The SEC should return to being the most competitive and talented conference in the nation next season after a 2016 that saw a drop off from everyone but Alabama. The Crimson Tide are still the cream of the crop, but bitter rivals Auburn and LSU are closing the gap, while Georgia returns a team loaded with veteran stars.
Florida, fresh off two straight SEC East titles, will look to take the next step, while Kentucky tries to compete for its first divisional title in school history.
While next season is still months away, it is never too early to glimpse at each team and see where they rank compared to their conference foes.
How does your team stack up? Let’s take a look.
Early 2017 SEC Football Power Rankings
It feels like it has been more than two years since the Tigers won back-to-back SEC East titles given how quickly they have gone downhill. That’s especially true for a defense that was atrocious in 2016. The expectations in Columbia are not what they are at most SEC schools, but another losing season will have people calling for Barry Odom’s firing.
A trip to a bowl game earned Derek Mason some relief from the hot seat, but with running back Ralph Webb and quarterback Kyle Shurmur returning, anything less than another postseason trip will be a major letdown.
12. South Carolina
In his second season as Florida’s head coach in 2012, Will Muschamp led the Gators to a 11-2 record and Sugar Bowl berth. While that is a little far-fetched for the Gamecocks in his second year in Columbia, the talent, including quarterback Jake Bentley, is improving.
11. Ole Miss
What happened to the Ole Miss defense that was so good in previous seasons? The Rebels finished No. 111 in the nation in total defense, allowing 461.3 yards per game. If this isn’t corrected, all the skills of new quarterback Shae Patterson will go for naught.
10. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs showed some life late in the season, but quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is going to have to find some help. The defense wasn’t good either, something new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will have to fix in short order.
The latter half of this season was, for all purposes, a disaster in Knoxville. How will Butch Jones rebound, especially with a new quarterback coming in along with a new offensive coordinator. If he doesn’t fix what ails the Volunteers, this could easily be his last season wearing Tennessee orange.
It has been four years, and while the Razorbacks certainly aren’t as bad as they were in Bret Bielema’s first season, they haven’t improved as much as most thought they would when he left Madison, Wisconsin for Fayetteville, Arkansas. If the Hogs aren’t better in 2017, the pressure will grow.
7. Texas A&M
Kevin Sumlin is another coach at a crossroads. The Aggies will again have a new quarterback under center with Trevor Knight graduating, and superstar Myles Garrett is now gone. Can Sumlin survive another mediocre season now that a certain someone is with the Longhorns at Texas?
My dark horse for the SEC East, the Wildcats return budding star in Benny Snell Jr. at running back and a defense that improved over the course of the year. Watch out for Mark Stoops and his team in 2017.
The defense is losing a lot of talent – Jalen Tabor, Marcus Maye, to name a couple – and still need to solve its problems on offense, mostly at quarterback. All signs point toward Feleipe Franks being the guy under center for the Gators, but how that works out will go a long way in if Florida is a national title contender, or just happy to win the SEC East again.
New (permanent) coach, new offensive coordinator, same problem with putting the Tigers too high: no quarterback. Will Danny Etling grow as a passer, or will one of the freshmen – Lowell Narcisse or Myles Brennan – come in and pull a Jalen Hurts? That will be for Matt Canada to decide.
I hope Kirby Smart enjoyed that pressure-free first season, because the expectations are going to be kicked up way high with the return of running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel and the advancement of quarterback Jacob Eason after his freshman season.
The pressure is on head coach Gus Malzahn to win big with Jarrett Stidham arriving on The Plains. Three straight mediocre seasons has the Tiger fan base not happy, but that can all change with a talented group returning, including 2016 SEC leading rusher Kam Pettway.
It is the same story as always in Tuscaloosa, as the Crimson Tide will lose some key players but have role players and freshmen fill in immediately as the talent continues to arrive for Nick Saban. After missing out on a repeat national championship by one second, this team might be as motivated as ever. That’s scary for the rest of the conference.