Tennessee Volunteers 10-3 (6-2)
In a very short time Tennessee Volunteers head football coach Butch Jones has gotten his program back to respectability. Jones is coming off of his third year in Knoxville and last season he led Tennessee to their first 9-win season since 2007. But can Jones do something that hasn’t happened since 2007 which is to get the Volunteers to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game?
This year’s Tennessee squad has arguably the most experience in the Southeastern Conference as they have 10 returning starters on offense and 8 on defense. Senior Joshua Dobbs is in his fourth year as the Volunteers starting quarterback and his play has improved in each year. Dobbs has also shown the qualities to be a leader on the field for the Vols. As Tennessee has one of the bigger and more physical offensive lines in the SEC that features senior right guard Dylan Wiesman, they can lean on opponents with their running game. Junior running back Jalen Hurd nearly rushed for 1,300 yards last year and he is looking to add to the program’s long history at running back which includes the likes of Jamal Lewis and Arian Foster.
Defensively the Vols were ranked 36th in the nation last year in total defense and there are players on the unit that have potential to play in the National Football League. Senior outside linebacker Jaylen Reeves-Maybin led the Volunteers in tackles last season with 105 and he has the potential to be an All-SEC player here in 2016. Junior defensive end Derek Barnett has the potential to hear his name called very early at next year’s NFL Draft as he is a solid edge rusher that offenses in the SEC must constantly account for. And if Tennessee’s front seven isn’t enough to deal with, they also have an opportunistic secondary that had 12 interceptions last year with 3 coming from junior free safety Todd Kelly Jr.
Last year all four of Tennessee’s losses came by four points or less and if Jones is able to remedy that, he will have a team on his hands that is worthy to win the Southeastern Conference.
Georgia Bulldogs 9-3 (6-2)
During Mark Richt’s 15 years as the head football coach of the Georgia Bulldogs, all he did was win. Richt comprised a record of 145-53 at Georgia which included a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships and nine years in which his team won at least 10 games. But all of that success wasn’t enough for Richt to maintain his job due to to the fact that he didn’t win enough big games. Richt has been replaced by former Alabama Crimson Tide defensive coordinator Kirby Smart who will have some lofty expectations to live up during his first go round as a head football coach.
Under Richt, Georgia had one of the best rushing games in the nation as they were a pipeline to the National Football League. That won’t change this year with the combination of junior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as each player has the potential to gain 1,000 yards rushing if they are healthy. Senior quarterback Grayson Lambert has had an up and down collegiate career that began with the Virginia Cavaliers. But as long as Lambert can keep it simple and not try to win games by himself, he and the Bulldogs should be able to enjoy a good year.
Mel Tucker is beginning his first year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and he is inheriting a defense that was seventh in the nation last season in total defense. The Dawgs will have to replace some talent in their front seven, but the strength of this defense is in the secondary where all four starters from 2015 are back. Safety Dominic Sanders led the team in interceptions last year with 6, and here in his junior campaign, he should be in the conversation to win the Jim Thorpe Award as the nation’s top defensive back, while also gaining a ton of attention from the National Football League scouts.
Smart is adding his own touch to Georgia’s program and he should have the Bulldogs right in the mix to win the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Florida Gators 8-4 (5-3)
It didn’t take Florida Gators head football Jim McElwain that long to get his program back to respectability. In one year at the helm at Florida, McElwain was able to get the Gators to the Southeastern Conference Championship Game for the first time since 2009. But will McElwain be able to do something that hasn’t happened in Gainesville since the 2000’s which is to make the Gators consistent? The Gators have not finished consecutive seasons in the top 25 of the Associated Press Poll since 2009 while they’ve been an up and down program since then. And after winning the SEC East in 2015, the other six teams within the division will gunning for Florida this year.
One of the biggest things that has been holding Florida back in recent years is the fact that they have struggled mightily on offense. Last year Florida was 112th in total offense which makes the fact that they were able to win 10 games that more remarkable. McElwain is offensive coach that was able to make adjustments to his team during his first year at Florida, but he must find more consistent play at quarterback. Last year saw Treon Harris thrust into a tough situation as he was asked to be a pocket passer in spite of the fact that he came to Florida as a spread option quarterback under former Gators head football coach Will Muschamp.
Sophomore quarterback Luke Del Rio transferred to Florida and he is more capable to run McElwain’s pro-style offense which makes him the favorite to start under center for the Gators when the season begins. The Gators still don’t have the explosion in the passing game that made them a national power during the 1990’s and 2000’s, but Del Rio will be protected by an offensive line that is returning four starters from last year.
In recent years the Florida defense has carried this team as they were eighth in the nation last year in total defense. And just like last year, the Gators have talent on that side of the football which will soon be coming to a National Football League City near you. Junior outside linebacker Jarrad Davis can tackle anything that moves and junior cornerback Jalen Tabor is one of the best cover guys in the Southeastern Conference.
Florida should once again be in the mix to qualify for the Southeastern Conference Championship Game, but all of that will come down to their meetings with the Tennessee Volunteers and the Georgia Bulldogs.
Kentucky Wildcats 6-6 (3-5)
The past two years have seen the Kentucky Wildcats go 5-7 and they appear to be on the cusp of becoming bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. Last year saw the Wildcats lose three Southeastern Conference games by five points or less. And as Kentucky head football coach Mark Stoops is set to begin his fourth year in Lexington, a trip to a bowl game could make him a very popular mean within the Commonwealth State.
Last year as a freshman, quarterback Drew Barker was able to get some brief experience under center, and now in 2016 as a sophomore, he will be the guy for the Wildcats offense. But one of the main keys for Kentucky will be whether or not that junior running back Stanley “Boom” Williams will be able to gain at least 1,000 yards as that would be the symbol of the Wildcats success. The Wildcats have an experienced offensive line that has four junior starters and one senior in center Jon Toth.
Stoops’ specialty is defensive football which he has been unable to bring to Lexington and the Wildcats will be fighting an uphill battle on that side of the football due to the fact that they have a ton of experience to replace on that side of the football from last year’s team.
Kentucky won’t be able to dodge some of the heavyweights that the Southeastern Conference has to offer as they’ll tango with the Tennessee Volunteers, Georgia Bulldogs, and Alabama Crimson Tide. But if the Wildcats are able to handle their business against the teams that they should beat, they should be able to receive the bowl invite that has eluded them for more than five years.
Missouri Tigers 6-6 (3-5)
In the four years that the Missouri Tigers have been a member of the Southeastern Conference, it has been either feast or famine for them. 2012 saw Missouri go 5-7, while they would win the SEC East in 2013 and 2014. Last year the Tigers once again went 5-7 and it marked the end of the line for Gary Pinkel as Missouri’s head football coach as he decided to retire. Pinkel’s successor in Columbia is a Missouri lifer in Barry Odom. Odom was a linebacker at Missouri from 1996-1999, and he has also been an assistant coach there since 2003. Since 2012, Odom was the Tigers defensive coordinator and he oversaw a unit that has sent its fair share of players to the National Football League in recent years. But now Odom is the guy that is in charge of this program and he doesn’t want his team to get caught up in the wash that is the SEC.
With Missouri’s struggles as a team last year, quarterback Drew Lock gained valuable playing time as a freshman that should translate to something positive for him and the Tigers here in 2016. But Lock will have to carry a Mizzou offense that was 125th in total offense last year.
However as bad as Missouri’s offense was, their defense kept them in games as they were sixth in the nation in total defense. And the Tigers have some key players in senior middle linebacker Michael Scherer, junior defensive end Michael Harris, and sophomore defensive end Walter Brady that have the potential to be the best at their respective positions in the Southeastern Conference.
Just like last year the defense will carry the Tigers. But as the season progresses, this will be a team that nobody in the Southeastern Conference will want to face.
South Carolina Gamecocks 4-8 (1-7)
It’s hard to believe, but the South Carolina Gamecocks will enter the 2016 college football season on the heels of their first losing season since 2003. The Gamecocks went 3-9 last year in what would be Steve Spurrier’s last year as South Carolina’s head football coach. In nearly 11 years in Columbia, Spurrier was able to build off of the transition that had begun under former head football coach Lou Holtz as he turned the Gamecocks into a national power which included winning the Eastern Division of the Southeastern Conference in 2010, while also having three consecutive top ten finishes in the Associated Press Poll. Now it is up to Will Muschamp build off of what Holtz and Spurrier were able to do at South Carolina.
Before Muschamp became the head football coach at South Carolina, he enjoyed several stints in the Southeastern Conference as a defensive coordinator for the likes of the Auburn Tigers and LSU Tigers. But Muschamp’s most notable venture within the SEC came as the head football coach of the Florida Gators where he compiled a record of 28-21 in four years. The expectations at South Carolina for Muschamp won’t be as high as they were for him at Florida which should benefit him and his program.
Being that South Carolina was 3-9 last year, there isn’t a ton of returning talent for Muschamp to work with as he’ll turn to a true freshman at quarterback in Brandon McIlwain. Senior middle linebacker Skai Moore will definitely garner some interest from the National Football League as he is one of the best overall linebackers in the Southeastern Conference. Moore has knowledge of his position as well as the other defensive positions, while he led South Carolina in tackles with 111 and interceptions (4) last year.
This year will definitely be a struggle for the Gamecocks, but as the season progresses, Muschamp will begin to put his stamp on this program.
Vanderbilt Commodores 3-9 (1-7)
It’s been a tough go for Derek Mason as the head football coach of the Vanderbilt Commodores. In two years at Vanderbilt, Mason has won seven games compared to the nine games that were won by James Franklin in his final year with the Commodores in 2013. But such is the life of the underbelly that is the Southeastern Conference as it is indeed difficult to keep up with the Joneses. However hopes springs eternal for Mason and Vandy as the 2016 college football season is set to begin.
Mason has some individual talent to work with this year in Nashville, but I doubt it will enough to make Vanderbilt respectable. Junior running back Ralph Webb is the heart and soul of the Commodores offense, while junior linebacker Zach Cunningham and junior defensive back Oren Burks have the potential to be two of the better players within the Southeastern Conference. But all of that won’t be enough to help the Commodores in the win column as the collective talent pool simply isn’t there.
LSU Tigers 12-1 (7-1)
In 11 years as the head football coach of the LSU Tigers, all Les Miles has done is win. Miles has compiled a record of 112-32 which includes a pair of Southeastern Conference Championships along with a national title. But what has hurt Miles is that his Tigers are 0-5 in their last five contests against the Alabama Crimson Tide which almost led to his departure last year. However cooler heads were able to prevail in Baton Rogue as Miles has been retained, and rightfully so being that he has a football team here in 2016 that is not only capable of winning the SEC, but the national title as well.
Under Miles, the Bayou Bengals get off of the bus running the football and you can expect more of the same this year. Junior running back Leonard Fournette has been as good as advertised in his first two years at LSU, and you will definitely hear his name in conversations to win the Heisman Trophy as he has the potential to rush for 2,000 yards this season.
Junior quarterback Brandon Harris has taken his lumps over the last two years, but if he is able to get on the same page with senior wide receiver Travin Dural and junior wide receiver Malachi Dupre to compliment the running ability of Fournette, the LSU offense has the potential to be very special this fall.
Dave Aranda is entering his first year as LSU’s defensive coordinator and he definitely has some talent to work with in Death Valley. Senior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith will tackle anything that moves while senior defensive end Lewis Neal is one of the best edge rushers in the Southeastern Conference. And junior strong safety Jamal Adams is a ball-hawking player that can change the landscape of a game with his range and nose for the football.
I don’t see Louisiana State being intimidated by the fact that they’ll open their season at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wisconsin when they tango with the Wisconsin Badgers of the Big Ten Conference, while things are shaping up for them to run the table in the Southeastern Conference.
Alabama Crimson Tide 10-2 (6-2)
Since Nick Saban became the head football coach of the Alabama Crimson Tide in 2007, he has done what most people said that he wouldn’t do which was to build a juggernaut in the toughest football conference in the United States. Since arriving in Tuscaloosa, Saban is 100-18 which includes five national titles and it has made life extremely difficult for every other program within the Southeastern Conference as they have tried to keep up with the Tide. The Tide head into the 2016 college football season as the defending national champions and this is a program that knows how to deal with the high expectations, along with the fact that everyone will be gunning for them.
Over the past two years, quarterback Cooper Bateman has gotten brief doses of being the guy at Alabama, but in his junior year he no longer has to look over his shoulder. The main thing for Bateman will be to not to try doing everything by himself and instead relying on the Alabama machine. The Crimson Tide are going to miss the production of running back Derrick Henry as he won the Heisman Trophy last year as sophomore running back Damien Harris will look to become the next great tailback for ‘Bama. Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin will look for sophomore wide receiver Calvin Ridley and senior tight end O.J. Howard to continue improving their productivity which would definitely benefit Bateman, while there is plenty of experience on the Crimson Tide offensive line which is led by junior offensive tackle Cam Robinson and senior guard Alphonse Taylor.
Defensively the Tide lost plenty of talent to the National Football League, but as Saban is one of the best recruiters in the nation, there is always somebody in Tuscaloosa that is waiting for their respective opportunity. Senior strong safety Eddie Jackson led Alabama in interceptions last year with 6, while senior outside linebacker Reuben Foster returns to school after being the team’s second leading tackler in 2015 with 73. But Alabama will still be able to rush the passer with the likes of defensive ends Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams returning for their senior seasons. The duo of Allen and Williams combined for 22.5 sacks in 2015, and they should once again be menaces to quarterbacks in the Southeastern Conference.
Make no mistake about it that Saban doesn’t duck any of the top teams in the nation and this college football campaign won’t be any different as Alabama will make the trek to AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas to clash with the USC Trojans of the Pac-12 Conference to kick off their defense of the national title on September 3. But road life in the Southeastern Conference won’t be easy for Alabama as they’ll travel to face the Ole Miss Rebels, Tennessee Volunteers, Arkansas Razorbacks, and LSU Tigers.
Ole Miss Rebels 9-3 (6-2)
Hugh Freeze has completed four years as the head football coach of the Mississippi Rebels and in each year in Oxford, his win total has increased. Ole Miss coming off of their first 10-win season since 2003, and their first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970. Freeze has gotten things turned around as the 2016 National Football League Draft saw three of his players selected in the first round, while the Rebels were also able to secure a road victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide which was their only defeat en route to claiming the national championship. And as the Rebels have made tremendous strides in the last few years, the next step for them is to win the Southeastern Conference Championship for the first time since 1963. But will 2016 be the charm?
Senior quarterback Chad Kelly is looking to finish his collegiate career with a bang after he threw for 31 touchdowns in 2015, but he will miss the contributions of wide receiver Laquon Treadwell who is now the National Football League. There is plenty of returning talent on the defensive side of the football which includes the likes of junior defensive end Marquis Haynes, junior outside linebacker DeMarquis Gates, and senior cornerback Tony Bridges who all have the potential to be All-SEC performers.
Ole Miss no longer has to search for respect as they are getting it around the country. But that won’t stop the Rebels from facing the Florida State Seminoles from the Atlantic Coast Conference in Orlando, Florida to begin their season on Labor Day. The Rebels will definitely have to buckle their chin straps on September 17 when they welcome the Crimson Tide to Oxford as they will be seeking their third consecutive victory over the defending national champions. And road games against the Arkansas Razorbacks, LSU Tigers, and Texas A&M Aggies will definitely test how far that Freeze has brought his program.
Texas A&M Aggies 9-3 (5-3)
In Kevin Sumlin’s four years as the head football coach of the Texas A&M Aggies, he has compiled a record of 36-16, but that hasn’t kept him from avoiding the hot seat in College Station. After the Aggies won 11 games in 2012, they have been unable to replicate that success. And as the powers that be at A&M believe that their program is good enough to win the Southeastern Conference, it has put Sumlin in a bind.
One thing that has hurt the Aggies over the past two years is their inconsistency at quarterback as it has been a revolving door at College Station. But here in 2016, the Aggies appear ready to commit to senior quarterback Trevor Knight who transferred there after being a part of the Oklahoma Sooners program. Knight’s time at Oklahoma included leading the Sooners to an upset victory over the Alabama Crimson Tide in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. And the main thing that Knight will be able to provide the Aggies with is stability and leadership at the quarterback position which is something that they have lacked in each of the last two years.
Make no mistake about it that Texas A&M can run the football, but there is still the threat of the big play in the passing game. Sophomore wide receiver Christian Kirk is looking to add to his resume after a sparkling freshman season in which he tallied 80 receptions for 1,009 years. But the Aggies big home run hitter at wide receiver is junior Ricky Seals-Jones. At 6’5″, 235 lbs., Seals-Jones has the size that the pro scouts like; now it is just a matter of him putting it together for a full season.
Defensively the Aggies do have play makers, but they need to be more consistent. In 2015, A&M defensive backs made too many tackles as free safety Armani Watts led the team in tackles with 126. Junior defensive end Myles Garrett is arguably the best defensive player in the nation as he could be the first overall pick of the 2017 National Football League Draft. But the Aggies must find a way to become more consistent under defensive coordinator John Chavis which includes them getting off of the field on third down.
If A&M is going to be one of the better teams in the nation in 2016, they will have to earn it as their schedule isn’t filled with that many soft spots. The Aggies will begin the college football season by hosting the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-12 Conference, while having conference road games against the Auburn Tigers, Alabama, and the Mississippi State Bulldogs, along with finishing the regular season at home against the LSU Tigers.
Auburn Tigers 7-5 (4-4)
After Auburn Tigers head football coach Gus Malzahn led his team to the Bowl Championship Series Title Game in 2013, it has been a rough go for him. In that year Auburn won 12 games en route to winning the Southeastern Conference Championship while they’ve combined to win 15 over the last two years. The competition is always hot and heavy in the SEC West. And as the Tigers don’t want to get caught up in the wash there, their fans are hoping to not avoid a repeat of when this program took a brief nose dive after winning the national title in 2010.
Under Malzahn, Auburn incorporates an uptempo offense that is predicated on solid production from the quarterback and a quality ground game. The Tigers were unable to get either in 2015 which has led to a three-man competition to be the team’s starting quarterback between JUCO transfer John Franklin III, senior Jeremy Johnson, and sophomore Sean White. Neither White or Johnson were as productive as Auburn was envisioning in 2015, and if the Tigers are unable to find the guy at quarterback, they will once be fighting an uphill battle.
The Tigers also need to get more out of their running game as so much of Malzahn’s offense is predicated by what they are able to get accomplished in their running game. There will be plenty of experience on Auburn’s offensive line as they have a pair of seniors in the starting lineup which includes left tackle Robert Leff, and three juniors.
Last year Auburn’s defense was attempting to get a feel for things under defensive coordinator Will Muschamp. But being that Muschamp was looking to get back to being a head coach sooner rather than later, you knew that he wouldn’t be there for long. After one year at Auburn, Muschamp agreed to become the head football coach of the South Carolina Gamecocks which has paved the way for Kevin Steele to become the Tigers new defensive coordinator.
This isn’t Steele’s first go round in the Southeast Conference as a defensive coordinator as he previously worked with the Alabama Crimson Tide and LSU Tigers. And now Steele will be charged with getting this Auburn unit back to the top of the SEC.
Last year as a freshman, defensive back Carlton Davis led the team in interceptions with 3, but Auburn lost its top five leading tacklers from 2015 which will leave a very huge void.
Auburn’s schedule won’t be an easy one as they’ll begin by taking on the Clemson Tigers of the Atlantic Coast Conference, along with road games against the Mississippi Rebels, Georgia Bulldogs, and Alabama.
Mississippi State Bulldogs 7-5 (4-4)
In Dan Mullen’s seven years as the head football coach of the Mississippi State Bulldogs, he has shown that he can hang with the best that the Southeastern Conference has to offer. The Bulldogs call the SEC West home and in each of the last six years, they have gone to a bowl game which is by far the longest stretch in the history of the program. And now as the 2016 college football season is set to begin, the Bulldogs are seeking to win at least 9 games for the third consecutive year which would be the first time in school history that it occurred.
It won’t be as easy for Mississippi State to rack up the victories as quarterback Dak Prescott who did everything for this team over the past few years has graduated. Last year as a freshman, quarterback Nick Fitzgerald got some brief time under center, but now he is expected to be the guy. At 6’5″, 227 lbs., Fitzgerald is a very imposing figure that can make life difficult for defenses in the Southeastern Conference once it all comes together for him.
Last year saw the Bulldogs get away from the running game that Mullen build his initial success upon and it will once again need to be a factor in 2016 for them to be in contention. Expect senior running back Brandon Holloway to get his chance to be the feature back in Starkville, but after carrying the football just 92 times last year, will he be up for the increased workload? However led by senior center Jamaal Clayborn, the Bulldogs do have three upperclassmen on the offensive line which should help out the inexperienced quarterback.
Mississippi State’s defense has the potential to be very stout with six returning starters, which includes six of their top seven tacklers from 2015. Senior middle linebacker Richie Brown could be a first-team All-SEC member, while sophomore strong safety Brandon Bryant has shown that he has range in the secondary.
The road will define Mississippi State here in 2016 as they’ll travel to face the LSU Tigers, Alabama Crimson Tide, and Mississippi Rebels in three contests that will help to the shape the title picture in the Western Division of the Southeastern Conference.
Arkansas Razorbacks 7-5 (4-4)
In 2015, the Arkansas Razorbacks were unable to live up to the lofty expectations that were thrust on them as they were done in by the injury bug. But the Razorbacks were still a team that opponents in the Southeastern Conference were not excited to play against as they were the most physical team in the conference. During Bret Bielema’s time as a college coach which included a seven-year stretch with the Wisconsin Badgers where he compiled a record of 68-24, his teams have been known for their physicality on both sides of the football. Now as Bielema is set to begin his fourth year with the Hogs, he is starting to get his kind of football players to come to Fayetteville as he has now established himself in that region of the country.
After Brandon Allen spent that last four years as the Razorbacks starting quarterback which led to him being drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, he has now made way for another member of his family at Arkansas. Junior quarterback Austin Allen is Brandon’s younger brother and now he gets his chance to show the Southeastern Conference what he can do under center. But the Hogs will have to replace plenty of talent in the running game as running back Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams are now in the National Football League. And after spending that last three years as a backup to Williams and Collins, senior running back Kody Walker will get his opportunity to be the feature back in Bielema’s power running attack.
At times in 2015, the Razorbacks defense took it on the chin as they surrendered 45 points or more in a game three times, but with nine starters returning on that side of the football, there is some optimism. Senior middle linebacker Brooks Ellis is the leader of the Hogs defense and he will tackle anything that moves, while sophomore outside linebacker sophomore Dre Greenlaw is his tag-team partner.
The Hogs might not be the team that will win the Western Division of the Southeast Conference in 2016, but they will be a squad that nobody wants to tango with.
SEC Championship Game: LSU vs. Tennessee
Conference Champion: LSU
Coach of the Year: Butch Jones-Tennessee
Offensive Player of the Year: Leonard Fournette-Running Back-LSU
Defensive Player of the Year: Jaylen Reeves-Maybin-Outside Linebacker-Tennessee
Sources: Nationalchamps.net, Ourlads.com, Sports-reference.com