Ladies and gentlemen, we did it! We have survived yet another long and arduous college football off-season.
Here is how I expect every team in the SEC to preform this season.
Tier 1: College Football Playoff or Bust
Another year, another national title campaign for the Crimson Tide.
Despite losing twelve players to the NFL and both offensive and defensive coordinators to different jobs, Alabama is reloaded and ready to go for the 2018 season.
The biggest question is which quarterback will they do it with: four-star Jalen Hurts, who boasts a career starting record of 26-2, or five-star Tua Tagovailoa, who has only played in six games, but completed a picture-perfect pass to win the national championship against Georgia in overtime? Besides the issue as to whoever gets the start at QB, another hot topic will be the plethora of talent with their elite running backs. They return their lead rusher from the season before, with Damien Harris, and one of the best young prospects in the country, Najee Harris.
Alabama loses a lot of their leadership on defense entering the 2018 season. Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt left to take the head coaching job at Tennessee while team captain Minkah Fitzpatrick left for the NFL. But Alabama is no stranger to turnover; this is simply just another typical offseason for head coach Nick Saban.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Crimson Tide to win 10.8 games in 2018 and gives them a 36.3% chance to win the SEC.
The 2017 SEC Coach of the Year Kirby Smart enters his third season in Athens with high expectations after last year’s breakout season.
The Bulldogs have quite a bit of talent to replace on both sides of the ball,including names such as Lorenzo Carter, Roquan Smith, Sony Michel, and Nick Chubb, but rest assured (for Georgia fans) replacing that talent will not be an issue with the way Georgia recruited in 2017. The Bulldogs closed the 2018 recruiting cycle with the #1 overall class including 7(!) five-star signees.
Georgia should have easy months in September and October and will probably enter their cross-divisional rivalry game against Auburn in early November as a 9-0 team.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Bulldogs to win 10.9 games (they are also favored in all 12 games) and gives them a 41.5% chance to win the conference.
Tier 2: The Dark Horse Playoff Contender
I feel the need to give Auburn their own tier because as of right now they are not as good as the Tier 1 teams, but noticeably better than Tier 3. They have the tools to make a jump into Tier 1, but for right now I feel better about holding them slightly behind in Tier 2.
The 2017 SEC West Champions come into the 2018 season looking to tie up some loose ends from the previous season. They are led by Heisman Trophy hopeful quarterback Jarrett Stidham, but what is not so hopeful are the expectations of the five guys in front of him.
The Tigers enter the 2018 season with serious concerns about their offensive line. They lose four out of five starters from 2017’s offensive line, but luckily Auburn was forced to play seven different linemen last season due to injury so the new line won’t be completely new. If they can keep Stidham upright we just might see another trip to Atlanta for Auburn.
Auburn has a pretty tough schedule (as do most SEC West teams) in 2018, including a neutral site season opener against #6 Washington. The Huskies will definitely be a tough test for Auburn. Two weeks after their matchup in Atlanta they will face #25 LSU at home (a team to which they lost to last season.) I could equally see the Tigers starting the season 3-0 or 1-2.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Tigers to win 9.1 games in 2018.
Tier 3: Middle of the Pack
Dan Mullen is out, Joe Moorhead is in, but the expectations in Starkville are just about the same.
It’s not every day that a first-year head coach is expected to come in and win nine games, but then again not every first-year head coach inherits a roster with talent such as Nick Fitzgerald, Jeffrey Simmons, and Aeris Williams.
The Bulldog’s offense in 2018 will be the Nick Fitzgerald and Joe Moorhead Show. During his time at Penn State, Moorhead produced some prolific offenses and will surely be able to replicate it in Starkville with the help of the aforementioned talent. Last season the QB-RB duo combined to run for over 2,000 yards and 20 touchdowns.
On defense Joe Moorhead has brought in former Tennessee defensive coordinator Bob Shoop. Shoop is an interesting hire to say the least; at Penn State he produced some of the top defenses in the country, but struggled mightily at Tennessee. Will Mississippi State get Penn State Bob Shoop or Tennessee Bob Shoop? Regardless, Shoop will have plenty of top- level talent to work with up front. The Bulldogs will have one of the best defensive lines in the country with Montez Sweat and Jeffrey Simmons. The defensive front won’t be a problem, but the secondary is another question. The secondary last season was very hit or miss. Unfortunately, we don’t really know how a Bob Shoop secondary looks in the SEC. During his first year at Tennessee injuries decimated the secondary and during his second year nobody threw the ball against Tennessee because they could just as easily run it (Tennessee ranked 126th in rush defense in 2017.)
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Bulldogs to win 8.4 games in 2018.
Despite being overshadowed by Georgia’s national title run last season, South Carolina was one of the biggest success stories to emerge out of the SEC last season. Many people were doubtful when the Gamecocks hired head coach Will Muschamp, but so far he has silenced many naysayers.
The Gamecocks return a solid quarterback in Jake Bentley and will get back breakout wide receiver Deebo Samuel. That is good news for South Carolina, because offense production was sorely missed last season. In 2017 the Gamecocks ranked 109th in total offense, only putting up 337.1 yards per game. South Carolina will also have a new full-time offensive coordinator in Bryan McClendon. McClendon was previously the Co-OC and wide receivers coach for the Gamecocks.
A matchup to keep your eyes on is at home versus Georgia in Week Two. Coach Muschamp will have his eyes fixated on this game, knowing that if he pulls off a victory it would be a statement to the country that South Carolina is ready for the next step.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Gamecocks to win 7.2 games in 2018.
Going into 2018, it is nearly impossible to predict how the Tigers will preform. There is a lot of reason for optimism, but just as much for pessimism. Let’s just say despite his $3.5 millon salary, I would not want to be in Ed Orgeron’s shoes going into the 2018 season.
Pessimist: The Tigers lost a 1,200 yard rusher in Derrius Guice and multiple other starters to the NFL. The offense is a major concern after losing their starting quarterback and offensive coordinator. Joe Burrow will likely be the starter come September, but he is a raw talent and has never started a game in his college career. Steve Ensminger was promoted within to become the new offensive coordinator, but he has not been an offensive coordinator in a decade. The Bayou Bengals also start the season against #8 Miami and also draw #3 Georgia as their SEC East opponent.
Optimist: Despite losing multiple members to the NFL, LSU has recruited at a very high level the past few years (averaging a class rank of #8) and should have ample talent to replace Guice and others who have left for the league. Even though Joe Burrow is an unknown factor, he has two years of eligibility remaining. Steve Ensminger’s résumé as an offensive coordinator may be lacking, but he did serve as interim OC for LSU in 2016 and experienced adequate success. As for the scheduling… I can’t come up with a reason to be optimistic about having to face Miami and Georgina on top of an already difficult SEC West schedule. Sorry, LSU.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Tigers to win 6.1 games in 2018, but if everything clicks on the offensive side of the ball and Dave Aranda continues to field elite defenses I could see potentially 8 or 9 wins for LSU.
The former BCS National Championship- winning head coach enters his tenure at Texas A&M surrounded with many questions and even more money.
Jimbo Fisher had an amazing three-year run at Florida State from 2012-2014, which included an overall record of 39-3 (.928), a conference record of 23-1 (.958), one national championship, three ACC titles, and two NY6 bowl berths. Since that three-year run, Fisher has gone 25-12 (.675), including a conference record of just 14-10 (.583), leaving many fans questioning if he still has what it takes to compete at the top.
On offense, Jimbo and new offensive coordinator Darrell Dickey have to decide on a starting quarterback: either Nick Starkel or Kellen Mond. Both QBs got playing time last season and had very mixed results. The pro-style QB Nick Starkel was a major threat in the passing game last season when he was in his groove, but often left a lot to be desired in some games (example: in Week Thirteen versus LSU, Starkel went 16-for-30 for 227 yards and threw three interceptions, then a month later in their bowl game versus Wake Forest, he went 42-for-63 for 499 yards and four touchdowns). The dual-threat QB Kellen Mond had similar consistency issues as well. In Week Six against Alabama, Mond went 19-for-29 for 237 yards and one touchdown, but went 8-for-24 for 180 yards the week after against Florida. Even though Starkel is obviously the better passer, Mond proved that he could be a threat on the ground last season after racking up 340 yards and three touchdowns rushing.
Defense will be an issue for the Aggies going into the 2018, but they are now under good care with the acquisition of former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Mike Elko. Elko has recently made himself one of the hottest commodities in college football by producing great defensives everywhere he goes, from Bowling Green to Wake Forest to Notre Dame. Elko will have a lot of young talent to work with at Texas A&M. The Aggies return eight starters on defense, most of who are underclassmen.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Aggies to win 7.3 games in 2018.
Many people are low on Florida this year, commonly referencing the 4-7 disaster of a season last year. Those people also tend to forget that the two years prior to the 2017 season the Gators won back-to-back SEC East titles.
First-year head coach Dan Mullen will have a lot to work with in Gainesville as the Gators return 19 starters, including standout running back Jordan Scarlett. Dan Mullen brought in experienced SEC defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to take care of the defense so he can focus on what he was brought to Florida for: to fix the offense.
Florida’s offenses have just been plain awful the past few years. Since 2014 to 2017, Florida’s total offense has ranked 96th, 112th, 116th, and 110th, respectively. The Gators have also had trouble finding a starting QB. Since the 2014 season, Florida has started seven different quarterbacks.
Entering the season Dan Mullen has two decent options at QB, with the experienced yet streaky sophomore Feleipe Franks, or the inexperienced stud true freshmen Emory Jones. Many think Mullen will be open to playing both QBs this season.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Gators to win 8.2 games in 2018.
Tier 4: Battle For a Bowl Game
The Vols enter the 2018 season along first-year head coach Jeremy Pruitt with clear eyes and a full heart after a five-year long emotional rollercoaster with Butch Jones.
Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt certainly has his work cut out for him in 2018. After accepting the job in late December 2017, Pruitt quickly identified that the Vols were a poorly coached, slow, and small football team. After coaching the Alabama defense to another national championship victory, Pruitt quickly assembled a staff rich with SEC experience, including an upgraded strength and conditioning program.
Tennessee has a lot of work to do on both sides of the ball this season, with neither being particularly impressive last season (the Vols ranked 125th in total offense and 82nd in total defense nationally last season).
A good place to start on offense would be the quarterback position. Last season the Vols started three different quarterbacks, none of which yielded satisfactory results. This offseason Pruitt recruited Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst to come join the team. As of right now, nobody really knows if this move was an attempt to light a fire under presumed starter Jarrett Guarantano or if Chryst was brought here to become the starting quarterback.
The schedule will be a big issue for the Volunteers in 2018. They open the season in Charlotte against #17 West Virginia, led by Heisman trophy contender Will Grier. The Vols also have one of the toughest three game stretches in all of college football, including away games at Georgia and at Auburn and a home game against Alabama. It will be interesting to see if Pruitt and company can weather that storm.
ESPN’s FPI predicts Tennessee to win 5.9 games in 2018, but the Vols do have a few paths to a bowl game if they win one or more or the many toss-up games on their schedule.
The Tigers enter the 2018 season as one of the most volatile teams in the conference. Pair that with a schedule that features five toss-up games and Mizzou is in for a wild season.
You can’t talk about Mizzou football in 2018 without mentioning Derek Dooley and Drew Lock. Drew Lock enters the season on just about everybody’s preseason team and award watch lists. As a junior last season, Lock threw for nearly 4000 yards and broke the SEC record for most touchdowns thrown in a season with 43. It will be interesting to see how Drew Lock and first-time offensive coordinator Derek Dooley work together. Dooley was certainly one of the most intriguing hires in the SEC last season, mainly for the fact that Dooley has never been an offensive coordinator is his life.
The Tigers will be as good as their defense allows them to be in 2018. Last season their defense was quite atrocious. How atrocious? Giving up 43 points to a 3-8 FCS team and then allowing the 109th ranked South Carolina offense to score 31 points atrocious. The day after the second game of the season, DC DeMontie Cross was relieved of his duties and head coach Barry Odom took over on defense. Odom has promoted secondary coach Ryan Walters to coach the defense in 2018. Walters is only 32 years of age and has no previous defensive coordinator experience.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Tigers to win 7.2 games in 2018. Seven wins sounds like a good number for Mizzou right now. Depending on how Derek Dooley does in his offensive coordinator gig and likewise with Ryan Walters on defense that win column could look very different.
Ok, maybe I shouldn’t put Ole Miss in the “Bowl Game or Bust” tier, considering they are still under a bowl ban due to NCAA sanctions, but you get the idea.
Matt Luke has done very, very well in his first full year as head coach, considering all the obstacles he had to face both on and off the field. Off the field Matt Luke had to deal with financial penalties, postseason ban, and recruiting restrictions levied by the NCAA. On the field he had to deal with losing his five-star starting quarterback to injury and then have him transfer to Michigan, all while playing in the toughest division in the country.
Luckily, Ole Miss has found a suitable replacement for Shea Patterson in Jordan Ta’amu. After Patterson went down with a knee injury versus LSU, Ta’amu started the final five games of the season and threw for 1,604 yards and 11 touchdowns with a whopping 66.7% completion percentage. The Rebels also have many other weapons on offense in preseason All-American WR A.J Brown and preseason All-SEC WR D.K. Metcalf. Ole Miss will surely have one of the best passing offenses in the country this season.
While the Rebels will have one of the best offenses in the country, they will most likely have one of the worst defenses in the country. They returns seven starters on a defense that gave up 459.5 yards and 34.6 points a game in 2017. Every Ole Miss game in 2018 will likely be a shootout.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Rebels to win 6.3 games in 2018.
After the failed Bret Bielema experiment, Arkansas looks to return to success under new head coach Chad Morris.
A good place to start talking about the future of Arkansas football is offense. New head coach Chad Morris is often referred to as one of the top offensive minds in football and his resume certainly backs that up. During his time as the offensive coordinator at Clemson, Morris implemented his hurry-up spread offense that put up big numbers and helped take a struggling Clemson program into a national powerhouse.
The Razorbacks should be very excited about their offense, but it may take a little while. Morris’s offense is quite different and requires different bodies than Bielema’s ground-and-pound run game offense, so expect the change to not happen instantly. Arkansas enters the 2018 season with a quarterback battle: Cole Kelley vs Ty Storey. Storey has yet to take any meaningful snaps, but Kelley played in nine games and started four after starter Austin Allen got injured.
Defense is something the Razorbacks have been sorely missing for the past few seasons. To fix that problem Chad Morris brought in former Tennessee and Texas A&M DC John Chavis. Arkansas returns eight starters on defense, two of which made the third-team All-SEC in LB De’Jon Harris and DB Santos Ramirez.
Given that the Razorbacks offense will surely improve under Chad Morris, and if John Chavis can get the defense to a respectable level, watch out for Arkansas in the future.
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Hogs to win 6.1 games in 2018.
Tier 5: “Just Go Out There and Have Fun”
After back-to-back 7-6 seasons, including trips to the Music City and Taxslayer Bowl, Kentucky looks to be in their best spot in about a decade.
The name of the game on offense in 2018 will be Benny Snell. The junior running back is coming off back-to-back 1,000 yard rushing seasons where he averaged at least five yards per carry in both seasons. Snell enters the season on the Walter Camp, Doak Walker, and Maxwell award watchlist and was voted first-team preseason All-SEC by the media. I firmly believe that if Benny Snell was at a more prominent and successful program than Kentucky he would also be on the Heisman watchlist.
Who will be the guy handing the ball off to Benny Snell is another question. Kentucky enters the 2018 with a quarterback competition between 3-star, pro-style Gunnar Hoak or 3-star dual-threat Terry Wilson. Many think Hoak will be named the starter.
Kentucky’s schedule in 2018 will make it hard to continue that streak of 7-6 seasons. All the games they would lose regardless of location are at home (Mississippi State, South Carolina, Georgia) and all their toss-up games are on the road (at Florida, at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, at Louisville.)
ESPN’s FPI predicts the Wildcats to win 5.2 games in 2018.
Fifth-year head coach Derek Mason enters the 2018 season on the hot seat, but can Kyle Shurmur do enough to save him?
After playing spoiler to both Georgia and Tennessee and reaching a bowl game in 2016, it looked like Derek Mason was ready to help Vanderbilt turn the corner and no longer be…well, Vanderbilt. But just as quickly as they took a step forward in 2016, they took a step backwards in 2017.
After losing their top rusher in Ralph Webb and two of their top-three receivers in Trent Sherfield and C.J. Duncan, QB Kyle Shurmur and WR Kalija Lipscomb are just about the only known commodities left on offense. Former Illinois transfer running back Ke’ Shawn Vaughn will become eligible this season after sitting out a year due to the NCAA transfer rules.
If Derek Mason wants to continue to be employed, defense is the name of the game. Lackluster defensive performances was the major reason for Vandy’s step back last season. In 2016, the Commodores ranked 35th in the nation in scoring defense, holding opponents to 24 points a game. In 2017, they ranked 88th in scoring defense, allowing 31.3 points a game. Coach Mason realized being his own defensive coordinator in the SEC was too tall a task, so this offseason he brought in former Stanford and Oakland Raiders defensive coordinator Jason Tarver. Mason and Tarver were both co-defensive coordinators on Stanford’s staff in 2011.
Despite drawing the two easiest teams from the SEC West (Arkansas and Ole Miss) ESPN’s FPI predicts the Commodores to win 3.9 games in 2018.