The dust has settled; the smoke has cleared; and the wild 2013 college football regular season has been left in the wake.
2013 was a great year for quarterbacks in the SEC, as Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel, Georiga’s Aaron Murray, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, and LSU’s Zach Mettenberger all enjoyed excellent statistical seasons.
The race for the SEC crown turned out to be quite the ride. Unpredictability was the prevailing theme. The two participants in this year’s Championship Game – Auburn and Missouri – were a combined 2-14 in conference last season, and were picked to finish fifth and sixth in their respective divisions.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Florida Gators astoundingly fell from 11 wins in 2012, to just four this season. Such is the way of things in the nation’s toughest conference, where the margin for error seems to grow thinner every year.
In addition, there were plenty of memorable moments and fantastic finishes, most notably the stunning final play of this year’s Iron Bowl.
The preparations for the 2014 season have already begun for certain teams. Others have bowl games to prepare for before turning their full attention to recruiting.
Following is the final installment of the weekly SEC Power Rankings, complete with a short glimpse into next season.
1. Auburn (12-1, 7-1)
The Auburn Tigers continued to astound the football-watching world, rolling up over 500 yards rushing on a respectable Missouri defense in the SEC Championship Game. Auburn’s next stop is Pasadena, where the Tigers will play for their second national title in the last four years. Gus Malzahn’s squad flew under the radar for the majority of the season, but they won’t be overlooked in 2014. Auburn can rest assured that the league’s defensive coordinators will all be hitting the film room in the offseason, figuring ways to slow down the Tigers’ spread option offense.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1)
Alabama won’t raise a national title trophy for the third consecutive season, but the Crimson Tide will play in a BCS bowl game for the fifth time in six years. Quarterback AJ McCarron will be gone in 2014, but Bama returns top-notch talent all over the field. Running back TJ Yeldon will headline a deep stable of running backs, while defensive coordinator Kirby Smart will lead another stout unit. The Tide will be major contenders once again next season.
3. Missouri (11-2, 7-1)
Gary Pinkel’s squad proved doubters wrong and advanced all the way to the 2013 SEC Championship Game. The end result of the Tigers’ showdown with Auburn wasn’t desirable, but Missouri still managed to put up 42 points. Like Auburn, Missouri won’t be sneaking up on anybody in 2014. Senior quarterback James Franklin won’t be returning, but freshman Maty Mauk should be quite capable as a replacement.
4. South Carolina (10-2, 6-2)
The Gamecocks of South Carolina finished with 10 wins and earned a Capital One bowl berth. South Carolina was the only team to defeat Missouri in the regular season, and the Gamecocks also soundly beat hated rival Clemson for the fifth consecutive season. Defensive end Jadeveon Clowney likely won’t be back next year, but Steve Spurrier has improved his recruiting each year in Columbia. With the losses of Clowney and quarterback Connor Shaw, the Gamecocks may take a slight step back in 2014, but they’ll still be a solid contender.
5. LSU (9-3, 5-3)
Offensive coordinator Cam Cameron made big improvements to LSU’s offense in his first year on the job in 2013. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger had a stellar season throwing the football, and the senior credited Cameron with the better part of his development. Promising freshman Anthony Jennings is Cameron’s next project, but the Tigers must also address their weaknesses. The LSU defensive middle was as soft as cotton in 2013. Opposing teams ran up the gut at will on the Tigers, and more will do the same next year if Les Miles doesn’t find suitable options on the recruiting trail. Overall, most of the pieces are in place for a successful season next year.
6. Georgia (8-4, 5-3)
The Bulldogs fought through a rough schedule in 2013. They didn’t return to the SEC Championship Game, but Mark Richt’s club was a challenging assignment for anyone they lined up against. When healthy, the Bulldogs balanced the pass with the run exceptionally well behind senior signal caller Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley. Against Georgia Tech, Dawg fans were able to get a glimpse of the future when quarterback Hutson Mason replaced the injured Murray. Mason threw for nearly 300 yards in the win, which gives the Georgia offense something to build on in the bowl game and beyond.
7. Vanderbilt (8-4, 4-4)
Vanderbilt was long considered the football whipping boy of the SEC. Not any longer. The Commodores won eight games for the second consecutive season, and James Franklin is a big reason why. When a Vanderbilt coach can claim victories over the likes of Georgia, Tennessee, and Florida in the same season, he’s doing something right. Franklin will also take the Commodores bowling for the third straight season. Vanderbilt doesn’t always look pretty, but the Commodores find ways to win. In 2014, look for Vandy to again field a winning squad. With a favorable schedule, Franklin’s club could be looking to contend in the SEC East.
8. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4)
After going 11-2 and winning the Heisman Trophy in 2012, Johnny Manziel and the Aggies had their sights set on a national title run this season. Manziel was again electrifying for the better part of the season, but the victories didn’t mount up like they did in 2012. The reason: defense. Texas A&M was atrocious defensively this season, and it cost them a shot at victory on numerous occasions. Coach Kevin Sumlin was given a hefty new contract at the end of the season, and his first order of business will be to shore up the Aggies defense as A&M enters the post-Manziel era.
9. Ole Miss (7-5, 3-5)
After bringing in one of the nation’s best recruiting classes last Spring, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze had lots of momentum coming into the 2013 season. The Rebels enjoyed a signature win over LSU in October, but they ended the season on a sour note with an Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi State. Despite a slow start, quarterback Bo Wallace made some strides during the second half of the season. Wallace will return to lead an experience squad in 2014, and Ole Miss will be looking to contend in the stacked SEC West.
10. Mississippi State (6-6, 3-5)
The Bulldogs rode quarterbacks Tyler Russell and Dak Prescott to six wins in 2013, not the least of which was the aforementioned upset of Ole Miss in overtime. Mississippi State will attempt to take its late-season momentum into 2014, as Prescott assumes the role of full-time starter. The Bulldogs will also be playing in an expanded Davis-Wade Stadium, and the cowbells will be ringing loudly for next season’s opener against Southern Miss. The Bulldogs will be an intriguing team in 2014.
11. Florida (4-8, 3-5)
Florida entered the season with high expectations after posting 11 wins in 2012. Injuries began to pile up early in fall camp, however, and the Gators’ 2013 season quickly went down the drain. Quarterbacks Jeff Driskel, Tyler Murphy, and Skyler Mornhinweg all started multiple games for the Gators, but none of them were able to awaken the squad’s dormant offense. Florida boasted one of the top defenses in the nation for the first half of the season, but DJ Durkin’s unit faded into mediocrity down the stretch.
12. Tennessee (5-7, 2-6)
The Tennessee Volunteers had ups and downs in 2013, but their season on the whole was a disappointment. The Vols were obliterated by Oregon, Alabama, and Auburn. They battled Georgia down to the wire, however, and pulled a thrilling home upset of South Carolina. Quarterback Justin Worley missed the last month of the season due to a thumb injury, but he should be back in 2014 for his senior campaign. Coach Butch Jones will have a considerable well of young talent to work with in his second season, but his Vols will have to improve on their execution in a number of areas.
13. Arkansas (3-9, 0-8)
No one will accuse Bret Bielema of being reserved. The first-year Arkansas coach made plenty of noise this summer when he engaged Auburn’s Gus Malzahn’s in a public war of words. Bielema also found the courage to call out the conference’s 800-pound coaching gorilla – Nick Saban. Bielema’s Razorbacks got off to a 3-0 start, but he found the going tougher than expected once SEC play began. Running back Alex Collins provides a solid foundation to build an offense around in 2014, but the Hogs must improve their defense at all three levels in order to be competitive.
14. Kentucky (2-10, 0-8)
Mark Stoops was brought in to pick up the pieces left by the Joker Phillips regime in Lexington, and he quickly found the task to be no laughing matter. Kentucky was outmanned on both sides of the ball in every SEC game. Stoops has made progress on the recruiting trail this Fall, which is always a good place to start. It will take more than one year of solid recruiting to make the Wildcats competitive, but Kentucky should be improved in 2014.