Last year, Alabama boat raced the SEC and college football in route to a 14-0 regular season mark before falling to Clemson on the final play of the National Championship game rematch. Things don’t figure to be as easy for the Crimson Tide as top to bottom the SEC has improved and Saban has only 11 returning starters back in the fold. In the East, Georgia looks like a break out team in its second year under Kirby Smart. Florida and Tennessee are always dangerous and Kentucky, South Carolina, and Vandy have improved to the point that they could upset on any given Saturday. In the West, LSU will feature a new more wide open offense under Ed Ogeron. Auburn and Texas A&M will play the role of wounded animal as Gus Malzahn and Kevin are reportedly both coaching for their jobs. It will for sure be an interesting year in a much more wide open SEC.
Jeff Allen’s SEC East Preview
The Bulldogs need to avoid the injuries that plagued them throughout 2016. Georgia features a defense with 10 returning starters. The offense features it’s top three backs from last year including Nick Chubb and Sony Michel who have rushed for 5800+ yards and 48 touchdowns between them. If healthy, Georgia is the team to beat in the East.
The Gators are a question mark at this point after the most recent spate of suspensions. Since the Tim Tebow era, Florida has been carried by a staunch defense and handcuffed by offenses without quarterbacks. This year, the Gators return just five defensive starters and a freshman quarterback will run the offense. Jim McElwain is an excellent coach that gets quality kids but will really have to coach up this bunch.
Going 8-5 and winning your bowl works great in some places but not at Knoxville where nothing less than a National Championship run will do. Last year was supposed to be THE year for Butch Davis but a second half collapse has left the Vol faithful seething. Road games at Florida, Alabama and LSU plus a neutral field nonconference opener against a very tough Georgia Tech outfit will be tough to overcome.
An upset of Louisville in the season finale propelled the Wildcats to their first bowl since 2010 and likely saved Marks Stoops job. He’ll reap the benefits of another year as the Cat schedule and 17 returning starters has UK set up for a big year. It is not inconceivable for Kentucky to have 8-9 wins prior to season finales at Georgia and hosting a revenge minded Louisville.
5th: South Carolina
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.
The Commodores had a nice year in 2016 in getting to the Independence Bowl. It will be tough for Derek Mason to repeat that feat this year with a brutal conference and nonconference schedule. Vandy opens with a very tough spot at Middle Tennessee State and hosts a Kansas State team expected to contend in the Big 12. Despite 16 returning starters, getting bowl eligible would be a good season in Nashville.
This year’s edition of the Tigers will be polar opposite of what we have come to expect in recent years out of Columbia. Mizzou will feature a wide open offense that can score some points but the defense will be nothing like the staunch outfits that have kept them in games over the last five years. Missouri will have to beat Missouri State, Purdue, and UConn in their nonconference play as it’s hard to find many wins in the SEC where the Tigers have gone 3-13 the last two years.
Jeff Allen’s SEC West Preview
As previously mentioned, Alabama has its hands full and gets tested right off the bat with Florida State in Atlanta. The Tide has just 11 starters back but one of them is a supremely gifted sophomore QB in Jalen Hurts who will be a year better after getting 2016 under his belt.. The rest of the schedule is very manageable with Fresno State, and Colorado State outside the SEC and the annual showdowns with LSU comes after a bye week and with Auburn, after Mercer.
Ed Orgeron was a great hire. He’s from Louisiana and one of the best recruiters in the country. He’s brought in Matt Canada who was responsible for the Pitt Panther’s offensive resurgence after prior stops at NC State and Wisconsin. He’ll have a stud back in Derrius Guice to replace Leonard Fournette. Dave Aranda is back as the DC and Orgeron is a brilliant defensive line coach in his own right. A home win over Auburn in mid-October could find the Bayou Bengals 8-0 headed to Tuscaloosa on November 4th.
The Tigers are always in that wild card spot and a team that could upset the SEC apple cart. HC Gus Malzahn is feeling the heat in his fifth year at the controls. Fifteen starters return and overall, the team comes back with a lot of experience. That said, Auburn has a brutal road schedule that includes a nonconference trip to Clemson and then roadies at LSU and Texas A&M. The Tigers catch Georgia out of the East and also host rival Alabama in the Iron Bowl. It remains to be seen if 8-9 wins will be enough to buy Malzahn another year.
4th: Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin is another coach on the hot seat after three straight 8-5 years. The program has had internal problems and is seemingly unable to keep some of the talented quarterbacks that they’ve brought in after Johnny Manziel. Adding to the problem is the Aggies 3-7 conference home record the last three years. Very doable road wins at UCLA and at Florida and a split with the Alabama teams could give Sumlin that 10 win season he so desperately needs.
In a conference where you are only as good as your last winning season, Bret Bielema is another coach who will be feeling the heat if he isn’t already. This figured to be a down year for the Razorbacks who return just 12 starters so their non-conference schedule of Florida A&M, New Mexico State, and Coastal Carolina is a welcome relief. Arkansas has just three true conference home games and wins against Mississippi State and Missouri late will be critical.
6th: Mississippi State
Dan Mullen has done miracles at Mississippi State but this year it looks like the clock has struck 12 for this bunch of chronic overachievers. Just 13 starters return from last year’s smoke and mirrors team that lost to South Alabama and made it to a bowl at 5-7 and then escaped a MAC team 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl. MSU will likely be a dog to La Tech and BYU and their chances of going bowling for an eighth straight year are slim at best.
7th: Ole Miss
The Hugh Freeze fiasco was the final dagger for a Rebel team that would have been in a building year regardless. Matt Luke will serve as the interim coach and has strong ties to the program as a former walk on offensive lineman. His father Tommy was a DB for the Rebels in the 60’s. The game plan will likely be to go 4-0 in non-conference play with the game at Cal the most difficult. If Ole Miss could then go 2-2 vs. Vandy, Arkansas, Kentucky and Mississippi State, 6-6 could land Luke the job as Oxford is not considered an elite job and there won’t likely be a Chip Kelly or Les Miles walking in the door anytime soon.