Saturday Down South's Preseason Top 25: Alabama once again at the top
Like Ric Flair would say, “To be the man, you gotta beat the man.” Most every year, Nick Saban is the man.
Yet again, the rest of the college football world is gunning for Saban and Co., as Alabama is coming off a fourth national title in seven seasons. A fifth isn’t unreasonable, not with all those five-star recruits.
With the Crimson Tide comfortably at No. 1, the rest of the Top 5 features blue bloods that have made it to the two-year-old College Football Playoff already: Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State and Ohio State. The Tigers, Sooners and Buckeyes have Heisman-caliber QBs, but the Seminoles are yet to divulge their starter.
As for the rest of the SEC, LSU and Tennessee crack the Top 10. Ole Miss, Georgia and Texas A&M are each a part of the Top 25, but they have some work to do if the conference championship game is a realistic goal.
Here is Saturday Down South’s preseason Top 25, with deeper analysis for all 14 member schools of the SEC.
The defending national champions, the Tide get the benefit of the doubt and start at the top of the polls.
Even with the loss of Jake Coker under center, ‘Bama has proven it can win with a fresh quarterback just about every season. Cooper Bateman likely gets the nod and will be surrounded with blue-chip pieces.
Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry may be a memory, but the two top ball carriers on the depth chart, Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, were five-star signees. Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart both return in the receiving corps, as does tight end O.J. Howard. The offensive line will be stout, too.
Several standouts are back on defense, including Jonathan Allen at end, Tim Williams at linebacker, Minkah Fitzpatrick at corner and Eddie Jackson at safety. New coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has plenty of experience.
No matter how much NFL talent is produced in Tuscaloosa at this point, more is on the way every February.
4. Florida State
5. Ohio State
The Tigers started and finished 2015 strong, but a three-game losing skid in November proved to be fatal.
Needless to say, the offense will revolve around the otherworldly ability of tailback Leonard Fournette, who is as good a bet as anybody to win the Heisman. He’s a genuine threat to crack the 2,000-yard plateau.
The passing game in Baton Rouge remains a question mark, though. Quarterback Brandon Harris has to take the next step. With dangerous receivers Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural returning to the lineup, there are plays to be made downfield. But if Harris can’t get them the ball, that will take a toll on Fournette.
The defensive line is productive with Davon Godchaux, Arden Key and Lewis Neal, plus Kendell Beckwith is a tackling machine at linebacker. The secondary is always chock full of future NFL Draft picks.
The season likely comes down to Nov. 7 at Death Valley. ‘Bama has defeated Les Miles five consecutive times.
7. Notre Dame
It is Year 4 for Butch Jones, and everything is lined up in his favor for it to be a breakthrough season.
The Volunteers return 17 starters, more than any team in the SEC East. It’s fair to say that all the other squads in the division are in some stage of the rebuilding process. Three have new coaches for 2016.
Running the football won’t be a problem. Jalen Hurd is a beast between the tackles. Alvin Kamara is an experienced change of pace. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs can make defenders miss, too. But until Dobbs becomes more consistent in the passing game, this offense will be lacking something. He has the weapons out wide.
On the other side of the ball, Derek Barnett is the most feared pass rusher in the conference not named Myles Garrett. Jalen Reeves-Maybin is an All-SEC linebacker. The kick- and punt-return games are electric, too.
There are simply no excuses left on Rocky Top. A 12th consecutive loss to Florida would be catastrophic.
11. Michigan State
17. Ole Miss
While the Rebels will feature the best quarterback in the SEC, his supporting cast is a bit of a mystery.
Unquestionably, Chad Kelly is the premier player in the conference at the game’s most important position, as he is coming off a campaign that saw him crack the 4,000-yard and 30-TD barriers. He can light it up.
But his top running back, Jaylen Walton, is gone. So is his No. 1 receiver, Laquon Treadwell. As is his blind-side pass protector, Laremy Tunsil. Even if five-star recruit Gregory Little turns out to be Tunsil 2.0, he’s a true freshman left tackle preparing to face some of the most gifted pass rushers in the land.
The situation isn’t quite so dire defensively, as linebacker DeMarquis Gates and end Marquis Haynes return as the leading tackler and sacker, respectively. DBs Trea Elston and Mike Hilton are both in the pros, though.
It remains to be seen if the off-the-field drama in Oxford can be quieted with more on-the-field success.
Quarterback Greyson Lambert is back for his senior year, and absolutely, positively nobody cares in Athens.
From the moment five-star signal caller Jacob Eason signed on the dotted line, UGA fans have been begging for new coach Kirby Smart to make him the Week 1 starter. A solid showing in the G-Day Game then followed.
If Nick Chubb can return from the injury that cost him the second half of his sophomore season, then there is reason to believe that the Bulldogs have a fighting chance in the East. Not to take anything away from Sony Michel, who is a fine runner, but Chubb is special. He can shoulder some of the load placed on Eason.
Smart’s influence should add another dimension to the defense between the hedges, as he spent nine years at Alabama under Saban. Replacing the pass-rushing duo of Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins is a priority.
The Dawgs host Tennessee on Oct. 1. The winner probably takes the lead in the division.
24. Oklahoma State
25. Texas A&M
With all the comings and goings at QB in College Station, it’s difficult to keep up with the depth chart.
Gone are Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, who shared the starting job a year ago. The new No. 1 is Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight. He already owns one of the league’s most prized possessions: a win over Alabama.
Expecting Knight to show up and be another Johnny Manziel — on the field, of course, not off the field — may be unfair, but he’ll have an enviable array of pass-catching options at his disposal. Christian Kirk, Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones make for a fearsome foursome when in formation together.
The D is led by the aforementioned Garrett, a terrorizing edge rusher who can’t be blocked consistently. The rest of the defensive line is also pretty good, including Daylon Mack inside and Daeshon Hall outside.
If there’s an under-the-radar team in the West that can take top billing away from ‘Bama, it’s the Aggies.
OUTSIDE LOOKING IN
Florida: Finished 2015 with three awful losses, so take Jim McElwain’s 10-win debut with a grain of salt.
Auburn: Gus Malzahn is likely to start John Franklin III, a Florida State reject and JUCO transfer, at QB.
Arkansas: Little brother Austin Allen isn’t nearly as talented as big brother Brandon Allen, who is gone.
Kentucky: Year 4 for Mark Stoops means he can no longer finish under .500 and must take the ‘Cats bowling.
Missouri: We know Mizzou can play D, but Barry Odom’s offense simply can’t resemble what it was last year.
Mississippi State: There isn’t a bigger loss in the SEC than Dak Prescott, who did it all in Starkville.
Vanderbilt: Ralph Webb pairs nicely with an underrated defense, but quarterback play needs a major uptick.
South Carolina: Will Muschamp’s debut in Columbia could be rocky, as Steve Spurrier left a bare cupboard.