With the start of the college football season around the corner, we're going around the country to preview the 2017 season, conference by conference, with analysis and projected records for every team. We continue with 20 things to know about the SEC.
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1. Only once SEC team, Alabama, finished the 2016 season ranked in the AP top 10. It's the only time that has happened since 2002, and it came just four years after the SEC had five of the top 10 teams in 2012, at the peak of the conference's power. It happened for a few reasons: the cyclical nature of conference strength, a downturn in coaching and a downturn in quarterback play. Alabama, which came close to repeating as national champs again but lost in the final seconds against Clemson, was the only team to finish with fewer than four losses. The Crimson Tide continue to be the SEC's team to beat, setting a nearly impossible standard as others attempt to merely stay within striking distance. With enticing potential surrounding numerous young quarterbacks, the SEC is capable of bouncing back, but closing the gap on Alabama is another story.
2. The SEC East hasn't won a conference title since Florida in 2008, with all but one of those losses in Atlanta coming by double digits. That includes that past two by the Gators, who backed their way into back-to-back SEC East titles despite lackluster offense and proceeded to get pummeled by Alabama. While the East is still filled with uncertainty, Florida won't win another division title without substantial improvement on offense. There's been a huge disparity between offense and defense in Gainesville in recent years, and Jim McElwain, despite being an offensive coach, has thus far been unable to clean up the mess left by Will Muschamp. Florida should have its best offense since Tim Tebow's senior season in 2009, but there are no guarantees. The quarterback competition is still open between Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire, redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks and junior Luke Del Rio. The team's top playmaker, receiver Antonio Callaway, has faced frequent off-the-field trouble and is suspended for the opener against Michigan, along with six other players. Between Callaway, Brandon Powell, Tyrie Cleveland, TE DeAndre Goolsby and RB Jordan Scarlett, the Gators have their best group of skill-position players in years, and the offensive line, led by Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, will stop being a weakness. The Gators just have to finally find a consistent quarterback, and they need Callaway to stay on the field.
3. Florida's defense will still be good, but the Gators are due for a step back that will make progress on offense essential. While the defense is in good hands with Randy Shannon replacing Geoff Collins (now head coach at Temple) as coordinator, the Gators suffered significant NFL attrition yet again. Muschamp left a stacked defense, and the result has been 12 drafted defenders the past two years and top-10 defenses in yards per play allowed -- which made SEC title game appearances possible. There's still plenty of talent here, of course. The pass rush has potential with Jabari Zuniga and Cece Jefferson leading the way, and despite losing Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson, the secondary has rising stars in Duke Dawson and Chauncey Gardner. Still, the Gators are thin up the middle, and they also lost safety Marcell Harris to a torn Achilles. Florida will still be able to lean on a very good defense, but expecting it to produce at the same level as the past few units may be unrealistic.
4. Kirby Smart's first year at his alma mater was a lot more successful off the field -- a terrific first full recruiting class in which he locked down the home state -- than on the field. Mark Richt was fired after consecutive three-loss seasons, and Smart went 8-5 in his debut, with frustrating losses that included a blowout at Ole Miss, a Hail Mary vs. Tennessee, a 14-point defeat to Florida, a one-point loss to Vanderbilt and a blown fourth-quarter lead to Georgia Tech. It was not a confidence-inspiring first year at a school that expects to contend every year but hasn't won the SEC since 2005. On paper, Georgia should be the SEC East favorite in 2017. Whether it actually surpasses Florida is another question. Lots of pieces are in place: Senior RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel both returned, and the defense is loaded with 14 of the top 15 tacklers back from a unit that allowed 5.1 yards per play in conference games. With Chubb presumably healthier than last year, when he returned quickly from a serious knee injury, and the defense appearing strong at all levels, there's a foundation in place for a second-year leap under Smart.
5. Georgia is hardly immune from underachieving, so caution is necessary. The Bulldogs have been ranked in 15 straight preseason AP polls. They've finished unranked in three of the past four seasons, and despite the SEC East's downturn, they've won the division only twice in 11 years. This year's team has significant questions to answer despite the positions of strength. First and foremost is the development of QB Jacob Eason, who showed off flashes of potential but was predictably erratic as a freshman. Despite his big arm, Eason averaged only 6.6 yards per attempt, completing 55.1 percent for 2,430 yards, 16 TDs and six INTs. Eason was inconsistent, but he also didn't get a ton of help. The offensive line didn't perform as hoped, and the receiving corps struggled. The line in particular is a potential weak point again this year. The Bulldogs need to become more explosive, and that starts with protecting Eason and opening holes for Chubb and Michel after the running game regressed with Chubb not 100 percent. As we've seen each of the past two years, a flawed team can win the SEC East, so even with some lingering uncertainty, Georgia is as good of a pick as anybody.
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QB: Jalen Hurts, Alabama
RB: Derrius Guice, LSU
RB: Bo Scarbrough, Alabama
WR: Calvin Ridley, Alabama
WR: J'Mon Moore, Missouri
TE: Hayden Hurst, South Carolina
OL: Frank Ragnow, Arkansas
OL: Braden Smith, Auburn
OL: Jonah Williams, Alabama
OL: Martinas Rankin, Mississippi State
OL: Martez Ivey, Florida
DE: Marquis Haynes, Ole Miss
DE: Da'Shawn Hand, Alabama
DT: Da'Ron Payne, Alabama
DT: Trenton Thompson, Georgia
LB: Arden Key, LSU
LB: Jordan Jones, Kentucky
LB: Roquan Smith, Georgia
CB: Duke Dawson, Florida
CB: Anthony Averett, Alabama
S: Minkah Fitzpatrick, Alabama
S: Ronnie Harrison, Alabama
K: Daniel Carlson, Auburn
P: JK Scott, Alabama
AP: Christian Kirk, Texas A&M
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6. Georgia's problems have been nothing compared to Tennessee's. Last year was supposed to be the time for a veteran Volunteers to finally emerge and reclaim the SEC East for the first time since 2007 (they haven't won the entire SEC since 1998). Alas, despite ending an 11-game losing streak to Florida, they stumbled down the stretch and finished a disappointing 9-4 with losses to South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Defensive injuries were partially to blame last year, but the Butch Jones era in Knoxville is on thin ice. Yes, he has stabilized the Volunteers with back-to-back nine-win seasons after a run of mediocrity, but last year's team was lucky to even go 9-4 after a series of close calls early in the season. A healthier defense should be in better shape, although it loses stars like Derek Barnett and Cameron Sutton. The offense, meanwhile, loses QB Joshua Dobbs, WR Josh Malone and RB Alvin Kamara, putting significant pressure on likely new starting QB Quinten Dormady, a junior with only a handful of passes under his belt, and new offensive coordinator Larry Scott, who was promoted from tight ends coach. The Vols do have potential on offense that shouldn't be dismissed, but they play both Alabama and LSU from the West and open with a tricky game against Georgia Tech. It's possible they could repeat the 9-4 performances of the past two years, but surpassing that is unlikely.
7. Will Muschamp's debut at South Carolina went better than expected. The Gamecocks beat only one team with a winning record (Tennessee), but merely getting to a bowl game and improving on offense in the second half of the season offered some positivity. Strangely for a Muschamp team, there might be a tad more optimism on offense than defense at South Carolina in 2017. That's because the Gamecocks found a potential star quarterback in Jake Bentley, who graduated high school a whole year early, then started the final seven games of his freshman season. There were bumps, but Bentley showed off some high-end traits, and now he's had a full offseason in the program. Bentley also has a solid group of weapons featuring RBs Rico Dowdle and A.J. Turner, TE Hayden Hurst and WR Deebo Samuel. The key to the entire offense is improving on the offensive line, because struggles up front could stunt Bentley's growth, especially against a schedule that features the N.C. State, Georgia, Florida and Clemson defensive fronts. The defense gets back LB Skai Moore from an injury, which is huge, but there are depth questions and concerns about the pass rush and pass defense. This is a better South Carolina team than last year, but expect the record to be about the same.
8. Rampant mediocrity in the SEC East allowed six of the seven teams to get to six wins and go bowling. Kentucky won't complain. The Wildcats beat Vanderbilt, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Missouri in conference play, then proved themselves as bowl-worthy with an upset of Lamar Jackson and rival Louisville. They ended a five-year bowl drought and finished with a winning record for the first time since 2009, despite a horrific start to the season. Kentucky hasn't lost fewer than five games in a season since 1984 and is unlikely to break that streak, but this Wildcats team shouldn't be taken lightly and can go bowling again. The running game found a spark last year and returns QB Stephen Johnson -- who's trying to hold off Drew Barker, who returns from an injury -- and RB Benny Snell. The defense had some big problems, but there's a ton of experience back, headlined by two standouts in LB Jordan Jones and SS Mike Edwards. The passing game needs work and will be hurt by the loss of LT Cole Mosier to an injury, but the Wildcats benefit from the SEC's most fortunate schedule, drawing Mississippi and Mississippi State from the West.
9. Missouri has had one of the strangest two-year stretches imaginable. In 2014, the Tigers fell to 5-7, ranking 125th in yards per play on offense and third on defense. In 2015, the Tigers went 4-8 in Barry Odom's first season as head coach, ranking 31st on offense and 93rd on defense. The offense showed big signs of life under new coordinator Josh Heupel as QB Drew Lock took a step forward with the help of players like RB Damarea Crockett and WR J'Mon Moore. Meanwhile, the defense plummeted, giving up 42 points to LSU, 40 to Florida, 51 to Middle Tennessee and 63 to Tennessee. After back-to-back SEC East titles, Missouri is 3-13 in the conference the past two seasons. Lock's numbers were inflated by a couple big performances against non-major opponents, but it was an impressive turnaround for an offense that moved toward spreading the field and pushing the tempo. With nearly the entire offense back, Missouri has the firepower to return to the postseason, a mission significantly aided by a nonconference schedule featuring Missouri State, Purdue, Idaho and Connecticut. Even if the defense still struggles, all the Tigers need to do is go 4-0 in winnable non-SEC games and claim a couple victories within the SEC, which is all doable. If nothing else, they're becoming to fun watch again.
10. The Derek Mason era at Vanderbilt started poorly following the success of the James Franklin era, but after going 0-8 in the SEC in 2014, Mason earned a contract extension after a six-win 2016 campaign that got the Commodores back to the postseason. A bowl bid and a win over Tennessee are the perfect way to get any Vandy coach a new contract. The potential for improved quarterback play in the SEC play will make it difficult for Vandy to earn a second straight bowl bid, however. The Commodores have a tough opener at Middle Tennessee and also host Kansas State outside the SEC. From the West, they draw Alabama and play Ole Miss on the road. Mason is a great defensive coach, but the Commodores lose All-America linebacker Zach Cunningham. On offense, almost everybody is back, but few players are proven producers beyond standout RB Ralph Webb. Vandy's bowl hopes rest on the arm of junior QB Kyle Shurmur, a four-star recruit who completed just 54 percent of his passes with nine TDs and 10 INTs as a sophomore. He'll need a leap from his receiving corps and offensive line to make a leap forward himself.
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Top 15 Games
1. Alabama vs. Florida State, Sept. 2
2. Alabama at Auburn, Sept. 25
3. LSU at Alabama, Nov. 4
4. Auburn at Clemson, Sept. 9
5. Georgia vs. Florida, Oct. 28
6. Georgia at Auburn, Nov. 11
7. LSU at Florida, Oct. 7
8. Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 16
9. Florida vs. Michigan, Sept.2
10. Auburn at LSU, Oct. 14
11. Georgia at Tennessee, Sept. 30
12. Georgia at Notre Dame, Sept. 9
13. Alabama at Texas A&M, Oct. 7
14. Tennessee at Alabama, Oct. 14
15. Ole Miss at Mississippi State, Nov. 23
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11. It's impossible to predict how a team will handle a bowl-ban season. Throw in the July firing of the head coach, and a team becomes an even greater wild card. Despite owning a ton of potential on offense, it's not hard to be skeptical of Ole Miss putting together a satisfying season. Ole Miss already stumbled last year, falling to 5-7 with severe regression on defense. Now it moves on under interim coach Matt Luke with Hugh Freeze unexpectedly fired for reasons unrelated to the ongoing NCAA scandal that continues to hang over the program. Luke is in charge of holding together a messy situation, but at least the Rebels are capable of putting forth a fun offense under new coordinator Phil Longo. Sophomore QB Shea Patterson is mobile with a high ceiling, and we got a glimpse of what he can do after he burned his redshirt to start the last three games of 2016. He has loaded receiving corps to throw to, including Van Jefferson, A.J. Brown and D.K. Metcalf, and the line should be improved. Patterson is still an unknown, as is the running game, but the Rebels could put up a lot of points. Whether they can stop anybody is another matter. They have a star in pass rusher Marquis Haynes, but they were abysmal against the run, giving up 5.4 yards per attempt and 31 rushing TDs, capped by Mississippi State's 457-yard performance in the Egg Bowl. Summer coaching changes amid scandal are never easy to handle, particularly in a division like the SEC West, so even though at least some of the Rebels' lineup is enticing, Luke has a difficult job ahead of him.
12. Nick Fitzgerald did an admirable job replacing Dak Prescott last year, rushing for 1,375 yards and 16 TDs and passing for 2,423 yards and 21 TDs. Mississippi State went to a bowl game at only 5-7, but at least it did so by blowing out rival Ole Miss. Fitzgerald gives the Bulldogs hope for an eighth straight bowl trip, but significant questions stand in the way. They have another new defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, who has significant holes to fill up front on a defense that finished 103rd in yards per play allowed. Even in a down year for QB play in the SEC, Mississippi State finished 108th in defensive passer rating. Pass-rush improvement is essential, as is a turnaround in the secondary. On offense, Fitzgerald loses top receiver Fred Ross and three starting linemen. Lineman Martinas Rankin has a high ceiling, but repeating last year's rushing numbers won't be easy for Fitzgerald. Dan Mullen has brought impressive stability to Starkville, and it wouldn't be surprising at all to see the Bulldogs finish in the middle of the pack and win seven or eight games again. But with the questions on defense and on the offensive line, plus the typical rugged SEC West schedule and a road trip to Georgia from the East, bowl eligibility feels like a toss-up.
13. Bret Bielema is 10-22 in SEC play at Arkansas. The Razorbacks have finished with a losing conference record in three of his four years, with the 2016 season featuring maddening inconsistency in which they had a handful of defensive meltdowns. Bielema's teams are supposed to be built around physical play, but Arkansas wasn't dominant on the offensive line and was steamrolled by opposing rushing attacks on several occasions. Arkansas has finished as a top-25 team only three times since the turn of the century, so it's not as if the results are particularly unusual. For better or worse, this year's Razorbacks look similar to the Bielema's past three teams: a solid team that will go bowling but isn't a threat in the SEC race. Former Iowa State coach Paul Rhoads is charged with fixing the defense as the new coordinator, and it's a tough assignment, at least beyond having a pair of impact players in LB Dre Greenlaw and DL McTelvin Agim. The offense has a capable QB in Austin Allen, who needs to cut down on interceptions (15) but filled in nicely as the successor to his brother, Brandon, with 3,430 yards and 25 TDs. The supporting cast is filled with questions, though, as the line needs to get back to performing like a Bielema line, the receiver corps is inexperienced beyond Jared Cornelius and 1,300-yard rusher Rawleigh Williams retired from football after a spring injury.
14. Like Arkansas, Texas A&M seems stuck in a rut. Can Kevin Sumlin break the unfortunate narrative that has enveloped Texas A&M? The Aggies are 15-17 in the SEC the past four seasons after going 11-2 overall in Johnny Manziel's 2012 Heisman campaign. All four years, they have risen into the top 10, only to stumble down the stretch. The Aggies went 8-5 in 2014 after a 5-0 start. They went 8-5 in 2015 after a 5-0 start. They went 8-5 in 2016 after a 6-0 start. The Aggies have some exciting playmakers, but most signs point toward more of the same, which will only increase the pressure on Sumlin. There are too many question marks for Texas A&M to re-emerge as an SEC West threat. The defense has solid experience and could be strong at tackle and safety, but it loses Myles Garret and Daeshon Hall at end. The offense had a one-year fix in graduate transfer Trevor Knight after losing Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray to transfers, but now quarterback play is a mystery, with redshirt freshman Nick Starkel, senior Jake Hubenak and true freshman Kellen Mond vying for the job. Whoever wins the job will have Trayveon Williams to hand the ball off to and Christian Kirk to throw to, but the receiving corps loses a lot beyond Kirk, and the offensive line isn't the strength that it was earlier in Sumlin's tenure.
15. LSU felt like it was in a rut, and after interim stints at USC and LSU, Ed Orgeron gets his first full-time head coaching opportunity since a disastrous run at Ole Miss from 2005-07. Orgeron has had plenty of time to adjust his coaching style and learn from past mistakes, but he won't have much time to prove himself. After all, LSU just ran off Les Miles, one of the most successful coaches in school history, after a tenure that included only two seasons in which his Tigers didn't finish in the top 20. Orgeron has plenty of talent to work with, given the Tigers' annual recruiting success, but with one of the nation's toughest schedules, LSU isn't going to challenge Alabama for the SEC West title in 2017. The Tigers draw both Florida and Tennessee from the East and have to play both on the road because of last year's scheduling adjustment with the Gators. That means LSU has only three SEC home games, and it also plays a tough game against BYU in Houston to open the season. Orgeron surrounded himself with an impressive coaching staff, including defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and new offensive coordinator Matt Canada, who did a phenomenal job sparking Pitt's offense in 2016. Canada can build around RB Derrius Guice, but once again all eyes will be on the passing game and whether the Tigers can take a step forward with QB Danny Etling. The receiving corps is unproven, and the line faces more questions than usual, especially after starting guard Maea Teuhema's suspension/transfer. Canada will improve the offense, but while LSU has a chance for 10 wins and a major bowl bid, the ultimate goal of beating Alabama and winning the SEC again will have to wait.
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1. Georgia 9-3 (6-2)
2. Florida 8-4 (5-3)
3. Tennessee 8-4 (4-4)
4. Kentucky 7-5 (4-4)
5. South Carolina 6-6 (4-4)
6. Missouri 6-6 (2-6)
7. Vanderbilt 5-7 (2-6)
1. Alabama 11-1 (7-1)
2. Auburn 10-2 (6-2)
3. LSU 9-3 (5-3)
4. Texas A&M 7-5 (4-4)
5. Arkansas 6-6 (3-5)
6. Ole Miss 6-6 (2-6)
7. Mississippi State 5-7 (2-6)
Conference Championship: Alabama over Georgia
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16. In the past nine seasons, Auburn has either played in the national title game or lost at least five games every time. The former happened twice (including the 2010 championship) and the latter has happened seven times. Even last year's Sugar Bowl team went only 8-5 and finished 24th in the AP poll. Preseason hype has often backfired, both for the team and new Tigers quarterbacks in recent years. Only once in the past 20 seasons has Auburn both started and finished the same season ranked in the top 15 (2007), making it erratic and unpredictable. For once, however, Auburn is capable of living up to the building preseason hype. Perhaps the overwhelming praise being showered on Baylor transfer QB Jarrett Stidham is a bit much -- he has three career starts, two years ago -- but Stidham was a big-time recruit who can breathe life into what's been a stagnant passing game, at least if young talent in the receiving corps begins to emerge. Auburn has a great running game featuring Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson and a rock-solid offensive line, so if Stidham delivers, this offense will finally become explosive and fun again.
17. Auburn has been signing top-10 recruiting classes every year, leading to confidence that it can reload defensively. DT Montravius Adams and DE Carl Lawson leave massive shoes to fill, but the Tigers ranked a solid 24th in yards per play allowed last year and get back nine of their top 11 tacklers. They have promising talent ready to emerge up front, led by DT Derrick Brown and DEs Marlon Davidson and Jeff Holland, and they're strong in the secondary. This won't be a top-10 defense, but with expected improvement on offense, the defense is capable of playing at a high enough level to make this a top-10 Auburn team overall. As usual the schedule offers hurdles, and the path is made tougher by the Week 2 road trip to Clemson, on top of playing LSU, Georgia and Alabama. It's a leap to believe that Auburn can outmaneuver Alabama and get to the top of the SEC, but Auburn is Alabama's top challenger.
18. Seven straight top-ranked recruiting classes. Nine straight top-10 teams. Four of the past eight national championships. Even when Alabama loses in the national championship game, it's still the team that everyone is chasing, both in the SEC and nationally. Nick Saban has set one of the highest standards in college football history, and last year, Alabama, with a true freshman quarterback, was one stop away from going 15-0. It has played in the playoff each year, and while it loses a ton of NFL talent yet again, there's been no reason to believe Alabama will stop reloading. The roster is still filled with proven All-America talent, and a new wave of breakout players is always ready to emerge. The defense reloads with ease, a task that will be made easier by talent up the middle -- DT Da'Ron Payne, LBs Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton, safeties Minkah Fitzpatrick and Ronnie Harrison -- even as the Tide try to find new options in their pass rush.
19. The focus of Alabama's offseason has been the growth of quarterback Jalen Hurts as a passer under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. Hurts needs to improve throwing downfield -- and have new receivers emerge alongside Calvin Ridley -- but the dominance of the Alabama running game gives Hurts some leeway as a passer. After all, a strong offensive line -- even without Cam Robinson -- is blocking for Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris, Joshua Jacobs and five-star freshman Najee Harris, in addition to Hurts, who rushed for nearly 1,000 yards and is the best running quarterback Saban has ever had. Hurts was merely a freshman last year, too, so progress can be expected, especially when surrounded by so many impact players.
20. It's tempting to pick someone else. It always is. Picking Alabama is boring and safe, and after an impossibly long offseason, there is always an urge to be different and predict Alabama to finally tumble, or at least get edged out by a team like Auburn. It's certainly possible. Saban has won only one national title in the past four seasons and only five of 10 SEC championships since arriving at Alabama. The Crimson Tide open with Florida State and play Auburn on the road, so 10-2 with a major bowl bid rather than a playoff bid is totally plausible. All it takes is a bad bounce or two. Still, we've learned our lesson: Alabama has the most talent in the country and perhaps the best coach in college football history. Alabama may not win championships every year, but it is the best pick every year. Why pick anybody else?
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