After a two-year drought in national champions, the SEC is back on top. Alabama defeated Clemson to win college football’s title for the 2015 season, and the Crimson Tide are one of the favorites to win it all in 2016. Coach Nick Saban’s team has a few personnel voids to fill, but the defense will be one of the best in the nation, and receiver Calvin Ridley returns after an impressive freshman season. LSU and Ole Miss are Alabama’s top competition in the SEC West, with Arkansas and Auburn in the next tier. Tennessee is the clear favorite in the East Division, as coach Butch Jones’ team has the necessary pieces in place to be a top-10 team next year. Georgia and Florida are just behind the Volunteers, while the rest of the division is up for grabs.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2016 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2016:
Early SEC Predictions and Rankings for 2016
The Volunteers haven’t played for the SEC title since 2007, but that streak should end in 2016. Tennessee is an overwhelming favorite in the East Division next fall, as coach Butch Jones has improved this program’s win total by two games in each of the last two years. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd anchor the offense, and four starters return up front. Generating more production from the receivers and big plays in the passing game is a must for the Volunteers next fall. The addition of coordinator Bob Shoop is an upgrade for a defense that returns nearly intact and held opponents to 20 points a game last season. End Derek Barnett and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin should be two of the SEC’s top defenders in 2016.
College Football Podcast: Early 2016 Top 25 Breakdown
New coach Kirby Smart is tasked with elevating Georgia back into national championship contention on a yearly basis. Mark Richt set the bar high for Smart, as the Bulldogs won fewer than eight games only once from 2001-15. However, Georgia has not won a SEC title since 2005 and the 2007 Sugar Bowl was its last appearance in a big-time bowl. Smart has plenty of work to do this offseason, but the first-year coach has a favorable schedule and nine wins isn’t out of the question. True freshman Jacob Eason is expected to push for the starting job at quarterback, and the offense should get a boost with the return of running back Nick Chubb. Smart and new coordinator Mel Tucker inherit some promising pieces on defense that limited opponents to 16.9 points a game last season.
Jim McElwain’s first season in Gainesville was a success. Florida won the East Division, finished 10-4 overall and defeated rival Georgia 27-3 in Jacksonville. Despite the suspension of starting quarterback Will Grier in October, the Gators managed to hold off Tennessee and Georgia in the East but finished with three consecutive losses to close out the 2015 campaign. McElwain is losing five players early to the NFL Draft, including cornerback Vernon Hargreaves III, defensive end Alex McCalister and running back Kelvin Taylor. Improving the quarterback play is the biggest priority for McElwain, and incoming freshman Feleipe Franks, along with a pair of transfers in Luke Del Rio (Oregon State) and Austin Appleby (Purdue) will push Treon Harris for the starting job. There’s plenty of talent in Gainesville. How quickly will McElwain reload on defense and find the right answer at quarterback?
Spots four through seven in the early SEC power rankings are up for grabs. The early nod at No. 4 goes to Missouri, but there’s plenty of work needed under first-year coach Barry Odom. Addressing the offense is Odom and new coordinator Josh Heupel’s first priority. The Tigers averaged a paltry 9.1 points a game in SEC contests last year and enter 2016 with uncertainty at the quarterback spot, four new starters on the offensive line and running back Russell Hansbrough has expired his eligibility. Once again next fall, defense should be the team’s biggest strength. The line should be one of the best in the SEC and two starters return in the linebacking corps and in the secondary. Odom was a great hire, but it may take a year of rebuilding for Missouri to return to the postseason.
There are signs of progress for Kentucky entering coach Mark Stoops’ fourth season. However, the Wildcats have yet to finish better than 5-7 overall or 2-6 in league play under Stoops’ direction. Both sides of the ball are under the microscope this offseason. New play-caller Eddie Gran inherits unproven, but talented quarterback Drew Barker, as well as big-play threat at running back in Boom Williams. The offensive line returns four starters, and the top five statistical wide receivers or tight ends are back for 2016. The defense is a bigger concern for Stoops after giving up 27.4 points a game last season. Only four starters return on defense, and the staff needs a big season from players like linebacker Jason Hatcher, defensive tackle Matt Elam and cornerback Chris Westry. A crossover game against Alabama in early October and road trips to Florida, Louisville, Missouri and Tennessee certainly doesn’t help Kentucky’s chances of reaching a bowl in 2016.
Derek Mason’s second year in Nashville was certainly better than the first go-around. The Commodores improved their win total to four (up one from three in 2014) and claimed two victories in SEC play. And Vanderbilt wasn’t too far off from a bowl bid, as it lost games against WKU and Florida by two points each and South Carolina by nine. Can Mason find the right answers this offseason to help the program return to the postseason? Quarterback Kyle Shurmur and running back Ralph Webb are a promising combination for coordinator Andy Ludwig to build around, and the line will benefit from the return of Andrew Jelks from a season-ending knee injury. Taking over the defensive signals was one of Mason’s best decisions last year. Vanderbilt allowed only 21 points a game and limited opponents to 5.2 yards per play. This unit returns largely intact and is led by All-SEC linebacker Zach Cunningham.
7. South Carolina
After a failed stint at Florida, Will Muschamp is getting another chance to be a head coach in the SEC. South Carolina’s decision to hire Muschamp was a bit of a surprise, but he should help with the program’s recruiting efforts and will improve a defense that allowed 6.03 yards per play last season. Finding playmakers are a priority for play-caller Kurt Roper after receiver Pharoh Cooper left early for the NFL and leading rusher Brandon Wilds expired his eligibility. The quarterback position is also up for grabs. Perry Orth (12 TDs, 9 INTs) could be the frontrunner, but sophomore Lorenzo Nunez and true freshman Brandon McIlwain will be in the mix. After watching the defensive film from 2015, it’s probably apparent to Muschamp there’s a need for improvement at each level. However, the personnel losses aren’t too heavy, and standout linebacker Skai Moore is back in 2016.
Repeating as college football’s national champions is no easy assignment. Only one team (Alabama) since the start of the BCS era claimed back-to-back titles. History is working against the Crimson Tide, but coach Nick Saban’s team still has a talent edge on the rest of college football. Redshirt freshman Blake Barnett and Cooper Bateman are the frontrunners to take the first snap of the season at quarterback, while Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris headline the replacements for Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry at running back. Despite a huge performance in the national championship and NFL talent, tight end O.J. Howard is back for another season in Tuscaloosa. In addition to Howard, the receiving corps is stocked with talent, including All-America candidate Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart (63 catches). Center Ryan Kelly is a huge loss up front, but left tackle Cam Robinson is back to anchor the line. The defense loses a few standouts in the front seven and is under the direction of new play-caller Jeremy Pruitt. However, the reloading process won’t take long, and the secondary should take another step forward next fall.
The end of the 2015 season for LSU would certainly be characterized as bizarre. Les Miles managed to hold onto his job despite attempts from the administration to make a coaching change and upgraded at defensive coordinator with the addition of Dave Aranda after Kevin Steele left for Auburn. And make no mistake, despite the late-season turmoil, there’s enough talent in Baton Rouge to win the SEC in 2016. Running back Leonard Fournette returns as one of the top players in college football, and the receiving corps brings back Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. However, both starting tackles depart, and question marks remain about the passing game. Aranda inherits a loaded defense, with linebackers Lamar Louis and Deion Jones and safety Jalen Mills the only major contributors leaving. End Arden Key is a rising star, while linebacker Kendell Beckwith, safety Jamal Adams and cornerback Tre’Davious White should be All-SEC performers next fall.
3. Ole Miss
The Rebels are losing three key standouts early to the NFL and a handful of starters, but coach Hugh Freeze’s team has one big advantage on the rest of the SEC – Chad Kelly. With the rest of the SEC in transition at quarterback, having a proven option like Kelly should ease some of the question marks about the Rebels. Receiver Laquon Treadwell and left tackle Laremy Tunsil leave big shoes to fill, and the offense still needs to establish a consistent ground attack. Each level of the defense was hit by departures, but there’s enough returning talent to keep this unit among the best in the SEC. Getting safety Tony Conner back after a season-ending knee injury is a huge boost to a secondary losing safeties Mike Hilton and Trae Elston. The schedule isn’t easy. Ole Miss plays Florida State, Alabama and Georgia in September and has road dates at Arkansas and LSU in October.
The Razorbacks rebounded from a 1-3 start to finish 8-5 and record the program’s highest win total in SEC play (five) since 2011. After spending last offseason working to replace the team’s top three defenders, this spring is all about finding the right answers on offense. Arkansas led the SEC (conference-only games) in scoring (34.4 ppg) but lose quarterback Brandon Allen, tight end Hunter Henry, tackle Denver Kirkland and running back Alex Collins. Austin Allen is the frontrunner to replace Brandon Allen at quarterback, with USC transfer Ricky Town an intriguing option to watch this offseason. The receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC, but there’s uncertainty in the pecking order at running back and a new offensive line coach after Sam Pittman left for Georgia. Arkansas allowed 6.07 yards per play on defense in 2015 – nearly a full yard higher than 2014. The good news? Most of the two-deep returns, including rising star Dre Greenlaw at linebacker.
After a breakthrough 12-2 season and a run to the national championship game in coach Gus Malzahn’s first year, Auburn is just 15-11 since 2014. The Tigers were a disappointing 7-6 last season, and there’s plenty of blame to go around on both sides of the ball. Quarterback play was an issue all season and remains a question mark for 2016. Will Jeremy Johnson or Sean White take a step forward? Or will junior college recruit John Franklin or true freshman Woody Barrett claim the job? Additionally, three players – running back Peyton Barber and offensive linemen Shon Coleman and Xavier Young – departed early for the NFL. New coordinator Kevin Steele inherits a few promising pieces on defense, and a full (and healthy) year from end Carl Lawson should help this unit after giving up 28.6 points a game in SEC contests in 2015.
6. Texas A&M
The Aggies are just 11-13 in SEC play under coach Kevin Sumlin in the last three years, and a little turmoil hit the program prior to the Music City Bowl. Quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferred, leaving junior college recruit Jake Hubenak as the program’s top option. Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight will join the mix this offseason, but question marks still remain under center. There’s also a new play-caller in Noel Mazzone, and three starters depart the offensive line. The receiving corps should be among the best in the nation in 2016. The addition of John Chavis as the defensive coordinator paid dividends for the Aggies last season. Texas A&M cut its yards allowed per play average on defense from 5.9 to 5.4 and limited opponents to 22 points a game. Chavis should help this unit take another step forward in 2016, especially with the return of ends Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett, along with active safety Armani Watts (126 tackles).
7. Mississippi State
Quarterback Dak Prescott – easily one of the best players in school history – leaves big shoes to fill in Starkville. However, don’t count out the Bulldogs from pushing for a spot higher than sixth or seventh in the SEC West next year. Damian Williams is back from a redshirt season to compete with Nick Fitzgerald and Elijah Staley for the starting nod. With Prescott departing, coach Dan Mullen needs more from his ground attack after no Mississippi State running back eclipsed more than 415 yards in 2015. De’Runnya Wilson is a huge loss at receiver, but Fred Ross (88 catches) and Fred Brown are back. The question marks continue on defense, as each level loses a key contributor. Defensive tackle Chris Jones and linebacker Beniquez Brown are leaving early for the NFL, and the secondary must replace cornerbacks Taveze Calhoun and Will Redmond. Linebacker Richie Brown should be one of the best in the SEC next year. It's a coin flip between Mississippi State and Texas A&M at No. 6 in the early SEC West power rankings for 2016.