|John Bazemore/Associated Press|
|Nick Marshall's development as a passer will be key for Auburn as the team defends its SEC title.|
As we take a look at the players that will be charged with replacing the 2014 draftees in the SEC, here are some early (OK, way-too-early) predictions from the College Football 24/7 team for the upcoming season in the conference that continues to crush the competition in producing NFL talent:
SEC East winner
Chase Goodbread: South Carolina. The Gamecocks have a lot of holes to fill defensively, but will be able to rely on star RB Mike Davis for first down after first down behind a massive and experienced offensive line. That will keep Dylan Thompson, one of the league's up-and-comers at quarterback, out of third-and-longs.
Mike Huguenin: Georgia. Trying to pick the SEC East winner for this season is akin to putting on a blindfold, spinning around 10 times, then trying to hit a dart board with your final dart. In short, it's tough. Let's go with Georgia, whose defense should be much better than it was last season. The offense is going to take a step back without QB Aaron Murray, but the rest of the division has questions, too, and RB Todd Gurley is a nice safety blanket for offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Bryan Fischer: South Carolina. Georgia has to find a replacement for longtime starter Aaron Murray at quarterback and adjust to new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. While the Bulldogs get a coaching upgrade and have plenty of talent on the roster, they'll face a tough task in overcoming the Gamecocks. Dylan Thompson is a senior who has delivered under center while RB Mike Davis should be on everyone's preseason Heisman list. Plus, the schedule tilts heavily in favor of South Carolina.
SEC West winner
Goodbread: Alabama. Although the Crimson Tide will be breaking in a new quarterback, its returning talent at running back, wide receiver and across the defensive front seven suggests expectations shouldn't fall too far. UA gets Florida and Auburn both at home, and a season-opening win over West Virginia would all but guarantee a non-conference sweep.
Huguenin: Auburn. It's tough to pick the West Division winner, too. Of the legit contenders (no, not you, Mississippi or Mississippi State), only Auburn returns its starting quarterback. And that quarterback, Nick Marshall, led the Tigers to the national championship game in his first season as a starter despite being a mediocre (to be kind) passer. Expect Marshall to be a better passer this season and for coach Gus Malzahn to come up with ways to lessen the losses of OT Greg Robinson and RB Tre Mason.
Fischer: Alabama. You can flip a coin between Alabama and Auburn so I'll do just that based on who has the easier schedule (it's the Tide). I really think Auburn will be improved as a passing team with Nick Marshall, but I'll still lean toward Nick Saban's squad by a hair. We'll see if QB Jacob Coker is the answer, but the RB tandem of T.J. Yeldon and Derrick Henry is the reason Alabama can win the West.
Team with best chance to win national title
Goodbread: Alabama. Unlike past years when Alabama has been considered a national championship favorite with quarterback AJ McCarron returning, this Tide team won't be considered nearly as much of a threat with questions at quarterback and in the secondary. But winning the SEC West, of late, has been the league's gateway to the national title. Hence, UA winning the division would make Nick Saban's team the best bet once again.
Huguenin: Auburn. This is a very so-so pick. The defense again won't be anything to write home about, but Nick Marshall's expected growth as a passer might be able to offset it.
Fischer: Alabama. Both Auburn and Alabama have a shot at making the four-team playoff, but you wonder how the strength of schedule for each team will factor in with the committee. I'll call it now and say only one SEC team makes it in.
Top offensive player
Goodbread: Georgia RB Todd Gurley. The Bulldogs' backfield star needs only a healthy junior season to put himself back in the Heisman Trophy conversation. After missing all of October last season with an ankle injury, the junior is primed for a monstrous 2015, perhaps even in the 1,500-yard neighborhood.
Huguenin: Gurley. He rushed for 903 yards and 10 TDs despite injuries that kept him out of three games and hampered him in five others. With the departure of four-year starting QB Aaron Murray, expect Bulldogs coaches to rely more heavily on Gurley -- a junior -- this fall.
Fischer: Auburn QB Nick Marshall. The loss of Tre Mason puts even more pressure on Marshall to perform as the triggerman in Guz Malzahn's offense. Reports say he has improved as a passer and, given the weapons he has at his disposal, it would be a major disappointment if he isn't.
Top defensive player
Goodbread: Alabama DB Landon Collins. As good as Ha Ha Clinton-Dix was for the Crimson Tide last season, this junior-to-be could prove to be just as effective. A brilliant and instinctive athlete who is also a special-teams ace, Collins will be counted on to lead a young UA defensive backfield.
Huguenin: Florida DE Dante Fowler. Fowler, a junior, suffered last season once DT Dominique Easley was lost with a knee injury. Easley's loss meant opposing offensive coordinators could focus on limiting Fowler. But even with the extra attention he will be paid this season, expect double-digit sacks and a lot of tackles for loss from Fowler.
Fischer: Georgia LB Ramik Wilson. While defenders like Vernon Hargreaves, Jalen Mills, Landon Collins and Robert Nkemdiche might be better players, they won't have the kind of year that Wilson is primed to produce. He's coming off a breakout season and should be in a better position to make plays this year under Jeremy Pruitt, the team's new defensive coordinator. The senior is a tackling machine and should spend even more time in the backfield in 2014.
Coach of the year
Goodbread: South Carolina's Steve Spurrier. The Ole Ball Coach has won 11 games for three straight seasons, unprecedented in Columbia, S.C., and will have more than enough offense to do so again this fall. If the defense holds up its end, Spurrier is as strong a candidate for this honor as any.
Huguenin: Georgia's Mark Richt. If the Bulldogs win the East, it's a certainty Richt will be in the running for league coach of the year honors. Plus, more is going to be expected of at least two teams in the West, so Georgia winning the East would trump either Alabama or Auburn winning the West in terms of getting more out of a team's talent.
Fischer: Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin. Others in the league will have better records, but keeping the Aggies afloat in the toughest division in college football helps Sumlin land in this spot. Life after Johnny Manziel won't be easy, but freshman Kyle Allen is a quarterback that fits Sumlin's offense a little better and it will be hard for A&M not to improve on defense. Mississippi State's Dan Mullen also deserves consideration, but Sumlin is the pick for now.
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Goodbread: Missouri DB Aarion Penton. You won't hear his name much this fall unless he piles up a lot of interceptions, but the sophomore will be locking down SEC wide receivers as well as any cornerback in the SEC. As a freshman last year, Penton made a significant contribution to a solid Missouri defense.
Huguenin: Missouri DE Markus Golden. Golden played behind Kony Ealy and Michael Sam in 2013, yet still managed 6.5 sacks and 13 tackles for loss. He also had 55 tackles and eight quarterback hurries and appears poised to post a double-digit sack total. Golden, a senior, played linebacker in 2012, his first season with the Tigers after transferring from a junior college, and was a star running back in high school in the St. Louis area.
Fischer: LSU RB Leonard Fournette. The five-star running back for the Tigers should be the latest in a long line of big-time running backs under Les Miles. Given that offensive coordinator Cam Cameron is bringing along a young quarterback, the running game will have a lot of pressure on it to produce, and Fournette is the most talented of the group they have in Baton Rouge. Don't sleep on Auburn JUCO transfer WR D'haquille Williams, either.
Top returning senior
Goodbread: Texas A&M OT Cedric Ogbuehi. There is every possibility Ogbuehi could eventually be the third consecutive Texas A&M left tackle chosen in the first round of the NFL draft. In fact, he might have been a first-rounder had he entered the 2014 NFL Draft. He played right tackle last season, but slides left to fill in for Jake Matthews this fall.
Huguenin: Ogbuehi. He's expected to be the third A&M left tackle in as many years to go early in the first round. He started at guard in 2012 and at right tackle in 2013, and will move to left tackle to replace Jake Matthews (who, in turn, moved from right tackle to left tackle in 2013 to replace Luke Joeckel). Ogbuehi (whose last name is pronounced Ah-BOO-hee) toyed with the idea of turning pro after the 2013 season, but wisely decided to return and play left tackle.
Fischer: Ogbuehi. A likely first-round pick had he come out in 2014, Ogbuehi figures to be the third Texas A&M lineman taken in the top 10 in the last three years when the 2015 NFL Draft rolls around. He has played guard and right tackle, but really can make some money with a strong showing at left tackle this season.
Player with most on the line
Goodbread: Tennessee LB A.J. Johnson. The Volunteers' star linebacker made a difficult-but-correct decision to stay in school in January and returns for his senior season. Now, he has to show NFL scouts he's improved on some of the knocks on his game, specifically, open-field tackling and playing on the perimeter. Exhibit A: Auburn's 444 rushing yards against the Vols last season.
Huguenin: Alabama QB Jacob Coker. He hasn't even practiced with the Tide yet, yet it's a fait accompli that Coker -- an Alabama native who is transferring from Florida State -- will be the starting quarterback. And, really, how good is this guy? He hasn't played an important down of football since he was a senior in high school in the 2010 season. If Alabama struggles even a bit offensively, Coker -- a junior -- will be the guy everyone blames.
Fischer: Coker. If you watched any of the Alabama spring game, you understand how badly the Crimson Tide need Coker to live up to the hype for the team to make it to the SEC Championship game. Coaches have raved about him, but will he be able to get up to speed quickly in Lane Kiffin's complex offense? That remains to be seen, but the pressure is clearly on Coker, who is only replacing a starter who went 36-4 at Alabama over the past three years.
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