The SEC remains the king of the crop when it comes to college football. In fact, the conference has not gone two straight seasons without winning a national title since 2004 and 2005.
They were in jeopardy last year after Ohio State won it all in 2014. But the Alabama Crimson Tide represented the conference well in the four-team playoff, beating Michigan State 38-0 before edging Clemson 45-40 in the championship game.
The SEC finished 54-12 in non-conference action last season. They went 14-7 against Power 5 conference teams, which was very good considering no other conference had better than a .500 record against them. The SEC also had the most players sent to the NFL Draft for the 10th consecutive year.
While the SEC West seems to belong to Alabama every year, it is the strongest division in college football. The East has seen a surprise winner here recently with Missouri winning back-to-back titles in 2013 and ’14, and then Florida winning it last year with a 7-1 conference record under first-year head coach Jim McElwain. Let’s take a look at how I have both divisions playing out in 2016.
SEC West Predictions
1st: Alabama (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
Alabama managed to win the national title last year despite having just 10 returning starters. While still inexperienced compared to most, the Crimson Tide actually have one more starter (11) back this season. They simply recruit better than anyone else, which allows them to reload every year. They also seem to break in a new quarterback every season, which hasn’t been a problem considering three of their last four national titles have come behind a first-time starter. The schedule is tough with road games against Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU, but I have them winning two of those three and running the table the rest of the way to win the SEC West once again.
2nd: LSU (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
There’s no question that LSU will be the biggest threat to Alabama to win the West in 2016. That’s because they are the second-most experienced team in the SEC with 17 returning starters. They have Heisman contender Leonard Fournette running the ball behind a veteran offensive line. The defense will be very good with nine starters back for first-year coordinator Dave Aranda, who did a tremendous job at Wisconsin in the same position the last few seasons. He’ll now have more talent than he ever had to work with in Madison. The Tigers get key games at home against Ole Miss and Alabama, but my biggest concern is their lack of explosive plays in the passing game. Brandon Harris is back under center after two straight disappointing seasons. He completed just 53.8 percent of his passes last year and doesn’t figure to be able to carry the Tigers to the SEC title.
T-3rd: Texas A&M (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
I believe the Aggies are the biggest sleepers to contend for the West title in 2016. They have a solid 13 starters back, including seven on a defense that improved greatly last year. They only allowed 22.0 points per game and figure to be even better on that side of the ball behind the best DE tandem in the country in Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall. The offense can only be better after slipping to just 27.8 points per game last season. The Aggies have the most talented receivers in the SEC as a whole, and Oklahoma trasnfer Trevor Knight should be able to revive his career with these playmakers. Texas A&M gets Ole Miss, LSU and Tennessee at home and has proven capable of winning on the road as Kevin Sumlin is 10-6 in SEC road games.
T-3rd: Ole Miss (8-4, 5-3 SEC)
Ole Miss was a 4th-and-25 stop away from winning the SEC West last season as it lost to Arkansas in overtime. I actually picked them to win the West and they did not disappoint with their upset of Alabama along the way. However, the Rebels go from having 16 returning starters back last season to just 10 this year. They lost a plethora of talent to the NFL Draft, including OT Laremy Tunsil, DT Robert Nkemdiche and WR Laquon Treadwell. The good news is that they have best QB in the SEC back in Chad Kelly, who threw for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns, while also rushing for 500 yards and 10 scores a year ago. He will keep the Rebels in the top half of the West, but road games at LSU, Arkansas and Texas A&M won’t be easy.
5th: Arkansas (7-5, 4-4 SEC)
The Razorbacks went just 2-14 SEC play in their first two seasons under Bret Bielema. They have steadily improved each season and actually went 5-3 within the conference while outgaining SEC foes by 17.5 yards per game last year. Bielema could have his best defense yet with nine returning starters on that side of the ball. The biggest question is the five returning starters on offense with the loss of all-time Arkansas TD pass leader Brandon Allen at quarterback. His brother, Austin Allen, has some big shoes to fill this season. The bright side is that the Hogs only have three true SEC road games, and those came against teams that were just 7-17 in the SEC last year. They get Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Florida at home and could surprise if they manage that part of their schedule.
T-6th: Mississippi State (7-5, 3-5 SEC)
The Bulldogs were the popular pick to finish last in the SEC West in 2015. But Dan Mullen got his troops to surprise like he seems to do every year. The Bulldogs were 9-4 overall and 4-4 in SEC play while making their 6th consecutive bowl game. Mississippi State is one of only three teams to outgain its opponents in SEC play each of the last three years. The problem now is that the school’s all-time leading passer in Dak Prescott has moved on to the NFL. The Bulldogs only return 11 starters this season and will be tested with their inexperience. They could exceed even my expectations considering their schedule is favorable as they draw both Kentucky and South Carolina from the East. But road games against Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss will keep them out of the SEC title conversation.
T-6th: Auburn (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
The Tigers were the media’s pick to win the SEC West last season. But they fell flat on their faces as they were the only team in the West to finish with a losing conference record (2-6). They got horrible quarterback play last season, which was their biggest demise. The hope this year is that John Franklin III can take control of the QB job and be that dual-threat guy that Gus Malzahn covets. The Tigers do return just 12 starters this year and have gone 15-11 (6-10 SEC) over the past two seasons since winning the national title. The Tigers should be improved this season, but I’m not as high on them as most.
SEC East Predictions
1st: Tennessee (11-1, 7-1 SEC)
I was huge on the Volunteers last year because they had so much talent back among their 18 returning starters. They were four plays from playing for a national title. They were up 17-3 on Oklahoma in the 4th quarter and lost in double-overtime. They led Florida 27-14 in the 4th before losing 28-27. They led Arkansas 14-0 early but fell 24-20. Alabama needed a TD with 2:24 left to win 19-14. But after their brutal 3-4 start, they won six straight games to close out the season, including a 45-6 trouncing of Northwestern in the bowl. Now the Vols return 17 starters this season and finally are led by mostly upperclassmen. This is the year that Butch Jones’ tremendous recruiting will pay off as the Vols are legitimate national title contenders in 2016.
2nd: Georgia (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
The Bulldogs have been favored to win the SEC East each of the last three seasons, but they’ve come up short each time. Once running back Nick Chubb got hurt last year, their season went in the wrong direction. But Chubb is back this season, and he’ll be playing with a veteran offensive line and an experienced quarterback. The offense is in good shape, and now it’s up to new head coach Kirby Smart to work his magic on the defense, just as he has at Alabama. Georgia has 14 returning starters in all and could challenge the Vols for first place in the East. However, it only gets three true SEC home games this season with the game against Florida played on a neutral field. This is the 2nd-best team in the division, but they aren’t on Tennessee’s level.
3rd: Florida (7-5, 4-4 SEC)
The Gators somehow managed to go 7-1 in SEC play in Jim McElwain’s first season last year while making it to the SEC Championship Game. However, this team had good fortune all season and was way overrated at the end of the year. They nearly lost to Florida Atlantic at home in a 20-14 victory, and then were blown out in three straight games by Florida State (2-27), Alabama (15-29) and Michigan (7-41) in their final four games. I don’t expect them to be as fortunate this year with just 12 returning starters. The Gators do benefit from having only three true SEC road games, but they do draw both LSU and Arkansas from the West. Their 11-game winning streak against Tennessee will come to an end this year in Knoxville.
4th: Missouri (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
The Tigers will once again be loaded on defense as they bring back the entire front 7 among eight returning starters in all. The key will be for head coach Barry Odom to get more out of the offense. It can’t get any worse as Missouri averaged just 9.1 points and 245 yards per game in SEC play last year. Drew Lock is now a sophomore and should be improved after getting his feet wet last year. The offense also gets a boost from the addition of Oklahoma transfer Alex Ross at running back and Alabama transfer Chris Black at receiver. The Tigers will be stronger than last year, but they aren’t going to compete for an SEC East title like they did in 2013 and ’14.
5th: Kentucky (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
The Wildcats are the kings of heartbreak. They’ve only managed to win four conference games total the last four seasons, and that has kept them from making a bowl. They have finished 5-7 in back-to-back seasons, and I believe that will be where they finish up once again in 2016. The offense should put up a sufficient amount of points with nine starters back, but I’m concerned about a defense that loses seven of its top eight tacklers from a year ago. The Wildcats do get two very winnable home games against the two worst teams in the SEC in Vanderbilt and South Carolina. However, I have them losing to Louisville once again in the season finale to keep them from a bowl game.
T-6th: Vanderbilt (4-8, 1-7 SEC)
The Commodores were no easy out last season thanks to a defense that only allowed 21.0 points per game. That defense should be very solid once again with seven starters back and one of the best groups of linebackers in the SEC. The key for Derek Mason and company will be getting more out of their eight returning starters on offense. The Commodores managed just 15.2 points per game overall last season, including 13.3 in conference play. They do open with South Carolina at home, but their other three SEC home games are against Florida, Ole Miss and Tennessee, who were a combined 18-6 in conference play last year. It appears a second straight 4-8 season is in store for this squad.
T-6th: South Carolina (4-8, 1-7 SEC)
The Gamecocks are in full-on rebuilding mode as new head coach Will Muschamp steps into a very tough situation. They went just 3-9 last season and now welcome back only nine starters, making them the least-experienced team in the SEC. On the bright side, the Gamecocks did lose five games by a touchdown or less last season, so they were extremely unfortunate in close games. But they get Texas A&M, Georgia and Tennessee at home this year, which means most of their winnable games are on the road. They have gone 40-10 in their last 50 home games, so if they can pull off a couple upsets, they could surprise and get back to a bowl game. I’m just not seeing it in 2016.
SEC Championship Game: Tennessee Defeats Alabama