When playing in the SEC, every team has talent. But over the course of a trying conference schedule, injuries are all but assumed. What separates good teams from championship contenders is the ability to plug holes when a starter goes down.
Depth can be built several different ways, from having experienced backups to raw talent ready to contribute. With numerous key players gone to the NFL, summer and fall camp are the perfect times to develop that depth.
These four teams are the best prepared to deal with a grueling 12-game schedule heading into summer workouts.
The Tigers lost a couple of players to the NFL, but ultimately return the bulk of their talent from last year’s 9-3 squad. LSU brings back 17 starters, a mark tied with Tennessee for most in the conference. Heisman Trophy contender Leonard Fournette (1,953 rushing yards, 22 touchdowns) leads the way for the Tigers on offense. While quarterback Brandon Harris has fought inconsistency, star wide receivers Malachi Dupre (698 yards) and Travin Dural (533 yards) will help ease the workload. Defensively, 10 players return with at least eight starts in an LSU uniform.
While having so many returning starters helps, talented and experienced depth sets the Tigers’ roster apart. Reserve quarterbacks Danny Etling (12 starts at Purdue) and Anthony Jennings (a starter in 2014) could push Harris for his starting job. Wide receiver Tyron Johnson and cornerback Kevin Toliver, both former five-star recruits, should both push for playing time as true sophomores. LSU is loaded all over the field, and has the depth to compete for an SEC championship next season.
The Volunteers have been “up and coming” for the last few seasons under coach Butch Jones. Now, the dividends should start paying off in Knoxville. Tennessee put together top-10 recruiting classes in 2014 and ’15, and after experiencing some growing pains, the talent in both classes will help build Tennessee’s depth this season.
Tennessee returns 17 starters, including several of its top skill position talents. Joshua Dobbs is one of the more experienced quarterbacks in the conference, boasting over 4,000 career passing yards. Running backs Jalen Hurd (1,288 yards rushing last season) and Alvin Kamara (698 yards) will be strong complements. However, defense is where the depth will really pay off. Defensive tackle Shy Tuttle was expected to contribute as a true freshman, but a leg injury likely means he will start on the bench. He is joined on the second unit by defensive end Jonathan Kongbo, the top-ranked junior college recruit in 2016. There are six additional players on Tennessee’s projected defensive two-deep who are juniors or seniors. This might finally be the year the Volunteers have the depth and experience to match their raw talent.
Seven Crimson Tide products were taken in the 2016 NFL Draft, including Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, SEC Defensive Player of the Year Reggie Ragland and Rimington Award winner Ryan Kelly. It’s a testament to Alabama’s recruiting that somehow it still manages to be among the deepest teams in the SEC. Alabama has put together No. 1 overall recruiting classes in six straight seasons, per 247Sports. Talent runs deep in Tuscaloosa.
Alabama loses 10 starters, but still returns stars on both sides of the ball. A trio of highly touted quarterbacks will compete to take over for Jake Coker next season. Whoever wins will have a loaded stable of wide receivers, including Freshman All-American Calvin Ridley (1,045 yards receiving) and ArDarius Stewart (700 yards). The offensive and defensive lines are the two biggest question marks on the team, but the Crimson Tide has multiple former five-stars to throw into the mix at both position groups. There is a reason why Nick Saban’s teams continue to win championships: The rosters he puts together are unmatched.
The Aggies have only been in the SEC for four seasons, but coach Kevin Sumlin’s squad has already made its mark on the conference. After a series of top recruiting classes, Texas A&M has built depth all over the field. The cornerstone of the roster is at wide receiver. Christian Kirk, Josh Reynolds, Ricky Seals-Jones and Speedy Noil are all elite performers at the position. Oklahoma transfers quarterback Trevor Knight and running back Keith Ford should make this offense a potent one.
Surprisingly for a Sumlin-coached team, defense could be this team’s calling card. Coordinator John Chavis worked magic in his first season at Texas A&M, and he now has a defensive roster built for his game plan. The Aggies defensive line is elite, with Daylon Mack, Myles Garrett and Daeshon Hall all known for causing havoc. Every primary backup on the Texas A&M front seven is an upperclassman. The secondary does not have as much experience, but the talent is there. Texas A&M does have holes on its roster, most significantly on the offensive line and at linebacker. However, the roster is still deep enough to compete with any team in the conference.