In 13 days, Arkansas will host Florida A&M in what amounts to the soft opening of the 2017 SEC football schedule. The real action begins two days later, with an 11-game slate set for Saturday, Sept. 2.
College football is close. So close.
As we inch through fall camp toward Week 1, SEC Country will post a weekly roundup packed with news, storylines, players to watch, game previews and more that’ll interest football fans.
Here’s what you need to know this week.
Rank ’em: The SEC’s hottest coaching seats
With the season on our doorstep, expectations remain as high as ever across the SEC. Which coaches are under the most pressure to win in 2017? We take a stab at answering that question, with a little help from SportsBettingDime (SBD).
5. Butch Jones, Tennessee
- SBD says: 30-1
- SECC says: 45-1
- Target win total: 6
Jones is easy mock-able in a press conference setting, but when the mic isn’t in front of his face, he’s a decent coach who has done a decent job at Tennessee. The Vols have not been great, but they have been consistently above-average. With John Currie now determining Jones’ fate, it’s unclear whether the UT administration would cut ties with him so early in Currie’s tenure. But this is Tennessee, a premier program with a strong tradition of winning, and you can certainly sense that a sizable portion of the fan base is a little sick of the corny Butch-isms.
4. Bret Bielema, Arkansas
- SBD says: 16-1
- SECC says: 40-1
- Target win total: 6
I was honestly shocked the sportsbook had Bielema at 16-1 odds. He might only be 25-26 in four years at Arkansas, which was a defensive disaster at times last season, but athletic director Jeff Long still seems to be a fan. On top of that, Bielema’s buyout would be massive. The Hogs lost a fair amount of talent from last season’s 7-6 squad, and while the Belk Bowl collapse was ugly, it’s unlikely that becomes a trend in Fayetteville.
3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
- SBD says: 17-1
- SECC says: 25-1
- Target win total: 8
Malzahn’s fate largely rests in the hands of Jarrett Stidham and Chip Lindsey. If quarterback remains a problem for Auburn, and the offense fails to support a defensive that has quickly become very good, Tigers fans will want heads to roll. Especially if the loss column includes Alabama. With Kamryn Pettway, Kerryon Johnson, a great O-line and a stout defensive in place, anything short of seriously competing for the College Football Playoff might have Malzahn on edge.
2. Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
- SBD says: Off the board
- SECC says: 22-1
- Target win total: 6
On one hand, it’s Vandy. On the other hand, Mason is 13-24 since coming aboard in 2014. The Commodores have enjoyed gradual improvement in those three seasons, going from 3 to 4 to 6 wins, and Vandy certainly isn’t an easy place to claim many victories. But if Mason can’t get this team to qualify for a bowl, you’d have to think the administration would at least consider a coaching change.
1. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
- SBD says: 18-1
- SECC says: 16-1
- Target win total: 9
Nine wins might be conservative. Maybe it’s not. All we know is athletic director Scott Woodward has publicly said Sumlin, author of three straight 8-5 seasons, needs to win more in 2017. Can he do that in the SEC West, with Nick Starkel at quarterback and a host of fresh bodies at receiver? Can John Chavis finally justify his massive salary by overseeing a competent, reliable defense? Can the Aggies even hope to replace Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall up front? There aren’t a ton of known quantities on this team, and taking that into account, it’s certainly possible this season is Sumlin’s last in College Station.
Opening week spotlight: Florida vs. Michigan
- Kickoff time: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET (Broadcast: ABC)
- Location: AT&T Stadium (Arlington, Texas)
- Last meeting: Michigan trounced Florida 41-7 in the 2016 Citrus Bowl
Florida player to know: Duke Dawson. The senior cornerback could have declared for the NFL draft this offseason, but opted for one more year in The Swamp instead. That was a huge turn of events for Florida, which had already lost three-fourths of its all-star 2016 secondary (Teez Tabor, Quincy Wilson and Marcus Maye). Dawson emerged as the Gators’ starting nickelback last season, and now he’s expected to become their next shutdown corner. Michigan QB Wilton Speight will need to watch himself.
Michigan player to know: Rashan Gary. When the 6-foot-5, 293-pound defensive lineman signed with the Wolverines in 2016, he was the consensus No. 1 recruit in the country. He played in all 13 games as a freshman, recording 27 tackles, 5 TFLs and one sack, and he’s expected to become a focal point of the extremely inexperienced Michigan defense. If that unit wants to survive its first test of 2017, Gary will need to be a huge part of the effort.
Key matchup: Malik Zaire vs. Don Brown. Zaire, the presumed Florida starting quarterback, faces a Michigan defense that lost 10 of 11 starters from last year’s squad. But Brown is easily one of the three best defensive coordinators in the country; it’ll be interesting to see how much he’ll throw at Zaire.
Quote of note: “You make your own bed, man” — Florida coach Jim McElwain on star wideout Antonio Callaway, one of seven Gators players suspended for the Michigan game.
2 freshman to watch: Defensive back
Jamyest Williams, South Carolina: Williams arrived in Columbia, S.C., amid lofty acclaim in recruiting circles. Reports already have the standout defensive back living up to the hype, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone to see him playing against N.C. State come Week 1.
Marco Wilson, Florida: Is Wilson the next in a long line of elite Gators defensive backs? He has been working with the first-team defense at nickelback, which is obviously a good sign, and the Florida secondary could certainly use the help given all the experience it lost this offseason.
Honorable mention: DeAngelo Gibbs, Georgia
Hitting the links: SEC Country news you don’t want to miss
- LISTEN: Exclusive interview with Florida Gators ambassador Steve Spurrier … The HBC himself stops by to speak with Zach Abolverdi and Jeff Cardozo on the Chomp Chat podcast. That’s legit.
- Arkansas legend Frank Broyles is on the state’s, not just the school’s, Mount Rushmore … The former Razorbacks coach passed away Monday, and Eric Bolin gives some perspective on the luminary’s legacy.
- What if Peyton Manning had declared for the 1997 NFL Draft? … Alex Smith takes us down the ‘what-if” rabbit hole, to a world where Tim Tebow becomes a pro star and the Cleveland Browns win a Super Bowl.
- What season-opening suspensions mean for the Gators … In case you missed it, Florida suspended seven players for the Michigan game, including star wideout Antonio Callaway. Jordan McPherson explains how that will affect the matchup.
- Auburn QB-turned-WR John Franklin III announces transfer to Florida Atlantic … The former Last Chance U star is headed to Lane Kiffin U, Lauren Shute reports, ending an Auburn career that began with so much hype.
SEC BBQ spot of the week: Archibald’s (Northport, Ala.)
This Tuscaloosa-area joint earned the No. 1 spot on Sports Illustrated reporter Andy Staples’ ranking of best college town meals in America, and when it comes to ribs, you’d be hard-pressed to find any better in the SEC states. Dreamland earns a lot of recognition, and deservedly so, but most folks in the know rank Archibald’s above Dreamland — which is part of the reason why a handful of Georgia fans freaked out when they learned Sanford Stadium concessions would include Dreamland BBQ this fall.
Folks, let’s simmer down: Almost all barbecue is good barbecue. Not everyone can have the great stuff all the time.
— Visit Tuscaloosa (@VisitTuscaloosa) May 16, 2017