After its fourth national title in seven seasons, Alabama enters 2016 as the SEC favorite. The Crimson Tide don’t have a starting quarterback determined yet and have to travel to Baton Rouge for the annual showdown with LSU. Even if the Tide are considered prohibitive favorites, LSU has a new defensive coordinator and the scariest player in college football, Ole Miss has one of the top quarterbacks in the nation, and Tennessee has a crop of promising talent. It’ll be an interesting race. Plenty of upsets await.
Projected 2016 SEC standings
|Georgia||10–2 (6–2)||Alabama||11–1 (7–1)|
|Florida||9–3 (6–2)||LSU||10–2 (6–2)|
|9–3 (5–3)||Ole Miss||9–3 (5–3)|
|Vanderbilt||6–6 (3–5)||Auburn||8–4 (5–3)|
|Missouri||5–7 (2–6)||Arkansas||7–5 (3–5)|
|South Carolina||5–7 (2–6)||Texas A&M||6–6 (3–5)|
|Kentucky||3–9 (1–7)||Miss. St.||5–7 (2–6)|
Conference title game: Alabama over Georgia
Associated PressOffensive MVPLeonard Fournette, RB, LSU2015 stats: 1,953 rushing yards, 22 rushing touchdowns, 6.5 yards per carry2016 projected stats: 2,100 rushing yards, 26 rushing touchdowns, 7.2 yards per carryIt’s hard to see who else even qualifies as a candidate. Fournette finished 10 out of 12 games in 2015 with at least 100 yards rushing, rushed for over 200 yards in four different games and fell just 47 yards short of a 2,000-yard season (a mark he would have eclipsed had LSU’s game against McNeese State not been canceled). He was running away with the Heisman Trophy until being smothered by Alabama and limited by Arkansas. Overall, he’s the most feared offensive player in college football in a year loaded with great running backs.
Associated PressDefensive MVPMyles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M2015 stats: 11.5 sacks, 19.5 tackles for loss, 59 tackles2016 projected stats: 13.5 sacks, 21 tackles for loss, 62 tacklesVirtually unblockable and the likely No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft, Garrett is the best collegiate lineman since Jadeveon Clowney. He’s racked up 32 tackles for loss and 22.5 sacks in two seasons at Texas A&M, numbers most defensive ends dream of putting up over four-year careers. He’ll be greeted with constant double teams and plenty of holding, but there’s no more dominant individual defensive force in the game than Garrett.
Associated PressImpact FreshmanGreg Little, OT, Ole MissWith the departure of star offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil to the NFL, the left tackle position may go to the five-star Little. Like Tunsil, Little could be thrust into action right away, even if offensive line is one of the most difficult positions for high school players to grasp at the college level. There were reports that Little entered camp overweight and he’s been dealing with some shoulder issues, but barring a catastrophic injury, he should be penciled into handle some of the nation’s most fearsome defensive lineman as a true freshman.
Associated PressCoach On The Hot SeatKevin Sumlin, Texas A&M2015 record: 8-5 (4-4)Overall record at Texas A&M: 36-16 (17-15)Hugh Freeze’s seat is hot because of looming NCAA punishments and Les Miles’s seat is too after an apparent attempted coup last season. But those men can take comfort knowing they’re not under nearly as much scrutiny as Sumlin. During the Johnny Manziel era, the nation wondered if Sumlin would be coaching the Dallas Cowboys by 2015. Entering the 2016 season, many wonder if he’ll end up coaching Purdue (his alma mater) by the beginning of next year. Sumlin has demonstrated his recruiting acumen, but he’s lost too many of those top players (Kyler Murray, Kyle Allen) to transfer and endured discipline issues (Speedy Noil) with others. Couple that with multiple embarrassments surrounding his coaching staff (one assistant subtweeted a quarterback recruit, two others were recently suspended after making inappropriate jokes at a football for women seminar) and Sumlin’s program appears to be in complete disarray. If the Aggies can log one major win in the SEC West and escape non-conference play unscathed, then Sumlin may survive another year. If not, a firing that was unthinkable just two years ago seems likely.
Three key nonconference games
LSU v. Wisconsin (Sept. 3, at Lambeau Field)
The Tigers made one of the biggest coordinator splashes of the off-season by poaching Dave Aranda, Wisconsin’s touted defensive mastermind, to run their defense. Aranda’s first assignment is to beat his old team. LSU will be heavily favored, but will be playing in a virtual road game at Lambeau Field. With Fournette nursing a sprained ankle, the Tigers may have to rely more on quarterback Brandon Harris, whose inconsistency was an issue throughout last season. Harris has two of the nation’s finer receivers in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, at his disposal, but the Tigers still need to overcome a Badgers defense that finished No. 2 nationally in total defense last year—even if it was anchored by Aranda.
UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)
No coach enters the season on a hotter seat than Sumlin, whose slide from one of the nation’s hottest coaching commodities to one of its least secure remains shocking. The first test in a season needed to save his job is a home tilt against a UCLA team headlined by a star quarterback (Josh Rosen). The Aggies have one of the nation’s most electric home-run threats in Christian Kirk and the country’s best defensive player in Garrett. Even so, Sumlin could use this win to help his long-term future in College Station. A loss would do serious damage to his job security before entering conference play.
Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)
If Florida enters this game with at least nine wins, then one of the 1990s best rivalries will feel revitalized. As an ACC favorite, the Seminoles could enter the game with a College Football Playoff spot on the line. Since the Gators have three potential first-round picks (Jalen Tabor, Marcus Maye, Caleb Brantley) on one of the nation’s best defenses, they may be equipped to stop a Seminoles’ attack anchored by star running back Dalvin Cook. There is a chance that the Gators never figure out a coherent offense, that quarterback Luke Del Rio is a bust and they enter their rivalry game with seven wins. But if it does coalesce for Florida, then it’ll feel like the rivalry is back.
Three key conference games
Florida at Tennessee (Sept. 24)
It’s the first test to see if Tennessee, its strong crop of talent now matured into upperclassmen, is set to return to prominence. The Gators have beaten the Vols 11 consecutive times, but this game returns to Knoxville after last year’s 28–27 thriller in Gainesville. Whoever wins this game becomes the favorite in the SEC East.
Ole Miss at Arkansas (Oct. 15)
Neither of these teams will be winning the SEC West, but the Razorbacks are one of the most improved teams in the conference ever since Bret Bielema took over the program in 2013. Despite the departure of quarterback Brandon Allen, top running back Alex Collins and star tight end Hunter Henry, the Hogs’ gradual improvement under Bielema should make them a trap for any team with SEC title aspirations. One of those teams is Ole Miss, which is still under NCAA scrutiny. Quarterback Chad Kelly is one of the best in the conference and he has two talented receivers to work with in Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow, but the Rebels have to play this game in Fayetteville after losing 53–52 in Oxford last season (a game including this crazy play). Ole Miss is looking to capitalize on its Sugar Bowl victory last season to drown out the negative press surrounding the program, but this is one game that stands in the way of a successful season.
Alabama at LSU (Nov. 5)
It’s always the highlight game of the SEC season. Fournette returns after Alabama limited him to 31 yards on 19 carries last year, and Les Miles may need to win this game to save his job. Alabama’s uncertainty at quarterback is a preseason storyline, but the Crimson Tide will likely have that issue resolved by the time this game arrives.
Five key questions
1. Can LSU finally top Alabama?
Even if the question is one that can be copied and pasted every year, it’s hard to fathom a scenario where LSU is better equipped to end its losing streak against the Crimson Tide. Alabama is unproven at both quarterback and running back (a first since Mark Ingram lined up at running back for the Tide), LSU has the nation’s most feared offensive player and two home-run threat wide receivers, and the Tigers have a veteran defense with a new defensive coordinator lauded for his aggressiveness. And the game is in Baton Rouge!
There is no such thing as a coach who can reliably beat Nick Saban, but if Miles wins this game, he probably gets at least one more season in Baton Rouge. If LSU falters again, then a shakeup is likely in order.
2. What’s going on with Georgia’s QB situation?
Kirby Smart is in the unusual position of having to win now despite entering his first year as a head coach. The former Alabama defensive coordinator assumes Mark Richt’s job, a coach who reliably won nine games every season, but that still wasn’t enough for a perpetually disappointed fan bas.
Smart has plenty to fix, but the first order of business is deciding whether to entrust the offense (with two stud running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel) to a touted true freshman in Jacob Eason or the reliable if unspectacular Greyson Lambert. Little has been said about who holds the edge as fall camp drags on, but that decision could get Georgia back to the SEC Championship Game… or disappoint its fans once again.
3. Can Dan Mullen survive a year of regression?
After making the Orange Bowl two years ago, Mississippi State regressed a bit, though not too terribly, with a 9–4 finish last season. Now that quarterback Dak Prescott, maybe the most revered player in Bulldogs history, is gone to the Dallas Cowboys, Dan Mullen has a challenge awaiting him. With its three toughest games (Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss) all on the road and an unusually difficult Friday night trip to BYU, the Bulldogs risk reverting to their former status as the lowly member of the SEC West.
First, they need to solve their quarterback situation. Mullen is currently weighing three options—junior Damian Williams, sophomore Nick Fitzgerald and redshirt freshman Nick Tiano—none of whom are proven. Publicly, Mullen has been displeased with their progress in the beginning of camp, but there is no clear indication who is the favorite. The Bulldogs do have one of the nation’s best receivers in Fred Ross, but currently nobody to reliably get him the ball.
On defense, promising young freshman in Jeffery Simmons arrives, but not after a bit of controversy. Mississippi State suspended Simmons just one game (against South Alabama, no less) after a video surfaced of him hitting a woman during a brawl this off-season.
4. Can Derek Mason make Vanderbilt an SEC East darkhorse?
Mason arrived at Vanderbilt as one of the nation’s most revered defensive coordinators (he was a Broyles Award finalist at Stanford in 2012) only to preside over two seasons where his offense couldn’t score. The Commodores put up just 15.2 points per game last season (124th out of 128 FBS teams) despite a vastly improved defense that put a scare into both Ole Miss and Florida. With a promising running back in Ralph Webb (1152 rushing yards in 2014) and a burly quarterback in Kyle Shurmur, Vanderbilt’s offense should improve. How could it get any worse after last year? Plus, the Commodores return a deep defensive group anchored by linebacker Zach Cunningham.
Should Vanderbilt frustrate enough teams and keep the score low, they could shake up the SEC East with an upset or two.
5. Is Mark Stoops in his last season?
Three seasons ago, Stoops had sparked optimism about the future of Kentucky football with an impressive recruiting class and brought an energy that’s usually reserved for the basketball team. Entering 2016, there is little fanfare surrounding the Wildcats outside of running back Stanley “Boom” Williams. Kentucky is one of the most difficult jobs in the SEC (mostly because the fans are awaiting basketball season), and this year likely won’t be any easier on Stoops. Four of the most difficult games (Florida, Alabama, Tennessee, Louisville) are on the road and its opening game against Southern Miss, a team that finished 9–5 last year, is hardly a guarantee.
Stoops did effectively invigorate Kentucky when he arrived and has shown strong recruiting chops, but with Louisville thriving under Bobby Petrino and the Wildcats’ last winning season coming in 2009, the administration may be making a change if the season goes poorly.