Alabama won its third straight SEC championship in 2016, which also happened to be the fifth of the Nick Saban era. Even though the Crimson Tide could lose more than a dozen star players, they almost certainly will be the favorites to win again next year.
So for a second, let’s put Alabama to the side and consider other teams that could have a chance to pull the upset. Other SEC teams will lose their own potent group of superstars to the NFL draft, but several players remain who will have a major impact next year on the title race.
Here are five players who will be key to their respective team’s chances of dethroning Alabama in 2017.
RB Derrius Guice, LSU
2016 stats: 183 carries for 1,387 yards, 15 TDs; 9 catches for 106 yards, TD
When Leonard Fournette went to the bench with a slew of injuries, Guice ensured that LSU’s offense kept humming. Guice ultimately led the SEC in rushing and yards per attempt, despite having fewer carries than the next four guys on the rushing yards list. Only Mississippi State quarterback Nick Fitzgerald posted more rushing scores (16) than Guice (15). It was tremendous efficiency as a secondary back.
Now, Guice will be the featured piece in a revamped offense. New offensive coordinator Matt Canada led one of the more interesting units at Pitt. The Panthers ranked No. 10 with 40.9 points per game, including a mind-boggling 76-61 win over Syracuse. Canada must be salivating at the opportunity to utilize Guice’s athleticism next season.
DE Jabari Zuniga, Florida
2016 stats: 25 tackles, 8.5 TFLs, 5 sacks, 11 QB hurries
Florida knows how to recruit defensive players, but Zuniga was a somewhat-surprising star in his redshirt freshman season. He was a 3-star coming out of high school, but forced his way into the defensive line rotation. He quickly became an important contributor.
Zuniga ranked behind only Caleb Brantley in tackles for loss, and led the team in sacks. He easily got into the backfield more than any other Florida player — no other player had more than 7 QB hurries. New defensive coordinator Randy Shannon will have to replace most of the front seven next year. Zuniga must continue being a devastating playmaker if Florida is to return to Atlanta for a third straight appearance in the SEC title game.
QB Jacob Eason, Georgia
2016 stats: 204-of-370 for 2,430 yards, 16 TDs, 8 INTs
In 12 games as a starter, Eason looked like, well, a true freshman. There were moments of brilliance, like a brilliant game-winning drive against Missouri in his first road start. But averaging 5.1 yards per attempt and tossing a pair of picks against Georgia Tech in a bad loss are forgettable.
However, Eason’s talent is undeniable. There’s a reason Eason was rated the No. 1 or 2 high school quarterback in the nation by almost every recruiting outlet. The offseason is the perfect opportunity for a 19-year-old kid to take a step back and work on the basics. Receiving a major infusion of wide receiver talent through Georgia’s No. 3 recruiting class should only help. With Florida losing so many pieces, the SEC is wide open. Why not Georgia?
RB Kamryn Pettway, Auburn
2016 stats: 209 carries for 1,224 yards, 7 TDs
Pettway has to be the most surprising story in the SEC from 2016. After being utilized as a backup fullback, Rhett Lashlee thrust Pettway into a starring role following an injury to Kerryon Johnson and a couple of high-profile transfers (Jovon Robinson, who was dismissed, and Roc Thomas). He delivered almost immediately.
Pettway rushed for 100-plus yards in seven of the nine games in which he accumulated stats. His only misses were against LSU and Alabama, arguably two of the top three defenses in college football (along with Michigan). Otherwise, Pettway averaged 163.7 yards per game on 6.4 yards per carry. Auburn should possess a revamped passing game with Jarrett Stidham taking over, but Pettway undoubtedly will be the bruiser that keeps teams honest.
WR Antonio Callaway, Florida
2016 stats: 54 catches for 721 yards, 3 TDs; 5 carries for 32 yards, TD
Callaway is easily one of the five most talented receivers in the conference. Unfortunately, Jim McElwain’s offense failed to show it in 2016. Granted, he missed a game against North Texas and another was canceled after the Hurricane Matthew rescheduling fiasco. But he still finished No. 12 in the SEC in receiving yards, far behind where he should be.
McElwain is an offensive mind and will have to find new ways to get Callaway the ball in 2017. With losing so many Will Muschamp defensive recruits now on their way out, the margin for error on offense is becoming slimmer. Florida almost certainly will be favored to repeat in the SEC East, so a shot at the conference title is almost predetermined. Callaway must help the Gators get there.