The SEC's title reign finally ended last season. The miraculous year from the SEC champion Auburn Tigers ended in a last-minute defeat at the hands of Jameis Winston and the Florida State Seminoles. Make no mistake about it, though; the SEC remains the top conference in college football. The talent amassed in this conference remains unmatched, as the pipeline to the NFL will continue regardless of the format in crowning the eventual national champion. Although it may be tough for two SEC squads to gain entry into the new college football playoff, the SEC champion will certainly have a say in who takes home the championship trophy at the end of the 2014 campaign.
TOP-5 FANTASY STARS
1. Todd Gurley, RB, Georgia
Gurley is my preseason choice for the Heisman Trophy. With apologies to the aforementioned Winston, Gurley has been simply sensational the first two years of his career and is hands-down the nation's best running back. Gurley was slowed by an ankle injury last season that cost him three games, but he still managed to rush for 989 yards and 10 touchdowns for the Bulldogs. He did, however, become a dynamic receiver out of the backfield. Gurley caught 37 passes for 441 yards and six touchdowns as a sophomore, destroying his freshman numbers of 16 catches for 117 yards and zero scores. A healthy Gurley means his rushing numbers could approach his freshman season's stats of 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. It would not be a surprise to see Gurley end up with more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage and 30 total touchdowns, particularly with a new quarterback in Hutson Mason at the helm. He's just that much of a beast.
2. Mike Davis, RB, South Carolina
In most conferences, Davis would be the No. 1 running back. Still, this spot isn't so bad, as he proved he could shoulder the rushing load for the Gamecocks in 2013 with 1,1183 yards and 11 touchdowns. He also caught 34 passes for 352 yards out of the backfield, providing a vital safety valve for Connor Shaw. It will be The Dylan Thompson Show in 2014, but Davis remains the steady tailback at SC. Davis' numbers did trail off toward the end of the season due to both lingering injuries as well as overuse, but he should be fresher and sturdier as a junior. Coach Steve Spurrier said he plans to give Davis a few extra plays off per game to help keep him in tip-top shape as the year progresses. As a result, Davis should be able to build off of a successful sophomore campaign and become one of the top rushers in the nation.
3. Nick Marshall, QB, Auburn
Marshall will sit out the first half of the season opener due to an offseason incident, but that shouldn't dissuade fantasy owners from making him arguably the top quarterback selected from the conference. Still, it will be interesting to see if teams adjust to the dual-threat ability of Marshall, who will also be missing star running back Tre Mason. Coach Guz Malzahn has proven to be an offensive mastermind, but it could be tough for Auburn to repeat all of last season's magic. Marshall and the Tigers won't sneak up on anybody this season, but Marshall should still be a highly sought-after fantasy quarterback. During the magical 2013 campaign, he passed for 1,976 yards and 14 touchdowns, while rushing for 1,068 yards and 12 more scores. Marshall is simply too athletic and too dynamic to keep down, even if teams have better prepared defensive game plans than they did a season ago.
4. T.J. Yeldon, RB, Alabama
Despite a stable of backs, the Tide will still lean on Yeldon in crunch time. He has been a proven workhorse his first two seasons at Alabama, rushing for at least 1,100 yards and 12 touchdowns in each year. Yeldon has also averaged at least six yards per rush over his freshman and junior seasons as well. With A.J. McCarron now in the NFL, the Tide figure to lean on the running game and their big beef up front even more heavily as they assimilate their new quarterback into the offense. Yeldon has also improved his receiving skills as well, giving the new QBs outlets as they continue to grow.
5. Bo Wallace, QB, Ole Miss
With all due respect to in-state rival Dak Prescott at Mississippi State, Missouri quarterback Maty Mauk and Georgia gunslinger Hutson Mason, all of whom should have excellent seasons, this should be the huge Bo Wallace season everyone has been waiting for. Wallace has playmakers at his disposal in Laquon Teadwell and Evan Engram, a reliable running game with Jaylen Walton, and the comfort level of being a senior. He has ideal size at 6-foot-4, 220, and has thrown for nearly 3,000 yards in each of the last two seasons. He has also completed at least 63 percent of his passes in each of those seasons as the starter. He cut his interceptions last season as well; despite tossing only 18 touchdown passes, Wallace managed just 10 INTs, down from 17 as a sophomore. Let's also not forget that Wallace is an able runner, scoring six touchdowns on the ground in 2013, including twice in the Music City Bowl victory over Georgia Tech. Wallace is primed to finish his Ole Miss career with a bang.
Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Can the No. 1 recruit in the country qualify as a sleeper? Even with Jeremy Hill in the NFL, the Tigers have a crowded backfield with the likes of Kenny Hilliard and Terrence McGee. Both are seniors who have patiently bided their time for opportunities. McGee rushed 86 times for 626 yards and eight scores in 2013 as a junior, while Hilliard toted the pigskin 68 times for 310 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013. However, coach Les Miles has never been shy about playing his best players no matter what year or experience. Enter Fournette, a true freshman who has turned heads since enrolling at LSU. He has already been compared by teammates to Adrian Peterson. LSU figures to run the ball a ton with fresh blood at quarterback in either Anthony Jennings or Brandon Harris. As a result, there should still be plenty of ball to go around, and it wouldn't be the least bit surprising to see Fournette end up as the bell cow of this offense. It may take a couple of games, but the cream should rise to the top.
Evan Engram, TE, Ole Miss
Before we get to Engram, it should be noted that I'm all aboard the Laquon Treadwell bandwagon this season as well. Treadwell could end up being the top wideout in the conference. Meanwhile, Engram is a hybrid WR-TE who could be the difference maker for the Rebels. An ankle injury cost Engram five games in 2014. In his first seven games of the season prior to the ailment, he hauled in 28 passes for 268 yards and three touchdowns. As mentioned, a big year should be in store for veteran quarterback Bo Wallace, and the Rebels could turn some heads in the SEC West. As we have seen in the NFL, tight ends who can create a mismatch no matter the defender -- too quick for linebackers, to big for defensive backs -- are extremely valuable in today's offenses. Expect the Rebels to use Engram's size and athleticism often this season.
Kelvin Taylor, RB, Florida
Taylor's got good genes, and also a stranglehold on the starting running back job for the Gators. One of the few bright spots from an awful season by Florida standards, the Gators were forced to burn Taylor's redshirt due to the inability of Matt Jones to stay on the field. Taylor responded with 508 yards and four touchdowns, mostly in the final seven games of the 2014 campaign. There's simply no way the Gators can be as bad and as injury-prone as they were in 2013. Kelvin should make his father Fred, a former Gator himself, extremely proud with a scintillating freshman campaign.
Derrick Henry, RB, Alabama
Henry is going to be a very chic pick for breakout candidate this season. He made a name for himself at the end of last season with a stunning display of athleticism and brute strength in the Sugar Bowl against Oklahoma. In a losing cause, Henry rushed eight times for 100 yards and a touchdown. He also took a 61-yard screen pass to the house, looking like a cross between Eddie Lacy and Trent Richardson. Henry is a huge specimen at 6-3, 241, but has the athleticism to make tacklers miss and the burst to outrun opposing DBs. Not to mention the punishing finishes to his runs. Despite the limited workload in 2013, he averaged 10.6 yards per carry, and will enter 2014 as the primary backup to T.J. Yeldon. The Tide has had dual 1,000-yard rushers in the same season before (see Lacy and Yeldon in 2012), and this season should be no different.
Von Pearson, WR, Tennessee
The Vols have done well producing hot-shot receivers despite the lack of success in the win-loss column the last few seasons, particularly in the junior college route. Cordarelle Patterson, entering his second NFL season, spent just one year at Tennessee, but showed he was a big play waiting to happen. Although Marquez North is the leading returning receiver and the likely No. 1 receiver of this year's Tennessee squad, Pearson has shown a flair for the dramatic grab since coming to the UT campus. The junior-college transfer has made highlight reel catches in camp after putting up gaudy numbers at Feather River Community College in California. Pearson posted five games with at least 200 yards receiving, including a 19-catch, 311-yard, three-touchdown symphony last September. The 6-3, 185, wideout will have every opportunity to play on a young, inexperienced Tennessee team. He won't have the greatest quarterback (Justin Worley) or the greatest supporting case, but his athleticism and pass-catching ability should still shine through for the Vols.
Jacob Coker, QB, Alabama
There's so much hype surrounding Coker, the Florida State transfer. His former coach, Jimbo Fisher, called him the most gifted passer he's ever seen. That comes from a coach who mentored Jameis Winston and EJ Manuel the last two seasons. Coker has prototypical size at 6-5, 230. He'll have one of the best offensive lines in the country at his disposal, a stout running game that will take a ton of pressure off of him and playmakers on the outside like Amari Cooper. Yet coach Nick Saban is hesitant to simply hand Coker the reins to the Alabama offense. incumbent Blake Sims could start the season opener against West Virginia because he's more comfortable with the Alabama offense. Saban has also talked of using a two-quarterback system the first few weeks of the season. Is Saban simply playing coy with the media and not showing his hand? Or does he have real concerns about Coker? It seems that if Coker was really the best quarterback for the job, hands-down, this decision would have been made already. He could end up being an absolute stud, but Saban's indecisiveness is also cause for concern.
Kenny Hill, QB, Texas A&M
It will be a tall task for Hill to replace Johnny Manziel. Hill beat out freshman Kyle Allen, but will have the unenviable task of succeeding a quarterback who had two of the greatest back-to-back seasons statistically in SEC history. Still, Hill is a dual-threat quarterback who shined in an up-tempo offense in Texas in high school. He is 6-1, 215, and was successful in an extremely limited role in 2013. He was 16-for-22 for 183 yards and a score last season. Certainly lesser names have put up gaudy numbers in a Kevin Sumlin offense, but it would obviously be unfair to expect Manziel-esque numbers from Hill. Hill has athleticism, but may not be as polished in the passing game. His ability to make quick, correct decisions will be crucial to his success. Johnny Football's instincts were second-to-none during his brief time in College Station; we'll see if Hill can hold up his end of the bargain.
Jeff Driskel, QB, Florida
Driskel is not among my candidates for a rebound campaign. He has never fully been healthy and never lived up to his potential even when on the field. His best statistical season? In 2012, when he threw for 1,646 yards, 12 touchdowns and five interceptions. He played just three games last season before breaking his ankle against Tennessee and being lost for the season. One also has to wonder whether his dual-threat ability will be damaged by the aforementioned leg injury. While not the fleetest of foot, Driskel still had the ability to get out of the pocket and make plays with his legs for the Gators. He is also lacking playmakers on the outside. Quinton Dunbar is more of a possession receiver, and the rest of the wide receiving corps is filled with young unknowns in Ahmad Fulwood, Demarcus Robinson and Latroy Pittman, among others. As a result, Driskel is not in the greatest position to succeed.
Jerron Seymour, RB, Vanderbilt
Seymour was a revelation last season for the Commodores, but may be in for a rude awakening in 2014. The diminutive running back came from virtual anonymity to rush for 716 yards and 14 touchdowns. He was a huge asset in the red zone, too, using his shiftiness and juking his way to most of his scores near the goal line. However, there's a new Sherriff in town in coach Derrick Mason, and with the new coach comes a new offense and a new scheme. Seymour will also have to deal with the presence of a new quarterback; coach Derrick Mason does not expect to name a starter between Patton Robinette, Stephen Rivers and Johnny McCrary until right before the season opener. The Commodores are also missing their best offensive threat, game-breaking wideout Jordan Matthews, who took tons of pressure off both the quarterback as well as the running game. Expect teams to stack up on the run and force the inexperienced Vandy QBs and WRs to beat them. That means Seymour could find much less room to roam in 2014.
Sammie Coates, WR, Auburn
Coates was a breakout star for Auburn last season, making several big plays when teams were sucked in by the running game and unable to adjust or recover. It remains to be seen if he will be able to replicate that big-play ability, as teams will be much more prepared for this style of option offense. Coates had 902 yards and seven touchdowns in 2013, but caught only 42 passes. He won't rack up receptions. He averaged 21.5 yards per catch, though, further displaying his big-play ability. As a result, with more attention coming his way, Coates may not be able to break free for so many huge gainers. He will have huge boom-or-bust potential on a week-to-week basis.
TEAM-BY-TEAM FANTASY STARS
Overall position ranking in parenthesis.
RB T.J. Yeldon (18), WR Amari Cooper (26), TE O.J. Howard (23), Team Defense (1)
TE Hunter Henry (9)
QB Nick Marshall (13), RB Cameron Artis-Payne (30)
Team Defense (4)
RB Todd Gurley (1), K Marshall Morgan (4), Team Defense (9)
RB Leonard Fournette (41), K Colby Delahoussaye (11)
QB Dak Prescott (11), WR Jameon Lewis (44)
QB Maty Mauk (33), K Andrew Baggett (10),
QB Bo Wallace (35), WR Laquon Treadwell (43), TE Evan Engram (8),
RB Mike Davis (10), K Elliott Fry (19), Team Defense (6)
QB Kenny Hill (16), WR Ricky Seals-Jones (33),
Team Defense (8)