Finally, it’s game week. It seemed as if the 2016 season never would get here (and it’s going to zoom by), but our long nuclear winter is over.
Thus, it’s time to unveil our preseason SEC power rankings. The teams at the very top and very bottom shouldn’t surprise anyone, though there is going be some questioning of the teams ranked second through 13th, but that’s fine. Why? Because it’s game week!
14. South Carolina
The skinny: There are holes everywhere on the roster. WR Deebo Samuel has potential, but there are big questions along the offensive line, at tailback and at quarterback. And while Will Muschamp is a savant of sorts when it comes to defensive backs, the Gamecocks' secondary might be the worst position unit in the entire league. There are three league games in September – and each is on the road.
3 biggest games: at Vanderbilt on September 1; at Kentucky on September 24; at Missouri on November 5. The opener at Vandy could set the tone for the season. The Gamecocks play each of the other presumed "lower division" teams in the East on the road. That's not good
The 'hmmm' game: vs. East Carolina on September 17. This is the Gamecocks' only home game in the first month of the season and it comes against another team with a new coach (Scottie Montgomery replaced Ruffin McNeill).
The skinny: UK has started quickly in each of the past two seasons, then faded. A revamped offense better be ready to carry what looks to be another mediocre (at best) defense. There is some solid skill-position talent on hand. The flipside: The front seven on defense is a giant concern for defense-minded coach Mark Stoops. And if your front seven is bad in the SEC, opponents usually take advantage.
3 biggest games: vs. South Carolina on September 24; vs. Vanderbilt on October 8; at Missouri on October 29. Unlike South Carolina, which has to go on the road to play each of the other three "lesser" teams in the SEC East, UK gets two of them at home. The Wildcats have to make some hay in those games.
The 'hmmm' game: vs. Mississippi State on October 22. The Wildcats haven't beaten an SEC West team since 2011, when they hammered Ole Miss. The other SEC West opponent this season is Alabama, so if UK wants to snap its losing streak to West Division teams, it needs to beat the Bulldogs at home. (Overall, UK has lost 11 of its past 12 against West Division opponents.)
The skinny: New coach Barry Odom has a big-time defense. Junior DE Charles Harris is a bona-fide stud, and the headliner on a stout defensive line. But, man, that offense has some questions. Sophomore QB Drew Lock looks to have the needed skill set, but is he going to get any help? There are questions at receiver, tailback and along the line.
3 biggest games: vs. Georgia on September 17; vs. Kentucky on October 29; at South Carolina on November 5. The matchup with Georgia is the Tigers' SEC opener and should give them an idea of where they stand in the division. Beating UK and South Carolina are vital of there is to be a bowl.
The 'hmmm' game: at West Virginia on September 3. WVU's offense should be quite good, but the Mountaineers' defense returns just three starters. Can Mizzou's offense take advantage?
The skinny: Coach Derek Mason's defense should be fine. The linebacker group is especially noteworthy. And TB Ralph Webb seems likely to set the school career rushing record this season. If sophomore QB Kyle Shurmur comes through, Vandy should finish at least .500. But the offensive line needs to do its part, and that is a concern.
3 biggest games: vs. South Carolina on September 1; vs. Florida on October 1; at Kentucky on October 8. These are the Commodores' first three league games this season. If they win two, they should go bowling. Winning one or zero would mean no bowl. The opener against South Carolina is a tone-setter for each team.
The 'hmmm' game: at Missouri on November 12. This game looks to be the easiest November game for the Commodores, who also play at Auburn and get Ole Miss and Tennessee at home during the month.
The skinny: There are zero proven playmakers on offense for coach Gus Malzahn. How did that happen? The offensive line, especially the interior, should be fine, but who is going to make plays? The health of DE Carl Lawson is important for the defense as a whole. There looks to be some solid individual talent on that side of the ball – sophomore CB Carlton Davis is a rising star – but will it all come together for new coordinator Kevin Steele? Auburn won’t have the chance to ease into the season; mytopsportsbooks.com lists Auburn as a 7.5-point underdog against Clemson in the season-opener.
3 biggest games: vs. Texas A&M on September 17; at Mississippi State on October 8; vs. Arkansas on October 22. The game against the Aggies is the SEC opener for both and it matches teams whose coaches are feeling some heat; the losing coach will be feeling even more afterward. The Mississippi State matchup is sixth game of the season – but it will be the Tigers' first road game of 2016. The Arkansas game opens the second half of the season, which has a bunch of tough contests.
The 'hmmm' game: vs. Vanderbilt on November 5. If the Tigers' season has gone south by this time, Vandy could steal a win. If it hasn't gone south, the Tigers certainly can't afford a loss to the Commodores.
9. Mississippi State
The skinny: Dan Mullen's offense generally has done its job during his tenure, but there are concerns this season except at wide receiver. Who's the quarterback? And will there be a productive tailback? The defense has potential. There is a nice group of linebackers, a good trio at safety and what should be a solid line. But what about the corners?
3 biggest games: vs. Auburn on October 8; vs. Texas A&M on November 5; at Ole Miss on November 26. The game with the Tigers is the fifth game of the season for Mississippi State, but it could give an indication as to how the season will end up. It wouldn't be a surprise to see the loser finish last in the division. As for the Egg Bowl, the Bulldogs have lost three of the past four in the rivalry.
The 'hmmm' game: at BYU on October 15. This is a tough non-conference game, it's on the road and it comes in the middle of October, which isn't the best timing.
The skinny: Maybe the league's biggest mystery team. The receivers and defensive line are filled with good players. The offensive line has two studs in Frank Ragnow and Dan Skipper. But will new QB Austin Allen come through? How effectively will the Hogs run the ball with no proven tailbacks? And will the secondary be improved from last season, when it was a sieve?
3 biggest games: vs. Texas A&M in Arlington, Texas, on September 24; vs. Alabama on October 8; vs. Ole Miss on October 15. The neutral-site game with the Aggies is the Razorbacks' SEC opener; they're 0-4 against A&M since the Aggies joined the league. The back-to-back games against Alabama and Ole Miss give the Hogs a chance to make some national noise – and potentially put themselves in the mix for the SEC West title.
The 'hmmm' game: at Auburn on October 22. The trip to the "Loveliest Village on the Plains" comes on the heels of the huge home games against the Tide and the Rebels. Will there be anything left in the tank?
The skinny: Georgia has averaged a bit over 10 wins per season this century, yet felt a coaching change was needed. Hey, Kirby Smart, you're up! TB Nick Chubb's health is vital; he's a game-changing back, and he'll be running behind a line that should be much more physical than last season's group. But who's the quarterback? Presumably, wunderkind Jacob Eason will start at some point this season, but even highly touted true freshmen have growing pains. And is there a dependable receiver other than Terry Godwin? The secondary should be excellent, but there are questions in the front seven, especially along the defensive line.
3 biggest games: at Ole Miss on September 24; vs. Tennessee on October 1; vs. Florida in Jacksonville on October 29. The Ole Miss-Tennessee double is a tough one. That's back-to-back games against strong offenses; can the young Bulldogs defense handle it? As for the annual bloodletting in Jacksonville, it could be for second place in the East – or it could determine the division winner.
The 'hmmm' game: at Missouri on September 17. It's the league opener for both. Mizzou's defense figures to make it tough on Georgia's quarterback – whomever it is.
The skinny: Despite losing some key defensive players, including two first-round picks, the defense is good enough for the Gators to again win the East. DT Caleb Brantley, LB Jarrad Davis, CB Jalen Tabor and S Marcus Maye are big-timers. Alas, you also have to play offense, and as any Gators fan will tell you, that has been an issue for Florida since 2010. If QB Luke Del Rio can make the simple play and avoid turnovers, the Gators should be OK. If he can consistently hit some big plays – and the rushing attack gets revved up to the tune of 180 or so yards per game (that would be almost 55 yards more per game than last season) – the Gators will be in Atlanta again.
3 biggest games: at Tennessee on September 24; vs. LSU on October 8; vs. Georgia in Jacksonville on October 29. The Gators will be seeking their 12th consecutive victory over the Vols, and if they win in Knoxville this season, you have to start to wonder if UT ever will beat them again. LSU won in its most recent trip to Gainesville, but hasn't won on consecutive trips to Gainesville in this annual series since 1980 and '82. Each of the past four games in the series has been decided in the fourth quarter. And as noted above, Florida-Georgia could determine who wins the East.
The 'hmmm' game: at Arkansas on November 5. This is a difficult road game for the Gators, who have lost five of their past six road games against West Division foes. This comes the week after the Georgia game.
5. Ole Miss
The skinny: The Rebels have one of the toughest first months of any team in the nation (more on that in a minute), but what should be an extremely prolific offense gives them a shot every time they step on the field. QB Chad Kelly could set the SEC single-season passing record, and his quest would be helped if Ole Miss can find a reliable tailback. There are questions about the linebackers and the safeties; Oregon State grad transfer Rommel Mageo is a key at linebacker and it seems likely that two true freshmen are going to play a lot at safety.
3 biggest games: vs. Alabama on September 17; vs. Georgia on September 24; at Texas A&M on November 12. Ole Miss opens with Florida State in Orlando on September 5, then gets the back-to-back home games against Alabama and Georgia later in the month. That's obviously a monster opening stretch. Thus, we'll have a good idea by the night of the 24th how the Rebels' season is going to go. Ole Miss has a relatively easy closing stretch, and the game in College Station looks, by far, to be the toughest in the final month. The potential exists that each will be in the hunt for 10 wins.
The 'hmmm' game: at Arkansas on October 15. This will be the first true road game of the season for Ole Miss, and it's the first game in a back-to-back set that also sees the Rebels visit LSU.
4. Texas A&M
The skinny: Grad transfer Trevor Knight will be on the spot at quarterback, but his presence means that for the first time in Kevin Sumlin's five-year tenure, he won't have a drama queen/diva at quarterback. The receiving corps is incredibly deep and the tailback rotation should be fine, though the line is a concern. If Knight spreads the ball around like he's supposed to, the Aggies are going to score in bunches. DE Myles Garrett is a potential No. 1 overall pick in the 2017 NFL draft and the Aggies have a big-time trio at safety. But A&M must get better against the run. For an SEC team, A&M has an extremely underwhelming group of linebackers.
3 biggest games: vs. Arkansas on September 24 in Arlington, Texas; vs. Tennessee on October 8; vs. Ole Miss on November 12. The game with the Hogs – A&M is 4-0 against them since joining the league – finishes off a tough first month, as there also are games against UCLA and Auburn (more on that one in a minute). The game with Tennessee enables the Aggies to potentially garner some national attention against the team picked by seemingly everyone to win the East. Ole Miss has handled the Aggies handily the past two seasons, and this matchup could be for third place in the division.
The 'hmmm' game: at Auburn on September 17. This will be the league opener for both. If the Aggies have any designs on a top-three finish in the division, they can't lose to the Tigers. On paper, A&M looks to be the better team.
The skinny: Everything looks to be in place for an SEC East title – and maybe more. The Vols have the best offense in the East thanks to the likes of Josh Dobbs and Jalen Hurd, the best special teams in the league and a defense that should be improved because of new coordinator Bob Shoop. But there is a concern that Tennessee doesn't know how to win a close game. That is as much on the coaches as the players. The final month's schedule is a breeze; getting to November, though, could be bumpy.
3 biggest games: vs. Florida on September 24; at Georgia on October 1; vs. Alabama on October 15. UT can basically wrap up the East title by winning the first two games on the list; no one else in the East should come within two TDs of the Vols. And the game with the Tide potentially could stamp the Vols as a national title contender.
The 'hmmm' game: at Texas A&M on October 8. Tennessee's season will be made – or broken – by a huge four-game stretch involving Florida, Georgia, TAMU and Alabama. The first three games are listed above. The trip to College Station follows the trip to Athens and is a week before the Tide invades Knoxville. Can you say "trap game"? We know Vols fans can.
The skinny: LSU has everything it needs to win a national title – not a league title but a national title – except a quarterback. Can junior QB Brandon Harris make plays in the passing game when he has to? If so, this will be a memorable season in Baton Rouge. RB Leonard Fournette is great, the receiving corps is good and the potential exists for a top-flight offensive line. The defense may take a while to truly adjust to new coordinator Dave Aranda's 3-4 scheme, but, man, there are athletes everywhere. DT Davon Godchaux, LBs Kendell Beckwith and Arden Key, CB Tre'Davious White and S Jamal Adams should contend for all-league honors. It seems a lock that LSU opens 5-0. Then things will get interesting.
3 biggest games: at Florida on October 8; vs. Ole Miss on October 22; vs. Alabama on November 5. Let's not get ahead of ourselves – yes, the game against the Tide is gigantic, but it may not mean as much unless the Tigers take care of business in October. The trip to Gainesville is the only game in a four-week stretch that's not at Tiger Stadium – and it might be the toughest road game of the season. Ole Miss has won two of the past three against the Tigers, and most of the games this decade have been close. And if the Tigers do take care of business, the game with the Tide could determine which SEC team has the best shot at a playoff berth.
The 'hmmm' game: at Arkansas on November 12. This is a week after the Alabama matchup. Will the Tigers have anything left? In each of the past two seasons, they've lost to Alabama, then got whipped by the Hogs.
The skinny: There are offensive questions. But even with some key personnel loses, the defense is going to be dominant again. The pass rush should be fearsome, and the Tide may have the best starting secondary in the league (though depth is a concern). As for the linebackers, it's the best group in the nation; it's headed by seniors Reuben Foster and Tim Williams. Offensively, there are questions everywhere but receiver. The receiving corps is incredibly deep. This will be the third season in a row the Tide has a new starting quarterback, but one difference is that in each of the past two seasons, there was an established tailback behind the new quarterback (T.J. Yeldon in 2014 and eventual Heisman winner Derrick Henry last season). Thus, there is some concern about this season's offensive backfield. As for the line, there is talent, but the cohesiveness is a question. Still, while there are some concerns, there also is a ton of talent. And when you have a ton of talent, things generally go your way.
3 biggest games: at Ole Miss on September 17; at Tennessee on October 15; at LSU on November 5. Nothing like playing your three toughest opponents on the road. The Tide has shown that losing once doesn't wreck a season; losing twice, though, and any hope of a repeat national title is gone. At least there is good spacing between the games.
The 'hmmm' game: at Arkansas on October 8. The Tide plays in Fayetteville the week before it goes to Knoxville. Arkansas has taken Alabama into the fourth quarter in the each of the past two seasons.
(You can follow Mike Huguenin on Twitter @MikeHuguenin)
© 2016, Mike Huguenin. All rights reserved.
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