As the 2016 season draws near, we will peek into our crystal ball and
guess project how each of the five major conferences will play out. We’ve already done it with the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten and Pac-12. Today, we will be examining the Deep South’s Power Five entrant.
In what was viewed as the third or fourth sign of the Apocalypse, the SEC went (gasp!) two seasons without a title after winning the previous seven national championships. Alabama righted the football ship in the conference by winning the second College Football Playoff; is another trophy-hoisting at season’s end in the offing?
‘Bama will be right in the thick of the national mix, of course, with Nick Saban looking to go back-to-back for the second time during his Tuscaloosa tenure. Provided the age-old quarterback question can (finally) be answered, LSU should join their divisional rivals in the discussion. Beyond that? Possibly an Ole Miss or a Tennessee (Georgia?) could sneak in by season’s end, but, more than likely, it’ll be up to the two West stalwarts to carry the conference’s postseason banner.
So, without any further ado, let’s see how our little corner of the college football world sees the SEC race shaking out.
1. Tennessee (9-4 in 2015; beat Northwestern in Outback Bowl)
Year Four for Butch Jones is supposed to be the year all of the recruiting efforts under the head coach begin paying dividends. His first class finished 24th nationally, but classes since that were ranked seventh, fourth and 14th have led to high hopes, and even higher expectations, for Volunteer Nation. In fact, anything less than an SEC East championship will be considered an abject failure by most of the fan base. The Vols have 17 returning starters from a team that managed a 5-3 record in SEC play, it’s best record in the conference since going 5-3 in 2006. UT ended the 2015 season on a six-game winning streak, punctuating that strong stretch run with a 39-point bowl blowout of a 10-win Northwestern team. Add in the fact that their four losses last season (Oklahoma, Florida, Arkansas, Alabama) came by a combined 17 points, and, again, nothing less than a title will sate the masses.
2. Florida (10-4 in 2015, lost to Michigan in Citrus Bowl)
The Jim McElwain era in Gainesville started off with much promise last season, with the Gators jumping out to a 10-1 record and reaching as high as No. 8 in the Associated Press rankings. The bottom then proceeded to completely drop out as the East champions lost their remaining three games by a combined score of 97-24. That trio of games exposed the Gators as an offensive-deficient club in desperate need of an answer at the quarterback position. Inconsistent, uneven and outright awful play at the position has been the program’s Waterloo for nearly a decade, with Luke Del Rio set to become the ninth player to start under center since Tim Tebow‘s final season in 2009. The Gators should be fine on defense; if McElwain, hired because of his offensive prowess, can get that side of the ball up to even average, the Gators could make a run at the Vols and their second straight division crown.
3. Georgia (10-3 in 2015, beat Penn State in Taxslayer Bowl)
This might be a little too low of a slotting for the Bulldogs, if for nothing more than the schedule. UGA’s biggest road test of the season comes at Ole Miss, and the other cross-divisional game has Auburn coming to play between the hedges. The only other true road games — they play North Carolina and Florida at neutral sites — come against Kentucky and South Carolina, teams that won a combined eight games last season. While there’s uncertainty at the quarterback position, there is good news in the backfield in that Nick Chubb is (fingers, other appendages crossed) recovered from a serious knee injury and Sony Michel will be healthy as well, which should allow whoever’s under center to ease into his new role. First-year head coach and former Alabama coordinator Kirby Smart will have a lot of talent with which to work on the defensive side of the ball, which, when combined with the running game and schedule, should leave UGA as one of three serious contenders for East superiority.
4. Missouri (5-7 in 2015)
Not many teams have ever had to deal with the types of in-season distractions the Tigers did in 2015, from racially-charged protests that led to a brief strike by the football players to head coach Gary Pinkel stepping down because of health concerns. Add in on-field frustration that saw the Tigers lose six of their last seven games, and it was essentially a lost football season at Mizzou. Barry Odom, entering his first full season as head coach, does have a couple of things going for him, not the least of which is eight starters returning from a defense that is championship-caliber. The scheduling gods didn’t do Odom many favors, though, as Mizzou will have to travel to LSU, Florida and Tennessee. Given that and the offensive issues, anything close to bowl-eligibility would have to be considered a pleasant surprise in Columbia.
5. Vanderbilt (4-8 in 2015)
Did you know that Vandy actually tied for fourth in their division last season? Of course, they did so with a 2-6 mark that was the equal of Kentucky and bested by one game the 1-7 records for basement dwellers Missouri and South Carolina. That’s actually a positive development as the Commodores were winless in the conference the season before in Derek Mason‘s first year in Nashville. Mason has preached defense and running the ball as the foundation for his program; the ‘Dores return seven starters from the former unit and figure to show drastic improvement in the third year in the system, while Ralph Webb has rushed for more than 2,000 yards the past two seasons. Mason & Company are likely a year away from bowling, but getting to that six-win plateau wouldn’t be all that surprising.
6. Kentucky (5-7 in 2015)
Prior to Mark Stoops’ arrival, UK had just two recruiting classes — 2006 (No. 36) and 2009 (No. 41) — that finished inside the Top 50 nationally since 2002. Since then, the Wildcats have racked up classes that ranked no worse than 38th. That relative recruiting success has, thus far, failed miserably to translate into on-field success, though. A 2-10 first season with the Wildcats gave way to a 5-7 2014 season, a mark that led to rampant enthusiasm over the future of the football program. That push forward stalled with yet another 5-7 season in 2015. Perhaps most distressing to followers of the team is the 4-20 mark in SEC play, a sign that the team is not even remotely ready to compete even in the weaker East Division — this season included.
7. South Carolina (3-9 in 2015)
The first post-OBC season could prove to be a difficult one for first-year head coach Will Muschamp. Just eight starters return from a squad that produced the program’s worst season since the 0-11 campaign in 1999. Adding to Muschamp’s potential misery is a quarterback position — the same position which played a role in his demise at Florida — that is littered with question marks thanks to the combination of injuries and inexperience. How wobbly is the position? Jake Bentley, who should be embarking on his senior season of high school, is listed as one of three co-starters ahead of the opener. Just what type of season the Gamecock faithful can expect in Year 1 under Muschamp will be known in fast fashion as USC opens the year with a pair of conference road games, at Vanderbilt in the Thursday opener and at Mississippi State a week later. Given the remainder of the schedule, four wins might be the best for which fans can hope.
1. Alabama (14-1 in 2015, beat Clemson in CFP championship game)
After a 7-6 first season in Tuscaloosa that included an embarrassing home loss to Louisiana-Monroe, Nick Saban and the Tide have won at least 10 games in each of the last eight seasons, with four of those seasons ending with UA hoisting a national championship trophy. 11 starters return from last year’s national title team, although one of them is not the quarterback. That could potentially serve as good news as three of Saban’s four championship teams with the Tide were quarterbacked by first-time full-time starters. That trend, though, conflicts with another: ‘Bama, the Associated Press‘ top-ranked team heading into the season, has never started the preseason No. 1 and then gone on to win a national championship under Saban. Regardless, the Tide will, once again, have a significant say as to what happens both in the conference and on the national stage.
2. LSU (9-3 in 2015, beat Texas Tech in Texas Bowl)
There are a couple of big pluses for LSU heading into 2016. One, they are the most experienced team in the SEC, returning 18 starters from last year’s nine-win squad that was a weather cancellation away from becoming Les Miles‘ eight 10-win team in 11 seasons in Baton Rouge. Two, the schedule is relatively favorable as they get Alabama and Ole Mis in Death Valley, and none of their four true road games — they play Wisconsin at Lambeau Field in the opener — feature teams currently in the Top 25. The answer to the seemingly annual question, though, will likely determine how deep of a postseason push the Tigers make: what kind of play will they get from the quarterback position? There is some guarded optimism that Brandon Harris may have turned the corner this offseason. As long as there’s not a truck around that corner, and Leonard Fournette is Leonard Fournette and a loaded defense performs up to expectations, LSU will be in the conference and playoff discussion deep into the season.
3. Ole Miss (10-3 in 2015, beat Oklahoma State in Sugar Bowl)
Ole Miss finished the 2016 season on a high, beating LSU by 21, knocking off rival Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl and trouncing Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl. The Rebels have the most talented quarterback in the SEC, Chad Kelly, and get Alabama — who they’ve beaten each of the last two seasons — Georgia and MSU at home. Just where Ole Miss stands in the broader national picture — and how they may stack up against the two top dogs in their division — will be clear immediately as they will square off against Florida State in the opener.
4. Texas A&M (8-5 in 2015, lost to Louisville in Music City Bowl)
A&M came into the SEC four years ago with a lion of an offense and sacrificial lamb of a defense. Oh, how the times have changed. Under the Chief, John Chavis, the Aggies’ defense has turned into the linchpin of the 2016 season, the unit that will have to hold down and defend the fort while first-year coordinator Noel Mazzone overhauls the offense. Chavis’ side of the ball returns seven starters, including the best set of defensive ends in the country in potential 2017 No. 1 overall draft pick Myles Garrett and senior Daeshon Hall. If Mazzone can just get average play out of Trevor Knight/Jake Hubenak at quarterback, the Aggies should meet or exceed last year’s eight wins.
5. Arkansas (8-5 in 2015, beat Kansas State in Liberty Ford)
There wasn’t a hotter SEC team from the middle half of last season on than the Razorbacks as they won six of their last seven games, with the only loss in that span coming by one point against Mississippi State. The Hogs have three very winnable road games in conference play this season against the likes of Auburn, Missouri and Mississippi State. A defense that returns nine starters along with what should be an above-average running game — provided a revamped line can gel quickly — should afford Austin Allen the opportunity to ease into his role as first-time starter at quarterback.
6. Auburn (7-6 in 2015, beat Memphis in Birmingham Bowl)
In Gus Malzahn‘s first season, the Tigers played for a national championship. Since then, the record has dropped from 8-5 in 2014 to 7-6 last season. Even more worrisome is the 2-6 mark in SEC play in 2015. In fact, since beating Ole Miss in early November of 2014, Auburn has gone a miserable 2-9 in SEC games. Quarterback will again be a question mark, and the schedule features several potholes along the way, from the season opener on The Plains against national title contender Clemson to SEC road games against Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama. From my vantage point, this is, at best, a five-win team — a number that will either put Malzahn on an even hotter seat entering the offseason or the unemployment line.
7. Mississippi State (9-4 in 2015, beat North Carolina State in Belk Bowl)
There might not be a team in the country that misses a player more than MSU will miss Dak Prescott. The last two seasons, the quarterback accounted for 70 percent of the offensive touchdowns scored by the Bulldogs, and nearly 33 percent of MSU’s rushing yards for good measure. Tasked with replacing at least part of that production will be Nick Fitzgerald, Prescott’s backup last season who reportedly looked good this past spring and on into summer camp. Making the task of replacing Prescott even more difficult? Road games against the three best teams in the division, LSU, Alabama and Ole Miss. It’s not impossible, but there is at least a slight chance that the Bulldogs could extend their bowl streak to seven years under Dan Mullen.
CONFERENCE CHAMPIONSHIP GAME PREDICTION
Alabama over Tennessee