Kevin Sumlin leads a list of coaches that will enter the 2017 college football season on the hot seat.
Tennessee Volunteers 10-3 (6-2)
In a very short time Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Butch Jones has gotten his program back to respectability. Jones is coming off of his third year in Knoxville and last season he led Tennessee to their first 9-win season since 2007. But can Jones do something that hasn’t happened since 2007 which is to get the Volunteers to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game?
This year’s Tennessee squad has arguably the most experience in the Southeastern Conference as they have 10 returning starters on offense and 8 on defense. Senior Joshua Dobbs is in his fourth year as the Volunteers starting quarterback and his play has improved in each year. Dobbs has also shown the qualities to be a leader on the field for the Vols. As Tennessee has one of the bigger and more physical offensive lines in the SEC that features senior right guard Dylan Wiesman, they can lean on opponents with their running game. Junior running back Jalen Hurd nearly rushed for 1,300 yards last year and he is looking to add to the program’s long history at running back which includes the likes of Jamal Lewis and Arian Foster.
Defensively the Vols were ranked 36th in the nation last year in total defense and there are players on the unit that have potential to play in the National Football League. Senior outside linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin led the Volunteers in tackles last season with 105 and he has the potential to be an All-SEC player here in 2016. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett has the potential to hear his name called very early at next year’s NFL Draft as he is a solid edge rusher that offenses in the SEC must constantly account for. And if Tennessee’s front seven isn’t enough to deal with, they also have an opportunistic secondary that had 12 interceptions last year with 3 coming from junior free safety Todd Kelly Jr.
Last year all four of Tennessee’s losses came by four points or less and if Jones is able to remedy that, he will have a team on his hands that is worthy to win the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia Bulldogs 9-3 (6-2)
During Mark Richt’s 15 years as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, all he did was win. Richt comprised a record of 145-53 at Georgia which included a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships and nine years in which his team won at least 10 games. But all of that success wasn’t enough for Richt to maintain his job due to to the fact that he didn’t win enough big games. Richt has been replaced by former Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who will have some lofty expectations to live up during his first go round as a head football coach.
Under Richt, Georgia had one of the best rushing games in the nation as they were a pipeline to the National Football League. That won’t change this year with the combination of junior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as each player has the potential to gain 1,000 yards rushing if they are healthy. Senior quarterback Grayson Lambert has had an up and down collegiate career that began with the Virginia Cavaliers. But as long as Lambert can keep it simple and not try to win games by himself, he and the Bulldogs should be able to enjoy a good year.
Mel Tucker is beginning his first year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and he is inheriting a defense that was seventh in the nation last season in total defense. The Dawgs will have to replace some talent in their front seven, but the strength of this defense is in the secondary where all four starters from 2015 are back. Safety Dominic Sanders led the team in interceptions last year with 6, and here in his junior campaign, he should be in the conversation to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, while also gaining a ton of attention from the National Football League scouts.
Smart is adding his own touch to Georgia’s program and he should have the Bulldogs right in the mix to win the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Florida Gators 8-4 (5-3)
It didn’t take Florida Gators head football Jim McElwain that long to get his program back to respectability. In one year at the helm at Florida, McElwain was able to get the Gators to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for the first time since 2009. But will McElwain be able to do something that hasn’t happened in Gainesville since the 2000’s which is to make the Gators consistent? The Gators have not finished consecutive seasons in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll since 2009 while they’ve been an up and down program since then. And after winning the SEC East in 2015, the other six teams within the division will gunning for Florida this year.
One of the biggest things that has been holding Florida back in recent years is the fact that they have struggled mightily on offense. Last year Florida was 112th in total offense which makes the fact that they were able to win 10 games that more remarkable. McElwain is offensive coach that was able to make adjustments to his team during his first year at Florida, but he must find more consistent play at quarterback. Last year saw Treon Harris thrust into a tough situation as he was asked to be a pocket passer in spite of the fact that he came to Florida as a spread option quarterback under former Gators head football coach Will Muschamp.
Sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio transferred to Florida and he is more capable to run McElwain’s pro-style offense which makes him the favorite to start under center for the Gators when the season begins. The Gators still don’t have the explosion in the passing game that made them a national power during the 1990’s and 2000’s, but Del Rio will be protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from last year.
In recent years the Florida defense has carried this team as they were eighth in the nation last year in total defense. And just like last year, the Gators have talent on that side of the football which will soon be coming to a National Football League City near you. Junior outside linebacker Jarrad Davis can tackle anything that moves and junior cornerback Jalen Tabor is one of the best cover guys in the Southeastern Conference.
Florida should once again be in the mix to qualify for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, but all of that will come down to their meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs.
Kentucky Wildcats 6-6 (3-5)
The past two years have seen the Kentucky Wildcats go 5-7 and they appear to be on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Last year saw the Wildcats lose three Southeastern Conference games by five points or less. And as Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops is set to begin his fourth year in Lexington, a trip to a bowl game could make him a very popular mean within the Commonwealth State.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Drew Barker was able to get some brief experience under center, and now in 2016 as a sophomore, he will be the guy for the Wildcats offense. But one of the main keys for Kentucky will be whether or not that junior running back Stanley “Boom” Williams will be able to gain at least 1,000 yards as that would be the symbol of the Wildcats success. The Wildcats have an experienced offensive line that has four junior starters and one senior in center Jon Toth.
Stoops’ specialty is defensive football which he has been unable to bring to Lexington and the Wildcats will be fighting an uphill battle on that side of the football due to the fact that they have a ton of experience to replace on that side of the football from last year’s team.
Kentucky won’t be able to dodge some of the heavyweights that the Southeastern Conference has to offer as they’ll tango with the Tennessee Volunteers, Georgia Bulldogs, and Alabama Crimson Tide. But if the Wildcats are able to handle their business against the teams that they should beat, they should be able to receive the bowl invite that has eluded them for more than five years.
Missouri Tigers 6-6 (3-5)
In the four years that the Missouri Tigers have been a member of the Southeastern Conference, it has been either feast or famine for them. 2012 saw Missouri go 5-7, while they would win the SEC East in 2013 and 2014. Last year the Tigers once again went 5-7 and it marked the end of the line for Gary Pinkel as Missouri’s head football coach as he decided to retire. Pinkel’s successor in Columbia is a Missouri lifer in Barry Odom. Odom was a linebacker at Missouri from 1996-1999, and he has also been an assistant coach there since 2003. Since 2012, Odom was the Tigers defensive coordinator and he oversaw a unit that has sent its fair share of players to the National Football League in recent years. But now Odom is the guy that is in charge of this program and he doesn’t want his team to get caught up in the wash that is the SEC.
With Missouri’s struggles as a team last year, quarterback Drew Lock gained valuable playing time as a freshman that should translate to something positive for him and the Tigers here in 2016. But Lock will have to carry a Mizzou offense that was 125th in total offense last year.
However as bad as Missouri’s offense was, their defense kept them in games as they were sixth in the nation in total defense. And the Tigers have some key players in senior middle linebacker Michael Scherer, junior defensive end Michael Harris, and sophomore defensive end Walter Brady that have the potential to be the best at their respective positions in the Southeastern Conference.
Just like last year the defense will carry the Tigers. But as the season progresses, this will be a team that nobody in the Southeastern Conference will want to face.
South Carolina Gamecocks 4-8 (1-7)
It’s hard to believe, but the South Carolina Gamecocks will enter the 2016 college football season on the heels of their first losing season since 2003. The Gamecocks went 3-9 last year in what would be Steve Spurrier’s last year as South Carolina’s head football coach. In nearly 11 years in Columbia, Spurrier was able to build off of the transition that had begun under former head football coach Lou Holtz as he turned the Gamecocks into a national power which included winning the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference in 2010, while also having three consecutive top ten finishes in the Associated Press Poll. Now it is up to Will Muschamp build off of what Holtz and Spurrier were able to do at South Carolina.
Before Muschamp became the head football coach at South Carolina, he enjoyed several stints in the Southeastern Conference as a defensive coordinator for the likes of the Auburn Tigers and LSU Tigers. But Muschamp’s most notable venture within the SEC came as the head football coach of the Florida Gators where he compiled a record of 28-21 in four years. The expectations at South Carolina for Muschamp won’t be as high as they were for him at Florida which should benefit him and his program.
Being that South Carolina was 3-9 last year, there isn’t a ton of returning talent for Muschamp to work with as he’ll turn to a true freshman at quarterback in Brandon McIlwain. Senior middle linebacker Skai Moore will definitely garner some interest from the National Football League as he is one of the best overall linebackers in the Southeastern Conference. Moore has knowledge of his position as well as the other defensive positions, while he led South Carolina in tackles with 111 and interceptions (4) last year.
This year will definitely be a struggle for the Gamecocks, but as the season progresses, Muschamp will begin to put his stamp on this program.
Vanderbilt Commodores 3-9 (1-7)
It’s been a tough go for Derek Mason as the head football coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. In two years at Vanderbilt, Mason has won seven games compared to the nine games that were won by James Franklin in his final year with the Commodores in 2013. But such is the life of the underbelly that is the Southeastern Conference as it is indeed difficult to keep up with the Joneses. However hopes springs eternal for Mason and Vandy as the 2016 college football season is set to begin.
Mason has some individual talent to work with this year in Nashville, but I doubt it will enough to make Vanderbilt respectable. Junior running back Ralph Webb is the heart and soul of the Commodores offense, while junior linebacker Zach Cunningham and junior defensive back Oren Burks have the potential to be two of the better players within the Southeastern Conference. But all of that won’t be enough to help the Commodores in the win column as the collective talent pool simply isn’t there.
LSU Tigers 12-1 (7-1)
In 11 years as the head football coach of the LSU Tigers, all Les Miles has done is win. Miles has compiled a record of 112-32 which includes a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships along with a national title. But what has hurt Miles is that his Tigers are 0-5 in their last five contests against the Alabama Crimson Tide which almost led to his departure last year. However cooler heads were able to prevail in Baton Rogue as Miles has been retained, and rightfully so being that he has a football team here in 2016 that is not only capable of winning the SEC, but the national title as well.
Under Miles, the Bayou Bengals get off of the bus running the football and you can expect more of the same this year. Junior running back Leonard Fournette has been as good as advertised in his first two years at LSU, and you will definitely hear his name in conversations to win the Heisman Trophy as he has the potential to rush for 2,000 yards this season.
Junior quarterback Brandon Harris has taken his lumps over the last two years, but if he is able to get on the same page with senior wide receiver Travin Dural and junior wide receiver Malachi Dupre to compliment the running ability of Fournette, the LSU offense has the potential to be very special this fall.
Dave Aranda is entering his first year as LSU’s defensive coordinator and he definitely has some talent to work with in Death Valley. Senior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith will tackle anything that moves while senior defensive end Lewis Neal is one of the best edge rushers in the Southeastern Conference. And junior strong safety Jamal Adams is a ball-hawking player that can change the landscape of a game with his range and nose for the football.
I don’t see Louisiana State being intimidated by the fact that they’ll open their season at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin when they tango with the Wisconsin Badgers of the Big Ten Conference, while things are shaping up for them to run the table in the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama Crimson Tide 10-2 (6-2)
Since Nick Saban became the head football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2007, he has done what most people said that he wouldn’t do which was to build a juggernaut in the toughest football conference in the United States. Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Saban is 100-18 which includes five national titles and it has made life extremely difficult for every other program within the Southeastern Conference as they have tried to keep up with the Tide. The Tide head into the 2016 college football season as the defending national champions and this is a program that knows how to deal with the high expectations, along with the fact that everyone will be gunning for them.
Over the past two years, quarterback Cooper Bateman has gotten brief doses of being the guy at Alabama, but in his junior year he no longer has to look over his shoulder. The main thing for Bateman will be to not to try doing everything by himself and instead relying on the Alabama machine. The Crimson Tide are going to miss the production of running back Derrick Henry as he won the Heisman Trophy last year as sophomore running back Damien Harris will look to become the next great tailback for ‘Bama. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will look for sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley and senior tight end O.J. Howard to continue improving their productivity which would definitely benefit Bateman, while there is plenty of experience on the Crimson Tide offensive line which is led by junior offensive tackle Cam Robinson and senior guard Alphonse Taylor.
Defensively the Tide lost plenty of talent to the National Football League, but as Saban is one of the best recruiters in the nation, there is always somebody in Tuscaloosa that is waiting for their respective opportunity. Senior strong safety Eddie Jackson led Alabama in interceptions last year with 6, while senior outside linebacker Reuben Foster returns to school after being the team’s second leading tackler in 2015 with 73. But Alabama will still be able to rush the passer with the likes of defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams returning for their senior seasons. The duo of Allen and Williams combined for 22.5 sacks in 2015, and they should once again be menaces to quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
Make no mistake about it that Saban doesn’t duck any of the top teams in the nation and this college football campaign won’t be any different as Alabama will make the trek to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to clash with the USC Trojans of the Pac-12 Conference to kick off their defense of the national title on September 3. But road life in the Southeastern Conference won’t be easy for Alabama as they’ll travel to face the Ole Miss Rebels, Tennessee Volunteers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and LSU Tigers.
Ole Miss Rebels 9-3 (6-2)
Hugh Freeze has completed four years as the head football coach of the Mississippi Rebels and in each year in Oxford, his win total has increased. Ole Miss coming off of their first 10-win season since 2003, and their first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970. Freeze has gotten things turned around as the 2016 National Football League Draft saw three of his players selected in the first round, while the Rebels were also able to secure a road victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide which was their only defeat en route to claiming the national championship. And as the Rebels have made tremendous strides in the last few years, the next step for them is to win the Southeastern Conference Championship for the first time since 1963. But will 2016 be the charm?
Senior quarterback Chad Kelly is looking to finish his collegiate career with a bang after he threw for 31 touchdowns in 2015, but he will miss the contributions of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell who is now the National Football League. There is plenty of returning talent on the defensive side of the football which includes the likes of junior defensive end Marquis Haynes, junior outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates, and senior cornerback Tony Bridges who all have the potential to be All-SEC performers.
Ole Miss no longer has to search for respect as they are getting it around the country. But that won’t stop the Rebels from facing the Florida State Seminoles from the Atlantic Coast Conference in Orlando, Florida to begin their season on Labor Day. The Rebels will definitely have to buckle their chin straps on September 17 when they welcome the Crimson Tide to Oxford as they will be seeking their third consecutive victory over the defending national champions. And road games against the Arkansas Razorbacks, LSU Tigers, and Texas A&M Aggies will definitely test how far that Freeze has brought his program.
Texas A&M Aggies 9-3 (5-3)
In Kevin Sumlin’s four years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, he has compiled a record of 36-16, but that hasn’t kept him from avoiding the hot seat in College Station. After the Aggies won 11 games in 2012, they have been unable to replicate that success. And as the powers that be at A&M believe that their program is good enough to win the Southeastern Conference, it has put Sumlin in a bind.
One thing that has hurt the Aggies over the past two years is their inconsistency at quarterback as it has been a revolving door at College Station. But here in 2016, the Aggies appear ready to commit to senior quarterback Trevor Knight who transferred there after being a part of the Oklahoma Sooners program. Knight’s time at Oklahoma included leading the Sooners to an upset victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. And the main thing that Knight will be able to provide the Aggies with is stability and leadership at the quarterback position which is something that they have lacked in each of the last two years.
Make no mistake about it that Texas A&M can run the football, but there is still the threat of the big play in the passing game. Sophomore wide receiver Christian Kirk is looking to add to his resume after a sparkling freshman season in which he tallied 80 receptions for 1,009 years. But the Aggies big home run hitter at wide receiver is junior Ricky Seals-Jones. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Seals-Jones has the size that the pro scouts like; now it is just a matter of him putting it together for a full season.
Defensively the Aggies do have play makers, but they need to be more consistent. In 2015, A&M defensive backs made too many tackles as free safety Armani Watts led the team in tackles with 126. Junior defensive end Myles Garrett is arguably the best defensive player in the nation as he could be the first overall pick of the 2017 National Football League Draft. But the Aggies must find a way to become more consistent under defensive coordinator John Chavis which includes them getting off of the field on third down.
If A&M is going to be one of the better teams in the nation in 2016, they will have to earn it as their schedule isn’t filled with that many soft spots. The Aggies will begin the college football season by hosting the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference, while having conference road games against the Auburn Tigers, Alabama, and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, along with finishing the regular season at home against the LSU Tigers.
Auburn Tigers 7-5 (4-4)
After Auburn Tigers head football coach Gus Malzahn led his team to the Bowl Championship Series Title Game in 2013, it has been a rough go for him. In that year Auburn won 12 games en route to winning the Southeastern Conference Championship while they’ve combined to win 15 over the last two years. The competition is always hot and heavy in the SEC West. And as the Tigers don’t want to get caught up in the wash there, their fans are hoping to not avoid a repeat of when this program took a brief nose dive after winning the national title in 2010.
Under Malzahn, Auburn incorporates an uptempo offense that is predicated on solid production from the quarterback and a quality ground game. The Tigers were unable to get either in 2015 which has led to a three-man competition to be the team’s starting quarterback between JUCO transfer John Franklin III, senior Jeremy Johnson, and sophomore Sean White. Neither White or Johnson were as productive as Auburn was envisioning in 2015, and if the Tigers are unable to find the guy at quarterback, they will once be fighting an uphill battle.
The Tigers also need to get more out of their running game as so much of Malzahn’s offense is predicated by what they are able to get accomplished in their running game. There will be plenty of experience on Auburn’s offensive line as they have a pair of seniors in the starting lineup which includes left tackle Robert Leff, and three juniors.
Last year Auburn’s defense was attempting to get a feel for things under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. But being that Muschamp was looking to get back to being a head coach sooner rather than later, you knew that he wouldn’t be there for long. After one year at Auburn, Muschamp agreed to become the head football coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks which has paved the way for Kevin Steele to become the Tigers new defensive coordinator.
This isn’t Steele’s first go round in the Southeast Conference as a defensive coordinator as he previously worked with the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers. And now Steele will be charged with getting this Auburn unit back to the top of the SEC.
Last year as a freshman, defensive back Carlton Davis led the team in interceptions with 3, but Auburn lost its top five leading tacklers from 2015 which will leave a very huge void.
Auburn’s schedule won’t be an easy one as they’ll begin by taking on the Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with road games against the Mississippi Rebels, Georgia Bulldogs, and Alabama.
Mississippi State Bulldogs 7-5 (4-4)
In Dan Mullen’s seven years as the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, he has shown that he can hang with the best that the Southeastern Conference has to offer. The Bulldogs call the SEC West home and in each of the last six years, they have gone to a bowl game which is by far the longest stretch in the history of the program. And now as the 2016 college football season is set to begin, the Bulldogs are seeking to win at least 9 games for the third consecutive year which would be the first time in school history that it occurred.
It won’t be as easy for Mississippi State to rack up the victories as quarterback Dak Prescott who did everything for this team over the past few years has graduated. Last year as a freshman, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald got some brief time under center, but now he is expected to be the guy. At 6’5″, 227 lbs., Fitzgerald is a very imposing figure that can make life difficult for defenses in the Southeastern Conference once it all comes together for him.
Last year saw the Bulldogs get away from the running game that Mullen build his initial success upon and it will once again need to be a factor in 2016 for them to be in contention. Expect senior running back Brandon Holloway to get his chance to be the feature back in Starkville, but after carrying the football just 92 times last year, will he be up for the increased workload? However led by senior center Jamaal Clayborn, the Bulldogs do have three upperclassmen on the offensive line which should help out the inexperienced quarterback.
Mississippi State’s defense has the potential to be very stout with six returning starters, which includes six of their top seven tacklers from 2015. Senior middle linebacker Richie Brown could be a first-team All-SEC member, while sophomore strong safety Brandon Bryant has shown that he has range in the secondary.
The road will define Mississippi State here in 2016 as they’ll travel to face the LSU Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Mississippi Rebels in three contests that will help to the shape the title picture in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Arkansas Razorbacks 7-5 (4-4)
In 2015, the Arkansas Razorbacks were unable to live up to the lofty expectations that were thrust on them as they were done in by the injury bug. But the Razorbacks were still a team that opponents in the Southeastern Conference were not excited to play against as they were the most physical team in the conference. During Bret Bielema’s time as a college coach which included a seven-year stretch with the Wisconsin Badgers where he compiled a record of 68-24, his teams have been known for their physicality on both sides of the football. Now as Bielema is set to begin his fourth year with the Hogs, he is starting to get his kind of football players to come to Fayetteville as he has now established himself in that region of the country.
After Brandon Allen spent that last four years as the Razorbacks starting quarterback which led to him being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he has now made way for another member of his family at Arkansas. Junior quarterback Austin Allen is Brandon’s younger brother and now he gets his chance to show the Southeastern Conference what he can do under center. But the Hogs will have to replace plenty of talent in the running game as running back Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are now in the National Football League. And after spending that last three years as a backup to Williams and Collins, senior running back Kody Walker will get his opportunity to be the feature back in Bielema’s power running attack.
At times in 2015, the Razorbacks defense took it on the chin as they surrendered 45 points or more in a game three times, but with nine starters returning on that side of the football, there is some optimism. Senior middle linebacker Brooks Ellis is the leader of the Hogs defense and he will tackle anything that moves, while sophomore outside linebacker sophomore Dre Greenlaw is his tag-team partner.
The Hogs might not be the team that will win the Western Division of the Southeast Conference in 2016, but they will be a squad that nobody wants to tango with.
SEC Championship Game: LSU vs. Tennessee
Conference Champion: LSU
Coach of the Year: Butch Jones-Tennessee
Offensive Player of the Year: Leonard Fournette-Running Back-LSU
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylen Reeves-Maybin-Outside Linebacker-Tennessee
Sources: Nationalchamps.net, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com
Missouri Tigers 11-2 (7-2)
In a shock to most people the Missouri Tigers have been a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference. Missouri joined the SEC in 2012 and the last two years have seen them win the Eastern Division. In 2015, the Tigers will have a great opportunity to get back to Atlanta, Georgia for the SEC Championship Game for a third straight year under head football coach Gary Pinkel.
Junior quarterback Maty Mauk could be the best starting quarterback in the SEC East this year. Mauk has been starting for Mizzou since 2013 and his experience will be big this year. Pinkel preaches balance on offense which means that senior tailback Russell Hansbrough will be an important member of the Tigers offense; especially since Missouri has four senior starters returning on their offensive line.
Defense is where the Tigers bread has been buttered in the past few years as Pinkel has recently sent his fair share of defenders to the National Football League and he has some more talent coming down the pike this year as well. Junior linebacker Michael Scherer has the potential to be the SEC Defensive Player of the Year along with hearing his name called early in the 2016 NFL Draft. But first Scherer will look to be the anchor on a Missouri defense in 2015 that could be very relentless.
The Tigers have a very winnable schedule with their October 17 road game against the Georgia Bulldogs setting up to be the only potential hurdle that they could have in winning the SEC East for a third consecutive year.
Georgia Bulldogs 9-3 (6-2)
The last four years have seen the Georgia Bulldogs win 40 games, but they’ve been unable to win the Southeastern Conference and in the past two years they’ve been unable to even win the SEC East.
For Georgia head football Mark Richt, his team returns six offensive starters, and he’ll have a new offensive coordinator as well. Former University of Florida quarterback Brian Schottenheimer has previously worked in the National Football League as an offensive coordinator for the New York Jets and the St. Louis Rams. Now Schottenheimer is returning to the college game where he will look to help a Georgia offense that will have its third different starting quarterback in as many years. Sophomore quarterback Brice Ramsey only attempted 39 passes last year, but now he’ll be the man in Schottenheimer’s offense. In the past few years, Georgia has become a pipeline for running backs. As a freshman, running back Nick Chubb rushed for 1,547 yards in 2014 and there is the possibility that he could flirt with the 2,000-yard mark this season.
In his first year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator, Jeremy Pruitt was able to lead the Dawgs to the 17th ranked defense in the nation for 2014. And led by senior cornerback Devin Bowman, Georgia has all four starters returning in their secondary as they look to play the pass and make opposing offenses one dimensional.
By the end of September, the Bulldogs would have played two conference games and they’ll be preparing to host the tough Alabama Crimson Tide on October 3. But Georgia’s chances to win the SEC East for the first time since 2012 will come down to their contest on October 17 when they host the Missouri Tigers who have been a thorn in the side of the Dawgs since joining the SEC.
It hasn’t taken that long for Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Butch Jones to make believers of the folks in the Smoky Mountains. 2014 was Jones’ second year at Tennessee and he led them to their first bowl appearance since 2010 along with the school’s first winning season since 2009. And now Jones and Tennessee are looking to take that next step in 2015. The Volunteers had their fair share of ups and downs in 2014, but they are hopeful that this is behind them as they return all 11 starters on offense and eight starters on defense.
Jones and first-year Tennessee offensive coordinator Mike DeBord are hopeful that junior quarterback Joshua Dobbs is ready to take his game to the next level as he plays behind an offensive line that has three seniors including left tackle Kyler Kerbyson. And the Volunteers will look to have an opportunistic defense that will be led by sophomore defensive end Derek Barnett.
The Volunteers have a chance on September 12 to get back onto the national stage when they host the Oklahoma Sooners out of the Big 12 Conference. But Tennessee’s real test will come as they look to finish with a winning record in the Southeastern Conference for the first time since 2007.
Florida Gators 7-5 (4-4)
Some college football programs would be happy to have a 7-5 record, but that isn’t how things are run in Gainesville for the Florida Gators. The Gators went 7-5 last season, but it wasn’t enough for Will Muschamp to save his job as the head football coach at Florida. Florida athletic director Jeremy Foley replaced Muschamp with Jim McElwain. McElwain comes to Florida after compiling a 22-16 record in three seasons as the head football coach of the Colorado State Rams. And in each season with Colorado State, McElwain’s win total increased. McElwain has a sharp mind for offensive football which is something that the Gators need as they were 96th in the nation last season in total offense and that is something that the blue and orange is unaccustomed to. The Gators do return six starters on offense, but McElwain has his work cut out for him.
Sophomore Treon Harris appears to be the favorite to be Florida’s starting quarterback, but he is more of a dual-threat as McElwain will be transitioning to an offensive system that’ll rely on more of a pocket passer. And although Muschamp is no longer in Gainesville, the Gators should still have a solid defense as they’ll be led by junior cornerback Vernon Hargreaves.
Beginning on September 26, the Gators will begin a brutal five-game stretch that will see them take on the Tennessee Volunteers, Ole Miss Rebels, Missouri Tigers, LSU Tigers, and Georgia Bulldogs as McElwain gets indoctrinated as a head football coach in the Southeastern Conference.
South Carolina Gamecocks 6-6 (3-5)
After three consecutive 11-win seasons, the South Carolina Gamecocks took a step backwards in 2014. The biggest problem with South Carolina was that they were unable to stop opponents as they had seven games in which they surrendered at least 30 points and in those contests they were 2-5. Now for 2015, South Carolina head football coach Steve Spurrier is going with co-defensive coordinators this season in the form of Shawn Elliot and Lorenzo Ward in order to spice things up for the Gamecocks. The Gamecocks do return seven starters on defense as they look to change things from last season. Junior defensive lineman Gerald Dixon will look to be an anchor in the trenches while led by senior strong safety T.J. Gurley, South Carolina returns all four starters in a secondary that could have a few All-Southeastern Conference performers.
But for Spurrier, his bread has always been buttered on the offensive side of the football where he built his reputation as “The Ol’ Ball Coach”. The Gamecocks will have their third different starting quarterback in as many years with Connor Mitch expected to begin this season under center in Columbia. However an experienced wide receiver such as Pharoh Cooper can help Mitch get his feet wet in the South Carolina offense.
South Carolina might face the toughest schedule in the SEC this year due to the fact that there aren’t that many soft spots for them as Spurrier looks to for unprecedented an eighth straight bowl game with the Gamecocks.
Kentucky Wildcats 4-8 (1-7)
Kentucky Wildcats are set to embark on their 100th season and unfortunately for football in the Commonwealth State, it cannot hold a candle to the rich basketball tradition there. The Wildcats all-time record on the gridiron is 462-530-36 and they have not been to a bowl game since 2010. The Wildcats are also one of four schools in the Southeastern Conference to never participate in the conference title game. And for Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops, he is hopeful that he can get his team over the hump this year in order to become bowl eligible.
Last year Kentucky began the season with a record of 5-1, but in the second half of the year when the schedule got tougher, they were never able to keep up. This season the onus for the Wildcats will be on junior quarterback Patrick Towles who has the size along with all of the physical tools to be a solid quarterback in the SEC.
This year will be more difficult for Kentucky to get off to a fast start as three of their first four games are within the conference as they’ll meet the South Carolina Gamecocks, Florida Gators, and Missouri Tigers whom they’ve been looking up at in the SEC East.
Vanderbilt Commodores 3-9 (0-8)
Once head football coach James Franklin left the Vanderbilt Commodores football program to take over at Penn State University, you knew that things would take a step backwards in Nashville, but nobody expected it to get so bad, so fast. After consecutive 9-win seasons in 2012 and 2013, Vanderbilt would go on to lose 9 games last year under head football coach Derek Mason. As Mason is heading into his second season at Vandy, he must find a way for his squad to be more competitive as they lost six games last year by 24 points or more. And unfortunately for Mason and the Commodores, the Southeastern Conference will swallow you up whole if you’re trying to find your groove and are unable to keep up.
The best thing for Vanderbilt to attempt to do is try to win early in order for them to gain some confidence for themselves.
Auburn Tigers 10-3 (6-3)
For some of those who are looking on from the outside in and don’t possess a sharp football eye, they will look at the 8-5 record of the Auburn Tigers in 2014 and feel that it was a down year for them. But Auburn’s record was merely indicative of how tough it is to win in the Southeastern Conference; more importantly in the SEC West. Auburn was 12-2 in 2013 during their first year under head football coach Gus Malzahn, but they got every opponent’s A+ game last season. And Malzahn and his Tigers are ready to rebound on the plains.
Auburn was 66th in the nation last year in total defense, but you can bet the farm that they’ll improve this season. After being dismissed as the head football coach at the University of Florida, Will Muschamp is returning to Auburn as their defensive coordinator. From 2006-2007, Muschamp was the defensive coordinator at Auburn and he can coach defense in his sleep with his attacking style that consistently sends players to the National Football League. Muschamp will have something to work with at Auburn as they are set to return eight defensive starters from last year’s squad that will be much more physical this year with senior middle linebacker Cassanova McKinzy expected to have a big impact as the leader on that side of the football.
Malzahn’s uptempo offense will have a new starting quarterback in junior Jeremy Johnson. Johnson saw limited action last year, but he should ready to fully grasp the offense for Auburn.
Auburn will have some tough road games in the SEC as they’ll travel to take on the LSU Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies, and Arkansas Razorbacks. But the Tigers will host the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Ole Miss Rebels, and Georgia Bulldogs before their regular season finale at Jordan-Hare Stadium versus the Alabama Crimson Tide which will more than likely decide the winner of the SEC West.
Alabama Crimson Tide 10-2 (6-2)
It’s hard to imagine the Alabama Crimson Tide not being one of the top teams in the Southeastern Conference. Nick Saban is set to begin his ninth season at Alabama where he has compiled a record of 86-17. And in the past four years under Saban, ‘Bama has finished no lower than second in the SEC West.
But as Alabama looks to keep that string of success going in the SEC, they’ll be a little “green” on offense. The Tide only have three starters offensively that are returning from last year’s squad. Senior quarterback Jacob Coker will have the spotlight thrust upon him in offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s system, but he does have all of the tools necessary to succeed as the defense might have to carry Alabama early as Coker gets his feet wet.
Alabama’s road slate in the Southeastern Conference won’t be an easy one with games against the Georgia Bulldogs, Mississippi State Bulldogs, Texas A&M Aggies, and Auburn Tigers. But Saban is a grizzled head coach that will have his team ready for all that the SEC has to offer in 2015.
LSU Tigers 10-2 (6-2)
The Louisiana State Tigers enter the 2015 college football season looking to bounce back. In 2014, the Tigers lost four conference games for the first time since 2008 and with head football coach Les Miles leading the way, LSU is looking to get back into the discussion as far as winning the Southeastern Conference.
Make no mistake about it that Miles is a blue-collar head coach that loves to run the football right down the throat of an opponent. The Tigers were 25th in the nation last season in rushing and you can expect another healthy dose of the ground game in Baton Rogue. As a true freshman in 2014, running back Leonard Fournette lived up to the hype as he ran for over 1,000 yards and this season he is looking to build off of that while attempting to be the feature back for Miles.
As good as the running game can be for the Tigers, they will still need more from the passing game in order to balance things out. Junior quarterback Anthony Jennings is not going to consistently scare teams with his passing ability, but he still needs to be efficient; especially with a speedster at wide receiver in junior Travin Dural.
Things will be a little different for LSU this year defensively. Defensive coordinator John Chavis has moved on to take the same position with Texas A&M and former Alabama linebackers coach Kevin Steele will replace him. Led by junior middle linebacker Kendall Beckwith and senior free safety Jalen Mills, the Bayou Bengals still have plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball as they will be using this season as an audition for the National Football League.
As always to win on the road in the SEC isn’t easy for LSU, and in 2015, that means road games against the Mississippi State Bulldogs, South Carolina Gamecocks, and the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Arkansas Razorbacks 9-3 (5-3)
Arkansas Razorbacks head football coach Bret Bielema has turned things around in a rather short time in Fayetteville and thus the expectations for the Hogs in 2015 have increased. The Razorbacks went 7-6 last season with four of those losses coming by seven points or less. But as close as Bielema’s team was in 2014 to more success, they might be ready for break down the door and really make a name for themselves in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference in 2015.
The Hogs will live up to their name as it all about the rushing game for Arkansas. Senior running back Jonathan Williams and junior running back Alex Collins each gained more than 1,000 yards of the ground in 2014 and you can expect more of the same in 2015. Collins and Williams will run behind an offensive line at Arkansas that has four starters returning from last year while senior quarterback Brandon Allen can be an effective game manager for Bielema.
Led by junior nose guard Taiwan Johnson, the Razorbacks have plenty of beef on the defensive line as they’ll be one of the most physical teams that the SEC has to offer.
Arkansas won’t begin this year on the road versus a Southeastern Conference opponent like they did last year when they faced the Auburn Tigers as they will need a quick start in September to get them ready for October when they’ll face the Tennessee Volunteers and Alabama Crimson Tide is consecutive road tilts.
Mississippi State Bulldogs 7-5 (3-5)
One of the biggest surprises during the 2014 college football season was the Mississippi State Bulldogs. Mississippi State won their first nine games last season en route to their first 10-win season since 1999. But as the Bulldogs were able to sneak up on teams in the Southeastern Conference last year, it will be tougher for them this time around being that their opponents know what to expect.
Senior quarterback Dak Prescott is the offense at Mississippi State and for head football coach Dan Mullen, he’ll be ready to serve the opponents of the the Bulldogs another healthy dose of him. Prescott is a better passer than some people will give him credit for as his ability to run along with that off senior running back Josh Robinson can lull defenses to sleep as far as not thinking about the pass which is a viable threat.
Mississippi State was 86th in the nation last year in total defense and with only three starters returning on that side of the ball, they’ll have their work cut out for them in the SEC.
Last year Mississippi State enjoyed most of their big games in the comfort of Starkville, but this time around the road in the SEC could be frightful with road games the Auburn Tigers, Texas A&M Aggies, Missouri Tigers, and a home affair against the Alabama Crimson Tide.
Ole Miss Rebels 7-5 ( 3-5)
Although 2014 ended with a thud for the Mississippi Rebels, they still have high hopes for this year. Ole Miss began that season last year by winning their first seven games, but as the competition got stronger, they were unable to keep up as they went 2-4. And for Ole Miss head football coach Hugh Freeze, he is hopeful that his team won’t take a step back in 2015.
In order for Ole Miss to keep their heads above water this year in the Southeastern Conference, they’ll need a big season from junior wide receiver Laquon Treadwell. Treadwell was having a good 2014 campaign until he suffered a leg injury against the Auburn Tigers. But if Treadwell is healthy this year, he could be an All-SEC performer.
Two of the Rebels first three conference games this year are on the road against the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Florida Gators as they’re going to find out that re-tooling in the SEC is no easy task.
Texas A&M Aggies 7-5 (3-5)
Unfortunately for Texas A&M Aggies head football coach Kevin Sumlin, he won immediately and he raised the bar for himself and his program. In 2012, the Aggies won 11 games in their first year in the Southeastern Conference. But since then A&M’s win total has decreased due to the fact that their defense has been unable to stop opponents. Last year Texas A&M was 104th in the nation in total defense, but they are hopeful that things will change in College Station this fall.
John Chavis spent the last six years as the defensive coordinator at LSU where he sent his fair share of players to the National Football League. While at LSU, Chavis recruited many of his players from the State of Texas which is a pipeline for A&M. Chavis is hopeful to have something to work with in his first season with the Aggies as eight defensive starters from last year’s team are returning.
Led by sophomore quarterback Kyle Allen, Texas A&M offense should be must see TV in the SEC as they can light up a scoreboard and give the folks at the renovated Kyle Field in College Station plenty to cheer about.
A&M could sneak up on some teams this year in the SEC as the Mississippi State Bulldogs, Alabama Crimson Tide, South Carolina Gamecocks, and Auburn Tigers all travel to Kyle Field this season which is a venue that can play horror on an opponent.
SEC Championship Game: Missouri vs. Auburn
Conference Champion: Missouri
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Nationalchamps.net