A true Southerner has an enormous appreciation for Tennessee whiskey, Kentucky bourbon, Georgia peaches, Texas barbecue and Louisiana gumbo.
Of course, the good folks down South also have an awesome appreciation for sports. That makes for some extremely attractive road trips like Daytona in February, Augusta in April or Louisville in May.
Yet, none may be as desirable a destination as Atlanta in December when cheering interests extend way beyond a driver, a golfer or a racehorse and more is at stake than a green jacket or a blanket of roses.
That’s where state pride, bragging rights and football supremacy in the Southeastern Conference– the best damn football conference in the country– can be attained.
Football enthusiasts from Kentucky to College Station and from Fayetteville to Florida approach every new season with hopes their team can negotiate through three months of obstacles and reach Atlanta – or, more specifically, the Georgia Dome.
There, the SEC championship is up for grabs. Once the SEC crown is won the national title often follows. A Southeastern Conference team has claimed the national championship in seven of the last eight seasons, so an SEC trophy might as well be an engraved invitation to the College Football Playoffs.
But who will get that invitation? Will it be a team other than Alabama or Auburn, which have combined to win five of the past six SEC championships?
The West obviously has dominated in recent seasons, but uncertainty at quarterback could pose a problem for several teams in that treacherous division.
Though East Division teams have struggled lately against their West rivals, the anticipated resurgence of the Tennessee Volunteers and a coaching change in Florida might signal a shift in the balance of power.
Then again, it might not. That’s uncertain.
However, what is assured is thousands of SEC fans will venture to Atlanta in December to find out.
Just as any true Southerner would.
Big-play quarterback Nick Marshall, who brought the Tigers within seconds of a national championship in 2013, completed his eligibility. Yet, the feeling down on the Plains is that junior Jeremy Johnson actually will be an upgrade. There is no reason to disagree. Johnson showed flashes of brilliance when he played, has a strong group of receivers led by Duke Williams and has coach Gus Malzahn guiding him. The arrival of Defensive Coordinator Will Muschamp will bolster a unit that was ninth in the SEC in total defense last season. With All-SEC CB Jonathan Jones and stalwart LB Casanova McKinzy back for another season, and DE Carl Lawson returning from a knee injury, the Tigers defense will be much improved.
Most teams replacing a starting quarterback, a starting running back, three top receivers and most of its offensive line would expect to struggle. Alabama expects to contend for a national title because the roster remains teeming with talent. Yes, Jacob Coker has to prove he can be an effective quarterback, but running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake will more than compensate for the loss of T.J. Yeldon. Alabama’s offense doesn’t figure to be as explosive as last year’s unit that averaged 36.9 points, but that won’t be necessary. The Tide defense could be as formidable as the 2012 edition that led the nation in points allowed. LB Reggie Ragland has All-American ability and A’Shawn Robinson routinely wreaks havoc on the defensive line. If progress is made in the secondary, Alabama’s defense may again be the best in the nation.
The Rebels appeared headed to the SEC championship game last season until WR Laquan Treadwell broke his leg and fumbled at the goal line in a 35-31 loss to Auburn. The Rebels never quite recovered, but Treadwell has. Tackle Laremy Tunsil is another. He could be the SEC’s best blocker. Also, All-American tackle Robert Nkemdiche heads a list of seven starters returning from the nation’s stingiest defense in 2014. If quarterback Chad Kelly, a highly-regarded junior college transfer, flourishes in coach Hugh Freeze’s offense the Rebels could finally win the West Division.
Despite a starting lineup infested with freshmen the Aggies posted eight victories in 2014. With more experience A&M should increase the win total. The Aggies averaged 35 points with true freshman quarterback Kyle Allen starting about half the season and three receivers in their first year of big-time college football. Expect more productivity on offense. Of course, A&M’s problem has been abysmal defense. Enter new Defensive Coordinator John Chavis. He takes over a defense that had as many as five true freshmen starters, most notably All-SEC DE Myles Garrett. If Chavis transforms A&M’s defense into anything resembling the units he fielded at LSU and Tennessee, the Aggies will be contenders.
A strong finish which included victories over LSU, Ole Miss and Texas made the Razorbacks a trendy pick to contend in the West. That’s assuming the defense can adequately replace All-SEC selections Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight and two other former starters that were taken in the NFL draft. We’ll see. We’ve seen enough to believe in coach Bret Bielema’s running game. RBs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams both exceeded 1,000 yards rushing last season and are running behind a massive offensive line anchored by tackle Denver Kirkland that returns almost intact. However, the passing game needs work.
Sophomore RB Leonard Fournette is a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate. Receivers Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre are big-play threats. Unfortunately, the situation at QB is uncertain – and that’s putting it kindly. Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris both struggled -- that’s also putting it kindly. One of them must emerge as an adequate passer or the Tigers could be in trouble. LSU always seems to compensate for offensive issues with a strong defense. But the defense was uncharacteristically vulnerable at times last season. An improved pass rush is desperately needed.
Dak Prescott is the conference’s best QB and De’Runnya Wilson is one of the best WRs. Unfortunately, the Bulldogs offensive line is being rebuilt and the running backs are unproven. Also, the defense has to fill the voids left by eight departed starters, including All-SEC picks Benardrick McKinney and Preston Smith.
Probable starting QB Brice Ramsey has attempted just 39 passes, which normally would be cause for concern. Georgia minds are eased, however, by the presence of dynamic sophomore RB Nick Chubb, who exploded for 1,547 yards and 14 TDs a year ago. Senior T John Theus heads up a powerful offensive line that returns intact, so Chubb figures to post more gaudy statistics. The defense should be better in its second season under Defensive Coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The secondary was much improved in 2014 and three starters are back. LBs Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins can rush the passer, but the Bulldogs must be better against the run.
The Volunteers finally appear primed to break out of a long period of mediocrity. Tennessee is 40-47 over the past seven seasons, but last year’s 7-6 record was its best since 2009. The Volunteers are definitely trending upward in their third year under coach Butch Jones. Junior Joshua Dobbs has emerged as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks, sophomore RB Jalen Hurd figures to build on a strong debut season, four starters return in the offensive line and the receiving corps could be very good. The defense will be improved with DE Derek Barnett and LB Curt Maggitt leading the way.
We’re learning not to overlook the Tigers. The past two years Missouri won the East Division even though they didn’t appear to have the most talent. That could be the case again. Coach Gary Pinkel’s defense should be very good. DT Harold Brantley is a force, LBs Kentrell Brothers and Michael Scherer are productive and CBs Aarion Penton and Kenya Dennis are as good as any set in the division. There are doubts on offense, though. QB Maty Mauk struggled with accuracy and will be throwing to a group of unproven receivers. However, RB Russell Hansbrough exceeded 1,000 yards rushing in 2014 and has a solid offensive line to run behind.
The Gators have endured struggles in the last two seasons not seen since the pre-Steve Spurrier years. Enter new coach Jim McElwain, who aims to pump life into a moribund offense that was ranked 93rd in the nation in 2014. Quarterback play has been problematic since Tim Tebow’s exit in 2009. Redshirt freshman Will Grier might be the solution if he wins a competition with sophomore Treon Harris. Whoever prevails will have a big-play threat in WR Demarcus Robinson, who caught 53 passes for 810 yards last season. Florida has compensated for its recent offensive issues with an ornery defense. CB Vernon Hargreaves and LB Antonio Morrison, who is trying to come back from a knee injury, are among seven returning starters from a Top 15 defensive unit.
QB Patrick Towles and WR Ryan Timmons could be the most under rated pass/catch combination in the conference. That is if Timmons comes back strong from ankle and shoulder injuries. Fortunately, Kentucky’s offensive line is projected to be better than it has been in recent seasons. Four starters return there. The Wildcats can score – Florida, South Carolina, Mississippi State, Georgia and Louisville can attest to that. Keeping opponents out of the end zone is another matter. Kentucky was 93rd in the nation in points allowed.
After three straight 11-win seasons the Gamecocks dipped to seven victories last season. Frankly, South Carolina appears hard pressed to match that win total. There is an impressive group of receivers led by explosive Pharoh Cooper. The rub is that Cooper has thrown more collegiate passes (11) than probable starting QB Connor Mitch (6). Six starters are back from a defense that allowed at least 34 points in seven games. Although LB Skai Moore is a good one and DE Marquavius Lewis, a junior college transfer, certainly will help, that may not be enough to ensure significant improvement.
Despite just entering his second season in Nashville, coach Derek Mason is already under fire in the wake of a 3-9 debut season. Perhaps the return of 17 starters will ease some of the pressure. Productive Ralph Webb is a solid RB and freshman WR Trent Sherfield has great potential, but neither Johnny McCrary nor Wade Freeback distinguished themselves at QB. The Commodores defense allowed more than 35 points per game against SEC teams. If that doesn’t change the heat on Mason will increase substantially.