Which team(s) will surprise and which will disappoint?
This will be the most scrutinized article of these college football conference-by-conference previews simply because it’s the SEC. As Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn once said, "This is a man's league, if you aren't in it, you won't understand."
The SEC West figures to be Alabama's playground once again although Auburn and LSU are getting closer. The fun is on the East side where Georgia, Florida and Tennessee should be in the mix for the title. Kentucky also may be a factor with an experienced group leading the way.
Note: Over/under odds courtesy of the South Point sports book
Over 8 -135...Under 8 +115)
Jim McElwain is hoping this season will start already considering one of the biggest issues is a picture of someone that looks like him with a shark in a boat. He hired Randy Shannon to take over the defense after Geoff Collins left for Temple. Eight starters are gone including Teez Tabor and Quincy Wilson from the secondary. This could be one of those rare years in Gainesville where the offense has to carry the team. Antonio Callaway is back and will lead a solid group of WRs. He might miss a game due to suspension, but nothing has been determined yet. The opener is against Michigan in Arlington, Texas. After that, Florida has five of its next six at home. I think eight is a really good number here. If you think the Gators lose to the Wolverines in week one, then consider the under maybe.
(Over 9 +120...Under 9 -140)
It's Jacob Eason's team and he's got Sony Michel and Nick Chubb back at running back. The offensive line is where the questions start on that side of the ball, along with the WR group. I like Terry Godwin, but there's not a lot behind him in terms of known talent. Where there won't be many questions is on defense where all 11 starters are back. Up front, Trenton Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter chose not to go pro. This group was 16th in FBS in 2016 and could hover around there this season as well. Trips to Notre Dame and Georgia Tech are intriguing matchups. The Bulldogs should be able to win both of these although the public doesn't believe that considering the price on the over.
(Over 7 +110...Under 7 -130)
Kentucky will not be an easy out again this year after finishing 7-6. They return eight starters on both sides of the ball and are led by QB Stephen Johnson on offense, although Drew Barker could be a factor too. The Wildcats have the majority of their offensive line back as well as running back Benny Snell Jr. and wideouts Dorian Baker and Garrett Johnson. On defense, the secondary should be solid with Derrick Baity, Chris Westry and Mike Edwards returning. The schedule features four of their first six at home with the two road contests being winnable. There really isn't that tough of a stretch the whole year unless you consider back-to-back trips to Vanderbilt and Georgia. I like the number Vegas picked so no play here for me.
(Over 6 -115...Under 6 -105)
Offensive coordinator Josh Heupel did good things with QB Drew Lock, who has top target J’Mon Moore (23 receptions over last three games) to throw to. The offensive line is pretty much intact and Damarea Crockett is in the backfield so the offense could match some of its stats from last year. The problems come on defense where only three starters return. The linebacker group has potential, but is unproven. The first four games and seven of eight are at home. I think the under is worth a look because the wins will come early, but a finishing stretch against Florida, Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Arkansas will be tough.
(Over 5 -130...Under 5 +110)
Jake Bentley might be the best quarterback returning in the SEC East. He's got Deebo Samuel out wide as well as several options at running back. The offense struggled last year but 10 starters are back, so we'll see if another year of growth does anything. Senior linebacker Skai Moore is being placed on preseason watch lists after missing 2016 due to injury. The secondary figures to be strong and may have to be if the team struggles to get sacks again. The Gamecocks close with four of their final five at home. They also get the defending national champions at home in the season finale. The money move is right and I like the over as well.
(Over 7.5 -120...Under 7.5 EVEN)
Last year this team was one of the most hyped in all of the country and fell short of expectations. Butch Jones has 11 starters back, six of those on defense. The Volunteers allowed more than 200 yards per game on the ground which hurt them in several matchups. Spring was not kind to the defensive line as several potential starters did not participate. Todd Kelly Jr. and Nigel Warrior form a solid safety group. Quinten Dormady appears to be the favorite to win the quarterback job over Jarrett Guarantano. There are some questions at the skill positions, but the offensive line should be strong. Tennessee has three straight at home beginning in late September and closes out with three of four in Knoxville. I'm a little less optimistic then the public so at this price I'd consider the under.
(Over 6 EVEN...Under 6 -120)
Derek Mason was finally able to produce a solid season in 2016 with six wins and a bowl appearance. Building off that is a possibility with a veteran group returning. Ralph Webb is an awesome running back who would be able to do so much more if he wasn't constantly facing stacked boxes. Kyle Shurmur threw only nine touchdowns in 2016 to 10 interceptions. He's got weapons out wide in Trent Sherfield, Caleb Scott and C.J. Duncan. Linebacker Zach Cunningham is gone on defense so this unit needs to find a new leader. It could come from the all-senior secondary. After a tough road game at Middle Tennessee to open things up, the Commodores have three straight and four of five at home. The problem is two of those games are against Alabama and Florida. I think six is a good number although I also lean to the under as this slate is very tough.
(Over 10.5 -145...Under 10.5 +125)
The Crimson Tide reloaded and should be in the mix for another SEC title and national championship. It begins on defense with Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick taking care of the secondary. Da'Ron Payne and Da'Shawn Hand will put the pressure on the quarterback up front. On offense Jalen Hurts gets the call with Tua Tagovailoa nipping at his heels. The freshman got a lot of publicity for what he did in practice this offseason. Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough lead a crowded backfield while Calvin Ridley is the team’s No. 1 target. Things start off with a contest against Florida State in Atlanta before things lighten up against Fresno State and Colorado State. The under is intriguing if you think Alabama loses at Auburn and to the Seminoles in week one. Other than that, there are not too many other banana peel-type games.
(Over 6.5 EVEN...Under 6.5 -120)
Austin Allen (3,430-25-15 in 2016) is one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks, although he may not get the same amount of attention as some of his peers. Devwah Whaley will get a lot more of the workload in the backfield following Rawleigh Williams’ retirement because of a neck injury. The offensive line is pretty much intact so the Razorbacks should hit the ground running. Former Iowa State head coach Paul Rhoads takes over as defensive coordinator and he'll try to fix a unit that gave up more than 420 yards per game. The secondary returns intact with some depth to spare. Arkansas doesn’t play its first true road game until Oct. 7 at South Carolina. Before then there are four home or neutral site games. The over is a pretty good play here at this price. Three of the final four are at home and are all winnable.
(Over 8.5 -125...Under 8.5 +105)
Junior college transfer quarterback (by way of Baylor) Jarrett Stidham is the key to success for the Tigers’ offense. Stidham looked good during spring practice. He's got the productive duo of Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson to lead the way on the ground, along with one of country’s top offensive lines. On defense, Kevin Steele has some holes to patch up with Carl Lawson, Montravius Adams and Rudy Ford gone. Last year Auburn finished seventh in FBS in scoring defense (17.1 ppg). There's talent on each level with DE Marlon Davidson, LB Deshaun Davis and CB Carlton Davis. The Tigers play three straight on the road in October followed by three straight at home. There are four potential losses with a road game at Texas A&M also in the mix. Depending upon how you feel about the game in College Station, that'll decide how you feel about this win total.
(Over 9 EVEN...Under 9 -120)
Derrius Guice is widely considered to be as good a running back, if not better, than Leonard Fournette. Guice also figures to see just as many stacked boxes with the uncertainty at QB. Danny Etling's improvement is the key for an improved offense now under the direction of new coordinator Matt Canada. D.J. Clark has some big shoes to fill at wide reciever with Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural gone to the NFL. Sack specialist Arden Key (12 last season) is dealing with a shoulder injury and is uncertain for the season opener. Reports say that he is ahead of schedule in his recovery so he should be back at some point this season. Christian LaCouture is back to help up front. The Tigers have an intriguing opener against BYU in Houston. The Tigers also play at Florida, Alabama and Tennessee, which is pretty tough. Nine is a good number with a lean to the under.
(Over 5.5 -135...Under 5.5 +115)
Nick Fitzgerald should also probably get some headlines for his play at quarterback. He had to take over for Dak Prescott and played pretty well last year. For the fourth straight year, the defense will be led by someone new with Todd Grantham taking his turn. DE Jeffery Simmons and LB Leo Lewis is a nice pair of sophomores to build around. There are a lot of questions with the Bulldogs, including an offensive line that hasn’t done its job in the past and a lack of true weapons at the skill positions. The non-conference slate is FCS member Charleston Southern, Louisiana Tech, BYU and UMass. I think the under is a very nice play at this point. The price is really good and the schedule sets up for some struggles for the Bulldogs, especially at home with Alabama and LSU set to come to Starkville.
(Over 5.5 -110...Under 5.5 -110)
Recent news that Hugh Freeze is no longer the coach changes things a little bit here as we may see some players leave. There's a lot of excitement surrounding sophomore dual-threat quarterback Shea Patterson. He finished out the 2016 campaign in impressive fashion. The offensive line is pretty much back so that will help with protection. D.K. Metcalf, Van Jefferson and A.J. Brown will form a solid trio at wide receiver. Defensive linemen Marquis Haynes and Breeland Speaks anchor the front and bring the pressure while Myles Hartsfield and Zedrick Woods patrol the back end. The Rebels play three straight on the road in late September, but follow that up with three straight at home. I like the over for Ole Miss provided it doesn’t slip up early against South Alabama or FCS member UT Martin. Hopefully the off-the-field issues don’t carry over to the on-field product.
(Over 7 -110...Under 7 -110)
Kevin Sumlin has a lot of things to figure out before the opener at UCLA. The quarterback position is up in the air with senior Jake Hubenak trying to hold off freshmen Kellen Mond and Nick Starkel. Who will take over for No. 1 overall NFL draft pick Myles Garrett on defense as the guy to get pressure on the quarterback? Wide receiver Christian Kirk is a nice place to start on offense along with 1,000-yard rusher Trayveon Williams. There's pressure on Sumlin to end the Aggies’ 8-5 rut or at least the late-season collapses. It doesn't help that Texas A&M opens on the West Coast against the Bruins. After that four of the next five are at home with other game coming against Arkansas in Arlington, Texas. I'm not as optimistic here as the public and like the under. Sumlin's hot seat gets even hotter and maybe the school decides to go in a different direction.
— Written by Matt Josephs, who is a part of the Athlon Sports Contributor Network. Josephs prefers non-Power 5 college football and may be the only one wagering on the Sun Belt. Follow him on Twitter @MidMajorMatt.