Deke: A look at the SEC, Part 5: Mississippi, Missouri and 'Bama
by Deke Bellavia,posted Jul 22 2014 5:04PM
Missouri Tigers: Even in his wildest dreams, head coach Gary Pinkel would have not envisioned what his Tigers did last season. And then Cinderella arrived!
The Tigers went to the SEC title game and were one of a handful of teams that had a shot to play in the national title game, had they won the SEC Championship. The Tigers lost a high scoring affair to Auburn, but Missouri's story was an incredible one to follow.
They had their best season in history, posting 12 wins, a spot in the SEC title game, and a Cotton Bowl victory. Missouri won seven more games in 2013 than the five win total they earned in their first season in SEC play back in 2012.
Missouri's offense will have the luxury of bringing back QB Maty Mauck. Mauck came in last season and did well while QB James Franklin was out with an injury. Mauck threw for over one thousand yards and 11 TD's, and brings a solid skill set to the Tigers, as he can elude defenders with his feet. Mauck rushed for 229 yards and a TD in 2013. He will have to get familiar with three new WR's this season - all three of the Tigers' leading receivers are no longer with the team, and that is a bit of concern.
The Tigers do have some experience at RB with Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbourgh back in the fold.
Over on defense, the Tigers were hit hard by the draft and graduation. In my opinion, the best player on the Tigers defense was Kony Ealy, who is now in the NFL. Same with the Co-SEC Defensive Player of the year in Michael Sam. Both players had great seasons in 2013 and their leadership is going to be missed.
In 2013 LB Kentrell Brothers emerged as a legit defender. As a sophomore, Brothers had 70 stops along with three interceptions. The top returning pass rushers are DE's Markus Golden and Shane Ray. Golden and Ray combined for 11 QB sacks last year.
The Tigers' schedule sets up for Missouri to once again get off to a hot start. I can see a 5-0 start occurring before a big road trip to South Carolina takes place. Then the Tigers have an off week before hosting UGA and then going back on the road to take on the Gators. If the Tigers can come out of that three game stretch 2-1, I think that Missouri will once again be a factor in the SEC East title hunt.
Alabama Crimson Tide: When you start a season 11-0 and lose your last two games, that is still a great season, right? Not in Alabama! Love them or hate them, Alabama is the most consistent football program in the game today, and I don' t think their roll will stop anytime soon. Alabama will walk back onto the gridiron as the favorite to win the national title. Not many programs, if any, could lose a solid veteran QB in A.J. McCarron and still be the favorite, but Bama is doing it!
I do think that replacing A.J. is going to be much more difficult than most expect. Even though the Tide will support their new starting QB with an abundant amount of weapons, having a calm, cool, "been there done that" guy in the huddle and under center is something that is irreplaceable. Alabama has the luxury of grooming up their new QB without major pressure to come in and make plays.
Three excellent RB's are in the fold to lead the Tide offense. T.J. Yeldon (6.2 ypc) led the SEC in rushing last season with an average of 144 yards per game, while Kenyan Drake averaged a whopping eight yards per tote last season. Drake had some off-field issues earlier this summer but is expected to be with the team. And of course there is Derrick Henry, who was a bright spot in Alabama's 45-31 Sugar Bowl loss to Oklahoma. Henry carried the ball eight times for 100 yards and he hauled in a TD reception as well. Handing the ball off to either of those three RB's will make things much less stressful for the new QB and the new offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin.
Alabama also welcomes back the speedy Amari Cooper. Cooper averaged 18.4 yards per catch during his sophomore season and should be a big boost to the Tide air attack in 2014. Alabama has a couple of Louisiana boys at the WR spot and both could see some playing time.
Former Carver standout Raheem Falkins is a big 6-4 WR that could make an impact, and WR Cam Sims is from Monroe. Sims is another big target at 6-4 and he got to campus in the spring. Veteran WR DeAndrew White is back this season too.
Over on defense, the Tide just reload each season. LB Trey DePriest leads a solid core of LB's and DB Landon Collins could see his last season of playing for the Tide, as Collins is expected to be among the nation's elite defenders entering his junior season.
A'Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed both looked impressive in the Tide's A-Day spring game. Depth and experience is not a concern, as many players see valuable playing time when games are out of reach. And those times are when Nick Saban is at his best preparing his future starters for their time on the field.
Alabama opens the season with an interesting game against WVU. The Mountaineers are not expected to be among the better teams in the Big XII this season but WVU does some things on offense that can create problems.
The toughest part of the Tide's schedule takes place from early October through early November. Florida, Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU appear in that stretch. The final game has the Tide hosting that other team from the state in the annual Iron Bowl.
Alabama would have to slip and fall not to be among the nation's elite team's. Road games at Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU are intriguing but the Tide have been in so many big games at home and on the road that very little rattles this team.
Another run at the SEC Title and the national title are certainly in the forecast in 2014. Put it this way - you might hate Alabama, but nobody hates money. And wether it's you're money or my money, it would be wise to bet on this Tide to roll!
Ole Miss Rebels: After an exciting season that finished with wins over rival Mississippi State and a Bowl win in January of 2014, the fans of the Ole Miss Rebels are hyped about the 2014 season.
With one of the top recruiting classes in hand, including the nation's best player, the Rebels looked even more ready to become a serious player in the SEC Western Division going in to 2013.
But a 3-5 SEC mark that included a loss to rival MSU on Thanksgiving kind of put a damper on the Rebels eight win season. Ole Miss did beat LSU, and won eight games for the first time in four seasons, but I think the Rebels and coach Hugh Freeze were expecting more than that. Is 2014 the year the Rebels rise to the top in the SEC West?
The Rebels offense was OK last season, averaging 421.5 yards per game - but to only score 23 points per contest was disappointing. If the Rebels can be excited about one phase of their offense it has to be the passing attack and the return of veteran QB Bo Wallace. Wallace was second in the SEC averaging 283.4 yards passing per game and the Rebels were 2nd in the SEC as a team in passing yards last season.
Wallace is back and so is WR Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell was one of the best freshman players in all of CFB last season, and I think he was a top five WR in the nation in 2013. The freshman sensation was 2nd in the league averaging seven receptions per contest for the Rebels. WR Evan Engram is back too, and that should allow Wallace to have two legit targets going into the season.
At RB the return of I'Tavius Mathers and Jaylen Walton gives Ole Miss some good balance as both have good speed, and bring solid skill sets to the Rebels offense. Ole Miss finished 8th in the SEC in total offense this season and I look for the Rebels to have a top 5 unit in 2014.
The Rebels defense needs to improve. Allowing 422 yards per game and 28 points are not going to get the Rebels where they want to be in the stout SEC Western Division. It's easy to overlook the fact that the Rebels are still very young on this side of the football. Robert Nkemdiche had a nice season as a freshman but the nation's top high school recruit had to battle injuries and at times played like a freshman.
DE C.J. Johnson returns and should add pass rushing help to the Rebels front and does NT Issac Gross. Gross had 3.5 sacks last season and is expected to be better as a junior.
The Rebels defense saw a lot of young faces hit the field and the hope of playing so many young players is that they begin to pay off this season. Trae Elston and Tony Conner are two examples. SS Elston saw significant action during his sophomore season in which he averaged six tackles per game. And Conner recorded five tackles per game as a freshman in 2013.
The Rebels will know quite early how good they are to start 2014. I think the Rebels have one of the tougher schedules in all of CFB.
Five of the Rebels first six games are against teams that played in a bowl last season. The opener is a tough one against Boise State in Atlanta. Then the Rebels play at Vanderbilt before coming home to entertain a nine win ULL Ragin Cajun Team that is predicted to win their conference.
The Rebels annual tilt with nearby rival Memphis takes place before a biggie against Alabama. Now I cautiously say this, but if the Rebels could somehow be 4-0 when Alabama comes to Oxford, then it's on! Ole Miss got burned last season when they put all of their eggs in one basket and seemingly hinged the entire season on how they played against the Tide. It was not even close as Alabama wiped the floor with the Rebels.
Ole Miss is in a better place overall with their football program. Are the Rebels ready to become a serious consistent contender in the SEC West? We will find out!