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College football season is almost here. As you prepare to root for your favorite team on Saturday, we’ll bring you previews of each conference, separating the teams into a couple categories: contenders, bowl teams, non-bowl teams and rebuilding. The tiers are fairly self-explanatory. Contenders means these teams will push for the division/conference title. Bowl teams are expected to be in the conversation for a bowl bid. Rebuilding teams are in the process of attempting to get into contention/the push for a bow bid. At the end, we’ll give you our thoughts on the team’s wins based on Bovada’s Win Totals for the season.
Surprise, surprise. Another year, another Nick Saban team sitting atop the SEC throne and defeating all comers. The Tide rolled (see what I did there?) through the SEC last year going undefeated all the way to the title game before falling to Clemson. This season, as you’d expect, Saban’s team is once again the preseason favorite but their biggest rival could put up a fight.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Alabama’s dominance is a known commodity at this point. It was surprising to see them falter in the title game as it was Saban’s first loss in a “championship” game (national title, SEC) in 10 tries. This year, Saban’s once again got a litany of five-star recruits ready to step into the vacancies on both sides of the ball and the Tide are ready to go once again.
For the first time since 2013, the Tide have a returning QB as sophomore Jalen Hurts is back after starting the final 14 games of the season and appearing in all 15. He provides a dual-threat dimension to the Tide offense that they haven’t really had before (2,780 yards passing 954 yards rushing last year). Hurts will be pushed by true freshman Tua Tagovailoa, who was the No. 3 ranked QB in the 2017 class. Hurts will have all four of last year’s stable of running backs back with him in the backfield along with this year’s No. 3 overall recruit, Najee Harris. It’s going to be another long year for Tide opponents trying to stop the run with that crew running behind an offensive line that brings back three starters. New OC Brian Daboll will have to develop a couple new wide receivers as three of the top four from last year depart, but Calvin Ridley is back (769 yards 7 TDs) and the Tide added a five-star WR in Jerry Jeudy who could make an immediate impact as a freshman. Expect another potent offense this year.
Defensively, Jeremy Pruitt has plenty to work with, though DE Da’Shawn Hand got in some recent trouble with a DUI arrest. Saban announced Hand won’t miss any games, so he’ll join junior NG Da’Ron Payne in a super-talented front seven. The linebackers group returns two guys who saw a lot of time last year in Rashaan Evans and Shaun Dion Hamilton. The secondary is a little harder hit with safety Eddie Jackson and corner Marlon Humphrey departing, but Minkah Fitzpatrick returns as does Anthony Averett. This should be your typical stifling Tide defense.
The Tide have another big-time showdown to open the season this year as they’ll play Florida State in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game in Atlanta. In conference the big games are on the road against Texas A&M and Auburn, and at home against Tennessee and Ole Miss. Despite breaking in some new guys, I’d expect another strong Tide season as they’ve won 11 or more games six years in a row. Over 10.5 wins.
Gus Malzahn’s seat was getting a little warm prior to last season and, after a 1-2 start, rumblings began. But, the Tigers then ripped off six straight wins before faltering down the stretch against Georgia and Alabama. This season, Malzahn’s got a lot of experience and added a highly-talented transfer QB. With the Iron Bowl being played at Jordan-Hare this year, there’s a chance for them to challenge the Tide.
Former Baylor QB Jarrett Stidham chose Auburn as his landing spot and he immediately jumps to the top of the depth chart ahead of Sean White, with John Franklin III moving to WR. With Stidham in the fold and four of the top five receivers from last year back, expect the passing numbers to improve over last year’s 169 YPG. The rushing game should be just as potent with three offensive linemen back and the top three running backs returning led by battering ram Kamryn Pettway (209 carries 1,224 yards 7 TDs). The offense put up 31.2 PPG and 441 YPG last season and I’d expect continued improvement in those numbers.
The defense loses a couple of big names in DE Carl Lawson, DT Montravius Adams, DB Johnathan Ford, and CB Joshua Holsey. But, they bring back their top three tacklers in safety Tray Matthews and linebackers Tre’ Williams and Deshaun Davis who combined for 206 tackles and 10.5 TFL. Look out for DE Marlon Davidson on the defensive line; he earned All-SEC freshman honors after posting 38 tackles, 3.5 TFL and 2.5 sacks last year. DC Kevin Steele has plenty of talent to work with and matching last year’s stingy numbers (17.1 PPG and 362 YPG) is certainly possible.
The Tigers have a big out of conference game at Clemson in Week 2 and then in conference road games against LSU and Texas A&M stand out. They get ‘Bama at home and that game could decide the division. In any case, I think they get to nine or ten wins. Over 8.5 wins.
The first year of Coach O is upon us. After replacing Les Miles with Orgeron in Week 5, the Tigers finished the season 6-2 with close losses to Alabama and Florida. This season, Orgeron has a returning QB and a dangerous RB with the always talented defense that we expect from LSU.
Danny Etling took over the starting QB reigns from Brandon Harris after the season opening loss to Wisconsin. He wasn’t spectacular, but he also didn’t turn the ball over as he had just five interceptions. Etling won’t be the focal point of the offense anyway as top rusher Derrius Guice (1,387 yards 15 TDs) returns along with backup Darrel Williams. The wide receiver corps did lose four of the top five guys from last year, though No. 2 DJ Chark returns (466 yards 3 TDs). The offensive line has three starters back which should once again, combined with Guice, make for an explosive running game. Last year’s 28.3 PPG average is certainly in play.
On defense, the line is the Tigers lose five draft picks, including two first rounders (CB Tredavious White and S Jamal Adams). However, the returning starters, along with the new starters, are in the second year of learning Dave Aranda’s system and they should be more comfortable. Not that the defense can improve much on last year’s 15.8 PPG and 314 YPG allowed, but this unit should be capable of matching those numbers. OLB Arden Key is one to watch after racking up 12 sacks last season in just nine starts and senior DE Christian LaCouture returns from injury and was rewarded with the all-important No. 18 for the defense this year.
The Tigers open with a feisty BYU team in Houston, before drawing five SEC road games against Mississippi State, Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Tennessee. Mix in home dates with Auburn and Texas A&M and it’s a tough slate. There’s enough talent here to pull some upsets, but I still wonder just how effective Etling and the offense can be against the Alabamas and Floridas of the world. I’ve got eight wins. Under 9 wins.
Texas A&M Aggies
Kevin Sumlin’s seat got a lot warmer this offseason when the Aggies AD said that “he knows he has to win this year“. After three consecutive 8-5 years, Aggies fans and apparently the administration, are restless. The bad news is, unless they pull some big upsets at home, it’s hard to see more than eight wins.
The offense last year took a leap forward as they moved up to 34.8 PPG and 467 YPG after averaging 27.8 PPG and 425 YPG in 2015. This year, the QB position is unsettled as Trevor Knight moves on and Jake Hubenak (a former walk-on) is the only guy with pass attempts to his name. Redshirt freshman Nick Starkel and true freshmen Kellen Mond/Connor Blumrick will battle Hubenak for the job. The Aggies do have their top two running backs in Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford back to take some of the pressure off the QB, and they’ll be running behind an offensive line that has three starters back. The receiving corps takes heavy losses as four of the top five guys are gone, but No. 2 guy Christian Kirk, returns and he’s got game-breaking speed. The unit should be good enough to beat 2015’s numbers, but may fall short of last year’s averages.
Last year, in the second year under DC John Chavis, the defensive numbers actually took a step back from 22 PPG in 2015 to 24.5 in ’16. That was with a pair of All-SEC defensive ends in Daeshon Hall and Myles Garrett along with LB Shaan Washington. Granted, it was a gradual uptick in the numbers as the Aggies were solid over the first five games (19.8), before some injuries to Garrett and others started to affect the unit. This season, Chavis has to find replacements for the star pass rushers, but he does have back star safety Armani Watts along with a pair of senior corners in the secondary. This unit should at least match last year’s numbers.
The Aggies open on the road at UCLA before receiving visits from Arkansas, Alabama and Auburn with trips to Florida and LSU. To beat last year’s record they’ll have to win at least three of those games. I have them at eight wins, which hits the over but may not save Sumlin. Over 7 wins.
Bret Bielema has turned the program around from 3-9 in his first year to three straight winning seasons and bowl games. He enters this season with 12 returning starters, and some opportunities for upset wins at home.
The Razorbacks return senior QB Austin Allen who put together a solid junior season completing 61.1 percent of his passes for 3,400+ yards with 25 TDs, but also had 15 INTs. He needs to cut down on the interception total, but with another year of experience, that should be possible. Unfortunately, the team lost leading rusher Rawleigh Williams as he suffered his second serious neck injury in their spring game. Devwah Whaley is more than capable of filling his shoes however as he averaged 5.5 YPC last year (602 yards). He’ll run behind a veteran offensive line that returns four starters, so the running game should be just as potent. The receiving corps was hit hard with departures though as five of the top six receivers depart including TE Jeremy Sprinkle. No. 3 receiver Jarred Cornelius does return (515 yards 4 TDs) but this group is a question mark. Overall, the offense has enough talent back that they should match last year’s numbers.
The defense struggled last year, allowing 31 PPG overall and that number jumped to 37 PPG in conference play. Mainly, the Razorbacks were gashed on the ground, allowing 205 YPG. So, while they lose DE Deatrich Wise, Jeremiah Ledbetter and DT Taiwan Johnson from the defensive line along with LB Brooks Ellis, they should improve on those numbers. They’ll switch to a 3-4 this year under new coordinator Paul Rhoads, and with six starters back, I’d expect better from this unit in 2017.
The aforementioned home games are: TCU (9/9) and Auburn (10/14), with a neutral site game against Texas A&M. They also have to travel to Alabama and LSU. They could surprise teams, but I have them at six wins, which is still a bowl game, just not the over. Under 7 wins.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Dan Mullen’s group took a step back last season, but that was expected with the loss of a four-year starting QB like Dak Prescott. Still, the Bulldogs made a bowl appearance at 5-7 and won the bowl game to finish 6-7. This year, the team is more experienced and it should be in bowl contention once more.
Sophomore QB Nick Fitzgerald took over for Damian Williams in Week 2 and was the starter from there on out. He had a solid year (54% 2,423 21 TDs 10 INTs and 1,375 rush yards 16 TDs) and should improve on those numbers in Year 2. He’ll have help with junior running back Aeris Williams, last year’s leading rusher besides Fitzgerald, returning. The Bulldogs lose three starters along the offensive line and also lose all-time leading receiver Fred Ross. That said, the rest of the receiving corps is back and Fitzgerald should be able to lead this group to similar numbers (30.4 PPG 440 YPG).
Defensively, the Bulldogs, like the Razorbacks, struggled against the run allowing 198 YPG and 31.8 PPG. There’s a new DC in town as Todd Grantham comes over from Louisville to try and coax some improvement out of a group that returns six starters. The defensive line was hit hardest by departures with three starters gone from last year’s group. The Bulldogs do have sophomore NT Jeffery Simmons, who recorded 40 tackles and 3.5 sacks last year as a freshman. In the secondary, they’ll get back corner Tolando Cleveland from injury and add in JuCo transfers Jonathan Abram and Brian Cole. The return of Leo Lewis and JT Gray at the linebackers spots is key as well, and this group should be stingier this season.
An early three week stretch will show us just how competitive the Bulldogs can be in the conference as they face LSU (home), Georgia (away) and Auburn (away) in Weeks 3-5. Then after the bye, they get BYU, Alabama and the Egg Bowl (Ole Miss) at home with road trips to A&M and Arkansas. It’s a tough schedule, but I think there’s enough here for six wins and a bowl game. Over 5.5 wins.
Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss is here by default due to their self-imposed bowl ban this season and the firing of head coach Hugh Freeze for “a pattern of personal misconduct“. Co-offensive coordinator and offensive line coach Matt Luke steps in as the interim guy and this season will be a fascinating study in trying to keep players with nothing to play for motivated.
Sophomore QB Shea Patterson was expected to redshirt last season before an injury to Chad Kelly changed that decision. Patterson performed well in his starts with 880 yards 6 TDs and 3 INTs in three games. This year, he’ll be the starter from Day 1 and he will have a veteran offensive line protecting him that included LT Greg Little, one of the top recruits in last year’s class. The problem is, the supporting cast will be breaking in a lot of new guys. The top rusher, Akeem Judd, departs as do three of the top four receivers. The Rebels will run the “Air Raid” under Phil Longo and some new receivers will get plenty of opportunities in that system. Due to the system, the numbers will likely take a small step forward despite the inexperience.
On defense, coordinator Wes McGriff has work to do with three linemen, nickel back Tony Conner, and a pair of corners departing. But, the Rebs got good news with the return of DE Marquis Haynes (7 sacks ’16) for his senior season. He’ll join linebacker DeMarquis Gates and safety Zedrick Woods in leading this unit that allowed 34 points and 461 yards per game last season. There’s some good pieces here for McGriff to work with, and I’d expect the numbers to improve.
It’s hard to figure out what this Rebels team will be this season, but they could certainly wreak havoc if they pull some upsets. They’ll face Alabama and Auburn on the road and LSU, Arkansas and A&M at home. Plus, their rival Mississippi State’s bid for a bowl game could come down to the final week of the year when the Rebels make the trip to Starkville. Outside of playing spoiler though, there’s not much to play for with the postseason ban in place.