By Marc Lawrence of Playbook.com with his 2016 SEC Conference Football Preview.
Rolling With The Tide
When Alabama captured last year’s College Football Playoffs it marked the eighth time in the last 10 years that an SEC school claimed the National Championship.
Speaking of the Tide, for the 2nd time in the last 5 years, Alabama had 5 players selected in the Top 50 of this year’s NFL draft. In fact, looking back at the over the last 5 years the top 10 picks in the NFL draft has seen the following conference breakdown: SEC 20, Big 12 10, Pac-12 8, ACC 7, MAC 2, AAC/Big Ten/Independent 1 each.
Take Your Choice
In Las Vegas, Alabama and LSU lead the 2016 SEC win totals brigade at 10 apiece, followed by Tennessee at 9.5. Next in line are Georgia and Ole Miss at 8.5 wins, followed by Arkansas and Florida at 7.5. Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M are next in line with 6.5 wins, with Texas A&M right on their heels with 6.
If the oddsmakers are correct – and they usually are – that would mean 10 teams from the nation’s most powerful league would earn bowl berths.
On the outside looking in are Missouri with 5.5, with Kentucky, South Carolina and Vanderbilt rounding things out with 5 victories.
According to TigerBait.com
, for the second year in a row there have been football coordinator shifts at a majority of the Southeastern Conference schools.
Four teams made no changes – Arkansas, Florida, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt. All four of those teams increased their victory total in 2015.
Two head coaches fired offensive coordinators – Mark Stoops dismissed Shannon Dawson at Kentucky and Kevin Sumlin replaced Jake Spavital at Texas A&M. One head coach fired a defensive coordinator – Butch Jones dismissed John Jancek at Tennessee.
Alabama and Auburn will have new defensive coordinators after Kirby Smart and Will Muschamp became the head coaches at Georgia and South Carolina, respectively. LSU and Mississippi State had their defensive coordinators make lateral moves – Kevin Steele to Auburn and Manny Diaz to Miami. Ole Miss’ Hugh Freeze is the only head coach who will have the same coordinators for a third straight season.
Note: Team write-ups are excerpts from the 2016 PLAYBOOK College and Pro Football Preview Guide magazine. Numbers following team name represent the amount of returning starters on offense and defense, along with the number of returning linemen, with an asterisk (*) designating a returning quarterback.
FLORIDA Off – *6/3 Def – 6/2 48 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: SLIP SLIDING
Somehow, despite an offense that slipped 7 points and 34 yards per game last season, the Gators slid into a 10-win campaign to begin the Jim McElwain era. Year Two finds two new quarterbacks battling for starting honors with redshirt sophomore Luke Del Rio holding a slight edge over Purdue transfer Austin Appleby. The real strength of the team, though is its defense, led by Caleb Brantley and a 10-deep defensive line loaded with 5 and 4-star talent. In addition, Eddy Pineiro, the No. 1 JUCO kicker in the land, brings a long-range leg to the program. After being deeply gutted last year, underclassmen made a total of 134 starts in 2015, the 5th most in the land.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Gators tied with lowly Kansas for the 3rd worst red zone offense last season.
PLAY AGAINST: at Tennessee (9/24)
GEORGIA Off – *8/3 Def – 6/1 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: SMART MOVE
A new era begins in Athens where new HC Kirby Smart now walks in legendary Mark Richt’s shoes after the Bulldogs let a malcontent Richt go – despite compiling a 146-51 mark in 15 years between the hedges. QB Greyson Lambert started 12 of 13 games last season while setting the NCAA record for completion percentage in a game when he connected on 24-of-25 passes against South Carolina. RBs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel complete a powerful punch in the backfield. The Dawgs led the SEC in pass defense last season and all 4 starters return. Speaking of which, Smart started at safety for Georgia from 1995-98 and was Alabama’s DC the past 9 seasons. He looks to be a keen hire, indeed.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Thirty-one of the Bulldogs’ 51 losses under Mark Richt were by 7 points or less.
KENTUCKY Off – 9/4 Def – 6/2 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: ON THE CLOCK
The critical 4th year of the Mark Stoops era in Lexington kicks off with plenty of promise. Behind a defense that’s made solid gains each of the past 2 seasons, the Wildcats turn to a favorable schedule which features 7 home games, with no back-to-back road games. JR RB Boom Williams, who set a single-season school record by averaging 7.1 yards per carry last year, leads a deep rushing corps with 1,341 yards and 11 TDs on 195 carries. Still, it’s been 6 straight losing seasons as the wear and tear of facing the nation’s 5th most difficult schedule in 2015 buried the Cats when they went 0-7 to close out the campaign. The clock is ticking for Stoops’ troops.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: After completing a $120M “reimagining” of Commonwealth Stadium last year, Kentucky debuts a new $45M practice complex this season.
PLAY ON: vs. Vanderbilt (10/8)
MISSOURI Off – *5/1 Def – 8/4 45 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: TIGER BLOOD
To say it was a tough year for the Tigers last season is an understatement of major proportions. Gary Pinkel, the winningest coach in program history, announced his retirement following a diagnosis with lymphoma. One-day prior, the team successfully protested an on-campus racial incident that led to the university president’s resignation. And former starting QB Maty Mauk was tossed from the team for violating team policies. In the end, Mizzou went from 11 wins to 5, putting a merciful end to a calamitous season. It’s 2016 and former DC Barry Odom takes over as head coach hoping new OC Josh Heupel (BYU) can instill a ray of life into a program desperately in need of a transfusion.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers are 23-1 SU and 17-5 ATS the last 3 years in games where they outgain their opponent.
SOUTH CAROLINA Off – *4/2 Def – 6/2 44 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: LONG AND ROCKY ROAD
We agree that new head coach Will Muschamp didn’t walk into a great situation. The Gamecocks’ 1st-year coach acknowledged his team has a shocking lack of talent. “We need to have more playmakers. We don’t have too much depth. On defense, the secondary is a concern just for coverage ability down the field.” It’s not like a lot of injuries caused USC’s 3-9 slide last year and all those players are healthy now. The Gamecocks’ systematic failure in recruiting since the middle of a 33-6 3-year run has left them well behind what they’re about to face this season. “It means we’ve got some good walk-ons here,” said Muschamp. As in “Good enough to play over guys we put on scholarship.” Gulp.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Gamecocks were outscored by 10.2 PPG and outyarded by 109 YPG versus conference foes, worst in the SEC last season.
TENNESSEE Off – *9/4 Def – 8/3 57 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: ORANGE SWARM
Head coach Butch Jones has improved the Vols’ win total by 2 games each of the last two years. That’s an improvement of leaps and bounds for a team that was stuck on 5 wins for three years running after he took the reins in 2013. The surge started in 2014 after Tennessee played 23 true freshmen – the most in the nation – the year prior, and then followed it up with 240 total returning starts in 2015. UT is loaded with returning starters this year, including SR QB Joshua Dobbs (14-5 over his last 19 starts) and a group of underclassmen that made 143 starts last season (2nd most in the nation). Once again, beware of the Vols.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Vols’ combined margin of defeat of 17 points was the fewest of any FBS program that finished with 3 or more losses last season.
VANDERBILT Off – *8/3 Def – 7/2 58 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: A WHOLE NEW SPIN ON THE MASON JAR
After 26 players made their first FBS start for Derek Mason’s fledgling team in 2014, a total of 123 overall starts were made by underclassmen last season. Vanderbilt’s youth movement paid off in 2015, as it was one of the nation’s most improved defenses under Mason’s direction. He’ll continue to handle the defensive coordinator chores for the second straight year in 2016, welcoming back 5 of his top 6 tacklers. Expect 6 new coaches on the staff this year to stress ball protection and takeaways. In their recent 3-year bowl run, the ‘Dores were a combined +8 in turnover margin. They own a jarring -24 in turnover margin the last 2 years under Mason.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Commodores are 0-15 SU and 2-13 ATS in Game Six of the season the last 15 years.
PLAY ON: at Western Kentucky (9/24)
ALABAMA Off – 6/3 Def – 5/1 48 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: THREE’S COMPANY
As has become the rule, the Tide was hit hard with graduation losses and NFL defections once again this year. But before shedding a tear, it’s a well-known fact that Alabama has significantly out-recruited teams each of the last 5 years – meaning all they do is re-load. It’s easy to do when your coach is 110-18, with 4 conference and 4 national championships, at the school. And your team has made an NCAA record 63 bowl appearances. Beware: Alabama freshmen started a combined 57 games last season, meaning the losses they incurred will be filled in like magic putty, making the Tide’s primary goal this season to win a 3rd straight SEC title for the first time since 1977-79.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tide was the first team to win back-to-back SEC titles last year since 1997-98 Tennessee.
PLAY ON: at Mississippi (9/17)
ARKANSAS Off – 5/2 Def – 9/3 52 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: HARD-TRYING HOGS
A 6-2 finish squashed a dismal 2-4 start last season, sending the Hogs to a 3rd straight bowl game under HC Bret Beilema. Behind a stripped-down offense, the Razorbacks will rely on a defense that could be tremendous up front. If new defensive assistant Paul Rhoads (a former defensive coordinator and head coach at Iowa State the past 8 seasons) can make a difference, it could make the Razorbacks a force on that side of the ball. But replacing all-SEC QB Brandon Allen (3,340 yards, 30 TDs and 8 INTs) and all SEC RB Alex Collins (1,577 yards, 20 TDs) on offense will be a daunting task. Tackling 10 foes with winning records last year makes it even more problematical.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Razorbacks tied with South Carolina for the fewest fumbles lost (3) last season.
PLAY ON: vs. Texas A&M (9/24)
AUBURN Off – *6/3 Def – 6/3 53 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: DON’T FUSS WITH GUS
Arguably the most disappointing team in college football last season, the Tigers (picked to win the conference title and make the College Football Playoff by many respected scribes) look to reverse their misfortune with a helping hand from the schedule maker. Opening the season with 5 consecutive home games while having no back-to-back road games, Auburn will take to the highway a mere 4 times this campaign. Granted, 7 of its first 8 games come against bowl teams, but 4 of them are SEC revengers. New DC Kevin Steele comes over from LSU looking to patch a defense that has surrendered 408 YPG under Malzahn’s tenure. Expect 2016 to be the year of the Tiger in the SEC.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Tigers are 29-0 SU at home in non-conference games since 2007.
PLAY ON: as a dog at Georgia (11/12)
LSU Off – *9/3 Def – 9/4 49 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: EYE OF THE TIGER
He’s back… although he never left. And for what seems like the umpteenth time, head coach Les Miles’ threat to leave LSU last year once again never took place. Thus, the Mad Hatter welcomes back a powerful class loaded with experience, and RB Leonard Fournette, who is a frontrunner in the Heisman Trophy race. Unlike Miles’ threats that never seem to materialize, the Tigers finally reversed a bad trend last year that had seen them regress each of the previous three years in the SEC West standings. Now, behind a team that won its first 7 contests last year, and with no back-to-back road games in sight this season, the Bengals have the distinct look of a tiger possessed.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Tigers’ seniors started a combined 34 games last season, the fewest in the nation.
PLAY ON: vs. Mississippi (10/22)
MISSISSIPPI Off – *3/0 Def – 5/2 61 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: FREEZER BURN
QB Chad Kelly, nephew of Buffalo Bills’ great Jim Kelly, and the SEC Newcomer of the Year and All-SEC second team selection last year, returns. Kelly broke or tied 14 single-season school records while leading the SEC in passing, total offense and TD passes. Meanwhile, head coach Hugh Freeze is the first Ole Miss coach to lead his teams to bowl appearances in each of his first 4 seasons at the helm. He’s also led the Rebels to back-to-back 9-win seasons for the first time since 1962. Unfortunately, the team was not only heavily burned by graduation losses and NFL player defections – the biggest being DT Robert Nkemdiche – but they must also take on 10 bowl teams.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: Freeze is 28-4 SU and 21-6 ATS in games versus .500 or less opponents, including 11-0 ATS vs. non-conference foes.
MISSISSIPPI STATE Off – 6/3 Def – 7/2 43 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: NICE WHILE IT LASTED
After losing a quarterback that put up some of the most impressive numbers in SEC history, Mississippi State is in a pinch – in more ways than one. QB Dak Prescott has started for the Bulldogs each of the last 3 seasons, setting 28 school records, including total offensive yards, touchdowns, passing yards, passing touchdowns, passing efficiency, and on and on. Head coach Dan Mullen must also replace his rushing leader from last season – that also being Prescott. Worse, DC Manny Diaz left after one year to join Mark Richt at Miami. In addition, their leading tackler and best interior linemen have moved onto the NFL. Road games at Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss ensure a sizable step back in 2016.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The Bulldogs were the worst team in the nation in fewest fumbles recovered (1) last season – 14 fewer than the top team.
PLAY AGAINST: vs. Auburn (10/8)
TEXAS A&M Off – 6/2 Def – 6/2 50 Lettermen
TEAM THEME: OFFENSIVE MUSICAL MAKEOVER
Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight assumes the quarterback reins in 2016. Knight, who was beaten out by Baker Mayfield last year, was a 2-year starter and led the Sooners to a Sugar Bowl victory against Alabama as a redshirt freshman in 2013. The Aggies lost previous blue chip starting signal callers Kyle Allen (who transferred to Houston) and Kyler Murray (Oklahoma) earlier this offseason. Kevin Sumlin’s 2nd-highest-paid coaching staff has added new OC Noel Mazzone, who worked wonders with Brett Hundley and Josh Rosen at UCLA. Meanwhile, prized former LSU DC John Chavis helped tighten things up defensively in 2015 as the Aggies improved 71 YPG – despite taking on the 10th toughest schedule in the land.
STAT YOU WILL LIKE: The overall stats winner has won SU in each of the last 16 Aggies’ games.
PLAY ON: at Alabama (10/22)
Be sure to check back here next week for Marc’s 2016 Sun Belt Conference Football Preview!