- Edward Aschoff, ESPN Staff Writer
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SEC bloggers Chris Low and Edward Aschoff will occasionally give their takes on a burning question or hot debate facing the league. We'll both have strong opinions, but not necessarily the same view. We'll let you decide which blogger is right.
Spring practice is alive and well, but we're all immersed in the madness that is March with the NCAA tournament in full swing. And in keeping with the Big Dance theme, it's time to talk Cinderellas.
Today's Take Two topic: Who has the best chance of playing SEC Cinderella in 2014 -- Florida or Mississippi State?
Take 1: Edward Aschoff: Honestly, the SEC as a whole is going to be so much fun to watch this fall because of all the uncertainty when it comes to finding a true frontrunner. But when it comes to finding this year's Cinderella, I'm leaning toward the Gators. A year removed from a disastrous 4-8 season that set records in ineptitude in Gainesville, Florida will break through and challenge for the SEC this fall. Remember when injuries crushed Missouri's offensive hopes in 2012 and the Tigers took the SEC East by storm a year later? Well, the Gators will be similar with the return of starters Jeff Driskel, Matt Jones, Chaz Green and D.J. Humphries.
The Gators ranked last in the SEC in scoring and total offense in 2013, struggling without key parts on both sides of the ball. Having Driskel back is huge, but the biggest thing for him is that he'll be manning a new offense that actually suits his skill set better. Kurt Roper's more spread approach that will feature a lot more shotgun and zone-read will open things up for Driskel and allow him to use his feet more. It'll make Florida's run game more dangerous and should get receivers more involved. The key, of course, is Driskel knowing this offense backward and forward before spring practice ends so that he can teach, teach, teach during summer and fall workouts.
The defense will be fine. There were inconsistencies during the second half of the season, but it's tough when a defense has to stay on the field for so long. Will Muschamp has recruited well enough during his tenure that the defense will suffer only a few hits from the loss of some 2013 studs.
Florida has the advantage of playing LSU, Missouri and South Carolina at home.
Take 2: Chris Low: First, I'd like to point out that we had this same debate a year ago at this time, and the two teams we selected were ... Auburn and Missouri. So we nailed it last year. Let's see if we can make it two years in a row.
It's always a gamble to pick a Cinderella out of the Western Division, which is easily the most rugged division in all of college football. Each of the last five national championship games has included a team from the West, with Auburn losing to Florida State last season in Pasadena. Alabama and LSU played each other for the title in 2011. And, now, with Texas A&M in the mix, it's a big-boy division if there ever was one and only getting stronger. According to ESPN's recruiting rankings in February, Alabama's class was No. 1 nationally, LSU's No. 2, Texas A&M's No. 4 and Auburn's No. 8.
Even though Mississippi State hasn't been a regular among the recruiting heavyweights, Dan Mullen has assembled and developed a nice nucleus of talent entering the 2014 season, and this has a chance to be his best team in Starkville. It starts with junior quarterback Dak Prescott, who's the type of run-pass option that puts so much pressure on opposing defenses. The Bulldogs need to keep him healthy. They also have an underrated group of receivers around Prescott, led by senior Jameon Lewis, who was the star of the Bulldogs' bowl win last season.
Defensively, the Bulldogs should be a load in their front seven. They have depth, and good luck to anybody trying to block 6-5, 300-pound Chris Jones, who's a force at both end and tackle. Linebackers Benardrick McKinney and Beniquez Brown are also playmakers. The cornerback tandem of Taveze Calhoun and Jamerson Love produced six interceptions last season, and the Bulldogs also expect to get back senior safety Jay Hughes, who was injured in 2013. The secondary could be the deepest unit on the team.
The key game, if the Bulldogs are going to make some serious noise in the West, is at LSU on Sept. 20. They get a week off after that game before coming back home to face Texas A&M and Auburn in back-to-back weeks. Mullen has guided Mississippi State to four straight winning seasons, beaten rival Ole Miss four of his five years on the job and engineered three bowl victories. The next step is knocking off one or two of the "big boys" in the West. And even though the Bulldogs have struggled against nationally-ranked foes (they've lost 15 in a row), this is the year that changes.