SEC

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#63 South Carolina Gamecocks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#63

SEC East PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Will Muschamp, First Season | OFF. COORDINATOR: Bryan McClendon, Kurt Roper | DEF. COORDINATOR: Travaris Robinson

Previewing South Carolina’s Offense in 2016

South Carolina finished 11th in the SEC last year and lost its best offensive player when wide receiver Pharoh Cooper gave up his final year of eligibility to enter the NFL. Replacing Cooper and finding more perimeter playmakers are vital for the Gamecocks, but the first priority for first-year head coach Will Muschamp and new offensive coordinator Kurt Roper is finding a quarterback.

There won’t be a more interesting quarterback competition this fall than South Carolina’s. The Gamecocks listed all five scholarship quarterbacks as co-starters entering the spring, but incumbent starter Perry Orth (collarbone) and sophomore Lorenzo Nunez (knee) were unable to complete spring practice due to injuries, allowing early enrollee freshman Brandon McIlwain to emerge. McIlwain ended spring as the top available QB ahead of Connor Mitch (transferred after spring practice) and Michael Scarnecchia.

However, the competition got more crowded unexpectedly when four-star prep quarterback Jake Bentley, the son of South Carolina running backs coach Bobby Bentley, verbally committed to the Gamecocks for the class of 2017 and then revealed he could graduate from high school early and enroll in college this summer. That means Bentley will be able to compete for the starting job this fall.

Junior tailback David Williams finally has emerged as the team’s starter, and Muschamp believes he could be an above-average SEC tailback. Sophomore Deebo Samuel, who is explosive but was limited by a hamstring injury last year, is the only proven playmaker at wide receiver. To compensate for the lack of depth at the position, South Carolina will look to tight ends Hayden Hurst and Kevin Crosby.

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Previewing South Carolina’s Defense in 2016

Linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler each of the last three seasons, was slated to be one of the SEC's top defenders in 2016. However, Moore was ruled out for the 2016 season due to offseason neck surgery. Moore's injury is a huge loss for a team that finished last in total defense in the SEC a year ago. 

The defensive line’s issues are well chronicled (99th in the nation in sacks with 20 and 102nd in tackles for a loss with 64 last year). The Buck position (a hybrid defensive end/linebacker spot) is a staple of Muschamp’s new defense and should help get pressure on the quarterback, particularly if sophomore Boosie Whitlow can have a breakout season. The biggest concern on defense is the secondary, where sophomore cornerback Rashad Fenton is the only player who has drawn consistent praise from the coaching staff.

Previewing South Carolina’s Specialists in 2016

There’s little drama here for South Carolina. Senior Elliott Fry, a former walk-on, will handle field goals and extra points for the fourth consecutive year. Senior Sean Kelly will be the punter, and senior Drew Williams will be the long-snapper, giving the Gamecocks one of the most experienced trios in the nation. The only question is who will return kickoffs and punts. Samuel is a very valuable offensive weapon and could take punts just to give South Carolina another chance to get the ball in his hands. 

Final Analysis 

Muschamp has reminded folks plenty of times that he’s taking over a 3–9 football team. He’s even gone so far as to refer to himself as a 3–9 football coach. It illustrates the rebuilding project that is ahead of this group. The unprecedented heights of the Steve Spurrier Era (three straight 11-win seasons) are a distant memory, and the Gamecocks have to remake the roster, among other things. This is a team that very well could be starting a true freshman quarterback, has very little proven talent at wide receiver, an unproven defensive line and a shaky secondary. A 6–6 season would mark substantial progress, and anything between 4–8 and 7–5 is where realistic fans should set their goals.




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#41 Miss. St. Bulldogs

NATIONAL FORECAST

#41

SEC West PREDICTION

#7

HEAD COACH: Dan Mullen , 55-35 (67 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Billy Gonzales, John Hevesy | DEF. COORDINATOR: Peter Sirmon

In the toughest division in football (SEC West), the Bulldogs will have their work cut out for them in 2016. There are key pieces returning to Starkville, but the face of the program now straps up for the Cowboys. Will Dak Prescott be greatly missed? Coach Dan Mullen might have to do his best coaching job yet to go bowling this winter.

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Previewing Mississippi State’s Offense

It’s impossible to overstate just how much Dak Prescott meant to Mississippi State during his career, and how big a hole he leaves behind for the 2016 season. There’s no shortage of contenders to replace him, but no one with any significant amount of pedigree or success. Redshirt sophomore Nick Fitzgerald has to be considered the leading candidate; he served as Prescott’s primary backup last year, and a couple of strong relief appearances breed some confidence.

Fitzgerald, like Prescott, can run with the football. That’s huge, considering the running backs struggled last year, though all of them return. Can Brandon Holloway run for the tough yards? If not, can Aeris Williams or Ashton Shumpert take over? Don’t be surprised if it’s another season in which the Bulldogs’ leading rusher is their quarterback.

Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley or whoever else is at quarterback will have plenty of options at wide receiver. Fred Ross had 88 catches for 1,007 yards as a junior, leading a group that includes deep threat Donald Gray and slot options Gabe Myles and Malik Dear. That group does not include Fred Brown, a senior who was dismissed from the university in April.

Three starters return along an offensive line that gave up 32 sacks (including nine alone to Alabama) in 2015; improvement is necessary from the group up front, especially with the likelihood of a young QB being the one they are protecting.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Defense
Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

An entirely new defensive staff, including coordinator Peter Sirmon (formerly of USC), is installing a 3-4 defense that Sirmon believes will help the Bulldogs to be one of the better units in the SEC. He’s inheriting a group that is not short on talent but did lose several key pieces from 2015.

Up front, defensive end A.J. Jefferson has to lead the way after recording 13.5 tackles for a loss and five sacks as a junior. He’ll be joined by Nick James, sliding into a true two-gap role at nose tackle, and a deep rotation at defensive end.

Linebacker Richie Brown, unlike two of his former defensive teammates, turned down the NFL in order to stay for his senior year. That was a great move, for him and for Mississippi State. A top-five tackler in the SEC, Brown will operate from the middle of the 3-4 and help lead redshirt freshman Leo Lewis. Will Coleman is a former defensive end, but he’s been moved to a hybrid role in the 3-4 look — as the Viper, Coleman will often stand up at the line of scrimmage and could rush the passer or drop back into coverage.

Tolando Cleveland is solid at cornerback, and Kivon Coman and Mark McLaurin could be a bit better than that at safety. But Brandon Bryant is a star in the making for the Bulldogs. The safety had three interceptions and 63 tackles as a redshirt freshman and was the talk of spring practices with his athleticism and penchant for playmaking.

Previewing Mississippi State’s Specialists

Punter Logan Cooke and kicker Westin Graves are both solid and will have more expected of them in 2016 than has been the case previously. Holloway is electric in the open field as a kickoff returner, and Ross is sure-handed on punts and can get a few yards when given the opportunity.

Final Analysis

This is not 2014 Mississippi State — only one starter remains from the group that spent five weeks at No. 1 that season. But the transition started last year, and the Bulldogs still won nine games. Coach Dan Mullen has to find a way to replace Prescott, and the defense will have to acclimate quickly to a brand new coaching staff, but the schedule is lean enough to think the Bulldogs will return to a bowl game for the seventh straight season.

The Debate

Where Does Dan Mullen Rank Among the SEC Coaches?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#35 Auburn Tigers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#35

SEC West PREDICTION

#6

HEAD COACH: Gus Malzahn, 27-13 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Rhett Lashlee | DEF. COORDINATOR: Kevin Steele

Auburn didn’t live up to the hype last season and 2016 doesn’t look that great either with many question marks on the table. Who will start at quarterback? Did coach Gus Malzahn upgrade the defense with the hire of new coordinator Kevin Steele? The Tigers will learn soon enough, but expect the defense to carry more of the weight than the offense this fall.

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Previewing Auburn’s Offense

Auburn has to figure out what it wants to do at quarterback after a dismal 2015 season at the position. John Franklin III could prove to be the answer to its issues thanks to his speed in the zone-read attack, but don’t count out Jeremy Johnson or Sean White.

The good news for the Tigers is that running back Jovon Robinson returns after rushing for 90 yards or more in five of the last six games. He should be the starter after spending most of the 2015 season as a backup. The receiving corps could be an issue with unproven upperclassmen Marcus Davis and Tony Stevens (358 combined yards in 2015) leading the way, but expectations are high for newcomers Nate Craig-Myers and Kyle Davis.

Replacing Shon Coleman and Avery Young at left and right tackle, respectively, could be the biggest problem heading into the season. Overall, there are some exciting pieces, but not a lot of experience.

The key to success this season will be finding consistency at quarterback and identifying at least one playmaker at wide receiver. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn usually finds a way — but he didn’t last season, when the Tigers ranked 10th in the SEC in total offense.

Previewing Auburn’s Defense

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Believe it or not, defense might be the strongest part of a Malzahn-coached team for the first time in his career. There will be pressure on new coordinator Kevin Steele, who jumped to Auburn after one year at LSU, to get this unit to play up to its potential.

The Tigers return potential NFL stars Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams along the defensive front, and a heralded defensive line class will bolster a deep group. Production was an issue up front last season because of injuries, but this unit should be much better thanks to a wealth of depth.

Linebacker will be the biggest concern, with Tre’ Williams and Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal leading a group that loses three starters and 601 career tackles.

The safety position should be fine with Tray Matthews and Rudy Ford on the back end, but keep a close eye on who emerges at cornerback on the opposite side of 2015 Freshman All-SEC selection Carlton Davis. Ohio State transfer Jamel Dean could be a star with more development, but another transfer, Marshall Taylor by way of Miami (Ohio), could be the favorite.

Previewing Auburn’s Specialists

Special teams have always seemed to be a strength at Auburn and should be again this season. Daniel Carlson, who drilled four 50-yard field goals last season, returns as one of the SEC’s top kickers. Overall, he made 23-of-27 attempts last season. Punter should be in good hands with the emergence of Kevin Phillips (41.0-yard average, 17 inside the 20-yard line). Meanwhile, Auburn is set in the return game. Davis averaged 11.9 yards per return on punts, and Ford (28.6 ypr) and Kerryon Johnson (27.6 ypr) will be the two speedsters returning kickoffs.

Final Analysis

Auburn has some key questions on offense, but there is enough talent on this roster for a bounce-back season if Malzahn and his revamped coaching staff can put the right pieces in the right places. Interestingly, it’s the defense that may carry the Tigers early in the season as the fourth-year coach tries to figure things out on offense. Opening the season against national runner-up Clemson will be extremely tough, but staying home for the first five weeks of the season could build some much-needed confidence for Auburn. Malzahn can jump off the hot seat early with a strong start to the season. A slow start will make fans wonder if their Tigers will lose to rivals Georgia and Alabama for a third straight year — something that could lead to a change at the top.

The Debate

Is Auburn poised to rebound after a disappointing 2015 season?

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COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#28 Texas A&M Aggies

NATIONAL FORECAST

#28

SEC West PREDICTION

#5

HEAD COACH: Kevin Sumlin, 36-16 (4 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Noel Mazzone | DEF. COORDINATOR: John Chavis

There's plenty of pressure on Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin to win big this year. The combination of new offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone and graduate transfer quarterback Trevor Knight must deliver if the Aggies are going to make a run in the SEC. With uncertainty surrounding the offense, Texas A&M could lean even more on its defense, which features All-America end Myles Garrett and rising star Daylon Mack at tackle.

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Previewing Texas A&M’s Offense


Trevor Knight, a dual-threat transfer from OU, projects as A&M’s fourth different starting quarterback in four years. He starred in a Sugar Bowl victory over Alabama in 2013 and passed for 2,300 yards in 2014, but he lost the starting job to Baker Mayfield last season. Knight must hold off a challenge from junior Jake Hubenak, who made his only start at A&M in last year’s Music City Bowl loss to Louisville.

Running back Keith Ford, also a transfer from Oklahoma, is being counted on to provide a big-play element that the position has lacked. There is an array of big-play threats at receiver, where all four starting receivers return. Christian Kirk caught 80 passes for 1,009 yards and seven touchdowns as a true freshman. He figures to be even better as a sophomore. Senior Josh Reynolds, an All-SEC selection two years ago, has averaged 17 yards per catch and has 18 touchdown grabs in his career at A&M. Ricky Seals-Jones looks to build on a solid sophomore year in which he had 45 catches for 560 yards.

The offensive line also needs to be more consistent. New line coach Jim Turner, who is back in College Station after a stint with the NFL’s Miami Dolphins, faces a task of rebuilding an underachieving unit that was up-and-down in run blocking and disappointing in pass protection.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Defense 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.


All-America junior Myles Garrett and senior Daeshon Hall have proven to be among the most productive sets of defensive ends in the country. They combined for 19.5 sacks in 2015 and will look to increase that total this year.

The Aggies need to improve at defensive tackle where Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke step into starting roles. Mack demonstrated the ability to make spectacular tackles in the backfield, but he needs to make the routine plays, too.

There is cautious optimism the linebackers will make drastic improvements. Otaro Alaka, a starter as a true freshman and Defensive MVP of the 2014 Liberty Bowl, is back after missing almost all of the 2015 season with shoulder and elbow injuries. The development of sophomore Richard Moore is another plus. He started the last third of the 2015 season and emerged as the Aggies’ best linebacker.

Safeties Armani Watts and Justin Evans are as good as any tandem in the SEC. Also, Donovan Wilson, who led the team with five interceptions, excels in his role at nickel. Former four-star recruit Priest Willis, who sat out last season after transferring from UCLA, will take one cornerback spot. Nick Harvey figures to start on the other side.

Previewing Texas A&M’s Specialists
 

The Aggies are breaking a new kicker and punter to replace All-SEC selections Taylor Bertolet and Drew Kaser. Kicker Daniel LaCamera has yet to attempt a collegiate field goal. Shane Tripuka punted twice last year, and Braden Mann is a true freshman. There are no such concerns on returns. Kirk and Speedy Noil have All-SEC credentials.

Final Analysis 
 

Coach Kevin Sumlin’s reputation as an offensive mastermind took a big hit last season. Had the Aggies scored 30 points in every game, they would have finished 12–1. Instead, the sluggish offense caused another late-season fade and resulted in A&M’s finishing fourth or worse in the SEC West for the third straight year. Sumlin responded by hiring Turner and accomplished offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone. Either Knight or Hubenak must emerge as an effective quarterback who can adequately distribute the football to an array of playmakers. However, neither has to be a star, because the defense, which made remarkable improvement in the first year under John Chavis, projects to be even better in his second season.

The Aggies typically get off to a fast start. They definitely need to duplicate that feat with UCLA, Auburn, Arkansas and Tennessee looming in the first half of the schedule. 




COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#26 Arkansas Razorbacks

NATIONAL FORECAST

#26

SEC West PREDICTION

#4

HEAD COACH: Bret Bielema, 18-20 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Dan Enos | DEF. COORDINATOR: Robb Smith

Arkansas must replace a couple of key players from last year's team, but there's stability in Fayetteville with Bret Bielema at the helm. On offense, the Razorbacks must replace quarterback Brandon Allen, running back Alex Collins, tight end Hunter Henry and offensive linemen Denver Kirkland and Sebastian Tretola. There is a lot of change in Fayetteville but Arkansas coach Bret Bielema might have a thing or two up his sleeve. The Razorbacks have made steady progress in Bielema’s first three seasons, but will there be a step back or step forward this year?

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Previewing Arkansas’ Offense 
 

Junior Austin Allen, clearly the top performer at the position halfway through spring, was officially named the starting quarterback in mid-April after 10 practices. The brother of three-year starter Brandon Allen, the younger Allen has tended to be more of a risk-taker, which could lead to big plays as well as head-scratching mistakes.

With a new starting quarterback, the Hogs will look to focus more on the running game in Dan Enos’ second season as offensive coordinator. The carries will likely be split among Kody Walker, who suffered a broken foot midway through spring drills, Rawleigh Williams, who is coming off neck surgery, Damon Mitchell, and possibly blue-chip signee Devwah Whaley, as well as others.

The receiving corps showed surprising depth after a foot injury knocked Keon Hatcher out after two games. Hatcher is back, along with fellow seniors Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed and Cody Hollister. Morgan, who blossomed with 10 TD catches, is coming off shoulder surgery. Dominique Reed’s speed and agility add an extra dimension. Jared Cornelius is a quality slot receiver. Jeremy Sprinkle takes over at tight end, with rookies Will Gragg, Austin Cantrell and C.J. O’Grady jostling for time.

Arkansas might cede its spot as the nation’s heaviest offensive line. Dan Skipper and Frank Ragnow, who has moved to center, are back. Converted defensive tackle Hjalte Froholdt is targeted to play left guard, while Brian Wallace and Colton Jackson could be the other two starters.

Previewing Arkansas’ Defense 
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

With nine starters returning, the Hogs expect to improve their pass rush and coverage and ultimately be closer to the No. 10-ranked defense from 2014 rather than last year’s No. 58-ranked unit. In 2015, Arkansas struggled to slow spread offenses and gave up a bevy of big pass plays.

Deatrich Wise Jr. erupted in the second half of 2015. He and JaMichael Winston are solid at one end, while Tevin Beanum and blue-chip newcomer McTelvin Agim work the rush end spot. Jeremiah Ledbetter moved from end to tackle to provide an agile, explosive interior presence, and Taiwan Johnson is back at nose.

Arkansas is desperate to provide relief at linebacker to Brooks Ellis and Dre Greenlaw, who played virtually all the key snaps last year. Help could be on the way in the form of Randy Ramsey, Khalia Hackett, Dwayne Eugene, Kendrick Jackson and four talented signees.

Several veterans return for DBs coach Paul Rhoads, including cornerbacks Jared Collins, D.J. Dean and Henre’ Toliver, safety Josh Liddell and versatile Kevin Richardson. Santos Ramirez and De’Andre Coley are big hitters at strong safety.

Previewing Arkansas’ Specialists


After having five field goals blocked last season, including a potential game-winner in the final minute against Mississippi State, the Razorbacks revamped their blocking and execution under new line coach Kurt Anderson. Cole Hedlund is getting quicker lift on his kicks after going 9-of-15 on field goals. Toby Baker is primed for a big season after averaging 41.2 yards per punt in his first year as a starter.

Final Analysis


After struggling to win tight games in Bret Bielema’s first two seasons, the Razorbacks pulled out nail-biters vs. Tennessee, Auburn and Ole Miss but lost three close ones, including a 51–50 decision against Mississippi State. More of those high-drama SEC games could be on tap this fall, but Arkansas might not be as well equipped to handle them with a new starter at quarterback. How the revamped offensive line and run game can establish themselves and dictate tempo will go a long way toward determining the Razorbacks’ fate. Arkansas should be bowl bound for a third year in a row, but contending in the rigorous SEC West seems like a stretch.

The Debate

Will Arkansas finish in the top 25 in 2016?

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5 Reasons Why Alabama Can Get Back to the College Football Playoff in 2016

Despite the loss of seven NFL Draft picks, Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide start the season where they left off, ranked No. 1 in the nation
5 Reasons Why Alabama Can Get Back to the College Football Playoff in 2016

Just when everybody thought they could finally write off Alabama last season after a 43-37 loss to Ole Miss on Sept. 19, the Crimson Tide reeled off 12 straight wins en route to a national championship. It was Alabama's fourth title in the past seven years.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#1 Alabama Crimson Tide

NATIONAL FORECAST

#1

SEC West PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Nick Saban, 105-18 (9 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Lane Kiffin | DEF. COORDINATOR: Jeremy Pruitt

Alabama begins 2016 where it ended in January – at the top of college football’s rankings. The Crimson Tide have claimed three out of the last five national championships and are Athlon’s projected No. 1 team and pick to win it all in 2016. As usual, Nick Saban’s team has work to do on both sides of the ball, but a roster loaded with talent isn’t going to have a significant transition period. While a new quarterback must emerge, Alabama can lean on its defense and ground attack to carry the team early in 2016. The schedule does provide its share of challenges. The Crimson Tide has road dates at Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU. 

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Previewing Alabama’s Offense 
 

Unlike last year, all the experience will be with Alabama’s receivers instead of in the backfield. But exactly like the last two seasons, the Crimson Tide will have a new quarterback running the show. For the first time in Nick Saban’s 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa, he’ll have neither his first- nor second-leading rusher back, as Heisman winner Derrick Henry declared for the NFL Draft and Kenyan Drake graduated. Teammates have lauded former top recruit Bo Scarbrough as the next star running back.

The passing game will be dictated by the winner of the third annual quarterback competition. Cooper Bateman’s the only one of the four scholarship passers to appear in a college game. There was spring-practice buzz surrounding David Cornwell, a third-year sophomore who has the 6'5", 234-pound build that’s ideal for a pro-style quarterback. Younger candidates Blake Barnett and Jalen Hurts bring more mobility to the offense but had issues with consistency in spring practice.

There’s no doubt where the strength of the offense resides. Leading receiver Calvin Ridley is back along with No. 2 target ArDarius Stewart. Robert Foster appeared to be the big-play threat until going down in Week 3 with a season-ending shoulder injury. He could be the fastest of the group. Also add in Bowling Green graduate transfer Gehrig Dieter’s ability to make circus catches and the potential tight end O.J Howard showed in a monster national championship game, and Alabama’s aerial game is an accurate passer away from something big. Protection is a factor; Alabama must replace three-year starting center Ryan Kelly and right tackle Dominick Jackson. Additionally, the status of standout tackle Cam Robinson is uncertain after an off-field incident in May.

Previewing Alabama’s Defense 
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

It’s no coincidence Alabama returned to the national championship stage when the defense returned to form. A generational defensive line and NFL-caliber talent among the linebackers and defensive backs led the way to a fourth title in seven years. The core of that line is moving on to the NFL, but high-end talent returns with Da’Shawn Hand, Da’Ron Payne, Dalvin Tomlinson and Jonathan Allen. Depth won’t be the game-changing factor it was a year ago, but talent won’t be lacking up front.

Reuben Foster is next up in the alpha middle linebacker role. Sliding into Reggie Ragland’s spot, the one-time five-star prospect has developed into the leader of the group. Having draft-ready pass rushers Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson on the outside will also make a difference. Sacks increased to 52 last year after only 31 in 2014.

The secondary was the most improved unit a year ago. It’ll miss the presence of no-nonsense cornerback Cyrus Jones but has plenty of talent returning. Eddie Jackson, the former cornerback who became an All-America safety, will be a crucial facet as Alabama transitions from Kirby Smart to new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Previewing Alabama’s Specialists 


After missing the first four kicks of the 2015 season, Adam Griffith became a consistent force on special teams. He ultimately went 23-of-32, including two makes from 50-plus. Griffith will be best remembered for the perfect onside kick in the fourth quarter of the national championship game. JK Scott is back after seeing his average dip to 44.2 yards after an incredible 48.0-yard average as a freshman. The real question will be in the return game. Look for Ridley and Xavian Marks to get a look.

Final Analysis 
 

The adversity and motivation that drove last year’s run back to the top disappeared into the sea of confetti and streamers on the field at the University of Phoenix Stadium. Now all Alabama has to do is the same thing again this fall. Expectations aren’t leaving with the first-round draft picks the Tide will replace this fall. The target will be as big as ever as Saban begins Year 10 in Tuscaloosa.

The Debate

Will Alabama Repeat as the national champion in 2016?

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10 FCS vs. FBS Football Games to Avoid Watching in 2016

Marquis Smith and his Savannah State teammates have never fared well against FBS teams
10 FCS vs. FBS Football Games to Avoid Watching in 2016

No doubt you’ve circled plenty of Saturdays on your calendar for this fall. College football is coming and not soon enough to its millions of fans.

 

COLLEGE FOOTBALL 2016 PRESEASON TOP 25

#7 Tennessee Volunteers

NATIONAL FORECAST

#7

SEC East PREDICTION

#1

HEAD COACH: Butch Jones, 21-17 (3 years) | OFF. COORDINATOR: Mike DeBord | DEF. COORDINATOR: Bob Shoop

Tennessee is the clear favorite in the SEC East and a legitimate playoff contender. The Volunteers return 18 starters from last year’s nine-win team, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs and standout running backs Alvin Kamara and Jalen Hurd. While the ground game is among the best in the SEC, Tennessee needs more out of its passing attack in 2016. New coordinator Bob Shoop inherits a defense that gave up only 20 points a game last season and has All-SEC talent at each level. With nine starters back, Tennessee’s defense will be among the best in the SEC. Winning at least 10 games and the East Division title is the expectation for the Volunteers in 2016.

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Previewing Tennessee’s Offense 
 

The X-factor for Tennessee this season will be whether Joshua Dobbs finally develops into a masterful passer to match the boost he gives the Volunteers as a runner. Even if he finishes his Tennessee career without adding the deep ball to his repertoire, teams struggle to bring him down in the open field, making him a guaranteed net positive on the offense. But if Dobbs does grow as a passer, it doesn’t seem like a stretch to say the Vols can contend for a CFB Playoff spot.

The Vols’ talent at running back is a big reason why they are a popular pick to win the SEC East. Junior Jalen Hurd needs 892 yards this year to become the program’s all-time leading rusher. For Hurd, this season might be his last to show that Tennessee is back to national prominence before the NFL beckons. Alvin Kamara has proven that he is an SEC-caliber talent and a capable pass catcher as well. There’s no reason to believe the two won’t form one of the sport’s most successful running back duos this year. The Vols’ passing game is unproven, but this group of running backs is explosive enough to again power the offense. After all, this team did run the ball two-thirds of the time last year.

The Vols have playmakers at receiver, but it’s hard to expect consistency given the unproductive recent history here. The Vols will rely on veterans Josh Smith and Josh Malone, hoping that an offseason of work has boosted the overall chemistry with Dobbs.

Along the offensive line, the return of four starters means there’s no reason to expect regression. Guard Jashon Robertson should anchor the Vols up front if he’s healthy.

Previewing Tennessee’s Defense 
 

Order a copy of Athlon's 2016 SEC College Football Preview, which includes an in-depth look at all 14 teams, features and predictions for the upcoming season.

Tennessee brought in a new defensive coordinator, Bob Shoop, this offseason, but little else has changed on this side of the ball. The Vols bring back starters nearly across the board but will need to find two new safeties.

Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Darrin Kirkland Jr. should form one of the top linebacker duos in the league. Reeves-Maybin has developed into an emotional leader, and the duo should dictate the success of the defense as a whole.

Along the line, Derek Barnett has emerged as one of the best pass rushers in the conference, if not the country. At the other end position, Corey Vereen brings experience, and Jonathan Kongbo could be the next great Tennessee sack master. Depth could be an issue on the interior, and 6'3", 344-pound tackle Kahlil McKenzie faces expectations as large as he is.

Tennessee is fortunate that star cornerback Cameron Sutton decided to return for a final season. Todd Kelly Jr. should be able to step up and fill one of the safety spots without going through much of a learning curve. The other safety position is one of the only unknowns on an otherwise stellar defensive unit.

Previewing Tennessee’s Specialists 
 

Tennessee had arguably the best group of specialists in the SEC a season ago, and everyone is back. Evan Berry emerged as a threat to take every kickoff he handled back for a TD and finished a fraction of a yard away from breaking the NCAA’s all-time single-season record for return average. Sutton was nearly as dangerous on punt returns. Trevor Daniel was a pleasant surprise at punter, but kicker Aaron Medley will need a rebound year.

Final Analysis
 

Everything feels bigger for Tennessee this season, from the stage for its Week 2 showdown with Virginia Tech at Bristol Motor Speedway to the national prognostications. Butch Jones no longer has youth as an excuse, and two straight dominant bowl wins over Big Ten teams have fans dreaming big in 2016. All the pieces the Vols need to succeed are back. A division title is the expectation in Knoxville this season. 

The Debate

Is Bob Shoop the best assistant coach hire in the SEC for 2016?

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