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SEC preview: Can conference place two teams in playoff?


A lot is made of the SEC's dominance of the BCS in recent years, but the league was actually flexing its muscle from the very beginning of the 16-year format. Tennessee won the 1998 national championship in the first year of the BCS' existence with a 23-16 win over Florida State in the Fiesta Bowl. By the time Florida State snapped the SEC's streak of seven straight national titles last January, needing the final minute to nip Auburn to do so, the SEC had already captured nine national titles in the 16-year period, by five different programs (Tennessee, LSU, Florida, Alabama and Auburn).

Naturally, the SEC's dominant run on the field also manifested itself into a dominant presence in the NFL draft. The SEC led all conferences with 49 draft picks in 2014, but led the pack by an even wider margin in 2013 (63, with the ACC finishing second with 30).

The league's run through the BCS has left its pending presence in the new College Football Playoff as one of the biggest unanswered questions about the four-team format and how the playoff selection committee will handle its toughest decisions. The committee will be tasked with putting the best four teams in the country in the four-team playoff, but determining those four with various criteria including strength of schedule and conference championship results is easier said than done. If the SEC champion is an obvious choice for the playoff, will its second-best team have a chance to also be included over a champion from one of the other Power Five conferences? If the BCS is capable of pitting two SEC teams in the national title game, as it did with Alabama and LSU three years ago, don't put it past a selection committee to squeeze its runner-up into an arena of four.

With eight teams ranked in the initial AP top 25 poll, the SEC is getting plenty of preseason respect despite the loss of its top four quarterbacks from last year to the NFL: Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray. As such, you can bet that if the SEC is crowding the top 10 once again by season's end, it's elite running backs and traditionally strong defenses will have had big seasons on just the right campuses.

Predicted finish

East Division
1. South Carolina: Generally, teams that need an offense to carry a defense in the SEC don't finish high, but in this case, we expect the Gamecocks' balanced attack to pace a division title.
2. Georgia: With Todd Gurley pounding out first downs and some impressive talents populating the front seven on defense, the Bulldogs will contend in the East.
3. Florida: The biggest question in Gainesville: Will Florida get a confident, new-look Jeff Driskel at quarterback, or the same Driskel who has often struggled from the pocket and struggled to stay healthy?
4. Tennessee: Talent will still be short at UT, but in Year Two under Butch Jones, there should also be fewer mental mistakes and more confidence on both sides of the ball.
5. Missouri: With so much offensive skill talent gone from last year, the Tigers don't figure to challenge in the East.
6. Vanderbilt: New coach Derek Mason will try to maintain the momentum the program enjoyed under James Franklin, but in truth, this team might be fortunate to win three SEC games.
7. Kentucky: Mark Stoops' team has two gifted defensive ends in Bud Dupree and Za'Darius Smith, but depth is a major concern.

West Division
1. Alabama: The Crimson Tide doesn't need its new quarterback to play as well as AJ McCarron once did, but will need its vaunted corps of running backs to make up much of the difference.
2. Auburn: The Tigers will score plenty of points under offensive mastermind Gus Malzahn, but will give up their share, as well.
3. Ole Miss: The Rebels would almost surely need another head-to-head win over LSU to finish this high, but have the talent, if not the pedigree, to do exactly that.
4. LSU: The Tigers aren't used to finishing this low in the SEC West, but questions at quarterback and defensive line call for a wait-and-see approach.
5. Texas A&M: The Aggies' defense was so bad last year, it had the look of a two-year rebuilding job. That, plus the absence of Johnny Football, foretells a step backward in College Station.
6. Mississippi State: If Dak Prescott is healthy and effective all year, MSU will be a threat for an upset or two.
7. Arkansas: Bret Bielema's rebuilding job won't get off the ground until the Razorbacks can corral a top-notch quarterback and a more consistent defense.

National title contenders

Alabama and Auburn: Fittingly, the two top contenders from the SEC are the archrivals who played the instant-classic Iron Bowl last year with a potential berth in the title game at stake for both. Alabama figures to have the stronger defense of the two, perhaps far stronger. UA has one of the top defenses in the entire NCAA on an annual basis, and 2014 isn't likely to be any different. Auburn holds an apparent edge at the most important position on the field: quarterback, with dangerous dual-threat senior Nick Marshall now fully comfortable in the spread-option offense. Alabama's quarterback battle continues between two candidates with very little career experience in FSU transfer Jacob Coker and senior Blake Sims. If the SEC West comes down to the Iron Bowl once again, it could be a gateway game to the four-team College Football Playoff.

Offnsive Player of the Year

RB Mike Davis, South Carolina:We've already predicted that the Gamecocks star will outpace Georgia's Todd Gurley and Alabama's T.J Yeldon for the SEC rushing title this fall, and in a year where the SEC figures to take a step backward at the quarterback position, its top rusher figures to command well-deserved POY recognition. Davis also plays for our pick to win the SEC East, so he should be leading a championship push for much of the season, if not all of it. He might not run between the tackles with the power of Gurley, but he's better than Gurley on stretch plays and in the open field. Davis' production slipped toward the end of the regular season last year, but he still managed to amass 1,128 yards. This year, a 100-yard per-game average, behind one of the SEC's top offensive lines, should not be a problem for Davis as long as he's healthy.

Defensive Player of the Year

LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State: The junior gave some consideration to coming out early for the NFL draft after last season, but he made a wise decision to stay. He's not planning to be around as a senior, however, and for good reason. This is the best linebacker in the SEC: over Georgia's Ramik Wilson, over Tennessee's A.J. Johnson, over all of them. McKinney will take on more of a leadership role this fall, and has the athleticism to be effective on any down. McKinney led MSU in tackles last season with 71, tackles for loss with seven, and sacks with 3.5. He could easily double his production in the latter two categories in 2014, particularly if the Bulldogs' defensive line performs well in front of him.

Breakout player

RB Derrick Henry, Alabama: The two-man rushing tandem that Alabama's Nick Saban has preferred figures to include Henry with veteran T.J. Yeldon this fall, but Henry is no Robin to anyone's Batman. Anyone who watched his performance against Oklahoma in the Sugar Bowl -- the only Alabama bright spot in an embarrassing loss -- saw a strong glimpse of what SEC defenses have awaiting them this fall. In fact, if Yeldon falters from a fumbling standpoint, which has been an issue for him in the past, it wouldn't be a complete surprise if Henry ended up leading the team in rushing. At 6-3 and 240 pounds, he's got the size of a power back, but also breakaway speed to go with it. Count on plenty of big plays from Henry this fall, and look for him to get enough carries to establish himself as one of the SEC's top backfield talents.

Player on the spot

QB Jeff Driskel, Florida As a senior, the Florida quarterback gets one last shot at redemption for the Gators, and the demanding fan base in Gainesville. Keep in mind, credit for the 11-win year Florida enjoyed in 2012 went largely, and rightfully, to the defense. And an injury cut his season short last year in a disastrous 4-8 campaign. UF coach Will Muschamp has spoken highly of Driskel's readiness to rebound, and in particular, the way his skills blend with new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper. The task for Roper and Driskel will be to glue together an effective offense, with no proven stars and what will surely be fragile confidence, into an SEC East contender. Another defense-based run at the league title is more likely.

Three best non-conference games

LSU vs. Wisconsin (in Houston), Aug. 30: The Tigers and Badgers play old-school football, and a battle in the trenches should be a rare treat in the new era of spread offenses.
Clemson at Georgia, Aug. 30: The two played a thriller to open the season last year, and while this year's game won't have the star quality at quarterback of Aaron Murray and Tajh Boyd, the game should be just as closely contested.
Florida at FSU, Nov. 29: Few will give the Gators a chance on the road against the defending national champs, but for pure intensity and rival dislike, this series still burns hot.

Three biggest conference games

Auburn at Alabama, Nov. 29: The biggest rivalry in the South is hotter than it's ever been, with stakes higher than they've ever been.
Alabama at LSU, Nov. 8: The Tigers might not be as dominant as usual this year, but playing at home in Death Valley, this is a game that could vault a division champion forward.
Georgia at South Carolina, Sept. 13: More than any other game this fall, this one will likely tilt control over the SEC East in one direction or the other, while featuring the backfield clash of Todd Gurley and Mike Davis.

Preseason All-Conference Team

QB Nick Marshall, Auburn (6-1, 210, senior)
RB Todd Gurley, Georgia (6-2, 232, junior)
RB Mike Davis, South Carolina (5-9, 225, junior)
WR Sammie Coates, Auburn (6-2, 200, junior)
WR Amari Cooper, Alabama (6-1, 210, junior)
TE Evan Engram, Ole Miss (6-3, 220, sophomore)
T Cedric Ogbuehi, Texas A&M (6-5, 305, senior)
T Laremy Tunsil, Ole Miss (6-5, 305, sophomore)
G A.J. Cann, South Carolina (6-4, 311, senior)
G Vadal Alexander, LSU (6-6, 340, junior)
C Reese Dismukes, Auburn (6-3, 295, senior)

DE Bud Dupree, Kentucky (6-4, 265, senior)
DT Robert Nkemdiche, Ole Miss (6-4, 280, sophomore)
DT A'Shawn Robinson, Alabama (6-4, 320, sophomore)
DE Dante Fowler, Florida (6-3, 277, junior)
LB Benardrick McKinney, Mississippi State (6-5, 250, junior)
LB A.J. Johnson, Tennessee (6-2, 245, senior)
LB Ramik Wilson, Georgia (6-2, 237, senior)
CB Vernon Hargreaves, Florida (5-11, 195, sophomore)
CB Deshazor Everett, Texas A&M (6-0, 190, senior)
FS Landon Collins, Alabama (6-0, 222, junior)
SS Cody Prewitt, Ole Miss (6-2, 217, senior)

Special teams
K Marshall Morgan, Georgia (6-3, 200, junior)
P Drew Kaser, Texas A&M (6-3, 210, junior)
KR Andre Dubose, Florida (5-11, 190, senior)
PR Christion Jones, Alabama (5-11, 185, senior)

*Follow Chase Goodbread on Twitter **@ChaseGoodbread.*

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