From time-to-time we’re asked to pick a team or player we think will be a surprise. Obviously by definition, if we knew the answer it really would not be a surprise, right? Nevertheless, we trudge ahead.
The Southeastern Conference recently had its media days, a part of which is for journalists to predict the final 2016 SEC football standings. To review the reporters came up with:
- Ole Miss
- Texas A&M
- Mississippi State
- South Carolina
Alabama was predicted to be the overall champion.
So which team or teams would we surmise might be a surprise – a good surprise or a bad surprise?
We had done our homework before SEC Media Days, and, as expected, we heard nothing that made us alter our thoughts.
We had picked it:
1. Alabama (8-0 SEC, 12-0 overall)
2. LSU (7-1, 11-1)
3. Texas A&M (6-2, 10-2)
4. (T) Ole Miss (4-4, 7-5)
4, (T) Arkansas (4-4, 8-4)
6. (T) Auburn (3-5, 6-6)
6. (T) Mississippi State (3-5, 7-5)
1. Tennessee (6-2, 10-2)
2. (T) Florida (5-3, 8-4)
2. (T) Georgia (5-3, 8-4)
4. Missouri (3-5, 7-5)
5. Kentucky (2-6, 6-6)
6. South Carolina (1-7, 4-8)
7. Vanderbilt (0-8, 2-10)
We also had Alabama as the overall champion.
But to suggest possible surprises:
Our darkhorse candidate – picked fourth in the West by the media – is Texas A&M. First of all, the Aggies have a number of very, very good players. The defense has not been good, but this will be the second year for one of the nation’s top defensive coordinators (John Chavis) in College Station and we expect his imprint to show up this year. On the offensive side, there are excellent receivers and we think adding Trevor Knight from Oklahoma is a big upgrade at quarterback. To be sure, Knight’s resume is primarily one game, leading the Sooners to a win over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl three years ago. There is a reason he lost his starting job at OU. He’s not Johnny Manziel, but he seems to be enough to make A&M a solid team.
Additionally, the schedule sets up very well for A&M. The Aggies start SEC play at Auburn, then meet Arkansas in Arlington which will be almost like a home game, and play South Carolina on the road. They then catch Tennessee coming off back-to-back crucial games for the Vols, Georgia and Florida, and before Tennessee hosts Alabama. They have an open date before playing Alabama and then close SEC play at Mississippi State and with home games against Ole Miss and LSU.
As for a negative surprise, we’ve had second thoughts about our choice – and the media choice – to win the East.
True, Tennessee returns a quarterback, some gifted running backs, and a veteran team for Coach Butch Jones, but we can’t help but think about those blown games a year ago. Those are players and coaches who couldn’t close the deal when they had victories in their grasp.
We now lean towards the possibility Tennessee will be out of the race after a tough SEC stretch beginning with its fourth game – the aforementioned stretch of Florida, at Georgia, at Texas A&M, and Alabama.
We also think that Ole Miss could drop down a bit, in part because of the loss of very good players and in part because of the distraction of its NCAA investigation(s).
Teams with former Alabama assistants as head coaches could battle in Jacksonville, Fla., to be the mildly surprise team of the East. Kirby Smart takes over a Georgia program that has good players, but a record of underachievement, and Jim McElwain has probably upgraded at quarterback with Luke Del Rio and could repeat as SEC East champion at Florida.
Additionally, there is a team that by any other name would seem to be overrated. That team lost its quarterback, a Heisman Trophy winner and his backup at tailback, a first round draft choice at center, the leader of the defense at middle linebacker, two great defensive linemen, and an all-conference cornerback who was also one of the top punt return men in the nation. The team also has four new assistant coaches, three of them on defense.
That, of course, would be Alabama. But just as we look at Tennessee not winning the tough games, we look at Coach Nick Saban’s record of his teams almost always winning when the chips are on the table. So, no, we’re not making the Crimson Tide an overrated team.