ROANOKE’S SEC OUTLOOK

This may be the year where the SEC truly cannibalizes itself. Every team in the West is talented – but someone has to lose all those intra-division games. The East will rough itself up, too, and, in the end, there will not be many East Division records above .500 in SEC play. Ultimately, look for Bama and Georgia to survive into the Championship Game.

THE EAST

Georgia

Georgia has tremendous running backs in Nick Chubb, Keith Marshall and Sony Michel. This stable of runners returns along with four starting offensive linemen. The big question mark here is QB – where the job is up for grabs with Brice Ramsey the presumed frontrunner. New offensive coordinator Brian Schottenheimer is as exciting as a dish of sherbet – but with this o-line and these runners, he may be the perfect match. Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, Lorenzo Carter and Quincy Mauger are back on defense. D-Line is a question mark, and corners may be tested too. The defense is solid, but not spectacular.

From the West, Georgia has the misfortune of facing both Bama and @ Auburn. The Bulldogs also must navigate a road game at Tennessee the week after facing Bama. Georgia does have the luxury of catching defending East Champ Missouri in Athens. Of course, the Bulldogs dismantled the Tigers in Columbia last year and still managed to fumble the Division.

Georgia has the most talent in the East and should win on the coattails of their stud running backs. Pick: 10-2; 6-2.

Tennessee

The Vols have been the topic of much hype heading into the 2015 campaign. And a lot of the ink is justified. Tennessee is deep in offensive skill positions with Josh Dobbs returning at QB and Jalen Hurd and heralded Alvin Kamara in the backfield. Pig Howard returns as an all-purpose receiver for what seems like his eighth season. The recent injury losses of Marquez North at wide receiver and o-lineman Marcus Jackson will hurt. This offense will live or die by its o-line production. If the line is over-matched, Dobbs and Hurd will be neutralized and Dobbs tends to take a lot of hits.

The defense also returns a slew of quality starters including D-Linemen Derek Barnett and Curt Maggitt, defensive back Cam Sutton and linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin. On the whole, UT has the second best talent in the shaky East, but the schedule is daunting.

An ambitious early home match-up with Oklahoma will help clear up just how good the Vols are. The front-loaded SEC schedule opens @ Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, bye, @ Alabama. Surviving this gauntlet will determine whether the Vols can contend for a crown. This makes the early trip to Gainesville that opens this key stretch critically important. Notably, the Gators have beaten Tennessee 10 consecutive years. Pick: 8-4; 5-3.

Missouri

Missouri has won the East twice in a row. Both times the Tigers have had the luxury of easy early season non-conference tune-ups to get their sea-legs – and that happens again this year with SEMo, Arkansas State and UConn on the immediate horizon. The Tigers return QB Maty Mauk and RB Russell Hansbrough, but the hallmark of the 2014 team – the scary D-Line – will be a work in progress as Shane Ray and several other key contributors are gone. D-Lineman Harold Brantley and LB Kentrell Brothers are back – but this defense should be average.

Mizzou faces Mississippi State and @ Arkansas from the West. There are no real trap games on the schedule – although Missouri does face us on the road after a trip to Athens. The Tigers also scheduled a November out-of-conference tilt with BYU the week before facing Tennessee and then @ Arkansas. On the whole, I see a good squad that can contend again – but which matches up poorly with a Georgia team it will need to beat to win the East. There are a slew of tough games to end the season – Miss State, BYU, Tennessee, and @ Arkansas which should seal the Tigers’ fate as an honorable mention pick this year. Pick: 8-4; 4-4.

Florida

Florida is extremely difficult to gauge in Jim McElwain’s initial campaign. The Gators are another squad where the defense is well ahead of the offense. Star DB Vernon Hargreaves, III is back – along with (banged up) linebacker Antonio Morrison and D-lineman Jonathan Bullard. The offense, however, raises serious question marks. Gator fans will not have QB Jeff Driskel to kick around any longer as the signal-caller transferred to Louisiana Tech. Driskel’s presumed heir, Treon Harris, is trailing in a duel with Will Grier for the starting job. Kelvin Taylor – Fred’s son – will start at RB and DeMarcus Robinson returns at wide receiver. Florida has lost heavily on the O-line – four Gator linemen were drafted by the NFL last year. Despite the presence of some playmakers, Florida’s offense has a way to go to get back within shouting distance of the top – but offense is McElwain’s forte.

Florida’s schedule has only three home SEC games – but we are one of them. The Gators draw @ LSU and Ole Miss from the West. From October 4 to November 20, they have only one game in Gainesville (us – plus a neutral site game in Jacksonville). This is a team with a tough gauntlet mid-season – Tennessee, Ole Miss, @ Mizzou, @ LSU, bye, Georgia – that is likely to take a toll. McElwain was a good hire – but I see the Gators slipping this year. They lose more players than any other SEC squad and it will leave a mark. Pick: 6-6, 3-5.

South Carolina

Gamecock fans may have a difficult season to endure, given their recent high standards. South Carolina has only four returning starters on offense – including star WR Pharoh Cooper – and while much of last year’s defense returns, that unit was tortured by potent offenses in 2014. The defense collapsed in several excruciating losses where double digit leads were blown in the closing two minutes. In conference, only twice did the Gamecocks hold opponents below 34 points.

I am a Steve Spurrier fan – but he has opened camp in a crusty and ornery mood for a reason. The schedule includes three challenging out-of-conference games versus UNC, UCF and Clemson – from the West, Carolina draws LSU and @ A&M. The opener versus UNC and its potent offense could set the tone – and the tone may be ugly. I see a competitive team that is losing ground to the top of the Conference. The Gamecocks will be challenged to attain bowl eligibility. Pick: 5-7; 2-6.

Kentucky

Many experts pick Kentucky to thrive this year – and the Wildcats could feast on the weak division. The Wildcat defense, however, was torched by competent running attacks last year and the D-line anchor Bud Dupree is gone. In response, UK has decided to move to a 3-4 alignment – and (as we and South Carolina can attest after 2014), the first year of a 3-4 adjustment brings significant challenges.

The schedule is not kind to Kentucky either – after an opener with UL-Lafayette, the Wildcats meet three straight SEC opponents. No other SEC team faces this early burden. In the month before the Wildcats travel to Nashville, they face another sobering gauntlet: Auburn, @ MSU, Tennessee, @ Georgia. By the time the Wildcats reach West End, they will be pretty beaten up.

Kentucky returns talent. On offense, Kentucky brings back solid QB Patrick Towles, and RBs Boom Williams and Jojo Kemp. Vegas’ over-under for Kentucky is 6 wins. I respectfully say, “under.” Pick: 5-7; 2-6.

Vanderbilt

Vegas types have set Vandy’s over/under for wins at 3. Call me an optimist, but I think we will be over. Perhaps I am the guy who walks around the office seeing everyone else’s flaws, while oblivious to the fact that there is toothpaste on my chin and ink-stains spreading on my shirt? Maybe I can’t believe that many of the same guys who won 9 games in ’12 and ’13 will only win three games in ’14 and ’15. I feel like last year’s offense was so mismanaged that our talent appeared to be lacking, when it simply was never given a chance. Most importantly, the East is weaker than it has been in a long time. In fact, Vegas oddsmakers list the four bottom teams (the longest odds to win the SEC) in the conference as all coming from the East. (Yes, we are listed last.) One of those four – Florida, South Carolina, Kentucky, Vandy – could easily beat the other three and rise from the ashes.

Vandy’s offense has significant question marks. We lack experienced depth at key offensive positions, including QB, RB and wide receiver. This season could prove to be an extension of last year’s misery: but I like our defensive talent, and I think the offense will be much better than last year. (Of course, that will not be hard.) Just the same, after originally contemplating five (or even six) wins, Andrew Jelks and C.J. Duncan were lost in the pre-season and I have lowered my expectations. I still say “over.” But losing your top wide receiver and a stand-out o-lineman hurts. Jelks truly may have been the single most difficult offensive player to replace – he is a former freshman all-American. Pick: 4-8: 1-7.

THE WEST

Alabama

The West is a free-for-all this season. Bama, Auburn, Arkansas and LSU are all capable of turning in a huge year. But the odds of anyone escaping this division unscathed are low. Alabama returns a lot of defensive talent, including linemen A’Shawn Robinson and Johnathan Allen, LB Reggie Ragland and DB Cyrus Jones. On offense, however, Alabama basically has to replace everyone. With only three starters back, Alabama must replace its starting quarterback, running back, three receivers and three o-linemen from its 2014 line-up. Running backs Derrick Henry and Kenyon Drake should be able to shoulder this responsibility – but the passing game will be an unknown until the opening snap. Blake Barnett, David Cornwell and Jake Coker are battling for the QB job.

The schedule also conspires against the Tide. Bama draws the tough outs - @ Georgia and Tennessee – from the East and the season opener against Wisconsin will also be complicated by all the uncertainties on offense. The Tide closes the season on the road at Auburn.

High expectations remain, partly because head coach Nick Saban consistently wins in double digits, and also because all of the Tide’s #1 rated recruiting classes suggest that the cupboard is never really bare. Just the same, there are a lot more question marks on this Bama schedule than usual. Despite uncertainties, this is a very talented team. Pick: 11-1; 7-1.

Auburn

Auburn is a popular pick to win the West. Coming off an 8-5, 4-4 season with Nick Marshall, however, I cannot see the Tigers improving enough without Nick Marshall to win college football’s toughest division. New QB Jeremy Johnson is solid – and the defense returns eight starters including DLs Carl Lawson and Montravius Adams. Yet the most interesting storyline here is the arrival of defensive guru Will Muschamp.

In Auburn’s opening four games the Tigers face Louisville, Jacksonville State, @ LSU, and Mississippi State. The ship will need to be in order from the outset. Auburn also gets Bama and Georgia at home.

Impressive as Auburn is, its SEC West gauntlet probably contains just enough losses for the Tigers to fall short of the Championship. Pick: 10-2; 6-2.

LSU

After a string of double-digit win campaigns, last season’s mediocre 8-5 effort makes it easy to discount the Tigers. This year’s LSU squad, however, was not decimated by the NFL draft to the extent the past few LSU teams have been raided. The main “departure” was defensive guru John Chavis. The Tigers return a solid secondary with Jamal Adams, Jalen Mills and Tre’Davious White, along with LB Kendell Beckwith. On offense, Leonard Fournette is likely to be the face of the program. At quarterback, Anthony Jennings and Brandon Harris will continue to duke it out for the starting job. If one of the signal-callers emerges, this is a dangerous team.

LSU is another SEC squad with huge early games: @ MSU in week 2 and home versus Auburn in Week 3. If the Tigers win these games, they likely head to Tuscaloosa on November 7th with an 8-0 record. Pick: 10-2; 6-2.

Arkansas

On paper, Arkansas possibly returns the best talent in the West. Nine starters are back on offense including QB Brandon Allen. Alex Collins returns along with a very good O-line including four starters. RB Johnathan Williams’ injury in pre-season is a big blow to this club which might have challenged for the top spot with a healthy Williams. The defense gelled with back-to-back shut-outs of LSU and Ole Miss last year. This is a team on the rise.

The Razorbacks will be very good this year – but the schedule has only three home SEC games and all four conference road games are tough. Playing @ Tennessee, @ Alabama, @ Ole Miss and @ LSU is a recipe for trouble. Pick: 9-3; 5-3.

Texas A&M

SEC fans have watched Kevin Sumlin’s offense since the Aggies arrived in the Conference and wondered what would happen if a star quality defense developed. They will likely find out as John Chavis transfers from LSU – but not this year. A&M had a disappointing 2014 and still won eight games. The Aggies return eight starters on both sides of the ball. QB Kyle Allen returns and Speedy Noil, Josh Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones make up a first-rate receiving corps.

A&M’s defense was not good last year. Chavis will make it better, but don’t expect a short-term miracle. The Aggies’ significant talent may not translate to wins given the strength of the West. A&M does draw light East opponents in Carolina and Vandy. Pick: 7-5; 4-4.

Ole Miss

The offense in Oxford returns nine starters – but QB Bo Wallace is gone. Expect Clemson-transfer Chad Kelly to win Wallace’s job – although no starter has been named officially. Ole Miss returns Laquon Treadwell and a solid group of receivers. Treadwell’s value was immediately evident last year after his gruesome injury versus Auburn – Ole Miss was never the same without him. The bowl game massacre has haunted the off-season.

The o-line returns a bevy of starters which could help Mississippi exceed my expectations. The defensive line will also be a strength behind Robert Nkemdiche and Marquis Haynes. The defense should be excellent – although Ole Miss is replacing several members of last year’s all-star secondary.

Like A&M, this is a very good Ole Miss team that likely will be in the bottom half of its division. The problem – in case we haven’t repeated it enough – is the West schedule is brutal. Ole Miss closes the season @ Auburn, Arkansas, bye, LSU, @ Mississippi State. The easy out-of-conference schedule assures a bowl bid. Pick: 7-5; 3-5.

Mississippi State

Dak Prescott returns at QB for Mississippi State. That is about where the good news ends for the Bulldogs who return only seven starters from last year’s squad. Still, having the league’s best QB counts for something – and his primary receiver De’Runnya Wilson returns too. The great defense from last year brings back only three starters including DT Chris Brown and DB Will Redmond.

This team learned to win last year. That skill, plus a star quarterback and a really weak non-conference schedule make a bowl game likely. Barely. Pick: 6-6; 2-6.

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