2017 College Football: SEC Preview

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Will Alabama remain kings of the SEC?

The SEC is one of the premier conferences in college football. Let’s not waste much time on the introductory paragraph and get right into the heart of the preview.


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Eastern Division

Florida Gators

Last Season: 9–4 (6–2); 1st in SEC East

Post-Season: Won (30–3) Outback Bowl vs. Iowa

Departures: LB Jarrad Davis, S Marcus Maye, CB Quincy Wilson, CB Teez Tabor, LB Alex Anzalone, OT David Sharpe, DT Caleb Brantley, DT Joey Ivie, QB Austin Appleby, DE Bryan Cox, WR Ahmad Fulwood

Pressing Concerns: Who starts at quarterback? You’ve got two transfers and a redshirt freshman currently competing for the job. Luke Del Rio was named starter last season but the arrival of Malik Zaire from Notre Dame as well as the beginning of the Feleipe Franks era throws Del Rio’s job into serious question. The Gators are still looking for the heir to Tim Tebow. The closeness of this competition doesn’t bode well for their chances of replacing him.

Despite Jim McElwain being hired to revive a decrepit Gators offense, it’s their defense that’s thrived under him. The Gators had one of the worst offenses in the country last season which was largely attributed to the inability to find a rhythm in the passing game. Martez Ivey is one of the best offensive linemen in the country but his talents go to waste if Antonio Callaway is the only consistent skill position player on the field. They need to find a quarterback but most of all they need a leader for this offense.

Biggest Strengths: If they do figure out the quarterback situation, they’ve got a solid back in Jordan Scarlett to help take the pressure off. Their biggest strength though is their offensive line. The importance of consistency on the offensive line cannot be overstated and the Gators retained four out of five starters from last season. Scarlett can rest easy knowing that no matter who is throwing the ball, he’ll be playing behind a solid line; one that he is very familiar with.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Antonio Callaway, OL Martez Ivey, RB Jordan Scarlett

Defensive Players to Watch: CB Duke Dawson, DE CeCe Jefferson, S Marcell Harris

Make-or-Break Factor: In the SEC East, you can field one of the nation’s worst offenses and still win. How? Field one of the nation’s best defenses. The SEC East is full of bad offenses but how many great defenses are there in the division? This defensive unit returns only three starters, one of whom is playing with a new level of pressure.

But there is a lot to be optimistic about. CeCe Jefferson and Jabari Zuniga could become one of the SEC’s best edge rushing duos while David Reese is full of great potential. Marcell Harris and Duke Dawson are the veterans in the secondary, though the latter is used to manning the slot while having others like Quincy Wilson and Vernon Hargreaves to back him up. There’s no telling how he favors now that he is the clear number-one guy.

Key Games:

  • 9/2 vs. Michigan — The Gators and Wolverines will open their seasons in Cowboy Stadium. This is a huge matchup for both schools. This isn’t quite like the Alabama and Florida State matchup. Both schools need the win but they still control their destiny. The Florida–Michigan game is second fiddle, though. If Michigan loses this, they’ve got a major uphill battle ahead of them in a stacked Big Ten East Division. Florida, on the other hand, has no real conference implications and instead needs this win to help them with a playoff bid. They’ve got match-ups against LSU and Florida State later on and cannot afford to surrender a game so early.
  • 10/7 vs. LSU — Few teams hate each other more than Florida and Florida State do. However, I’m giving the edge to LSU here this year. The Florida State game ultimately means little beyond bragging rights if they lose to LSU. Their draw from the West Division this year is a disillusioned Texas A&M team. The game came down to a goal line stand last year and is sure to be just as intense this time around. Both teams need this victory to keep them in contention.
  • 10/28 vs. Georgia — It’s the Florida-Georgia game! Again, it’s getting the bump over Florida State because of conference implications. They may have handily beaten the Bulldogs last season, but Kirby Smart is bringing back practically his entire 2016 defense. Tennessee and South Carolina are rebuilding and the rest of the division isn’t ready to compete for the title. It’s do-or-die this time around in Jacksonville. Whoever wins this game will likely carry the torch to the SEC Championship.

2017 Predictions: 8-4 (6-2); 2nd in the SEC East. Florida has got a solid offensive line, a good running back, a playmaker at receiver in Callaway, and yet they had all of these things last year too. No matter what decision they come to at quarterback, you can’t ignore that they had to make a decision at all. If Del Rio wasn’t cutting it, Zaire and Franks should be miles ahead of them. But they aren’t necessary and that should be a cause for concern. The defense has a lot of potential, but with so many question marks, it’s hard to see them repeating their top five level of play from last year.

Georgia Bulldogs

Last Season: 8-5 (4-4); 3rd in SEC East

Post-Season: Won (31–23) Liberty Bowl vs. TCU

Departures: WR Isaiah McKenzie, S Quincy Mauger, OG Tyer Catalina, C Brandon Kublanow, S Maurice Smith, OG Greg Pyke

Pressing Concerns: Their best player on each side of the ball has an injury history, firstly. Second of all, Kirby Smart may not have his system in place yet; he’s still working with a lot of Richt’s guys after all. The biggest concern ties into their biggest strength. The Bulldogs have an elite running back duo yet what do they have to show for it? They were 52nd in rushing yards, 90th in rushing touchdowns, and 102nd in points per game. They are doing their best to be the LSU of the East. Despite fielding two of the best rushers, they fail to produce offensively. Their game against Vanderbilt (at home, no less) last year was pathetic. Smart has to find some sort of rhythm when the ball is in his hands.

Biggest Strengths: When healthy, the Bulldogs have one of the best running back tandems in the league with the one-two punch of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The offense can easily thrive by running through these two backs. The defense is adjusting to a new regime and is already seeing results, particularly when defending the run. Returning star Trenton Thompson should be good to go after an off-season injury. He was a dominant force in their bowl game against TCU and a vital part of their defensive attack.

Smart is a defensive-minded coach, one of the best in the nation at that, and while the Bulldogs showed a mixture of improvement and regression last season, Smart has one thing that separates him from the rest of the pack: he didn’t lose a single starter. Georgia’s biggest strength is without a doubt continuity. The only change made on his defensive front is an adjustment of Jonathan Ledbetter’s position from 5-technique to end.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Nick Chubb, RB Sony Michel, OT Isaiah Wynn

Defensive Players to Watch: DT Trenton Thompson, LB Roquan Smith, S Dominick Sanders

Make-or-Break Factor: Jacob Eason has to improve in his sophomore year. He’s got to be able to do more than manage, he’s got to generate. The Bulldogs are in desperate need of a standout receiver, considering Terry Godwin is their leading returning receiver. While Isaiah Wynn is a solid starter and Lamont Gaillard could easily be the next in a long line of Georgia centers in the NFL, there is a lot of doubt on the offensive line. Eason’s development is reliant on this line staying stable. Good news for Georgia fans? Sam Pittman is one of the best offensive line coaches in the country. We’ll see if his first year in Athens was enough to produce results or a sophomore slump.

Key Games:

  • 9/30 at Tennessee — Last year Tennessee passed their test; they beat Georgia and Florida. Still, they fell to South Carolina and Vanderbilt and allowed Florida to secure a trip to the SEC Championship. This year, Georgia’s conference schedule is harder than Florida’s so they absolutely cannot afford to fall to Tennessee. This problem could go away if Tennessee also beats Florida, but I don’t see their sweep of fellow division giants being a repeatable feat.
  • 10/28 vs. Florida — Every year we enter this season looking at this game like the SEC East Championship. Crazy things happen once the season starts, like Missouri going to back-to-back conference title games, but at the start of the year, the hype always surrounds the Gators and the Bulldogs. It’s hard to blame anyone either; the Florida-Georgia game is prolific. It transforms and consumes Jacksonville annually. Even non-football fans celebrate with tailgating or good old-fashioned day drinking. This year, we’re predicting that the division comes down to this game. Both teams enter the season with similar weaknesses, though different advantages. The Bulldogs defense and offensive line should take a step forward this season though, giving them the edge in this match-up.
  • 11/11 at Auburn — Smart is no stranger to prepping for Auburn. While the Tigers are poised to compete again this year, the Bulldog defense is built to stop what Auburn does best. They put away the Tigers at home last year in a low-scoring, defensive affair. They will have to repeat this despite improvements by Gus Malzahn.

2017 Predictions: 10-2 (6-2); 1st in the SEC East. The Bulldogs have an easy schedule on their hands, with a rebuilding Notre Dame and a one-sided Mississippi State team. Smart and company have had one year to get their feet wet and return the entirety of an athletic defense. Their line will need to step it up, but they’ve got the leaders to make that happen. So long as Eason hasn’t regressed, Smart can run this team through his two running backs and let Eason play it safe while the defense makes it difficult for SEC teams to do what they do best.

Kentucky Wildcats

Last Season: 7–6 (4–4); 4th in SEC East

Post-Season: Lost (18–33) Taxslayer Bowl vs. Georgia Tech

Departures: RB Stanley Williams, S J.D. Harmon

Pressing Concerns: At no point should any SEC team give up a combined 86 points to Southern Miss and New Mexico State. Their porous defensive line last season resulted in Kentucky fielding one of the worst run defenses in the SEC. While there is talent on this defense, you won’t find much of it on the defensive line. The Wildcats have got to find a way to stop the run if they want to build off their momentum from last season.

Biggest Strengths: Kentucky was surprisingly the third most effective running game in the SEC. They don’t look to be slowing down in that department either. They return four starts to the offensive line and Benny Snell, who rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman back-up last season. Most of their defensive achievements will likely be credited to the stellar play from linebackers Jordan Jones and Josh Allen. While there may not be much ahead or behind them, the linebacker corps is strong in Kentucky.

Offensive Players to Watch: OG Nick Haynes, QB Stephen Johnson, OT Cole Mosier

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Jordan Jones, LB Denzil Ware, S Mike Edwards

Make-or-Break Factor: Defensive coordinator Matt House needs to get his men in line. The offense isn’t going to keep up with the likes of Alabama or anything, but Kentucky, with an average defense, easily competes for the division. They have to show improvement when guarding the run. Opposing running backs were automatic against that line last year. There is just no way this Kentucky team can compete with that line looking like it did last year. QB Stephen Johnson needs to take a step forward this year as well. He was productive last season but also turned the ball over at a near 1:1 rate.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 at South Carolina — You’ve got to stay ahead of the curve. Will Muschamp is in Columbia and while he isn’t the most formidable coach, he’s a solid recruiter and good enough to make that South Carolina team occasionally formidable. The Wildcats beat the Gamecocks last year, they’ve got to do the same this year if Mark Stoops wants his team to keep trending upward.
  • 11/18 at Georgia — There are bigger games to play but I’m not sure there is a bigger game for them to win. They nearly did it last year. If they can go on the road and take down Georgia, it will be huge for this program. It would show that the Stoops-era is finally kicking off in Lexington. The Wildcats would play Georgia’s game too. They’ll rely on their linebackers to lead their defense while using a tandem of great rushers to manage the offense. Going into their house, playing their game, and coming out with the win would be tremendous for this team.
  • 11/25 vs. Louisville — One of the more underrated rivalries in college sports, the Wildcats shocked eventual Heisman winner Lamar Jackson in their match-up to close out last year’s regular season. The dominant performance energized the fanbase. Yeah, three-point victory doesn’t scream domination but forcing three interceptions from the Heisman winner? Kentucky put on a great show defensively against a team that was unstoppable offensively at times last year. It’s hard to predict a repeat, but this game is always a big one for fans of both schools. Truly, anything can happen.

2017 Predictions: 7-5 (4-4); 4th in the SEC East. Kentucky retained 16 starters from last season. Some of that is a good thing, while others say they retained their weaknesses without finding a suitable replacement. They field a great rushing attack but an abysmal run defense. Georgia and Louisville will have a field day against that defensive front and even teams with middle of the pack running games should have no problem finding space.

Missouri Tigers

Last Season: 4–8 (2–6); 7th in SEC East

Post-Season: Did not qualify

Departures: DE Charles Harris, DT Josh Augusta, DT Rickey Hatley, TE Sean Culkin, CB Aarion Penton, LB Donavin Newsom

Pressing Concerns: Missouri’s defense has always been a one trick pony. Just look at the types of players they produce in the NFL. They are almost entirely pass-rushers. Missouri has not shown consistency when defending the pass and was downright awful at defending the run last year. The defense is almost entirely fresh. A.J. Logan is the only returning starter in the front seven and there are a lot of questions about how this unit will bounce back after a hard regression last season.

Biggest Strengths: Drew Lock finally came into his own last season and has most of his line and weapons returning to him this season. That’s huge for this offense. They improved some last year but still needs to take steps to crawl out of the middle of the league. On defense, Terry Buckner returns from injury and joins Marcell Frazier, which should be one of the most exciting d-line duos in the division.

Offensive Players to Watch: C Samson Bailey, WR J’Mon Moore, QB Drew Lock

Defensive Players to Watch: DT Terry Beckner, DE Marcell Frazier, LB Eric Beisel

Make-or-Break Factor: The defense has to get their shit together. Barry Odom is still figuring out this head coaching thing, so it could take a little while. The offense came through last year and the defense let them down. How do you score 37 points against Tennessee and lose by almost 30 points? Middle Tennessee is underrated, sure, but 51 points? That’s unacceptable.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 vs. Purdue — Bottom vs. bottom. Both teams are desperate for some optimism here. They’ve undergone recent regime changes and need some sign of life from the team. Whoever wins this game will get a much-needed boost in confidence.
  • 10/7 at Kentucky — There could be a good rivalry brewing between these two teams. As Odom finds his footing and Stoops keeps things consistent, the Wildcats and Tigers could very well bridge the gap between the top of the SEC East and the bottom.
  • 11/24 at Arkansas — The new Thanksgiving Day rivalry for Arkansas didn’t go as planned for the Razorbacks last year, giving Missouri a 2-1 series lead since joining the SEC. Missouri won’t propel themselves to the second-tier of the SEC by beating Arkansas, but they’ll keep the Razorbacks from heading up to the top tier. Spiting a rival is always recommended in spots. Plus, two wins in a row against a solid Arkansas team would do wonders for Odom and his players.

2017 Predictions: 5-7 (1-7); 7th in the SEC East. Odom and his Tigers aren’t quite ready yet. An easy out of conference schedule will keep this season alive more than anything. While 1-7 seems harsh, I don’t have them getting blown out too often. I think the Tigers will be more competitive this year for sure. Unfortunately for them, competition does not equate to winning, and they’ll come up short more often than not.

South Carolina Gamecocks

Last Season: 6–7 (3–5); 5th in SEC East

Post-Season: Lost (39–46 OT) Birmingham Bowl vs. South Florida

Departures: K Elliott Fry, DE Darius English, DE Marquavius Lewis, OT Mason Zandi

Pressing Concerns: The Gamecock offense was one of the worst in college football last season. That was to be expected though, with the amount of youth on the roster. The question now is: how has that youth developed? Beyond that, the defensive line is in desperate need for some playmakers. They’ve got to get to the quarterback and get better at stopping the run.

Biggest Strengths: On offense, consistency. Muschamp retained most of his offense from last season, giving the true sophomore Jake Bentley the best possible chance of succeeding. Defensively, it’s the horde of untapped potential. Muschamp has a very intriguing prospect in D.J. Wonnum. Taylor Stallworth could easily have a breakout season this year while Skai Moore returns from injury, ready to resume his invaluable role as leader of this defense.

Offensive Players to Watch: TE Hayden Hurst, WR Deebo Samuel, QB Jake Bentley

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Skai Moore, DT Taylor Stallworth, CB Jamarcus King

Make-or-Break Factor: Keeping your eyes set forward. Bentley had a nice freshman campaign but needs to build off his success. Skai Moore and Deebo Samuel are both vital pieces of this team and must stay healthy. Rico Dowdle and Ty’Son Williams need to be more consistent if they’re going to balance this offense.

Key Games:

  • 9/2 vs. NC State — How will Muschamp fair versus Bradley Chubb and the Wolfpack? This isn’t as big of a match-up as say, Florida State and Alabama, but it’s still a good one to keep an eye on. This could end up being a very important game for both teams. Not only does the winner start their season off right, but they get a vital W that just might be enough to secure a winning record for the victor.
  • 9/16 vs. Kentucky — This is about revenge. South Carolina and Will Muschamp aren’t supposed to be below Kentucky. Not in the SEC as we know it. Kentucky enters this game trending upward with a lot to prove. A repeat for the Wildcats would be a massive blow for the Gamecocks.
  • 9/30 at Texas A&M — Both teams find themselves in similar roles within their division. They’re that team that will upset someone at some point, but no one really knows who. It could be anyone. Both teams live in the middle of their respective divisions and are striving to be something more.

2017 Predictions: 5-7 (3-5); 5th in the SEC East. Bentley is the future in Columbia. He might not be the present though. The offense has potential but Muschamp hasn’t shown he’s capable of keeping a strong identity with the ball in his hands.  I think in another year, this offense could be something to fear. As for this year, it’ll be a boom or bust unit, with a little more emphasis on the “bust.”

Tennessee Volunteers

Last Season: 9–4 (4–4); 2nd in SEC East

Post-Season: Won (38–24) Music City Bowl vs. Nebraska

Departures: DE Derek Barnett, RB Alvin Kamara, CB Cameron Sutton, LB Jalen Reeves-Maybin, WR Josh Malone, QB Joshua Dobbs,

Pressing Concerns: Last year was supposed to be Tennessee’s year. They had a great running back tandem (now gone), an elite defensive end (now gone), and a strong quarterback (now gone). The talent is still here, but with Tennessee’s improvement coming at a glacial pace, one has to be concerned for these newer players, like Trey Smith and Jonathan Kongbo, being thrust into significant roles this year. Despite the talent in the secondary and on the line, aside from Darrin Kirkland, there is a clear weak spot at the linebacker position. In the SEC, in particular, this can be a brutal hole to have. They are the second line of defense against powerful running backs and paint themselves as an easy target for less distinguished quarterbacks.

Biggest Strengths: The Vols lost three starters on the offensive line and are likely starting two underclassmen this year. Despite this, the Vols O-line has improved from last year. Trey Smith was the number one recruit in the 2017 class and has already been met with rave reviews. Their defensive line should remain relatively productive; though it’s unlikely they match Derek Barnett’s insane production. They’ve got a pair of dope safeties led by Todd Kelly Jr.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Jauan Jennings, C Jashon Robertson, OL Trey Smith

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Jonathan Kongbo, S Todd Kelly, DT Kendal Vickers

Make-or-Break Factor: There is a quarterback battle underway in Knoxville. Junior Quinten Dormady and freshman Jarrett Guarantano are still battling it out for the starting role. It’s likely that Dormady ends up with the starting job, at least at first, so he’ll have to prove himself a worthy successor to Dobbs. The Vols are full of talent that isn’t quite together at the moment. Guarantano has the potential to be very exciting, but he needs to sit and learn how to use his mind and arm first.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 at Florida — After a blowout win against Virginia Tech, the Gators came to Knoxville and left with a double digit loss. This was supposed to be the signal that the Vols were the real deal. Unfortunately for Tennessee, it wasn’t. But the road to the SEC title game goes through Gainesville every year. If you can’t top Florida, it’s unlikely you get to punch your ticket to the big game.
  • 9/30 vs. Georgia —It’s crazy to think this team beat Florida and Georgia but fell to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. This year, the Vols have a break between Florida and Georgia, though the needed result is still the same. This is an interesting match-up and I think we’re in for another great game this year. But the stakes are higher now for one big reason.
  • 11/18 vs. LSU — The reason is LSU. This is a huge cross-division game for Tennessee. Tennessee does not match-up favorably against this LSU team. Their weaknesses on defense are ripe for exploitation by the Tigers offense. They can afford to lose one, maybe two of these games, so this game becomes extra important due to it being the penultimate game of the regular season. The Vols could come into this game with a lot riding on it.

2017 Predictions: 8-4 (4-4); 3rd in the SEC East. The 2018 Tennessee Volunteers have a lot of promise. While this is still a good team, they aren’t on the level of last year’s squad. The questions at quarterback and linebacker are too strong to ignore and may be too much to consistently overcome.

Vanderbilt Commodores

Last Season: 6–7 (3–5); 6th in SEC East

Post-Season: Lost (17–41) Independence Bowl vs. NC State

Departures: LB Zach Cunningham, OT Will Holden

Pressing Concerns: Quarterback Kyle Shurmur had only just started to flash his potential before getting injured. If he plays like he played against Tennessee, Vanderbilt could be playing upset for a number of teams. However, if he played like most of his other performances last year, the Commodores aren’t looking too hot.

Biggest Strengths: Ralph Webb at running back and a surprisingly good offensive line will help ease Shurmur’s development. That isn’t to say there isn’t a lot to worry about considering their passing attack was one of the worst in the conference last year. The thing that makes Vanderbilt occasionally dangerous is their stout defensive line. They’ve got an excellent set of run defenders on their squad and are looking to build off a 2016 season where they finished sixth in the SEC in run defense.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Ralph Webb, QB Kyle Shurmur, OT Justin Skule

Defensive Players to Watch: DT Nifae Lealao, DE Jonathan Wynn, LB Oren Burks,

Make-or-Break Factor: It’s Shurmur. If he plays like he did against Tennessee, then Vanderbilt stands a very real chance at winning the East. They beat Tennessee and Georgia last year while coming within seven of Florida, Auburn, and Kentucky. If Shurmur fails to stand out this year, then it’s going to be a rough year in Nashville.

Key Games:

  • 9/16 vs. Kansas State — This is a fitting out of conference match-up actually. Both teams are sneaky good and while the season likely won’t go their way, it won’t be without some troublemaking. While Middle Tennessee will provide a test for their offense, K-State is the first balanced team Vandy faces this year and could be a good indicator of how the rest of the year goes for them.
  • 10/14 at Ole Miss — Vanderbilt looked decent last year and still their blowout victory over Ole Miss was a shocker. This is their cross-division rival, so of course this is a key game for them. However, this year, in particular, is rather important for the power dynamic of the SEC. Ole Miss has had a massive fall from grace and back-to-back losses to Vanderbilt could be the nail in the coffin for Ole Miss. Soundly defeating a rival in back-to-back seasons also will do wonders for confidence and may even improve recruiting some.
  • 11/11 vs. Kentucky — Vandy goes on four game stretch against Alabama, Florida, Georgia, and Ole Miss and this is the game I’m touching on? Yeah, they aren’t beating Alabama, I’d be surprised if they get the better of Georgia again, and I think Florida’s offense is ready to take a step out of the cellar. That leaves the Commodores with three conference losses, with a game at Tennessee likely making number four. This Kentucky game is vital. Beat the Wildcats and improve off your 2016 season.

2017 Predictions: 5-7 (2-6); 6th in the SEC East. Shurmur could come out of the gate looking like he did against Tennessee and if he does, Vanderbilt is a contender in the East. But Shurmur has 12 games last year outside of that Tennessee game so I’m not holding my breath. As good as Vanderbilt’s running attack can be, as stout as their defense is, Shurmur is bad. Watch him against Florida and then give your condolences to a team that put up with 36 percent completion, less than 100 yards passing, and still almost won.

Western Division

Alabama Crimson Tide

Last Season: 14–1 (8–0); 1st in SEC West

Post-Season: Won (24–7) Peach Bowl vs. Washington; Lost (31–34) National Championship vs. Clemson

Departures: CB Marlon Humphrey, DT Jonathan Allen, TE OJ Howard, LB Reuben Foster, OT Cam Robinson, LB Ryan Anderson, DT Dalvin Tomlinson, LB Tim Williams, WR ArDarius Stewart, S Eddie Jackson

Pressing Concerns: Shit, I don’t know. The inevitability of death? That’s about the only thing slowing down Nick Saban at this point. The worst part is I consciously chose to say “slow down” instead of “stop” because if anyone can recruit from the grave, it’s Saban. Shaun Dion Hamilton’s recovery and Da’Shawn Hand’s presence as the leader of the defensive line are storylines to pay attention to. The biggest concern is Jalen Hurts’s durability. If he goes down you’ve got two true freshmen and a first-year walk-on behind him. There aren’t too many holes on this team. Saban builds his teams carefully under a next man up mentality. When he faces an exodus of players, he already has their replacements ready to go. The major concern here would be the lack of replacements for Hurts. If he gets hurt (get it?), they are in trouble.

Biggest Strengths: Bo Scarbrough being a back-up? A revolving door of great offensive linemen? The best safety duo in college football? Pick your poison. Saban took a youthful team and fielded what may have been his best team ever. Hand and Payne up front create a dominant run defense while Fitzpatrick and Harrison alone make the secondary incredibly dangerous. People doubted this team last season. Now, a large part of their core remains intact.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Calvin Ridley, RB Bo Scarbrough, OT Jonah Williams

Defensive Players to Watch: S Minkah Fitzpatrick, DT Da’Shawn Hand, S Ronnie Harrison

Make-or-Break Factor: Transitions. Jonah Williams is moving from right to left tackle. Hamilton, as previously mentioned, is returning after tearing his ACL last December. Scarbrough is taking on a bigger role. Hand is taking over for Jonathan Allen. All of these guys have major adjustments to make. The bad news for every other team is that this is not an unfamiliar situation for the Tide. Williams was an absolute stud last year and should be even better anchoring the left side. It’s hard to see Hamilton being at 100 percent immediately and Scarbrough still has some injury concerns which likely keep him outside of the starting role.

Key Games:

9/2 vs. Florida State — #1 versus #2 to open the season. What a time to be alive. This will be a great game between two powerhouse schools and it’s a match-up I feel like many are dying to see. Jimbo Fisher has worked wonders in Tallahassee and his dynamic secondary will be the perfect storm for Jalen Hurts coming out of the gate. We’ll see how much Deondre Francois has improved over the offseason but I don’t expect to see much from the highly touted Cam Akers. Alabama is not a good opponent to debut against.

11/4 vs. LSU — The LSU/Bama game is one of the bitterest rivalries in the SEC. Last year, Ed Orgeron took over for Les Miles and when this match came along, he held Nick Saban to a number he hasn’t heard in a long, long time. The game was a near perfect defensive matchup; it came down to one blown coverage and one missed block. Saban’s Tide has been held to ten points or fewer on just two other occasions; the infamous 9–6 overtime game against LSU, and Saban’s first ever Iron Bowl. To say there is a lot of hype surrounding this year’s match-up would be an understatement.

11/25 at Auburn — Auburn is looking like they’ve found a quarterback to replace Cam Newton. After leading one of the nation’s best rushing attacks last season, the Tigers become even more dangerous with the addition of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham. The Iron Bowl is always an intense matchup, even if the final results don’t indicate it. A recent Iron Bowl gave us one the greatest football moments of the decade. You never know how these games will turn out.

2017 Predictions: 12-0 (8-0); 1st in the SEC West. Yeah, the Tide are projected for an undefeated season. They’ve retained their quarterback and top two running backs, most of their line is formidable, Calvin Ridley is dope as hell, what do you want me to say? They could lose one along the way but I wouldn’t hold your breath. A slight regression from 60 rushing yards allowed per game is still by far the best in football. Their secondary is stacked and their front seven is versatile, especially against the run. An undefeated season is hard to come by but a hole in Saban’s armor is even harder to find.

Arkansas Razorbacks

Last Season: 7–6 (3–5); 5th in SEC West

Post-Season: Lost (24–35) Belk Bowl vs. Virginia Tech

Departures: DE Deatrich Wise, TE Jeremy Sprinkle, DE Jeremiah Ledbetter

Pressing Concerns: The Razorbacks lack a playmaker for Allen to throw to, which could be concerning when matched up against defensive backs from Alabama and LSU. Beyond that, they don’t have a very talented defense and are particularly thin on the defensive line, though that can be partially credited to changing to a 3-4 last year. It will take time to adjust and learn the new scheme, which will be problematic for a team that was already fielding an inconsistent defense. Allen needs to get rid of the ball a bit quicker. It would help cut down on sacks.

Biggest Strengths: The Razorbacks boast an intelligent quarterback, a very talented runner, and a strong interior line. Yeah I know, we’ve heard this story before. Austin Allen, the younger brother of Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback Brandon Allen, is all in on his senior year after posting good numbers and poise last season. Frank Ragnow is one of the best centers in the nation and is a great leader for this offensive line. The consistency on the line gives Allen and Williams room to breathe and run the offense how it’s intended.

Offensive Players to Watch: C Frank Ragnow, RB Rawleigh Williams, QB Austin Allen

Defensive Players to Watch: S Josh Liddell, CB Ryan Pulley, LB Randy Ramsey

Make-or-Break Factor: There needs to be an improvement on the defensive side of the ball. Ryan Pulley is still fairly under-the-radar despite his abilities while Randy Ramsey has switched positions and roles and could provide a bigger impact as a pass rusher. Allen is capable of leading the offense with his assembly of running backs, but he needs defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads to come through in his second stint with the team.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 vs. TCU — An exciting out of conference match-up last year, Arkansas seeks to starve off TCU’s revenge bid. This can be regarded as their real beginning to the season, as a home visit from Florida A&M isn’t going to prove much of a challenge. TCU could make some noise in the Big 12 this season, though they aren’t going to compete with either Oklahoma school. Arkansas could clinch a victory for the SEC here by sweeping one of the Big 12’s best.
  • 11/11 at LSU — The Battle of the Boot. It may not be on Thanksgiving anymore, but the rivalry is still alive and well. The Razorbacks generally find a way to make things difficult for LSU. It doesn’t matter how good either team is. Last year, a struggling LSU team utterly dismantled a surging Arkansas. Prior to last season, Arkansas had won the last two meetings 48-14. It’s a big rivalry game. Anything can happen!
  • 11/18 vs. Mississippi State — Arkansas’s role as one of the average SEC teams is fairly solidified. The only threat to them right now is Mississippi State and Nick Fitzgerald. Neither team is particularly dominant on defense, though the edge goes to Arkansas there, and it’ll likely come down to quarterback play. Arkansas isn’t booking a trip to Atlanta to play for a playoff spot. Miss State offers them a chance to defend their spot as “the team right below Bama/Auburn/LSU.” Not a particularly glamorous distinction but it’s better than “bottom three in the SEC West.”

2017 Predictions: 8-4 (4-4); 4th in the SEC West. The season rides on consistency on offense. Austin Allen will have to be on point and Rawleigh Williams has to build on his breakout season. Their line isn’t the most consistent, however, which could be a problem for them at times. Defensively, they’ve got some work to do. It shouldn’t be too detrimental to their season though, considering they aren’t up against too many powerhouse offenses.

Auburn Tigers

Last Season: 8–5 (5–3); 2nd in SEC West

Post-Season: Lost (19–35) Sugar Bowl vs. Oklahoma

Departures: DT Montravius Adams, DE Carl Lawson, DT Maurice Swain, S Rudy Ford, OG Robert Leff, CB Joshua Holsey, WR Tony Stevens

Pressing Concerns: There is a lot of faith being placed in the youth of this roster. Sophomore Jarrett Stidham is being pegged as a possible savior to this Auburn squad that has been desperately lacking a quarterback. The Tigers rely on a sophomore at every level of their defense, though Marlon Davidson looked exceptional as a freshman. There is a lot of experience on the roster but there’s also a lot of inexperience. It’ll be all eyes on Stidham this fall.

Biggest Strengths: Gus Malzahn can craft a running game like nobody’s business. Kamryn Pettway had a great sophomore campaign and comes into this season a little underrated. Their offensive line is anchored by mauler Braden Smith. Without a quarterback or a talented receiving corps, Auburn was still one of the top running games in the country. They’ve got some dangerous playmakers on the defensive side. Deshaun Davis could end up carrying this defense; if not then safety Tray Matthews.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Kamryn Pettway, OT Braden Smith, QB Jarrett Stidham

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Marlon Davidson, LB Deshaun Davis, S Tray Matthews

Make-or-Break Factor: Jarrett Stidham has got to live up to his hype. If he does, Auburn has a serious shot at the conference title. If he doesn’t then they’re back where they were last year; good, but flawed in an easily exploitable way. I think Stidham will be an improvement over the injury prone Sean White. He is a good fit for Malzahn’s offense, it’s just a matter of how long it takes to adjust to the system.

Key Games:

  • 9/9 at Clemson — Last year, the Tigers came within six of changing the entire college football landscape. This year, they travel to South Carolina to meet Dabo and his Clemson Tigers minus one Deshaun Watson. This will be a great game to watch for both teams and we’ll immediately have answers to our questions. Stidham will face the best front seven in the country. If he excels, he’s the real deal.
  • 10/14 at LSU — This is basically the game that decides who plays second fiddle to Saban this year. The Tigers field an elite rusher, a strong, youthful front seven, and a secondary full of shutdown potential. The issue here is the quarterback. We don’t yet know how the QB has developed, which will be the biggest factor not just for this game but for the entire season. See what I did there? I said Tigers because it applies to both Auburn and LSU. Lazy? Maybe. Innovative? Almost definitely.
  • 11/25 vs. Alabama — Iron Bowl, baby. A lot rides on this game for both parties. The winner is generally guaranteed a trip to the SEC Championship, which all but certainly puts them in contention for a playoff spot. This game has huge implications not just for Alabama football but for the entire college football world.

2017 Predictions: 9-3 (6-2); 2nd in the SEC West. Stidham probably isn’t the real deal but he probably isn’t a bust either. The Tigers improve at quarterback and are able to better apply their offensive scheme. This results in Auburn taking second in the SEC West due to their balanced offensive attack and physical defense. Davidson isn’t healthy yet, but if he’s good to go by Week 2, opposing offenses are in for it.

LSU Tigers

Last Season: 8–4 (5–3); 3rd in SEC West

Post-Season: Won (29–9) Citrus Bowl vs. Louisville

Departures: RB Leonard Fournette, S Jamal Adams, CB Tre’Davious White, C Ethan Pocic, LB Duke Riley, LB Kendall Beckwith, DT Davon Godchaux, WR Malachi Dupre, WR Travin Dural

Pressing Concerns: Can I just copy what I wrote last year? Or the year before? Or the year before? LSU needs more production from their receivers. They lacked a true playmaking pass catcher over the last two seasons and it’s really hurt them. It certainly doesn’t help when their biggest issue has been an inability to find a quarterback. Danny Etling is returning as the starter and his development is vital to the success of the Tigers. There is a competition in camp right now but every word out of Baton Rouge points to Etling getting the start. Brennan is the future but he’s not ready to lead the team like Etling is.

Biggest Strengths: LSU has been one of the few schools that haven’t had to change over the last decade. They still do what they’ve always done best; run the ball and field a great defense. Derrius Guice is a legitimate Heisman contender and has a great line to run behind. Guice was unstoppable in his sophomore season, which he acted as the default starter due to lingering injuries from Leonard Fournette.

Offensive Players to Watch: RB Derrius Guice, C Will Clapp, OG Maea Teuhema

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Arden Key, CB Kevin Toliver, CB Donte Jackson

Make-or-Break Factor: At their best, the Tigers field a deep team. At their worst? Well, it’s deep with underclassmen. Arden Key is likely out for the season opener which could mean true freshman K’Lavon Chaisson, one of the nation’s top recruits, gets the start. In the end, though, it still comes down to quarterback play. If Etling can just be a hair above average, LSU can compete with the big guys. If not, they’ll be in the same company they’ve been stuck in for the last few years.

Key Games:

  • 10/7 at Florida — It starts here. A road trip into the Swamp will be the first real test the Tigers face this year. Last year, they lost on a goal line stand in a very physical and well-fought game. The intensity between LSU and Florida is second only to their rivalries with Alabama and Florida State, respectively. Florida can still come out of the SEC East with a loss here but LSU’s season would get a lot harder if they can’t pull this one off.
  • 10/14 vs. Auburn — Just one week later, they host Auburn. This was another game that came down to the final play last season when Etling got the snap off one second too late. Matt Canada likely has a thing or two up his sleeve for Gus Malzahn, as a poor offensive plan was a major component behind last year’s loss.
  • 11/4 at Alabama — This is the big one. Ed Orgeron exceeded expectations in his first season with LSU by playing Alabama tighter than anyone has in years. In the end, though, fans want that W. No matter the year, this is the biggest game of the season for the Tigers and having to travel to Tuscaloosa this year makes their job even harder.

2017 Predictions: 10-2 (6-2); 3rd in the SEC West. Etling’s strides to improve won’t be for nothing. The Tigers offense should eventually thrive under Matt Canada’s direction but I wouldn’t expect such an immediate change this year. They’ve got a litany of young talent but there are concerns over how ready they are to play. The Tigers aren’t “back,” but they are headed in the right direction.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

Last Season: 6–7 (3–5); 6th in SEC West

Post-Season: Won (17–16) St. Petersburg Bowl vs. Miami (OH)

Departures: OT Justin Senior, DT Nelson Adams, DT Nick James, LB Jonathan Calvin

Pressing Concerns: The Bulldogs run their offense around Nick Fitzgerald’s dangerous dual-threat talents. He pairs off with running back Aeris Williams, making them an intense one-two punch. There is no true number one option in the passing game, though tight end Farrod Green is an excellent option and Donald Gray is more than capable himself. The issue is none of this matters if Fitzgerald is under constant pressure. Mississippi State’s offensive line has been paper the last three seasons and has only gotten worse over the offseason.

Biggest Strengths: Nick Fitzgerald last season was electrifying. He rushed for almost 1,400 yards and scored 16 touchdowns along the way. You couldn’t stop this guy most games. His accuracy is abhorrent but when you’re this good of a dual-threat, efficiency doesn’t matter nearly as much as timing and decision making. Another year under Dan Mullen and Fitzgerald should have improved in this regard.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Nick Fitzgerald, TE Farrod Green, RB Aeris Williams

Defensive Players to Watch: LB Leo Lewis, DE Jeffery Simmons, S Brandon Bryant

Make-or-Break Factor: Is this the one? Is Todd Grantham the savior Starkville has been looking for? Grantham is moving the defense around yet again. Jeffrey Simmons is moving to defensive end for his sophomore season, a move that could help him have a breakout season. On the other hand, seniors on this roster haven’t had the same defensive coordinator for more than a year. It’s almost as if Mullen thinks the position is called Defensive Coordinator Against the Dark Arts. The revolving door has to stop for these guys to develop. Grantham did good work in Georgia, maybe he can work his magic quickly here.

Key Games:

  • 9/23 at Georgia — Mississippi State has a potentially huge upset here. Georgia will wreck Miss State’s interior line, but the variety of running plays could wear that defense down, as they aren’t well equipped to handle someone as, let’s say, resourceful as Fitzgerald is. If the Bulldogs make some noise this year, it’ll likely be in Athens.
  • 11/18 at Arkansas — As stated earlier, this is a fight for bragging rights. The Razorbacks and Bulldogs match up well. This has the potential to be an even closer version of their epic shootout last season.
  • 11/23 vs. Ole Miss — Easily Mississippi State’s biggest rival. I’m not sure anything else even comes close. Last year was an ugly, one-sided affair. I think this year may be different purely because of the desperate state of the Rebels squad. I don’t have a lot of faith in Ole Miss, but I think they can give their bitter rival a run for their money.

2017 Predictions: 6-6 (2-6); 5th in the SEC West. The Bulldogs field the best dual-threat quarterback in the conference but nothing more. Their defense is under yet another regime change and the talent is too sparse, especially in the secondary, for them to compete for the division. Their offense has talent but it is largely miscast. Williams isn’t a workhorse back and Gray isn’t a true number one receiver. You can’t deny this team is interesting, but the end result isn’t going to be too different from last season.

Ole Miss Rebels

Last Season: 5–7 (2–6); 7th in SEC West

Post-Season: Did not qualify

Departures: TE Evan Engram, DT D.J. Jones, CB Derrick Jones, WR Quincy Adeboyejo, QB Chad Kelly, HC Hugh Freeze

Pressing Concerns: Hugh Freeze is out as head coach. He wasn’t the best at his job but he certainly had his moments. For one, he seemed to be the only coach out there who had Saban’s number. His ability to get the best out of his players was an underrated quality of his as well. Without Freeze, who is this team? Defensively they have a very talented player in Marquis Haynes but as a whole, the unit is one of the worst in the SEC. Offensively, it’s youth galore, which can be very dangerous in the SEC West.

Biggest Strengths: Shea Patterson has potential. His development will certainly be helped by the number of targets he has to choose from. Their defense does have a few playmakers on it outside of Haynes, namely Breeland Speaks, Ken Webster, and Myles Hartsfield. The secondary needs a few things to fall their way but if injuries don’t linger and transitions are smooth, then the Rebels could field a pretty decent group of defensive backs.

Offensive Players to Watch: QB Shea Patterson, C Sean Rawlings, RB Jordan Wilkins

Defensive Players to Watch: DE Marquis Haynes, CB Myles Hartsfield, S Zedrick Woods

Make-or-Break Factor: I’m a little concerned about that offensive line. The interior is solid but the outside has two young, new faces. In a conference full of dominant edge rushers, shaky offensive tackles can be a major setback.

Key Games:

9/16 at California — Neither team is really sure who they are. The Rebels are reeling from a scandal while California begins a system change under first-timer Justin Wilcox. This game is a good gauge for what we should expect out of both teams this season.

10/7 at Auburn — I like this defensive matchup for Ole Miss, assuming their offense develops. Patterson’s physical receivers would be hell for Auburn’s defensive backs. If Jordan Wilkins and Eric Swinney pan out, that’s a relentless duo they can use to pound through Auburn’s weak spots. I don’t think Ole Miss has an upset in them this year. If they do though, Auburn should be careful.

11/23 at Mississippi State — That is, unless we’re considering this an upset. It’s hard to call a rivalry game a “trap game” but that’s exactly what this is for the Bulldogs. The Rebels could be a mess but this game is still a toss of the coin.

2017 Predictions: 5-7 (1-7); 7th in the SEC West. I don’t think this team has it in them to dance near the .500 marker but their schedule is just that favorable this season. There are a lot of questions that need answering before the Rebels think about competing, but they’ve got a lot of youth on their team, which gives them ample time to answer these questions.

Texas A&M Aggies

Last Season: 8–5 (4–4); 4th in SEC West

Post-Season: Lost (28-33) Texas Bowl vs. Kansas State

Departures: DE Myles Garrett, S Justin Evans, DE Daeshon Hall, WR Josh Reynolds, OT Jermaine Eluemunor, QB Trevor Knight, LB Shaan Washington, TE Ricky Seals-Jones

Pressing Concerns: The departure of Myles Garrett severely damages the pass rush. The loss of Daeshon Hall certainly doesn’t help matters. While the Aggies retain their solid interior linemen, they weren’t exactly turning heads last year when defending the run. This goes beyond the line too. The Aggies defense needs an overhaul. Outside of the defensive tackles and safeties, the entire defense is a major concern.

Biggest Strengths: Kevin Sumlin and his recruiting — call it his Sumlinimal messaging — remain the Aggies best asset. While Garrett is an irreplaceable loss, his team still has dynamic athletes. Christian Kirk is one of the best receivers in the country, Trayveon Williams rushed for over 1,000 yards as a freshman, and Armani Watts might be Sumlin’s best safety ever.

Offensive Players to Watch: WR Christian Kirk, RB Trayveon Williams, OG Erik McCoy

Defensive Players to Watch: S Armani Watts, DT Kingsley Keke, LB Tyrel Dodson

Make-or-Break Factor: Whoever wins this quarterback battle will need to elevate this roster, not just contribute. Right now, it’s looking like senior Jake Hubenak has the slight edge but I wouldn’t be surprised to see redshirt freshman Nick Starkel get the start in the end. Sumlin could pull a wildcard and start true freshman Kellen Mond, though I doubt he risks Mond’s development like that. John Chavis will have to inspire his defense to be their best versions of themselves. Right now, the defense is looking like a step back from last year, which is a problem.

Key Games:

  • 9/3 at UCLA — Kevin Sumlin and Jim Mora are flirting with the hot seat. For both teams, this is a very important game. Sumlin has to kick the season off with a win for College Station. With early games against Arkansas and Alabama, he can’t afford to be a step behind going into those games. UCLA kept things close and forced overtime last year, it’ll be interesting to see what Chavis dials up to counter the highly touted QB Josh Rosen.
  • 11/4 vs. Auburn — This could be just the game Sumlin needs to prove his worth to the Aggies. They upset Auburn last season but there’s even more hype surrounding Malzahn’s Tigers this year. If they host Auburn and come away with a victory, that’s job security for Sumlin.
  • 11/25 at LSU — There’s nothing like rivalry week in college football. The Aggies look for revenge over their rival after losing by 25 last year. Derrius Guice gave A&M players nightmares in that game, exposing their porous run defense like no one else had that season. This is probably the biggest game of the season for the Aggies.

2017 Predictions: 5-7 (2-6); 6th in the SEC West. The Aggies’ holes on defense will make competing near impossible this year. Even if the quarterback battle has a good outcome, the offense can’t be expected to simply outscore everyone in a shootout. The defense has got to make improvements this year, despite losing Garrett. Their schedule is tough this year and their starters are largely unproven. It’s an unfortunate situation that Sumlin has landed in. His ability as a recruiter is unquestioned but his inability to turn that into results could send him packing this year. Which would be ironic considering Mond could potentially be the real deal. Hopefully for the Aggies, their administration doesn’t make any hasty decisions.


And finally, the prediction for the SEC Championship game. Alabama will defeat Georga and remain the kings of the SEC until dethroned — if that event ever does occur.

 

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