The run Alabama has been on over the last seven years is historic. That much is obvious. Nick Saban has brought the Crimson Tide four national titles since 2009, winning the SEC west five times over that span.
What’s not obvious? The team with the best shot of keeping Saban and Alabama from winning the SEC next season.
It’s not as though the 2016 Tide look invincible. They don’t. They’re losing Heisman-winning running back Derrick Henry, linebacker Reggie Ragland and defensive end A’Shawn Robinson. They’ll need one of their talented young quarterbacks to emerge as a replacement under center with Jake Coker graduating.
Yet, unfortunately for teams of other schools, it’s tough to bet against Saban and next year shouldn’t be any different.
That said, here are three teams that look to have a legitimate shot at keeping Alabama from winning its third straight SEC title:
Remember the first half of LSU’s season in 2015? The Tigers were undefeated through seven games and Leonard Fournette looked like he’d be high-stepping his way to a Heisman trophy. All along, though, the naysayers were pointing out just how backloaded the Tigers’ schedule was, with trips to Tuscaloosa and Oxford required in two of their last four games. They, of course, lost both of those away games along with a home fixture to Arkansas, dropping three in a row down the stretch.
Les Miles has almost all of his key talent returning to Baton Rouge in 2016, including Fournette, and he’s bringing in a whole lot more. LSU by all accounts has what’s sizing up to be a top-3 recruiting class in 2016 and, unless they get bitten on National Signing Day Wednesday, the quality of Miles’ incoming talent is so high that it could legitimately have an immediate impact.
Considering the talent he was able to both retain and reel in, it’s not too difficult to foresee Miles’ defense –– which ranked in the top 10 nationally –– improving. You could expect the same from junior quarterback Brandon Harris. And finally, LSU will be the host of their bouts with Alabama and Ole Miss this season.
Big question marks: The Tigers may be too dependent on incoming recruits, especially in their front seven. They’re quite fortunate to have Kendell Beckwith returning, but the depth chart is likely to have the names of several first-year players in key defensive line and linebacker spots. Harris, meanwhile, will need to develop into a more efficient signal caller to better complement Fournette’s abilities out of the backfield.
2. Ole Miss
So long as their alleged NCAA rules violations aren’t too large a distraction or detriment to recruiting, the Rebels appear primed for a strong 2016 campaign.
Coach Hugh Freeze had his team oh-so-close to winning the SEC West. He found a way to hand Alabama their lone 2015 loss and managed to do so in Tuscaloosa, beating Saban in back-to-back years. What’s more? Freeze sidestepped the same embarrassment suffered in the 42-3 Peach Bowl loss to TCU in 2014 by leading the Rebels to a 48-20 rout of Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl, allowing for some positive momentum over the offseason.
Chad Kelly will be returning for his senior season after a promising showing in 2015. The program is losing big-time talent to the NFL draft –– namely defensive tackle Robert Nkemdiche, wide receiver Laquon Treadwell and offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil –– but in Kelly, they seem to have the type of quarterback capable of orchestrating a special season.
Big question marks: The loss of Tunsil –– a dexterous left tackle –– will make an already suspect Rebels offensive line all the more so. On the other side of the ball, Freeze’s defensive unit was similarly questionable, ranking seventh in total defense among SEC teams.
Each of the last few offseasons, pundits have pumped a lot of hype into Butch Jones-led Volunteers programs and next season will be no different. But it seems more believable than ever in 2016.
Quarterback Josh Dobbs will be a senior and fourth-year starter. The first of Jones’ top-5 recruiting classes will be in its third season in Knoxville, making the Volunteers less dependent on young talent than they’ve ever been under the fourth-year Tennessee coach. Rocky Top will also welcome back both leading tackler Jalen Reeves-Maybin and the nation’s leading punt-return man –– cornerback Cameron Sutton –– in 2016.
Jones will be riding momentum from his best season yet in Knoxville, going 9-4 and capping off a strong regular season with a 45-6 rout of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl. All four of Tennessee’s losses in 2015 came by a touchdown or fewer. They were a last-minute field goal away from beating eventual SEC East champion Florida in Gainesville. They went to Tuscaloosa and managed to only lose 19-14 to eventual national champion Alabama. And their other two losses –– to College Football Playoff-bound Oklahoma and Bret Bielema’s strongest Arkansas team yet –– came by deficits of seven and four points, respectively.
Furthermore, the SEC East looks to be more wide open than it was last year, given the coaching changes in the division and Florida’s great migration of talent bound for the NFL. Jones’ recruiting staff has some closing to do in the days ahead, leading up to National Signing Day, if the Vols are going to get the boost they probably need to get over the hump and deliver on those ever-looming high expectations.
Big question marks: Dobbs still may not be the passer that Tennessee needs to be elite; he will probably need to become more efficient and dynamic out of the pocket. Of course, for that to happen, Jones and the Vols will need to coach up their receiving core, which looks like it will be the recipient of some strong incoming talent to help Dobbs. The transition at defensive coordinator, too –– with John Jancek out and Bob Shoop coming in –– may signal some shakiness in Knoxville.