Sorry, fans of nine SEC teams, we’re about to rain on your parade. Sure, it’s May, and everybody is undefeated, and theoretically, anybody could win the SEC title in 2017. The key word there was “theoretically.” At the risk of offending a few folks, we’re getting real. As we survey the SEC landscape, we see five teams that could win the SEC. And only five. Here’s who and why:
Alabama Crimson Tide
Winners of the last three titles, and four of the last five, there’s no doubt that the Tide have the talent, experience, and skill to win again in ’17. First team all-SEC QB Jalen Hurts is back — unless he gets supplanted by freshman phenom Tua Tagovailoa. Junior RB Damien Harris missed 1,000 yards by an eyelash, and WR Calvin Ridley might break that mark in pass catching. Bama lost some stars on defense, but all-SEC CB Minkah Fitzpatrick is back, and the Tide don’t lead the annual recruiting rankings for no reason. There are other teams that have a shot (specifically, four), but the race to the title goes through Tuscaloosa again.
Georgia has a couple of huge advantages — first, they’re in the East, which has been much more up for grabs than the West. Second, they won’t play Alabama before the SEC Championship Game, and thus don’t have to pull off two miracles. Third, the Bulldogs had the best NFL Draft news of any team in the league by far. Stud running back Nick Chubb? Came back. RB Sony Michel? Back. LB Lorenzo Carter? Back. DT Trenton Thompson? Back. CB Dominick Sanders? Back. Georgia also had a great recruiting class, and with gunslinger Jacob Eason coming into his second season as a starting QB, if anybody has the right tools to upset Bama, it might be the Bulldogs.
How good is Jarrett Stidham? If the Baylor transfer is all that he’s supposed to be, look out. Last year Auburn could run (271 rushing yards per game, best in the league), but they couldn’t throw (dead last in the SEC in passing yards, 169.5 per game). Running backs Kerryon Johnson and Kamryn Pettway are back and ready to go. The Tigers lost some folks on defense, but DE Marlon Davidson could be the breakout star of the league. And don’t forget kicker Daniel Carlson — if the Iron Bowl (played at Auburn in ’17) comes down to a field goal, a reliable kicker could certainly matter.
The Tigers are kind of an unknown quantity on this list, but there are reasons to respect, if not outright fear, the Tigers. Sure, Ed Orgeron isn’t the most likely coaching star, but LSU played well for him down the stretch of 2016 when it would have been easy to fold. Sure, Leonard Fournette is gone, but returning RB Derrius Guice outrushed him last year anyway. Sure, the Tigers lost a ton of talent on defense, but if missing LB Arden Key is back for the fall, then the league’s best pass-rusher is in Baton Rouge. Can LSU improve its broken passing game (13th in the league in passing yards in 2016)? That’s yet another unknown for a potentially fascinating Tigers team that has much to prove but reason for optimism.
The last team from the East to win the SEC is the same as the team that’s won the East division for the last two years — Florida. So why do the Gators seem so underwhelming? Mostly because Jim McElwain’s teams have seemed utterly lost on offense. Defensively, the Gators can match up with most anybody in the sport. If redshirt freshman QB Feleipe Franks continues to develop the skill set he showed in the spring, and the Gators line can open some holes and protect Franks (they allowed 28 sacks in ’16, one of the worst totals in the league), then Florida could surprise again. They look a little unlikely, both to win the East and to knock off Bama, but don’t count them out.
Who was missing?
Tennessee is probably the most highly regarded team not on this list. But if UT couldn’t break through last season in the East, I don’t see it. Additionally, they draw Alabama in the regular season in Tuscaloosa, and if UT does win the East, there’s no way they emerge from a second match-up with Bama with a win.
After UT, it’s down to true long shots. Vegas has put the next highest team at 40/1. Frankly, if it’s none of the above, the situation probably favors a dark horse from the East. It’s hard to imagine a West team running the gamut of Bama, LSU, and Auburn. In the East, maybe a South Carolina or even (gasp) Kentucky could get lucky and outflank a mediocre Florida squad and a Georgia team that Kirby Smart hasn’t yet proven he can actually coach. Such a team would need a miracle of biblical proportions to get past Bama, but if you’re Jim Carrey and you’re looking to us to tell you there’s a chance, take a flyer on USC or UK. But don’t take too much of a flyer, because we already told you the champ will be one of the five teams listed above.