The state of Alabama might have produced six of the last seven SEC champions, but you need not leave the Yellowhammer State to find an example of how fast fortunes can change within the conference.
See the 2015 Auburn Tigers — who took a No. 6 preseason ranking in the AP Top 25 and dove nose-first into the SEC West cellar — as tangible proof.
One season you begin No. 24 in the AP Top 25, only to finish with five unimpressive wins and your coach resigning for health reasons. That would be you, Missouri Tigers of 2015.
For every underachiever, however, there’s a team that rose. Last year’s Florida Gators, which won the SEC East after finishing 7-5 in 2014, are a perfect recent example.
So who are the teams primed to improve in 2016? Whose offseason troubles, graduation losses and other detrimental factors will cost them this season?
WHO WILL IMPROVE
Texas A&M: The Aggies’ five losses came by an average of 14.4 points and included defeats at the hands of national champion Alabama and No. 24 Ole Miss in consecutive weeks, as well as losses to LSU, Louisville and Auburn. The only significantly bad loss was a 26-10 pummeling by Auburn in College Station.
The 2016 slate arrives with many of the same hurdles, plus a Week 1 tilt against No. 24 UCLA at Kyle Field and another home date vs. Tennessee in October. But this year’s Aggies return much of same core of players, save for quarterback and running back. Surprisingly, that might be a good thing when it comes to turning some of those close losses into victories.
Kevin Sumlin’s team no longer has a quarterback controversy, nor the same two signal-callers who created the platoon-type situation. In place of Kyler Murray and Kyle Allen is seasoned veteran Trevor Knight, who takes over after arriving from Oklahoma as a graduate transfer. Knight inherits arguably the most talented wide receiver corps in the SEC. With stability at quarterback from a player with 3,424 career passing yards, Texas A&M should improve upon its 27.8 points per game average from 2015.
If Sumlin can bolster his rushing defense (108th in the nation last season), as well as keep his running backs healthy, it stands to reason the Aggies will improve this season. His job might depend on it.
Florida: The Gators were a completely different team when they had Will Grier under center in 2015. Treon Harris couldn’t quite steer the Gators offense in a northerly direction. A year later, however, neither can be found in the Swamp.
Yes, McElwain turns over control of the offense to third-year sophomore Luke Del Rio. But the journeyman appears to have found a home in Gainesville after previous stops at Alabama and Oregon State. Translation: He shouldn’t have a deer-in-headlights look in his eyes when the Gators take the field Week 1 against Massachusetts. Del Rio should have plenty of weapons to get the ball to, including dynamic wide receiver Antonio Callaway. The biggest improvement must come from Florida’s offensive line, which yielded 45 sacks last season — most in the nation. The line returns 37 starts and has clearly defined roles this year, something that was lacking last season. It should be quite difficult to replicate such futility.
It’s hard to imagine that team that won the SEC East can vastly improve, but a rejuvenation of the Gators’ struggling offense could make for a dominating season for Florida.
Auburn: The Tigers’ aforementioned struggles last year came in large part to deficiencies at quarterback and a defense that failed to live up to expectations under coordinator Will Muschamp.
Gus Malzahn has named Sean White as his starting quarterback, allowing the sophomore to acclimated while divorcing himself from the uncertainty that comes from a platoon role. White doesn’t have to be an All-American. If he can limit mistakes and turnovers, the rest of the squad should be able to pick up any slack. The roster is talented, enough so to garner 22 votes in the AP Top 25 preseason poll.
The Tigers helped out their defense this offseason by adding two graduate transfers in LB T.J. Neal from Illinois and CB Marshall Taylor from Miami (Ohio). The speedy Neal will step in right away and give the Tigers someone who can penetrate offenses behind the line of scrimmage. Taylor, who joined the team this past week after missing the team’s preseason camp, could be ready for the opener as well. Once he is, he gives the Tigers nice size at 6-foot-3 and 191 pounds and someone who can help fill the hole created by Jamel Dean’s knee injury. Yes, the Tigers will be breaking in their third defensive coordinator in as many years. But the room for improvement could be among the best in the SEC.
WHO COULD REGRESS
Mississippi State: It’s tremendously difficult for any team to bounce back after the loss of arguably the greatest player in program history. That’s what Mississippi State will be up against in 2016 as they move on from the Dak Prescott era. In fact, we’re not sure yet who will replace the man who threw for 9,376 yards in four seasons in Starkville. The competition is down to sophomore Nick Fitzgerald, junior Damian Williams and freshman Nick Tiano. Coach Dan Mullen hasn’t announced a starter, but chances are the Bulldogs will go with a combination of two or all three come Week 1 against South Alabama. It’s hard to envision Mississippi State improving upon its 9-4 (4-4 SEC) record with such uncertainties under center.
Ole Miss: It hasn’t been an offseason to remember fondly for Hugh Freeze and the Rebels, who face fallout from an extensive NCAA investigation into numerous rules infractions allegedly committed by the school’s athletic programs. The self-imposed penalty of three years’ probation and 11 fewer scholarships over the next four years will be felt in Oxford. The NCAA very well could dole out even harsher penalties after concluding its investigation, which has extended this summer into questioning former recruits who signed with other SEC schools.
Add a roster that needs to replace three first-round NFL draft picks in left tackle Laremy Tunsil, defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, and there’s a real chance Ole Miss could regress some in an unforgiving SEC West.
South Carolina: Will Muschamp’s Auburn defense, as mentioned earlier, sputtered in his lone season as Tigers defensive coordinator. But the exuberant coach shouldn’t be the reason for any of his new team’s defensive woes in his first year. Muschamp has brought a recruiting swagger back to Columbia and has bolstered his front line. But the loss of star linebacker Skai Moore really hurts. Moore led the Gamecocks with 111 tackles, 37 more than his closest teammate. He also topped the team in tackles for loss (6.5) and interceptions (4). Fortunes are turning quickly for South Carolina, but it might take a year of growing pains for Muschamp and his program before they can reap any rewards.