There were four new head coaches in the SEC last season, and it was rough sledding for three of the four.
Auburn’s Gus Malzahn was the obvious exception. He guided the Tigers to the doorstep of a national championship in one of the most remarkable one-season turnarounds we’ve seen in college football.
Auburn’s 34-31 loss to Florida State in the VIZIO BCS National Championship came on the heels of going winless in the SEC the year before, resulting in the firing of Gene Chizik.
It didn’t take the Tigers long under Malzahn to pick themselves back up off the ground and become relevant again in the SEC and nationally. They will almost certainly start the 2014 season in the top 10 of the polls.
For the other three newbies, that road figures to be much trickier as they enter their second seasons in the league.
Arkansas’ Bret Bielema, Kentucky’s Mark Stoops and Tennessee’s Butch Jones all suffered through losing seasons in 2013 and none were surprising. They inherited tough situations, and all three played killer schedules.
So what can we expect from Bielema, Stoops and Jones in Year 2 in the SEC? Is it realistic to think that any of the three can get his team to a bowl game in 2014? Here’s a look:
Bielema: The Hogs last won a game in September, a 24-3 win over Southern Miss the third week of the season. That’s nine straight losses, and even with it being Bielema’s first season in Fayetteville, there was more than a little bit of restlessness in Hogville.
Most of the news made around the Arkansas football program in Bielema’s first season was generated by something he said, usually something controversial or something he had to come back and apologize for or explain. See his recent comments on player safety and Cal’s Ted Agu, who died following a training run in February.
The best thing the Hogs have going for them next season is that they’re much more acclimated to the way Bielema wants to play (physical, bully football), and they should also be more equipped. They still need to get faster on defense and will be counting on some young players on that side of the ball. Finding some consistency in the passing game is also a must.
The Hogs are still another recruiting class away from being a postseason lock. Three of their first five games next season are away from home, and making it through those first seven games will be a tall order. It’s a grind that includes dates with Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Texas A&M. The good news is that Auburn is the only true road game. The Hogs will improve on their 3-9 season from a year ago, but making it to a bowl game could still be a stretch.
Stoops: With two impressive recruiting classes under his belt, Stoops has given the Kentucky fans hope in something other than hoops. His most recent class was ranked 20th nationally by ESPN and included eight four-star prospects. Stars aren’t everything in the recruiting process, but swimming in those waters is usually a pretty good indicator that you’re upgrading the talent level.
Much like Arkansas, Kentucky enters the 2014 season on the wrong end of a streak. The Wildcats have lost 16 straight SEC games. Their last win in the league came at the tail end of the 2011 season when they beat Tennessee 10-7 at home. They haven’t won on the road in the SEC since the 2009 season when they beat Georgia in Athens. So nobody expected Stoops to come in and turn things around overnight.
One of the most interesting battles this spring will be at quarterback. Heralded true freshman Drew Barker is on campus and will get a shot at the starting job. It’s paramount that the Wildcats find more playmakers on offense -- period. Nebraska transfer Braylon Heard is eligible and should help at running back. On defense, the Wildcats’ strength will be their two finishers off the edge, ends Alvin Dupree and Za’Darius Smith, but they’ll still be counting on a ton of youngsters everywhere else.
Five of the first six games are at home next season. If the Wildcats could go 4-2 during that stretch, which isn’t unrealistic with three very winnable nonconference games, they could at least be playing for a bowl berth in November.
Jones: Rocky Top was rocking earlier this month when Jones pulled in the nation’s No. 5 recruiting class on national signing day. Tennessee fans needed that shot of hope after suffering through a fourth-straight losing season.
While it’s clear that Jones has brought in an infusion of talent, there’s no guarantee that the Vols will end their string of losing seasons in 2014. The schedule is once again nasty and includes a nonconference trip to Oklahoma.
Of Tennessee’s seven losses last season, four came to teams who ended the season ranked in the top 10. Even with that grueling slate, the Vols showed some signs of life in Jones’ debut season. They beat South Carolina and just missed against Georgia in overtime. Quarterback Justin Worley’s thumb injury forced true freshman Josh Dobbs into a starting role down the stretch, and that’s when Tennessee really struggled.
Sorting out the quarterback position will be a key. Redshirt freshman Riley Ferguson will be one to watch and probably would have played last season if not for a stress fracture. The offensive line will have five new starters, and the tackle positions will be among the biggest questions on defense.
The Vols’ coaches are confident they helped themselves tremendously in the speed department with this recruiting class. Two or three freshmen could end up playing right away at safety. The same goes for freshman running back Jalen Hurd and freshman receiver Josh Malone, both of whom are already on campus and will go through spring practice. Tennessee needs to generate more explosive plays on offense, and Hurd and Malone should help them do that.
The Vols last won a bowl game during the 2007 season, so it’s been a while. Tennessee ends next season with home games against Kentucky and Missouri and then travels to Vanderbilt on the final weekend. That stretch will likely determine whether or not there’s a postseason in the Vols’ immediate future.