The 3 toughest SEC teams to predict this season
As preseason polls and predictions roll out this time of year, we all have strong feelings about how the SEC season will shake out. It’s simple, right? Sort of.
Alabama will win the SEC West and most likely the conference championship. At least that’s what Las Vegas, the media and most anyone who has seen the Nick Saban dynasty believes. Georgia is also a safe bet to win the SEC East. Florida is trending the right way but the Gators seem a year or 2 away from catching the Bulldogs. This season will most likely be a 2-horse race. So why even watch? For several reasons.
First, strange things happen. Bama’s new coaching staff might not be as cohesive as Saban would like. He admitted that was an issue last season. Second, Georgia is implementing a new offense and breaking in an entirely new set of receivers. That can always be a challenge. But even if Alabama and Georgia are the two top dogs (or elephants, with all due respect), there are some storylines in the SEC that are incredibly intriguing.
For instance, imagine being an Auburn, Kentucky or South Carolina fan.
I’m well aware that hope springs eternal in August, but those 3 teams are impossible to predict. Each could have a successful season or see the bottom fall out in 2019.
Why Auburn could rise or fall
Let’s begin with Auburn. Head coach Gus Malzahn’s on-again-off-again love affair with the Tigers’ offensive playbook has been re-ignited once again. He’s in charge of Auburn’s offense, which feels a little like Custer’s last stand.
Auburn faces three ranked opponents in its first six games. Eeesh. Imagine if the Tigers lose two of those games or, heaven forbid, all three. It’s hard to imagine the Tigers righting the ship considering the amount of scrutiny that Malzahn would be under. Also, Georgia is their permanent SEC East opponent. The fact that Auburn enters the season with a debate at quarterback should strike fear on The Plains. Auburn could win 6 or 10 games this season. Malzahn could be fired or receive a contract extension. None of the above would be surprising.
Why Kentucky could rise or fall
Kentucky’s 2018 season was historic. The Wildcats winning 10 football games is analogous to their basketball team not making the NCAA Tournament. There’s a new standard in Lexington. But is it realistic? Probably not.
Kentucky loses two superstars: linebacker Josh Allen and running back Benny Snell. That’s not all. The Wildcats lose seven starters on offense AND defense. Head coach Mark Stoops has built a strong infrastructure but the recent losses seem like a lot to overcome. If Stoops can manage eight wins this season, he should be considered for SEC Coach of the Year honors. That could open the door for him to step into a more high-profile football job. Florida State might be looking if Willie Taggert can’t improve on last season. Stoops has strong ties there as a defensive coordinator and defensive back coach.
Why South Carolina could rise or fall
As for South Carolina, Will Muschamp deserves a key to the city of Columbia if he can muster 8 wins out of the schedule he faces. The Gamecocks host Alabama, play at Georgia, host Florida, play at Texas A&M and host Clemson.
South Carolina will likely be underdogs in all of those games. Moreover, the Gamecocks play Appalachian State in a nonconference matchup that should have never been scheduled. That’s an upset waiting to happen. Muschamp could do a decent job this season and the Gamecocks could finish 6-6.
So … which one falls?
What is the common thread among these 3 programs? Expectations.
Malzahn has won an SEC title as a head coach and received a ton of credit for Auburn’s national championship in 2010, although a guy named Cam Newton did the heavy lifting.
Championships are the expectation in the state of Alabama, but should that be the case at Auburn with the Crimson Tide dominating the state? Malzahn could be the greatest coach not named Saban in that state since Gene Stallings. That doesn’t matter. Auburn fans won’t cut him any slack. They don’t want to be a little brother to Alabama.
Kentucky fans haven’t had expectations this high since Hal Mumme was going for it on 4th-and-13 from his own 35. That’s certainly not a comparison between Stoops and Mumme. Stoops has Kentucky in a much more stable position than Mumme ever did. Still, the Wildcats won’t even flirt with 10 wins this season. They could easily finish 6-6.
South Carolina’s situation isn’t as volatile as Auburn’s, but it still could get shaky for Muschamp if he bottoms out with 5 or 6 wins this season. No, he won’t get fired — nor should he. However, fans will expect much more in 2020. Muschamp is building something at South Carolina and it hasn’t been easy. Former Gamecocks coach Steve Spurrier helped South Carolina build facilities, but he left Muchamp with a roster that was, well, terrible.
So I’ll step to the firing line and make the tough predictions. Others can pick Alabama and Georgia to win their divisions. That’s easy. The 3 most difficult teams to predict this season are Auburn, Kentucky and South Carolina.
I believe the season does indeed turn south and the Tigers finish 6-6.
As for Kentucky, I think they finish a very respectable 8-4 because Stoops can develop players.
Bad news Gamecock fans. I’ve got you finishing 5-7 and missing a bowl game. If that happens, don’t despair. Muschamp is going in the right direction. He just needs more time and there are limitations in Columbia that other SEC stalwarts don’t face.