SEC Football Preview 2016: Early Conference Lookahead

The SEC is going to be the best conference in college football again, but is the league potentially wide open? It’s the SEC Football Preview 2016 with the key games, players, pro prospects and coaches on the hot seat.

Power 5 conference fans couldn’t have chirped louder after the SEC had so many high-profile bowl losses at the end of the 2014 season.

And they were strangely silent at the end of last year.

Florida might have been lit up by Michigan, and Texas A&M was a shadow of its former self in the bowl loss to Louisville, but Arkansas, Auburn, Georgia, LSU, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee all won in emphatic form in an amazing post-season for the conference.

Alabama’s national title just solidified the SEC’s spot on top of the college football world.

But the crazy part about the great finish and bowl season was how it ramped up the already insane expectations throughout the league that much more.

It’s just so, so, so hard to pull out an SEC championship, especially when Alabama continues to crank up its epic run, but fans are going to keep expecting greatness. Lose one game, and all of a sudden it’s hot-seat time.

Patience doesn’t exist in the SEC.

But this might be the season Alabama is a wee bit vulnerable. It’s still going to be one of the favorites to win the national title – mainly because it’s Alabama – but if there was ever going to be a crack in the window, this is it with all the turnover on both sides of the ball. This is the year for others to try taking advantage – and it’s time for some of the league’s other big boys to play with an even greater sense of urgency. If that’s even possible.

LSU is loaded and Ole Miss is going to be terrific – as long as Laremy Tunsil and Reggie Bush don’t have anything in common.

Arkansas, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia – they’re all going to be terrific. Vanderbilt and Missouri should be great again defensively, Kentucky has experience, and South Carolina, Auburn, Mississippi State and Texas A&M have chips on their shoulders with everyone certain to pick them as also-rans.

The stakes are always higher in the SEC, the play is almost always at a bigger and better level, and the talent is always far stronger. Nothing is changing – except for maybe Alabama taking a wee step back. At least that’s the hope for 13 other programs thinking this might be the year to make a bigger impact – obviously on different levels.

It’s going to make for another big year for the best conference in college football, even if Alabama turns out to be Alabama again.

SEC Team That Will Surprise

South Carolina – The Gamecocks have a real head coach now. Steve Spurrier phoned it in to start last season, but he had a decent enough team in place to do far better. Even with all the problems, the Gamecocks beat North Carolina to start the season and ended the season with a 37-32 throw-a-scare loss to Clemson.

In all, the Gamecocks lost five games by seven points or fewer, and now with Will Muschamp taking over, the defense should be far better against the run right away. If there’s a little bit more punch on offense, this can be a six-win team, at worst.

SEC Team That Will Disappoint

Florida – It’s all relative. The Gators will suffer from all the success in Jim McElwain’s first season, and they’re just not going to be as good as expected. Forgetting how ugly the offense got late in the season, they still made their way to the SEC championship and gave Alabama a game for a while. The defense will still be terrific, and the offense will be a wee bit better, but this year the rest of the East won’t be so awful.

Tennessee should finally be really good, Georgia should be nastier under Kirby Smart, and Missouri and South Carolina have head coaches who aren’t on the way out. With LSU on the schedule along with trips to Arkansas and Florida State, getting to ten wins again will be tough.

SEC Game of the Year

Alabama at LSU, Nov. 5 – Tennessee vs. Georgia on October 1st, and Alabama going to Ole Miss will certainly be fun on September 17th, but Tide vs. Tigers could be for the SEC West title, the SEC championship, and even the national title if each team plays up to their potential.

There are plenty of landmines to get through to get to early November close to clean, though. LSU has to go up to Wisconsin and have to play at Auburn and Florida before this, and has to host Ole Miss, while Alabama starts out with USC and goes to Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee. The tough schedules could only make this game even bigger. If both teams happen to be unbeaten, the hype will be off the charts.

5 Big-Time SEC Players Who Deserve a Bigger Spotlight

Five players who have been a bit under the radar, but should rise up and be some of the SEC season’s best players – again.

1. S Armani Watts, Jr., Texas A&M
2. DE Marquis Haynes, Jr., Ole Miss
3. LB Zach Cunningham, Jr., Vanderbilt
4. S Eddie Jackson, Sr. Alabama
5. OG Braden Smith, Jr. Auburn

Top 5 SEC Coaches on the Hot Seat

Five SEC coaches who’d better win this season. Being on a hot seat doesn’t necessarily mean a coach is about to fired, but the pressure is on to produce up to expectations, and beyond.

1. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M
2. Mark Stoops, Kentucky
3. Gus Malzahn, Auburn
4. Les Miles, LSU
5. Butch Jones, Tennessee

5 Non-Conference Games the SEC had Better Take Very, Very Seriously

The SEC has several tremendous non-conference games to deal with, but here are five that could be dangerous landmines. Think Toledo over Arkansas and Florida Atlantic almost getting by Florida last year.

1. Georgia Southern at Ole Miss, Nov. 5
2. Southern Miss at Kentucky, Sept. 3
3. Arkansas State at Auburn, Sept. 10
4. Middle Tennessee at Missouri, Oct. 22
5. Appalachian State at Tennessee, Sept. 3

5 Best SEC Pro Prospects

1. DE Myles Garrett, Texas A&M (Jr.)
2. RB Leonard Fournette, LSU (Jr.)
3. LB/DE Tim Williams, Alabama
4. OT Cam Robinson, Alabama (Jr.)
5. CB Jalen Tabor, Florida (Jr.)

5 Biggest SEC Shoes To Fill

1. Alabama RB Bo Scarbrough and/or Damien Harris for Derrick Henry
2. Mississippi State QB Nick Fitzgerald for Dak Prescott
3. Alabama DT Da’Shawn Hand for Jarran Reed
4. Missouri LB Joey Burkett for Kentrell Brothers
5. Arkansas RB Kody Walker (if his broken foot heals in time) for Alex Collins