1. Alabama Crimson Tide
Why: Alabama is the closest thing to an NFL franchise in the history of collegiate athletics. Year after year Nick Saban closes a top three recruiting class, with four number one overall hauls in the last seven cycles (based on consensus rankings).
While dissenters worry about the offense after the departure of QB Jake Coker and Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, isn’t it time we admit the much-maligned Lane Kiffin can make anybody a championship caliber QB? In two years in Tuscaloosa, Kiffin has led a converted defensive back (Blake Sims) to the Alabama record books as the all-time single season passing leader and a Florida State castoff (Jake Coker) to a national championship. Not to mention Kiffin’s past work tricking the NFL into believing Matt Leinart and Mark Sanchez were first round-caliber players.
Henry will be replaced by 5-star sophomore Damien Harris, the Crimson Tide return their stellar young receiving core led by Cameron Ridley, and again, even after the loss of DC Kirby Smart, the defense will be stellar under new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
Roll damn tide.
Why: Can a top-rated QB PLEASE commit to the Mad Hatter and the Bayou? I thought last year the Tigers finally had their man, with 5-star Johnny Manziel clone (without the self-hate, hopefully) Shea Patterson a heavy LSU lean and Louisiana native.
But Hugh Freeze and the Rebels swooped in with their checkbook and secured his commitment, leaving Les Miles to choose between returning starter Brandon Harris and Purdue transfer Danny Etling. Harris, also known as “that guy who hands Leonard Fournette the ball,” completed less than 50 percent of his passes against top competition, including a pathetic 6/19 129-yard performance in Tuscaloosa.
Fournette is the best running back we’ve seen since Adrian Peterson, but, as was the case last year, a wholly one-dimensional offense, even when paired with a strong defense (sorry DeVry, former Wisconsin DC Dave Aranda will be an absolute star in Baton Rouge) can only get you so far.
3. Ole Miss
Why: The Rebels probably lost more high-end talent to the NFL Draft than any team not named Ohio State. However, even with Treadwell, Nkemdiche, and Laremy Tunsil no longer on the payroll, the foundation of the greatest three-year recruiting stretch in school history remains, further bolstered by the 2016 acquisition of the aforementioned Patterson and two of the top five overall prospects.
Chad Kelly is back, situated behind an offensive line that may be the nation’s most talented and a deep receiving core that makes you, but apparently not the NCAA, wonder what’s going on down in Oxford.
The “landshark” defense should take a bit of a step back, starting extremely talented, but inexperienced linebackers, and the cornerstone of one of 2015’s best defensive lines.
The Freeze train continues to roll, narrowly missing the SEC Championship game with a close loss to Nick Saban & Co.
Why: Things change quickly in the SEC. Just two full seasons removed from an underthrown Nick Marshall seam pass costing the Tigers a National Championship, the once beloved Gus Malzahn finds himself squarely on the hot seat. Last season, due to the shocking ineptitude of former Heisman hopeful Jeremy Johnson, Coach Malzahn turned to little-known Sean White to run his uptempo offense.
The results were, at best, mixed. This season Johnson and White remain, challenged by a CC transfer and two QB signees, with most prognosticators expecting John Franklin III to start after supposedly being named Auburn’s fastest player.
For the first time ever, I’m much more excited about Auburn on the defensive side of the ball. Carl Lawson leads perhaps the deepest line in the nation. With eight multiple year starters returning, the Tigers feature a rare mix of talent and experience. Though 2015 DC Will Muschamp has taken over for the Old Ball Coach at South Carolina, former LSU DC Kevin Steele was considered one of the most important hires of the offseason.
5. Texas A&M
Why: Now we’re starting the “coaches about to get fired/bolt” portion of the list. Kevin Sumlin, an absolute star while Johnny Football and the litany of first round offensive talents to come through College Station won several titles (wait, no, but they did beat Bama), is flirting with disaster.
This season, the Aggies will start Oklahoma transfer, Trevor Knight, basically Sumlin’s only option after the mass exodus of QB transfers and decommitments that left the QB cupboard completely barren. Knight is not good, and anybody who says he is has either never watched an actual game or bleeds Sooner red.
Yes, I realize Trevor Knight and Oklahoma defeated mighty Nick Saban a couple years ago. I get it. But I also know he was a middling QB in the Big 12, a conference that doesn’t even pretend to play defense and allowed more total points in 2015 than any league in the history of football. Yet, still, Knight lost his job to a walk-on and sports a career QBR that is acceptable only in Gainesville these days.
The defense will be better after eight true freshman saw the field last year and with the return of Von Miller clone defensive end Myles Garrett, but DC John “The Chief” Chevis still has his work cut out for him with an explosive SEC and still a litany of young players.
Put A&M in, for instance, the ACC, and they’re winning 10+ games. But this is real football.
6. Mississippi State
Why: In reality, the Bulldogs got lucky this season. With a pathetic nonconference schedule and the draw of Kentucky from the SEC East, one of Coach Dan Mullen’s youngest and least talented teams will likely make a bowl.
The problem remains the same for Mississippi State: even with a good young coach, how can you recruit to a university with no tradition, poor academics, little national spotlight, an undesirable location, and an administration unwilling to spend the money necessary to compete with the monsters of their own division? It is a struggle, to say the least.
I think this will be the last season for Coach Mullen in Davis Wade Stadium, at least on the home sideline. Mullen has flirted with Michigan, Florida, Texas, and even Georgia to an extent in his attempt at opening the pockets of the oddly stingy Mississippi State administration and athletic program, with little success.
Now star QB Dak Prescott is gone, and Mullen’s hamstrung recruiting efforts, though noble, will show their effect on a young and not SEC West-caliber team. If I had to guess, I would say Coach Mullen, who is still a young and well-regarded commodity in the coaching world, may make his way to Happy Valley next offseason.
Why: How long is the Bret Bielema experiment really going to continue? Clearly the rest of the nation is starting to wonder, as Michigan canceled an upcoming home and home series yesterday with the Razorbacks. Coach Bielema has installed his power rushing attack that ran through middle-tier Big 10 foes, but with varying levels of actual success on the scoreboard.
Arkansas has had its moments, leading the league in rushing and at times looking truly unstoppable, sporting the largest pound-for-pound offensive line in the nation and talented runners highlighted by the now departed Alex Collins.
But still, the mighty SEC “power” (in their own minds) have suffered humiliating defeats (for instance, Toledo), and have averaged a paltry six wins per season during Bielema’s tenure, amidst a pathetic 7-17 SEC conference record.
For those keeping track at home, Bielema has been paid roughly $1 million per total win in Fayetteville, or, in perhaps his pursuit to become the “Hog’s” mascot, Coach has gained ten pounds per W.
The Razorbacks just don’t recruit well enough to compete in the SEC, and with the departure of QB Brandon Allen and RB Alex Collins, Arkansas will struggle to make a bowl. Good call on the away opener vs. TCU, by the way..