The expectations and resources clearly are different from campus to campus, but every SEC team is united in its quest to set, reach and perhaps exceed its goals.
At Alabama, anything less than a postseason parade is deemed a failure. At Vanderbilt, reaching a bowl could trigger a contract extension.
Here’s the biggest concern I have with each SEC team’s ability to reach its respective goals in 2018.
Goal: Win the national championship. Again.
Biggest concern: Let’s start with the obvious impediment: Only four teams get the opportunity to play for a national title, and last year, Alabama got help from the Pac-12 and Big Ten to grab the fourth and final spot.
Alabama has the pieces to repeat as national champion. Nobody can question that. Its backup quarterback might be a guy who is 26-2 as a starter and has led the Tide to two consecutive title game appearances. It’s an embarrassment of riches. Personnel wise, there is no concern. With the new starters or the new coordinators.
The biggest concern is this: It’s unlikely the SEC again puts two teams in a four-team Playoff. And as easy as Georgia’s schedule is, one upset in the West could leave Alabama on the outside looking in. The Tide have never had to be perfect in the Playoff era because the East never entered a season with a serious Playoff threat. Georgia was preseason No. 15 last year, remember? That has changed. That’s a different kind of pressure.
Goal: Reach a bowl.
Biggest concern: Things tend to run in cycles in Fayetteville. Houston Nutt went to bowl games in his final two seasons, left, and the Hogs followed with a losing season. Bobby Petrino went to bowls in his final three seasons, left, and the Hogs followed with two consecutive losing seasons. Bret Bielema guided the Hogs to three consecutive bowls, but was fired after a losing season last season.
The good news is that Arkansas hasn’t suffered three consecutive losing seasons since the 1940s, so even if a .500 record and bowl bid are out of reach for Chad Morris in Year 1 in 2018, history suggests 2019 will be better. Just like his quarterback situation.
Goal: Win the SEC West.
Biggest concern: Others might get position-specific and worry about the revamped backfield or secondary. That’s background noise.
Auburn hasn’t beaten Alabama in consecutive years since Nick Saban arrived. And the Tigers needed Cam Newton’s Superman effort to pull out their only victory over Saban in Tuscaloosa, site of this year’s Iron Bowl.
Auburn has appeared in the SEC Championship Game six times. Each time, it won the Iron Bowl. Can it finally beat Saban two years in a row? That’s the biggest concern.
Goal: Play in the Outback Bowl or better.
Biggest concern: Florida’s 4-7 record last season was so deceiving it has little bearing on the 2018 forecast. Everything that could have gone wrong did, from the Credit Card 9 fiasco robbing the Gators of their two best playmakers, to their coach wasting time insisting he wasn’t lying naked on top of a shark. Jim McElwain is gone, and the playmakers are back. Florida will be in a bowl game in 2018.
I’m higher than most on the Gators. Primarily because of talent. I’m not concerned about the offense or the quarterback situation. In college, great schemes get receivers open much more often than offenses rely on great quarterbacks hitting receivers in tiny windows. I’ll trust Dan Mullen’s proven ability to keep the scoreboard operator busy.
The biggest concern is the schedule. Give Florida Georgia’s schedule, and these Gators could be a 10-win team.
A more realistic goal is probably 8-4 and a spot in the Outback Bowl.
Goal: Don’t waste a failure, as Nick Saban might say.
Biggest concern: Seriously, when you’re one stop from winning a national championship, there’s only one goal left. Finish the deal.
The concern is, Georgia leaned so heavily on its NFL Draft picks throughout its storybook season. Recruiting rankings are great, but the Dawgs have not yet reached the point where it’s safe to assume they’ve mastered Alabama’s plug-n-play model.
D’Andre Swift had exactly 8 carries for 21 yards in Georgia’s two Playoff games. He had 2 carries in the victory at Notre Dame that launched the Dawgs’ Playoff campaign.
Let’s see him get his first career 100-yard game before we officially anoint him the next Nick Chubb. And that goes double for Georgia’s young (but touted) defense.
The schedule will hide a lot of the growing pains, but make no mistake, they’ll show up in Kirby Smart’s film room.
Goal: Post a winning record in the SEC.
Biggest concern: The Cats haven’t done that since 1977, and while they return All-SEC caliber running back Benny Snell, they’re also breaking in another new starting quarterback.
Kentucky opens SEC play at Florida, then has home games against Mississippi State and South Carolina. Strangely, Mark Stoops’ Cats have handled South Carolina, winning four straight, but it’s hard to envision them leaving September 2-1 in SEC play.
It’s possible they go 1-3 in SEC home games.
An optimistic Cats fan can find 5 SEC wins, but doing so almost assuredly involves beating Texas A&M, Missouri and Tennessee on the road.
Goal: Go 2-1 against Alabama, Auburn and Mississippi State.
Biggest concern: If the Tigers can do that (for the first time since 2015), they’ll likely finish second in the West. That won’t get you to Atlanta, but it will keep Ed Orgeron in Baton Rouge awhile longer.
That’s really the goal. Avoid a 7-5 land mine (or worse) that likely would lead to another coaching change and give this thing time to play out.
The concern is the schedule is better than the constantly-tinkering Tigers. Alabama is the defending champ. Auburn is a national championship contender. Mississippi State is a dangerous dark horse. LSU also opens against Miami and draws Georgia this year.
The potential for “best 6-6 team in the country” is real.
Goal: Win the SEC West.
Biggest concern: The Bulldogs scared Alabama last year, almost ending the Tide’s national championship dreams before Jalen Hurts threw a game-winning TD pass to DeVonta Smith with 26 seconds left to steal a win in Starkville. It was the second time in four years the Bulldogs finished within a TD of the Tide.
But … they haven’t beaten Alabama since Saban’s first year in Tuscaloosa.
Saban has lost four home games in the past eight seasons. How? Cam Newton, LSU’s defense, Johnny Manziel and a couple Ole Miss TDs that were so flukey they would have caused fights at a family Turkey Bowl.
In terms of repeatable strategies, there’s not much to go on. But Hail State does have a nasty defense (LSU) and a big QB (Newton) who is mobile (Manziel). They’ll need all of that and some good fortune to finally breakthrough at Bryant-Denny on Nov. 10.
Goal: Post a winning record in the SEC
Biggest concern: I know Drew Lock’s goals are much higher. National title or bust. That’s nice and exactly what you want your record-breaking gun-slinger saying during talking season. But after winning back-to-back East titles with identical 7-1 records in 2013 and 2014, the Tigers have combined to win just 7 SEC games in the past three seasons since.
So let’s keep it realistic and shoot for a 5-3 or 6-2 SEC finish.
That won’t be easy, either. The Tigers open with Georgia, at South Carolina, at Alabama. To everybody outside of CoMo, that screams 0-3. The best-case is 1-2 and that Lock survives that stretch. Road games at Florida and Tennessee lurk on the back end.
Goal: Ruin somebody’s SEC West title hopes.
Biggest concern: ESPN’s FPI doesn’t like the Rebels’ chances of beating Alabama (14.7 percent), Auburn (20.4), LSU (30.5) or Mississippi State (32.2).
On paper, the concern is the Rebels stay under .500 in the SEC for the third consecutive year. Another concern, obviously, is the NCAA-fueled departures, most notably Shea Patterson.
That’s not my concern, however. Jordan Ta’amu was every bit as dangerous as Patterson — remember earlier when I said great schemes are more important than great quarterbacks? AJ Brown is back, and there’s not a more dangerous receiver in the country.
I wouldn’t be surprised if angry Ole Miss goes 2-2 against that group, ruining two of their SEC West title bids.
Goal: Win the SEC East.
Biggest concern: The Gamecocks rarely handle prosperity very well. The most famous example occurred in 1984, when all they had to do to rise to No. 1 for the first time was beat a Navy team that finished 4-6-1. The Gamecocks lost by 17.
More recently, everybody remembers Stephen Garcia playing the game of his life to beat Alabama in 2010, but Gamecocks fans can also recite what followed: a 31-28 loss at Kentucky seven days later. That was one of Kentucky’s two SEC wins that season.
Fast-forward to 2018, and all of the talk about Georgia’s nationally-televised Week 2 trip to Williams-Brice. Tickets already are going for more than the annual date with Clemson.
It feels a lot like Alabama’s trip to Georgia in 2015, a showdown Dawgs fans talked about for months. Georgia was undefeated, ranked No. 8. Alabama rolled 38-10, the beating starting before the kickoff, during a pregame scuffle.
That loss was so deflating that Georgia lost two of its next three games, too, effectively ending the Mark Richt era.
South Carolina’s schedule is so friendly a similar slide is unlikely, but its postseason dreams could effectively end on September 8. To say that everything is riding on this game is not an understatement. It’s not only a chance to break through a ceiling, it’s a chance to poke a hole in some of that history, too.
Goal: Reach a bowl game.
Biggest concern: The Volunteers aren’t dramatically different from the team that finished 0-8 in the SEC last season. They can’t match Florida’s talent, and while Jeremy Pruitt, a first-time head coach, might be a defensive guru and master motivator, this Vols offense doesn’t scare any contender it will face.
ESPN’s FPI projects five wins, including only two in the SEC. That sounds about right. That’s where these Vols are, talent-wise.
If they don’t upset Florida in Week 4, there’s a good chance they’ll start SEC play 0-5 because this is what follows: at Georgia, at Auburn, vs. Alabama, at South Carolina. Four teams clearly better, three on the road.
Keller Chryst better be a whole lot more like Russell Wilson than the string of recent graduate transfers the SEC has seen lately.
Goal: Shock the West.
Biggest concern: Other than a brutal road schedule, I’m not sure I have one. There are all of the typical personnel losses and Year 1 obstacles in Jimbo Fisher’s way, and he didn’t exactly handle FSU losing its QB in the opener last year. Plenty of others lost their QBs and carried on — notably Georgia and Ole Miss last year — but FSU’s offense was never the same after the Alabama game. Was that a blip? Or more that he just seemed burned out at FSU, much like Steve Spurrier and Urban Meyer at Florida?
Whatever the case might have been, the fast-talking, smiling, wheeling-and-dealing Fisher seems refreshed at College Station. He has plenty of playmakers, too, starting with two skilled quarterbacks and a former 1,000-yard running back. Blame Kevin Sumlin for late-season slides, but the man could recruit skill.
Still, the road schedule will make it difficult to break .500 in the SEC: at Alabama, at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, at Auburn. All four teams have division title hopes.
Fisher will get it going in the West, but Year 1 might be too much to ask.
Goal: Reach a bowl game.
Biggest concern: The Dores are always overmatched and out-recruited, so that’s hardly a new concern. But with bowl trips so rare and the SEC already guaranteeing its teams an annual paycheck north of $30 million, I’m not sure why Vandy would schedule a trip to South Bend. In the race to 6 wins and bowl eligibility, every game matters. A friendlier nonconference schedule certainly would have helped in that regard.
That Notre Dame game essentially means Vandy must win 3 SEC games this season to reach bowl eligibility, which is just one fewer than its combined total from the past two seasons. Vandy hasn’t won 4 conference games since 2013, James Franklin’s last in Nashville.
Kyle Shurmur is one of the most improved players in the SEC, but there’s no margin for error.
ESPN’s FPI projects a 3-win season and only gives the Dores better than a 30 percent chance to win one SEC game — against Tennessee.