Surprise, surprise: three-time defending Southeastern Conference champion and national runner-up Alabama was picked to win the conference again this season by the media when in convened in Hoover, Ala. for SEC Media Days back in July.
The Crimson Tide set a conference preseason record with 10 players selected to the all-conference first team. Nobody received more votes than receiver Calvin Ridley, a junior and former high school All-American at Coconut Creek Monarch High.
Georgia, with four selections to the preseason first team, was picked to win the East.
Last year, 53 players from the SEC were drafted including a record 21 in the first two rounds.
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This year, the conference leads the nation with 25 of the top 100 draft prospects ranked by CBS Sports. Alabama (9), LSU (3), and Georgia (3) account for most of it.
The SEC has now led the NFL Draft count among conferences for 10 straight years.
Last year, the SEC finished 6-7 in bowl games and five teams finished ranked in the AP Top 25 poll. This season, six SEC teams are ranked in the top 25 preseason Amway Coaches Poll.
Here’s the conference breakdown in the order the writers predicted the teams to finish:
1. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Coach: Kirby Smart (2nd season, 8-5)
Players to watch: RB Nick Chubb, OLB Davin Bellamy, TE Isaac Nauta, DL Trenton Thompson, LB Roquan Smith, OL Isaiah Wynn, RB Sony Michel, SS Dominick Sanders, OLB Lorenzo Carter
Key games: at Notre Dame (Sept. 9), at Tennessee (Sept. 30), vs. Florida (Oct. 28), at Auburn (Nov. 11), at Georgia Tech (Nov. 25)
Overview: Eight starters return on offense and 10 on defense for Smart, who was 2-3 versus AP Top 25 teams his first year on the job. Chubb is rated the fifth-best running back prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Bellamy is listed as the fifth-best outside linebacker prospect and Michel, a graduate of Plantation American Heritage, the seventh-best running back prospect.
2. FLORIDA GATORS
Coach: Jim McElwain (6th season, 41-24)
Players to watch: OG Martez Ivey, DB Duke Dawson, WR Antonio Callaway, RB Jordan Scarlett, TE DeAndre Goolsby, DL Cece Jefferson, DL Jabari Zuniga, P Johnny Townsend, K Eddy Piniero
Key games: vs. Michigan (Sept. 2), vs. Tennessee (Sept. 16), vs. LSU (Oct. 7), vs. Georgia (Oct. 28), vs. Florida State (Nov. 25)
Overview: Eight starters return on offense and nine on defense for McIlwain, whose team was blown out last season by Alabama in the SEC title game before responding by crushing Iowa in the Outback Bowl. Callaway, one of seven players suspended for the opener against Michigan, is rated the seventh-best receiver prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Ivey is rated the third-best offensive guard. Star safety Marcell Harris will miss the 2017 season with a torn right Achilles.
3. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Coach: Butch Jones (11th season, 80-48)
Players to watch: OL Jashon Robertson, WR Jauan Jennings, P Trevor Daniel, DT Reginald Kahlil McKenzie Jr., DB Todd Kelly Jr., LB Darrin Kirkland, RB John Kelly
Key games: vs. Georgia Tech (Sept. 4), at Florida (Sept. 16), vs. Georgia (Sept. 30), at Alabama (Oct. 21), vs. LSU (Nov. 18)
Overview: Seven starters return on each side of the ball for Jones, who has gone 9-4 in back-to-back seasons. McKenzie Jr. is rated the sixth-best defensive tackle prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Kelly Jr. led the team in tackles (79) and made a big fourth-quarter interception in the Vols’ comeback win over Florida on Sept. 24.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Coach: Will Muschamp (6th season, 4-28)
Players to watch: QB Jake Bentley, TE Hayden Hurst, WR Deebo Samuel, LB Skai Moore, RB Rico Dowdle, C Alan Knott, LB Bryson Allen-Williams, DT Ulric Jones, CB Chris Lammons, S D.J. Smith
Key games: vs. N.C. State (Sept. 2), vs. Kentucky (Sept. 16), at Tennessee (Oct. 14), vs. Florida (Nov. 11), vs. Clemson (Nov. 25)
Overview: Six starters return on defense and 10 on offense for Muschamp, who went 6-7 in his first season in Columbia including a Birmingham Bowl loss to the University of South Florida. Moore, a second-team All-SEC selection in 2015 and a former standout at Fort Lauderdale University School, returns after missing the 2016 season with a neck injury.
5. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Coach: Mark Stoops (5th season, 19-30)
Players to watch: DL Denzil Ware, LB Jordan Jones, DB Mike Edwards, RB Benny Snell Jr., WR Garrett Johnson
Key games: at South Carolina (Sept. 16), vs. Florida (Sept. 23), vs. Tennessee (Oct. 28), at Georgia (Nov. 18), vs. Louisville (Nov. 25)
Overview: Eight starters return on offense and nine on defense for Stoops, who finally was able to get the Wildcats to their first bowl game since 2010 in his fourth season. He also beat Heisman Trophy winner Lamar Jackson and rival Louisville in the regular season finale. Snell set six Kentucky freshman records including those for rushing yards (1,091), touchdowns (13) and most 100-yard rushing games (5). Kentucky hasn’t finished better than .500 in SEC play since it went 6-0 in 1977.
6. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Coach: Derek Mason (4th season, 13-24)
Players to watch: LB Oren Burks, RB Ralph Webb, WR Trent Sherfield, DT Nifae Lealao, QB Kyle Shurmur, S LaDarius Wiley, S Ryan White, CB Taurean Ferguson
Key games: vs. Kansas State (Sept. 16), vs. Alabama (Sept. 23), at Florida (Sept. 30), at South Carolina (Oct. 28), at Tennessee (Nov. 25)
Overview: Nine starters return on offense and seven on defense for Mason, who led the Commodores to their first bowl appearance since 2013 and eighth bowl overall last season. Webb set Vanderbilt’s single-season rushing record with 1,283 yards and 13 touchdowns last season and ranks 20th all-time on the SEC’s rushing list.
7. MISSOURI TIGERS
Coach: Barry Odum (2nd season, 4-8)
Players to watch: DL Marcell Frazier, WR J'Mon Moore, QB Drew Lock, RB Damarea Crockett, DT Terry Beckner Jr.
Key games: vs. Purdue (Sept. 16), at Georgia (Oct. 14), vs. Florida (Nov. 4), vs. Tennessee (Nov. 11) at Arkansas (Nov. 24)
Overview: The Tigers are coming off back-to-back losing seasons after playing in a bowl game in 10 of their previous 12 seasons. Lock finished his sophomore season ranked first in the SEC in passing yards (3,399) and his 23 touchdown passes were the sixth-most in school history. Crockett set Missouri freshman records for rushing yards (1,062) and touchdowns (10) in a season.
1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Coach: Nick Saban (23rd season, 123-41-1)
Players to watch: FS Minkah Fitzpatrick, QB Jalen Hurts, WR Calvin Ridley, OL Jonah Williams, OL Ross Pierschbacher, DT Da'Ron Payne, DE Da'Shawn Hand, LB Rashaan Evans, SS Ronnie Harrison, K JK Scott, RB Bo Scarbrough, C Bradley Bozeman, OL Lester Cotton, LB Shaun Dion Hamilton, CB Anthony Averett, CB Tony Brown
Key games: vs. Florida State (Sept. 2), at Texas A&M (Oct. 7), vs. Tennessee (Oct. 21), vs. LSU (Nov. 4), at Auburn (Nov. 25)
Overview: Six starters are back on each side of the ball for Saban, who was mere seconds away from a fifth national title since 2009 last January before Clemson and DeShaun Watson snatched it away with a last-second touchdown pass. Alabama had four first rounders and 10 players taken in the draft, but the Tide’s roster remains loaded. Fitzpatrick is rated the best free safety prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports and is one of nine Alabama players listed among the top 100 prospects overall.
2. AUBURN TIGERS
Coach: Gus Malzahn (6th season, 44-21)
Players to watch: OL Braden Smith, K Daniel Carlson, RB Kamryn Pettway, DL Marlon Davidson, LB Tre' Williams, S Tray Matthews, CB Carlton Davis, DL Dontavius Russell, RB Kerryon Johnson, QB Jarrett Stidham, DE Byron Cowart
Key games: at Clemson (Sept. 9), at LSU (Oct. 14), at Arkansas (Oct. 21), vs. Georgia (Nov. 11), vs. Alabama (Nov. 25)
Overview: Seven starters return on offense and six on defense for Malzahn, who lost three of his last four games last season including the Sugar Bowl to Oklahoma to finish 8-5. Davis, a Miami Norland grad, is rated the fourth-best cornerback prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Stidham is tabbed the 10th best quarterback and Coward the 10th best defensive end in the draft. Pettway (6-0, 235) led the SEC in rushing with 122.4 yards per game last season.
3. LSU TIGERS
Coach: Ed Orgeron (6th season, 22-29)
Players to watch: RB Derrius Guice, OLB/DE Arden Key, OT K.J. Malone, C Will Clapp, DL Christian LaCouture, CB Donte Jackson, DL Rashard Lawrence, WR C.J. Chark, FS John Battle, NT Greg Gilmore
Key games: vs. BYU (Sept. 2), at Florida (Oct. 7), vs. Auburn (Oct. 14), at Alabama (Nov. 4), at Tennessee (Nov. 18)
Overview: Eight starters return on offense and five on defense for Orgeron, who went 6-2 as the program’s interim coach last season including a 29-9 win over Louisville in the Citrus Bowl. Key, who set an LSU record with 12 sacks last season, is rated the No. 1 prospect regardless of position in next April's NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Guice, the No. 1 rated running back in the draft, ran for 1,387 yards and 16 touchdowns to lead the SEC as a sophomore.
4. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Coach: Bret Bielema (12th season, 93-50)
Players to watch: C Frank Ragnow, QB Austin Allen, LB Dre Greenlaw, DB Josh Lidell, DB Henrey Toliver, DB Josh Lidell, DB Ryan Pulley, WR Jared Cornelius
Key games: vs. TCU (Sept. 9), vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 23), at Alabama (Oct. 14), vs. Auburn (Oct. 21), at LSU (Nov. 11)
Overview: Bielema ranks sixth on CoachesHotSeat.com and is under some pressure to produce considering his $4.1 million annual salary ranks 17th among coaches. Six starters are back on offense including four on the offensive line led by Ragnow, who is rated the second-best center prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Allen led the SEC with 3,430 passing yards and ranked second with 25 touchdown passes last season. Five starters return on defense including four in the secondary led by Lidell (63 tackles, 2 INTs in 2016).
5. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Coach: Kevin Sumlin (10th season, 79-38)
Players to watch: WR Christian Kirk, FS Armani Watts, OL Koda Martin, RB Trayveon Williams, P Shane Tripucka
Key games: at UCLA (Sept. 3), vs. Arkansas (Sept. 23), vs. Alabama (Oct. 7), at Florida (Oct. 14), at LSU (Nov. 25)
Overview: Sumlin, listed third on CoachesHotSeat.com, has gone 8-5 three seasons running. Five starters return on offense and seven on defense. Kirk, who led the nation with three punt returns for touchdowns last season and led the SEC with 83 catches (for 927 yards and nine TDs) is rated the fourth-best receiver prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Watts is ranked the third-best safety.
6. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Coach: Dan Mullen (9th season, 61-42)
Players to watch: QB Nick Fitzgerald, OL Martinas Rankin, S Brandon Bryant, WR Donald Gray
Key games: vs. LSU (Sept. 16), at Georgia (Sept. 23), at Auburn (Sept. 30), vs. Alabama (Nov. 11), vs. Ole Miss (Nov. 23).
Overview: Six starters return on defense and seven on offense led by Rankin, who is rated the third-best offensive tackle prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports. Fitzgerald (6-5, 230) is coming of a season in which he broke a single-season league record for 100-yard rushing games by a quarterback (8) and shattered nine school records. The Bulldogs have been to bowl games in seven consecutive seasons.
7. OLE MISS REBELS
Coach: Matt Luke (First year)
Players to watch: DL Marquis Haynes, WR Van Jefferson, QB Shea Patterson, OL Greg Little, OL Javon Patterson, K Gary Wunderlich
Key games: at California (Sept. 16), at Alabama (Sept. 30), at Auburn (Oct. 7), vs. LSU (Oct. 21), at Mississippi State (Nov. 23)
Overview: A new era of Rebels football began after Hugh Freeze resigned on July 20 after being caught calling an escort service on his school-issued phone. Five starters return on offense and six on defense for Luke, who was the team’s offensive coordinator before Freeze stepped down. Shea Patterson stepped in for an injured Chad Kelly and led the Rebels to a come-from-behind road win at No. 8 Texas A&M last season. The 2016 MVP of the U.S. Army All-American Bowl is expected to shine. Haynes is rated the fourth-best outside linebacker prospect in next April’s NFL Draft by CBS Sports.