Will Quarterback Baker Mayfield be able to help the Oklahoma Sooners get back on tract versus the Texas Longhorns?
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?
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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)
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.
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)
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)
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.
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?
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
Y-New Year’s Six
Sources: Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com, Cfbstats.com
College Football Playoff
Fiesta Bowl: Ohio State vs. Oklahoma
This will mark the second time that these two clubs meet this season, and it should be a dandy.
Peach Bowl: LSU vs. Miami
It’s a new team and a new conference for Mark Richt, but he’ll still struggle against LSU.
National Championship Game-Raymond James Stadium-Tampa, Florida
LSU vs. Oklahoma
A year after nearly losing his job at LSU, Les Miles is once again king of the mountain.
National Champion: LSU
Orange Bowl: Boise State vs. Clemson
Clemson is definitely worthy of getting back to the College Football Playoff, but making the Orange Bowl isn’t a bad consolation prize.
Cotton Bowl: Tennessee vs. Notre Dame
A trip to the Cotton Bowl will climax the end of a great season for two programs that are on the upswing.
Rose Bowl: UCLA vs. Michigan
It hasn’t taken Jim Mora and Jim Harbaugh that long to get their respective programs back on the national scene.
Sugar: Alabama vs. Oklahoma State
Will a consecutive trip to the Sugar Bowl bring a different outcome for Oklahoma State after they were blown out by Ole Miss this past January?
New Mexico Bowl: Marshall vs. San Diego State
There will be plenty of offense on display at the New Mexico Bowl between Marshall and San Diego State.
Las Vegas Bowl: Air Force vs. Arizona
The triple-option attack of Air Force versus the spread offense of Arizona will lead to an intriguing contest.
Cure Bowl: East Carolina vs. Georgia State
Georgia State and their powerful running game don’t get enough respect around the nation, but they could get some here.
Camellia Bowl: Toledo vs. Troy
This could be a sleeper matchup during bowl season.
New Orleans Bowl: Georgia Southern vs. Southern Mississippi
Georgia Southern will arrive on Bourbon Street with an attitude to run the football.
Miami Beach Bowl: Tulsa vs. Northern Illinois
Tulsa quarterback Dane Evans can use this game as a chance to fine tune his resume as he’ll be one of the first quarterbacks selected in next year’s National Football League Draft.
Boca Raton Bowl: Connecticut vs Middle Tennessee
Bob Diaco is building his program at Connecticut and a bowl appearance would be rewarding to him and his players.
Poinsettia Bowl: Nevada vs. BYU
Although that Bronco Mendehall is no longer coaching at BYU, this program still has what it takes to make a bowl game.
Idaho Potato Bowl: Ohio vs. Colorado State
It’s a battle of teams that wear green on the “smurf turf” of Boise, Idaho.
Bahamas Bowl: Memphis vs. Western Kentucky
The explosiveness of Western Kentucky’s offense is no longer a secret.
Armed Forces Bowl: Navy vs. Texas Tech
The triple-option attack of Navy against the pass happy offense of Texas Tech should make for an intriguing contest in Fort Worth, Texas.
GoDaddy Bowl: Appalachian State vs Western Michigan
After a strong season at Western Michigan, this could be the last game there for head football coach P.J. Fleck who could be ready to take over a bigger program.
Hawaii Bowl: Stanford vs. UNLV
It’s not the Rose Bowl that we’re accustomed to seeing Stanford in, but they will gladly take a trip to Honolulu after a down year.
St. Petersburg Bowl: Cincinnati vs. Bowling Green
The scoreboard operator at Tropicana Field will be busy as both of these offenses can score with the best of them.
Quick Lane Bowl: Indiana vs. Duke
Indiana versus Duke is no longer simply reserved for the hardwood anymore.
Independence Bowl: Missouri vs. Virginia Tech
For a pair of first year head coaches in Justin Fuente (Virginia Tech) and Barry Odom (Missouri), a bowl victory can do wonders for their respective programs.
Heart of Dallas Bowl: Louisiana Tech vs. Minnesota
Louisiana Tech won’t be intimidated by playing a team from a power conference.
Military Bowl: North Carolina State vs. Temple
After a strong season it will be interesting to see if Temple will show up for this one.
Holiday Bowl: Penn State vs. Washington
This will be a contest of teams that are on the verge of breaking through in their respective conferences.
Cactus Bowl: Kansas State vs. Utah
There will be plenty of physicality on the field with two teams that are among the toughest in their respective conferences.
Pinstripe Bowl: Georgia Tech vs. Wisconsin
The Ramblin’ Wreck makes its way up I-95 to the House that Jeter built.
Russell Athletic Bowl: West Virginia vs. Florida State
This contest is New Year’s Day worthy, but we’ll get it in late December.
Foster Farms Bowl: Nebraska vs. Washington State
Will Nebraska make it consecutive wins at Santa Clara in this game?
Texas Bowl: TCU vs. Texas A&M
Watching TCU and Texas A&M meet on the gridiron will bring back memories when these two schools called the Southwest Conference home; and it doesn’t hurt that the game will take place in Houston.
Birmingham Bowl: Houston vs. Kentucky
This could be Houston’s final audition before joining the Big 12.
Belk Bowl: Mississippi State vs. North Carolina
Mississippi State will have their hands full as this will be a de facto home game for North Carolina in Charlotte.
Alamo Bowl: Texas vs. Oregon
A bowl victory for Texas could be the springboard that they need to get back on the national scene.
Liberty Bowl: Baylor vs. Arkansas
After a tough year for both Baylor and Arkansas, they’ll both be happy to have the chance to finish on a positive note.
Sun Bowl: Louisville vs. USC
Louisville will be happy to travel to El Paso, but will it be the same for the Men of Troy?
Arizona Bowl: New Mexico vs. South Florida
Very quietly Bob Davie has done a good a developing a respectable program at New Mexico.
Music City Bowl: Auburn vs. Pittsburgh
Will a trip to Nashville signal the end of Gus Malzahn’s run at Auburn?
Citrus Bowl: Georgia vs. Iowa
This will culminate the end of a solid first year at Georgia for Kirby Smart as he gets his squad to a New Year’s Day bowl game.
TaxSlayer Bowl: Ole Miss vs. Northwestern
Hugh Freeze is accomplishing one of his goals as Ole Miss is consistently playing on or around New Year’s Day.
Outback Bowl: Michigan State vs. Florida
After struggles by both teams, they will be thankful to get it on in Tampa on New Year’s Day.
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