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SEC's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in 2017

Jalen Hurts, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Jalen Hurts, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

The SEC wasn’t at its usual strength in 2016, but the league is poised to once again rank at the top of college football’s conference hierarchy this fall. Alabama is the preseason favorite to win the national title, while Auburn, Georgia and LSU claim a spot in Athlon’s projected top 15 teams for 2017. The defending East Division champion (Florida) checks in at No. 16 and is an intriguing team to watch after the addition of Notre Dame graduate transfer Malik Zaire at quarterback. The SEC’s depth is expected to improve with Kentucky, South Carolina and Mississippi State likely to take a step forward this fall.

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What are the 10 biggest storylines surrounding the SEC for 2017? Matt Hinton examines Alabama’s deep backfield, the East Division, the SEC’s effort to restock on the defensive line, Texas A&M’s November pain and more:

SEC's Top 10 Storylines to Watch in 2017

1. The 2016 QB Class Comes of Age

The 2016 season was the nadir, but the truth is that quarterback play across the SEC has been in decline for years. Honestly: Who was the last really great SEC signal caller? The easy answer is Dak Prescott, who just cemented his landmark run at Mississippi State with an historic rookie season in the NFL. Otherwise, though, the spread era is still waiting for its next true star to emerge. Since an exodus of memorable QB talent in 2013 — the year of Manziel, McCarron, Murray, Mettenberger, et al — the only other SEC quarterback deemed worth a draft pick over the past three years is Arkansas’ Brandon Allen, a sixth-rounder in 2016, whom even Razorbacks fans are still confusing with his little brother Austin.

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The flip side of that situation, however, is that the dearth of veteran star power at the position opened the door for an influx of hyped freshmen who, so far, are right on schedule to fill the void. Most obviously there is Jalen Hurts, who seized the reins at Alabama, captained one of the most productive attacks in school history and rendered all previous assumptions about playing quarterback for Nick Saban irrelevant. Playoff struggles notwithstanding, Hurts’ debut stands as the best by a true freshman QB in modern college history. But there’s also Jacob Eason, who showed more than enough in his up-and-down debut at Georgia to confirm his blue-chip potential. And Shea Patterson, Eason’s only rival at the top of the 2016 recruiting charts, whose displays of Manziel-ian flair in November are the silver lining to the pitch-black NCAA cloud looming over Ole Miss. And Jake Bentley, who displaced fellow freshman Brandon McIlwain at the top of South Carolina’s depth chart at midseason and immediately cemented his QB1 status by finishing 4–3 as the starter. (McIlwain, a four-star recruit himself, has already opted to transfer.)

Two other highly touted members of the 2016 class, Florida’s Feleipe Franks and Tennessee’s Jarrett Guarantano, could start at some point this fall after sitting out last year as redshirts. They can’t all be stars, but if none of them is a household name by 2018, then something has gone very wrong.

Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2017

2. Auburn Bets on Stidham

Beyond the rising sophomore class, the most notable breakthrough candidate behind center — and probably the most intriguing — is another sophomore, Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham, a Baylor transfer who arrived in January with his five-star recruiting hype intact and three years of eligibility left to fulfill it. In 2015, his only season at Baylor, Stidham started three games and accounted for 14 touchdowns (to just two interceptions) before his freshman campaign was cut short by a broken arm. After sitting out last season, he was the most coveted quarterback on the 2017 transfer market, by far.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

Stidham is more of a pocket passer than the dual-threat types Gus Malzahn has tended to prefer in the past, and he hasn’t officially replaced incumbent Sean White as the Tigers’ opening day starter. (Although it certainly didn’t help White’s case that he was a bystander in the spring, nursing arm and shoulder injuries of his own while the new guy earned rave reviews.) But Stidham is the kind of next-level talent that Auburn has sorely missed over the last two years, and assuming the job is his come September, no other player in the conference has as much potential to elevate his team all by himself.

3. Resetting the Edge

What the conference lacked in top-shelf quarterback play last year, it more than made up for with its menagerie of elite pass rushers, a murderer’s row that featured three consensus All-Americans (Alabama’s Jonathan Allen, Tennessee’s Derek Barnett and Texas A&M’s Myles Garrett) and a deep rotation of NFL-ready terrors like Auburn’s Carl Lawson, Missouri’s Charles Harris, South Carolina’s Darius English, Arkansas’ Deatrich Wise, A&M’s Daeshon Hall and Bama’s relentless bookends, Tim Williams and Ryan Anderson. Those 10 players alone combined for 85 sacks in 2016, on top of countless QB pressures. They’ve also all moved on to the next level with designs on long, productive careers in the NFL.

LSU Football Schedule

Meanwhile, the most notable exception to that exodus, LSU’s Arden Key, missed spring practice for undisclosed personal reasons. With his return is on schedule, Key is a first-round athlete and a no-brainer preseason All-American. Otherwise, no other returning player recorded more than eight sacks, and only one — Kentucky’s Jordan Jones, an inside linebacker — exceeded a dozen tackles for a loss.

Besides Key, the names most likely to strike fear into the hearts of offensive tackles are Ole Miss’ Marquis Haynes, a senior with 24 career sacks to his credit, and Alabama’s Da’Shawn Hand, a former five-star recruit with one last chance to make good on the hype after biding his time behind Allen. Missouri’s edge-rushing tradition is in capable hands with senior Marcell Frazier. The most formidable bookends in the league might reside in Kentucky, of all places, where outside backers Denzil Ware and Josh Allen combined for 13 sacks and 21 TFLs last year as sophomores. Unlike last year, though, there’s a lot more untapped potential at the position going into the season than proven production.

Related: College Football 2017 All-America Team

4. The Least Division?

The record speaks for itself: Teams from the East Division finished a dismal 5–10 against the West last year, dropping their inter-division mark to 24-51 in the five years since the SEC expanded to 14 teams. (Go ahead and ignore the East’s 0–14 run against Alabama in that span; it still comes in 13 games below .500 against everyone else.) The West champ has won eight straight over the East in the SEC Championship Game, all but one of them by double digits. Last year’s title game, the 25th since the league pioneered the two-division format in 1992, was the most depressing to date: Bama annihilated Florida, 54–16, covering a 24-point spread with anticlimactic ease.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Florida

At this point, there’s less of an argument to be made for the East reversing the trend in 2017 than for the conference simply scrapping the notion of divisions altogether — the Internet, naturally, has some very compelling ideas for what a unified, post-divisional SEC might look like. Short of that, the prospects of a resurgent East in the short term are dim. The division hasn’t produced anything resembling a serious national contender since Georgia in 2012; otherwise, you have to go back almost a decade, to Florida’s heyday in the Urban Meyer/Tim Tebow years. If that’s going to change anytime soon, it’s not at all clear when, or how, or which team will ultimately pull it off.

5. Exclusive Club Welcomes Chubb

It’s rare these days for a college back with Nick Chubb’s résumé to stick around for his senior season, especially given the increasingly short shelf life of workhorse backs in the NFL. Strictly as a business decision, one more year on campus could very well mean one less year of getting paid at the next level. And for Chubb, in particular, it would seem he has a lot more to lose by returning to Georgia than he does to gain after churning out 1,130 yards last year on a surgically repaired knee. What’s left to prove?

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia

Despite his production, though, Chubb was never quite able to muster the same breakaway burst last year that made him a star before that gruesome, career-threatening injury in 2015, and if nothing else, another year at full health will give him the chance to prove that he’s still the back who averaged more than 7.0 yards per carry as an underclassman. It will also give him a fighting chance to go down as one of the most prolific backs in SEC history. If he matches last year’s stat line, Chubb will pass Bo Jackson into fourth place on the conference’s career rushing list; if he improves on that number by even a little, he’ll move into second place, ahead of Kevin Faulk and Darren McFadden. The top spot, occupied by Herschel Walker, is almost certainly out of reach, even if Chubb wasn’t obligated to share touches with fellow senior Sony Michel. (Chubb trails Walker’s official total by 1,835 yards, not even including Walker’s bowl stats.) But wherever he winds up, that’s pretty good company to keep for posterity.

Related: Order a Copy of the Athlon Sports 2017 SEC Preview Magazine to Get Complete Preview Information

6. Bluegrass = Dark Horse?

As always, the preseason consensus in the East is obligated to defer to the Florida/Georgia/Tennessee triumvirate that’s won the division in 22 of its 25 years of existence; such is the way of the world. Then again, so much of the malaise surrounding the East is due to the fact that the usual suspects are unusually vulnerable: Florida and Tennessee are breaking in new quarterbacks on offenses that didn’t generate a lot of fireworks anyway, and nothing about Georgia’s 8–5 finish in 2016 suggests that the Bulldogs are about to surge to the front of the pack. If ever there was an opportunity for a dark horse to rep the East in Atlanta, this is the year.

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And if there’s a dark horse up to the task, might I suggest… wait, Kentucky? Really? Sure, it’s a leap, but it’s not completely crazy: The Wildcats made significant strides in Mark Stoops’ fourth year, rebounding from a horrific 0–2 start to finish 7–6 with a landmark win over Louisville to close the regular season. From that team, the 2017 lineup returns the starting quarterback, Stephen Johnson; a 1,000-yard rusher, Benny Snell Jr., who was widely recognized as a Freshman All-American despite splitting time in the backfield; seven of the top eight receivers; four of five starters on the offensive line; 16 of the top 20 tacklers on defense; the best cover corner, Derrick Baity; and both of the top pass rushers, Josh Allen and Denzil Ware.

Stoops signed a two-year contract extension in March that should insulate him from the hot-seat chatter that dogged him for the past two years, even if the season takes a sour turn. For once, though, the roster lends itself to some optimism, and after last year the logical next step is a legitimate, sustained push for the division crown. For Kentucky, the moment may be about as ripe as it’s going to get.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2017

7. The Last Days of Freeze?

Hugh Freeze built up more than enough good will in his first four years at Ole Miss — all winning seasons, major bowl bids in 2014 and ‘15 — to survive last year’s abrupt decline to 5–7. The pall of major NCAA violations, on the other hand, will be harder to forgive. Already the Rebels have agreed to a bowl ban as penance for a multitude of allegations under both Freeze and his predecessor, Houston Nutt; when the final verdict arrives, the formal punishment from the NCAA could be more severe.

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If the most serious charges stick, Freeze is likely a goner: In recent decades, no head coach overseeing a major program accused of the kinds of violations Ole Miss is accused of (including improper benefits, academic fraud and the dreaded “lack of institutional control”) has ultimately kept his job, even if the coach wasn’t personally implicated. But the NCAA is hardly known for speedy resolutions, either — remember, the prospect of a bowl ban loomed throughout last season, too — meaning Freeze could survive at least long enough to see his investment in sophomore QB Shea Patterson begin to pay off this fall. Beyond that ... well, at least they can never vacate the memories.

8. A&M’s November Pain

November in the South: The air chills, the leaves turn, the clocks change, and Texas A&M fans watch a promising season crumble beneath their feet.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Texas A&M
  • 2013: The Aggies open 5–1 — the only loss coming at the hands of No. 1 Alabama, in a thrilling game — climbing as high as No. 7 in the AP poll in mid-October; they finish by losing three of their last five conference games and accepting a bid to the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
  • 2014: The Aggies start 5–0, rising to No. 6 behind precocious quarterback Kenny Hill; they finish by dropping five of their last six in SEC play as Hill, the new standard bearer for the “September Heisman,” plots his pending transfer from the bench.
  • 2015: The Aggies start 5–0 again, this time peaking at No. 9; they finish by dropping five of their last seven vs. FBS opponents, four of the losses coming by double digits.
  • 2016: The Aggies start 6–0; they improbably land at No. 4 in the Playoff Committee’s initial weekly rankings despite a loss to Bama; from there, they go on to lose their last three SEC games, then the bowl game, too.

See the pattern? Four years in a row, A&M has made a convincing bid for national relevance, and in all four wound up finishing in fourth place or worse in its own division. By now, the midseason dive has become such a reliable feature of the Kevin Sumlin era that everyone — Sumlin included, along with a good percentage of the locker room and an even larger share of the fan base — will inevitably be on high alert if they pull off another 5–0 start heading into the annual gut check against Alabama on Oct. 7.

Related: SEC 2017 All-Conference Team

9. Bama’s Embarrassment of Backfield Riches

The Crimson Tide lost the Heisman-winning centerpiece of their 2015 championship run, Derrick Henry, and actually improved on the ground, setting Saban-era highs in 2016 for rushing yards per game and per carry. More impressive, they did it without the benefit of a week-in, week-out workhorse in the Henry mold: Damien Harris and Jalen Hurts both narrowly eclipsed 1,000 yards (excluding negative yardage on sacks, in Hurts’ case), with Bo Scarbrough and Josh Jacobs chipping in nearly 1,400 more off the bench.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Alabama

The fact that all four members of that quartet were in just their first or second year on campus is frightening enough, as is the fact that Scarbrough was clearly only scratching the surface of his potential prior to his MVP turn in the playoffs. (Remember, to that point Scarbrough had spent the entire regular season as Harris’ backup.) Now, add to the stable yet another pair of five-star options: Massive, Henry-esque tailback Najee Harris and dual-threat QB Tua Tagovailoa both arrived this spring from California and Hawaii, respectively, taking their place as the junior members in what may be the most loaded backfield in recent memory. And that’s without even mentioning sophomore B.J. Emmons, a former top-50 recruit nationally.

The only thing standing between this group and a historic output is carving out enough carries to keep everyone happy without ignoring a bunch of blue-chip wideouts in the process.

Which brings us to the big, existential question hanging over the conference for most of the past two seasons …

10. Can Anyone Beat Bama?

The SEC prides itself on its depth and for most of this century has lived up to that reputation: From 1999-2014, the league went 16 years without crowning back-to-back champions, a dog-eat-dog tradition that stood in contrast to the mini-dynasties that reigned in every other major conference. Winning one SEC title in the big-money era is supposed to be a grueling, Herculean slog; winning two in a row is supposed to be next to impossible.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Georgia
College Football Top 25 Rankings: Auburn

So Alabama’s three-year reign in Atlanta amounts to an existential crisis for the rest of the league all by itself, made worse by the margins: Only two of Bama’s 17 consecutive SEC wins have been decided by single digits. Last year, the widening gap between the Saban Death Star and everyone else was almost comical, unless you happened to be on the side of the opponent whose deficiencies and dysfunction were being laid bare for the entire country on a given Saturday. Not that the Tide were invincible, as Clemson finally proved in the fourth quarter of the National Championship Game, or that they’ll seamlessly replace a host of key starters who heard their names called in the draft. But the other heavyweights in the sport’s proudest conference didn’t just come up short — they didn’t even come close.

Athletically, the nearest approximation of Bama’s roster is still LSU’s, but the Tigers have dropped six straight in the series and aren’t likely to gain much ground in the transition from Les Miles to Ed Orgeron. Tennessee thought it was on the cusp in 2016; instead, the Vols were humiliated in their own stadium, 49–10, and never recovered. Ditto Texas A&M the following week. Auburn and Florida only hoped to put up a respectable fight to close out the regular season, and only Auburn did (for a half, anyway). None of them at any point looked like an outfit capable of actually surpassing Alabama in the foreseeable future, and it will take more than a minor regression by the Crimson Tide to make that a reality.

Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports. This article appeared in Athlon Sports' 2017 SEC Football Preview Editions. Visit our online store to order your copy to get more in-depth analysis on the 2017 season.