Why: First year coach Kirby Smart spent a decade learning from the best in Tuscaloosa, and inherits a Georgia team stocked with talent from perennial 9.5 game per season winner Mark Richt. In perhaps some sad irony for fans of the much maligned new coach of the University of Miami, this season the Dawgs face the easiest road to the SEC Championship game in recent memory, as the perpetually stocked SEC West towers over the flailing East.
Freshman QB Jacob Eason, who has not yet been named the starter but is in a stronger leading position than Hillary Clinton post-California, was the consensus number one signal caller in the class of 2016; and early reviews have suggested he’s even better than the hype.
Now, if this was the SEC West, I would be extremely wary of relying on a freshman to lead my offense, even one as talented as Eason. However, the East defensively is closer to the historically awful Big 12 than the West division, and the stellar running back combo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel should pace the inexperienced offense early.
Georgia finishes a very Mark Richt-esque first season for Kirby Smart 10-2, losing handily to his former boss in the SEC Championship game.
Why: I hate this pick for so many reasons I don’t even know where to start. First of all, Butch Jones, though a decent recruiter, does not belong in the SEC and showcases an in-game coaching ability (refer to Florida 2015) unmatched in ineptitude throughout the conference.
Even more concerning, I think the Vols start the season terribly. The early schedule is absolutely brutal, facing a decent Virginia Tech team out of conference, going to Athens to play Georgia, then to College Station and Texas A&M. Florida and the mighty Crimson Tide at home, too. To me, I’m thinking the Vols best case start 5-2, but most likely 4-3. The question here is can Butch Jones keep this young team together that year after year has heard “just wait ’til next year, we’re almost there” if they drop 3 early games?
If he can, the final 5 matchups on the Tennessee schedule are near locks. Tennessee Tech, Mizzou, Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Will Muschamp should pose little threat to the Volunteers, allowing for a strong close to the season, and another offseason of Butch Jones “waiting ’til next year.”
3. University of Florida
Why: So I want to start by saying unequivocally Florida is not good, and Jim McElwain is two years from being fired. With that in mind, this is an incredibly fortunate year for the Gators, as the schedule could not have set up better for at least a respectable run.
Florida does not play Alabama, Auburn, nor Ole Miss, and gets LSU at home. Coupled with a terrible out of conference slate aside from the annual matchup with FSU, and you can see a relatively easy path to 9+ wins for the 2015 SEC East champions.
Florida, as apparently is always the case, is completely without a quarterback. Treon Harris, the only Gator on the roster to have started a game at QB, made the Michigan defense look like the ’84 Bears in the Citrus Bowl (after the Wolverines had allowed 400 yards on the ground in a trouncing at the hands of Ohio State in their previous game) and has even LSU fans thinking “well, at least we don’t have him.”
Florida signed Feleipe Franks, an ESPN 300 overall QB that is described as “raw;” not exactly what you want in an SEC signal caller. A Purdue transfer, the absolutely terrible Austin Appleby joins the competition, but turning to him would be an admission of catastrophe on the part of the UF coaching staff with his abysmal Big 10 past.
The defense loses perhaps the best corner in the nation in Vernon Hargreaves, but will be one of the better units in the conference. The matchup between the Vols and Gators in Knoxville will decide second place.
4. South Carolina
Why: Again, it’s all about scheduling. I do think the Cocks will improve under first-year coach Will Muschamp. Frankly, the defense can’t possibly be any worse. The cupboard is not bare for the former Florida coach, and with an out of conference slate featuring 0 power five opponents outside of the annual rivalry with Clemson, the Cocks should start strong.
Muschamp is even more lucky with his in conference draw, getting Texas A&M and Mississippi State from the stacked West division. By no means locks, but both games are far more winnable than match ups with Alabama, LSU, and Auburn.
Mushcamp will have the defense to a point of at least respectability, but a lack of playmakers on offense outside of the do-everything Pharoh Cooper and no established QB, the Cocks will flounder in SEC play.
Why: Finally, Mark Stoops will make a bowl after winning 5 games repeatedly during his tenure in Lexington. In all honesty, nobody will give a fuck as the Wildcats basketball team begins practice in October and the season overlaps SEC play.
That’s the problem with Kentucky football. It is a curse being in the best conference in the nation and having an administration, and fan base, obsessed with another sport. I guess that’s what happens when you have John Calipari and an NBA roster in the next building all season long.
The Wildcats are ok, but they play Alabama, Georgia, Tennessee, and in-state rival Louisville, all of which are almost sure losses. Aside from that, the out of conference schedule is fairly weak, and Mississippi State is a best case scenario draw from the West. I see the Wildcats clawing their way to a bottom tier bowl, and perhaps saving the youngest Stoops from the chopping block.
Why: The record looks bad, but Coach Derek Mason is making significant progress in Nashville. Some may look at the results of former coach James Franklin and wonder why the Commodores have not returned to a bowl game, but recent reevaluations of questionable recruiting practices and mismanagement of the program under the previous regime should quell most qualms with Coach Mason & Co.
Mason is a defensive minded coach, emphasizing discipline and pressure to the tune of a respectable top 3 finish in QB pressures last season. It’s simply hard to recruit to Vanderbilt, with much higher academic standards than the rest of the SEC (*cough* Ole Miss *cough*) and a severe lack of funding.
I hope the administration gives Mason time, as I see a Jim Grobe at Wake Forest-type program in the future, perennial bowl berths, and respectability while adhering to strict Vanderbilt standards.
Why: It’s been an awful year for Mizzou, and the football season will not grant any relief to the beleaguered fan base. The Tigers travel to West Virginia to start the season, probably with sophomore Drew Lock under center in front of the raucous Mountaineer crowd.
I expect losses to LSU, WV, Florida, Tennessee, Arkansas, Georgia, and South Carolina. The Tigers signed a pathetic recruiting class, no doubt the result of the turmoil surrounding the school and program after the abrupt resignation of Gary Pinkel and the political issues I have no interest in discussing.
It will be a long road back to respectability for the program, but 2016 will not be a pretty one..
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