If it seems silly to suggest this could be a renaissance year in the SEC, that’s because it is. While some precincts were decidedly down last season (here’s looking at you, most of the East Division), there were still three credible national title contenders entering the weekend of the conference title game.
But it’s not silly to hypothesize this could be a renaissance year for SEC offenses, if only because there’s a better set of established quarterbacks than the league has seen in five years.
Back in 2013, there were three senior quarterbacks in the SEC who ranked in the top 10 nationally in passing efficiency the previous year: Alabama’s A.J. McCarron (No. 1), Georgia’s Aaron Murray (No. 2) and South Carolina’s Connor Shaw (No. 10). Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M was No. 16. Since then, only three quarterbacks in the league returned after finishing in the top 30 of that category the previous season.
This year, Missouri’s Drew Lock (No. 4), Georgia’s Jake Fromm (No. 9), Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham (No. 19) and Alabama’s Jalen Hurts (No. 20) are back after impressive 2017 seasons. Even if Hurts doesn’t end up starting for the Crimson Tide, it’s a relative bounty of proven quarterback play.
The three most obvious conference title threats all have tested, effective starting quarterbacks, and teams like Missouri, Mississippi State (Nick Fitzgerald) and South Carolina (Jake Bentley) also have options who have started for more than a season. Defenses might ultimately rule the day in the SEC, but it should be the league’s strongest offensive season in a while.
1. Alabama (No. 2 nationally, 13-1 in 2017): It’s good to be king. Plenty of pixels have been invested in assessing the Jalen Hurts-Tua Tagovailoa quarterback situation — and we still don’t know who will start against Louisville in Saturday’s opener — but either way the Crimson Tide is in good hands. Things will also be just fine on the other side of the ball despite losing most of its defense, including the entire starting secondary. There are more future pros on the Tuscaloosa assembly line.
Two stats to illustrate Alabama’s dominance and stability:
- Three SEC teams (Arkansas, Tennessee and Vanderbilt) lost more league games last year than the six the Crimson Tide has dropped since 2011.
- With new coaches at Arkansas, Mississippi State and Texas A&M, by year’s end Nick Saban will have gone against 18 coaches within the SEC West since arriving at Alabama in 2007.
The Crimson Tide juggernaut has finished in the top 10 of the Associated Press poll in 10 consecutive seasons. This year’s group will extend the streak to 11.
2. Auburn (No. 8, 10-4): The defense made massive strides the last two years, when Coach Gus Malzahn most needed it to save his job, and now Auburn is stingy. Maybe not Alabama-stingy, but close enough to be a national title contender.
That is, if the Tigers can beat Washington in their season opener. They might have more riding on the first week of the season than anyone in the country, in part because of what comes in November. Auburn must visit Georgia (where it hasn’t won since 2005) and Alabama (where it was swamped in its last three visits). Toss in the Washington game and a trip to Mississippi State, and it is a daunting path to get to 11-1, let alone 12-0. An early misstep likely removes any wiggle room for later in the year.
That said, the Tigers are plenty capable thanks to the most balanced offense they’ve enjoyed in the Malzahn era. If Auburn can protect quarterback Jarrett Stidham, it should have one of the league’s best offenses.
3. Mississippi State (No. 14, 9-4): Sometimes, it pays to know who you are. The Bulldogs could have needlessly swung and missed at bigger names when Dan Mullen left for Florida; instead, they hired one of the nation’s top assistant coaches. Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead also has FCS coaching experience, and his exceptional history bodes well with quarterback Nick Fitzgerald in the fold for his senior year. (Fitzgerald is suspended for the season opener against Stephen F. Austin because of an unspecified team violation that occurred in March but will be back for the second game.)
Mullen led the Bulldogs to eight consecutive postseason appearances, but what was more impressive was winning at least nine games in three of the last four years. Moorhead has a solid chance to continue that streak at what has become one of the SEC’s steadiest programs.
4. Texas A&M (No. 25, 7-6): After six years, Texas A&M knew what it had in Kevin Sumlin, who was 25-23 in the SEC, including 0-6 against LSU and 1-5 against Alabama. The late-season fades didn’t help, but it was clear he wasn’t going to fulfill the Aggies’ dreams of bringing a national title to College Station.
Recent history doesn’t suggest that’s feasible, if only because the Aggies have finished just three seasons this century in the top 25. But they fill a huge stadium, have enviable access to talent and managed to lure a coach who won a national title just five years ago to take the job. That’s more than what most schools can say.
They also threw gobs of money at Jimbo Fisher, whose 10-year, $75 million deal was as impossible to miss last December as the Christmas tree lying outside his home in Tallahassee as he was preparing to depart Florida State. He takes over an experienced team, but there are enough questions on defense and the road schedule is arduous enough to make you think expectations would be tempered. Then again, $75 million gets you a lot of things, but tempered expectations aren’t one of them.
5. LSU (No. 28, 9-4): Ed Orgeron’s first full season with the Tigers didn’t look like much of a break from the past. LSU was still strong on defense and sputtered offensively against the SEC’s top teams. It won a game it wasn’t supposed to (Auburn), lost one it should’ve won (Troy) and was out of the national title conversation before October.
This year could be much of the same. The Tigers will visit Auburn, draw Florida and Georgia from the SEC East, open in Orlando against Miami and take a seven-game losing skid against Alabama into their annual meeting with the Crimson Tide. They’re not terribly tested at the offensive skill positions, which means this could be a team forced to grind out its share of 20-17 and 14-10 victories.
6. Mississippi (No. 61, 6-6): The Rebels are facing a bowl ban for a second consecutive season but are appealing to the NCAA. The question is whether Mississippi can win six games again to make such an appeal worthwhile.
The answer is yes, especially with a manageable nonconference schedule that should yield at least three triumphs (with a toss-up game against Texas Tech in Houston to open the season). The Rebels are still potent on offense. Senior Jordan Ta’amu acquitted himself well after replacing Shea Patterson at quarterback last year and wideout A.J. Brown (1,252 yards) is arguably the SEC’s top target.
Ole Miss needs all the offense it can get. The Rebels have been awful against the run the last two seasons, allowing 245.3 yards per game on the ground last season. If that doesn’t get better, six wins will probably be the ceiling again.
7. Arkansas (No. 66, 4-8): Speaking of struggling defenses, Chad Morris inherits one in Fayetteville after a three-year stint at Southern Methodist. The Razorbacks never turned the corner under Bret Bielema, and Morris has moved away from the methodical approach of the last few years.
Morris’s time at SMU is instructive. He took over a bad team and it improved offensively in his first year, but the defense (and the record) remained poor. But there were jumps in the next two seasons, including a bowl bid last year. A foundational year followed by more tangible improvement is probably a realistic model for the Razorbacks to follow.
1. Georgia (No. 4, 13-2): The defining thing about Kirby Smart’s second year as a head coach is that his team got better in nearly every measurable way. The Bulldogs played in the national title game a season after going 8-5, and that’s the standout feat, but they also improved in nearly every major offensive and defensive category. Even in one they didn’t — passing offense — their true freshman quarterback completed 62.2 percent of his throws. Pretty darned good.
It will be a challenge to improve everywhere again, especially since there was an exodus to the NFL at linebacker. Georgia allowed more than 20 points just twice before the College Football Playoff, and its offense might have to do a little bit more this season. However, Jake Fromm’s now an established sophomore and D’Andre Swift (7.6 yards per carry last season) was fine in his first college action last year. The Bulldogs are the clear-cut favorite to win the SEC East, especially if they can win September games at South Carolina and Missouri.
2. South Carolina (No. 19, 9-4): Two years into Will Muschamp’s run, South Carolina has yet to lose to a team that ultimately didn’t reach a bowl game. The Gamecocks are 9-0 against such opponents, and 6-11 against everyone else. Given the program’s downward trajectory the two previous years, no one should complain. Muschamp’s coaxed about as much as he could out of his team.
South Carolina won’t go much higher if it can’t break from its combination of limited offense and solid defense. There’s a new offensive coordinator in Columbia, quarterback Jake Bentley has started the last season and a half and wideout Deebo Samuel is back from injury. All of that bodes well for the Gamecocks, who will have a chance to push for a 10-win season if the offense can take a step forward.
3. Missouri (No. 29, 7-6): What can you make of Missouri’s midseason turnaround last year? It was clearly influenced by a front-loaded schedule; the Tigers went 6-0 to close the regular season against teams that combined for a 24-47 record and no bowl appearances. But softer competition doesn’t completely account for the defense’s improvement against the run or quarterback Drew Lock’s pinball numbers.
Lock is back after throwing for 44 touchdowns as a junior, and there is plenty of continuity on both sides of the ball (though Derek Dooley replaced Central Florida-bound Josh Heupel as offensive coordinator). An explosive offense, coupled with residing in the more manageable SEC East, suggests the Tigers will end up improving on last year.
4. Florida (No. 31, 4-7): Chomp on this for a minute: The only two SEC teams that haven’t averaged 400 yards in at least one season this decade are Florida and Vanderbilt. The Gators are also the only SEC team not to average 30 points in a season more than once since 2010 (they notched 30.3 points in 2014).
Explaining how the program that revolutionized offense in its league and has enviable access to talent can’t produce an exciting product for nearly a decade would require far more than two or three paragraphs to explain. There is some truth to the simplest explanation: Florida never adequately replaced Tim Tebow, who last took a snap for the Gators on New Year’s Day 2010.
There’s no doubt new Coach Dan Mullen’s primary task in Gainesville after a strong run at Mississippi State is to fix that problem. He’s good — his time with the Bulldogs illustrates that — and he inherits a team with nearly all of its starting lineup back. Considering what last year’s group did — score 22 points or less on seven occasions, all losses — the defense probably needs to be a strength for Florida to be relevant in the SEC East.
5. Kentucky (No. 46, 7-6): Much like Florida and South Carolina, Kentucky’s questions on offense make the Wildcats a suitable subject for a game of SEC East Mad Libs: [SEC East team not named Georgia] has a chance to win eight or nine games if it can find answers at [offensive position] and take advantage of having [number] starters back on defense. In Lexington, they can fill in those blanks with Kentucky, quarterback and eight.
The Wildcats have gone to back-to-back bowl games, but enter this season with no quarterbacks who have taken an FBS snap. Sophomores Terry Wilson (who redshirted at Oregon two years ago) and Gunnar Hoak are the top candidates for the job. Opening the season with four of the first five games at home should help.
6. Tennessee (No. 63, 4-8): The Champions of Life era crashed down last year as the Volunteers plummeted after consecutive 9-4 seasons. Out went Butch Jones, in comes Nick Saban acolyte Jeremy Pruitt. He’s Tennessee’s fifth full-time head coach in 11 seasons. By comparison, the Vols had five head coaches between 1963 and 2008.
Pruitt was the defensive coordinator during national title seasons at Florida State (2013) and Alabama (2017), and he’ll bring discipline and an identity to a program that could use both. The middle of the schedule is brutal (Florida, at Georgia, open date, at Auburn, Alabama, at South Carolina with the Gamecocks coming off a bye), so don’t count on a miraculous turnaround in Year One. Then again, many things are possible in the SEC East.
7. Vanderbilt (No. 80, 5-7): Even with a capable quarterback in place — and the Commodores have one in Kyle Shurmur — it’s never going to be easy for this program. It’s going to be especially difficult when there’s no semblance of a rushing attack, as was the case last year when Vanderbilt managed 71 yards or less on the ground seven times.
The defense has also slipped against the run the last two years, and that’s problematic. When the Commodores enjoyed three bowl appearances in a row under James Franklin earlier this decade, they did so largely because they were a threat to run and could contain opposing rushing attacks. Neither was the case in 2017, and Vanderbilt is looking at another sub-. 500 season if at least one of those doesn’t change this fall.