Before each college football season, Athlon Sports hears from readers wanting to know why one team was favored over another in our preseason rankings. Why this team was ranked so high or that team so low.
Some of these questions are in — um — colorful language.
That’s why Athlon takes you inside our decision process for some of the biggest questions you ask. Believe it or not, some of these questions are the ones we grappled with through our rankings meeting.
Here are the questions we anticipated about our SEC predictions for 2016.
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Was there any thought to picking any team other than Tennessee in the East?
Not really. The Volunteers, from a talent and experience standpoint, are clearly the best team in the SEC East. They have the right quarterback (Joshua Dobbs) in place — which gives them a huge advantage over every other team in the division — complemented by an outstanding running back duo and what should be an improved offensive line. The defense was solid last year and should be even better thanks to the addition of Bob Shoop as coordinator. There are a few reasons for concern, however. The schedule is very difficult once again: The Vols play Alabama (home) and Texas A&M (road) from the SEC West and visit Georgia, which figures to be their biggest challenger in the division. Also, this program will be under immense pressure to win big in 2016. Last year, Tennessee did not play well in crunch time, losing well-documented leads against Oklahoma, Florida and Arkansas. How the Vols handle the spotlight, and the expectations that come with it, will go a long way in determining just how successful this team can be.
Kentucky is No. 4 in the East. That seems a bit high for a program that has won four SEC games in the past four seasons.
Yes, that does seem a bit lofty, but the prediction makes more sense when you consider that Kentucky has the most forgiving league schedule of the four teams jockeying for fourth place in the SEC East. The Wildcats host South Carolina and Vanderbilt — two games they should be favored to win — and they also get Mississippi State at home. That could be three wins right there, and three wins could be enough to edge out Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Missouri for fourth place. But it’s not just about schedule. Mark Stoops recruited well early in his tenure at UK, and the program is stocked with solid talent, most notably at the skill positions. Also, we can’t forget that this team was very close to winning several more games in 2016; the Cats lost by five to Florida, three to Auburn and four to Vanderbilt. A play here or there would have resulted in another win or two and a trip to a bowl game. We don’t expect Kentucky to be a factor in the SEC East race, but this is a team that should return to the postseason for the first time since 2010.
LSU has been a trendy pick as a national title contender in the offseason. How close were the Tigers to edging Alabama for the top spot in the SEC West?
Not too close. LSU will have a ton of talent — but talent has not been the issue in Baton Rouge. The Tigers have signed top-six recruiting classes in four straight seasons yet have a 14–10 record in the SEC since the start of the 2013 season. During that same stretch, Alabama is 21–3 in the SEC — including three wins over LSU. So while LSU has the makings of a really good team in 2016, there are more than enough reasons not to jump on the bandwagon and label this team as a legitimate national title contender.
Mississippi State has averaged 3.7 SEC wins per season under Dan Mullen and has yet to finish in last place under his watch. Still, the Bulldogs are the pick for last in the SEC West for the second straight season. Why?
It’s safe to say that our expectations for this program — as it relates to the finish in the division — would be much higher if it played in the SEC East. But the Bulldogs find themselves swimming in the brutal waters of the toughest division in football. And while they’ve continued to prove the prognosticators wrong, especially last year, the Dogs make the most sense at No. 7 this season. Through improved recruiting, MSU might be better positioned than in previous years to overcome some key personnel losses, but it’s tough to ignore the fact that the team must replace arguably the best player in school history (Dak Prescott) at the most important position (quarterback) on the field and that the top wide receiver (De’Runnya Wilson) and most talented defensive player (Chris Jones) are also gone.