BY MICHAEL LEESE
The SEC had won seven consecutive BCS National Championships before Florida State rallied to beat Auburn last season. This year, there are several teams that have a chance. But evaluating the SEC this season is tough, with eight new starting quarterbacks ready to take the field, including several with no starting experience.
ALABAMA Bama fans still can’t believe what they witnessed last year, as Auburn turned a missed game winning field goal attempt into a touchdown in last year’s Iron bowl. The loss set the stage for a disappointing Sugar Bowl performance, losing to Oklahoma. Nick Saban immediately went to work on wrapping up another outstanding recruiting class, and several of those recruits might be contributors this season, as the losses are heavy on the defensive side of the ball. Six starters have moved on including five in the front seven. A.J. Mc Carron, who is the All-Time passing leader at Alabama graduated, leaving a huge void at quarterback. Jake Coker, a Florida State transfer, is poised to take control. He’ll will get the benefit of having T.J. Yeldon and his 1,279 rushing yards and star receiver Amari Cooper return. I think Coker will be just fine and I believe the defense will once again be solid.
ARKANSAS Head Coach Bret Bielema came to Arkansas never having a losing season at Wisconsin. He enters his second season at Arkansas after suffering through a 3-9 campaign. Brandon Allen does return at quarterback, but he had an up and down season and only managed to complete 49-percent of his tosses. The good news is that both Alex Collins and Johnathon Williams both return,after combining to rush for more than 2,000 yards. The defense returns seven starters and should improve over last season. The schedule is tough as they draw Georgia and Missouri from the East, and face Texas Tech in non-conference play. I think it could be another long year in Fayetteville.
AUBURN I was at the Auburn spring game and was able to see first hand the improvement in the passing of Nick Marshall. If he does in the regular season what he did that day, there could be NO stopping the Tigers. The top four receivers return and the offensive line will again be solid. The only loss is Tre Mason, but Corey Grant and Cameron Artis-Payne are more than capable to fill his shoes. Defense might me a bit of an Achilles heel as five starters depart, but there are a number of highly touted recruits on board. I expect the Tigers to be 11-0 heading into the Iron Bowl.
LSU The Tigers have enjoyed four straight 10-win. Les Miles is one of the premier coaches in the country and he recruits as well as anyone. He will need to rely on the staunch recruiting this year as several holes appear all over the roster. The offense losses quarterback Zach Mettenberger, the top three receivers and thousand yard rusher Jeremy Hill! True freshman Brandon Harris looks to take over at quarterback on at the spring game, this kid put on a show ! He has all the poise needed, a golden arm and can tote the rock if needed. Also in the fold are the nation’s top running back recruit Leonard Fornette and star wide receiver Malachi Dupre, and they will both make an impact as true freshmen. The Tigers should have one of the best defenses in the country. The schedule is tough as they open against Wisconsin, and then have to face Auburn and an improved Florida on the road.
MISSISSIPPI The Rebels have everything set up for a magical season! Hugh Freeze is in his third year in Oxford and has done an outstanding job bringing top-flight recruits to the program, and it starts to pay off this year! Quarterback Bo Wallace is poised to possibly be the top signal caller in the league. He threw for 3,346 yards last season, while adding an additional 539 on the ground. The skill positions are also stacked providing Wallace with many weapons. The only question mark on offense is the line, where three new starters must emerge. The defense could well be the top in the league! Nine starters return led by the Nkemdiche brothers. The schedule also sets up well as the Rebels draw Vanderbilt and Tennessee from the east. Be on the lookout for some heavily armed Rebels whistling Dixie!
MISSISSIPPI STATE Don’t sleep on this bunch of Bulldogs. I happened to see this spring game and came away impressed with the development of quarterback Dak Prescott. He led the team in rushing last season with 917 yards, while throwing for 1,940 yards and ten touchdowns. His improvement in the passing game was well apparent in the spring. The Bulldog defense should also be much improved over last season. Eight starters return and the emphasis has been to get bigger and faster. I also like how the schedule sets up. If they can somehow beat Auburn at home in October they could easily win all remaining home games! Look for the Bulldogs to be playing on New Year’s Day this upcoming season.
TEXAS A&M This year will be a test for Kevin Sumlin as a head football coach. There is no more Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel, All-American Wide Receiver Mike Evans or top Running back Ben Malena. Sumlin has some great recruits, including Kyle Allen, the top-rated quarterback coming out of high school last season, and he could well start. Whoever plays quarterback will be able to hand the ball off to Tra Carson, a transfer, and two super wideouts Speedy Noll and Ricky Seals-Jones, who are both freshmen. The Aggies are going to have to ride their defense which returns nine starters. Problem is, this is the same defense that surrendered an astonishing 32.2 PPG a year ago. The schedule is tough as they open on the road at South Carolina, and also travel to Alabama and Auburn.
FLORIDA Last season saw things get downright ugly in The Swamp. The Gators suffered home losses to Vanderbilt, Florida State and Georgia Southern, a FCS school! The offense averaged a pedestrian 18.8 PPG down nearly ten points from a year prior. Will Muschamp brings in highly regarded Kurt Roper to be the new offensive coordinator. He has the benefit of working with Jeff Driskel, the top quarterback recruit out of high school three years ago. I look for Kelvin Taylor to have a breakout season in the backfield, as the sophomore looked fantastic last season. The defense played solid last season despite the fact the offense kept putting them in bad spot, with the secondary my only concern. The schedule is tough as the Gators draw LSU and Alabama from the West, and face Florida State in non-conference play. All in all, I expect a big year from the offense and for the Gators to return to a solid bowl!
GEORGIA The Bulldogs limped to an 8-5 record a year ago. They were snake bitten with season-ending injuries at the running back and receiver positions. This year, those positions are loaded with returning talent. The top four rushers return, led by Todd Gurley, and the top two receivers return. Head coach Mark Richt will call on senior Hutson Mason under center. He has been the backup to Aaron Murray and will finally get his shot! I expect big things from the defense this year, as eight starters return. They should improve dramatically over last year’s 29 PPG allowed. The schedule is manageable and if the Bulldogs stay healthy, it could be a special season in Athens.
KENTUCKY Mark Stoops is also in his second year as an SEC head coach. Last year, the Wildcats finished the year 0-8 in league play and are now 0-16 the past two seasons! This year, UK has 15 returning starters hoping to turn that around. At this writing there was an intense quarterback battle being waged. The winner of the competition will have the benefit of working behind a veteran offensive line and a solid receiving corp. The defense will be the strength of the team, as eight starters return. The secondary returns in tact and could be among the best in the league. I do think the Wildcats get at least one league win, and they could surprise. Stoops does have this program trending in the right direction!
MISSOURI It was a magical run for Pinkel’s Tigers last year. Before the season, there were rumblings that Gary Pinkel’s job could be in jeopardy if he didn’t guide the Tigers to a bowl. I don’t think anyone thought that the Tigers would go 11-1 and get to play in the SEC title game. This year, the personnel losses are heavy for an offense that was good a year ago. Gone are quarterback James Franklin, top rusher Henry Josey, the top three receivers, and two linemen! OUCH. Matty Mauk steps in under center. He did play extensively last season, filling in for an injured Franklin, and it is clear this kid has game. The defense was also hit hard by graduation, with only two of the top seven tacklers return. The secondary could be a real concern. The saving grace for the Tigers is a favorable schedule. They get Indiana and Central Florida at home in non-conference play and draw the two weakest teams from the West.
SOUTH CAROLINA Steve Spurrier has guided the Gamecocks to three straight Top-10 finishes, but he has yet to win the SEC Championship at South Carolina. The Gamecocks lose Quarterback Connor Shaw, a gritty, tough leader. Dylan Thompson steps into the role and he has a better arm, but hasn’t yet displayed the leadership qualities of Shaw. Running Back Mike Davis, returns after rushing for 1,214 yards and 11 scores. They’ll be behind a veteran offensive line that has four starters returning. I expect breakout years for Shaq Roland and Damiere Byrd at receiver. The defensive side of the ball also saw losses, as Jadeveon Clowney took his often maligned game to the NFL (Overall No. 1 Pick), along with the often overlooked Kelcy Quarles and Chaz Sutton. The three combined to form one of the top defensive lines in the country. If Spurrier can find adequate replacements, the Gamecock defense will stay rock solid. I think the Gamecocks are the class of the East Division, and they could start 7-0 before traveling to defending SEC Champion Auburn. If Thompson can provide the leadership and the defense performs, they could contend for a National championship.
TENNESSEE The Vols have not been to a bowl game since 2010, and in the last three years, the Vols have gone 4-20 in SEC play. Butch Jones enters his second season at the helm of the Volunteers, and hope is running high as Jones has added another outstanding recruiting class. The one thing that jumps out this year is that the Vols return ZERO starters on both the offensive and defensive lines! That’s truly amazing if you stop and think it. Quarterback Justin Worley is back, and has plenty of weapons to get the ball too. The Vols schedule is tough, but manageable as they travel to Oklahoma, host Utah State and get Alabama and Ole Miss from the West. They close the season with Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt.
VANDERBILT Losses are heavy for the Commodores as only 10 starters return from last seasons 9-4 squad. The biggest loss however is that of Head Coach James Franklin who moved on to Penn State. Derek Mason was hired from Stanford to replace Franklin. Mason has no head coaching experience, but brings with him a solid resume as a defensive coordinator. The Vandy offense must somehow find a way to replace SEC leading receiver Jordan Mathews. Mathews hauled in an astounding 112 balls for 1,477 yards. Patton Robinette will start at quarterback, with only three previous starts under his belt.The defense also takes a significant hit with the loss of the entire secondary. This will be a year of learning and growth, both on the field and on the sideline.
How they’ll finish
- Alabama 11-1 7-1
- Auburn 11-1 7-1
- Mississippi 9-3 5-3
- LSU 9-3 5-3
- Mississippi State 8-4 4-4
- Arkansas 3-9 0-8
- South Carolina 11-1 7-1
- Georgia 9-3 5-3
- Florida 8-4 5-3
- Missouri 8-4 4-4
- Tennessee 6-6 3-5
- Kentucky 4-8 1-7
- Vanderbilt 4-8 0-8