If you believe the experts, the SEC East has already been decided.
Tennessee will win going way, while Florida and Georgia fall in behind the Volunteers. Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt will clog up the middle while South Carolina finishes last.
Simple, right? Except it’s not. Last year’s SEC East champion, Florida, was picked fifth in the preseason media poll. And good luck finding anyone that predicted Missouri winning a pair of division titles in recent years.
College football is wildly unpredictable from week to week. That’s why it’s so much fun.
With all that in mind, here are the best — and worst — case scenarios for each SEC East school in 2016:
Best case: Luke Del Rio turns out to be a good fit for Doug Nussmeier’s offense. The running back committee provides plenty of production behind a veteran line. The defense stays near its 2015 level with a host of new faces up front, and the Gators spoil Tennessee’s coronation by repeating as East champs.
Worst case: Del Rio winds up being a dud, and Austin Appleby and the two freshmen aren’t any better. Antonio Callaway starts chirping about the shoddy quarterback play, and winds up in Jim McElwain’s doghouse. The defense can’t replace the outgoing talent, and the Gators are out of the East race before Novemeber.
Best case: Nick Chubb and Sony Michel stay on the field often enough to form one of the nation’s best running back tandems. The quarterback, either Greyson Lambert or Jacob Eason, makes enough plays to keep things balanced. On defense, the new faces in the front seven combine with an experienced secondary to produce a strong unit. The Bulldogs make use of a favorable schedule, clip Tennessee at home and wind up in Atlanta for the title game.
Worst case: The running game isn’t enough to offset another year of inconsistent quarterback play. The untested wide receivers don’t improve enough to make a difference in the passing game. The lack of an effective pass rush keeps the defense from reaching its potential, and Bulldog fans have to wait another year to reach a championship game.
Best case: Stanley “Boom” Williams gets enough touches to finish in the top five in the league in rushing behind an underrated offensive line. Drew Barker winds up being better than the departed Patrick Towles, thanks in part to a group of receivers that actually catch the ball. Denzil Ware has a breakout season, solving the Wildcats’ pass rushing issues by himself. Kentucky wins the toss-up games on the schedule and returns to a bowl game.
Worst case: Barker isn’t ready for prime time, allowing teams to stack the box against the run. The offense struggles, and the defense isn’t good enough to keep the Wildcats in games. The early trips to Florida and Alabama put the team in a funk, and basketball season starts early in Lexington.
Best case: New coordinator Josh Heupel molds Drew Lock into an above-average SEC quarterback. Alex Ross emerges from a crowded running back field, and actually has room to run behind a line that overachieves with four new starters. The defense plays at or near its 2015 standard, and those close losses turn into wins. A bowl game starts the Barry Odom era, and the Tigers enter 2017 as a dark horse in the East.
Worst case: Lock can’t improve on his dismal interception-to-touchdown ratio. Ross dips into the same funk that befell the running backs last year because the offensive line isn’t any better. Missouri fails to crack the 20-points-per-game mark. A lack of points results in a sub-.500 season. That second-straight losing season makes recruiting even more difficult.
Best case: Brandon McIlwain contends for a spot on the Freshman All-American team. A.J. Turner looks as good at running back as he did in the spring. The new blood at receiver makes enough plays to offset Pharoh Cooper’s departure. The newcomers on defense adapt immediately, and the new coaches get more out of the returnees. The Gamecocks have a few balls bounce the right way and flirt with a bowl bid.
Worst case: No one seizes the job, producing another season of mediocre quarterback play. With no threat in the passing game, opponents take away the run. Three road games in September expose a young defense. The preseason optimism fades away, and the Gamecocks take their expected place at the bottom of the East standings.
Best case: The season plays out on grass as it looked on paper. Joshua Dobbs becomes an elite quarterback. Running backs Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara surpass last year’s numbers behind a stout offensive line. Bob Shoop’s defense is as good as he predicted. The Volunteers roll through the East and make a run at a SEC title and a playoff berth.
Worst case: An inability to win big games (3-13 against ranked teams) continues to haunt Butch Jones. The losing streak to Florida goes to 12 in front of a bitterly disappointed Neyland Stadium crowd, and the hangover costs them the following week against Georgia. Dobbs is still good, but not great. The defense is solid, but not enough to carry an average offense to an East title.
Best case: Kyle Shurmur justifies his recruiting grade coming out of high school and becomes a serviceable option at quarterback. Ralph Webb cracks double digits in rushing touchdowns. The defense, supported by a better offense, takes another step forward. A few close games go their way, and a bowl berth is the payoff for the Commodores.
Worst case: The offense can’t stop turning the ball over, and Vanderbilt finishes last in turnover margin again. Shurmur can’t provide enough balance to keep teams from ganging up on Webb. The defense, while valiant, gets overworked. The Commodores stumble to another four-win season, raising questions about the program’s future.