SEC

SEC preview 2016: Alabama tops Tennessee as conference favorite

Alabama players celebrate after Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Atlanta. Alabama won 29-15.
Alabama players celebrate after Southeastern Conference championship NCAA college football game against Florida, Saturday, Dec. 5, 2015, in Atlanta. Alabama won 29-15. AP

Defending national champion Alabama was picked by the 331 media members in attendance for the SEC Football Media Days in Hoover, Alabama, as the favorite to repeat as the Southeastern Conference champion in July. The Crimson Tide was voted to beat Tennessee in the SEC Championship Game. LSU running back and Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette received the most votes of any player (329 of a possible 331) in being selected to the All-SEC preseason squad.

SEC EAST | 2015 CHAMPION: FLORIDA

FLORIDA GATORS

Coach: Jim McElwain (fifth season, 32-20).

Players to watch: QB Luke Del Rio; WR Antonio Callaway; TE DeAndre Goolsby; DT Caleb Brantley; LB Jarrad Davis; CB Jalen Tabor; S Marcus Maye.

Overview: McElwain went 10-4 in his first season at UF and has six starters back from a defense that ranked eighth in total defense, 11th in scoring (18.3 points per game), 13th against the pass (182.1), and 25th against the run (128.1). Tabor and Maye, who were All-Americans, should lead one of the best defensive backfields in the nation. Offensively, Del Rio, a transfer from Oregon State, has a talented and experienced offensive line to protect him and big backs to hand the ball off to. UF should be able to lean on its defense once again and give Tennessee a run for the division crown.

Key games: at Tennessee (Sept. 24); LSU (Oct. 1); Georgia (Oct. 29); at Florida State (Nov. 26).

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Coach: Kirby Smart (first season).

Players to watch: QB Jacob Eason; QB Greyson Lambert; RB Sony Michel; RB Nick Chubb; OLB Lorenzo Carter; OLB Davin Bellamy; DT Trenton Thompson; FS Dominick Sanders.

Overview: Nobody is calling Georgia a legitimate title contender, but the Dawgs bring back eight starters on offense, including a talented backfield. No matter who starts at quarterback, Georgia needs better production from behind center, having ranked 104th last season in passing. Defensively, five starters on the front seven are gone, but the secondary of the nation’s No. 1-ranked pass defense returns intact. If Smart can find a real answer at quarterback, his first season in Athens could end with a division title.

Key games: vs. North Carolina (Sept. 3); at Ole Miss (Sept. 24); Tennessee (Oct. 1); Florida (Oct. 29; Auburn (Nov. 12).

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Coach: Mark Stoops (fourth season, 12-24).

Players to watch: QB Drew Barker; RB Boom Williams; WR Dorian Baker; WR Garrett Johnson; DE/LB Denzil Ware; CB Chris Westry; CB Derrick Baity; S Mike Edwards.

Overview: Stoops has gone 5-7 in back-to-back seasons, and fans in Lexington are starting to grow restless. Nine starters return on an offense that ranked 95th in scoring (24.7 points per game), 78th in rushing (162.7) and 79th in passing (209.3). The difference is the Wildcats are now running a pro-style offense instead of the Air Raid attack. Defensively, Kentucky must replace every starter in the front seven, which could be a good thing considering the Wildcats ranked 96th against the run (196.1) and ranked 109th in sacks. Barring massive improvement on that side, Kentucky will remain a 50-50 shot at playing in a bowl game. The last time the Wildcats did was in 2011.

Key games: at Florida (Sept. 10); South Carolina (Sept. 24); at Alabama (Oct. 1); Georgia (Nov. 5); at Tennessee (Nov. 12); at Louisville (Nov. 26).

MISSOURI TIGERS

Coach: Barry Odom (first season).

Players to watch: QB Drew Lock; WR Chris Black; DE Charles Harris; DE Walter Brady; DT Terry Beckner Jr.; LB Michael Scherer; LB Donavin Newsom; CB Aarion Penton.

Overview: Odom’s first hire was to bring in former Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel as offensive coordinator. He’s got a tough job in front of him. The Tigers, who finished 5-7 and missed the postseason for only the second time since 2004, averaged 13.6 points (126th fewest) and ranked 112th in passing, 119th in rushing and 124th in total offense last season. The good news is there’s talent on defense — especially up front. Harris is a potential first-round NFL Draft pick, and eight starters are back from a unit that ranked fifth in scoring defense (16.2 points per game), fifth against the pass and sixth in total defense. If Heupel can get Lock (1,332 yards, four TDs, eight INTs in 2015) and the offense on the right page the Tigers can rebound quickly.

Key games: at West Virginia (Sept. 3); Georgia (Sept. 17); at LSU (Oct. 1); at Florida (Oct. 15); at Tennessee (Nov. 19).

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Coach: Will Muschamp (fifth season, 28-21).

Players to watch: QB Brandon McIlwain; WR Deebo Samuel; WR Bryan Edwards; TE Hayden Hurst; DE Marquavius Lewis; DE Bryson Allen-Williams; P Sean Kelly.

Overview: Coming off its worst season since 1999, the Gamecocks are likely headed toward another dismal season in the tough SEC. Linebacker Skai Moore, the team’s leading tackler for the past three seasons and a former standout at University School, had neck surgery in May and will be shelved for the 2016 season. There’s plenty of other issues outside of that. The offense, which brings back four starters, ranked 110th in scoring (21.9 points per game) and 99th in total yardage (362.2) last season and will have a true freshman under center in McIlwain. Defensively, the Gamecocks were last in the SEC in yards and points allowed, and Muschamp joked this spring he might need to suit up to fill holes in the secondary.

Key games: at Vanderbilt (Sept. 1); at Mississippi State (Sept. 10); East Carolina (Sept. 17); at Kentucky (Sept. 24).

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Coach: Butch Jones (10th season, 71-44).

Players to watch: QB Joshua Dobbs; RB Jalen Hurd; RB Alvin Kamara; DE Derek Barnett; LB Jalen Reeves-Mabin; CB Cam Sutton, S Rashaan Gaulden.

Overview: Expectations are through the roof in Knoxville after a 9-4 season and 45-6 rout of Northwestern in the Outback Bowl in January. Nine starters are back from an offense that ranked third in scoring and second in rushing last season in the SEC. Eight are back on defense, which allowed only 20 points per game in 2015 (16th nationally). Six of those returning starters are in the front seven. If the elusive, playmaking Dobbs can stay healthy, Tennessee should be playing in its first SEC title game since 2007.

Key games: Virginia Tech (Sept. 10); Florida (Sept. 24); at Georgia (Oct. 1); at Texas A&M (Oct. 8); Alabama (Oct. 15).

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Coach: Derek Mason (third season, 7-17).

Players to watch: QB Kyle Shurmur; RB Ralph Webb; WR C.J. Duncan; DL Nifae Lealao; ILB Zach Cunningham; ILB Nigel Bowden; CB Torren McGaster.

Overview: The Commodores haven’t been to the postseason in two consecutive seasons and are coming off a 4-8 campaign, but could improve if Shurmur can get the offense going. Vanderbilt ranked 123rd nationally in scoring (15.2 points per game), 111th passing (171.8 yards per game) and 116th in total offense (326.5) last season. Webb has run for 2,059 yards and nine touchdowns in two seasons but needs help. Defensively, seven starters return from a unit that finished 22nd in scoring defense (21 points per game), 28th in total defense (350.5 yards per game) and 33rd against the run (143.2). Still, the Commodores need to do a better job in turnover margin (minus-8 in 2015) to win close games. Vandy lost 9-7 to Florida and at home to Western Kentucky 14-12 last season, costly losses in terms of bowl eligibility.

Key games: South Carolina (Sept. 1); Middle Tennessee (Sept. 10); at Georgia Tech (Sept. 17); Florida (Oct. 1); at Georgia (Oct. 15); Tennessee (Nov. 26).

SEC WEST | 2015 CHAMPION: ALABAMA

ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE

Coach: Nick Saban (21st season, 191-60-1).

Players to watch: RB Bo Scarbrough; WR Calvin Ridley; TE O.J. Howard; OT Cam Robinson; DL Jonathan Allen; LB Reuben Foster; LB Tim Williams; CB Minkah Fitzpatrick; S Eddie Jackson.

Overview: Six starters return on offense and five on defense for the Tide, which has won four national titles in the past seven years and is a good bet to repeat again. Whoever ends up starting at quarterback will have plenty of weapons at his disposal. Ridley, a former Coconut Creek Monarch High star, had more than 1,000 yards receiving and eight touchdowns last season as a freshman. Jackson, a former star at Boyd Anderson High and an All-American, leads a defense which ranked No. 1 against the run, third in scoring defense and third in total defense in 2015. Ole Miss was the only team that beat Alabama last season.

Key games: vs. USC (Sept. 3); Ole Miss (Sept. 17); at Tennessee (Oct. 15); Texas A&M (Oct. 22); at LSU (Nov. 5); Auburn (Nov. 26).

ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS

Coach: Bret Bielema (11th season, 86-44).

Players to watch: WR Drew Morgan; WR Dominique Reed; TE Jeremy Sprinkle; OT Dan Skipper; C Frank Ragnow; DE Deatrich Wise Jr.; DT Jeremiah Ledbetter; LB Brooks Ellis.

Overview: With nine starters back on defense and just three on offense, the Razorbacks appear headed toward being a better team on defense than on offense — just like in 2015. Coming off an 8-5 season and Liberty Bowl win over Kansas State, Bielema is crossing his fingers senior running back Kody Walker can recover fully from a broken foot sustained in the spring. Either way, whoever is running the ball will have an inexperienced offensive line blocking for him with only two starters back. Putting a first-time starting quarterback into that mix doesn’t seem promising, but at least the toughest games on the schedule will all be played at home.

Key games: at TCU (Sept. 10); Texas A&M (Sept. 24); Alabama (Oct. 8); Ole Miss (Oct. 15); LSU (Nov. 12).

AUBURN TIGERS

Coach: Gus Malzahn (fifth season, 36-16).

Players to watch: RB Jovon Robinson; RG Braden Smith; LG Alex Kozan; DE Carl Lawson; DT Montravius Adams; LB Tre’ Williams; CB Carlton Davis; DB Rudy Ford; K Daniel Carlson.

Overview: Six starters return on each side of the ball for the Tigers, who went 7-6 last season and open the schedule with last year’s national runner-up and end it with last year’s national champion. The quarterback position remains the biggest mystery, with Jeremy Johnson, once a Heisman candidate, competing with former Davie University High standout Sean White and former South Plantation High star John Franklin III for the starting job. The Tigers should have the rushing attack and defense to compete every Saturday, but how far the team goes really depends on what happens at quarterback.

Key games: Clemson (Sept. 3); LSU (Sept. 24); at Ole Miss (Oct. 29); at Georgia (Nov. 12); at Alabama (Nov. 26).

LSU TIGERS

Coach: Les Miles (16th season, 140-53).

Players to watch: QB Brandon Harris; RB Leonard Fournette; WR Travin Dural; C Ethan Pocic; DT Davon Godchaux; LB Kendall Beckwith; CB Tre’Davious White; S Jamal Adams.

Overview: With Miles on the hot seat, expectations are high in Baton Rouge. Eight starters return on offense, led by the Heisman hopeful Fournette, who ran for 1,953 yards and 22 touchdowns last season. Defensively, nine players return for new coordinator David Aranda, who coached the nation’s top scoring defense and second-leading total defense at Wisconsin in 2015. LSU finished 9-3 with consecutive losses to Alabama, Arkansas and Ole Miss last year. The same challenge awaits in late October and early November. Miles likely won’t survive another slip up.

Key games: at Wisconsin (Sept. 3); at Auburn (Sept. 24); at Florida (Oct. 8); Ole Miss (Oct. 22); Alabama (Nov. 5); at Texas A&M (Nov. 24).

MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS

Coach: Dan Mullen (eighth season, 55-35).

Players to watch: RB Brandon Holloway; WR Fred Ross; DE A.J. Jefferson; LB Richie Brown; S Brandon Bryant.

Overview: After winning 19 games in the past two seasons — the most in a two-year span in school history — the dreaded phrase “rebuilding mode” has been tossed around in Starkville. Five starters return on each side of the ball. Three quarterbacks remain in the competition for the starting job to replace Dak Prescott. Defensively, new coordinator Peter Sirmon has implemented a 3-4 scheme. The secondary is iffy, but the front seven should be solid with the return of fifth-year senior linebacker Richie Brown, who led the team in tackles (109) and sacks ( 6 1/2) last season. Still, the Bulldogs could be in danger of missing their first postseason since 2009.

Key games: at LSU (Sept. 17); Auburn (Oct. 8); at BYU (Oct. 14); Texas A&M (Nov. 5); at Alabama (Nov. 12); Arkansas (Nov. 19); at Ole Miss (Nov. 26).

OLE MISS REBELS

Coach: Hugh Freeze (eighth season, 64-25).

Players to watch: QB Chad Kelly; WR Quincy Adeboyejo; WR Damore’ea Stringellow; TE Evan Engram; DT Breeland Speaks; DE Marquis Haynes; LB DeMarquis Gates; DB Tony Conner.

Overview: The Rebels, 10-3 and Sugar Bowl champions last season, bring back the SEC’s best quarterback, a deep group of talented receivers and another strong recruiting class to fill some holes. But there are holes. Only one returning starting offensive lineman is back, and a true freshman in five-star recruit Greg Little will likely be the starter at left tackle. Four starters return on defense, but the secondary must improve. The Rebels ranked 104th in pass defense last season. A lot will ultimately fall on Kelly’s shoulders to lift the Rebels, who averaged 40.8 points per game last season and will likely have to light the scoreboard up again to reach double-digit wins.

Key games: Florida State (Sept. 5); Alabama (Sept. 17); Georgia (Sept. 24); at LSU (Oct. 22); Auburn (Oct. 29); at Texas A&M (Nov. 12); Mississippi State (Nov. 26).

TEXAS A&M AGGIES

Coach: Kevin Sumlin (ninth season, 71-33).

Players to watch: QB Trevor Knight; RB Keith Ford; WR Christian Kirk; WR Josh Reynolds; DE Myles Garrett; DE Daeshon Hall; S Donovan Wilson; S Armani Watts.

Overview: Sumlin, 36-16 in his four seasons at A&M, ranks No. 1 on CoachesHotSeat.com as the most likely to receive a pink slip first among college coaches. Six starters return on each side of the ball, but there are clear deficiencies for the Aggies coming off an 8-5 season and loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl. Garrett, projected by some as the No. 1 overall pick in next spring’s NFL Draft, will lead a potent pass rush. But unless the run defense improves — it ranked 107th last season — Sumlin might not make it through the season. Offensively, new coordinator Noel Mazzone and offensive line coach and former Miami Dolphins assistant Jim Turner have tough jobs in front of them.

Key games: vs. UCLA (Sept. 3); Tennessee (Oct. 8); at Alabama (Oct. 22); Ole Miss (Nov. 12); LSU (Nov. 24).

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