A year ago, all the preseason hype in the SEC was about celebrated returning quarterbacks Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron and Aaron Murray. With that trio departed, 2014 is shaping up as The Year of the Running Back in the league.
Launching a ground war
1.) Todd Gurley, Georgia. If the junior can stay healthy, there's a chance he could give the Bulldogs their first Heisman Trophy since a guy named Herschel.
2.) Mike Davis, South Carolina. The Gamecocks junior may not stand tall (5-foot-9), but his production (1,183 yards, 11 TDs in 2013) sure does.
3.) T.J. Yeldon/Derrick Henry, Alabama. If featured, either might be a Heisman candidate. Together, they might be the most lethal duo this side of Batman and Robin.
The (QB) Replacements
1.) Texas A&M. With the electric Johnny Manziel now in Cleveland, sophomore Kenny Hill narrowly beat out freshman Kyle Allen in the duel to replace "Johnny Football."
2.) Alabama. With AJ McCarron and his three BCS championship rings (and new wife, Katherine Webb) in Cincinnati, most expect Florida State transfer Jacob Coker to wrest the Crimson Tide starting position away from senior holdover Blake Sims.
3.) Georgia. With Aaron Murray trying to make the team in Kansas City, fifth-year senior Hutson Mason at last gets the chance he patiently waited for to be the big Dawg in Athens.
Fournette hype machine
Even by modern standards, LSU true freshman running back Leonard Fournette enters college football carrying massive expectations. The No. 1 overall recruit in the Class of 2014 according to the 24/7 Sports composite rankings, the New Orleans product is 6-1, 225 pounds with the speed to clock a 10.68 in the 100 meters (which he did in a high school track meet).
Les Miles has done nothing to tamp down the anticipation for Fournette, linking the freshman back at various times this preseason to Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods.
Coaches feeling pressure
1.) Will Muschamp, Florida. I'd have thought they'd have a blizzard in Miami before you saw the mighty Gators turn in a 4-8 season. A plague of injuries played a big part in 2013's collapse, but ex-Eastern Kentucky assistant Muschamp will not survive anything less than a major bounce-back.
2.) Mark Richt, Georgia. The dean of SEC coaches (14th year) in terms of consecutive service at one school, Richt has won 73.7 percent of his games and two (2002 and 2005) SEC championships. But coaching at a school with one of the richest in-state recruiting bases in the country, Richt has yet to deliver the national title that Bulldogs fans crave.
3.) Bret Bielema, Arkansas. The ex-Wisconsin head man went 3-9 (0-8 SEC) in his first year as boss Hog — and the Razorbacks are the only school whose 2014 SEC schedule includes eight teams that made bowls in 2013.
HBC vs. Bear
As any Alabama fan can tell you by rote, Paul "Bear" Bryant holds the SEC mark for most career wins in regular-season conference games by a head coach with 159. However, at the age of 69, current South Carolina and ex-Florida coach Steve Spurrier has pulled within shouting distance of the Bear's all-time mark. Spurrier will begin 2014 with 128 league wins (Kentucky has contributed 20 of them). Will the Head Ball Coach stay in Columbia long enough to break Bryant's mark? Will the state of Alabama implode if he does?
The selection committee
For all the incoming it took, the Bowl Championship Series was a bounty for the SEC. In the 16 years in which the BCS determined the national championship, SEC schools won nine titles.
Starting this year, the BCS is no more and a selection committee will pick four teams to compete for the national title via a playoff.
Here are the people who will decide which teams get to play for the national championship:
Jeff Long, Arkansas athletics director, chair; Barry Alvarez, Wisconsin AD; Mike Gould, former superintendent of the Air Force Academy; Pat Haden, USC AD; Tom Jernstedt, ex-NCAA executive vice president; Oliver Luck, West Virginia AD; Archie Manning, ex- Mississippi quarterback; Tom Osborne, former Nebraska coach and AD; Dan Radakovich, Clemson AD; Condoleeza Rice, ex-United States Secretary of State; Mike Tranghese, ex-Big East commissioner; Steve Wieberg, ex-USA Today college football writer; Tyrone Willingham, ex-coach at Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
1.) Alabama will win the West.
2.) Georgia will win the East.
3.) The SEC will get only one team in the national championship playoff — and it will be Alabama.