National championships. Coaching changes. High-profile recruits. Passionate fans.
The SEC can make a legitimate claim to “most and best” in each of those categories when it comes to major college football. It’s an inherently interesting conference to cover.
But what about this year? Which SEC program represents the team with the most drama? We asked our editorial team to provide the answer.
WHICH SEC TEAM IS THE MOST INTERESTING IN 2016 AND WHY?
Connor Smolensky (@ConnorSmo): Georgia
There’s so much unknown with Georgia this season. How will Kirby Smart fare as a first-time head coach? Will Nick Chubb be healthy enough to provide for the Bulldogs as he did in previous seasons? Who the heck is going to start at quarterback? There’s a guy named Jacob Eason that has has drawn a ton of praise: Is he the real deal?
You look around the SEC and you know what you’re going to get from certain schools. Alabama is going to be Alabama. Vanderbilt is going to be Vanderbilt. LSU is going to have a talented bunch.
But Georgia is one of the few big question marks in the SEC. A team that year-in-and-year-out has the talent to compete for an SEC crown, but seemingly loses a game it should win every season. Smart’s arrival in Athens seems to have changed the aura around the program, but will it change the performance on the field?
Alec Shirkey (@AShirkey): Tennessee
For both good and ill, UT has to be the conference’s most fascinating program right now. There is already been plenty of hype generated by the Vols’ talent-rich roster, and the fire has only been stoked by offseason trash talk from players. And then there’s coach Butch Jones facing a make-or-break year — amid a sweeping sexual assault lawsuit filed against the school, no less — with a Tennessee team that has come so tantalizingly close to getting over the hump in recent years.
This is a historically-winning program with a handful of huge rivalry games and a flair for the dramatic. Sit back and enjoy.
Alex Martin Smith (@asmiff): Tennessee
Butch Jones has assembled a powerhouse squad, but it has a thin margin for error. Rarely is there such pressure on a team that has not won a major bowl game in nearly two decades and has not toppled its arch-rival in 11 tries.
If (and that’s a Smoky Mountains-sized “if,” given their recent history vs. Florida) the Vols can escape from September unscathed, they’ll need to prove their elite status by winning two straight road games — at Georgia, at Texas A&M — before heading home to face Alabama in Knoxville. From there, the going gets easy. Make it to that bye week after ‘Bama with one or no losses, and Tennessee controls its own destiny for a playoff spot.
Nick Cole (@NickColeSports): Georgia
It’s hard to argue against Georgia as the most interesting team in the league entering the 2016 season. There are so many moving parts that one can’t help but wonder how it all will shake out.
It starts at the top with new head coach Kirby Smart. After 15 years of the Mark Richt regime, it was easy to be comfortable knowing what you’d get from the Bulldogs each year. Smart could shake that up significantly. Throw in new coordinators on each side of the ball, and the brand of football may be completely different.
Then there’s the quarterback competition. Will Georgia stick with the steady, yet unspectacular arm of Greyson Lambert, or will it throw caution to the wind with 5-star freshman Jacob Eason?
And finally, there’s the Nick Chubb factor. How has he recovered from last season’s knee injury? Will he ever be the same? And if he is, will he contend for the Heisman Trophy?
Christopher Smith (@csmithSEC): Texas A&M
Since Johnny Manziel left College Station in 2013, the Aggies have drifted from “nation’s sexiest program” to “paper tigers.”
Including Jake Hubenak, four different quarterbacks have started for Texas A&M since that time. Three of them have transferred elsewhere, and that’s excluding a high-profile de-commitment from 5-star recruit Tate Martell. Things came to a head near the end of last season as boosters, administrators, assistant coaches, parents and players all seemed to have their own ideas about the direction of the program — and attempted to impart them all at once.
Graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight and a steady veteran coordinator in Noel Mazzone should provide stability that has been lacking. But the glitz and glamour of the Swagcopter, the high-flying offense and stadium renovations of nearly $500 million lost luster after a 11-13 SEC record in the last three seasons. Even the oil money has faltered from its recent high point.
Can coach Kevin Sumlin regain political control of the program? And can the Aggies, as currently constituted, become at least semi-regular contenders for SEC West titles? This is a crossroads type of season at Texas A&M, and I’m looking forward to watching it play out.