SEC: Jalen Hurd
There were 14 coordinating changes in the SEC this offseason. Only Alabama and Ole Miss didn't see any changes at their coordinator positions.
For the rest of the conference, new faces have shown up at these important positions. And with new faces in new places, you have plenty of questions for spring ball and beyond.
We aren't going to look at every new coordinator and smother you with questions for each of them, but we did come up with five big questions for the new guys as they dive deeper into spring practice.
Here are five burning questions for new SEC coordinators in 2015:
Can Doug Nussmeier build an offense at Florida?
I understand that this sounds like a broken record, but if Florida is going to do anything of interest during Jim McElwain's first year, the Gators have to find an offensive identity. Florida, which was known for offense for so long, has had a five-year drought on that side of the ball. You won't win a lot of games when the best you can do during that span is average 367.6 total yards of offense (2014), and the Gators haven't since Tim Tebow left after the 2009 season. So Nussmeier and McElwain have to get this offensive ship righted in 2015. But they will be behind the eight ball with a youngster-driven quarterback battle, a very thin and relatively inexperienced offensive line, and a receiving corps lacking multiple proven playmakers.
Can Kevin Steele find a pass-rush at LSU?
The Tigers seem to grow pass-rushers on trees down in Baton Rouge, but LSU ranked 103rd nationally in sacks last season (19) and hasn't had a player register double-digit quarterback hurries since Barkevious Mingo had 12 in 2012. No player has recorded more than four sacks since Sam Montgomery's eight in 2012. So Steele, the new defensive coordinator, who was kind of a perplexing hire to begin with, will have to team up with defensive line coach Ed Orgeron to find a consistent pass-rusher to help sustain LSU's place near the top of the defensive statistics in the SEC. We know the Tigers return one of league's best secondaries and a wildly athletic group of linebackers, but the play up front will be very important for Steele to keep this defense going. Replacing Jermauria Rasco and Danielle Hunter off the edges is Step 1, but developing guys like Tashawn Bower, Deondre Clark, Lewis Neal, and Sione Teuhema is the key.
Will John Chavis and Will Muschamp revive their new respective defenses?
We all know the capability of both teams' offenses, but the defenses have been horrendous of late. Last season, Auburn and Texas A&M both finished the season ranking in the bottom half of the SEC in all the major defensive categories, and the Aggies again owned the worst total defense in the SEC, allowing 450.8 yards per game. With the offensive talent returning, Auburn has a chance to compete for more than just the SEC West this fall, but if that defense doesn't improve, don't count on it. The Aggies could also be a threat in the West because of their offense, but, like Auburn, another bad year of defense will make that null and void. Both coaches are considered defensive geniuses and were major upgrades at their new jobs. Muschamp might not have been a great head coach at Florida, but his defenses ranked no worse than 15th nationally during his four years. Chavis was the only defensive coordinator to consistently shut down A&M's offenses, so it only made sense that he was brought on board.
Who is Mike DeBord, and can he make Tennessee's offense potent?
Though DeBord has 30 years of coaching experience, he spent the past two years in administration at Michigan. So it's been a couple of years since he's been hands-on with coaching. Now, DeBord has the task of making Tennessee's offense potent in 2015. What's working in his favor is having starting quarterback Josh Dobbs, star running back Jalen Hurd, and top receivers Pig Howard, Von Pearson, Josh Malone, and Marquez North back. That's great, but these guys were around last season and the Vols ranked in the bottom half of the SEC in all major offensive categories. If Tennessee is going to make a run in the SEC, the offense has to be more consistent. The hope is that age will play a part, but DeBord also has to take hold of the development part. We just really don't know a ton about him.
Will the whole co-coordinator thing work at South Carolina?
Steve Spurrier said there would be coaching changes, so he added long-time NFL assistant Jon Hoke to co-run the defense with embattled coordinator Lorenzo Ward. After ranking fifth in the SEC in total defense in 2013, the Gamecocks dropped to 13th in 2014, allowing 432.7 yards per game and a league-high 6.2 yards per play. The tackling was deplorable for most of the season, and closing out halves and games was a struggle, as the Gamecocks gave up 231 points in the second and fourth quarters. Hoke has an impressive track record -- and SEC experience -- but what's going to change as far as how the defense is run? The first step is to strengthen the front seven, especially the defensive line. South Carolina was last in the SEC and tied for 119th nationally with 14 sacks last season. That begins with improvement from end Gerald Dixon, who led the Gamecocks with two sacks last season. How these coaches mesh with each other and their players will be interesting to watch.
Here are 10 situations in the SEC in which players need to send a message, loudly and clearly:
Quarterback Chad Kelly, Ole Miss: Kelly is a classic “something to prove” prospect this spring. Talent is not the question with Kelly, who transferred from East Mississippi Community College in January. The problem is volatility. Kelly left Clemson last year under horrible terms, and then was arrested in December in Buffalo, New York, and faced multiple charges including assault and resisting arrest. Ole Miss has a vacancy at quarterback after Bo Wallace’s departure, and Kelly will compete for the job with DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan. Kelly passed for 3,906 yards, 47 touchdowns and eight interceptions last fall. Now we’ll see whether he can keep his act together after Rebels coach Hugh Freeze gave him second and third chances.
Running back Keith Marshall, Georgia: Marshall was the more highly regarded prospect when he and Todd Gurley signed with the Bulldogs in 2012, and they formed a dangerous duo that fall. Marshall ran for 759 yards and eight touchdowns as a freshman but has barely played since suffering a knee injury five games into the 2013 season. Gurley’s gone to the NFL, but Georgia has Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at the top of the running back depth chart now. Where does Marshall fit in? He’s been out of the picture for so long, it’s tough to say at this point.
Wide receiver Ricky Seals-Jones, Texas A&M: Aggies fans expected superstardom when Kevin Sumlin’s staff signed Seals-Jones in 2013, but he missed almost all of his freshman season with a knee injury. Seals-Jones played in all 13 games last season, finishing with 465 yards and four touchdowns on 49 receptions. Those are fine numbers but nothing close to what A&M fans envisioned when he signed two years ago. He has plenty of time to develop into a star, however. Maybe he’ll take a step toward that level of production this year.
Gerald Dixon and South Carolina’s entire defensive line: No sense singling out Dixon here. South Carolina’s defensive front was horrible in 2014. The line’s ineffective play was the key reason why the Gamecocks tumbled from a spot as one of the SEC’s best defenses to one of the worst. Dixon and his fellow starters are on notice as the Gamecocks open spring practice. If they don’t play better, South Carolina’s coaches will have to give somebody else a chance. Last season wasn’t nearly good enough.
WR Nate Brown, Missouri: Missouri has to replace its top three receivers from last year, Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt and Darius White, all of whom were seniors. The Tigers will turn to a new collection of wideouts this year, led by Brown. The sophomore made just five catches for 45 yards a season ago, but his size/speed combination makes him the safest bet to make an impact this fall.
LSU’s quarterbacks: Last season was a mess at the quarterback position for LSU. Somebody -- either junior Anthony Jennings or sophomore Brandon Harris -- needs to take this job and run with it. Jennings completed just 48.9 percent of his passes while starting 12 of 13 games, but Harris’ lone start at Auburn was a complete dud. He’s a talented player, but Harris has to prove to Les Miles and his staff that he won’t make catastrophic errors if they put him on the field. He hasn’t convinced them yet.
Running back Alvin Kamara, Tennessee: Kamara was one of the nation’s most highly recruited running backs when he signed with Alabama in 2013, but he disappeared on the Crimson Tide’s depth chart and was twice suspended during his year in Tuscaloosa. Kamara transferred to Hutchinson Community College last season and rushed for 1,211 yards and 18 touchdowns in nine games. Now he has a second chance to prove that he’s an SEC-caliber back, forming what could be a dangerous one-two punch with Jalen Hurd at Tennessee. If Kamara can keep his head on straight, he has an excellent opportunity to make an impact with the Volunteers.
Quarterback Maty Mauk, Missouri: Mauk wasn’t the quarterback in 2014 that many expected after an impressive freshman season. He was inconsistent and prone to poor decision making at times. He passed for 2,648 yards, 25 touchdowns and 13 interceptions, which is not horrible, and helped the Tigers claim their second straight SEC East title. But Mizzou desperately needs its quarterback to improve upon his 53.4 completion percentage and become a more consistent performer as a junior.
Texas A&M’s defense: Texas A&M hopes John Chavis is the key piece that was missing over the past two years, when the Aggies featured one of the SEC’s worst defenses. The former LSU and Tennessee defensive coordinator has gotten results wherever he’s been, but Chavis has his work cut out at A&M. The Aggies were 102nd nationally (450.8 ypg) in total defense and tied for 75th in scoring defense (28.1 ppg). Considering how effectively the Aggies typically score, trotting out a defense that is simply better than awful might help them become more competitive in the tough SEC West.
We'll dive into the season with 10 burning questions in the SEC this spring:
1. Who will stand out in all these quarterback battles?
OK, so the SEC is littered with quarterback battles this year:
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
So who will stand out this spring and propel themselves into a true starting role this fall? At Alabama, you have Jake Coker, who was supposed to be the starter last year but wasn't, and a trio of former high school standouts in Cooper Bateman, David Cornwell and Blake Barnett. Florida has a new coaching staff, and Jim McElwain will be very involved in the grooming of sophomore Treon Harris, who took over as the starter last November, and redshirt freshman Will Grier. Georgia has a three-man battle among Brice Ramsey -- the presumed favorite -- Faton Bauta, and redshirt freshman Jacob Park, who could slide by both. Can Anthony Jennings really grow this spring at LSU? Or will Brandon Harris finally look like the top prospect he was coming out of high school? Mercurial junior college transfer Chad Kelly is the favorite to start at Ole Miss, but sophomores DeVante Kincade and Ryan Buchanan actually have some real SEC experience. Connor Mitch is another favorite at South Carolina, but there's a thick field of competitors gunning for that spot. And Vandy has to figure out one quarterback and keep it that way. Johnny McCrary, Patton Robinette and Wade Freebeck all played last year, but incoming freshman Kyle Shurmur should join the fray this fall.
2. Which early enrollees are primed to make a splash?
The SEC welcomed 81 early enrollees this year, so someone is sure to stand out. Keep an eye on junior college running back Jovon Robinson at Auburn, who has a chance to make an immediate impact on the Plains and possibly take the starting job this spring. Georgia needs a lot of help along its defensive line, and freshman Jonathan Ledbetter could be a key addition up front. There's an opening at cornerback at LSU and Kevin Toliver II has a real chance to step into that spot right away. Arkansas needs to replace Darius Philon, and juco Jeremiah Ledbetter could be that person.
All three ranked in the bottom half of the league in total defense and scoring, but all got what appear to be upgrades in the coaching department. Will Muschamp took his superb defensive mind to Auburn after being fired as Florida's head coach, longtime LSU DC John Chavis moved to College Station, and Jon Hoke left the NFL to help the Gamecocks out. Muschamp and Chavis had better be good immediately because they are both well into the seven-figure salary club.
4. Can Florida find an identity on offense?
I feel like I've read this sentence before: The Gators haven't ranked higher than 93rd nationally in total offense the past four seasons, have had myriad quarterback issues and failed to have any sort of real consistency at receiver. First, Muschamp's Gators couldn't perfect ground-and-pound, then a failed spread offense experiment ultimately cost him his job. Now, McElwain and offensive coordinator Doug Nussmeier have the tall task of resurrecting Florida's offense. The defense should be fine, but this team isn't going anywhere (again) without an offense. It needs a quarterback, some help for playmaking receiver Demarcus Robinson and a pulse.
5. Who will step up at wide receiver for Alabama?
Now that Amari Cooper is gone, Alabama needs a go-to receiver, especially with a new quarterback taking over. The problem is Alabama is without its top three receivers from last year, and no one on this roster is proven. But that doesn't mean there isn't talent. Junior Chris Black and redshirt sophomore Robert Foster will get every opportunity to showcase their skills, but keep an eye on sophomore Cam Sims, who could be a special player.
6. Is Tennessee equipped to make a move in the SEC?
The recruiting classes have been great (back-to-back No. 5 finishes), a lot of perceived talent returns and the excitement level is through the roof in Knoxville. But it's time to put up, Vols. You have your quarterback in Josh Dobbs, sophomore running back Jalen Hurd has All-SEC written all over him, the receiving corps is loaded, both lines return a lot of valuable pieces -- including monster pass-rusher Derek Barnett -- and there are gems at linebacker and in the secondary. Now, the wins have to come, and that starts with a strong spring.
7. Can Missouri make it three in a row in the East despite losing so many key players?
Well, these Tigers sure haven't been afraid of the big, bad SEC. Three years in, and Mizzou has two SEC East titles. But Year 4 brings plenty of questions. Stud defensive ends Shane Ray and Markus Golden are gone, and their replacements aren't on the same level. The receiving corps is unproven, there's no left tackle and quarterback Maty Mauk has to be much better. The Tigers proved everyone wrong the Past two years, but you can't blame anyone for doubting this team now. There are, however, some key pieces returning, such as center Evan Boehm and running back Russell Hansbrough.
8. Are any teams in the SEC really pegged for a national championship run?
The SEC has a handful of contenders, but none of them are polished to this point. Two favorites to watch? How about Auburn and Georgia? The Bulldogs still need to find a quarterback but might be the most complete SEC otherwise. Running back Nick Chubb seems willing to carry the offense, while the defense should fill its current holes nicely this spring. Auburn lost Nick Marshall at quarterback, but Jeremy Johnson should be fine, and this might be an even more dangerous offense with more of a passing identity. Muschamp's return can only mean good things for the defense, right? Don't sleep on Alabama, and take notice of Ole Miss and its 2013 class that probably has one final shot.
9. Can Brandon Allen finally take the next step at Arkansas?
We all know Arkansas can run the ball, but if the Hogs are going to contend in the West, they have to be able to throw. Bret Bielema knows that and so does Allen, whose 56 percent pass completions from last season has to improve. Allen wasn't consistent enough, averaging just 175.8 yards per game. He doesn't need to be Peyton Manning, but he has to take the next step in his development or Arkansas won't be able to take that next step under Bielema.
10. Can the Mississippi schools keep the momentum going?
Last year was historic for Mississippi State and Ole Miss. At one point, both were ranked third nationally, and the Bulldogs spent time at No. 1. Ole Miss is finally starting to get the depth it needs to be a contender, and the meat of that 2013 class appears to be in its final act. Mississippi State returns the league's top quarterback in Dak Prescott, and has a good foundation on both sides, even if some leaders from last year are gone. Still, Ole Miss needs a QB and Mississippi State has a few holes that need plugging. It's always an uphill battle for these two schools, but in order to really be taken seriously, they have to really compete year in and year out.
1. Arkansas: The Razorbacks are the only team in the SEC to return two 1,000-yard rushers in Jonathan Williams (1,190 yards) and Alex Collins (1,100). Each averaged more than 5 yards per carry and scored 12 touchdowns. Behind them, the Hogs have some talented depth to keep any eye on, starting with redshirt freshman Juan Day and fullback Kody Walker, whom the coaches really like, and 2015 signee Rawleigh Williams III.
2. Georgia: There’s no debate right now that sophomore Nick Chubb returns as the SEC’s best running back. Actually, after rushing for 1,547 yards (7.1 yards per carry) and 14 touchdowns with only eight starts (all 100-yard performances), Chubb might be the nation’s best returning running back. Fellow sophomore Soachny Michel rushed for 410 yards and five touchdowns last year, and veteran Keith Marshall is almost back to full speed after dealing with injury yet again last year.
3. Alabama: Derrick Henry is one of the SEC’s best pure athletes and led the Crimson Tide in rushing last year (990) despite having 22 less carries than starter T.J. Yeldon. Henry is a bull and homerun threat, but the return of veteran Kenyan Drake (leg) will provide Alabama with the perfect complement in the backfield with his tremendous speed and elusiveness. The arrival of talented freshman Bo Scarbrough was a blessing with the transfer of Altee Tenpenny and the indefinite suspension of Tyren Jones.
4. Tennessee: There certainly is something special about sophomore Jalen Hurd, and it’s scary to think what he’ll learn/do in 2015. There’s little doubt that Hurd will surpass his 899 yards from last year. The Vols are pretty thin here, but the arrival of junior college transfer – and former Alabama running back – Alvin Kamara is a very welcomed one. The coaches think the shifty back could be special and should complement Hurd well. Tennessee also signed John Kelly.
5. LSU: Leonard Fournette took a little longer to develop than Chubb, but there’s no denying his ability, strength and athleticism. Fournette finished his freshman year with 1,034 yards and 10 touchdowns, but should be even better in 2015. Sophomore Darrel Williams (302 yards) is a fan favorite, but depth is on the unproven side. LSU did sign three running backs this year, including two ESPN 300 members.
6. Auburn: The Tigers lost two productive seniors, including SEC leading rusher Cameron Artis-Payne, but sophomore Roc Thomas could be a special talent. However, keep an eye on Jovon Robinson, who was the nation’s No. 1 juco running back. He rushed for 2,387 yards and 34 touchdowns in 2013, and might be the favorite to start. Peyton Barber is another solid option returning, but in Gus Malzahn’s system, any running back can be uber-successful.
7. Missouri: Russell Hansbroughh is one of the league’s best and had a breakout year in 2014 with his 1,084 yards and 10 touchdowns. His role will increase even more with the departure of Marcus Murphy. The Tigers then have some unproven parts though. Freshman Ish Witter ran for 101 yards last year, and Morgan Steward could be the No. 2 back if he can successfully return from last year’s hip injury. Youngster Trevon Walters is a speedster, and the Tigers finally got JUCO Chase Abbington on campus.
8. Texas A&M: Trey Williams’ somewhat surprising depature to the NFL leaves a hole at running back, but Tra Carson and Brandon Williams are back. Carson, who led the team with 581 rushing yards last year, should be the feature back, but Brandon Williams has a lot of potential; he just needs to put everything together. The coaches are also excited about sophomore James White, who played sparingly last year, but can do a little bit of everything at running back.
9. South Carolina: Mike Davis’ departure hurts, but the Gamecocks are in good hands with former walk-on Brandon Wilds taking over the lead back role. The senior has 1,277 career rushing yards, including gaining 570 last year. Redshirt sophomore David Williams has caught the eyes of his coaches after his reserve role in 2014. Maybe this is the season senior Shon Carson, who has shown flashes in the past, can finally contribute more, too.
10. Florida: The Gators lost their best running back in Matt Jones to the NFL draft, but it’s time for junior Kelvin Taylor prove that he can be a leader and an every-down back for the Gators. He has just one 100-yard game in two seasons. Redshirt sophomore Adam Lane showed some promise with his 109-yard bowl performance, and you have to wonder if undersized Brandon Powell will stay at running back. Freshman Jordan Scarlett could see immediate playing time this fall.
11. Mississippi State: Bowling ball Josh Robinson is gone, but the there’s certainly some depth to work with in Starkville. However, no one there is quite sure who is going to be the lead back or if things will operate by committee. Ashton Shumpert played well down the stretch last year, but impressions out of practice were that freshman Aeris Williams might have been the best of them all. Like Shumpert, Brandon Holloway also rushed for nearly 300 yards last year.
12. Kentucky: The loss of Braylon Heard to the NFL early didn’t help, but this position was in need of some major work anyway. Stanley “Boom” Williams and Jojo Kemp were OK last year, but the Wildcats need them to be much better this fall. The two combined for 809 yards and nine touchdowns. Sophomore Mikel Horton rushed for 302 yards last year, so he’ll definitely be in the mix, too.
13. Vanderbilt: Sophomore Ralph Webb almost ran for 1,000 yards last year, and might be the Commodores’ best offensive threat. However, the Dores will need more than just Webb to get the running game going, and right now that’s a problem with only two other returning backs. Sophomore Dallas Rivers is the only other back returning with any sort of real production (218 yards). Vandy will have to get their two incoming freshman ready immediately.
14. Ole Miss: The Rebels weren’t great here last year to begin with. Ole Miss ranked 74th nationally in rushing and Jaylen Walton led the team with 586 yards and five touchdowns, averaging only 45.1 yards per game (fewest of any starting SEC running back). Bigger back Jordan Wilkins needs to be more productive than his 361 yards from last year. I’Tavius Mathers and Mark Dodsonhave transferred, leaving Ole Miss thin here. A lot will be expected – and likely needed -- from freshman Eric Swinney.
That's what happens when you put together top-5 recruiting classes in back-to-back years. There hasn't been this much buzz surrounding Tennessee's football program in a decade, and with personnel upgrades across the board, the Vols have the look of a team poised to make some real noise in what will be Butch Jones' third season as coach.
The concentration of young talent on Tennessee's team is impressive, good enough that making the jump from seven wins to a New Year's Six bowl game isn't that farfetched.
Tennessee's receiving corps has size, depth and speed. The Vols just need to stay healthy there, and they should give a lot of teams serious matchup problems. Running back Jalen Hurd returns after leading the team with 1,120 all-purpose yards as a true freshman, and he'll get a backfield complement in junior college transfer Alvin Kamara, a former four-star prospect who started his career at Alabama.
The Vols' defense made huge strides last season after being carved apart in Jones' first season. It helped to get Curt Maggitt back from injury and add freshman defensive end Derek Barnett to the mix. They combined for 35.5 tackles for loss, including 21 sacks, and gave the Vols the kind of pass-rushing threat they didn't have the year before.
Maggitt elected to return for his senior season, and Barnett has just scratched the surface of how good he can be. What's more, the Vols are bringing in a pair of heralded tackle prospects, including 327-pound Kahlil McKenzie, as well as two more highly rated pass-rushers in Kyle Phillips and Andrew Butcher.
Throw in returning starters Jalen Reeves-Maybin at linebacker and Cameron Sutton at cornerback, both of whom have All-SEC potential, and Tennessee's defense has a chance to be as good as it's been in some time.
The Vols play five of their first six games in the state of Tennessee, which includes Oklahoma, Arkansas and Georgia in Neyland Stadium. If they're sitting there at 6-0 (or even 5-1) heading to Alabama on Oct. 24, the month of November on Rocky Top could be one to remember.
What could go wrong
It remains to be seen how the Vols, still lacking in experience, handle the hype. With so much expected of this team, if they lose one early, are they resilient enough to recover and get back to the grind in the rugged SEC?
The Oklahoma game the second week of the season is massive, especially with the trip to Florida looming two weeks later. The Gators have owned the Vols and won 10 straight in the series. Two losses in September could send things spiraling in a hurry.
Dobbs' ability to make things happen with his legs helped open up the offense last season. He also helped an offensive line that had struggled to protect the passer up until that point.
If the Vols are going to make a legitimate run at a New Year's Six bowl in 2015, Dobbs needs to become a more consistent passer, and the offensive line needs to take a major step forward.
The Vols allowed an SEC-worst 43 sacks last season. That number has to go down.
Even with the two hotshot recruiting classes, Tennessee might still be a year away. So predicting a 10-win season when the Vols haven't won more than seven in a season since 2007 is probably a bit presumptuous.
But, then, it's been a while since the Vols have gone into a season with a roster that looks as good as the one they will have at their disposal in 2015.
Some of these coaches will be entrusted with rebuilding efforts at their new locations, while the more fortunate members of the group inherit situations that are relatively stable. But who is in the best position to experience immediate success in his new SEC job?
There are a few directions you could go and make a reasonable argument:
- Because of the headway Butch Jones' staff has made on the recruiting trail and the young talent on hand -- names like Josh Dobbs, Marquez North and Jalen Hurd -- Tennessee's offense seems to be on the rise. Some college football writers are even tossing out the Volunteers as darkhorse contenders to make the College Football Playoff this season. Former Michigan assistant Mike DeBord is poised to make some noise as the Volunteers' offensive coordinator over the next couple of years.[+] EnlargeAP Photo/Hilary ScheinukKevin Steele replaces John Chavis as LSU's defensive coordinator.
- Brian Schottenheimer has some key offensive skill talent to replace as Mike Bobo's successor at Georgia -- that Todd Gurley guy was pretty good -- plus a quarterback competition to oversee, but the Bulldogs will keep rolling on offense. They still have Nick Chubb and the core of a solid offensive line returning along with adequate talent at the skill positions.
- With nearly everyone back on offense, Dan Enos steps into a promising situation at Arkansas. Especially since the lifeblood of the Razorbacks' offense -- the running game -- is in great shape thanks to the return of ballcarriers Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins and most of a stout offensive line. This might never be an explosive offense while Bret Bielema is head coach, but it will be difficult for opposing defenses to prevent the Hogs from grinding their way up and down the field.
- Geoff Collins was another tempting pick here. He inherits a Florida defense that under D.J. Durkin and Will Muschamp stood among the SEC's best. The Gators ranked in the top 20 nationally in total defense and scoring defense in 2014, and they return a talented nucleus of players. It doesn't hurt that, despite a recruiting class that didn't measure up to Florida's usual high standards, the Sunshine State is always loaded with premium talent that should keep the Gators among the SEC's top defenses once the new staff digs into its recruiting ground.
Those are all reasonable options, but LSU's Kevin Steele seems like the most obvious choice.
First of all, LSU under John Chavis boasted the SEC's top total defense (ranking ninth nationally, plus the No. 5 scoring defense, which trailed only Ole Miss in the SEC) in 2014. Second, Steele takes over a unit with no glaring holes on the roster. The Tigers return six starters from their bowl game against Notre Dame and most of the key reserves.
That doesn't mean LSU is without question marks. The Tigers lost both starting defensive ends, and they weren't particularly successful at generating sacks even with Danielle Hunter and Jermauria Rasco on the roster. They also must sort out some roles in the secondary and adapt to the schematic adjustments Steele seems likely to make.
There are also questions about Steele himself. The veteran assistant has been a defensive coordinator twice -- he was Alabama's DC in 2007 and served in the same capacity at Clemson from 2009-11. Steele got mixed reviews at Clemson, and his tenure there ended with an embarrassing bowl flop against West Virginia.
Nonetheless, he's a coach who has been hired by multiple current and future Hall of Famers -- Johnny Majors, Tom Osborne, Bobby Bowden, Nick Saban and now Les Miles -- and he's taking over a defense that has been one of the SEC's best for most of Miles' decade on the bayou.
It would be a big surprise if the Tigers failed to remain among the conference's feistiest defenses in its first fall under Steele's leadership. So while many of the SEC's 14 new coordinators inherited good situations, LSU's new defensive coordinator looks like the one who is in the best position to experience immediate success.
Continuing this week’s SEC series of post-signing day roundtable discussions, today we’ll examine the conference coaches who are under pressure to make something happen after signing their newest class of recruits.
Edward Aschoff: Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss
Year 4 of the Freeze era is beginning, and expectations are about to explode in Oxford. After being on the cusp of an SEC West title and a spot in the first College Football Playoff, Ole Miss now has to stay in the thick of the title hunts. While Freeze has been enormously successful during his time at Ole Miss, he has now signed three straight top-20 classes, and now the 2013 class (the crown jewel of Freeze’s tenure) will be all grown up. If the bulk of that class is going to bring a championship to Ole Miss, the time is now because the heavy hitters, like Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil, will likely head to the NFL after this coming season. There’s too much talent in Oxford for Ole Miss not to compete for a spot in Atlanta, and anything else will be considered a failure.
David Ching: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
I was tempted to focus on Mark Richt or Les Miles because the natives seem to be getting restless at Georgia and LSU, but let’s go in a different direction. Mason probably needs to get more out of this 2015 class immediately than those two SEC veterans. Last season was a mess at Vandy, with the Commodores failing to put up a good fight in most of their nine losses. Their three wins came against UMass (by three points), Charleston Southern (by one) and Old Dominion (by 14), and they lost by an average of 18 points per game in SEC play. Now Mason enters his second season with two new coordinators (actually he’ll be his own defensive coordinator) and a recruiting class that ESPN ranked No. 44 nationally, dead last in the SEC. Mason told reporters on signing day that he staked his reputation on the quality of this class, which is all well and good. But if the Commodores don’t start looking like a more competent team this fall, I’m not sure Mason’s reputation as a head coach will be too great.
Sam Khan Jr.: Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
I think Travis Haney said it best that Sumlin must begin to reap the fruits of the recruiting labor he and his staff have put in over the last three years. The Aggies' classes ranked eighth, fourth and 12th nationally in Sumlin's first three full recruiting cycles, and the team now enters its fourth year in the SEC. He made significant coaching staff changes (including paying a pretty penny for former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis), and overall the Aggies have recruited better than any team in their own state -- which is talent-rich -- since Sumlin has been there. It's time for the recruiting hauls to translate to the standings.
Chris Low: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
As it turns out, the sky didn't fall at Kentucky after the Wildcats lost six commitments in a span of eight days leading up to signing day. Thanks to some hustle by Stoops and his staff, Kentucky was able to plug some of the gaps late and finish with the nation's 43rd-ranked class. The problem was that Stoops reeled in the 20th-ranked class the year before, so expectations were lofty. As Stoops enters his third season at Kentucky -- with a brand-new contract that will pay him an average of $3.57 million per year -- expectations will be equally high on the field. Kentucky will be aiming for its first winning season since 2009. The Wildcats looked like they were on their way in 2014 after starting out 5-1, but wound up losing their last six games.
Greg Ostendorf: Jim McElwain, Florida
All things considered, McElwain deserves credit for this class. He took over two months before signing day and closed with a top-20 class that included five-star prospects Martez Ivey and CeCe Jefferson. But this class had a chance to be more than solid. It had the potential to be great. Florida missed on a number of homegrown prospects, including Byron Cowart and Jeff Holland, who both decided to leave home to play at Auburn for the man McElwain replaced. The first-year coach deserves a pass for this class, but he can’t keep letting the top players out of the state. Losing battles to Florida State is one thing. Losing battles to Will Muschamp and Auburn is another.
Alex Scarborough: Steve Spurrier, South Carolina
The great thing about Steve Spurrier is that you can take him at his word. But this time I think his openness hurt him. By telling reporters he thought he'd stay at South Carolina 2-3 more years, he had to turn some recruits off. I mean, who would commit to a program knowing the head coach wouldn't be there the whole way through? Though his 31-man signing class was solid, coming in at No. 21 overall in the country, it was what was missing that Gamecocks fans should find troubling -- most notably, four-star defensive players Damon Arnette and Arden Key, who both decommitted heading down the stretch. While you have to appreciate Spurrier’s honest assessment of himself, reading a head coach say this has to be jarring: "I don't think I did a very good job of maybe going full-speed as much as we needed as it turned out."
Derek Tyson: Butch Jones, Tennessee
After two top-five recruiting classes in a row, Tennessee head coach Butch Jones now has the talent on his roster to make a move in the SEC East. With Josh Dobbs showing promise last season and several other freshmen having standout years, including Derek Barnett, Jalen Hurd and Todd Kelly Jr., the talent is in place to have a big season on the field this year. Another 7-6 season could have Tennessee fans getting a little restless.
Some of it is pure talent. Some of it is hard work. Some of it is simply falling into the right situation. But everything comes together, the depth chart aligns and a Jalen Hurd happens. A Myles Garrett happens. Even a JK Scott happens.
Hurd walked into Tennessee a tall, lanky running back full of promise, and in the second game of his career he scored a touchdown. By the time his freshman year was over, he had 899 yards and five scores on the ground.
And that pales in comparison to the exploits of his fellow rookie running backs Leonard Fournette and Nick Chubb, who each passed the 1,000-yard mark.
But it wasn’t just the young running backs who had fun in 2014.
No, for a select few on defense, the transition from high school to the SEC wasn’t overwhelming. Their bodies could handle the physicality of it all. Garrett tied for second in the league in sacks (11), Derek Barnett had 20.5 tackles for loss and Lorenzo Carter was second on his team in QB hurries (18).
Among those prospects that are already committed, here are a handful of rookies who could make a similar instant impact in 2015:
- Damien Harris, RB, Alabama: T.J. Yeldon is off to the NFL, Altee Tenpenny has transferred and Kenyan Drake’s status is up in the air after breaking his leg. So don’t be surprised if Harris, ESPN’s No. 2 running back, serves as a sidekick to projected starter Derrick Henry.
- Brandon Martin, WR, Missouri: Maty Mauk will need someone to throw to now that Bud Sasser, Darius White and Jimmie Hunt have all graduated. Enter Martin, an ESPN 300 prospect with the size (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) to play right away.
- Kyler Murray, QB, Texas A&M: It’s a lot to ask of a rookie to play QB, but Murray has the benefit of being an athlete who is also a refined passer. Kyle Allen will still have a lot to say about who starts under center for the Aggies, but Murray, a five-star prospect, will be right there pushing him for the job.
- Jamal Peters, S, Mississippi State: The Bulldogs need to keep Peters at home. The four-star prospect is still being wooed by fellow SEC coaches, but Dan Mullen hopes to retain the heavy-hitting safety who could step into the Mississippi State secondary and play from day one.
- Trenton Thompson, DL, Georgia: With Mike Thornton and Toby Johnson gone at defensive tackle, there’s a rather sizable hole to fill up front. And Thompson, all 311 pounds and five stars of him, is just the man for the job.
So with all that talent, why did Tennessee finish No. 11 in the SEC in total offense? The easy answer is inexperience and more specifically, inexperience up front.
Position to improve: Offensive line
Why it was a problem: Butch Jones knew the offensive line was going to be an issue in 2014. After all, he had to replace every starter from the year before, a group that featured first-round draft pick Ja'Wuan James and three other players who made the NFL. The offensive line that Tennessee rolled out in the season opener against Utah State had zero combined starts between them. The inexperience showed. The Volunteers finished dead last in the SEC in sacks allowed (43) and tackles for loss allowed (101), and they struggled to create running room for Hurd, who averaged less than 4 yards per carry through the first eight games. The unit did improve as the season progressed, and finished on a strong note against Iowa in the TaxSlayer Bowl, but it will have to be even better in 2015 if this offense wants to take the next step.
How it can be fixed: More experience. It’s that simple. Tennessee allowed 20 sacks in the month of October, and just 10 in November. The players didn’t change. They just gained more experience and grew together as a unit. They were a different offensive line at the end of the season compared to where they were at the season opener. There also seemed to be a rise in production when Dobbs took over at quarterback. Maybe it’s easier to block for Dobbs because of his athleticism, or maybe there was extra motivation. Whatever it was, it should be there again next season when Dobbs is the full-time starter. This was never going to be an easy fix. It takes time. But a full year of experience, even if it wasn’t great, will help immensely in 2015.
Early 2015 outlook: Unlike last season, Tennessee’s offensive line should look very familiar to fans next fall. Four starters return including All-SEC freshman Jashon Robertson, who started every game at right guard for the Vols last season. The only loss was senior right tackle Jacob Gilliam, but his backup, Coleman Thomas, played in 11 games and started five. Between Robertson, Coleman, Mack Crowder, Marcus Jackson, and Kyler Kerbyson, Tennessee should have a pretty formidable line in 2015. It’s a group that not only has experience, but also has chemistry. However, after 23 true freshmen played last season, don’t rule out the possibility of a 2015 signee coming in and earning playing time. The most likely candidate is ESPN 300 offensive tackle Jack Jones, who will benefit from enrolling early.
Here's our All-SEC bowl team:
QB: Dak Prescott, Mississippi State: His team might have faltered in the Capital One Orange Bowl, but no other quarterback had close to the numbers he did in the Bulldogs' loss. Prescott threw for 453 yards with three touchdowns and ran for 47 yards with another score.
RB: Jalen Hurd, Tennessee: Another incredibly talented freshman, Hurd ran for 122 yards and two touchdowns on 16 carries in Tennessee's Outback Bowl win over Iowa.
WR: Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina: The Gamecocks' star receiver had a nice closing act to the season, catching nine passes for 170 yards, including a 78-yard touchdown to jump-start South Carolina's offense in a win over Miami in the Duck Commander Independence Bowl.
WR: De'Runnya Wilson, Mississippi State: He was Prescott's top receiving threat all season, and he didn't disappoint in the bowl game, catching nine passes for 105 yards and two touchdowns.
WR/TE: Amari Cooper, Alabama: Cooper's final game in an Alabama uniform didn't go exactly as planned, but he still had an impressive night with nine catches for 71 yards and two touchdowns in the Tide's 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the Allstate Sugar Bowl.
OL: Jacob Gilliam, Tennessee: Despite playing with a torn ACL in his left knee and a heavily wrapped, injured left hand, Gilliam, a former walk-on, was an intricate part of Tennessee's impressive offensive performance against Iowa.
OL: A.J. Cann, South Carolina: The main cog on South Carolina's line for years, Cann had another impressive day for the Gamecocks, helping push South Carolina's offense to 344 yards.
OL: Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M: The Aggies piled up 529 yards of offense in the win over West Virginia with Ogbuehi leading the way on the left side. He didn't have the most impressive year, but a solid showing in the AutoZone Liberty Bowl helped send the Aggies off on a high note.
OL: Evan Boehm, Missouri: Yes, he's a center, but he was just too good in the Tigers' 33-17 win against Minnesota in the Florida Citrus Bowl. It didn't hurt that the Tigers ran for 337 yards.
C: David Andrews, Georgia: Chubb was able to do a lot of his damage because of his own talent, but Andrews helped by having a very impressive game in front of him. Georgia finished with 492 offensive yards.
All-Purpose: Leonard Fournette, LSU: How about that? Another freshman running back. Fournette capped his first season in college football with 143 rushing yards and two touchdowns on 11 carries. He also returned a kickoff 100 yards for a touchdown.
DL: Dante Fowler Jr., Florida: Considered one of the top defensive end prospects in this year's NFL draft, Fowler registered three sacks and was a constant disruptive force in Florida's win against East Carolina in the Birmingham Bowl.
DL: Markus Golden, Missouri: Not a real shocker that Golden ended the season on such a high note. He recorded 10 tackles, including four for loss and 1.5 sacks. He also forced a fumble and had three quarterback hurries.
DL: Trey Flowers, Arkansas: During the Razorbacks' impressive defensive performance in their win against Texas, he had five tackles with a sack and two tackles for loss.
DL: Shane Ray, Missouri: Another solid game for the SEC's top pass-rusher. Ray had four tackles with 1.5 tackles for loss, half a sack and a forced fumble.
LB: Kris Frost, Auburn: Frost really cleaned up in the Outback Bowl despite the Tigers' loss. He piled up 12 tackles (nine solo) and a sack.
LB: Lorenzo Carter, Georgia: The freshman just continued to impressive during the latter part of the season. He had eight tackles (tied for team lead) and a sack against Louisville.
LB: Martrell Spaight, Arkansas: He was all over the field for the Hogs, registering five tackles, including two for loss.
CB: Brian Poole, Florida: He returned an interception 29 yards for a touchdown, forced a fumble, recovered one and registered four tackles.
CB: Damian Swann, Georgia: In his final game with the Bulldogs, Swann grabbed an interception, broke up four passes and totaled three tackles.
S: Dominick Sanders, Georgia: The youngster snagged two interceptions and broke up another pass in Georgia's win against Louisville.
S: Jermaine Whitehead, Auburn: He finished Auburn's bowl game with eight tackles and two interceptions.
K: Marshall Morgan, Georgia: When you hit 3 of 3 field goals, with a long of 41 yards, and all four extra points, you've done well.
P: JK Scott, Alabama: Another great game by Scott in the Allstate Sugar Bowl. He boomed five punts 50-plus yards, including a long of 73 yards. Five of his punts were downed inside the 20-yard line.
It's sad to see such a fun season end, but that just leaves us with more time to talk about what could/should happen in college football in 2015. As rabid consumers of the next big thing, it's really never too early to peer into the future, which is why we are here today.
Fresh off Ohio State's rout of Oregon in the College Football Playoff National Championship Game Presented by AT&T, we are here wondering if the SEC will get itself back into the national title game. Which teams can compete for that spot? Which teams will be competing for the SEC title in 2015?
The upcoming season should bring us a handful of contenders, especially from the Western Division, but we are going with three from each division.
Here are the top three SEC contenders from each division in 2015:
Georgia: I took some heat for writing on Monday that the Bulldogs might be a quarterback away from taking the SEC and making a legitimate playoff run. I stand by that, and still believe that the Bulldogs have enough pieces in place to be the top SEC at the end of 2015. Nick Chubb is the league's top returning running back and will be a Heisman Trophy candidate, while the defense is stacked at linebacker and in the secondary. There's work to be done along a defensive line that lacks adequate depth, but a loaded D-line class is on the way. With a host of talent coming back on both sides and a more than manageable schedule, Georgia has no choice but to be the East favorite.
Tennessee: If everything goes according to plan, the Vols should return 18 total starters in 2015. That's huge for a team that was so incredibly young last year and started to jell late in the year. Both lines should be strong and the offense will revolve around quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd, but keep an eye on a deep receiving corps that could prove to be among the SEC's best. Tennessee must go to Florida, Alabama and Missouri, but getting Georgia and South Carolina at home will be huge in the SEC race.
Missouri: Coach Gary Pinkel has done a tremendous job for the better part of his three years in the SEC, but this could be quite the challenge. Mizzou loses a lot of firepower from its 2014 team, including the nation's best defensive end combination in Shane Ray and Markus Golden. The Tigers have been through this before, but there isn't a dynamic combo lurking like the ones Mizzou has had the last two years. Offensively, quarterback Maty Mauk must get his game under control and unlike the position the Tigers were in to start 2014, Mizzou loses its top receivers to a very inexperienced group. Still, these are the Missouri Tigers. Don't you dare count them out.
Watch out for ... Florida: New coach, myriad offensive questions and a quarterback battle. Yeah, the Gators need a lot of help, and new coach Jim McElwain certainly has his work cut out for him in Year 1. The road schedule is tough, but the defense should be fine once again, and if the offense has any sort of identity, the Gators could surprise.
Auburn: The addition of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to head up the defense was a monster hire for the Tigers. He'll have the luxury of having all but three starters returning on his side, and top pass-rusher Carl Lawson will be back. Muschamp has quite the challenge in fixing what was a bad defense in 2014, but any sort of improvement will give the Tigers contender status. That's because Auburn's offense should continue to roll behind quarterback Jeremy Johnson, who might be a better pure passer than Nick Marshall. Duke Williams is back at receiver, three starting linemen return, and rising sophomore Roc Thomas could be a beast at running back.
Alabama: The Crimson Tide lose a lot on offense with only two starters returning -- left tackle Cam Robinson and center Ryan Kelly -- and the defense, which loses four valuable starters, certainly needs to get back to its old ways. The loss of Kevin Steele to LSU and Lance Thompson to Auburn means Nick Saban will have to rework his staff, but you have to wonder what sort of changes will come philosophically to a defense that just hasn't played well against tempo, running quarterbacks and the spread. There's still talent in Tuscaloosa, and Alabama isn't going anywhere, but don't be surprised if the Tide goes into a little bit of a rebuilding mode.
Ole Miss: The Rebels, like Georgia, might be a quarterback away from making a serious run in 2015. There will be relative inexperience at the position, regardless of who wins the starting job in 2015. But getting star receiver Laquon Treadwell back will provide whichever quarterback an elite target. The defense loses some value, including defensive backs Senquez Golson and Cody Prewitt, but that incredibly talented defensive line comes back in tact and there are young, budding stars littered around that side of the ball. Ole Miss has to get more consistent play out of its offensive line/running game and must go to Florida, Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.
Watch out for ... Arkansas: The Hogs' next offensive coordinator needs to know one thing: Hand the ball off. Running backs Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins (2,290 combined yards in 2014) will be the focus of the offense again, but Arkansas has to get better production out of quarterback Brandon Allen (175.8 yards per game). The defense should be solid, but losing DT Darius Philon to the NFL will hurt.
The Tennessee freshman finished with 899 rushing yards, 221 receiving yards and seven touchdowns his first year on campus. His rushing totals might not be on par with Chubb or Fournette, but he did a little bit of everything for the Volunteers and was a big reason why they played in a bowl game.
“He’s an all-purpose back,” Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike Bajakian said. “He’s an extremely well-rounded player. He runs with great physicality. He’s very good in pass protection. He’s good catching the ball out of the backfield.
Bajakian believes Hurd will be one of the SEC’s top running backs in 2015. Unlike many freshmen, Hurd got stronger as the season progressed and played some of his best games down the stretch. He rushed for more than 100 yards in three of the team’s last five games.
Against South Carolina on Nov. 1, Hurd rushed for a career-high 125 yards and his nifty 21-yard touchdown reception on fourth-and-6 late in the game might have saved Tennessee’s season. If he doesn’t spin out of a tackle, the Vols don’t win that game.
That same intensity was there Jan. 2 in the TaxSlayer Bowl, when Hurd had rushed for 88 yards and two touchdowns by the end of the first quarter. He was finishing his runs and picking up yards after contact, making it clear he wanted the ball in his hands. The former ESPN 300 prospect finished with 122 rushing yards in Tennessee’s 45-28 victory over Iowa.
"Jalen is one of those individuals who has continued to get better and better and better," Vols’ head coach Butch Jones told reporters after the game. "I just think [his performance] was up to his standard, what we expect from him."
The future is clearly bright for the Vols, and Hurd has a lot to do with that. He won’t be on any Heisman Trophy ballots heading into next season like his counterparts, but don’t let that fool you. He belongs in that upper echelon alongside Chubb and Fournette.
It's scary to think that all three of those players still have at least two seasons of college football left to play. But they’re not alone. The running back Class of 2014 was good to the SEC.
Kentucky freshman Stanley “Boom” Williams rushed for 100 yards or more on three occasions and capped his season with a career-high 126 rushing yards and two touchdowns against rival Louisville.
At Auburn, Roc Thomas was stuck behind the SEC’s leading rusher, Cameron Artis-Payne, this season. He played a bigger role in the second half of the season, but never got going. That could change next year with Artis-Payne moving on.
And then there’s Chubb’s teammate, Sony Michel. He missed five games to injury, but when he did play, he was terrific.
Who said the SEC was a quarterback league? The running backs are taking over.
People can sometimes over-analyze any sort of outcome from one game and think it overshadows everything done prior. For instance, the SEC West's embarrassing performance (2-5) in postseason play helped leave the SEC out of the national championship game for the first time since 2005 and left the rest of the college football world celebrating. This is a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately society, and the perception of the SEC is that it's free falling a little because the West's top five teams all lost -- four to teams ranked inside the top 18 of the College Football Playoff rankings.
Because of that, you have the term "overrated" being floated out there, despite the division's full body of work.
Which brings us to the East. What are we to make of it?
This was a division more laughed at than praised this season after five teams finished with seven or fewer wins and its champion -- Missouri -- failed to claim the SEC title for the sixth consecutive year. There was an inexplicable home loss to Indiana, 10 losses to the West, Georgia's implosion and four teams finishing the season with losing records in conference play.
Then came bowl season. The East went 5-0, with two wins over Top 25 opponents (the West had zero). If we apply the same logic that the West is now down because of its postseason futility, then is the East now on the rise after it strolled through bowl play?
Eh, it's too early to tell -- and the caveat is that the East's competition wasn't exactly comparable to the West's -- but you can't ignore the East's undefeated run. And while I'm not ready to crown anyone in the East as the 2015 SEC champ, I do think the division made nice strides during the postseason and has a solid foundation to help it be more competitive with the West in 2015.
Georgia, which is coming off a disappointing season in which the division was there for the taking, returns arguably the East's best team. In fact, with so many starters returning, Georgia might be a quarterback away from a playoff run. Four offensive line starters return to block for the SEC's best returning running back in freshman Nick Chubb (1,547 yards and 14 touchdowns), and senior-to-be Malcolm Mitchell leads a young, talented corps of receivers.
Defensively, Georgia is loaded at linebacker with Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd, Lorenzo Carter and Reggie Carter all returning, and the secondary is full of young defensive backs who all have good game experience.
With a pretty favorable schedule in 2015, Georgia has a chance at a special run through the SEC.
Two-time defending champ Missouri loses a little more firepower with its top three receivers and return specialist/running back Marcus Murphy graduating. However, quarterback Maty Mauk, who must improve his in-game composure, returns along with four starting offensive linemen and top running back Russell Hansbrough (1,084 yards, 10 touchdowns).
Mizzou's defense yet again should lose both rush ends in Markus Golden and Shane Ray, who combined for 24.5 sacks and 42.5 tackles for loss. But three starting linebackers return, along with three starters in the secondary, including top corner Aarion Penton.
Tennessee could make the biggest jump in 2015. Coach Butch Jones has some very good pieces in place on both sides to make a legitimate title run in Knoxville. It starts with a young but talented offensive group led by quarterback Joshua Dobbs (who really came alive in the second half of the season), freshman running back Jalen Hurd (899 yards, five touchdowns) and what should be the East's best receiver group in 2015.
After basically losing two whole lines after 2013, the Vols return seven starting linemen and have a front seven on defense that will be led by elite pass-rusher Curt Maggitt (11 sacks) and youngsters Derek Barnett (10 sacks, 20.5 tackles for loss) and Jalen Reeves-Maybin. The secondary is also loaded, with three starters returning, including dynamic duo Cameron Sutton and Brian Randolph.
I caution: Do NOT sleep on Tennessee.
Then, there are a couple enigmas. South Carolina has to find a new quarterback, a new left side to its offensive line and some receivers, but the Gamecocks return what has to be a better defense. Florida has a brand-new coaching staff, along with questions and depth issues at every offensive position. However, that defense has the makings of once again being an elite unit, so imagine this team with a competent offense.
But what can either do in 2015? If South Carolina's defense can't make improvements, the Gamecocks are sunk. Meanwhile, Florida needs to find an offensive pulse under new coach Jim McElwain, who has a proven offensive track record but very little to work with in Gainesville right now. The Gators return 59 scholarship players, and only eight of them are offensive linemen.
Kentucky and Vanderbilt have the tools needed to improve, but neither is built for a championship run. The Wildcats must rework things at receiver and lose three valuable parts to their front seven. Vandy has a host of new coaches who will have to develop a relatively young team.
The East's postseason romp didn't make it better than the West, but it did raise some eyebrows. We learned the East has some bite, and there's a chance it could carry that over into the new year.
Tennessee, in its first postseason appearance since 2010, scored on four straight possessions to open the TaxSlayer Bowl en route to a 45-28 thumping of Iowa in Jacksonville, Florida.
The energized Volunteers, behind sophomore quarterback Joshua Dobbs and freshman running back Jalen Hurd, piled up 461 yards against the Hawkeyes, who dropped to 7-6 and lost a third consecutive bowl game.
The Vols also finished 7-6, but with a much different feel after winning three of four games, sparked by Dobbs, to close the regular season.
The Tennessee victory evened the Big Ten-SEC bowl duel at two wins apiece after New Year’s Day victories by Missouri over Minnesota, Wisconsin over Auburn and Ohio State over Alabama.
With five freshmen and three seniors in its starting lineup, Tennessee can eye a move up the SEC ladder. After the resounding win Friday, it figures to start next season among the favorites in the East.
Game ball goes to: Dobbs, who picked up where he left off in November. He completed his first eight passes as the Vols led 28-0 less three minutes into the second quarter. He finished with 129 yards on 16-of-21 passing with 76 rushing yards, bringing his total-offense figure over five starts to end the season to 1,408 yards. He was responsible for 15 touchdowns in that stretch, including three against Iowa.
How the game was won: The decisive nature of Tennessee’s plan from the start presented a stark contrast to the Hawkeyes, who alternated quarterbacks by series through the first half. Starter Jake Rudock and backup C.J. Beathard, around whom concerns of a transfer exist, both failed to find rhythm in the offense. Rudock, in fact, completed just one pass in the first half, yielding to Beathard in the third quarter. And Iowa’s bread-and-butter running game appeared no more organized. Meanwhile, the Vols simply leaned on Dobbs and Hurd, who rushed for 122 yards and two touchdowns.
Stat of the game: In building its quick, four-touchdown lead, Tennessee averaged 11.2 yards on 23 plays through the first 17:58 of clock time. Of those 23 plays, nine gained more than 10 yards. In that same span, Iowa averaged 4.3 yards per play with three gains of more than 10 yards.
Best play: Leading 14-0 after its defense forced a three-and-out with Rudock at the helm for Iowa late in the first quarter, Tennessee dialed up the trickery. Running back Marlin Lane took a lateral from Dobbs, ran to his right and pulled up, hitting wide-open Vic Wharton for a 49-yard strike.