Picking the SEC's dark-horse teams in 2014
Now that Week 1 is in the books, which teams could become potential dark-horse contenders this season?
With Auburn and Missouri electrifying the nation last season, dark-horse candidates are alive and well, and they’re always an intriguing storyline to watch throughout the season. With so much parity in the SEC, nobody knows which teams will emerge over the long run.
SDS polled a few members of its staff, and here are teams that could play dark-horse spoiler in 2014:
Jon Cooper’s pick: Florida Gators
You’re laughing. Stop it. Florida is the only team we haven’t seen play because of the rain out, but let me explain myself. The Gators have the SEC East’s only returning starting quarterback: Jeff Driskel. Florida should also have the division’s best defense and perhaps the conference’s best defense under Will Muschamp. Talent isn’t an issue, but scheme has been. Thanks to Kurt Roper, that should change this season, and Driskel’s skill set should fit Roper’s scheme much better. Florida doesn’t need to score with Texas A&M and Auburn, because the Gators’ defense will be better. UF needs to score 26 points per game, which, when healthy, is easily attainable.
Florida’s schedule is brutal, but the Gators have as much talent as any team they face this season, including Alabama, LSU and Florida State. The Gators remind me of 2012 Missouri, when the Tigers went 5-7 and faced a ridiculous amount of injuries. Sound familiar? Then, they turned right around and won the division. Florida could have a Missouri-like season in 2014.
Ethan Levine’s pick: Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs returned 16 starters from last year’s team, including star quarterback Dak Prescott. The junior signal caller led MSU in rushing last season with 829 yards, and set personal bests for yards and touchdowns in the season opener against Southern Miss. His dual-threat skill set will put opposing defenses in a bind, and will open things up for tailback Josh Robinson and a collection of large-bodied receivers like De’Runnya Wilson and Malcolm Johnson.
Geoff Collins’ “psycho defense” has unmatched depth, as 29 different players registered a tackle in the opener. The defense has plenty of star power in the form of defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Benardrick McKinney, and if it can avoid the injury bug it has the depth to remain fresh even in tough November games.
A stout SEC West won’t do Mississippi State any favors, but the Bulldogs have the athletes to be a dark-horse to win 10 games.
Brad Crawford’s pick: Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs are loaded defensively and proved it in the opener with the SEC’s only shutout. Benardrick McKinney and Chris Jones get most of the love, but it was Preston Smith who recorded three tackles, an interception and a blocked field goal that was picked up and returned to the house. Mississippi State has the league’s most underrated defense, a reason the Bulldogs will be in the division title mix throughout the season.
Dak Prescott’s the wild-card, an unproven passer with tremendous pressure as the face of the program and the Bulldogs’ first legitimate Heisman candidate. If he’s efficient, Mississippi State can snap its dreadful stretch against ranked teams and push its way to the top of the SEC West.
Jordan Cox’s pick: Tennessee Volunteers
The Vols have gotten people around the SEC talking about Rocky Top again after their convincing win over Utah State on Sunday night. The defense looked much more athletic, and the offense has nice upside. Newcomer Jalen Hurd and senior Marlin Lane split the carries on Sunday, and Tennessee’s running game shouldn’t miss a beat from last season…with better players. Justin Worley was efficient, and that’s exactly what Tennessee needs him to be. Marquez North was quiet, but he is arguably one of the top two receivers in the league and provides big play capability to keep the defense honest. Players and fans are buying into Butch Jones’s “Brick by Brick” philosophy, and you could tell on Sunday night. Neyland Stadium had a different, a fresh swagger, and with the SEC East now wide open behind Georgia, don’t be surprised to see Tennessee creep up the standings.
Drew Laing’s pick: Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State is a darkhorse SEC team for me after week one.
Quarterback Dak Prescott got his season off to a strong start with career highs in passing yards and touchdowns in the game. Josh Robinson and Nick Griffin look more than capable of carrying the load in the running game and wide receiver Jameon Lewis is a true playmaker at the wide receiver position, who can impact the game from multiple position. Defensively, Chris Jones and Benardrick McKinney are absolute beasts at the defensive line and linebacker positions.
They have 17 starters returning from a year ago and their depth at multiple positions is impressive. It sure seems like Dan Mullen should have his best Mississippi State team since arriving in 2009.
Jason Hall’s pick: Tennessee Volunteers
Tennessee is the biggest SEC sleeper team heading into Week 2. The Vols are coming off a convincing 38-7 victory over Utah State and may be farther along in their rebuilding process than many expected. Tennessee dominated both sides of scrimmage and quarterback Justin Worley finally looked like a consistent starting quarterback.
Head coach Butch Jones has preached his “brick by brick” rebuilding process since his arrival in December 2012. With a dominant opening win, another brick was laid to the foundation of Tennessee’s return to prominence. After Saturday’s game against Arkansas State, we may have a better idea of whether the Vols can continue their success against SEC teams.