We’re just past what one website termed the college football “winter solstice” — that is, the midway point between the national championship game and the 2016 season-opener between California and Hawaii in Australia.
What better time to reveal what was an exceedingly popular discussion last year in this space, our 5 bold predictions for the SEC football season? Though there still might be some surprise attrition from or additions to various teams over the next three months, spring practice is over.
In other words, the hay is in the barn about as much as it’s going to be prior to the beginning of fall camp. I’ve put at least 15 minutes of thought and another 10 minutes of research into these, so here goes …
1. Tennessee will beat Alabama for the first time in a decade
It’s no surprise to regular readers I’ve been high on this year’s Volunteers for some time. Tennessee returns 18 starters, including a potentially dynamic quarterback in Joshua Dobbs, from a team that lost four games by a total of 16 points last year. The Vols will no doubt have Oct. 15 vs. the Crimson Tide circled on their calendar, and this is the year they finally get over the hump. It’s been a while. The last time Tennessee beat Alabama (2006), Mike Shula and Phillip Fulmer were the two head coaches. But unless the still-unresolved off-field controversy engulfs Butch Jones at some point (and there’s no evidence thus far that it will), this will be a memorable year in Knoxville.
2. There will be 2 (and possibly 3) SEC coaching changes by season’s end
We had three SEC coaching changes last season, though two were retirements by veteran coaches nearing the end of the line (South Carolina’s Steve Spurrier and Missouri’s Gary Pinkel). Only Georgia’s Mark Richt was dismissed for performance-related issues. We might see multiple firings this year, though I believe LSU’s Les Miles is safe for now. Unless Texas A&M jumps back into contention this season (highly unlikely given the chaos that continues to swirl around that program), Kevin Sumlin is almost certainly cooked. So that’s one. I don’t have any faith in Mark Stoops’ ability to avoid another late-season collapse at Kentucky. There’s two. The third? You’ll have to read on to find out.
3. Vanderbilt will finish ahead of at least two teams in the SEC East
Though it didn’t necessarily show up in their record, the Commodores were vastly improved in their second season under Derek Mason. In a not-unrelated note, Mason — a well-respected former defensive coordinator at Stanford — took over control of the Vandy defense in 2015. The Commodores have 16 returning starters, most in the SEC after LSU and Tennessee. A rugged (for Vanderbilt) road schedule — including games at Kentucky, Western Kentucky, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Missouri — will keep the Commodores from finishing with a winning record, but they will be far from the worst team in the league. South Carolina and Missouri, and possibly Kentucky, are all in worse shape going into this season than is Vanderbilt.
4. Alabama’s defense will be better than it was in 2015
It’s almost counter-intuitive, given that the Crimson Tide loses quite a bit of depth with the departure of A’Shawn Robinson, Jarran Reed, Reggie Ragland, Cyrus Jones and even D.J. Pettway. However, Alabama got a big boost when Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams opted not to enter the NFL draft. Those two, along with Ryan Anderson, Da’Shawn Hand, Rashaan Evans and Reuben Foster, give the Crimson Tide what should be another fantastic front seven. The secondary should be just as good again, if not better. Alabama had to replace two defensive coaches (Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker) after the season and unexpectedly had to do so with another (Bo Davis) just last week. But assuming Karl Dunbar in fact the hire on the defensive line, all three new faces have experience in Saban’s system. The transition should be relatively seamless.
5. Auburn will post its second straight losing SEC record
The Tigers improved toward the end of the year last season; that’s pretty much indisputable. And to their credit, they did not quit after a disastrous early-season slide. Trouble is, Auburn still has no answer at quarterback and did not upgrade after changes on the defensive coaching staff. Picking up Vanderbilt on the SEC schedule helps, though Texas A&M and Mississippi State are the only other likely wins on the Tigers’ conference slate. LSU, Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama are almost certain losses. Arkansas might be the swing game. A loss in that one would put the Tigers at 3-5 in the league. With a loss to Clemson in the opener (a virtual certainty), Auburn would finish 6-6. Though I’m not 100 percent certain it will happen, I’ll be consistent in what I’ve said in the past. If Gus Malzahn doesn’t win at least eight games this year, he’s done.
So that’s five bold predictions for the 2016 SEC football season. I stand behind these, and plan to re-visit them at season’s end.
What do you think? Am I right on, or have I been spending too much time around Laremy Tunsil’s gas mask?
What are your bold predictions for 2016? I’ll take your comments and questions on that or anything else on your mind beginning at 10 a.m.