With SEC Media Days in the books, it’s safe to say we’ve officially moved from the off-season to the preseason. Congrats, everyone, we've survived another one!
As ACC and Big 12 media days approach, and Big Ten and Pac-12 media days, among others, follow shortly after, we’ll soon turn our attention to teams from outside of the Southeast. But before we do, let’s hand out some superlatives.
Most improved: Tennessee
It’s a moment eight years in the making, but now it’s nearly here: the season when Tennessee finally leaps back toward the top of the SEC. The Volunteers haven’t won more than seven games since 2007, but barring a rash of injuries, they should easily exceed that this year. Tennessee went 4–1 with Joshua Dobbs as its starting quarterback last year, and he should get plenty of support on the ground this year from Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Defensive end Derek Barnett, linebacker Curt Maggitt and cornerback Cameron Sutton lead a stout defense. The Vols are still young and depth could be an issue as the season wears on, but the talent level in Knoxville is the highest it has been in a long time.
Most on the decline: Mississippi State
Only in the SEC West could a team that was ranked No. 1 in the country for five weeks of the previous season suddenly become the favorite to finish last in the division. Although the Bulldogs have the best quarterback in the conference, and one of the best in the country, in Dak Prescott, the surrounding pieces that helped them rise up the rankings last year are almost all gone. With just seven starters back from the 2014 squad, Mississippi State has nowhere to go but down. Even Prescott may struggle without running back Josh Robinson there to take some pressure off and a combined 114 career starts on the offensive line gone, too.
Toughest schedule: Alabama
That the Crimson Tide can still be pegged as prime contenders to reach the College Football Playoff speaks to the incredible talent Nick Saban’s squad has. If Alabama repeats as the SEC champion—which no one has done since 1998—and returns to the playoff, it will certainly have earned its bid. In addition to a grueling SEC West slate, the Tide have to go to Georgia and host Tennessee in their divisional crossover games. In a span of six weeks, they’ll play Georgia, Arkansas, Texas A&M, Tennessee and LSU. There are plenty of decent teams across the country that could easily go 0–5 in that stretch. And don’t overlook the season-opener vs. Wisconsin.
Easiest schedule: Missouri
In contrast to Alabama’s schedule is Missouri’s. SEC East teams are guaranteed to have easier slates due to their divisional competition (an annual matchup with Vanderbilt is a gift right now). But the Tigers also get one of the best possible cross-division draws with matchups against Mississippi State and Arkansas. That’s a whole lot better than Georgia’s cross-division games against Alabama and Auburn.
For the second straight year, Missouri gets a boost from a preferential schedule. Its protected game against the Razorbacks has been beneficial recently, and the Tigers drew a subpar Texas A&M squad last year before a matchup with falling Mississippi State this year. Their fortune will even out over time though; the Tigers are set to face LSU, Auburn and Alabama over the next three years. Still, if Missouri wins its third straight SEC East title this fall, the conference’s schedule-makers better get a shout-out in Gary Pinkel’s acceptance speech.
Biggest range: Texas A&M
First, the schedule: As far conference slates go for SEC West teams, Texas A&M’s is about as good as it gets for making a surprise run. Alabama and Auburn travel to College Station, and the Aggies’ cross-division games are against Vanderbilt and South Carolina. Then, there’s the big question of Texas A&M’s defense. How quickly can new coordinator John Chavis get the unit to look like the elite defenses he usually produces and not at all like the one that gave up 36.6 points per game in conference play last season? The result is an Aggies team that could remain in the title hunt until late in the season or one that could flounder towards the bottom of the conference.
If the defense makes big strides, the offense should be potent enough to pull out a win or two at home against the SEC’s elite. But if the defense struggles again, the Aggies could find their home games against the conference’s best too challenging and then have to pull out wins on the road against similar caliber teams. Anything between 10–2 and 6–6 is possible.
Most overrated: Arkansas
This really has more to do with what the Razorbacks are up against than anything about Bret Bielema’s team. Other than its four nonconference games and perhaps its Nov. 21 home date with Mississippi State, Arkansas has no sure wins on its schedule. Road trips to Tennessee, Alabama, Ole Miss and LSU all look daunting, as do home games against Auburn and Missouri.
As for the Razorbacks themselves, their defense returns six starters and loses stars Darius Philon, Trey Flowers and Martrell Spaight. Defensive end JaMichael Winston had a superb spring, but Arkansas’s front-seven is unlikely to match the dominance of last year’s group. As a team, the Razorbacks should continue to build on their growth last year, but that continued progress may not get reflected in the standings.
Most underrated: Ole Miss
The Rebels were picked to finish fifth in the SEC West in the preseason media poll, but if they get some good fortune, they could pull off their first double-digit-win campaign since 2003. A season that strong would likely require Ole Miss’ quarterback play to exceed expectations. But even without that, the Rebels’ receiving corps is solid with Laquon Treadwell and Evan Engram; their front seven, led by the Nkemdiche brothers, should be outstanding; and their running game has potential. If Laremy Tunsil avoids a suspension, he should lead a powerful offensive line, and tailbacks Jaylen Walton and Jordan Wilkins combined for 6.0 yards per carry last year.
Most at stake: South Carolina
Unlike last year, when Florida coach Will Muschamp entered the season with arguably the hottest seat in the country, no SEC coach appears on the verge of getting fired this year. Disappointing seasons could turn up the heat on Vanderbilt Derek Mason, Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin, LSU’s Les Miles or Kentucky’s Mark Stoops, but all those guys would almost surely get at least another year to try to right the ship (if for nothing more than to avoid exorbitantly expensive buyout packages in Miles’s and Sumlin’s cases).
But what abut the Head Ball Coach? No, South Carolina is not going to fire the only coach to ever produce multiple 10-win seasons in Columbia, but Spurrier still might be the most likely candidate in the conference to not return to his job next year. Although he said at SEC Media Days that he doesn’t think he’d be very good at retirement, might he reconsider if faced with a lengthy rebuild of a program he already rebuilt once? If he does, the Gamecocks could be forced to find a new coach while the program is on a rapid downswing. As a non-established power in the conference, that could make the search arduous.
Best path to the playoff: Auburn
As the preseason media poll made clear, nobody’s really sure who’s better between Auburn and Alabama. They’re the heavy favorites to win the SEC West, and therefore prime contenders to make the playoff, but it’s very difficult to separate the Yellowhammer State rivals. We’ll find out who’s more talented once the season starts, but for now, the Tigers have the clear edge to finish the year in the selection committee’s top four. Unlike Alabama, Auburn gets to play Georgia at home, and its other crossover game is Kentucky while the Crimson Tide take on Tennessee. Plus, the Iron Bowl returns to Jordan-Hare this year. It’s possible both (or neither) could make the playoff, but the Tigers’ schedule gives them a better shot at finishing the year with one loss or less, a record that would all but guarantee them a playoff berth.