Choose your destiny, SEC.
Not long ago, Ole Miss coach Hugh Freeze tweeted a slide from a motivational tactic he shared with his team. As part of the exercise, he revealed how he hoped important figures in his life would choose to remember him, based on the way he conducted himself. There’s an interesting message in there, and it’s worth considering as we grind through our days.
But taking the idea further, how should each SEC team want to be remembered at the end of the upcoming season? What legacies will be left behind?
With kickoff here — thank goodness! — we take a closer look at the possibilities and offer predictions for the legacies SEC teams will leave.
How they should want to be remembered: They vanquished the Vols and won the SEC East once more.
How they’ll be remembered: They made those who wear orange despise them, but the Gators were an afterthought during the after-party in Atlanta for the second consecutive year.
Analysis: They’re waiting in the weeds, er, swamp. For a team that won the division last year, the Gators haven’t created much chatter leading into the second season under coach Jim McElwain. Tennessee is a trendy pick to win the SEC East, and the Volunteers pop out on paper like an Esquire cover model.
Here’s guessing Florida will find a way to foil Tennessee again — it’s a law of nature, after all, like scissors beating paper — and QB Luke Del Rio will be better than expected. Still, the Gators won’t be good enough to topple the SEC West champ.
How they should want to be remembered: They enjoyed a healthy Nick Chubb and witnessed Jacob Eason’s rise.
How they’ll be remembered: They lived it up watching Chubb churn opponents, but that quarterback situation remained cloudy.
Analysis: Chubb will crush foes as long as he stays healthy. We were cheated out of seeing what the bruising running back could do last year when he played in just five full games. It was a bit like settling into a theater for a hyped flick only to see the screen go black after 10 minutes. Depressing.
Georgia has the potential to create noise in the SEC East. Still, it feels like the Bulldogs are at least one more year from contending for the conference crown. It would be fascinating to see the highly touted Eason develop this season. But with coach Kirby Smart starting Greyson Lambert in the opener against North Carolina on Saturday, who knows what will happen with the young player?
How they should want to be remembered: They partied after the regular season like it was 2010.
How they’ll be remembered: They continue to ask, “When will you show us something, Mark Stoops?”
Analysis: The Wildcats should be tired of trudging through the muck of mediocrity. Stoops arrived in Lexington before the 2013 season offering promise, but he has served up a frozen plate of blah so far.
Kentucky has gone 5-7 in each of the past two seasons, after a 2-10 mark in Stoops’ debut year. The Wildcats last appeared in a bowl in the 2010 season, a drought that adds urgency to this fall. Time for Stoops to do something, anything, to breathe life into the program.
How they should want to be remembered: A bowl berth was their safe space.
How they’ll be remembered: They begged Shreveport for forgiveness.
Analysis: Good luck making a read on the Tigers. There are more curiosities about Ol’ Mizzou than questions on an SAT practice exam. After last year’s off-the-field excursions, coach Barry Odom’s goal should be to keep the conversation about his program contained to what happens on the field.
Still, Drew Lock remains an open-ended question at quarterback, and the running game should be approached with caution until it proves otherwise. The defense will be solid, but that unit can only do so much. Remember when bowl berths for the Tigers were almost a given? Remember when there were grumblings when they were “awarded” trips to exotic Shreveport instead of more desirable destinations? Well, any bowl looks like a stroll through paradise now.
How they should want to be remembered: They loved asking critics, “Would you like salt and pepper with that crow?”
How they’ll be remembered: Eventually, they will climb from their black hole.
Analysis: How low can the expectations go? You almost have to feel bad for coach Will Muschamp. He had a rough go of it at Florida, then he had a so-so stay as defensive coordinator at Auburn before finally landing a chance to revive his head-coaching career at South Carolina. Now in his first year in Columbia, the Gamecocks are almost-universally expected to fall faster than a sky-diving elephant.
Sure, South Carolina would love to shove all those prickly predictions where the sun doesn’t shine. And a victory against Vanderbilt on Thursday was a fine way to start. But it’s hard to see a bunch of wins coming the Gamecocks’ way this fall. Expect to encounter turbulence, South Carolina.
How they should want to be remembered: They learned that reality trumped the hype.
How they’ll be remembered: They can’t have enough Excedrin next winter. Or morphine.
Analysis: It’s a boom-or-bust year in Knoxville. There’s no wishy-washy middle ground. There will be no happiness for a middle-tier bowl berth or almost-famous accomplishments. It’s time to win the SEC East on Rocky Top.
But can you imagine the angst if that doesn’t happen? Can you imagine if — gasp! — Florida claims another division crown as the Vols bathe in their own tears? Well, the disappointment will come. Tennessee hasn’t made that climb to the Promised Land under Butch Jones. As tempting as it may be to pick the Vols to win the SEC East, you would be wise to turn your attention elsewhere. This fall will provide another lesson in hard knocks in Knoxville. After all, the opener against Appalachian State on Thursday didn’t exactly inspire.
How they should want to be remembered: They became experts at the command, “Run, Ralph Webb, run!” … and they rode their talented running back to a bowl berth.
How they’ll be remembered: Does anybody ever remember Vanderbilt?
Analysis: The Commodores are the SEC’s version of a bland, faded couch you can’t move yourself to pitch into the dumpster. There’s nothing super impressive about them. There’s nothing horrendous about them either — particularly not Webb, a bona-fide stud in the backfield.
But Vandy is just there, sitting in open view but not worthy of conversation. Coach Derek Mason, entering his third season in Nashville, hasn’t led Vanderbilt to a bowl. Doing so would create needed buzz around the program. A loss to South Carolina on Thursday was a dud of a way to begin.
How they should want to be remembered: They showed again why they’re the closest thing the SEC has to a cyborg.
How they’ll be remembered: Yawn. Another SEC title, with another berth in the College Football Playoff.
Analysis: So haven’t we already learned our lesson? Picking against Alabama is like choosing man to beat time or ice cream to beat the sun.
Yes, there are reasons to doubt the Crimson Tide, particularly because of unproven commodities at quarterback and running back. But year after year, the Tuscaloosa turbine motors on. The road won’t be easy — when is it ever? — but Alabama will find a way to do Alabama things … again.
How they should want to be remembered: They proved their season starts before late October.
How they’ll be remembered: There’s a reason they kept mumbling, “Why didn’t we face Alabama and Ole Miss in November?”
Analysis: The Razorbacks have made a strong case to be the SEC’s Mariano Rivera. They’re fantastic closers, having won four of their last six games in 2014 before claiming six of their final seven last year. But there’s that pesky problem of starting slowly, and that’s why Arkansas has gone a combined 15-11 the past two seasons.
This year, Arkansas will have faced three of its most difficult conference opponents by mid-October: Texas A&M (Sept. 24), Alabama (Oct. 8) and Ole Miss (Oct. 15). Good luck with that.
How they should want to be remembered: They did well enough to keep Gus Malzahn around an Auburn Waffle House for at least one more year.
How they’ll be remembered: They helped the coach sweat more than a cracked egg on the grill of his favorite postgame spot.
Analysis: Ah, memories of that near-miss in Pasadena have shriveled faster than the petals from a dead rose. Malzahn’s tenure at Auburn has resembled a Wall Street crash since he guided the Tigers to the BCS Championship Game during the 2013 season.
Another seven- or eight-win year will make the pitchfork-carrying people of the Plains more restless. Would another flop be enough to cost the coach his job? That remains to be seen, but Malzahn shouldn’t want to test the patience of the powers that be.
How they should want to be remembered: They enjoyed the perspective from Leonard Fournette’s shoulders as he carried them to an SEC West title.
How they’ll be remembered: They have become well-acquainted with the view of Alabama’s backside.
Analysis: We’ll learn how big a forklift Fournette can be this season. Quarterback Brandon Harris is, um, inconsistent at best, so don’t be surprised to see teams dare Harris to beat them.
Of course, some have tried that strategy before, only to see Fournette leave tread marks on their torsos. Unfortunately for LSU, Alabama flummoxed the star running back last season, and the Crimson Tide likely will do the same this year.
How they should want to be remembered: They moved beyond the Dak Prescott era better than expected.
How they’ll be remembered: They’ll be on the phone with Jerry Jones shortly, pleading to get Prescott back on a loaner basis.
Analysis: In many ways, Mississippi State fans should be electrified about Prescott’s early success in the NFL with the Dallas Cowboys. He will become a walking commercial for the program on Sundays if he keeps up this torrid pace. It’s a fantastic time for him.
Then again, each highlight will serve as a stark reminder of what the Bulldogs don’t have behind center. Coach Dan Mullen will use two quarterbacks in the season opener against South Alabama on Saturday, junior Damian Williams and sophomore Nick Fitzgerald. That means neither player has done enough to assert himself as the true No. 1 option. Keep searching in Starkville, guys.
How they should want to be remembered: They learned there’s more to life than NCAA investigations and offseason drama after all. Thanks, Chad Kelly.
How they’ll be remembered: They found out Kelly can only do so much, especially against LSU and Alabama.
Analysis: Along with Missouri, Ole Miss should be counting down the nanoseconds until kickoff. The off-the-field messes have parked a Laremy Tunsil-sized dark cloud above Oxford.
The good news is that the Rebels have the best quarterback in the SEC. Kelly, who threw for 4,042 yards with 31 touchdowns last season, should be dynamite again. The bad news? LSU and Alabama are better overall.
How they should want to be remembered: They were called a sexy sleeper pick. Turns out, there was nothing “sleepy” about them.
How they’ll be remembered: Finally, they moved beyond longing for the Johnny Manziel/Mike Evans glory years.
Analysis: Coach Kevin Sumlin enters the fall with a prove-it-now objective, and rightly so. The Aggies have gone 8-5 in each of the past two seasons, and trips to the Liberty and Music City bowls don’t exactly make the locals lift their arms and scream, “Hallelujah!”
Many have picked Texas A&M as a sleeper, and it’s easy to see why. The Aggies have the skill players to compete, and defensive end Myles Garrett should be a beast once more after totaling an SEC-best 12.5 sacks last year. Here’s guessing the Aggies win at least nine games, with a memorable victory or two along the way.