Alabama might not have won the national championship, but the Crimson Tide are still the best-run program in college football. It took a Herculean effort from a transcendent player just to beat them once this season.
However, Alabama does lose a significant portion of its roster after the season, especially on defense. Five of the players on the front seven are seniors, while as many as three of the four opening day defensive back starters could leave.
Of course, many fans were fooled into thinking departures could mean a step back in 2016 as well — that didn’t happen. But with this limited window, there are a few teams that could make their move.
Here are five SEC teams that can catch Alabama in 2017:
2016 result: 8-5, 5-3 SEC
Game result: 30-12 loss in Tuscaloosa
To me, this is the safest bet to take down Alabama next season (even though it’s still probably a losing proposition). The Tigers actually played pretty darn well against Alabama this season, but the offense had little ability to capitalize on the extra opportunities. That won’t be the case in 2017.
Transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham is one of the best new additions to the conference. He will be able to take advantage of a solid receiving group. Running backs Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson and Kameron Martin will also put their imprint on the game plan. If Kevin Steele can find players to replace Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams — a significant task — Auburn will be a contender next year. The game is being played at Auburn next year, too, which can’t hurt.
2016 result: 9-4, 6-2 SEC
Game result: 54-16 loss in SEC title game
Obviously, Florida didn’t even look like it belonged on the same field against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. However, the Gators are the surest bet to make it out of the SEC East. Even though the Gators still have a long way to go to being on Alabama’s level, a guaranteed shot makes this a safe bet.
The Gators are losing several key pieces on defense, but the offense will return with few changes. In fact, if Florida finds a way to be competitive for a graduate transfer quarterback, the offense could be substantially better. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway and Tyrie Cleveland were two of the most underutilized players in the country this season. The pieces are there — the ball is in Jim McElwain’s court.
2016 result: 8-4, 5-3 SEC
Game result: 10-0 loss in Baton Rouge
Ed Orgeron brought the excitement as an interim coach and results generally followed. Out of his eight games, the only underwhelming performance was a surprising loss to Florida. Otherwise, LSU was much improved, going 6-2 and giving Alabama a dogfight.
Now that Orgeron has total control of the staff, things should take another step forward. Granted, the defense will suffer after losing a series of talented performers in the secondary and linebacker corps, but LSU can reload almost as well as Alabama. Offensively, new coordinator Matt Canada will revitalize a previously stagnant system. Next season might not be the season, but LSU is coming.
2016 result: 8-5, 4-4 SEC
Game result: n/a
With Tennessee losing so many pieces on both sides of the ball, Georgia is in line for a resurgence. The fighting Kirby Smarts went just 8-5 in 2016 but finished the year by winning four of five. And who knows, maybe that Georgia Tech team was actually talented this season.
The Bulldogs return quarterback Jacob Eason and the vast majority of an improved defense. Bringing back star running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel will only help the offense. If Smart can find some talented offensive linemen to step in and contribute right away, Georgia could experience a quick rebuild. And like with Florida, if that rebuild is enough to win the East, that’s an easy shot.
Ole Miss Rebels
2016 result: 5-7, 2-6
Game result: 48-43 loss in Oxford
Obviously, the 2016 season did not go anywhere near how most expected for Ole Miss. And to think, some idiots were dumb enough to pick Ole Miss to go 10-2 and beat Alabama. What a stupid idea. But even when Chad Kelly was healthy, Ole Miss was not a good football team.
But unlike most teams in college football, Ole Miss is not remotely scared of Alabama. There’s a reason that Hugh Freeze became the first coach in years to beat Nick Saban in back-to-back seasons. Even though the Rebels did fall apart later, Ole Miss still gave Alabama a dogfight. It remains to be seen whether this round of recruits can perform against the nation’s best. With the talented Freeze leading the charge, it should be a fight regardless.