- Greg Ostendorf, ESPN Staff Writer
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It’s hard to stay on top. Just ask Alabama, which saw its season do a complete 180 after an improbable missed field goal return that stunned college football. Or what about Florida? Two seasons ago, the Gators were playing in a BCS bowl game. Last season, they finished 4-8 and lost to a FCS team for the first time in school history. Georgia and Texas A&M fell victim to letdowns, too, as both came into last season with high expectations.
The SEC is as good a league as there is in college football, and new teams rise to the top every year. The consequence of that is that some teams have to fall.
Last year, it was Auburn and Missouri which rose to the top, knocking some of the traditional powers off their pedestal. Neither team reached a bowl game the year before, but made it to Atlanta and played each other for the conference championship.
Now, as we count down the five most pressing questions facing the SEC this spring, can we expect a letdown from Auburn or Missouri? Will it be their time to fall?
Auburn: Talent-wise, the SEC champions are better off than their title-game counterpart. The Tigers were just three years removed from winning a national championship, and their recruiting classes during that time reflected that. They had the players. They just needed a coach like Gus Malzahn to come in and rejuvenate the program.
Mission accomplished. Auburn nearly won another national championship. This time, however, the Tigers want to stay on top. They don’t want to fall like they did after the 2010 title.
It starts with the quarterback position. The loss of Cam Newton was too much to overcome back then, but fellow junior college signal caller Nick Marshall opted to come back and will do his best to defend Auburn’s conference title next season. He’s already being tabbed as an early candidate for the Heisman Trophy.
The big question is on defense. Auburn lost five starters from a defense that was suspect to begin with. The good news for the Tigers is that veteran defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has had a knack for making improvements from Year 1 to Year 2, and this looks to be his latest reclamation project.
The schedule doesn’t do Auburn any favors with trips to Kansas State, Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama, but with the talent returning and the current coaching staff, the Tigers should expect to be one of the SEC favorites again next season.
Missouri: The situation is a little more dire in Columbia. The Tigers haven’t recruited as well as Auburn in recent years and are losing seven starters on offense and seven starters on defense from last year’s team.
The loss of quarterback James Franklin isn’t as bad because Missouri has Maty Mauk coming up behind him. Mauk played well last season when Franklin was injured. The redshirt freshman finished with 1,071 yards passing, 11 touchdowns and just two interceptions, and has a chance to be one of the top signal-callers in the SEC.
Similar to Auburn, the real problem is on defense. The pass-rushing combination of Michael Sam and Kony Ealy was second to none in the SEC, but both players are gone, along with the team’s leading tackler, Andrew Wilson, and its lockdown cornerback, E.J. Gaines.
If there’s a saving grace for Missouri, it’s the schedule. The Tigers don’t have to play Alabama, Auburn or LSU, and based on the opponents, they have a chance to go 7-0 at home next season.
Still, the fans voted Missouri as the most likely SEC team to fall in 2014, and it’s hard not to expect some type of letdown from this team next season. They proved they belong, but maintaining that success is a brand-new challenge.
It’s hard to stay on top. Just ask Alabama, which saw its season do a complete 180 after an improbable missed field goal return that stunned college football.