Projections are based on a system incorporating returning starters, returning top players, and recruiting class rankings. Ties broken with recruiting class rankings. Projections are not necessarily how Chris feels the league will finish when all is said and done.
Systemized League Projection:
*1. Florida – 47
*2. Texas A&M – 46
*3. Kentucky – 31
*4. South Carolina – 28
*5. LSU – 26
6. Georgia – 18
7. Arkansas – 16
8. Auburn – 16
9. Tennessee – 15
10. Missouri – 15
11. Alabama – 14
12. Ole Miss – 12
13. Vanderbilt – 11
14. Mississippi State – 5
* = Projected NCAA Tournament Teams
Is this the year when the hurt ends? The SEC has bludgeoned the opposition in most NCAA sports but has largely remained a font of mediocrity in women’s soccer for the better part of the last decade. An SEC member hasn’t advance to the Elite Eight since Texas A&M did it in 2008, notably beating Florida en route to the last eight. The last time an SEC side did it when they were in the SEC? Florida, in 2003. No SEC side has reached the College Cup since 2001. Ominous numbers for sure.
The league hardly looked like changing those fortunes last season. Arkansas nearly got there before losing to Duke in the Sweet Sixteen on penalties but were very much punching above their weight. Ole Miss and Kentucky looked markedly out of their depth against superior opposition, while South Carolina and Florida squandered chances against some of the royalty of the college WoSo world. Texas A&M fought valiantly against North Carolina but were also ultimately put to the sword in the round of sixteen. The rest of the league was tepid in the middle of the table and just plain bad at the bottom, with Tennessee and Auburn enduring their worst seasons in ages, while Vanderbilt and Mississippi State, with a combined league goal differential of -44 were just plain abysmal.
And yet there’s hope over the horizon. Florida and Texas A&M shared the spoils in the league last year and may reach further glory this season with most of their playing squad intact going into 2014. South Carolina and Kentucky look formidable once again, while LSU’s blossoming young talent makes anything other than a return to the NCAA Tournament a biting disappointment. The expectation is that those five shouldn’t just reach the NCAA Tournament but still be on the field of play in the second weekend. The top two could well be playing on the last weekend if potential is met.
Beyond those five lies a morass of inconsistency, rebuilding efforts, and pessimism. You’d struggle to separate the next seven teams, who will likely be fighting for five conference tournament spots and perhaps a ticket into the lottery of a late run towards the NCAA Tournament. Arkansas is the flavor du jour at the moment after last season’s revelation but now has a giant target on their back, while Georgia will hope a sterling recruiting class can save a sinking regime. Long-time contenders Tennessee and Missouri may find it hard to rise back to the top tier, with that and the continued difficulties of Vanderbilt and Mississippi State in gaining any traction perhaps the biggest indicator of all that the standard of play amongst the giants is finally rising anew.
Florida’s season essentially ended when Havana Solaun’s did in the SEC Tournament final. The Gators looked lost offensively after that, eventually bowing out meekly to Duke in the second round of the NCAA Tournament. The mind-games of giving up hosting rights to a regional were rendered moot by a display that only underlined the playmaker’s importance to her side. For all the good that Savannah Jordan’s goals did her side as a freshman, the absence of Solaun’s guile was noticeable in the Duke defeat.
The good news is that Solaun looks to be on course for a return from that ACL injury and could well be the key to a run towards the College Cup. As evidenced by Solaun and Erika Tymrak before her’s influence on the Gators, a star #10 is pivotal for success in the UF 4-2-3-1. If she hasn’t lost a step, Solaun could key one of the nation’s most dangerous attacks with Jordan spearheading the assault. The sophomore figures to be a marked woman after last year’s heroics, but whether anyone can slow the goal machine down at this level is up for debate. The more the club can involve towering winger Pamela Begic into the attack, the better, as the raw Slovenian showed signs of pure quality as a rookie.
The defense had little trouble shutting down most SEC offenses last season, giving up just five league goals in eleven matches. Center-back Christen Westphal is the only household name but one that could be spoken in the same tones as former Gator great Kathryn Williamson with another stellar season. The other defenders are largely anonymous, with head coach Becky Burleigh seemingly favoring a full-back rotation at times to better keep fresh legs on the pitch to stretch the opposition. Goalkeeper Taylor Burke is all but unopposed after the departure of Nora Nest Gjoen after one season. She’s unlikely to push for top individual honors but has athleticism to spare and isn’t likely to be a liability for the club this season. That may be more than enough considering her backline.
The club should be 3-0-0 ahead of a hellacious three game road set at Oklahoma State, Florida State, and Stanford. The league schedule starts out cushily enough before tricky trips to Texas A&M and Arkansas that will likely decide the title. Florida faces the daunting task of facing all of the league’s top teams on the road this season. It could derail their league title hopes but may just build the steel needed to push them deep into the NCAA Tournament for the first time in ages.
Main title rivals Texas A&M return an equally talented squad and perhaps boast a deeper bench of newcomers. The addition of youth international stars Mikaela Harvey and Haley Pounds to an already explosive offense could see a side that nearly managed three goals a game in the league last season become even more potent. The only question for Aggies boss is how to keep all his weapons happy up in attack. The offense ran smoothly for the most part with Kelley Monogue and Shea Groom operating as a two-headed dragon in attacking midfield behind a band of three forwards. Groom showed more end product than ever with fourteen goals and may continue to work her way up NWSL draft boards with another starring season.
Monogue was more wasteful with her efforts, with a disappointing return of just six goals on ninety-six shots. The senior has not been the same since injuries have taken their toll but could end her college career with a flourish if she can turn into the threat she was as a rookie. Others who figure to factor in amongst the returners include promising sophomore Liz Keester, who netted ten as a rookie, as well as Allie Bailey and Bianca Brinson, a pair of vets who can hit the back of the target. The wild card is the towering Annie Kunz, a frustratingly mercurial figure who began last season in fine form but who was never the same after the controversial opening minutes of the Baylor match. Sustained greatness would only add to one of the nation’s best attacks.
The defense could be more of a questionable thing, especially up the spine. Janae Cousineau was adequate as the shield in front of the backline last season, but you sense the club would be more comfortable on the whole if they could move center-back Meghan Streight back into the role. The senior is undisputedly one of the best in the nation in a defensive midfield role but has been called upon to shore up the club’s situation in central defense and may be asked to fill that role again this season with the loss of Rachel Lenz. Grace Wright figures to get the first shot at replacing Lenz on a full time basis after filling in for her late last year. The full-back duo of Karlie Mueller on the right and Leigh Edwards on the left should be one of the nation’s best. Mueller in particular looked a talent of no small ability last season and could round into one of the nation’s very best when all is said and done. Goalkeeper Jordan Day may have already hit her ceiling after three seasons with the Aggies but is still one of the nation’s more reliable custodians. It should hardly be a shock given the club’s track record of producing strong goalkeepers.
The club’s exhibition opponents UCLA, even at half speed, should provide much more of a challenge than most of the Aggies’ non-conference foes. The trickiest ties may be a home date to a UCF side themselves thinking of a march to the College Cup, while a daunting trip to Arizona State a few weeks later could also present a challenge. Still, the bulk of the Aggies’ non-conference slate wafts of a motivation geared towards taking advantage of the RPI’s inadequacies. Such plans work until they don’t, and a lack of true top opposition out of conference could prove costly in the jostling for a top seed come the end of the season.
A&M face a daunting beginning to the season in the SEC with LSU, Florida, and Kentucky all in the cards in the opening five league fixtures. But the schedule relents in a major way after that, and even with South Carolina at home late, you sense that the title could already be won by then. Big things are expected in these parts this season, and one of G. Guerrieri’s best sides yet could ultimately break through and finally reach the College Cup.
Kentucky’s season has ended in punishing fashion to UCLA the past two seasons, and the Wildcats will likely be hoping to avoid a third encounter with the Bruins despite what looks to be Jon Lipsitz’s best side on paper in his tenure here. That doesn’t separate them from the vast majority of the sides in Division I this season, but the talent on display in Lexington could well divide them from the chaff in 2014. With Arin Gilliland having just one season left with the club, UK will certainly be under pressure to make the most of the presence of their transcendent star.
Though her club and international future likely lies at left-back after this season, Gilliland will unquestionably be leading the dance from the front this year. A twelve goal return last season underlines her importance to the attack, though achieving that in ninety-six shots perhaps shows the limits of her cutting edge up top. Sophomores Zoe Swift and Micaela Dooley, a transfer from San Diego, figure to be Gilliland’s running mates up top. Swift was talented but inconsistent as a rookie, while Dooley will have to show her ability to survive in the wars in the trenches of the SEC, a much more physically punishing league than the WCC. Beyond them up top is largely a litany of questions, making the arrival of Kelly Novak, a terror in the USYS National Championship in 2012, a welcome one.
The midfield will be banking on the healthy return of Stuart Pope, one of the league’s revelations until an ACL injury cut her down late in the season. It was an unfortunate end to a season which had seen her hit double figures while also adding seven assists. A healthy Pope could lead to a torrent of goals from Wildcat offense. Otherwise, the Wildcats could resemble a broken team, with little in the way of a connective force between defense and attack. Junior Courtney Raetzman is undersized for a defensive midfielder but not afraid of the rough stuff, a fact that cost her most of last season through injury. The other returnees in the middle of the park are largely water carriers at this level.
The questions are mostly in defense. The club mostly made do after injuries to the backline going into 2013 and finished solidly in mid-pack after shipping sixteen in eleven league games. Cara Ledman proved a quick study after being converted to left-back from forward and could prove the club’s best asset on a backline that hardly reinforced itself in the offseason. The slew of converts should be more comfortable with another year of experience, but the lack of proven star power will probably keep the club from contending from silverware in the end. The goalkeeping situation is even more worrisome. Returnee Ayanna Parker played less than a full half of soccer as a rookie and may play second fiddle to freshman Taylor Braun. Braun comes in with modest accolades but a great pedigree from the Dallas Texans club. She or Parker will have to perform beyond their years for UK to continue to make progress forward.
The non-conference slate is a mixed bag. Louisville look unlikely to match last year’s feats, while Washington and Pepperdine may need to have big bounces back if UK is to get a hopeful RPI bump with a win. The rest are likely flotsam in the grand scheme of things, wit the home opener against Francis Marion a potential RPI anchor when all is said and done. After a tough opening draw at Arkansas, the schedule eases up before a brutal five game stretch featuring four of the league’s best. Georgia and Alabama are the type of club UK should be beating at this stage though, so a possible late flourish isn’t out of the question. One NCAA Tournament win should be the minimum, and anything less than two may be seen as a disappointment given the sheer talent of Gilliland at the top of the marquee. If anything, the bracketing gods owe UK a little rub of the green, and it’s not difficult to envision a program best season if those breaks go their way.
After a painful throwback to the Bad Ol’ Days of the early part of Shelley Smith’s tenure, South Carolina was back to their typical selves in 2013, for better or worse. But mostly better. Third in the league, just two points off of the co-champions was not a bad bounce back season, but the Gamecocks went down to Texas A&M in the SEC Tournament semi-finals and bowed again to Stanford in the NCAA Tournament, a disappointment considering the Card had looked to be ripe for the picking after a down season. It was the usual tale for the Gamecocks: tenacious on defense but wholly without the firepower to lay down a marker as a contender for major trophies.
The Gamecocks figure to do no worse than last season at least with seven starters returning and much of their key personnel also back for another stab at it in the SEC. You suspect South Carolina may never have as prodigious a talent as Sabrina D’Angelo on their books again, with the Canadian senior keeper widely considered the future #1 for Canada, potentially as soon as the end of the next Olympic cycle. D’Angelo’s athleticism, footwork, and shot stopping ability have made her one of the nation’s best at this level and could well propel SC to a superb season.
D’Angelo’s task should be made easier by the backline in front of her. Senior center-backs Taylor Leach and Andie Romness have size, experience, and in Leach’s case, a nose for goal. Leach could be one of the best defenders in the nation this season and one who will get a chance to make a case as an NWSL Draft prospect with another strong season. Romness and left-back Caroline Gray won’t rock the boat, and have plenty of experience, though the club must also find a replacement for departed right-back Christine Watts. Rookie Dominique Babbitt could see major minutes. The club also has to make do without departed defensive midfielder Elizabeth Sinclair, a fixture in this lineup for the past four years. There are a few holes to fill, but Carolina usually makes do well enough no matter the personnel in defense.
The offense could be another animal entirely, especially given the loss of starting center forward Danielle Au. Au was more graft than craft throughout her Carolina career but still managed seven goals and four assists as a senior, both career bests. The leading contender to take up the role as main goal getter in Columbia is junior Raina Johnson, who blitzed opposing defenses for ten goals after netting just once as a rookie. Six came against league opponents, but Johnson is just 5’0″ and better suited for a role on the wing. Nobody else returning here scored more than three goals, meaning the club may need more from its midfield offensively to thrive. Chelsea Drennan netted twelve assists as a rookie and is deadly on set piece deliveries but didn’t show much of a cutting edge in front of goal. Rookie newcomer Savannah McCaskill is considered a future star by many and may well get tossed in the deep end from the get go.
The Gamecocks hardly look to be challenged by much of their non-conference schedule. The likes of Samford, Boston University, and Wisconsin-Milwaukee will probably look better to the computers than the discerning eye come the end of the season, while the only truly tricky test may come against the rapidly improving Clemson at home a week before a potentially difficult trip to South Florida. If all goes to form, SC will be unbeaten in the league before a crunch stretch of LSU, Kentucky, and Florida likely decides their SEC title fate. Silverware doesn’t look likely unless a fifteen goal scorer turns up in Columbia, but the defense will make the road tough for any big name side facing the Gamecocks this year. Unfortunately, the lack of a sharper edge in front of goal will likely mean another second weekend exit in this year’s Big Dance.
The pressure may well be mounting in Baton Rouge for an LSU side that’s fallen in the RPI in two successive seasons, made the NCAA Tournament in just one of the past four campaigns, and failed to win a postseason game since 2010. 2013 may have been particularly difficult for Brian Lee to swallow. Sitting at 5-0-1 in the league and looking like shock title contenders, the Tigers proceeded to lose their last five games in the league before bowing out to Auburn in the SEC Tournament. It was the type of meltdown to shatter the self-belief of many programs, but LSU’s persistently dogged recruiting efforts breathed some optimism back into the program after reeling in a star-studded recruiting class.
Though four of the seven additions are domestic recruits, the fervor in Baton Rouge has largely been over the club’s continued pillaging of the international ranks. New Zealand’s Lily Alfeld and Canada’s Jordane Carvery are joined by returning Tigers Emma Fletcher and Megan Lee at the ongoing U20 Women’s World Cup. The trend doesn’t look to be dissipating any time soon either, with more international recruits ticketed for Baton Rouge the next few seasons.
But the Tigers have seldom looked like losing the race in the Spring, only to find that turning highly touted youth talent into consistently excellent college players is a difficult art. The likes of Fletcher and Clarke have proven the wisdom of looking abroad for talent but also haven’t hidden some of the past failures of highly touted international talent here. Jade Kovacevic and Rebecca Pongetti each lasted just a season in Baton Rouge despite showing flashes of talent. The resources committed to the accrual of international talent may be showing in the club’s domestic recruiting efforts as well. There’s little in the way of proven depth outside of the international stars, and it was perhaps telling that the three players here that won All-Conference honors were not American. The likes of Jorian Baucom and Christyna Pitre have a chance to change that as soon as this year, but Lee’s recruiting within the U.S. hasn’t been bulletproof either (see: Cook, Alex and/or Blades, Kaley).
The route back to the NCAA Tournament likely runs through the club’s offense, with Fletcher and Clarke again likely to set the stage. The duo combined for a hundred and twenty-nine shots last season. Nobody else on the team bettered twenty-six, so the offense will clearly run through the Canadian duo for the foreseeable future. Fletcher already looks like one of the nation’s hottest young midfield prospects and a future full Canadian international. While Fletcher needs to perfect her aim in front of goal, she did mighty fine in setting up her teammates, to the tune of twelve assists, including three against Arkansas in a 5-3 win on the road. Further assists against BYU, Kentucky, and Texas A&M only underlined her true quality, and Fletcher should be one of the league’s very best players in 2014.
What exactly Clarke will bring to the table is very much up in the air. The Canadian entered this level with a giant reputation but was looking like a bust early on with just two goals in LSU’s first ten matches. That she couldn’t score against the likes of Louisiana-Monroe and Vanderbilt was a big worry, but six goals in three games in the middle of league season raised hopes again. She’d fall cold again though, scoring just two goals in the club’s final seven matches, though both came against Texas A&M in the regular season finale. A motley crew of the likes of Fernanda Pina, Natalia Gomez-Junco, and Jorian Baucom also figure to see their chance at bringing the heat in front of goal. The first two have been notoriously inconsistent thus far in their college careers, while Baucom’s a highly touted rookie but a rookie nonetheless. There’s potential here, but also potential for headaches if this group continues to show its youth.
There’s less immediate upside in the defense, though there’s no small amount of potential on the backline either. Alex Arlitt is the only senior on the squad and figures see time at center-back or perhaps as a defensive midfielder given all the club’s defensive additions. Carvery looks likely to be a potential partner at center-back, with the towering Canadian rookie already making her mark at youth international level. Texan Alexis Urch and Brit Ella Williams also join up and figure to fight for major minutes as well. Without question though, the star is Lee, another who’s featuring at this month’s U20 WWC. Lee played the role of Swiss army knife last season but is best set as a left-back. The club has to hope the rest of the lineup falls into place so Lee isn’t needed elsewhere again.
Veteran Megan Kinneman departs after a fine career in Baton Rouge and figures to be replaced by rookie New Zealander Lily Alfeld. A potential #1 for her country at full international level, Alfeld may be in her country’s plans sooner rather than later if she continues to impress in both Canada the next few weeks and with the Tigers the rest of this season. She’ll have to hit the ground running though. Reserves Morgan Ruhl and Catalina Rubiano have next to no experience…which could be a problem if the full Football Fern squad comes calling for Alfeld in October for World Cup Qualifying.
With just one senior on the books, it’s hard to argue LSU’s best years are ahead of it. But it’s hard to preach patience after the club has missed the NCAA Tournament in three of the past four seasons. There’s more than enough talent here for the Tigers to turn their usual stellar league performance into a return to the Big Dance. The non-conference schedule, the beginning of it, is a worry. Little will challenge them early, and that might be a problem, with a murderous stretch including trips to BYU, Duke, and Marquette as a prelude to the home league opener against Texas A&M. The Aggies, Kentucky, and Florida all have to come to Baton Rouge, though you suspect this LSU side is a little short of experience to be playing for a title in the final weeks of the SEC season. However, their raw talent makes them an appealing bet for Orange Beach. Failure to return to the NCAA Tournament though may see Lee fall victim to some of the standards he himself has raised over the past decade.
For the want of a few wins, Georgia would have three appearances in the NCAA Tournament in the past four years. Instead, the Bulldogs have one, and head coach Steve Holeman is squarely on the hot seat going into 2014. Close calls or no, another such miss would likely make one of the SEC’s coaching veterans’ position untenable. UGA had a chance to seal the deal with an SEC Tournament win against South Carolina but were ripped to shreds in a humiliating 4-0 defeat. In the end, a shortage of quality wins and bad results against Texas, Auburn, and Alabama sealed the club’s fate on a brutal Selection Monday. With the club’s five starters lost amongst the most in the league, you can’t help but feel 2013 was a case of opportunity lost.
As one window closes though, another one opens up with one of the nation’s best recruiting classes providing reinforcements. Perhaps a few too many, as the club looks to have a bloated squad of thirty-five players. Holeman will be hoping it’s a case of quantity and quality instead of just the former. On paper, it’s a tangible goal, as the club has brought in some top talent both domestically and internationally. In reality, it’s not a sure thing. Last year’s class had potential as well and profited from the goals of Marion Crowder but received much more modest returns from the also highly touted Gabby Seiler and Rachel Garcia.
The holes are more noticeable on the backline, which must replace senior starters Nikki Hill and Torri Allen, the latter the anchor to the club’s defense as a senior. All things considered, the defense held up pretty well in the league, with the veterans compensating for the youth and inexperience of rookies Summer Burnett and Alexa Antetomaso, who both looked plainly out of their depth at times in a trial by fire. Both could see their starting positions under threat, with the latter potentially giving way for veteran Carli Shultis, who took a medical redshirt after four matches in 2013. A likelier candidate is Mexican youth international Mariel Gutierrez, starting for her country at the U20 Women’s World Cup. Fellow freshmen and Delaney Fechalos and Natalie Goodman also figure to contend for starting minutes this season.
The situation in goal could be tenuous, with the club not bringing back any players who have seen action thus far. Swedish rookie Louise Hogrell enters Athens with a reputation as one to watch, and she’ll almost assuredly be the starter from day one here. The club made do with senior Caitlin Woody last year, and she did fine for a player with such little experience. Hogrell could continue with the club’s tradition of strong goalkeeping though, and she’ll likely be put under fire right away behind a backline trying to find its feet with little in the way of veteran presence.
That could be a problem considering the offense was plainly a two-note affair last season. Crowder provided the team with a much needed vertical option in attack, and her pace could again chip away at opposing defenses. Her goal total was inflated by four goals against a hapless College of Charleston side, but she was still by far the best option in attack last year. She still needs to show she can do it on the biggest stage though. A zero shot on goal performance in the SEC Tournament was a big contribution to the club’s season ending defeat. Replacing the club’s other winger, Madeline Barker, will be tougher, with her eight goals second on the club by a long margin. Garcia netted just three spearheading the formation. There’s little in the way of proven forward depth beyond Crowder, meaning she needs to avoid a sophomore slump for Georgia to contend for much in 2014.
The midfield will be boosted by the return of Laura Eddy for her final season in Athens after being granted another year of eligibility. The veteran shook the injury bug last season and provides some much needed experience as part of the fulcrum in midfield. Seiler had the poor fortune of being one of the nation’s least efficient offensive weapons with one goal in fifty shots last year. She may lose her spot as the point of the lance in midfield with Becca Rasmussen coming to Athens. Rasmussen is one of the best freshmen in the nation on paper and could give the club the dynamic playmaker its lacked for ages. Without a greater set of options in attack though, she may struggle to meet her true potential. Sixteen goals in eleven league games probably isn’t going to do it given the youth of the defense. With Rasmussen’s arrival though, there is the potential for much more.
2014 will be a make or break season for Holeman, that much is certain. The season opener, a league game, at Ole Miss could either be a curse or a boon depending on the result. UCF is the main dragon in non-conference play, but road trips to Long Beach State could prove to be tricky and potentially costly come November. Getting Florida, South Carolina, and Texas A&M on the road is no picnic, but the middle of the league schedule is packed with winnable games. They had better take care of business before finishing up with Kentucky and A&M in the final two regular season matches. Taking care of business may be a theme for UGA in 2014. If Holeman can’t turn potential into immediate progress and an NCAA Tournament berth, it’ll likely be the end for him in Athens.
Anyone not believing in Colby Hale need only look at the stunning progress he’s made in two short seasons in Fayetteville. A program stuck in terminal decay was suddenly one penalty shootout away from perhaps one of the most unlikely Elite Eight runs in some time. The past two seasons have thrust the Lady Razorbacks away from being a charity case and into the limelight as a bona fide SEC program with chops. Building on success and staying power is the true measure of a coach and a program though, and nobody’s going to be overlooking the club any longer, meaning 2014 could be the true barometer for Hale’s side.
They’ll face the new season absent three of last year’s starers, one of the best marks in the league amongst the expected mid-table contenders. In truth, the club will be most thankful for the return of junior forward Ashleigh Ellenwood, the unquestioned offensive leader in Fayetteville this season. With fourteen goals, almost three times as much as the next best scorer here, Ellenwood may again need to carry the bulk of the offensive load. A burly target forward with a bright reputation going into the college ranks, Ellenwood would only begin to truly blossom last season, netting nine goals against league opponents and also scoring against Nebraska and Duke, underlining her true quality.
Where the other goals will come from is a daunting question though. Nobody else on the Arkansas team netted more than five goals, and second and third leading scorers Evan Palmer and Yvonne DesJarlais both depart. While the Lady Razorbacks benefitted from twelve players scoring goals, no returnee other than Ellenwood netted more than three. Stanford transfer Shelby Payne was a rather surprising addition as a fifth-year senior, but the former highly touted recruit never came close to living up to expectations with the Card. She should find SEC defenses much more amenable though, making a flying final season a possibility. Rookie Abby Sieperda also comes in with promise, though proven depth in attack is wholly absent here.
Even if the offense still surges, Arkansas will need a much better showing defensively to truly reach their potential, having conceded two goals a game in the league last year. Shipping four to Texas A&M and Vanderbilt and five to LSU was indicative of the club’s struggles against top attacking talent, a trend that has to stop if they are to stick in the top half of the table. The good news is that there are plenty of veteran hands on call here including Margaret Power, Kaylyn Cooper, Blake Pruitt, and Hailey Pescatore. Whether that translates to more quality in their own half of the pitch is the pressing question. Cameron Carter was thrown into the deep end in goal as a rookie last year and survived, though a 74.4% save percentage could use improvement. That’ll take the backline in front of her tightening their game though, which is hardly a given in this league.
Arkansas’ meteoric rise over the past few years has been quite the story in the SEC and on a national stage. Their non-conference schedule featuring matchups against North Carolina, Duke, and Oklahoma State reflect rising ambition in Fayetteville, but the lack of easier games may put the club in a hole come league play should they struggle early. The league slate is pretty well balanced and set up in a way that could see the club finish strong with Texas A&M by far the toughest side they’ll enchanted over the last three weeks. Still, Arkansas’ transition from being a plucky underdog to one of the new order has put a target on their back, and that increased scrutiny may mean consolidation as a consistent NCAA Tournament qualifier may be a solid sign of progress here.
A Houdini act wasn’t needed by Auburn last season, because they were well underwater by the time the business end of the season rolled around. A program that has made a habit of pulling an NCAA Tournament berth out of a hat instead lost their first five league games and went eight without a win. They needed three straight wins to close out the regular season to just qualify for the SEC Tournament, where they pulled off a win against LSU before going down to Texas A&M in the quarterfinals.It was a pointedly atypical season for an Auburn program that had been steadily in the NCAA Tournament for much of the past decade. Fans likely used to a certain degree of success will be expecting an immediate bounce back in 2014.
There was little mysterious about the Tigers’ troubles last season. They didn’t score a goal a game in the league, finishing thirteenth in goals scored in the SEC. They never really recovered from the loss of Tatiana Coleman after the 2012 season, and the explosive forward’s goals were missed desperately. The team had just three players score multiple goals, with nobody breaking the ten goal barrier. Tiger fans could be forgiven in thinking they had a real stud in Casie Ramsier after the rookie scored five goals in six games, including a goal against South Carolina. But she’d go goalless in the next four against top opposition before a four game scoring streak bracketed again by three without a goal. Ramsier figures to be a serviceable SEC striker, but the club needs more consistency. Tori Ball figures to be good for another hand full of goals as has been her custom, but the veteran isn’t likely to be a breakout star this season. The return of Haley Gerken should help the midfield, while a healthy season of Ashley Kotero won’t hurt either. A shortage of star recruits may mean improvement may be marginal in attack though.
Defensively, Auburn was a middle of the road SEC side despite being marshaled by one of the league’s best defenders in Kala Faulkner. A former full-back who has excelled after a move to the middle, Faulkner’s undersized for a central defender but has nonetheless been a key cog in the rearguard for the two seasons she’s played on The Plains. While fellow defenders Kim Spence and Kiana Clarke also return, the club will have to make do without Mexican international Bianca Sierra this season. In truth, Sierra hardly had a star turn as a senior, but the loss of such an experienced defender could be a big detriment here. Depth hardly looks outstanding on paper either, with many of the new recruits seemingly pointed towards the offensive side of the ball. Alicen Wright and Alyse Scott split time in goal last season, with Wright first choice down the stretch. Neither are of the calibre of the Tigers’ two previous keepers, Allison Whitworth and Amy Howard, and may be challenged by rookie Sarah Le Beau. Faulkner helps with her presence on defense, but it’s hard to argue this group looks like making a big step forward in 2014.
Auburn will probably know where they are this season after three matches. Clemson, Furman, and UC Irvine will all contend for NCAA Tournament berths, and the Tigers will need to win at least two of three to feel comfortable going forward. The rest of the non-conference schedule is more flash than dash, and the lack of a true top team on the docket before league play may be a costly oversight. The good news is most of the most winnable games are at home. The bad news is the club gets Kentucky, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and LSU all on the road. If Auburn is more the pre-2013 version than the 2013 incarnation, they may need a big result in one of the above matches to seal a return to the Big Dance. Given the returnees, you’d bet on them at least being in the mix come November.
It’s safe to say that Tennessee suffered from an acute hangover from the shock NCAA Tournament defeat in 2012 that saw the club blow a lead to Miami (OH) in the waning seconds of the match before losing in extra time. That loss seemed to turn int some kind of self-fulfilling prophecy last year, as the club dropped points against Samford, Middle Tennessee State, and Western Kentucky, showing a frightening inability to put smaller clubs away. What was so frustrating was that the club also beat the likes of UCF, Texas A&M, and Ole Miss, underlining the quality that was there from time-to-time. But a horrid stretch of 0-4-2 in the heart of SEC play meant the club did not qualify for the SEC Tournament despite topping Vanderbilt on the last day of the season. It was truly an annus horribilis for Brian Pensky and the Lady Vols.
But hope has bloomed again in Knoxville thanks to the latest wave in what looks like a flood of talent coming to the Lady Vols. While the best may be yet to come in 2015, this season’s class itself looks like one of the nation’s best. The crown jewel is U20 WWC team member Carlyn Baldwin, who’ll likely provide a much needed injection of quality to the midfield. She’ll be supporting an attack that has gained prized freshman forward Anna Bialczak, a U18 youth international from Pensky’s old stomping grounds in Maryland. The wild card in the group is sophomore transfer Anna McClung, thought to be one of the nation’s best rookie recruits last year but who struggled to make an imprint in Tallahassee. Some would point to underlying raw talent, but others would be wary of the fact that she struggled to usurp Berglind Thorvaldsdottir at FSU, hardly a glowing vote of confidence.
None of the returning goalscorers netted more than five goals, which is certainly a problem reflected in Tennessee netting just fourteen in the league last year. Caroline Brown’s eight goals are gone, leaving Hannah Wilkinson to carry much of the scoring burden. The New Zealander has perhaps received an undue amount of credit based on her international reputation, as thirteen goals in two seasons has hardly been a boon for the Lady Vols. Last season saw Wilkinson miss a few games on international duty but still look like having a tremendous campaign after five goals in four games early in the year. But she then went without a goal in the club’s last thirteen matches. Inexplicably tabbed as an All-American in some circles, Wilkinson has one more season to justify the hype. The other main returning attacker is Cheyenne Spade, a threat on the wing who scored a pair of goals last season. But with Brown, Katie Lenz, and Tori Bailey all gone, Pensky will need immediate contributions from some newcomers.
There are holes to fill on defense as well, with center-back Megan Erskine and left-back Caroline Capocaccia both having departed. The defense was adequate last season but still a touch away from the best in the SEC. Senior Allie Sirna’s return should be a big boost though. Sirna’s been one of the most consistent players through the past years for the Lady Vols and has defied the common wisdom by excelling at center-back despite being 5’3″. Who partners her on the backline is anyone’s guess, but the towering Gabby Santorio is a decent candidate having started eleven matches last year, with her height obviously an asset in tandem with the shorter Sirna. Susan Ferguson should get a crack at one of the full-back spots, but the other will be up for grabs after Capocaccia’s departure.
Further intrigue may abound in goal for the Lady Vols. Senior Julie Eckel would appear to be a no-brainer in between the pipes at first glance having been the undisputed #1 here the past three seasons. But Eckle has also struggled for legitimate competition in those seasons and saw her save percentage dip precipitously last season. The club brought in junior transfer Jamie Simmons from UNC Greensboro, and it’s safe to say the newcomer didn’t come to Knoxville expecting to sit on the bench. Once a bright prospect in goal for UNCG, Simmons’ career has stalled out a bit, but she should push Eckel at the very least and could work her way into playing time if performing at her best.
The Lady Vols have a pretty well balanced schedule before hitting SEC play. Trips to Wisconsin and Virginia are likely to be more than a bit challenging, but the others on the docket are eminently beatable. If UT’s overcome their stage fright against lesser sides that was so apparent at times last year. If so, the Lady Vols showed more than enough to topple the league’s bigger clubs last year. It’s consistency that matters for contenders though, and you wonder if there’ll be enough of it here to mount a sustained surge up the table. Wilkinson’s inevitable absence for World Cup qualifying will be a distraction, and potentially a fatal one if the newcomers aren’t scoring. I’m more bullish on UT than my projection system, but unlike most, I feel that an NCAA Tournament appearance is far from a given.
Unlike ex-Big XII brethren Texas A&M, Missouri is finding life in the SEC more than a little challenging. The Tigers did well enough in their first year, qualifying for the NCAA Tournament in the process. Last season was considerably more disappointing, as they club finished under .500 for the first time since 2010. Already in massive trouble thanks to a dearth of quality non-conference results, Missouri was painfully inconsistent in the league, never putting together back-to-back wins. It left the club mired in the bottom half of the table come season’s end, and they were spanked by Arkansas in the SEC Tournament, 4-0. The Tigers have now missed the NCAA Tournament in three of four seasons, not exactly the best of trends for head coach Bryan Blitz.
Some familiar with the Tigers over the long haul may have believed they were watching the wrong team at times last year. The defense was great, conceding just over a goal a game in the league, while the offense was toothless, also scoring just over a goal a game, putting them well off the pace of the league leaders. With nobody netting more than six goals in 2013, Blitz’s first mission is to rectify that situation if Missouri’s to get back into the NCAA Tournament. Graduated Dominique Richardson and returning senior Kaysie Clark led the team in shots last season. That’s a pretty big problem considering neither are exactly considered ideal center forwards.
The problem may not get better in the short run with no real big name forwards coming into the mix for the Tigers this season. Alyssa Diggs really failed to fire as a senior and departs along with another forward, Danielle Nottingham. Reagan Russell scored three goals in spot start duty last season and may need to seriously step her scoring pace, along with returning senior Taylor Grant, who netted five last year for the club, second most on the Tigers. More than likely though, Missouri will be as dependent as ever on their midfield to help ease the scoring burden if they’re to succeed.
It’s a good thing then that the club can count senior Kaysie Clark amongst their ranks in the midfield. The veteran is the one piece of pure quality on the Tigers and will have to have her best season yet for Mizzou if they’re to climb up the SEC ladder. Clark was great as a junior and got her just reward in the Summer with a call-up to the U.S. U23 squad. She led the team with six goals last season, but if she does likewise in 2014, Missouri’s success is likely to be limited. The Tigers have a big hole to fill in the combative Dominique Richardson, who played briefly for Houston in the NWSL this year. Returnee Melanie Donaldson will likely fill one of the other spots, while Mizzou also has some big name additions in the middle of the park as well. Clark’s sister Kaitlyn joins up and has herself made a mark at youth international level, while the real get may be Savannah Trujillo, consistently excellent at many levels in youth soccer. If the newcomers prove as effective as advertised, this could be one of the league’s best units.
If Missouri does get some production going forward, they should be in good shape, as the defense returns three starters and a veteran goalkeeper. Massive center-back Candace Johnson has been pivotal in the backline for her first two seasons and should again be the lynchpin in defense for the Tigers. Center-back partner Sarah Thune departs though, and finding a replacement could be key. Full-backs Brittany Conley and Erin Webb return after a trial by fire in the starting lineup as youngsters last season. Neither are going to provide much on the offensive end but add to a very experienced unit. Fifth-year senior McKenzie Sauerwein has started here for the past three seasons and is a perfectly acceptable netminder who probably isn’t going to win too many matches for the club but won’t lose them either. This is an experienced unit with every chance of being one of the league’s best.
Missouri suffered from a lack of quality results against non-conference opposition, and you question whether lessons were learned given their 2014 slate. Syracuse and TCU could yet surprise, but otherwise, it’s largely a motley crew of clubs besides West Virginia that will probably be RPI anchors around Mizzou as the season wears on. The schedule makers have done the Tigers no favors either. Four of the league’s likely top five are met in succession at the start of the league season, though the club does avoid Texas A&M this season. That obviously means the club has every chance to finish with a flourish. But the last three against Ole Miss, Tennessee, and Arkansas are also not gimmes, and it’s not difficult to envision the Tigers fighting for their NCAA Tournament down the stretch. The defense should ensure they have every chance of succeeding, but the limited attack may yet make this a stressful season in Columbia.
Recent history has shown that Alabama has generally spread its money wisely, but even the most ardent Crimson Tide supporter must have been wondering what was in the water in Tuscaloosa when athletic director Bill Battle and co. decided to extend head coach Todd Bramble’s contract through 2016. Six seasons in, and it’s hard to argue that it’s been money well spent on the former Clemson head coach. The Crimson Tide have just one NCAA Tournament appearance in those six seasons and haven’t won more than ten matches under his tenure. Adding to the misery has been two straight seasons where the club hasn’t even qualified for the SEC Tournament, including last season’s dismal effort, where a run of six losses in seven to end the season left Alabama with it’s worst ever season under Bramble in both W-L-T terms and in terms of the RPI, where the Tide finished out of the Top 100 for the second straight year. Most rational figures believed Bramble would be sitting on the hot seat going into 2014, not on a few more years of job security.
It’s not hard to figure out where Alabama went wrong last season. The defense was an absolute sieve at times, leading to some utterly ludicrous shots against counts, such as when they gave up thirty-nine against Colorado, including twenty shots on goal! The club gave up fifteen or more shots eleven times, a number that obviously has to come down in a big way for the Tide to be successful this season. Granted, the backline was pretty young on the whole and should all be back for 2014, but they also need a great deal of improvement going forward. Junior Abby Lutzenkirchen was once a prized recruit and looks to be the pillar in the middle for the Tide, but classmate Kaylee Semelsberger is undersized for the position and may find her position under threat from 5’10″ duo Alex Price and Dutchwoman Maruschka Waldus, a late addition to the club.
On the flanks, Auburn Mercer and Noelle Sanz started much of the season as rookies, with the latter also featuring at the U20 Women’s World Cup for Costa Rica this month. Both figure to be in contention for starting spots again, while Semelsberger might get moved over to full-back as well. In goal, Emily Rusk displaced Shelby Church as the club’s starter in pretty short order and is almost assuredly going to be the starter this season, with the only other rostered keeper redshirt freshman Kat Stratton. Rusk was relatively unimpressive as the starter, but it’s hard to fault her too much playing behind a wildly inexperienced backline.
Further up the pitch, Alabama’s season took an almost fatal blow last year when Merel van Dongen was injured with Holland on international duty, robbing the midfield of its key cog. The calming presence at the heart of the midfield, van Dongen still finished second on the club in goals last season with four despite playing just six matches. That perhaps shows her importance while also speaking to some of Alabama’s deficiencies.
Senior Laura Lee Smith ended up in the center of midfield for a chunk of last season and has played up front and on the backline as well. With Van Dongen back, Smith may be asked to fill holes elsewhere in the midfield, where Sophie Campise and Molly Atherton both depart. The other returning starter is Theresa Diederich, the senior had three goals and two assists last season. That was a sharp decline from the seven goals she scored in each of her two prior seasons, so a bounce back to the norm would be a big boost for the offense which had just one player net more than six goals last season.
Any uptick in goals will be a welcome one. The club scored twenty goals in the league last year, which was better than a whole lot of their brethren, but the Tide still saw leading scorer Pia Rijsdijk net just seven goals. Rijsdijk did all of her scoring in the league though, so there’s little question as to her ability to light up SEC teams. The big question is who else is going to be there to take the attention off of the Dutch senior. Smith is an option, as are some of the club’s incoming freshmen. Junior transfer Annalika Steyn came to West Virginia on a raft of youth accolades but didn’t make the grade in Morgantown, netting just two goals in two seasons with the club. She’ll be hoping for better back in her home state, but on its face, Alabama’s offense looks plainly one-dimensional.
The Crimson Tide’s non-conference schedule isn’t exactly the most testing slate aside from a likely lost cause against Virginia in early September. The litmus test may be an opening weekend showdown against a Memphis side that destroyed Bama by six goals last season. After a brutal start against Florida in the league, a four game stretch featuring matches against Tennessee, Vanderbilt, and Ole Miss will probably prove telling as to the course of their SEC hopes. The back half of the schedule isn’t terribly imposing, but you get the sense that the Tide will struggle to make up ground if they lose too much early in the league season. The Alabama brass has shown tremendous faith in Bramble despite his side’s struggles, and it’s clearly time for the coach to start repaying some of that faith. But with questions still lingering in defense, you wonder just how high this Tide might rise.
A long rebuilding project finally produced fruit last season for Ole Miss, who went from the dismal reality of a #134 ranking in the RPI in Matt Mott’s first season in Oxford in 2010 to a second round appearance in the NCAA Tournament. The offense rolled over many as expected, but the defense couldn’t quite shut down top opposition to keep the Rebels from challenging for honors. Now, losing their top two scorers, the electrifying duo of Rafaelle Souza and Mandy McCalla, Ole Miss has to find a way to keep the forward momentum going in Oxford whether if that’s by maintaining their identity as an offensive juggernaut or shifting gears somewhat now that Souza and McCalla have graduated.
It’s impossible to overstate the impact that Souza and McCalla had, with the duo combining for thirty-seven goals and twelve assists. The pair were hardly gunners either, with both doing that damage without taking eighty shots. While both were adept at terrorizing opposing teams from the run of open play, Souza’s proficiency with set pieces cannot be understated given how important they are at this level. Ole Miss isn’t having to just replace their two most dangerous weapons, they’re also going to have to recalibrate their plan from dead ball situations. Such tweaks could end up making or breaking the Rebels’ season.
Thankfully, the cupboard isn’t totally bare for the Rebels. Returnees Olivia Harrison and Bethany Bunker netted seven and goals respectively and will be counted on to carry the load this year. Harrison’s the more physical presence, having played primarily as the club’s target forward last season and showed good interplay with teammates after netting eight assists as a sophomore. Bunker was the club’s right-winger for much of 2013 and had a breakout campaign after not showing much offensively as a rookie. Neither scored most of their goals against SEC opposition though, and it remains to be seen if one can step up and be the go-to player in attack. Who fills the other spot in the 4-3-3 is a question that needs to be answered. Sara Coleman is a contender after missing all of last season, with the redshirt sophomore having tallied three goals and six assists in 2012 as a freshman.
The tougher rebuilding job may be in midfield, as Ole Miss doesn’t just have to replace McCalla as the triggerwoman but also one of the defensive fulcrums of the midfield in Erin Emerson. The lone holdover is junior Jennifer Miller who herself had four goals and three assists despite her deeper position. She stands at just 5’1″ though, so you suspect Ole Miss needs to add some muscle into the mix to help balance things out. Center-backs Gretchen Harknett and Jessica Hiskey could be moved into the midfield to add a little more steel. More invention might have to come from some of the rookies. Courtney Carroll could make an immediate impact, as could Swedish U20 international Amanda Karlsson. There’s promise here, but it’s difficult to not see the midfield take a step back given the losses.
Ole Miss’ defense was still in the top half of the SEC despite struggling against the league’s best. The good news is it returns intact, meaning the Rebels may well have one of the best rearguards in the league if all goes according to plan. Harknett and Hiskey were the preferred pairing down the stretch, though one seems likely to be moved back to defensive midfielder given Samantha Sanders’ return from injury. Sanders started for the first half of the season before suffering a season ending injury. If she’s healthy and ready to go, she should slot back in at center-back. Full-backs Melissa Capocaccia and Maddie Friedman also return after starting all of last season. Crazily enough, none of the likely starters are seniors, meaning this group could still be better next year.
Senior Kelly McCormick figures to be first choice in goal after starting here the past two and a half seasons. The Californian is an above average netminder but won’t be winning many matches on her own. Fortunately, if the backline progresses in front of her, she won’t have to too many times. U18 international Marnie Merritt is the gem of this recruiting class. I’d guess the Rebels’ coaches would prefer to redshirt her and not burn a year of eligibility, but if Merritt proves to live up to her billing, she may well find herself getting minutes sooner rather than later.
My ranking system is a lot more pessimistic about Ole Miss’ chances this season than I am, but it’s hard to believe that a temporary decline isn’t in the cards for the Rebels in 2014. There’s a lot of offense to replace and no real proven options to take up the bulk of that lost production. Ironically, the club that’s made its bones on all-out attack the past few years may be riding its defense in 2014. That D isn’t a star packed unit, but the continuity could make it one of the SEC’s most effective. McCormick’s the only senior here, so if everyone continues to progress, the Rebels could have a monster 2015. As is, they’ll probably battle for mid-table in the league but could struggle to make it back-to-back NCAA Tournament appearances.
It’s hard to not view the Vanderbilt program as a sinking ship at this point after another pitiful season under the stewardship of embattled head coach Derek Greene. The Dores finished thirteenth in the SEC, a full eight points off of the SEC Tournament places and likely only spared a spot in the basement of the league by Mississippi State’s greater incompetence. Vanderbilt has now failed to qualify for the postseason in all three of Greene’s seasons in charge, while the Does have seen their RPI fall from #83 in his first season in charge to #174 last season. All the while, the club has been guilty of some truly reprehensible defending, including giving up just short of three goals a game in the league last season. It wasn’t like the club was just shipping goals to good teams either. Three to the likes of UAB, Rice, and Samford spoke volumes.
If Vandy had an excuse last season, it’s that they were plainly a very young team and one which looked likely to return all eleven starters for 2014, which would have made them an intriguing candidate to finally make a move in the SEC. And then the defections began. Starting defender Krystina Iordanou left for the greener pastures of national title contender Virginia, which on its face doesn’t look like a terrible loss considering just how bad the defense was last season. But she was also a player with starting experience, as was the other unexpected loss, superstar forward Cheyna Williams. Williams was a force of nature for the otherwise hapless Dores, scoring sixteen goals, many of them through unbelievable individual efforts, using her explosiveness to leave defenders in her wake. She also headed for an ACC program, taking her talents to Tallahassee. In an instant, Vanderbilt had had the heart ripped out of the program.
Obviously, the club needs to find a replacement source for goals with Williams gone, with the departed forward having scored half of the club’s goals in league play. The problem is that nobody else on the club had more than five goals, which was a byproduct of the burden on Williams’ shoulders. Sophomore Simone Charley was that five goal scorer, but she also scored just two goals in the league, including just one goal in the club’s final ten matches. Charley flashed glimpses of potential, but it’s still a big ask to expect her to carry the scoring load this season. Fellow sophomore Sasha Gray started all but one game last season but netted just three times from her wing position. There are plenty of other options up front on a bloated roster, but most will want to keep an eye on rookie Colby Ciarocca, this class’ top newcomer for the Dores.
In midfield, Jamie Kator netted five assists for Vandy last season and may also be used as an option up front for the club should they be looking for more offense. Junior Andie Lakin started sixteen matches last season but was a non-factor offensively for VU. Lydia Simmons is a wildcard, a former U.S. U17 international who sat out injured last season but who could be a big player if healthy. Given how out to lunch the defense was last season, you wonder just how offensive the club will get with their midfield. It may be a case of the club needing to strengthen the spine of the team with some defensive minded midfielders to try and keep opponents off the board.
Even if the Dores can replace some of the lost scoring from Williams, that won’t mean much if they can’t stop the tide of goals pouring in at the other end. Truthfully, even the sixteen goals the club scored in the league paled in comparison to the total of the league leaders, and combined with thirty-one conceded and a goal differential of -15, left the Dores in a world of hurt come season’s end. Most of last year’s starting defensive corps returns with Iordanou the obvious exception…but considering how awful they were, you wonder if that’s a good thing. Senior center-back Cherrelle Jarrett is game and experienced but undersized for the position at 5’4″, while Erin Myers also isn’t the biggest at 5’5″ but has two seasons of experience starting at center-back here. Veterans Taylor Richardson and Kelsey Tillman are contenders for the spots at full-back, though neither has stood out much thus far in their college career. The Dores have serious problems with size (as you could probably tell from the above) in defense, something that may not get better immediately. Rookie Cristina De Zeeuw is one of the best recruits in this group for Greene and may well be called upon very early to try and boost the rearguard.
Vandy hasn’t had a great netminder here since Tyler Griffin starred in Nashville a decade ago, though you sympathize with the unlucky souls in the Commodores’ net the past few years as the backline caved in with regularity. Injuries hardly helped last season, with Alexa Levick starting against UAB before blowing out her ACL. Sophomore Olivia Liebman was thrust into the starting role as a rookie and ended up starting he bulk of the minutes in goal. Junior Shannon Morrish did start a handful of games in the league though, and you hardly expect either’s hold on the starting job in camp is anything but tenuous. Keep an eye on Christiana Ogunsami, a rookie with a lot of size at 5’10″. Then again, Greene’s used five keepers in three seasons, so you may well keep an eye on everyone, including undersized rookie Harley James.
It’s hard to know what to expect from Vandy based off their non-conference schedule. There aren’t any surefire losses, but at the same time, you could easily see the club lose four or five of those eight matches, which would be disastrous for their RPI, such is the middling level of the opposition. The club has to start quickly in the league though, because Texas A&M, South Carolina, and Florida all lay in wait in the final six matches, though missing both LSU and Kentucky is a huge break. Still, given the questions on offense without Williams and the massive steps forward needed on defense, it’s tough to be too optimistic about Vandy this season. With Williams, they likely would’ve been a solid pick for a spot in the SEC Tournament. Without, they look like one of the league’s weakest teams. The recruiting pipeline that had flowed so strongly the past few years looks to be drying up as well. Regardless, if there’s not substantial improvement this season in Nashville, it could be the end of the line for the embattled Greene.
There will be no quick fix in Starkville. That much was evident early on in 2013 for Aaron Gordon in his first year in charge of Mississippi State. It hardly seems fathomable given the program’s history as a doormat, but 2013 likely represented a nadir for the Bulldogs, who finished with their lowest RPI since 2008 (#220) and with their fewest wins since 2006, finishing with a 3-15-0 record. That includes an 0-11-0 mark in the SEC, with MSU finishing with a ridiculous -29 goal differential, which was fourteen goals worse than the next worst club, Vanderbilt. In addition to the horrors of a league campaign that included an 8-0 loss to Texas A&M, the Bulldogs lost out of league to such non-luminaries as South Alabama, Florida Gulf Coast, and Southern Miss. It’s obvious to any rational mind that big changes are needed for MSU.
Gordon would appear to be such a rational person. The bloodletting in Starkville in the offseason has been intense to say the very least. The squad has been gutted, with just seven players returning from last year’s squad. In come nineteen freshmen to supplement a squad with just one senior going into 2014. It ensures MSU will likely enter the new season as one of the nation’s youngest teams. Considering they were that bad with experience last year, you wonder if it could get any worse in Starkville this season. Then again, we’ve seemingly been asking that of this program for the better part of a decade now.
Mississippi State was so bad on both sides of the ball, you wonder which side needs fixing the most. MSU did have a sixteen goal scorer last season in Elisabeth Sullivan, who was actually drafted by Portland of the NWSL in January. Sullivan was a legit scoring threat, and really the only scoring threat on the team. The next highest scorer on the club was rookie Annebel ten Broeke, who netted three goals and added seven assists…but she was one of those who left the club after last season. So yes, the Bulldogs don’t actually return anyone who scored more than one goal last season. Tiffany Huddleston started eight games last season and figures to at least get a run out at forward this season. It’s anybody’s guess as to who else might make an impact up top, though Mallory Eubanks, the reigning Gatorade State Player of the Year from Kentucky is probably a decent bet.
The midfield situation is equally up in the air. The only senior on the club, Shannen Jainudeen is a former Canadian U20 international and capable of playing at center-back and up front as well. She’ll be a needed conduit of experience, it’s just a matter of where for the club. Sophomore Jamila Coner is one of the few holdovers and will likely take up a spot in the midfield again. It’s generally impossible to judge which of the newcomers will make the biggest impact in midfield this season, but McKenzie Adams and Kelsey Pearce would seem to be the most accomplished on paper coming into their rookie seasons. Regardless, this group still has a long way to be formidable in the SEC.
The defense isn’t exactly in any better shape. They gave up about three and a half goals a game in SEC play. They can’t get worse, right? Jainudeen could end up back at center-back given her size, but it’s really anybody’s guess as to who else lines up alongside her. This group actually does return some experience, with Shelby Jordan and full-backs Darbi Filliben and Mary Kathryn Taylor also returning after starting most of last season. Kayleigh Henry looks like the pick of the freshmen who should see team on defense, though Adams and Katelyn Watson could also feature. There are even more questions in goal, with both of last year’s netminders, C.J. Winship and Meara Johnson both gone. Freshmen Ashley Wilson and Rhylee DeCrane are the only keepers on the roster. They’ll probably get introduced to the SEC in a trial by fire.
MSU’s non-conference schedule is pretty reasonable, with regional mid-majors that won’t be complete patties, and struggling major conference teams. The Bulldogs can probably win six of the seven matches if they play at a high level, with the only real likely loss a trip to a loaded Furman team at the end of August. But the problem with such a youthful team is brutal inconsistency. In that respect, the placement of the Egg Bowl rivalry against Ole Miss is not good, with it being the first match of the league season and likely to catch MSU’s younger players out. MSU has the misfortune of missing Alabama in league play and gets most of the toughest matchups in the league on the road. That could lead to some wins at home, but it’s still a huge climb. If the rookie class comes in and hits the ground running, the Bulldogs could break their losing streak in the SEC. But this team figures to take it’s fair share of hard knocks given their youth, making another season at the foot of the table probable.