Reasons for optimism for 5 SEC fan bases that need it
It’s the time of the year when optimism lives in the hearts of all SEC fans. Spring football is right around the corner. Each team is still undefeated.
A new season is ahead and the possibilities remain endless. So here are three reasons these five SEC fan bases can be hopeful for the 2016 season.
1. Will Muschamp brings intensity to the program. He learned from his mistakes at Florida and South Carolina will benefit. Muschamp will bring intensity and a defensive mind that should keep the Gamecocks competitive. He has a long track record of success as a defensive coordinator and a winning record as a head coach. With Florida, Muschamp went 28-21 in four seasons, including a 17-15 mark in the SEC. His Gators went 11-2 in 2012 and were invited to play in the Sugar Bowl.
2. Near misses in 2015 could be turned around with a score here or there. The Gamecocks won just one SEC game and just three all season. But that record is a little deceiving considering five losses were by one possession, including a 37-32 loss to Clemson, which went on to play for the national championship. So the Gamecocks are really not that far off and could have just as easily been a respectable 6-6 or 7-5 overall and 4-4 in SEC play.
3. Plethora of experience at quarterback. Nobody emerged as the top quarterback, but several players gained valuable experience. Perry Orth threw for 1,929 yards and 12 touchdowns last season and if he can take better care of the football (9 interceptions) he could be the guy in 2016.
However, dual-threat Lorenzo Nunez (376 yards passing, 3 TDs; 375 yards rushing, 2 TDs) showed some promise as well. Like Orth, Nunez needs to protect the football (3 interceptions). Connor Mitch, South Carolina’s 2015 season-opening starter, is a candidate to take it back in 2016. And don’t count out Michael Scarnecchia, or incoming freshman Brandon McIlwain, a four-star early enrollee.
1. A fresh start with Barry Odom. Steeped in the Missouri football program, Odom takes his place at the top of it. From a graduate assistant in 2003, Odom remained with the team until 2011 when he left for three seasons to become defensive coordinator at Memphis. He returned last season to become Missouri’s DC and now gets his first opportunity to be a head coach at the college level. Odom will keep Missouri strong on defense and that will keep the Tigers competitive in 2016.
2. DE Walter Brady and a strong defensive line. The redshirt freshman defensive end led his class nationally with 7.0 sacks, the same number enjoyed by redshirt sophomore DE Charles Harris. The two will be back in 2016 to form one of the most fierce sack combinations in the SEC East.
Brady played in all 12 games last season and was second on the team among defensive linemen with 40 tackles, including 21 solo.
3. QB Drew Lock has a year of experience. As a freshman, Lock took his lumps in 2015. In what was supposed to be a year of learning from the sidelines, Lock was thrown into a starting role for the final eight games when Maty Mauck was suspended. But the 6-4, 205-pounder exhibited signs of leadership and could be the answer at quarterback. He threw for 1,332 yards and four touchdowns but threw eight interceptions. That total should diminish as he develops.
1. Defense, the bright spot of 2015, returns nearly intact. Vanderbilt was impressive at times last season. And although seniors DE Caleb Azubike and S Andrew Williamson will be missed, the majority of that defense returns in 2016. The Commodores’ top five tacklers will be back and that’s reason for optimism.
Defensive leader LB Zach Cunningham will be among the tops at his position in the SEC after recording team-highs most defensive categories, including tackles (103), solo tackles (69), tackles for loss (16.5) and fumbles forced (4).
2. RB Ralph Webb will be toting it again in 2016. The RB not only stands for “running back,” but for “record-breaker” as well. After setting school records in his sophomore season, the 5-10, 202-pounder will be the leader of the offense again next season. Webb has started in 24 consecutive games. He set the school sophomore record with 1,152 rushing yards, which ranks second all-time in school history. He already ranks No. 8 with 2,064 career yards.
3. Receiving corps should help quarterback development. There will be a battle for the starting quarterback spot in the spring. But two of the team’s top receivers from 2015 return (three of four if you count Webb).
Leading receiver Trent Sherfield is the big-play threat. He led the team last season in receptions (51), receiving yards (659) and touchdowns (3). He set the school’s single-game record with 240 receiving yards on 16 catches in a 47-7 victory over Austin Peay. He’ll rejoin Caleb Scott, who compiled 339 receiving yards and two touchdowns on 24 receptions as the top targets.
1. The Wildcats really aren’t that far away. Yes, this is a case of the same old song, but it remains true. The Wildcats lost three SEC games last year by a total of 12 points. One more touchdown in each of those games would have turned losses to Florida, Auburn and Vanderbilt into victories.
It would have turned a 5-7 season into a bowl-worthy 8-4 record and a tie for second place in the SEC East standings. That’s how close the Wildcats were to being contenders. Granted that could be said for the past two seasons, but returning to bowl eligibility – which Kentucky hasn’t done since 2010 – has been one score away.
2. Stable of running backs and new RB coach. Kentucky returns its top four running backs, and new running backs coach Eddie Gran comes over from Cincinnati to be the Wildcats’ co-offensive coordinator. The old school Gran will open the position to any of the four who can carry the offense.
Last season, for the most part, that was Stanley “Boom” Williams, who led the team with 855 rushing yards and six touchdowns on 121 carries. Jojo Kemp proved capable with 555 yards and six touchdowns on 98 carries. Mikel Horton (318 yards, 3 TDs) and Sihiem King (127 yards, 1 TD) are also in the mix.
3. Four-star QB Drew Barker is on the rise. The true freshman battled Patrick Towles for the starting spot last spring and eventually won it late in the 2015 season — causing not only Towles to transfer to Boston College, but also QB Reese Phillips to head to Montana.
Barker will get the majority of spring reps in preparation for the 2016 season. He played in five games last season and completed 35 of 70 passes for 364 yards and a touchdown. Not exactly huge stats, but he gained valuable playing experience.
1. Experience at quarterback. Auburn will have two of its most experienced players at the most important position. Redshirt freshman Sean White and junior Jeremy Johnson threw for more than 1,000 yards last season. Johnson threw for 10 touchdowns but was picked off seven times. White threw for one score and was intercepted four times.
Both need to take better care of the football, however, and could be pushed for playing time by John Franklin III, the nation’s top-rated JUCO quarterback, and Woody Barrett, one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks coming out of high school this season.
2. Loaded at running back. No question 1,000-yard rusher Peyton Barber will be sorely missed. But the Tigers have a stable of quality backs ready to make their mark. Jovon Robinson showed signs of stardom in 2015. He rushed for 639 yards and three touchdowns on 117 carries (5.5 yards per carry average).
True freshman Kerryon Johnson proved to be one of the team’s more versatile backs. In addition to rushing for 208 yards and three touchdowns, he led the RBs with 14 receptions for 159 yards. And sophomore Roc Thomas proved to be equally talented, rushing for 261 yards (1 TD) while adding 203 receiving yards (1 TD). The trio should have Auburn’s running game in gear throughout the season.
3. The third-year cycle. Auburn won a national championship in 2010. The Tigers played for a national championship in 2013 under first-year head coach Gus Malzahn. Each time the Tigers came out of nowhere to compete for a title.
Nobody expects Auburn to be anywhere near the top of the rankings in 2016, either. That seems to be when they’re most dangerous. Malzahn and the 2016 team will look to do the same as they attempt to erase the memories of a 7-6 season.