Predicting the feeling of every SEC fan base in January
It’s a simple premise: How will every SEC fan feel about his or her respective team following the 2016 season?
We’ve come up with one word to summarize what the majority of each team’s fans may be experiencing come January.
The Crimson Tide comes off its fourth national title in seven seasons with a little more uncertainty than usual. Kirby Smart’s departure is probably the biggest one, but new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has plenty of quality returnees at his disposal.
Replacing Jacob Coker will also be important, but at least over the past two seasons, Lane Kiffin and Nick Saban have made the right decisions when it comes to handing over the offense to the right guy. Plus, with Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough competing to replace Derrick Henry, Bama appears to be in good hands.
The Tide still has the best coach in the country and the most talent in the conference, so another national championship is a realistic goal.
The Razorbacks are coming off an 8-5 season after starting off 1-3, but they’ve lost quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, tackle Denver Kirkland and running backs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams, so the offense is definitely in rebuilding mode. The Hogs are hoping that Austin Allen – Brandon’s younger brother – and RB Rawleigh Williams III can offset some of those losses.
The scary thing is that the Hogs finished 5-3 in the SEC – their best conference record since they went 6-2 in 2011 – despite allowing 6.07 yards per play. That seemingly will improve, but Arkansas looks like it will take a step back and finish behind Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU in the SEC West.
The Tigers will go into the fall with plenty of questions – some good, some bad – but uncertainty is a consistent theme. A full season of carries for Jovon Robinson is something to look forward to, but who will hand him the ball? Will it be incumbents Sean White or Jeremy Johnson? Or will John Franklin III get the chance to run the offense?
More ifs can be found on defense. How much of an improvement will new coordinator Kevin Steele – someone LSU couldn’t wait to let go after just one season – be over Will Muschamp, who was someone Auburn couldn’t wait to let go after just one season. Will DE Carl Lawson finally be injury-free for a full season? That uncertainty – coupled with Gus Malzahn’s shaky status – will make 2016 seem like a constant struggle.
So getting blown out by Alabama and Michigan to end last season wasn’t great, but there was plenty to like about the Gators in 2015, including a 10-4 record and an SEC East title. Losing five players early to the NFL Draft – including CB Vernon Hargreaves III, DE Alex McCalister and RB Kelvin Taylor – is not the best thing in the world, but there should be hope in Gainesville.
For starters, whoever ends up being the No. 1 QB – be it Luke Del Rio or Purdue transfer Austin Appleby – will be a vast improvement over Treon Harris. Plus, JUCO running back Mark Thompson will step in for Taylor on an offense that should improve. Florida probably won’t defeat as the East’s champ, but another winning record and a bowl game are more than reasonable expectations.
Slowly but surely, Jim McElwain is certainly wiping away the stench that Muschamp left behind.
For the first time in 15 seasons, someone other than Mark Richt will be patrolling the sidelines in Athens. But that someone is no ordinary guy; Georgia alum Kirby Smart, the architect of the defense that helped Alabama win four national championships over the past seven seasons is the big man on campus these days.
Not only does Smart have a lot of returning talent, he could turn to uber QB recruit Jacob Eason should returnees Greyson Lambert and Brice Ramsey not secure the starting job. If Nick Chubb returns from his knee injury, he and Sony Michel could give the Bulldogs the best backfield in the country.
The best part of Smart’s initial season at the helm might be the fact that this year’s Tennessee game is at home on Oct. 1. If the Bulldogs win that one, Smart could have a very McElwain-like first year with Georgia, and at that point would be playing with house money if he meets his former boss Saban in the SEC Championship Game.
Mark Stoops deserves credit for taking a 2-10 team and making it a 5-7 team, which is what the Wildcats have been the past two seasons, but that’s what they will probably be once again in 2016. To begin with, a schedule that includes road games against Florida, Alabama, Missouri, Tennessee and Louisville doesn’t bode well.
To be fair, Stanley Williams is a good player on an offense that returns plenty of depth. But QB Drew Barker is unproven and has a new play-caller in Eddie Gran, so the jury’s still out on that side of the ball. The defense, which allowed 27.4 points per game last season, returns a couple of key players in DT Matt Elam and DB Chris Westry. But it will be interesting to see how this group responds to the dismissal of LB Jason Hatcher.
As bad as late last season seemed, the Tigers still finished 9-3 and – like or him or not – retained Les Miles. But he’s not LSU’s most important returnee. That happens to be Leonard Fournette, the nation’s best running back who could join Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey and Clemson’s Deshaun Watson in New York for the annual Heisman festivities.
The hiring of new defensive coordinator appears to be an upgrade over Steele. But the combination that curbs our enthusiasm is QB Brandon Harris and offensive coordinator Cam Cameron. Until they figure out how to make LSU more than a one-dimensional team on offense, the Tigers will struggle to finish ahead of at least Alabama and Ole Miss in the West but could still go 10-2 nonetheless.
Mississippi State: Nostalgic
It’s never easy when you lose one of the best players in school history in Dak Prescott, but that’s something that the Bulldogs have to get over – and quickly. Prescott was so good in Starkville that you can make the argument that maybe Mississippi State will need four guys to replace him. And coincidentally, four guys – Damian Williams, Elijah Staley, Nick Tiano and Nick Fitzgerald – are competing for the starting QB spot.
The dismissal of WR Fred Brown certainly doesn’t help, and the Bulldogs still need someone from this group – Brandon Holloway, Ashton Shumpert, Aeris Williams and Dontavian Lee — to step up in the backfield. On defense, lineman Chris Jones, LB Beniquez Brown and CBs Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond must be replaced. The return of LB Richie Brown will help, but finishing at .500 – and out of the SEC West’s basement – might be tough for Dan Mullen’s squad.
It’s a year of change in Columbia, where Barry Odom has replaced Gary Pinkel as head coach. And after having one of the worst offenses in the country last season – Mizzou ranked ahead of only Kent State in the FBS with just 13.6 points per game – the Tigers had little choice but to bring in Josh Heupel as their new coordinator.
Whether the offense will improve is anybody’s guess, but with Odom’s pedigree and returning players such as linemen Charles Harris and Walter Brady, Missouri might be even better on ‘D’ than it was a year ago. It might not be enough for the Tigers to improve upon their 5-7 finish last year, but it could potentially keep them in every game in 2016.
Ole Miss: Confident
Replacing OT Laremy Tunsil, WR Laquon Treadwell and DE Robert Nkemdiche won’t be easy, but Hugh Freeze’s squad still looks to be in good shape. Chad Kelly returns as the best QB in the SEC, and despite Treadwell’s departure to the NFL, the Rebels receiving corps is very strong.
If Ole Miss can get any kind of running game out of redshirt freshman Eric Swinney, who sat out last year while rehabbing an injury, Akeem Judd and Jordan Wilkins, the offense might be even better than it was last year, when it averaged an SEC-leading 40.8 points per game.
The Rebels have to worry about a tough opener against Florida State and their annual tussle with Alabama, and they’re hopeful they can stay out of any more trouble with the NCAA. But on the field, another 10-win season is not out of the question.
South Carolina: Hungry
The Gamecocks desperately want to get back to the Steve Spurrier glory days as soon as possible. In Muschamp, they have a new head man but a familiar face who struggled at his past two coaching stops. He and new defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson must improve a defense that surrendered 6.03 yards a play in 2015.
Muschamp must also settle upon a starting QB from a group that includes returnees Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez and spring sensation Brandon McIlwain, a true freshman.
Plus, he also has to find someone to replace leading rusher Brandon Wilds. So many questions, so little time to answer them. The Gamecocks should improve upon their 3-9 mark from a year ago. Anything better than a two-game improvement would be a pleasant surprise.
Everything seems to be falling into place for the Volunteers in 2016. They return important players such as QB Joshua Dobbs, RBs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara and defensive standouts Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cameron Sutton. They also get Florida and Alabama at home.
With Georgia and Florida presumably taking a step back, the SEC East is Tennessee’s for the taking. Nevertheless, several factors might be stumbling blocks: a new defensive coordinator in Bob Shoop, potential overconfidence and lingering off-the-field incidents.
The Vols should be able to overcome those things, but anything less than a division title and an 11-1 regular-season record would be a disappointment.
Texas A&M: Excitement
Let’s start with the good news. Stellar defensive linemen Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall return along with safety Armani Watts, who made a team-leading 126 tackles last season. They will try to help coordinator John Chavis improve upon a defense surrendered 22 points per game and reduced its average yards per play allowed from 5.9 t0 5.4.
Now, let’s visit the new parts. Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight won the starting quarterback job under the direction of new coordinator Noel Mazzone. Knight will throw to arguably the best set of pass catchers in the SEC. The Aggies averaged just 27.8 points per game last season. That should be a third-quarter goal for this group.
The Aggies are popping up in several way-to0-early Top 25 polls, and they have the playmakers to stay there.
Led by All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham, the Commodores’ defense should be as good as – if not better than – last year’s group that yielded 21 points per game and 5.2 yards per play. Returning QB Kyle Shurmur and RB Ralph Webb represent a good foundation for offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig, who must find a way for Vandy to score more than the 15.2 points a game it averaged in 2015.
The problem is, Vanderbilt won’t be better than most of the teams in the East, and might not finish ahead of rebuilding squads such as South Carolina and Missouri. As a result, the Commodores — who have averaged four wins over Derek Mason’s two seasons in Nashville — will be hard-pressed to improve upon that this year.