There are probably six teams that start the season thinking they have a chance to win the SEC championship. History suggests half of those teams are wrong.
The level of play required to win this conference is unmatched by any league in the sport. It’s probably best embodied by Alabama — the program that’s won the SEC three of the last four years.
The Crimson Tide’s performances form a benchmark for expectations for this year’s possible winners. And when compared to Alabama, some of the would-be challengers this season have a hard time matching up.
Let’s start with an assumption: It takes a great team to win the SEC, and that greatness is demonstrated in three areas:
- Quarterback play. Which we’ll measure by the number of touchdowns thrown.
- Strength along the lines of scrimmage. Which we’ll measure by rushing yards and sacks — both gained and allowed.
- Quality defense. Which — since most of the other key metrics are already accounted for —we’ll measure by counting passes broken up.
The stats for Alabama in its last three SEC championship seasons (2012, 2014-15) are staggering. The Crimson Tide has averaged:
- 28 touchdown passes
- 3,026 rushing yards
- 1,213 rushing yards allowed
- 39 sacks
- 22 sacks allowed
- 66 pass breakups
No team that falls well below Alabama in any of these key areas should be taken seriously as a legitimate possibility of winning the SEC.
With that in mind let’s take a look at how the conference stacks up:
The Gators inability to throw the football is almost unfathomable.
Florida hasn’t had a quarterback throw more than nine touchdowns in the last three years, and hasn’t had a passer throw more than 12 since Tim Tebow was on campus. Despite coach Jim McElwain’s public confidence in likely starter Luke Del Rio, there’s not much reason to believe things will improve dramatically this season. And if Florida can’t find a signal caller to match what quarterback Jake Coker provided the Crimson Tide last season (21 touchdowns), the Gators are a long way from being in the same class as the league’s best.
At first glance it might seem quarterback play also will hold back the Bulldogs, but that probably isn’t true. If Alabama’s average total of 28 touchdown passes thrown truly is a magic number, UGA might not have as much trouble reaching that figure as some imagine.
The Bulldogs may have to turn to true freshman Jacob Eason. But last season, UCLA also called on a true freshman and former five-star prospect Josh Rosen and he threw for 23 scores. That won’t be an easy feat for Eason to copy, but his high school resume is almost a carbon copy of Rosen’s. Furthermore last year’s starter — Greyson Lambert — is still on the team as well. Assuming he adds a couple of touchdowns of his own, UGA should be fine at quarterback.
It’s on defense where UGA comes up short. The Bulldogs only had 21 sacks last season, and both the team’s top producers — Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins — have moved on to the NFL.
New Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is a respected defensive mind, but drastically elevating UGA’s pass rush might take more than one year.
The Rebels are in the middle of a serious NCAA investigation, but that isn’t the reason Ole Miss won’t win the SEC.
The Rebels cannot run the ball. Even though Ole Miss has beaten Alabama on the field the last two seasons, it is nowhere close to beating the Crimson Tide at its own game.
Alabama used running back Derrick Henry — last year’s Heisman winner — to nearly eclipse 3,000 rushing yards in each of the last two seasons (2,999 in 2015 and 2,893 in 2014). The ’12 team featuring running backs Eddie Lacy and T.J. Yeldon surpassed that total, rushing for 3,185 yards.
The Rebels only gained 2,380 yards in 2015, 619 fewer than Alabama, despite almost replicating the Tide’s number of plays per game. Keeping in mind that Ole Miss loses last year’s leading rusher — running back Jaylen Walton — to graduation and replaces several key starters along the offensive line. It’s hard to imagine the Rebels will be able to do much to make up that deficit on the ground.
A potent passing attack makes Ole Miss a threat to beat almost anyone, including another possible upset of Alabama. But the Rebels struggles on the ground suggest a few losses are on the way this year as well.
The perfect team to be this year’s Alabama might be … well, Alabama.
The Crimson Tide has a lot to replace, but that hasn’t been a problem before. Alabama produces five-star recruits like the United States treasury produces $20 bills. The Heisman Trophy winner departed for the NFL, and Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban simply will look to another elite talent or two.
Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris — the new duo of running backs for Alabama — should help the Crimson Tide achieve something close to the 3,000-yard mark on the ground once again. Being forced to go with a brand-new starter at quarterback for the third consecutive season shouldn’t be much of a problem for Alabama either; offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin’s success at finding a capable starter speaks for itself.
However, it’s on defense where Alabama should really shine. The secondary — a weakness for Saban’s team in 2014 — is now one of its strengths. Cornerbacks Marlon Humphrey and Minkah Fitzpatrick gained valuable experience playing as freshman last year contributing to a defense that broke up a whopping 80 passes. The Crimson Tide pass defense could be even better this season with the arrival of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, whose on-field expertise is in coaching defensive backs.
It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone if this Alabama team puts up numbers on both sides of the ball that are just as impressive as the ones from the Crimson Tide’s recent SEC championship seasons.
The Tigers do almost everything as well as the best Alabama teams do.
LSU dominates the lines of scrimmage, rushing for more yards (3,089) than the Crimson Tide last season. The Tigers produce elite defenses that are comparable to Alabama’s. LSU is much weaker than the Crimson Tide in only one area — at quarterback.
By now everyone knows of Brandon Harris’ problems. He only threw 13 touchdown passes last year — far fewer than what the Alabama quarterbacks have done in their SEC seasons. However, the fact that Harris’ struggles haven’t prevented most preseason prognosticators from including LSU in their top 10 should tell you everything you need to know about what’s happening around Harris.
The conclusion the experts seem to be drawing about LSU and Harris in particular is that a team with so much going for it — including Heisman favorite Leonard Fournette at running back, a couple of potential wide receivers with NFL futures in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, as well as a defense loaded with talent and led by energetic new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda — might also figure out the quarterback position too.
If that happens, look out.
The Vols are one of the most misunderstood teams in the SEC. Tennessee’s 2015 season is treated by many rival fans as something of a joke. The Vols are laughed at for coughing up some late leads and dropping games they should’ve won.
However, this year it will probably be Tennessee that gets the last laugh.
Even though they lost a few games, in 2015, the Vols took a big step toward mirroring the statistical performances of Alabama’s championship teams. Tennessee’s 2,908 rushing yards puts it in the same company as the Crimson Tide, and Tennessee’s 30 sacks is within shouting distance of the typical year from the Crimson Tide for that category as well.
Much like LSU, the next step for Tennessee is continued development at the quarterback position.
Joshua Dobbs might appear to have a long way to go in that department. He only threw 15 touchdowns last season. But Dobbs rushed for 671 yards as well.
Expect Dobbs to ride those dual-threat capabilities to a career year in 2016 and to lead his team right into the thick of the race to be the SEC’s best.