SEC Preview by Michael Leese

BIG QUESTIONS

  • Is this the year to pick on the Crimson Tide?
  • Can Tennessee win the East?
  • Will the Gators get their “Chomps” back?
  • Will an SEC team make the College Football Playoff?
  • Is it, “Now or never,” for the Rebels?
  • Will the Gamecocks be sitting home Bowl Week?

BIG GAMES

  • September 19         Auburn at LSU
  • October 3                Arkansas at Tennessee, Mississippi at Florida
  • November 5            Mississippi State at Missouri
  • November 7           LSU at Alabama
  • November 14         Georgia at Auburn, Florida at South Carolina
  • November 21          Tennessee at Missouri
  • November 28         Alabama at Auburn, Texas A&M at LSU, Missouri at Arkansas

BIG IMPACT NEWCOMERS

  • Alabama   Robert Foster – WR
  • Arkansas  Bijhon Jackson – NG
  • Auburn  Jeremy Johnson – QB
  • Florida Martez Ivey – T
  • Georgia   Brice Ramsey – QB
  • Kentucky  C.J. Conrad – TE
  • LSU   Jamal Adams – S
  • Mississippi   D. J. Jones – NG
  • Mississippi State  Donald Gray – WR
  • Missouri  Clay Rhodes – T
  • South Carolina  Connor Mitch – QB
  • Tennessee Kahill McKenzie – DT
  • Texas A&M  Christian Kirk – WR
  • Vanderbilt  Jay Woods – NG

BIG COACHING HIRES  

  • Florida            Jim McElwain, head football coach
  • Arkansas        Dan Enos, offensive coordinator
  • Auburn          Will Muschamp, defensive coordinator
  • Georgia          Brian Shottenheimer,  offensive coordinator
  • Missouri        Barry Odum, defensive coordinator
  • Texas A&M    John Chavis, defensive coordinator
  •  Vanderbilt     Andy Ludwig, offensive coordinator

TEAM-BY-TEAM

The West Division

AUBURN       When Florida fired Will Muschamp, the Tigers wasted little time in securing his services.    His hiring could well be the ticket to another national championship party.  Muschamp, a defensive wizard, will put an immediate stamp on a defense that features plenty of high-end talent.  He’ll have eight returning starters to work with, and early indications point to a new fierce attitude in position battles.    Only four starters return on offense, but head coach Gus Malzahn is raving about his new weapons including Quarterback Jeremy Johnson.    The passing game should improve, as Johnson has a big-time arm, while Jovon Robinson and Roc Thomas have both looked exceptional, as they battle to be the featured back.   The schedule is favorable too, as the Tigers get Mississippi, Alabama and Georgia at home.  Road games at Texas A&M and LSU will be tough.  Win those and the Tigers could win the West, and make their way into the College Football Playoff!

MISSISSIPPI   I believe Chad Kelly, will win the starting quarterback job and lead the Rebels to their first double-digit win season in 12 years!  Kelly, has a much stronger arm than his predecessor Bo Wallace, and Head Coach Hugh Freeze likes the leadership qualities he brings.   He’ll operate behind an offensive line that returns all five starters with a combined 112 career starts.    I also look for Washington transfer Demore’ea Stringfellow to have a huge influence at wide receiver.    The defense will also be strong, with the only area of concern the secondary.    The schedule is tough, as the Rebels will travel to Auburn and Alabama, but they do get a bye-week before hosting LSU.   This is a veteran team, and the Rebels will lose several players to the NFL after this season – this is their window of opportunity!

LSU   Quarterback play has long been a problem in the Bayou — LSU just doesn’t seem to get the most out of this position.  I think this year will be more of the same, as a battle between Brandon Harris and Anthony Jennings has yet to be decided.  I think Harris is the better athlete, and gives the Tigers the best chance to win.   Whoever wins the job, will have perhaps the best collection of weapons in the country.   The defense does have concerns as position battles rage along the line and in the secondary.    The Tigers may have the most talented roster in the SEC, I just have a hard time calling them the favorite in the West.  Road games at Alabama and  Ole Miss will be tough.

ALABAMA        If there is ever a year to beat up on Alabama, this could be it.     Many of you will call me crazy, but the Tide may be the fourth best team this year in the West.    It looks like Jake Coker will get the nod at quarterback.    The Florida State transfer was supposed to win the starting job last season, but was beaten out by Blake Sims.    It looks as though he will be starting opening day, but I would not be surprised if he gives way to David Cornwell or Blake Barnett.    If the offense struggles at all, we will see that happen.     The top three receivers depart, and replacing Amari Cooper, won’t be easy.    T. J. Yeldon has also moved onto the NFL, but Derrick Henry rushed for 1,025 yards.    A look inside the numbers shows that the defense has been on a steady decline since 2011.    They get seven starters back and I expect better performances across the board.    The biggest battle appears to be in the secondary that is missing two starters.    The Tide plays three tough road games at Auburn, Georgia, and Texas A&M.

TEXAS A&M   Head coach Kevin Sumlin has 16 returning starters and all I can say is don’t sleep on this Aggie bunch!    The defense has been a major problem here the past two seasons.   Sumlin, has addressed this by bringing in defensive wizard John Chavis.   His first task was to find a couple of linebackers, and he has been pleasantly surprised how quickly the defense has adapted to the new schemes.    The offense, should once again be explosive.  Kyle Allen will be the signal caller, after gaining valuable experience last season.  He needs to improve his completion percentage and cut down on interceptions.   The Aggies are loaded at the skill positions, and feature one of the better receiving corps in the country.   The schedule sets up well, as they have only three true road games all season and they get Alabama and Auburn at home with a bye-week before the showdown with the Tide.   The opener against Arizona State is a huge test, and I expect this team to get better each week!

ARKANSAS  Head Coach Bret Bielema may have saved his job with shut-out victories over LSU and Mississippi after the Razorbacks had been 0-13 in SEC play his first two years on the job.    The resurgence was led by a pounding running game led by the dynamic Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, but Williams is expected to miss then entire season.   Quarterback Brandon Allen also returns.  He is perfect for this offense as he makes good decisions and has become a solid leader.   The defense will need to replace several key performers in the front seven.   The schedule will be a challenge, as the Hogs have only three true home games in SEC play, and they draw two of the tougher teams from the East Division in Tennessee and Missouri.   I don’t think the Hogs will sneak up on anybody like they did last season, Williams will be missed, but they are good enough to get back to the post-season for a second straight year.

MISSISSIPPI STATE   This year we find out just how well Dan Mullen has recruited, as the Bulldogs lose 15 starters from a team that was ranked No. 1 in the nation for four weeks last season!   The competition in both spring and fall camps has been fierce. The losses on defense will make it very tough for the Bulldogs to mount a serious challenge in the West.   The offense welcomes back quarterback Dak Prescott, who could have opted to leave for the NFL, but chose to come back for a senior season.    Mullen has a knack for producing outstanding running backs, as he has produced four here, in his six-year tenure.  Ashton Shumpert will be looking to make his statement in the backfield this year.   He replaces the “human bowling ball” also known as Josh Robinson.    The Bulldogs face a brutal schedule, travelling to Auburn, Texas A&M, Arkansas and Missouri.    I believe they will have to beat either LSU, Alabama or Mississippi at home to qualify for a bowl game.

The East Division

TENNESSEE    Butch Jones has done a tremendous job since arriving on campus three years ago, after the program had reached a rocky bottom.   Jones is a master recruiter, and motivator and he has all his own players in place now and is ready to win with them.    I may be a bit premature in calling for an Eastern Division crown, but this team is ready to ascend the mountain.  The offense is loaded with the return of 10 starters.    Quarterback Joshua Dobbs is a dual-threat who has gotten better each week an will operate behind what is now a seasoned offensive line.    The skill positions are loaded with talent.    Jalen Hurd returns as the top back, and will be joined by a bevy of talented receivers led by Pig Howard.    The Defense has improved each year under Jones — last year the defense allowed 24 points per game, down from 36 just two seasons ago, and I look for further improvement!    The lone question I have on that side of the ball is a very-young defensive line.   I think the Vols could start the season 6-0 before traveling to Alabama. In order for that to happen they will need to beat Florida, which they haven’t done in 10 years, and then beat Georgia at home.   This team is very young, with only five projected senior starters.

GEORGIA   Head Coach Mark Richt has pretty much all the ingredients to make a case for an SEC title.   Whoever wins the quarterback battle between Brice Ramsey and Jacob Park, will be surrounded by great players.  The Bulldogs have perhaps the best set of running backs in the country, with Nick Chubb who exploded on the scene last year rushing for 1,594 yards, and Keith Marshall and Sony Michel, who could both start on many SEC teams.   The offensive line is also among the best in the league.  Defensively the front seven needs to be tinkered with, but there are plenty of mega-talented athletes ready to play.    The Dawgs play seven home games, but draw both Alabama and Auburn from the West.  If the Bulldogs had a seasoned quarterback I would be picking them to be the elite team in the SEC, but they don’t.  I would not want to play this team down the stretch, as they will get better week by week.

MISSOURI  I’m not afraid to say that when Missouri made the move to the SEC, I thought it was a mistake.  They got thumped their first season in the conference, but have since been to back-to-back conference title games.    The key to this season will be the continued development of quarterback Maty Mauk.    He has a knack for making big plays, but often makes crucial mistakes.    I am a bit concerned about a receiving core that losses its top four guys.   Russell Hansbrough returns for his senior season after leading the team with 1,144 rushing yards.  He figures to be even better, running behind an experienced offensive line.  The defense suffered a major blow losing three linemen, with Shane Ray and Marcus Golden both playing on Sundays.    The Tigers draw Arkansas and Mississippi State from the West and again are a contender for division title!

KENTUCKY  Many of the SEC fans jokingly call the KY football team the “Mildcats.”  This could be the year Wildcats get retribution.   Mark Stoops is in his third year at the helm and he has his best team, as his recruiting is starting to pay dividends.    He has the most experienced quarterback in the East, with Patrick Towles under center.   Towles has done a lot of growing-up under fire his first two years, but now he will operate behind a solid offensive line, and will benefit with the return of star RB Stanley Williams.    The wide receiver position looked weak going into spring camp, but they have uncovered a couple of gems in Dorian Baker and Thaddeus Snodgrass.    The big question on the defensive side of the ball was how they were going to replace Bud Dupree, who led the team in sacks and was a beast on the line of scrimmage.   Several candidates have stepped forward, once again proving, how well Stoops has recruited.    The Wildcats started last season 5-1 and they were one win away from bowl eligibility.  That win proved elusive, as they finished 5-7.  I love this team, and they are my pick for the most improved team in the conference.  This year, they have eight home games and actually have a shot to win three of four road contests!  It’s been since 2010 that they appeared in the post season, but the drought ends now.

SOUTH CAROLINA   Steve Spurrier is known as a quarterback coach, yet he has struggled to find any consistency since the departure of Connor Shaw.   Shaw was a great leader and tough as nails.    Last year’s starter Dylan Thompson has graduated, and Spurrier is again looking for someone like Shaw.  He has named  Connor Mitch the starter, but it won’t be easy for him as the offensive line must also be rebuilt.    The strength of the offense will likely come from the running back spot, as David Williams and Brandon Wilds, could be stars.    The defense looked shaky at times last season, but they get back eight starters, and should be the strength of the team.   I expect them to vastly improve over the 30 points per game allowed last season.   The Gamecocks had to rally down the stretch last season just to get bowl eligible, but I look for the Gamecocks to miss the post-season for the first time since 2007.

FLORIDA  New Head Coach Jim McElwain steps into a program long on tradition with two immediate goals.   First, he wants to re-energize the fan base that has grown complacent.   Second, he will need to rely on his coaching expertise to unearth a quarterback.    In order to accomplish the first, he will need to win right away.  The second may be easier, as he has two great athletes to choose from at quarterback.    Both Will Greer and Treon Harris are loaded with skill, but have no real experience.  Under McElwain,  I expect whomever wins the job to blossom.    Both the offensive line and running back positions are also under construction.   The defense was outstanding last year, and should be once again, as the back seven is loaded with returning talent.   The defensive line lost two starters, but is in capable hands.    The schedule is manageable with only four true road games.   This will be a learning year for the coaching staff, players and fans.

VANDERBILT     Head coach Derek Mason is in his second year, with hopes of reaching a bowl game in year two.   The Commodores struggled to a 3-9 mark and were 0-8 in SEC play, while they played 31 freshmen last season      They turned to Johnny McCrary at quarterback the final five games, and he brought life to an offense that had struggled mightily.    Nine starters return now to an offense that averaged 17 points per game.    Defensively, the Dores also have nine returning starters, led by a secondary that returns intact.    I believe we will see a much tougher team this year.    There are many young players in key roles, who simply need to go through the growing pains.

PROJECTED STANDINGS

WEST

  • AUBURN                          7-1    11-1      
  • MISSISSIPPI                  6-2    10-2      
  • LSU                                    6-2    10-2      
  • ALABAMA                       5-3    9-3        
  • TEXAS A&M                   5-3    9-3        
  • ARKANSAS                     2-6    6-6        
  • MISSISSIPPI STATE    1-7   5-7      

EAST

  • TENNESSEE                 6-2    10-2
  • GEORGIA                       6-2    10-2
  • MISSOURI                     5-3    8-4
  • KENTUCKY                   4-4    8-4
  • SOUTH CAROLINA    2-6    4-8
  • FLORIDA                        1-7    4-8
  • VANDERBILT              0-8    2-10

SEC Championship-  Tennessee vs. Auburn

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