Up or down: Which direction are SEC teams trending heading into bowl season or offseason?
With Alabama the lone SEC team that has something to play for in the 2016 season, it’s time to turn the page and take stock of each program.
Outside of the Crimson Tide, no SEC team finished with fewer than four losses, yet there were several disappointments and surprises in the league.
Recruiting oftentimes impacts how fans feel about their program come spring time, but that is a different conversation for a different day.
The season is fresh in our minds, and it’s time to decide which direction teams are trending heading into bowl season or, for two teams, the offseason.
ALABAMA: Although the loss of Lane Kiffin leaves a slight question mark for the future of Alabama’s offense, no team has rebounded from such occurrences better than the Crimson Tide under Nick Saban.
The old adage is that once you’re on top, there’s nowhere to go but down. For Alabama, that may not hold true. The Crimson Tide look well on their way toward another national title. They have another spectacular recruiting class taking form, and with no real challenger emerging in the SEC, Alabama is in great shape until Saban hangs it up.
Trending: Up (or at least staying even)
ARKANSAS: After a three-game win streak to begin the season, Arkansas did not string together back-to-back wins or losses for the rest of the year. There might not be a more difficult team to decipher than the Razorbacks.
Arkansas will need to clean up the run defense and offensive line play, but it will benefit from having Austin Allen and its top two running backs return. The Razorbacks are losing nearly all of their leading receivers, but they could turn toward a run-heavy offense. Right now, it doesn’t look like Arkansas is gaining ground in the division.
AUBURN: The commitment of Jarrett Stidham has re-energized the Tigers. When healthy, Auburn’s offense showed just how explosive it can be. It should be more explosive with Stidham behind center.
The Tigers’ defense looks like one of the best units in the SEC, and the talented youth on the roster should only continue to improve under Kevin Steele. If Stidham (below) is as advertised, Auburn is a legitimate threat in the SEC West next season.
FLORIDA: The Gators have reached the SEC championship game in both seasons under Jim McElwain, but there didn’t appear to be any clear improvement in his second season. Florida’s offense could look different with Feleipe Franks or Jake Allen at quarterback, but either would have a learning curve as a first-time starter.
If several of Florida’s talented juniors on defense decide to head to the NFL, it could be in line to take a step back in 2017. It doesn’t help that Florida currently has only the eighth-ranked recruiting class in the SEC and is behind the likes of Colorado and Maryland nationally.
GEORGIA: Entering Kirby Smart’s first season, many Georgia fans just wanted to see improvement. That looked to be on the table until a fourth-quarter meltdown cost the Bulldogs in their season finale against Georgia Tech.
There is still plenty of reason to be optimistic for next season, however, with an experienced young squad returning. Add to that a recruiting class currently ranked No. 3 in the nation, and Georgia may be okay after all.
KENTUCKY: The Wildcats ended the season with an impressive victory over Louisville and Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson. With Benny Snell and Stanley Williams returning, the future looks very bright for Kentucky.
There is youth all over the roster at Kentucky, and it looks poised to pull in its best recruiting class since 2014. If Mark Stoops can find ways to beat the traditional SEC East powers, the Wildcats could surprise people next year.
LSU: Ed Orgeron’s love for the program is already showing, and he’s made it his mission to go out and get the best. The Tigers might have lost out on Lane Kiffin, but their aggressiveness on the recruiting trail will likely pay off.
Leonard Fournette may be leaving, but Derrius Guice (below) has proven he’s just as capable of carrying the ball. It remains to be seen how LSU will look after Orgeron’s first offseason, but it is already miles ahead of last year.
MISSISSIPPI STATE: A dominant victory over Ole Miss helped the Bulldogs end the season on a high note, but there is still plenty of work to be done for Dan Mullen.
A defense-heavy recruiting class should help Mississippi State add some depth on that side of the ball, but this disappointing season is hard to overlook.
MISSOURI: At the beginning of the season, Missouri looked like a team that had figured out its offensive problems and could be a player once the defense came around. Unfortunately, the defense never came around.
The Tigers’ offense should only improve as Drew Lock gains more experience, but the defense really needs some work over the offseason. It was not a good start for Barry Odom, and Missouri will need to be better in 2017.
OLE MISS: It seems like a distant memory when Ole Miss and Mississippi State were both on top of the college football world. Now, both programs are back at the bottom of the SEC West and looking to get back.
Hugh Freeze is hoping a change at offensive coordinator will make that happen, but the growth of Shea Patterson is also vital. Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown will be his best returning options, but the Rebels aren’t going to have the same expectations entering this season.
SOUTH CAROLINA: There may not be a coach in the SEC who did more with less than Will Muschamp. The foundation is very much in place for the Gamecocks.
Recruiting has always been a strength for Muschamp, and South Carolina currently has the No. 14-ranked recruiting class in the nation. Combine that with the promising play of freshmen such as Jake Bentley, Rico Dowdle (below) and Bryan Edwards, and the future looks bright.
TENNESSEE: What a difference one season makes. At this point last year, it felt as though Tennessee was nearing the culmination of Butch Jones’ promise of an SEC championship.
Now, the Vols are losing all of their veteran talent that many believed made them a team to fear in the SEC. Without Josh Dobbs, Cam Sutton and Jalen Reeves-Maybin, and potentially other key contributors, there is a much different feeling on Rocky Top.
TEXAS A&M: It looks like there will be another quarterback competition looming for the Aggies. Talented dual-threat prospect Kellen Mond has fans excited, but it’s tough to win in the SEC as a true freshman quarterback (Jalen Hurts excluded).
Fortunately, Trayveon Williams and Christian Kirk will be back to help out whoever starts at quarterback for Texas A&M. The likely loss of Myles Garrett will hurt on defense, but there are some young players who could make an impact in his absence.
VANDERBILT: Derek Mason finally had his breakout season at Vanderbilt, and the Commodores were impressive down the stretch. With wins over Ole Miss and Tennessee, they earned a bowl bid for the first time under Mason.
Vanderbilt could lose a few contributors to the draft, but faith in Mason has been renewed. Now, he just needs to find a way to build on this success.