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SEC Power Rankings: Offseason Edition

Hope springs eternal.

Get behind me, evil spirit!
Get behind me, evil spirit!
Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Now is the winter of our discontent, exiled from the glorious football of our summer and fall, mired in gloom and snowdrifts both real and metaphorical... that is to say, it's time for your professional ranking experts to take stock of the offseason and arrive at a precisely calibrated ranking of SEC teams.

As in previous iterations of these rankings, it's important to remember that these rankings are painstakingly compiled by professionals using the finest statistical methods, rosters and depth chart information, classified football materials passed on to us by program insiders (aka an orange and white Magic 8ball named Neylandstrodamus), hearsay, internet rumors, and unreleased Taylor Swift recordings.

Note: Kid Bourbon submitted his ballot, but he was unavailable for comment as of press time, so I imagine he'll weigh in in the comments and tell me how I took his rankings out of context. Also, for this very special edition of the rankings, longtime RTT author and everyone's favorite Lady Vols expert Chris Pendley joins the balloting as our resident Grumpy Cat/Debbie Downer.

On to the rankings!

Official SEC Offseason Football Rankings

1. Alabama

2014  Offensive S&P+ 2
2014 Defensive S&P+ 3
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 11 (#100)
Coaching Changes Position coaches: lost Lance Thompson to Auburn (linebackers); lost Kevin Steele (defensive assistant) to LSU (defensive coordinator).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank (SEC Rank)
1 (1)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 1 (unanimous)

The Crimson Tide under Nick Saban has been so predictably good and yet so boring that the team has transmogrified from a normal top tier college football team into something more: the perfect expression of bland but dominant American-style corporate capitalism.

Like fellow titans of industry Wal-Mart, Exxon-Mobil, and McDonalds, AlabamaTM is a ruthlessly managed and fiercely competitive entity with an entirely separate legal existence that focuses on tight control of its own logistics. So what if the Crimson Tide only returns 11 starters from last year's team? Alabama is a football recruiting juggernaut with a supply line filled to the brim with high quality athletes ready to be molded into an insipid yet overwhelming football product. Omnipresent on media networks yet as tasteless as unsalted grits, the latest iteration of Nick Saban's brilliant corporatized system will perform at roughly the same level as previous editions: a staff of well-regarded middle managers will train newly hired employees in a predictable, conservative approach to conducting business which minimizes risk and ensures consistency in the final product.

Voting notes: Alabama received all three first place votes from our panel, and was one of two unanimous selections along with Vanderbilt.

Bottom line: Alabama might not win the SEC this year, but like Berkshire-Hathaway, the Crimson Tide are always a solid buy, even if there's no publicly available succession plan for the aging CEO.

2(T). Auburn

2014 Offensive S&P+ 5
2014 Defensive S&P+ 29
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 12 (#79)
Coaching Changes Defensive coordinator (DC): fired Ellis Johnson; hired Will Muschamp from Florida (head coach).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 9 (5)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 4-2-4

Former Florida head coach Will Muschamp is the newest Dark Arts of Defense professor at headmaster Gus Malzahn's Hogwarts-on-the-Plain. While Malzahn spends the spring and summer trying to find and destroy the horcruxes of ageless offensive wizard Bill Snyder, Muschamp will be in the heat of College and Magnolia, teaching his hapless charges the heretofore unknown concept of "team defense". With defensive end Carl Lawson returning from injury and half-giant Montravious Adams stronger after a year in the weight program, expect Gainesville's least favorite Muggle to take the eight returning defensive starters and vastly improve on last year's 29th ranked unit.

"But wait, you still haven't said anything about how Auburn's offense can weather losing seven starters!" And that, my dear readers, is why Malzahn is the most impressive illusionist in the business.

Gratuitous Emma Watson Question: "Emma, are we excited to see what kinds of crazy plays Malzahn calls this year?"

Emma Watson

Voting notes: Auburn lands at number two overall thanks to a strong returning roster and faith in Malzahn's coaching staff. While KidB and I both voted other teams into this spot, we couldn't agree on which team, so the other Tigers earn the spot based on the average.

Ministry of Magic threat assessment: High. Malzahn continues to recruit at an elite pace, and Muschamp has proven himself as an elite defensive coordinator at every coaching stop. While an unsettled quarterback situation may force the defense to carry the offense early in the season, Auburn finally has enough talent and coaching on the defensive side of the ball to make that a tenable proposition.

2(T). Georgia

2014 Offensive S&P+ 8
2014 Defensive S&P+ 17
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 12 (#79)
Coaching Changes OC: lost Mike Bobo to Colorado State (head coach); hired Brian Schottenheimer from St. Louis Rams.
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 6 (4)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 2-3-5

Mark Richt continues his decade-long impersonation of late-era Phil Fulmer, serving up talented teams that manage to lose at the least opportune time every single year. Although Georgia fans finally managed to drive whipping boy offensive coordinator Mike Bobo out of Athens, his replacement is equally vanilla former NFL offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer. A shining example of nepotism to children everywhere, Schottenheimer was gainfully employed as an offensive coordinator in professional football for nine straight seasons (2006-2011 New York Jets; 2012-2014 St. Louis Rams) while only managing to break into the top half of league offenses a grand total of twice: 12th in offensive DVOA in 2006, and 16th in offensive DVOA in 2010. Schottenheimer will also serve as the Bulldogs' quarterbacks coach-- a role to which he brings extensive experience, having developed former Southern Cal quarterback Mark Sanchez into a butt fumbling sensation. With four returning starters on the offensive line, Georgia fans can look forward to Schottenheimer running star sophomore running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel into loaded defensive fronts on first and second down, while calling checkdowns to the tight end and underneath wide receivers on third-and-long.

Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt faces the challenge of replacing every starter on the defensive line, but Georgia should be more disciplined and physical in the linebacking and secondary units. If Pruitt can build a serviceable defensive line rotation from a very talented group of players, the Bulldogs' defense could be quite salty next year.

Voting notes: Chris and I voted Georgia in the top three, while KidB placed the Bulldogs fifth behind a host of SEC West teams.

Final verdict: Georgia is almost certainly the most talented team in the division, and despite all of the jokes at Schottenheimer's expense, it's entirely possible that the Bulldogs can win 9-10 games this coming year with a conservative, run-first offense and a talented, opportunistic defense. It remains to be seen what Georgia has at the quarterback position, but there's enough talent not to count them out. As always, expect at least one Georgia starter to be kicked off the team for off-season shenanigans prior to fall camp.

4. Tennessee

2014 Offensive S&P+ 47
2014 Defensive S&P+ 24
Phil Steele's Returning Starters (National Rank)
18 (#6)
Coaching Changes OC: lost Mike Bajakian to Tampa Bay Buccaneers (quarterbacks coach); hired Mike DeBord from Michigan (Olympic Sports Coordinator).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 4 (2)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 3-7-3

Laugh, cry, or call us homers, Tennessee is finally poised to return to the top of the SEC. On offense, the Vols return 10 starters, losing only Iron Man offensive tackle Jacob Gilliam. When looking at CFB Matrix's individual game starters, the situation looks even better: Tennessee returns 46 of 65 offensive line starters (13*5), 36 of 39 wide receiver starters, 13 of 13 tight end starters, 9 of 13 running back starters, 6 of 13 quarterback starters, and 13 of 13 kicker starters (123/156 total offensive player individual game starters-- tops in the SEC). With another good recruiting class, a year's worth of experience, and improved strength and conditioning, 2014's talented but young offense should be vastly improved in 2015. It's a subject for another article, but Tennessee's terrible offensive line play was due to a high negative play rate dragging down an otherwise decent statistical performance. In order to take the next step from terrible to adequate, the offensive line must make fewer mental mistakes and give up fewer false starts, tackles for loss, and sacks.

On defense, Tennessee returns 8 starters and enough talented depth to hold open competitions to replace defensive tackle Jordan Williams, middle linebacker A.J. Johnson, and nickelback Justin Coleman. Junior college cornerback Justin Martin and early enrollee safety Stephen Griffin are expected to push for early playing time, and high school defensive tackles Shy Tuttle and Kahlil McKenzie look ready to contribute to the defensive line rotation in the fall.

Voting notes: Chris remains our resident Negative Nancy with a seventh place vote for the Vols. Meanwhile, KidB and I are rationally exuberant.

Final verdict: Tennessee posts a winning record in the SEC for the first time in years, beats at least two of the Georgia-Florida-Alabama triumvirate, and goes to a New Year's Day bowl game again. KidB wakes up the day after the bowl game with a tattoo of Joshua Dobbs on his forehead, MemphisPete fears that he's suffering a heart attack that turns out to be a heart murmur of pure joy, and Chris pessimistically posts that the Vols have "peaked too soon".

5.Texas A&M

2014 Offensive S&P+ 21
2014 Defensive S&P+ 73
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 15 (#29)
Coaching Changes DC: fired Mark Snyder; hired John Chavis from LSU.
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 11 (6)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 4-6-7

The Aggies are the anti-Missouri, ending each of the last three seasons with disappointing finishes after extensive preseason hype. Defensive coordinator John Chavis is a fantastic hire, especially because it handicaps a division rival, but the Texas A&M defense requires more extensive repair than can be accomplished in a single offseason. Like their burnt orange rivals in Austin, defensive coaches in College Station may soon find that cultural change requires kicking unmotivated, spoiled players to the curb.

Voting Notes: I'm more bullish on Texas A&M than my fellow voters, but that's more a function of regression among SEC West teams than it is a vote of confidence.

Bottom line: The Aggies remain incredibly talented, but head coach Kevin Sumlin's team has regressed in each of the last three seasons.

6. Missouri

2014 Offensive S&P+ 48
2014 Defensive S&P+ 23
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 13 (#58)
Coaching Changes DC: lost Dave Steckel to Missouri State (head coach); hired Barry Odom from Memphis.
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 25 (12)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 7-5-6

Oh, Missouri. If the denizens of Rock M Nation are correct, head coach Gary Pinkel and his coaching staff are very successfully exploiting a flaw in recruiting rankings to find and develop under-recruited but talented high school athletes who lack defined positions. If that's true, then it stands to reason that shaking up Pinkel's longtime coaching staff could be a problem, especially when one considers the number of other coaches that have suffered a drop-off without key lieutenants. Former Memphis defensive coordinator Barry Odom is a very good hire, but the other other Tigers may still miss new Missouri State head coach Dave Steckel.

Voting notes: Chris continues his run of ignoring standard securities warnings: "past performance does not guarantee future results".

Another prediction of regression to the mean: Missouri's inexplicably great performance over the last few years has delighted fans in the better Columbia while confounding and angering virtually everyone else. If Pinkel has divined a decisive programmatic advantage, it would be foolish not to expect other teams to take notice and eventually catch up. Expect the SEC's very own Kirk Ferentz to regress to the mean.

7. Arkansas

2014 Offensive S&P+ 20
2014 Defensive S&P+ 18
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 15 (#29)
Coaching Changes OC: lost Jim Cheney to Purdue; hired Dan Enos from Central Michigan (head coach).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 23 (11)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 5-6-8

Full-time head football coach and part-time shirtless party Zeppelin Bret BERT Bielema wants to pound his opponents into submission with a heavy-handed, ground-and-pound strategy, whether the game is Hungry Hungry Hippos or the grill line at Golden Corral. Mark Mangino's skinnier, more-successful cousin finally has a roster built in his own image, and that means four talented offensive linemen return along with two thousand yard rushers. Pass happy offensive coordinator Jim Cheney was shuffled off to the Big 10, to be replaced by former Michigan State assistant and Central Michigan head coach Dan Enos. In a division where several of last year's contenders are replacing key starters, Arkansas may improve by virtue of standing still.



Voting notes: Arkansas received votes that place it in a relatively tight cluster of good, but not great teams.

Bottom line: The Razorbacks probably won't win the division, but they'll be a tough, well-coached outfit that will give less disciplined teams fits, including, yes, Tennessee in Knoxville. Don't sleep on the hogs.

8. LSU

2014 Offensive S&P+ 31
2014 Defensive S&P+ 12
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 15 (#29)
Coaching Changes DC: lost John Chavis to Texas A&M; hired Kevin Steele from Alabama (defensive assistant).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 5 (3)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 9-10-2

What's to like: LSU has a talented roster, returns the fourth-most starters in the SEC, and Les Miles has been a model of coaching stability in the SEC.

What's not to like: LSU's offense was a complete mess all of last year, failing to develop a starting quarterback and wasting good seasons from running back Leonard Fournette and wide receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. Highly paid offensive coordinator Cam Cameron played musical quarterbacks with Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris, destroying the confidence of both players. Defensive coordinator John Chavis, feeling unappreciated, decamped for division rival Texas A&M, and Miles hired aging defensive assistant Kevin Steele from Alabama to replace him. Steele was responsible for a series of disastrous performances as Clemson's defensive coordinator from 2009-2012, and was fired following a horrific bowl loss to West Virginia. LSU also hired the physical manifestation of those Red Bull cartoons in defensive line coach and former USC interim head coach Ed Orgeron, setting up potential staff conflict between Steele and his top lieutenant (and potential replacement, should Steele falter).

Voting notes: Holy outlier, Batman! KidB ranked the Bayou Bengals second overall, while Chris and I ranked LSU in the bottom half of the conference.

Bottom line: It's foolish to bet against Les Miles, but last season's offensive shortcomings have yet to be addressed, and the revamped defensive coaching staff creates a new area of concern.

9. Ole Miss

2014 Offensive S&P+ 12
2014 Defensive S&P+ 7
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 16 (#17)
Coaching Changes None
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 17 (7)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 8-9-10

Let's get this out of the way first: Ole Miss is likely to be nasty on defense once again, with seven starters returning from last year's 7th ranked unit. Robert Nkemdiche (DT), C.J. Johnson (DE), and Marquis Haynes (DE) should be at full strength to start the season, Denzel Nkemdiche returns from injury to anchor a rebuilt but talented linebacking unit, and the defensive backfield will benefit from experience in the front seven. The Landsharks are once again swimming with talent.

The problems all come on the other side of the ball, and really by "problems" we mean "problems caused by presumed starting quarterback Chad $wag Kelly". Ole Miss returns nine starters on offense, including all five starting offensive linemen and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, but all of that potential is likely to go to waste with a petulant, unreliable hothead at the controls. Chad Kelly, the nephew of former Buffalo Bills' quarterback Jim Kelly, transferred to Oxford from East Mississippi Community College, where he spent the fall after being thrown off the Clemson football team by notoriously lax disciplinarian Dabo Swinney. Kelly earned his one-way ticket to junior college by throwing an expletive-laden tantrum at the Clemson Orange and White game that later necessitated his escort away from the football facilities by police. Staying true to form, he managed to get arrested in the early morning hours in his hometown of Buffalo, four days after signing to play for Ole Miss, for his role in a bar brawl. Kelly was charged with seven misdemeanors for fighting, resisting arrest, and threatening "to go to my car and get my AK-47 and spray this place."

Don't make the mistake of comparing Kelly to former Ole Miss shooting guard and bête noire Marshall Henderson-- that's unfair to Henderson, who earned his notoriety first and foremost with sterling play on the court, and only secondarily by taunting rival fans and engaging in extracurricular shenanigans. Maybe head coach Hugh Freeze can whisper soothing words in Kelly's ear, or install a different quarterback as a caretaker, but Kelly hasn't shown anything on the major college level to indicate that he's mentally equipped to stay out of trouble for an entire semester, let alone run a talented offense in the SEC West.

Voting notes: Everyone agrees that Ole Miss is likely to struggle, which either means we're correct, or we'll end up with equal amounts of egg on our faces.

Bottom line: An excellent defense paired with an offense led by a terrible quarterback? If Ole Miss has a successful season, it's likely to be in the same vein as 2012 Florida. It could happen, but it's not likely.

10. Mississippi State

2014 Offensive S&P+ 6
2014 Defensive S&P+ 16
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 9 (#121)
Coaching Changes DC: lost Geoff Collins to Florida; hired Manny Diaz from Louisiana Tech.
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 18 (8)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 11-8-9

Mississippi State is dead last in the SEC in the number of returning starters, and in the bottom five nationally. On the other hand, CLANGA can take pride in a substantial offseason upset: keeping head coach Dan Mullen in Starkville. Mullen signed a rich new contract extension and then inked a jumbo-sized recruiting class including four junior college players, but it's tough to replace six starters on offense (including three offensive linemen) and seven starters on defense (including three defensive linemen and two linebackers).

Voting notes: The other Bulldogs narrowly lost out to Ole Miss for 9th place based on the strength of my 11th place vote, which seems about right.

Bottom line: Mississippi State was underrated entering last season, but most of the starters from 2014's sterling performance are no longer in Starkville. CLANGA is likely to be a solid, well-coached team that struggles to stay over .500 in the tough SEC West.

11. South Carolina

2014 Offensive S&P+ 23
2014 Defensive S&P+ 89
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 12 (#79)
Coaching Changes DC: hired Jon Hoke from Chicago Bears to co-DC with incumbent Lorenzo "Whammy" Ward.
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 19 (9)
Votes (Hunter/Chris/KidB) 12-12-11

The head ball coach doesn't worry about football until it starts to get too hot to play golf, so just go ahead and take a nap for another few months. That is, unless you need him to drink a few cold ones and land a few zingers on opposing coaches.

Voting notes: Better than the worst, worse than the best.

Bottom line: South Carolina's defense was really awful last year and should improve just because it can't really get any worse. On the other hand, All Name Team quarterback Dylan Thompson finally graduates, and wide receiver Pharoh Cooper needs someone, anyone, to get him the ball.

12(T). Florida

2014 Offensive S&P+ 81
2014 Defensive S&P+ 21
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 10 (#114)
Coaching Changes HC: fired Will Muschamp; hired Jim McElwain from Colorado State (head coach).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 21 (10)
Votes (Hunter/Chris/KidB) 13-11-12

With coaching turnover and roster attrition, this team should be pretty bad. On the other hand, new head coach Jim McElwain is a complete unknown, and Florida still has some significant talent on the roster. McElwain has his work cut out for him transforming run-first quarterback Treon Harris into a serviceable thrower with an almost completely new look offense. Defensive coordinator Geoff Collins churned out some good units at Mississippi State, but the Gators may have hired the wrong coach from Starkville. If McElwain doesn't succeed to the level expected and Mullins continues to win with limited resources, athletics director Jim Foley is going to find his own head on the chopping block.

Voting notes: Everyone thinks the Gators will be bad.

Bottom line: Maybe this is wishful thinking, but on paper, Florida looks to be on track for a terrible season.

12(T). Kentucky

2014 Offensive S&P+ 63
2014 Defensive S&P+ 72
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 14 (#42)
Coaching Changes OC: lost Neal Brown to the head coaching position at Troy; hired Shannon Dawson from West Virginia (co-OC).
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 39 (13)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 10-13-13

Mark Stoops is an interesting test case for the patience of the Wildcat football faithful: he's improved recruiting, hired a respectable coaching staff, and put an entertaining, tough-minded team onto the field. Kentucky improved from 2-10 in Joker Phillips' last year to 5-7 in Mark Stoops' second year, but the Wildcats played poorly in the second half of the season as injuries mounted. It's not fair to put Stoops on the hot seat, but that's probably where he'll be after Kentucky missed a bowl for a fourth straight season and watched a highly touted recruiting class fall apart the week before signing day.

On offense, former coordinator Neal Brown was a more than respectable offensive mind who made the most of his somewhat limited resources, so newly hired coordinator Shannon Dawson will need to be at his best. Dawson comes from West Virginia with the right pedigree, but he hasn't been the sole play-caller for an offense. On defense, Kentucky loses defensive end Bud Dupree, but Stoops has enough returning talent to put a solid defense on the field.

Voting notes: I'm more bullish on the Wildcats than my two fellow voters, but I have to admit that Kentucky could be significantly improved on the field but not see it reflected in the record.

Bottom line: Kentucky isn't a pushover under Stoops-- teams that fail to take the Wildcats seriously will lose, barring Florida 2014 level antics (side note: come on, SEC officials-- you have to call that delay of game).

14. Vanderbilt

2014 Offensive S&P+ 115
2014 Defensive S&P+ 100
Phil Steele's Returning Starters 18 (#6)
Coaching Changes OC: fired Karl Dorrell; hired Andy Ludwig from Wisconsin. DC: head coach Derek Mason will serve as his own defensive coordinator.
2015 247 Recruiting Class Rank 47 (14)
Votes (Hunter-Chris-KidB) 14 (unanimous)

The Commodores were terrible last year, and if not for a pair of narrow wins over UMass (34-31) and Charleston Southern (21-20), it would have been worse. Head coach Derek Mason hemmed and hawed for days before reluctantly signing former offensive coordinator and best friend Karl Dorrell's walking papers, which may make him a better man than coach. The search for an offensive coordinator dragged, but newly hired offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig is certain to be an improvement over Dorrell. Ludwig will need to settle on a starting quarterback as soon as possible, but he'll have plenty of experience to work with as nine starters return to West End.

Mason also fired defensive coordinator David Kotulski and tabbed himself as the replacement, although he doesn't seem to have paid himself for the privilege (a la Barry Alvarez). While Mason is a well-respected defensive mind with an admirable track record, it should concern the faithful in Nashville that the head coach doesn't trust his assistants or his hiring ability enough to delegate responsibility. Mason struggled with in-game coaching decisions last season, so adding additional responsibilities to his plate doesn't seem like a great idea, although it may be making the best of a bad situation.

Voting: Unanimous.

Bottom line: Vanderbilt was a team in complete disarray for most of last season-- rudderless on offense and worn out on defense. Mason has continued to recruit at a decent level, so the raw material is there, but at this point, it's hard to have any faith that he's going to turn it around.