The unpredictability in the the SEC is off the charts heading into the fall, so anyone who tells you they know what’s going to happen in 2016 is pulling your leg.
However, there is a method to forecasting what will happen in the months ahead, and what has happened in recent history serves as an indicator of what teams could be if a player or two steps up their game.
No one in the SEC enters without a glaring weakness, and it likely will be the team that can either fix or hide that weakness that will see itself playing for a conference title in Atlanta this December. Let’s take a look at one way each SEC team can improve itself this offseason.
Alabama Crimson Tide
No one has recruited the way Alabama has in the last few seasons, so it’s hard to say the Crimson Tide have something on which they need to improve. Alabama will have its fourth new quarterback in four seasons, and although Blake Sims and Jake Coker were fine the last two years, imagine what Lane Kiffin’s offense could do with an elite talent under center. With the Crimson Tide’s quarterback battle continuing into the fall, it’s clear no one has taken that step as of now, but it could make Nick Saban’s job much easier if someone became the leader in the locker room during summer workouts.
With a ton of new faces being counted on for the Arkansas offense, the defense will have to step up its game in 2016 to give the Razorbacks a chance to figure things out early in the season. The biggest area of concern is the pass defense, which finished last in the SEC a year ago giving up 275.2 passing yards per game. If Arkansas can find a way to slow opposing teams down through the air, that should bode well for a team that is looking to take that next step under coach Bret Bielema.
As Auburn coach Gus Malzahn enters 2016 on the hot seat, it really will come down to his offense — more specifically his quarterback — to determine how good the Tigers will be. Whether it’s John Franklin III, Jeremy Johnson or Sean White who eventually emerges as Auburn’s quarterback, they have to get better play from under center than we saw last season. If that happens, Malzahn’s team is good enough everywhere else to contend for an SEC title. If it doesn’t, it could be the end of Malzahn era on The Plains.
The entire offense would suffice as an area improvement for Florida, but let’s start with the offensive line. The unit should be improved after a ton of young players got much-needed experience in the SEC, but it has to perform better than it did last season. The Gators finished last in the conference in sacks allowed as they gave up 45 in 2015. The numbers didn’t get much better in the rushing offense, which was 13th in the league with an average of 126.9 yards per game. If that big guys up front can provide steady protection for new quarterback Luke Del Rio and open up some running lanes, it could be another surprisingly good season for Florida.
The Bulldogs won 10 games last season with below-average quarterback play. If the performance from under center takes a noticeable step in the right direction, Georgia will be in the thick of the SEC East race in Year One of the Kirby Smart era. Whether freshman Jacob Eason gets the starting nod from the first game or Greyson Lambert or Brice Ramsey get a chance early in the season, the Bulldogs need to have improved quarterback play to be a real offensive threat, especially with Nick Chubb’s health status for the early portion of the schedule still up in the air.
It’s a big year for Kentucky coach Mark Stoops, and the biggest thing the Wildcats need to improve this offseason is learning how to finish. Whether it’s finishing a drive, a game or a season, Kentucky needs all the help it can get to take that next step in the SEC. After starting the season 4-1 last year, the Wildcats went 1-6 to close out 2015. In 2014, Kentucky started off 5-1 before losing its last six games. If Stoops can get his team to keep playing good football deeper into the season, he’ll have a chance to keep things moving in the right direction in Lexington.
If there’s one player who can make the difference between a national title contender and an average team, it’s LSU quarterback Brandon Harris. The Tigers are loaded at every other position, but quarterback play has prevented LSU from making some noise in the SEC the last two seasons. Harris averaged just 179.8 yards per game and completed only 53.6 percent of his passes. If those numbers improve and the Tigers take advantage of having running back Leonard Fournette in the backfield, then watch out for Les Miles’ crew.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
For Mississippi State, the offseason message is simple: Get back to your roots. After three seasons of relying on Dak Prescott to win games, a new era of Bulldogs football is upon us. Coach Dan Mullen always has found a way to get steady play out his quarterbacks, but if Mississippi State doesn’t take a team approach to winning games, whomever wins the starting job under center could feel a ton of pressure to perform at same level at which fans became accustomed to seeing Prescott.
Like it was a season ago, the Missouri defense should be stout. However, the issues come to light when you look at the Tigers offense. For Missouri to become an efficient offense this fall, it needs to start with the running game, which was abysmal in 2015 when the Tigers averaged just 115.4 rushing yards per outing. A solid rushing attack can open things up for the passing game and give that good defense more time to rest and be as strong as possible to keep opposing teams off the scoreboard.
Ole Miss Rebels
The biggest area of improvement for Ole Miss undoubtedly is the offensive line. The Rebels lost four big contributors from the rotation a year ago and will rely heavily on a group of young, inexperienced players to fill those spots this fall. The tackle spots are the biggest concern for Ole Miss, and the nation’s No. 1 offensive tackle in the Class of 2016, Greg Little, will get an opportunity win that spot from Day One. Regardless of who ends up in the critical spots for the Rebels, they need consistent play to protect quarterback Chad Kelly and keep that offensive on the role it was on at the end of last season.
South Carolina Gamecocks
South Carolina coach Will Muschamp’s first year at the helm likely will be filled with frustrating moments, and a lot of the frustration should stem from the Gamecocks rush defense. South Carolina gave up 217.4 rushing yards per game last season, and you can bet that has been one of Muschamp’s biggest areas of concern since he took over in Columbia. If South Carolina can find a way to improve those numbers against opposing rushing attacks, that will go a long way into improving the team as a whole in 2015.
If there is one team in the SEC that doesn’t have a glaring weakness, it’s Tennessee. But that doesn’t mean the Volunteers don’t have things to work on this summer. However, the biggest area of improvement doesn’t have to deal with football at all. The last year has been a whirlwind for those involved with the Tennessee football program, which has been at the center of off-field storylines involving sexual assault with former players. The situation undoubtedly will carry a cloud around the program for a while longer, but if players can block out the distractions, the sky’s the limit for the Vols.
Texas A&M Aggies
With defense ends Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall back for Texas A&M, there’s no doubting the Aggies pass rush. But coach Kevin Sumlin could stand to see some improvement along his defensive line when it comes to stopping the run. Texas A&M finished 13th in the SEC in rush defense last season, giving up 213.7 yards per game. The Aggies took a big step forward as a whole defensively last season, but they have the makings of being a dominant force in the conference if they can become more consistent in rush defense.
Let’s be honest. Vanderbilt has a lot of room for improvement in many areas, but the biggest place Derek Mason would like to see his team take a step forward is at quarterback. The Commodores will be good enough defensively to scare teams, but whether or not they can turn a scare into an upset will hinge on how the offense — more specifically the quarterback — plays. With Kyle Shurmur heading into his first season as the leader of the offense, it will be interesting to see how much stability he can bring to the position.