Part of what makes college football so unbelievably fascinating is its unpredictability.
While the discussion begins and ends with Alabama’s dominance, the SEC has been no stranger to upsets and improbable runs by underdog teams in recent years. The conference saw LSU defy all logic in 2007 en route to a national championship. Auburn nearly did the same during an exhilarating 2013 season. Ole Miss beat Alabama twice, and Arkansas kept one of those Ole Miss teams out of the SEC title game on the famous fourth-and-25 “Henry Heave.”
Perhaps 2017 won’t produce any truly wild results, but you can always bank on at least a handful of major upsets shaping the final outcome.
Be on the lookout. Here are four games SEC coaches need to circle on the calendar:
Week 2: Mississippi State at Louisiana Tech
- Mississippi State’s preceding game: Charleston Southern
- Mississippi State’s following game: LSU
Louisiana Tech won nine games last season, made it to the Conference USA championship game and came within two points of upsetting Arkansas at home in Week 1.
So, yes, the Skip Holtz-led Bulldogs are dangerous. They lose star quarterback Ryan Higgins, who tossed 41 touchdown passes last season, and favorite target Trent Taylor. And yet, replacing departed talent is something Holtz’s team has been quite good at doing. The most important returnee might be defensive end Jaylon Ferguson, who recorded 14.5 sacks and forced 3 fumbles as a sophomore, but 1,000-yard back Jarred Craft’s presence is also vital.
It’s also eye-popping that Louisiana Tech gets the rare benefit of home field advantage against an SEC team. Mississippi State enters the season with serious promise, but its defense was a major sore spot last season, and it’s doubtful Todd Grantham can immediately improve that unit. MSU also proved itself vulnerable to the overlooked nonconference foe last season, losing to South Alabama and barely beating Miami of Ohio during bowl season.
Week 5: Troy at LSU
- LSU’s preceding game: Syracuse
- LSU’s following game: At Florida
You laugh, but Troy won 10 games in 2016 and nearly upset eventual national champion Clemson in a 30-24 loss in Week 2. And, as SB Nation’s Bill Connelly writes, there’s reason to think the Trojans could be even better this season.
Senior quarterback Brandon Silvers enters the year with almost 7,400 career passing yards and a 64.6 percent completion rate. All of his weapons at running back and wide receiver are back, as is much of a defense that only allowed 22.1 points per game. That same unit intercepted Deshaun Watson twice and held Clemson to 3.8 yards per carry.
LSU has a beast at running back in Derrius Guice, but who the heck is Danny Etling going to target besides DJ Chark? The offensive line, the foundation of this team’s for the past two seasons, will have two new starting guards, as well. Ed Orgeron better watch out.
Week 12: Kentucky at Georgia
- Georgia’s preceding game: At Auburn
- Georgia’s following game: At Georgia Tech
A conference game sandwiched in between two rivalry matchups? In late November? And the likely underdog has lost seven straight in the series?
Kentucky at Georgia checks all the boxes for a potential upset. The Wildcats have a chance to be pretty darn good this season. Mark Stoops is recruiting well, Eddie Gran is an excellent offensive play-caller, the offensive line is underrated and Benny Snell is a load for any defense to stop.
On the other hand, Georgia has a second-year coach in Kirby Smart, a talented but still young quarterback in Jacob Eason, an offensive line full of question marks and an offensive coordinator who hasn’t inspired a ton of confidence (Jim Chaney). All of those factors played a part in the team’s most puzzling loss (Vanderbilt) and a handful of narrow wins (Nicholls State, Missouri and … Kentucky).
UK hasn’t beaten the Bulldogs since 2009, a 34-27 win that took place in Athens, Ga. A repeat of that scenario isn’t out of the question.
Week 11: Tennessee at Missouri
- Tennessee’s preceding game: Southern Miss
- Tennessee’s following game: LSU
Same premise here: A November game, this one on the road, against a Missouri team that should field a potent offense at the very least.
When Josh Heupel took the play-calling reins for the Tigers, he instantly transformed them into an up-tempo yards machine that made the most of Drew Lock and his receivers. Another year in that system would theoretically benefit everyone. And although Josh Dobbs torched the hapless Mizzou defense last season, it’s also worth remembering that Damarea Crockett broke out for 225 yards rushing, and Ish Witter added 163.
Tennessee’s lack of experience on defense has already drawn major skepticism this preseason. On top of that, the Vols could find themselves looking ahead to a major cross-divisional clash with LSU. If Tennessee is slipping out of the SEC East race at this point, Butch Jones could have a tough time getting his guys motivated for a trip to Columbia, Mo.
Week 11: Florida at South Carolina
- Florida’s preceding game: At Missouri
- Florida’s following game: UAB
Perhaps you’re sensing a theme here among the SEC East powers that be. Georgia, Florida and Tennessee might be better than the rest of the division from a talent perspective, but truth is, the gap isn’t all that wide.
The Gamecocks could be a particularly tricky team in 2017 because of that. They return quarterback Jake Bentley, who last year displayed finesse and poise you rarely see in a true freshman, along with his top three receiving targets (Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and Hayden Hurst). The defense should continue to improve with Will Muschamp running the show, and by November, the roster’s less experienced starters may have settled into their roles.
As for Florida, we still have no idea what a Malik Zaire-led Gators offense might look like. Jordan Scarlett and an improved offensive line give UF a much more potent rushing attack, but unless Jim McElwain’s offense can prevent opposing teams from stacking the box, there’ll be limits on what that group can accomplish.