Which SEC teams are in danger of losing 3 more games in 2017 than in 2016?
Earlier in the week we identified three teams most likely to win at least three more games in 2017 than they did in 2016.
Now, it’s time for the bad news. History suggests there will be more of it.
Using the same standards — 2016 win totals, personnel losses, schedule, etc., — there are at least two SEC fan bases who should prepare themselves for at least a 3-game slide in the standings.
Each of the past five seasons has produced at least two such free-fallers.
Last season, Ole Miss won five fewer games than it did in 2015, Mississippi State three.
In 2015, Missouri’s win total fell by six, South Carolina’s by four.
In 2014, Vanderbilt’s win total fell by six, and Auburn and South Carolina by four each.
In 2013, Florida’s win total fell by seven, Georgia’s by four.
In 2012, all five teams that lost fewer games than in 2011 did so by at least three: Arkansas suffered the most, a 7-win drop. Auburn had five fewer victories, and Kentucky, LSU and Missouri each had three.
It’s going to happen again in 2017. The question is, to whom?
Here are the two most logical candidates:
Tennessee: The Vols won 9 games in 2016 (we hear you, Vol Nation, you expected 11 or more). And that was with Joshua Dobbs behind center, turning losses into victories at least three times.
Dobbs obviously is gone, along with a lot of his talented buddies. Nothing is impossible, but it’s difficult to look at what’s returning and their schedule — which includes LSU in addition to annual partner Alabama — and find seven wins with a first-time starter at quarterback.
Opening with Georgia Tech and its triple option is no picnic and a loss could set the tone for a disappointing season.
Tennessee was the Offseason National Champion last spring. (How’s that for a mythical title?) Everybody loved them and all their returning stars. And we know how that ended.
They won’t have to deal with pesky preseason expectations this year.
One year after being chided for not winning 10 games and a trip to Atlanta, Butch Jones will do well to get the 2017 Vols to six wins and a bowl game.
Texas A&M: The key to this exercise is you had to have enough wins in 2016 to create enough room to drop three more games in 2017.
The Aggies won 8 in a season they should have won 10. So they’re firmly on the bubble. Predicting a 4-8 season in 2017 seems preposterous, but 5-7 could be just a bad bounce or two from 7-5.
It’s possible. Other name brands have suffered this fate. And the Aggies, in all likelihood, will be starting another true freshman quarterback in addition to rebuilding that defense.
They open at UCLA, so maybe veteran Jake Hubenak gets that start, but the Bruins will have Josh Rosen back, which means don’t read anything into their 4-8 season; they finished 1-5 without him in 2016.
If they win at UCLA, forget I ever included them on this list. But if they don’t, their quest for bowl eligibility could be in trouble.
They might be favored in just one of their final six SEC games.
But what about Alabama?
I think Alabama’s offense will be better in 2017 than it was in 2016, regardless of who is calling plays. All of the backfield question marks entering the 2016 season are exclamation points in 2017.
Still, Alabama won 14 games in 2016, so certainly there’s enough room to fall back to “only” 11. In 2013, Alabama won “only” 11 games, two fewer than 2012.
A lot would have to go wrong in 2017, however, to produce a 3-win dip.
The Tide absolutely could drop the opener against Florida State, but until November, every difficult game after that is at home. An FSU loss wouldn’t affect the Tide’s chances of returning to Atlanta, either.
An injury to Jalen Hurts would have been catastrophic in 2016, because the run game wasn’t nearly as reliable without him. That won’t be the case in 2017. The Tide backfield is stacked and experienced and just added Najee Harris, who some think might be Nick Saban’s best running back recruit yet.
So if Hurts were to miss time — always a possibility with a quarterback who can run — the 2017 offense is much better suited to overcome it.
As for the schedule … worst case Alabama enters October 4-1. Winning at College Station would have been a bigger challenge last year. Arkansas and Tennessee aren’t threats, and LSU visits Tuscaloosa.
That puts the Tide at 8-1 entering a Nov. 11 date at sneaky-good Mississippi State, my dark horse contender in the West in 2017.
Nick Fitzgerald is the kind of quarterback who can give Bama problems, but the hole in that popular “mobile quarterback tames Tide” narrative is people often forget said quarterback had a lot of help. No one quarterback beats Alabama. Johnny Manziel had playmakers on the outside. So did Chad Kelly. Obviously Deshaun Watson as well.
Fitzgerald could have a career day and it probably won’t matter.
Just like you can continue to try to find reasons the Tide might slip, but they probably won’t matter, either.
Eleven wins are a lot … unless you’re Alabama.
It’s easier to project the Tide finishing the regular season 12-0 or 11-1 than 10-2 or 9-3.