The Southeastern Conference is coming off a down year of sorts after its teams went 6-7 during bowl season. The SEC finished with only one team in the top 10 of the final AP Top 25 Poll (Alabama). Meanwhile, the Pac-12, Big Ten, and ACC all had at least two teams in the top 10. Alabama has helped the conference claim three consecutive berths in the College Football Playoff. The question is– can the Tide sustain that for another year? Better yet, can a different squad knock Nick Saban and Co. from atop the conference, which has won the conference three years running? Here is a quick preview of the SEC West for 2017.
Offensive coordinator and Brian Daboll should help Jalen Hurts improve his passing as a sophomore, Alabama’s stable of running backs returns for 2017, including Bo Scarbrough, and sophomore Jonah Williams could seamlessly fill the hole left by Cam Robinson at left tackle. The Tide lost several first-round caliber players to the NFL draft, including four on defense. The drop in experience could be noticeable early, especially with a top-five matchup against Florida State to start the season.
Austin Allen has a chance to be the best passer in the conference in 2017. He completed 61 percent of his throws for 3,430 yards and 25 touchdowns to 15 interceptions as a junior. He should improve in his second year as a starter. Bret Bielema has coached several talented players at Arkansas but has only accumulated a 25-26 record after four seasons in Fayetteville. That includes a 10-22 mark in SEC play. It must improve this season, or the hot seat will be calling.
Running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson both return to an offense that ranked sixth nationally with 271.3 rush yards per game. Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham could be the Tigers’ first viable threat at quarterback since Nick Marshall in 2014. The Tigers lose significant talent on defense, especially in defensive linemen Montravius Adams and Carl Lawson. The two combined for 14.5 sacks in 2016 — over half of the Tigers’ sacks total in 2016.
Ed Orgeron has breathed life into a program that stagnated under Les Miles. The Tigers — who bring in the architect of Pitt’s high-powered offense, Matt Canada — might not miss a beat in their rush game in 2017 with SEC-leading rusher Derrius Guice returning to the backfield. LSU loses three talented front-seven defenders in Kendell Beckwith, Tashawn Bower and Duke Riley — all seniors. The Tigers have the talent to replace them, but there will be a significant dropoff in experience.
Nick Fitzgerald was electric at times as a sophomore, and had the second-most rushing yards in the SEC, only behind Guice. The Bulldogs will find ways to give him more opportunities to make plays. The Bulldogs come off a season where they tied for 108th in total defense with in-state rival Ole Miss. Regardless of offensive talent, that won’t cut it in any conference.
Quarterback Shea Patterson makes life after Chad Kelly seems not so scary. The former five-star recruit was the No. 1 overall pro-style QB in the 2016 class according to 247Sports, and should be ready for next season after starting the last three games in 2016. Much like Mississippi State, Ole Miss’ Landshark defense has to see improvement if Hugh Freeze and Co. want to compete for the SEC title in 2017.
Wide receiver Christian Kirk returns, providing some measure of security for the quarterback who replaces Trevor Knight. Apart from his 928 receiving yards, Kirk also had 455 total return yards in 2016 and three punt return touchdowns. He’s simply electric. Three of A&M’s four top receivers (Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds, and Ricky Seals-Jones) enter the NFL Draft. That will be tough for whichever quarterback takes over the position in 2017. Losing an incredible talent like Myles Garrett on the defensive line hurts as well.