If you accept that the stakes in athletic competition are directly proportional to: 1) how many people are invested in the outcome; and 2) how deeply those people care, then there is nowhere in college sports where there is more pressure than in Southeastern Conference football.
In 2015, here are the 10 SEC football figures under the most pressure to produce.10. Pharoh Cooper, wide receiver, South Carolina. Ever wonder what The Head Ball Coach could have done drawing up plays for Randall Cobb? The dynamic 5-foot-11, 208-pound Cooper — 69 receptions, 1,136 yards; 200 yards rushing; 5-of-8 passing for two TDs — is a pretty fair Cobb replica.
With star running back Mike Davis and starting quarterback Dylan Thompson gone from last season’s 7-6 slog, triple-threat Cooper is the man who must lead a Spurrier revival.
9. Derek Mason, head coach, Vanderbilt. What James Franklin did in his three years at Vanderbilt — three straight bowls; back-to-back nine-win seasons; a 24-15 overall record — may be the best coaching job in SEC history. So following him was going to be gnarly.
Still, Mason’s first season as Vandy head man last year was a dumpster fire. The Commodores used more starting quarterbacks (four) than they won games (3-9, 0-8 SEC). It behooves the former Stanford defensive coordinator to get a substantially better product on the field in 2015.
8. Joshua Dobbs, quarterback, Tennessee. Since winning the SEC East in 2007, the Volunteers have gone 40-47 and are on their fourth head coach. Butch Jones, however, has put together three lavishly praised recruiting classes. So after the Vols went 4-1 with a bowl victory over Iowa down the stretch, hope is running high in Knoxville.
A dual threat, Dobbs was the spark that ignited Tennessee’s late run a season ago. A fan base desperate for a Volunteers football revival is expecting more of the same from the 6-3, 216-pound junior from Alpharetta, Ga.
7. Jim McElwain, head coach, Florida. From the outside, the fan reaction to the hiring of McElwain, the former Colorado State head coach (22-16 in three years), seemed tepid.
That raises the stakes for McElwain to get off to a fast start. The good news is that reinvigorating a lackluster Will Mus-champ-era offense should be right up the alley of the former Alabama offensive coordinator.
6. Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator, Auburn. Gus Malzahn’s offense scored 35 points or more in six of eight SEC games in 2014. Yet the Tigers went 4-4 in the league. The culprit was a defense that allowed 31 points or more in its final six league contests.
So Auburn opened its checkbook ($1.6 million a year) to lure ousted Florida head man Will Muschamp as defensive coordinator. Long considered a defensive guru, Muschamp’s task is to give Auburn a defense worthy of Malzahn’s creative offenses.
5. John Chavis, defensive coordinator, Texas A&M. In three years under Kevin Sumlin, the Aggies have scored more than 35 points a game every year. But A&M’s defense gave up 451 yards a game last year and 476 in 2013. The shaky D is the big reason A&M is 7-9 in SEC games over the past two seasons.
So what Malzahn hired Muschamp to do at Auburn, Kevin Sumlin wooed veteran defensive guru Chavis away (at $1.67 million a year) from LSU to do in College Station.
4. Les Miles, head coach, LSU. What “turnCat” Rick Pitino is to Kentucky basketball fans, Nick Saban is to LSU football backers. So it is not sitting well that the Tigers have lost four in a row to Alabama — and LSU’s former head coach.
3. Dak Prescott, quarterback, Mississippi State. After making a bid for Heisman Trophy consideration in 2014, Prescott should enter 2015 as the SEC’s foremost candidate for the award.
Except the run/pass QB is one of only seven starters back from last season’s 10-3 team. With so much unknown around him, Prescott will carry a massive burden for Dan Mullen and State in 2015.
2. Lane Kiffin, Alabama offensive coordinator. The polarizing former Tennessee and USC head coach received boffo reviews for his playcalling last year in Tuscaloosa — until the game that mattered most. Many pinned Alabama’s unexpected 42-35 loss to Ohio State in the College Football Playoff squarely on Kiffin.
In a contest where Bama needed to keep its leaky defense off the field, Kiffin ran star back Derrick Henry only 13 times. With Alabama thinking it could hurt Ohio State with the deep pass, not one of star wideout Amari Cooper’s nine catches went for more than 15 yards.
That one game ensures that scrutiny of Kiffin in 2015 will burn white-hot.
1. Mark Richt, head coach, Georgia. When the Bulldogs blitzed Kentucky 63-31 last November, Georgia looked like one of the most talented teams ever to play in Commonwealth Stadium. Yet Georgia finished the season with three losses (10-3) and failed to win the SEC East — which cuts to the rub with Richt.
In 14 prior years in Athens, Richt has won almost 74 percent of his games. However, at a school that enjoys one of the richest in-state recruiting bases in college football, Richt has never played for a national championship. He won the most recent of his two SEC titles in 2005.
An increasingly restive fan base wants Richt to get Georgia back in the championship business — or else.