By John Zenor
AP Sports Writer
The Southeastern Conference finally got knocked off the mountaintop.
Now, Alabama and other aspiring national contenders are trying to begin the climb back in a league that suddenly has a fresh feel.
Gone are marquee names like Jadeveon Clowney and Johnny Manziel and Heisman Trophy finalists AJ McCarron and Tre Mason.
Presumed top contenders like Alabama, South Carolina, Georgia and LSU are breaking in new quarterbacks. Those factors – and the wild, unpredictable 2013 season – are giving other teams around the league hope.
After all, who could have predicted Missouri and Auburn’s surprising runs to division titles, Florida’s injury-fueled struggles or the SEC West and Iron Bowl being settled on Auburn’s final-play, 109-yard return of a missed field goal?
“Auburn came back and was competing for a national championship,” Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III said. “You never know who’s going to be the best, and that’s why the SEC is the best conference in college football.”
But the best team belonged to Florida State, which ended the SEC’s seven-year national title streak with a 34-31 win over Auburn at the Rose Bowl.
For all the SEC’s player turnover, there is stability on the sidelines. The only new coach is Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason.
Still, maybe it’s the year for Ole Miss to break through or Florida to make a dramatic rebound like Auburn did a year ago after an 0-8 SEC season. Or maybe Alabama, with three national titles in five seasons, returns to the top.
It certainly wouldn’t be a big surprise for Steve Spurrier to lead South Carolina to its first SEC championship. The Gamecocks have posted three straight 11-2 records and are coming off a No. 4 final ranking.
“Nobody picked Missouri and Auburn to win the divisions last year,” Spurrier said. “That’s why we play the game. We don’t know who’s going to win ‘em.”
Here are 5 things to watch during the upcoming SEC season:
CHANGING QBS: Seven of the top eight passers from last season are gone, including Texas A&M’s Manziel, Alabama’s McCarron and Georgia’s Aaron Murray. Only six teams have returning starters and one of those, Tennessee, carried over the competition into preseason camp. Freshmen are in the mix at Texas A&M, Kentucky and LSU, and Florida State transfer Jacob Coker is the odds-on favorite to win the Crimson Tide’s starting job. Plus, Auburn will start Jeremy Johnson in the opener against Arkansas after Nick Marshall’s offseason citation for marijuana possession.
SPLASHY HIRES: Despite the lack of head coaching turnover, Georgia and Alabama made big splashes hiring coordinators. Alabama landed former Tennessee, Southern California and Oakland Raiders head coach Lane Kiffin to run an offense that’s loaded at running back and wide receiver. Georgia lured Jeremy Pruitt away from national champion Florida State to improve a defense that was middle of the pack. The Bulldogs also have replaced the other three defensive assistants.
FLORIDA’S HOPES: Coach Will Muschamp acknowledged at SEC media days that “there will be a lot of chatter about hot seat business” after Florida’s first losing season since 1979. Chances are there won’t be a repeat of the injury-plagued 2013 season, though. And quarterback Jeff Driskel returns from a broken leg with a new offensive coordinator in Kurt Roper, who came over from Duke. The Gators could be the SEC’s most likely candidate for a big turnaround a la Auburn.
FRESH FACES: All those early departures for the NFL gives more freshmen shots at making early impacts. LSU tailback Leonard Fournette was the nation’s consensus top prospect, and figures to carve a significant role in the backfield. Top quarterback prospect Kyle Allen could claim Texas A&M’s starting job. At Alabama, Cam Robinson is the front-runner to start at left tackle and Tony Brown is competing for one of the cornerback spots.
EARLY SHOWDOWNS: Opening week could give a pretty fair idea of where teams stand. Texas A&M and South Carolina get the SEC season started on Aug. 28 in what gives the SEC Network a splashy debut. They’ve never played each other before. Alabama opens against West Virginia two days later, when Georgia also faces Clemson, LSU plays Wisconsin and Ole Miss goes against Boise State.
Predicted order of finish:
EAST — 1. South Carolina; 2. Georgia; 3. Florida; 4. Missouri; 5. Tennessee; 6. Vanderbilt; 7. Kentucky
WEST — 1. Alabama; 2. Auburn; 3. LSU; 4. Ole Miss; 5. Mississippi State; 6. Texas A&M; 7. Arkansas
Title game winner: Alabama