Every year you hear the arguments for and against it, and it’s going to happen again this year. Whether you agree or not, the SEC is generally accepted as the best conference in college football. And it’s hard to argue with that assessment, for several reasons.
Case #1: Recruiting. In each of the past five seasons, the SEC has had at least five teams in the consensus Top 10 of the recruiting rankings. Most other major conferences didn’t have more than one, and no others had more than two. Success tends to breed success, and the SEC’s recent success has led many of the country’s best high school players to play for SEC schools.
Case #2: TV coverage. The SEC has huge deals with both CBS and ESPN that puts virtually every game on television each week – even games that a lot of people don’t want to watch. For example, the Florida Gators play two of the worst teams in the nation in the first three weeks – Massachusetts and North Texas. Both of those games will get ESPN coverage, on the SEC Network and ESPNU, respectively. If you’re a young player, the knowledge that you’ll be seen by family, fans and pro scouts on a weekly basis carries a lot of weight.
Case #3: Talent. SEC schools don’t just recruit the best high school players in the nation – they groom them for the NFL. In 10 consecutive drafts, the SEC has placed more players into the NFL than any other conference. During that time, SEC schools have combined to send 459 players to the NFL. Next best is the ACC with 339 (26 percent fewer), followed by the Big Ten (323), the Pac-12 (314) and the Big 12 (262). Bottom line – if you make your mark with an SEC football program, you’re going to have a chance at playing on Sundays.
Case #4: Championships. Football greatness is won or lost on the field, and the SEC has done that more than any other in recent years. Of course, if we’re looking at all time, then the Ivy League gets first place with 49 titles. But in the past 10 years, the SEC has won or played for the national championship nine times – winning it in eight of those nine attempts. And in 2011, two SEC teams – Alabama and LSU – played each other for the title.
There are other reasons, but you get the idea. Of course, the rest of the country has ample opportunities each season to knock the SEC off of its pedestal. This year, USC will play Alabama, Florida State plays Mississippi, UCLA plays Texas A&M and Wisconsin plays LSU – in the first week of the season. Want to prove the SEC isn’t all it claims to be? Win those games, and win in the postseason bowl games, too. Until that happens, don’t blame the SEC if it does a little shameless self-promotion as it looks toward more championship possibilities in 2016 and beyond.
- Tennessee (11-2). After this season, there can be no excuses. Butch Jones has done an amazing job at past schools of building – or at least sustaining – winning programs. At Central Michigan, he inherited a MAC championship team from Brian Kelly, and won two more MAC titles in his three years there. He inherited another conference champion team from Kelly again at Cincinnati. After a disastrous first year, Jones returned the Bearcats to the top of the conference for the next two years. But Tennessee has been his biggest challenge. This has been a complete rebuild, with coach Jones getting a program in decline and having to refashion it from the ground up. Tennessee fans are demanding and have wanted the Vols to contend for the SEC, and Jones simply hasn’t done it yet. It probably hasn’t been fair to expect him to do that, but this year, he has the team to deliver at least some of the goods. For the first time, he has a team that has more talented and experienced players than his key rivals. He also catches a Florida program that is a year away from championship mode, and a Georgia team that is finding a new identity with a new coach. And don’t even bring up South Carolina and Will Muschamp. Tennessee has the strongest lineup and the fewest unanswered questions. The result should be at least an East division championship. The Vols bring back an amazing nine starters on offense, including their most important pieces – QB Joshua Dobbs and RB Jalen Hurd. Both of them are pre-season All-SEC picks and should drive a potent Tennessee offense that will be hard to stop. While the Vols need some receivers to step up as bona fide threats, the offensive line will be one of the best in the league. Bottom line: Tennessee is going to score a lot of points this season. But will it stop opponents? We believe so. Seven starters return on defense, including five of the front six, led by DE Derek Bernett and LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin. Running on the Vols will be difficult, though the passing game may be a different story. The lone returning starter – CB Cameron Sutton – is one of the best in the SEC, but the rest of the secondary has some questions. If the Vols can be exploited, it will be there. UT plays Georgia and Texas A&M on the road, but the biggest games – Florida and Alabama – will be played in Knoxville. It’s not beyond imagining to think that Tennessee could make a run at an undefeated regular season. At the very least, this team should be playing in Atlanta in December. If not, count on bigger rumblings from the boosters.
- Florida (10-2). Again, the Gators should be a year away from leading this division. Read – should be. Florida has too many question marks in too many areas to expect that the Gators will contend in 2016. Will Luke Del Rio be the next great quarterback at Florida? Will a solid running back emerge from a the pack? When, if ever, will star WR Antonio Callaway see the field? Will the offensive line – which has a lot of talent – finally step up and block to its potential? That’s a lot of questions, and we think that most of them will be answered to the Gators satisfaction, even if we don’t know how. Del Rio looked phenomenal in Florida’s spring game, and seems to be the guy to lead the Gators into the 2016 season. Florida’s running backs are all very good, but a leader has yet to be identified. The most intriguing is Mack Thompson, whose style is similar to a guy at LSU named Fournette. The receivers are a big question mark – Callaway is the best of the lot, but his status for the season is as yet undetermined. OTs David Sharpe and Martez Ivey are preseason all-conference picks, but Cameron Dillard is moving from guard to center, and both guard slots have to be filled. the Gators’ defense is always a force and seems to be in that mode again this year. DT Caleb Brantley is a monster on the line, and MLB Jarrad Davis is one of the top linebackers in the nation. The ends and the outside have question marks on experience, but not on talent. The secondary is loaded. CB Teez (nee Jalen) Tabor is the best at his position in the country, and SS Marcus Maye hits like a truck. The best news for Florida is that it managed to go 10-2 last year with a great defense and almost no offense – and this year the Gators are absolutely going to have an offense. There’s no way that we can envision Florida scoring a paltry 23.2 like it did a year ago, but it should still have a stingy defense. One of the more intriguing additions to the Gators is PK Eddie Pineiro, who kicked a 77-yard field goal on YouTube. He connected on three out of five long kicks in the spring game – which portends a big improvement for the Gators over their 7-of-17 kicking output in 2015. Five testy games are on the calendar – at Tennessee (Sept. 24), vs. LSU (Oct. 8), vs. Georgia (Oct. 29), at Arkansas (Nov. 5) and at Florida State (Nov. 26). The Gators could lose all five or win all five. How many depends on how many questions get answered, and how quickly the answers arrive.
- Georgia (10-2). Georgia is banking that its hire of a defensive coordinator with no head coaching experience will work out better than the same strategy has for at least one other football program. Typically, coordinators – even great ones – get hired by lower level programs, where they work out their kinks and develop a winning, or losing, track record. The winning ones get hired by bigger schools. The losing ones usually go back to being coordinators. The Dawgs benefitted from a rival bucking that trend. Twice, the Florida Gators hired a defensive coordinator with no head coaching experience to be the next great coach. Twice, those coaches were basically run out of town. Now, Georgia has followed that same trend, hiring former Alabama DC Kirby Smart to replace Mark Richt as their head coach. Note: Richt was winning when he got fired. Smart isn’t inheriting a losing program that’s in need of rebuilding. Thus, expectations for Smart to win immediately will be very high in Athens. Problem: While he might win a lot of games in 2016, we don’t think he’ll win the one thing the fans want – a trip to the SEC Championship Game. Defensively, Smart might be able to spin up a good unit, even with only three starters returning. New starting LB Lorenzo Carter will be one of the SEC’s better men on the outside, and FS Dominique Sanders will lock down most receivers. But the entire line will feature new faces, and some of those might not be shaving yet. Aside from Carter, the linebacking corps has question marks as well. The offense, on the other hand, has a ton of starters returning and should be potent. Our biggest question mark on offense comes at coordinator. Jim Chaney will run the offense for Smart in Year One, but we haven’t been overly impressed with the offenses he ran in the past. Against lesser competition, Chaney’s units put up gaudy numbers. But against solid defenses, they’d shown that they can be shut down. Georgia will run the ball early and often with RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, but will the Dawgs pass effectively enough to beat teams like North Carolina, Ole Miss, Tennessee, Florida and Auburn? We’re not so sure. True freshman QB Jacob Eason seems to be the choice to lead the offense, but he has no proven leaders at receiver. The line has a couple of holes but should be solid. We still see Georgia winning its share of games this year – about like Richt did a year ago. Which might make you wonder – why did they fire him in the first place?
- Vanderbilt (5-7). You might expect to see Missouri or South Carolina in this slot. But those two teams are fairly overrated by most this year, and Vanderbilt is fairly underrated. The Commodores, while losing a lot of talent from last season, still brings back a solid number of young players. And after two years on the losing side of things with coach Derek Mason, Vanderbilt is edging closer to being a winning team again. QB Kyle Shurmur gets the reins of the offense; the last we saw of him, he was on the losing end against Tennessee in last year’s finale, but that was in spite of a three-touchdown performance against the Vols. RB Ralph Webb is a preseason All-SEC selection and should at least match last year’s total of more than 1,100 yards. WR Trent Sherfield is a quality receiver, but the ‘Dores lack a bona fide playmaker there. The biggest concern is the line, which lost three starters and will likely have a lot of struggles. Even with a lot of questions, Vanderbilt should easily eclipse last season’s benchmarks. Going lower would be difficult. The Commodores ranked 123rd in scoring offense and 116th in total offense. The biggest worry for Vandy is the defense, which ranked 22nd in scoring in 2015, but brings back only five starters in 2016. CB Torren McGaster is probably the best of the bunch, but this may be a defense in search of a new identity. That doesn’t mean the defense will be in a tailspin – just don’t expect the ‘Dores to hold opponents to 21 ppg as it did a year ago. We have projected only five wins, but this is also installment No. 4 of “Losing Team Goes to a Bowl Game.” Vandy actually has a shot at eight wins if the Commodores dial up their intensity and don’t lose focus. When Vanderbilt enters November, outright bowl eligibility will be on the line. But we think that even with just five wins, there will be a bowl position open for the Commodores.
- Kentucky (5-7). No matter what happens in the SEC or in college football this season, mark this down – Mark Stoops will not be the coach at Kentucky in 2017. In his first three seasons, Stoops has been just 12-24, including back-to-back 5-7 seasons. This year, Kentucky absolutely must find a way to climb into the world of the winning. Unfortunately for Stoops and the Wildcats, a desire and will to win doesn’t equate to actual wins. At least not often enough for it to matter to the football team. If there’s hope for Kentucky, it’s on offense, where the ‘Cats return nine starters. The big question mark is at quarterback, where sophomore Drew Barker will take the snaps. Everyone else – other than one offensive lineman – is back, including RB Boom Williams, who has the potential to exceed 1,000 yards. Kentucky will be strong at wide receiver, where both Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson have shown promise. The front could be fairly solid, and C Jon Toth is a preseason All-SEC pick. Even with the young QB, an improvement over last year’s poor output is likely. Kentucky lost a lot of depth on defense, and brings back only three starters – and only one in the front seven. That could spell trouble, because the Wildcats were already weak against the run, ranking 96th nationally last season. Seven underclassmen are scheduled to start on Kentucky’s defense, so that appears to add up to a painful rebuilding year on that side of the ball. (Please note: We still see Kentucky as installment No. 5 of “Losing Team Goes to a Bowl Game.” There are simply too many bowl games to expect that there will be 80 teams out of 128 with winning or break-even records.)
- Missouri (4-8). Life without Gary Pinkel isn’t going to be easy. At least not at first. Pinkel, who left as Missouri’s all-time winningest coach, will be replaced by first-time coach Barry Odom, who was previously the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. (A little bonus trivia for you – Pinkel was also Toledo’s all-time winningest coach at Toledo. That places him in select company – Bear Bryant and Steve Spurrier are the only others to retire having won the most games at two FBS programs.) Odom has coached some good defenses, including last year’s Tigers, who ranked 5th nationally in scoring. But taking the Tigers to the next level sans Pinkel will be difficult for the young coach, especially with just 10 returning starters. It will also be difficult if Odom limits the offense, as he appears set to do, to be focus on the ground game. Missouri enters the season without a proven running back, and with only one returning starter on the line. Conversely, the Tigers have a proven starting QB – Drew Luck – and a gaggle of experienced receivers. Missouri scored just 13.8 ppg a year ago. With not enough experience returning, and with an odd focus on offense, it’s actually possible the Tigers won’t do much better this year. Don’t expect too much drop-off from the defense. Eight starters are back from last season’s intense unit, which held opponents to 16.2 ppg. DE Charles Harris and DT Josh Augusta have great potential on the line, which will be the heart of the unit. Two of three linebackers return, as does half of the secondary, which also ranked 5th nationally against the pass. There aren’t a ton of stars on the defense, but the Tigers manage to get the job done. If Missouri is to even sniff a winning record in 2016, the defense will have to continue getting it done, because we don’t anticipate a lot of points being scored in Columbia. The season opener against West Virginia will tell us a lot about the Tigers, and particularly about whether our suspicions about Odom’s offensive strategy are on target.
- South Carolina (4-8). There are some mysteries in the universe that will forever go unsolved. Did the universe truly start with a Big Bang? What is the identity of Jack the Ripper? Are the Loch Ness Monster and Yeti real or fake? And, my personal favorite, how in the heck did Will Muschamp land another head coaching job in the SEC after the dumpster fire he left at Florida? More importantly, what possessed South Carolina to overlook all of the available evidence – and all of the qualified, available candidates, and hire Muschamp to lead the Gamecocks. We simply don’t get it – and we likely never will. Muschamp’s stranglehold on Florida’s offense burned through three offensive coordinators in four years. None of the three – all of whom came to Florida with a good pedigree – could muster an offense worth a bucket of warm spit. Amazingly, one of those OCs – Kurt Roper – will share coordinating duties with Bryan McClendon, who was previously Georgia’s running game coordinator. The ‘Cocks winged the ball around a bit in the spring game, but it’s hard to imagine that, when the games start, Muschamp will do anything other than he’s done in the past. That is, run the ball, manage the clock and try to win with defense. That strategy cost Muschamp the job at Florida and ironically, is exactly what allowed South Carolina to beat the Gators in overtime in 2014 – which, in turn, sealed Muschamp’s fate. Now, he almost certainly carries that mindset into a situation where there are still high expectations, but less talent. Nine starters are back from last year’s 3-9 team that couldn’t score and struggled to stop others from scoring. QB Perry Orth was adequate, at best, at running the offense, and had big problems with accuracy. If he is not the starter, then the Gamecocks will be going with a freshman under center. A committee is the likely option at running back, as no proven starter has emerged. WR Pharoh Cooper has left the building, so receiver is also a variable. Two starters are back on the line, and of the three new starters, two will likely be sophomores. With so many questions on offense, it’s hard to imagine a scenario that reveals much improvement over last season. Muschamp’s savvy with defense should pay off (even though it didn’t do that for Auburn in 2015). Still, he might have to work some magic, since his one bona fide star – Skai Moore – was lost for the season when a nagging neck injury failed to heal. That leaves the Gamecocks with only four returnees on defense – and without their heart and soul on that side of the ball. Still, there is enough depth and experience on defense that Muschamp’s intensity might just bring a little transformation there. The schedule should pave the way for a halfway decent team to earn a winning record. But this offense isn’t halfway decent. It’s bad. That makes road games at places like Vanderbilt, Mississippi State and Kentucky, plus home games against East Carolina, Texas A&M and Missouri, more challenging than they should be. Until Muschamp proves otherwise, we’re going to mark this season down as rebuilding, at best.
- LSU (12-1). The drama that played out in Baton Rouge last year was a bit surreal. After a couple of less-than-stellar years, the Tigers appeared ready to cut loose Les Miles – the man who had won more games than any other LSU coach, and who had won a higher percentage of his games than all of his predecessors. Is Miles perfect? Absolutely not. But does he win on a regular basis? Absolutely. Only after a sensing a revolt by fans and players did the administration give Miles a vote of confidence – that probably bought him one more year. If he doesn’t deliver the goods this year, right or wrong, the Tigers will have a new coach by the new year. We believe that this is his year. A strong combination of talent and experience will take the field on opening day in Green Bay, Wis. – and we believe this team will be one of four that makes the College Football Playoff. At the top of the list is RB Leonard Fournette, who is one of the leading Heisman candidates entering the season. He will take his handoffs from QB Brandon Harris, who was unspectacular, but effective, last season. A solid duo of receivers – Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural – will make attractive targets. And the line brings back both guard and the center – Ethan Pocic – who is the best in the conference. Exceeding last year’s output of 32.8 ppg seems a foregone conclusion. The defensive side is even stronger. Nine starters return from a unit that struggled at times and was one of the weakest during Miles’ tenure. This season should see improvement from the line, led by DT Davon Godchaux, while the secondary might be the best in the SEC, led by CB Tre’Davious White and SS Jamal Adams. The only place that could be troublesome is linebacker, but LSU is deep enough there to alleviate any concerns. With this level of talent, the schedule becomes one of the biggest areas of focus – and LSU plays it’s two biggest divisional games – Alabama and Ole Miss – in Baton Rouge. The road games are all winnable, though we think that in the midst of a brutal SEC schedule the Tigers will drop one of those – at Auburn, Florida, Arkansas or Texas A&M.
- Alabama (10-2). Can you remember the last time Alabama wasn’t in first or second place in the SEC West? How about the last time the Tide didn’t win at least 10 games? No? Most people can’t, because it’s been a while for both of those, and that’s because Nick Saban has done something that only the legendary Bear Bryant has done – put Alabama at the top of the college football world with virtually no drop-off. (To answer those questions – Alabama finished 10-3 and in 4th in the West in 2010, and it finished 7-6 in Saban’s first season, 2007 – though five of those wins were vacated by the NCAA.) This year, the only thing keeping the Tide from topping the West on our list is playing on the road at LSU. Aside from that, we see Alabama as having every opportunity to return to the SEC title game, and also to the CFP. Even with just nine starters returning, Alabama is once again loaded at most positions. (That happens when you annually recruit the best players in the nation.) The f0cus this year will be on two new starters – whoever starts at quarterback and RB Bo Scarbrough. Both are anticipated to provide much of the spark on offense. Scarbrough was the 2nd ranked RB and is built much like Derrick Henry. Meanwhile, two QBs are battling for the starting job – Cooper Bateman and Jalen Hurts. Their styles are very different (Bateman is pro-style, while Hurts is dual-threat), but ‘Bama can’t go wrong with either one, and both might play in the first two to three games. If poth positions get close to expectations, ‘Bama shouldn’t have much drop-off on offense. WR Calvin Ridley is likely the next great Alabama receiver, and the line brings back three starters and reloads in the other two spots. The defense isn’t likely to be as vaunted as last year’s unit, but should still be good enough to stymie most offenses. The Tide has all-conference hopefuls in each area of the defense – DE Jonathan Allen, LBs Tim Williams and Reuben Foster, CB Minkah Fitzpatrick and SS Eddie Jackson. The blessing of a strong recruiting pipeline is that there are rarely rebuilding years. Alabama will get tested on opening day in Arlington, Texas, against USC, and plays two weeks later at Ole Miss. The other two key matchups also come on the road – at Tennessee (Oct. 15) and at LSU (Nov. 5).
- Ole Miss (9-3). There is only one reason that we place Ole Miss this much higher than both Auburn and Arkansas – both of which are expected to field decent teams in 2016. Chad Kelly. That’s it. The Rebels only bring back eight starters – four on each side of the ball – and could easily be expected to drop off significantly. Even with solid experience at other positions, there’s no way that Ole Miss should be expected to match last year’s success – unless they have a game-changer on offense. And they do. Kelly led the SEC last season in both passing yards and TDs, and has the ability to transform a game with a single throw. Of course, Kelly will need a new prime target now that Laquon Treadwell is playing on Sundays. Several talented candidates are available, though none, as yet have separated from the pack. Two leaders were battling for the starting RB, though Jordan Wilkins has since been ruled academically ineligible, leaving the job to senior Akeem Judd. The line is the biggest project, with only C Sean Rawlings returning. A number of experienced players will fill the void, but building a cohesive line may take time. Last year’s defensive unit was one of the more successful in Ole Miss history, but seven starters have been lost from that group, leaving the Rebels fairly inexperienced everywhere but at defensive end. There is a fair amount of first-rate talent, and the Ole Miss defense may return to its form from two years ago, when it allowed just 16 ppg. But this isn’t that year. If the Rebels shock Florida State in Orlando on opening day, then the game changes considerably. Ole Miss has a testy early home schedule with Alabama and Georgia. After that, the game at LSU on Oct. 22 will help shape the SEC West.
- Auburn (7-5). Auburn simply has to get better at some point. The Tigers have recruited more talent than all but two other SEC schools during Gus Malzahn’s tenure, but the results simply haven’t materialized. Malzahn’s first season raised expectations considerably when he led the Tigers (aided by Chris Davis and a miracle ending to the Iron Bowl) to the last BCS Championship game. Since then, Auburn has gone 15-11 and just 6-10 in the SEC. To say that the natives are restless would be a massive understatement. Depending on who you talk to, Malzahn is at or near the top of the “hot seat” list – and we tend to agree. Auburn is 4-10 against the teams it plays every year – the SEC West plus Georgia – and last year finished dead last in the division. A big improvement is needed this season to guarantee that Malzahn will return in 2017, but we simply don’t see a big improvement on the horizon. Both coordinators – OC Rhett Lashlee and DC Kevin Steele – are decent at assembling good units. But they’re not great. And Auburn needs great this year. Steele’s offense gets six returning starters, seven if you include QB Sean White, who started four games last season as a freshman. White showed promise, but only threw 1 TD last year. The Tigers will definitely favor the run, and RB Jovon Robinson leads a number of talented backs who will share the load. Auburn’s line will probably be the heart of the offense, and OGs Braden Smith and Alex Kovan will help form a strong foundation for a experienced front. On defense, Steele inherits just five starters, three of which are on the line. DT Montravious Adams is easily the best player on that side of the ball, and will help both clog running lanes and put pressure on the passer. The secondary, on the other hand, could be vulnerable, and both starting linebackers will be new. In close games, Auburn’s placekicker – Daniel Carlson – could make the difference. He’s one of the best in the country. The Tigers could make a splash or be exposed in the season opener at home vs. Clemson. After that, Texas A&M, LSU and Arkansas will all visit Auburn. The second-half road schedule is a bear, with games at Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama.
- Arkansas (6-6). Bret Bielema did an absolutely amazing job at Arkansas – at least after the first four games of the season. Somehow, the Razorbacks found a way to lose three straight to Toledo, Texas Tech and Texas A&M – all teams that the Hogs really should have beaten. That game against A&M is an interesting dividing line for both teams. After Arkansas lost that game in overtime, it went 7-2 the rest of the way, including a win in the Liberty Bowl. Texas A&M, on the other hand, went in a different direction. (More on that in the next team preview.) And while improvement on the team may happen this season, we might not see it reflected in the record. To start with, Arkansas must rebuild virtually its entire offense, as only three starters return. The biggest hit comes at quarterback, where Brandon Allen – the most efficient passer last year in the SEC – has moved on to the NFL. In his place will be another Allen – Austin, Brandon’s little brother, who was actually more sought after as a high school player. It’s possible there won’t be much drop-off at quarterback, but there could be at least a slight lapse at running back. RB Kody Walker might have a breakout season as a senior, but it will hard to completely replace Alex Collins and his 20 TDs and almost 1,600 yards. WR Drew Morgan will lead a talented group of receivers, but the line might have issues. Only three starters return, and the three new starters are projected to all be underclassmen. OT Dan Skipper will be the anchor and leader in the line that helps it gel. While the offense adjusts, the defense may be ready to step up. Eight starters return from last year’s unit – five of the front six and three in the secondary. DE Deatrich Wise Jr. should flourish in full-time starting duty, and CB Jared Collins is one of the better shut-down corners in the league. If the Hogs can steal an upset or two or three, they could make big waves in the West. They get Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida and LSU, and could play a spoiler in one or more of those games.
- Texas A&M (6-6). Even higher on the “hot seat” list than Gus Malzahn may be Kevin Sumlin. After a surprising first year that saw Sumlin and the Aggies finish 11-2 and No. 5 in the country, the program has seemed to progressively step backwards. Texas A&M has won 25 games in the past three years, including last season’s 8-5 finish and loss in the Music City Bowl. Remember that dividing line game with Arkansas? While the Razorbacks went 7-2 thereafter, the Aggies went 4-5 after that. The culprit is an offense that has been sagging for the past three years. The Aggies averaged more than 44 ppg in Sumlin’s first two seasons, but fell to 35.2 ppg and 27.8 the last two years. To solve the offense, the Aggies have brought in Noel Mazzone from UCLA. The odd thing is that his offenses also sagged in the past two seasons. QB Trevor Knight – a graduate transfer from Oklahoma – will helm the offense, but his greatest role might be handing the ball off to a committee of running backs. When the Aggies air it out, they’ll have their top two receivers back – Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds. The pair combined for close to 2,000 yards in 2015. The line will be fairly inexperienced and very young, as three underclassmen are slated to start. The defense will likely need to make up the difference. Six starters are back from last year’s unit, which was stellar against the pass but terrible against the run. The unquestioned star of the defense is DE Myles Garrett – ours, and most other people’s, pick for SEC Defensive POY. He led the SEC in both TFLs and sacks in 2015, and will need an even bigger year if the Aggies have a chance at even matching last season’s eight wins. He and Daeshon Hall will make a formidable pair of defensive ends, but the center of the line may need time to grow. Three return in the secondary, which helped the Aggies rank 4th in the nation against the pass. The season opener at home against UCLA will reveal a lot, but we simply don’t see that the Aggies have much of a ceiling beyond eight games, and that our predicted six is more realistic.
- Mississippi State (4-8). Dan Mullen has quickly become the third all-time winningest coach at Mississippi State, but to find the coach who led the Bulldogs during their glory days, you have to go a ways back. To the 1940s, to be specific. Allyn McKeen coached MSU to its only SEC title in 1941. Since then, the Bulldogs have most often occupied a space right near the bottom of the SEC. Mullen has brought an era of exception to that rule with six straight winning seasons. We see a break in that trend, at least for one year. On the positive side, there are 13 returning starters (seven on offense, six on defense), but the biggest missing piece is also the one that was most valuable to the team – QB Dak Prescott, who may end up starting in Dallas after the injury to Tony Romo. With less than a week before opening day, Mullen has yet to name a replacement, but regardless of who it is, there will be a definite gap between last season and this season at the position. Running back looks to be a committee task, with RB Brandon Holloway the leader of the group. The biggest playmaker on offense is WR Fred Ross, who can be special when he gets the ball in space. The line returns three starters and may take some time to develop. Six return on defense, and will need to stay close to last season’s total of 23.2 ppg if the Bulldogs are to have a chance at another winning record. Three return from the front seven, but MSU lacks proven playmakers in that group either against the run or the pass. The secondary is more experienced, with three returning starters, led by safeties Kevon Coman and Brandon Bryant, who combined for 139 tackles last year. The Bulldogs were weak against the run last season, and better against the pass. A continuation of that trend appears likely. The radical shift in offensive leadership is the basis of our prediction for MSU. There are at least eight, and perhaps nine, winnable games on the schedule if the defense tightens up and the offense develops ahead of schedule. Primary candidates for upsets (at least by our reckoning) are home games against Auburn, Texas A&M and Arkansas, and road games at BYU and Kentucky.
Bowl teams: LSU, Tennessee, Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Ole Miss, Auburn, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt, Kentucky.
Offensive player of the year: Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
Defensive player of the year: Myles Garrett, LB, Texas A&M
Coach of the year: Les Miles, LSU
Tomorrow: 2016 Top 128
Copyright © 2016 Doug DeBolt