside linebacker. That group will likely lead the SEC in sacks this fall.
2. Alabama Crimson Tide
Nick Saban’s program is almost immune to quarterback controversy as the Vegas favorite to win the SEC Championship. That tends to happen as a heavy favorite every weekend in the SEC with a track record of success. Despite not being settled at football’s most important position, Alabama’s talent level at other skill positions is rich and its defensive line should be one of the league’s best. The Crimson Tide have problem areas, sure, but no team in the SEC has Alabama’s depth and that is what helps this team dominate every year down the stretch. Out of annual respect, the defending league champs come in at No. 2.
1. Auburn Tigers
Gus Malzahn’s team seems to be everyone’s sexy pick to represent the SEC in the College Football Playoff next season and it’s tough to argue with the reasoning. The offense is expected to be even more dynamic with league Heisman frontrunner Jeremy Johnson at the helm and Will Muschamp’s revitalization of the defense could pay off tenfold. If the Tigers establish a healthy pass rush with Carl Lawson and Byron Cowart, this team could be a powerful locomotive on both sides of the ball this season.