Complete SEC preview for the 2018 season.
After winning its fifth title in nine seasons last year, Alabama is primed for another run at the national championship and SEC title in 2018. The Crimson Tide are the pick in 2018 SEC predictions to edge Auburn and win the West Division and knock off Georgia in the conference title game to claim the league championship. The Bulldogs are also primed for another run into the CFB Playoff. Coach Kirby Smart continues to add elite talent on the recruiting trail, and there’s a strong foundation to build off the 2017 season. Auburn is Alabama’s biggest challenger in the West, followed by Mississippi State and Texas A&M. The race to finish second in the East is wide open. Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky or Missouri are next up, with Tennessee and Vanderbilt projected at the bottom of the division.
Offensive coordinator Dan Mullen embraces the incredible expectations that drove his former boss, Urban Meyer, to retire for a season and cost Will Muschamp and McElwain their jobs at Florida. Mullen’s ability to develop quarterbacks is critical given the long-standing issues under center. He and his staff must prove to be strong recruiters to rebuild Florida’s talent level and depth after four straight classes outside the top 10. The 46-year-old will benefit from a favorable schedule. Doubling last season’s total of four wins is within reach.
Georgia doesn’t have the experience coming back that it did last year, but it may have as much talent. It’s just younger and inexperienced talent, and that does matter, and would be a reason not to expect another CFB Playoff run. Then again, the schedule is far from daunting. Georgia has to go to LSU, and September games at South Carolina and Missouri could be troublesome. Auburn visits Athens.
Georgia should be a heavy favorite to repeat as SEC East champion. Everything else probably depends on how quickly the defense reloads.
If Kentucky can find a competent quarterback, there is enough experienced talent at the other positions to envision the Wildcats breaking through the seven-win plateau for the first time in the coach Mark Stoops era. If not, the Wildcats could be in danger of taking a step back by either falling to a lesser bowl than the last two seasons or missing postseason play altogether.
There’s just enough turnover to give one pause, but most of the reasons for last year’s second-half surge return. That suggests a pretty high floor in a division that features quite a few teams that bottomed out in 2017.
If a Will Muschamp-coached team is ever going to get the offense going, this would seem the year with QB Jake Bentley and WR Deebo Samuel in the fold. The defense has personnel question marks, but Muschamp and 3rd year defensive coordinator Travaris Robinson have earned the benefit of the doubt on that side of the ball.
With Florida and Tennessee in transition thanks to coaching changes, South Carolina can realistically enter the season with its eye on second place in the SEC East, the same spot it claimed a year ago. It’s probably a bit much to expect the Gamecocks to compete with defending conference champion Georgia, but South Carolina gets the Bulldogs in the second game of the season at home, so there’s always hope.
Tennessee doesn’t have much margin for error, particularly with a challenging schedule that opens with offensive juggernaut West Virginia. The Vols plan to be efficient with a low-risk offense, mindful of turnovers while featuring aggressive blitz packages and coverage schemes. New coach Jeremy Pruitt hopes that recipe is good enough to produce (at least) six wins in Year 1.
The overall win total dropped by only one game from 2016 to 2017, but a deeper dive into the numbers reveals that the Commodores took a significant step back in coach Derek Mason’s fourth season. To get his team back into the bowl picture — and to stay off the hot seat — Mason will need to solve the Commodores’ defensive issues. Even if QB Kyle Shurmur and the offense continue to progress — a realistic proposition with an improved offensive line and the addition of Ke’Shawn Vaughn in the backfield — Vanderbilt will struggle to stay out of the SEC East cellar if the defense is allowing 40-plus points in league games.
There was a different feel to Alabama’s most recent national title. For one thing, the Tide had to overcome a bewildering rash of injuries and a November loss to Auburn. There also were the emotional swings of the title game, topped off by the iconic second-and-26 walk-off winner.
The end result was the same, though — a fifth national title in the past nine seasons — and the expectations remain, thanks to many of the players who were involved in the crucial moments of that wild night in Atlanta. Alabama will begin the season ranked No. 1 in the nation. And there’s a good chance the Tide will end the season in that spot as well.
It would be unreasonable to believe the Razorbacks could go from 1-7 in conference play to a contender in the SEC West in the course of one offseason. Quarterback play will likely go a long way in determining whether the offense builds up steam in coach Chad Morris’ debut. And the defense — which gave up a staggering 7.1 yards per play in SEC games — needs major help at all three levels. The debut of Morris should provide some splash and dash, but the Razorbacks need a further injection of speed and depth across the board to make a significant move in the brutal SEC West.
Gus Malzahn faces some lofty expectations. The Tigers’ sixth-year head coach just signed a seven-year contract extension for $49 million, with $36.75 million guaranteed, after a 10–4 season in which he won the SEC West and defeated both National Championship Game participants (Alabama and Georgia). Now, though, many fans will define an Auburn season as a success or failure based on whether it defeats those two rivals, and the Tigers must do so on the road in 2018. Good luck, Gus.
LSU’s schedule isn’t conducive to finding a path back into the SEC’s upper echelon. The Tigers will face two teams that played in the College Football Playoff (Alabama and Georgia) and two teams that played in New Year’s Six bowls (Auburn and Miami). Add games at home with Mississippi State and at Texas A&M, and it’s difficult to picture the Tigers being able to challenge for SEC West supremacy. The key for coach Ed Orgeron is not to slip so far that he’s facing a must-win-big scenario in 2019 to keep his job.
When Dan Mullen left Mississippi State after nine seasons to return to Florida, the school elected to go outside of the SEC and hire Joe Moorhead as coach. There’s some risk there (mostly related to recruiting), but the hire was hailed by outside observers, and 2018 could prove why immediately. Mississippi State lost very little of consequence from its 2017 team, and despite a fairly challenging schedule, there’s reason for optimism in Starkville. Eight wins are expected, and some believe that this could be a 10-win team with the right breaks.
Coach Matt Luke led the Rebels to a 6-6 mark in a tumultuous 2017 that included the cloud of the NCAA investigation hovering above. His candidacy for the full-time job was not looking strong until the Rebels won three of their last four games, including a 31-28 upset at No. 16 Mississippi State.
Barring a reprieve, Ole Miss is banned from a bowl game for the second straight season. The Rebels have enough firepower on offense to pose some serious problems, but they will need to show significant improvement on defense — most notably against the run — to reach the six-win mark again.
Weary from four consecutive seasons with eight wins or fewer, A&M pulled off a major coup and lured Coach Jimbo Fisher to College Station. The Aggies have bet $75 million over 10 years that Fisher can duplicate the success he had at Florida State, where he won the 2013 national championship. Fisher inherits 15 returning starters and some top-flight talent. But the Aggies have lacked the physicality and depth to compete for championships in the rugged SEC. If significant strides are made in those areas, A&M could make a run at exceeding the eight-win plateau. Competing immediately for an SEC championship may be asking for too much too soon.
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NCAA Football 2017-18 Season
SEC West Preview
The SEC West division’s Crimson Tide are once again the preseason favorite to win it all , with LSU and Auburn returning enough talent to rank as top 10-15 teams. Outside of the top contenders, Mississippi State and Arkansas headline some of the dark horse teams to watch in 2017. Get ready for college fantasy football at FanPicks.com
New LSU coach Ed Orgeron retained defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (now the highest-paid college assistant coach at $1.8 million per year) and hired Matt Canada as offensive coordinator to break LSU out of its predictable offensive patterns. Talent always abounds at LSU, although there’s still work to do to catch up with Alabama in the trenches.
A tough schedule awaits — the Tigers have only three SEC home games — so a 10–2 record would probably be the ceiling, which is not a bad goal in the Tigers’ first full year under Coach O.
Auburn was in the College Football Playoff mix well into November last season before injuries took their toll. The core of that offense is back, along with seven of 11 starters on defense. The addition of QB Jarrett Stidham and presence of a new voice in offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey should propel the Tigers into that same conversation in 2017. If they’re not, athletics director Jay Jacobs will have some tough decisions to make after the season. This Tigers team is too loaded to be an afterthought on the national level.
Alabama Crimson Tide
This figures to be a classic Nick Saban team. The offense will be rooted in its ability to run the ball with a deep group of backs and a dangerous quarterback in Jalen Hurts. How Alabama rebuilds the front seven will say a lot about the effectiveness of a defense hit especially hard by graduation.
The opening weekend should be tremendous — a matchup with Florida State in Atlanta’s new dome. The result won’t knock the loser from playoff talk, but it’ll add a degree of difficulty before conference play even starts.
A defense that struggled in 2016 has gotten younger, but there is renewed enthusiasm that the scheme change under defensive coordinator Paul Rhoads’ watch will lead to better results. The offense has potential, but some untested receivers will need to step up to complement receiver Jared Cornelius, and quarterback Austin Allen must continue to progress.
Another winning record and bowl game is highly likely, but the Hogs will have to show significant improvement all the way around to contend in the SEC West.
Mississippi St. Bulldogs
Mississippi State can still hang its hat on rising to No. 1 in the polls during the 2014 season, but the program slipped to 5–7 in the regular season in 2016 and made a bowl game only because of its high APR score. But that was a rebuilding year, and everyone knew it going in. With the quarterback position now settled and some emerging stars on defense, Mississippi State could be back in line to begin another ascent up the SEC West standings — if not to the top, at least into the middle of the pack with a seven- or eight-win season.
But there are question marks, especially along the offensive line, so it would not be surprising to see Mississippi State need its good grades to get it into another bowl game.
Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies are trying to end a trend of three consecutive 8–5 seasons that have featured late-season collapses. Also, they haven’t finished higher than fourth in the SEC West since 2012. Inexperience at quarterback, issues in run defense and dependency on unproven players render the season outlook quite suspect. The schedule won’t do them many favors, either, with road trips to UCLA, Florida, LSU and Ole Miss, where they typically struggle.
Coach Kevin Sumlin’s job could be in jeopardy if the Aggies cannot break out of their 8–5 rut. Ironically one of Sumlin’s best coaching efforts may be required this season for A&M to post eight victories.
Ole Miss Rebels
If the opportunity to play in a bowl game is the only motivation, the 2017 season is already lost. Ole Miss players insist it is not. They found out in late February they have no chance at bowl game, not because of what may or may not happen on the field, but because of the school’s own ban, part of its self-sanctioning amid an NCAA investigation that approaches its fifth birthday.
Spring practice also showed that Ole Miss is still pretty good on offense. And that question marks remain on defense. The Rebels want to make amends for a disappointing season that saw them ranked as high as No. 11 before falling to 5–7.
Louisiana State University Tigers vs Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M and Louisiana State University went from SEC contenders to third place in the West Division over the last few weeks and just hope to close out the respective seasons strong. The 22nd-ranked Aggies, who still have a shot at second place in the West, will try to put together back-to-back wins when they host LSU on Thursday in a Thanksgiving battle (Enter Contest).
Texas A&M was in fourth place in the first College Football Playoff rankings but dropped its next two games to Mississippi State and Ole Miss to drop to 25th before recovering with a 23-10 victory over non-conference foe UTSA on Saturday. The Aggies are still a possibility for a Sugar Bowl berth, which would go to the second-highest ranked team from the SEC, and would finish in second place in the SEC West with a win on Thursday and an Auburn loss against Alabama. The Tigers, who lost to Auburn earlier in the year, have no shot at second place and could be playing for interim coach Ed Orgeron’s job on Thursday. LSU won three straight after Orgeron took over for Les Miles. They’ve since dropped two of three while looking unimpressive on the offensive end.
ABOUT LOUISIANA STATE UNIVERSITY(6-4, 4-3 SEC)
Orgeron was expected to spark the Tigers offense but watched his team score one touchdown in five goal-to-go chances on Saturday at home against Florida. Star running back Leonard Fournette was hobbled by an ankle injury that has plagued him on and off all season. He was limited to 40 yards on 12 carries on Saturday and will likely be a game-time decision again on Thursday. Fournette ran for 159 yards and a TD in LSU’s 19-7 home win over the Aggies last season. The Tigers are the only team in FBS to hold each of their opponents to 21 or fewer points in every game this season.
ABOUT TEXAS A&M (8-3, 4-3 SEC)
The Aggies’ biggest star, defensive end Myles Garrett, has been hobbled most of the season as well but finally looked fully healthy on Saturday and recorded 4 1/2 sacks in the win. Garrett, who is expected to go high in the first round of the next NFL draft, became the eighth player in SEC history to record 30 or more sacks in his career (32 1/2). He needs one sack to pass Von Miller (33) for fifth place on Texas A&M’s all-time list. Texas A&M, which lost starter Trevor Knight to a shoulder injury in the loss to Mississippi, is still getting used to Jake Hubenak at quarterback, and the junior threw for 248 yards and a touchdown against UTSA.
Alabama Crimson Tide vs LSU Tigers Preview
Top-ranked Alabama is soaring toward the College Football Playoff and seeks its 21st consecutive victory when it visits No. 13 LSU on Saturday (Enter Contest). The Crimson Tide are also atop the first CFP poll of the season but will have to overcome the loss of senior star safety Eddie Jackson (broken leg) down the stretch. The team has scored a stunning 12 non-offensive touchdowns (nine on defense, three on punt returns) during its dominating campaign but is certainly wary of the Tigers, who are 3-0 since interim coach Ed Orgeron replaced Les Miles. It’s something that Nick Saban’s made clear his squad won’t be overlooking this weekend.
ABOUT ALABAMA (8-0, 5-0 SEC)
Jackson has scored three of the Crimson Tide’s 12 non-offensive touchdowns. Losing his 23.0 average on punt returns will cost the squad some of the field-position advantages it has enjoyed. The defense’s other major star are still around though. Senior defensive end Jonathan Allen has six sacks to raise his career total to 24, one behind second-place Kindal Moorehead (1998-2002) on Alabama’s all-time list. The Crimson Tide have forced 16 turnovers this season with nine resulting in defensive touchdowns.
Freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts has accounted for 20 touchdowns (11 passing, nine rushing) this season. Sophomore running back Damien Harris has a team-leading 697 rushing yards and sophomore wideout Calvin Ridley has 43 receptions for 504 yards and five scores. Alabama has won the past five meetings, holding a 50-25-2 series edge.
ABOUT LSU (5-2, 3-1)
LSU junior running back Leonard Fournette is back on his game after dealing with an ankle injury earlier this season. He’s set a school record with 284 rushing yards in a victory over Ole Miss on week 8. Fournette has rushed for 670 yards and five touchdowns despite a three-game absence. He hasn’t forgotten that his 2015 Heisman hopes were squashed against the Crimson Tide when he had just 31 yards on 19 carries. The Tigers are 15-4 when Fournette rushes for 100 yards and 5-0 when he tops 200.
Sophomore Derrius Grice is also running well with 621 yards and seven scores while junior quarterback Danny Etling has thrown for 1,129 yards and seven touchdowns against three interceptions. The Tigers are allowing 15 points per game, which ranks fifth nationally. Thanks in large part to sophomore outside linebacker Arden Key (team-high eight sacks) and senior middle linebacker Kendell Beckwith (team-leading 69 tackles) who are enjoying solid campaigns.