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2015 Preview: Picking the SEC

Oh, you thought I forgot about the SEC? think again. I was merely saving the best for last.

The SEC did not have a postseason to remember last season, leaving the door open for SEC haters and critics to blast the conference. The truth is the SEC remains the strongest conference from top to bottom with the talent coming in (and leaving for the NFL) and the coaching is improving as well. Every conference is due to have a mediocre season or postseason, and last year it was finally the SEC’s turn to experience the taste of defeat in the bowl season. Much will be made about the SEC’s championship drought (two whole years now), but that is just a minor part of the equation. The SEC may not be a lock to get a team in the playoff this season, although it may have the best chance to send a two-loss conference champion to the four-team field. As it turns out, that’s exactly what I am predicting.

Here are my SEC predictions ahead of the 2015 season. Sadly, I never got around to posting my MAC or Sun Belt predictions before the start of the season, but those will be posted next week for the sake of clarity. All of the games have been picked and are saved in my spreadsheet, and all games were picked prior to the start of the 2015 season openers. You can also catch up on my other preseason predictions to date:

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SEC EAST

1. Tennessee (10-2, 6-2 SEC)

When I started going through the schedules one game at a time, I admit this one caught me by surprise. Butch Jones has things moving in the right direction in Knoxville, but I thought we would be talking about the Vols as a more legitimate SEC contender starting in 2016. It turns out I like this team and this schedule a lot more than I anticipated I would this fall. Maybe the SEC East just isn’t that far out of reach. The returning offense continues to grow and running back Jalen Hurd and receivers Marquez North, Von Pearson and Pig Howard are going to make some big things happen, while the Vols defense takes another step forward. Freshman defensive tackle Kahlil McKenzie should have an immediate impact up front while the secondary returns three starters that should create some turnovers. The key three-game stretch for me includes back-to-back home games against Arkansas and Georgia. I think the Vols split those two, taking the division game against Georgia (Georgia plays Alabama the prior week, and I have Georgia winning that). Tennessee then gets a bye week to prepare for the Crimson Tide on the road, which I do not see resulting in a win. Either way, I have Tennessee as my pick to win the SEC East and returning to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007.

2. Georgia (9-3, 6-2, SEC)

Of all the teams in the SEC East, Georgia appears to be the most well-rounded to start the season. Virginia transfer Greyson Lambert has won the starting nod from Mark Richt, which either means Georgia has some serious quarterback concerns or Richt knows something Mike London did not at Virginia. Either way, handing off to Nick Chubb is never a bad option. Chubb is one fo the best running backs in the SEC, and perhaps the nation, and the Bulldogs return all but one starter on the offensive line. Georgia’s defense has something to prove but the secondary will be experienced this season and that’s always good. Georgia’s schedule receives a double dose of Iron Bowl rivals, with Alabama traveling to Athens (I have Georgia winning) and Georgia visiting Auburn (I have Auburn). Georgia’s trip to Tennessee could be tricky given it comes the week following the Alabama game.

3. Missouri (9-3, 5-3 SEC)

After two straight trips to the SEC Championship Game as the East Division champs, how can I count the Tigers out of the running this season? Mizzou just seems to find its way to the top of the division, but I think it is just out of reach this fall. They will get off to a good start though. I have Missouri winning its first six games of the year before tripping up against Georgia in Athens. After rebounding with a few wins, I think Missouri’s dream of claiming a third straight SEC East crown falls apart with late losses to Tennessee and Arkansas.

4. Florida (6-6, 3-5 SEC)

We should not be expecting too much from the Florida Gators in the first year under new head coach Jim McElwain, but we should look for some signs of improvement on offense. McElwain does not have a ton of returning experience coming back, which makes the first three games of the year a good time to try to get everything together before hitting the real meat of the schedule. Florida needs to find offensive players that can make plays. Look for improved offensive line play from the Gators, and then see if anything can develop at the skill positions after that. It will have to happen fast if Florida is going to escape Lexington with a win against Kentucky (as I’m predicting), and then a brutal four-game stretch of Tennessee, Ole Miss, at Missouri and at LSU takes the Gators to the bye week. After that is the meeting with Georgia. At least things have a chance to end on a positive note for the Gators with likely wins against Vanderbilt and Florida Atlantic coming down the stretch. A bowl game is possible, but the Gators will have to sneak in late in the season.

5. South Carolina (5-7, 2-6 SEC)

It seems we have seen the best football South Carolina had to offer a few years ago. Steve Spurrier’s Gamecocks have room for improvement in 2015 after a 7-6 season last year, and plenty fo holes to fill on offense. Aside from wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, South Carolina does not return any starter at a skill position. Connor Mitch looks to be the most likely replacement at quarterback and the running game could be a bit of a running committee. South Carolina also has to improve the defense, which was a wreck last season. If South Carolina manages to get to the bye week wiht a winning record, a bowl trip should be in their sights. But opening against North Carolina in Charlotte could go either way and road games at Georgia and Missouri and a home game against LSU will not be easy.

6. Kentucky (4-8, 1-7 SEC)

Here we go again. Is this the year Kentucky scratches together six wins to become bowl eligible? I continue to like the direction Mark Stoops has this program heading, although I think getting to six wins this season will once more prove to be just out of reach. Kentucky’s margin for error is slim because there is a rough stretch out of a bye week that includes Auburn, Mississippi State, Tennessee and Georgia. And until Kentucky beats Florida, I count that as a likely loss until proven otherwise.

7. Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8 SEC)

And then there is Vanderbilt. Just as you can count on Alabama to bring in a top recruiting class year in and year out, you can just as reliably count on Vanderbilt to finish in last place in the SEC East. Derek Mason once again has his work cut out for him at Vandy, this despite returning 17 projected starters this fall. Perhaps that experience will help make this Vanderbilt team a bit more competitive, but there just are not many wins on the schedule for the Commodores this season. And there may be no wins in SEC play. Vanderbilt opens with a tough draw out of Conference USA, with Western Kentucky, and that is followed by Georgia. An 0-2 start is extremely likely. After the bye week, it could be loss after loss the rest of the way too.

SEC WEST

1. Auburn (10-2, 6-2 SEC)

Auburn has become one of the trendy picks for the SEC and playoff chase this season, and I believe it is easy to see why. Yes, there are some legitimate question marks facing the Tigers this season with a makeover on the offensive line and half the defense to replace. We also have to see what Jeremy Johnson does at quarterback, although many feel pretty optimistic about his performance this season. What I like most about Auburn is the hiring of Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. Rarely do I think the hiring of a coordinator pushes a team over the edge, but I think enough pieces fall in place for Auburn to make this a real possibility. As you will see, I have every team in the SEC West losing at least one game in sEC play, which means Auburn will benefit from winning more late in the season than others. Auburn is my pick to find a way out of the SEC West battle because I trust Gus Malzahn to have the offense ready to go to work and I expect Muschamp to have a positive enough impact on defense to make at least a few stops along the way.

2. Alabama (10-2, 6-2 SEC)

Alabama may turn out to be the best two-loss team in the country, but that will not be enough to lay claim to the sEC West in my predictions. Alabama head coach Nick Saban will hope Lane Kiffin can keep the offense up to par despite a massive overhaul across the board. Fortunately, Alabama’s defense should be in good enough shape, and there is enough talent coming in to the program through recruiting to suggest Alabama’s offense will be just fine. But road trips to Georgia and Auburn ultimately cost Alabama a spot in the playoff and the SEC Championship Game.

3. LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC)

LSU has my preseason SEC Offensive Player of the Year in running back Leonard Fournette, who could very well be on his way to New York City at the end of the season. Fournette will have a solid enough offensive line in front of him, although two starters in the middle need to be replaced by young talent. LSU’s biggest concern may be in the passing game, where LSU once again seems to have a quarterback concern. For all the talent this program brings in and pumps out to the NFL, quarterback never seems to be a position that carries much confidence. I can’t figure that one out. Whatever the case, I have LSU stringing together eight straight wins to start the season, which will make them the last sEC team to lose a game. Will that mean the Tigers are a No. 1 team in the land by the time they hit their bye week, just before traveling to Alabama? Why yes, it could mean just that. But how will LSU play on the road against Alabama, who also gets a bye week to prepare, and can the Tigers avoid slipping up on the road against a dangerous Ole Miss team two weeks later (and don’t forget about Arkansas in between those two games)?

4. Arkansas (9-3, 5-3 SEC)

Here is my wild card team in the SEC. Bret Bielema will take to the ground as often as he can, and why wouldn’t he with Alex Collins to work with? Collins will take on an increased work load with the injury to Jonathan Williams getting in the way of the senior. Collins will have a beefy offensive line to run behind, returning four starters from a season ago. Arkansas will work the clock better than any team in the SEC, but may have to rely on the passing game at a few points this season, and that remains a bit of an inconsistency. But Brandon Allen performed well last season and could be improved this season despite working with yet another offensive coordinator. The Razorback defense may not be lethal, but they can make some plays.

5. Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4 SEC)

The most experienced team in the SEC West makes Ole Miss a strong contender in the conference according to some. I’m just not so sure there will be enough magic to work with this season. I love seeing Laquon Treadwell back and healthy after his nasty injury last season, and I expect a big year out of him. Ole Miss returns just about everybody else on offense too, although Chad Kelly, the former Clemson quarterback, takes over under center as the post-Bo Wallace era begins. I also really like the defense Ole Miss will bring. I just wonder if this team can capture the same magic on the road against Alabama and Auburn to stay in the hunt. I have Ole Miss also losing on the road in the Egg Bowl, as well as at home to LSU.

6. Texas A&M (7-5, 4-4 SEC)

The Aggies will serve up plenty of offense against most teams, but is it good enough to solve a team that can actually play defense? Or two teams that play defense? Or three? That remains to be seen. Meanwhile, the Aggies still need to show they can play defense as well. Texas A&M’s defense was prone to giving up yards and points last season, but the hope is the hiring of John Chavis has the same sort of impact I’m expecting Muschamp to have at Auburn. I’m not as confident it will. But the Aggies roll to a bowl game anyway.

7. Mississippi State (7-5, 3-5 SEC)

The worst team in the SEC West will still win seven games and play in a bowl game.  Mississippi State loses a ton of talent from last year’s Cinderella season, but they bring back Dak Prescott at quarterback and that is nothing to sneeze about. Prescott has just two offensive linemen returning from last season, so there may be some pressure on him to make some plays happen in the early going. I have Mississippi State getting off to a very bumpy start in conference play, with losses to LSU, Auburn and Texas A&M, but Dan Mullen’s Bulldogs will keep the ship afloat after that and manage a winning season, capped by a victory in the Egg Bowl to avenge last season’s demoralizing loss.

SEC CHAMPIONSHIP GAME

Auburn over Tennessee

Riding the momentum from a victory in the Iron Bowl, the Tigers set aside the Vols in Atlanta. Now the only question left to answer is whether or not a two-loss SEC champion makes it into the College Football Playoff. Fortunately for Auburn, I’m predicting that to be the case, as I have the Tigers as the No. 3 seed in my College Football Playoff projection.

SEC Offensive Player of the Year: Leonard Fournette, LSU

I strongly believe Fournette has a path to New York City as a Heisman Trophy finalist in his sights. Heck, he’s already struck the traditionally inaccurate Heisman pose as a freshman, so you know he plans on being there.

SEC Defensive Player of the Year: Vernon Hargreaves, Florida DB

Florida may have a few concerns this season, but Vernon Hargreaves will not be one of them. Already the top defensive back in the SEC, if he can make a few big plays happen to help push Florida into a bowl game, this award may turn out to be his to lose.

SEC Coach of the Year: Butch Jones, Tennessee

After getting Tennessee to the SEC Championship Game, no other coach will come close to being worthy of such an accolade. Though the Vols come up shy of the SEC title, Tennessee will be a top 10 program on the rise heading into 2016 under Jones.

So that is how I have things playing out in the SEC. Be sure to see what Athlon Sports is predicting, and check to see what The Student Section has to say about the Pac-12 this fall.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on NBCSports.com. Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.
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