The air is getting crisper. The college bars and campuses busier. The months of football dormancy finally are over.
In just a few days, the SEC behemoth will wake from a long slumber to renew its quest to conquer the college football universe. SEC Country will be there to chronicle every twist, scandal and firing that we hit along the way. Mostly the last two things.
If last year was any indication — the SEC claimed a record eight bowl wins and the
Alabama Award national championship — then 2016 should hold more greatness for the conference. Alabama is fresh off its fourth title in seven years. LSU and Tennessee return a slew of starters and other key talent. Ole Miss just won its first Sugar Bowl in more than four decades and might have the country’s best quarterback.
Sniffing out the winners and losers from this stacked bunch isn’t easy. Pairing them with a bowl game that makes a modicum of sense is even more challenging. But try we shall, dear readers.
Let’s get on to the bowl picks, which consider the usual factors such as team market size, strength of schedule and geography. Firing up the Project-O-Meter in three … two … one.
|Peach (Dec. 31, Atlanta) — CFP||#1 Florida St.||#4 Ohio St.||Top 4, Playoff rankings|
|Fiesta (Dec. 31, Glendale) — CFP||#2 LSU||#3 Stanford||Top 4, Playoff rankings|
|Orange (Dec. 30, Miami) — NY6||Clemson||Tennessee||ACC #1 vs Big Ten/SEC/ND|
|Sugar (Jan. 2, New Orleans) — NY6||Alabama||Oklahoma||SEC #1 vs Big 12 #1|
|Cotton (Jan. 2, Arlington) — NY6||TCU||Boise State||At-large vs auto-qualifier|
|Rose (Jan. 2, Pasadena) — NY6||Michigan||UCLA||Big Ten #1 vs Pac 12 #1|
|Citrus (Dec. 31, Orlando)||Florida||Mich St.||SEC #2 vs ACC/Big Ten|
|Outback (Jan. 2, Tampa)||Ole Miss||Nebraska||SEC#3-8 vs Big Ten #2-4|
|TaxSlayer (Dec. 31, Jacksonville)||Georgia||Miami||SEC #3-8 vs ACC/Big Ten|
|Music City (Dec. 30, Nashville)||Texas A&M||Wisconsin||SEC #3-8 vs ACC/Big Ten|
|Liberty (Dec. 30, Memphis)||Missouri||Baylor||SEC #3-8 vs Big 12 #5|
|Belk (Dec. 29, Charlotte)||Mississippi St.||Pittsburgh||SEC #3-8 vs ACC #3-6|
|Texas (Dec. 28, Houston)||Arkansas||Okla St.||SEC #3-8 vs Big 12 #4|
|Birmingham (Dec. 29, Birmingham)||Vanderbilt||Houston||SEC #9 vs American|
|Independence (Dec. 26, Shreveport)||Connecticut||NC State||SEC #10** vs ACC|
|No bowls: Auburn, South Carolina, Kentucky||**Replaced by American|
OK, we’ll start with a reminder/disclaimer: Preseason predictions tend to be awful. Popular early College Football Playoff picks from 2015 included Oregon, Ohio State, TCU and Auburn. Wrong, wrong, wrong and waaaaaay wrong.
Back to the present.
I’m likely to look dumb for leaving Alabama out of the Playoff, but LSU gets the Crimson Tide at home and has a slightly easier schedule. Quarterback Brandon Harris will improve. Leonard Fournette is still a world-beater. And Alabama might have a bigger quarterback battle on its hands than we thought.
On the defensive side, I’ll offer an analogy: Dave Aranda is to Porsche 911 as Kevin Steele is to Buick Verano. Sorry, Peyton.
Alabama and Tennessee, the other two major SEC title contenders, still draw a pair of tantalizing New Year’s Six matchups. What’s not to love about Josh Dobbs vs. Deshaun Watson, or a 2014 Sugar Bowl grudge match? Those are four exciting teams with massive followings.
Folks like saying Florida is due for a step back this fall, but will the Gators really drop that far given the state of the SEC East? Even if the offense remains a steaming pile, Florida is good for nine wins and a sack of Coach Mac’s PB&J sandwiches. The SEC gets into the Orange Bowl, so the Big Ten locks Team No. 3 into the Citrus. Michigan State doesn’t need Connor Cook to keep winning.
Then we jump into the thick of the pack. Ole Miss likely draws major interest from bowl committees because of 1) dynamic quarterback Chad Kelly, 2) a high-scoring offense and 3) controversy surrounding the program. If the Rebels are still eligible for the postseason, they’ll play in an exciting game. Nebraska fans always travel well, and committees are sure to remember how much fun Ole Miss was to watch during the Sugar Bowl.
With an annual trip to Jacksonville already locked into Georgia’s schedule, you’d hear endless groaning from Bulldogs fans if they landed a third TaxSlayer Bowl invite in four years. But a matchup with former longtime coach Mark Richt, plus the presence of several Sunshine State products on the Georgia roster, makes this a can’t-pass-up opportunity.
For Texas A&M, Arkansas, Mississippi State and Missouri, a lot will depend on how they’re playing late in the season. With A&M-Wisconsin and Missouri-Baylor, you’ve got the contrast in styles — Texas A&M’s spread offense vs. stingy defense — while Missouri and Baylor also have the “our programs are in turmoil” common thread. Oh yeah, and the Mizzou athletic director just bolted for Baylor, too.
Then you have Mississippi State going back to Charlotte for Belk mania after rolling through N.C. State last year, and Arkansas venturing back into the Lone Star State. Simple enough.
Lastly, Vanderbilt can indeed make a bowl this season. South Carolina, Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Western Kentucky, Middle Tennessee and Tennessee State are all winnable contests, and the Commodores would gladly welcome a trip to Birmingham to face one of the best teams outside the Power 5.
(Houston, I should note, has a tough schedule this year: Oklahoma, Louisville, at Cincinnati, at Navy and at Memphis. Don’t assume Tom Herman’s squad is the Cotton Bowl qualifier.)
Now I’m projecting a pair of 5-win teams in Auburn and South Carolina, and I don’t think either will end up playing a bowl game. The reason for Auburn would be obvious: Five wins and Gus Malzahn is out the door. For South Carolina, it’s a matter of weighing the cost-benefit of traveling to and staying in Shreveport over Christmas. They’ll pass, giving a team like UConn the chance to play football in the deep South.
Week 1 offers us an absolutely stacked slate of non-conference games, including Alabama-USC, LSU-Wisconsin, Ole Miss-Florida State and Texas A&M-UCLA.
Every SEC squad is some combination of good, interesting and optimistic during fall camp, but once that first Saturday has come and gone, we’ll know a heck of a lot more about these teams.
Who’s ready for football?
Projected SEC standings
|SEC WEST||SEC EAST|
|LSU (11-1, 7-1)**||Tennessee (10-2, 6-2)|
|Alabama (10-2, 6-2)||Florida (9-3, 6-2)|
|Texas A&M (8-4, 5-3)||Georgia (9-3, 5-3)|
|Ole Miss (8-4, 5-3)||Missouri (6-6, 3-5)|
|Mississippi State (8-4, 4-4)||Vanderbilt (6-6, 2-6)|
|Arkansas (6-6, 3-5)||South Carolina (5-7, 2-6)|
|Auburn (5-7, 2-6)||Kentucky (3-9, 0-8)|
|** = SEC champion|