As if there weren’t already enough info about SEC football out there already, this fall ushers in the debut of the SEC Network and its torrential flow of news, game coverage, opinion and analysis. Yet, despite a constant rush of Tim Tebows, Greg McElroys and bald men named Finebaum, so much unknown will remains so long as the ball is pointy and the players so young.
For who could have predicted Johnny Manziel’s surge to the top of the athletic world two years ago, or the extent of Auburn’s historic turnaround last fall? Hardly anyone – except, oh, I don’t know – someone named the Sports Seer. And I’m at it again, dusting off the ol’ crystal ball for Celebrate Arkansas magazine. I see good things for almost everyone except fans of Missouri and Vanderbilt. In 2014, parity will be the name of the game in the Southeastern Conference.
N.B. Below are my picks, as chosen before Week 1. So far, so good – with one exception.
Auburn: Arkansas native Gus Malzahn returns for his second season at the helm of a squad that will be fearsome in its up-tempo attack. Yes, the Tigers lost a superstar running backin Tre Mason, who left for the NFL.
But they gained a full year of experience under Malzahn’s tactical genius. Senior Nick Marshall was a dual-threat pain for opposing defenses last year but will be a full-fledged nightmare this year. He the first starting college quarterback Malzahn has had for two straight seasons.
Final Regular Season Record: 11-1
Alabama: Heading into a season with a chip on the shoulder isn’t something the Crimson Tide do much of. After two straight losses to end last season, though, Nick Saban’s troops are hungry to prove themselves. There is concern about youth and inexperience early in the season, but don’t be fooled – quarterback Jacob Coker is a future star, running backs T.J. Yeldon is an established star and Derrick Henry and wide receiver Amari Cooper will be emerging superstars. The defense will have major trouble only with Ole Miss and Auburn.
Final Record: 10-2
Ole Miss: For the last couple years, head coach Hugh Freeze has been stockpiling young talent from stellar recruiting classes. This season, the youngins’ finally break through. Senior quarterback Bo Wallace will regain health after two injury-hampered years, and he’ll hook up with wide receiver Laquon Treadwell to form the SEC’s most productive tandem. They will finally get past Alabama, but losses to Auburn and Tennessee mar a dream season.
Final Record: 10-2
LSU: The Tigers have a lot going for them, including a freshman All-SEC lock in running back Leonard Fournette, but they don’t have a passing game. Indeed, they have the worst passing attack in the SEC. That’s a killer in a conference in which the ability to churn out points has become more vital than ever. These Tigers will lose nail-biters against Auburn, Florida and Ole Miss.
Final Record: 8-4
Mississippi State: Relative to the program’s past, head coach Dan Mullen is really good. In his first five seasons, he accrued a winning percentage (56.3%) higher than any MSU coach since the late Darrell Royal, who won 60% of his games in 1954-55 before heading to Texas in 1957. But Mullen hasn’t yet finished better than 4-4 in conference. “I’ve had a good year here and there at Mississippi State, but never consistency,” Mullen said this spring. “At some point we’ll win a championship here. Maybe this year.”
Final Record: 7-5
Texas A&M: It’s not as if head coach Kevin Sumlin can’t find another elite quarterback. Before Johnny Manziel, he’d worked with the likes of Drew Bledsoe, Sam Bradford and Case Keenum. He’ll develop another top-notch quarterback in true freshman Kyle Allen. But the problem for now is that the Aggies don’t have another game changer while waiting for Allen to mature. [Hmmm. Now that I think about it, the crystal ball was smudged in one part...]
Last year, that role was shared by both Manziel and Mike Evans, who both left early for the NFL. Even more problematic: the Aggies defense, which gave up a league-worst 476 yards a game last year, will this fall still get torched for 450ish yards per game.
Final record: 5-7
Arkansas: Good news: There will be a lot of measurable improvement, at each position, in Year 2 of the Bielema Era. The days of 52-0 drubbings are over. Bad news: It won’t yet translate to significantly more wins.
The offense will be more potent, we know this. But that’s not the problem. The issue is how much the secondary and linebacking corps can improve from last year, under new defensive coaches, without an injection of elite talent and size/speed.
They will improve, but not enough for the Hogs to score major upsets early on. Still, Arkansas will be in the game late in many of their contests, and will finally break through late at Missouri with Bielema’s first SEC win.
Final record: 4-8
Georgia – Last season, SIXTEEN Bulldogs – including a few of major stars – got injured. That won’t happen again. That, and a relatively soft schedule, makes all the difference in the Bulldogs’ reclaiming the SEC East perch.
Final Record: 10-2
South Carolina: Poor Steve Spurrier. At this program, the man is the master of the 10-win season without winning the division. His Gamecocks have won 42 games over the last four years but don’t have an SEC Championship Game appearance to show for it.
Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson and running back/human battering ram Mike Davis will lead the offense to another nice bowl game, but an early season loss to Georgia [ahem-Aggies, too] will show the rest of the nation they are still pretenders to the crown.
Final Record: 9-3
Florida: The 2013 Gators notched only four wins – the program’s first losing season since 1979. There is way too much talent, size and speed on this squad for that to happen again. Throw in a motivated new offensive coordinator and a very strong defense, and you have a recipe for the league’s top turnaround team.
Final Record: 8-4
Tennessee: Listen to second-year head coach Butch Jones talk long enough about his vision for the Vols, and you’ll hear an almost Bielemic focus on process and foundation building. With great recent recruiting classes, these Vols are indeed building toward something. But they aren’t there yet.
Final Record: 5-7
Missouri: What is down, then goes up, probably must go down again. After an astonishing SEC East title run last year, the Tigers are set for a rapid plunge after losing an elite receiver in Dorial Green-Beckham and a raft of quality running backs and defensive disrupters.
Final Record: 5-7
Kentucky: The Wildcats have played a lot of youth in their last two seasons, which resulted in back-to-back 0-8 SEC finishes. The light at the end of the tunnel is finally here. This particular light is a black and gold one.
Final Record: 4-8
Vanderbilt: Well, it was fun while it lasted, Commodore fan. James Franklin showed you the promised land. Expectations were sky-high with Vanderbilt’s first back-to-back nine-win seasons since the Woodrow Wilson administration. And then Penn State came calling. New head coach Derek Mason, fresh off Stanford’s staff, is in for a rude awakening.
Final Record: 3-9
2014 SEC Championship Game: Auburn 42, Georgia 28
So, come December, will I deserve to be filleted and seared for my choice? Who do you have winning the entire conference this year?
The above is based on an article in the September, 2014 issue of
College football is the only major American team sport in which a first-year player hasn’t won the sport’s most prestigious award. Freshmen have been chosen as national players of the year in college basketball, baseball and hockey. Rookies have won MVP awards in the NBA, MLB, NHL and NFL.
And yet voters for college football’s Heisman Trophy have lagged behind. No freshman has won the Heisman since freshmen started playing with upperclassmen in 1972. Since then, the three freshmen Heisman finalists – Herschel Walker, Michael Vick and Adrian Peterson – have all lost for various reasons. Some of that has been timing. As a freshman, Walker had one of his best games a day after ballots were due. Apparently, the director of the club that hosted the award ceremony said Walker likely would have won the Heisman that year had his 205-yard, 3-TD performance against Georgia Tech been considered.
But the main reasons no freshman has yet won the Heisman are ignorance and bias. Unlike upperclassmen, freshmen don’t begin seasons as known commodities and that initial lack of familiarity among mostly sportswriter voters hurts their chances. As far as I know, no sports information department has launched a Heisman campaign for a freshman, no matter how talented.
Pervasive technology has larged wiped away this knowledge barrier, though. A decade ago, Texas A&M likely would have waited for this upcoming offseason to launch a Heisman campaign for Manziel. Video would have been edited and DVDs would have been mailed out along with snazzy press packets extolling the fleet feet and field awareness of Johnny Football.
The Aggies may still go through the trouble of doing this, but nowadays voters are more likely to pay attention to what’s coursing through their Tweetdeck feed than dropping into their mailbox.
Bias and muddled thinking persist, though.
By and large, voters expect freshmen to be even better as sophomores and juniors. Sure, this happens most of the time. But not always. Michael Vick, for instance, led the nation in passing efficiency as a freshman while leading Virginia Tech to the national title game, but as a sophomore his numbers dipped. Wisconsin running back Ron Dayne had his best overall statistical season as a freshman, but five regular season losses squelched any Heisman talk.
That season would still help propel Dayne to an eventual Heisman as a senior, but he should have been awarded on the merit of a single season.
Some of the 928 voters may argue the Heisman – meant to recognize “the outstanding college football player whose performance best exhibits the pursuit of excellence with integrity” – should reflect sustained excellence over multiple years and not equate to an MVP award for a single fall. That a mere season’s worth of kicking ass with integrity isn’t enough to prove one’s chops. Voters want to be certain that a player isn’t “a one-year flash in the pan,” longtime Heisman voter Dave Campbell told the Dallas Morning News in 2004. “When you get right down to it, the voters are probably reluctant to vote for some freshman if you have some legitimate – and I underscore legitimate – juniors and seniors to consider.”
In 2010, Cam Newton destroyed any arguments that more than one season matters. The Auburn quarterback won the Heisman almost purely on the merit of single season’s worth of play. He was so good, it didn’t matter if he’d stolen a computer earlier in his college career, feigned ignorance that his father was pimping him out or that he was a crappy teammate.