Future is bright for SEC in 2014

Carrying the baton of seven straight BCS national championships is a heavy burden, as the Auburn Tigers can surely attest. They were just seconds away from making it eight in a row.

For all its flaws, the BCS was very good to the SEC. But the new year brings a new postseason format -- the four-team playoff. It, too, should be very good to the SEC, which is still the dominant conference in college football by a good margin.

Let's take a look at what's to come in 2014:

1. Top storylines

Ted Miller explains the new playoff format as part of his forecast for the season. Will the SEC be on top once again?

The preseason question in 2013 was whether college football would head into the four-team playoff with the SEC riding a streak of eight consecutive national titles. The preseason question in 2014 will be whether the four-team playoff quickly returns the dominant conference to the top of the college football.

Heck, even before that question is answered, folks will be curious to see how many SEC teams end up in the playoff. One seems a certainly. Two almost likely. And three is now possible as there is no representational limit per conference, as there was with BCS bowl games. The way things are going in the SEC, we could see a replay of the Iron Bowl as a semifinal or even the national title game.

2. Players to watch

The SEC will have a huge void to fill with the departures of mainstays like Johnny Manziel, AJ McCarron, Aaron Murray, Jadeveon Clowney, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw.

Adam Rittenberg takes a look at some players to watch in 2014, including Georgia's Todd Gurley, who might be the best running back in a league full of great ones, and Florida cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, who made first-team All-SEC as a true freshman. A couple of fast-rising SEC stars made the list of sleepers, too -- Alabama RB Derrick Henry, who had a coming-out party at the Allstate Sugar Bowl in New Orleans, and Ole Miss DL Robert Nkemdiche, the No. 1 overall prospect from the Class of 2013.

One thing is certain in the SEC -- every year talented players leave for the bright lights of the NFL, and every year talented players emerge to take their places.

3. Bold predictions

Mark Schlabach is back with more sooth-saying. Let's give the man credit for saying Auburn would be the most improved team in the nation in 2013.

Among his predictions for 2014: An SEC team will not win the national championship, Henry will be college football's next superstar, James Franklin will leave Vanderbilt to coach Penn State, and Florida will go to a bowl game after a 9-3 season that saves Will Muschamp's job.