The Head Ball Coach might’ve hung up his microphone, but Steve Spurrier’s beloved Talkin’ Season is upon us. Next week, SEC Media Days will launch a month and a half of breathless chatter and endless hope, hype and expectation for the 2016 college football season.
Right now, every team and fan base in the league gets to believe it is an SEC championship contender. We know better. Just five teams have combined to win the last 17 conference crowns: Alabama (five), LSU (four), Auburn (three), Florida (three) and Georgia (two).
So let’s set some reasonable expectations – relative to each program’s history, personnel and coaching situation – for the SEC this fall, shall we? Per its recent dominance, the West gets to go first.
It’s a successful season if: The Crimson Tide wins the SEC and makes the College Football Playoff for a third time in as many years of its existence. Replacing a quarterback, Heisman-winning tailback and four second-round NFL draft picks on defense make national-title-or-bust a little unfair, but Bama is still stacked enough to expect it to be in the mix again.
Why it should happen: History, for starters. The Tide has won four national titles in the last seven seasons, most recently last year, and has posted double-digit win totals in each of the last eight years. Nick Saban’s machine just keeps humming, and the arrival of a fifth No. 1-ranked recruiting class (per Rivals.com) in the last six years means there is no end in sight.
And if it doesn’t: There will be red-hot takes (again) about whether the dynasty is crumbling, and they will still be stupid. Until the cycle is broken, Saban’s Alabama is always either rumbling over college football or re-fortifying the tank for next year.
It’s a successful season if: The Tigers win at least 10 games, snapping a five-game losing streak against Alabama in the process, and play in one of the New Year’s Six bowl games. Les Miles recorded double-digit wins in seven of his first nine seasons – winning a national championship in 2007 – but LSU has trended the wrong direction since losing to the Tide in the 2011 BCS title game.
Why it should happen: Heisman finalist Leonard Fournette, who rushed for almost 2,000 yards last season, is a great place to start. Home-run receivers and a new coordinator to harness the Tigers’ speedy athletes on defense also will help. But getting SEC West contenders Alabama and Ole Miss at home might be the biggest boost of all.
And if it doesn’t: Miles, who had to pull another rabbit out of The Hat last season to save his job at the 11th hour, might not be so fortunate this time. With some of the best facilities, fans and talent, a combined 17-8 record the last two years just won’t cut it.
It’s a successful season if: The Rebels win nine games, including a third straight Egg Bowl, and remain relevant in the brutal SEC West. Facing Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in the first month of the season could make for a rocky start, but if Hugh Freeze has built this thing on a solid foundation, Ole Miss should be able to finish strong.
Why it should happen: Since Houston Nutt’s 2-10 farewell tour, the Rebels have been on a remarkably steady climb in Freeze’s first four years: seven, then eight, then nine and finally 10 wins (including the Sugar Bowl) last season. That, plus back-to-back wins over the Crimson Tide, has raised the bar. Star QB Chad Kelly, with plenty of weapons around him and Freeze pushing the buttons, can prevent a major backslide this fall.
And if it doesn’t: That wouldn’t be a huge surprise, considering the loss of 11 starters – five to the NFL draft, three taken in the first round. But it would raise the question: Did the Rebels miss their window of opportunity to win the West? That would add to a sense of impending doom as the NCAA continues poking around for violations.
It’s a successful season if: The Aggies win eight games for a third consecutive season and extend their program-record bowl streak to eight in a row. Sure, that’s a low bar compared to 11-2 and Johnny Manziel winning a Heisman in 2012, coach Kevin Sumlin’s first season. But it might be time to consider the possibility Texas A&M just caught lightning in a bottle back then. It’s been 9-4, 8-5 and 8-5 since. Still, it’s worth noting that the Aggies won more than seven games just twice in the decade before Sumlin.
Why it should happen: Prized defensive coordinator John Chavis enters Year 2 of his overhaul. New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone should help refocus A&M’s once-potent attack. A loaded receiving corps returns, as does sack master Myles Garrett. It also stands to reason that Sumlin, who led Houston to a 12-1 season before coming to College Station, hasn’t suddenly forgotten how to coach.
And if it doesn’t: It’ll be because of quarterback play and likely will cost Sumlin his job, fair or not. Even holding steady with a solid season might not be enough. You don’t spend half a billion bucks upgrading and expanding Kyle Field to hold 102,000 crazed fans and tolerate a solid team. So after 5-star QBs Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray bolted in the offseason, Sumlin’s hope is in the hands of Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight. Gulp.
It’s a successful season if: The Tigers win at least eight games in Gus Malzahn’s fourth season, reversing the downward trajectory of the last two (from a 12-2 debut to 8-5, then 7-6). Any kind of improvement would be impressive against arguably the toughest schedule in America, while breaking in five new assistant coaches and possibly a new starting quarterback.
Why it should happen: Isn’t Auburn due for an uptick? It’s hard to imagine another program riding as dramatic a roller coaster as the Tigers the last quarter century: five wins and NCAA sanctions in 1992, undefeated (and untelevised) in ’93; 3-8 in 1998, undefeated (and uncrowned) by 2004; 5-7 in 2008, 14-0 (and finally national champs) in ’10; 3-9 in 2012, BCS title game in ’13. Maybe the next dream season is closer than it seems.
And if it doesn’t: It’s worth noting that every past resurgence came under the guidance of a new head coach – Bowden to Tuberville to Chizik to Malzahn – because the shine always wears off when expectations never shrink, especially as rival Alabama keeps steamrolling along. If he can’t give Auburn fans reason to hope this fall, Malzahn’s seat will be as hot as his no-huddle, spread offense once was.
It’s a successful season if: The Razorbacks win seven games and earn a third consecutive bowl berth. Why not more? While they increased their win total each of the last two years under Bret Bielema and pounded Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl to finish 8-5 in 2015, the guts of a potent offense are gone.
Why it should happen: Replacing a 3,400-yard passer, 1,500-yard rusher, star tight end and three offensive line starters is daunting. But nine starters are back on defense, Bielema’s teams always find a way to run the ball and Arkansas has figured out how to finish. The Hogs won 3 of 4 to close 2014 and 6 of 7 to end last season. The schedule – Alabama, LSU, Ole Miss and Florida all at home – also gives them a fighting chance.
And if it doesn’t: Bielema, who nursed the program back to health after Bobby Petrino left town on a dented motorcycle and the John L. Smith experiment blew up in Arkansas’ face, should have earned enough good will to be forgiven a bumpy ride this fall. But in the West, you risk being left in the dust if you slow down to rebuild.
It’s a successful season if: The Bulldogs win six games and reach their seventh consecutive bowl under Dan Mullen – after going to just one from 2001-09. Expectations have to be slightly, temporarily lowered after the departure of QB Dak Prescott, perhaps the program’s all-time greatest player who guide MSU to a 19-7 record (including an Orange Bowl) in the last two seasons.
Why it should happen: Mullen has consistently recruited and developed at a level that allows the Bulldogs to compete in the toughest division of the the most competitive conference in college football. There should be enough talent left – like 1,000-yard receiver Fred Ross and leading pass rusher A.J. Jefferson – to avoid falling off a cliff.
And if it doesn’t: Mullen gets a pass. Prescott was the former Florida offensive coordinator’s Starkville Tim Tebow. The Gators went 13-1 three times in Tebow’s four years – then 8-5 and 7-6 the next two seasons after he left. Likewise, it might take Mullen some time regroup from the loss of Prescott, and he’s certainly earned that time.
* Follow Kyle on Twitter @KyleTucker_AJC. Reach him at Kyle.Tucker@ajc.com.