Alabama is the defending national champion and predicted by many to win the SEC once again in 2016.

The Crimson Tide aren’t going to cruise to yet another conference championship, though — let alone a third straight trip to the College Football Playoff. Nick Saban will get the league’s best shot.

That being said, to call the SEC a wide-open race this season would be inaccurate. Realistically, just a few teams have a legitimate chance to knock ‘Bama off the top of the mountain. The remaining squads are little more than potential spoilers looking to cook up some chaos and secure bowl eligibility.

From a scheduling perspective, the Tide must tip-toe through some land mines. Their four road conference games are at Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU. Expect some dog fights there.

Based on various combinations of talent and schedule, I think these five programs can win the SEC.


Bar none the most talented program in the country, this conversation begins and ends with the Tide.

Saban just won another ring with Jake Coker, who was originally a three-star transfer from Florida State and didn’t start a game until he was a fifth-year senior. Saban doesn’t need premier QB play.

The backfield is inexperienced with Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, but each was a five-star stud in high school. The wideouts — don’t forget tight end O.J. Howard — can bail out any replacement-level quarterback. The blocking up front is destined to be among the best, as is usually the case.

Even if four big-time defenders were just chosen in Round 2 of the NFL Draft, more future pros are on the way. The linebacking corps in particular should be sensational, plus the secondary is deep.

While the schedule is extra challenging when compared to a year ago, nobody wins more big games than Saban.


Unlike ‘Bama, which has to negotiate the West, the Volunteers have some smoother sailing out East.

That being said, UT has one of the nastiest four-week stretches in all of college football right in the middle of the season: vs. Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, vs. Alabama. That’s a death march.

The first hurdle to clear is the Gators, who have upended the Vols for 11 consecutive years. If Butch Jones and Co. can end that dubious streak, then momentum could carry this club the rest of the way. Keep in mind that they likely won’t have to sweep those four. Winning three will be enough.

Nov 29, 2014; Nashville, TN, USA; Tennessee Volunteers quarterback Josh Dobbs (11) runs for a touchdown during the first half against the Vanderbilt Commodores at Vanderbilt Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Yes, we need to see more from Joshua Dobbs (above) and the aerial attack, but the ground assault will keep the box stacked. As for the defense, there are returning starters with elite skills at every level.

Don’t forget special teams. With sound kicking and two great return men, the third phase is strong.


The Tigers are neck and neck with the Crimson Tide when simply counting stars on each depth chart.

But Alabama has won five consecutive over the Bayou Bengals and kept them out of the SEC Championship Game since 2011 as a result. LSU will once again host the Tide come the first weekend of November.

A once-in-a-decade runner with the ball in his hands, Leonard Fournette is being mentioned with the likes of Herschel Walker and Bo Jackson as a legend in the making at tailback. However, he needs to get more out of Brandon Harris and the passing game. Fournette was stymied last year in Tuscaloosa.

On the other side of the ball, new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda has to turn all this blue-chip talent into game-day production. The pass defense in particular was unusually suspect a season ago.

Beating ‘Bama gets the elephant off coach Les Miles’ back. Death Valley will be ready to rumble.

Ole Miss

Like in the NFL, having the superior signal caller in college gives you a chance to win every game.

More often than not, coach Hugh Freeze is going to have the top quarterback on the field no matter the opponent. Chad Kelly (below) compiled 4,000-plus yards and 30-plus TDs in 2015 as a first-year starter.

Nov 28, 2015; Starkville, MS, USA; Mississippi Rebels quarterback Chad Kelly (10) warms up before the game against the Mississippi State Bulldogs at Davis Wade Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

Credit: Matt Bush-USA TODAY Sports

While the Rebels have recruited incredibly well the last few cycles, Kelly won’t have his two best blockers from a year ago (Laremy Tunsil and Fahn Cooper), his best running back (Jaylen Walton) or his best wide receiver (Laquon Treadwell). It’s time for the supporting cast to play leading roles.

Mississippi has a brutal September schedule facing Florida State and Alabama, which will both be in the Top 5. But if Kelly gets hot in Freeze’s offense, he’s capable of defeating just about anybody.

If the Rebs are indeed a contender in the SEC this year, it’ll be with Kelly doing magical things.


Picked to finish fifth in the East last year at SEC Media Days, the Gators took the division title.

Still, this was one of the most lopsided teams in America for long stretches of the season. By the time UF made it to Atlanta, its spectacular defense was weighed down too much by an anemic offense.

Neither Will Grier nor Treon Harris calls Gainesville home anymore. Two-time transfer Luke Del Rio is next in line to resurrect a once-proud passing attack. While he might not have the pure arm talent of Grier, just being more effective than Harris is tolerable. Del Rio is a high-floor option at QB.

From defensive line to linebacker to secondary, this unit saw five alumni get chosen in the draft. A lot of ability remains, though. The front four is deep, plus Jalen “Teez” Tabor can be a shutdown corner.

Additionally, second-year coach Jim McElwain holds his players accountable and has earned respect.

John Crist is the senior writer for Saturday Down South, a member of the FWAA and a voter for the Heisman Trophy. Send him an e-mail, like him on Facebook or follow him on Twitter.