Enjoy the rest of your free weekends.
If you’re a football fan — and if you’re reading this story, you probably are a football fan — you don’t have many left.
That’s right: College football is right around the corner.
You’ve been reading about it since January, but it’s almost time to start witnessing it. College football is always a treat (unless you’re a Vanderbilt fan), and this season should be no different.
Here are 10 reasons why the SEC will “rock” in 2016:
As the kids say these days, Week 1 should be “lit.” A good chunk of the SEC is kicking off the season with an intriguing nonconference opponent. Most of the conference isn’t going to be able to afford a sloppy opening appearance, with a few exceptions. An opening loss is never good, but it’s even worse in the SEC where you’re guaranteed eight weeks of competitive football. But winning an opening contest against a Power Five opponent would make a shiny first impression on the College Football Playoff committee. Everyone is looking forward to Week 1, and here are some of the top matchups:
- Missouri at West Virginia
- UCLA at Texas A&M
- LSU vs. Wisconsin (Lambeau Field, Green Bay, Wis.)
- Georgia vs. North Carolina (Georgia Dome, Atlanta)
- USC vs. Alabama (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, Texas)
- Clemson at Auburn
- Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Camping World Stadium, Orlando, Fla.)
Competition aplenty in both divisions
The congregation at SEC Media Days this month picked Tennessee and Alabama to square off in the conference’s championship game, and the Vols supposedly are supposedly back after stringing together back-to-back winning seasons. But Tennessee has been “back” before. What makes this year so different? Georgia returns a secondary that ranked as the nation’s No. 1 passing defense a year ago and, in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, features one of the top rushing duos in the nation when healthy. Quarterback is a question mark, if one emerges and Chubb and Michel return to form, the Bulldogs could be dangerous. The same could be said for Florida, which always produces playmakers and traditionally boasts one of the league’s most vicious defenses.
Alabama is of course the favorite in the West and it should be. LSU is generally deemed a contender at the beginning of each season, but the Tigers could have a real shot at the division in 2016 — in my gut, a stronger one than Tennessee. They return 18 starters, boast extreme talent in the secondary and on the defensive line, hold playmakers on the outside and have a man named Leonard Fournette at running back. Even with all that talent, much of the Tigers’ success will fall on the shoulders of junior quarterback Brandon Harris. Ole Miss returns the SEC’s leading passer in Chad Kelly and Texas A&M may have the talent to get to Atlanta as well.
Another year… another crop of running backs
Are you surprised? The SEC will once again feature some of the top backs in the nation, the kind who can make anything happen when they touch the ball. Eight of the conference’s top 15 rushers from a season ago return in 2016, and that doesn’t include Chubb, who only played in six games last year. Included in the returning backs are Fournette, Michel, Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara, Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb and Kentucky’s Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp.
That doesn’t even tell the whole story when you add in Alabama’s former 5-star running backs Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris, as well as Arkansas freshman Devwah Whaley. Razorbacks coach Bret Bielema recently said that Whaley is the “most talented high school running back I’ve ever coached.” Everyone likes an exciting passing attack, but there’s something to be said for a dynamic ground game. You know, the kind that produces stiff arms like this:
The element of unknown
This can be said every year, but you’re looking at a lot of unknown in 2016. There are three new head coaches: Kirby Smart at Georgia, Will Muschamp at South Carolina and Barry Odom at Missouri. At most, four teams return an established quarterback: LSU (Harris), Tennessee (Joshua Dobbs), Ole Miss (Kelly) and arguably Texas A&M (Trevor Knight). That leaves 10 SEC teams with question marks at quarterback, which while annoying to your average fan, leaves an element of the unknown heading into each weekend’s matchups.
Then you have the new coordinators. Oh, the new coordinators. Will the defenses look any different? Will there be different schemes? So many questions can be asked, but what makes this year even more intriguing is that so many of them made jumps from within the conference. Jeremy Pruitt (former Georgia defensive coordinator) at Alabama, Mel Tucker (former Alabama defensive backs coach) at Georgia and Kevin Steele (LSU defensive coordinator) at Auburn.
Can success at other programs follow these coaches into 2016?
SEC contests played at a conference sites always draw loud and raucous crowds. But there’s something to be said about a big neutral-site game — and there are plenty. It’s like test driving your car, but in the newest model. The experience is very similar, but there’s an added layer of excitement. These games are played in some of the most historic or well-known venues in America. It might take a little longer to drive there, but the opportunities don’t come around every year.
These are bucket-list games, the kind you’ll fill your Snapchat story with and tell your kids about. Here’s a list at some of the best in 2016:
- Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Bristol Motor Speedway/ Week 2)
- Georgia vs. Florida (EverBank Field/ Week 9)
- Texas A&M vs. Arkansas (AT&T Stadium/ Week 4)
- Mississippi State at UMass (Gillette Stadium/ Week 4 )
- Georgia vs. North Carolina (Georgia Dome/ Week 1)
- USC vs. Alabama (AT&T Stadium/ Week 1)
- LSU vs. Wisconsin (Lambeau Field/ Week 1)
- Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Camping World Stadium/ Week 1)
Everyone like big plays.
Good news: There should be no lack of those in the SEC in 2016 — especially on special teams, where the SEC doles out home-run threats like Jim Harbaugh takes shots at other programs. Of the 24 players with at least four punt returns of 20 or more yards last season, six played in the SEC. Five of those return in 2016. Among those are Tennessee’s Cameron Sutton, who led the nation in long punt returns in 2015, LSU’s Tre’Davious White, Texas A&M’s Christian Kirk, Florida’s Antonio Callaway and Auburn’s Marcus Davis. Combined, those five punt returners combined for 32 plays of 20 or more yards and three of 80 or more.
On the kickoff-return front, the SEC returns one of the nation’s biggest home-run threats in Tennessee’s Evan Berry. The younger brother of former Vols great Eric Berry returned three kicks for touchdowns last season, while averaging 38.3 yards per return. Auburn’s Johnathan Ford also ranked in the top 10 last year, averaging 28.7 yards per return. Special teams always plays a part in SEC contests, and 2016 should be no different.
Peek into the future at QB
We’ve already discussed the conference’s lack of experienced quarterback play entering the 2016 season, but that means several teams could be starting a freshman or sophomore in 2016 — players who will be in the conference for at least another two or three years. While they may go through some growing pains in their first seasons, their play will provide a glimpse into the future at quarterback.
The two most intriguing young quarterbacks might not play in 2016. Ole Miss’ Shea Patterson and Georgia’s Jacob Eason are the No. 1 and No. 2 pro-style quarterbacks in the freshman class. It’s possible neither will see the field in 2016, but their potential has Rebels and Bulldogs fans drooling. Eason is more likely to play than Patterson, who has Kelly starting in front of him, but both signal callers have big expectations ahead of them.
South Carolina could start a freshman in either Brandon McIlwain or Jake Bentley. And as it stands now, three sophomores who saw action last season as freshmen — Kentucky’s Drew Barker, Missouri’s Drew Lock and Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur — are expected to start as sophomores.
Don’t expect the “lack of experience” narrative to follow into next year’s SEC Media Days.
The College Football Playoff adds another layer of intrigue in its third season. Everyone will peg Alabama as the favorite to represent the SEC in the playoff, but can a different team supplant the Crimson Tide? Can the SEC get two teams into the playoff? The latter is less likely to happen, and it’s probably harder in the SEC than in other Power Five conferences, given the grueling eight games against conference opponents. But the possibility makes every week important.
Oklahoma and Michigan State both made the playoff last season with two losses, but could a two-loss SEC team join the party? An early loss in one of the Week 1 or neutral-site games could derail a season early. Should the teams escape them, the November slate will become that much more important.
Those games will no longer be played for a BCS bowl game position, but a much larger prize: One of the four positions in the coveted College Football Playoff.
Defensive line takeover
Remember Jadeveon Clowney’s big hit against Michigan in the 2013 Outback Bowl?
If not, here’s a refresher:
There are a handful of players capable of making a similar play in 2016. Five SEC players who ranked in the top 23 sack artists in 2015 return this season, including Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett (12.5 sacks), Alabama’s Jonathan Allen (12) and Tim Williams (10.5), Ole Miss’ Marquis Haynes (10) and Tennessee’s Derek Barnett (10). Each of those players will be an imposing force next season, but add in Missouri’s Terry Beckner Jr. and Charles Harris, Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise Jr., Auburn’s Carl Lawson and LSU’s Arden Key and grab some popcorn.
Who can catch ‘Bama on and off the field?
Alabama has become THE college football program. Each week, teams will be compared to the Crimson Tide, fair or not. That will especially hold true in the SEC where the Crimson Tide have won four SEC titles since 2009. The idea of a team overtaking Alabama always is an exciting storyline.
Hell, the Crimson Tide have become such a powerhouse a single loss can spark discussion of whether the Alabama “dynasty” is at an end. But the reality is that Alabama needs to be caught on the recruiting trail too. There’s a reason beyond Nick Saban that the Crimson Tide have become the nation’s premier program. They nab the best players in the country. Alabama has had the SEC’s No. 1 recruiting class every season since 2011, when 247 Sports started tracking the national recruiting rankings.
The Crimson Tide currently rank No. 2 in the 2017 rankings behind Ohio State, but LSU (No. 3) and Georgia (No. 4) are both within arm’s length of Alabama. Can one of them catch the Tide when it’s all said an done? Kirby Smart has been competing with his former boss for recruits since taking over the Bulldogs, flipping top prospects like 4-star offensive lineman Netori Johnson and 4-star quarterback Jake Fromm.
Recruiting leads to championships. Alabama wins championships.
Which team could be next?
All rankings are provided by the 247Sports composite unless otherwise noted.