The best thing about fall camp: Everyone is undefeated and optimism runs high.
And that’s certainly the case throughout the SEC.
Yet for just about every team, the collision of preseason hopes and in-season reality will occur sooner rather than later, and with some tough nonconference games on tap in Week 1, it may even come right out of the gate for some in the SEC.
When will your team of choice fall from the ranks of the unbeaten? SEC Country surveyed the schedules of all 14 schools and took a stab at where the first stumbling block for each might fall.
Florida: Week 1 vs. Michigan
Trying to predict this game is like guessing what Jim Harbaugh is thinking about at any moment in time. Milk? Spaceships? The best trees to climb? More likely, he’s wide-eyed with mad, Harbaughian joy when he sees Florida’s defensive depth chart, which features lots of unproven talent. The Gators do not have the benefit of opening the season with UMass, Kentucky and North Texas as they did in 2016. With that much turnover and a new defensive coordinator, the unit will take time to gel.
Not that Wilton Speight is some gunslinger. But in a battle of Don Brown vs. Doug Nussmeier, whose quarterback options are a Notre Dame transfer, a redshirt freshman named Feleipe and a soon-to-be coach, give me Brown 100 times out of 100. Michigan wins the kind of beautifully ugly defensive battle we all expect to unfold during a Florida football game.
Texas A&M: Week 1 at UCLA
The Aggies offense is due for some early growing pains, whether it’s Nick Starkel or someone else at quarterback. And UCLA should be far better than its 4-8 record last season might indicate. The UCLA front seven should feature two young 5-star players — outside linebacker Mique Juarez and defensive end Jaelan Phillips, the country’s No. 1 prospect in 2017 — and quarterback Josh Rosen can make the A&M defense pay when he’s in his element.
Overall, this has the feel of a pretty even matchup where a slight edge goes to the home team. Rosen should be better, and the Bruins run game can’t get any worse than it was last year.
Auburn: Week 2 at Clemson
Were this game played on The Plains again, Auburn would be the pick here. If Jarrett Stidham turns out to be a monster, as the brief glimpses we’ve gotten of him would imply, then Gus Malzahn’s squad can certainly win this game. But the probability game favors Clemson here, and Dabo Swinney’s crew simply has too much talent for any sort of post-championship hangover to seriously linger. Even without Deshaun Watson, this program remains among the college football elite.
That said, if Auburn does win this game, an 11-0 start wouldn’t be unthinkable. This is a deep, complete team that addressed its most pressing need (quarterback) quite well during the offseason.
Missouri: Week 2 vs. South Carolina
It’s hard to pinpoint where Mizzou will fall on a scale of “better than expected” to “downright awful.” There are bright spots (J’Mon Moore, Eric Beisel, Damarea Crockett) and very dark spots (DeMontie Cross’ defense and, in some cases, Josh Heupel’s offense).
The Heupel spread attack dropped some lopsided numbers on inferior nonconference opponents and a couple bad and/or hobbled SEC teams by the time they met up in November. But how efficient was Missouri on that end? The Tigers only averaged 5.86 yards per play against Power 5 opponents, good for seventh-best in the SEC.
Maybe Barry Odom, Heupel and Cross figure everything out and start developing those 3-star prospects into NFL stars the way Gary Pinkel and his staff did for so many years. Or, more likely, Missouri starts the year 2-4 and everyone’s attention shifts to basketball.
Arkansas: Week 2 vs. TCU
Is Paul Rhoads the cure for Bret Bielema’s ailing defense? Or will 2017 involve more of Dan Enos masking the Hogs’ defensive shortcomings?
Austin Allen might be the SEC’s best returning pure passer, and he’s extraordinarily tough (see: Arkansas allowed 35 sacks in 13 games). But the help around Allen is questionable, with Rawleigh Williams retired and most of the receiving corps of last season off to the NFL. Frank Ragnow is an excellent center, and both the offensive and defensive lines have pieces. But overall the Arkansas roster does not inspire tremendous confidence.
TCU, which underachieved last year, isn’t likely to do so for the second straight season with Gary Patterson at the helm. The Horned Frogs have reached double-digit wins six times since 2008, and a seventh isn’t out of the question.
Georgia: Week 2 at Notre Dame
This is a perfect pairing: Two well-respected, perennially overrated teams that haven’t won a national championship since the 1980s.
Georgia just went 8-5 with a rookie head coach, a true freshman quarterback and offensive line full of 290-pound “technique blockers.” That’s not bad. Notre Dame went 4-8, which is very bad, and deservedly became a running joke on social media. But ultimately that has little bearing on how the 2017 Irish will play (kind of like UCLA).
And it’s funny, given the Bulldogs’ spotty play in pretty much any game that holds real significance, that their fans seem confident that a win in South Bend will come easy-peasy. But let’s get this straight, Notre Dame does not have 4-8 talent or 4-8 resources. The Catholics will be better, because they will literally tear their own hair out if that doesn’t happen. Kirby Smart, Jacob Eason and the O-line still have plenty to prove.
Ole Miss: Week 3 at California
This will be an incredibly fun game, pitting two of the most prolific play callers in the country against one another (Phil Longo for Ole Miss and Beau Baldwin for Cal). They’ve both got SEC talent at their disposal — Bears wideout and Georgia native Demetris Robertson is an absolute stud — and their offenses produced more than 14,500 total yards combined last season. That is not a typo.
Expect it to be close and high-scoring, with Shea Patterson making highlight-reel plays against a Cal defense that was awful last year. But without a rudder to really guide the 2017 ship, this has to be a brutal road trip for the Rebels. Kickoff is at 10:30 p.m. ET, and Cal coach Justin Wilcox is a shrewd defensive mind who can take advantage of a questionable Ole Miss offensive line.
Vanderbilt: Week 3 vs. Kansas State
Middle Tennessee is no pushover, having beaten Missouri at Faurot Field last year, and junior quarterback Brent Stockstill (3,233 yards, 31 TDs in 2016) is easily one of the best among the Group of 5 teams. But the Blue Raiders still lack proven front-seven talent, which is what doomed them in their 47-24 loss to Vanderbilt last season. Ralph Webb and three-fifths of the Commodores’ O-line return in 2017.
Kansas State is a different beast. Living relic Bill Snyder, now 77 years old, comes off a quiet 9-4 campaign that featured few great wins but also lacked any bad losses. The Wildcats won six of their last seven games, including a bowl victory against Texas A&M, and only three teams on an offense-heavy schedule dropped more than 30 points on them. Jesse Ertz ain’t Joe Montana, but the rising senior did rush for 1,000 yards behind a middling offensive line.
Snyder typically overachieves, and Webb won’t be able to waltz through that front. Derek Mason needs a passing attack that doesn’t incorporate all the bad elements of Stanford offense.
Tennessee: Week 3 at Florida
Like Middle Tennessee, Georgia Tech is a highly underrated program that cannot be overlooked. Paul Johnson’s triple-option is brutal, and he also happens to be 3-0 in his last three SEC games. But the Vols sport a better run defense than what fans saw in the back half of 2016, when the team was blown to bits by injuries. And while Derek Barnett is long gone, Darrin Kirkland, Khalil Mackenzie and some other talented defenders definitely have enough talent to stop the Yellow Jackets.
As for Florida … well, you remember how Tennessee ended its drought against its rival in dramatic fashion last season? By torching a star-studded Gators defense with a spectacular second-half comeback? That’s kind of like the little brother losing 10 games of pickup hoops, then finally winning one. Typically, big bro comes back real mad after that loss. Expect some elbows and bloody noses.
Kentucky: Week 3 at South Carolina
The Wildcats are a team that could surprise a bunch of folks in the SEC East. The Gamecocks are a tough matchup, for reasons explained below, but to see Kentucky start 4-2 wouldn’t be all that shocking.
Eddie Gran has immediately transformed the Kentucky offense into a Benny Snell-powered battering ram fueled by simple, clean play up front. The defense finally has the type of talent Mark Stoops can mold into a point of strength, with linebackers Jordan Jones and Denzil Ware poised for potential breakout years. Stephen Johnson isn’t flashy, but he’s serviceable and got Kentucky to seven wins in 10 games.
An eight-win season really isn’t out of the question.
Mississippi State: Week 4 at Georgia
Excluding Alabama, Sanford Stadium is actually a pretty tough place for the SEC West. Auburn lost there last year. So did LSU in 2013, Ole Miss in 2012 and Mississippi State in 2011, when current (MSU) Bulldogs coordinator Todd Grantham was … the (Georgia) Bulldogs coordinator. Adding more intrigue is Nick Fitzgerald, a Peach State native, returning home to face the program that never offered him a scholarship at quarterback.
Dan Mullen has done an excellent job of developing talent in Starkville, but recent recruiting cycles have pumped top-tier defensive signees into the program: Jeffery Simmons, Leo Lewis, Kobe Jones and now Willie Gay. The potential for a defensive rebound is decent, but will it happen on the road against a team that can hurl the likes of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at them? This is another close game where Georgia’s home-field advantage should be the decider.
South Carolina: Week 5 at Texas A&M
Could the Gamecocks start 4-0? Forget about Will Muschamp’s undeserved bad reputation for a minute and think of him this way: Kirby Smart with four more seasons of head coaching experience and, arguably, a better quarterback. Jake Bentley is legit, and he has some of the SEC’s elite receiving threats surrounding him (Deebo Samuel, Bryan Edwards and Hayden Hurst).
The South Carolina defense returns a few top-level talents, such as Skai Moore and Bryson Allen-Williams, and it added a couple more in Jamyest Williams and JUCO signee Javon Kinlaw. Again, Muschamp knows defense, and he finally has a quarterback. This team has at least a 55-percent chance of beating N.C. State, Missouri, Kentucky and Louisiana Tech.
LSU: Week 6 at Florida
The Gators forfeited hosting the game vs. LSU last season, traveled to Baton Rouge and then beat the Tigers in a 16-10 classic. This season, when the Bayou Bengals finally return to The Swamp, Florida will celebrate its homecoming game. Seems like there may be some bad blood here, eh?
Funny enough, the primary problem of both offenses last year — anemic passing attacks — don’t look to have been solved. Danny Etling is expected to remain behind center for now, while some combo of Zaire, Franks and/or Luke Del Rio will start for Florida. The difference here is that LSU really lacks the receiving threats that can really test the Florida defense. At least the Gators’ QB-to-be-named-later has Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland to target.
Alabama: Week 13 at Auburn
Florida State-Alabama feels too close to call. Ask me again in a few weeks and I may feel differently. For now, we’re rolling with the Crimson Tide, who may not be quite as good as they were last year but who are still a full tier above everyone else in the SEC … besides Auburn.
The Iron Bowl already is shaping up to be another de facto conference championship game of sorts, as it was in 2010 and ’13. The Tigers happened to win those years, and it’s certainly possible for them to pull it off a second time with Malzahn as head coach. With the addition of Stidham, plus Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson, a host of talented young wideouts and a stout, stacked defense — Auburn has the tools to knock Nick Saban off his perch. And I’m not totally sold on Brian Daboll yet.