The SEC’s reputation as the preeminent college football conference was dealt an uppercut last season. Aside from Alabama’s ritual of dominance, the conference was cluttered with 8-win programs with various, gaping holes. As a result, the Big Ten temporarily snagged the throne, only until Ohio State lost to Clemson 31-0 in the College Football Playoff and everybody returned to reality.
Keep this mental note: The SEC runs college football, and after a down season hindered by middling-to-below-average quarterback play, the conference is set for a rebound.
But as it stands, all 14 teams have questions to answer, some more serious than others.
Alabama — Can anybody stop them?
As long as Nick Saban is the head coach in Tuscaloosa, the Crimson Tide remain the thorn in the SEC’s side. Despite fielding a true freshman quarterback last season, nine SEC teams attempted to blow up the Death Star and failed. Although Alabama loses key defensive pieces such as Jonathan Allen, Reuben Foster, and Tim Williams, Roll Tide reloads better than any program and shouldn’t miss a beat on that side of the ball. Plus, the offense — featuring quarterback Jalen Hurts, a host of quality running backs, and stud wide receiver Calvin Ridley — is no longer held hostage by Lane Kiffin’s shenanigans and Steve Sarkisian’s ineptitude.
But the worst thing that could’ve happened to the SEC was that college football’s greatest dynasty experienced failure in heartbreaking fashion on the game’s biggest stage. After falling to Clemson in the championship game, Saban and his Empire are about to embark on a revenge tour of potentially catastrophic proportions.
Arkansas — Who cares?
Seriously, who cares? What can Arkansas accomplish? Of the 14 programs, they’re what, the 9th most enticing destination?
Bret Bielema is great at two things: Going to the Rose Bowl at Wisconsin and selecting a wife. But he’s not cut out for the SEC, and as long as he’s recruiting Big Ten caliber players to Fayetteville, he’ll continue to rack in those 7-win seasons.
Auburn — Is Jarrett Stidham the next over-hyped Auburn quarterback?
As an ex-Auburn fan turned Alabama fan, I fondly remember the Jeremy Johnson hype train. Not because I knew its inevitable doom, but because so many were convinced Johnson was a legitimate Heisman candidate. During my first year at the University of Tennessee, I entered The Daily Beacon office in my Auburn hoodie (equipped with a giant bottle of Naked Juice) and listened as my peers raved over Johnson. I laughed in the background, chugging my Mighty Mango Naked Juice, fully understanding the dumpster fire the season was about to become.
Only two years later and again Auburn faces a similar scenario with Jarrett Stidham, and the feelings I have about the Baylor transfer are identical to my feelings toward Johnson.
Here’s a simple truth in college football: No quarterback who ever attended Baylor is any good. Period. End of story.
Florida — Will an offense finally show up?
The back-to-back reigning SEC East champions (quite the accomplishment) lose a pair of talented cornerbacks (Quincy Wilson and Jauan Jennings’ offspring), but defense is never the problem in Gainesville. It’s always that dreadful offense.
Here are a few Florida Gator quarterbacks who’ve thrown passes since 2015: Treon Harris, Will “PED” Grier, Luke Del Rio, and Austin Appleby.
Never thought I would say this, but where is Tim Tebow when you need him?
Georgia — Will fans remain patient with Kirby Smart?
We all know the answer is an emphatic NO. Smart led the Bulldogs to an 8-5 record in his first season EVER as a head coach with a true freshman starting at quarterback. They were a Tennessee Hail Mary away from nine victories. Yet, Smart was labeled by some as a disappointment. So for all those lovable fans down in Athens, remain patient with Kirby Smart. No, he didn’t inherit a rebuilding project, but in order for him to elevate Georgia football to a championship level, he needs a few years to establish his culture.
Kentucky — Will we finally respect the job Mark Stoops has done?
Kentucky is a basketball school, not a football school, so with that in mind, let’s applaud Mark Stoops for a moment. He inherited a 2-win program, led them to a 2-10 record during his first season, but has since built the Wildcats into a respectable program. Last season, Big Blue Nation went 7-6, including a landmark victory — at least for them — over Louisville. So while Tennessee fans will always continue to poke fun at one of their little brothers, Kentucky football isn’t a complete joke anymore.
LSU — How soon before Baton Rouge turns on Ed Orgeron?
Everybody in the state of Louisiana seems to love Ed Orgeron… for now. Trust me, that’s going to change once the fan base understands he isn’t the appropriate replacement for a guy who ate grass. Things down in Baton Rouge are funky right now, and although I expect Derrius Guice’s play to get LSU to 10 wins next season, it won’t be long before Orgeron is out of a job.
Mississippi State — Will Dak Prescott’s shadow loom too large for Nick Fitzgerald?
Do not underestimate what’s about to happen here with Dak Prescott. He garnered star status last season, but if the Dallas Cowboys replicate the success they experienced last season, then Prescott will transform into a superstar, which will in turn have a negative impact on Nick Fitzgerald. It’s an unfortunate situation because Fitzgerald is playing in such close proximity to Prescott’s outstanding career in Starkville that the poor guy isn’t even afforded time to escape this exponentially growing shadow.
Missouri — Like Arkansas, who cares?
The damage done at Missouri thanks to the snowflake student body is currently a work in progress. Until then, there’s not much to care about in Columbia.
Ole Miss — How screwed is the program thanks to Hugh Freeze?
Ole Miss had its moment in the limelight, beating Alabama twice and winning a Sugar Bowl, but that Godly man Hugh Freeze has really sent his program to hell. We don’t yet know what the NCAA is going to do to Ole Miss (it’ll be bad), and we don’t know if Freeze will survive it (he won’t), so whether it’s after this year or the next year, college football in Oxford, Mississippi, is about to enter the “Who Cares” realm with Arkansas and Missouri.
South Carolina — Will the Gamecocks’ experienced defense take the next step?
A quick glance over South Carolina’s depth chart revealed that the Gamecocks sneakily have one of the SEC’s most experienced defensive units, including three seniors on the defensive line. The focus is understandably on the quarterback who defeated Tennessee despite technically being a high school senior, but South Carolina’s defense — particularly its run defense — was the team’s Achilles heel at various points last season. Assuming the experienced group has taken the necessary strides, the Gamecocks are a dark horse SEC East candidate.
Tennessee — What is its offensive identity going to be?
The biggest problem in Knoxville last season wasn’t Butch Jones’ postgame quotes or the injuries, but the team’s lack of an identity on offense. Was there ever a sense that teams facing Tennessee feared one component of the Vols’ offense to the point where they put all their defensive eggs in one basket in order to stop it? I didn’t think so. We never knew if the offense was built around Joshua Dobbs’ dual-threat abilities (by the way, Dobbs was an Aerospace Engineer), or the 1-2 backfield tandem of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara (oh what could’ve been). That’s certainly a strike against Butch as a coach, as well as the injuries, but now the team doesn’t face the same conundrum entering this season. It’s clear that the offense should be centered around John Kelly, but even if it isn’t, Tennessee needs to enter 2017 with a transparent plan on offense.
Texas A&M — Will they stop playing like a Big 12 school?
Remember back in 2012 when Texas A&M crashed the SEC straight from the Big 12, took down Alabama with a freshman quarterback, went 10-2, and destroyed Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl? At that point, Kevin Sumlin — and Johnny Manziel of course — looked like Gods. Ever since, the Aggiesare who we thought they were: The SEC’s Big 12 team. And that means they don’t play a lick of defense. None. Zero. Silch. Nada. A goose egg. But if Texas A&M is the SEC’s Big 12 school, what does that make Mizzou? An Ohio Valley Conference team?
Vanderbilt — Is Ralph Webb going to be too much of a crutch?
The Commodores went 6-7 last season (a great season by Vanderbilt standards) and defeated Tennessee by 11 points. As much as it hurts those in Knoxville, Nashville currently owns the Tennessee collegiate football crown. It shouldn’t remain in Music City much longer, especially if the team relies too heavily on the services of Ralph Webb. If Vanderbilt can find any sort of offensive balance in a conference whose defenses relish on the opportunity to play one-dimensional offenses, Anchor Down can make another run at a bowl game.