Going Chalk

Everybody’s doing it. Not only picking Alabama to repeat (again) as SEC champs, but picking who will win the games before they’re played.

SIDE NOTE: I’ve never truly understood why we’re in such a rush to decide the outcomes of games. We obsess over what amounts to 12 or 13, for some 14 Saturdays a year, so I understand being pumped about the arrival of a new season. I don’t comprehend the need to decide – before one of these precious weekend’s arrive – their outcomes, rather than just “enjoying the moment.”

Also, if you’re in the media and want – and  more realistically believe – yourself to be considered a credible expert on college football, why risk your reputation on what you know is a house of cards? Anyway

With that said, similar to what seems like needless paperwork I begrudgingly turn in my 2016 SEC predictions.

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EAST:

  1. Tennessee: The Vols have two major things going for them. The most “seasoned” talent and the most stability in the East. Yes, Butch Jones is just 3-13 vs. ranked opponents in Knoxville. But, he was 2-2 last season. Tennessee beat Georgia and Northwestern while losing to Alabama and Oklahoma. (Exactly how many teams – other than Bama – would kick themselves for losing to eventual Playoff teams?) Losing to Florida and Arkansas should be more concerning. I like Hurd and Kamara in the backfield and Joshua Dobbs is an above average college quarterback. (Doubt he’s successful in the NFL someday, but no reason he can’t lead a college team.) Leading with Derek Barnett on the D-line, Jalen Reeves-Maybin at LB and Cameron Sutton at corner, UT is solid on defense.
  2. Georgia: The seemingly eternal search for a championship level coach continues in Athens. The “Dawgs” haven’t played for a National Title since Herschel Walker was in the backfield in the early 80’s. Vince Dooley is justifiably revered for that title, I would contend that even Dooley could have done more between the Bear Bryant dominance and Steve Spurrier’s revolutionizing the conference. Recruiting has never been an issue at Georgia. It’s consistently beating everyone you should beat on your schedule – something that hasn’t happened since Dooley – and at least splitting the toss-up games. Under Richt there was always one loss, if not more, to teams the Bulldogs had no business losing to, and a failure to split the toss-ups. (There were also far too many times Richt was taken to the woodshed in marquee match-ups.) So in comes Kirby Smart. Will he be able to instil the necessary discipline to take Georgia to the next level? I have no idea. On paper it would appear so. But in reality, the Saban coaching tree doesn’t bear as much fruit as many claim. (Most of the Saban disciples that have succeeded have significant cross-pollination.) UGA is also loaded with talent, but a true freshman QB and a rookie head coach will keep Georgia from Atlanta in December.
  3. Florida: It is truly amazing what Jim McElwain did in his first season in Gainesville. It didn’t end well – losing their final three games – but it should started out much better than anyone anticipated. (Remind me again, why we make predictions.) The problem with the Gators was quarterback play. In six starts Will Grier completed 68% of his passes with 10-TD’s and just 3-INT’s. In eight starts Treon Harris completed 50% with 9-TD’s and 8-INT’s. Scoring dropped from 32-points a game to just 16. As Luke Del Rio (or Purdue transfer Austin Appleby) go, so go the Gators.
  4. Missouri: The honeymoon clearly ended in Columbia in 2015. After back-to-back SEC East titles, the marriage with the SEC looked like it was going to end in Charlie Sheen fashion. Gary Pinkel is gone – and that’s a significant loss. Barry Odom, who played at Mizzou and coached under Pinkel is now in charge. It’s asking a lot to expect him to advance the program beyond the heights reached under the most successful coaching in school history, but that’s the task. With a solid returning QB in Sophomore Drew Lock, Nate Brown – who led the team in TD receptions last year – to throw to, and JC transfer Natereace Strong (and Ish Witter) to hand the ball, the offense should be improved over last year. Mizzou’s defense was second in the SEC in yards allowed last year, and should be solid again.
  5. Kentucky: It’s time. Mark Stoops was supposed to turn the corner last year. Instead the Wildcats finished 5-7 for a second straight season. Drew Barker takes over at QB which isn’t exactly a beacon of hope, but with nine starters back on offense, perhaps the Wildcats can take the next step.
  6. Vanderbilt: James Franklin had back-to-back nine win seasons in Nashville. Derek Mason took over for Franklin and has won just seven games in two seasons. At this point Franklin’s success is a curious to Penn State fans, as Mason’s struggles are to Commodore fans. The ‘Dores return eight starters on both sides of the ball. Ralph Webb who ran for 1152-yards and 5-TD’s last season is expected to lead the offense again. Vandy only allowed 21-points a game last season, and I see no reason they shouldn’t be able to match that stat in ’16.
  7. South Carolina: The most inexplicable hire in college football – in quite some time. Will Muschamp couldn’t succeed with significantly more resources at Florida. Why would anyone believe he’ll succeed at South Carolina? Why Gamecock Nation? Why? There’s not much else to say. A team that struggled offensively (USC finished 110 in scoring offense) hires a guy who’s offense got worse by the season in Gainesville. At least Muschamp is highly combustible.

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WEST: 

  1. Alabama: For some odd reason, reasonable, knowledgeable, level-headed SEC fans have been predicting Bama’s fall for years. Why I don’t know. I remember when Saban arrived and I spent the evening taking phone calls from SEC fans telling me that he wouldn’t have the same success in Tuscaloosa he had in Baton Rouge. “He’ll have to compete with Auburn.” “The Crimson Tide are no longer an elite program.” On and on it went. To a degree they were right. Saban hasn’t had the same success at Bama he had at LSU. He’s had significantly more success. It’s easy to guess which one game the Tide may lose each season, but picking multiple losses is like trying to win bets on parlay cards – it just doesn’t happen. Alabama has three 1st-team All SEC players on both offense and defense – according to the media. Three of five Bama O-lineman received all-conference recognition. Yes, (again) the Tide will be going with an unproven quarterback, but unfortunately for the rest of college football that hasn’t mattered. Who will start this against Southern Cal? Who knows. An AL.com poll shows the fans want true Freshman Jalen Hurts. No Surprise. What’s also not surprising is that before entering the playoffs, the Tide will finish its season in Atlanta.
  2. LSU: You’ll never convince me otherwise. I’m absolutely certain LSU was doing the right thing in throwing a wonderfully appreciative going away party for Les Miles after the A&M game, only to have it turn into a surprise party for the Tiger Nation when AD Joe Alleva stunned everyone by bringing Miles back. You know Tiger fans watched in awe and said to each other, “What the hell just happened? I though Jimbo Fisher was going to be our coach.” LSU consistently (since Saban not Miles arrived) has as much talent as any team in college football. That will again be the case. The difference between Alabama under Saban and LSU under Miles is that Nick has managed at least adequate quarterback play, while Les hasn’t. Which is why the Tigers may finish second in the West, with at least two losses, and Miles will still be on a very hot seat. No Playoffs for LSU.
  3. Arkansas: I thought Bielema would have the Hogs in this position a year ago. A slow start prevented that from happening. Case McCoy didn’t live up to the reputation his brother earned at Texas. Will Austin Allen be able to live up to the expectations generated by his brother Brandon? Probably not. But the Hogs physical style of football is becoming very rare, making Arkansas a match-up nightmare for most teams. Unfortunately, LSU and Alabama are two teams that love smash-mouth football. So Arkansas struggles with Bama (everyone does), but they have beaten LSU two straight. No reason they can’t make it three. They’ve won two straight against Ole Miss and have the Rebels at home – no reason they can’t make it three. Mississippi State is another team that loves physical football, which is why the Hogs have dropped four-straight against the Bulldogs. But I see that streak ending. I’ll say it again, Arkansas will turn the corner this year.
  4. Ole Miss: As an alum, this prediction is not going to play well with my friends. Chad Kelly is the best QB in the conference. There is plenty of weapons at his disposal. However, the O-line will never be considered elite. When the Rebels showed up to play in ’15 they were as good as any team in the country. Problem is they didn’t show up against Florida, Memphis, Vandy (but still won), and defensively against Arkansas. That’s too many absentee performances. With all the distractions surrounding the program, despite better team chemistry, I can’t predict they’ll show up every week this year. Plus the schedule is brutal.
  5. Texas A&M: This will be the final trip around the conference for Kevin Sumlin. He’ll make a great OC for some team in ’17. He’s just not head coaching material. He’s proving that. His reputation was built off the foundation of Art Briles at the University of Houston. It was expanded thanks to the exploits of Johnny Manziel. Perhaps that he didn’t actually recruit the quarterback that will lead his team this year – Trevor Knight – bodes well for him. That’s certainly conventional wisdom. The defense will attack the passer but probably give up too many big plays, while being exposed against the run. (Alabama, Arkansas, LSU and even Auburn, MSU and Tennessee will run on the Aggies.) Offensively, the Aggies will score points, unless they’re facing a good defense. And emotionally, I see no reason for this team not to again be a train wreck. They’ve always been under Sumlin. It’s just that Johnny was able to improvise around/in spite of that.
  6. Mississippi State: If the preseason is any indication, even a sixth-place finish is too high for a Bulldogs team without Dak Prescott. Here’s the deal with MSU. Even Bully himself can’t start dropping the names of stud players and not lose that card game to all but a small hand of teams in the SEC. But Dan Mullen is a hell of a good football coach. He takes State farther than its talent should allow every season. There’s no reason to assume that won’t be the case in ’16. “They don’t have any talent!” When did you think they were loaded hater? I don’t think Nick Fitzgerald will duplicate Dak’s performance, but I do think you’ll be pleasantly surprised by how well he plays.
  7. Auburn: This is what you get for believing your hype last year Gus. I assumed you were telling me the truth about Jeremy Johnson last year. Malzahn was either clueless or lying horribly. Neither is a good answer. Because of the intensity of the rivalry between Auburn and Alabama, Tiger fans won’t sit there watching their team underperform while Bama is rolling up titles. There’s one MAJOR reason Auburn has been on probation more than others, they’ll stop at nothing to keep pace with the Tide. (Who also cheat right War Eagle?) I was fooled into thinking Auburn would have good QB play a year ago, I don’t see it this year. The defense should be very good, and while Malzahn’s offense is really a run-oriented attack it requires a good QB. They don’t have it. And Gus will make some close team a contender as OC in ’17. (Ole Miss better hope Hugh Freeze doesn’t make any “pine box” comments like the last great coach they had.)