2016 NCAA Football Preview: Southeastern Conference

August 30, 2016
By K. Becks

I thought that I was making good progress on these previews as of last Sunday, but the middle of the week is creeping up on me extremely quickly.

I’m not sure whether all of the previews will be complete by the time the first games kick off on Thursday evening.

That being said, I’m doing my best to focus on the more popular conferences leading up to gameday, and will only save conferences that don’t play any games until at least Friday.

Let’s take a look at one of the bullies, the SEC.

Overview

The SEC got its College Football Playoff champion in just the second year of its existence, but if you think you might have heard the worst “finally” whispered under the breath of someone down South, you may not be crazy. What is crazy are the expectations of nearly every fan base in the most successful conference over the past decade and a half.

Take, for example, the coaching situation in Georgia. The Bulldogs will begin the Kirby Smart era in 2016 after letting go one of the most successful coaches in college football history to have never taken his team to a national title game. Smart won’t get much of a honeymoon period, as Georgia brings back a solid nucleus of players and appears ready to compete now.

For as high as the expectations are, Smart is the only new head coach in the SEC this season. Much of that is due to the fact that a team like Mississippi State, which is projected by many pundits to finish in the bottom half of the conference this year, has experienced substantial success in the past three seasons.

The bottom line is, coaches in the SEC know how to recruit, how to draw up Xs and Os and prepare their team for the rigors of the most competitive conference in college football. It’s not financially or logically sound to let guys like that go hunting for jobs elsewhere, especially when the national titles keep being brought back to the southeastern United States.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Alabama

The defending national champion will once again be a force to reckon with in the SEC, bringing back plenty of experience on both sides of the football. Despite not yet naming a starting quarterback at the time this article was published, the Crimson Tide should be just fine once they do decide. Lane Kiffin brings a creative mind to the offense and it was clear last season that Alabama won’t rely solely on their running game to get the job done.

The main reason that the Crimson Tide are the team to beat, however, is again the defense. The secondary is stacked, returning both cornerbacks and ball-hawking safety Eddie Jackson, will be absolutely stifling. If the defensive line comes together like it should with guys like Jonathan Allen gumming things up, this team will be a good bet to make it back to the Playoff for the third time in as many seasons.

LSU

It seems like yesterday that the job security of Les Miles was severely in question, doesn’t it? Entering this season, the Tigers appear to have the right combination of raw talent and experience to challenge the Crimson Tide for the West title and then most likely a spot in the Playoff. Leonard Fournette is back to lead the way on offense and nearly the entire defensive front and linebacker corps is back to anchor a defense that was No. 17 against the run in 2015.

The difference between a Playoff berth and a disappointing season will be the play of Brandon Harris. The inconsistent junior quarterback has literally everything he needs around him to be one of the best in the SEC, but hasn’t been able to put things together for an entire season. Perhaps the presence of Purdue transfer Danny Etling breathing down his neck for the starting job will be enough of a spark to propel Harris to his full potential.

Tennessee

The Volunteers were the chic pick to make waves in 2015, so its understandable if some people are reading this and shaking their head. But Tennessee is the real deal, and this time we as prognosticators mean it. Led by Joshua Dobbs, the Volunteers have the most experienced quarterback among the top teams in the SEC. He’ll captain an offense that returns nine starters, including four offensive linemen and talented running back Jalen Hurd.

Like last season, Tennessee is the benefactor of an extremely favorable schedule. Alabama is on the slate this season, but the Volunteers get the Crimson Tide in Knoxville. If Butch Davis’s team can avoid early letdowns against teams they should beat, they will head into the Alabama game undefeated. There is no reason that this team cannot win the SEC East and compete for a Playoff spot.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Texas A&M

When both Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray decided to transfer out of College Station at the end of 2015, things looked bleak for Texas A&M. But the Aggies traded Oklahoma to some extent, giving up Murray for former Sooners starting quarterback Trevor Knight. The senior had his woes in Norman after posting pretty solid numbers as a freshman in 2012, so if he can return to that form then Kevin Sumlin’s offense won’t be hurting much at all.

Defensively the Aggies are difficult to figure out, but improvement should continue this season. The secondary returns pieces from a defense that ranked No. 4 nationally against the pass, and Texas A&M has the most feared pass rusher in the country in junior Myles Garrett. Playing in the West Division won’t be difficult as the Aggies must play three of the top teams in the conference, but this team is good enough to create havoc with at least one or two upsets this season.

Hi, My Name Is… (Players to Watch)

Calvin Ridley, Alabama sophomore wide receiver

Alabama is first and foremost known for its running backs under Nick Saban, but the Crimson Tide have begun to develop a nice string of talented wide receivers over the past several seasons as well. Assuming the role of No. 1 after Amari Cooper left for the NFL was Calvin Ridley, a 6’1″, 188 pound natural. Ridley is the best downfield threat on the Crimson Tide offense and will probably stake a claim for that title across the entire SEC by the end of the season.

With the quarterback race still unsettled at Alabama as we near opening weekend, don’t get nervous about Ridley’s potential drop in targets early in the year. He has enough size and speed to create space by himself and it would be silly for whoever is playing quarterback not to take advantage of his skills.

Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee senior quarterback

To say that Dobbs is a do-it-all talent for the Volunteers is just too passive to do his skills justice. Chad Kelly is the only returning SEC player to account for more offensive yards in 2015, and Kelly had 75 more attempts. Dobbs is an extremely aware player, with the apparent ability to recognize when a play is going to break down before it does and already having a backup plan in mind. If he can improve his accuracy, he could be right up there with Kelly in terms of yards this season.

Dobbs has benefited greatly from offensive coordinator Mike DeBord, who has transformed Tennessee’s offense into one of the most potent in the SEC after being one of the worst before he began calling plays in Knoxville. If the senior quarterback continues to develop under DeBord’s tutelage, there will be quite a few more believers in the Volunteers as a championship caliber team by midseason.

Out-Of-Conference Games to Watch

Georgia vs. North Carolina [game in Atlanta] (September 3)

Kirby Smart’s offense will be put to the test early in the Chic-fil-A Kickoff Game in Atlanta when the Bulldogs face 2015 ACC runner-up North Carolina. The Bulldogs may be without tailback Sony Michel, who has been rumored to be a gametime decision. That means that Nick Chubb, who is returning from an injury himself after missing the second half of last season, will be the focal point of the offense for Georgia. North Carolina’s defense improved in 2015, but one area that was still a weakness was against the run.

If Georgia can get production from one or both of its talented running backs in this game, things should go well for the Bulldogs. But North Carolina will want to score a lot of points and so the re-tooled defense will need to step up, especially on the line. Elijah Hood is no slouch as a tailback either and can gash the Bulldogs if they let him. Considering how Mark Richt’s teams fared against the run, that wouldn’t be all that surprising.

Florida State vs. Mississippi [game in Orlando] (September 5)

This monster Labor Day matchup will put a cap on what figures to be a tremendous first weekend of college football. Ole Miss doesn’t bring back a lot of players, but one of them that they do on offense is good enough to elevate the entire unit. Chad Kelly will be a handful for a Florida State secondary that is routinely one of the strongest in the country under Jimbo Fisher.

The Rebels will want this game to be as high scoring as possible, because defensively there are liabilities. If Florida State gets good production out of Sean Maguire, Ole Miss could get eaten up in the secondary. There aren’t very many returning starters on defense for Hugh Freeze, and two of the four are part of a unit that allowed over 250 yards per game through the air in 2015. The air raid isn’t Florida State’s typical game plan on offense, but don’t be surprised if they draw up a few more passing plays than usual in this one.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Tennessee at Georgia (October 1)

The battle for the East Division could take place on the first day of October when Tennessee goes between the hedges to take on Georgia. This has been a very competitive series over the past several seasons, so the added excitement of a potential division title and maybe more on the line should make this one a candidate for game of the week.

Between Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Jalen Hurd, this game will feature three of the premier running backs in the loaded SEC. Both teams will try to establish a presence on the ground, so if Tennessee’s experienced front proves to be one of the best in the league the Volunteers will have an advantage on the defensive end. Additionally, this is the type of atmosphere where a senior leader like Joshua Dobbs can take control. Tennessee didn’t win these high profile games in 2015, something that will be expected this season.

LSU at Alabama (November 5)

If both teams come into this game undefeated, it could be referred to as Game of the Century, Part II (although fans in Columbus and Ann Arbor would beg to differ). Per usual, neither defense would want to give up a lot of points, although the X-factor in the game will be the quarterback who steps up to the challenge and puts together a classic performance against stifling competition.

The Crimson Tide stuffed Leonard Fournette in last year’s battle, holding the Heisman front runner at the time to just 31 yards on 19 carries. Needless to say, Fournette was not the front runner after the game. Alabama’s defense is equipped to do similar things again this year, so it isn’t just a cute journalistic quip to say that Brandon Harris will need to play close to flawless for the Tigers to win this game. The advantage LSU has, of course, is Death Valley.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Tennessee (10-2, [6-2])

2. Georgia (10-2, [6-2])

3. Florida (8-4, [5-3])

4. Missouri (8-4, [5-3])

5. Kentucky (6-6, [3-5])

6. South Carolina (5-7, [2-6])

7. Vanderbilt (3-9, [0-8])

West Division

1. Alabama (11-1, [7-1])

2. LSU (10-2, [6-2])

3. Texas A&M (9-3, [6-3])

4. Mississippi (8-4, [5-3])

5. Auburn (6-6, [3-5])

6. Mississippi State (5-7, [2-6])

7. Arkansas (4-8, [1-7])

Championship Game (Tennessee vs. Alabama)

Winner: Alabama

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