The 2016 SEC football season is finally here.
Chris Lee gets you caught up on the biggest stories heading into Week 1 and gives his predictions for all the big games in the conference.
The NCAA and Ole Miss
The NCAA seems to be out for blood when it comes to Ole Miss and its investigation of its football program. Why else would it, as Yahoo’s Pat Forde reported last week, grant immunity to players from Auburn, Mississippi State and one other SEC West school in exchange for their testimony about Ole Miss in the recruiting process?
It’s another chapter in a long, complicated story, one that probably won’t be resolved until 2017. For a wonderful recap of what is, and what might be, check out this excellent podcast from RebelGrove.com.
Quarterback questions to start the season
Ole Miss (Chad Kelly) and Tennessee (Josh Dobbs) are in excellent shape behind center, but past that, a number of teams have significant quarterback questions. When Brandon Harris, who completed 53.8 percent of his passes last year, is most people’s choice as the league’s third-best quarterback, that doesn’t speak well for the league. .
At least LSU knows who its quarterback is. That can’t be said for everyone.
South Carolina will start one of Brandon McElwain, Jake Bentley or Perry Orth. Being an experienced senior could tilt things in Orth’s favor, though he was fairly pedestrian (54.8 percent, 12 TDs, nine interceptions) in 2015.
Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen hasn’t picked between sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, a former two-star recruit who was Dak Prescott’s backup a year ago, or junior Damian Williams, a former three-star high-schooler. Williams didn’t see any action last year, but did see some playing time in ’13 and ’14. Fitzgerald was 11-of-14 for 235 yards and three scores in garbage-time action last season.
Preseason No. 1 Alabama hasn’t settled on a man. The word is that freshman Jalen Hurts is the most talented of the quarterback bunch, but coach Nick Saban will decide between Cooper Bateman or Blake Barnett for the opener.
Beyond the top three, the most solid option seems to be Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight, who threw for 348 yards in Oklahoma’s upset of Alabama in the 2014 Sugar Bowl. But, Knight threw just 16 touchdowns against 14 interceptions in his last two seasons, and lost his starting job early in ’15 before transferring out.
Georgia elected to go with Greyson Lambert over the nation’s top-rated freshman quarterback, Jacob Eason. Lambert’s more of a game manager, but did post good numbers (12 touchdowns, two interceptions, 63.3 percent completion percentage) last year.
Auburn will turn back to Shawn White, who managed just one touchdown against four picks in 143 throws last year (though he did complete 58 percent of his tosses) after JUCO transfer John Franklin III was a major disappointment in fall camp.
Arkansas hands the job to Austin Allen, brother of two-year starter Brandon Allen. Austin, a junior, has completed 9-of-19 career throws.
Vanderbilt (Kyle Shurmur), Kentucky (Drew Barker) and Missouri (Drew Lock) hand its jobs over to highly-recruited sophomores who ended 2015 with the starting jobs, though none completed more than 50 percent of their throws last season.
At Florida, starter Luke Del Rio has already spent time at Oregon State and Alabama, and has never thrown a collegiate pass.
On the whole, a lot of offensive coordinators may not sleep well before their openers.
Overall predicted regular-season records are in parenthesis, followed by league marks. Power rankings are handed out based on my perception of team strength and not projected record.
- Alabama (11-1, 7-1)
- LSU (10-2, 6-2)
- Tennessee (10-2, 6-2)
- Ole Miss (9-3, 6-2)
- Georgia (9-3, 5-3)
- Texas A&M (8-4, 5-3)
- Arkansas (7-5, 4-4)
- Florida (7-5, 4-4)
- Auburn (6-6, 3-5)
- Vanderbilt (7-5, 4-4)
- Mississippi St. (1-7, 4-8)
- Kentucky (5-7, 2-6)
- Missouri (4-8, 1-7)
- South Carolina (3-9)
SEC Championship Game: Alabama over Tennessee
OFFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
Only players at skill positions are ranked
- Leonard Fournette, RB, LSU
- Nick Chubb, RB, Georgia
- Chad Kelly, QB, Ole Miss
- Christian Kirk, WR, Texas A&M
- Josh Dobbs, QB, Tennessee
DEFENSIVE PLAYER OF THE YEAR
- Myles Garrett, DE, Texas A&M
- Jonathan Allen, DE, Alabama
- Jalen Tabor, CB, Florida
- Reuben Foster, LB, Alabama
- Zach Cunningham, LB, Vanderbilt
THIS WEEK’S PICKS
Point spreads according to covers.com as of 2 p.m. Thursday.
All times Central, p.m. unless noted
Appalachian State at Tennessee (-21), Thursday, 6:30 (SEC Network)
The Mountaineers are the Sun Belt favorite, and that 11-2 mark and its 17.6 average margin of victory from last year was eye-catching. But ASU played a ridiculously-easy schedule—teams it beat were ranked 139th, on average, by Jeff Sagarin—and was throttled, 41-10, by Clemson, the only good team it played. That said, Appalachian State ran the ball well on Clemson (4.5 yards per carry) and could do the same against the Vols. Whether UT covers the number isn’t an easy guess, but I’ll take Tennessee, 42-20, for lack of a better idea.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt (-4.5), Thursday, 7 (ESPN)
Carolina comes in with a new coach, Will Muschamp, a three-headed starter at quarterback, a freshman tailback, and a slew of new faces in the defensive backfield, plus, the loss of its best was-supposed-to-return player in LB Skai Moore to injury. Vanderbilt has questions of its own, starting with an offense and special teams that were horrible a year ago. But what we do know is this: the ‘Dores have more returning lettermen (56-40, using Phil Steele’s numbers and adjusting for losses I know of), they’re playing at home, and they should have an excellent defense. I’ll go with what I know. Vanderbilt, 24-13.
Missouri at West Virginia (-10), Saturday, 11 a.m. (Fox Sports 1)
WVU likes to run the ball, and without Wendall Smallwood (now in the NFL), it’ll might have to do so less. WVU QB Skyler Howard was inconsistent, but did throw for 532 yards in a bowl win over Arizona State. The Mountaineer defense lost most of its starters but returns tons of experience. Missouri will put up a substantial fight on defense, but I don’t think it can score. 24-13, Mountaineers.
South Alabama at Mississippi St. (-28), Saturday, 11 a.m. (SEC Network)
Guess what? South Alabama doesn’t have a QB, either. Expect MSU to run, run, run with Brandon Holloway against a USA defense that couldn’t stop it (5.4 yards per carry) a year ago. MSU, 38-7
LSU (-10.5) vs. Wisconsin, Saturday 2:30 in Green Bay, Wisc. (ABC)
The big question is whether the Badgers can score against their old defensive coordinator Dave Aranda, who’s now at LSU. That was sometimes an issue last season, and even though the defense allowed 13.7 points per game, it was against a soft schedule and a lot of its starters are gone. I’ll go with Leonard Fournette’s Tigers, 27-10.
UCLA at Texas A&M (-3), Saturday, 2:30 (CBS)
The Aggies have a ton of star-power on offense with Kirk leading one of the country’s best crews of pass-catchers, and they’ve got play-makers on defense, led by Garrett. But there always seems to be some distraction in College Station, and one of those will be the suspension of WR Speedy Noil for Saturday. I trust UCLA’s coach, Jim Mora, more than I do the Aggies’ Kevin Sumlin, and by the way, UCLA QB Josh Rosen could win the Heisman. Bruins, 30-29.
Louisiana Tech at Arkansas (-26), Saturday, 3 (SEC Network)
Tech’s sneaky-good, having won nine games in three of its last four seasons. Breaking in a new QB, expect Arkansas to run the ball behind a massive offensive line that has an enormous size advantage against a Tech front seven. Depending on who you trust, Tech has between six and nine starters returning; that, and a road trip to Fayetteville, tilts things in the Razorbacks’ favor by a 41-17 score.
Georgia (-2.5) vs. North Carolina, Saturday, 4:30 in Atlanta (ESPN)
Carolina shaved a whopping 14.5 points off the 39 it gave up in 2014, thanks to former Auburn coach Gene Chizik becoming its defensive coordinator. The Tar Heels also led the country in yards per play (7.28) on offense. But Carolina also gave up 5.1 yards per carry, and an astonishing 424 on average in its final three games. With Chubb leading a talented backfield and the Bulldogs playing virtually at home in the Georgia Dome, look for a 38-33 Bulldog win.
Southern Miss at Kentucky (-6.5), Saturday, 6:30 (ESPNU)
Southern Miss’s went 9-5 and averaged 39.9 points per game, and now it has the man UK fired, Shannon Dawson, as its offensive coordinator. The concern in Lexington is whether the Wildcats can play defense, but the good news for UK is that Southern Miss is better through the air than on the ground, and the secondary may be the strength of the Kentucky team. The Wildcats usually play like gangbusters in the season’s first half and playing at home gives them an edge, but this could be too close for comfort. Kentucky 37, USM 34
Massachusetts at Florida (-36.5), Saturday, 6:30 (SEC Network)
The nation’s worst FBS team for 2016? If you believe Lindy’s, that’s Mass, with Athlon’s rating the Minutemen just one notch higher. That said, the Minutemen won two of their last three in 2015, nearly beat Temple in Week 2, and have a respectable coach in Mark Whipple. The only drama will be whether the Gators cover that gaudy point spread, which I’m betting it will given some Gator suspensions and the fact that I’ll believe UF has a good offense when I see it. Florida 35, UMass 7
Southern Cal vs. Alabama (-11.5), Saturday, 7 in Arlington, Texas (ABC)
It’s never fun playing Alabama, but playing a Nick Saban-coached defense with a first-time starter—even if it’s talented junior Max Browne—won’t be a walk in the park. ‘Bama will generally play close to the vest early on and peak towards the season’s end, so this has the grind-it-out feel of a game in another era. Alabama, 24-13.
Clemson (-7) at Auburn, Saturday, 8 (ESPN)
Clemson lost a lot from the country’s No. 10 defense a year ago. But the Tigers don’t re-build now, they re-load, and it’s not a bunch you don’t want to play when you lack answers at quarterback and tailback. Clemson 34, Auburn 13
Ole Miss at Florida State (-4.5), Monday, Sept. 5 (ESPN)
Speaking of teams that don’t re-build, Ole Miss opens on the road against the AP’s No. 4 team. While the Rebels are primed for a nice year (see the prediction above), they’ve also been prone to no-showing under coach Hugh Freeze as they did last year (Florida, Memphis) and the year before (Arkansas). With the distraction of more NCAA trouble looming just before the season, that may not be a good combination. Florida State 30, Ole Miss 17