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SEC Football 2016 Predictions

Leonard Fournette

Leonard Fournette

After a two-year drought, the SEC is back on top. Sort of. The SEC really never left its spot as college football’s No. 1 league, but Florida State (2013) and Ohio State (2014) gained control of the national title and prevented the SEC from extending its dominance after winning seven straight titles from 2006-12.

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Alabama has won four out of the last seven national titles and is Athlon’s pick to win it all in 2016. The Crimson Tide need to find a new quarterback and patch the offensive line, but the defense and ground attack can carry Nick Saban’s team to the SEC title. LSU, Tennessee and Ole Miss are all playoff contenders and projected by Athlon to finish in the top 10 for 2016.

Outside of Tennessee in the East Division, Georgia and Florida rank as top 25 teams for 2016, with uncertainty surrounding Kentucky, Vanderbilt, Missouri and South Carolina in the next tier. The East is also home to the league’s three new coaches – Barry Odom, Missouri, Kirby Smart, Georgia and Will Muschamp, South Carolina.

In the West Division, LSU needs to find a quarterback to push Alabama at the top, while Ole Miss can lean on quarterback Chad Kelly to alleviate the departures of Robert Nkemdiche (DL), Laremy Tunsil (OL) and Laquon Treadwell (WR). Arkansas could be a top 25 team if Austin Allen provides steady play at quarterback, with Texas A&M and Auburn in the next tier. Mississippi State is projected to finish seventh in the West, but Dan Mullen’s team won’t slip too far – even after losing arguably the best player in school history (Dak Prescott).

Five Key Questions That Will Shape the SEC in 2016

1. Are Tennessee and Alabama the Clear Favorites to Win the SEC?

Barring a surprise upset or two, it seems likely Alabama and Tennessee will meet twice during the 2016 season. Sure, LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia and Florida could surprise and win their division, but on paper, the Crimson Tide and the Volunteers will be heavy favorites to meet in Atlanta. These two teams also have a regular season matchup on Oct. 15 in Knoxville, as Tennessee will be looking for its first victory over Alabama since 2006. While Athlon’s projection of the Volunteers to finish No. 7 in 2016 surprised some fans around the SEC, this is Butch Jones’ best team in Knoxville and it would be a major disappointment if Tennessee didn’t win the East. The Volunteers return 18 starters, the overall depth and talent has improved thanks to the recruiting efforts of this coaching staff, and the defense will take a step forward with the addition of coordinator Bob Shoop. Alabama isn’t without question marks, but it’s hard to pick against a team that has the nation’s best collection of overall talent. Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris are capable of keeping the ground attack performing at a high level with Derrick Henry off to the NFL, and the receiving corps could be the best in the SEC. And as usual in Tuscaloosa, the defense will rank among the nation’s best – if not No. 1.

Related: Explaining Athlon's 2016 SEC Predictions

2. Georgia and LSU – the Wild Card Teams of the SEC?

As mentioned above, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Georgia or LSU made it to the SEC Championship. However, in Athlon’s prediction meetings, Georgia and LSU were regarded as the toughest teams to project for 2016. Talent certainly isn’t an issue for either program, but the Bulldogs have a new coaching staff, uncertainty at quarterback and a rebuilt front seven on defense. While Mark Richt won a lot of games in Athens, a fresh start under Kirby Smart may not be a bad thing. Will Georgia have an easy transition to Smart and the new staff? Or will the transition take a season? At LSU, the preseason storylines sound rather familiar. With Leonard Fournette leading the way, the Tigers have one of the nation’s best ground attacks. Additionally, the defense – directed by new coordinator Dave Aranda – is loaded with speed, athleticism and talent. However, how much can LSU squeeze out of its passing game and quarterback Brandon Harris? The Tigers don’t need a ton of production out of the passing attack but improvement is essential to beating Alabama for the SEC West title.

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College Football: Breaking Down Athlon’s 2016 Top 25



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3. Quarterback Play

It’s safe to say 2016 isn’t shaping up to be a banner year for quarterback play in the SEC. Only two teams – Ole Miss (Chad Kelly) and Tennessee (Joshua Dobbs) – enter the season with a clear answer at quarterback. Considering the question marks surrounding this position, it’s easy to see why there’s a lot of uncertainty (more than usual) in the SEC predictions. How quickly will Jacob Eason emerge as Georgia’s starter? How much of an upgrade is Luke Del Rio over Treon Harris at Florida? LSU needs Brandon Harris to take the next step in his development for the Tigers to challenge for the SEC title. Alabama also has uncertainty at quarterback, but the Crimson Tide are two-for-two under coordinator Lane Kiffin in finding the right answer at this position. Austin Allen is slated to replace his brother (Brandon) at quarterback for Arkansas, while Auburn and Texas A&M are expected to turn to a transfer this season. Just how questionable is this position right now? LSU’s Brandon Harris or Georgia’s Jacob Eason are the leading candidates to be the No. 3 quarterback in this league entering fall practice.

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2016

4. Pressure Building at Auburn and Texas A&M

How quickly the outlook for Gus Malzahn and Kevin Sumlin has changed over the last couple of seasons. Auburn played for the national championship in Malzahn’s first year but slipped to 8-5 in 2014 and regressed to 7-6 in 2015. And perhaps even more troubling for Malzahn? His side of the ball – the offense – averaged only 22.1 points in SEC games last season. While Auburn has recruited well, major improvement in the win column is unlikely in 2016. The offense enters the season with uncertainty at quarterback and an unsettled receiving corps, while the defense needs to take a step forward under new coordinator Kevin Steele. Adding to Malzahn’s challenge in 2016 is a schedule that features road trips to Alabama, Ole Miss, Georgia and a home date against national title contender Clemson. Sumlin’s career path at Texas A&M is similar, as the Aggies posted 20 wins over his first two years, followed by back-to-back 8-5 campaigns. Fixing a porous defense was Sumlin’s top priority after the 2014 season. The addition of John Chavis paid dividends in 2015, and this unit should take another step forward in 2016. However, Sumlin’s biggest concern is the offense. Quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray transferred prior to the Music City Bowl last year, and the Aggies will be relying on Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight as the starter for new coordinator Noel Mazzone. Both teams have the talent to easily exceed their preseason expectations. However, neither team will rank among the top 25 in the nation without an answer emerging at the quarterback position.

5. Sorting Out the Bottom of the SEC East

The tiers in the SEC East are pretty clear for 2016. Tennessee is the heavy favorite to win the division, with Georgia and Florida vying for the No. 2 and No. 3 spots. After that? It’s a tossup. Very little separates Kentucky, Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Missouri for next four spots. Kentucky and Vanderbilt tied for fourth in the division last year at 2-6 in league play, while South Carolina and Missouri tied at 1-7. A similar scenario should play out in 2016. The Wildcats are Athlon’s pick to emerge out of that four-team group for the No. 4 spot, as Mark Stoops’ team has a favorable home schedule – Mississippi State, South Carolina and Vanderbilt – and should improve on offense with the addition of new play-caller Eddie Gran. Vanderbilt and Missouri are strong on defense, but both teams enter the year with question marks on offense. South Carolina has plenty of work to do under new coach Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks return only seven starters, and top linebacker Skai Moore was recently ruled out for the year due to injury. With question marks at quarterback and few proven skill players, all signs point to 2016 as a rebuilding year for Muschamp and the new staff.

College Football: Others Receiving Votes



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SEC 2016 Team Previews

Visit the Athlon Sports Online Store to order a copy of the 2016 SEC Preview Magazine, which features in-depth analysis and previews for all 14 teams, predictions, rankings and features to prepare for the upcoming year. 

SEC Football 2016 Predictions

SEC 2016 Superlatives and Season Predictions

 

Steven Lassan

Mitch Light

Mark Ross

David Fox

Braden Gall

 

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@BradenGall

Offensive POY

Leonard Fournette RB, LSU

Leonard Fournette RB, LSU

Leonard Fournette RB, LSU

Leonard Fournette RB, LSU

Leonard Fournette RB, LSU

Defensive POY

Myles Garrett DE, Texas A&M

Myles Garrett DE, Texas A&M

Myles Garrett DE, Texas A&M

Myles Garrett DE, Texas A&M

Jamal Adams S, LSU

Coach of the Year

Nick Saban Alabama

Nick Saban Alabama

Kirby Smart Georgia

Nick Saban Alabama

Butch Jones Tennessee

Coach on Hot Seat

Les Miles LSU

Gus Malzahn Auburn

Kevin Sumlin Texas A&M

Mark Stoops Kentucky

Mark Stoops Kentucky

Top Freshman

Jacob Eason QB, Georgia

Jacob Eason QB, Georgia

Jacob Eason QB, Georgia

Jacob Eason QB, Georgia

Jacob Eason QB, Georgia

Top Newcomer

Trevor Knight QB, TAMU

Alex Ross RB, Missouri

Trevor Knight QB, TAMU

Trevor Knight QB, TAMU

Luke Del Rio QB, Florida

Sleeper Team

Arkansas

Kentucky

Arkansas

Auburn

Florida

Top Coordinator Hire

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Bob Shoop DC, Tennessee

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Key Position to Watch

Alabama OL

Tennessee WR

Georgia LB

Arkansas RB

Alabama OL

Hardest to Evaluate

LSU

Georgia

Texas A&M

LSU

Georgia

Coach on the Rise

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Dave Aranda DC, LSU

Geoff Collins DC, Florida

Kirby Smart HC, Georgia

Must-See Game

Alabama at Tennessee

Alabama at  Tennessee

Alabama at LSU

Alabama at  LSU

Alabama at LSU

Breakout Player

Arden Key DL, LSU

Bo Scarbrough RB, Alabama

Cece Jefferson DL, Florida

Bo Scarbrough RB, Alabama

Minkah Fitzpatrick CB, Alabama

Comeback Player

Nick Chubb RB, Georgia

Harold Brantley DL, Missouri

Nick Chubb RB, Georgia

Nick Chubb RB, Georgia

Nick Chubb RB, Georgia

Ranking the SEC's Coaches for 2016

1. Nick Saban, Alabama

2. Hugh Freeze, Ole Miss

3. Bret Bielema, Arkansas

4. Dan Mullen, Mississippi State

5. Butch Jones, Tennessee

Click here to view the full SEC Coach Rankings for 2016

Grading the SEC's New Coach Hires for 2016

1. Barry Odom, Missouri (B+)

2. Kirby Smart, Georgia (B+)

3. Will Muschamp, South Carolina (C+)

Click here to view the full New Coach Grades and Rankings for 2016

Ranking the SEC's Quarterbacks for 2016

1. Chad Kelly, Ole Miss

2. Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee

3. Brandon Harris, LSU

4. Trevor Knight, Texas A&M

5. Jacob Eason, Georgia

Click here to view the full SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2016

SEC's Top Players on the Rise for 2016

1. Arden Key, DL, LSU

2. Carlton Davis, CB, Auburn 

3. Minkah Fitzpatrick, CB, Alabama

4. Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia

5. Da'Shawn Hand, DL, Alabama

6. Cece Jefferson, DL, Florida 

7. Chris Westry, CB, Kentucky

8. Keith Ford, RB, Texas A&M

9. Trent Thompson, DL, Georgia

Recommended Articles

10. Terry Godwin, WR, Georgia

Related: SEC's Top 15 Defensive Players on the Rise for 2016

SEC's Top 15 Non-Conference Games for 2016

1. Ole Miss vs. Florida State (Sept. 5 - Orlando)

2. Alabama vs. USC (Sept. 3 - Arlington)

3. LSU vs. Wisconsin (Sept. 3 - Green Bay)

4. Florida at Florida State (Nov. 26)

5. Georgia vs. North Carolina (Sept. 3 - Atlanta)

6. UCLA at Texas A&M (Sept. 3)

7. Arkansas at TCU (Sept. 10)

8. Tennessee vs. Virginia Tech (Sept. 10 - Bristol)

9. Clemson at Auburn (Sept. 3)

10. South Carolina at Clemson (Nov. 26)

11. Kentucky at Louisville (Nov. 26)

12. Georgia Tech at Georgia (Nov. 26)

13. Missouri at West Virginia (Sept. 3)

14. Mississippi State at BYU (Oct. 14)

15. Appalachian State at Tennessee (Sept. 3)

Key Coordinator Hires for 2016

1. Dave Aranda, Defensive Coordinator, LSU 

2. Bob Shoop, Defensive Coordinator, Tennessee

3. Jeremy Pruitt, Defensive Coordinator, Alabama

4. Jim Chaney, Offensive Coordinator, Georgia

5. Eddie Gran, Co-Offensive Coordinator, Kentucky

6. Noel Mazzone, Offensive Coordinator, Texas A&M

7. Kurt Roper, Co-Offensive Coordinator, South Carolina

8. Kevin Steele, Defensive Coordinator, Auburn

9. Travaris Robinson, Defensive Coordinator, South Carolina

10. Peter Sirmon, Defensive Coordinator, Mississippi State

SEC's Top 15 Assistant Coach Hires for 2016

Top 25 Incoming Freshmen (from 247Sports)

1. Greg Little, OL, Ole Miss

2. Shea Patterson, QB, Ole Miss

3. Jacob Eason, QB, Georgia

4. Derrick Brown, DL, Auburn

5. Ben Davis, LB, Alabama

6. Isaac Nauta, TE, Georgia

7. Mecole Hardman Jr., WR, Georgia

8. Lyndell Wilson, LB, Alabama

9. Jonah Williams, OL, Alabama

10. McTelvin Agim, DL, Arkansas

11. Jeffery Simmons, DL, Mississippi State

12. Kristian Fulton, DB, LSU

13. Rashad Lawrence, DT, LSU

14. Benito Jones, DL, Ole Miss

15. Antonneous Clayton, DL, Florida

16. Marlon Davidson, DL, Auburn

17. Tyrie Cleveland, WR, Florida

18. B.J. Emmons, RB, Alabama

19. A.J. Brown, WR, Ole Miss

20. Nate Craig-Myers, WR, Auburn

21. Chauncey Gardner, DB, Florida

22. Saivion Smith, DB, LSU

23. Antwuan Jackson, DL, Auburn

24. Deontay Anderson, DB, Ole Miss

25. Feleipe Franks, QB, Florida