The gap is closing, but the SEC remains the best conference in college football. The weak link was the SEC East in past seasons, but that side of the conference should be much improved with the re-emergence of Tennessee and Georgia, along with the always overlooked Missouri Tigers.
The SEC West remains the best division in all of college sports with Alabama, Auburn and even LSU ranked in various preseason top 10 lists. The conference championship is up for grabs in 2015, but here is how we see it shaping up at the end of the season.
1 - Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama remains the favorite to win the SEC despite losing weapons on both sides of the ball. The Crimson Tide put up school-record numbers on offense under Lane Kiffin in 2014, leading the team to a semifinal berth in the inaugural College Football Playoff. It would surprise no one to see Alabama back in the running for a championship in 2015.
It is no secret that Nick Saban’s team is loaded with talent. He recruits better than any coach in the country, and the 2015 squad is once again stacked. Now, it's true that Alabama did lose its starting quarterback, three wide receivers, a really good running back and three offensive linemen, but there are talented players waiting in the wings on offense and a Saban-coached defense will always be very good. Running back Derrick Henry is a dark horse candidate to win the Heisman.
2 - Auburn Tigers
Alabama enters the season as the favorite, but Auburn may be the most talented team in the country not named Ohio State. The Tigers possess all the weapons needed to once again be an explosive offense, even if that offense looks much different with new quarterback Jeremy Johnson taking snaps. Head coach Gus Malzahn is an offensive wizard, so while Auburn won’t be using the quarterback to run as often as in the past, the team will still put up points.
The only reason Alabama is ranked ahead of Auburn is consistency on defense, but help is on the way in the form of former Florida head coach Will Muschamp. Muschamp may have failed as a head coach in his first run, but he is undoubtedly one of the best defensive minds in the whole nation.
3 - LSU Tigers
The Tigers need to improve on offense to compete in the SEC this season. I wouldn’t argue with anyone who had more faith in Ole Miss than LSU entering the season, but something tells me LSU will figure something out at quarterback and lean on a run-heavy offense and strong defense to once again be a key player in the division.
New coordinator Kevin Steele takes over a talented defense with a tremendous secondary, but he’ll need to figure out how to generate a better pass rush than LSU had last season in an SEC that is slowly evolving into pass-happy league. The key will be offense, however, and running back Leonard Fournette has the potential to be the best player in the league. If LSU can figure out the quarterback position, Les Miles’ club could shock the conference.
4 - Mississippi Rebels
Under head coach Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss has increased its win total in each season. This year may be no different. The 2015 version of the Rebels may be his best team to date. The defense has been the anchor for Ole Miss in recent years, but Freeze brought in Chad Kelly, once a Clemson Tiger, from the JUCO ranks to lead this year’s offense.
Ole Miss must replace two starters at cornerback, but the team has one of the most talented defensive lines in the entire country. If the secondary can hold its own, Ole Miss is a factor in the SEC West this season.
5 - Arkansas Razorbacks
Arkansas is back. The Razorbacks took a huge step forward in Bret Bielema’s second season at the helm, but this team still isn’t quite ready to compete for a trophy in the toughest division in college football. What makes Arkansas unique is its style of play. It is an old-school SEC team that relies heavily on the run and puts a huge emphasis on strong play along the offensive and defensive lines. Brandon Allen returns at quarterback, but it will be the running back duo of Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins who are the stars of the offense.
The defense has holes to fill, but the belief is that talent is waiting in the wings. Arkansas still needs to get over the hump on the road and in close games, but a lack of explosiveness in the passing game keeps the Razorbacks toward the bottom of the vaunted SEC West.
6 - Texas A&M Aggies
Kevin Sumlin’s crew hasn’t had a problem scoring points since joining the SEC, but the defense remains a question mark leading into the 2015 season. To help fix that problem, the Aggies hired away former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis, but the group may still be a year away from being physical enough to stop the offenses it will face on a weekly basis. Texas A&M’s defense will be young and inexperienced up front, but defensive end Myles Garrett is a young superstar on the verge of breaking out on the national scene.
The offense will once again be explosive with Kyle Allen at quarterback and a talented group of wide receivers, but it is hard to outscore opponents on a consistent basis in the SEC when the defense is lacking so far behind the offense.
7 - Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs had a dream season in 2014 before falling off toward the end of the season, but it was still one of the best seasons in school history. It will be hard to replicate that success after losing 15 starters from last year’s squad. Quarterback Dak Prescott can do it all, but he’ll need to find weapons in a hurry for Mississippi State to threaten the top teams in the division.
Mississippi State is probably the best team in the nation predicted to finish last in its division, but that is what happens in the SEC West when so much turnover takes place in the starting lineup.
1 - Tennessee Volunteers
Georgia is the most talented team in the SEC East, but the fact the Bulldogs play Alabama and Auburn in the crossover schedule plus quarterback issues for Georgia make Tennessee my favorite to take the SEC East this year. Butch Jones has done an excellent job in his first few seasons in Knoxville, and his team is poised to take the next jump this season with 17 starters returning from a team that went 7-6 last year. The defensive line should be the strength of the team, but finding a middle linebacker to replace A.J. Johnson will be key.
Offensively, Tennessee has weapons all over the field. Joshua Dobbs shocked many when he ascended up the depth chart and took over as quarterback, but his consistency and football IQ fit perfectly in the Tennessee offense. The biggest question mark is at offensive line, but if the big boys up front can improve and prevent sacks, Tennessee could end up in the SEC Championship Game.
2 - Georgia Bulldogs
A tough crossover schedule with the SEC East and uncertainty at quarterback will be tough to overcome for the Bulldogs this season. The group will enter the season as most people’s favorites to win the SEC East, but Mark Richt teams are known for underachieving. The offense will be led by sophomore running back Nick Chubb, who is a Heisman candidate after a breakout freshman campaign. The offensive line will be experienced and talented, but the Bulldogs must find a steady hand at the quarterback position to make a run at a division title.
The defense has let down Georgia in the past few seasons, and while newcomers like Trent Thompson should bolster the defensive line, there are still plenty of question marks on that side of the ball. The talent is there, but until Georgia shows consistency week in and week out, it is hard to predict the Bulldogs to win the SEC East.
3 - Missouri Tigers
Missouri has made a living surprising the pundits since joining the SEC three years ago. The Tigers have made two trips to the conference title game in that span and enter the 2015 season as a team again overlooked. Tennessee and Georgia are better on paper, but Missouri has shown the ability to outperform more talented teams since leaving the Big 12. Quarterback Maty Mauk played really well late in the season and should be more consistent as a junior.
Defense is where Missouri has excelled, especially up front. The pass-rushing ability of the Tigers has been dominant in the past few seasons, and it will need to be again for Missouri to shock the SEC East and win its third division title in four years.
4 - Florida Gators
The Gators are under new leadership in 2015, as Jim McElwain takes over as head coach for Will Muschamp. McElwain has an offensive background, but Florida needs a lot of work to regain the offensive form that led it to prominence under Urban Meyer. The offensive line should be good and there are weapons at the skill positions, but uncertainty at quarterback could once again be the undoing in the Swamp.
Defense hasn’t been an issue for Florida, even during the bad years under Muschamp. There is talent on the roster, but it won’t matter if the offense can’t catchup to the offense's level of play.
5 - South Carolina Gamecocks
The 2014 season is one South Carolina fans want to forget. Steve Spurrier’s team was blown out by Texas A&M to start the season and never fully recovered, finishing 3-5 in SEC play thanks in large part to a defense that struggled throughout the season. Gone is quarterback Dylan Thompson, who set the school’s single-season passing record last year. Spurrier is known as a quarterback guru, and Connor Mitch appears to be next in line.
Jon Hoke was hired to fix one of the worst defenses in the SEC, but asking him to do that in one offseason is a lot to expect for South Carolina. The Gamecocks will move to a 4-3 defense in 2015 and will likely need a year to adjust to the new style.
6 - Kentucky Wildcats
Mark Stoops’ team showed improvement in his second year as a head coach, but the program isn’t in a position to compete at the top level of college football. Recruiting is getting better, but the roster can’t stack up to the rest of the teams in the conference. Kentucky gave Stoops’ program more resources, including a stadium renovation. That is a good sign for a school that is known for basketball.
This is a big year for Stoops and his program because the fan base wants results. The team started 5-1 in 2014 before losing its last six games, which illustrates the depth concerns Kentucky has a hard time overcoming against top-flight opponents in the SEC.
7 - Vanderbilt Commodores
Vanderbilt will be bad. Very bad.
(Editor's note: Oh, Mike. Ye of little faith. I almost went to Vandy, so there's a soft spot here. - Scribe)
A former newspaper man, Mike Craven is the publisher of BirdsUp.com of the Rivals.com network. His work can also be found in Dave Campbell's Texas Football Magazine and in the Texas FNF Magazine.