SEC's biggest sleeping giants
In Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary, this is one of its definitions of the word sleeper: someone or something unpromising or unnoticed that suddenly attains prominence or value. Because SEC teams play college football in the toughest conference in the country, it’s obviously hard for most of them to go unnoticed, but there are some unpromising squads of late that could suddenly – or maybe not so suddenly – return to prominence or regain their value.
So, which teams are currently the biggest sleeping giants in the SEC? Bear in mind that we’re talking about future potential, not exclusively 2016 potential. Here are the top three:
Texas A&M Aggies
Is there a more appropriate term for Kevin Sumlin’s squad than sleeping giant? The word giant works because the Aggies play in the SEC’s largest stadium by capacity (107,000) while competing in the second-biggest state in the country.
Plus, some would define how A&M has performed over the last couple seasons as sleeping. In Sumlin’s first two seasons in College Station, his Aggies went 20-6 with wins in the Cotton Bowl and Chick-fil-A Bowl.
But his last two seasons have been identical 8-5 campaigns that each began with five-game win streaks to start the season.
It’s never easy to compete in any conference when your two starting QBs decide they want to transfer like Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both did last year. But when you’re Sumlin, the second-highest paid head coach in the SEC behind only Nick Saban at $5 million a year, you’re expected to finish better than 8-5.
The sky may have been falling in College Station last year, but there could be some silver linings entering 2016. Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight showed promise at times there, and he might be even better in new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone’s offense.
Led by coordinator John Chavis and standouts Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall, A&M’s defense could be really good this year. Having one of the best fan bases in America and unbelievable facilities doesn’t hurt the Aggies either.
The Baylor domestic violence fiasco and Texas’ recent struggles should help A&M reclaim the Lone Star State in terms of recruiting. Playing in the most competitive division in the sport is certainly challenging, but there’s no better time than now for Sumlin and the Aggies to awake from their recent slumber.
With all due respect to the SEC East, Kentucky, Missouri, South Carolina and Vanderbilt could all be sleepers this year. But each is coming off a losing season, and none of those programs can be called a giant with a straight face, so we’ll stay in the West.
Yes, the Hogs will have a new quarterback in Austin Allen and they’re rebuilding their offensive line. And yes, they’ve lost a pair of productive running backs in Jonathan Williams and Alex Collins, and a big-play tight end in Hunter Henry.
But we like the fact that despite those departures, 14 starters are returning for Arkansas. We also like the fact that the Razorbacks finished 8-5 last season, which included a 5-3 mark in the SEC, with the Hogs suffering those three losses by a combined 21 points.
Under Bret Bielema, the Razorbacks have reached the point where they won’t catch opponents off-guard anymore. But with a favorable 2016 slate – one that has Alabama, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss coming to Fayetteville – continued improvement by the Hogs should not be a surprise.
Ole Miss Rebels
It feels a little weird to put Ole Miss in this spot, especially since the Rebels had a giant 2015 season, which they capped with their first Sugar Bowl victory since 1970. But even though they enter 2016 having lost stalwarts Robert Nkemdiche, Laquon Treadwell and Laremy Tunsil to the NFL, they’re a team that no one should sleep on.
Ole Miss returns the fewest starters in the SEC with nine, but three big names are coming back. This year, quarterback Chad Kelly, tight end Evan Engram and defensive back Tony Conner will try to lead the Rebels to their third straight victory over Alabama and contend in the division.
Coincidentally, the Crimson Tide, LSU and Auburn are all favored to finish ahead of Ole Miss in the SEC West this year, according to gambling website Bovada. However, in a weird quirk that is reminiscent of last year’s predictions at SEC Media Days that had Gus Malzahn’s squad winning the SEC championship but had Bama capturing the West, the Rebels apparently have a better shot than Auburn does of taking the conference title.
This is a key follow-up year for Kelly, Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss. If the Rebels can clean up their recent pay-for-play mess centering around Tunsil — which is clearly a big if — and get good development from young talent, they might be able to surprise some people.