If you plugged all of the college football teams in America into a computer and simulated the 2016 season 100 times, it would play out in 100 different ways.
There are so many variables. It’s hard to know how that sophomore quarterback will develop and who knows if a coach will choose the right rotation for his defensive front.
On the field, anything can happen. Maybe it rains for a big game, rendering a team’s short-passing game less effective, or the wind blows a winning field goal wide right. A fumbled football can bounce back into the ball carrier’s arms — or into the path of a grateful defender.
With all that in mind, here are the best- and worst-case scenarios for each SEC West school in 2016:
Best case: The Crimson Tide continue their run of successful first-year starters at quarterback, with one of the contenders — Cooper Bateman, Blake Barnett or Jalen Hurts — gaining an edge. At running back, Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris don’t match Derrick Henry’s record-breaking production from last season, but they come close enough to supplement a talented group of receivers.
The defense remains stout despite personnel and coaching losses. Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams have big seasons near the point of attack. A deep and talented secondary continues to force turnovers and put the offense in good field position. In short, the season plays out much like 2015, when the Tide won the SEC and captured the national championship.
Worst case: No one takes command at quarterback, and the inconsistency that follows puts too much pressure on the young running backs. Defensively, it takes a few weeks for six new starters and some new voices on the coaching staff to mesh.
As a result, the Ole Miss game comes too early. That loss, coupled with another one to either Tennessee or LSU, keeps Alabama from winning the West and defending its national championship.
Best case: Austin Allen has as much success following his brother as the starting quarterback at Arkansas as he did in high school, where he won back-to-back state titles. At running back, Rawleigh Williams III or Devwah Whaley help coach Bret Bielema run his streak of having a 1,000-yard back to 11 seasons. Tight end Jeremy Sprinkle leads a solid receiving corps.
With nine starters back on defense, the unit continues to improve. That experience guides the Razorbacks past TCU early in the season, and they carry that confidence into the conference slate to make a run at a West title.
Worst case: Allen finds the going a little tougher in the SEC than he did at Fayetteville High School, and no workhorse emerges at running back. Points prove a little too hard to come by, and Arkansas winds up near the bottom of the standings.
Best case: A clear winner emerges from the quarterback derby involving Sean White, Jeremy Johnson and John Franklin III. The starter plays well enough to keep pressure off Auburn’s thin running back group.
The defense, led by Carl Lawson and a strong line, trims a few points off its scoring average from last season. That improvement, combined with a similar one on offense, helps Auburn survive its early schedule and stay in the race.
Worst case: The revolving door at quarterback keeps spinning, allowing opposing teams to load the box against Kerryon Johnson. Last season’s offensive issues carry over, and a tough September schedule leaves the Tigers too frustrated to make a push in conference play.
Best case: Leonard Fournette approaches 2,000 yards and winds up as a Heisman Trophy finalist. If that happens, it likely will be because the improvement of quarterback Brandon Harris forces teams to defend against the pass and the run.
New coordinator Dave Aranda leads a revival of the defense, which produces near its 2011 level (11.3 points allowed per game). LSU does enough to win the West and put itself in the national playoff discussion.
Worst case: Harris can’t take that next step, leaving the Tigers too one-dimensional in big games. Fournette’s talent still shines occasionally, but 2016 plays out much like last year. Coach Les Miles hears calls for his ouster again.
Best case: Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald plays as well full time as he did in last year’s cameo appearances. The three returning starters on the offensive line help keep Fitzgerald upright. Someone, maybe Brandon Holloway, emerges as a better-than-expected running back, and the offense outpaces expectations.
New defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon molds six returning starters and some newcomers into a cohesive unit. Mississippi State surprises everyone by winning enough games to be on the fringe of the West race.
Worst case: Plans to build a statue of Dak Prescott pick up steam as his replacement falters at quarterback. That won’t help the running game, which once again fails to produce a consistent feature back. The constant turnover among defensive coaches finally bites the Bulldogs, as the unit struggles to find its footing. The team fulfills its preseason predictions and ends up in the West cellar.
Best case: Chad Kelly, who had an outstanding 2015 season, posts even better numbers in his final season. The depth in the receiving corps proves to be enough to replace Laquon Treadwell. The offensive line, minus Laremy Tunsil, is still good enough to keep the offense humming.
Marquis Haynes and DeMarquis Gates help the defense continue its recent history of forcing turnovers (55 in the past two seasons). The Rebels find a way to clip Alabama and avoid another league stumble en route to the SEC Championship Game.
Worst case: Kelly is still Kelly, but the offensive line isn’t as strong without an NFL first-round pick guarding his blind side. The lack of a reliable running attack is also an issue. The Rebels can’t find a way past Alabama or LSU in the West race.
Best case: Quarterback Trevor Knight posts a strong season, throwing to one of the most talented receiving corps in college football. Knight’s former Oklahoma teammate, Keith Ford, turns out to be solid at running back. The Aggies offense scores points in bunches.
Myles Garrett improves on his 12.5 sacks from last year. The second year under defensive coordinator John Chavis helps Texas A&M make enough improvements to keep the team in the West race deep into the season.
Worst case: Knight shows the same form that cost him his job at Oklahoma — and so does Ford. The receivers start complaining because they’re not getting the ball. The dysfunction in College Station carries over into 2016.
The defense, which finished 13th against the run in the SEC last year, doesn’t get any better in that area. There aren’t enough wins at the end to keep Kevin Sumlin’s job out of jeopardy.