Even though Alabama made the national championship game and claimed the No. 1 ranking for the CFB Playoff, the 2016 college football season was a down year for the SEC. Every team outside of the Crimson Tide finished with at least four losses. However, the league won’t be down for too long, as the 2017 campaign should see a couple of teams rebound and result in a deeper overall conference. In the West, Alabama is once again the early favorite to claim the division crown. LSU and Auburn are next in line, with Arkansas, Mississippi State, Ole Miss and Texas A&M locked into a tight battle for the No. 4 spot. In the East Division, not much separates Georgia, Florida and Tennessee at the top. Kentucky should take another step forward under coach Mark Stoops next fall, while South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Missouri round out the final three spots in the East.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2017 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2017:
Early SEC Football Predictions for 2017
Headed into spring practice, not much separates the top three in the SEC East next season. For now, the early nod as the favorite in the division goes to Georgia. Quarterback Jacob Eason threw for 2,430 yards and 16 touchdowns as a true freshman last year and will only get better with another offseason to work as the No. 1 signal-caller. Running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb form one of the nation’s best one-two combinations in the backfield, while Terry Godwin (38 catches) and tight end Isaac Nauta (29) headline the top pass catchers. The line is the biggest concern for coach Kirby Smart to address this offseason. The Bulldogs were loaded with underclassmen on defense and limited opponents to 24 points a game in 2016. This unit should be one of the better defenses in the SEC next fall, especially with the development of lineman Trenton Thompson and linebacker Roquan Smith to anchor the front seven. Safety Dominick Sanders leads the way in the secondary.
Despite a lackluster offense, Florida has managed to win the SEC East in each of coach Jim McElwain’s first two seasons in Gainesville. Improving that side of the ball is McElwain’s top priority this spring, and the question marks for next fall start at quarterback. Can talented redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks beat out Luke Del Rio for the starting nod? The depth and talent in the receiving corps is improving, with Antonio Callaway (54 catches) and fellow receiver Tyrie Cleveland (21.3 ypc) headlining the options on the outside. Running back Jordan Scarlett (889 yards) emerged as the team’s top back in the second half of the season and should push for 1,000 yards with more of a workload in 2017. The line loses tackle David Sharpe but returns largely intact and should improve this offseason. The losses are heavy on defense, and this unit has a new play-caller with Geoff Collins leaving to be the head coach at Temple. New coordinator Randy Shannon must replace both starting cornerbacks (Jalen Tabor and Quincy Wilson), linebackers Jarrad Davis and Alex Anzalone and standout tackle Caleb Brantley. Another obstacle for McElwain’s team to overcome is a tough schedule. Florida plays Michigan in AT&T Stadium to begin the 2017 season, while LSU, Texas A&M, Tennessee and Florida State visit the Swamp.
As mentioned above, little separates the top three teams in the East Division next season. Tennessee has won nine games in back-to-back years under coach Butch Jones and is looking to breakthrough with a division crown and a trip to Atlanta in early December. Despite losing quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara and standout end Derek Barnett, don’t count out the Volunteers in the East. Vying to replace Dobbs are two talented options in Quinten Dormady and redshirt freshman Jarrett Guarantano. Top receiver Josh Malone declared for the NFL Draft, but Jauan Jennings (14.5 ypc) is back. John Kelly (630 yards) impressed in limited action at running back and could push for All-SEC honors with a full season of snaps. A key area to watch in spring practice is the development of an offensive line that surrendered 25 sacks. Injuries took a toll on Tennessee’s defense last season, and coordinator Bob Shoop has some work to do this spring retooling a group that surrendered 5.8 yards per play. Barnett and cornerback Cameron Sutton are the biggest losses to address. Linebacker Darrin Kirkland should be one of the best in the SEC.
With a 7-6 record and an appearance in the TaxSlayer Bowl, the Wildcats are coming off their best season under coach Mark Stoops. And there’s optimism for this program to continue its upward trend in 2017. With Drew Barker returning from injury, coordinator Eddie Gran will have two options at quarterback. However, the strength of the offense is on the ground with Benny Snell at running back, as well as an offensive line that returns four starters. Center Jon Toth and receiver Jeff Badet are the biggest losses on offense. The defense has not finished higher than 11th in the SEC in points allowed in each of the last four seasons. Will that change in 2017? Linebacker Jordan Jones (15.5 TFL) is a rising star, and the cornerback spot is in good shape with Derrick Baity, Jordan Griffin and Chris Westry. This defense has to get better against the run after surrendering 228.5 yards per game in 2016. Key swing games against South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt are on the road in 2017. However, the Wildcats host Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee next fall.
5. South Carolina
South Carolina was one of the SEC’s biggest surprises in 2016. Despite returning only six starters under new coach Will Muschamp, the Gamecocks finished 6-7 and picked up three wins in SEC play. While South Carolina has a ways to go in order to challenge for a spot among the top three in the East, a winning record should be within reach for 2017. A promising trio of sophomores – quarterback Jake Bentley, running back Rico Dowdle and receiver Bryan Edwards – returns to anchor the offense next fall. Receiver Deebo Samuel (59 grabs) and tight end Hayden Hurts (48 catches) add to a promising group of playmakers for Bentley. The biggest concern on offense remains the line, which surrendered 41 sacks (most in the SEC) last fall. Coordinator Travaris Robinson and Muschamp combined to help the defense cut down its yards per play allowed from 6.03 in 2015 to 5.6 in 2016. A handful of key seniors are set to depart, but standout linebacker Skai Moore returns after missing all of last season. Finding players who can get to the quarterback will be a priority after the defense generated only 21 sacks in 2016 and must replace end Darius English (nine sacks).
The Commodores took a step forward in coach Derek Mason’s third season and earned the program’s first bowl trip since the 2013 campaign. Improving upon the six-win mark from 2016 won’t be easy, especially with a schedule that features a non-conference game against Kansas State, road trips to Ole Miss and South Carolina, along with a visit from Alabama in late September. Quarterback Kyle Shurmur struggled in the Independence Bowl but finished the regular season by torching Tennessee for 416 yards. If Shurmur can build off a solid month of November, the Commodores should easily improve off the 23 points a game total this unit posted in 2016. Running back Ralph Webb returns after back-to-back 1,000-yard seasons, and the receiving corps returns largely intact. Vanderbilt tied for fifth in the SEC in scoring defense (24.0 ppg) last season and should one of the better units in the conference once again. However, Mason has to replace standout linebacker Zach Cunningham, cornerback Torren McGaster and lineman Adam Butler.
The Tigers finished 2016 by winning two out of their three games but ending a two-year bowl drought won’t be easy in 2017. The offense averaged 31.4 points per game last season. However, that average dipped to 22.6 per contest in league play. Quarterback Drew Lock threw for 3,399 yards and 23 scores and is expected to take another step forward under the play-calling of coordinator Josh Heupel. Lock has a solid supporting cast at his disposal, including running back Damarea Crockett (1,062 yards) and the team’s top four statistical receivers from 2016. All five starters from a line that limited opponents to just 14 sacks are back for 2017. After limiting opponents to 16.2 points a game in 2015, the Tigers surrendered 31.5 last year. Can this unit improve on that total after losing end Charles Harris to the NFL and linebackers Michael Scherer Donavin Newsom and cornerback Aarion Penton to graduation? Missouri also has a tough crossover with the West Division with a road trip to Arkansas, as well as a visit from Auburn in September.
Alabama enters another season as the team to beat in the SEC. Coach Nick Saban’s team has its share of personnel losses on both sides of the ball, but the Crimson Tide continue to recruit at an elite level and won’t suffer much of a drop off in their overall play. The nation’s best defense from 2016 must replace linemen Jonathan Allen and Dalvin Tomlinson, linebackers Ryan Anderson, Tim Williams, Reuben Foster, and cornerback Marlon Humphrey. That’s a deep group of talent departing to the next level, but the next wave of standouts is ready to emerge. In the trenches, tackle Da’Ron Payne and end Da’Shawn Hand anchor the line, while Rashaan Evans looks to build off a strong close to the 2016 season. The secondary could be the strength of the defense with the return of safety/cornerback Minkah Fitzpatrick. The Crimson Tide also have top recruit Dylan Moses (linebacker) and touted junior college prospect Isaiah Buggs on campus for spring workouts. Even if the defense takes a small step back, the offense should be ready to pick up more of the slack in 2017. Quarterback Jalen Hurts has a full offseason to develop under coordinator Steve Sarkisian’s watch, and the Crimson Tide feature one of the nation’s deepest backfields with the return of Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris. Tackle Cam Robinson, receiver ArDarius Stewart and tight end O.J. Howard leave big shoes to fill on offense.
Ed Orgeron’s first full year at the helm begins with a familiar question mark. What will LSU get out of its offense in 2017? The good news: Orgeron’s hire of Matt Canada as the team’s play-caller should pay dividends, and the offense returns one of the nation’s best running backs in Derrius Guice. However, in order for the Tigers to challenge Alabama in the SEC West, the passing attack has to take a step forward. Quarterbacks Danny Etling and Brandon Harris will battle for the starting job once again, but the receiving corps suffered a huge blow after Malachi Dupre declared early for the NFL Draft. Standout center Ethan Pocic will be missed in the trenches. LSU’s defense limited opponents to 15.8 points per game last fall and is slated to be one of the best in the SEC once again in 2017. Lineman Davon Godchaux, linebacker Kendell Beckwith and defensive backs Jamal Adams and Tre’Davious White leave big shoes to fill for coordinator Dave Aranda. However, rush end/linebacker Arden Key returns, and the Tigers have reeled in plenty of top talent in recent years to fill some of the voids on defense.
With the arrival of junior college prospect (and former Baylor) quarterback Jarrett Stidham, Auburn could be the biggest challenger to Alabama in the SEC West. Stidham was a four-star recruit out of high school and is the best passer Malzahn has landed since taking over as the program’s head coach in 2013. Stidham has a strong supporting cast at his disposal. Running back Kamryn Pettway battled injuries late in the season but still finished with 1,224 yards and seven touchdowns. Additionally, the Tigers return four out of the team’s top five receivers from 2016 and a solid foundation in the trenches. Coordinator Kevin Steele has a few voids to fill on defense after end Carl Lawson declared for the NFL Draft, and tackle Montravius Adams, cornerback Joshua Holsey and safety Rudy Ford expired their eligibility. End Marlon Davidson and cornerback Carlton Davis headline the key returnees for a defense that limited opponents to 17.1 points per game in 2016.
4. Texas A&M
The Aggies have recorded three consecutive 8-5 seasons but have not finished above .500 in SEC play since 2012. Is 2017 a make-or-break year for coach Kevin Sumlin? Topping the eight-win mark will be tough next fall, especially with the quarterback Trevor Knight expiring his eligibility and the departure of end Myles Garrett to the NFL. Senior Jake Hubenak, redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshman Kellen Mond will compete to replace Knight at quarterback. Regardless of which quarterback wins the job, expect to see plenty of running back Trayveon Williams (1,057 yards). The receiving corps was hit hard by departures, but Christian Kirk (83 catches in 2016) is back to give the new quarterback a go-to weapon on the outside. In addition to the concerns at receiver, the Aggies have to find two new tackles after the departure of Avery Gennesy and Jermaine Eluemunor. Texas A&M’s defense improved under coordinator John Chavis in 2015 but took a step back last fall and surrendered just over six yards per play (6.07) in SEC games. Finding a replacement for Garrett and fellow end Daeshon Hall is the top priority for Chavis this spring. The strength of the defense should be the secondary, which is headlined by safety Armani Watts and cornerbacks Nick Harvey and Priest Willis.
The gap between No. 4 and No. 7 in the SEC West next season is very small. For now, let’s give the edge to Bret Bielema’s team. The Razorbacks ended the year on a down note by losing to Missouri and lost in the Belk Bowl after building a commanding 24-0 lead. The offense should be the strength of this team once again in 2017, as quarterback Austin Allen and running backs Devwah Whaley and Rawleigh Williams return to Fayetteville. Finding new playmakers at receiver and developing the offensive line will be the top priorities this spring for Bielema. After giving up 31.1 points a game on defense, it was clear change was needed for this unit headed into 2017. Coordinator Robb Smith won’t return, and the Razorbacks could shift to more of a 3-4 approach under new play-caller Paul Rhoads next fall. Adding to the concerns for Rhoads is the departure of a few key cogs – linemen Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and Taiwan Johnson, linebacker Brooks Ellis and cornerback Jared Collins.
6. Ole Miss
The Rebels missed on a bowl and posted the first losing season under coach Hugh Freeze in 2016. Ole Miss probably won’t rebound back to a nine-win campaign, but a return to the postseason and a winning record should be within reach. Quarterback Shea Patterson gained valuable experience by starting the final three games of 2016 and heads into 2017 as one of the SEC’s top breakout candidates. Tight end Evan Engram will be missed, but the Rebels have a wealth of promising talent and options at receiver. Finding some balance on offense is critical for new coordinator Phil Longo after this offense averaged 3.9 yards per rush in SEC games last season. New defensive coordinator Wesley McGriff inherits a group that finished last in the conference in points allowed (34.0 ppg) and surrendered 6.2 yards per play. End Marquis Haynes, linebacker DeMarquis Gates, tackle Benito Jones and defensive backs Jaylon Jones and Myles Hartsfield return as the foundation for the defense in 2017.
7. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs earned their seventh consecutive trip to a bowl last year and finished the 2016 season with momentum on their side. After a dominant win over rival Ole Miss (55-20) in the Egg Bowl, Mississippi State edged Miami (Ohio) 17-16 in the St. Petersburg Bowl to finish the year at 6-7. While coach Dan Mullen’s team is penciled in at No. 7 here, this team is a lot closer to No. 4 than it is the cellar of the West Division. As we mentioned above, there is little separation between these teams. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is back after a breakout season to headline an offense that averaged 30.4 points a game in 2016. Receiver Fred Ross, center Jamaal Clayborn and tackle Justin Senior are three big losses on offense. However, running back Aeris Williams (720 yards) and receiver Donald Gray (17.3 ypc) provide two weapons in the skill positions for Fitzgerald to utilize. Improving a defense that surrendered 31.8 points per game is a must in 2017. And Mullen already took a big step in addressing those concerns by hiring coordinator Todd Grantham away from Louisville. Linebacker Leo Lewis and safety Brandon Bryant are two building blocks for Grantham in 2017. Don't be surprised if the Bulldogs move up this list as we see what transpires in spring ball.