The SEC is poised to rebound after a down year in which Alabama was the only team to finish with fewer than four losses. The Crimson Tide carried the banner all the way to the National Title game, but were rather lonely atop the SEC. Conversely, the ACC boasted the National Champion Clemson Tigers and the Orange Bowl Champion Florida State Seminoles. The Big 10 had four very good teams in Big 10 Champ Penn State, Ohio State, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The Pac-10 had a strong Washington in the North and a toughening USC in the South.
Alabama will once again be the prohibitive favorite with the best coaches and best players in the conference. The SEC is likely to bounce back and produce a more challenging set of foes in 2017 though.
In the West, LSU will move forward under the leadership of Ed Orgeron. He hired Matt Canada as his offensive coordinator after an impressive season at Pittsburgh, which followed an up-and-down tenure at NC State. If they can generate a consistent passing attack, they can quickly regain elite status, but that’s yet to be seen.
The other SEC West foe with a chance to challenge Alabama is their arch-rival Auburn. While they lose Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson off their defensive line, they should be more potent on offense. Auburn’s rushing attack found its groove as the year progressed, and should benefit from more balance as QB Jarrett Stidham is eligible following his Baylor to JUCO to Auburn transfer. He was the QB who briefly took over when Baylor QB Seth Russell was injured. Stidham briefly thrived before getting hurt himself.
The rest of the SEC West may be relatively weak. Arkansas will hope to get some momentum after a Belk Bowl collapse to VT marked the fitting end to a generally disappointing season. Fortunately, they get an easy draw from the east playing South Carolina and Missouri. Texas A&M looks for a new QB after ending last season with a thud. Mississippi State returns the talented Nick Fitzgerald at QB, but has questions on defense. Ole Miss may flounder while the NCAA figures out if and how they will punish them for what appears to be multiple cases of the Rebels paying players to enroll in their program.
In the East, Georgia enters as the early favorite. The Bulldogs return 17 starters including QB Jacob Eason. Eason had an up and down freshman year, but gained the experience needed to develop into one of the better QBs in the SEC. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel also return to provide run support for their young QB. The Bulldogs play at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, at Auburn, and at Georgia Tech, but a 3-1 record in those contests isn’t unthinkable and if they can pull it off and win the East, they could be in position to be a major dark horse playoff team with an upset over the Crimson Tide.
Led by an outstanding defense, the Florida Gators saw five defensive players drafted in the first three rounds of the NFL draft before any Gator offensive players were selected. With that, the Gators will need to take a step forward on offense if they are to win their third straight SEC East crown. QB Malik Zaire will graduate transfer into the program after the SEC eased unique academic probation rules they hold for schools that accept graduate transfers who don’t enroll in enough hours of classes.
Zaire was the starting QB at Notre Dame over Deshone Kizer before he broke he ankle in a game against UVA. Upon his return, Kizer was too good to ever relinquish the starting job. Zaire could immediately breathe life into the Gator’s offense, and given their successful history of beating Georgia, they again could win the East.
Tennessee plays both Alabama and LSU from the West, giving them the toughest conference schedule in the SEC. They’ve recruited relatively well – though it could have been better if Clemson hadn’t won over some of their key recruiting targets. They have the talent to compete in the SEC, but they haven’t delivered on that promise under Butch Jones. Jones may soon find himself on the hot seat, though Tennessee should be weary of another short coaching tenure throwing their program back into tumult.
The bottom of the SEC East will again comprise the bottom of the conference. South Carolina should improve some as Jake Bentley enters his first full season as the starting QB. Both the Cocks and Commodores return 16 starters. Kentucky returns 17 starters and looks to surprise some of the bigger name programs in the SEC. It wasn’t long ago that Missouri was winning the East, but political uproar on campus enveloped the football program and the distraction pulled them apart. Their defense may be a big problem and they’ll struggle in conference play.
- Mississippi State
- Texas A&M
- Ole Miss
- South Carolina
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