SEC Country invokes a whimsical look at “16 Reasons Why The SEC Will Be The Nation’s Best Conference In 2016” — a countdown which highlights/celebrates the bountiful supply of stars (players/coaches), super teams, awesome matchups and intriguing storylines for the fall.
It’s a good list … so much that we couldn’t find room to laud the SEC executives for a creative quirk in the conference’s master schedule:
No SEC team will have a bye week in either September or November (weather permitting).
1. HOME OF THE HEISMAN
Tailback Derrick Henry (nation’s leading rusher last year) may have taken his talents to the NFL (Tennessee Titans), but his Heisman Trophy sits proudly in the heritage wing of Alabama’s sprawling football headquarters (second floor).
In the present, LSU’s Leonard Fournette (2,206 total yards, 23 TDs in just 12 games last year) resides in that first strata of elite-level Heisman candidates for 2016, along with Stanford tailback Christian McCaffrey (2,664 total yards, 13 TDs) and Clemson quarterback Deshaun Watson (4,104 yards passing, 47 total TDs).
2. NICK SABAN
Alabama has posted double-digit victory totals over each of eight consecutive seasons — easily the longest streak among active FBS programs.
On the recruiting side, under Saban’s watch, the Crimson Tide have collected the nation’s top-ranked recruiting class for six consecutive years (source: 247Sports).
Oh, and for good measure, Saban has claimed five national championships since 2003 (four with Alabama, one with LSU).
Simply put, no coach in college football moves the proverbial ‘meter’ like Saban. He continues to be a godsend/lightning rod of notoriety for the sport — depending on your perspective.
3. THE 1,500 CLUB
Until last season, the SEC had never produced three 1,500-yard rushers in the same season. But then Derrick Henry, Leonard Fournette and Arkansas tailback Alex Collins (1,577 yards) entered the history books in that realm.
Granted, the NCAA only approved a 12th regular-season game across the board for FBS programs just a few years ago. But still, it’s a great accomplishment for college football’s most respected rushing conference.
Lo and behold, the SEC has a chance to duplicate the feat in 2016, boasting stars like Fournette (a certifiable lock for 2,000 yards/20 TDs), UGA’s Nick Chubb (a healthy bet for 1,700 yards) and Tennessee’s Jalen Hurd (1,288 yards/12 TDs last season), who has the goods to carry the Volunteers to an SEC title.
4. QB CHAD KELLY
The Ole Miss star is vying to become the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 4,000 yards in consecutive seasons.
On the surface, it seems impossible that another storied SEC passer — from Archie Manning and Peyton Manning to Eli Manning and Matthew Stafford — had never crossed the 4,000-yard threshold in back-to-back years. And yet, Kelly stands to make history, if the Rebels can quickly rebound from the NFL exodus of receiver Laquon Treadwell (first-round pick — Minnesota Vikings).
5. NEW BLOOD AT QUARTERBACK
At last count, Alabama (Blake Barnett), Mississippi State (Nick Fitzgerald), Arkansas (Austin Allen), Texas A&M (Trevor Knight), Auburn (John Franklin III), Florida (Luke Del Rio), UGA (Jacob Eason) and Kentucky (Drew Barker) might all be breaking in new full-time quarterbacks this fall.
And that list doesn’t even include Vanderbilt’s Kyle Shurmur (five TDs in his final three games) and Missouri’s Drew Lock (1,332 yards passing, 4 TDs), who logged quality freshman reps against SEC competition.
In one respect, it could be a topsy-turvy season for the majority of passers, given their relative inexperience and the standard ferocity of SEC defenses. On the other hand, it’s an exciting time for the conference’s next wave of long-term passers — setting the stage for a star-laden 2017 at the position.
6. TEXAS A&M’S FAB FOUR
The Aggies likely have the country’s best receiving duo this fall (Christian Kirk/Josh Reynolds) … along with college football’s preeminent pass-rushing tandem (defensive ends Myles Garret/Daeshon Hall).
A superstar in the making, Kirk (below — 80 catches, 1,009 yards, 7 TDs as a freshman) scored multiple touchdowns twice last year and cracked the 100-yard mark four times. Plus, of his 13 games played, the sophomore-to-be modestly tallied six catches, 70-plus yards and/or one touchdown 10 times.
Reynolds (18 career TDs) has been the SEC’s most consistent receiver since 2014, holding reasonably tight two-year averages of 52 catches, 875 yards and nine touchdowns. As such, he possesses the talent, experience and explosiveness to lead the SEC in receiving yards and receiving touchdowns.
On the other side of the ball …
As a sophomore, the physically imposing Garrett (6-foot-5, 252 pounds) led the conference in sacks (12.5 — source: NCAA.com), the second double-digit-sack campaign of his career.
In 2015, Garrett (below — potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL Draft) tied for 11th nationally in tackles for loss (19.5), taking second-place honors among SEC defenders (trailing Missouri’s Charles Harris).
Garrett will undoubtedly get special attention from opposing offenses, but the number of double- and triple-team coverage won’t be as high — thanks to the unsung, but supreme presence of Hall (seven sacks, 14.5 tackles for loss last year).
7. THE FANS
Let’s talk hard numbers, and not superfluous bouquets, when discussing the stupendous support of SEC football by its fans:
**In 2015, the SEC led the nation in overall football attendance — sending more than 7.7 million fans through the turnstiles (roughly 78,000-plus per game).
**According to the NCAA, the SEC has captured this honor for 18 consecutive years, an absurd accomplishment that dates back to 1998.
**From an individual standpoint, Texas A&M (3rd place — average crowd: 103,622), LSU (4th), Alabama (5th), Tennessee (6th), UGA (8th) and Florida (9th) all finished in the national top 10 for average attendance last season, with each school boasting robust averages of 90,000-plus.
8. THE NATURAL ENEMIES WITHIN
The College Football Playoff has existed for only two seasons, but we already know that Power 5 conference champions will get preferential treatment over dynamic non-champions from the SEC, Big Ten, Pac-12, Big 12 and ACC.
As such, it puts tremendous pressure on high-profile teams from college football’s premier leagues (SEC West, Big Ten East, Pac-12 North, SEC East) to take care of business on the division front, realizing the days of leapfrogging conference champs during the bowl season — like Alabama over LSU in 2011 — are likely long gone.
Here’s the personal scoop on the SEC West: I have LSU, Alabama, Texas A&M and Ole Miss as the four front-runners in that division. Regardless of finishing order, though, the eventual champion would remain a good bet to run the table in the four-team Playoff.
9. TENNESSEE LB DEREK BARNETT
The Volunteers star could break the three-year threshold of 50 tackles for loss this fall — a strata that was never reached by former SEC stars Jadeveon Clowney, Shane Ray, Dante Fowler Jr., Nick Fairley, Michael Sam, Justin Houston, Charles Johnson, Derrick Harvey, Jamaal Anderson or Robert Ayers.
In fact, Barnett (20 career sacks) closed his sophomore campaign with a flurry, netting at least one sack in seven of his final eight outings. (Tennessee went 7-1 during that span.)
10. THE DREAM BACKFIELD IN KNOXVILLE
During Tim Tebow‘s glorious four-year run in college (one Heisman Trophy, two national titles), the Florida Gators never had a three-man backfield (one QB, two rushers) account for double-digit touchdowns in a single campaign.
Fast forward to the present: Tennessee’s three-man backfield of quarterback Joshua Dobbs (671 rushing yards, 27 total TDs in 2015), Jalen Hurd (1,478 total yards, 14 TDs) and running back Alvin Kamara (989 total yards, 10 TDs) have a golden chance to pull off this feat in consecutive years.
11. THE WAY-TOO-CLOSE PROXIMITY OF THE SABAN TREE
The SEC East will have three Saban proteges as head coaches this fall, with Jim McElwain (Florida), Will Muschamp (South Carolina) and Kirby Smart (UGA) headlining their respective programs.
In one respect, I greatly admire these coaches for accepting the challenge of rebuilding the image of the middling SEC East, which has dropped seven straight conference title games to the powerhouse SEC West.
On the flip side, these leaders will never escape the expansive shadows of Saban, or Urban Meyer and Steve Spurrier, to any degree, until they consistently bring championships to their schools.
Don’t expect much leeway from the TV networks, either: The cameras will exhaust every reason to spotlight McElwain, Muschamp and Smart this fall amid their round-robin slate of intra-division games.
12. TV RATINGS BONANZA
According to Sports Media Watch, the SEC cumulatively attracted 94.4 million viewers to its bowl games last season — the greatest total viewership of any other conference.
There were two other major points to celebrate:
a) The SEC title game (Alabama vs. Florida) had a 7.8 TV share (12.8 million viewers) on Championship Saturday, easily outdistancing the finales for the Big Ten (Michigan State vs. Iowa) and ACC (Clemson vs. North Carolina).
b) The national championship game between Alabama and Clemson posted a 15.0 TV share, the equivalent of 26.2 million viewers (ESPN audience).
AND FINALLY …
13. Yes, it’s great news that decorated TV announcer Brad Nessler has made the football jump from ESPN to CBS. But SEC fans still have more time to bask in the relative glow of hearing Verne Lundquist call the “SEC Game of the Week” at 3:30 p.m. EST. (The Hall of Famer Lundquist reportedly plans to retire within three years.)
14. For opening weekend (Sept. 1-5), the SEC has the most formidable slate of national opponents — featuring Clemson (@ Auburn), Southern California (vs. Alabama in Arlington, Texas), North Carolina (vs. UGA in Atlanta), West Virginia (vs. Missouri), Wisconsin (vs. LSU at Lambeau Field), UCLA (@ Texas A&M) and Florida State (vs. Ole Miss in Orlando).
15. Tennessee and Virginia Tech are slated to demolish the college record for single-game attendance (115,309 in 2013) on Sept. 10, when the Volunteers and Hokies occupy the Bristol (Va.) Motor Speedway (NASCAR venue) … before an expected crowd of 155,000-plus.
16. The SEC just wouldn’t be the same without LSU head coach Les Miles.
In fact, last year’s spectrum of events (Saban collecting his fifth national title in 12 years; Miles overcoming a coup attempt within the Tigers athletic department) brought an eerie air of mortality to SEC football … in the form of realizing that Saban and Miles (seven seasons of double-digit victories since 2005) won’t be patrolling the sidelines forever.
Regardless of how successful they’ve been, or in the case of LSU’s 2016 squad … how dominant they can be.
Jay Clemons, the 2015 national winner for “Sports Blog Of The Year” (Cynopsis Media), has previously written for SI.com, The National Football Post, Bleacher Report and FOX Sports.