10 SEC teams who rose highest above preseason expectations during the Playoff era
Contrary to popular belief, I don’t like being too negative.
I know. Strange, right? Sometimes it’s easier to blast a quarterback for making an awful decision than it is to praise a defense for capitalizing on a mistake, but I try to keep things as balanced as possible.
The other day, I wrote about the 10 most disappointing SEC teams of the Playoff era. Those were teams who fans probably wish they could forget. From preseason top-10 to unranked team playing in a mediocre bowl game, those aren’t memories that fans wish to relive.
Today, we focus on the positive.
The following SEC teams are the ones who soared past relatively low preseason expectations:
10. 2017 South Carolina
Final AP ranking: Unranked (9-4, 5-3 vs. SEC)
If you told South Carolina fans after Steve Spurrier’s departure that in 2 years, they’d be back to 9 wins, they would’ve kissed you on the mouth. Or perhaps they just would’ve given you a strange look and told you that wasn’t possible. But the Gamecocks, despite being picked to finish fourth in the open East, improved their 2016 win total by 3 thanks to an impressive comeback against Michigan in the Outback Bowl. It’s not a bad year in Columbia when you beat NC State, Florida and Tennessee.
9. 2016 Auburn
Final AP ranking: No. 24 (8-5, 5-3 vs. SEC)
Here’s the thing to remember with this group. It was picked to finish 6th in the West, yet it still had a chance to win the division in mid-November. That 2016 team is the only Auburn squad to start unranked in the Playoff, and understandably so after how big of a letdown the 2015 team was. But the arrival of Kevin Steele paid dividends and Auburn played in a New Year’s 6 Bowl. It was an impressive turnaround after a “here we go again” 1-2 start to the season. Who knows how that reversed LSU touchdown in late-September changed the course of SEC history.
8. 2018 Texas A&M
Final AP ranking: No. 16 (9-4, 5-3 vs. SEC)
I realize there was hype for the start of the Jimbo Fisher era, and optimism can often run amok at places with 100,000 fans on a given fall Saturday. But did Aggie fans expect the best year of the Playoff era? I don’t think so. Not in Year 1. The team that was picked to finish fourth in the division took Clemson down to the wire and beat a pair of teams that finished in the top 12. The 4-game winning streak and rout of NC State in the TaxSlayer.com Bowl put a bow on what was an extremely solid start to Fisher’s time in College Station.
7. 2017 Mississippi State
Final AP ranking: No. 19 (9-4, 4-4 vs. SEC)
It’s a good sign when a team picked to finish sixth in its own division puts together a top-20 season. That’s what the Bulldogs did in what turned out to be Dan Mullen’s last season in Starkville. The LSU win was one of the best single-game performances of the Mullen era, which got overshadowed when MSU lost consecutive blowout games at Georgia and at Auburn, both of whom went on to play for the SEC Championship. The 2 other losses were the nail-biter against eventual-national champ Alabama and the Egg Bowl in which Nick Fitzgerald suffered the devastating ankle injury. That easily could’ve been a 10-win season, which the program only has 1 of in the 21st century.
6. 2015 Florida
Final AP ranking: No. 25 (10-4, 7-1 vs. SEC)
The start of the Jim McElwain era had plenty of question marks. The quarterback situation was up in the air coming off the deflating 7-win season in 2014. But Will Grier took the college football world by storm, and so did the Gators. That 6-0 start, which included the thumping of No. 3 Ole Miss, had Gator fans suddenly believing a miracle season was in the works. Then Grier’s PED suspension put a cap on that. Remember this?
— Matt Murschel (@osmattmurschel) October 15, 2015
But a Florida team that was picked to finish fifth in the division won the East and still won 10 games despite a 3-game losing streak to end the season. Not too shabby.
5. 2018 Florida
Final AP ranking: No. 7 (10-3, 5-3 vs. SEC)
I thought Florida had a ceiling of 8 wins in 2018. I don’t think I was alone in that considering the Gators won 4 games in the mess that was 2017. Year 1 of the Mullen era proved to be way beyond what I thought was possible. Not only did the Gators earn the SEC’s highest year-to-year win total of the Playoff era (+6), they also won their first New Year’s 6 Bowl of the post-Urban Meyer era. Mullen kept Feleipe Franks in check and Todd Grantham’s blitz-happy defense helped fuel Florida to an impressive No. 7 ranking.
4. 2018 LSU
Preseason: No. 25
Final AP ranking: No. 6 (10-3, 5-3 vs. SEC)
Remember when Vegas set the over/under for LSU at 7.5 wins? And amazingly, it got the most action of any team to hit the under. Many believed the daunting schedule would result in the Tigers missing 8 wins for the first time in the 21st century and that Ed Orgeron would be out of a job. LSU didn’t get that memo. Not only did the Tigers win their first New Year’s 6 Bowl game of the Playoff era, but Orgeron got a raise and an extension after beating 4 top-10 teams. Instead of it being the program’s worst year of the 21st century, it wound up being LSU’s best year since the 2011 runner-up season.
3. 2014 Mississippi State
Final AP ranking: No. 11 (10-3, 6-2 vs. SEC)
I don’t know of many teams who go from being predicted to finish fifth in their division to being ranked No. 1 in America in November. Even though Dak Prescott was back for the Bulldogs, there was still little buzz about MSU doing anything in a conference that gave them all sorts of problems in the 21st century. Then, MSU beat 3 straight top-8 teams and suddenly, there was national title talk in Starkville. It’s a great trivia question to ask “who was No. 1 overall in the first very first Playoff poll?” That would be MSU. Unfortunately part of the reason that question is tough is because MSU lost 3 of its final 4 games and missed out on its first top-10 finish since 1940. But it was still an incredibly impressive — and surprising — season for the Bulldogs.
2. 2018 Kentucky
Final AP ranking: No. 12 (10-3, 5-3 vs. SEC)
Five. That’s how many wins I thought Kentucky would have in 2018. The Wildcats were predicted to finish fifth in the SEC West and ultimately come up short of a winning record in conference play for the 41st consecutive season. Nobody expected Kentucky to beat Florida for the first time since 1986 and nobody expected Kentucky to win 10 games for the first time since 1977. But thanks to Josh Allen, Benny Snell and SEC Coach of the Year Mark Stoops, the Cats accomplished all of those things. And most importantly, we got the best version of Snell:
Keep doubting @benny_snell…
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) September 23, 2018
They hosted a division title game and beat Penn State in a New Year’s Day Bowl. Even though internally, Kentucky believed it would be good, it overcame some mammoth historic doubt to have program’s best season in 4 decades.
1. 2017 Georgia
Preseason: No. 15
Final AP ranking: No. 2, Lost in National Championship (13-2, 7-1 SEC)
You might not agree with this based on the fact that Georgia started as a preseason top-15 team, but that’s OK. Before the 2017 season, it was a legitimate debate if Florida or Georgia was going to win the East. Only 6 of a possible 243 SEC media members voted that Georgia would win the SEC. Not only did the Dawgs do that, but they went to their first national championship since 1980. If not for 2nd and 26, they would’ve ended that drought, too. A team that could never get over the hump did so in just the second year of the Kirby Smart era. For a team that was a year removed from losing to Georgia Tech and Vanderbilt at home, 2017 was quite the turnaround.