Which teams are best suited to represent SEC in 2016 playoff?
The first conference to be left out of the College Football Playoff was the Big 12. Then, it was the Pac-12.
The SEC isn’t likely to be on the outside looking in when the four teams are chosen for the 2016 season. That’s because the best conference in the country has some serious contenders.
Here’s a look at the four teams that are poised to represent the league in the next playoff with a look at why they’re qualified and what may be standing in their way.
Why they have what it takes: The Crimson Tide has made the College Football Playoff both times since it was put in place, but it goes beyond that.
Alabama saw the return of several key players that could’ve turned pro, and at the same time, the Tide had the No. 1 recruiting class in the country that will bolster key areas. Defensively, the team gets back S Eddie Jackson, DE Jonathan Allen, LB Tim Williams, LB Reuben Foster and LB Ryan Anderson. Offensively, TE O.J. Howard returns after his MVP performance in last season’s national title game. In fact, the only players who still had eligibility remaining that aren’t returning are RB Derrick Henry and DL A’Shawn Robinson.
Of course, Henry was other-wordly last season, but no one in their right minds can say Alabama can’t replace a running back. In the nine seasons Saban has been in Tuscaloosa, the team has had seven 1,000-yard rushers. Sophomores Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris are next in line, and B.J. Emmons (No. 2 RB for 2016) will also be in the mix. Meanwhile, Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett can take the torch from Jake Coker, and the eventual starter will have weapons to throw to in Howard, Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart. At offensive line, the team returns three of its five starters from a year ago.
Biggest obstacle: Saban will probably say the same thing, but he’ll have to shield his team from the complacency, entitlement and all those troublesome things that come with winning a national title. Of course, Alabama also has a tough season opener at a neutral site against USC before having to traverse a tough SEC West. However, the good news for the Tide is that there are no gauntlets. The toughest stretch may be in the back-to-back road games at Arkansas and Tennessee in October, but that’s followed up by a winnable home game against Texas A&M, then a bye before traveling to LSU and then hosting Mississippi State. As long as Bateman/Barnett do the job under center, the team has everything it needs elsewhere to make another run at a national title.
Why they have what it takes: According to Phil Steele, the Tigers are tied for the FBS lead in returning starters with 18. The team has maybe the best running back tandem in the SEC with Leonard Fournette and Derrius Guice, and that pair will benefit from a deep offensive line. Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural return at receiver, and the team signed a trio of four-star wideouts, two of which were early enrollees in Stephen Sullivan and Dee Anderson.
Like the offense, the defense also returns nine starters, and the Tigers are loaded everywhere. New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is switching to a 3-4, and LB Kendell Beckwith returns along with the entire defensive line, which helped LSU improve its sack total by 15 from 2014 to 2015. The secondary could be among the best in the FBS with second-team All-SEC safety Jamal Adams, who led the team last season with 10 pass breakups and 4 INTs, and fellow second-team All-SEC member Tre’Davious White. The secondary also got five signees in the 2016 class that are four-stars or better, including five-star CB Kristian Fulton.
Biggest obstacle: Les Miles’ staff has gone to great measures to improve its passing game. After the team’s first spring practice on March 8, Miles revealed that the team was doing “offseason studies” on the passing game with specifics to breaking down video of other teams’ systems. The struggles of the passing game are a sticking point that nearly cost Miles his job last season.
The biggest obstacle for LSU is at quarterback, where Brandon Harris only completed 53.6 percent of his passes last season despite LSU attempting an SEC-low 23.1 passes per game. If Harris is the team’s starting QB, he has to be more efficient, especially in the play-action passing game where you figure the team should flourish. If not, Purdue transfer QB Danny Etling, a junior, may be called upon to take over. LSU will also have to deal with maybe the toughest schedule in college football as its opponents went a combined 108-52 last season, an opponent winning percentage of .675 that ranks as the highest for any school in 2016.
Why they have what it takes: Starting QB Chad Kelly, who set numerous single-season records in his debut year, returns for his senior season. The team might be losing outstanding LT Laremy Tunsil, but the promise is there for incoming five-star LT Greg Little, the highest-rated SEC recruit. The team might also be losing stud receiver Laquon Treadwell, but the Rebels’ receiving corps may be the deepest in the entire SEC, highlighted (but not limited to) Quincy Adeboyejo, Damore’ea Stringfellow and Markell Pack along with tight end Evan Engram. Hugh Freeze also signed four pass-catchers who are all four-star prospects.
Defensively, Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks are back on the defensive line, and five-star recruit DT Benito Jones was an early enrollee and could make an immediate impact. The linebacking corps should get instant help from Oregon State transfer Rommel Mageo and former Georgia LB Detric Bing-Dukes. The secondary will see the return of its two starting cornerbacks, Kendarius Webster and Tony Bridges, along with “Huskie” Tony Conner (once he’s fully healthy) and C.J. Hampton. Ole Miss has just enough returning at key positions mixed with lots of young talent coming in.
Biggest obstacle: Despite some key players coming back, the Rebels return just 10 starters from last season, which is dead last in the conference. The roster may be extremely talented, but a lot of that talent will be young and unproven. The team will be heavily dependent on its elite recruiting classes in recent years. Kelly returns, but protecting him to give him time to find his bevy of weapons will be tricky as many offensive linemen will need to be replaced.
Of course, the schedule always comes up when we’re talking SEC West teams, and the opener against Florida State in the Citrus Bowl will be a major test. Six of the first seven games are downright brutal because outside of that game against the Seminoles, the Rebels must face Alabama, Georgia, Memphis, Arkansas and LSU in consecutive games. The silver lining is they get Alabama, Georgia and Memphis at home, then get a bye before traveling to Fayetteville and Baton Rouge. Ole Miss’ biggest obstacle will be to come of age quickly to get out of its front-loaded slate in good shape.
Why they have what it takes: The Vols are right up there with these aforementioned teams in terms of overall talent. QB Joshua Dobbs returns for his senior year, and he’ll have the RB tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara — more experienced and more dangerous — at his disposal. Phil Steele has Tennessee with 17 returning starters (9 on offense, 8 on defense), which is second only to LSU in the conference. With the exception of Von Pearson, the team’s leading receiver in 2015, the team returns its next seven most productive pass-catchers. That includes wideouts Josh Malone, Josh Smith and Jauan Jennings along with TE Ethan Wolf. Meanwhile, Preston Williams is all the rave during the spring so far as the 6-foot-4, 209-pounder is flashing potential as a deep threat. Plus, JUCO transfer Jeff George is an early enrollee. Four of the team’s starters on the offensive line are back with the exception of LT Kyler Kerbyson.
We haven’t even talked about the defense yet, which will be led by first-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. His aggressive style should be received beautifully by the team’s outstanding collection of pass-rushers, which includes linebackers defensive ends Derek Barnett and Corey Vereen along with linebackers Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. The secondary has plenty of talent with CB Cam Sutton leading the way, and kick-returning sensation Evan Berry is trying out at free safety.
Biggest obstacle: Similar to LSU, Tennessee will need to enjoy more explosive plays in the passing game. The Vols’ aerial problems aren’t as grave as the Tigers’ issues since UT’s short game was largely effective, but the fact remains that only Auburn, Missouri and Vanderbilt completed fewer passes of 20-plus yards last season. The team also has to hope that someone can replace Kerbyson at left tackle. Even with the 3-4 start to last season, Tennessee’s six-game winning streak to close the year means the program has improved by two wins in each of the last two seasons under head coach Butch Jones. However, Tennessee will have to navigate what may be an even tougher front-loaded schedule in 2016. Luckily, it has Florida and Alabama at home.