After a second straight year without a national title, the SEC enters the 2015 season with plenty of questions: questions about whether the conference is as tough as it once was, questions about who’s worthy of a College Football Playoff spot in what appears to be a deep, balanced league. Both divisions look up for grabs, several teams seem capable of a run to the playoff but no one team has a clear-cut path and some coach making $4 million or more will finish last in the SEC West. Will 2015 be the year the SEC erases any emerging doubts about its supremacy? One thing is certain—it’ll be fun to find out.
Conference title game: Auburn over Georgia
Names to know
Three key nonconference games
Alabama vs. Wisconsin (in Arlington, Texas) (Sept. 5)
The Badgers and Crimson Tide share one thing in common: They both suffered postseason losses to Ohio State. Now those two programs get a chance to prove they’ve gotten over that disappointment. Alabama will break in a new starting quarterback this year, as well as eight other new starters on offense. Meanwhile, new Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst should have another stout running back (Corey Clement) to use against the Tide’s defensive front. This game could set the tone for both teams’ seasons.
Oklahoma at Tennessee (Sept. 12)
An opener against Bowling Green in Nashville won’t serve as an adequate barometer for the Volunteers’ potential in 2015. That should come the next week against Oklahoma in Neyland Stadium. The Sooners are fresh off a lackluster eight-win season and generally regarded as a step behind Baylor and TCU in the Big 12. But this is still Oklahoma, a perennial power that’ll threaten a much-hyped Tennessee team with 17 returning starters. With both teams eyeing a rise to the top of their respective conferences, this game will serve as a launching pad for someone.
Georgia at Georgia Tech (Nov. 28)
Last year’s installment of this in-state rivalry was a doozy, with Georgia Tech escaping Athens with a wild 30–24 overtime win. The stakes could be higher in 2015, when the Bulldogs and Yellow Jackets should both contend for berths in a New Year’s Six bowl. Justin Thomas and Georgia Tech’s option offense will test the Dawgs’ run defense in front of a Yellow Jackets crowd. These two teams could use this nonconference win as a convincing argument for the College Football Playoff selection committee.
Three key conference games
Arkansas at Alabama (Oct. 10)
Last year’s matchup almost gave Bret Bielema his first SEC win as Arkansas’s head coach, but the Crimson Tide escaped with a 14–13 win in Fayetteville. This season the Razorbacks could be even more dangerous as a sleeper in the SEC West. This trip to Tuscaloosa is the first of a rough two-week stretch for Bielema’s squad; it faces off against Auburn at home the very next Saturday. Arkansas could make a statement with a strong performance in Bryant-Denny Stadium, but Alabama could also stiff-arm the Hogs and cement their divisional dominance.
Georgia vs. Florida (in Jacksonville, Fla.) (Oct. 31)
Folks in Athens still scratch their heads when they remember last year’s date with rival Florida. A Gators offense that couldn’t move the ball all season long overwhelmed the Bulldogs for 418 rushing yards in a shocking 38–20 upset. Had Georgia won that game, they’d have represented the East in the SEC championship. This season Florida has a new head coach in Jim McElwain, who has the offensive pedigree to right the ship in Gainesville. Expect the Bulldogs to have a bigger chip on their shoulder than usual, determined to not let their rivals spoil another division title.
Alabama at Auburn (Nov. 28)
The importance of this game can’t be overstated. The winner of the Iron Bowl has won the SEC in each of the last three years. We’ve seen this game shake up the national title picture on a second’s notice (Kick Six, anyone?). This year, Alabama’s quarterback situation will have been settled by this point in the season. We’ll also know what to make of defensive coordinator Will Muschamp’s defense at Auburn. All eyes will be on the Plains for this regular season finale that will almost surely have playoff implications.
Five key questions
1. Does Muschamp make Auburn an immediate playoff contender?
The Tigers are a trendy pick to win the SEC this year, and it’s not just because of what they bring back on the field. Coach Gus Malzahn’s hiring of Muschamp was just what the Tigers needed this off-season. The program finished ninth or worse in the SEC in every major defensive category in 2014. Now Muschamp, who coached top-10 defenses at Florida, takes over a unit headlined by talented defensive end Carl Lawson and linebacker Cassanova McKinzy. Auburn fans aren’t worried about their offense, where new quarterback Jeremy Johnson should lead a skilled group. But as last season illustrated, the defense has to keep up if the Tigers hope to bounce back. That’s why Muschamp could be Auburn’s most valuable team member.
2. Will Alabama’s quarterback play define its season?
Many worried about Alabama’s offense last season, when Nick Saban entered fall camp without a starting quarterback. Blake Sims eventually emerged and used an up-tempo style that averaged 36.9 points per game and helped the Crimson Tide reach the Sugar Bowl. This fall Alabama again enters fall camp without a starter but with no guarantees a steady option like Sims is waiting to step up. Instead, senior Florida State transfer Jake Coker and freshman David Cornwell appear tied at the top of the depth chart. Saban has proven he doesn’t need a prolific passer to win championships, but he does need stability. Do the Crimson Tide have a quarterback who can avoid pitfalls in the SEC West?
3. How much does Steve Spurrier have left in the tank?
The Gamecocks needed a tight win over Miami in the Independence Bowl to avoid Spurrier’s first losing season. That forced the Head Ball Coach to answer plenty of questions about retirement this off-season. After last year’s swoon, South Carolina must improve, particularly on defense, which was one of the SEC’s worst in 2014. Spurrier also must find a quarterback in the battle between untested names like Connor Mitch and Perry Orth. If the Gamecocks struggle for a second straight season, can the 70-year-old Spurrier stomach another rebuilding job? One thing’s for sure: He’s been adamant—even angry—about defending his future in Columbia.
4. Can the Mississippi programs build off of a stellar 2014?
Last year was a historic one for the SEC teams in the Magnolia State. Just over midway through the season, Mississippi State and Ole Miss both held 7–0 records for the first time ever. Both schools also appeared in the top four of the playoff selection committee’s first rankings. But the Bulldogs and Rebels eventually combined to lose seven games, including a pair of defeats in New Year’s Six bowls. This year, the two schools want to prove they belong among the SEC elites. Mississippi State returns Heisman-candidate quarterback Dak Prescott but only six other total starters. Ole Miss brings back talent like receiver Laquon Treadwell and defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche. The SEC West is only getting deeper, so can either Mississippi program prove last season wasn’t an anomaly?
5. Can Arkansas and Tennessee live up to the hype?
The Razorbacks and Volunteers combined for a 5–11 SEC record last year, yet both enter 2015 with big expectations. Arkansas returns a lot of bodies on both ends but already suffered a blow with running back Jonathan Williams’ foot injury that will keep him out for the regular season. For Tennessee, quarterback Josh Dobbs and defensive end Derek Barnett give coach Butch Jones a strong nucleus. But the Vols’ depth issues could show themselves as the season wears on while the Hogs’ schedule is a murderer’s row. Are Arkansas and Tennessee ready to contend with the big boys?
Will an SEC team win the College Football Playoff this season?
On SI Now, Former Florida State quarterback Danny Kanell discusses if there’s an SEC team that will separate itself enough to win a National Championship this season.