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2014 College Football Preview: The SEC

Can God’s chosen conference reignite its national title streak after proving mortal last season?

With the 2014 college football campaign looming and the preseason in full swing, let’s take one last whip around the FBS to top off our talking points, shall we? First up: The SEC, where the seven-year national championship streak is broken, but quests for undefeated seasons are imperiled at every turn.

Click here for more from our 2014 preview.

Spotlight Team: Auburn

If there’s a thesis statement floating out there about Auburn football in 2013, it’s probably this, from Bill Connelly: “Auburn was both lucky as hell (esp. late) and really good (esp. late) last year. You can be both. You need to be both sometimes.” It’s essential to note, right up front, that this isn’t a complaint. To the allegiance-free third party, Auburn’s streak of fantastic fortunes was all the more enjoyable to watch last season because it was so wildly improbable, the family movie that would be derided in the theater for unrealistic plotting, but made all the more thrilling by being live and real and true. To call Auburn “lucky” is simply to say that favorable and improbable things happened to the Tigers, who also happened to be an excellent football team in 2013. It’s a quality they shared with the squad they faced in the title game.1

It also makes a repeat campaign look trickier — a statement that has nearly no meaning, given how tricky it is for any team to make consecutive title game appearances,2 but that also speaks to how the degree of difficulty inches up when a team can no longer count on the combination of circumstances that ended the Auburn-Georgia game cropping up at regular intervals. (That said: Really, at what point during Gus Malzahn’s involvement with Auburn football have the Tigers bothered to do the probable thing?) The Tigers will again contend for the SEC West title, and maybe do more than contend, and the development of some kind of aerial attack under second-year starting quarterback Nick Marshall will be a key story line to watch in SEC play.

But Auburn probably won’t go undefeated in 2014, because it’s unlikely that any team will go undefeated in 2014. Tripping hazards abound, in every year and every league, and hardly any team is ever immune. At the end of September, we’ll start to look at all of the 4-0 and 5-0 teams and argue over which inevitably 12-0 or 13-0 squads to slot into the inaugural four-team playoff, and come December, only a couple of them, at most, will be left with unblemished records.

And if Auburn doesn’t end up looking on paper like it has taken a great leap since last season, that won’t necessarily be because of anything it has done wrong. We’ll all live longer by taking the macro view of what Malzahn has built, and of where he’s going, when assessing the program that’s still only in the second year of his reign. Patience in the Yellowhammer State can be tough to come by; patience for a second-year head coach who took his first-year team to the title game may seem like a goofy thing to have to ask for. But as consumers, we must accept that there are factors beyond our understanding at work between all of the moving parts in this endlessly complex game, and that those supernatural forces can be capricious as hell.3

SEC Story Time

Three absorbing plotlines to follow into the mists in 2014.

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• That Thing’s Operational. What might Alabama’s program ceiling look like with an elite quarterback? Florida State transfer Jacob Coker, untested but preternaturally talented, was praised to the skies by those who surrounded him in Tallahassee. And when he beats out senior Blake Sims for the starting job,4 he’ll inherit an enviable set of circumstances: He’ll be able to lean on the Tide’s perpetually reliable running back tandem, this year featuring T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry; he’ll have a gilded question mark in receiver Amari Cooper, who last year failed to match his phenomenal freshman numbers due in large part to injuries, but whose personal ceiling when healthy may be limitless; and he’ll have a new offensive coordinator in Lane Kiffin, one of the sport’s most notorious enfants terribles, who’s about to be presented with the most overstuffed toy box of his career.5

• Many Happy Returns. For those of you scoring your Sad Dawg Bingo cards at home, here is an attempt to list every player Georgia lost to injury last season:

We’d say the Bulldogs can’t possibly plumb such miserable depths again this season, but as with Auburn, we know there are points on the spectrum of fortune at which one must simply quail, fold one’s hands, and watch with Old Testament awe. Of the returning offensive skill players who were injury-bitten with particular ferocity last year, there is already some promising news: Running back Todd Gurley, who we’re still surprised didn’t just throw his injured leg onto his back last year and keep on going, has regained his rightful spot in the first-class car of the preseason hype train; also-felled running back Keith Marshall and tight end Jay Rome are back at it as well. As was the case last year, though, we’re again going to have to live with the bitter absence of knowing what all of Georgia’s talent might look like on one field at the same time: Receiver Malcolm Mitchell, knocked out for the season in last year’s opener, is already hurt again, and fellow wideout Justin Scott-Wesley’s recovery timetable remains unknown.

• Sustainable Mississippi State Football: Possible in Our Lifetimes? Entering the sixth year of the Dan Mullen regime, and with four consecutive postseason appearances to their credit, the Bulldogs have attained a crucial plateau of success. Now, it’s time to find fingerholds for a new one. But with a schedule that begins with Southern Miss, UAB, and South Alabama, and then features LSU, Texas A&M, and Auburn, the distance between State and its next goal might take a while to triangulate.

Who’s That Guy? Missouri Quarterback Maty Mauk!

Who’s That Guy? is an orientation tool for use in college football’s vast landscape, and is filmed in front of a live studio audience.

Who Is He? Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk.

Where Is He From? Kenton, Ohio.

Years Played: Mauk made four starts in 2013 after redshirting in 2012.

Is That Matt Mauck in a Clever Disguise? Mauck-with-a-C is listed as two inches taller than Mauk-without-a-C, so unless the 2003 BCS title-winning quarterback for LSU reverse-Gattaca’d himself to return to the SEC under cover of a fantastic wig to play for Gary Pinkel, this seems unlikely.6

Follow the Bouncing Ball: In his first season as an active player, Mauk was initially confined to mop-up duty as an inexperienced underclassman playing behind James Franklin; a Franklin injury forced Mauk into the starter’s role versus Florida, South Carolina, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Bio Tidbit: Kenton, Ohio, was home to the end of the line for CSX 8888, the runaway train that inspired the movie Unstoppable, which was actually quite riveting if you watched it while pretending that the train itself was both sentient and malevolent.

Social Media Presence: Mauk’s on Instagram at ohioqb7_miz, and is verified on Twitter (FANCY) at @MIZ_MAUK7_ZOU.

Career Highlight: The usual “it’s Kentucky” caveats apply, but Mauk was a mere redshirt freshman in his fourth career start when he shelled the enemy big cats with five touchdown passes last November.

Should We Know Him? Expect Mauk to post pinball numbers during the first couple weeks of 2014, when the Tigers host South Dakota State and travel to Toledo. The schedule gets ruder, defensively, from there on out, with visits from Central Florida and Georgia and trips to South Carolina and Florida, all by mid-October. After losing L’Damian Washington, Dorial Green-Beckham, and Marcus Lucas, Mizzou will enter the season without a single player who scored more than one receiving touchdown last season, though the guys left – your Bud Sassers, your Jimmie Hunts, your visiting Marcus Murphys — certainly don’t lack for talent. And there’s always the bright silver-lining possibility that the loss of so much production at receiver — and at running back, with Henry Josey now a Philadelphia Eagle — leads to more showy early Mauk runs. As a coach, watching a quarterback improvise for positive yardage has to be one of the least pleasant happenings; as a fan, it’s the greatest.

Breakout Hits

Four lesser SEC luminaries destined to become draftnik darlings in the coming year.

Cedric Ogbuehi, OL, Texas A&M. As went Jake Matthews, so goes the new kid … the new kid being a 6-foot-5 redshirt senior who tops 300 pounds. Ogbuehi nearly skated off to the draft in the offseason, and in returning, he’ll continue the Aggies’ recent tradition of shifting large, talented bodies from right tackle to left tackle to (presumably) the first round of the NFL draft.

Amarlo Herrera, LB, Georgia. Though he trailed all-conference teammate Ramik Wilson on the stat sheet last season, the senior inside linebacker has been an internally heralded mentor within the ranks of the red-and-black, drawing defensive MVP honors from his teammates in 2013.

O.J. Howard, TE, Alabama. With Howard checking in at 6-foot-6 and 240 pounds, “TE” presumably stands for “Tight Ent.” Though he caught just 14 passes for 269 yards and two scores as a true freshman in 2013, here are two things we know: (1) Kiffin enjoys making opponents angry,7 and (2) holy BBQ nachos, would you look at what Howard did against LSU’s defense last November?

George Brown Jr., OT, Florida. The three-star O-line recruit won’t even arrive on campus this season, but he’s already shooting up the 2015 power rankings thanks to a commitment announcement ceremony that included a live reptile.

Impact Freshman

Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU. You can fairly make the case that, thus far, the true freshman Tiger has had an impact only on the media breathlessly tracking his every move as though he were some endangered species of shark, but: (1) that’s not Fournette’s fault, because he cannot, as far as we know, control time, speed up the harvest, and get himself onto the field versus Wisconsin any faster; and (2) his coaches and teammates have been just as enthusiastic as the media in waxing poetic on his behalf. Also, can we stop trying to feign surprise that the Tigers have reloaded the talent chamber after losing Jeremy Hill and Alfred Blue to the draft? This is, after all, Kind Of Their Thing. Additional factors that could boost the former five-star recruit’s profile early on: considerable carries while playing alongside a young quarterback, and excellent blocking from an offensive line that returns four starters.

Toastiest Coach

Will Muschamp, Florida. Oh, the high hopes we had when UF snaked Texas’s coach-in-waiting and brought the BOOM to Gainesville, replacing Urban Meyer’s studied emotional distance with a very large and surly clip-on koala. Since Muschamp’s hire, a 22-16 overall record, Gator Bowl win, Sugar Bowl loss (to the guy who actually wound up succeeding Mack Brown at UT), and postseason-less 2013 have followed. A modest proposal: If the sun rises over the Swamp in 2015 and Muschamp is still there, swipe Kiffin from Tuscaloosa to take over the offense. [This paragraph sponsored by drive-time radio.]

For comedic purposes, we can dream. For practical purposes, the Gators, who ranked 15th nationally in points allowed last season and 114th in points scored, have taken an intriguing step toward shoring up the shoddy side of that equation by hiring Kurt Roper, David Cutcliffe’s offensive coordinator, away from Duke. Quoth Roper profiler and former Gator player Andy Staples: “The only way to stop the laughter is to score with regularity.”

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As for the likelihood of Muschamp hanging on to his orange-and-blue polo long enough for us to engage in a coach-poaching fantasia next offseason: Florida’s early slate is largely a kind one, with visits from Idaho and Eastern Michigan in Weeks 1 and 2, and a trap-ish but winnable home game versus Kentucky8 in Week 3 before a trip to Tuscaloosa and a bye. With the exception of the annual Cocktail Party, which is at a neutral site, and the season-finale showdown with Florida State, which is in Tallahassee this year, Florida’s most fearsome opponents (LSU, Missouri, and South Carolina) must make the trek to Gainesville.

Outlandish Prediction

Steve Spurrier will take South Carolina to its first SEC title. This is more “wish fulfillment” than “preseason prediction,” but both are really only good for passing the time before the season and earning bitter reproaches after it. Still, now’s not a bad time for this prayer to be answered: With Georgia and Missouri both coming to Columbia early, the path to an SEC East title is about as favorable as it gets. And if the Gamecocks do make it to Atlanta, just think of the pregame press conference possibilities: the HBC needling Nick Saban with the bless-your-heartiest language imaginable, or deriding Malzahn’s Auburn as a new-money program from within the palatial glass clubhouse he inhabits as Gamecocks head coach. Only victories of luck, talent, and sorcery stand between Spurrier the White and slaying some SEC West Nazgûl. We are in this to be entertained.

Early Must-Watch Game, Conference Category

Florida at Alabama in Week 4 (September 20) jumps out, both because regular-season Gators-Tide contests will be depressingly spaced out under new SEC scheduling protocols (the next meeting after this is scheduled for 2021), and because of all of the weird shit that happened the last time these sides met.9 But in terms of the sheer volume of curiosities likely to be on display, the discerning consumer will go with a high-potential matchup on a day not necessarily known for fireworks: Texas A&M at South Carolina on August 28, the opening Thursday of Week 1. For the Aggies: the void10 remaining to be filled by Johnny Manziel’s successor! The promising hatchling receiver tandem of Speedy Noil and Ricky Seals-Jones! For the Gamecocks: the once-and-for-all emergence of quarterback Dylan Thompson, whatever that turns out to be like! Mike Davis running at a defense that allowed more than five yards per carry to opposing rushers in 2013! For viewers like you: Steve Spurrier and Kevin Sumlin smiling real big and dropping genteel barbs! We’re there.

Early Must-Watch Game, Nonconference Category

Lots to like here. There’s the Week 1 Athens rematch of last year’s Clemson-Georgia pointsplosion (August 30), with two newish starting quarterbacks in Cole Stoudt and Hutson Mason. There’s the LSU-Wisconsin neutral-site tilt, in what used to be called Houston’s Reliant Stadium and is now some nondescriptly acronymed venue 11 that same day. There’s East Carolina’s visit to South Carolina in Week 2, a matchup whose expectations a certain ol’ ball coach is already inflating. Less ballyhooed so far, for some reason, is defending Fiesta Bowl champion Central Florida’s visit to defending SEC East champion Missouri in Week 3 (September 13). With the volume of snubs visited on both teams this preseason, let’s get out in front of this thing and brand it the Fuck The Coaches’ Poll Bowl early.12

Ground Control to Mike the Tiger

This fall, God’s own conference network will be beamed to the heavens for the benefit of the astronaut commanding the International Space Station. In space, no one can hear you malign Penn Wagers and his officiating crew to your weightless heart’s content.

Filed Under: 2014 College Football Preview, College Football, SEC, Auburn Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies, Missouri Tigers, South Carolina Gamecocks, Florida Gators, Georgia Bulldogs, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Will Muschamp, Steve Spurrier, Nick Saban, Gus Malzahn, Leonard Fournette, Nick Marshall, Jacob Coker, Quarterbacks, Freshmen, #RollTide, Holly Anderson

holly_anderson

Holly Anderson is a staff writer at Grantland.

Archive @ HollyAnderson

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