By Cole Frederick/Sports Correspondent
2017 SEC Predictions
SEC West Division
1. Alabama (12-0, 8-0)
A season ago, Alabama unquestionably was the best team in the SEC, and no other team in the league was particularly close. Nick Saban’s team has won the SEC three straight seasons, and is the favorite to do so again in 2017. Reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year Jalen Hurts returns for his sophomore season at quarterback, and the Crimson Tide backfield is loaded with talent that includes Damien Harris, Bo Scarbrough and incoming five-star freshman Najee Harris. The offensive line and receiving corps will be among the best in country, and new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll has plenty of talent to work with this fall. The defensive front seven will have to reload, but the secondary will anchor what should be one of the best overall defenses in the nation. The schedule is bookended by tough games away from home versus Florida State and Auburn, but Alabama likely will be in the playoffs even if it splits those two games.
2. Auburn (10-2, 7-1)
Losses: at Clemson, vs. Alabama
Expectations are high on The Plains after last year’s unexpected Sugar Bowl berth and the presence of transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham. Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson will join Stidham in the backfield, while the offensive line has three seniors with plenty of experience returning. Kicker Daniel Carlson might be the Tigers’ biggest weapon, and Auburn is in scoring range anytime they get near the 40-yard line. Defensively, the Tigers were in the top 30 last year and return seven starters. The defensive line will miss the production of Carl Law-son and Montravius Adams, but sophomore Marlon Davidson was disruptive at defensive end last season. Safety Tray Matthews highlights a veteran secondary, and while Auburn probably won’t be as dynamic on defense this year, the Tigers still have the talent to win the SEC West Division. The schedule features difficult road games at Clemson and LSU, but Auburn does get rivals Georgia and Alabama at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
3. LSU (7-5, 3-5)
Losses: at Mississippi State, at Florida, vs. Auburn, at Alabama, at Tennessee
Ed Orgeron is entering his first full season as head coach at LSU. He led the Tigers to a 6-2 finish last season. Derrius Guice returns at running back after a stellar season filling in for Leonard Fournette, but the biggest question for LSU once again is at the quarterback position. Danny Etling will presumably be the starter, but he struggled last year against SEC defenses. The Tigers’ schedule is difficult, including six games away from Baton Rouge. They play Florida, Alabama and Tennessee on the road. If pass rusher Arden Key isn’t fully healthy, the defense might not live up to expectations.
4. Texas A&M (6-6, 3-5)
Losses: at UCLA, vs. Alabama, at Florida, vs. Auburn, at Ole Miss, at LSU
The Aggies finished 8-5 in three straight seasons, which led many to believe Kevin Sumlin could be on the hot seat. Texas A&M plays UCLA on the road to start the season and the schedule is difficult throughout the year. If the Aggies can’t beat the Bruins or Arkansas in September, Sumlin could be really feeling the pressure over the last half of the season. The quarterback situation is unclear, but whoever earns the job has the luxury of throwing to star receiver Christian Kirk. The defense might be in line to take a step back after losing Myles Garrett, so expect the Aggies to be in plenty of shootouts this fall.
5. Mississippi State (7-5, 3-5)
Losses: at Georgia, at Auburn, vs. Alabama, at Texas A&M, at Arkansas
The Bulldogs finished 6-7 last season, but there is reason for some optimism in Starkville. Nick Fitzgerald returns at quarterback after being one of the top rushers in the conference in 2016, and Dan Mullen has had plenty of success with dual-threat quarterbacks in the past. Mississippi State has a pair of tough non-conference games at Louisiana Tech and at home against BYU, and an early season game at Georgia is also difficult. But the defense should be improved and Fitzgerald has the ability to carry the offense for most of the season. If the receiving corps and running backs can produce along with Fitzgerald, the Bulldogs will be tough to stop this year.
6. Arkansas (6-6, 3-5)
Losses: vs. TCU, vs. Texas A&M, at South Carolina, at Alabama, at LSU, at Ole Miss
Bret Bielema is 25-26 in four seasons at Arkansas, and the Razorbacks don’t look like they’re ready to compete for the SEC West title this year, either. Austin Allen returns at quarterback, but the Hogs lost talent at skill positions and on the offensive line with the exception of center Frank Ragnow. The defense might also take a step backwards, and the Razorbacks face several dynamic offenses throughout the season. A non-conference home game against TCU could set the tone for the season, and a neutral site game against Texas A&M will be pivotal for both teams. Bielema isn’t necessarily on the hot seat now, but another mediocre season might put the pressure on him entering 2018.
7. Ole Miss (6-6, 2-6)
Losses: at Alabama, at Auburn, Vanderbilt, vs. LSU, vs. Kentucky, at Mississippi State
The Rebels went through a coaching change in the off-season after Hugh Freeze resigned, and interim coach Matt Luke has a difficult task ahead of him. The Rebels are very talented on offense with quarterback Shea Patterson returning, and he has a dynamic receiving corps and veteran offensive line. The first issue with Ole Miss will be the defense. The Rebels struggled on that side of the ball in 2016 and will likely continue to do so this season. But the primary issue with this team will be motivation. The Rebels are banned from reaching a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions and cannot win the SEC West title. The schedule is difficult enough already, and with no championship to play for, it’s hard to imagine the Rebels being competitive every week of the season.
SEC East Division
1. Florida (9-3, 7-1)
Losses: vs. Michigan, at Kentucky, vs. Florida State
Jim McElwain guided the Gators to back-to-back SEC East titles in his first two seasons in Gainesville, but Florida isn’t the favorite to do so this season. That honor belongs to Georgia, but the Gators have the talent to make their way back to Atlanta again. The quarterback situation is still a question mark, but Notre Dame transfer Malik Zaire is the favorite to earn the starting role. Florida’s defense has carried the team for the last two years, but the majority of the secondary from those two seasons is in the NFL now. If Florida is going to find its way back in the SEC title game, the offense must carry the team for stretches this season. The non-conference schedule is very difficult with games against Michigan and Florida State, but the conference schedule is manageable as the Gators play Tennessee, LSU and Texas A&M in The Swamp. The division likely will come down to the game against Georgia in late October.
2. Georgia (8-4, 5-3)
Losses: at Notre Dame, at Tennessee, vs. Florida, at Auburn
After an up-and-down 8-5 season, the Bulldogs return the most talent of any team in the division. Quar-terback Jacob Eason is expected to make strides in his sophomore year and is surrounded by two dynamic tailbacks in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Defensively, Georgia has plenty of talent returning, and second-year head coach Kirby Smart has the roster to win the division and compete for the SEC championship. The Bulldogs do play six games away from home, including non-conference games at Notre Dame and Georgia Tech, and their two biggest games of the season are away from home against Auburn and Florida. If the Bulldogs can beat Florida, they likely will win the division for the first time since 2012.
3. Kentucky (8-4, 5-3)
Losses: at South Carolina, at Mississippi State, at Georgia, Louisville
Mark Stoops and the Wildcats finally broke through last season and made a bowl game, and it notched a victory over rival Louisville to finish the regular season. Kentucky is now expected to take another step forward, and Stoops has recruited well enough for the Wildcats to possibly contend for the SEC East title. Kentucky plays Tennessee and Florida in Lexington and cross with Mississippi State and Ole Miss from the West Division. The Wildcats aren’t as talented as teams like Georgia, Florida, or even Tennessee, but they are still capable of being a surprising contender this year.
4. Tennessee (8-4, 4-4)
Losses: at Florida, at Alabama, at Kentucky, at Missouri
The Volunteers were the favorites to win the SEC East last season, but a combination of injuries and inexplicable losses sent them to a second straight 9-4 season. They must replace Joshua Dobbs at quarterback and defensive end Derek Barnett on defense, but Butch Jones has recruited well throughout his four seasons in Knoxville. Tennessee is still talented enough to win the division, but Jones will need to find consistency at quarterback. The offensive line should be improved but the offense might struggle early on in the season.
5. South Carolina (5-7, 3-5)
Losses: N.C. State, at Missouri, at Texas A&M, at Tennessee, at Georgia, vs. Florida, vs. Clemson
Will Muschamp’s team was among the biggest surprises in the SEC last season, and quarterback Jake Bentley returns for his sophomore year. The offense should continue to make strides this fall, but it’s the defense that might hold the Gamecocks from competing for the SEC East title.
The schedule does South Carolina no favors, as the Gamecocks play North Carolina State and Clemson in non-conference action. A home game versus Louisiana Tech won’t be easy either, and the Gamecocks cross with Arkansas and Texas A&M from the SEC West. A bowl game is certainly possible, but the Gamecocks still might be a year or two away from contending for the division.
6. Vanderbilt (5-7, 2-6)
Losses: vs. Kansas State, vs. Alabama, at Florida, vs. Georgia, vs. Kentucky, vs. Tennessee, at South Carolina
Vanderbilt broke through and made it to a bowl game last year, and Derek Mason’s team pulled off upsets over Ole Miss, Georgia and Tennessee. Star running back Ralph Webb returns, and the offense as a whole has the potential to make strides after improving down the stretch last season. Defensively, the Commodores must find a replacement for star linebacker Zach Cunningham,
an All-SEC performer. Van-dy has a brutal schedule that includes non-conference games against Kansas State, Western Kentucky and Middle Tennessee. The Commodores cross with Alabama from the West, so reaching six wins again might prove to be a difficult challenge for the Nashville squad.
7. Missouri (6-6, 2-6)
Losses: vs. Auburn, at Kentucky, at Georgia, vs. Florida, at Vanderbilt, at Arkansas
Barry Odom’s first season at Missouri resulted in a disappointing 4-8 season, but the Tigers ended the year on a positive note with a 28-24 upset win over Ar-kansas. Missouri returns 10 starters on offense, included quarterback Drew Lock. The non-conference schedule is relatively easy, and the Tigers should win all four of its games outside of the SEC. The defense, however, might be an issue in 2017. It was among the worst of any Power 5 school last season and there isn’t much reason for optimism this fall, either. The unit could be slightly improved, but Missouri faces several dynamic offenses throughout the season. A bowl game is within reach for the Tigers this year, and although they aren’t ready to contend for the SEC East title, they certainly are capable of an upset.