No conference has been more successful over the last 20 years than the Southeastern Conference. The success seen by the SEC on the national stage has been incomparable, with the champion of the conference going on to play for the National Championship in 10 of the last 11 seasons. It is rare to see a single conference have such a long and prolific run of success.
The three time defending SEC Champions reside at the University of Alabama, who after they failed to claim a National Championship in 2016, are thirsting for more. Hot on their heels will be a slew of talented teams, ready to become the next SEC Champion to play for a National Title. With that, it is off to the Deep South to look at my preview of the Southeastern Conference.
University of Alabama Crimson Tide (Bama) – The Alabama Crimson Tide could replace every starting player, every assistant coach, and every athletic department official from the season before, and I would still say they are the favorites to win the SEC West and the SEC Championship. As it stands, they bring back Quarterback Jalen Hurts and Running Back Bo Scarbrough from a 2016 team that dominated its way to a College Football Playoff Appearance. Coach Nick Saban will go down as one of the greatest coaches in the history of college athletics when he retires. His run as the Head Coach has seen the Crimson Tide win more National Championships than they did when Paul “Bear” Bryant was the head coach in the 1960’s and 70’s, and Bryant is widely regarded as one of the greatest football coaches who ever lived. As long as Saban is in charge, I have learned you cannot count Alabama out; I have during each of the last two seasons of predictions, and it has come back to haunt me. I will not make the same mistake this year. The first game of the season for Alabama is against the mighty Florida State Seminoles of the ACC, which should give us a good idea of how talented both teams are. No matter the outcome of that game, Alabama will have the talent to easily take care of business in the SEC. There is no doubt that the Crimson Tide will be in contention for both an SEC Championship and a National Championship in 2017.
University of Georgia Bulldogs (UGA) – It was not meant to be in 2016 for Georgia, as high expectations for new coach Kirby Smart found that success in the SEC is not as easy as just having a team of talented players. Standout Running Back Nick Chubb is ready to go for his final season at Georgia before he graduates, undoubtedly in line to be drafted early by an NFL team. On the defensive side, almost every starter is back from 2016, including two Linebackers in consideration for the Butkus Award for Linebacker Excellence in Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. Georgia will have to earn an SEC Championship the hard way, as their schedule takes them on the road to the University of Notre Dame, the University of Tennessee, and Auburn University. Look for Georgia to find their stride in 2017, fighting like Bulldogs until the end for an SEC East Division crown and an SEC Championship.
University of Florida Gators (UF) – Things are heating up in The Swamp, as their home stadium is affectionately known by the Gator faithful. The defending SEC East Division Champions are hungry for more after coming up short against the Crimson Tide in the 2016 SEC Title Game. Quarterback Malik Zaire, who has yet to throw an interception in his collegiate football career, has completed his transfer from Notre Dame and is in line to start for Florida. Florida was recently dealt a major blow with the news that starting Safety Marcell Harris, one of the top tacklers from the defensive backfield in 2016, will miss the entire 2017 season due to a torn Achilles. While their defense should be able to withstand an injury of such magnitude, the void left in his absence will be significant. In just a short amount of time, Coach Jim McElwain has Florida moving in the right direction and on their way back into the yearly discussion of potential SEC Champions. If you ask me, it is clear that the winner of the annual Georgia vs. Florida rivalry game will be the SEC East Division champions for 2017. Florida clearly has the talent to win that game, as well as the SEC East.
Auburn University Tigers (Aub) – The last team to win the SEC not named Alabama was Auburn in 2013, when the Tigers beat the Crimson Tide on a miracle play as the clock ran out. Coach Gus Malzahn has not been able to replicate that same success in the years since, but 2017 might be just the team to take Auburn back to the mountaintop. With Quarterback Jarrett Stidham at the helm of an offense bringing back most of their starters from a year ago, there is no telling how prolific the Tigers can be on offense. A powerful offense will be a welcome change for Malzahn, who has seen team after team at Auburn play stout defense but struggle to put up points. The Tigers will have the advantage against perhaps their two toughest opponents in Georgia and Alabama, as both must travel to Auburn. If the offense clicks with Stidham at Quarterback for the first time, then Auburn will make a strong run at an SEC West Title. The way the team is shaping up, a strong run at an SEC West Title for Auburn just might become a reality in 2017.
University of Tennessee Volunteers (Tenn) – Coach Butch Jones has awoken the Volunteers from hibernation and transformed them back into the national power they once were. Things have not been perfect in Tennessee, but they are exponentially better than they were just a few short years ago. The Volunteers won nine games in 2016, an outcome that would have seemed farfetched before the arrival of Coach Jones. While Tennessee must replace Quarterback Joshua Dobbs, whomever starts at Quarterback in 2017 will have the advantage of playing behind one of the top offensive lines in the country, which includes an elite Guard in Jashon Robertson. Despite promising recruiting classes and good talent development, Butch Jones has not been able to get this team over the hump. He is on the hot seat in 2017, with the expectation that he finally delivers an SEC Championship. Forced to compete in the SEC East, along with top contenders Florida and Georgia, I do not see that happening for the Volunteers. While 2017 will be a good season for Tennessee, it will not be good enough. The better question, will Butch Jones be the coach of the Volunteers in 2018?
Louisiana State University Tigers (LSU) – LSU has the luxury of playing their competitors in front of perhaps the most hostile home crowd in all of college football. After all, their home stadium is nicknamed “Death Valley” for a reason; crowd reactions have been so explosive that seismometers on campus have recorded earthquakes resulting from the ear-splitting cheers. Even an unfair advantage such as that is not enough to ensure success; the 2016 season was disappointing enough for the university to fire Head Coach Les Miles. Sometimes, all you need to make things better is a fresh coat of paint, or in this case a new head coach. Coach Ed Orgeron will bring a new offensive mentality to the Tigers, which is sorely needed considering the offensive struggles that have plagued LSU since their last National Championship in 2007. With Running Back Derrius Guice in the conversation for multiple national awards, the offense is likely to see a complete turnaround in 2017. Road Trips to play at Alabama, Florida, and Tennessee will prove challenging to a young but determined Tigers team, if they can make it through those challenges, then look for LSU to surprise the SEC and make a solid run in the SEC West Division.
With such a strong tradition of winning in the Southeastern Conference, it is expected that the Champion of the SEC will play in the College Football Playoff. Alabama continues to be the favorite to win and achieve a fourth straight SEC Title given the incredible depth of talent they show year in and year out. Not to be outdone, Auburn, Georgia, and Florida all feel they have what it takes to take down the seemingly unstoppable Crimson Tide. While Tennessee may be able to keep moving forward and still not live up to their expectations, it would not be a surprise if LSU exceeded their goals.
To find out who wins the SEC, come back Sunday at Midnight for my conference champion unveilings, only at tedtalksports.com!