2017 Southeastern Conference Football Projections

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East

Y-Georgia Bulldogs 11-2 (7-2)

Consistency has been the name of the game for the Georgia Bulldogs. The Bulldogs have made a bowl game in each of the last 20 years, while winning a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships. However as consistent as the Dawgs have been, they’ve never been able to take that next step which costs their last two head football coaches in Jim Donnan and Mark Richt their jobs. Kirby Smart is the latest coach to have his shot to run things at Georgia, and he led them to an 8-5 mark in 2016. Now as Smart is set to begin his second season at Georgia and as the expectations tend to be lofty in Athens, will the Bulldogs be able to challenge for the top spot in the SEC?

Jacob Eason

Quarterback Jacob Eason enters his sophomore campaign after a solid freshman year that saw him throw 16 touchdowns to 8 interceptions. There are parts of Eason’s game that must improve which includes his completion percentage as he was only able to complete 55% of his passes in 2016. However the fact that Eason made all 13 starts for Georgia last year in arguably the toughest college football conference in America does bode well for him as he could be a sleeper in the race to see who will be the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.

And even though that Richt is no longer the head football coach at Georgia, the running game is still a focus in Athens. Last year the combination of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel were extremely tough for opposing offenses to handle. And with both Michel and Chubb set to begin their senior seasons, they will keep each other on their toes while also providing balance to the Georgia offense with Eason.

For Georgia offensive coordinator Jim Cheaney, he has the luxury of having three seniors on the starting offensive line which includes left tackle Isaiah Wynn as the Bulldogs offense has the potential to be one of the better units in the Southeastern Conference.

2016 saw the Dawgs have a very young defense which means that they could be scary good this year. Junior middle linebackers Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick were Georgia’s top two tacklers last season and that trend should continue. Senior safety Dominick Sanders has the potential to be the Southeastern Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year, while Georgia’s pass rush could be fierce with the likes of junior defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and senior outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter.

As Georgia is seeking to play in the first Southeastern Conference Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta, 2017 will also mark their first trip to South Bend, Indiana to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish as these two schools have not met since the 1981 Sugar Bowl which culminated in the Dawgs last national championship. A road game versus the Tennessee Volunteers on September 30, as well Georgia’s annual meeting with the Florida Gators in Jacksonville on October 28, and a road contest with the Auburn Tigers will go a very long way in determining if Smart’s team will be good enough to win the SEC.

X-Florida Gators 8-4 (6-2)

In Jim McElwain’s first two seasons as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, he has a record of 19-8, while adding two Eastern Division Titles in the Southeastern Conference to his resume. However some of the folks in Gainesville have not warmed up to McElwain as his offense has sputtered, while relying on a rock solid defense. But after Florida was 112th in total offense in 2015, and 116th last season, will they finally be able to get back to respectability this time around?

The Gators must find themselves some consistency at quarterback and this year junior Luke Del Rio, along with freshmen Kyle Trask and Felipe Franks could all see time as Florida’s starting quarterback. But whomever will be the starting quarterback for Florida this year will be the general of a very young offense as there is not one senior projected to be in the starting lineup.

Florida was epic on defense last season as they were fifth in the nation in total defense while only two opponents scored more than 20 points against them. However with many of those players having moved on to the National Football League, who is going to step up and be a part of the next batch of play makers in Gainesville? Like the Gators offense, there will not be any seniors in the starting lineup on defense. But for players such as sophomore cornerback Chauncey Gardner who gained valuable playing time last year as a freshman, it could pay dividends as Florida is in need of leadership.

2017 will be different for Florida as they typically don’t begin the season versus teams from power conferences, but they’ll start off against the Michigan Wolverines at AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas on September 2. And most of Florida’s toughest games will be at home this season which includes games against the Tennessee Volunteers, LSU Tigers, and Texas A&M Aggies in the Southeastern Conference, while taking on their in-state rival in the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference. But with a young team the Gators will have their work cut out for them in order to make it to the SEC Championship Game for a third consecutive year.

X-Tennessee Volunteers 7-5 (4-4)

2016 was the perfect time for the Tennessee Volunteers to get back to relevance in the Southeastern Conference, and they partially failed at it. After Tennessee returned plenty of starters on both sides of the football, many people expected them to win the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference, however they came up short of achieving that. The Vols were able to defeat the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs in the same year for the first time since 2004 and they flirted with big things after they began the season with a record of 5-0 which included multiple comeback victories. However a three-game losing streak along with a loss to the Vanderbilt Commodores for the second time since 2013 put a damper on things. But as things are going in the right direction in Knoxville under head football coach Butch Jones, will he be able to make more strides for his program here in 2017?

Whereas Tennessee had the luxury of having a very experienced team last year, this time around it’ll be the exact opposite. Last year Quinten Dormady saw limited time at quarterback, but now in his junior campaign he will be the guy under center for the Vols. Dormady will be behind an inexperienced offensive line as the starting unit will have one senior in center Jashon Robertson.

Although that the Volunteers somewhat underachieved on defense last year, it didn’t prevent strong safety Todd Kelly Jr. from being one of the unit’s best players. Kelly led Tennessee in tackles and entering his senior season he has the potential to be a First-team All-SEC performer.

As if having to deal with Florida and Georgia wasn’t enough, Tennessee will have to travel to face the Alabama Crimson Tide on October 21, while also hosting the LSU Tigers on November 18. And although that Jones has three consecutive winning seasons to his credit with Tennessee, he might need to elevate his program to the next level in order to keep the folks in Knoxville happy.

X-South Carolina Gamecocks 7-5 (4-4)

The South Carolina Gamecocks went 6-7 in their first season under head football coach Will Muschamp, but the future is bright in Columbia. Muschamp has shown during his time as the defensive coordinator for the likes of the Auburn Tigers and Texas Longhorns, as well as his four his years as the head football coach of the Florida Gators that he is a tireless recruiter who knows how to establish things on the defensive side of the football. And with the Palmetto State deep with high-school football talent, Muschamp won’t have a hard time in order to get recruits to commit to him. In winning six games last season, Carolina shocked some people as only one opponent scored 30 points against them. But will the Gamecocks be able to creep on some opponents enough this year in order to win the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference?

Will Muschamp

Like Muschamp’s time at Florida, his offense at South Carolina last season struggled. The Gamecocks were 115th in the nation in total offense last season, but highly touted quarterback Jake Bentley was able to get his feet wet. Bentley went 4-3 as South Carolina’s starting quarterback last year which included helping the Gamecocks upset the Tennessee Volunteers. And now as Bentley is set to begin his sophomore season, will he become the leader that South Carolina needs in order to help them take the next step?

Bentley was not the only true freshman to get substantial playing time last year as running back Rico Dowdle was able to average 5.7 yards per carry. Dowdle only carried the football 133 times last season which will definitely increase as Muschamp’s teams tend to focus on the rushing attack. Led by center Alan Knott, Dowdle will run behind an offensive line that has three seniors as Carolina should somewhat improve on offense this year.

Defensively South Carolina will still be a work in progress as Muschamp continues to recruit the players that can fit his system to Columbia. But it will help that the Gamecocks will have seven senior starters on defense which includes cornerback Jamarcus King.

If the Gamecocks are able to take advantage of the early portion of their schedule, it will definitely give them confidence when their slate gets tougher as they’ll face the likes of the Texas A&M Aggies, Georgia Bulldogs, and Tennessee all on the road.

X-Vanderbilt Commodores 6-6 (3-5)

From 2011-2013, James Franklin did the impossible as the head football coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores when he led the program to three consecutive bowl appearances for the first time in school history. But when Franklin left to become the head football coach of the Penn State Nittany Lions in 2014, the fortunes of Vanderbilt were once again expected to take a turn for the worse. Derek Mason was the man who had the task of replacing Franklin and he did indeed get off to a slow start at Vandy as the team went 3-9 under him in 2014. However the Commodores have continued to build as they made a bowl appearance last year which included defeating the Tennessee Volunteers for the third time in the last five years. And as Vanderbilt continues to improve under Mason, they would like to take the next step which means winning the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference.

In 2016, Vandy’s offense was a work in progress, however the unit was able to improve as the season went along. Part of that improvement included quarterback Kyle Shurmur who showed his potential in spurts. And now that Shurmur is set to begin his junior season, the Commodores will need more consistency from him which includes being able to complete more than 54.4% of his passes this year. Senior running back Ralph Webb will be vital to any success that Vanderbilt could have on offense. Last year Webb was able to average 5.1 yards per carry, and if he is able to get at least 250 carries once again, it should symbolize the Commodores getting back to a bowl game.

Defensively the Commodores will miss the contributions of outside linebacker Zach Cunningham who is now in the National Football League and it will be interesting to see who’ll will be able to step up on this side of the football in order to become a leader for Vandy.

Like other teams who are looking to overachieve in 2017, Vanderbilt must be able to win the games that they are expected to as their road schedule is daunting with meetings against the Florida Gators, Mississippi Rebels, and South Carolina Gamecocks, but they should still be able to reach a bowl game for the second consecutive year.

X-Missouri Tigers 6-6 (2-6)

2016 saw a changing of the guard for the Missouri Tigers in regards to their football program. After 15 years as Missouri’s head football which included sending countless players to the National Football League, Gary Pinkel retired with a record of 118-73 which included helping the school transition from the Big 12 Conference to the Southeastern Conference. Pinkel would be replaced by Barry Odom who had previously played linebacker at Mizzou, while also being the Tigers defensive coordinator in 2015. The Tigers took it on the chin as they went 4-8 last year, while only winning two games within the SEC. However hopes springs eternal for the Tigers who are heading into a new college football season trying to improve in arguably the most difficult conference in the nation.

Drew Lock

One building block for Missouri heading into a new college football season is junior quarterback Drew Lock. Lock passed for 3,399 yards last season and 23 touchdowns, while doing it against the best defenses that the Southeastern Conference had to offer. And now that experience, along with the ability of Lock should assist him as he looks to propel Mizzou back to a bowl game for the first time since 2014.

Sophomore running back Damarea Crockett and senior wide receiver J’Mon Moore are the perfect compliments to Lock in Missouri’s offense, while the Tigers will have one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Southeastern Conference. Mizzou will have a trio of juniors and a pair of seniors on the starting offensive line which includes senior left tackle Tyler Howell as the unit has the potential to be sneaky good.

Missouri was typically known for its defensive prowess under Pinkel, but they took a huge step backwards last season as they were ranked 118th in total defense. The Tigers will only have four senior starters on defense heading into the new season and it will be interesting to see if anyone will be ready to step up and become a leader on this side of the football.

It won’t take us that long to see if Missouri has improved or not as in their second game of the season they will host the South Carolina Gamecocks in what should be a litmus test for both teams. But for Mizzou to be bowl eligible this year would be a huge plus for Odom and his program.

Kentucky Wildcats 5-7 (2-6)

The powers that be in regards to the football program of the Kentucky Wildcats have been patient with head football coach Mark Stoops during his four-year tenure in Lexington. And that patience paid off as Stoops was able to lead Kentucky to a bowl game last year for the first time since 2010. But as good as 2016 was for the Wildcats, will they be able to sustain some long-term success in the Southeastern Conference?

The Wildcats success on offense begins with their rushing attack that averaged 5.4 yards per carry last season. Last year running back Benny Snell Jr. split carries with Stanley Williams which meant that Kentucky would consistently have a fresh ball carrier. But with Williams now in the National Football League, Snell will be the guy for Stoops at running back in this his sophomore campaign.

At times Kentucky struggled on defense last year, but the unit was young. Senior middle linebacker Courtney Love and junior outside linebacker Jordan Jones should be able to be impact players on this side of the ball for Kentucky, while junior outside linebacker Josh Allen is a solid edge rusher. And if the Wildcats front seven is able to put enough pressure on opposing quarterbacks, I anticipate players such as junior strong safety Mike Edwards being able to feed off of that in the form on interceptions.

Kentucky is one of three schools that have never appeared in the Southeastern Conference Championship Game. And although that the Wildcats will be a long shot to make it to Atlanta this year, I still expect them to flirt with qualifying for a bowl game for the second consecutive year.

West

Z-Alabama Crimson Tide 13-0 (9-0)

For the second consecutive year the Alabama Crimson Tide went 14-1, however their most recent one-loss campaign had a different feel to it. After defeating the Clemson Tigers for the national championship in January 2016, Alabama fell in the rematch this past January as they were seeking to become the first program in Football Bowl Subdivision history to win 15 games in a season. But don’t feel sorry for Alabama as they have finished each of the last nine years in the top 10 of the Associated Press Poll while becoming the gold standard for college football. Nick Saban has been the head football coach at Alabama for this run and it has not been easy for him as he is consistently losing quality talent to the National Football League. But such is the life of being the top program in the Southeastern Conference. And for those who will be tuning in for the 2017 college football season looking to see the demise of the Crimson Tide, think again as Saban once again has a team that is capable of winning the conference.

Alabama was able to reach the national championship game last season in spite of the fact that they had a true freshman playing quarterback. The numbers for quarterback Jalen Hurts weren’t eye popping, but he got it done in the most important category which was wins. Hurts is built like a running back, while he is also has solid instincts to play the quarterback position, while not forcing the football. Hurts also plays with a ton of composure and that will be an important element for him with Brian Daboll as Alabama’s new offensive coordinator. Daboll has spent the last two decades as an assistant coach; primarily in the National Football League which included being the tight ends coach of the new England Patriots for the last three years. Daboll is a disciple of Patriots head coach Belichick who Saban served under as the defensive coordinator of the Cleveland Browns in the early 1990’s. The way that Belichick and Saban approach business is eerily similar which should help Daboll’s transition to the college game, as that will also help the Tide.

The running game has always been a staple of what the Crimson Tide like to do on offense under Saban and you can expect more of the same this year. Junior running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough give Alabama a “thunder and lightning” combination carrying the football and you cannot leave Hurts out of the conversation when it comes to tucking the football and taking off with it. Both Harris and Scarbrough have the ability to gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground, and if that is the case here in 2017, it will more than likely symbolize Alabama once again winning the Southeastern Conference.

Calvin Ridley

If Crimson Tide opponents want to focus on slowing down their rushing attack, play-action passing from Hurts to junior wide receiver Calvin Ridley will make them pay. Ridley is a burner who will keep opposing defensive backs in the Southeastern Conference on their toes as ‘Bama’s passing game could be sneaky good.

One thing that could potentially slow down Alabama’s offense is the fact that they will be a little green along the offensive line. The Tide will only employ one senior starter along the offensive line in center Bradley Bozeman. However players come to Alabama with the expectation of playing early, thus I foresee this unit solidifying as the season progresses.

Alabama is coming off of a season in which they were ranked first overall in the nation in total defense. That stretch included only allowing two opponents to score more than 20 points against them. And even though that the Crimson Tide lost a ton of talent on that side of the football, don’t expect them to slow down with the likes of junior strong safety Minkah Fitzpatrick and senior middle linebacker Rashaan Evans ready to once again be impact players.

Nick Saban

Playing for Alabama under Saban means that you are constantly appearing in big games. The Tide will keep that theme going when they begin the upcoming season at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference. I don’t anticipate Alabama being tested in the Southeastern Conference this year until their regular season finale versus the Auburn Tigers as a fourth consecutive trip to the College Football Playoff could be in the cards for Saban and his team.

Y-LSU Tigers 10-2 (6-2)

It’s been a wild ride for the LSU Tigers football program over the past few years. After flirting with firing longtime head football coach Les Miles for several years, he was dismissed following a 2-2 start in 2016. Miles would be replaced by defensive line coach Ed Orgeron on an interim basis. Under Orgeron, LSU went 6-2 to finish the season with a record of 8-4. LSU was seeking to hire a big name to replace Miles as they set their sights on Tom Herman. However Herman would spurn LSU in order to take over for the Texas Longhorns which led school officials in Baton Rogue to smooth things over with Orgeron.

Ed Orgeron

Orgeron was then named as LSU’s full-time head football coach, but this isn’t his time around the block in regards to leading a program in the Southeastern Conference. From 2005-2007, Orgeron was the head coach of the Mississippi Rebels and including his time as an assistant coach from various schools, he has been known as a tireless recruiter. The Gulf Coast Region is home to an extensive list of talented high school football players that Orgeron will zero in on getting to Baton Rogue. But for the present how will the Bayou Bengals fare in the SEC for 2017?

What hurt Miles during his time as time at LSU was the inconsistent play at the quarterback position. The Tigers have consistently sent talent to the National Football League from other positions on the team, but they have continued to struggle at quarterback. Quarterback Danny Etling was able to improve as the 2016 college football season progressed and he will need to build off of that for this his senior campaign. Etling is not a quarterback that specializes in taking risks, but he does need to improve his accuracy. Matt Canada is in his first year as LSU’s offensive coordinator and he will look to get the most out of Etling for the upcoming season.

Make no mistake about it that LSU gets off the bus running the football. And as the focus of LSU’s running game was on running back Leonard Fournette last year, it allowed running back Derrius Guice to sneak in the back door. Guice led the Tigers in rushing with 1,387 yards and he did it on just 183 carries. Guice’s season highlights included rushing for 252 yards against the Arkansas Razorbacks and following that up with a 285-yard performance versus the Texas A&M Aggies. And with Fournette now in the National Football League, Guice will be the guy who is the feature back for the Bayou Bengals, while he should be able to draw some interest in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy as the nation’s top college football player.

It will be a quartet of juniors, along with senior left tackle K.J Malone who will be tasked with protecting Etling and opening holes for Guice. And if there is one thing which is evident by Oregeron’s previous track record is that the Tigers will play angry in the trenches on both sides of the football.

Woes on offense in 2016 is what prevented LSU from having a better year. The Tigers were tenth in the nation in total defense last season which included limiting the Alabama Crimson Tide just 10 points. Like Alabama, LSU must consistently deal with quality defensive talent embarking on careers in the National Football League early which means that there are always players who are waiting in the wings in Baton Rouge to show what they can do.

Arden Key

After losing defensive talent to the pro game, the Tigers will need players such as senior outside linebacker Arden Key and junior quarterback Donte Jackson to lead the unit. Key is one of the best edge rushers in the Southeastern Conference as he has the ability to alter the game plan of opposing offensive coordinators, while Jackson is a solid cover corner. Both players have the potential to first-round picks in the upcoming National Football League Draft, and I expect each of them to showcase their talent during the upcoming college football season.

LSU should be able to push Alabama for the top spot in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference, but road games versus the Florida Gators, Ole Miss Rebels, along with traveling to Tuscaloosa to face the Tide will make it tough for the Bayou Bengals to win the conference title for the first time since 2011.

X-Auburn Tigers 8-4 (5-3)

Gus Malzahn

In 2013, Gus Malzahn was able to burst onto the scene in his first year as the head football coach of the Auburn Tigers. Malzahn was able to lead Auburn to a record of 12-2 which included winning the Southeastern Conference Championship and making an appearance in the national championship game. But since winning the SEC in 2013, Auburn has not come close to winning the conference as they have lost at least five games in each year since then. Auburn is still a relevant team, but will Malzahn be able to do enough to keep himself off of the hot seat here in 2017?

The biggest thing that has hurt Auburn in recent years is their lack of production and inconsistency at the quarterback position. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham began his collegiate career with the Baylor Bears, but after a year in Waco, Texas, he decided to transfer. Stidham is a dual-threat quarterback that fits into Malzahn’s uptempo spread offense; it’s just a matter of whether or not that he’ll be able to become the leader that the Tigers need him to be.

Auburn has consistently been one of the better teams in regards to running the football as they were sixth in the nation last year in that category. Junior running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson each have the potential to rush for more than 1,000 yards due to the speed and elusiveness that they each possess. And if Johnson and Pettway are each able to gain at least 1,000 yards on the ground, it should symbolize that Auburn was able to enjoy a good year on the gridiron.

Including left tackle Darius James, the Tigers have three seniors on their starting offensive line, and the blocking ability as well as their size and endurance could benefit Auburn, while putting their opponents in the Southeastern Conference at a disadvantage.

Auburn only allowed 17 points per game last year on defense, but they lost key players such as defensive end Carl Lawson to the National Football League. However Auburn defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has an attacking unit that flies around to the football which means that there is plenty of gang tackling, as well as effort plays.

Auburn faces one of the toughest schedules in that nation as they’ll have road games against the Clemson Tigers of Atlantic Coast Conference who are also the defending national champions, along with conference road meetings with the LSU Tigers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and Texas A&M Aggies in three consecutive weeks, while hosting the Alabama Crimson Tide in their regular season finale. And if the Tigers and Malzahn are able to find a way to finish 8-4, it would be a tremendous shot in the arm for he and his program.

X-Texas A&M Aggies 7-5 (4-4)

Kevin Sumlin

In five years as the head football coach of Texas A&M Aggies, Kevin Sumlin has compiled a record of 44-21. But since the Aggies have never been able to win the Southeastern Conference, or for that matter the SEC West, Sumlin’s productivity has been questioned by some of the supporters of the Texas A&M program. And with Sumlin earning $5 million per season to coach the Aggies, the people who are footing the bill want to see better results which means that he will be on the hot seat heading into the new college football season.

After spending 2016 primarily as a backup quarterback, senior Jake Hubenak is ready to be the guy under center for A&M? The Aggies are still looking for the next Johnny Manziel to come down the pike, but since that guy does not exist, Hubenak simply needs to go onto the field and be the best player that he can possibly be.

John Hubernak

Hubenak will benefit from having experienced players around him which includes junior wide receiver Christian Kirk and sophomore running back Trayveon Williams. Last year as a freshman, Williams averaged 6.8 yards per carry as he is someone that is always a step away from breaking a big play as he is one of the fastest ball carriers in the Southeastern Conference. Kirk has the potential to be one of the first wide receivers selected in next year’s National Football League Draft, and if he is able to get onto the same page with Hubenak early, the A&M offense could be off to the races.

Texas A&M defensive coordinator John Chavis lost some key pieces his defense as this year’s unit will be a work in progress. However with Chavis as one of the better defensive minds within the Southeastern Conference, the Aggies should improve on that side of the football as the season progresses.

As Sumlin enters this season on the hot seat in College Station, he won’t have the luxury of dealing with an easy schedule. A&M begins the season at the Rose Bowl when they face the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference. And when conference play begins, the Aggies will have to host the Alabama Crimson Tide in October, while welcoming the Auburn Tigers to Kyle Field in November, along with road games versus the Florida Gators, LSU Tigers, and Ole Miss Rebels as Sumlin will have his hands full in order to keep his job.

X-Arkansas Razorbacks 7-5 (3-5)

Bret Bielema

When Bret Bielema became the head football coach of the Arkansas Razorbacks in 2013, he brought a level of respect with him to Fayetteville. Prior to taking over at Arkansas, Bielema was the head football coach of the Wisconsin Badgers. And in seven years with Wisconsin, Beilema comprised a record of 68-24 which included leading the Badgers to three consecutive Rose Bowl Game appearances. Beilema’s teams have always had always been known for possessing a power rushing attack which includes a tenacity in the trenches. Beilema has brought that lunch pale mentality to Arkansas and they have become one of the toughest teams in the Southeastern Conference. The past three years have seen the Hogs win a combined 22 games. But will 2017 be the year in which Arkansas is able to push for an SEC Title?

After carrying the football 245 times last year Arkansas, running back Rawleigh Williams III was expected to once again be the workhorse in the Razorbacks running game. However injuries have forced Williams to call it a career which leaves a void for the Razorbacks. With Williams no longer with Arkansas, senior quarterback Austin Allen will have to do more in order to the Razorbacks offense going. 2016 was Allen’s first year as a starter for the Hogs, and he was able to have four games in which he passed for at least 300 yards. And I expect Beilema along with Arkansas offensive coordinator Dan Enos to open things up even more for Allen in regards to the playbook for his senior campaign.

After Arkansas was 75th in the nation in total defense last year, the unit will be a work in progress under first-year defensive coordinator Paul Rhoades. But if the Hogs want to entertain any thoughts of being in the conversation to win the Western Division of the Southeastern Conferrence, it will take a much more spirited effort on defense as their opponents were able to convert on nearly 45% of their third down conversions last year.

With road games against the Alabama Crimson Tide, Ole Miss Rebels, and LSU Tigers, the mental toughness of this Arkansas team will be tested this season. And it is more than likely that the Razorbacks will play hard, but they will continue to be a middle of the pack team in the SEC West.

X-Mississippi State Bulldogs 7-5 (3-5)

Dan Mullen

For eight years Dan Mullen has been the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs and he has gone on to be one of the most successful coaches in the history of the program. Only Jackie Sherrill has won more games at Mississippi State than Mullen as he has done this in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference where he’s contended against the likes of the Alabama Crimson Tide, LSU Tigers, and Auburn Tigers. In all but one season under Mullen have the Bulldogs failed to make a bowl game which is a credit to him being that Mississippi State has never been a school that attracts the top-tier high school football talent. And you can once again expect Mississippi State to be a tough out for the big boys in the SEC.

Mullen’s spread offense relies on having an all-purpose quarterback and the Bulldogs have one this year in the form of junior Nick Fitzgerald. Last year Fitzgerald accounted for 3,798 all-purpose yards and 37 touchdowns. Fitzgerald’s 2016 campaign included him throwing for at least 200 yards and rushing for at least 100 in the same game four times. Fitzgerald has the potential to be one of the best players in the Southeastern Conference and if the Bulldogs are one of the better teams in the conference, he could get some consideration for the Heisman Trophy.

Nick Fitzgerald

However Fitzgerald won’t have the most talented offense around him which includes Mississippi State going with two freshmen on the offensive line at key positions. Left tackle Greg Eiland is a true freshman while right tackle Stewart Reese was redshirted in 2016. But now this combination will be vital to any success that the Bulldogs intend to have this season as they must keep Fitzgerald’s uniform as clean as possible, while also dealing with the top edge rushers in the conference.

Things never came together on defense for Mississippi State last year as they were 110th in the nation in total defense. A huge change was made in Starkville as Todd Grantham is Mississippi State’s new defensive coordinator. Grantham knows what it takes to have a successful defense in the Southeastern Conference as from 2010-2013, Grantham was the defensive coordinator for the Georgia Bulldogs and they were typically one of the top units in the nation. And the same could be said for the Louisville Cardinals when Grantham was their defensive coordinator for the last three years.

Grantham has some talent to work with on defense in the form of sophomore middle linebacker Leo Lewis and junior cornerback Jamal Peters. Both Lewis and Peters are athletic as they each have the potential to be all-conference players at their respective positions which bodes well for the chances of Mississippi State here in 2017.

As the Bulldogs are seeking to make their eighth consecutive bowl appearance, it won’t be easy with road games in the Southeastern Conference versus Georgia, Auburn, the Texas A&M Aggies, and the Arkansas Razorbacks. And you cannot forget about the Egg Bowl to end the regular season against the Mississippi Rebels as you simply throw the rule book out when these two longtime rivals meet.

Mississippi Rebels 5-7 (2-6)

When Hugh Freeze became the head football coach of the Mississippi Rebels in 2012, he changed the level of expectations in Oxford. Under Freeze, the Rebels finished ranked in the top ten of the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 1969 which also marked their last trip to the Sugar Bowl prior to him taking over. However 2016 was a year to forget for Ole Miss as they were hampered by sanctions from the NCAA while also dealing with injuries. Subsequently the Rebels would go 5-7 for their first losing season under Freeze. And now things got worse as Freeze was terminated earlier this summer due to him contacting an escort service on a university issued phone. Matt Luke served as the offensive coordinator for the last five years under Freeze at Ole Miss, and now he’ll be the interim guy. But does Luke have enough up his sleeve to make Mississippi respectable in the Southeastern Conference in 2017?

Shea Patterson

Injuries to quarterback Chad Kelly allowed Shea Patterson to see action last year for Ole Miss as a true freshman. Patterson is the future at quarterback for the Rebels and the native of Shreveport, Louisiana will definitely have plenty of people pulling for him this season. But will Patterson alone be enough to carry the Rebels offense?

Aside from questions on offense, Ole Miss must become more competitive on defense as they were 111th in the nation in total defense last season which included surrendering at least 40 points in a game four times. Wesley McGriff is set to begin his first season as the defensive coordinator at Ole Miss, and he will be charged with developing a unit that must slow down the top offenses in the Southeastern Conference.

The Rebels schedule to begin the season will be relatively easy, but it will get difficult in a hurry as their first two conference games will come on the road against the Alabama Crimson Tide and Auburn Tigers. It will be important for Luke’s young team to not lose confidence early on as they will be facing a ton of adversity this year.

SEC Championship Game-Mercedes-Benz Stadium-Atlanta, Georgia: Georgia Bulldogs Vs. Alabama Crimson Tide

Conference Champion: Alabama

X-Bowl Eligible

Y-New Year’s Six

Z-Conference Champion

Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com

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