The SEC had a down year by its standards in 2016. Will it bounce back this season?
The college football season is right around the corner, and it’s almost time to start firing up those tailgate grills. But before fans go and do that, it’s time to take a look at what each conference has to offer before the season starts. Leading up to the start of the season, SQ will have in-depth previews for every FBS conference. Today we start our coverage with the SEC.
What Happened In 2016
Conference Champion: Alabama (14-1)
Coach of the Year: Nick Saban, Alabama
It should come as no surprise that Saban was named the SEC Coach of the year last season. After leading this Alabama squad unscathed through the SEC gauntlet, including the conference championship, he deserves that recognition. The funny thing is that this isn’t his first time accomplishing that, as he went undefeated through the SEC in 2009 as well. He joins Bear Bryant and John Vaught as the only coaches to do so in SEC history. Although the Crimson Tide lost out on the national championship last season, there’s reason to believe they’ll be right back in the hunt again this season.
Offensive Player of the Year: Jalen Hurts, QB, Alabama
Saban surprised a lot of people when he decided to go with Hurts as the starting QB for Alabama last season. As the first true freshman to start at QB under Saban, Hurts was thought to be dark horse for the job, but he beat out both Cooper Bateman and Blake Barnett for the job. Hurts’ stellar rookie campaign saw him tally 36 total touchdowns, an Alabama record. In addition, Hurts finished with 3,734 total yards of offense (2,780 passing, 954 rushing), second in school history behind Blake Sims. Hurts’ electric ability also earned him All-SEC First Team honors.
Defensive Player of the Year: Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
Jonathan Allen made it a clean sweep for Alabama by nabbing the SEC’s Defensive Player of the Year Award. Deciding against entering the NFL Draft after his junior season, Allen saw his draft stock rise as one of the most prolific pass rushers in Alabama history. The defensive end finished his career with 28.5 sacks (10.5 in 2016), which ranks second in school history. Allen played a hand in the nation’s best rushing defense as well by coming up with 16 tackles for loss. His excellence on the field saw him also win the Bronko Nagurski Award, the Chuck Bednarik Award, and the Ted Hendricks Award.
Looking Ahead To 2017
Conference Favorite: Alabama
Alabama is by far and away the best team the SEC has to offer. And while Auburn, LSU, Florida, and Georgia could challenge the Tide in 2017, Saban’s squad has a sizable gap between it and the next best team in the SEC. It’s understood that Alabama has a few questions going into this season, but the Tide are far better equipped to answer with the star recruits they bring in every cycle.
Hurts is back to lead the offense but must take step forward in his development as a passer under new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll. To assist in his progress, Alabama returns some key complementary pieces, including star receiver Calvin Ridley (769 yards, seven touchdowns) and running backs Damien Harris (1037 yards, two touchdowns) and Bo Scarborough (812 yards, 11 touchdowns).
The defense was the best in the nation last year but must replace several key players who turned pro. In total, the defense must replace 37 sacks, 73 tackles for loss, and 378 tackles. Opening the season against Florida State while traveling to both Mississippi State and Auburn make a regular season loss seem more likely this year. With all that taken into consideration, this team is still going to be in the hunt for the College Football Playoff at season’s end.
Conference Dark Horse: Florida
Jim McElwain has brought winning back to the Swamp, taking the SEC East in each of his first two seasons as Florida’s head coach. The Gators were not picked to win the East in either of those seasons, proving a lot of people wrong.
Florida may have lost a lot of key pieces to its defense from last season, including Teez Tabor, Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, Quincy Wilson, and Caleb Brantley, but there is plenty of young talent to fill the void after it gained experience last season. Guys like Jabari Zuniga, Cece Jefferson, Taven Bryan, David Resse, and Chauncey Gardner all stepped up in big moments last season and will have to take on a larger role this season.
As far as Florida’s offense goes, if it can find a reliable QB, then this team will immediately become a College Football Playoff contender. Whoever wins the job out of Malik Zaire, Feleipe Franks, and Luke Del Rio will inherit some of the most talented skill players in the SEC. Jordan Scarlett nearly rushed for 1,000 yards last season and is primed to break that mark this season. And if Antonio Callaway can stay out of trouble off the field, he and Tyrie Cleveland will form one of the most dynamic receiver combos in the country with their speed and athleticism.
Team that Will Disappoint: Kentucky
Kentucky finally took a step forward last year by becoming bowl eligible, finishing with a record of 7-6. The Wildcats even managed to knock off Heisman winner Lamar Jackson and Louisville on their way to the team’s first bowl game since the 2010 season. And while Kentucky has some great offensive pieces coming back, it might not be enough for the team to continue its upward trend.
The truth is, the SEC East is going to be better than it has in recent years. Kentucky lost to usual front runners Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee last season, and each of those teams look as though that they’ll be strong once again in 2017. Then there’s the division opponents that Kentucky was able to defeat in South Carolina and Vanderbilt. Both of those games were home games for the Wildcats last year and were only won by a touchdown apiece. Moving those games on the road this season could turn the tables in favor of the Gamecocks and Commodores.
Three Players to Watch:
1. Derrius Guice, RB, LSU - Replacing Leonard Fournette seemed like a daunting task at first, but after watching Guice perform these last two seasons, LSU fans might be saying “Leonard who?” now. Guice is the most electrifying back in the SEC and got the recognition he deserved last season after putting up stellar numbers and garnering First Team All-SEC honors. The junior speedster finished at or near the top of the SEC in four rushing categories last season. He led the league in rushing yards (1,387) and yards per carry (7.58), while finishing second in rushing touchdowns (15) and rushing yards per game (115.58). It’s Guice’s turn to shine now, and he’ll hear his number called a lot this season as he looks ease the pressure off the Tigers passing game.
2. Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia - Watching Eason’s development heading into 2017 is one of the top storylines for the SEC. The former five-star recruit faced his share of growing pains last season as the Bulldogs starting quarterback, but head coach Kirby Smart stuck with him. Georgia has been picked by the media to win the SEC East, but it can only do so if Eason takes a step forward in his development. As a freshman, Eason threw for 2,430 yards while averaging 11.9 yards per completion. And while those numbers are pretty good for a true freshman, his accuracy slacked, as he completed just 55.1% of his passes and was picked up eight times. If Eason can continue making strides in the right direction, this Georgia team could contend for an SEC title.
3. Jarrett Stidham, QB, Auburn - After the whole debacle at Baylor that saw coach Art Bryles lose his job, former star recruit Jarrett Stidham opted for a fresh start. Stidham spent a year in the JUCO ranks but is now back at the FBS level playing for Auburn. During his time at Baylor, Stidham showed why he was such a highly touted recruit, leading the nation in yards per play (9.21). Stidham completed 68.8% of his passes for 1,265 yards and 12 touchdowns. On paper, Stidham should fit this Auburn offense perfectly with what Gus Malzahn wants to run. However, John Franklin III looked like a perfect fit a year ago and has since moved to wide receiver. With that being said, if Stidham comes as advertised, he’s got a shot to lead Auburn to a playoff spot.
Most Important Conference Matchup: Auburn vs. Alabama
The SEC sees its share of great matchups every season. Some matchups, however, are not created equally and present much more meaning than others. This year’s version of the Iron Bowl has the potential to be one of great magnitude. Auburn and Alabama come into this season with a ton of hype surrounding both of these programs. Alabama begins 2017 with the usual expectations of winning the SEC and securing a spot in the College Football Playoff. Auburn is looking to spoil Alabama’s happy ending and has the talent to do so this year.
Saban has owned Gus Malzahn over the past couple seasons, smothering the Auburn offense. In the last two games of this series, Auburn has averaged just 221.5 yards of total offense, well below its average in other games.
|Year||Total Offense Vs. Alabama||Average Total Offense Vs. Other Teams|
|2015||261 yards (91 rushing, 170 passing)||379.1 yards|
|2016||182 yards (66 rushing, 116 passing)||462.3 yards|
Clearly, facing Alabama is like facing no other defense, but that the offensive production drops that much is alarming. However, Auburn has something it didn’t have in either of those years: a true dual-threat quarterback. Alabama has struggled to defend dual-threat quarterbacks in the past, and if Stidham lives up to his expectations this season, he could present a huge problem for the Tide. More likely than not, these two teams will be fighting for the top spot in the SEC West, but this game could mean much more than just a trip to Atlanta.
Last season was down year for the SEC. Alabama may have made it to the College Football Playoff, but every other SEC team finished with at least four losses, finishing no higher than 13 in either the AP or Coaches Poll.
With that being said, 2016 is behind us, and 2017 looks to be much brighter for the conference that was once dubbed the best in college football. Although Alabama goes into the season as the favorite to win the conference, there are at least four other teams that will give Saban and the Tide a run for their money.
Auburn and LSU in the SEC West and Florida and Georgia in the East all look to have strong teams, ready to take a leap forward in the conference. While LSU and Auburn will get their shot at Alabama in the regular season, Florida and Georgia won’t get a shot until a potential matchup in the SEC Championship. The SEC East will likely come down to Florida and Georgia, although I wouldn’t necessarily count Tennessee out just yet. And while there are clear-cut favorites for both divisions, there are a few teams that could surprise in the conference including South Carolina, Mississippi State, and Arkansas.
The SEC surely isn’t short on talent either. Plenty of potential All-Americans and major awards candidates litter the rosters of teams throughout the conference. Most notably, keep an eye on RB Derrius Guice, as he should get a lot of early Heisman hype as one of the best backs in the country. Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts must take a step forward in his development, but should still be one of the most dynamic signal callers that the conference has to offer.
Don’t forget about Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald either. Fitzgerald is one of the best dual-threat quarterbacks in the country, finishing with 1,375 rushing yards and 2,423 passing yards. There are also plenty of break-out candidates to watch out for, like Florida RB Jordan Scarlett, Ole Miss QB Shea Patterson, and South Carolina QB Jake Bentley.
All in all, this conference is going to come down to Alabama taking care of business in the West, and the winner of the Florida-Georgia game. As the SEC Championship moves to the all-new Mercedes-Benz Stadium, the first matchup it should see is between Alabama and Florida. Once again, Alabama is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball and has the best coaching in the SEC.
Picking Florida to win a third SEC East title in a row is not easy, but this Gators team has plenty of talented skill players on offense and a young but experienced defense. If this Florida team can find stability at quarterback, it could have a good chance at upsetting the Tide in the championship matchup. Until that’s proven true, the SEC is Alabama’s to lose.
Edited by Jazmyn Brown.
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