Last year was one of my worst years as far as SEC picks go. I had Ole Miss winning the West, and that's one of the better things in my favor. The Rebels would have won the whole SEC if not for that bananas ending against Arkansas, as they'd have won the West with that win and beaten the Will Grier-less Gators in Atlanta had they not given up that 4th-and-25.
But much the rest? Not so good. Alabama and Auburn both at 9-3 was the worst of the West. I had the East nearly all wrong: Florida at 6-6, Georgia at 11-1, Mizzou at 8-4, South Carolina and Kentucky both in bowls. I've had better years.
Looking forward, this is going to be a throwback season to years like 2011 when Alabama and LSU stood above everyone else in the league. The Tide and Tigers are in a class of their own, and if anyone else wins the conference crown, I'll be surprised. It's a stratified conference this year, as I think the West has a three distinct tiers while the East has two.
Onto the picks. I made a first pass at them to line up with what I found out about coaches versus their various peer classes and then made a few tweaks here and there based on factors like two of the conference's head coaches being brand new and other prevailing conditions.
This side of the league is once again the tougher one, and it's not particularly close either.
The two College Football Playoff contenders are in a tier of their own atop the division and conference. Ole Miss will, um, miss their NFL Draft picks enough to be in the tier behind the top two, and I think Texas A&M addressed enough of its issues enough to move up alongside the Rebels there. The other three are teams in varying states of rebuilding and sit in a tier below. Yes, I know the Mississippi schools have the same record here; I have The School Up North winning the Egg Bowl.
The Tigers upgraded on defense by not having a bunch of players declare for the draft early (for once) and letting Kevin Steele walk and hiring Dave Aranda instead. But you already thought the Tiger defense would be good.
Yes, I'm predicting a team with Brandon Harris as the quarterback to go undefeated. I know. Here's the thing: Harris was mostly fine as a complement to Leonard Fournette prior to the Alabama game, and it was in that game that he suffered a sports hernia that affected him the rest of the way. He was also a true sophomore, which means he has room to grow. Not every second-year quarterback is Tim Tebow, Johnny Manziel, or Jameis Winston. If Harris progresses as he should and stays healthy, this team is more than stocked for a run of this caliber. The showdown with the Tide is in Baton Rouge, and that fact puts them over the top.
There will be no gross underestimating of the Tide again this year from me. You know by now about the uncertain quarterback situation, but the best top-to-bottom collection of pass targets in the Saban era ameliorates that a bit. So does having six consecutive No. 1 recruiting classes.
The schedule is about as unfavorable as it could be, with four of the five toughest opponents coming away from home. This matters because if Bama comes in a little below projections and ends up a peer with more than just LSU, Saban is under .500 for his tenure in Tuscaloosa against peers on the road. His 2010, 2013, and 2014 teams faced two road peers and went 1-1 against them in each year (the losses: South Carolina in '10, Auburn in '13, Ole Miss in '14). Given that, despite his brilliance, Saban still only has one undefeated record in his career, betting on one (but only one) loss seems like the right move.
I know the Aggies had a lot of issues last year, but they actually did address them in constructive ways. Jake Spavital wasn't working, so Kevin Sumlin went and got Noel Mazzone to replace him. Mazzone coached up the No. 20 S&P+ offense in 2013, the No. 8 S&P+ offense in 2014, and then, despite having a true freshman quarterback, the No. 23 S&P+ offense in 2015 (two spots ahead of Bama).
Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray left, and the former complained of bad chemistry on his way out. Enter grad transfer Trevor Knight, who is such a glue guy that OU players made him a captain last year despite him losing the starting job. You don't want him throwing deep crosses over the middle, but Mazzone's "read option and swing pass-apalooza" offense is pretty much perfect for what Knight does well. Plus, A&M has four guys who have the ability to take the dozens of screens and five-yard slants they'll be catching for big gains if they can make their guy miss.
With the defense likely to hit a groove in its second season under John Chavis, I expect to see things turn around for the Aggies. They won't be real contenders for a division title—fast defenses that can disguise coverage will be death to A&M's offense, and guess what Alabama and LSU have?—but I expect to see some pressure come off of Sumlin with a nice rebound year.
The Rebels will miss their departed players, but I think they return enough to knock off FSU and its redshirt freshman quarterback off the bat. I also think they have enough issues that they'll lose a game they shouldn't, like the one to an Auburn team that will be stingy enough against the pass to maybe pull that one off.
I don't buy that the NCAA investigation issues from the offseason will have any effect; if anything, they'll bring the team closer under an us-against-the-world mentality. The Rebels have the conference's best quarterback, which will keep them in plenty of games, but they don't have the depth to shrug off the personnel changes they've had and perform at the same level as a year ago.
The Bulldogs are going to miss Dak Prescott dearly, but they've gotten to a point of consistency under Dan Mullen that they're going to be fine. I understand why, given history, the preseason consensus pegged MSU seventh in the division both last year and this year, and going with a first-time defensive coordinator in Peter Sirmon adds more risk than there otherwise could've been.
However, Mullen has been running this show since 2009. The program has been fully molded in his image for years now, and he's succeeded despite having a revolving door at DC for most of the time. The schedule is odd, with a road game at UMass and a road contest at BYU that could end up a loss where it would've been a win in Starkville, but it is favorable for the win count. The games they weren't going to win anyway (Alabama and LSU) are on the road, leaving open the home schedule for closer games like Auburn and Arkansas where the cowbells could swing the outcome. Toss in an easy East draw, and getting to seven or eight wins should be in MSU's near future.
Auburn is a counterpoint to Texas A&M, as the 2015 season revealed deep problems for both. I am fairly satisfied with how TAMU addressed its issues. But Auburn? Not so much.
Quarterback proved to be a big problem, but the Tigers didn't get a grad transfer fix. They did get JUCO transfer John Franklin III, who didn't wow me on tape and didn't win the starting job for Week 1. Sean White gets to go first, and while he was the best looking guy in the spring game, he lacks the mobility that all of Gus Malzahn's top performers have had. The top three running backs either transferred or were dismissed, and an already-underwhelming receiving corps lost its top two yardage guys without a clear set of younger guys to step up and produce at a higher level.
There wasn't a thing AU could do to keep Will Muschamp from leaving his coordinator position for a head coaching job, but LSU wasn't exactly sad to see Kevin Steele jump to the division's other team of Tigers. Any time your new coordinator hire isn't missed by his former school and picked your job in no small part because of the state's pension program, it's hardly a ringing endorsement.
Not too long ago, I thought Malzahn was going to be a long term solution on the Plains. Now, I'm not so sure. I just don't see what's changed from last year's 7-6 campaign that's going to give the team a real bump this year.
It's not that I'm really down on Arkansas, as its offense has a chance to be pretty great if Austin Allen can replicate much of what his brother accomplished a year ago. I just don't think the team has the horses on defense, though, which means volatility is the name of the game. This team is fully capable of beating Texas A&M and Florida, who I think are two of the better SEC teams, while also dropping games to Auburn and Mississippi State.
The schedule doesn't help a ton. Getting potential playoff contender TCU as the non-conference P5 team is not great, and both Ole Miss and Auburn get the Hogs coming off of byes. Arkansas doesn't get to take its bye until the last week in October, meaning it could be a bit gassed in those games against fresher opponents. It also doesn't help that Bret Bielema is nothing special as an in-game coach. This year is a transitional year, setting up for a bigger 2017.
For much of the East division's history, it was an oligarchy with Florida, Georgia, and Tennessee the ruling class and everyone else the underclass. That pattern got disrupted for a while during the Muschamp era at UF, Georgia's dip in the late 2000s, and UT's post-Fulmer wandering in the wilderness. The old order reasserted itself in 2015, with a yawning gap opening up between the Vols and Bulldogs being tied for second at 5-3 and fourth place Vanderbilt finishing 2-6.
I see no reason why stratification shouldn't be the case again in 2016. There's a good chance that I have the order of teams within the tiers wrong, but if anyone other than Florida, Georgia, or Tennessee finishes in the top three in the East, it's going to be a true shock.
In fact, the bottom four teams in the division have fallen so far behind the rest of the conference that I would be a bit surprised if they beat anyone in league play other than each other. They should all lose to the top three in the East, and they should all lose their cross-division games as well. They're basically starting the year with five SEC losses, and that makes the bowl prospects for any of them bleak.
The Gators have a fairly high ceiling but also a low floor. The starting 22 for UF will be one of the best in the conference, but a lack of depth at receiver, offensive line, linebacker, and secondary means that the team will sink quickly with an injury plague. I said of the 2013 Florida team that, "[w]ith good injury luck, there isn't a team it isn't capable of beating. With bad injury luck, there's scarcely a team on the schedule it couldn't lose to." It's not quite the same because of how bad the bottom of the East is—and how much better of a head coach Jim McElwain is proving to be than Muschamp was—but it's not far off.
The Gators at their best will be capable of beating LSU and FSU, but it's impossible to schedule your best for a particular date. Even though I think the defense will win the day in Knoxville and hold serve in Jacksonville, this team will pick up another loss somewhere like the tricky road trip to Fayetteville in NovemBERT immediately after the Cocktail Party. The second-year head coaching effect and Luke Del Rio's good decision making should buoy the team against sliding in the face of depth issues.
This might be the most disheartening possible breakthrough for the Vols, finally winning ten games but also not going to Atlanta because of yet another loss to Florida. I don't really buy into the "Botch Jones" narrative and think he's more than capable of delivering an excellent season with what should be his best team yet. Replacing Jon Jancek with Bob Shoop should help offset the excessive conservatism of Mike DeBord, and for once, UT isn't a young team.
I do think that Joshua Dobbs's limited passing will cost the team a game somewhere besides Alabama. I've got it as the Florida game, but it just as easily could be the Georgia game. And if I'm wrong and the Vols do beat the Gators, then 11-1 is totally on the table. Even at 10-2, another bowl game romp against a poor, overmatched Big Ten team should give Tennessee a top ten finish. This should be a big year for Big Orange.
No team has given me more problems for predicting than this one. Kirby Smart is a first time head coach, and he could be going with a true freshman quarterback in Jacob Eason. Nick Chubb's brilliance can totally make up for iffy quarterbacking, but his durability is a question going into the season. It's also unknown if there are any true playmakers at receiver.
On the other hand, there is a remarkable amount of continuity for all the change. Smart is a Saban disciple, and the defense had been under Saban disciple Jeremy Pruitt for a couple of years. Jim Chaney is more than capable of running a Richt-like scheme to fit the personnel on hand, and he'll prove to be much better at it than Brian Schottenheimer was. As a bonus, UGA doesn't have a near-guaranteed SEC loss on the schedule like Florida does with LSU and Tennessee does with Alabama.
I could believe a 7-5 finish if Smart struggles in his first year, quarterbacking issues arise with no receivers to help out, and Chubb and Sony Michel continue to have bad injury luck. I could also believe an 11-1 finish where a healthy Chubb and Michel carry an offense where Eason or Greyson Lambert do just enough and the defense is tough as nails. Your guess is as good as mine.
Note: For the order of the next three teams, I used the SEC's tiebreaker and had to go down to part G. Part G is adding up the SEC records of cross-divisional opponents, which gave Mizzou at UK tied at 11-5 and Vandy at 7-9 based on my West division picks. It becomes a two-way tiebreaker at that point, which the Wildcats win head-to-head.
The Wildcats disappointed a year ago, but hope springs anew with the arm of Drew Barker. I'm still waiting for Mark Stoops's elevated recruiting to bear fruit with a bowl appearance, and maybe this year is the year. I think he'll hold serve in his winnable SEC home games, and who knows, knocking off Mizzou and getting a 13th game could happen. The old UK plan of sweeping the non-conference and eking out a couple of SEC wins is not viable while Louisville is as good as it is these days, so finding a third conference victory is the goal for now.
I really don't know what to do with this team. Everyone says Drew Lock has a lot of talent, and I know he was a true freshman in 2015, but his performance in SEC play last year was catastrophically bad: 45.6% completions, 2-6 TD-INT ratio, 78.6 passing efficiency. The only real comparable campaign from an SEC starter was Vandy's Larry Smith in 2010, and that's not anything that anyone wants to be compared to. Even if Lock does progress, he has no help because Mizzou lacks any dynamic playmakers at all on that side of the ball.
The defense should still be solid under Barry Odom, but he dismissed two of the best defensive linemen earlier this month. Only two of the five wins I picked for the team (EMU, Delaware State) feel like sure things. It's a mess.
I feel a little bad having Vandy in sixth in the East because it finished in fourth a year ago and should be a better team. Derek Mason showed tremendous improvement as a head coach and program CEO from his first to his second season, and his defense again should give plenty of teams headaches. Ralph Webb is a nice cornerstone for the offense, and Trent Sherfield would start for plenty of other conference teams.
I'm not sure I'm sold on Kyle Shurmur though, and the schedule isn't that great. Maybe VU will beat Western Kentucky, but it's on the road and the Toppers are hell on wheels. I'm not sure they win at GT, though I'm giving the defense the benefit of the doubt there. Further, winnable conference games against UK and Mizzou are both on the road, and while the 'Dores get Auburn after the Tigers play Arkansas and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks, that one is also a road game. Vanderbilt should improve its record again, but I'm not sure a bowl is in the cards.
Steve Spurrier left the cupboard bare, and Will Muschamp isn't exactly a guy who I'd guess is going to make up for that with head coaching acumen. There just isn't much there, and getting Vandy and UK both on the road is unfortunate. Muschamp will be a significant recruiting upgrade over the prior regime, but the Gamecocks are going to take some lumps in the meantime.
SEC Championship Game
The deeper LSU Tigers will take on a Florida Gators squad that, much like in last year's contest in Atlanta, won't be at full strength due to a few front line players being banged up. Les Miles and crew bulldoze their way to the school's first SEC title since 2011 and the No. 1 seed in the College Football Playoff.
Shots in the Dark
ACC: Clemson over Miami (FL)
Big 12: Oklahoma
Big Ten: Ohio State over Iowa
Pac-12: Stanford over USC
Final Four: LSU, Clemson, Oklahoma, Alabama
National Champion: LSU