So we arrive at the end, the top two in our SEC Preview Countdown, ranking the teams on strength entering the 2015 season. The rankings from 14-3 went this way: Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Florida, South Carolina, Texas A&M, Arkansas, LSU, Mississippi State, Missouri, Tennessee, Georgia and Alabama.
At number two are the Ole Miss Rebels and their fantastic defense. It is the best in the country. Like the rest of the team, they have a large chip on their shoulder after what TCU did to them in the 42-3 loss in the bowl game. Fatigue played a part with a defense that did allow 35 to Auburn in game 9, 30 to Arkansas in game 11, and 42 in the bowl. They think they have the answer to that with added depth and some tweaks in packages. Injuries derailed them more than anything late, though you rightly never hear coaches give that as a reason for struggling.
The Nkemdiche brothers, Robert and Denzel, are the engine. Tony Conner and Trae Elston provide teeth as any daring to go over the middle keeps one eye out for them. On offense there is a three-way battle for quarterback between Ryan Buchanan, Clemson transfer Chad Kelly, and DeVante Kincade. Word has it Kincade and Kelly will see the bulk of the snaps and each may be used, with Kincade the more mobile and Kelly the better downfield passer.
The spirit of this team was broken in many ways when Laquon Treadwell went down at the end of the Auburn game. He appears fully recovered from that leg injury and is key to the offense. The entire offensive line returns including all-America candidate Laremy Tunsil.
The Rebels must go to Alabama and Auburn, not to mention Mississippi State. But a great defense always travels well and the system should help whoever is under center.
Auburn enters year three under Gus Malzahn, and year one under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. Defense is what held the Tigers back in an 8-5 season in 2014. But confidence is high, and the sheer speed is the best in the league. But the true excitement lies on offense and new starting QB Jeremy Johnson. Johnson is capable of doing anything out there, and he seems to thrive under pressure. There will be lots of that.
The soap opera involving all-America wide receiver Duke Williams has been a distraction. Involved in a fight with a teammate at a movie theatre, Williams was said to have been dismissed and then suspended. Now he is listed last on the depth chart. Assuming he does what is necessary to get back in good graces, he could be the number one pick in next year’s NFL Draft. His skills are off the charts. The backfield contains several backs that saw time last year headlined by Roc Thomas, plus electrifying newcomers Jovon Robinson and Kerryon Johnson.
Eight starters return defensively including all-SEC candidates Carl Lawson, Kris Frost and Cassanova McKinzy. But Auburn recruited hard on that side, with LB Jeff Holland one of the freshman figuring to make an immediate impact. The defense started out well last season, but allowed at least 31 points to each of their last seven FBS opponents, including 55 to Alabama in a game they scored 44 and gained 630 yards themselves.
If Muschamp can turn this defense into even middle-of-the-pack, and Williams can be the go-to-guy everyone expects, Auburn will be the prime contender for the national championship out of the SEC. The Iron Bowl is at home at the end, with no extra seconds required.