The Complete 2018 SEC Crystal Ball: Predicting every game for every team
We spent the past two weeks breaking down every SEC team’s schedule, predicting not only every regular-season game but also a final record.
In case you missed the series, or your favorite team’s rival, here is the abbreviated version, all in one place, in the predicted order of finish.
Alabama game-by-game predictions
Week 1: vs. Louisville* (W): Is Lamar Jackson still at Louisville? No? He’s in the NFL? OK. That’s good to know. Yeah, Saban’s opening game dominance is absurd, even for him. I fully expect him to win his 12th consecutive opener by double digits. Better yet, I expect Alabama to cover a 4-touchdown spread, even if Saban decides to shuffle quarterbacks.
Week 2: vs. Arkansas State (W): Arkansas State’s only chance in this one is if it pays Gus Malzahn $5 million for a one-day contract to come back to ASU, along with at least 5 Auburn players on each side of the ball. And to be honest, the odds still wouldn’t be very good.
Week 3: at Ole Miss (W): I don’t want to say that Ole Miss is allergic to stopping the run, but let’s just say it seems strongly opposed to it. Last time I checked, Damien Harris and Najee Harris are plenty capable of exposing the Rebels’ fatal weakness. As long as Alabama’s young secondary isn’t completely in shambles to start the year, the Tide should roll in Oxford.
Week 4: vs. Texas A&M (W): Poor Jimbo Fisher. The dude has to face Alabama and Clemson in September of Year 1 at Texas A&M (I actually don’t feel bad for someone with a guaranteed $75 million contract). I’ll give the Aggies credit for hanging tough against the Tide in College Station last year. That’s a game when Alabama could have pulled away with Tagovailoa under center. That’s what I expect to happen in Tuscaloosa this time around.
Week 5: vs. Louisiana (W): We’re still waiting on the first Saban disciple to dethrone the master. With all due respect to Billy Napier, who was Alabama’s receivers coach from 2013-16, he’s not going to be the first to do it.
Week 6: at Arkansas (W): I’m actually really intrigued by what Chad Morris’ offense is going to do against Saban. In like, 3 years. For now, this has the makings of a long game for the Razorbacks offense. It’s worth noting that John Chavis’ defenses (at 3 schools) only allowed 26.8 points per contest in the 12 matchups he had vs. Saban’s Alabama offenses. Something tells me Alabama will hit the over in 2018.
Week 7: vs. Mizzou (W): Drew Lock against Alabama? Sign me up for that. Lock lit up Georgia’s secondary in the first half in Athens last year. This will be a huge game for his draft stock, but I don’t think it’s one that’ll wind up being the highlight of his college career. I’ll still take the Tide offense to run all over Barry Odom’s defense.
Week 8: at Tennessee (W): The first of many Jeremy Pruitt vs. Saban matchups has potential to be its most lopsided battle. Last year’s 45-7 drubbing is obviously the old coaching staff, but unless Tyson Helton is this mad scientist that we’ve all been sleeping on, I find it hard to believe that Tennessee has a quarterback who can move the ball against the Tide, much less win.
Week 9: bye
Week 10: at LSU (W): It’s 7 years in a row, yeah, but this is about 2018. History doesn’t win or lose games. As of today, it’s too difficult to pencil in an LSU win without knowing what exactly we’re going to see from Joe Burrow, as well as LSU’s most inexperienced backfield in a long time. An Alabama squad coming off a bye week will have plenty of time to evaluate a way to stop the Tigers’ new-look offense and keep the streak alive.
Week 11: vs. Mississippi State (W)
I’ve been tooting the Bulldogs’ horn all offseason, but I’m not bold enough to say they’ll go into Tuscaloosa and pull out a win. If they do, you can hand Joe Moorhead SEC Coach of the Year after the game. This is a game where it’ll really benefit Alabama to have a quarterback who can stretch the field. MSU’s pass rush is a scary sight, but it can be kept honest if Tagovailoa strings some drives together. Alabama holds on to this one by fewer than 2 scores.
Week 12: The Citadel (W): What’s your favorite kind of cupcake? Mine is chocolate with peanut butter frosting and a little Reese’s on top. What’s Alabama’s favorite cupcake? The Citadel.
Week 13: vs Auburn (W): The revenge narratives will be there. I get all of that. But you know what narrative I’m interested in? Despite his impressive new $49 million deal, Gus Malzahn is still a .500 coach away from Jordan-Hare. Think about that. I think Auburn caught Alabama at the perfect time last year in a home game with the injuries the Tide had on defense. At Alabama, though? That’s not happening again.
* at Citrus Bowl in Orlando
2018 Projection: 12-0 (8-0)
Final Standings: 1st in SEC West
Mississippi State predictions
Week 1: vs. Stephen F. Austin (W): I don’t think Stephen F. Austin would have stayed on the field with MSU under normal circumstances. Having its head coach resign in Augustcertainly didn’t change my mind on that.
Week 2: at Kansas State (L): Consider this the “working out the kinks” game that calms some of the buzz in Starkville. In the first road game of the year, MSU can’t quite get over the hump. Alex Barnes has a big day out of the Kansas State backfield, which forces the Bulldogs to rely on their developing passing game more than they hoped to. Just like Moorhead’s offense took a month for Penn State players to grasp, the learning curve is evident in Manhattan.
Week 3: vs. Louisiana (W): Billy Napier and the Ragin’ Cajuns have to travel to face Alabama and MSU in September. That won’t be fun. An angry MSU team bounces back in a big way.
Week 4: at Kentucky (W): History doesn’t win games, but 8 wins in the past 9 years probably isn’t a coincidence. MSU should be able to dominate 1-dimensional offenses, which I expect Kentucky to have in the early part of the season.
Week 5: vs. Florida (W): Ah, Mullen’s return. Man, there’s going to be sooooooo much cowbell in Starkville that night. In fact, I wonder what the world record is for cowbell noise. The Bulldogs will be all sorts of fired up to try and shut down Mullen’s new team. This game could get chippy early, but I expect MSU’s defense to contain Florida’s revamped offense and win by a couple scores.
Week 6: vs. Auburn (W): You’re right. Last year was ugly. Getting stomped 49-10 at Jordan-Hare wasn’t the best look for an MSU program that was trying to show it was a legitimate top-15 team. Keep in mind, though, that was the latter half of a 2-week stretch in which the Bulldogs traveled to Georgia and to Auburn. Absurd. This is the game where Moorhead will really show how elite of an offensive mind he is. He out-schemes Gus Malzahn, whose Auburn teams are .500 in games away from Jordan-Hare, and suddenly, all that preseason buzz is back in Starkville after a 3-0 start to SEC play.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: at LSU (W): Again, Moorhead earns his paycheck. Coming off a bye, MSU gets to face an LSU team that will be a week removed from facing Georgia (and beating Georgia). I think this sets up well for MSU to pull out a win in Baton Rouge. Sure, it’ll be closer than last year’s 37-7 drubbing in Starkville, but Fitzgerald makes a key play late and gets arguably the biggest road win of his career.
Week 9: vs. Texas A&M (W): I wouldn’t be surprised if MSU played at home as well as Auburn did last year. I don’t think this game is any exception. Big-time performances from Hill and Williams prevent MSU from a letdown following the big LSU win and MSU stays unbeaten in conference play before the all-important Alabama game. By the way, this also clinches MSU’s second winning season in the SEC in the 21st century.
Week 10: vs. Louisiana Tech (W): I think MSU could’ve put up 80 points in Louisiana Tech last year. And strangely, that game was played in Ruston, La. This game, played in Starkville, might be even uglier than 57-21.
Week 11: at Alabama (L): The win streak ends in Tuscaloosa. In what will wind up being an SEC West championship, this will have no shortage of hype. But ultimately, the Tide simply have too much talent in the front seven for MSU. The Bulldogs struggle to establish the balance that opened up their offense all season, and Alabama keeps control of its own fate to play in Atlanta.
Week 12: vs. Arkansas (W): Chad Morris walked into a situation without the ideal personnel to run his system, whereas Moorhead did. Game, set, match MSU.
Week 13: at Ole Miss (W): This is the ultimate revenge game for MSU after how much of a nightmare last year’s Egg Bowl was. This year, Fitzgerald runs all over Ole Miss in final regular season game and quiets what’s sure to be a raucous crowd in Oxford. I think we see both offenses light up the scoreboard. It wouldn’t be surprising to see both squads get into the 40s, but this time, MSU hoists the Golden Egg Trophy.
2018 projection: 10-2 (7-1)
Final Standings: 2nd in SEC West
Week 1: vs. Washington* (L): Spoiler alert: I think Washington is a Playoff team this year. And no, it isn’t just because Jake Browning and Myles Gaskin somehow have eligibility left. Washington’s front seven is loaded after returning basically everyone besides Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Vita Vea. Plus, Chris Petersen with ample time to prepare is a dangerous sight for an Auburn program that has struggled away from Jordan-Hare under Malzahn.
Week 2: vs. Alabama State (W): After arguably the toughest opening weekend game of 2018, there’s nothing like facing an FCS team with a losing record, right?
Week 3: vs. LSU (W): Is it so wrong to assume that the home team is the automatic winner in the Tiger Bowl? As great of a rivalry as this is, the home team won this game every year since Malzahn arrived in 2013. Joe Burrow’s development is the wild card, but it’s tough to say Auburn’s front seven will struggle at home against an LSU offense that’s a complete mystery.
Week 4: vs. Arkansas (W): The pregame storylines here will be better than the actual game. The “what if” about Malzahn going to Arkansas will be a fun topic for him to brush past when asked, but it’ll be something the rest of us will think about. Fortunately for Malzahn, he winds up being on the right side of a lopsided win.
Week 5: vs. Southern Miss (W): Southern Miss has improved in the Sun Belt, but I’m not about to call for an upset at Jordan-Hare when the Golden Eagles couldn’t beat Kentucky or Tennessee last year.
Week 6: at Mississippi State (L): This is the one that’ll get me in trouble with Auburn fans. I’m high on MSU this year because I think Joe Moorhead is going to take a relatively one-dimensional offense and turn it into a unit that’s capable of knocking off elite foes. That includes Auburn. Nick Fitzgerald is in midseason form after a slow start from his ankle injury, and the Bulldogs avenge a 49-10 loss.
Week 7: vs. Tennessee (W): I’m curious how Tyson Helton is going to revamp that dreadful Tennessee offense, but I’d expect this to be a long day for the Vols up front. The Tigers dominate the line of scrimmage and cruise at home.
Week 8: at Ole Miss (W): The Rebels struggled mightily in 2017 against teams that established the run. I’m guessing that by Week 8, Malzahn and offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey have found their rhythm in the ground game. The Rebels’ offense will make it plenty interesting, but Auburn will pull away late against a gassed Ole Miss defense.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs. Texas A&M (W): I don’t have enough confidence in Jimbo Fisher to make a preseason prediction that his offense can light up the Tigers at Jordan-Hare. Could that change in a few months after we’ve seen Fisher develop either Kellen Mond or Nick Starkel? Perhaps. But for now, I’ll say Auburn holds the Aggies under 20 points and wins by a couple scores.
Week 11: at Georgia (L): Take a shot every time you hear the word “revenge” brought up at a Georgia press conference that week. Don’t. You’ll be hammered (yes, even though Georgia got revenge in the SEC Championship). Instead, just assume that Auburn is going to see an extremely motivated Georgia squad playing in its biggest home game of the year. By November, Georgia’s young defense could be clicking and on the brink of another Playoff berth. While I don’t think it’s quite as ugly as the 2017 SEC Championship turned out, I’m not betting on Kirby Smart to lose a home game anytime soon.
Week 12: vs. Liberty (W): Why hello, cupcake week. I vote to start calling this “meat week” for Auburn. Why? Because this game has the ultimate SEC sandwich around it.
Week 13: at Alabama (L): Could Alabama have beaten Auburn with Tua Tagovailoa last year? Maybe. We’ll never know. Instead, we’ll have to wait until 2018, when he’ll make his Iron Bowl debut. Tagovailoa vs. Stidham could wind up being the SEC QB matchup of the year, which would feel strange for this rivalry. Betting on Nick Saban to lose to a team in consecutive years feels like throwing money away. This time, it’s Alabama that marches on to Atlanta.
* at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta
2018 Projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 3rd in SEC West
Week 1: vs. Miami (L)*: While I think Burrow is going to be vastly better than any LSU quarterback in recent memory, I think facing a top-10 defense in his first career start in Jerry World will be awfully challenging. I’ve been saying all summer this has the feel of a 17-14 game. I think the Tigers fall just short to a Miami squad that’s eager to get the bad taste out of its mouth from the end of 2017.
Week 2: vs. Southeastern Louisiana (W): Isn’t this where the Water Boy went to school? Does Bobby Boucher have any eligibility left? No? OK, moving on.
Week 3: at Auburn (L): I know. Sound the alarms. It’s panic time in Baton Rouge. A 1-2 start is the result after Auburn avenges last year’s embarrassing collapse at LSU. It’s hard to pick against the home team when the host has been the victor in 5 consecutive years. A loss in the Tiger Bowl sends LSU fans into “here we go again” mode.
Week 4: vs. Louisiana Tech (W): For what it’s worth, Louisiana Tech came up a point short at South Carolina last year and at Arkansas the year before that (also, remember Louisiana Tech’s 59-57 loss to Johnny Manziel’s Texas A&M squad in 2012?). Skip Holtz would love nothing more than to finally get over the hump against an SEC team. Unfortunately for him, LSU takes all of its 1-2 anger out and cruises at home.
Week 5: vs. Ole Miss (W): Ole Miss will be a welcome sight for the LSU offense in Week 5. By then, the ground game should have more of an identity and Burrow will be a bit more comfortable running the offense. Williams against AJ Brown has potential to be the No. 1 WR/CB matchup in the SEC, but it’s probably not ideal that Ole Miss’ best player is lining up against a potential All-American. LSU gets on the board in SEC play.
Week 6: at Florida (W): This is going to be a huge, huge, huge game for shaping the 2018 narrative on Orgeron. Win in Gainesville and suddenly a 1-2 start overall doesn’t look so bad with a 2-1 start to SEC play. I think that’s what’ll happen. Want a weird stat? Florida has won 3 games vs. LSU in the past 9 meetings. The Gators didn’t score more than 16 points in any of those wins. I wouldn’t be surprised if this would up being a 24-21 or a 21-20 game that LSU pulls out. Burrow leads a poised drive to win it in the closing minutes and delivers his best moment yet.
— Jacques Doucet (@JacquesDoucet) August 16, 2018
Week 7: vs. Georgia (W): Let’s get weird. You already know the atmosphere in the Bayou will be electric for this one. LSU will be the team with nothing to lose while Georgia is probably a top-4 team after a 6-0 start. We saw the Dawgs crumble in their toughest regular-season matchup at Auburn last year. While I don’t think it’s that kind of a blowout, I think it all just clicks for LSU. The Tigers’ ground game has its most impressive performance of the year and fuels the upset. Orgeron is hoisted off the field like he just won a national title and all is well in Baton Rouge.
Week 8: vs. Mississippi State (L): Ah, but thus is life in the SEC. Right after LSU is feeling like it just overcame a major hurdle, it struggles to capture that same juice the following week against MSU. After the Bulldogs dismantled LSU in Starkville last year, they find themselves in a much closer game this year. Ultimately, Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat take over late and LSU’s last-ditch effort comes up short.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs. Alabama (L): So here’s what I will say. I think LSU actually exceeds 24 points against the Tide for the first time since 2007. How’s that for a prediction? Having a quarterback who can actually stretch the field will pay huge dividends for the Tigers. And I think the same will be true for Alabama. Tua Tagovailoa and Burrow make this matchup different than the limited quarterback play we’ve seen in recent memory. Still, the Tide escape Baton Rouge with a hard-fought 34-27 win.
Week 11: at Arkansas (W): After that brutal 3-game gauntlet of top-15 teams, LSU finally gets to face a team that it should dominate at the line of scrimmage. Chad Morris’ offense against Aranda’s defense could be fun in a couple years, but for now, Lawrence and the Tigers’ line should feast.
Week 12: vs. Rice (W): Is there a such thing as a crawfish cupcake? If there is, Orgeron has probably tried it.
Week 13: at Texas A&M (W): A roller-coaster regular season ends on a high for LSU. It’s interesting that Jimbo Fisher was brought to Texas A&M to beat Alabama and Georgia for SEC titles. Really, though, Aggies fans should probably be more focused on ending a 7-year losing streak to the Tigers first. Say what you want about the limitations of the LSU offense, but averaging 49.5 points per game against Texas A&M the past 2 years is plenty impressive. New A&M defensive coordinator Mike Elko won’t let that happen, but LSU will still have enough to squeak out a gutsy road win in College Station to reach the 8-win mark.
* at AT&T Stadium in Dallas
2018 projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 4th in SEC West
Texas A&M predictions
Week 1: Northwestern State (W): Fisher was the first coach to speak at SEC Media Days, and he’ll be the first SEC coach to play a game in 2018 (Thursday, Aug. 30). That’s all I got. A&M isn’t losing to a 4-win FCS squad.
Week 2: Clemson (L): Everyone knows about Clemson’s loaded defensive line, but I think this is when reality really sinks in to A&M fans. Those are the type of teams A&M needs to be able to beat in the trenches to deliver on that national championship process. In the second game in a new offense, Clemson’s defense is a frightening sight.
Week 3: Louisiana-Monroe (W): See “Week 1: Northwestern State.” Replace “FCS” with “Sun Belt.”
Week 4: at Alabama (L): I wonder how long it took Fisher to realize that he’d see Clemson and Alabama in September of his first season. Seriously. On the plane ride over? Before he signed the contract? After they came out with those pocket schedules for 2018? I’d love to know. Nick Saban’s perfect record against his assistants is safe for now.
Week 5: vs. Arkansas* (W): This is the game that the Aggies can’t afford to lose. Chad Morris has the ability to become the fly in the ointment for the Aggies in a few years. With his recruiting ties in the state of Texas, Morris would love nothing more than to get a huge statement win in Jerry World. But while both offensive minds will try and implement their systems in Year 1, it’s Fisher who has the roster with a better chance of executing that.
Week 6: vs. Kentucky (W): This is where it’ll be nice to have Elko on board. Notre Dame allowed just 9 rushing touchdowns all year, which was fifth in FBS. You stop Kentucky by stopping Benny Snell. This could be a trickier game than one would think for the A&M offense, but I’d still expect a win by a couple scores.
Week 7: at South Carolina (W): I’m not as high on the Gamecocks as some are. I’m a bit in wait-and-see mode with this new offense. I’m not in wait-and-see mode with Trayveon Williams, who I think will be huge in what figures to be a down-to-the-wire game. Fisher pulls out his first SEC road win and the Aggies get on a nice little win streak.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: at Mississippi State (L): A&M fans don’t want to hear this, but MSU is more talented and better prepared to make serious noise in 2018. Joe Moorhead doesn’t have to do a ton of tweaking to get that offense thriving in his system, whereas I think that’ll be a tougher road for Fisher. The Bulldogs play lights out at home and end A&M’s 3-game winning streak.
Week 10: at Auburn (L): This is when it really hits Fisher just how brutal the West is. In a 2-week stretch on the road, A&M could easily face 6 or 7 front seven guys who become All-SEC players. That’s daunting. This is the type of game that Fisher will need to win with regularity if he’s going to be a perennial division winner. Much easier said than done.
Week 11: vs. Ole Miss (W): The last win of Sumlin’s A&M tenure came in Oxford. Back in College Station for the first time in 5 weeks, the Aggies feast off some home cooking. Monster days for Williams and whoever fills that change-of-pace role.
Week 12: vs. UAB (W): UAB had a nice bounce-back season after the program was shut down a few years ago, but it was probably pretty telling that even a disastrous Florida team put up 36 points in a blowout win last year. Cupcake week gives A&M win No. 7.
Week 13: vs. LSU (L): A lot has changed at LSU since Fisher was there 12 years ago. For starters, LSU has won 7 consecutive games against A&M dating to the 2011 Cotton Bowl. History doesn’t win games, but it’s hard to get past A&M allowing 54 and 45 points to predictable LSU offenses the past 2 years. I expect Joe Burrow to be plenty comfortable by late November, and the Tigers’ balanced attack will fuel their eighth straight win against the Aggies.
2018 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Final Standings: 5th in SEC West
Ole Miss predictions
Week 1: vs. Texas Tech* (L): I’m here for all the points. Two programs that have similar makeups could trade touchdowns all day in Houston. In a game that could be first to 60 points, I’ll give the Red Raiders a slight edge. It could be a big day for tailback Da’Leon Ward, who is set to return from an academic suspension.
Week 2: vs. Southern Illinois (W): They might not let Luke back into the stadium if he loses to a 4-win FCS team.
Week 3: vs. Alabama (L): Once one of the more intriguing matchups in college football, it’s hard to imagine Alabama struggling to establish the run against the Rebels. The Tide should still be able to dominate the battle in the trenches on both sides of the ball, just as they did last year. It should be closer than 66-3, but that’s not saying much.
Week 4: vs. Kent State (W): These cupcake non-conference games are going to be especially fun to watch Ta’amu and the Ole Miss offense. Pencil him in for 400 passing yards, a few scores and maybe even an SEC Player of the Week honor.
Week 5: at LSU (L): I will say, the Magnolia Bowl could be a little more interesting without Derrius Guice or Leonard Fournette to dominate Ole Miss. Still, LSU will find a way to rack up yards at home against the Rebels. Even if Joe Burrow doesn’t set the world on fire, this will be an uphill battle for Ole Miss in the Bayou.
Week 6: vs. Louisiana-Monroe (W): Fun fact: Louisiana-Monroe was ranked No. 127 of 129 FBS teams in defending the pass. Methinks Ta’amu, Brown, D.K. Metcalf and virtually every receiver on the Ole Miss roster will go off.
Week 7: at Arkansas (W): I said this before and I’ll say it again. If you had to watch a pair of division bottom-feeders slug it out, you can do a whole lot worse than Arkansas-Ole Miss. With Chad Morris, the Razorbacks will at least be a more entertaining team on offense this year, which means we could get plenty of fireworks in Little Rock. Ultimately, though, Ole Miss lights up the scoreboard a little more than Arkansas.
Week 8: vs. Auburn (L): Like with LSU, I’m not entirely sure who will lead the rushing attack, but it seems like a given that they’ll emerge against the Rebels. Even though I’m not big on Gus Malzahn away from Jordan-Hare, this could wind up being a game in which Jarrett Stidham does the heavy lifting to fuel an Auburn win.
Week 9: Bye
Week 10: vs. South Carolina (W): This might surprise some people, but I’m not sold on the belief that it’ll be smooth sailing for South Carolina after that Georgia game. Until I see that revamped Gamecock’ offense, it’s hard to picture it’ll go off in conference play, even against a defense that has question marks galore. I think as home underdogs coming off a bye week, Ole Miss delivers its best defensive performance yet to contain Jake Bentley and the Rebels get back in the win column.
Week 11: at Texas A&M (L): By November, I think Jimbo Fisher will have a much better feel on how to get his offense rolling. I don’t know who will lead the Aggies at quarterback, but I like the odds of Trayveon Williams having a big day at Ole Miss’ expense.
Week 12: at Vanderbilt (W): Even though Vandy is led by defensive-minded Derek Mason, I’m not holding my breath on the Commodores posing much of a threat against one of the SEC’s top offenses. And while I like the ability of Kyle Shurmur, I don’t like his chances of beating Ta’amu in a shootout.
Week 13: vs. Mississippi State (L): Yes, I understand that the Rebels won the Egg Bowl in Starkville last year. I’m not saying the Bulldogs would have won easily with a healthy Nick Fitzgerald, but it certainly mattered. Let’s assume that he has two attached ankles this year, and let’s assume that the MSU offense is even better under Joe Moorhead. OK, those are just my assumptions. I’ll also assume that MSU’s defense gets some revenge and pulls out a hard-fought win in Oxford.
*at NRG Stadium in Houston
2018 projection: 6-6 (3-5)
Final Standings: 6th in SEC West
Week 1: vs. Eastern Illinois (W): No Jimmy Garoppolo, no Tony Romo and no Sean Payton. In other words, there’s no chance for Eastern lllinois to go into Fayetteville and spoil the opening of the Morris era.
Week 2: at Colorado State (W): This won’t be a picnic in Fort Collins. There will still be kinks to work out with the offense, and that’s not an easy thing to do traveling across the country in the second game of the season. For what it’s worth, the Rams hung well with Alabama last year (an 18-point loss is “hanging well”) and they nearly knocked off Boise State. The problem is the Rams are dead last in FBS in returning production, which doesn’t bode well for a Week 2 matchup against a Power 5 team.
Week 3: vs. North Texas (W): Seth Littrell is going to be one of the hot up-and-coming names in the coaching world. North Texas won 9 regular season games last year. Ironically enough, one of its 3 losses came via Morris’ SMU squad … 54-32. While I think Littrell’s team played much better after that Week 2 loss, I don’t see Morris losing that battle after trading in SMU’s roster for Arkansas’.
Week 4: at Auburn (L): I fear for whoever starts at quarterback for Arkansas against Auburn. The Tigers’ front seven is capable of dominating just about any offensive line in the country. Arkansas’ undefeated start will come to a screeching halt at Jordan-Hare.
Week 5: vs. Texas A&M* (L): As weird as it might sound, I actually think this is the most important game on Arkansas’ schedule. From a recruiting standpoint, it’s huge. Taking down the Jimbo Fisher hype in Dallas would be enormous. Avoiding an 0-2 start to SEC play would be ideal, too. Does that happen for Arkansas? I highly doubt it, but man, Morris would chug all the Red Bull if it did.
Week 6: vs. Alabama (L): And this is life in the SEC West. Even with a favorable nonconference slate, Morris’ first 3 SEC games are against the reigning division champs and then 2 of the 4 active coaches with national championship rings. Good luck with that. This game will take a few years to at least get interesting.
Week 7: vs. Ole Miss** (L): I know, I know. Last year’s win in Oxford was Arkansas’ gutsiest performance of the year. If Bielema had a few more of those, he might still be in Fayetteville. It was also Jordan Ta’amu’s first career start. Something tells me the Ole Miss quarterback will be a much better player when they meet in 2018. But in terms of entertainment value for 2 teams at the bottom of the division, this one will be fantastic.
Week 8: vs. Tulsa (W): Fun fact about the Hurricanes — they have a quarterback named Chad President who’s coming off a torn ACL. Other fun fact about the Hurricanes — they were 2-10 last year. In other words, Arkansas’ losing streak ends when Tulsa comes to town.
Week 9: vs. Vanderbilt (W): Say what you want about how brutal it is to play in the West, but not having to face a Power 5 team in nonconference lay coupled with crossover matchups against Vandy and Mizzou is pretty nice. A win against the Commodores at least makes bowl eligibility possible heading into November.
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: vs. LSU (L): Morris’ offense against Dave Aranda’s defense has potential to be a sneaky-good matchup in a couple years. As for 2018, the Tigers have the playmakers to stifle the Arkansas offense. Devin White and Rashard Lawrence could bring a few 2017 flashbacks for that Arkansas offensive line. The Razorbacks wouldn’t mind if Joe Burrow turned out to be another LSU quarterback who fell short of expectations.
Week 12: at Mississippi State (L): It’s interesting to think about how Joe Moorhead and Morris are both considered among the top offensive minds in the sport. The difference is that Moorhead stepped into a program with the perfect personnel to run his system while Morris still might be a year or two from that. That ultimately allows MSU to get the better of Arkansas.
Week 13: at Mizzou (L): In a bowl-or-bust showdown, Arkansas can’t find the answers to contain Drew Lock in his final game in Columbia. I will say, though, that this is one of those games that’s tough to predict in the preseason. I expect Lock to look somewhat like he did last year, but that’s not a given under Derek Dooley. And I also expect it to be a slow learning curve for Morris’ offense, but it could have things clicking by late November. As of right now, though, it’s a Mizzou win and a bowl-less season for the Hogs.
* at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Tex.
** at War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock, Ark.
2018 Projection: 5-7 (1-7)
Final Standings: 7th in SEC West
Georgia game-by-game predictions
Week 1: vs. Austin Peay (W): The only question is how many quarters will Fields play. I’ll set the over/under at 1.75.
Week 2: at South Carolina (W): I can’t get there yet. I’m not willing to say that even with an electric Williams-Brice Stadium, South Carolina can hang with Georgia at the line of scrimmage. Georgia still has plenty of talent up front, and I don’t think the Gamecocks will:
- A) Keep Jake Bentley upright for 4 quarters
- B) Stop a versatile Georgia running game
- C) Get the the headliner win they’ve been searching for
Week 3: vs. Middle Tennessee (W): This could be a nice opportunity to get Zamir White and James Cook involved. If there’s a reason to stay to the end of this one, it’ll be watching these guys play alongside Fields.
Week 4: at Missouri (W): A whole lot of people are going to bring up how Drew Lock torched the Georgia secondary in the first half last year. He did. He was on fire. And what happened? Mizzou still lost by 4 possessions. When you lose the rushing battle 370-59, that tends to happen. Nick Chubb and Sony Michel might be gone, Georgia ain’t losing the battle on the ground this year, either.
Week 5: vs. Tennessee (W): Last year, I called Smart “the SEC East grim reaper” of coaches. Not that he was the sole reason that Butch Jones was fired, but Smart’s squad showed how far apart the two programs were. As much as I like Jeremy Pruitt, he’s not overcoming that big of a disparity in a year and pulling off a miracle in Athens. Here’s hoping we at least get to fire up the Pruitt vs. Aaron Murray feud again.
Week 6: vs. Vanderbilt (W): So the week before this matchup, Vandy plays Tennessee State. If and when the Commodores get a win, I hope we have a Bama soundbite like last year ahead of the Georgia game.
Week 7: at LSU (L): Yes, I’m on record now. I think LSU pulls off the upset in an unbelievable atmosphere in Baton Rouge. The LSU defense comes out and gives a 2017 Auburn-like effort in the headliner showdown. Georgia, perhaps lulled into a bit of offensive overconfidence after some extremely favorable defensive matchups to start the year, struggles to establish balance. Fromm gets harassed all night, Joe Burrow does enough to keep Georgia off-balanced and Ed Orgeron gets the biggest win of his LSU tenure.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Florida (W)*: The bye week comes at a perfect time after the LSU game. With a chance to heal up some midseason bumps and bruises, Georgia comes out clicking on all cylinders in Jacksonville. It isn’t quite the beatdown it was last year, but D’Andre Swift and the ground game dominates a gassed Florida defense and the Dawgs win comfortably.
Week 10: at Kentucky (W): I don’t like the odds of the Wildcats’ offense thriving against elite defenses. That’s not a knock on Benny Snell, who is clearly one of the top backs in America. That’s a knock on how one-dimensional I think Kentucky will be. Walker and the Dawgs shut down Kentucky in convincing fashion. They probably lock up the division in the process, too.
Week 11: vs. Auburn (W): I don’t trust Auburn to beat an elite team away from Jordan-Hare. It’s as simple as that. Maybe that narrative changes this year and the Tigers start matching the same level we saw at home in 2017. But in what’s easily Georgia’s biggest home game of the year, it’ll be Sanford Stadium that provides the home-field advantage needed to fuel a Georgia win. Perhaps it even adds to Fromm’s Heisman Trophy campaign.
Week 12: vs. UMass (W): Somehow, UMass stayed within 2 scores of Tennessee and Mississippi State last year. I’ll bet whatever is in my wallet that doesn’t happen in Georgia this year.
Week 13: vs. Georgia Tech (W): So I know that the pregame narrative will be how “Georgia Tech did beat Smart between the hedges already,” but I’m not buying that. As I said, I’m not betting against Smart’s defense to fall to a one-dimensional offense until further notice. I’m just not. This rivalry is entering a new, extremely one-sided phase. I don’t think it’s one that Yellow Jackets fans will particularly enjoy.
*at TIAA Bank Stadium in Jacksonville
2018 Projection: 11-1 (7-1)
Final Standings: 1st in SEC East
South Carolina predictions
Week 1: vs. Coastal Carolina (W): Poor Coastal Carolina. With the Georgia game the following week, there might not be a single Week 1 opponent in America who’s been more overlooked this offseason. It would probably help if the Chanticleers weren’t coming off a 3-win season in the Sun Belt.
Week 2: vs. Georgia (L): I can’t get there yet. I know it’s at Williams-Brice, and I know the atmosphere is going to be electric. I’m just not willing to say that South Carolina can match Georgia in the trenches for 60 minutes. Kirby Smart’s defense isn’t exactly a fun thing to test drive a new offense against. Georgia has the advantage at the quarterback position, too. Jake Fromm won’t be fazed by the big-time road atmosphere or what’s at stake. He helps the Dawgs overcome a hostile environment and fuels a key early-season win to kick off SEC play.
Week 3: vs. Marshall (W): This is actually a little tricker than one might think for South Carolina. Marshall returns 81 percent of its defensive production from a group that ranked No. 17 in scoring defense in 2017. The Herd won’t look like Georgia, but this isn’t exactly Coastal Carolina, either. The Gamecocks start off slow offensively, but their defense prevents them from trailing and they pull away late.
Week 4: at Vanderbilt (W): Prediction: Samuel goes off. He shakes he rust off after the first few games and does something that goes viral. Maybe he returns the opening kick for a touchdown, or he and Bentley connect on an 80-yard touchdown. This just feels like a game when Vanderbilt doesn’t have an answer to stop someone with Samuel’s skill set. He shines in a big way and gets the Gamecocks on the board in the SEC.
Week 5: at Kentucky (W): I know, I know. The streak. Kentucky has South Carolina’s number, right? They do, but one reason South Carolina won so many close games last year was because of its ability to stop the run. To slow down Kentucky, you have to slow down Benny Snell. Even though the Gamecocks’ defense has a massive hole to fill without Skai Moore, the likes of D.J. Wonnum and T.J. Brunson are capable of plugging the gaps against a one-dimensional offense like Kentucky. It might go down to the wire, but give me the Gamecocks to end the skid.
Week 6: vs. Mizzou (W): I don’t think the Tigers’ defense will be able to handle the speed that South Carolina wants to play at. This will be when we see McClendon’s style really pay off in a big way. Bentley delivers perhaps his best game of the season in the new offense and outshines Drew Lock.
Week 7: vs. Texas A&M (L): A mini road upset could be in store before South Carolina hits the bye week. Coming off a few wins to start SEC play, South Carolina gets humbled by a Texas A&M squad that is coming into its own defensively. A month and a half into learning Mike Elko’s system, the Aggies come up with their best defensive performance yet. The Aggies control the ball late with Trayveon Williams and squeak out a gritty road win.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Tennessee (W): The A&M loss gives South Carolina a chance to re-evaluate heading into the bye week. Fortunately, scoring points against Tennessee proves to be a much easier task than it was last year in Knoxville. This winds up being a career day for Rico Dowdle, who is going to be a huge part of this offense. He goes off to get South Carolina back in the win column.
Week 10: at Ole Miss (L): I have a not-so-sneaky feeling that this one turns into a shootout. Despite South Carolina’s offensive improvements by Week 10, that favors the Rebels. This could be a game in which South Carolina falls behind by a couple scores early, and instead of trusting Dowdle to gash the Rebels’ horrendous run defense, the Gamecocks fall in love with the pass. That costs them a shot to win a tricky road matchup in Oxford.
Week 11: at Florida (W): Ah, the battle for second place in the East. I gave the nod to South Carolina in Muschamp’s second trip back to Gainesville. Why? I think following a rough defensive showing, Muschamp gets that unit firing on all cylinders in The Swamp. South Carolina plays the style of game it’s more comfortable in, and instead puts the pressure on the defense to take care of business late. Muschamp gets his best win of the year to finish SEC play.
Week 12: vs. Chattanooga (W): Three-win FCS teams seem pretty fitting for cupcake week. South Carolina feasts.
Week 13: at Clemson (L): Again, the thing that’s keeping South Carolina from getting into the same conversation as the Georgias and Clemsons is the battle in the trenches. The Gamecocks aren’t imposing their will on teams yet. That’s what Clemson figures to do with that historically talented defensive line. Clemson could easily be playing for an undefeated regular season at this point, not that the Tigers never need motivation against their in-state rivals. I’ll take them to stymie the Gamecocks’ offense.
2018 Projection: 8-4 (5-3)
Final Standings: 2nd in SEC East
Week 1: vs. Charleston Southern (W): I’ll have “FCS schools that even McElwain’s Florida offense could score against” for 600, Alex.
Week 2: vs. Kentucky (W): Can you imagine if Florida had lost that game last year? Would McElwain have had a ride home from Lexington? OK, I’ll stop with the McElwain jokes. The streak continues, but Florida’s offense struggles to get a ton going in this one. I’ll say it’s 20-10 game that stays far too close for comfort.
Week 3: vs. Colorado State (W): There’s a coach who’s no longer at Florida who would have really enjoyed this game (OK, that was the real last one). Instead, Mullen’s team will welcome the Group of 5 school to Gainesville with open arms. An inexperienced CSU squad struggles facing its second SEC foe in a row.
Week 4: vs. at Tennessee (W): This ends up being a nice feather in the cap for Mullen early on. The opportunity to clinch a 4-0 start in Knoxville would certainly make Gator fans breathe a sigh of relief. In what could still be an ugly game from an offensive standpoint, Scarlett and Perine help Florida pound out a 17-14 win.
Week 5: at Mississippi State (L): In case you haven’t heard, Mullen returning to Starkville is kind of a big deal. In case you also haven’t heard, MSU is the better team in 2018. In what’s sure to be a special atmosphere, the Bulldogs put together a convincing win that makes some question the validity of Florida’s 4-0 start.
Week 6: vs. vs. LSU (L): For all the questions surrounding the LSU offense, that defense should be one of the nation’s best. Devin White and Rashard Lawrence stymie Florida’s ground game and force Trask into more obvious throwing situations than he’s comfortable with. You know it’ll be close, but LSU finds away to get out of The Swamp with a win for the second consecutive year.
Week 7: at Vanderbilt (W): In baseball, there are certain pitchers who develop a reputation as being a “stopper.” As in, when a team is on a losing streak, the “stopper” can be counted on to deliver a quality start and end the losing streak. I feel like that’s going to be Vandy’s role for the SEC this year.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Georgia (L)*: It was almost comical hearing people tout history as a reason Florida was going to hang tough with Georgia last year. Then 42-7 happened and a certain coach linked with a shark was fired. Do I expect Florida to have such a massive disparity in terms of coaching and on-field talent in 2018? No, but I also saw how far apart those two programs were. Simply bringing in Mullen won’t change that in a year. The Dawgs still roll, but not in the embarrassing fashion they did last year.
Week 10: vs. Missouri (W): I love the feud that was started from Jefferson’s comments bashing Mizzou fans. We need more of that. I don’t think that Gators are in shambles the way they were when they went to Columbia last year. This year, the front seven actually bothers Drew Lock and makes it an unwelcome environment in The Swamp.
Week 11: vs. South Carolina (L): I went back and forth on this one because while I’m not crazy high on the Gamecocks like some are, I feel like they’ll stand a much better chance of putting up points on the road after they have 2-plus months in this new offense. This has the feel of a gritty, 24-21 win in which Muschamp dials up a key defensive stand late to seal a win in his return to Gainesville.
Week 12: vs. Idaho (W): The younger Petrino (Paul) is coming off a 4-win season in the Sun Belt. Let’s just say that doesn’t set up well for me having much preseason confidence in the Vandals’ 2018 outlook.
Week 13: at Florida State (L): Florida fans don’t want to hear this, but in many ways, the Gators and Seminoles are in similar situations. Despite both having new coaches after disastrous seasons, both teams still have plenty of talent returning in 2018. In Tallahassee, though, FSU controls the clock late with Cam Akers and pulls out a nail-biter to close the regular season.
*at TIAA Bank Field in Jacksonville
2018 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Final Standings: 3rd in SEC East
Week 1: vs. UT Martin (W): A prediction for Lock’s video game numbers: 375 yards and 6 touchdown passes.
Week 2: vs. Wyoming (W): Man, I wish we could have had Josh Allen vs. Lock. Oh well. I wouldn’t expect the same video game numbers from Lock against a Craig Bohl defense, but this still shouldn’t be a game in which Mizzou has to play its starters late in the fourth quarter.
Week 3: at Purdue (L): The Purdue defense absolutely embarrassed Mizzou’s offense last year. Purdue defensive coordinator Nick Holt dominated Heupel in every way. Even though Purdue has some massive turnover on defense, I still like the odds of Holt drawing up some creative ways to confuse Lock. And knowing Jeff Brohm, he’ll definitely bust out a couple of trick plays to test the Mizzou defense. The Boilermakers hand the Tigers their first loss of the year, but it’s not the stomach-churner that last year was.
Week 4: vs. Georgia (L): I’m pretty confident that the first half against Georgia will be featured heavily on Lock’s draft film. Because of that performance, this might shape up to be a sneaky upset pick for some. But I’d argue that Lock was so brilliant in the first half last year and the Tigers still lost by 4 scores. D’Andre Swift and the Dawgs run all over them and spoil their SEC opener.
Week 5: Bye
Week 6: at South Carolina (L): I’m interested to see if Mizzou can sustain some drives and get Crockett/Rountree going to take some pressure off Lock in this one. My concern is how the defense will handle the pace that South Carolina will play at. On the road against a quality team, though, it’s hard to put chips on Mizzou. A 2-13 mark against teams with a winning record doesn’t bode well on the road.
Week 7: at Alabama (L)
I’m actually extremely excited for this one because it has potential to be the best matchup of SEC quarterbacks this season. Lock and Tua Tagovailoa could both end up being first-round picks someday. Plenty of people will base their opinions of Lock on what he does against Nick Saban’s defense. This feels like a 55-24 game where we see some flashes from Lock, but he spends most of the afternoon running from that Alabama front.
Week 8: vs. Memphis (W): Sign me up for some offense, babayyyyyyy. Mike Norvell’s teams can light up the scoreboard in a hurry. Keep in mind that Memphis was second in FBS in scoring last year during its 10-win season. This is by no means a cupcake nonconference matchup for Mizzou. So why won’t Memphis pull off the upset? The Tigers have major offensive turnover having lost their top 2 weapons in second-round receiver Anthony Miller and former Tennessee quarterback Riley Ferguson. And a unit that was ranked No. 102 in scoring defense probably isn’t the best bet to slow down Lock and Co.
Week 9: vs. Kentucky (W): It’s strange that Mizzou will go 5 weeks in between home SEC games, but that’s just the way the schedule worked out. I think Mizzou has an easier time stopping a one-dimensional offense and gets a long overdue first SEC win.
Week 10: at Florida (L): Can we just call this the Cece Jefferson Bowl? Mizzou will have plenty of juice for this one after Jefferson’s comments, which will make this a more physical game than usual. By Week 10, I’m banking on Florida’s offense to have somewhat of an identity. I also think Todd Grantham draws up plenty of pressure to bother Lock, which allows the Gators to escape with a 24-21 win.
Week 11: vs. Vanderbilt (W): Given how challenging the first 10 weeks of Mizzou’s schedule is, the Vanderbilt matchup begins what should be a favorable finish. In a game with a pair of NFL quarterbacks, the passing game does the damage, but it’s the Tigers who put it on cruise control late.
Week 12: at Tennessee (W): Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive prowess is going to be interesting to watch as a head coach. I imagine he’s not going to follow a similar pattern to Odom, who went from defensive guru to being a head coach of a team with a suddenly woeful defense. But in Year 1 of the Pruitt era, I don’t think Tennessee has the playmakers to slow down Mizzou’s offense. The Tigers clinch bowl eligibility in their first SEC road win of 2018.
Week 13: vs. Arkansas (W): Mizzou won’t be putting the finishing touches on an Arkansas coach this year, but I do think the Tigers make it a long day for Chad Morris’ squad. At least defensively. As tough as it is to predict a game this far out with a first-year coach, I find it hard to believe the Hogs’ defense will find the answers to best Lock. In another shootout, Mizzou finds a way to close the regular season on another high note.
2018 Projection: 7-5 (4-4)
Final Standings: 4th in SEC East
Week 1: vs. West Virginia* (L): Do I think that Tennessee has the defensive pieces to stop Will Grier in Game 1 of the Pruitt era? No. But I do I think that the Vols can at least prevent the Mountaineers from hanging 50? Sure. Let’s not pretend like West Virginia’s defense set the world on fire, either. This was the No. 90 scoring defense last year. There should be opportunities for Tennessee to score. I’ll still take West Virginia to win by multiple scores in Grier’s hometown, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the Vols’ offense already looked better than last year’s (that’s not saying much).
Week 2: vs. East Tennessee State (W)
Tennessee won 1 game by more than 14 points last year, and it was to an FCS squad. Let’s just say I’m even more confident in this year’s offense to accomplish that feat when ETSU rolls in.
Week 3: vs. UTEP (W): I won as many games as UTEP last year.
Week 4: vs. Florida (L): This has the makings of a fun new chapter of this rivalry. Not that the Jones/Jim McElwain battles weren’t fun, but they were more in like a “hey, let’s point and laugh at how awful this is” type of fun. This will be fun in a “hey, let’s watch a great defensive mind and a great offensive mind battle it out” type of fun. That said, I think Florida has more ingredients for a 2018 bounce-back than Tennessee.
Week 5: at Georgia (L): I’m here for the Pruitt-Georgia rivalry that was sparked by Aaron Murray’s comments. This one will have a little juice heading in, but ultimately it’ll serve as a reminder of how far Pruitt has to go to reach Kirby Smart’s level.
Week 6: Bye
Week 7: at Auburn (L): I mean, getting Auburn and Alabama as a crossover draw is brutal. Pruitt won’t complain about that, though. I’ll be interested to see how Tennessee responds coming off the bye. Having a stretch of at Georgia, at Auburn and vs. Alabama is as brutal as it gets, but with that bye sandwiched in there, at least Tennessee will have a chance to potentially get healthy. Still, it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which Tennessee rolls into Jordan-Hare and pushes Auburn to the edge.
Week 8: vs. Alabama (L): Ah, the Pruitt-Saban storylines heading into this one will be a treat. For now, it’s not a very intriguing on-the-field matchup. Tennessee’s only hope for a spark might be watching Nigel Warrior take a Tua Tagovailoa interception to the house. Well, maybe 3 of those would make this close.
Week 9: at South Carolina (L): So if Tennessee lost this one, that’d be 14 consecutive SEC losses, starting with the Vandy loss to close 2016. At least according to my projections. It’s hard to project what kind of strides the Vols’ defense will make because sitting here 2 months out, this feels like a game in which Rico Dowdle should run wild. Maybe Kyle Phillips and the Vols’ front prevents that, but in Columbia, that’ll be a tough thing to do against South Carolina’s up-tempo offense.
Week 10: vs. Charlotte (W): The losing streak is over! Marquez Callaway and the Vols skill players shouldn’t have any problems making big plays against a Conference-USA team that went 1-11 last year.
Week 11: vs. Kentucky (W): Vols fans would prefer it if they didn’t have to wait until Week 11 for the first SEC win of the Pruitt era. But unfortunately, the wait is long with how tough the conference schedule starts out. Tennessee finally contains the run against an SEC team with an actual ground game. It serves as the “see, it’s working” game for Pruitt’s defense.
Week 12: vs. Mizzou (L): This should be a good week for Helton’s offense to get a few things going. The Vols will try and control the clock to keep Lock off the field. That’ll prove to be easier said than done. Lock delivers a big-time performance to clinch bowl eligibility for Mizzou, which knocks the Vols from postseason contention.
Week 13: at Vanderbilt (W): Instead of a bowl game to go off on a high note to raise expectations, Tennessee instead gets to beat up on its in-state rival, which has won the past two and taken 4 of the past 6. I actually think this winds up being a blowout. The Vols play like a team without expectations, and everything clicks on both sides of the ball. The win gives Tennessee an improved win total from 2017, and it sets the new expectation for 2019.
*at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte
2018 regular season projection: 5-7 (2-6)
Final Standings: 5th in SEC East
Week 1: vs. Central Michigan (W): Central Michigan won 8 games last year, but a MAC team with massive roster turnover probably isn’t a good bet to walk into an SEC stadium and win an opener.
Week 2: at Florida (L): Yes, I think the streak continues. I wouldn’t be surprised if this one followed a somewhat similar script to last year’s game, though. Kentucky’s defense makes the game far closer than Gators fans hope for. And while history doesn’t win or lose games, once again something manages to not bounce Kentucky’s way in the final minutes to preserve a Florida win.
Week 3: vs. Murray State (W): Three-win FCS squads aren’t anywhere good enough to even be “sleeper matchups.”
Week 4: vs. Mississippi State (L): This proves to be Kentucky’s first real ugly loss of the season. Mississippi State’s defense follows a similar plan to last year when it stymied Snell and forced the Wildcats to throw the ball. Kentucky can’t slow down Nick Fitzgerald, who wins the game with his arm and his legs. Bulldogs roll big in Lexington.
Week 5: vs. South Carolina (L): Whenever I hear someone say that they think South Carolina will beat Georgia in Week 2, my knee-jerk reaction is to say, “are you sure they can even beat Kentucky?” As Stoops will tell you, it’s Kentucky who has the 4-game winning streak against South Carolina. My guess is that this is finally the time that the Gamecocks get back in the win column because of the potential of this revamped, high-tempo offense under Bryan McClendon. I’m not saying they’ll put up 40, but a 28-27 game seems possible.
Week 6: at Texas A&M (L): This is the frustrating thing about Kentucky’s season. If the Wildcats aren’t relevant in these first 6 weeks before the bye, they’ll get put on the back burner in a hurry. Midnight Madness is Oct. 12, which is 6 days after I expect the football team to lose in College Station (that would also clinch an 0-4 start to SEC play, and thus, another non-winning season vs. the conference). Something tells me the timing and importance of that one isn’t lost on Stoops.
Week 7: Bye
Week 8: vs. Vanderbilt (W): In a game of teams without a win in conference play, Kentucky dominates. Coming off a bye week, Snell takes his frustration out against Vanderbilt’s porous run defense. The Wildcats wait longer than they envisioned for their first Power 5 win of 2018.
Week 9: at Mizzou (L): There could be no shortage of points scored in Columbia. But in a game that figures to have a back-and-forth feel, I give the edge to Drew Lock to outduel whoever starts at quarterback for the Wildcats.
Week 10: vs. Georgia (L): I don’t imagine it’s very fun to spend 60 minutes on the field with Georgia. Kirby Smart’s defense dominates 1-dimensional offenses, and Kentucky is no exception.
Week 11: at Tennessee (L): I wouldn’t be surprised if Kentucky lost 5-6 SEC games by single digits. Even in Knoxville, Tennessee struggles to distance itself from Kentucky. Two defensive-minded head coaches have no problems playing the field-position game and pulling out a 17-16 win. At home, Jeremy Pruitt winds up being on the better end of that.
Week 12: vs. Middle Tennessee (W): Rick Stockstill’s offenses can put up some points, especially with his son, Brent Stockstill, running the show. This is also a team that hasn’t had a losing season in conference play or missed a bowl game since 2011. But no, I’m not betting on the Blue Raiders to run wild in Lexington. Stoops’ defense does enough to pull out a much-needed win.
Week 13: at Louisville (W): This isn’t just based on the Cardinals living in a post-Lamar Jackson world, though it helps. Louisville ranks dead last among Power 5 teams in percentage of returning production. As much as we trust Bobby Petrino to produce a high-powered offense, there’s no guarantee that happens this year. Give me the Cats to squeak out a close, low-scoring game in Louisville to end the season on a high note.
2018 projection: 5-7 (1-7)
Final Standings: 6th in the SEC East
Week 1: vs. Middle Tennessee (W): It baffles me that this was a home-and-home series. But in the fourth and final game of the series, Vanderbilt’s offense has a big day. Vaughn shines in his debut and the Commodores pull away in the second half for a comfortable victory to kick off 2018.
Week 2: vs. Nevada (W): Nevada does rank No. 14 in percentage of returning production, but that’s from a 3-win team. Shurmur lights up the Wolfpack secondary to pace a blowout win.
Week 3: at Notre Dame (L): You know how Mason said that he wasn’t scared to face Notre Dame?
“Yeah we play in the SEC, I don’t worry about going to South Bend”
DEREK MASON FROM THE CLOUDS pic.twitter.com/iyhyk1BT7s
— Jack McGuire (@JackMacCFB) July 19, 2018
Uh, he might worry when the Irish defense stymies his offense and he’s staring at a 3-touchdown deficit at the end of the first half. I like Shurmur, but that hole is too big to climb out of against an experienced Irish defense.
Week 4: vs. South Carolina (L): This is where ranking No. 105 in percentage of defensive production will really show up. Assuming the Gamecocks stick to their new up-tempo offense, this will be a difficult game for the Commodores’ defense to keep pace. This has the makings of a “shake the rust off” game for Deebo Samuel, who finds a variety of ways to light up the scoreboard.
Week 5: vs. Tennessee State (W): The Odeyingbo brothers will be licking their chops for this one. After a frustrating couple of weeks, they feast on some FCS cooking to fuel an easy victory.
Week 6: at Georgia (L): And this is when the wheels fall off. Shurmur might be able to try and stretch the field against the Georgia secondary, but this battle in the trenches will be completely lopsided. We’ll see plenty of Justin Fields in this one.
Week 7: vs. Florida (L): An angry Florida team coming off consecutive losses rolls into Nashville. The Gators pound the rock and control the clock from start to finish. It serves as another reminder of how much Vanderbilt has to improve up front before it can compete with teams on a regular basis.
Week 8: at Kentucky (L): There’s a decent chance that Georgia, Florida and Kentucky wind up with 3 of the SEC’s top 4 rushing attacks. It’s hard to say the Commodores are suddenly going to be vastly improved coming off a season in which they ranked No. 100 in FBS against the run. Off a bye, a fresh Benny Snell is the latest SEC running back to take advantage of the Commodores’ porous run defense.
Week 9: at Arkansas (L): If you put this game in the second week of September, I actually might pick Vanderbilt. But 9 weeks into the season, there’s a decent chance that Chad Morris’ offense will be significantly improved. Like with South Carolina, the tempo bothers the Commodores and they can’t keep pace on the road.
Week 10: Bye
Week 11: at Mizzou (L): Shurmur vs. Drew Lock will have no shortage of NFL eyes watching. Unfortunately for Vanderbilt, they’ll be watching one quarterback who has plenty of weapons to rely on, and another who could use a bit more help. The Commodores keep it interesting with a shootout, but Mizzou takes care of business late.
Week 12: vs. Ole Miss (L): If the Commodores have a ground game identity, this one could be interesting. But I’m still not crazy about Ole Miss’ offense being contained for 60 minutes. AJ Brown cements his All-America status and prevents Vanderbilt from taking one of the more winnable games on the SEC slate.
Week 13: vs. Tennessee (L): Like with Arkansas, I might give the Commodores the edge against Tennessee if we’re talking about a September game. But we’re not. Jeremy Pruitt’s defense should make some noticeable strides over the course of 3 months. The Vols get revenge after last year’s debacle, end their 2-year skid in the series, and clinch a winless SEC season for the home team.
2018 Projection: 3-9 (0-8)
Final Standings: 7th in SEC East