By Cole Frederick
SEC East Division
1. Tennessee (10-2, 6-2)
Losses: at Texas A&M, vs. Alabama
Winning the East is the next logical step for Butch Jones and Company, but playoff consideration still might be a bit much for this group. The Vols certainly are talented and have an advantage playing in a division with only two other teams capable of making it to Atlanta. Cross-division matchups against Texas A&M and Alabama are challenging, but that shouldn’t be enough to prevent Tennessee from reaching the SEC Championship Game for the first time in nearly a decade.
2. Florida (9-3, 6-2)
Losses: at Tennessee, at Arkansas, at Florida State
The defending East champions will be right back in the mix for the division crown again. The Gators are loaded on defense, and while the offense won’t be dynamic, it should be improved from a season ago. Road games at Tennessee and Florida State highlight a difficult schedule that includes the annual neutral site rivalry with Georgia and a highly anticipated home game against LSU.
3. Georgia (9-3, 5-3)
Losses: at Ole Miss, vs. Tennessee, vs. Florida
Despite being in only his first season as a head coach, Kirby Smart is expected to win the SEC East. Mark Richt left plenty of talent on the roster, including a pair of star running backs in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. The quarterback position is a concern, but high expectations already surround true freshman Jacob Eason, who likely will be the starter at some point throughout the year. The schedule is tough early on, and the Week 1 contest against North Carolina in Atlanta will be a challenge. Regardless, the Bulldogs will be in the mix for the division title at the end of the year.
4. Vanderbilt (5-7, 2-6)
Losses: at Georgia Tech, vs. Florida, at Georgia, at Auburn, at Missouri, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Tennessee
While Vanderbilt isn’t close to being a contender in the East, the Commodores did make strides throughout the 2015 season, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Vandy has been offensively challenged over the last two seasons, but running back Ralph Webb is one of the most talented players in the conference. That being said, a difficult schedule might prevent the ‘Dores from going bowling in 2016.
5. Kentucky (5-7, 2-6)
Losses: at Florida, at Alabama, vs. Vanderbilt, vs. Mississippi State, vs. Georgia, at Tennessee, at Louisville
Mark Stoops has yet to lead the Wildcats to a bowl game, but this might be his best chance thus far. Kentucky will be underdogs in at least five games this year but might be favored in the rest. Seven wins probably is the ceiling for this team, but the floor is as low as any team in the conference. Stoops likely needs at least six wins to retain his job.
6. South Carolina (4-8, 1-7)
Losses: at Vanderbilt, at Mississippi State, at Kentucky, vs. Texas A&M, vs. Georgia, vs. Tennessee, at Florida, at Clemson
Expectations are low for Will Muschamp entering his first season in Columbia, and the Gamecocks won’t be expected to win many games this fall. Muschamp is a proven defensive coach, so look for South Carolina to gradually improve defensively over the course of the season. Lack of talent might prevent the Gamecocks from going bowling, but Muschamp has an opportunity to build a solid foundation this fall in Columbia.
7. Missouri (4-8, 1-7)
Losses: at West Virginia, vs. Georgia, at LSU, at Florida, vs. Kentucky, at South Carolina, at Tennessee, vs. Arkansas
The transition from the Gary Pinkel to the Barry Odom era won’t be without a few bumps in the road. Odom is known for his stout defenses, but his Tigers will be challenged immediately against West Virginia’s high-powered offense. The schedule is daunting, and the talent returning – or lack thereof – might make it difficult for Missouri to reach a bowl game.
1. LSU (11-1, 7-1)
Losses: at Florida
LSU is as talented as any team in the country, and Les Miles knows it. As absurd as it sounds, another 9-3 season might not be enough to earn Miles another season in Baton Rouge. It’s not necessarily playoffs-or-bust for the Tigers, but LSU at least needs to be in the picture at the end of the season. Beating Alabama for the first time in six tries would be a good start, and at least winning the West Division would be enough to earn Miles another year. LSU has the talent, especially with star running back Leonard Fournette returning, to win a national title. But the pressure will be on Miles to deliver.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1)
Losses: at LSU
The defending national champions are the favorites once again, and the 2016 version of the Crimson Tide will look very similar to past Nick Saban teams. A stout defense, dominant offensive line, strong running game and bevy of playmakers on the perimeter will be more than enough to overshadow questions at quarterback and the kicking game. The schedule includes road games at Ole Miss, Tennessee and LSU, but the Tide should be right back in the mix for a national title yet again.
3. Ole Miss (9-3, 6-2)
Losses: vs. Florida State, vs. Alabama, at LSU
Hugh Freeze has turned Ole Miss into a contender in the SEC, but the Rebels haven’t been able to break through with a division crown yet. Freeze has another talented team returning, including quarterback Chad Kelly, but his Rebels face a very difficult schedule. In the first month of the season, Ole Miss plays Florida State, Alabama and Georgia. A 1-3 start would take the Rebels out of contention early, but a 3-1 start would have them in position to finally reach the SEC title game.
4. Auburn (7-5, 4-4)
Losses: vs. Clemson, vs. LSU, at Ole Miss, at Georgia, at Alabama
Auburn enters 2016 under the radar after a disappointing season a year ago. The Tigers still have talent – particularly on the offensive and defensive lines – but quarterback is still a major concern. Running back depth is also a problem, especially after starter Jovon Robinson was kicked off the team. Auburn faces two playoff contenders in the first month of the season in Clemson and LSU, but the most important game on the schedule is the Sept. 17 home game against Texas A&M.
5. Texas A&M (8-4, 4-4) Losses: at Auburn, at Alabama, vs. Ole Miss, vs. LSU
The Aggies have been labeled as the “sleeper” team to win the West the past few seasons but have fallen short each year. Kevin Sumlin’s team has the talent to compete with the top of the league yet again, but his teams have lacked the physicality and consistency to compete annually with Alabama and LSU. Texas A&M faces UCLA, Auburn and Arkansas early in the season, and the results of those games will dictate the entire season – and perhaps Kevin Sumlin’s future – in College Station.
6. Arkansas (6-6, 3-5)
Losses: at TCU, vs. Texas A&M, vs. Alabama, vs. Ole Miss, at Auburn, vs. LSU
The Razorbacks are replacing their quarterback, two running backs and their best receiving option, yet expectations haven’t changed much in Fayetteville. Bret Bielema’s team will be a tough out, but the schedule is brutal in 2016. An early season non-conference matchup against TCU could set the tone for the season for the Hogs.
7. Mississippi State (6-6, 2-6)
Losses: at LSU, vs. Auburn, vs. Texas A&M, at Alabama, vs. Arkansas, at Ole Miss
Replacing Dak Prescott – who might be the best player in school history – will be challenging enough for Dan Mullen’s team. But the Bulldogs also face a very tough schedule, and while they still have a good chance at reaching a bowl game, they will likely need to pull off an upset or two to get there.
LSU over Tennessee
College Football Playoff
1. LSU (12-1)
2. Florida State (12-1)
3. Ohio State (12-1)
4. Alabama (11-1)
Florida State over Alabama
Week 1 Preview and Predictions
Appalachian State at Tennessee (-20.5). The Volunteers’ marquee non-conference game is next week against Virginia Tech, but they can’t afford to overlook a dangerous Appalachian State team. The Mountaineers return several starters from a team that finished 11-2 a season ago and are talented enough to pull off the upset. Prediction: Tennessee 38, Appalachian State 17.
South Carolina at Vanderbilt (-3.5). Will Muschamp’s first game as South Carolina’s head coach is a conference road game that could ultimately decide whether his team goes bowling this season. Neither team is expected to have a potent offense, so expect a defensive struggle in Nashville. Vanderbilt’s Ralph Webb is the most talented offensive player in this matchup. If the Co-mmodores win, he will be the difference maker. Prediction: Vanderbilt 16, South Carolina 13.