Season report card: Missouri Tigers

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
An SEC East championship, a win in the Buffalo Wild Wings Citrus Bowl and double-digit wins add up to a good season in Columbia, Missouri. Let’s grade how the Tigers did in 2014:

[+] EnlargeShane Ray
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRush end Shane Ray led a defense that propelled Missouri back to the SEC title game.
Offense: C-. The Tigers didn’t exactly light it up offensively. Missouri finished 70th in the country in points per game (27.8), 95th in yards per game (367) and 80th in yards per play (5.39). Quarterback play was often inconsistent, but the running game – powered by Russell Hansbrough and Marcus Murphy – was the strength, where Missouri averaged 177.86 rushing yards per game. The Tigers were solid on third downs, converting 42.9 percent of their chances. There were six games that the Tigers gained 322 yards or fewer, which in the current era is subpar.

Defense: A-. This is where Missouri shined this season and is probably the biggest reason the Tigers returned to the SEC title game. Mizzou ranked in the top 27 nationally in scoring defense (21.1), yards allowed per game (346.6), rushing (133.86) and pass yards per attempt (6.3). The Tigers were tops in the SEC in sacks (44) and sack percentage (8.5 percent) and boasted one of the nation’s best pass-rushing duos, Shane Ray (14.5 sacks) and Markus Golden (10 sacks).

Special teams: B. Missouri’s return game, led by the dynamic Murphy, was excellent. Murphy averaged 29.6 yards per kickoff return and had two touchdowns and averaged 10.4 yards per punt return and another touchdown. As a team, Missouri was No. 8 nationally in kickoff return average (24.65) and 25th in punt return average (10.4). Placekicking could’ve been better (Andrew Baggett was 18-of-25 on field goals and 43-of-45 on PATs) and kickoff coverage was near the bottom nationally, as the Tigers allowed 24.85 yards per kickoff return (116th nationally).

Coaching: A. This was a team most observers left for dead after losses to Indiana and Georgia in September and October, respectively. All Gary Pinkel and Co. did was focus the Tigers enough to reel off six straight wins to clinch the Tigers’ second consecutive SEC East title, despite an offense that didn’t always click. Perhaps the best endorsement of the job the coaching staff did is Missouri’s continued road success: The Tigers were perfect in true road games this season for the second straight year.

Overall: A-minus. An 11-3 season with a divisional title and a bowl win is a good one any way you slice it. The only thingsthat can bump up the grade is for the Tigers to avoid ugly losses like the ones they took early and getting over the hump and actually winning the SEC, which is certainly on the Tigers’ to-do list. That will take some gradual improvement but so far Missouri has two SEC East titles, two more than anyone outside Missouri expected three years into SEC membership.

Recruit breakdown: DE CeCe Jefferson 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
What he brings: CeCe Jefferson possesses a nice blend of size and athleticism that can allow him to be a disruptive and versatile front-seven defender. This is a prospect with very good height, bulk, and strength at this stage, and coupled with his first-step quickness and range he can create problems as both a run defender and pass-rusher. A physical player, he has the size and strength to set the edge when he stays low, and is also quick enough to shoot gaps and disrupt plays in the backfield at times. He needs to continue to develop, but has the tools to be a handful coming after the quarterback, with the ability overpower blockers or quickly work around them. When he keeps his 'foot on the gas pedal' he can be a factor in pursuit with very good redirect skills and range for his size. Jefferson moved around defensively quite a bit in high school, and a more singular focus should help aid his development in the little things, though he will likely continue to be aligned differently some at the college level to take advantage of his athleticism and create mismatches. The five-star did miss most of his senior season with a shoulder injury, but it shouldn’t take long for him to shake off any rust. Once healthy and with full maximization of his ability, Jefferson can be a disruptive defensive playmaker at the college level.

There were times when Kentucky quarterback Patrick Towles looked like a future star in the SEC. Some even went as far as to say that he had the most NFL potential of any starter in the conference. But he was a different player down the stretch. He threw for more than 200 yards just once during the Wildcats' six-game slide to end the season.

The solution isn't to replace to Towles. The talent is there and so is the potential. But Kentucky must find and develop some weapons in the passing game to help the young signal caller.

Position to improve: Wide receiver

Why it was a problem: Kentucky's leading receiver, sophomore Ryan Timmons, finished with a mere 536 yards on the season. Nineteen other SEC players finished ahead of Timmons in yards, and every team other than Vanderbilt had at least one player with more yards. Granted, Javess Blue was right behind Timmons with 525 yards, but there was clearly no go-to wide receiver for Towles and the Wildcats. Timmons and Blue had just three games of more than 100 yards receiving between them, and the duo only accounted for seven receiving touchdowns on the season. The stats look even worse if you go beyond those two. There were simply no big plays, no consistency and very little improvement among the wide receivers, and it was a major reason why you saw Towles and this offense regress in the second half of the season.

How it can be fixed: There's hope. For one, Towles will be better in 2015. He'll have another offseason to train, get stronger and develop a rapport with his wide receivers. Second and maybe more importantly, Kentucky is bringing in Shannon Dawson as its new offensive coordinator. Dawson comes from West Virginia where he was known for running a pass-happy offense. This past season, the Mountaineers featured Kevin White, one of the nation's top wide receivers, and had three wideouts with more yards than Timmons. The Wildcats might not put up those kind of numbers in Dawson's first season, but it's a step in the right direction and one that has to have fans excited about the future in Lexington.

Early 2015 outlook: Timmons is back and could be poised for a breakout season. However, both Blue and Demarco Robinson are gone, which means it's up to the young guns -- Garrett Johnson, Dorian Baker, Blake Bone and T.V. Williams -- to step up and play a bigger role in 2015. All four played as true freshmen and all four made an impact at some point during the season. Johnson, in particular, flashed his potential with six catches for 154 yards and two touchdowns in a double overtime loss at Florida but was quiet the rest of the year. Fellow freshmen Thaddeus Snodgrass is another name to keep an eye on. He redshirted his first season on campus, but the former ESPN 300 star was the highest ranked of any of the wide receivers in Kentucky's 2014 class. He'll likely factor into the mix when the Wildcats return to practice this spring.

Season report card: Ole Miss

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
We continue to hand out grades to SEC teams for their 2014 seasons. It's time to check out the Ole Miss Rebels, who coach Hugh Freeze didn't think would be in bowl talks until Year 3. Well, for the third straight year, Freeze directed his Rebels to a bowl, and though this season didn't come close to ending the way the first two did, there is no question Ole Miss had its most successful year of the Freeze era in 2014.

Offense: Overall, Ole Miss was pretty much a middle-of-the-pack offensive team. Quarterback Bo Wallace was again a very enigmatic player, but he did break a handful of Ole Miss records. He threw for 3,194 yards with 22 touchdowns, but also had 19 turnovers. The Rebels averaged 405 yards per game in SEC play, but really struggled to have a consistent running game, ranking 10th in the SEC in rushing (143.4 yards per game versus league opponents) and averaged 25.3 points per game in conference play. The offense lost a lot of steam after star receiver Laquon Treadwell was lost for the season in November, scoring just three points in their last two losses. Grade: C

Defense: For most of the season, the Rebels owned one of the nation’s most intimidating defenses. The Rebels owned the nation’s top scoring defense (16 points per game) and tied for first nationally, allowing 24 touchdowns. Ole Miss allowed 359 yards in SEC play, but led the SEC with 32 takeaways. Ole Miss had a very talented defensive line, and one of the nation’s best cornerbacks in Senquez Golson, who defended 18 passes and led the SEC with a school record-tying 10 interceptions. Grade: A

Special teams: When it came to returning kicks, the Rebels weren’t great. Ole Miss ranked 13th in the SEC in kickoff return average (19.7) and 12th in punt returns (6.4). But the return team was pretty decent at defending kicks, not allowing a touchdown or a return longer than 65 yards. The Rebels approached field goals by committee and went just 9-for-16 kicking, including 2-for-6 on attempts of 40-plus yards. Punter Will Gleeson averaged 42.9 yards per punt and pinned 24 kicks inside the 20-yard line. Grade: C-

Coaching: Freeze wasn’t expecting such a fast start at Ole Miss, but he got it. He and his coaches did a great job wading through lofty expectations and directed this team to a No. 3 ranking and a win against Alabama. Honestly, the best coaching job this team did was with the defense. It completely transformed into one of the nation’s best. The Rebels suffered some tough losses this season, and were completely out-everythinged against TCU and Arkansas, but overall, the coaching was pretty solid from top to bottom. Grade: B

Overall: The Rebels had their best start in decades (7-0), but finished 2-4. They were in the thick of the SEC Western Division race until the last few weeks of the regular season, and were right on the cusp of the College Football Playoff, but losing Treadwell really handcuffed the offense. The losses were harsh. Getting shut out by 30 at Arkansas was embarrassing, and TCU’s 42-3 bowl romp was traumatizing, but that 31-17 win against Mississippi State to knock the Bulldogs out of the SEC and playoff race helped ease that pain. This team entered the season with loftier expectations and delivered for the most part, considering the injuries and depth issues. Grade: B
This question is open to interpretation at Georgia. If we’re talking about the biggest question marks, the Bulldogs have several spots where they lost experienced veterans -- including at receiver, linebacker and defensive line.

But for our purposes, we’ll look at the key position in Georgia’s pro-style offense.

Position to improve: Quarterback

Why it was a problem: It was tempting to pick the young secondary here, but Georgia actually ranked fifth nationally in pass defense, allowing 170.4 yards per game. Instead, let’s discuss why the Bulldogs need to improve at quarterback. It’s not that Hutson Mason was bad in 2014. He set a school record with a 67.9 completion percentage along with 2,168 yards, 21 touchdowns and just four interceptions. But Mason and the Bulldogs struggled to throw the ball downfield at times. Considering how effective Georgia’s passing game has been in the Mark Richt era, it’s crazy to see that Mason passed for at least 200 yards in just one game -- when he had 319 in an upset loss to Florida. Granted, Georgia’s dominant running game meant the Bulldogs rarely needed Mason to carry the offense. But an improved vertical passing attack complementing the running of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel could make Georgia’s offense downright lethal.

How it can be fixed: Sophomore Brice Ramsey seems to be the heir apparent at quarterback, although junior Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Jacob Park also will take their shots at winning the job between now and September. Blessed with prototypical size (6-foot-3) and a strong throwing arm, Ramsey played the most behind Mason in 2014 and did OK, completing 61.5 percent of his passes (24-for-39) for 333 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions. It’s important to mention here that although Ramsey played far less than Mason, he accounted for two of the Bulldogs’ five longest completions of the season (a 47-yard throw to Jonathon Rumph against Kentucky and a 39-yard completion to Chris Conley against Troy). The kid still needs to work on his accuracy and decision-making, but he can sling it. If he wins the starting job ahead of Bauta and Park, it stands to reason that Georgia will take more downfield shots.

Early 2015 outlook: It’s not necessarily a given that Ramsey will be the starter. Bauta’s work ethic is his calling card, and he will certainly put in the work to impress new offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. And Park -- also 6-3 and blessed with a rocket arm -- stood out as a member of the scout team during his redshirt season. Park also can run a bit, so he will be another interesting candidate to watch this spring. He certainly has the tools to challenge for the job, but Ramsey will enter spring practice as the front-runner. If he, or whoever becomes the starter, can come close to Mason’s completion percentage and add the deep throw back to Georgia’s passing game, the Bulldogs’ offense could rank among the SEC’s best next season.
South Carolina dipped to 7-6 in 2014 after winning 11 games each of the previous three seasons. The hardest part for everybody associated with the program was the way the Gamecocks lost games. They collapsed in the fourth quarter. Still, they did manage to win their fourth straight bowl game and secure their seventh straight winning season.

Offense: B. There was a lot to like about what the Gamecocks did offensively. They averaged 32.6 points per game, the second-highest figure in school history. And in conference games, they were even better, finishing third in the league with an average of 34 points per game. Senior quarterback Dylan Thompson was one of the SEC’s more underrated players. He set a school record with 3,564 passing yards, which also led the league, and he accounted for 31 touchdowns, tying Connor Shaw’s school record from a year ago. Senior guard A.J. Cann was a first-team All-American, and sophomore receiver Pharoh Cooper emerged as one of the more versatile playmakers in the country. What the Gamecocks didn’t do was finish games. They were haunted by not being able to pick up critical first downs in the fourth quarter to protect leads.

Defense: F. The Gamecocks were torched for 52 points and 680 yards in their season-opening loss to Texas A&M, and the flood gates would remain wide open the rest of the way. In fairness, South Carolina was plugging in a lot of new faces on defense, particularly up front, but rarely seemed to be in position, didn’t tackle well and generated virtually no pass rush. At times, the Gamecocks almost looked disinterested, and it showed in their stats. They finished 13th in the SEC in total defense (432.7 yards per game) and 12th in scoring defense (30.4 points per game). Most glaring were the blown leads. They lost three games in which they squandered two-touchdown leads in the fourth quarter and gave up 34 or more points in six of their eight SEC contests.

Special teams: C. Overall, the Gamecocks’ special teams units were spotty at best. They generated very little in the return game and were 10th in the league in net punting. Sophomore place-kicker Elliott Fry was money on the shorter kicks. He was 11-of-12 on field goals under 40 yards and didn’t miss an extra point. But on field goals of 40 yards or longer, he was just 7-of-13. The reason this grade’s not lower is because the Gamecocks made two huge plays on special teams to escape against Florida, and in essence, save their season. Gerald Dixon Jr. blocked a 32-yard field-goal attempt with 3:31 to play, and Carlton Heard then blocked a punt with 46 seconds left to set up the tying touchdown and send the game into overtime.

Coaching: C-minus. The Gamecocks lost their edge, and Steve Spurrier himself admitted that the commitment across the board wasn’t what it should be. That always goes back to the head coach. Even so, Spurrier was as sharp as ever calling plays for much of the season, and the Gamecocks broke a handful of school records. He was at his Hall of Fame best in the win over Georgia, and yet, would also like to have a few play-calls back in some of those close losses. Defensively, nothing went right. There seemed to be chemistry problems on the staff. The Gamecocks didn’t always play smart or hard, and there weren’t a lot of answers along the way. Spurrier hasn’t ruled out making changes on his defensive staff after seeing the bottom fall out in 2014.

Overall: C-minus. Judging by some of the grumbling among South Carolina fans, you’d think 7-6 seasons in Columbia are as foreign to them as snow storms in July. Those same fans might want to check the history books. Spurrier has raised the profile of this program by leaps and bounds, not to mention the expectations. It was a “bad” year, and the Gamecocks still managed to beat Florida and Georgia and win their fourth straight bowl game. Before Spurrier arrived, they’d only won a total of three bowl games in their history. Nonetheless, this was a team that started the season ranked in the top 10 nationally and never came close to playing like a top-10 team. It was a disappointing season no matter how you slice it, and even Spurrier wondered afterward if it was time for him to walk away. Ultimately, he didn’t want to go out like that and is re-energized about getting the Gamecocks back to national prominence.
Unfortunately for Florida, the biggest issues on this team revolve around quarterback and wide receiver. That isn't exactly the best bad combination to have, especially with a new coach taking over.

But for our purposes, we have to nail it down to one position. And while both of those areas have been concerns for the better part of the last five years in Gainesville, if Florida can't get its quarterback situation on solid ground, new coach Jim McElwain is going to have an even steeper uphill climb in front of him in 2015. And trying to get it done with multiple people probably isn't going to work out.

Position to improve: Quarterback

Why it was a problem: Where to start? Not since Tim Tebow in 2009 have the Gators had a quarterback throw for at least 2,500 yards or 15 touchdowns. Since that time, Florida’s quarterback carousel -- which has featured eight different participants -- has managed to average only 173.4 yards per game, with 67 touchdowns and 53 interceptions. Also in that span, Florida cracked the 10-win mark just once, never won the SEC East and failed to make a bowl game in 2013. Even with top high school prospects John Brantley, Jeff Driskel and Jacoby Brissett on the roster, Florida’s passing game has been mediocre, and Driskel is now finishing his career at Louisiana Tech. Last season, freshman Treon Harris replaced Driskel during the last month of the season but was incredibly inconsistent, averaging just 126 yards in six starts, with six passing touchdowns and three interceptions. Florida has had plenty of offensive issues over the years, but it all goes back to the quarterback position.

How it can be fixed: For as bad as the actual on-field play has been by the band of quarterbacks who have suited up for the Gators over the last few years, you have to open things up at times and let these guys play. Former head coach Will Muschamp just couldn’t get past his own stern ideals of what he wanted -- and needed -- his offense to look like. Consequentially, the passing game was mostly limited and the offense was incredibly stagnant more often than not. So McElwain and his offensive coaches will need to open things up and give their next quarterback -- or quarterbacks -- some freedom. But development is also important here. That starts this spring, and Harris, along with redshirt freshman Will Grier, have a long way to go. Also, it would probably help if the Gators could stitch together a solid pass-protecting offensive line this fall and find some playmakers at receiver not named Demarcus Robinson.

Early 2015 outlook: With Driskel departing, the Gators will have quite the quarterback battle on their hands (again) between Harris and Grier. Harris’ passing ability didn’t exactly develop as 2014 went on, and Grier watched from the sidelines. We don’t know what to expect from Grier, who had an impressive high school career in North Carolina, but some feel he might be better suited for McElwain’s more pro-friendly offense. Harris, more of a dual-threat QB, must improve his accuracy, and McElwain, considered a quarterback guru, will be very hands on with both players’ development. As for recruiting, the Gators got an official visit from four-star Florida State commit Deondre Francois over the weekend and are in hot pursuit of three-star Louisville commit Lamar Jackson, who might officially visit Gainesville this weekend. Francois hasn’t exactly budged on his FSU commitment, so as of now, Florida’s only hope at landing a quarterback in the 2015 class might rest in Jackson.
You learn pretty quickly in the realm of college football to never say never.

So I won’t go that far, but with the first College Football Playoff in our rear-view mirror, I will say that I have a hard time seeing two teams from the same conference ever getting in, at least as long as it remains a four-team format.

And that’s bad news for the SEC.

When it became obvious that a playoff was coming, the initial thought in SEC locales was that the league would be strong enough to merit two teams in a lot of years.

[+] EnlargeNick Saban
Marvin Gentry/USA TODAY SportsNick Saban and Alabama had to survive a challenging SEC schedule to earn a playoff berth.
After all, this was the big, bad SEC, which had won seven straight BCS national championships (with four different teams) and had played in eight straight BCS title games.

But the College Football Playoff is a different animal, and those of us who thought the SEC might get two seats at the table every couple of years were dead wrong.

The most iron-clad unwritten rule going is that conference champions will get first dibs every time, and I’m not necessarily saying that’s a bad thing.

Ohio State was the fourth team in this season and earned its spot by destroying Wisconsin in the Big Ten championship game. I’d say the Buckeyes were a worthy participant with the way they mowed down Alabama and Oregon in a span of 12 days.

Once given the stage, they proved they were the best team in the country and did so with a team that many thought was a year away.

Now, could they have navigated their way through the SEC with just one loss and even been in position to make the playoff?

That’s a story for a different day, but it brings into perspective the dilemma the SEC faces in the playoff era.

The grind of the league is what makes it so treacherous. As we saw this bowl season, particularly with regard to the Western Division teams, all bets are off in a one-game season. The West went a very humbling 2-5 and lost every one of its high-profile bowl games.

The SEC West had been hailed all season as the deepest division in the country, and some in the league speculated that it might have been the toughest division in college football history.

At the end of the day, the SEC didn’t have any dominant teams this season. It did have a handful of teams capable of winning a national championship, but most of those teams beat up on each other.

Let’s not forget that Alabama had to survive by one point at Arkansas, pulled out an improbable overtime win at LSU and beat Auburn at home in the regular-season finale despite giving up 630 total yards.

What you saw this season in the SEC is going to be much more indicative of what you’re going to see in the league going forward. That doesn’t mean Alabama is going anywhere, and it also doesn’t mean that Mississippi State is going to win 10 games every year.

What it does mean is that the SEC is going to continue to cannibalize itself, and that’s not good for business in a four-team playoff system.

The East is going to bounce back at some point, and maybe its 5-0 record in bowl games this season is a sign that it may occur sooner rather than later. When it does, the pathway to a national championship will become an even steeper mountain to climb for the SEC.

With that kind of balance on both sides, simply making it through the regular season in the SEC will be harrowing enough. Then comes the SEC championship game and two playoff games.

I remember vividly coaches in the league grumbling when the SEC championship game was created in 1992. A lot of them said then that having to win an extra game would severely hurt their chances of winning a national championship.

They were proved wrong. From 1992 to 2013, the SEC won 11 of the 22 national titles.

Maybe this will be a similar deal, and if (or when) the playoff moves to eight teams in the coming years, the landscape is sure to change again.

The mere fact that a national championship game was played this year without an SEC representative was surreal. And yes, refreshing, too, for all those coaches, players and fans who grew weary over the last decade of hearing about the SEC’s perceived dominance.

Georgia Tech coach Paul Johnson might as well have been speaking for everybody outside the SEC’s footprint when he chortled, “At least we don’t have to hear about the SEC for a while,” following the Yellow Jackets’ win over Mississippi State in the Orange Bowl.

Nobody’s suggesting that the SEC’s party is over. It’s still the best conference in college football, and privately, those who’ve coached in the SEC in the past and moved elsewhere will confirm as much.

But now that we’ve had a taste of the playoff, seen how it works and processed it all, it’s not necessarily a party the SEC is going to host every year.

And in some years, the SEC (gasp) might not even get an invite.

Weekend recruiting wrap: SEC 

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
This was one of two remaining weekends for recruits to take visits until national signing day. The weekend was full of news including over 10 commitments in the SEC. Here’s a closer look at some of the top news from around the conference this weekend.

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Monday was a busy day on the recruiting trail, as expected with just 10 days left until national signing day Feb. 4. The state of Texas is literally hanging on every word and tweet of a handful of top uncommitted prospects that will provide bragging rights for a fan base that no longer plays each other on the field. This and a number of others topics make up today's Daily Social.

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SEC morning links

January, 27, 2015
Jan 27
1. There will be six new offensive coordinators in the SEC next season. Five have already been hired while Tennessee is still looking to find a replacement for Mike Bajakian. So far, it’s a diverse group -- different ages, different backgrounds, etc. Brian Schottenheimer (Georgia) came from the NFL; Dan Enos (Arkansas) was a college head coach; and the others took the more traditional route, moving up and accepting the same position at their new school. The AJC breaks down the five new coordinators and gives you a chance to vote on which one you think was the best hire. To me, Schottenheimer is the easy choice given his background, but I also think the Enos hire was an underrated one for Bret Bielema and the Razorbacks. He brings expertise at the quarterback position and could do wonders for Brandon Allen.

2. Speaking of coaching changes, Alabama announced two new hires to the defensive staff on Monday. First, Tosh Lupoi was promoted from within to become the new outside linebackers coach, filling the void left by Lance Thompson. The former Pac-12 assistant coach spent last season as an analyst for the Crimson Tide. Then, maybe two hours later, multiple reports indicated that former Chicago Bears defensive coordinator Mel Tucker would join Alabama’s staff as the defensive backs coach. The addition of Tucker, who has spent the last 10 seasons in the NFL, means that defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will go back to coaching the inside linebackers. Both new coaches should provide a boost on the recruiting trail.

3. The other big coaching news in the SEC on Monday wasn’t who was leaving, but rather who was staying. Late Sunday night, it looked like Missouri defensive line coach Craig Kuligowski was leaving for Illinois. On Monday, he had a change of heart. That’s significant news for the Tigers considering the success of their defensive line in recent years. The players like to call it “D-Line Zou,” but with names like Aldon Smith, Sheldon Richardson, Michael Sam and this year’s stars Shane Ray and Markus Golden, the more appropriate name is “D-Line U.” The news of Kuligowski staying should also help Missouri’s chances with five-star defensive end Terry Beckner Jr., who is scheduled to visit Columbia this weekend.

Around the SEC
Tweet of the day


It's tough to imagine a more exhausting and stressful conclusion to a recruiting process than the one Iman Marshall orchestrated. Over the past 10 days, Marshall has taken official visits to Florida State, LSU and Michigan, as well as hosted several coaches at his home and school. But just like on the football field, the nation's No. 4 overall prospect doesn't appear to be fazed at all by what's being thrown at him.

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It was a season full of highs and lows for Butch Jones and Tennessee, which is what you might come to expect with a young team in the midst of rebuilding a once-proud football program.

The Volunteers might still be a year or two away from competing for SEC championships, but they improved on last season and played in a bowl game for the first time in four years.

Offense: There were times when the offense looked great, like in the 50-16 drubbing of Kentucky or the 45-28 win over Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl. But there were other times when this team looked offensively challenged -- the Vols did finish No. 10 in the SEC in total offense, averaging 370 yards per game. Considering Tennessee had to replace every starter on the offensive line, the unit performed better than many expected, though, and Joshua Dobbs provided a spark down the stretch at quarterback. The key going forward will be consistency. Grade: C

Defense: “Third down for what.” That was the theme song for Tennessee’s defense in 2014, and it might be the best way to define this group. The Volunteers finished second in the SEC in opponents’ third-down conversion percentage (34 percent), and it was near impossible to convert a third down inside Neyland Stadium. They still finished in the bottom half of the conference in total defense, but the stinginess on third down, the ability to get to the quarterback (35 sacks) and the emergence of Derek Barnett made this unit more than just a liability. Grade: B

Special teams: Freshman kicker Aaron Medley was money inside of 40 yards converting 19 of his 20 attempts. Beyond 40 yards was another story, but Medley still finished second in the SEC in made field goals. The Volunteers were also among the conference leaders in both kick and punt coverage, and Cameron Sutton’s 76-yard punt return at Vanderbilt proved instrumental in Tennessee’s win over its in-state rival in the regular-season finale. Grade: B

Coaching: It’s one thing to preach a message all season. It’s another thing to get your kids to buy into the message. At Tennessee, they bought in. It might have taken some time, but they bought in. The turning point was the game at South Carolina where the Vols were all but finished before rallying from a 14-point deficit to win in overtime. That never-give-up attitude stems from the coaching staff. It came as no surprise to see Tennessee go and win three of its last four games following that dramatic come-from-behind victory. Grade: B-plus

Overall: Finishing 7-6 might be considered a disappointing season for the majority of teams in the SEC. Florida fired its coach after a 6-5 season. But Tennessee didn’t see it that way. Not for a team that hadn’t been to a bowl game since 2010. Not for a team that played 23 different true freshmen at one point or another during the season. This was the next step. The expectations will rise again next season and soon fans will expect the Vols to be competing for SEC titles, but 2014 was a year of growth for this young team, not a disappointment. Grade: B

Recruit breakdown: DE Arden Key 

January, 26, 2015
Jan 26
video What he brings: Arden Key is a quick and rangy prospect capable of being a disruptive front-seven defender. He needs to continue to fill out his lengthy and lean frame, but he has begun to add some good size since his junior year and is wiry with better-than-expected strength for his build. At this stage he is best playing on the move and getting after the quarterback. The top 25 prospect possesses excellent first-step quickness and with his length can develop into a disruptive edge rusher. He can also be a factor in pursuit with his range, effort and ability to use good angles. He can play with a physical and fiery style, which he might need to control at times. Key needs to continue to physically develop to help him more consistently take on bigger blockers, but this is a talented and versatile prospect who could project and develop as a DE or 3-4 OLB.

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Auburn’s defense was bad down the stretch. Everybody knows it. We’ve been over it on the SEC blog. It’s the reason Ellis Johnson was let go as defensive coordinator after just two seasons. Simply put, the Tigers couldn’t stop anybody.

So when choosing a position that needs improvement for this team in 2015, it was pretty clear which side of the ball to focus on. But where does the problem lie?

The linebackers were the strength of the group, and both Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy are coming back, so not there. The defensive line had its inconsistencies and failed to generate a pass rush all season. But the real culprit was on the back end, a secondary that got torched time and time again in SEC play.

Position to improve: Secondary

Why it was a problem: In the last six league games, Auburn’s defense allowed 1,722 passing yards. That’s 287 yards per game. During that stretch, quarterbacks Dylan Thompson, Kyle Allen and Blake Sims all threw four or more touchdowns against the Tigers. It ultimately cost them wins against Texas A&M and Alabama. To be fair, it’s not all on the secondary. The lack of a pass rush makes it extremely difficult for the defensive backs. But this group got burned too many times. And there were too many missed tackles that turned good plays into explosive plays and sometimes touchdowns for the opposing offense. If you need further proof, just go back and watch Melvin Gordon’s 53-yard touchdown run in the Outback Bowl. He froze safety Jermaine Whitehead, and everybody else was out of position.

How it can be fixed: It starts with the offseason coaching changes. New defensive coordinator Will Muschamp was a safety in college and has a good track record with defensive backs. He brought with him his defensive backs coach Travaris Robinson, a former Auburn safety who has worked with the likes of Matt Elam, Jaylen Watkins and Vernon Hargreaves III during his time at Florida. The new coaches along with the new scheme should provide a boost on the back end. The first order of business will be to fix the missed tackles and the missed assignments. Then it’s on to coverage, which should be easier given the return of defensive end Carl Lawson and the possible addition of Byron Cowart, the nation’s No. 1 player. No longer will quarterbacks have all day to sit back and throw against this Tigers’ defense.

Early 2015 outlook: The cupboard isn’t bare. Auburn gets back top cornerback Jonathan Jones and safety Johnathan Ford, the team leader in tackles. For all the deficiencies in the secondary, Jones still finished among the SEC leaders in interceptions (6) and passes defended (12). Seniors Jonathon Mincy and Whitehead are gone, but the new coaches will have some young talent to work with next year. Freshmen Stephen Roberts and Nick Ruffin both played this season and should have an expanded role in 2015 while former ESPN 300 cornerback Kalvaraz Bessent will look to make an impact after redshirting his first year on campus. Also keep an eye on safety Tim Irvin. The four-star athlete recently flipped his commitment from Texas to Auburn and the staff believes he can make an early impact. Irvin enrolled last week.