10 bold predictions for SEC East in 2016
No college football season can begin without setting wild expectations.
Every team thinks it’s going to Atlanta. The media picked Alabama and Tennessee, but its track record isn’t very good.
Here, then, are 10 of the boldest predictions for SEC East teams in 2016, beginning with the boldest. We apologize in advance, Vols fans.
1. Tennessee won’t win the SEC East
Enjoy the magic carpet ride while it lasts, Volunteers. These days, it’s harder to find someone not picking Tennessee to win the SEC East than it is to see a soul roaming through Neyland Stadium in a Tim Tebow jersey. Still, here’s guessing the Vols will wait at least one more year before clawing back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2007.
Florida will be a familiar monkey wrench thrown in Tennessee’s plans on Sept. 24 in Knoxville. But there’s also a bumpy stretch in the following weeks that includes road games against Georgia and Texas A&M before returning home against Alabama on Oct. 15. Talk about potholes galore.
The Vols’ hopes of winning the SEC East will vaporize in a hurry.
2. Georgia’s Nick Chubb will outrush LSU’S Leonard Fournette
Understandably, Fournette has been knighted as the SEC’s best hope of winning the Heisman Trophy after the Tennessee Titans drafted Derrick Henry in April. But Chubb will lurk between the hedges, ready to give the wrecking-ball treatment to defenses after a gruesome left knee injury cut short his promising 2015 season.
Chubb ran for 745 yards in Georgia’s first five games last year before he was sidelined the rest of the fall. Fournette will do Fournette things, but it’s not a stretch to envision a healthy Chubb eclipsing the 1,547 yards he posted in 2014. The Bulldogs should ride Chubb hard this fall, especially if true freshman Jacob Eason sees significant time behind center.
Meanwhile, it wouldn’t surprise to see LSU coaches use care when pressing the gas pedal with Fournette in a season of big expectations in Baton Rouge. A 2,000-plus-yard fall is possible for Chubb as long as he starts healthy and stays that way.
3. South Carolina will start 0-6 under Will Muschamp
Batten down the hatches, Gamecocks fans. Prepare for a stormy start to the fall.
The schedule looks daunting for Muschamp as he ushers in a new era in Columbia. There are road games at Vanderbilt and Mississippi State to begin, followed by a home contest against East Carolina, then a road date at Kentucky before home matchups against Texas A&M and Georgia. A 0-6 start is possible before a likely victory over UMass at home on Oct. 22.
South Carolina could start a freshman at quarterback, with first-year players Brandon McIlwain and Jake Bentley as possibilities entering fall camp. Muschamp should be given some slack for the slog that’s likely to come. But a 0-6 start could create some frustration among the faithful.
4. Missouri’s offense will surprise under new OC Josh Heupel
The Tigers’ offense can’t be any worse, can it? Missouri was dreadful last year, averaging just 13.6 points per game. Heupel’s hire in the offseason means changes will come fast, even if we don’t know where the adjustments will lead.
But here’s guessing improvement will happen. Drew Lock will be more seasoned after living through many lumps last year. The backfield situation looks better after running backs Nate Strong and Alex Ross, a graduate transfer from Oklahoma, were added in the summer. Chris Black, a graduate transfer from Alabama, should be a factor as a wide receiver.
Don’t expect the Tigers to become a reincarnation of “The Greatest Show on Turf.” But more life should be shown.
5. Kentucky’s bowl drought reaches six years
When does basketball season begin again?
Sorry, but the Mark Stoops era hasn’t panned out in Lexington. Despite optimism after his hire before the 2013 campaign, Stoops has produced two five-win seasons and a two-win year. Triple ouch.
Claiming six victories seems like the low-bar requirement for him in 2016. But do you believe in Kentucky to reach that mark? What have the Wildcats shown under Stoops to earn your trust?
Stanley “Boom” Williams can only do so much. Shine that hardwood, fast!
6. Vanderbilt will have best year under Derek Mason
OK, so we’re not talking about Everest-sized heights here. But the Commodores should return to a bowl after a two-season hiatus.
A 4-0 start is possible. An early schedule that includes South Carolina, Middle Tennessee, Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky looks like a molehill compared to some of the peaks other SEC programs must climb before October. (Have you seen Ole Miss’ schedule?)
Mason must take advantage of the opportunity. If Vandy starts 4-0, likely victories against Kentucky, Tennessee State and Missouri follow later. After trudging through 3-9 and 4-8 campaigns the past two years, the Commodores have a chance to enjoy more fortune this fall.
7. Kirby Smart will raise expectations quickly
Eason will be electric. Chubb will be a road grader. The Bulldogs will bite Tennessee or Florida — or both.
It won’t take long for Georgia fans to dream about SEC East titles again. Whether you think Mark Richt was treated fairly or unfairly before he started leaping off a high dive in Miami, the fact remains that the Bulldogs underachieved in recent years. Smart will look like a wise hire if he makes wide-eyed visions a reality in Athens. No pressure or anything.
No, another SEC Championship Game berth won’t happen this year. But anticipation will build between the hedges for 2017, especially if Eason looks ready to reach another stratosphere next season. Buckle in, Coach.
8. The East will close the gap against the West
When people talk about the SEC’s strength, they speak about the conference the same way most discuss wild weekends in Miami or New Orleans. Only parts of the entire picture are mentioned. When talking Miami, it’s South Beach. When gabbing about the Big Easy, it’s the French Quarter.
The same goes for the SEC. When people lift up the league as the nation’s best, they’re speaking about the SEC West. And why not? The division – highlighted by Alabama, Auburn and LSU in recent seasons – has dominated the national conversation the past seven years. The SEC East has stood in the background, its nose pressed against a wall.
But things should change a bit this season. Tennessee and Florida are rising. Georgia should become a threat soon. Perhaps Missouri will regain its footing under new coach Barry Odom in the not-so-distant future. Don’t expect the East champion to beat the West representative at the Georgia Dome this season. Still, some power has shifted to the forgotten division.
9. Jim McElwain will prove that last year was no fluke
McElwain beat the curve with 10 victories in his first season in Gainesville last year. Sure, the Gators didn’t exactly stick the landing, with three straight losses to close. But 10 wins are 10 wins, no matter if they come with a sweet sensation or a sour aftertaste.
The Gators have the tall task of figuring out what the heck will happen at quarterback. Luke Del Rio appears like the answer, and truth be told, no one would have guessed that Florida would crack double-digit victories with Will Grier and Treon Harris running the show last year. Perhaps Del Rio will surprise in a similar way.
Still, there’s enough talent on defense present in The Swamp, and McElwain has a year behind him with all those opening-year jitters gone. Don’t be surprised to see Florida win the SEC East again.
10. Florida will make it 12 straight over Tennessee and return to Atlanta
Turn away, Tennessee faithful. Your dark cloud continues to dump sheets of rain.
Everything screams the Vols should snap out of their maddening spell against Florida this year. The skill on both sides of the ball is there. The hunger is there. The friendly setting will be there, and you know Neyland Stadium will want to see the Gators annihilated.
But … and that’s the thing. There’s always the “but” when it comes to Tennessee against Florida. It’s like a law of nature.
Face it, the Gators own the Vols. Until Tennessee shakes its crazy slump in this series, it’s impossible to predict it will end. That would be like saying fire will beat water or that chicken will beat the frying pan. Not happening.
Prove it or pack away the hope until next year.