Playing the 'What If' game for each SEC team this season
Dealing in hypotheticals is a dangerous game. It’s one that can drive fans crazy, thinking of one little thing that could have changed the fate of the season for better or for worse.
Let’s do it anyway.
Here’s a breakdown of a major “what if” for every SEC team that could have altered the trajectory of their season.
What if Jacob Coker had won the starting job? Blake Sims proved beyond any doubt that he was the best quarterback on Alabama’s roster this season, but Coker was considered the front runner for the job all spring and summer. Sims was vital in winning two close games for Alabama late in the season (LSU and Mississippi State). Coker might not have changed any of the results from the first half of the season, but Sims’ savvy is what has the Crimson Tide in the SEC title game.
What if the Razorbacks had beaten Alabama? Arkansas came within a few plays of knocking off the Crimson Tide, which would have ended their playoff hopes and opened the floodgates a few weeks early for the Hogs. We saw what happened when the Razorbacks got their first win — nearly 150 consecutive shutout minutes — so it’s fair to ask what they could have done against Georgia with a win under their belts, or if they would have had the experience necessary to not throw the game against Mississippi State away in the final seconds.
What if D’haquille Williams and Sammie Coates had been healthy all season? Coates was a beast a year ago but suffered through a knee problem that hampered him in the early going. Duke emerged as Auburn’s No. 1 target, and by the time Coates was healthy Williams went down with a knee injury of his own. Defense was the problem down the stretch, but it’s scary to think about how potent the passing game could have been if Nick Marshall had both of his junior stars healthy.
What if the Gators had turned to Treon Harris earlier? Jeff Driskel was pretty dreadful as a starter, and everyone realized early on that he wasn’t going to get the job done. That didn’t stop Will Muschamp and Kurt Roper from sending him out as the starter for the first six games of the season. It took the train wreck against Missouri, when Driskel had two turnovers that led directly to touchdowns, that Muschamp finally gave up and turned to Harris. It’s hard to say that Harris could have saved Muschamp, as he’s been nearly as bad through the air as Driskel was, but if Harris had gotten comfortable earlier it could have provided real hope for the future.
What if Todd Gurley had gotten the ball late against South Carolina? Everyone was scratching their head when Gurley didn’t get the ball in a crucial spot at the goal line in the fourth quarter, with Huston Mason passing on first and third downs instead. Gurley averaged 6.6 yards per carry in the game, and knowing what we now know about Carolina’s defense he likely would have been able to punch it in from the 4-yard line. Marshall Morgan ended up missing a field goal to cost Georgia the game. While Gurley’s suspension is a separate matter, the Bulldogs would have been in the SEC East driver seat had they not dropped this head-scratcher.
What if the Wildcats hadn’t beaten South Carolina? Mark Stoops got a contract extension in late October, just a few weeks after a dramatic comeback win over a then-ranked Gamecocks team. Without that win, the Wildcats’ early-season improvement wouldn’t look quite as rosy, and the six-game skid they finished the season on would be even more glaring. Stoops just finished his second season, but his seat would probably be a bit warmer if not for the win over South Carolina.
What if LSU could throw the ball? This isn’t an Anthony Jennings/Brandon Harris question, since Harris didn’t show anything to make you think he’d be any better than Jennings in his only start. LSU had a potent running game all year, as well as young-but-talented receivers. Les Miles and Cam Cameron had no interest in throwing the ball with regularity, mostly because they didn’t have a quarterback on the roster capable of running those plays. Despite all the young talent and in spite of the passing issues, the Tigers finished 4-4 in the SEC, but they could have been much better (or worse) had the quarterback situation shaken out differently.
What if the Bulldogs fired Dan Mullen last year? When the Bulldogs slid back to a .500 record last year, the Mississippi State fan base was clearly a bit restless with their fifth-year coach. It’s hard to say who might have been coach in his place had he been fired, but administrations tend to go the opposite direction from their departed coach, meaning a defense-first hire. That would mean no up-tempo offense and likely no breakout season for Dak Prescott. Would a defensive coach have been able to reverse State’s issues with allowing big plays? Would it matter if the offense wasn’t the high-powered machine it turned out to be?
What if the Tigers didn’t lose to Indiana? Without an ugly loss to a Big Ten bottom-dweller, Missouri would be a one-loss SEC East divisional champ. While they do have a shutout loss to Georgia at home on their resume, losing to an SEC rival is far more respectable than dropping a home game to a team like Indiana. Missouri would probably be looking at a top-10 ranking with far more national respect, and they’d be on the fringe of playoff contention heading into the SEC title game.
What if Laquon Treadwell didn’t get hurt? If Treadwell wasn’t injured on the final play against Auburn, subsequently fumbling away what would have been the game-winning touchdown, the Rebels season would have changed drastically. It handed Ole Miss its second-straight loss, knocking them out of playoff contention and hampering the offense for the rest of the season. The Rebels could well still be in the playoff conversation still if not for that devastating play.
What if the Gamecocks had a pass rush? Carolina had been loaded with talent along the defensive line for a half-decade, from Eric Norwood to Melvin Ingram to Jadeveon Clowney and others. This year, they didn’t have any talent of that caliber and the entire defense suffered as a result. The Gamecocks had 12 sacks this year, last in the SEC by a wide margin and less than half what they had a year ago. Not being able to get to the quarterback meant a subpar back seven was compromised in coverage, one of the reasons the defense stumbled so badly.
What if Joshua Dobbs was the starter from day one? Justin Worley was inconsistent in his senior season, and backup Nathan Peterman played perhaps the worst of any SEC quarterback that saw significant action. It begs the question of why Butch Jones waited so long on Dobbs. Worley did nothing terribly wrong as a starter, but it was clear the Volunteers offense was stuck in neutral with him calling the shots. Tennessee ended up bowl eligible regardless, but they might have been able to reverse the results of close games like their losses to Florida and Georgia with Dobbs at the helm, which would have changed the complexion of the East.
What if the Aggies didn’t look so good on opening night? After blitzing South Carolina in the season opener, the Aggies were on the fast track to the top of the polls, setting up a domino effect. Everyone thought A&M was going to be even better with Kenny Hill at quarterback and had the Aggies pegged as a playoff contender, raising expectations far too high for a team in reload mode. We quickly realized South Carolina wasn’t the preseason top-10 team they were though to be, but it took a little longer for the rest of the country to catch on to A&M. The Aggies’ lofty perch made Ole Miss and Mississippi State look great for pounding them. If people didn’t overreact to that opening night win, the national rankings would have looked different for much of the season, and the SEC would have looked weaker as a result.
What if Derek Mason could have settled on a quarterback? By the end of the season, Johnny McCrary showed signs of competence, but it took Vanderbilt far too long to pick a signal caller, and even settling on McCrary came about because Patton Robinette was concussed. The Commdores weren’t competitive in any of their SEC games before playing Tennessee tight, and that would have changed had they had one quarterback instead of four in the early going. It might also mean Karl Dorrell would still be employed as offensive coordinator.