Forecasting the SEC’s top scoring offenses in 2014

Matt Lowe

March 19, 2014 at 11:21 pm.

Stopping Nick Marshall isn't an easy thing to do. (RVR Photos-USA TODAY Sports)

In today’s college football, high-scoring shootouts have become the norm. A lot of that can be attributed to the no-huddle, hurry-up spread offenses that have infiltrated college football over the past 10 years or so, but tweaks to the college game, such as instant replay, which can keep drives alive on missed calls, the targeting rule, which can also keep drives alive, and bigger and better athletes have played a major role in the recent scoring boom.

Perhaps no other conference in the land has seen more of a drastic shift in scoring than the SEC, where defense used to be king. In 2005 for instance, only one team (Auburn, 32.2 ppg) averaged over 30 points per game. On the contrary, six teams allowed less than 20 points per game. In 2006, only one team (LSU, 33.7 ppg) averaged more than 30 an outing; eight held their opponents to 20 points or less.

Fast-forward to 2013.

A year ago, the SEC had nine teams that scored 30 or more points per game. Out of those nine, four (Texas A&M, Auburn, Missouri and Ole Miss) are true hurry-up, no-huddle offenses. But unlike the 2005 and 2006 seasons, only Alabama (13.9 ppg) ended last season allowing less than 20 points per game.

Now a big part of scoring boom was the league’s plethora of talent at quarterback. Georgia’s Aaron Murray, Alabama’s AJ McCarron, LSU’s Zach Mettenberger, Ole Miss’ Bo Wallace and Texas A&M’s Johnny Manziel were the league headliners before the season began. But the play of South Carolina’s Connor Shaw, Auburn’s Nick Marshall and Mississippi State’s Dak Prescott aided in the conference’s ability to pile up the points as well.

Entering 2014, Wallace, Marshall and Prescott are the SEC’s top returning QBs, but the league is loaded with stud running backs and receivers so expect another high-scoring year from the nation’s best conference.

With that said, here are my projections on where each league team will finish in scoring offense and a short synopsis why.

1. Auburn: The Tigers return four of five starters on the offensive line, Marshall at quarterback, a big, physical receiving corps, which includes electrifying deep threat Sammie Coates, and tailbacks Cameron Artis-Payne and Corey Grant to a team that ranked second in the SEC in scoring offense a year ago (39.5 ppg). Auburn also signed stud wideout D’haquille Williams, the No. 1-ranked junior college player, and Racean “Roc” Thomas, one of the top prep tailbacks in America, to add to the mix on O. Williams and Thomas are expected to make an immediate impact, as is redshirt freshman tailback Peyton Barber, a strong, powerful runner from the state of Georgia.

Regardless of how head coach Gus Malzahn’s offense is perceived, it has Wing-T roots and is powered by a precise, physical running game. Legendary Green Bay Packers coach Vince Lombardi ran the famed “Packers Sweep” play out of the Wing-T and it became one of the most unstoppable plays in football history. Malzahn’s “Buck Sweep” is strikingly similar (but ran out of the shotgun) and is quickly becoming just as tough to defend.

2. Missouri: The Tigers were right there with Auburn a year ago in scoring average (39.1 ppg) and could be close to that number again with the dynamic Maty Mauk stepping in for the departed James Franklin at quarterback. Veteran tailbacks Marcus Murphy and Russell Hansbrough and talented wideouts Bud Sasser, Jimmie Hunt, Darius White and J’Mon Moore give the Tigers quality options in the passing game. Missouri will have to find a replacement for left tackle Justin Britt, but enough experience returns up front for Gary Pinkel’s team to again be one of the league’s top scoring teams.

3. Alabama: The Crimson Tide has big question marks at quarterback, left tackle and right guard entering 2014, and it has a new offensive coordinator (Lane Kiffin). But the skill positions are loaded and the offense should be productive once again considering Bama’s physical, grind-it-out style. It will be hard-pressed for any team to match the star power of receiver Amari Cooper, tight end OJ Howard and a deep and talented group of tailbacks, led by Sugar Bowl star Derrick Henry and veterans T.J. Yeldon and Kenyan Drake. But the million dollar question for Alabama will be this: who will get them the ball? Right now it seems FSU transfer Jacob Coker will be that guy. But he won’t arrive until the fall.

4. Georgia: The Bulldogs were decimated by injuries on offense a year ago, but when a team returns two tailbacks like Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, a fullback like Merritt Hall and experienced offensive linemen, it should be able to move the ball consistently on the ground. Hutson Mason will take over for Aaron Murray at quarterback. Mason played well in Georgia’s final two games last season after Murray went down with a knee injury. He could be in line for a big senior season.

5. South Carolina: The Gamecocks will miss Connor Shaw’s toughness and leadership at quarterback, but experienced backup Dylan Thompson’s return is a plus for Steve Spurrier’s team, as is the return of second-team All-SEC running back Mike Davis and a host of talented wideouts, led by Damiere Byrd, Shaq Roland, Nick Jones and Bruce Ellington. South Carolina also returns four of five starting offensive linemen so it will be solid up front.

6. Mississippi State: Prescott is a load, especially as a runner, and the Bulldogs will feature one of the best receiving units in the conference. Six-foot-6 wideout De’Runnya Wilson is a matchup nightmare and Jameon Lewis can flat-out fly. Replacing massive guard Gabe Jackson and tackle Charles Siddoway up front will be crucial in determining how good this State offense can really be.

7. Texas A&M: Head coach Kevin Sumlin’s offensive scheme won’t drop the Aggies too far in these rankings, but replacing the deadly playmaking ability of quarterback Johnny Manziel and receiver Mike Evans, along with All-SEC left tackle Jake Matthews, is a tall task. Matt Joeckel is expected to win the QB job, but don’t be surprised if tailbacks Brandon and Trey Williams get an increased workload early on to take the pressure off Joeckel. The Aggies should be solid up front despite the loss of Matthews.

8: Ole Miss: As long as Hugh Freeze has his offense in place at Ole Miss, the Rebels will always be a threat to score points. Quarterback Bo Wallace was second to only Manziel in passing yards in the league a year ago (3,346 yards), and he’s back for his senior season. Wideout Laquon Treadwell is a special talent as is left tackle Laremy Tunsil.

9: LSU: LSU has to replace a ton of offensive production at quarterback, receiver and running back, but young dual-threat signal-caller Anthony Jennings has upside and the Tigers have a veteran offensive line that will block for him — or whoever (redshirt freshman Hayden Rettig and freshman Brandon Harris are also in mix) is behind center. Like always, Les Miles will have a good runner. Seniors Terrence Magee and Kenny Hilliard and top prep tailback Leonard Fournette are candidates to replace leading rusher Jeremy Hill.

10. Florida: The return of quarterback Jeff Driskel and tailback Matt Jones should do wonders for a Florida team that ranked dead last in the SEC a year ago in scoring offense (18.8 ppg). New offensive coordinator Kurt Roper should also be a breath of fresh air. Last year Roper’s offense at Duke finished fourth in the ACC in scoring offense (32.8 ppg) and fourth in total offense.

11. Tennessee: Wideout MarQuez North is a terrific talent but someone needs to get him the ball. Justin Worley, Nathan Peterman, Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson will all have a shot to be that guy. The Vols will basically reboot on the O-line considering all five starters are gone. Ouch!

12: Arkansas: The Razorbacks should be better on offense in Year Two of the Bret Bielema era, but outside of tailbacks Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams and quarterback Brandon Allen, Arkansas just doesn’t have that many playmakers. Replacements for All-SEC center Travis Swanson and left tackle David Hurd must also be found.

13. Vanderbilt: Under the direction of James Franklin, the Commodores were surprisingly one of the best scoring teams in the league during his three years as the team’s head coach. But Franklin is now the coach at Penn State and the losses of quarterback Austyn Carta-Samuels, Jordan Matthews, the SEC’s all-time receptions leader, tailback Wesley Tate and left tackle Wesley Johnson will be felt in Derek Mason’s first season as Vandy’s coach.

14. Kentucky: Like Florida and Arkansas, Kentucky had a hard time finding the end zone (20.5 ppg) in Mark Stoops’ first season primarily due to inconsistent play at quarterback and a lack of talent at the skill positions. Even though incumbents Jalen Whitlow and Maxwell Smith will battle for the starting quarterback spot, look for 2014 signee Drew Barker, the top prep player in the state of Kentucky, to get a long look in the spring. The ‘Cats need a player they can build around on offense and Barker just might be that guy.