By Lyn Scarbrough
Lindy’s Sports Publications
The 2017 Southeastern Conference football season produced a strange outcome.
Alabama and Georgia appeared to be on track to face each other in the SEC Championship Game. The Bulldogs made their way to the nation’s No. 1 ranking by mid-November, only to lose by double digits to Auburn.
That opened the door for Alabama to move to the top spot before the Crimson Tide also lost by double digits to Auburn.
Then, Georgia’s revenge win over Auburn in Atlanta set in motion events that led to the Bulldogs facing the Tide in Atlanta after all, but this time in the National Championship Game. Bama’s second half comeback earned the national title for a team that not only didn’t win its league championship, it didn’t even win its own division.
You can’t make this stuff up.
But if experts, including Lindy’s, are right, you can expect the same results for the 2018 season, although with a different look, starting on the coaching sideline.
Heading into the 2018 season six SEC teams (counting Ole Miss) will have head coaches who didn’t hold that position at the school when the 2017 season got underway.
Jimbo Fisher moves from Florida State to Texas A&M; Joe Moorhead takes over for Dan Mullen at Mississippi State; Mullen replaces Jim McElwain at Florida; Chad Morris moves from SMU to Arkansas; Jeremy Pruitt will lead Tennessee rather than help Nick Saban; and Matt Luke had “interim” removed from the head coach title at Ole Miss. That’s almost half of the league’s teams with new full-time head coaches entering the season.
So, can the 2018 campaign match last season for strong teams, surprises and maybe another national championship?
Since Alabama is the pick to claim the conference championship, we’ll begin with the Western Division.
The Crimson Tide has everything needed to defend its national title … offensive talent and depth, defensive strength and a workable schedule. Offensively, Bama returns four offensive line starters, four quality running backs, adequate receivers and two quarterbacks who are proven winners – Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa. Defensively, the Tide returns just three defensive starters, but that unit is always stingy.
The schedule could be Alabama’s most important advantage. Rebuilding Louisville is the only prominent non-conference opponent, while it’s only Top 10 game is against Auburn, at home to end the regular season.
Auburn, again Bama’s biggest threat in the West Division, faces a much different schedule, which could be the Tigers biggest disadvantage. They play three preseason Top 10 teams, opening with Pac-12 favorite Washington and closing with back-to-back conference games in Athens and in Tuscaloosa. But, the defending division champs are loaded.
The defensive front seven, especially the defensive line, is probably Auburn’s best in 30 years and the defensive backfield is solid. Junior Jarrett Stidham may be the top quarterback in the conference; the receiving corps is underrated, but the line is inexperienced. SEC MVP Kerryon Johnson is gone, but the Tigers have had at least one 1,000 rusher for nine consecutive seasons, so don’t worry too much about that.
Mississippi State is the division dark horse, playing in the shadow of the Tide and Tigers, but capable of winning any game on the schedule. The Bulldogs include eight offensive starters including senior headliners quarterback Nick Fitzgerald and running back Aeris Williams, along with four offensive line starters. The entire defensive front four returns, including Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. And the schedule … one of the most manageable in the league.
Texas A&M faces two significant questions – Who will be the quarterback? How about that challenging schedule?
Fisher’s staff will likely decide between Nick Starkel and Kellen Mond under center. The starter will share the backfield with explosive runner Trayveon Williams, a 1,000-yard rusher as a freshman. Defensively, seven starters return, but the 2017 team finished 87th nationally in scoring defense. Daniel LaCamera is the SEC’s top returning placekicker.
The schedule? Clemson plays in College Station the second week, then games in Tuscaloosa and Auburn are in October and November. The Aggies also play at South Carolina and at Mississippi State in consecutive games.
Considering LSU … remember those Texas A&M questions.
Who will be the quarterback to run the spread offense – Myles Brennan, Lowell Narcisse or could it be Ohio State transfer Joe Burrow? The offensive line returns three starters, but experienced depth is thin at receiver and in the backfield. The Tigers, which ranked 12th in total defense last season, return some of the SEC’s best, including cornerback Greedy Williams, linebacker Devin White and tackle Rashard Lawrence.
The Tigers schedule? They will face four of Lindy’s preseason Top 10, including against Miami and Auburn, both away from home, in the first three weeks. They also have three consecutive home games against Georgia, Mississippi State and Alabama. Is any schedule nationally tougher? Not likely.
Ole Miss has the top receiving corps in the conference, along with four returning offensive line starters and underrated quarterback Jordan Ta’amu. The high-octane offense will be among the SEC’s best. Not so much defensively. Last season, the Rebels finished 115th nationally in total defense and 123rd in rushing defense.
Arkansas could be more competitive than expected under Chad Morris with 17 returning starters. That includes four offensive line starters, three on the defensive line and three linebackers. But, there’s still not enough firepower to be a division contender this season.
Georgia is the overwhelming choice in the East Division. Offensively, the Bulldogs lost a lot, but still appear to have it all. Experienced quarterback (Jake Fromm) and a powerful breakaway running threat (D’Andre Swift). Three returning offensive line starters, along with talented receivers and an outstanding placekicker.
Last season, the defense was sixth nationally in scoring defense and total defense. Only four starters return, but they include all-conference candidates. The non-conference schedule is workable with only a home game against Georgia Tech among major opponents. The Dawgs end the SEC season against Auburn at home, open it at South Carolina and play in Baton Rouge. Those, along with the Florida game in Jacksonville, should be the biggest challenges.
South Carolina could be a legit threat for the Bulldogs. Junior quarterback Jake Bentley returns, but there is little depth behind him. The SEC’s most dangerous offensive threat, Deebo Samuel, returns after missing all but three 2017 games due to injury. He is joined by three other experienced wideouts and three returning offensive line starters.
The Gamecocks were solid defensively last season (25th nationally in scoring defense) and was very opportunistic, leading the SEC in turnovers. The punter and placekicker return.
If South Carolina can knock off Georgia early, which is not impossible, look out.
Dan Mullen’s first Florida team should be better than the Gators’ 2017 team that won just four games. The offense should be much improved with 10 returning starters, including the entire line and two wide receivers. Feleipe Franks returns at quarterback, but his leadership and production must improve. Defensively, the Gators also dropped off last season, so improvement is needed there. The schedule is manageable, but the Sept. 29 game in Starkville should be interesting.
Missouri could be listed too low here if the defensive production can come anywhere close to the offense and another postseason bowl looks realistic. Nine offensive starters return, including Drew Lock, who led the SEC in passing yardage and is one of the nation’s best. That unit has unlimited potential with all five offensive line starters returning, along with receiver depth and talent.
On the other side of the ball, all linebackers return, as well as defensive tackle Terry Beckner, one of the league’s best. But, the defense was 97th nationally in scoring defense a year ago.
Kentucky won four SEC games a year ago (including over Tennessee), had two other narrow league losses and played in the Music City Bowl. More is expected this season, but improving the record could be difficult. Nine defensive starters return, but the unit was 91st in total defense in 2017. Junior Benny Snell is one of the SEC’s top runners and four offensive line starters return.
It has been a long time since Tennessee was a consistent league contender, which seems strange to longtime SEC followers, but it’s true. Last season, things hit rock bottom as the Volunteers went 0-8 in the conference and surrendered over 40 points five times, including 42 to Vandy and 50 to Missouri. Pruitt brings renewed excitement, but there’s no reason to expect great improvement. Back-to-back games at Georgia and Auburn are followed by Alabama in Neyland Stadium. And, the season opener is against West Virginia. Better days are ahead, just not likey in 2018.
Vanderbilt has things going for it, just not enough of them. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur returns for his senior year; there are four returning offensive line starters; it’s a senior laden defense that was competitive last season. That’s about it. The schedule, especially away from home, is brutal and the season may be, as well. Qualifying for a bowl game would be a huge achievement.
Here’s how Lindy’s sees the Southeastern Conference race:
- Georgia – Fromm is a winner. Running back a strength despite losing Chubb and Michel. Defense could take a small step back, but schedule is favorable. Should repeat at the top.
- South Carolina – Offense solid with Bentley and Samuel. Defense should be solid, too. Looks like second best East Division team. Big, big game hosting Georgia early.
- Florida – The defense should be solid enough and the offense should improve. Mullen has succeeded in Gainesville before. But, likely still not at SEC championship level.
- Missouri – This should be one of the nation’s most explosive offenses led by Lock. But, the defense must improve drastically in order to improve the record.
- Kentucky – Benny Snell is one of the league’s best runners and nine defensive starters return. Passing game and run defense must improve for significant move up.
- Tennessee – This team has very few difference makers, uncertainty at quarterback and offensive line, and a difficult schedule. But, 0-8 league mark again not likely.
- Vanderbilt – Offense should be competitive with seven returning starters, including QB Shurmur. Defense was not strong in SEC games. Need more playmakers.
- Alabama – Running back and offensive line strong with two talented quarterback options. Defense had losses, but strong again. Schedule ideal for a title run.
- Auburn – Defensive front seven among nation’s best. Stidham one of the best quarterbacks, too. But, are they good enough to get over the schedule hurdles?
- Mississippi State – QB Fitzgerald and DT Jeffrey Simmons among 17 returning starters. Running game strong. Favorable schedule. In a good spot as underdog to Bama, Auburn.
- Texas A&M – Team will be tougher under Jimbo. Lost some talented skill players and defense has been Achilles heel. Schedule is a challenge. Not likely title contender in 2018.
- LSU – Offense needs playmakers and a difference-making quarterback. Defense has some of the league’s best players, but enough to offset nation’s toughest schedule?
- Ole Miss – This should be another explosive offense with dangerous receiving corps and strong line. But, defense could struggle and there’s no bowl bid … again.
- Arkansas – Chad Morris has a challenge; Bielema didn’t leave a contender behind. Last year, defense couldn’t stop anybody from scoring. Could win a few, but not enough.