Will Quarterback Baker Mayfield be able to help the Oklahoma Sooners get back on tract versus the Texas Longhorns?
When Butch Jones became the head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers in 2013, he vowed to return the program back to respectability. And by 2014, Jones had the Volunteers back in a bowl game. Each of the last two years saw the Vols go 9-4 with 2016 marking the first time since 2004 that they were able to defeat the Florida Gators and Georgia Bulldogs in the same year. But as good as 2016 was for Tennessee was which included comeback wins over Florida and Georgia, they still managed to underachieve.
The Volunteers were expected to advance to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game which was only magnified after they defeated Florida and Georgia. However Tennessee would fail to win the SEC East as they lost four conference games which included losing to their in-state rival in the Vanderbilt Commodores. Tennessee would rebound to win their third consecutive bowl game, but there appeared to be something that was missing for Jones and his program. And that trip to the SEC Championship Game appears that is won’t be happening in 2017 either.
After five games Tennessee’s record is 3-2 and it actually could be worse. Only a failed two-point conversion by the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in the Volunteers opener prevented them from beginning the season at 0-1. Tennessee would lose their first Southeastern Conference game as they lost on a Hail Mary to Florida. The Volunteers would then have to sweat it out at home on September 23 versus the Massachusetts Minutemen who have yet to win a game in 2017, but that only paled in comparison as to what happened yesterday.
Tennessee was seeking to win their third straight game versus Georgia, but they got more than they bargained for. The Vols were embarrassed as the hands of the Bulldogs as they lost at home 41-0.In the contest Tennessee was only able to muster one first down as they were dominated in each phase of the game.
At halftime the Vols were down 24-0 and they were booed off of the field at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville. The second half would not prove to be any better for Tennessee as the Dawgs continued to pile it on with 17 second half points. For the game Tennessee was limited to just 142 yards of total offense, while they allowed Georgia’s running game to produce 294 yards on the ground versus them.
This marked the first time since 1994 that Tennessee was shutout at home and this marks the ninth time in the last ten years that they will begin 0-2 in the Southeastern Conference. And with Georgia looking like world beaters beaters so far in 2017, while Tennessee still struggles against Florida, the folks in Knoxville need not make any plans to visit Atlanta in early December for the SEC Championship Game as they have not won the SEC East since 2007.
Jones is earning more than $4 million this year and the folks in Tennessee are not thrilled to see their Volunteers consistently taking a backseat to Florida and Georgia, while they’ve also been unable to defeat the Alabama Crimson Tide in their last ten meetings.
Jones was supposed to be the guy who was going to return Tennessee to what the program was in the 1990’s when they were a national title contender, but instead the folks in Knoxville have been relegated to being happy if the Vols are able to get past Vanderbilt. Tennessee has been able to send its fair share of players to the National Football League over the years which includes quarterback Peyton Manning and tight end Jason Witten as that has helped Jones in recruiting being that he has several highly ranked recruiting classes under his belt at Tennessee. However Jones has failed in regards to developing those players which is why the Vols have been unable to keep with the likes of Florida, Alabama, and Georgia in the Southeastern Conference. Jones has once again made Tennessee respectable, but they still have plenty of work ahead of them if they are going to be able to win the SEC East which is not a strong division.
There are going to be those people who would like to see Tennessee move on from Jones as he is 33-23 which includes on being 14-20 in the Southeastern Conference. And with it being a long shot to get to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game this year, will the Volunteers find a way to be respectable for the remainder of 2017?
Tennessee is off next week before they host the South Carolina Gamecocks on October 14. Tennessee will then travel to face the Crimson Tide who are the top ranked team in the Associated Press Poll, and as of right now that game has the makings of producing an outcome similar to what we saw yesterday from Tennessee against Georgia. And if that is the case, the fate of Jones might be sealed. The folks in Knoxville still consider Tennessee to be a coaching job due to the fact that their facilities are second-to-none, but is this still a top-tier job?
It will be a miracle for Tennessee to finish the regular season at 8-4 which may not be enough for Jones to save his job as a beat down by Alabama appears to be on the docket. The Volunteers program still has their work cut out for them in order to consistently compete with the top teams in the Southeastern Conference, and Jones may not be the guy to get it done.
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
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
The 2016 college football season saw the Alabama Crimson Tide fall just short of winning their second consecutive national championship, but don’t expect this team to be falling off of the map anytime soon. The Tide must replace seven starters from a defense that was the top ranked unit in the nation as they only allowed 13 points per game. But when you have a head football coach like Alabama does in Nick Saban who has a pipeline to the National Football League, there are always plenty of reinforcements that are waiting in the wings looking to make a name for themselves.
The Crimson Tide defense had 16 interceptions last year with 6 of them going to the house. Junior defensive back Minkah Fitzpatrick led the team in 2016 with 6 interceptions and you can expect to hear his name in the conversation as far as winning the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back.
After an up and down marriage between Saban and former Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin who is now the head football coach of the Florida Atlantic Owls, another former USC Trojans head football coach in Steve Sarkisian appeared ready to call the offensive plays for Saban at Alabama. However after calling the offensive plays for Alabama during their national championship game loss to the Clemson Tigers, Sarkisian jumped at the chance to become offensive coordinator for the Atlanta Falcons in the National Football League.
Saban will seek to have some stability at the offensive coordinator position as he has pegged Brian Daboll to call plays for the Crimson Tide this season. Daboll has spent the last three years as the tight ends coach for the New England Patriots, and after learning from one of the all-time head coaches in the National Football League in Bill Belichick, he now has an opportunity to learn from one of the best in college football history in Saban while he’ll call plays on offense for the Crimson Tide.
Daboll will have the opportunity to work with a quarterback who is built like a running back in sophomore Jalen Hurts. At this point of Hurts’ career, he is more dangerous with his legs than he is with his arm, but if he is able to get some consistency from the offensive coordinator, he could be one of the better quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
The injury to running back Bo Scarbrough changed the dynamics of the national championship game for Alabama as Clemson never had an answer for him. Last year Scarbrough averaged 6.5 yards per carry as he was only a part-time ball carrier. And at 6’2″, 235 lbs., Scarbrough is a big physical running back in the form of former Alabama running back Derrick Henry. Scarbrough will once again split carries coming out of the Alabama backfield with junior running back Damien Harris as they’ll give the Crimson Tide a thunder and lightning tandem in Tuscaloosa.
Under Saban, the Tide have been the best team in college football in regards to playing in big games and they’ll get another one to start the season when the take on the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Crimson Tide will get the LSU Tigers at home, while they’ll be on the road to meet the Auburn Tigers as these two games will go a long way in deciding whether or not that ‘Bama will be able to play for the national title for a third consecutive year.
2. Florida State Seminoles
The 2016 college football season saw the Florida State Seminoles have a very quiet 10-3 campaign as they lost three games within the Atlantic Coast Conference. But the Seminoles still managed to win the Orange Bowl while finishing ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the seventh consecutive year. In seven years as the head football coach at Florida State, Jimbo Fisher has compiled a record of 78-17 along with a national championship. And here in 2017 he once again has a team that will be in national title contention.
For nearly four decades the Florida State program has been a pipeline to the National Football League and this year is no different as they lost running back Dalvin Cook to the pro game. But this is another one of those programs that doesn’t rebuild as they instead opt to reload.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Deondre Francois was unfazed as he started the entire season for Fisher. And after Francois was able to be named as the Atlantic Coast Conference’s Freshman of the Year, which included him throwing 20 touchdowns, he should be more comfortable this season.
The ‘Noles will miss the contributions of Cook, but they have another power back in sophomore Jacques Patrick. Like Cook, Patrick is a big and physical runner who also possesses speed. I still anticipate Fisher using a heavy dose of the running game which should allow Francois to be efficient via play action passing.
However the offensive line could be an issue early on for Florida State as they will employ a pair of redshirt freshmen, along with a sophomore in the starting lineup. But as the season progresses I do see this unit being able to solidify.
Last year saw defensive end DeMarcus Walker lead the Seminoles in sacks with 16. And although that Walker is now in the National Football League, don’t expect Florida State’s pass rush to fall off. Sophomore defensive end Brian Burns and junior defensive end Josh Sweat are arguably the best combo of bookend pass rushers in the nation. And good luck to opposing offenses that want to game plan on slowing down one player as the other can quickly be in an opponent’s backfield wreaking havoc.
After snagging 8 interceptions last year, junior cornerback Tarvarus McAFadden will head into this season as one of the favorites to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back. I don’t see McFadden being able to tally as many interceptions this year due to the fact that opposing offenses will be more conscious of testing him.
Florida State begins their season by meeting the Alabama Crimson Tide in Atlanta on September 2, and it would not surprise me to see them meet again in the College Football Playoff as outside of hosting the Louisville Cardinals on October 21, the Seminoles should be able to dominate the Atlantic Coast Conference.
3. Penn State Nittany Lions
The 2016 college football season was a clear indication that the Penn State Nittany Lions are back. The Nittany Lions were able to navigate through the very tough Eastern Division of the Big Ten Conference to take home the conference crown. Penn State would go on to represent the Big Ten in the Rose Bowl where they put on a show before falling to the USC Trojans. But now the huge test for Penn State head football coach James Franklin will be that his squad is no longer able to sneak up on anyone.
However the Nittany Lions still have one of the better backfield tandems in the nation. At times junior quarterback Trace McSorley can look like Elroy “Crazy Legs” Hirsch in the pocket, but he knows a thing or two about improvising in order to keep a play going. Junior running back Saquon Barkley is coming off of a season where he rushed for 1,496 yards and scored 18 touchdowns on the ground. At 5’11”, 233 lbs., Barkley is a load as his thick lower body allows him to easily shed tacklers.
And whereas Barkley should get some consideration in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy, senior tight end Mike Gesecki could be in line for the John Mackey Award as the nation’s top tight end. Gesecki is extremely versatile as he can also be used as an H-back, while his 6’6″ frame is always an advantage for Penn State in the red zone.
Defensively the Nittany Lions had a bend but don’t break style on defense last year, however with six seniors projected to be in their starting lineup which includes middle linebacker Jason Cabinda, the Lions should once again be a very tough team.
With road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes, Ohio State Buckeyes, and Michigan State Spartans, it will be tough for Penn State to repeat as Big Ten Champs, but it is not out of the question to see them in a New Year’s Six bowl game.
4. USC Trojans
If you were to eliminate the first month of the 2016 college football season, then you would have seen the USC Trojans in the College Football Playoff. The Trojans began with a record of 1-3 before they reeled off nine consecutive victories to end the season which included getting the best of the Penn State Nittany Lions in the Rose Bowl.
USC’s turnaround began when head football coach Clay Helton inserted quarterback Sam Darnold into the starting lineup. After Darnold lost his first start, he was locked in as he completed more than 67% of his passes. Darnold became the leader the USC needed at quarterback, and now he has people considering him to win the Heisman Trophy this season.
As good as Darnold is, you cannot think about the USC offense and not think about “student body right”. The Trojans will have one of the best running games in the Pac-12 Conference with the speedster in junior running back Ronald Jones II leading the charge. Jones will be rushing behind an experienced offensive line that includes senior center Nico Falah.
Junior middle linebacker Cameron Smith has the potential to be the next great USC linebacker, while junior cornerback Iman Marshall could use this season to pad his National Football League resume.
The Trojans will be the team to beat in the Pac-12 this year, and after they got to the Rose Bowl last season, a trip there this time around would signal that the Men of Troy are in the College Football Playoff as Pasadena will play host to one of the national semifinals.
5. Ohio State Buckeyes
Although that the 2016 college football season didn’t end on a positive note for the Ohio State Buckeyes, this team will be right back in the mix for 2017. The Buckeyes entered the College Football Playoff in spite of not winning the Big Ten Conference and they got smoked by the Clemson Tigers in the Fiesta Bowl. But at Ohio State, head football coach Urban Meyer doesn’t rebuild as he merely reloads, and thus the Buckeyes will once again be in the mix to win it all.
The Buckeyes were 12th in the nation last year in rushing and they’ll enter with two of the best athletes in the country in their backfield. Senior quarterback J.T. Barrett is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the Big Ten Conference, and his athletic ability will keep him in the mix as far as the Heisman Trophy conversation goes. Aside from Barrett, the Buckeyes have a dynamic running back in sophomore Mike Weber who will put a ton of pressure on the defenses in the Big Ten.
Barrett and Weber have the privilege of being protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from 2016 which includes senior offensive tackle Jemarco Jones who could be the anchor of the unit.
The Buckeyes must replace a ton of talent from a defense which was ranked sixth in the nation in total defense last season, but the return of sophomore defensive end Nick Bosa is a huge positive.
Ohio State will once again be one of the top teams in the Big Ten Conference and if they are able to survive a pair of November road games against the Iowa Hawkeyes and Michigan Wolverines respectively, they could be heading to the College Football Playoff for a second consecutive year.
6. Washington Huskies
It hasn’t taken the Washington Huskies that long to once again become a power under head football coach Chris Petersen. It took Petersen just three years at Washington to lead the Huskies to their first Pac-12 Championship since 2000, and under his watch they don’t appear ready to fade.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Jake Browning lit up the Pac-12 Conference to the tune of 3,430 passing yards and 43 touchdowns. Browning is also one of the more accurate quarterbacks in the Pac-12 and another strong season on his part will definitely draw the eyes of scouts from the National Football League.
Along with Browning, junior running back Myles Gaskin will also receive some serious consideration from the National Football League. Gaskin has proven himself to be a durable ball carrier as he toted the rock 237 times last season. Peterson will once again give Gaskin every opportunity to be the featured running back for the Huskies as he is the best running back in the Pac-12 Conference.
At first when you think of Peterson, defensive football doesn’t come to mind as his defenses tend to be overshadowed by his high powered offenses. However the Huskies were 12th in the nation in total defense last season and it was a total team effort as it was a unit that didn’t solely rely on stars. But one player to keep an eye on this season defensively for Washington will be sophomore free safety Taylor Rapp who possesses some of the best ball skills of a defensive back in the Pac-12.
On September 23, the Huskies will travel to face the Colorado Buffaloes in a rematch of last year’s Pac-12 Title Game, while a November 10 road affair with the Stanford Cardinal will go a long way in determining if Washington will be able to get back to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
7. Michigan Wolverines
It hasn’t taken head football coach Jim Harbaugh that long to return the Michigan Wolverines to a national power as they’ve gone 10-3 in each of his first two seasons there. And after Michigan barely missed making the College Football Playoff last year, this could be the season in which they make the dubious field of four.
Junior quarterback Wilton Speight could be a dark horse in the race to be the Big Ten Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year as he has continued to progress under Harbaugh. And Michigan will need Speight more than ever since they lost seven starters from last year’s team on offense.
Defensively the Wolverines were ranked second in total defense as only four opponents scored more than 20 points against them. But in that Michigan must replace their top eight tacklers from last season along with their best pass rusher in defensive end Taco Charlton. Harbaugh will be rolling the dice at the start of the upcoming season due to the fact that including defensive end Rashan Gary, there are six freshman scheduled to start this season for the Wolverines.
Michigan begins their season on September 2 at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas versus the Florida Gators of the Southeastern Conference. Michigan has never lost to Florida which included Harbaugh leading the Wolverines to a commanding 41-7 victory in the 2016 Citrus Bowl. The Wolverines will travel to face the Penn State Nittany Lions on October 21, while their regular season will conclude with a road meeting with the Wisconsin Badgers on November 18 before they host the Ohio State Buckeyes on November as these three games within the Big Ten will determine whether or not that the Wolverines will make the College Football Playoff.
8. Louisville Cardinals
Heading into the 2017 college football season, unfinished business will be the motto for the Louisville Cardinals. The Cards began 2016 with a record of 9-1 as they appeared to be on the verge of securing a spot in the College Football Playoff. But unfortunately for the Cardinals, they would not win another game as the final three games saw them lose by a combined 49 points. However hope springs eternal and for Louisville head football coach Bobby Petrino, he once again has a team that is set to contend in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Lamar Jackson was a one-man wrecking crew. Jackson accounted for 5114 and 51 touchdowns en route to becoming the first Louisville player to win the Heisman Trophy. And now as a junior, Jackson will look to do it again even though that defenses around the Atlantic Coast Conference will be gunning to stop him. But led by senior guard Skylar Lacy, the Cardinals will be returning four starters on their offensive line to protect Jackson.
Last year Louisville was 14th in the nation in total defense and under the tutelage of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the Cards have some talented play makers in junior defensive back Jaire Alexander and senior linebacker Stacy Thomas.
If the Cards want to get to the College Football Playoff this year, the games that they must circle on the calendar are on September 16 when they host the Clemson Tigers, October 21 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles, and November 25 when they’ll be on the road to face the Kentucky Wildcats as they went 1-2 versus these teams last season.
9. Auburn Tigers
The Auburn Tigers are coming off of their third consecutive season in which they lost at least five games, but there is some optimism on the plains for War Eagle heading into the 2017 college football season. Three of Auburn’s five losses last year were against conference champions which included the Clemson Tigers and Alabama Crimson Tide who played for the national championship. Gus Malzahn is set to begin his fifth season as the head football coach at Auburn, and although that he has been unable to recapture the success that the Tigers had under him in 2013, his squad could be a sleeper in the Southeastern Conference this year.
In 2015, Jarrett Stidham saw limited action as the starting quarterback for the Baylor Bears. Stidham would transfer to Auburn which forced him to sit out in 2016. Stidham might not be the runner that Malzahn typically incorporates at the quarterback position, but he arguably possesses the best arm for an Auburn quarterback since Cam Newton.
Under Malzahn, Auburn’s strength on offense is rushing the football as they were sixth in the nation in that category last season. Junior running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson are coming off of a season in which they combined for more than 2,100 yards on the ground. Auburn’s running game is the equivalent to fast break basketball and the speed and elusiveness of Pettway as well as Johnson will test the patience along with the endurance of their opponents this year.
It will also help Auburn’s case to be one of the top teams in the nation this season being that they’ll have three seniors on their starting offensive line which included left tackle Darius James.
Kevin Steele is set to begin his second year as Auburn’s defensive coordinator. Auburn doesn’t have a star player on defense coming into this season, but they play fast, aggressive, and physical on that side of the football which always keeps them in a game.
Auburn has a chance to make a statement in their second game of the season when they travel to face Clemson, while they will also have to survive the gauntlet of the Southeastern Conference which includes consecutive road games versus the LSU Tigers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and Texas A&M Aggies.
10. Oklahoma State Cowboys
Three of the last four years have seen the Oklahoma State Cowboys go 10-3, and there is once again some optimism in Stillwater around this team. Mike Gundy is set to begin his thirteenth season as the head football coach at Oklahoma State and his team has the potential to not only win the Big 12 Conference, but to also get a berth into the College Football Playoff.
The past two years have seen quarterback Mason Rudolph have his way with the defenses of the Big 12 to the tune of a combined 7,861 passing yards and 49 touchdown passes. Last season Rudolph was only picked off 4 times, while he completed 63.4% of his passes. And as Rudolph is set to begin his senior campaign, there is definitely be a buzz around him in regards to winning the Heisman Trophy.
Rudolph will be throwing the football to a talented group of wide receivers which is led by senior wide receiver James Washington. Last year Washington tallied 71 receptions for 1,380 yards and 10 touchdowns, and if he is able to come close to that level of production once more, he could take home the Biletnikoff Award as the nation’s top wide receiver.
Under Gundy, the Cowboys have specialized in recruiting speedy, undersized running backs for his uptempo offense. Last year as a freshman, running back Justice Hill ran for 1,142 yards and he averaged 5.5 yards per carry as his ability to run the football is the perfect compliment to the passing ability of Rudolph.
Senior left tackle Aaron Cochran leads an experienced offensive line that could be the best in the Big 12, while he will be charged with protecting Rudolph’s blind side. And this unit is also the key to Oklahoma State potentially averaging 40 points per game this season.
Under Gundy, the Cowboys don’t have a strong reputation in regards to defensive football, but if players such as senior free safety Ramon Richards will be able to hold up their end of the bargain, this unit could be able to do just enough to offset their high powered offense.
With Bob Stoops stepping down at Oklahoma, it has opened the door for the Cowboys to win the Big 12 this year. But Oklahoma State will have a tough road ahead of them which includes away games against the Texas Longhorns and West Virginia Mountaineers, while they’ll get Oklahoma at home this season.
11. Oklahoma Sooners
When Bob Stoops became the head football coach of the Oklahoma Sooners in 1999, he was attempting to make the program respectable once again, but he has done that and then some. The Sooners have gone 190-48 under Stoops and they’ve never had a losing season while also claiming a national championship. After making the College Football Playoff in 2015, Oklahoma was poised to get back there last year. However a pair of non-conference losses to the Houston Cougars and Ohio State Buckeyes would change that. Oklahoma was still able to win the Big 12 Conference and after they knocked off the Auburn Tigers in the Sugar Bowl, it capped off an 11-2 campaign which saw them win their last 10 contests. By January, Oklahoma was one of the hottest teams in college football and Stoops appeared to have another dominant season coming around the bend in Norman.
However things would change on June 7 when Stoops would shock the college football world by deciding to retire. The timing was shocking, but it did not completely hurt Oklahoma as it was during an unofficial “dead period” in college football as the roster and coaching staff was set.
Lincoln Riley spent the last two years as the offensive coordinator at Oklahoma, but now he will be the man who will succeed Stoops at the school. Stoops feels that Riley has been groomed for this position, but only time will tell if he’ll be able to keep the success at Oklahoma going.
After being a finalist for the Heisman Trophy last year, quarterback Baker Mayfield has returned to Oklahoma for his senior year. In two years as Oklahoma’s starting quarterback, Mayfield has thrown 76 touchdowns to only 15 interceptions while he can also make plays happen with his legs.
But after Mayfield, the Sooners will have to replace of talent at the skill position, and once you factor that in with a new head coach in Riley, will Oklahoma’s offense that was second in the nation last season take a step back?
Although that Bob Stoops is no longer running the show at Oklahoma, his brother Mark is set to begin his 11th year as the defensive coordinator in Norman. The Sooners have a reputation of having solid defensive players which has also meant having a pipeline to the National Football League. And one player to watch out for this season is senior outside linebacker Ogbonnia Okoronkwo who will be in the running to be the Big 12 Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
It will be weird to not see Stoops lead the Sooners out onto the field this year, but Riley inherits a team that will still be an elite unit in the Big 12.
12. LSU Tigers
The 2016 college football season was a tough one for LSU Tigers, but after surviving it they are looking to get back on track and returning to being one of the nation’s elite programs. Four games into the season Les Miles was fired as LSU’s head football coach and replaced by defensive line coach Ed Orgeron. Orgeron was only the interim head coach as LSU was seeking to hire then Houston Cougars head football coach Tom Herman. But after it appeared that Herman and LSU had an agreement in place, he decided to take over the Texas Longhorns football program which left LSU in a bind. LSU would ultimately decide to remove the interim tag from Orgeron who had compiled a 6-2 record which included a victory over the Louisville Cardinals in the Citrus Bowl. And now that this is all behind LSU, let’s see what they’ll be able to on the gridiron in 2017.
The past few years have seen the Bayou Bengals have their fair share of issues at the quarterback position, but it appears that Orgeron is ready to stick with senior Danny Etling. Unlike Miles, Orgeron is seeking to open things up more in the passing game which makes Etling their best option. But even with Orgeron seeking open the offense up more in 2017, the Tigers can still get it done on the ground with the best of them.
Coming into the 2016 college football season, all of the talk on offense was around running back Leonard Fournette as he was in the conversation to win the Heisman Trophy. But as injuries slowed Fournette down, it gave running back Derrius Guice the opportunity to shine. Last year as a sophomore, Guice rushed for 1,387 yards and 15 touchdowns which included 252 yards against the Arkansas Razorbacks, and 285 versus the Texas A&M Aggies. And with Fournette now in the National Football League, Guice will be the feature tailback for LSU.
Junior outside linebacker Arden Key is attempting to work his way back from shoulder surgery and he’ll be vital to the success of the Bayou Bengals defense which was tenth in the nation last year in total defense.
LSU will get their season started by taking on the BYU Cougars in Houston, while their Southeastern Conference schedule includes road games against the Florida Gators, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Tennessee Volunteers.
13. Colorado Buffaloes
After a magical run in 2016, the Colorado Buffaloes are seeking to return to being on the national scene in college football. Last year Colorado was able to secure its first bowl appearance since 2007 and their first winning season since 2005. And whereas the Buffs won’t be able to sneak up on anyone this year, will they have enough in their arsenal to reach the College Football Playoff?
Quarterback Steven Montez saw limited action last year for the Buffaloes, but he was responsible for a pair of victories. And now with the graduation of Sefo Liufau, Montez will be the full-time starter for Colorado as he is ready to show what he can do in this his sophomore campaign.
Senior running back Phillip Lindsay is coming off of a season in which he totaled 244 carries. Lindsay proved to be durable for Colorado and if he gets the rock in his hands at least 200 times this year, it should symbolize another solid season for the Buffaloes.
Senior wide receiver Shay Fields is a burner as he is one of the fastest wide receivers in the Pac-12 Conference, while the Buffs will also have an experienced offensive line that includes three seniors which features left tackle Jeromy Irwin.
The Buffaloes will have six seniors starting on defense this year, but the player to keep an eye on will be junior middle linebacker Rick Gamboa who is a solid tackler as well as a leader.
Colorado will begin the season with their annual showdown with the Colorado State Rams in Denver, while their first Pac-12 game will be a rematch of last year’s conference title tilt when they host the Washington Huskies. And on November 11, the Buffaloes will host the USC Trojans in a meeting that could determine who will win the Pac-12 South and ultimately get to Santa Clara for the conference title game.
14. Georgia Bulldogs
Kirby Smart enjoyed a solid first year as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs. Georgia went 8-5 last season which included appearing in their 20th consecutive bowl game. The Bulldogs have been one of the most consistent teams in the nation in regards to winning and that trend should continue in 2017.
Smart turned to a true freshman last year at quarterback in Jacob Eason and he did not disappoint. Eason appeared in all 13 games for the Bulldogs as he threw 16 touchdown passes to 8 interceptions and that experience as a freshman should be very valuable for both he and the Dawgs. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Eason has the size needed for the pros, while he could also be in the running to be the Southeastern Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Running back Nick Chubb had an opportunity to go to the National Football League, but he spurned it for one more year at Georgia. Chubb averaged 5 yards per carry last year as he runs very angry and looks for contact. But Georgia opponents cannot solely focus on slowing down Chubb and he has his tag-team partner in senior running back Sony Michel who is just as explosive as he is with the ball in his hands.
Defensively the Dawgs have a ton of talent returning which includes a pair of junior inside linebackers in Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick as well a senior safety Dominick Sanders who is a game changer in the secondary.
On September 9, the Bulldogs will make a rare venture to South Bend, Indiana to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish. And when Southeastern Conference play begins, the Bulldogs will avoid having to face the Alabama Crimson Tide, but they’ll have road meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and Auburn Tigers as well as their annual showdown in Jacksonville with the Florida Gators.
15. Miami Hurricanes
It’s safe to say that the Miami Hurricanes are back on the track to success under head football coach Mark Richt. In Richt’s first year at Miami, the Hurricanes won 9 games and finished the season ranked for the first time since 2009. In 16 years as a head football coach which included 15 with the Georgia Bulldogs, Richt has taken his team to a bowl game in each season. And after Miami’s strong showing in 2016, it is not out of the realm of possibilities that this team could win the Atlantic Coast Conference Title this season.
The ‘Canes will definitely miss the contributions of quarterback Brad Kaaya who is now in the National Football League as it will now be up to junior quarterback Malik Rosier under center. But whereas Rosier won’t begin the season with a ton of experience to his credit, he’ll be able to rely on junior running back Mark Walton to shoulder the load. Last season Walton rushed for 1,117 and 14 touchdowns and this time around he could be the best ball carrier in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
Last year as a freshman, wide receiver Ahmmon Richards averaged 19.1 yards per reception as he was the go-to-guy for Kaaya. And with a new signal caller in Rosier set to take over, it will be important for he and Richards to get some cohesion heading into the season.
Defensively Miami held eight opponents to 20 points or less last season as they were 20th in the nation in total defense. Manny Diaz is entering his second year as the defensive coordinator for the ‘Canes as he has an attacking unit. Middle linebacker Shaquille Quarterman and defensive end Joseph Jackson became impact players last year as true freshman for the Hurricanes and they could become two of the best defensive players in the Atlantic Coast Conference this year.
Miami has a chance to make a statement on September 16 when they travel to face the Florida State Seminoles who are favored to win the Atlantic Coast Conference. And a conference title run would be just what the doctor ordered for Miami to put them back on the national stage.
16. Stanford Cardinal
Each year the Stanford Cardinal are a team that flies under the radar at the beginning of the college football season, but before you know it they are one of the top teams in the country. In five of the last six years the Cardinal have won at least 10 games which included them going 10-3 last season. And for head football coach David Shaw, his Stanford squad will once again be a force to be reckoned with here in 2017.
Senior quarterback Keller Chryst is in the category of a game manager which is okay at Stanford due to the program’s commitment to the running game. Chryst only threw 10 touchdown passes last season which was due to the fact that he wasn’t asked to throw the football a ton. But heading into Chryst’s senior season he should be more comfortable which means that the Cardinal could have more balance on offense.
The dynamic running back Christian McCaffrey has moved on to the National Football League, but the productivity at tailback will continue at Stanford as the next good back could be junior Bryce Love. Love has spent the past couple of seasons in the shadow of McCaffrey, but he appears ready to emerge which was highlighted by him gaining at least 100 yards on the ground in both of Stanford’s final two games in 2016.
Since 2010, Stanford has built a reputation as far as producing quality offensive linemen, and they should once again have one of the better units in the nation as this year they’ll be led by senior center Jesse Burkett up front.
As the years go by the Cardinal continue to have a defense which is difficult to score on. Led by senior nose tackle Harrison Phillips, Stanford will have eight senior starters on defense. Lance Anderson is entering his fourth year as Stanford’s defensive coordinator and once again he’ll have a unit that doesn’t make too many mistakes, while they also know how to fly around the football as their specialty is gang tackling.
The Cardinal will begin the season in Australia versus the Rice Owls, and after a bye week they will be in Los Angeles to face the USC Trojans who are favored to win the Pac-12 Conference. But in a seven-day span in early November, Stanford will face both the Washington State Cougars and Washington Huskies in two games that will more than likely determine who’ll win the Pac-12 North.
17. South Florida Bulls
2016 saw the South Florida Bulls breakthrough for their best year in program history, and now they must find a way to keep the momentum going. Willie Taggart’s success as South Florida’s head football coach led to him being named as the new coach of the Oregon Ducks last December. But South Florida didn’t cry over spilled milk as they hired Charlie Strong to replace Taggart. South Florida needs the Strong who went 37-15 in four seasons as the head football coach of the Louisville Cardinals, and not the Strong who went 16-21 in the last three years as the head football coach of the Texas Longhorns. But if Strong is on point, the Bulls could be ready to have a solid 2017 campaign.
The Bulls have lost their dynamic running back in Marlon Mack to the National Football League, but they still have senior quarterback Quinton Flowers. Flowers is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation as he totaled 4,342 all-purpose yards last season, and he should be in the running to be the American Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year. And Flowers will be protected by an offensive line that has two seniors in the starting lineup including center Cameron Ruff.
Senior linebacker Auggie Sanchez is one of the leaders on South Florida’s defense as he will tackle anything that moves which makes him one of the best linebackers in the conference, while putting him in the conversation to be the American Athletic Conference’s Defensive Player of the Year.
South Florida will once again be one of the top teams in the American Athletic Conference. And a strong 2017 campaign by the Bulls could put them into the conversation for a New Year’s Six bowl bid.
18. Texas A&M Aggies
In five years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, Kevin Sumlin has compiled a record of 44-21, but his hot seat is rather warm heading into the 2017 college football season. The Aggies have gone 8-5 in each of the last three years, which includes last season’s disappointing 2-5 finish after a 6-0 start. After a strong showing in their initial year in the Southeastern Conference in 2012, A&M has never finished higher than fourth in the SEC West, and Sumlin must find a way to get the most out of his team and then some this year.
One thing that has hurt A&M over the last few years has been their inconsistency at the quarterback position. In the last three years, Texas A&M has used five different quarterbacks and constant change at this position is never a good recipe. Senior quarterback Jake Hubernak started three games for the Aggies last year. But for Hubernak to help A&M succeed, he must find a way to improve his completion percentage which was at 58% last season.
Sophomore running back Trayveon Williams is looking to build off the solid freshman campaign that he had where he had 1,057 yards on the ground. But after Williams was able to rush for 217 yards against the Tennessee Volunteers on October 8, his productivity rapidly declined, and heading into the new season, Sumlin needs him to be able to answer the bell each Saturday.
During Christian Kirk’s time with the Aggies, he has been a dependable wide receiver as he led the team in receptions in each of the last two years. And with this being Kirk’s senior season, you can expect that trend to continue as he looks to polish up his resume for the National Football League scouts.
John Chavis is set to begin his third season as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. Chavis has a veteran laden group which includes six seniors as starters and that experience will be needed in order for the Aggies to navigate life in the Southeastern Conference.
A&M will face one of the toughest schedules in the country which includes road games with the UCLA Bruins, Florida Gators, and LSU Tigers, while they will be welcoming the Alabama Crimson Tide to College Station, Texas. And if the Aggies are unable to take the next step, Sumlin might be forced to pack his bags.
19. Boise State Broncos
The head coaches might change as well as the names that are on the back of the jerseys for the Boise State Broncos, but there is no denying that they possess one of the best programs in college football. In spite of not finishing either of the last two college football seasons ranked in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll, Boise State won a combined 19 games. And even though that the Broncos saw some key talent go the National Football League, they will once again be a force to be reckoned with.
Junior quarterback Brett Rypien tends to get lost in the shuffle being that Boise State is not in a Power Five Conference, but he can play. In the last two years Rypien has thrown 44 touchdown passes to just 16 interceptions. Rypien has a solid arm, while he has completed 62.7% of his passes, and he has the potential to be the Mountain West Conference’s Offensive Player of the Year.
Rypien has one of his top targets in the passing game returning in senior wide receiver Cedrick Wilson who will put pressure on opposing defensive backs in the Mountain West Conference who will cover him. Boise State will miss the contributions of running back Jeremy McNichols who is now in the National Football League as he rushed for 1,709 rushing yards and 23 touchdowns last year, but now it is time for sophomore running back Alexander Mattison to show what he can do. At 5’11”, 206 lbs., Mattison is a burner and he should benefit from running behind an offensive line that has three seniors which includes left tackle Archie Lewis.
The Broncos offense will have to carry the load early on as the defense will be very green after the departures of some key players. But junior defensive end David Moa led Boise State in sacks last year with 8.5 and his presence could once again loom big for the Broncos.
This year’s schedule will be tougher for Boise State head football coach Bryan Harsin and his team. The Broncos will travel to face the Washington State Huskies of the Pac-12 Conference on September 9, while they’ll also have a road date with the BYU Cougars on October 6. Boise will also have road meetings in the Mountain West against the San Diego State Aztecs and Utah State Aggies. However going on the road and getting wins has been a specialty for Boise State for quite some time now.
20. West Virginia Mountaineers
It has taken the West Virginia Mountaineers some time to get acclimated to life in the Big 12 Conference, but they could be ready to re-emerge on the national scene. The Mountaineers went 10-3 last season which matched their best season since 2011 when they were still in the Big East Conference as head football coach Dana Holgorsen has developed one of the best offenses in the nation.
Last year the Mountaineers were 17th in the nation in total offense and they have the potential to be just as good if not better this year. In 2015, Will Grier emerged from a muddled race to become the starting quarterback for the Florida Gators. But as soon as Grier appeared to be guy for Florida, he was suspended for one year by the NCAA due to the fact that he tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Grier would then look for a fresh start which led to him transferring to West Virginia and as his junior year is set to begin, he will find himself in contention to be the Big 12 Newcomer of the Year.
The Mountaineers will have one of the fastest offenses in the Big 12 which includes senior running back Justin Crawford who is coming off of a season in which he averaged 7.3 yards per carry. And if Grier is able to get on the same page with wide receivers such as junior Gary Jennings, West Virginia could be very tough to stop on offense.
The Mountaineers don’t have any players who stand out on defense, but for defensive coordinator Tony Gibson his unit has a “bend, but don’t break” mentality which will allow them to hang around in the Big 12 Title race.
The Mountaineers will have a tough road in front of them in order to win the Big 12 as their schedule includes road games against the TCU Horned Frogs, Baylor Bears, Kansas State Wildcats, and Oklahoma Sooners.
21. Florida Gators
In the two years that Jim McElwain has been at the helm as the head football coach of the Florida Gators, his team has gone 19-8 and finished in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll. The Gators have also gone to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game in each year under McElwain. But some followers of the Gators aren’t satisfied as they feel that McElwain could be doing more. However to the surprise of those pessimistic Florida followers, the Gators have the potential to be a top-25 team for the entire 2017 college football season.
The frustration with some Florida fans in regards to the Gators has been the struggles of the offense under McElwain. Last season the Gators were 116th in the nation in total offense which is a far cry from the explosiveness that they’ve been accustomed to seeing in Gainesville. Last year as a sophomore, quarterback Luke Del Rio showed occasional flashes of being the guy under center for McElwain. But what McElwain and the Gators need is a guy that can consistently get it done from the pocket, and will Del Rio be that guy?
Junior running back Jordan Scarlett has the potential to be a 1,000-yard back for the Gators in spite of the fact that he’ll be running behind an offensive line that won’t have any seniors. But for the Gators to take that next step and once again become a top-10 team, they are going to need more from their passing game.
Last year Florida was 79th in the nation in passing offense and their offense has already taken a step back as junior wide receiver Antonio Callaway has had several off-the-field issues. And regardless of who is on offense for the Gators, they need to find more explosiveness in their passing game in order to keep opposing defenses honest.
McElwain has plenty of talent to replace on the defensive side of the football as the Gators were ranked fifth in the nation last year in total defense, but at Florida there is always talent that is waiting in the wings.
Last year as a freshman, Chauncey Gardner was second on the team in interceptions, while defensive end Jabari Zuniga led the team in sacks with 5. But as Gardner and Zuniga are each ready for their sophomore campaigns, I expect them to take the next step and become anchors for Florida.
September 2 will provide a rarity for the Gators as they will begin their season versus a national power when they’ll travel to AT&T Stadium in Arlington,Texas to face the Michigan Wolverines of the Big Ten Conference. With the exception of Florida’s annual regular season finale against the Florida State Seminoles of the Atlantic Coast Conference, this is a program that tends to take it light in their non-conference slate which won’t be the case here in 2017 with the showdown with Michigan right around the corner. Florida will then open Southeastern Conference play against the Tennessee Volunteers, while they’ll also have conference home games against the LSU Tigers and Texas A&M Aggies, along with their annual tilt with the Georgia Bulldogs in Jacksonville, Florida.
I expect the Gators to be a team that could in and out of the top 25 this year, but they should improve as the season goes along.
22. Virginia Tech Hokies
Under first-year head football coach Justin Fuente, the bar of expectations weren’t that high for the Virginia Tech Hokies. However what the Hokies were able to do on the gridiron far exceeded expectations as they won the Coastal Division of the Atlantic Coast Conference. The Hokies went 10-4 to finish the season ranked in the Associated Press Poll for the first time since 2011. And although that the Hokies won’t be able to sneak up on anyone in 2017, they should once again be a force to be reckoned with in the ACC.
Quarterback Josh Jackson redshirted last season and now he will take the field for his first go around the field in college football. And it could be a rough start to the beginning of Jackson’s career since Virginia Tech must replace a wealth of talent from last year’s team.
But what the Hokies do have is defensive coordinator Bud Foster who is in his 31st season at the school. Foster’s defenses at Virginia Tech are generally rock solid and they should once again be stout. Senior middle linebacker Andrew Motuapuaka who is a tackling machine will be in the running to win the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker. And aside from Motuapuaka, the Hokies have a very strong linebacking core which includes junior inside linebacker Tremaine Edmunds.
Virginia Tech always has a knack for forcing turnovers and after they snagged 16 interceptions last year, they should once be one of the best defenses in the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The Hokies will begin their season by facing a familiar foe as they’ll take on the West Virginia Mountaineers. From 1991-2003, West Virginia and Virginia Tech were rivals in the Big East Conference as they have not met on the gridiron since then. The Hokies will have their shot at revenge on September 30 when they host the Clemson Tigers who got the best of them in the Atlantic Coast Conference Championship Game last December. And consecutive road games in November versus the Miami Hurricanes and Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets will show strong that the Hokies will be here in 2017.
23. Washington State Cougars
Under the football coach Mike Leach, the Washington State Cougars have won 17 games over the last two years which has been the best stretch for the program since 2003. But heading into the 2017 college football season, will the Cougars be able to finish ranked for the first time since 2003, while also contending in the tough Pac-12 Conference?
Leach’s offenses are always wide open which means that his starting quarterbacks tend to put up big numbers. The last two years have seen Washington State quarterback Luke Falk combine to pass for more than 9,000 yards. And as Falk is set to begin his senior season, I don’t expect Leach’s air-raid offense to slow down.
The Cougars had the third best passing offense in the nation last season, and even though that two of their top wide receivers from 2016 are no longer with the program, don’t expect them to slow down. Junior wide receiver Tavares Martin Jr. should become more of the feature guy for Falk this season as he brings speed to the table. And it will be important for the Cougars passing game to be on point as they struggle to run the football which includes them being 114 in the nation in the category last season.
Falk will operate behind an experienced offensive line which includes senior left guard Cody O’Connell as this unit will be the key to any potential success that the Cougars will have in 2017.
One player who stands out defensively for the Cougars is senior middle linebacker Peyton Pelluer who knows how to set the tone. And the intensity that Pelluer brings to the table will be important as Washington State will look to slow down the high octane offenses of the Pac-12 Conference.
We’ll see how good that Washington State can be when they host the USC Trojans on September 29, while they’ll be on the road to face the Arizona Wildcats, Utah Utes, and Washington Huskies. The Cougars were close to winning the Pac-12 North last year and it will be interesting to see if they can take the next step.
24. Wisconsin Badgers
The past 25 years have seen the Wisconsin Badgers become one of the most successful college football programs in the nation and head football coach Paul Chryst has kept that tradition going. In two years under Chryst, the Badgers are 21-6 which includes a berth in the Big Ten Conference Championship Game last year as well as the school’s first appearance and victory in the Cotton Bowl.
Last year was a learning process for quarterback Alex Hornibrook as a redshirt freshman. Hornibrook was limited in the passing game. but being that Chryst has a reputation in regards to being a quarterback guru, I anticipate him opening up the passing game some more this year. The Wisconsin offense will grow with Hornibrook as there are only three seniors projected to be in the starting lineup which includes wide receiver Jazz Peavy.
Defensively the Badgers were seventh in the nation last season in total defense. Wisconsin lost their defensive coordinator in Justin Wilcox who is now the head football coach of the California Golden Bears, but a familiar face in Jim Leonard will replace him. Leonard was a defensive back for Wisconsin who would go on to play in the National Football League for seven different teams And after Leonard spent 2016 as the Badgers defensive backs coach, he will now be calling the shots on that side of the football.
One defensive player to keep an eye on will be junior inside linebacker T.J. Edwards who flies around the football. The Badgers have long had a reputation in regards to having hard nosed defensive players and Edwards will add to that reputation here in 2017.
The Badgers will be a dark horse in regards to winning the Big Ten, however if they’ll be able to survive their final three games of the season as they will face the Iowa Hawkeyes, Michigan Wolverines, and Minnesota Golden Gophers, Wisconsin could find themselves in the conference title game along with getting a potential Rose Bowl bid.
25. Arkansas Razorbacks
There will be some adversity that’ll be awaiting the Arkansas Razorbacks when the 2017 college football season begins. But for Arkansas head football coach Bret Bielema, don’t expect him to want people to feel sorry for his squad.
Since Bielema joined Arkansas in 2014, the Razorbacks have had a commitment to rushing the football in spite of a dip in production. Last year the Hogs were tied for 77th in the nation in rushing after they were 34th in 2015. And after running back Rawleigh Williams III was expected to be the featured ball carrier for his junior season, he decided to retire due to injuries.
Sophomore Devwah Whaley will now be the feature running back for the Hogs this year and he’ll get every opportunity to prove himself as he’ll get at least 200 carries this season. But with senior quarterback Austin Allen under center for Arkansas, I do expect Bielema to open the offense up more than he has in the past which means that we’ll see more of a vertical game in Fayetteville.
Former Iowa State Cyclones head football coach Paul Rhoads is set to begin his first season as Arkansas’ defensive coordinator and he must find a way to get this unit to compete more than they did in 2016. Arkansas was 75th in the nation in total defense last year which included surrendering 40 points or more in a game four times.
The Razorbacks schedule won’t be a cakewalk as they have consecutive road games versus the South Carolina Gamecocks and Alabama Crimson Tide in October, while they will also be on the road to face the LSU Tigers.
Top 25 By Conference:
Southeastern Conference (7)
Pac-12 Conference (5)
Big Ten Conference (4)
Atlantic Coast Conference (4)
Big 12 Conference (3)
Mountain West Conference (1)
American Athletic Conference (1)
Sources: Cfbstats.com, Sports-reference.com, Ourlads.com
When Hugh Freeze was named as the head football coach of the Mississippi Rebels in 2012, he was tasked with turning around the fortunes of a program that had sunk to the bottom of the Southeastern Conference. In 2011, Ole Miss went 2-10 which led to the termination of Houston Nutt as the school’s head football coach. Freeze was tasked with being able to once again make the Rebels respectable and potentially rub elbows with the top teams in the SEC. In Freeze’s first season at Mississippi, he was able to get the Rebels to a bowl game. In 2014, Freeze led Ole Miss to a 23-17 upset at home against the Alabama Crimson Tide. And to show that the victory wasn’t a fluke, Ole Miss followed this upset up in 2015 by beating Alabama in Tuscaloosa for the first time since 1988, while it also marked the first time in school history that the Rebels had defeated the Crimson Tide in consecutive seasons. In 2014, Freeze got Mississippi to the Peach Bowl for the first time since 1971, and at the conclusion of the 2015 college football season, he led the Rebels to the Sugar Bowl for the first time since 1969 as his squad was now looked at as a perennial top 20 team. Freeze was also winning battles on the recruiting front as he was putting players such as wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil into the National Football League. And with these players being selected in the first round, it was only helping the credibility of Freeze and his Ole Miss program.
However things began to shift for Freeze at Ole Miss when the NCAA began to probe his program for illegal benefits to his players. Ole Miss gave itself a bowl ban for the upcoming college football season after their own review cited a lack of institutional control. And even with that Ole Miss is set to appear in front of the NCAA later this year as the possibility of them facing sanctions still looms. But even with all of this going on, Ole Miss stuck by Freeze, until this week.
This past Thursday night Freeze was fired by Ole Miss after an investigation by the school illustrated that he made numerous phone calls to an escort service on a university issued cell phone. Initially Freeze denied it, but after the school had concluded its investigation they gave him an ultimatum to either resign or get fired. Freeze chose to resign as either way his reputation is tarnished. And now Ole Miss is left to pick up the pieces and keep their football program afloat, but it will be easier said than done.
With the start of the college football season right around the corner, the upcoming campaign already appears to be a wash for the Rebels. Offensive coordinator Matt Luke will be the interim head football coach for the upcoming season as this will be his opportunity to audition for the job on a full-time basis, but school officials at Oxford might be ready to clean house and start over from scratch.
Ole Miss needs fresh blood to lead their program, while also hiring an established head coach that the alumni will get behind. One of the first names that will be thrown around is former LSU Tigers head football coach Les Miles. In nearly 12 seasons at LSU, Miles was 114-34 which included winning a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships, and one national championship. Miles knows how to win in the SEC and he has a tremendous record in regards of being a great recruiter as he has sent the likes of New York Giants wide receiver Odell Beckham Jr., and Arizona Cardinals cornerback Patrick Patterson to the National Football League. But what did Miles in at LSU was his inability to defeat Alabama in recent years as that prevented the Bayou Bengals from getting back to the SEC Championship Game. And as Miles is set to be 64-years of age in November, that could steer the big time programs that have openings away from hiring him.
Another name that people will be linking to Ole Miss is former Oregon Ducks head football coach Chip Kelly. In four years as the head football coach at Oregon, Kelly’s record was 46-7 as he was an innovator due to his uptempo spread offense. Kelly left Oregon and he spent the last four years trying to make his system work in the National Football League as he was the head coach of the Philadelphia Eagles and San Francisco 49ers respectively. In four years in the NFL, Kelly’s record was 28-35 as his system could not translate to the next level. And once Kelly was fired by the Niners this past January, the speculation about him returning to college has begun.
The name of current Florida Atlantic Owls head coach Lane Kiffin could be thrown around as well. Kiffin is familiar with the Southeastern Conference from his time as the head football coach of the Tennessee Volunteers and most recently as the offensive coordinator for Alabama. Kiffin’s name alone produces intrigue, however he is a man who has burned bridges at every stop on his football journey, and as Ole Miss is attempting to escape from its current mess, they don’t need another headache.
It appeared to be a marriage made in heaven between Freeze and Ole Miss as he was the native of Oxford who loved everything about the school. However Freeze was done in by his arrogance which got the school into trouble. And just as Freeze could be shrewd salesman on the recruiting trail, he figured that he could have wiggled his way out of having issues after placing calls to an escort service. But as fast as Freeze made the Rebels respectable is how fast that is came apart.
Ole Miss isn’t the first school to be investigated by the NCAA for giving improper benefits to “student athletes”, and it won’t be the last. As long as head coaches are receiving at least $5 million per year like they currently are, they are going to do whatever it takes to get the top athletes as they must win games in order to keep the alumni and boosters happy. Freeze cut some corners to get Ole Miss among the top teams in the Southeastern Conference, but just like that he has gone from being one of Oxford’s favorite native sons to a man that cannot get out of town quick enough.
The Auburn Tigers have called the Southeastern Conference home since 1933 and they have had their fair share of success there. Auburn has won 8 SEC Titles in football while claiming a pair of national championships. However as good as Auburn has been, they are still the little brothers of the Alabama Crimson Tide who have 26 SEC Titles and 16 claimed national championships. Aside from Auburn’s intense rivalry with Alabama that sees them meet each November in the Iron Bowl, they have long standing rivalries within the SEC with the Florida Gators, Tennessee Volunteers, and Georgia Bulldogs. Auburn and Georgia meet each season in a game that is simply “The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry”. But unlike Auburn’s annual meetings with Alabama and Georgia, their rivalries with Florida and Tennessee have gone by the wayside.
In 1992, the Southeastern Conference became the first conference at the Division 1-A level to expand to 12 members as the additions of the South Carolina Gamecocks and Arkansas Razorbacks gave them the ability to have a conference title game. The SEC would have two divisions with six teams in each. Auburn along with Alabama would be in the SEC West while Georgia, Florida, and Tennessee would be in the SEC East. The eight-game conference schedule would still allow Auburn to frequently meet Florida and Tennessee, but in recent years it has dissipated even further.
In 2012, the Southeastern Conference would expand to 14 teams after the additions of the Texas A&M Aggies and Missouri Tigers. The Aggies would join Auburn in the SEC West, while Missouri would find a new home in the SEC East. Through all of the this the SEC has decided to maintain an eight-game conference schedule which makes it even harder for schools to maintain rivalries. With Tennessee and Florida in the SEC East, Auburn has not faced the Volunteers since 2013, while they haven’t clashed with the Gators since 2011. But Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs has a solution to this problem.
Jacobs is seeking to have Auburn switch divisions in the Southeastern Conference and go from the SEC West to the SEC East. Geographically it makes sense being that Missouri is further west than Auburn. Auburn would still seek to maintain their yearly showdown against Alabama as it is an in-state rivalry that always creates a buzz no matter what the record of the two teams are, while it would also put the Tigers back in line to face Tennessee and Florida on a yearly basis. A move to the SEC East would also provide Auburn with an easier path to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game as they would no longer have to worry about facing the LSU Tigers on a yearly basis as in recent years the SEC East has not been as competitive as the SEC West. But there is still plenty at the underbelly of this story that must be worked out.
The Southeastern Conference along with the Atlantic Coast Conference are the only two Power Five conferences that don’t currently have a nine-game conference schedule. And just like the SEC, the ACC has 14 schools participating in football. The additional conference game would cut down on headaches as some teams hardly face each other in spite of being in the same conference. Missouri has been in the SEC since 2012, but their only encounters with Alabama and Auburn came in the conference title game. But if the SEC were to allow Auburn to switch divisions while maintaining an eight-game conference schedule, it would mean that they would hardly face teams such as LSU which has become a solid rivalry in the SEC West.
It makes a ton of sense for the Southeastern Conference to allow Auburn to make the switch which would allow them to renew their rivalries with Florida and Tennessee. Over the last three years Auburn’s record is 23-16, while they are 11-13 within the SEC with three defeats coming at the hands of Alabama. Over that stretch the Tigers are 3-3 versus the SEC East with all three defeats coming at the hands of Georgia.
But it is also wise for the Southeastern Conference to do away with a cupcake game on the slate in order to have another conference tilt. In my opinion if a conference wants to have a 14-team league, then they should play a 10-game conference slate.
Texas A&M joined the Southeastern Conference in 2012, but they’ve only faced Florida once and their first trip to Gainesville is set up for this season. Being in the same conference means having a sense of familiarity with foes within the league. But we’re talking about senior classes at some schools who won’t face each other at all.
This is one of the many problems with conference expansion as you simply spread yourself too thin in the chase for a few extra dollars as rivalries have gone away. There is plenty of money at the forefront, but rivalries is what makes sports happen. And whereas the Iron Bowl is always a marquee meeting each and every college football season, it’s also time for Auburn to face Tennessee and Florida more often as once upon a time these too were also iconic showdowns within the Southeastern Conference.