Ever since January I’ve read and studied and wondered. Now, with college football starting the day after tomorrow, I’ve gotten out my SEC schedule grid and balanced what I think are the wins and the losses for the upcoming year. It is a ritual with me and I love doing it every year.
There is not a lot of science that goes into prognosticating – there are far too many variables from injuries to luck – but it is always fun to figure. I think Alabama has the best chance to run the table – win ‘em all – but I know the best bet in the world is to bet a Coca-Cola with some rabid fan that such a feat can’t be done because the percentages are with you. Seriously, it rarely happens, even with better success in recent years.
I think Alabama will beat South Carolina in the SEC championship game in December and that there will be at least two SEC teams in the four-team playoffs. That’s what I think will happen but, rest assured, they won’t seek my input when the decision is made.
That said, here are the SEC football teams in alphabetical order with my prediction of how I think each will do this fall:
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No. 2 ALABAMA – To be candid there is no reason Alabama shouldn’t win every game this fall. The ongoing flap over who will start at quarterback only goes to prove how good both Blake Sims and Jake Coker are but the better nod goes to the fact Alabama is great at every position. The schedule is a blessing. For Saturday’s opener against West Virginia in Atlanta’s Chik-fil-A Kickoff Classic the Crimson Tide is a 26-point favorite and they’ll be favored by just as much in the next seven games before playing at LSU Nov. 8. The Auburn game is in Tuscaloosa so they’ll be favored all the way. MY PREDICTION -- 12-0 over-all, 8-0 in the conference and 6-0 in the SEC West.
ARKANSAS – Bert Bielema didn’t win a conference game in his 3-9 debut last year so now he really has his eyes open for this Saturday’s opener at Auburn. The Razorbacks, who haven’t won a game since Sept. 14 a year ago, are a lot like Tennessee after John L. Smith bungled things up when Bobby Petrino was fired so I’m thinking there is still some building to do. It’s hard to find confidence when you’re a 21-point underdog in the first game. QB Brandon Allen will be improved after a 49 percent completion rate last year but RBs Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams will be the force on offense. MY PREDICTION – 4-8 over-all, 1-7 in the conference and 0-6 in the SEC West.
No. 6 AUBURN – I don’t suspect the cloud of smoke over QB Nick Marshall’s head will linger for too long but the Tigers can win easily all the way through September without him. Marshall was special last year, throwing for 14 TDs while running for 12 more so if I was Gus Malzahn I’d use him sparingly until LSU comes calling on Oct. 4. I believe that even with Marshall, LSU will beat Auburn again this fall and that, coupled with a loss in Tuscaloosa, will keep Auburn out of the playoff mix. Keep an eye on Auburn receiver Sammie Coates after 14 catches last year each went 30-plus yards but don’t expect “divine intervention” to happen two more times this fall. MY PREDICTION: 10-2 over-all, 6-2 in the conference and 4-2 in the SEC West.
FLORIDA – After last fall’s cascade of injuries, Florida can’t help but be the most improved team in the conference. I’m like Gator AD Jeremy Foley – Will Muschamp is still among the brightest young coaches in the country. Offensive coordinator Kurt Roper and healed QB Jeff Driskel make the Gator offense fast again yet I think the biggest change will be on defense because, after a long off-season, Florida has promise after being embarrassed by Missouri, Vanderbilt and FSU when the Gators were in the tank. MY PREDICTION: 7-4 over-all, 4-4 in the conference and 4-2 in the SEC East.
No. 12 GEORGIA -- The Bulldogs will be forced to go “all in” from the start with the first two games against No. 16 Clemson and No. 9 South Carolina. The key is to keep inexperienced QB Hutson Mason calm while Georgia’s awesome RBs and receivers bear the load. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are the best tandem in the league while Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Malcom Mitchell have all had 500-yard seasons as receivers. New def. coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has good athletes to pick from so it is no wonder UGa is an 8½ favorite at home this Saturday. The losses? I believe at South Carolina next week and then against Auburn on Nov. 15. MY PREDICTION: 10-2 over-all, 6-2 in the conference, 5-1 in the SEC East.
KENTUCKY – I’ve got the Wildcats losing twice by the end of September and then winning just one more in almost a virtual repeat of last year’s 2-10 season. Here’s why – in the three seasons that Mark Stoops’ predecessor coached the ‘Cats, Joker Phillips won just four conference games. Stoops has as good a chance of turning things around as anyone but UK needs a lot more time and many, many more thoroughbreds. Kentucky is a young team but with the exception of an off week before the Vandy game on Sept. 27, this will be a long year in the Commonwealth. MY PREDICTION: 3-9 over-all, 0-8 in the conference, and 0-6 in the SEC East.
No. 13 LSU – On racket radio “John from Crossville” swears LSU has been decimated by the NFL AND IN Alabama all they can speak of is Auburn and the Tide being in the Top Five but ol’ Les Miles is calm and peaceful. He’s won at least 10 games in seven of the last nine years and I’m telling you the Tigahs are stacked once again! Against No. 14 Wisconsin this Saturday in Texas LSU is favored by 4 points but by the start of the fourth quarter that won’t be enough because Les has been “too quiet.” In my way of thinking LSU will win “the battle of the Tigers” at Auburn on Oct. 4 but will stub their toe against Ole Miss the same day Alabama beats UT. The Tide will win the west two weeks later in Baton Rouge. MY PREDICTION: 10-2 over-all, 6-2 in the conference, 4-2 in the SEC West.
No. 18 OLE MISS – Look at this: in just his third year, Hugh Freeze has his Ole Miss Rebels in the Top 25 with a returning quarterback who has twice been the MVP in a bowl game. In a delightful “rags to riches” story, Ole Miss also returns nine starters on a defense that went 8-5 a year ago so suddenly an upset over LSU doesn’t sound quite as outlandish. The Rebs should coast easily through September (they are favored by 10 over Boise on Thursday) before losing at home to Alabama. The win over LSU will quickly be forgotten after Auburn the next week and then I think State will get ‘em in the Egg Bowl. MY PREDICTION: 9-3 over-all; 5-3 in the conference; 3-3 in the SEC West.
MISS. STATE – Dan Mullen, after four winning seasons in Starkville, has the Bulldogs ready to turn the corner but with LSU on Sept. 20 and Auburn on Oct. 11, the battlefield will get bloody early. Let’s face it, the SEC West is a gauntlet and State is still in fourth place. QB Dak Prescott is the real deal (he leads all returning SEC QBs in TDs with 17) and his supporting cast got much better with splendid recruiting. The defense is blue-collar but – honestly – the Bulldogs have to earn a reputation, not ask for one in a league where actions speak loudest. MR PREDICTION: 9-3 over-all, 5-3 in the conference, 3-3 in the SEC West.
MISSOURI – It is hard to believe that Mizzou won the SEC East and can’t get a scratch on the Top 25 but fame is fleeting, especially when your top players graduated and the top player of them all, Odell-Beckham, gets tossed on his ear. Gary Pinkel was blessed with a little luck to go with unrated talent last fall en route to a 12-2 season but this year will be different. After three cupcakes early, the Tigers will play South Carolina, Georgia and Florida who will each be in a bad mood. By the end of the year I think Texas A&M and Arkansas (!) should bring Missouri back down to earth. MY PREDICTION: 7-5 over-all; 3-5 in the conference, 2-4 in the SEC East.
No. 9 SOUTH CAROLINA – Steve Spurrier, coming off an 11-2 season for the third straight time in Columbia, is apt to have a heart attack without Connor Shaw and Jadeveon Clowney but the word is QB Dylan Thompson, a fifth year player in Spurrier’s scheme, is as solid as they come and we know runner Mike David (1,183 yards for 11 TDs) can deliver the mail. The offense returns eight starters and the defense six so it’s once again lock-and-load in Columbia. The Georgia game will set the tone early on Sept. 13. The Gamecocks are picked by 10 over A&M this Thursday and then all that really matters is USC’s game at Auburn on Oct. 25, where I think they’ll meet their Waterloo. MY PREDICTION: 11-1 over-all, 7-1 in the conference, 6-0 in the SEC East.
TENNESSEE – The over-under line for Tennessee is still 4½, which is to say if you bet UT will win five or more games there is a pile of other folks’ money that says UT will win just four or less. The worst indicator in the offseason that this fall will be dreadful is when two Vol teammates showed up at a quarterback clinic in California without knowing the other would be there. So as leadership takes a due whipping, look at terribly inexperienced linemen, still-green superstars and figure UT is still a year away after three straight 5-7 seasons. Butch Jones has recruited very well. The work ethic is good. Bright days are ahead. But when quarterback teammates don’t talk to each other, think about how hard winning five games might be. MY PREDICTION: 5-7 overall; 2-6 in the conference, 2-4 in the SEC East.
No. 21 TEXAS A&M – Johnny Football has crossed the horizon and now Kenny Hill, who has completed 16 passes in his career at Texas A&M, must ride the Aggies back down to earth. Oh, it might not be all that bad if A&M weren’t in the SEC West but a stout defense – seven starters are back – is going to need help in a hurry without Magician Manzell around. A whipping at South Carolina could let a lot of air out of the ball Thursday night but where A&M’s tea leaves will be read will be in Starkville on Oct. 4. I’m thinking the Bullies will get them, leaving the next two weeks against Ole Miss and Alabama as severe tests. I have also got them losing to both Auburn and Alabama so – wow – just two years after Manzell wins the Heisman, we have havoc indeed. MY PREDICTION: 5-7 over-all; 1-7 in the conference; 1-5 in SEC West.
VANDERBILT – Derek Mason has taken Vanderbilt by storm and everybody loves him. It seems James Franklin, who bolted for Penn State after a pair of 9-4 seasons, was pretty interested in promoting James Franklin, whereas the personable Mason, after stellar success as a top assistant at Stanford, is pushing Vanderbilt instead of himself. Seven starters on offense return and Patton Robinette, who’ll get the nod at QB to the delight of his teammates, is a good one. Vandy is favored by 17 Thursday against Temple but Ole Miss and South Carolina both arrive in the first four weeks and then Kentucky and Georgia are next in line. That’s a test but with a new coaching staff, it becomes a threat. MY PREDICTION: 4-8 over-all; 1-7 in the conference, 1-5 in SEC East.