While some notable field generals will return, the SEC must deal with losing marquee stars at he position who helped change the dynamic of a league normally known for its defensive prowess into one that saw offensive slug-fests become the norm over the past two seasons. Among those departing for dreams of NFL stardom are Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Georgia’s Aaron Murray, two-time national champion A.J. McCarron of Alabama, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, and James Franklin of Missouri. This loss of quality talent and proven leadership has sportswriters, handicappers and fans alike playing a guessing game in what may be the most wide-open race for the Southeastern Conference title in over a decade.
Although Nick Marshall of BCS runner-up Auburn returns, and Missouri can count on solid play from Maty Mauk, who played solid ball last in a backup role for Franklin, the prospect of facing Jeff Driskell and Patton Robinette are not the likely to cause defensive coordinators many sleepless nights. As spring practices head into full gear, the league looks to return to its traditional roots of grind-it-out running attacks and stifling defenses.
As these losses have experts left to guess which QB’s will step up to fill the void, the best hope for the Southeastern Conference to continue its national dominance may be placed in the shoulder pads of a deep pool of stars at running back. The 2014 crop of ball-carriers is as deep and talented as can be found in college football. Georgia Junior Todd Gurley is widely considered to be the best athlete in the SEC, possibly the nation. Question marks persist as to how he will bounce back from numerous injuries suffered last year in a season that held high hopes for the Bulldogs but was derailed by the losses of starters and key back-ups spending. Gurley will be key to Georgia’s quest to return to top form and he will be asked to carrying a heavier load, as it appears likely fellow RB Keith Marshall will miss most if not all of the season after tearing his ACL last year.
Along with Gurley, Alabama’s T.J. Yeldon is listed by many as top Southeastern Conference Heisman Award candidate. With increasing concerns about filling the void left with McCarron’s departure, Yeldon will be looked upon to provide the spark on offense to compliment their always formidable defense. Arkansas’ Alex Collins, JoJo Kemp of Kentucky, A&M’s Tra Carson and South Carolina’s Mike Davis will also rack up the yardage on Saturdays in the fall, while #1 recruit Leonard Fournette of LSU may turn out to be the best of them all. Fournette leads the list of yet another strong recruiting class for the conference, widely to be considered the nation’s best.
Despite the losses at quarterback, experts agree that the Southeastern Conference still boasts the most NFL-caliber talent overall in college football, but how this will affect the divisional races and SEC hopes for a national championship contender is anyone’s guess. It just may, however, produce one of the most wide-open conferences in college football and plenty of exciting contests come the fall.
By Paul Winters