Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the 2018 Division 1A Football Season! In 2017, we saw another playoff controversy, a historic Heisman Trophy winner, and an all SEC National Championship game that turned into an instant classic. There was an undefeated champion from Central Florida, a winless team from El Paso, Texas, and a Florida State team qualifying for a bowl game in a makeup game.
There’s no chance 2018 could be as controversial, right?
….Ok, don’t answer that question.
We start the 2018 predictions with a look at the conference that produced both of the National Finalists: the Southeastern Conference. While the SEC is an overrated conference due to how top heavy the league is, the top of the SEC is as good as any football conference in the country, and that has been the case for more than a decade. In fact, in the last 20 years, five of the 14 SEC schools have won a national championship, and a sixth has played in the championship game.
The Southeastern Conference experienced some bizarre results in 2017. Georgia is the defending champion of the SEC; however, their lack of a national championship left the Bulldogs with a feeling of disappointment. Meanwhile, Alabama, who did not play in the SEC Championship game, was given a berth in the College Football Playoff, and made the most of their opportunity by defeating the defending champion Clemson in the Sugar Bowl and then Georgia in the National Championship Game. Alabama had to come from well behind at halftime to force overtime, but with the help of their backup quarterback, Tua Tagovailoa, the Crimson Tide rallied and won their second Championship since the advent of the College Football Playoff.
With grudge matches and potential upsets all over the SEC schedule, 2018 is shaping up to be an exciting and dramatic season. Here are some teams to watch for in the SEC in 2018!
University of Alabama Crimson Tide (Alabama) – Alabama is the almighty juggernaut of college football. Plain and simple. Every time you think they might have taken a step back, they run off a string of consecutive victories that will make you bow at their feet and beg for mercy. If it sounds overly dramatic, then you have not been paying attention to the dominance of Alabama since the arrival of Coach Nick Saban. Coach Saban has led the Crimson Tide to 5 National Championships since his arrival in 2007, while no other school has won more than 1 Championship in that same time frame. With Tua Tagovailoa returning from last year’s heroic performance in the Championship Game, Alabama is built well enough for yet another title run. Alabama should contend for another SEC Championship, but more importantly, as long as the quarterback situation does not become too much of a distraction, they should be in the hunt to win a second straight National Championship in 2018.
University of Georgia Bulldogs (Georgia) – While Alabama was the eventual National Champion last year, the Georgia Bulldogs were the champions of the SEC in 2017. Freshman quarterback Jake Fromm, along with standout senior running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel led the way for a dynamite Bulldog offense. Meanwhile, the Georgia defense was an equally formidable force, allowing 20 or more points only twice during the regular season. Head Coach Kirby Smart brought his pedigree of success from his days at Alabama to Georgia, but that will not make the 2018 season any easier for a team that lost so much talent to the NFL after last season. On top of that, difficult road tests at South Carolina, LSU, and Kentucky loom large for the Bulldogs. However, with now sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm returning for another season, and fellow sophomore running back D’Andre Swift, who averaged 7.6 yards per carry in his freshman campaign, earning the nod as the new lead back for Georgia, the Bulldogs should see no drop off on offense. Look for Georgia to once again compete for a spot in the SEC Championship game, if they can survive their gauntlet of an SEC schedule.
University of Auburn Tigers (Auburn) – In 2017, only one team defeated the Alabama Crimson Tide. That team was none other than their in-state rival, the Auburn Tigers. With Jarrett Stidham at quarterback, Kerryon Johnson at running back, and Ryan Davis at wide receiver, the Tigers were nearly unstoppable on offense a year ago. The Tigers scored more than 20 points in every game but two, and more than 40 points an astonishing eight times in 2017. That being said, 2018 will not be a walk in the park for Auburn, as they will need to find a replacement for Kerryon Johnson, who is now a member of the Detroit Lions. With that gaping hole in the offense, head coach Gus Malzahn will have to rely even more on the Heisman Trophy caliber arm of Jarrett Stidham if the Tigers have any hope of repeating as champions of the SEC West Division. Auburn faces a terribly daunting schedule, including an early season matchup with Washington and road games at Mississippi State and Georgia. Still, everything is in place for Auburn to fight for a spot in the SEC Championship game by the end of the season, even if their season finale will take them on the road to the University of Alabama.
University of Florida Gators (Florida) – It was an unmitigated disaster for the Florida Gators in 2017. What was supposed to be a potentially glorious season for Florida quickly turned into one of the worst Gator seasons in recent memory. Despite opening the season with a loss to Michigan, the Gators rebounded with three straight wins after their game with Northern Colorado was cancelled due to Hurricane Irma. Included in that streak were hard fought victories over a ranked Tennessee team and a tough Kentucky squad. Unfortunately, the time had come for everything to turn sour for the Gators. Florida lost six of their final seven games, with only a win over the newly reformed Alabama-Birmingham Blazers preventing a seven game losing streak to end the year. Enter new head coach, and former Florida assistant coach, Dan Mullen, to try and right the ship in Gainesville, Florida. There is a lot to be done, with no true standout quarterback to be found on the roster, and large quantities of unproven talent returning from the disappointing 2017 season. However, Coach Mullen knows Florida football, and he knows how to turn the Gators into a contender. Perhaps they are a year or two away from competing in the SEC East Division, but with their most difficult conference games occurring at home, expect Florida to make a dramatic turnaround in 2018.
Mississippi State University Bulldogs (Mississippi State, MSU) – The Mississippi State Bulldogs have been the darlings of the SEC for a few years now. Starting with previous head coach Dan Mullen and superstar quarterback Dak Prescott, the Bulldogs are once again looked upon to have an impressive season with new head coach Joe Moorhead and senior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. While the vast majority of the 2017 Bulldogs return for 2018, including the aforementioned Fitzgerald and senior running back Aeris Williams, a new head coach is not always guaranteed to continue the success of the previous one. That doesn’t mean that the season is lost, because it is a near certainty that Mississippi State will have a winning season, both overall and in the loaded SEC West Division. All that means is that Mississippi State will not compete for a Division Championship in 2018, and with Fitzgerald and Williams set to graduate, that might mean it may be a couple years before we see the Bulldogs rise to the top of the division again.
University of South Carolina Gamecocks (South Carolina) – The previous two South Carolina head coaches were undeniable legends, hoping for one last chance to relive their glory days of seasons past. Lou Holtz and Steve Spurrier were never able to win the SEC with the Gamecocks, but each won SEC Coach of the Year honors during their tenure for their effort to claim a conference crown. Currently, South Carolina is helmed by Will Muschamp, who has yet to prove himself as a head coach in college football, unlike his predecessors. Nevertheless, Coach Muschamp does know how to win, as evidenced from his days at the University of Texas as an assistant to the also legendary Mack Brown. The 2018 Gamecocks will be led on the field by quarterback Jake Bentley, who threw for nearly 2,800 yards, completed 18 touchdown passes, and ran for another 6 touchdowns. South Carolina brings back the bulk of an offense that scored more than 30 points five times a season ago, including 35 points against a talented North Carolina State defense. With their most challenging conference game taking place at home against Georgia early in the season, there is a good chance that the Gamecocks could run through a favorable mid-season schedule unscathed, setting up for a potential surprise run for South Carolina in the SEC East Division.
There is no doubt that the top half of the SEC contains among the most dominant teams in all of college football. From Alabama and Auburn to Georgia and Florida, the SEC has been the standard bearer for football excellence in the college ranks since 1998. The 2018 season will be no different, as several teams from the SEC will make a charge towards a National Championship, each having varying degrees of success along the way.
There is no reason that Alabama should not be in the SEC Championship game when December rolls around. They are as clear a favorite to win their division, the SEC West, as any team in any conference in recent memory. Meanwhile, the SEC East may contain a few surprises, as Florida will look to rebound after a disastrous 2017 season, and South Carolina may have the best chance of any sleeper team in 2018 to make a run at immortality. The most important game of the season in the SEC may in fact occur in September when South Carolina hosts Georgia. Who will take the crown in the Conference of Champions? Come back on August 23 to see my prediction of who will come out on top!