Predicting 10 midseason headlines we'll see in the SEC
Chances are, many of these will be wrong.
How’s that for a disclaimer?
As I sit here in the middle of May and try to predict how the 2018 season will go, I find it difficult to imagine that everything will play out as planned. Nobody would have predicted that Jim McElwain wouldn’t last the entire 2017 season, and surely nobody forecasted Georgia becoming the closest thing to Alabama that we’ve seen in the SEC in recent memory.
In all likelihood, I won’t be able to predict the storylines that are that bold. But here’s an attempt to predict 10 midseason storylines for the 2018 season:
1. Alabama continues to pile on headliner home-and-home series
A few months ago, Alabama had zero home-and-home series on its future schedule. Then it added Notre Dame, and on Wednesday, the Tide set up a matchup with Texas. Something tells me that Alabama isn’t done with these headliner home-and-home matchups. I think after seeing how much others benefitted from home-and-homes Nick Saban wants to get away from the neutral-site openers. It wouldn’t surprise me if Alabama filled up its four slots from 2024-27 with big-time home-and-homes.
Who could the Tide schedule? Penn State in 2026-27 could work, as could Miami or West Virginia. And while conventional wisdom suggests that Alabama won’t travel to the West Coast, I wouldn’t rule out Washington or USC, both of wich have openings that could be filled by the Tide in that stretch. Whoever it is, don’t expect Alabama to slow down its new scheduling philosophy.
2. Desperate times in Death Valley? Ed Orgeron could use a monumental win vs. Georgia
I think there’s a very likely chance that by the time that Georgia game rolls around on Oct. 13, LSU has multiple losses. With the Miami opener and trips to Auburn and Florida, Orgeron’s first real chance for a big-time home win in 2018 could come after he’s already taken a few shots. There are just so many offensive question marks for LSU, and it’s tough to pencil in victories against those loaded defenses. But with the sharks circling Orgeron after a rough start, who’s to say he can’t pick up a backs-against-the-wall win vs. Georgia? In front of the home fans, that would be a nice lasting imagine for Orgeron’s prospects as the long-term guy in Baton Rouge.
3. Justin Fields staying active despite limited reps
Don’t get me wrong. I’m excited to see Justin Fields in the regular season and I think we will. Early on, I wouldn’t be surprised if he played entire quarters against the likes of Austin Peay, Middle Tennessee and possibly even Tennessee and Vanderbilt at home.
But I think we see maybe a 4- or 5-week stretch where Fields doesn’t see the field. The schedule gets tougher once mid-October rolls around, and there just might not be a ton of opportunities available. I could easily see a scenario in which the Fields hype gets put on the back burner while Jake Fromm leads another push for an SEC East title.
4. Southern state of mind: Joe Moorhead proving to be perfect fit in SEC
I’ve already explained countless times why I think Moorhead is in fantastic shape to have big-time success in Year 1. This isn’t really doubling down on that prediction. It’s more like 9,567,534-ing down. I think Moorhead, despite his Northeast background, will fit right into the SEC mindset. His swagger and coaching style will match up better than most think. It wouldn’t surprise me if he gets MSU off to a 3-0 start in conference play and we start seeing his name pop up in SEC Coach of the Year talks. I maintain the belief that he has the best win-now roster of all the new coaches in the SEC. Expect the offensive guru to make his presence felt in a hurry.
5. Finally healthy, Deebo Samuel is having the season he always hoped he would
It’s crazy to think that Samuel has been injured for essentially half of his college career. In his final season in Columbia, I think we finally see his play, and not his injuries, dominate the midseason headlines. I think Bryan McClendon’s new up-tempo, spread-it-out offense is going to be a perfect fit for a guy who loves to operate in space like Samuel. They’re going to find different ways to get him involved while hopefully monitoring his usage to prevent another lower body injury. Maybe the early-season Heisman buzz that Samuel got before his 2017 injury will last into November this time around.
6. Feleipe Franks announces he’ll transfer from Florida
Let me make a couple things clear. One is that I’d feel bad for Franks if this happened. Why? I’m not sure a ton of quarterbacks — besides Will Grier — could have thrived as a redshirt freshman with Jim McElwain. In steps Dan Mullen with a completely new system and Franks is suddenly the odd-man out. The other thing is that Mullen would fight like crazy to prevent a midseason transfer. In Mullen’s ideal world, I think Emory Jones redshirts and Franks stays on as the No. 2. If Mullen names Kyle Trask the starter — that’s my guess as of right now because of Trask’s accuracy in the intermediate passing game — and Franks realizes he’s no longer the quarterback of the present or the future, he’ll try to salvage some eligibility elsewhere.
7. After slow start, Jeremy Pruitt’s defense making significant strides in Year 1
I think what we saw in the spring game tells the story of the start of the Pruitt era. A defense, which ranks No. 117 in FBS in returning production, deals with some growing pains early on. West Virginia, Georgia and Auburn could all give the Vols a humbling experience away from Knoxville.
But call me crazy, I think it’s possible that the 4-week stretch that follows will be encouraging for the Vols’ long-term defensive outlook. Maybe it starts with holding Alabama under 30 points and following that up by giving South Carolina all it can handle. Pruitt’s background suggests it’s only a matter of time before guys like Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland Jr. — assuming they’re healthy — start leading Tennessee to consistent performances on that side of the ball. Will that result in a bowl berth? I’ll save that prediction for a little later.
8. Drew Lock’s numbers are down, but he says he’s ‘never felt better as a passer’
No, I don’t think Lock will match the production of his record-setting 2017 season. I’d probably feel that way even if Josh Heupel were still in Columbia. He, obviously, is not. Derek Dooley, obviously, is. Those early-season games against UT-Martin and Wyoming — aka the games when Lock usually chucks 6-7 touchdown passes — could be a work in progress in the new offense. Also, have you seen the 4 games that Lock has after that?
- at Purdue (12-18, 122 yards, 0 TDs, 2 INTs vs. Purdue in 2017)
- vs. Georgia (No. 8 vs. the pass in 2017)
- at South Carolina (44 percent passing, 1 TD vs. South Carolina in 2017)
- at Alabama (No. 1 in scoring defense in 2017)
My guess is that Lock hits the midway point way off his 44-touchdown pace from a year ago. I think it’d be impressive if he was at 15 touchdown passes and 1,500 yards given how many tough Power 5 defenses await in the front half of 2018. Lock, because he’s under the first-round quarterback microscope, will have to answer to that. As he should, he’ll shift the conversation to if he’s executing his mechanics and Mizzou’s team aspirations. He’ll just try to avoid a disastrous start with that brutal early slate.
9. With attention still on A&M quarterbacks, Trayveon Williams quietly thriving in Jimbo Fisher’s offense
So that’s sort of a double prediction about the Aggies. As much as Jimbo Fisher tends to stick with his guy, I think Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond see significant playing time early in 2018. Maybe it’s a trial run, or maybe it’s Fisher’s way of trying to keep one of them from transferring. A $75 million guaranteed contract means Fisher isn’t facing any pressure to win immediately, so he can make plenty of early tweaks if he chooses.
I think the guy who benefits the most from Fisher’s new offense is actually Williams. He already talked about loving the idea of playing in pro-style system that features a fullback. I’d expect Williams to get back to his 2016 self, when he was a home run play waiting to happen. I’m not expecting him become Dalvin Cook 2.0, but Williams should still get plenty of work, including in the passing game. Even with that daunting start — facing Clemson and Alabama in September should be illegal — we should see a heavier Williams quietly emerge as one of the conference’s rushing leaders by late October.
10. A lot can happen in the home stretch, but another 2-team Playoff bid looks unlikely for the SEC
If you recall, I was the one who suggested in the middle of last November that the SEC’s 2-team bid was on life support. Ironically enough, Auburn beating Alabama was what ultimately gave it life. It took a perfect scenario for the SEC to become the first conference to put multiple teams in the Playoff. I don’t see that happening again in 2018. I was wrong before, but there’s a reason it only happened once. I think Alabama, Georgia, Auburn and maybe even Mississippi Sate will enter November alive in the Playoff hunt. But look at all of these matchups those teams have against each other:
- Nov. 10 — Auburn vs. Georgia
- Nov. 10 — Mississippi State vs. Alabama
- Nov. 24 — Auburn vs. Alabama
That’s obviously before we reach a conference title scenario in which we could see Georgia take on 1 of those 3 West teams. The best chance for a 2-team bid is obviously if Georgia and Alabama enter November undefeated because they wouldn’t play each other until a potential conference title scenario. That could happen, given how favorable both teams’ schedules are. Still, we’ve yet to see 2 unbeaten Power 5 teams enter a conference title game in the Playoff era. For now, I’ll bet on that streak continuing and the SEC looking at just 1 bid in 2018.