College football season is one of my favorite times of the year, and I’m not alone here in the South. Every red-blooded Southerner — even the ones who claim not to like football — understands how important college football is down here. The sport is an all-consuming obsession (some even call it a religion) for Southerners, and that makes Fall a magical time in the South.
In my new book, Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor: A Love Letter To The South, I’ve written quite a bit about the mystique of college football, and now, as we stand on the edge of a new season, I present to you ten big questions for the 2015 season of Southeastern Conference (SEC) football. Enjoy!
10. Will Steve Spurrier suffer his first losing season as an SEC head coach?
There’s no question that Steve Spurrier has had a stellar coaching career, especially in the SEC. His last losing season as a college football head coach was his first, when he led Duke to a 5-6 record in the Atlantic Coast Conference in 1987. He came close only one other year, when the South Carolina Gamecocks finished 6-6 in 2007.
For a few years, Spurrier and the Gamecocks played like college football greats, chalking up three 11-win seasons in a row and finishing 2013 ranked #4. But a disappointing 7-6 record in the 2014 season sent the Gamecocks crashing back to earth, and this season doesn’t look that promising, either. South Carolina faces some formidable opponents, especially in the conference, and some pundits predict that the Gamecocks will lose all four SEC away games on their way to a losing season.
On one hand, it could be sad to see such a storied coach struggle in the last few years of his career. But on the other hand, plenty of other SEC teams’ fans would relish watching the Evil Genius stumble.
9. Will Texas A&M be this year’s spoiler in the SEC?
Texas A&M will ring in their 2015 home opener on September 12 in the shiny new Kyle Field. The newly renovated stadium, 90% of which is new, is now the largest in the SEC — with a capacity of 102,512 — and the fourth largest in the nation. The question remains: will the new stadium be the stage for an exciting season for the Aggies?
With the hiring of high profile defensive coordinator John Chavis, Texas A&M possesses many of the pieces that could make the Aggies a spoiler team this year. Players like Myles Garrett, whom many believe will lead the SEC in sacks this season, ought to flourish under Chavis, and the Aggies’ defense could trip up many of their opponents.
A traditionally explosive offense paired with Chavis’ young and hungry defense could make Texas A&M one to watch in 2015.
8. Does Florida have any surprises up its sleeve?
Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, the Florida Gators sat among college football’s elite teams. But in the last few years, under Coach Will Muschamp, the Gators floundered and were mediocre at best. Under new head coach Jim McElwain, Florida enters the 2015 campaign with virtually no expectations but to rebuild.
To use two hoary cliches, the Gators have nothing to lose and nowhere to go but up. McElwain has sought to cobble together a new offense and make some statements in his first year as coach. He has hinted that he may use a two quarterback scheme in the season opener against New Mexico State, but beyond that, most everything is up in the air.
The Gators may surprise everyone with a winning season for a storied program that sorely needs some good news.
7. How will Arkansas fare after losing Jonathan Williams to injury?
Injury dealt the Arkansas Razorbacks a tough blow, when star running back Jonathan Williams went down with a hurt left foot. How badly will Williams’ injury be a setback for this rebuilding team?
Coach Bret Bielema is too smart to build his team around one player, so it may be time for other running backs to shine in Williams’ absence. Bielema is also creative enough to make the changes the team needs. The Razorbacks have an impressive quarterback in Brandon Allen and plenty more talent on offense, including Alex Collins, who will most likely bear the weight of the offense now that Williams is gone, and tight end Hunter Henry.
Don’t count Arkansas out this season. Before Williams’ injury, the Razorbacks were the subject of plenty of preseason attention, and now we’ll see if they can live up to the hype with one key man down.
6. Is Tennessee finally poised to return to greatness?
Like Florida, Tennessee has seen better days — just not the last few seasons. Coach Butch Jones has essentially been in rebuilding mode since his hiring in 2012. The Volunteers just might finally have the talent to make their way back into contention.
Talented quarterback Josh Dobbs has strong offensive help in Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd. On the other side of the ball, Derek Barnett looks to be a big star this year, and other defensive talents like Curt Magitt should prove to be difference makers.
The Tennessee Volunteers look like legitimate contenders for the first time in a long time.
5. Will Alabama or Auburn win the SEC West?
Just like the last few years, the SEC West looks like a tough division. Alabama is a perennial favorite — or at least it has been throughout Nick Saban’s tenure at head coach — and this year appears to be no exception. However, the Crimson Tide has lost a ton of talent throughout the offseason — including quarterback Blake Sims, and they just may not be as dominant as they have been in recent years.
And then there’s Auburn. There’s a ton of hype behind the Tigers this year, and much of it is justified. But in the last half of the season, Auburn faces some tough foes in Texas A&M, Georgia, and Ole Miss, so November won’t be easy for the Tigers. There isn’t even a guarantee that the Iron Bowl will go Auburn’s way.
With a passel of tough teams like Arkansas, Ole Miss, and Louisiana State University, the SEC West isn’t a given for either Alabama or Auburn, which should make the division plenty of fun to watch.
4. Who will start at quarterback for the Georgia Bulldogs?
The lion’s share of the chatter coming out of Athens centers on the quarterback position. Hutson Mason’s graduation left the position wide open, with no clear heir to the throne. Throughout the spring, we saw a two-man battle between Brice Ramsey and Faton Bauta, but the plot thickened in June when former Virginia QB Greyson Lambert announced his intent to transfer to Georgia and the NCAA allowed him to play immediately.
As summer wound down, Ramsey and Lambert seemed to jostle for the starting spot, with Bauta as an also-ran. But literally minutes before I sat down to write this post, Coach Mark Richt announced that Lambert would start the September 5 season opener against Louisiana-Monroe. Not so fast: Richt still considers his QB situation fluid: “Very, very close competition. Still being contested in my mind.”
Will Lambert earn the starting position, or do Ramsey and Bauta still have a shot?
3. Can an SEC team go undefeated this year?
The short, easy answer is: not likely. In a conference full of stiff competition, pretty much every SEC team is subject to an upset at some point in the season. Strong, highly competitive opponents within the conference have been known to break winning streaks.
But on the other hand, anything can happen, especially in the SEC. A handful of teams in the conference have a chance to run the table: among them, Georgia, Auburn, and Ole Miss. This trio of teams has talent and leadership — not to mention favorable schedules this season. If all the pieces to the puzzle line up in just the right way, we could see an SEC team walk away undefeated this year. But I wouldn’t count on it.
2. How many SEC teams will make it into the playoffs?
In the second year of the new college football playoff system, the kinks may not yet be worked out. Last year, Alabama was the lone representative of the SEC. Will 2015 see multiple SEC teams in the hunt for a championship? SEC fans sure hope so, but in the end it’s a difficult question to answer. Georgia, Auburn, and Alabama look like the best hope for the SEC to have a sole representative.
In a competitive conference like the SEC with so many great teams, the tendency for teams to cannibalize each other can emerge. For any SEC team, a conference game is a chance either to shine or to have playoff dreams dashed. The best option for two SEC teams to make it into the playoff picture would be for the SEC East and West division champs to face each other undefeated in Atlanta. Other than that, it doesn’t look likely for more than one SEC to represent in the playoffs.
1. Will the SEC return to the top of the college football mountain?
As you can see from the video above, 2014 didn’t end well for the SEC. Plenty of wags like the one in the voiceover were prepared to write the conference off. The first season without an SEC team in the title game since before the BCS era was a bitter pill to swallow, and SEC fans everywhere have waited on the edges of their seats since for football season to come around again.
At the dawn of the 2015 season, 14 teams are hungry, and they’re ready to do battle. A few of these teams have a legitimate shot at national success. The trouble this year is that several teams outside the SEC — like Ohio State, Oregon, and Baylor — are pretty fierce competition for the SEC. SEC teams will have to fight tooth and nail all season long for a record that will give them a shot at a national title.
Will the SEC win a national championship this year? My heart says yes, but my head is inconclusive. The SEC will return to championship dominance, and soon, but the jury’s out on whether this will be the year. We can still hope.
Now…who’s ready for college football season? In preparation for the season, be sure to download your copy of Football, Faith, and Flannery O’Connor. You won’t regret it!