With the start of the 2016 college football season now only about two months away, we are wrapping up our Power 5 conference previews today, concluding with the mighty SEC.
We are in the heat of summer but, believe it or not, you will be making your early season college football picks before you know it as the start of the 2016 season is now almost incredibly only two months away! So while it is never too early to begin your football preparation, now would be a good to get cracking before the season gets any closer, so in an attempt to help with that endeavor, we conclude our Power 5 conference previews today with the SEC.
Yes, we saved the best for last as the SEC crowned another national champion last year after a rare two-year drought with Alabama defeating Clemson in the College Football Playoff Championship Game, making it eight national champions from the SEC in the last 10 years.
And chances are good that the conference will produce this year’s national champion as well with Alabama again being one of the favorites to win it all and the preseason national Top 25 polls filled with SEC teams.
But while the SEC is still the best conference in the land, that makes predicting the standings for this year quite difficult with nearly every team in the conference being so good, especially in the West Division. Nonetheless, here is our attempt at predicting those standings along with each school’s college football odds to win the conference.
Tennessee Volunteers (+405): The Volunteers are a chic pick to win the East Division among many experts, and we taking things one step farther by tabbing Tennessee to win the SEC championship, and a resulting spot in the College Football Playoff. Early bettors may not agree given that the Vols’ opening posted win total of 10 has been bet down to 9½, but this is a very experienced team that returns 18 starters with nine returnees on each side of the ball, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs, which is significant with so many SEC teams this year entering the season with uncertainty at the crucial quarterback position.
Georgia Bulldogs (+1035): Tennessee also has the benefit of playing in the weaker of the SEC divisions, and if you want proof of that, consider that Georgia has the second shortest national championship odds from the SEC East at a generous +3300! This is not to say that the Bulldogs are not talented, although they are in a transitional phase with Kirby Smart taking over as head coach following the 15-year reign of Mark Richt. Georgia will need improved quarterback play after it ranked 83rd in the country in passing offense last season and the defense starts the season with an inexperienced front seven.
Florida Gators (+2100): We remain chalky here by picking the third choice to win the East to finish third as there is a large talent gap between the Gators and the other four teams in the division. Florida exceeded expectations by winning the East Division last season and the Gators were actually ranked in the top 10 nationally following a 6-0 start. Much of that had to do with the schedule though as the pedestrian offense was exposed in a late three-game losing streak over which the Gators were outscored 97-24. The offense will have to take a major leap to challenge our top two picks, and it will need to do so with another new starting quarterback, the 10th starting Florida quarterback in eight years,
Kentucky Wildcats (+15500): Among the longshots to win the East, the Wildcats could have the most upside. Kentucky returns nine starters on offense, tied with Tennessee for the most in the SEC, including quarterback Drew Barker, the top two running backs and the top two receivers. The Cats do have a two new co-offensive coordinators, but that should be a good thing with Eddie Gran and Darin Hinshaw both coming over from Cincinnati after working wonders with the Bearcats’ offense. The defense is more of a work-in-progress, which keeps Kentucky in the bottom half of the division, but the offense may help spring an upset or two.
Vanderbilt Commodores (+18000): The Commodores are the longest shot to win the division, but we are actually picking them to finish two spots above the East basement. Vanderbilt made some progress last season and returns 12 starters, although the composition of this team is the polar opposite of Kentucky, with Zach Cunningham anchoring one of the better defenses in the SEC but with question marks abound on offense. Perhaps quarterback Kyle Shurmur starting five of the last six games last season as a true freshman could accelerate his development.
Missouri Tigers (+10500): We actually feel that Missouri is underpriced at 105/1 to win the SEC, as we do not agree that the Tigers should have shorter odds than Vanderbilt. The Missouri defense actually did reasonably well statistically last year, but that was padded by an easy schedule as the defense was exposed vs. better opponents. And the offense was a total mess all season long with absolutely no running game, and inexperienced receiving corps and a quarterback in Drew Lock that completed only 49 percent of his passes. Worst if all we really see no upside for this season.
South Carolina Gamecocks (+13000): Perhaps Steve Spurrier knew what he was doing when he jumped ship in the middle of last season’s debacle, and despite what the conference odds say, we feel that the Gamecocks will be the worst team in the entire SEC in 2016. The offense still has not settled on a quarterback and the best offensive weapon from last season, wide receiver Pharoh Cooper, bolted by declaring for the NFL Draft as a junior. Furthermore, the defense will be without the services of last year’s leading tackler Skai Moore for this entire season following off-season neck surgery.
Alabama Crimson Tide (+175): Alabama is the defending national champion, but it lost a lot of talent to the NFL including its top two running backs, Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and Kenyan Drake, as well as the core of what was an NFL-caliber defensive line. Still, nobody recruits like Nick Saban so do not expect too much of a drop-off. Nonetheless, the Crimson Tide still do not know who the starting quarterback will be and the running backs are inexperienced, meaning the strength of the offense may be a deep receiving corps led by a darkhorse Heisman candidate Calvin Ridley, provided whoever wins the quarterback battle can get them the ball.
Mississippi Rebels (+1240): We feel that the biggest challengers to the Crimson Tide in the West Division will not be LSU like many expect, but rather this dangerous Mississippi team. Remember what we said earlier about so much uncertainty at the quarterback position across the SEC? Well, that does not apply to the Rebels as Chad Kelly returns after passing for 4,042 yards and 31 touchdowns last season, and Ole Miss is still deep at wide receiver even after losing Laquon Treadwell. Plus, tight end Evan Engram is an added threat in the passing game, so Kelly will not be lacking for targets. The defense also looks strong at every level, which should compensate for the loss of Robert Nkemdiche.
LSU Tigers (+385): LSU actually has the same posted win total as Alabama at 9½ this year, but we do not consider the Tigers as big a threat to the Crimson Tide as Mississippi, especially with an insanely one-dimensional offense. Sure, that one dimension could be the best running back in the country in Leonard Fournette, but the Tigers became very easy to defend last season when opponents focused all of their efforts in stopping Fournette without any fear of the passing game. That could be the case again this season unless quarterback Brandon Harris shows some rapid improvement, which we do not expect.
Arkansas Razorbacks (+2400): The last four teams in the West Division are almost equal in terms of conference odds, but we give the Razorbacks the edge. The offense had a lot of turnover but it also has talent with junior Austin Allen replacing his brother Brandon at quarterback and a talented corps of receivers. The running game is a bit of a question mark with several players returning from injury, but running behind a massive offensive line helps. Also the defense should be improved with nine returning starters.
Texas A&M Aggies (+2300): Perhaps no head coach in the conference feels more pressure this season than the Aggies’ Kevin Sumlin, especially after an atypically mediocre offensive season for Texas A&M last year. Perhaps a couple of Oklahoma transfers in quarterback Trevor Knight and running back Keith Ford can lend a boost to the offense, but nothing would help more than improvement on the offensive line, which is not a given. The defense was actually the best that it has been at College Station in a very long time last year and it could be even better this second year under defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Auburn Tigers (+2400): My how the mighty have fallen! It was just three years ago that the Tigers lost to Florida State in the last ever BCS Championship Game, but Auburn has taken a step backward each of the last two season and we fear it will do so again this year. The offense has uncertainty at quarterback and inexperience at wide receiver, while projected starting running back returns after rushing for 90 of more yards in five of the last six games last year after being inserted as the starter, but he is hardly a blue-chipper. And remember that Coach Gus Malzahn has never been known as a defensive mastermind.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (+2300): The Bulldogs should bring up the rear in the West after losing perhaps the best quarterback in school history in Dak Prescott. There is a boatload of candidates trying to replace Prescott as the starter, but all are short on experience and ability, so no matter who wins the job, there will be a severe downturn at the most important position on the field that could have a trickle-down effect on the entire offense. And the defense is bringing in an entirely new coaching staff that is installing a new3-4 defensive scheme.
Predicted SEC Champion: Tennessee (+405)
Darkhorse: Mississippi (+1240)