2017 SEC Football Preview

Since 2013, every SEC team has finished at least one season ranked in the top 25 except Kentucky and Arkansas. The conference is deep, but a team other than Alabama has to step up for the SEC to be known as the premier conference again. Auburn, LSU, Georgia and Florida have the capabilities to step up and be a top ten team in the nation this season.

In the SEC West, Alabama has had success unmatched by the rest. Jalen HurtsAuburn and LSU round out the top tier of the West. As for the bottom tier, Texas A&M, Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and Arkansas could finish in just about any order. All four (except Ole Miss because of their bowl ban) are going to compete and should be bowl eligible. Look for Alabama to end up in Atlanta again.

The SEC East should be a two horse race between Georgia and Florida. Kentucky could be a darkhorse pick in the division to end up in Atlanta. Nick ChubbTennessee is a team that will be in transition, while Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Missouri will all be improved. The SEC East will be better than previous seasons and is closing the talent gap with the West. In the end, I believe it is Georgia’s division to lose.

Here are the full rankings and team-by-team previews:

SEC West

  1. Alabama
  2. Auburn
  3. LSU
  4. Texas A&M
  5. Ole Miss
  6. Mississippi State
  7. Arkansas

SEC East

  1. Georgia
  2. Florida
  3. Kentucky
  4. Tennessee
  5. Vanderbilt
  6. South Carolina
  7. Missouri

 

SEC West

1. Alabama Crimson TideAlabama logo

Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 6 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

1

1

1

1

1

No surprise here. Alabama lost some key defensive players, but has a lot of young talent to fill those positions. The secondary will be an area of strength with Minkah Fitzpatrick, Anthony Averett and Ronnie Harrison. Offensively, Brian Daboll steps in as the replacement to Lane Kiffin. If the spring game was any indication, look for the offense to throw the ball down the field a lot more in Jalen Hurts’ Sophomore year. The backfield is simply unfair with Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs, and the number one recruit in the nation, Najee Harris. Alabama returns a veteran offensive line as well.

The two toughest tests are the first and last games as Florida State and Auburn will be talented this year. The bottom of the SEC West is down this year so it would be a surprise if they lose a game between the opening kickoff (Florida State) and November 4th (LSU). This could be one of Saban’s best teams and will be in the hunt for yet another playoff berth and the National Championship.

2. Auburn TigersAuburn Tigers Logo

Projected Record: 10-2 (7-1 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 7 Defense- 7

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

9

9

8

6

8

All eyes will be on Jarrett Stidham. The talented former Baylor Quarterback steps into Gus Malzahn’s offense and hopes to do it in stride. Auburn returns veteran talent on the defense, but will have to replace Montravious Adams, Carl Lawson, and Rudy Ford. Maybe former number one ranked recruit DE Byron Cowart can have a breakout year.

Auburn has a tough non-conference game with Clemson and also faces Georgia from the SEC East. A talented quarterback added to this Auburn team makes them more dangerous than years past. They could roll into the Iron Bowl with only one loss, but then will probably lose to Alabama. If Auburn can control Clemson’s defensive line, they could pull the upset.

Outside of Clemson, Auburn faces lackluster talent in Georgia Southern, Mercer and Louisiana-Monroe in their nonconference schedule. A possible tripping point could come from October 14-November 11 where they play @ LSU, @ Arkansas, @ Texas A&M and Georgia. Auburn could be a top ten ranked team when all is said and done.

3. LSU TigersLSU Tigers

Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 5 Defense- 4

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

7

3

6

2

4.5

Every year it is the same question, does LSU have a quarterback that can play?  Danny Etling in 8 SEC games threw for 5 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. Etling is your classic “don’t mess anything up and hand it to the running back” type QB. This didn’t work in their three conference losses last year against good run defensive teams like Auburn, Alabama and Florida. Maybe new offensive coordinator Matt Canada can do the same thing with Etling that he did with Nathan Peterman last year.

The non-conference opponents this year aren’t as tough with home games against BYU, Chattanooga, Syracuse, and Troy. Side note, how about BYU fans traveling to Baton Rouge? Nothing like Mormons visiting Baton Rouge for a Saturday night football game. I am ready for some Mormons vs. Mardi Gras shirts. Back to the schedule, I think I could play quarterback and hand off the ball to Derrius Guice for those games.

LSU won’t miss a beat going from Fourntette to Guice; However, losing linebackers Duke Riley and Kendell Beckwith will be tough, as well as 1st round picks from the secondary, Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White. Pass rusher Arden Key is one of the best in the nation, but they will be inexperienced outside of him. October 7th-November 4th will be tough as LSU plays @ Florida, home versus Auburn, @ Ole Miss, and @ Alabama. Expect a repeat of last year and a few entertaining post-game press conferences from Ed Orgeron.

4. Texas A&M AggiesTexas A&M Logo

Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 5 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

12

18

11

5

11.5

Is this Kevin Sumlin’s last season? If they don’t get at least 8 wins, it is. Sumlin turned the Johnny Football craze into some great recruiting classes, but not much else. Since 2013, Johnny’s last season, Texas A&M is 15-17 in SEC play and top ranked quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray both transferred out. Better years than their rivals in Austin though.

With Texas A&M it starts with the quarterback battle. Jake Hubenak the senior, Nick Starkel the redshirt freshman, or former IMG top recruit Kellen Mond. Mond gives A&M the most upside, but may not be ready to play right away. In addition, a true freshman’s first game on the road at UCLA? I think the job will come down to Hubenak and Starkel, with Mond getting a redshirt year. Outside of quarterback, Christian Kirk should have another electric year before going to the NFL. They also have two talented running backs in Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. The Offensive line will have to replace both offensive tackles.

Defensively, replacing pass rushers Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall will be tough. However, they are talented and deep at defensive tackle. The linebackers must be better than last year where they struggled to stop the running attack.

The nonconference schedule should be three guaranteed wins, but a loss at UCLA is definitely possible. Playing Alabama at home will be their biggest game of the year, but @ Florida, Auburn and @ LSU will be tricky games. Looks like A&M will enter the Chip Kelly sweepstakes.

The nonconference schedule should be three guaranteed wins, but a loss at UCLA is definitely possible. Playing Alabama at home will be their biggest game of the year, but @Florida, Auburn and @LSU will be tricky games. Looks like A&M will enter the Chip Kelly sweepstakes.

5. Ole Miss RebelsOle Miss logo

Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 5 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

30

5

17

15

16.75

Hugh Freeze was “escorted” out of Oxford and it will be interesting to see what direction the new Rebels go. The Chad Kelly/Hugh Freeze era is over and it is officially time for Shea Patterson and the rest of the Freeze recruits to move on. No matter what happens, Ole Miss will not be playing in a bowl game this year because of a self-bowl ban. It looks like the Egg Bowl will be the ultimate prize for the Rebels.

Shea Patterson has plenty of playmakers on the outside including Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown and Damarkus Lodge. Top 2015 recruit, Greg Little, steps into the left tackle spot. The offense should be top five in the SEC; it is the defense that will be the question mark.

Marquis Haynes leads the defense with 24.5 career sacks along with five other returning starters. However, it is a defense that was 111th in yards per game. If Ole Miss wants to win games in the SEC this year, the defense must improve.

Ole Miss has an easy non-conference with a road trip to Cal-Berkeley as their toughest opponent (A little PAC-12/SEC football at NIGHT). Ole Miss toughest test will be the back-to-back away games against Alabama and Auburn that could make them go 3-0 to 3-2 really quick. Ole Miss needs a good season to get back the momentum from the NCAA investigation and the Hugh Freeze scandal.

6. Mississippi State Bulldogs

Miss State Logo

Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 6 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

24

28

18

35

26.25

Nick Fitzgerald had a solid first year as the starter for Mississippi State. However, the rest of the team will have to step up if they want to be a challenger in the SEC. They do have six starters on each side of the ball returning. On defense, sophomores Leo Lewis and Jeffery Simmons are very talented. Two defensive players have made controversial headlines including 5-Star DE Simmons punching a woman and LB Leo Lewis allegedly accepting money from Ole Miss. Both players should be on the field when the 2017 season kicks off.

Mississippi State’s toughest non-conference opponent is BYU as they will take the trip to Starkville (Could BYU count this trip as a Mormon Mission?). Outside of that, Mississippi State should have it easy with Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech and UMass. SEC season starts fast for the Cowbells as starting September 16th they host LSU, @ Georgia, and @ Auburn with no bye week in between. I think it will be another tough season, but Fitzgerald and good returning lineup could cause some trouble for SEC opponents.

7. Arkansas Razorbacks

Arkansas Logo.png

Projected Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 6 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

27

23

22

29

25.25

Since 2013, 12 of the 14 SEC teams have finished the year in the top 25. The only two teams that haven’t are Kentucky and Arkansas. They had a chance last year if they could’ve won the Belk Bowl, but they blew a 24-0 halftime lead.

Austin Allen is one of the best quarterbacks in the SEC, it is the playmakers around him that will need to step up. The starting running back from last year, Rawleigh Williams, retired from football due to a neck injury. Devwah Whaley will replace him after a strong freshman season. The question remains who will step up at the wide receiver after losing three of the four top receivers. Offensive line is also a question mark, but Frank Ragnow is a bright spot.

Arkansas is transitioning to a 3-4 defense which could cause trouble considering they lack linebacker depth. Defensive line is also a weakness after losing four contributors from last year’s team. Former 5-Star DE McTelvin Agim will be asked to pick up the slack. Having a weaker front seven in a conference that loves to run the football could give the Razorbacks problems.

Arkansas doesn’t have a tough non-conference schedule outside of the early game against TCU. Florida A&M, New Mexico State and Coastal Carolina should be easy wins. Arkansas also plays the easiest opponents from the east with South Carolina and Missouri. Getting through the SEC West is where it will be obviously difficult.

 

SEC East

1. Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia Logo

Projected Record: 10-3 (6-2 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 5 Defense- 10

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

5

8

5

8

6.5

Georgia should not only be the favorite in the East, but they should be getting more hype as a top ten team. The defense returns ten starters and all of them are upperclassmen. A defense that was ranked 16th last year returning that many starters is going to be dangerous.

The main question is if the offense can take a step forward. Starting quarterback Jacob Eason played ok as a freshman, but will need to improve on his 8 interceptions and 55% completion percentage. At running back, look for Nick Chubb to bounce back after a down year. Sony Michel is also a dangerous runner and gives Georgia a great 1-2 punch. Brian Herrien, Elijah Holyfield and Deandre Swift round out the running back unit as one of the deepest in the country. The major weakness of this offense is in the offensive line and wide receivers. The returning leading receiver is Terry Godwin who had just 397 yards and 0 TDs.

The schedule shapes up well for Georgia. The nonconference isn’t overly difficult with a road trip to South Bend to take on Notre Dame and a short drive to Atlanta for the annual Georgia Tech game. In the SEC, “The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party” game against Florida should decide who gets to lose to Alabama in the SEC Championship. A trip to Auburn late in the year will be a tough one as well.

2. Florida Gators

Florida logo

Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 9 Defense- 3

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

11

12

21

9

13.25

Last year, the Florida offense was dreadful. The quarterbacks combined for 18 TDs and 15 INTs with the offense averaging just 17 points over the last five SEC games. The defense was a different story with 7 Florida defensive players getting drafted in the 2017 NFL Draft.

The 2017 Gators are a different story. The returning defense is young and inexperienced with cornerbacks Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner leading the defense. The offense is not lacking playmakers as Antonio Callaway is one of the most explosive receivers in the country. The offensive line should be solid as well, returning 4 out of their 5 starters.

So who starts at quarterback? Malik Zaire transferred from Notre Dame as a graduate transfer and could play right away. Zaire only has 98 career college attempts and is no sure bet to be the starter. He will have to beat out the favorite after spring practices, Feleipe Franks, for the starting job.

It won’t be easy for whoever gets named the top quarterback as they open against Michigan in Jerry World. Florida may have the toughest non-conference schedule out there as they also end the season with a home game against National Champion contender Florida State. Their SEC headline game outside of Georgia is LSU. Florida, in an ultimate power move, made LSU their homecoming game. Coach Orgeron said in response, “GdkjfEAUX fEAUX putEAUX thEAUX footbEAUX.” As you can tell he is fired up.

3. Kentucky Wildcats

Kentucky logo

Projected Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 8 Defense- 8

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

29

33

38

22

30.5

Kentucky returns a lot of players from last year’s 7-6 team and should be a contender in the East (I swear, I’m not crazy and know this isn’t basketball). Offensively there is a lot of potential with quarterback Stephen Johnson and returning 1,000-yard rusher Benny Snell. Kentucky also has one of the best returning offensive lines in the SEC. As long as a few wide receivers can step up, this offense should be pretty solid.

Defensively, the Wildcats will have to improve the front line. Former five-star recruit Matt Elam will have to show something in his senior year. Crazy to think he almost went to Alabama where he would probably be riding the bench. The linebackers are a position of strength returning all four starters in their 3-4 set. ILB Jordan Jones will try to build off his 109 tackles during his sophomore year. The secondary should be solid as well with both corners and star safety Mike Edwards returning. If the defensive line comes alive this could be a good group.

Kentucky’s non-conference includes Southern Miss and Louisville. Last year, they lost to Southern Miss and beat Louisville. It will most likely be reversed this coming year with Lamar Jackson returning. In the SEC, Kentucky has it easier than most East teams playing against the low end of the West with Ole Miss and Mississippi State. If they can put it together Kentucky has an outside chance of making it to Atlanta.

4. Tennessee Volunteers

Tennessee Vol logo

Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 5 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

17

14

4

7

10.5

Maybe I should write this Tennessee preview like they played in 2016… Coast through the first half and finish the second strong. The offense is in total transformation mode with Joshua Dobbs, Alvin Kamara, Jalen Hurd and Josh Malone all finding better colors to wear than orange (except Josh Malone will still wear orange with the Bengals and I’m sure Jalen Hurd will wear some terrible design that Baylor put together). The new quarterback job will come down to junior Quinten Dormady or redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. The offensive line is a question mark, but ESPN’s top ranked recruit for 2017, Trey Smith, should see playing time right away. At wide receiver Jauan Jennings can fly and Ethan Wolf is a reliable tight end target. It is going to be anyone’s guess on how well this offensive group comes together.

The defense last year had their fair share of injury problems. The 2017 defensive unit will look to make improvements especially after giving up over 200 yards a game on the ground. DT Kahlil McKenzie is a space eater and an impact player. The safeties are the strength of this unit with Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior. Evan Berry (Kansas City Chiefs Eric Berry’s brother) will also look to end on a high note for his senior season. It will be the last time we see a Berry in orange until 20 years from now when one of their sons is playing.

Tennessee gets the worst of it from the West, having to play both Alabama and LSU. The non-conference is manageable, but whoever starts at quarterback better be ready for Georgia Tech in the new Mercedes-Benz Stadium. I think it is a transition year where Butch Jones isn’t given any time to transition. Tennessee goes 7-5 and enters the Chip Kelly sweepstakes.

5. South Carolina Gamecocks

SC logo.png

Projected Record: 5-7 (3-5 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 10 Defense- 6

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

21

25

20

19

21.25

I actually really like the Gamecocks this year, but their non-conference schedule could hold them back. QB Jake Bentley is very talented and should continue to develop in his sophomore year. The offensive line returns four starters and offensive playmakers are not lacking. WR Deebo Samuel may be one of the most dynamic players in the SEC and will look to grow on his 783 receiving yards last year.

LB Skai Moore is back after missing all of the 2016 season. He was the leading tackler in his first three years and will come back to lead the defense again. Joining Bryson Allen-Williams, the linebacker core should be one of the tops in the SEC. Where Will Muschamp has his hands full is trying to improve the secondary and pass rush. These units will have to step up if South Carolina will become bowl eligible.

Their last game of the season will be against Clemson and could have some playoff implications for the Tigers. They also start the year against NC State who could be a surprise team in the ACC. Louisiana Tech won’t be an automatic win either as the boys from Ruston, Louisiana are projected to win Conference USA. Thank God they at least have Wofford on their schedule. The Gamecocks do avoid the powerhouses in the West by playing Arkansas and Texas A&M, but a road game against Georgia and Florida at home the very next week isn’t ideal. It could be really bad or be a pretty good year, but either way the Cocks will make it interesting.

6. Vanderbilt Commodores

Vandy logo

Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 8 Defense- 7

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

64

54

49

46

53.25

Vanderbilt has a lot of starters coming back from a 6-7 team and should be highly competitive in the East. The offense made great improvements near the end of the year putting 38 points against Ole Miss and 45 points against Tennessee. Returning quarterback Kyle Shurmur will have to continue to improve if they want to get over the 6 win mark. Ralph Webb is one of the most talented running backs in the SEC and set a Vanderbilt record last year for rushing yards in a season. The offensive line will have to replace Will Holden, who was drafted in the fifth round, but will still have three returning starters.

The defense will have to replace All-SEC Zach Cunningham, but Derek Mason’s group is filled with veterans. The secondary is the strength of the defense. The defensive line has good depth, but the overall talent of the defense isn’t on par with the rest of the SEC. The defense should be good, not great this season.

The non-conference schedule won’t be easy for the Commodores as they face a tough Kansas State team at home and a decent Middle Tennessee State on the road. Vanderbilt got the bad draw of playing against Alabama from the SEC West and it will be their first SEC game of the year nonetheless. The talent level of Vanderbilt is alright, but not based on SEC standards. Getting to 7 wins would be a good year for Derek Mason.

7. Missouri Tigers

Mizzou logo

Projected Record: 5-7 (1-7 SEC)

Returning Starters: Offense- 10 Defense- 3

Recruiting Rankings:

2017

2016

2015

2014

4 YR AVG

42

43

25

39

37.25

The Tigers had a rough 2016 season finishing 4-8 on the year and just 2-2 in non-conference play. Ever since Gary Pinkel left, the team has not been the same. Add in the fake protests and downward spiral of the basketball team, the Missouri faithful are going through some tough times. As for the football team, Missouri does return a lot of offensive talent, but the defense will probably be the weak link this year. At least their basketball team will be talented.

Returning QB Drew Locke has a lot of talent and is coming off a 23 touchdown sophomore year. Along with Locke is 1,000-yard senior wide receiver J’Mon Moore. The offensive line struggled last year, but does return everyone. If they improve the biggest beneficiary will be dangerous RB Damarea Crockett. This team should finish the year as a top half of the SEC offense.

The defense is another story. Missouri’s defense last year was horrendous even giving up 51 points to Middle Tennessee State. That defense only returns three starters. One of the few bright spots is the return of former five-star Terry Beckner Jr. from injury. Marcell Frazier will give Missouri a reliable pass-rusher as well. Linebackers will need a major improvement from last year. They will also have to figure out how to replace their two starting cornerbacks from last season. The optimism on defense is bleak and will affect how they compete in the SEC this year.

The non-conference record should improve this year as their toughest opponents will be UConn and Purdue. The rest of the schedule is not as easy as they face Auburn and Arkansas from the SEC West. They will have to travel to Georgia, but have Florida and Tennessee at home. Missouri is a long time away from their back to back SEC East championships. I’m sure Missouri wishes they were playing against Big 12 competition this year.

 

 

 

 

 

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