The College Football Playoff rankings are what matter most, but until the first set is released on Oct. 31, the AP Top 25 poll gives us our best glimpse at which SEC teams are expected to truly compete in 2017.
Clemson is the defending national champion after toppling Alabama in January’s dramatic title game, but the Crimson Tide is the safest bet to open the season at No. 1 when the AP’s preseason poll is released on Monday.
Auburn, LSU, Florida and Georgia are among the other SEC programs with enough talent and experience to make a run at the playoff this fall.
Read on to see how SEC Country expects the first 2017 AP Top 25 poll to look.
Projecting the preseason AP Top 25 poll: Six SEC teams in the mix
- Ohio State
- Florida State
- Penn State
- Oklahoma State
- West Virginia
- South Florida
- Virginia Tech
- Kansas State
- Washington State
Here’s how the 2017 preseason Amway Coaches Poll looked when it was released. For reference, last year’s preseason AP and Coaches polls largely featured the same teams with similar ordering.
Now, let’s dive into the six SEC teams we expect to crack the AP Top 25 on Monday:
- 2016 record: 9-4
- 2017 expectations: Lukewarm
- Key losses: Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd, Alvin Kamara, Josh Malone, Derek Barnett, Jalen Reeves-Maybin, Cam Sutton
- Key additions: Trey Smith, Ty Chandler
Has Butch Jones peaked? That’s what the critics will probably say early into the Vols’ 2017 schedule, which features tough matchups against Georgia Tech (in Atlanta), Florida (in The Swamp) and Georgia. Tennessee lost a bunch of talent to the NFL draft, including its star quarterback, and retooled a chunk of its coaching staff, as well.
It’d be hard to imagine Tennessee will suffer the same rash of injuries it did last season, and the O-line should see improvement. But Jones’ squad has serious question marks on the defensive line and at the skill positions, beyond Jauan Jennings.
Tennessee will crack the top 25, but just barely, on the basis of recognition. But the Yellow Jackets stand a good chance of knocking them out of the poll after only one week.
- 2016 record: 9-4
- 2017 expectations: Reasonable-to-ambitious
- Key losses: Jarrad Davis, Marcus Maye, Teez Tabor, Alex Anzalone, David Sharpe, Caleb Brantley, Joey Ivie
- Key additions: Malik Zaire, James Robinson, Marco Wilson
Jim McElwain is 19-8 in his first two seasons at Florida, with two SEC East championships under his belt, so why is it that the media seems to continually overlook Florida in the preseason? Reporters at SEC Media Days picked Georgia to win the East; Kentucky and South Carolina are being discussed as potential division dark horses. But are we really sure any of those teams can beat the Gators?
Quarterback has been a problem in Gainesville since Urban Meyer scooted out of town, and it’s unclear whether Zaire or Feleipe Franks can be the answer. Antonio Callaway is a great receiver but, if reports about his suspension are true, he’s also a knucklehead. The defense saw its annual exodus of NFL talent, but it also lost coordinator Geoff Collins. Randy Shannon takes over, and while his reputation precedes him, that’s still an adjustment.
The media will snub the Gators, because they’re not as flashy on paper as a few other SEC contenders, but it won’t be dramatic. We sometimes do learn from our misguided ways.
- 2016 record: 8-5
- 2017 expectations: SEC East, maybe?
- Key losses: Isaiah McKenzie, Brandon Kublanow, Maurice Smith
- Key additions: Isaiah Wilson, Andrew Thomas, DeAngelo Gibbs
The Bulldogs always get preseason love, and they (almost) always shoot themselves in the foot with an unexpected loss to — SELECT ONE: Missouri, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt. This is likely to happen again in 2017, because Georgia has star power (Nick Chubb, Sony Michel and Jacob Eason), promising talent (Roquan Smith and Trenton Thompson) and experience across the board.
There’s always that fascination with ex-Nick Saban assistants, too. Kirby Smart hasn’t won anything of significance yet, but he’s recruiting like his hair’s on fire, and that’s one good way to keep a hungry fan base wide-eyed and hopeful.
Georgia’s schedule isn’t bad, and enough talent is there for a good run through it.
- 2016 record: 8-4
- 2017 expectations: Who really knows?
- Key losses: Leonard Fournette, Jamal Adams, Tre White, Ethan Pocic, Duke Riley, Kendell Beckwith, Davon Godchaux, Malachi Dupre, Travin Dural, Maea Teuhema
- Key additions: JaCoby Stevens, Myles Brennan, Lowell Narcisse, Jacob Phillips
LSU’s 2016 season was so bizarre that I candidly have no idea how to frame the expectations. This is a school that fired consistent winner Les Miles for being an offensive dinosaur, but did so in September after a last-second loss to Auburn. In comes Ed Orgeron, who in his second bout as an interim coach goes 6-2. He then hires rising star Matt Canada and secures a top-10 signing class.
This roster lost a bunch of NFL-caliber players, per usual, but there’s depth to replace some of that. Derrius Guice is a monster. DJ Chark has given us small glimpses of greatness. Arden Key is a premiere pass rusher when healthy.
But the season’s success, once again, will hinge on whether the Tigers can find a quarterback and beat Alabama.
- 2016 record: 8-5
- 2017 expectations: New Year’s Six, or thereabouts
- Key losses: Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams, Josh Holsey, Rudy Ford
- Key additions: Jarrett Stidham, Calvin Ashley, T.D. Moultry
So much of Auburn’s season rests upon the Iron Bowl outcome that it’s hard to pinpoint what would satisfy the Tigers fan base. Gus Malzahn could win 10 games, but a third consecutive loss to Alabama would further aggravate his supporters on The Plains.
Consider this: In an SEC Country coaches approval rating survey conducted last month, Malzahn — who made it to the Sugar Bowl in 2016 — had an approval rating of 64.6, better than only Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin. That’s wild, and it speaks to the program’s tremendously high expectations.
The biggest X-factor in the SEC this fall, I’d wager, is sophomore quarterback Jarrett Stidham, who was officially named starter earlier this week. If he excels under new coordinator Chip Lindsey, Malzahn should be safe.
- 2016 record: 14-1
- 2017 expectations: Championship or bust
- Key losses: Marlon Humphrey, Jonathan Allen, OJ Howard, Reuben Foster, Cam Robinson, Ryan Anderson, Dalvin Tomlinson, Tim Williams, ArDarius Stewart, Eddie Jackson
- Key additions: Najee Harris, Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Dylan Moses
No coach in the country has better job security than Nick Saban, who enters his 11th season of presiding over the Crimson Tide juggernaut he created. They may have lost a boatload of experienced players, but that’s the norm for Alabama. They may have a new offensive coordinator in Brian Daboll, but this is a team that won a championship with Doug Nussmeier calling plays. And though they finished runner-up, everyone recognizes that this will only fuel Saban to push his players harder than ever before.
Jalen Hurts returns for his sophomore season. Calvin Ridley, Da’Ron Payne, Rashaan Evans and Minkah Fitzpatrick all join him. The running backs room is insanely deep, led by Bo Scarbrough. Daboll may not be an offensive luminary, but he’s get the best set of tools in the country; he’ll make it work, most would think.