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College Football 2014 Look Ahead: The SEC

NCAA Football: Louisiana State at Alabama

This is the first of our preliminary looks into the five major college football conferences for 2014. We begin with the SEC, to preclude someone yelling “Roll Tide” and sucker punching us in the face.

SEC Network… It launches on August 14th. We’ve seen conference networks before. But, this is ESPN and the SEC. The Big Ten Network, but for the odd quality game, has been an empty shell, a college football tax discretely included on everyone’s cable bill. Will premium content, promotion, PAAWL and Tebow turn the conference network model into something more?

Prorated SRS… MATH! Bear with us. SRS is the “Simple Rating System.” It measures “margin of victory” and “strength of schedule.” That’s it. We used a prorated formula over the past four years – 2013(x1), 2012(x0.75), 2011(x0.5), 2010 (x0.25) – to get a broader baseline for predictions for 2014. Here are the numbers.

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What to read into this? Well, Auburn and Alabama are favorites in the SEC West. Looking at last season, the teams look about even. More broadly, Alabama has dominated just about every year. Auburn has been as high as 3rd in SRS and as low as 70th the past four seasons. While you would certainly factor in things such as “Gus Malzahn being an absolute wizard,” you would need a very strong argument to pick Auburn over Alabama based on reason. Looking at the numbers, it’s not surprising that Alabama opened with 3/2 odds.

Heading into 2013, the previous season narrative suggested Gary Pinkel was over-matched. Seeing that his teams ranked in the Top 20 in SRS four of the five previous seasons would have suggested 2012 was a blip, based in large part on injuries. Heading into 2014, we would have far more faith in LSU weathering transition than Ole Miss or Mississippi State making a bold run at a division crown.

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Teams Helped By The Schedule… Georgia appears to have an inside track in the SEC East. They play Florida and South Carolina coming off a bye. Two of their four SEC road opponents are Arkansas and Kentucky. South Carolina gets Texas A&M, Georgia and Missouri at home in September with new quarterbacks. The trip to Auburn comes after an open date and an FCS school. The trip to Florida comes after a bye. Mississippi State, in addition to an absurd non-conference slate, drew Kentucky and Vanderbilt from the SEC East.

Teams Hurt By The Schedule… Florida has a rough mid-season stretch of at Alabama, at Tennessee, LSU, Missouri, Georgia, at Vanderbilt, South Carolina. They also play their in-state, defending national champion rivals non-conference. Tennessee, after facing Oklahoma on the road, has a five-game FBS slate of at Georgia, Florida, at Ole Miss, Alabama and at South Carolina. No rest for the weary or Bret Bielema. Arkansas’ four SEC home games are against Alabama, Georgia, LSU and Ole Miss. Not exactly Indiana, Illinois and Purdue every year.

Quarterbacks… Last year was the “Year of the SEC Quarterback,” with five ranking in the Top 12 nationally in passer rating. All five are gone in 2013. Nick Marshall and Gus Malzahn teaming up for year two should lead to sex, fireworks and loud noises. Beyond that, the SEC offers Bo Wallace, Dak Prescott’s potential and an indecipherable sea of unanswered questions. Some schools will cope well with transition (Alabama). Some may not. Expect this to be hailed as the “Return of the SEC Defense.” Watch as folks sell 9-6 as scintillating.

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Returning Starters… Not the most important factor – returning bad starters does not help – but it is worth noting. Mississippi State will look to break through the Mullen plateau with eight starters back on each side of the ball. Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Missouri each have fewer than 10 starters returning. The Vols lose every 2013 starter on both the offensive and defensive lines. That does not bode well for a team, regardless of schedule.

Hot Seats… Will Muschamp. No surprise. He has been worse than Ron Zook over three years. Florida’s loss to Georgia Southern was an embarrassment. The Gators, trying to attract fans, have plummeted form 67th to 92nd to 110th in yards/play on offense. 2014 will see a third offensive coordinator. Last season used up any leeway he had as Foley’s guy. Anything less than 9-3 and a demonstrated ability to move the ball could see the axe come down.

Bret Bielema went winless in conference his first year at Arkansas. As a consequence, the not-so-great parts of his personality became the major storyline. Bielema inherited a bad situation and a brutal schedule. He may yet prove the right guy long-term. But, if the Razorbacks don’t show signs of improvement (and win an SEC game or three) in his second season. it will be hard to justify keeping him around for a third.

Dan Mullen escaped last year with two overtime wins to reach a bowl game. Bowl play, for four straight years, is a feat at Mississippi State. However, “good enough” loses its novelty in the hyper-competitive SEC West. Mullen should have the pieces in place to make a point this season. If he doesn’t, wisely or not, Mississippi State boosters may be out for his head.

[USA Today Sports, Getty]

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