Following is our look at the SEC as previewed by Chief Analyst Gary Olshan.  The West half will be analayzed first, followed by the East in our next installment.  Last year's straight-up and spread records are included, and as always teams are listed in order of predicted finish...Bruce Marshall, GoldSheet.com Editor

                                            by Gary Olshan, Chief Analyst

ALABAMA (2015 SUR 13-1; PSR 8-6)—
Bama, which has won four national titles in the past seven seasons, will be expected to be in championship contention despite having some holes to fill at QB, RB and on defense. But 10th-year HC Nick Saban, who is now in the discussion as the greatest college coach of all time, will just need to reload once again with a former five-star recruit competing for playing time at every position group. No question talent-rich LSU and Ole Miss are formidable contenders in the dangerous SEC West. But we must once again give the nod to the rolling Tide, which signed the nation’s No.1 recruiting class for the sixth straight season. Wow! The schedule is loaded with land mines. The Tide opens up with USC in Arlington, Texas and faces a extremely challenging SEC road slate with the Rebels, Arkansas, Tennessee and LSU.


Six starters return to an offense (35.1 ppg LY) that will have four QBs battling for the top job in the fall after the graduation of sr. Jake Coker. Jr. Cooper Bateman (37 of 52) is the only triggerman to appear in a college game. But he’s is expected to receive a strong push from 6-5 soph David Cornwell, a RS frosh, and gifted true frosh Jalen Hurts, who has reminded some of a young Russell Wilson, citing his accurate arm and his ability to extend plays with his legs. Saban hasn’t been this green at TB in his 10 seasons in Tuscaloosa, with Heisman Winner Derrick Henry opting for the NFL after his junior year and Kenyan Drake graduating. Powerful 6-2, 230 soph RB Bo Scarbrough, who has star potential, and soph Damien Harris carry the load. The outstanding receiving corps goes nine deep, led by super-soph WR Calvin Ridley (89 catches & 7 TDs) and TE O.J. Howard (38, 2), who had a monster performance in the victory over Clemson in the national title game. We also anticipate a break-out season for promising 6-2 jr. Robert Foster, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury vs. Ole Miss LY.

Five starters are back on a typically-smothering defense (15.1 ppg; 75.7 ypg—1st nationally LY) that has a chance to be the best in the nation. The talent-laden unit should smoothly transition from Kirby Smart, who is the new head man at Georgia, to new d.c. Jeremy Pruitt, who served as the secondary coach for Saban from 2010-12. Even though it lost a good chunk of its impressive line depth, this year’s unit reportedly has the potential to be even better than the 2015 group that led the nation in sacks and stopping the run. SS Eddie Jackson (6 ints. LY) is the star of the secondary, studly sr. Reuben Foster is slated to take over at MLB for tough-to-replace Reggie Ragland. Heat-seeking 6-4, 247-pound sr. OLB Tim Williams and 6-3, 294 sr. DE Jonathan Allen (combined 22.5 sacks) will continue to terrorize opposing QBs.

First-rate kicking game with PK Adam Griffith (nailed 23 of 32 FGs after missing his first four tries LY) and punter JK Scott (44.2-yd. avg.)

LSU (2015 SUR 9-3; PSR 5-6-1)—LSU HC Les Miles nearly got his pink slip after a 3-game losing streak last November, but managed to turn things around, ending the season on a two-game win skein. And, now—with 18 starters back—there are raised expectations for trouble-dodging Miles, who also signed a top three national recruiting class. And maybe just as important, Miles convinced seven juniors, who were considering making early jumps to the NLF, to remain on the squad. Sr. DT Christian LaCouture expresses the collective optimism shared by his mates by saying asserting, “Anything less than a national championship is going to be unacceptable. We have to work toward it, of course, but all the pieces are in place. We should have a special year.” The Tigers can prove their a national title contender in their lidlifter vs. Big Ten power Wisconsin at legendary Lambeau Field. And though LSU’s road slate has its land mines, both West Division juggernauts Ole Miss and Bama visit “magical” Tiger Stadium.

Eight starters are back on a ground-oriented offense (32.8 ppg LY) led by Heisman Trophy frontrunner Leonard Fournette (1,953 YR & 22 TDs), who needs 13 yards to become the fastest back in school history to reach 3,000 yards! His job will be made a bit easier if jr. QB Brandon Harris (13 TDP, 6 ints.) can operate more efficiently in an aerial game that averaged just 180.4 yards per game, finishing a lowly 105th in 2015. If strong-armed Harris can’t display discernible progress and show more accuracy on touch passes, smart, hard-working Purdue transfer jr. Danny Etling will get an opportunity to throw to the NFL-bound WR duo of Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural. New WR coach Dameyune Craig is also hoping to to play a role in reinvigorating a stagnant passing attack.

Ten starters return to a defense (24.3 ppg LY) adjusting to its third defensive coordinator in three seasons, with exuberant Dave Aranda (former Wisconsin d.c.) bringing a 3-4 alignment to Baton Rouge for the first time in Les Miles’ tenure. Aranda’s defense led the Badgers in the FBS in ppg allowed (13.7) and was second in ypg allowed (268.5) a year ago. Aranda figures to use more press coverage with a ultra-athletic secondary, featuring potential first-round NFL picks, CBs Jamal Adams (4 ints.) and Tre’Davious White. Sr. MLB Kendell Beckwith (84 tackles) is one of the SEC’s premier playmakers, while the deep defensive front, anchored by pass-rushing specialist DE Lewis Neal (8 sacks), takes on multiple looks under Aranda who has preached a more aggressive plan. Aranda wants more game-to-game consistency after that unit permitted a combined 69 points in back-to-back setbacks to Arkansas and Ole Miss during the three-game losing skein.

After nailing his first 10 FGs, PK Trent Domingue, who was a Lou Groza Award semi-finalist, is looking to regain his mojo after finishing only 13 of 17. RS freshmen Josh Growden is the latest in a string of Australian LSU punters.

OLE MISS (2015 SUR 10-3; PSR 9-4)—Ole Miss has the talent to contend in the SEC West, as the Rebels have improved their record each year under fifth-year mentor Hugh Freeze. Ole Miss is 19-7 overall and 11-5 in SEC play in the last two seasons, highlighted by two wins over Alabama and a lopsided 48-20 victory over Oklahoma State in the Sugar Bowl last January. Despite a big turnover on the depth chart, the Rebels have a chance to make it to the SEC Championship Game in quest of their first conference title since 1963. Freeze knows the climb gets steeper closer to the top. “Obviously, playing in two straight New Year’s Six games creates expectations,” Freeze says. “In order for us to maintain that here, there is an extra step that we need to go. There are things that we as coaches need to improve on as well as our players.” The Rebel schedule is daunting in the month of the September, with battles vs. Florida State (in Orlando) along with back-to-bach home clashes vs. double-revenger Bama and Georgia.

Only four starters return to an attack (40.8 ppg LY) that is blessed with the top returning SEC QB in mobile sr. Chad Kelly (500 YR & 10 TDs), the nephew of Pro Football Hall of Famer Jim Kelly. The former Clemson triggerman set 14 Ole Miss records in 2015, including total yards (4,542), passing TDs (31) and passing yards (4,042). Kelly needs to stay upright since he’s backed up by a pair of untested freshmen. There are enormous cleats to fill WR with the early departure of superstar Laquon Treadwell. But to help fil the void are four players back who had at least 30 catches, including sure-handed Washington State transfer Damore’ea Stringfellow. Sr. TE Evan Engram (38 grabs), an NFL prospect, will be a top target. The graduation of leading RB Jaylen Walton is not a concern, with the return of Jordan Wilkins and Akeem Judd, who combined for 800 YR & 7 TDs. A rtooled OL needs to jell quickly.

The strength of the 4-2-5 defensive scheme (22.6 ppg LY), which returns only five starters, is the front line despite the premature NFL departure of DT Robert Nkemdiche. Havoc-wreaking bookend DEs Marquis Haynes (10 sacks) and Fadal Brown bring constant heat, while DT Isaac Gross should be a force after missing almost the entire 2015 season after neck surgery. A big boost to the secondary will be the return of stellar nickel back Tony Conner, who missed 8 games after suffering a knee injury vs. Bama LY. Rommel Mageo (Oregon State transfer had 87 tackles LY in Corvallis) fortifies an LB corps, paced by star-in-the-making DeMarquis Gates (team-high 76 stops).

Reliable kicking game with PK Gary Wunderlich (made 19 of 25 FGs LY), who also averaged a whopping 46.9 yds. per boot after taking over for a slumping Will Gleason, who seeks to return to peak form.

ARKANSAS (2015 SUR 8-5; PSR 8-5 )—After struggling to win close games in Bret Bielma’s first two campaigns, Arkansas pulled out nail-biters in 2015 vs. Tennessee, Auburn and Ole Miss but still lost three tight ones, including a wild 51-50 home defeat vs. Mississippi State. The Razorbacks came on strong in LY’s 8-5 campaign after a choppy 2-4 start, notching 6 victories in their final 7 games, including an impressive 31-14 upset win at LSU on Nov. 14. And while Arkansas is hosting the three top SEC West contenders (Alabama, LSU & Ole Miss) in 2016, we seriously doubt the Hogs can crack that formidable trio unless the rebuilt offense can develope pronto to take some much-needed pressure off a veteran stop unit. Scheduling-wise, Arkansas does benefit from tuneups vs. Texas State and Alcorn State the week before battles vs. Texas A&M & Alabama.

Only three starters are back on a offense (35.9 ppg LY) directed by jr. Austin Allen (only 19 career attempts), who apprenticed for three years behind older brother Brandon Allen, who turned in a superb senior campaign. After the Hogs No. 1 RB Alex Collins left early for the NFL, the primary ball-carriers are sloted to be Kody Walker (394 YR & 6 TDs) and Rawleigh Williams. But the coaches are praying that Walker, who broke his foot in late spring, and Williams, who is coming off neck surgery, report healthy in August. Otherwise, jr. Duwop Mitchell, converted from QB to RB in the spring, and true frosh RB Devwah Whaley and T.J. Hammonds will be thrown into the fire. There is plenty of quality depth at WR, while Jeremy Sprinkle (27 grabs & 6 TDs) is a worthy heir to 2015 Mackey Award-winner TE Hunter Henry, who left early for the NFL.

Nine starters return to a defense (27.4 ppg LY) that was stingy vs. the run (116.5 ypg; 12th nationally) but rather soft vs. the pass (275.2 ypg; 116th) a year ago. But after struggling to contain spread offenses last year, that unit figures to improve its pass rush and coverage and be closer to the No. 10-ranked defense from 2014 rather than LY’s middling unit (ranked 58th). Coaches are seeking to find relief from an improved group of backups for the overworked LB duo of Brooke Ellis, a three-year starter, and Dre Greenlaw, who combined for 197 tackles. The defensive front is a bedrock, led by DT Jeremiah Ledbetter (55 stops) and DE Deatrich Wise (8 sacks). The battle-tested sr. CB duo of Jared Collins and DJ Dean (2 ints.) are primed to trim their big-play allowance.

After having five FGs blocked last season, including a potential game-winner in the final minute vs. the Bulldogs, the Hogs understandably revamped their blocking and execution under new line coach Kurt Anderson. But no problems exist with punter Toby Walker (41.2 avg.), who nailed 23 of his 43 attempts inside the 20.

TEXAS A&M (2015 SUR 8-5; PSR 5-8)—After going just 17-15 in SEC play in his four seasons, HC Kevin Sumlin is feeling the heat, which has intensified since the recent forced resignation of Aggie AD Eric Hyman. Sumlin, who is a poor 1-7 combined vs. the SEC West rivals (Bama, Auburn, LSU & Ole Miss), has seen six QBs leave the program since Johnny Manziel waved goodbye in 2012, including both triggermen from 2015. To help ignite a staggering attack, the embroiled Sumlin hired Noel Mazzone (formerly of UCLA & Ole Miss), who is the fourth offensive coordinator in five seasons. Sumlin is hoping Mazzone can bring the kind of positive results that highly-respected d.c. Jon Chavis demonstrated in his first term in College Station a year ago. Growth must come quickly, however, since the Aggies face UCLA, Auburn and Arkansas in the month of September.

Six starters are back on a attack (27.8 ppg; 71st nationally LY) that will operate at a faster tempo and could immediately show much more punch with the addition of two talented Oklahoma transfers. Former dual-threat Sooner QB Trevor Knight, who compiled 3,424 YP along with 853 YR in three seasons in Norman, is expected to stave off a challenge from jr. Jake Hubenak, who made his only start in LY’s Music City Bowl loss to Louisville. Knight is excited to work with an array of big-play threats, including marvelous soph WR Christian Kirk (80 grabs & 7 TDs LY) and sr. Josh Reynolds (51 grabs; 18 career TDC), an All-SEC selection two years ago. RB Keith Ford, who redshirted LY after transferring from Oklahoma, is being counted on to provide a homerun threat that the position has recently lacked. After the OL failed to be solid buttress LY, Sumlin fired line coach Dave Christensen and hired fomer A&M and Miami Dolphin line coach Jim Turner, known as a tough tactician.

Six starters return to a defense (22.0 ppg lY) that owns the ingredients to make huge strides again in the second season under mastermind Jon Chavis. After all, All-American jr. DE Myles Garrett (24 career sacks) could be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft, while Jon Chavis has compared fearless nickel back Donovan Wilson (team-high 5 ints.) to one of his former players at LSU, Tyrann “Honey Badger” Mathieu. Morever, jr. FS Armani Watts (126 stops) and SS Justin Evans—arguably the premier safety tandem in the SEC—will help to accelerate the maturation of a secondary breaking in new CBs, one of whom will be former four-star recruit Priest Willis, who redshirted LY after transferring from UCLA. And there is a firm belief the LBs will make drastic improvement, thanks to emerging soph Richard Moore and soph Otaro Alaka, a true starter as a freshman and Defensive MVP of the 2014 Liberty Bowl, who is back after missing most of the 2015 season with shoulder and elbow injuries.

The Aggies are relying on a new kicker and punter to replace All-SEC selections Taylor Bertolet and Drew Kaser.

AUBURN (2015 SUR 7-5; PSR 3-10)—Auburn is in a bounce-back mode after it was the preseason favorite to win the SEC West last year, opening at No. 6 in the nation. The disappointing Tigers, who barely eked out a winning mark at 7-6, have historically performed better when the expectations aren’t so high, which is the case in 2016. However, regional sources report that HC Gus Malzahn is on a short leash after going just 15-11 over the past two campaigns. Don’t forget that the Tigers dismissed Malzahn predecessor Gene Chizik just two years after he won the national title in 2010. Some key questions remain on a underperforming offense, but there is surely enough of a talent pool for a quick turnaround. Auburn, has a tough opener with CFP runner-up Clemson, but benefits from a string of five consecutive contests at sold-out Jordan-Hare Stadium, including a huge payback game vs. LSU on September 24.

Six starters are back on an offense (27.5 ppg LY) that needs to find a QB to efficiently run Malzahn’s zone-read attack after finishing a lowly 111th in passing a year ago. The previously starting duo of Jeremy Johnson and Sean White will compete with juco triggerman John Franklin III, who might be best equipped to fully execute Malzahn’s offense due to his superior pass/run skills. The good news for the Tigers is that burgeoning RB Javon Robinson (639 YR), who spent much of the season as a backup, motored for 90 yards or more in five of the last six games. An outstanding crop of freshmen WRs will get an opportunity to work into the rotation on LY’s underwhelming unit, led by sr. Marcus Davis (team-high 30 grabs, only 1 TD LY).

Five starters return to a defense (26.0 ppg; 405.2 ypg; 13th in the SEC LY) that will work under new d.c. Kevin Steele, who jumped to Auburn after one year at LSU. In Steele’s 4-2-5 scheme, the Tigers should be especially stout up front, featuring unblockable jr. DE Carl Lawson, who had just 17 tackles in injury-plagued 2015. The pass rush could be a real force if highly-regarded early enrollee frosh DE Marlon Davidson lives up to his press clippings. With three starters gone, LB is the biggest concern, but jr. MLB Tre’ Williams & Illinois graduate transfer T.J. Neal should fill in nicely. Aggressive sr. nickel back/FS Rudy Ford (118 stops) will attempt to be the first player to lead Auburn in tackles for three straight years, while a couple of talented transfers, Jamel Dean (Ohio State) and Marshall Taylor (Miami-Ohio), will compete for the CB spot opposite 2015 All-SEC Freshman Carlton Davis.

The kicking game is a major asset with PK Daniel Carlson (converted 23 of 27 FGs LY), who was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award in 2015.

MISSISSIPPI STATE (2015 SUR 9-4 PSR 8-5)—After winning 19 games over the last two seasons—the most in a two-year period in school history—MSU enters a rebuilding season in 2016. The Bulldogs must try to find a way to replace brilliant Dak Prescott, who was the best QB in school history. But keep in mind, 8th-year mentor Dan Mullen, who reaped his No. 1 recruiting class in 2015, returned an SEC-low seven starters a year ago. The Bulldogs still managed to finish 9-4, culminating with a rousing 51-28 romp over NC State in the Belk Bowl. So, if Mullen can uncover a field general who can keep the chains moving and minimize critical mistakes, MSU could surprise again and be “tough out” in the loaded SEC West. The road slate is challenging, with trips to LSU, BYU, Alabama and Ole Miss.

Five starters return to an offense (34.4 ppg LY) that had four QBs battling in the spring for the starting job, a stiff competition that will continue in the fall practices. Soph QB Nick Fitzgerald (11 of 14 LY), who served as the Prescott’s primary backup, should be considered the leading candidate, but don’t count out athletic 6-6 Elijah Staley, who can do things with his legs and arm the other three can’t. Coaching are looking for more big-play production at RB, since 5-8, 165 Brandon Holloway (413 YR) failed to score on the ground last season. Whoever emerges at QB will have sufficient options at WR, with dangerous sr. Fred Ross (88 catches and 5 TDs) and deep threat Donald Gray heading up that group. Three starters return on the OL, which will be bolstered by new RT Martinas Rankin, the nation’s No.1 juco OT last year. His addition allows sr. Justin Senior to move from RT to the blindside-protecting LT position .

Six starters are back on the defense (23.2 ppg LY) adjusting to an entirely new coaching staff. LY’s d..c. Manny Diaz, who’s joining Mark Richt’s staff at Miami, is replaced by Peter Sirmon (former LB coach at Southern Cal), who’s looking to switch from a 4-3 base to a 3-4 scheme, which will include a new position labeled “viper”—a combination of OLB and DE. MSU’s rush defense, which showed some slippage last year (from 3.7 ypc 2Ys ago to 4.5 LY) should more closely resemble that unit from 2014, with the return of sr. DE A.J. Jefferson (13.5 TFL), sr. NT Nick James, ILB Richie Brown (led the team in tackles and sacks LY) and former four-star prospect, RS frosh LB Leo Lewis. The leader of the secondary is star-in-the-making soph S Brandon Bryant, who had 3 interceptions and 63 tackles as a RS freshman LY.


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