GLENDALE, AZ - JANUARY 11:  Head coach Nick Saban of the Alabama Crimson Tide celebrates by hoisting the College Football Playoff National Championship Trophy after defeating the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 College Football Playoff National Championship Game at University of Phoenix Stadium on January 11, 2016 in Glendale, Arizona.  The Crimson Tide defeated the Tigers with a score of 45 to 40.  (Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images)
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CFT 2016 Preseason Previews: the SEC

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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.

SEC EAST

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.

SEC WEST

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

ECU won’t be hiring ex-Purdue interim HC charged with drunk driving

WEST LAFAYETTE, IN - NOVEMBER 19: Interim coach Gerad Parker of the Purdue Boilermakers looks on against the Wisconsin Badgers in the second quarter of the game at Ross-Ade Stadium on November 19, 2016 in West Lafayette, Indiana. (Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
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An off-field incident involving alcohol has unofficially cost an assistant coach a job.

It had been reported that Gerad Parker, who served as Purdue’s interim head coach last season, decided to leave his new job at Cincinnati to take another at East Carolina. That reported move was complicated after reports surfaced that, following a going-away party in West Lafayette early Tuesday morning, the coach was pulled over and charged with operating a motor vehicle while intoxicated.

Parker had been expected to take over the wide receivers coach job at ECU; Wednesday, multiple reports indicated that the Pirates are moving on from the coach in light of the recent development.

In a tweet that has since been deleted from his Twitter account, Parker apologized. “I’m sorry to all my friends and family,” the coach wrote. “Thanks to all that have reached out and shown support.”

Parker would’ve replaced Phil McGeoghan, who left ECU in late January for a job with the Buffalo Bills. ECU’s search for a replacement will continue.

Kentucky OC Eddie Gran gets contract extension and raise

LEXINGTON, KY - AUGUST 30:  The Kentucky Wildcats take the field before the game against the Tennessee- Martin Skyhawks at Commonwealth Stadium on August 30, 2014 in Lexington, Kentucky.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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After making some changes to the coaching staff this offseason, Kentucky is locking in offensive coordinator Eddie Gran for the next few seasons. Kentucky has signed Gran to a contract extension good through the 2019 season, according to The Courier-Journal.

According to the reported contract extension, Gran will be paid $825,000 in the 2017 season and will be given a $25,000 raise each of the next two seasons. A buyout cost of $150,000 per years is also added to the contract should he leave for another job during that span. Gran was originally under contract through the 2018 season, so his new deal tacks on an extra year in Lexington. The extended contract also bumps Gran’s pay by $175,000 compared to his previous contract.

Kentucky may have finished the 2017 season ranked 9th in the SEC in total scoring, but the Wildcats bumped up their average points per game by roughly six points in 2016 compared to the 2015 season. Kentucky also had the SEC’s third-most productive rushing attack with an average of 234.15 rushing yards per game and 30 rushing touchdowns. Only Auburn and Alabama had better averages and touchdown totals (and Alabama had two more games to pad the stats).

Kentucky has room to improve in the passing game after finishing the 2016 season ranked 13th in passing offense in the 14-team SEC. Kentucky also had an SEC-high 28 turnovers lost in 2016, with 16 fumbles and 12 interceptions thrown.

Gran joined the Kentucky program last year after a three-year stint at Cincinnati as offensive coordinator. Gran has previously been an assistant at Florida State, Tennessee, Auburn, and Ole Miss as well.

Nebraska WR coach Keith Williams sentenced to 30 days in jail for August DUI

LINCOLN, NE - SEPTEMBER 22: A cheerleader waves a flag after the Nebraska Cornhuskers score against the Idaho State Bengals during their game at Memorial Stadium on September 22, 2012 in Lincoln, Nebraska. Nebraska won 73-7. (Photo by Eric Francis/Getty Images)
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Nebraska wide receivers coach Keith Williams pled no contest to charges from a DUI incident last August. On Wednesday, he received his sentence from a county judge and learned he would be sentenced to 30 days in jail and three years of probation.

According to The Lincoln Journal-Star, Williams was also fined $1,000 for his latest DUI charge. Williams has until March 3 to apply for house arrest, although prosecutors made a push for Williams to serve his time behind bars after not being locked up for two prior DUI charges.

Nebraska opens spring football practices on March 4. If he is ruled eligible for house arrest, that would allow Williams to continue coaching in the spring. Otherwise, he could have to miss at least some of Nebraska’s spring practices depending on when his jail sentence would begin.

Williams was pulled over for driving under the influence last August with a BAC above .15. Further complicating things was the fact Williams also had two previous convictions for DUI. Nebraska head coach Mike Riley suspended Williams without pay through the end of August and was prohibited from coaching in Nebraska’s first four games of the 2016 season.

Michigan adds former Hawaii defensive cooridnator Kevin Lempa as defensive analyst

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Former Hawaii defensive coordinator Kevin Lempa has landed in Ann arbor with a new job. Michigan announced Lempa has joined the staff as a senior defensive analyst under Jim Harbaugh and defensive coordinator Don Brown.

“Kevin is a great addition to our football program and defensive staff,” said Harbaugh in a released statement. “He adds a wealth of experience and knowledge on the defensive side of the ball, and Kevin’s working relationship with Coach (Don) Brown will be a big asset for our team.”

“I am very excited and honored to become part of Coach Harbaugh’s staff,” Lempa said in his released statement. “I am also fired up to be working with Coach Brown again.”

Lempa resigned from his position with the Hawaii program following the 2016 season. He previously served as a defensive backs coach at Boston College from 2013 through 2015, when Brown was the defensive coordinator of the Eagles.

As a defensive analyst, Lempa will not have any hands-on instruction with the Michigan roster but will assist in film breakdown and other orders of business in preparing Michigan’s game plan.