1. LSU (11-1, 7-1). After losing to Auburn in October, LSU regroups and knocks off Florida, Ole Miss, and Alabama to win the SEC West with an 11-1 record. The Tigers rely heavily on their running game and strong defense throughout the season, and quarterback play improves as the year progresses. Loss: at Auburn.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1). The Crimson Tide starts the season 8-0 by avoiding a near-upset bid to Ole Miss in early October. The Alabama defense is much better against spread offenses over the course of the year, but LSU’s power offense gives the Crimson Tide trouble. Alabama avenges last year’s Iron Bowl heartbreak with a 31-24 win over Auburn in Tuscaloosa. Loss: at LSU.
3. Auburn (10-2, 6-2). The Tigers have one of the toughest schedules in the country and are battling injury woes before the season has even started. Road trips to Kansas State, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, Georgia, and Alabama will include at least two losses, and home games against South Carolina and LSU are just as difficult. Winning the West will be even harder for Auburn this year than it was a season ago, but the Tigers are talented enough to make it back to Atlanta if they can overcome their schedule. Losses: at Georgia, at Alabama.
4. Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4). Ole Miss isn’t quite ready to compete for a SEC title, but the Rebels are heading in the right direction under Hugh Freeze. Beating Alabama or Auburn at home would be huge for the program, but the offense must be more consistent this year. A road trip to Baton Rouge likely will result in a loss, although the Rebels have played well against the Tigers in recent years. Ole Miss loses an unexpected game to Texas A&M in the middle of the season but make up for it later in the season with a win over archrival Mississippi State. Losses: Alabama, at Texas A&M, at LSU, Auburn.
5. Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4). Dan Mullen’s team’s non-conference schedule is the easiest in the SEC, and the Bulldogs also have the advantage of playing the two worst teams from the East division, Vanderbilt and Kentucky. If the Bulldogs can win the games they’re supposed to win, eight wins is easily attainable. Road games to LSU and Alabama are both probable losses, as well as a home game against Auburn. The trip to Oxford at the end of the season will be big for both teams, especially if the Bulldogs are 8-3 entering the game. Mississippi State hasn’t won 10 games since 1999, but that number is reachable this year. Losses: at LSU, Auburn, at Alabama, at Ole Miss.
6. Texas A&M (6-6, 2-6). Life without Johnny Manziel and Mike Evans is going to be evident this season in College Station. The Aggies begin the year on the road at South Carolina, and the Gamecocks are talented enough to run Kevin Sumlin’s squad off the field. Unless the defense makes drastic improvements from last year, Texas A&M might struggle to make a bowl game. Losses: at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, at Alabama, at Auburn, Missouri, LSU.
7. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8). The Razorbacks finished 3-9 a season ago but should be better in Bret Bielema’s second season. Unfortunately, they’re in the toughest division in college football and play two of the three best teams from the East. It’s a very realistic possibility that Arkansas is winless again in the SEC, although the Fayetteville squad might be able to pull off one upset over the course of the season. Losses: at Auburn, at Texas Tech, Texas A&M, Alabama, Georgia, at Mississippi State, LSU, Ole Miss, at Missouri.
1. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2). Steve Spurrier has led the Gamecocks to three consecutive 11-win seasons and is poised to do so again this year. Replacing Jadeveon Clowney won’t be easy, but South Carolina’s defense should once again be stout, and collecting elite recruiting classes helps. Mike Davis was one of the leading rushers in the SEC last year, and he’s due for another great year in Columbia. If the Gamecocks can get consistent play out of quarterback Dylan Thompson, they have a great chance at playing for a conference title in Atlanta. Losses: at Auburn, at Florida.
2. Georgia (10-2, 6-2). Misfortune struck the Bulldogs several times last season, and it cost them a chance to play for the SEC title. However, Mark Richt’s team this year is among the most talented in the country, specifically on offense. Todd Gurley is back at running back and could be a Heisman candidate if he remains healthy. Early season games against Clemson and South Carolina could determine whether the Bulldogs are playing for championships at season’s end. Losses: at South Carolina, at Missouri.
3. Missouri (9-3, 5-3). The Tigers surprisingly won the East last year, and their schedule is easy enough that they could do it again in 2014. Missouri avoids Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss, and Mississippi State from the West and plays Georgia in Columbia. The Tigers must travel to South Carolina and Florida but are capable of winning the East if they can knock off either the Gamecocks or Georgia. Losses: at South Carolina, at Florida, at Tennessee.
4. Florida (7-5, 4-4). Following an extremely disappointing 4-8 campaign in 2013, Will Muschamp might be coaching for his job this year. The schedule is unkind, as the Gators travel to both Florida State and Alabama, the top two ranked teams in the preseason polls. Seven or eight wins might be enough for Muschamp to stick around, but the Gators won’t be competing for the East division crown this year. Losses: at Alabama, at Tennessee, LSU, Georgia, at Florida State.
5. Tennessee (6-6, 3-5). Like Auburn in the West, the Volunteers have a devastating schedule. A non-conference matchup against Oklahoma is almost certainly a loss, and games against Alabama and Ole Miss from the West are likely losses as well. Florida has defeated Tennessee nine straight seasons, but the Vols upset them in Knoxville in October. Losses: at Oklahoma, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, Alabama, at South Carolina, at Vanderbilt.
6. Kentucky (4-8, 1-7). Kentucky doubles its win total from a season ago, and the Wildcats also pick up a conference victory over Vanderbilt. Losses: at Florida, South Carolina, at LSU, Mississippi State, at Missouri, Georgia, at Tennessee, at Louisville.
7. Vanderbilt (5-7, 1-7). Derek Mason’s first season in Nashville ends without a bowl bid, although the Commodores knock off Tennessee in the last game of the year. Losses: Ole Miss, South Carolina, at Kentucky, at Georgia, at Missouri, Florida, at Mississippi State.
LSU over South Carolina.
Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Thursday, Aug. 28
Texas A&M at South Carolina (-10.5). The Aggies have a first-year starter at quarterback playing on the road in a hostile environment to open the season. That’s not exactly a good sign for Kevin Sumlin. South Carolina’s offense should have an easy time moving the ball against Texas A&M’s defense, and Mike Davis might have a career day to start the season. Prediction: South Carolina 37, Texas A&M 20.
Boise State vs. Ole Miss (-10). The Rebels open the year against the Broncos at the Georgia Dome. Ole Miss has several starters returning, and quarterback Bo Wallace’s shoulder is finally healthy. This Boise State team isn’t as good as the teams that defeated Georgia, Virginia Tech, and Oklahoma in recent years, but the Rebels cannot afford to take them lightly. Prediction: Ole Miss 34, Boise State 23.
(This piece originally ran for the Gadsden Messenger on August 22, 2014)