Things were pretty much status quo in the SEC last year with Alabama running roughshod through it’s schedule before losing the National Championship on the final play of the game against a revenge minded Clemson outfit. Despite the loss, you could argue that this was the best Crimson Tide edition under the Saban regime as the Tide rolled to 14 straight wins including beating three Top Ten ranked teams on the road. Bama returns just 11 starters but sophomore QB Jalen Hurts has a full year under his belt and the Tide will be favored in every game.
Last year in the SEC East, the 9-4 Florida Gators won a trip to Atlanta for a ceremonial spanking at the hands of Alabama after preseason favorites Georgia and Tennessee failed to fire. The 8-5 Bulldogs were riddled with injuries in Kirby Smart’s first year while the 9-4 Vols opened the season 5-0 before dropping three straight and losing to in their regular season finale. Kentucky and Vanderbilt showed modest improvement while South Carolina showed growing pains in Will Muschsmps first year. Missouri returns 10 on offense and is the only FBS team to return a 3000 yard passer, a 100 yard rusher, and a 1000 yard receiver.
Alabama will once again be the prohibitive favorite in the West but could be as vulnerable to upset as they have been in recent years with just five back on defense. The Orgeron hire at LSU was a huge get for the Tigers. “Coach Ed” is an excellent recruiter and will open up the offense in a way that the Bayou Bengal fans have not seen in decades. Kevin Sumlin is in the hotseat at Texas A&M and will need to beat a couple of the big dogs and avoid a second half collapse that has plagued the team the last couple of years. Arkansas and both Mississippi schools are down and look to escape the basement in arguably the toughest conference division in college football.
Everything that could possibly go wrong for the Bulldogs in 2016 did as the team was decimated with injuries. If healthy, Nick Chubb is a top five back in the country and QB Jacob Eason has a cannon for an arm and should be much better with a year under his belt. Ten returning defensive starters sets Georgia up for a big year.
For the past couple of years, the Gators have gotten by on opportunistic defensive play to compensate for shaky quarterback play. Gainesville will always have quality kids but this year return just five defensive starters and it looks like a redshirt freshman will win the job at quarterback. Jim McElwain is an elite coach but until he can produce an offense that can score points on a consistent basic, Florida will be an also ran in the SEC.
We’re beginning to think at Tennessee under Butch Jones is what it is, an 8-4 team team that will flex every couple years and just not wins when it counts. That might be good enough for other programs (and the Vols have won their Bowl games convincingly the last three years) but not enough at Old Rockytop. Jones has seven and seven back this year but an opener against Georgia Tech on a neutral field and at Florida and at Bama plus LSU has us thinking 8-5 again.
Mark Stoops likely saved is job the final week of the 2016 season by beating Louisville as a 27-point dog and getting Bowl eligible for the first time since 2010. The Cats return 17 starters and have a schedule condusive to success with all their tough games at home and every road game winnable other than possibly Georgia. Wouldn’t be shocked to see UK improve a game or two this year, pull another shocker and go bowling in B2B years for the first time in a long time.
We’re not very high on Will Muschamp as a coach and the Gamecocks really were not as good as their 6-7 record last year. With 16 returning starters back including 10 on offense, the other USC will have their chances but a very tough front loaded schedule could have South Carolina 2-5 or 1-6 headed into their bye week with Georgia, Florida and Clemson still on the back end.
Derek Mason is doing some nice things in Nashville and he returns 16 starters from last year’s Independence Bowl team. The schedule maker didn’t do the Commodores any favors with a trip to Middle Tennessee to open the season.
Vandy then faces a very tough Kansas State team at home before facing the SEC gauntlet of Bama, at Florida, and Georgia. Vandy will need take care of business after their bye and possibly win at Tennessee to get Bowl eligible for the second straight year.
For the first time in a long time, Mizzou will bring back a formidable offense capable for putting points on the board. That said, they won’t have the stifling gritty defense they’ve been accustomed to the last five years that has kept them in games they probably shouldn’t have been in. The Tigers are fortunate to only get Auburn and Arkansas out of the West and play Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho and UConn non-conference and could surprise.
Saban will have his work cut out for him this year with the Tide opening vs. Florida State but with just 11 starters back will have the benefit of just four true road games and catching only Tennessee and and Vandy out of the East. Mercer, Fresno State and Colorado State (all at home) make up a fluffy non-conference run after the Sems. The Tide plays rival LSU off a bye and with the back end of the West all down this year, Bama figures to be in the National Championship hunt again.
Baton Rouge can expect nothing but good things after the Ed Orgeron hire. He’s a monster recruiter, an elite defensive line coach, the kids love him and he’s one of their own. Orgeron should have gotten the USC job after Lane Kiffin was fired and he’ll be on a mission here. RB Derrius Guice is close to being Leonard Fournette good the Bayou Bengals will have people in that can throw the ball around. No more 17-13 slobber-knockers at Tiger Stadium for the foreseeable future.
Tiger HC Gus Malzahn has used up his equity and is squarely in the hot seat this year. That said, there is a pretty good core of 15 returning starters and with a win on September 9th at Clemson, could be 6-0 heading into their October 14th showdown at LSU. The schedule is tough with roadies at Clemson, LSU and A&M and then hosting Georgia and Alabama in two of the final three weeks of the season. Auburn is a team that could have 10 wins or 7/8 wins just as easily. The Clemson game is the key.
Also on the hot seat is A&M coach Kevin Sumlin but that has been te case the last several years. There has been internal strife within the program for years and the Aggies have been unable to keep their quarterbacks. A&M is 14-8 on the SEC road under Sumlin but have just three true conference road games (at Florida, at LSU) and are just 3-7 at College Station the last three years. The Aggies will be solid but that might not be enough for Sumlin to keep his job with the Aggie faithful out of patience.
It’s going to be a tough year in Fayetteville as 2017 figures to be a down year for the Razorbacks. The Hogs return just 12 starters and very little else other than senior starting quarterback Austin Allen. The usually staunch Razor DC has moved on to Minnesota so the stop unit takes a big hit there. Arkansas has just three conference home games but a non-conference schedule of Florida A&M, New Mexico State, and Coastal Carolina could be enough to get the Razors to six wins and a fourth straight Bowl appearance.
It seems like every year that Mississippi State is picked last in the SEC West and every year the team exceeds expectations. That said, this year there is no Dak Prescott, no Landshark defense and just 13 returning starters from a mediocre squad that just snuck by Miami, Ohio 17-16 in their St Petersburg. Bowl. This year, with La Tech and BYU on the non-conference slate, expect to see the Bulldogs run of seven straight Bowls to come to an end.
This will be a building year for the Rebels who are on a self-imposed Bowl ban and return just 11 starters. Hugh Freeze will have a lot of work to do to put Ole Miss in position to compete in 2018. The Rebs open with South Alabama, UT Martin and at Cal so they could be 3-0 before an off week and then trips to Bama (Rebs always give the Tide fits) and Auburn. Freeze can coach but in this spot, .500 would have to be considered a successful season.