- Alabama is the runaway favorite to win the SEC and make it four straight playoff trips. But which of their conference foes also has a shot?
The College Football Playoff strives in many ways to replicate college basketball’s postseason drama, but in one important way, it will never be March Madness. When conference hoops tournaments come around every spring, 300-plus teams still have a chance to play for the title. College football doesn’t have the capacity for that optimism.
There are 130 Football Bowl Subdivision programs, but the number of teams with any conceivable chance of making football’s final four is nowhere near triple digits. This week, SI.com will go conference-by-conference in search of that number, highlighting the teams in each league that can harbor legitimate playoff aspirations. So far, we’ve covered the ACC, the Big 12, the Pac-12 and the Big Ten. Up next: the SEC.
2016 Champion: Alabama
Teams in committee’s final CFP rankings: Four
Teams with a playoff shot in 2017: Five
Alabama: The Crimson Tide are the only team to make the playoff in all three seasons it has existed, and Alabama is the runaway favorite to win the SEC and make it four out of four. For the first time since AJ McCarron in 2013, the Tide return a starting quarterback. Jalen Hurts, now a sophomore, was last seen leading his team on a drive for the go-ahead touchdown in the waning minutes of the national title game. (Unfortunately for Alabama, Clemson’s Deshaun Watson led a touchdown drive of his own moments later.)
Most defenses will struggle against the Tide offense even if Hurts hasn’t improved as a passer. Alabama has an excellent offensive line and a deep stable of backs. Plus, Hurts is exceptionally dangerous in the run game. If he has improved as a passer, it’s bad news for the rest of the SEC.
Alabama’s front seven will be rebuilt, but in a these-particular-five-star-recruits-haven’t-played-all-that-much way. Da’Ron Payne will remain a force in the middle of the line, but it will be up to Christian Miller and Anfernee Jennings or Terrell Lewis to generate the pass rush Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson did last year. Those rushers may have an extra beat to get to the quarterback, though. Alabama has a deep, experienced secondary led by junior Minkah Fitzpatrick, who could play any position in the back end if necessary.
The Tide will get tested immediately against Florida State in Atlanta on Sept. 2. The race for the SEC West title likely will come down to Alabama’s matchups with LSU (Nov. 4 in Tuscaloosa) and Auburn (Nov. 25 at Auburn).
Auburn: The Tigers feel like they have the quarterback they’ve so desperately needed in Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham. Stidham will have a solid line in front of him, and he’ll get plenty of help from tailbacks Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson. It’s unclear how good Auburn’s receivers are because they haven’t had a quarterback capable of getting them the ball effectively in a while, but Stidham could change that.
On defense, the Tigers will need some new stars to emerge on the line after losing tackle Montravius Adams and end Carl Lawson. Junior tackle Dontavius Russell and sophomore end Marlon Davidson will try to fill the void.
Auburn goes on the road in Week 2 to face defending national champ Clemson. Two weeks later, the Tigers begin a stretch of five consecutive weeks of SEC games that includes visits to Missouri, LSU and Arkansas. It is that slog that will decide whether Auburn can compete for the SEC West title.
Florida: The Gators have won two consecutive SEC East titles, but the past two SEC title games—as well as their last two games against Florida State—have shown them how far away they are from elite teams. That can change if Florida gets better play from its quarterback, but nothing that has happened this offseason suggests that coach Jim McElwain has found an answer at the position. On Wednesday, he suggested Feleipe Franks, Luke Del Rio and Malik Zaire could all see playing time in the season opener against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. “You’re going to see a bunch of them in there playing,” McElwain told reporters. “The three guys have done a really good job. I think there’s some things that they all bring to the table that are really good. Now the key to us is putting them in those positions, you know, that play to their strengths.”
If one of the three emerges and gives Florida more than it got out of the position last year, this season could get very interesting. This is the best line and the best skill position group the Gators have put around their quarterback since McElwain’s arrival. The defense saw a ton of talent jump to the NFL and also lost safety Marcell Harris to a torn Achilles tendon, but it should remain stout even if it isn’t quite as dominant as it was in recent years. Stars such as linebacker Jarrad Davis are gone, but youngsters such as David Reese (Davis’s replacement) played plenty of snaps last year and look ready to step in.
The Michigan game might not tell us much about the Gators because the Wolverines are breaking in 17 new starters. No matter the result, there likely won’t be much context behind it. That context will begin to roll in Sept. 16, when Tennessee comes to Gainesville.
Georgia: If the Bulldogs get better on the offensive line, they could win their first SEC East title since 2012. The hope at Georgia is that coach Kirby Smart can take a roster that was already pretty good and recruit the same kind of players he helped bring to Alabama as the defensive coordinator. Then, Smart is supposed to create the same sort of winning culture Nick Saban has at Alabama.
Smart’s first year at Georgia was shaky, thanks mostly to that line and the fact that the Bulldogs started a true freshman quarterback. Jacob Eason now has had a full offseason as the starter, which should help. Backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel decided to return for their senior seasons. The defense returns almost everyone.
The hope is that Smart will follow the same pattern Saban did at Alabama. In his first year, the Tide went 7–6. In his second year, the Tide started 12–0 and won the SEC West. Georgia went 8–5 last season. Will the Bulldogs make a similar leap? They’ll have to get through a rugged September to find out. They travel to Notre Dame in Week 2, face Mississippi State at home in Week 4 and travel to Tennessee in Week 5.
LSU: From a pure talent standpoint, LSU should be able to compete with Alabama. But Les Miles ran a stone-age offense, which played right into the Crimson Tide’s hands when the teams played and ultimately got Miles fired. New coach Ed Orgeron has brought in Matt Canada from Pittsburgh to run LSU’s offense, and Canada’s mandate is clear: Get the ball to a variety of athletes—not just the bellcow back.
That back (Derrius Guice) is excellent, but life will be much easier for Guice if quarterback Danny Etling can spread the ball around to a group of talented receivers who haven’t gotten many chances to show what they can do. LSU’s biggest weakness may be the thinness of its offensive line. One or two key injuries could spell doom, but if the line stays healthy, the Tigers should move the ball more effectively.
Defensively, the Tigers could use a healthy Arden Key, but the star edge rusher remains limited following shoulder surgery. Orgeron does not expect Key to play in the season opener against BYU in Houston, but the Tigers hope to have him for SEC play. LSU’s handling of the hurricane-delayed game against Florida will force the Tigers to travel to Gainesville for two consecutive seasons, and this year means LSU must play five conference road games. The Tigers have to go to Mississippi State, Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee. If they do wind up in Atlanta in December, they’ll have absolutely earned their way there.