Film work complete, Mark Schofield is ready to make his predictions for the coming Southeastern Conference season. Will Tennessee finally break through in the SEC East? Can Alabama hold off the LSU Tigers? Also, what players look to take home hardware at the end of the season?
As we near kickoff of the college football season this weekend (Apologies to Sydney.), it is time to make some predictions about the 2016-2017 SEC season. My batting average with predictions may be spotty (although I did nail the Christian Hackenberg pick by the Jets), but it is time to go on the record, spottiness and all.
Yes, this is finally the year that Butch Davis and company break through. Joshua Dobbs and Jalen Hurd are an impressive tandem in the offensive backfield, and Dobbs has some nice weapons on the outside with Josh Smith and Josh Malone, two of their leading receivers who return to Knoxville for 2016. Add in a defense led by the impressive Jalen Reeves-Maybin and defensive end Derek Barnett, and you have the recipe for a division winner.
Scheme Preview: Joshua Dobbs, Ethan Wolfe, and the Tennessee Double Post Concept
Florida and Georgia are both really close this season, but until we can be certain about the status of Bulldogs running back Nick Chubb, I’ll give the edge to the Gators for the time being. Florida should get better, or at least more consistent, production at the quarterback position from Luke Del Rio, the junior transfer from Oregon State. A stout defense with six returning starters, and a favorable schedule to start the season, play well in their favor.
Scheme Preview: Florida Gators Passing Concepts
New head coach Kirby Smart inherits a talented running back group and a defense that returns the entire secondary from a season before. However, the Bulldogs face questions over the health of their talented RB Nick Chubb as well as production at the quarterback spot. Chubb has been cleared to return to action, though his status is unclear for the season opener against North Carolina. Jacob Eason, the true freshman, is expected to start for the Bulldogs in the opener, although Greyson Lambert is also in the mix.
Scheme Preview: Jim Chaney, Nick Chubb, and the Power Toss
After back-to-back 5-7 seasons, coach Mark Stoops’s squad looks to finally break through and get back to a bowl game after a long absence. The offense returns nine starters officially, although left tackle Cole Mosier and quarterback Drew Barker both started games last season, giving the Wildcats an experienced offensive unit. They will get tested early, with trips to both Florida and Alabama in the first five weeks, but veteran leadership should get this team over that losing record hump.
Scheme Preview: Kentucky Wildcats Blocking Schemes
The Tigers looked to be a very formidable team this offseason, especially along the defensive front. But the school dismissed two returning defensive starters, DE Walter Brady and DT Harold Brantley. When you also consider the loss of their long time defensive line coach, the defense might struggle to recapture the magic of previous years. On offense, there will be a bit of inexperience along the OL, as only Nate Crawford returns from a season prior to the starting lineup. They have some skill players back including sophomore quarterback Drew Lock and WRs J’Mon Moore and Nate Brown, but this might be a step back season down in Columbia.
Scheme Preview: D-Line Zou: Will Missouri Keep Their Defensive Line Dominance?
Whether the Commodores can get back to a winning record after two straight losing seasons likely rests on their offense. Kyle Shurmur returns after starting five games at quarterback last year for Vanderbilt, and he is surrounded by veterans at RB and wide receiver. Running back Ralph Webb returns, fresh off a season that saw him finish with 1,152 yards on 277 carries. Out wide, CJ Duncan, Caleb Scott, and Trent Sherfield all return, comprising three of the team’s top four receivers a year prior. On defense, Zach Cunningham leads a group that is getting better each year under defensive-minded head coach Derek Mason. This unit gave up 21 points per game a year ago, a substantial reduction from 33.3 points per contest in 2014. They get Florida at home on October 1, and how they handle that matchup might tell the tale of their season.
Scheme Preview: Vanderbilt’s Zach Cunningham: Team Defense Personified
The Gamecocks continue their rebuilding effort under new head coach Will Muschamp. On offense, the starting quarterback remains to be decided, with both senior Perry Orth and true freshman Brandon McIlwain in the mix. The freshman is a more electrifying player who can make plays with his legs, but Muschamp might roll with the senior stability at the position. The South Carolina defense will find a great tutor in Muschamp, as he implements his hybrid 3-4 / 4-3 system featuring the Buck linebacker position. The Gamecocks also feature perhaps the best special teams duo in the conference, with Kicker Elliott Fry and punter Sean Kelly, both seniors, returning to Columbia.
The Crimson Tigers do not retool – they reload. While they lost Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry, among others, to the NFL, Alabama returns a host of talented players to Tuscaloosa. Whether it is Cooper Bateman or Jalen Hurts taking the snaps, the quarterback will have weapons outside in Calvin Ridley and ArDarius Stewart, two WRs returning from a year ago. Also, don’t forget O.J. Howard, not only likely their most potent option on offense but also perhaps the top TE prospect in the nation. Replacing Henry will be Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough, a pair of sophomores, and they have tremendous potential. On defense, Saban has another talented group, including Jonathan Allen up front and Marlon Humphrey in the secondary. A tough schedule awaits, as they open with USC in Texas and have to travel to Baton Rouge to take on LSU. If they survive these tests, they’ll have earned another division title.
Scheme Preview: How the Alabama Crimson Tide Attack the Flat in the Passing Game
Les Miles might have his best chance to knock off Alabama in a long time. The offense returns a host of starters, including one of the top running backs in the nation in Leonard Fournette. Fournette along with Derrius Guice are perhaps the top RB tandem in the SEC. Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre are a skilled duo at receiver, and center Ethan Pocic is one of CFB’s premier interior linemen. This offense likely goes as far as Brandon Harris can take them. Consistent production from him gives LSU a shot to take down the Crimson Tide. On defense, nine starters return to a team that gave up only 24.3 points per game a year ago. They’ll be tested early, facing Wisconsin at Lambeau Field and traveling to both Auburn and Florida. They’ll then get home dates against Southern Mississippi and Mississippi, and a week off, before Alabama comes to town.
Scheme Preview: LSU Play-Action Game
The Tigers endured a down season in 2015, finishing at 6-6 in the regular season, until they salvaged the year with a big win over Memphis in the Birmingham Bowl. But questions remain, starting on the offensive side of the football. Gus Malzahn has named sophomore Sean White the team’s starting quarterback for the opener, as the more experienced White got the nod over Florida State transfer John Franklin. White’s reward? Starting the year against Clemson, a tough ask for sure. He’ll have some weapons back, including receiver Marcus Davis and running back Jovon Robinson, and the Tigers return three starters on the offensive line. Defensively, Auburn needs a full season from Carl Lawson. Their Buck linebacker is a defensive force when healthy, but that is the big question mark facing his junior campaign. They start tough, hosting Clemson in the opener and then LSU a few weeks later. If they can survive the early challenges, they’ll be battle-tested for the home stretch that includes trips to Georgia and Alabama.
Last year’s Sugar Bowl winners lost Laremy Tunsil and Laquon Treadwell to the NFL, but return quarterback Chad Kelly and tight end Evan Engram, two impressive college players. Kelly completed 65% of his passes a year ago for over 4,000 yards and 31 touchdowns, and was instrumental in Mississippi’s upset of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. On defense, they lose four of their top tacklers from a year ago, but linebacker DeMarquis Gates and defensive end Marquis Haynes return. In the secondary, both cornerbacks are back on campus, in the form of Tony Bridges and Kendarius Webster. They open against Florida State in Orlando, which is a tough task, and host Alabama and Georgia at the end of September in successive weeks. If they can survive that, they are rewarded with a trip to Baton Rouge mid-October.
Scheme Preview: Mississippi Talladega Pace RPO Concepts
5. Texas A&M
The Aggies are happy to return defensive end Myles Garrett to College Station, but the junior is just one of seven returning starters on the defensive side of the ball. His fellow DE, Daeshon Hall, returns, as do linebackers Richard Moore and Shaan Washington. Three secondary players are back as well, and the Aggies likely improve on their defensive production from a year prior, as they surrendered 22 points a game. On offense, transfer Trevor Knight from Oklahoma likely takes the snaps, and he’ll have four returning starters at WR to find in the passing game. RB Tra Carson is in camp with the Cincinnati Bengals, so Keith Ford, a junior, will step in and shoulder the bulk of the carriers. TAMU opens with UCLA at home, and they face road trips to Auburn and South Carolina early. If they can run those early games, perhaps they can surprise. That is, until they face Tennessee at home and Alabama on the road in October.
Scheme Preview: Texas A&M’s Defensive Versatility Featuring Myles Garrett
The Razorbacks finished 8-5 last year, including a victory over Kansas State in the Liberty Bowl. But Bret Bielema looks to have a tougher task ahead of him in 2016, with a roster that returns only five starters on offense. Brandon Allen is gone to the NFL, but his younger brother Austin was named the team’s starting quarterback. He’ll have some returning WRs in Drew Morgan, Dominique Reed, and Jared Cornelius to find in the passing game, as well as TE Jeremy Sprinkle, who caught 27 passes for 389 yards last year, including six touchdowns. Defensively, the Razorbacks are experienced, with nine starters returning, including three of their defensive linemen. The schedule sets up nicely for them (as far as SEC schedules go) as they host their four toughest games, with Alabama, Florida, LSU, and Mississippi all coming to town. With a little home cooking, perhaps Arkansas finds themselves higher in the division than predicted.
Scheme Preview: Arkansas Boot Action
With Dak Prescott turning heads in the NFL as the new starting quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys, the Bulldogs need to rebuild on the offensive side of the ball. Sophomore Nick Fitzgerald looks to be the first quarterback to start for MSU not named Prescott since Tyler Russell in 2012. But the sophomore will have weapons in RB Brandon Holloway and WR Fred Ross, as well as three returning starters up front. Six starters return to this defense, and they will look to improve on a unit that surrendered 23.2 points per game in 2015. They open their schedule with home games against South Alabama and South Carolina, before making the trip to Death Valley to take on LSU. Whether Fitzgerald and company are up to the task will be sorted pretty quickly.
Scheme Preview: Mississippi State Bulldogs Screen Game
OPOY: Jalen Hurd. The SEC is filled with a number of very talented offensive players, but with Tennessee looking to make the leap in 2016, the skilled RB might well benefit. Hurd carried the ball 277 times for 1,288 yards and 12 touchdowns last year, and even contributed 22 catches for 190 yards and two touchdowns. He’ll benefit from an offensive line returning four starters, as well as tight end Ethan Wolfe. If the team produces like they should, Hurd is in for a big year.
DPOY: The Southeastern Conference has a history of handing out co-defensive player of the year awards, and this year might not be any different. Garrett is truly an explosive player off the defensive edge, and he tallied 12.5 sacks a year ago. With fellow defensive end Daeshon Hall providing pressure off the other side, and with how Garrett is being used all over the Aggies’ defensive front, Garrett should produce even better numbers. Up north in Nashville, the Commodores are putting together a tough defense led by their junior linebacker. Cunningham was the first Commodores defender to tally more than 100 tackles in a season since 2009, and possesses a great mix of mental awareness and physical ability. These two players should have strong junior years in store.
STPOY: As previously mentioned, South Carolina might have the best duo of special teams players in the entire conference. As a result, look for kicker Elliott Fry to take home this piece of hardware. As a junior, he connected on 25 of 25 extra points, and 20 of 28 field goals, including 14-15 in the 1-39 range. With South Carolina facing questions on offense, he’ll likely enjoy a number of chances for field goals this year, and should even improve on those numbers.
SEC Championship: December 3, 2016
Alabama v. Tennessee
These two teams look, on paper, to be on a collision course to meet face-to-face to decide the SEC title. They’ll both be battle tested if they get to this point, but the Crimson Tide will face a much tougher offense than they did a year ago from the Florida Gators, led at the time by quarterback Treon Harris. Dobbs and company prove too much for the Crimson Tide, and the Volunteers finally get over that SEC title hub.
Follow @MarkSchofield on Twitter. Buy his book, 17 Drives. Check out his other work here, such as how Alabama passes to attack the flat, or Tennessee’s use of the double post concept, or how LSU runs play action.