Following the conclusion of 2017 SEC Media Days, the conference released its annual preseason media poll.
To nobody’s surprise, reporters in attendance picked Alabama to win its third consecutive league championship. Georgia was narrowly predicted to unseat Florida in the SEC East, while Auburn and LSU garnered the second- and third-most votes in the West, respectively.
Of course, we all know the media rarely nails its customary summer guessing game. Only six of the last 25 projected SEC champions have actually lived up to the hype.
Think about that stat for a minute. Over the last quarter-century, 19 teams have beaten most public expectations and emerged as SEC champions. Auburn, picked to finish fifth in its division, won the league in 2013. LSU (2001) and Georgia (2002) both captured the conference crown in their second year of a new coaching regime.
Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide dynasty, SEC champions in five of the last eight seasons, has decreased the unpredictability to some degree. Even so, history commands us to expect the unexpected when it comes to order of finish.
So, which SEC teams are most likely to beat their preseason billing? To answer that, we dove into preseason media polls from years past to chart which programs finished better than expected.
Predicted finish vs. actual finish for SEC football teams, 2008-16
The table below measures a given team’s average place in the final standings (i.e. fifth, sixth, etc.) subtracted from its average predicted landing spot over a nine-year period. A team usually predicted to finish seventh that in reality finishes fourth most years, then, produces a positive number.
Here is how each SEC team fared:
Florida: Little love from media under Jim McElwain
In McElwain’s first season at the helm, the Gators were predicted to finish fifth in the SEC East, behind Georgia, Tennessee, Missouri and South Carolina. Fifth!
Then, after Florida won the SEC East — with Treon Harris at quarterback for half the season, no less — the media picked UF to finish second to the Vols in 2016. And, to be fair, Tennessee did beat the Gators before inexplicably blowing it against South Carolina and Vanderbilt. But Florida retained its division crown once again thanks to an elite defense led by Jarrad Davis, Quincy Wilson and Teez Tabor.
Why the media could be right in 2017: Skeptics could point to an identity-less offense recently plagued by quarterback and offensive line problems. Or they could note a combined 1-5 record against Alabama, LSU and Florida State. The defense, as always, lost several top players this offseason (five were taken in the NFL draft’s first three rounds). McElwain drawing from the grad transfer quarterback well again probably hasn’t heightened optimism, either.
Why the media could be wrong: Could 2017 be the year Florida’s offensive line really gels? The Gators have two talented bookends in Martez Ivey and Jawaan Taylor, and McElwain thinks the unit could become a “true strength.” Running back Jordan Scarlett seems primed for a big season, and Malik Zaire gave us glimpses of promise at Notre Dame. Florida always signs elite recruits on defense, and new coordinator Randy Shannon is no stranger to coaching top talent.
Georgia: Historically over-hyped
Those who follow the Bulldogs know that every offseason seems to culminate with high expectations and a prominent place in the preseason polls. And while the team was generally a lock for 9-10 wins under Mark Richt, mostly because of the embarrassment of in-state recruiting riches at its disposal, many years resulted in Georgia playing second fiddle to the Gators, who are 11-5 in the last 16 WLOCP matchups.
The Bulldogs fared alright in Kirby Smart’s first season, rolling to an 8-5 record under true freshman quarterback Jacob Eason, and they secured the nation’s No. 3 signing class in February.
Why the media could be right: Almost all of Georgia’s 2016 team returns this season, including seniors Nick Chubb, Sony Michel, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy. The defense quietly excelled under first-year coordinator Mel Tucker, features some real talent up front (see: Trent Thompson and Roquan Smith) and a relatively-experienced secondary led by safety Dominick Sanders. A manageable SEC East schedule bolsters the media’s case for Georgia winning the division.
Why the media could be wrong: Well, Georgia finished third when it was last picked to win the East (2013 and 2015), and has only beaten its preseason expectations once since 2008. The offensive side of the ball warrants a few major questions, as well. Will Eason take the next step as a sophomore? Will the offensive line — an unmitigated mess in 2016 — find its footing? Can Jim Chaney get the unit to not look like an old jalopy sputtering and coughing its way down the field? And, of course, can the Bulldogs beat Florida?
Alabama: You can’t win it every year, but you can come close
Alabama has been picked to win the SEC five times since 2008, and it has also won the SEC five times since 2008.
Interestingly, the Crimson Tide did not take home the conference crown in three of the years reporters expected: 2010, 2011 and 2013. Thus, we get annual cadre of superstitious fans grumbling and shaking their hands every time the media picks Alabama.
Why the media
could will be right: Saban has established such a standard of dominance that, at this point, it’s silly to pick anyone else. He once again landed the top recruiting class in the country, his roster is littered with blue-chip prospects and the motivation levels have to be at an all-time high following the Clemson heartbreaker. Jalen Hurts, Bo Scarbrough, Calvin Ridley, Da’Shawn Hand, Minkah Fitzpatrick, Rashaan Evans — the list of stars goes on. Need we say more?
Why the media might be wrong, but probably won’t be: Perhaps Hurts doesn’t improve as a passer, and the true freshman who (understandably) looked shaky at times last January struggles to establish himself. Perhaps Brian Daboll, who doesn’t have an eye-popping track record, struggles to adapt his system to Hurts, or Tua Tagovailoa. The offense has an off night, and Auburn or LSU squeak by in an upset. Those are the only two teams I can reasonably foresee knocking off Alabama, and that’s a stretch.
The best of the rest: Vanderbilt, Missouri and Mississippi State
These three schools rounded out the top four by virtue of entering most seasons with low, low expectations, which isn’t a bad situation at all. We’ve seen it several times: Missouri winning the SEC East — twice! — Vandy beating a sixth- or seventh-place prediction and Mississippi State riding that Dan Mullen quarterback magic to an impressive finish.
Of these three schools, the smartest sleeper pick is MSU, which now has its quarterback (Nick Fitzgerald), a better defensive coordinator (Todd Grantham) and a number of breakout candidates, including Jeffery Simmons, Marquiss Spencer, Jonathan Abram and Aeris Williams.
Who’s your SEC sleeper pick for 2017? Let us know in the comments.