10 bold predictions for the SEC West in 2016
Preseason prognostications can be a precarious game. Many of you, for instance, might recall our fearless predictions from last summer.
“Tennessee will have the best SEC East defense in 2015.” Not exactly, they actually finished No. 5 in the division.
“More than 2,000 rushing yards for Nick Chubb.” We limped a little short on that one.
“No bowl for Florida.” Swing and a miss.
Well, we’re back for more punishment. The difference is that this year, we got this.
Here are 10 bold predictions for the 2016 season in the SEC West.
Myles Garrett wins SEC POTY honors
When Amari Cooper won the SEC Offensive Player of the Year award in 2014, the Alabama alum became the first wide receiver to haul in a conference honor of that stature since 1987, when LSU’s Wendell Davis won SEC Player of the Year. When Myles Garrett takes home the same award this year, he’ll become just the second defensive lineman to win SEC Defensive Player of the Year over the last 10 years.
The Texas A&M defensive end improves upon his first two seasons in College Station in which he terrorized defenses to the tune of a combined 24 sacks and 33.5 tackles for loss.
Garrett is arguably the best player in the SEC, if not beyond.
Ole Miss receives postseason ban
Ole Miss’ draft day woes extended far beyond the leaked video of former Rebels LT Laremy Tunsil toking marijuana from a gas mask. It was the left tackle’s admission to taking money from staffers to pay bills that was the more serious matter of Ole Miss’ draft-day nightmare. Granted, the NCAA was aware of the allegations, but the incident opened up a new investigation that could cost Hugh Freeze’s squad a bowl game.
The program self-imposed a Level 1-Mitigated case against itself in wake of the investigation. That’s the least-penalized of the NCAA sanctions and doesn’t include a postseason ban. Facing 13 infractions, the NCAA could be strict with Ole Miss and dole out a Level 1-Standard penalty, which carries with it a potential one- or two-year postseason ban. We’ll let the Clarion Ledger’s Daniel Paulling explain it in further detail here.
In our bold prediction, the NCAA makes an example of Ole Miss and bans the Rebels from postseason play for one year.
Auburn still manages a 1,000-yard rusher
Gus Malzahn has watched a wave of talent rush out of his backfield and keep on running straight out of the stadium like a metaphorical Bo Jackson on Monday Night Football in 1987 against the Seattle Seahawks. The only difference is, Peyton Barber (declared for draft early), Roc Thomas (transferred to Jacksonville State) and now Jovon Robinson aren’t returning to the field — not in a Tigers uniform, that is.
Robinson’s recent dismissal from the team leaves a glaring hole at running back for Auburn. But history and talent are on the side of Kerryon Johnson, Malik Miller and Kameron Martin, who remain on the Tigers’ depth chart.
The last time Auburn failed to have a 1,000-yard rusher was 2008. In fact, between Gene Chizik and Malzahn, the program has developed into one of the SEC’s premier destinations for running backs with nine 1,000-yard rushers in the last seven years.
Of course, history doesn’t physically carry the ball. Johnson has the most experience of the young trio with 52 attempts for 208 yards and 3 touchdowns, which were two more than Thomas scored. All three backs are long on talent, just short on experience. Also helping matters is a Tigers offensive line that returns three starters off a unit that helped pace Auburn to No. 5 in the SEC in rushing offense last season.
Arkansas makes it three in a row over LSU
Bret Bielema and Arkansas have had LSU’s number the last two seasons, dropping the Tigers handily in both 2014 and 2015. The Razorbacks were one of two teams (Alabama the other) to hold the nation’s leading rusher Leonard Fournette under 100 yards on the ground in 2015 allowing him 91 yards and just one touchdown. Bielema’s defense is improved this year, especially up front where the Hogs make life difficult once again for Les Miles’ squad. (See below for how the win fits into the grand scheme of the SEC West).
Trevor Knight leads the SEC in passing
This really shouldn’t be that bold of a prognostication, given Knight’s acumen and Texas A&M’s stable of horses at wideout.
The graduate transfer arrives in College Station with 3,424 career passing yards and 25 touchdowns after being ousted from Oklahoma by upstart quarterback Baker Mayfield. His gift is an Aggies wide receiving corps that is arguably among the best in the SEC, if not the country. Led by sophomore Christian Kirk, the 2015 SEC Freshman of the Year, Texas A&M returns its top five receivers, who were worth 2,902 yards last year.
It’s Knight who outlasts Chad Kelly of Ole Miss and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs for tops in the SEC.
Dan Mullen jumps ship
Dan Mullen repeatedly, if not annually, admits that he loves his job as Mississippi State head coach. And with good reason. Mullen rescued a moribund Bulldogs program that was 21-38 with one bowl appearance in the five seasons under Sylvester Croom prior to the coach’s arrival in Starkville. He enters 2016 with a 55-35 record and six trips to the postseason since taking over for Croom after the 2008 campaign. The result is the perennial rumors tying Mullen to vacant jobs every offseason, including Michigan, Virginia Tech and Florida in recent years.
This time it’s for real as Mullen uses a lighter early season schedule to build momentum around new quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. In one of the finest coaching performances of his career, Mullen leads Mississippi State to a coveted bowl game, effectively making him one of the top choices next winter when the coaching carousel begins spinning and throwing bodies asunder. Mullen claims he loves his job, but sometimes you just can’t turn down the opportunity for bigger and better — especially when you’ve earned it and there’s likely a swimming pool full of money involved.
Seals-Jones, Stringfellow test their NFL Draft mettle
Every winter we hear of a player who eschew their senior year for a shot at the NFL Draft. However, it doesn’t always work out as intended. See Auburn’s Peyton Barber, for example, who went undrafted in April after coming out early and is now faced with the daunting task of catching on with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers as a free agent. At the conclusion of 2016, two receivers will attempt to forego their senior campaign for the NFL. Texas A&M’s log jam at wide receiver is too much for Ricky Seals-Jones (1,109 career receiving yards, 9 TDs), who leaves College Station after his junior year. Same, too, goes for Ole Miss wideout Damore’ea Stringfellow (762 career yards, 6 TDs). Whether the two receivers are talented to go pro or were just the product of strong quarterback play remains to be settled this spring, starting with the NFL Combine as both try their hands in the NFL after the season.
Leonard Fournette falls short of 2015 numbers
Leonard Fournette enters his junior season as a preseason favorite to sit on the Heisman dais come December. That’s courtesy of a 2015 campaign that saw him rush for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns while leading the nation in rushing with 162.8 YPG. But the LSU running back falls short of topping those stats in 2016 thanks to a Tigers schedule that gets tougher to run against this year. Opposing defenses that LSU faced last year yielded an average of 181.7 YPG on the ground. That slate included contests against Texas Tech and Eastern Michigan, the penultimate and very last rushing defenses in the nation — as well as four games against teams that finished ranked No. 108 or worse in rush defense.
By comparison, the Tigers’ 2016 opponents were markedly tougher against the run last year, allowing offenses to rush for an average of 134.9 YPG. That’s almost a 50-yard difference. Plus, Fournette will face only two defenses in 2016 (Texas A&M and South Alabama) that finished ranked worse than No. 100 in the country in rush defense. In fact, LSU faces two of the top four rush defenses from last season in No. 1 Alabama and No. 4 Wisconsin and five of the top 25.
It all adds up to fewer yards for Fournette.
Arkansas SEC West champs
Your outrage is already palpable. But hear us out before you start formulating an angry mob.
There’s a pathway for Arkansas to win the SEC West. To wit:
Alabama is tasked with winning games on the road at Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU — as well as a trip to Texas to face Southern California in Week 1. With a new quarterback under center and a reconstructed backfield, the Crimson Tide isn’t a slam dunk to walk away with its third straight SEC West title.
LSU hits the highway to face Wisconsin and Florida, that’s prior to a brutal stretch that witnesses the Tigers face Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas in consecutive weeks.
Ole Miss’ season could be toast as early as Week 3 after facing Florida State and Alabama between a matchup with Wofford to start the year. The schedule doesn’t let up from there for the Rebels, with Georgia, Memphis, Arkansas and LSU in the next four contests.
It’s difficult to see one of these three teams coming out of these stretches unscathed, especially when they start knocking one another off.
That leaves the door ajar for Arkansas to slip in and earn its first SEC West championship since 2006. The Razorbacks’ 2016 slate is highly conducive for the Hogs to surprise some teams. A Week 2 tilt against TCU in Fort Worth presents a challenge, but Arkansas could emerge 5-1 heading into its Week 6 game against Alabama in Fayetteville. That could greatly behoove Bret Bielema’s squad, which has proven to be a strong second-half team in recent years going 10-4 after Week 6 in 2014 and 2015 combined.
After playing host to the Crimson Tide, the Razorbacks welcome Ole Miss, Florida and LSU to The Hill. With an improved defense, a stocked wide receiver corps and Bielema working his annual magic along the offensive line and out of the backfield, Arkansas gets enough play out of quarterback Austin Allen to shock the SEC West and claim the fifth divisional title in program history.
Saban flips, agrees to attend satellite camps
The saga over satellite camps rages on, this time with Nick Saban — frustrated by seceding the SEC West to Arkansas — officially going all “Jim Harbaugh” and joining the circus. Alabama took advantage of the NCAA’s decision to permit satellite camps, traveling to several this summer, including Michigan. But sent low-level staffers (sorry graduate assistants Rob Ezell and Charlie Weis Jr.) in lieu of the head coach.
“We are trying to get guys to cover the camp, but most of our assistant coaches and myself – I’m not going to go to any satellite camps,” Saban said via AL.com. “We made the decision that it’s most important especially in this time period because there’s only limited time periods in the summer time where we have time to spend with our players. It’s the first couple of weeks of June and the last couple of weeks in July. We are going to invest more time in that, especially me because I don’t feel like I get to spend as much time around our players.”
Michigan has a better year than Alabama and Saban makes the call to join the fray.