The college football offseason is a funky beast. Every team presents a foggy unknown that can cloud even the most rational fan’s judgment. Combined with high levels of fan optimism, it creates this big, lumbering paradox that lives in the doldrums of June and July.
Until the games start, we have no good sense of how all this talent will mesh on the gridiron. So we default to optimism. Unless you’re a South Carolina fan, in which case it’s hard to feel good about much when you have a loss to The Citadel still haunting your dreams.
Few enjoy actively thinking about the first stumbling block their school might hit. After all, some might say, how you finish can outweigh a strong start. (Leonard Fournette would agree with you!) But we’ve also seen early losses dictate the course of a season.
Today, we at SEC Country are going to force you to accept that eventually your team will lose, your coach will do a lot of shrugging during the post-game interview and you will be sad. So on that happy note, let’s get started:
South Carolina: Sept. 1 at Vanderbilt
Let’s refrain from labeling this as a Gamecocks-bashing article for a minute and recognize that Vandy has a real chance to be decent — at least by Vandy standards. Last season, the ‘Dores defense was solid, allowing the sixth-fewest points and total yards in the SEC. Offensively, leading rusher Ralph Webb returns on the heels of a 1,152-yard sophomore campaign, while quarterback Kyle Shurmur likely remains the starter under center after showing some promise as a true freshman. The team returns 16 starters overall, and this game will be played within the friendly confines of Nashvegas.
South Carolina already was due for some major growing pains in Will Muschamp‘s debut without losing its best player for the season. Early enrollee Brandon McIlwain may be a two-sport college star down the line, but in the present it’s easy to envision the true freshman quarterback frantically fleeing the pocket just like Lorenzo Nunez did before him.
Auburn: Sept. 3 vs. Clemson
Poor Gus Malzahn. He’s just trying to enjoy his mid-life crisis purchase in peace, and maybe find a viable quarterback while he’s at it.
But here comes dancin’ Dabo, fired up and fresh off a heartbreaking national championship loss to ‘Bama, set to begin 2016 by strolling into Jordan-Hare Stadium with uber-talented Heisman Trophy favorite Deshaun Watson in tow.
The ACC’s Tigers are favored by eight points on the road, return a slew of talent on both sides of the ball and … did I mention they have a really, really good quarterback?
Sure, Auburn should field one heck of a defensive line this season, and watching that unit square off with the Clemson offense will be fun. But Malzahn and Co. better hope they have a player in John Franklin III, or else points may be scarce on The Plains this fall. As Cam Newton told SEC Country on Sunday, “When (Malzahn’s offense) is ran the right way, it’s very fun to watch.”
Missouri: Sept. 3 at West Virginia
Mizzou still has bigger problems than the performance of its football team, and even if it didn’t, life in Faurot Field post-Gary Pinkel won’t be easy for coach Barry Odom and the Tigers.
That’s not to say West Virginia will be especially good in 2016. But the Mountaineers’ offense did click down the stretch last season, scoring 30-plus points in five of the team’s final six games (5-1 record). West Virginia has what it takes to knock off a rebuilding Missouri squad at home in the couch-burning capital of America.
Ole Miss: Sept. 5 vs. Florida State
First, I promise there’s no anti-SEC agenda here. The Week 1 slate of non-conference games is simply stacked with quality matchups, and I’d be overly optimistic to think the conference can immediately display the same dominance that led to its phenomenal 8-2 bowl record last year.
Ole Miss is facing what you might call some NCAA trouble, including a potential postseason ban. Teams typically respond to this scenario in one of two ways: A) they crumble, B) they adopt the tried-and-true “us-versus-the-world” mentality and turn in a surprisingly good season.
The Rebels have too much talent for the former to happen and should be in line for another 10-win season. But Florida State presents the first of many challenges on a brutal 2016 schedule.
The Seminoles return several starters from a 10-win season, including Heisman contender Dalvin Cook. Edge rusher DeMarcus Walker (10.5 sacks as a junior) could feast against whomever Ole Miss trots out at left tackle, be it five-star freshman Greg Little or someone else. Free Shoes University gets to play its “neutral” site game in Orlando, too, and all of that will be tough for Ole Miss to overcome.
Kentucky: Sept. 10 at Florida
Kentucky played abysmal football in the second half of 2015, dropping six of its last seven games en route to finishing with only five wins and no bowl appearance.
It’s not that the Wildcats lack talent. Kentucky has secured some impressive recruiting hauls under coach Mark Stoops, highlighted by his 2014 signing class (22nd nationally, six 4-star prospects). But how well have those players been developed since arriving on campus? The play-calling has been puzzling at times, as well.
Kentucky has played Florida close in recent years, and there has to be a strong motivating factor in preventing its long Gators losing streak from reaching the 30-game mark. Unless this team suddenly becomes stouter in the trenches, however, a shocking upset in The Swamp should elude Stoops’ crew once again.
Mississippi State: Sept. 17 at LSU
The SEC West might be the least forgiving division in college football. And now that Mississippi State is without record-setting quarterback Dak Prescott and defensive standouts Chris Jones and Will Redmond, the battle should become even more of an uphill affair.
LSU has a national title firmly in its sights and will not suffer a setback so early. The Bulldogs’ defense should show improvement from last season, when it allowed 174 yards rushing per game (10th in the SEC), but that may only mean the Fournette-led Tigers rush for 200 yards instead of the 266 they racked up last time around.
Arkansas: Sept. 24 vs. Texas A&M
The Aggies have gotten the best of the Razorbacks in each of coach Kevin Sumlin‘s four years at College Station, and that trend won’t be broken this fall. Arkansas has some major pieces to replace on offense — a senior quarterback, its top two running backs, the nation’s best tight end and a dominant offensive guard — and last I checked, the three-headed monster of Myles Garrett, Daeshon Hall and human bulldozer Daylon Mack does not have a soft spot for teams in rebuilding mode.
This game will be competitive and entertaining, as are most games that feature the play-calling of Sumlin and Hogs offensive coordinator Dan Enos, but Texas A&M just has too much talent for an Arkansas team becoming known for slow starts.
Florida: Sept. 24 at Tennessee
This is the smack-talk showdown that just keeps on giving. All eyes will be on Knoxville in what some are already billing as a de facto SEC East title game. With so many great storylines — Tennessee’s losing streak, the dramatic nature in which last year’s game ended, the Twitter war and this likely being Butch Jones‘ make-or-break year — it’s hard to imagine this matchup not delivering on the hype.
For the record, I see the Vols shedding their perennial “breakout candidate” status and eking out a close victory at home. Whether they can sustain their winning ways after the high that would come from this game, well … read a little further.
On the bright side, Florida fans, your school is not facing a major sexual assault lawsuit. It’s all about perspective!
Georgia: Sept. 24 at Ole Miss
The Bulldogs are the best-positioned of the three SEC East teams that hired new coaches for this season, and there’s no reason they can’t finish with eight or nine wins. But this program also has some big early questions that leave room for doubt. Just how good can Jacob Eason be right away, and how much will he play? Will Nick Chubb be the same after injury? Can Sam Pittman effectively retool an offensive line that got manhandled at times last year?
Beating a stacked group of Rebels in Oxford would be an incredible validation of Kirby Smart‘s program … almost too incredible for the purposes of this article. For now, Ole Miss losing here has the look of a UGA fan’s pipe dream.
Tennessee: Oct. 1 at UGA
We’ve seen this storyline play out before: After beating a hated rival following weeks of dramatic buildup, the up-and-coming team lays a giant egg on the road next time out. This is Tennessee’s trap game, if you can really even call it a trap, and it’s sure to throw a healthy portion of chaos into the SEC East race.
Why this game for the Vols? Georgia’s defensive backs are experienced and primed to take advantage of Joshua Dobbs‘ passing mistakes, and its ever-reliable running game should have success in keeping Tennessee’s high-octane offense off the field in Sanford Stadium.
Vanderbilt: Oct. 1 vs Florida
Is it really that outlandish to see Vanderbilt start 4-0? South Carolina, Georgia Tech, a Brandon Doughty-less Western Kentucky squad and Middle Tennessee State are beatable. Florida’s talent still trumps Vandy, and the Gators will take care of business here, but from where Derek Mason‘s team was just two years ago (3-9, 0-8 SEC), this would be a tangible step forward.
I’m probably way too bullish on the ‘Dores. But Mason is a darn good coach who was part of some special seasons at Stanford, and he now has some pieces around which to build.
Alabama: Oct. 15 at Tennessee
The Vols beat Florida, disappoint against UGA and then … knock off the defending champs? Yes. Yes they do.
The Third Saturday in October has belonged to the Tide since Nick Saban arrived. But there’s a little bit of Rocky Top magic brewing this season that leads us to believe orange finally beats crimson in this long-standing rivalry. For the flaws in his game, Dobbs’ athleticism makes him the type of college quarterback that can pull off dramatic upsets such as this one. Tailbacks Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara form one of the most dangerous one-two punches in college football. And, perhaps most importantly, Alabama has shown that it struggles offensively against teams with the type of pass rushers Tennessee will field (just look at last year’s narrow 19-14 home victory).
Derek Barnett and Jaylen Reeves-Maybin will play starring roles in this one, Cam Sutton will come up with some timely pass defense against Alabama’s stacked receiving corps and the Vols offense will squeak out just enough production in UT’s biggest victory in years.
Texas A&M: Oct. 22 at Alabama
Since the season ended, Texas A&M has lost three quarterbacks if you count the de-commitment of Tate Martell. The school did add Trevor Knight, who stacks up as the SEC’s second-best pure passer and its No. 1 ladies man, and defensive coordinator John Chavis has some serious talent at his disposal up front.
For all of the ugliness that went along with the Aggies’ second-half collapse, this team should still turn in a solid campaign — fourth place in the SEC West is reasonable. And the structure of their schedule makes a 6-0 start possible.
History repeats itself, though, and Alabama (which would be fresh off a loss to Tennessee if we’re running with the rest of these predictions) will continue to make Johnny Manziel‘s Tuscaloosa theatrics seem like a distant memory, sparking another down-the-stretch deflation in College Station.
LSU: Oct. 22 vs Ole Miss
LSU has reached SEC front-runner status for a reason: The Tigers are loaded across the board and return arguably the best player in college football, among a handful of other elite talents (Lewis Neal, Tre White, Travin Dural, Arden Key). Defensive chief Dave Aranda will orchestrate one of the fiercest units in college football, while Fournette, Derrius Guice and three senior offensive linemen should get the job done offensively whether or not Brandon Harris ever learns how to throw the football.
If LSU beats Ole Miss here in a “looking ahead to Alabama” scenario, there’s a real chance it finishes unbeaten, especially considering that LSU benefits from facing Saban’s squad in Death Valley. The only thing this team lacks is a good Fournette-centric rap song, which … well, we’re waiting, Baton Rouge.