We have finally arrived upon the first weekend of college football, and I for one could not be more excited. My focus is always on the Southeastern Conference. It is very hard to predict this year outside of Alabama, but I will give my best shot.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Projected Record: 13-0 (8-0), SEC Champion
Impact Players: QB Jalen Hurts, RB Bo Scarborough, DB Minkah Fitzpatrick
Alabama lost a lot of talent to the NFL this year particularly on defense, but the Tide return one of the most talented offenses in the country led by sophomore quarterback Jalen Hurts. For all the criticism of Hurts in the offseason, he did win SEC Offensive Player of the Year last year as a freshman.
If Hurts improves as a passer, Alabama will be that much more deadly. His job will be made easier by the return of a talented receiving corps led by Calvin Ridley and a star-studded running back group led by Bo Scarborough.
The defense lost a lot of talent in the offseason but should be just fine as Minkah Fitzpatrick, Rashaan Evans and Da’Ron Payne look to pick up the slack on this stop unit. Saban’s team again runs the table, wins the SEC Championship and gets to the playoff again this year.
2. Auburn Tigers
Projected Record: 10-2 (6-2)
Impact Players: QB Jarrett Stidham, RB Kamryn Pettway, DB Tray Matthews
The Auburn Tigers are poised to have a very good season as Jarrett Stidham seems like he will be the missing piece at quarterback to get head coach Gus Malzahn’s offense going on all cylinders. Auburn has enough talent (including the SEC’s leading rusher from 2016 in Kamyrn Pettway, a deep receiving corps and a solid defense) around Stidham to seriously contend for the West this year. They will stumble late yet again against rivals Georgia and Alabama to come up just short of going to Atlanta.
3. LSU Tigers
Projected Record: 9-3 (5-3)
Impact Players: RB Derrius Guice, LB Arden Key, DE Christian LaCouture
Ed Orgeron is embarking on his first season as the permanent head coach of LSU and hired Matt Canada as offensive coordinator in the offseason to help shore up that side of the football. Canada will have at his disposal an offense led by superstar running back Derrius Guice, who has a chance to contend for the Heisman this season in my mind, but other than that has a lot of question marks. The biggest question mark is how will senior quarterback Danny Etling fair? Will he continue to be just okay or will he take a step forward in the new offense?
LSU will be good in 2017, but mediocre quarterback play and a rebuilding (yet still talented) defense will keep them from being great this year. Watch out for them in the future though.
4. Texas A&M Aggies
Projected Record: 8-4 (4-4)
Impact Players: WR Christian Kirk, RB Trayveon Williams, DB Armani Watts
Head coach Kevin Sumlin has to do well this season, or he will be gone. That is all there is to it. The Aggies always seem to do incredible in the first half of the season but stumble down the stretch. This year will tell a similar tale despite having star power in running back Trayveon Williams, dynamic wide receiver Christian Kirk and others. Will 8-4 be enough to calm down the athletic department and make them keep Sumlin? Doubt it. Texas A&M (by today’s standards) can do better.
5. Arkansas Razorbacks
Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5)
Players to Watch: QB Austin Allen, RB Devwah Whaley, C Frank Ragnow
Bret Bielema was the talk of college football when Arkansas hired him away from Wisconsin in 2013. However, Bielema has not lived up to the hype at Arkansas, as he has gone 25-26 overall in Fayetteville and has yet to put together a complete team. The Razorbacks had a disappointing 2016 that ended with a loss to Missouri and a bowl game loss to Virginia Tech, despite being up by 24 points.
Safe to say, there is some grumbling about Bielema. That will not change this year, but hey, at least the offense, led by Austin Allen, will score some points.
6. Mississippi State Bulldogs
Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5)
Players to Watch: QB Nick Fitzgerald, WR Donald Gray, LB Leo Lewis
Nick Fitzgerald is one of the best quarterbacks in the conference. Unfortunately, the guys around him (overall) are just not talented enough for State to contend in the West. Combine that with a tough schedule that includes an East crossover game against Georgia in Athens, and Mississippi State’s record will not show how good they are. They will still sneak up on some teams though.
7. Ole Miss Rebels
Projected Record: 5-7 (1-7)
Impact Players: QB Shea Patterson, WR Van Jefferson, DE Marquis Haynes
It is safe to say Ole Miss has had a tough offseason. Things are not going to get any better anytime soon with their fall NCAA hearing looming. Hugh Freeze is obviously gone too, and Matt Luke will head coach his first game as an interim. This Ole Miss team just does not have enough talent (outside of Shea Patterson and a good receiving corps) to improve on their 5-7 record from 2016.
1. Florida Gators
Projected Record: 9-3 (6-2)
Impact Players: WR Antonio Callaway, RB Jordan Scarlett, DB Duke Dawson
Choosing the winner of the East this year was very difficult. I got Florida winning the division based on the fact that you know what you are going to get with the Gators.
Georgia is the popular pick to win the East, but they have a lot of question marks. (Rule of thumb: Never pick Georgia to win the East until they do it, and never pick Alabama to not win the West until it happens.) The East will come down to the annual meeting in Jacksonville, and the Gators will come out on top for the fourth straight time.
Jim McElwain has done a good job in his two seasons in Gainesville, but his teams have struggled on offense, which is supposed to be his forte. The Gators lost a lot on defense, but they still have a lot of young talent and will not take a major step back.
The offensive line is solid and the receiving corp is underrated led by Antonio Callaway (if he stays out of trouble after his one-game suspension). If McElwain can get solid quarterback play this season (Cc: Feleipe Franks), the Gators are going to be really good.
2. Georgia Bulldogs
Predicted Record: 10-2 (6-2)
Impact Players: QB Jacob Eason, RB Nick Chubb, DT Trent Thompson
Georgia is the most talented team on paper in the East, but will they take that next step and win it? Not this year. The Bulldogs have some serious questions surrounding the offensive line, a talented defense that has a history of underperforming, a shaky kicking game and more.
However, if the Bulldogs answer some of those questions (mainly at offensive line) they could have a fine season. They definitely have the most upside of any team in the East.
Their offense is looking for some serious improvement as they return Jacob Eason at quarterback and a stacked running back corps led by Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The defense has the potential to be one of the best in the conference. Will it happen though?
Smart has been killing it on the recruiting trail even if his team did not fare well on the field in 2016. The Bulldogs will have a bounce back year this season and come just short of winning the East. Look out for this team in 2018. They could potentially reach the playoff.
3. South Carolina Gamecocks
Projected Record: 7-5 (4-4)
Impact Players: QB Jake Bentley, LB Skai Moore, WR Deebo Samuel
This season will be pretty much the opposite of Will Muschamp teams so far. The South Carolina offense should be fun to watch and score a lot of points this year, but their defense will be the weak link. The Gamecocks just do not have enough talent on that side of the ball.
That is why I see South Carolina having an up-and-down year. Watch out for this team in the future when Muschamp gets his players though.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
Projected Record: 7-5 (3-5)
Impact Players: WR Jauan Jennings, TE Ethan Wolf, DB Todd Kelly Jr.
Tennessee should have won the East last season, but they somehow did not (even though they beat both Florida and Georgia) go to Atlanta due in part to injuries and mainly to bad coaching. (I have been clear on my thoughts that Butch Jones being a coaching disaster in the past.)
The Volunteers lost a lot of talent in the offseason, and it appears their window to win the East has closed for a while. That will certainly be the case this season.
5. Vanderbilt Commodores
Projected Record: 6-6 (3-5)
Impact Players: RB Ralph Webb, DB LaDarius Wiley, LB Oren Burks
Derek Mason has quietly done a solid job in Nashville. The Commodores returned to a bowl game last year for the first time since 2013. Star running back Ralph Webb and several other key players return and give Vanderbilt confidence that they are bound for a big year.
However, their overall record will not really convey how good this team is as their schedule is very difficult. They will make the postseason once again in 2017 though.
6. Missouri Tigers
Projected Record: 6-6 (2-6)
Impact Players: QB Drew Lock, WR J’Mon Moore, RB Damarea Crockett
I am higher than a lot of people on Missouri this year. They were better than there 4-8 record showed last year. The offense, led by junior quarterback Drew Lock, star wideout J’Mon Moore, who led the conference in receiving yards per game last year and sophomore running back Damarea Crockett, who is the most underrated back in the SEC in my mind, etc, is extremely talented and will score a bunch of points this season.
Can the defense stop anyone in 2017? That is the question 2nd-year head coach Barry Odom will have to answer after his defense struggled mightily in 2016. Ultimately, I see Missouri getting through a tough schedule and getting to a bowl game.
7. Kentucky Wildcats
Projected Record: 5-7 (1-7)
Impact Players: QB Stephen Johnson, LB Jordan Jones, RB Benny Snell Jr.
Safe to say, I am not as high as a lot of people on Kentucky this year. While they have a pretty good team this year, I believe they will regress this season. The difference between not getting to the postseason and getting to a bowl is their season finale against Lamar Jackson and Louisville. Louisville is not going to lose this year.