We don’t want to overinflate the egos of Alabama fans, but we have to state the obvious. The Tide carried the SEC in 2016.
Who was the second-best team in the SEC last season? Was it Florida, who lost 54-16 to Alabama in the SEC title game? Auburn, who finished 8-5 and scored fewer than 20 points vs. its last three FBS opponents of the season? LSU, who lost to both Alabama, Auburn, and Florida?
It won’t be deja vu all over again in 2017. We think. Auburn should be much improved — and have potentially one of the best quarterbacks in the country — and LSU’s pass game could be better with the addition of offensive coordinator Matt Canada.
In the East, Florida should be one of the better teams in the country provided players stop getting suspended and Georgia could end up with a better overall record than the Gators thanks to UF’s tough schedule.
The SEC is still Alabama’s to lose. But it could be a whole lot more competitive this year.
Teams listed in predicted order of finish.
Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
After being at No. 1 in our preseason top 25, it’s only natural to have Alabama at No. 1 in the SEC West. But there could be some drama regarding Alabama’s conference title.
Alabama will be favored in all of its SEC games, but you can’t rule out the possibility of a loss before the Iron Bowl. What if the Tide lose to a team like Texas A&M or Mississippi State on the road? And Auburn makes it through its conference slate undefeated before Nov. 25?
If that happens, the anticipation for the Iron Bowl will be at a level we haven’t seen since 2013. We still like Alabama to win the game, however. And go on to win the SEC title and make the College Football Playoff once again.
For more on Alabama, No. 1 in our preseason top 25, read our in-depth preview here.
Auburn (10-2, 7-1 SEC)
If there’s a two-loss team making the College Football Playoff, an Auburn team with losses to Clemson and Alabama is a strong contender.
But the likelihood of that happening is pretty damn slim. No two-loss team has ever made the CFP and a two-loss team making the CFP without making its conference title game means some serious chaos has happened.
Auburn’s defense was one of the best in the country in 2016 and defensive coordinator Kevin Steele’s unit should be very good again. If quarterback Jarrett Stidham provides the boost the Tigers’ passing attack needs, Auburn should be as improved as we think. If he doesn’t, and Auburn loses five or more games for the fourth-straight season, there’s going to be chatter about the grip coach Gus Malzahn has on his job.
For more on Auburn, No. 10 in our preseason top 25, read our in-depth preview here.
LSU (9-3, 5-3)
A 10-2 season is an A+ debut for LSU coach Ed Orgeron. Will it happen?
The Tigers have lost a lot of depth to transfer before the 2017 season, but the top-end talent is still there. RB Derrius Guice won’t make people long for Leonard Fournette and even has a very slim chance at challenging a 2,000-yard season if LSU feeds him the ball.
Offensive coordinator Matt Canada turned Pitt(!) into an offensive juggernaut in 2016 and should boost LSU’s passing attack. Can QB Danny Etling do what Nathan Peterman did in the Panthers’ offense a year ago?
If DE Arden Key doesn’t miss much time recuperating from his shoulder injury, the LSU defense will be feisty once again. If Key is out for a while, then the Tigers may be desperate for some pass rush.
For more on LSU, No. 11 in our preseason top 25, read our in-depth preview here.
Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4)
The Bulldogs are our surprise team in the SEC West. With games at home vs. Alabama and Auburn, MSU could be the spoiler team in the West.
QB Nick Fitzgerald was an underrated replacement for Dak Prescott in 2016, rushing for nearly 1,400 yards while throwing for over 2,400. If he can improve his passing statistics in 2017 and running back Aeris Williams can give him some more ground support, Mississippi State’s offense will be even better in 2017.
Defensively, linebacker Leo Lewis is probably the most excited of anyone to get the season started after he’s played a central role in the NCAA investigation into Ole Miss. Lewis is the team’s leading returning tackler and tallied 79 stops as a freshman.
We think Mississippi State beats at least one of the teams listed above it in the division. Which one will it be?
Texas A&M (7-5, 3-5)
It’s well-established that Kevin Sumlin has to avoid a fourth-straight 8-5 season to keep his job, at least based on the spring comments from Texas A&M’s athletic director. And guess what record we think A&M will finish with if it wins its bowl game?
The Aggies are reportedly going to start redshirt freshman Nick Starkel at quarterback over senior Jake Hubenak, who has gotten playing time over the past two seasons. True freshman Kellen Mond could even see some playing time too. While Hubenak could be the “safe” choice based on his experience, it’s pretty clear Sumlin likes what he sees from his younger guys.
Public discussions of job security aside, playing for both the present and the future is the right play in College Station. A&M doesn’t have the talent to win the SEC West immediately. While the team could start six seniors on defense, the offensive unit that opens vs. UCLA may not have a single one. A&M’s going to be good, not great, in 2017. And how you view that is going to be based on the realism of your expectations.
Arkansas (6-6, 3-5)
Do Arkansas fans expect too much from their team too? The Hogs could be fighting for bowl eligibility in 2017 thanks to a road game in Week 2 against TCU and a trip to South Carolina in the first weekend of October.
Losses to both of those teams cut the margin of error significantly. Assuming wins vs. Florida A&M, New Mexico State and Coastal Carolina, Arkansas would need three more to get to a bowl game. The season-ending game vs. Missouri on Nov. 25 could be the one to get to six wins.
Ultimately, we think Arkansas goes to a bowl. It’s too good not to. Quarterback Austin Allen threw for over 3,400 yards in 2016 but the Hogs need to replace six of the seven players who had 10 or more catches in 2016. And running back Devwah Whaley must take on a bigger role in the run game after the medical retirement of Rawleigh Williams.
Ole Miss (5-7, 1-7)
Can QB Shea Patterson buoy the Rebels in a lost season? Patterson acquitted himself well as a freshman in 2016 after Chad Kelly’s knee injury but could go through some growing pains in 2017. Gone are three of Ole Miss’ leading receivers from a year ago and he’s learning a brand-new offense.
And there’s the whole head-coach transition thing too. Interim coach Matt Luke looks like the perfect fit to guide Ole Miss through the stormy investigation times. But we’re still not sure of the storm’s strength. If Luke gets Ole Miss near six wins in 2017, he deserves a shot to become the team’s full-time head coach.
Florida (9-3, 7-1)
The season isn’t starting too well for the Gators. With the Wednesday suspensions of running back Jordan Scarlett and wide receiver Rick Wells, nine Gators will miss Saturday’s game vs. Michigan because of alleged stipend fraud. Yet another is suspended for a pot citation. It could be a rough Week 1.
Assuming most of the players suspended — including wide receiver Antonio Callaway — are back for Florida’s Week 3 game vs. Tennessee, the SEC schedule should go much more smoothly. The toughest game the Gators have in the conference is at South Carolina on Nov. 11. Thanks to last year’s hurricane fiasco, Florida hosts both LSU and Texas A&M from the West and, as always, the Georgia game is in Jacksonville.
With a season-ending game vs. Florida State, Florida has a good chance of heading into the SEC Championship Game following a loss. But don’t let a 2-2 non-conference record dissuade you. Florida has a great shot at a third-straight division title.
Georgia (9-3, 5-3)
What would happen if Georgia ended the 2017 season with a worse record than former coach Mark Richt achieved in his final two seasons with the school (10-3)? And what if the Bulldogs had a worse record than Richt’s Hurricanes?
Both are strong possibilities this year. We’ve got Georgia in our preseason top 20 on the strength of a defense that returns 10 starters. Second-year coach Kirby Smart’s unit should allow fewer than the 24 points per game it gave up last season.
But for Georgia to truly be a top-15 team, quarterback Jacob Eason needs to take some major strides. Eason showed flashes in 2016, but he completed just 55 percent of his passes despite a run game that featured running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.
The two backs are back in 2017 and the run game should be the focus of the offense once again. Smart’s information paranoia will also undoubtedly be a focus too. He’s already in midseason form, claiming that he’s getting updates on what media members are reporting while he’s coaching practices.
Kirby Smart has staffers updating him during practice about what writers are saying about the depth chart at right guard? Like … why? pic.twitter.com/fPEYcelljg
— Larry Williams (@LarryWilliamsTI) August 30, 2017
South Carolina (6-6, 4-4)
The Gamecocks should be better than their record in 2017. South Carolina opens the season Saturday vs. a very good NC State team and closes the season vs. in-state rival Clemson. If USC steals one of those two games, it could be a great year.
Sophomore quarterback Jake Bentley opens the season as the undisputed starter and nearly everyone is back with him on the offense including RB Rico Dowdle and wide receiver Deebo Samuel. Samuel had 59 catches for nearly 800 yards a year ago, but somehow only scored one touchdown. It’s not all that surprising when you realize that SC quarterbacks threw for just 11 touchdowns all year. That has to change.
The defense has to get better too. South Carolina gave up nearly 27 points per game in 2016 and has to replace Darius English, who tallied nine of the team’s 21 sacks last year.
Tennessee (7-5, 3-5)
The Vols defense returns seven starters but has to replace two-thirds of its pass rush. Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen combined for 20 of the team’s 30 sacks last season. Pass rush may not matter too much in Week 1 vs. Georgia Tech’s triple-option offense, but pressuring the quarterback will be imperative as the season goes on.
Tennessee coach Butch Jones is one of the many coaches playing coy about his starting quarterback to open the season. Whoever wins the job between Quinten Dormady and Jarrett Guarantano will hope that Jauan Jennings emerges as the downfield threat Josh Malone was in 2016.
Without Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara in the backfield, the Tennessee run game will be just fine. John Kelly emerged in the second half of 2016 as a productive back, averaging over six yards a carry. He should be one of the better backs in the league.
Missouri (7-5, 3-5)
These Tigers should be the (relative) surprise in the East. Missouri’s offense more than doubled its scoring output in 2016, going from a paltry 14 points per game to nearly 32.
As the offense blossomed under offensive coordinator Josh Heupel, the defense fell apart. Missouri’s points allowed nearly doubled from 16 to … nearly 32. The Tigers gave up 51 points to Middle Tennessee, 40 to Florida and 63 to Tennessee.
We’re banking on defensive improvement as head coach Barry Odom — the team’s 2015 defensive coordinator — will call the defensive plays. The offense should get even better too, with 10 starters returning and quarterback Drew Lock entering his junior year. Mizzou may not pull off any massive upsets, but with South Carolina, and Tennessee both at home, the Tigers should get back to a bowl game for the first time in three seasons.
Kentucky (6-6, 3-5)
Kentucky hasn’t gone to bowl games in consecutive seasons since 2009 and 2010. A bowl should be in the offing after 2017.
The Wildcats won five of their last seven games thanks to the emergence of the run game. Kentucky averaged 234 yards rushing in 2017 and running back Benny Snell is back. He was one of two Kentucky backs who rushed for over 1,000 yards and scored 13 touchdowns.
The defense needs to get better. And it should. Kentucky returns nine starters, including linebacker Jordan Jones and safety Mike Edwards.
Vanderbilt (4-8, 2-6)
Running backs Ralph Webb and Khari Blasingame may be the best duo you haven’t heard of. The two combined for 23 touchdowns a year ago.
Nearly everyone who caught a pass from QB Kyle Shurmur or the departed Wade Freebeck is back in 2017, so the passing game should improve by default. At least we’d hope. It wasn’t very good last year. Webb and Blasingame scored so many times because quarterback Kyle Shurmur threw for just nine touchdowns all season. If he tosses more touchdowns, there may be fewer to divide between the running backs.
Bowl eligibility is possible, but it’s tough. Vandy opens the season at Middle Tennessee State, one of the best teams in Conference USA. Kansas State visits in Week 3, and the Commodores host Conference USA favorites Western Kentucky on Nov. 4. 2-1 in that stretch is ideal and probably necessary for a .500 season.
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