The 2015 Southeastern Conference football season is fast approaching and over the next five weeks, we will be counting down the teams from 14th to 1st based on strength heading into the season. This week, we start with the bottom three beginning at #14.
Kentucky began 2014, the second year under Mark Stoops, 5-1 with the only loss being in triple overtime in Gainesville. But they were the beneficiary of a soft schedule, with all five wins at home and the best win over a struggling South Carolina team going in. The schedule got tough, injuries and fatigue mounted, and the ‘Cats lost their final six games. Defense is supposed to be Stoops’ forte, but the team has allowed at least 31 points per game in each of his two seasons.
Seven starters return on each side, but is that a good thing? The offense improved by nearly nine points per game last season, but numbers are hard to gauge. Patrick Towles returns at quarterback, and does seem to be someone to build around. The offensive line returns four, and Stanley Williams could be a weapon out of the backfield. But if Kentucky is to get back to a bowl for the first time since 2010, the defense must improve. There is some speed there but undersized.
Once again, five of the first six are at home, and they must rack up wins then. But they have Florida, Missouri and Auburn in that group. It is hard to imagine Kentucky returning to the postseason.
Vanderbilt had been bowling three straight seasons, and then Derek Mason happened. It was a disastrous first season under Mason in every way. He has pledged to focus on what he knows, defense, and brought in Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin as ‘offensive coordinator.’ Four starting quarterbacks bogged down the offense. Injuries and impatience led to that. Johnny McCrary figures to be the guy this year and should fit in Ludwig’s offense very well. Ralph Webb was the bright spot of 2014. The offense will revolve around him.
Nine starters return on each side of the ball, which means a solid offensive line with experience—and a talented defense hopefully led by Mason, a premiere defensive mind. Caleb Azubike is the anchor of a good defensive line with Torren McGaster an emerging talent at corner, and Andrew Williamson a hard hitter at safety.
Vandy is better than 3-9. The talent is higher than that. Here’s hoping the coaching shift and clean slates will benefit everyone. Still, a bowl is a difficult proposition; an upset or two must occur. The non-conference schedule certainly does them no favors. More on Vandy closer to kickoff.
There is a coaching change at Florida, and Jim McElwain has his hands full. The Gators were all over the map last season, with desperation everywhere. Still they managed a bowl victory. McElwain did wonders at Colorado State, and will here, but there will be a step back before they move forward.
Demarcus Robinson is an explosive threat at wide receiver, but others must emerge. A rebuilt offensive line will be of little help to whoever wins the quarterback job, currently a mystery.
Redshirt freshman Will Grier is the favorite but Treon Harris returns with experience. Vanderbilt transfer Josh Grady could play also. On defense, Vernon Hargreaves may be the best corner in America. Antonio Morrison gives them strength at middle linebacker.
The early schedule provides the Gators with an opportunity, with the Tennessee game proving a swing game. McElwain will need another year though for Florida to become a contender again in this league.