College football season might not begin for 10 weeks, but it’s never too soon to gauge which SEC teams will contend for the 2017 College Football Playoff. Or any of the New Year’s Six bowl games, for that matter.
Because the Playoff sites rotate on a yearly basis, this year’s semifinalists will travel to either the Sugar Bowl or the Rose Bowl. Thankfully, those games will take place Jan. 1 since the Playoff committee did away with scheduling football games for New Year’s Eve. Praise be.
The Orange, Cotton, Fiesta and Peach bowls round out the New Year’s Six, meaning only the top non-Playoff ACC squad and the highest-ranked Group of Five team are guaranteed to earn those bids. SEC fans have little reason to worry there, but other conference supporters (Big 12! Big 12!) might be biting their nails on Selection Day.
Beyond that, the selection order remains the same for bowls with SEC tie-ins: The Citrus Bowl gets first pick once the New Year’s Six matchups are decided, followed by the Group of Six (Outback, Music City, TaxSlayer, Belk, Texas and Liberty bowls), then the Birmingham Bowl and lastly the Independence bowl.
So, without further ado, let’s dive into SEC Country’s way-too-early predictions for 2017.
2017 SEC Bowl Projections
|Sugar Bowl (Jan. 1, New Orleans) — CFP||#1 Alabama||#4 USC||Top 4, Playoff rankings|
|Rose Bowl (Jan. 1, Pasadena) — CFP||#2 Ohio State||#3 Florida State||Top 4, Playoff rankings|
|Cotton Bowl (Dec. 29, Arlington) — NY6||Auburn||Penn State||At-large vs. at-large|
|Orange Bowl (Dec. 30, Miami) — NY6||Wisconsin||Clemson||SEC/Big Ten/ND vs. ACC #1|
|Fiesta Bowl (Dec. 30, Glendale) — NY6||Oklahoma||Washington||At-large vs. at-large|
|Peach Bowl (Jan. 1, Atlanta) — NY6||Georgia||South Florida||At-large vs. at-large|
|Citrus Bowl (Jan. 1, Orlando)||Florida||Miami||SEC #2 vs. ACC/Big Ten|
|Outback Bowl (Jan. 1, Tampa)||LSU||Michigan||SEC #3-8 vs. Big Ten|
|Music City Bowl (Dec. 29, Nashville)||Mississippi State||Virginia Tech||SEC #3-8 vs. ACC/Big Ten|
|TaxSlayer Bowl (Dec. 29, Jacksonville)||Arkansas||Minnesota||SEC #3-8 vs. ACC/Big Ten|
|Belk Bowl (Dec. 29, Charlotte)||South Carolina||Georgia Tech||SEC #3-8 vs. ACC #3-6|
|Texas Bowl (Dec. 27, Houston)||Tennessee||Texas||SEC #3-8 vs. Big 12 #3|
|Liberty Bowl (Dec. 29, Memphis)||Kentucky||West Virginia||SEC #3-8 vs. Big 12 #4|
|Birmingham Bowl (Dec. 23, Birmingham)||Vanderbilt**||Tulsa||SEC #9 vs. American|
|Independence Bowl (Dec. 27, Shreveport)||UCF||Pittsburgh||SEC #10 vs. ACC #7-9|
|No bowls: Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Missouri||**In at 5-7|
The College Football Playoff
At least 10 teams have a strong chance of cracking the committee’s top-4 in December, but obviously, Alabama has the best shot.
Alabama: Nick Saban is a threat to win it all during any normal year. But coming off a heartbreaking loss in the national championship game? With all-time great true freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts getting more time to hone his skills? His determination to win this season will be scary, and it would be foolish to bet on anyone else.
The others: Ohio State will have another year of J.T. Barrett under center, and he’ll lead an offense loaded with upperclassmen. Florida State will have to beat the Crimson Tide and win at Clemson, but should be favored in every other game. Lastly, USC has a good chance to make it simply because the Pac-12 does not look strong this season.
The New Year’s Six
Can any SEC team dethrone Alabama? The best bet would be Auburn.
Auburn: There are at least nine reasonably winnable games on its schedule. The Tigers’ toughies will be at Clemson, at LSU and the Iron Bowl, but if they win one of those three matchups and take care of the rest, they’ll be back in the New Year’s Six.
Coach Gus Malzahn retains a ton of talent from last year’s squad, including star tailback Kamryn Pettway, a slew of talented young wideouts, a stout offensive line and a great cast of defenders overseen by Kevin Steele. The only missing piece in 2016 was a quarterback, and Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham looks like he might be the answer under center.
The others: After Auburn, the most likely contenders are LSU, Florida and Georgia. My confidence isn’t particularly high in any of them, for varying reasons.
Kirby Smart made a splash by securing the nation’s No. 3 signing class in February, but last fall showed he has learning to do as a first-time head coach. And the offensive line — a mess in 2016 — likely won’t transform into a convoy of road-graders in one offseason. But both Smart and the O-line should improve.
Combine that with Jacob Eason’s 5-star arm, a pair of NFL-caliber running backs and a good defense, and the Bulldogs can deal with what looks like a forgiving schedule. The Florida and Auburn games will be tough, and the trips to Notre Dame and Tennessee could prove tricky. Even winning two of those games, however, puts Georgia on track for the New Year’s Six given its division.
The remaining bowls
Florida: Whether it’s led by Malik Zaire, Feleipe Franks, Luke Del Rio or another quarterback Jim McElwain dredges up from the Everglades, should we really bet on UF’s offense to show tangible improvement this fall? In case you forgot, Florida has averaged 15 points per game against its last five SEC opponents.
The offensive line has improved, albeit very slowly, and there is talent at the skill positions. The Gators always have talent, though. As long as Doug Nussmeier is offensive coordinator and the situation under center is murky, Florida will generate lukewarm optimism. Another SEC title game loss will hurt them again when the final Playoff rankings are released.
LSU: Ed Orgeron has plenty to prove in his first full season as the “permanent” coach and LSU will turn to Danny Etling at quarterback again. The defense, per usual, lost several key players to the NFL. But Dave Aranda is a top-5 coordinator and Matt Canada seems like a smart hire for the offense. Orgeron’s staff is in good hands.
The roster also has plenty of Les Miles holdovers, including all-star tailback Derrius Guice and the fearsome Arden Key. So don’t expect a dramatic drop-off under Coach O this year.
Tennessee: It’s hard to envision the Vols not taking a step back given the talent they lost this offseason. They’ll have a new quarterback, a reshaped coaching staff and a thin depth chart at the offensive skill and front seven positions. Butch Jones may have missed his best window to win on Rocky Top. A 7-5 season would probably cost him his job, or at the very least put him on paper-thin ice.
Two sleeper picks to watch in 2017: Mississippi State returns the dynamic Nick Fitzgerald and could field a revamped defense under new coordinator Todd Grantham. Kentucky coach Mark Stoops and his dynamite offensive guru, Eddie Gran, also welcome back a bunch of talent, highlighted by stud tailback Benny Snell, an underrated offensive line and a growing defense that could really surprise unsuspecting teams in the weak SEC East.
The fringe bowl teams: Kevin Sumlin might sit on the hottest seat in the country and Texas A&M does not have an answer at quarterback. Those two scenarios rarely mesh well. Kellen Mond, a 4-star signee out of IMG Academy, has potential, and Christian Kirk is a stud. But Aggies athletic director Scott Woodward made it clear that Sumlin has to do better than last season — meaning at least nine wins. So, Sumlin is in trouble. His team could make the Independence Bowl though!
Arkansas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt could reasonably win six or seven games. For Derek Mason, back-to-back bowl appearances would be a decent accomplishment. For Bret Bielema, a fourth season with less than eight wins would at least raise questions about his job security. Will Muschamp will probably punch himself at least once regardless of his record.
Ole Miss: The Rebels have bigger things to worry about.
Projected 2017 SEC standings
|SEC West||Record||SEC East||Record|
|Alabama||12-0, 8-0||Florida||9-3, 7-1|
|Auburn||10-2, 7-1||Georgia||10-2, 6-2|
|Mississippi State||8-4, 5-3||Kentucky||8-4, 5-3|
|LSU||8-4, 4-4||Tennessee||7-5, 3-5|
|Arkansas||6-6, 3-5||South Carolina||6-6, 3-5|
|Texas A&M||5-7, 1-7||Vanderbilt||5-7, 2-6|
|Ole Miss||5-7, 1-7||Missouri||5-7, 1-7|