2018 SEC Preview

Dawgs and Tide poised to meet again?

by Contributing Writer Sam Forman | @SamWForman | Mail@3PSMag.com

The 2017 college football season ended with the SEC on top, getting not one, but two teams to the college football championship game.

On top of that, the result of that game wasn’t even the biggest headline that lasted the offseason for the conference. Instead it was the quarterback situation at Alabama. To be fair, what Georgia freshman quarterback Jack Fromm could do in his second season in Athens was a big headline as well.

But, what will 2018 have in store for the conference that for the most part has been the college football’s premier conference since the early 2000s?

Well were glad you asked because I’m going to give you my take on the good, the bad, and the ugly for the SEC in 2018 and much, much more.

Preseason ranked teams
(coaches poll)
No. 1 Alabama Crimson Tide
No. 4 Georgia Bulldogs
No. 10 Auburn Tigers
No. 18 Mississippi State Bulldogs
No. 24 LSU Tigers

 Five pre-season ranked teams has the SEC right where they finished last year. Move Georgia to number two, Auburn down to 12, LSU up to 18 and drop Miss State down to 20 and you have the final coach’s poll for 2017. Yes, I left Bama off that list, but they rightfully start off 2018 where they ended last season ranked number one.

Just for comparisons sake, the SEC had six teams in the coach’s pre-season poll in 2017. In case you are wondering who those six teams were, it was Bama (1), LSU (12), Auburn (13), Georgia (15), Florida (16) and Tennessee (24).

Top storylines entering 2018
There are so many to choose from that you could do a couple of articles on this topic alone. However, let’s narrow it down just a bit for time’s sake.

QB drama in Tuscaloosa – I doubt Nick Saban thought putting in Tua Tagovailoa would create such a big story line and controversy at half time of last year’s National Title game, but it has been one of, if not the biggest story in all of college football this past offseason and still is now that we are in the preseason with fall camps well underway. All anyone wants to know is will it be Tagovailoa or Jalen Hurts under center for Bama in 2018. Well that and will the loser of this QB battle transfer before or after the 2018 season.

Year of the quarterback, but for real this time – It seems like SEC fans and writers alike have been talking about this storyline for the last three years or so, but finally 2018 looks to be the real deal for QB play in the SEC. You have a guy who may be a backup at Alabama who has only lost two games in two years. A high level NFL talent in Drew Lock and possibly as well in Jarrett Stidham. If Nick Fitzgerald can fully recover from his injury late last season, he will be a star once again in 2018. Plus, you have Fromm at UGA, Jake Bentley at South Carolina, Jordan Ta’amu at Ole Miss, and Nick Starkel at Texas A&M that should all show great improvement in 2018.

Will Drew Lock be the league’s best QB in 2018 – Drew Lock has been one of the better quarterbacks in the SEC since he arrived at Missouri. However, he could truly be special in 2018 in what will be his last go around with the Tigers. Missouri returns two elite running backs in Damarea Crockett and Larry Rountree III, but of which are capable of 1,000-yard seasons and will make life easier on Lock.

As far as receiving targets go, Lock is blessed with one of the SEC’s best tight ends in Albert Okwuegbunam after catching 11 touchdowns as a freshman in 2017. Lock also has Emanuel Hall who starts 2018 on the Biletnikoff Award watch list. Oh yeah and Lock gets former Tennessee head coach and Dallas Cowboys receivers coach Derek Dooley as his offensive coordinator in 2018 and while many people in Knoxville see this move as the end of Tigers head coach Barry Odom’s career at Missouri, I see it as a great hire and nothing but a positive for Lock.

 

Impact freshman
The SEC has four freshmen that most recruiting experts would put on their top 10 lists when you talk about best or impact freshman in 2018. Justin Fields at UGA definitely makes the list off of talent alone and I know they have Fromm so he won’t play much in 2018. However, we all thought the same about Fromm last year when the Dawgs had Jacob Eason on the roster.

Terrace Marshall is a name SEC fans need to learn quick. A top five wide out by most recruiting outlets, the talented freshman could easily wind up as LSU’s number two receiver behind Texas Tech transfer Jonathan Giles.

The Crimson Tide always have a couple of big time freshman on its roster and do so once again in 2018. Both Eyabi Anoma and Patrick Surtain Jr. will look to make an impact as freshmen for Bama. Due to depth, look for Surtain Jr. to get more looks early, but both should be All-SEC Freshman team members.

Impact transfers
Let’s look no farther than LSU where Jonathan Giles is easily the most talented wide out on the Tigers roster. He should be the Tigers featured target on the outside and bring some much needed star power to a position group that lost a lot of talent at the end of last season.

In Knoxville, Tennessee, first year head coach Jeremy Pruitt has brought in a ton of transfer talent to Rocky Top. From JUCO talent like tight end Dominick Wood-Anderson and offensive lineman Jahmir Johnson to Power five transfers running back Madre London, offensive lineman Brandon Kennedy, and quarterback Keller Chryst. The Vols will benefit the most from transfers in 2018 with Kennedy being a major key to any offensive success that UT has in 2018.

New Coaches
Texas A&M and Jimbo Fisher – The biggest name to join the SEC in 2018. Fisher is one of only four active FBS head coaches to win a National Title, with Saban, Ohio States’ Urban Meyer, and Clemson’s Dabo Swinney the others. Fisher will need a year or two to get the Aggies in national title mode, but with him being the only head coach in Texas to win a national title as a head coach, A&M should be able to keep a lot of high level in state recruits. It may not be a great year one, but it will be a great future for Fisher in College Station.

Ole Miss and Matt Luke – Matt Luke served as the interim head coach last year at Ole Miss and did well enough to earn the job officially. The key here is what ultimately happens to Ole Miss with the NCAA investigation. They over achieved in 2017, but it could still be a long road ahead.

Mississippi State and Joe Moorhead – Moorhead has what it takes to follow in Dan Mullen’s footsteps in Starkville. He could wind up being Mullen 2.0 and should be able to keep the Bulldogs ahead of rival Ole Miss in the near future. It’s the long term to look at hear. Mullen left some pretty full shelves for Moorhead so what he does going forward will tell just how good the Bulldogs will be under him.

Arkansas and Chad Morris – This is a major project for Morris, as no other SEC newcomer has quite as big of a job of changing a programs talent. Morris will run a system that is about as far away from ex-Hogs head coach Bret Bielema’s offense as it gets. It will take time for both the players on the roster now to adjust to Morris’s high tempo and fast paced offense, but it will take even longer for Morris to get the kind of players he needs to win in the SEC with his system. Plus, early on he might have to settle for lower level guys just to get the right fit.

Florida and Dan Mullen – Mullen might be in the best position of any new coach in the league as lack of talent was not really Jim McElwain’s issue at Florida. Really it was more how to get that talent to produce on the field, something Mullen is great at doing. With what Mullen was able to do with a lower talent level on average at Miss State, he should be able to turn Florida back into a national power. The real question is not if he can bring the Gators back to where Meyer and Steve Spurrier had them, but how quick he can do it.  

Tennessee and Jeremy Pruitt – This one gets tricky as Pruitt and ex-Vols head coach Butch Jones are complete 180’s of each other in basically every way. Pruitt has to change the Vols mindsets and approach to everything simply due to the differences between him and Jones alone. Not to mention the Vols simply don’t have the talent from top to bottom to compete for the SEC at the moment. However, there is still a lot of talent from Jones’ time on Rocky Top whether Vols fans want to hear it or not. One key for Pruitt in year one will be keeping the Vols healthy, something that if Jones had been able to do over the last two years would probably have won him a SEC East title and kept him on Rocky Top long term. The Vols will be somewhat unpredictable in 2018 and could be anywhere from 5-5 to 7-4 at the end of November.

Heisman Hopefuls
The QB’s – Stidham, Fromm, Fitzgerald, and Lock all make this list and are the SEC’s best chance to win the Heisman. Each QB is in a solid position entering 2018 to put up Heisman level numbers and has the right amount of talent around them to get the job done. Plus, all four should see plenty of national attention this fall.

The Running Backs – Both Damien Harris and D’Andre Swift are set for big years in 2018 and are early Heisman favorites in the SEC. Harris probably has the best chance since he will still be Bama’s feature back despite all the talent in the Crimson Tide backfield. This should happen as Harris is still the Tides best all-around back and in today’s game, a running back must be able to do it all.

Swift on the other hand is a bit more of a long shot. He will also have to deal with a crowded backfield, but Swift doesn’t have the established presence that Harris does and that should at least early mean the reps are more split up, which will just hurt Swift’s chances of a Heisman in 2018.

Breakout candidates for 2018
D’Andre Swift – This one is really pretty simple, we have all seen what Swift has done as the Dawgs third string back. However, in 2018 we should finally get a chance to see him shine as a larger part of the Georgia offense. The same crowded backfield issues mentioned for why he is less of a Heisman candidate than others in the SEC help him still qualify as a breakout type player with the increased work load he should have in 2018.

Jace Sternberger – We head to College Station for our next candidate and find a player who could end the year as one of the league’s best tight ends. He enters his first year at A&M after a solid year at Northeast Oklahoma A&M where he caught 21 passes for 336 yards and six touchdowns. Before that he played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman at Kansas. He mainly saw special teams action with the Jayhawks, but did catch one pass for five yards. His touchdown ability should get him a lot of looks in the red zone in the Aggies new offense.

Kyle Phillips – The 6’4 defensive lineman from Tennessee rewrote most of his career highs last year, despite it being a disgustingly bad year defensively for the Vols. Phillips had a career high six tackles in a blowout loss to Bama in 2017 as well as recoding his first multi sack game against Southern Miss. He has been one of the bright spots for the Vols defense the last couple of years and there haven’t really been many bright spots to find on Rocky Top the last two seasons. Phillips has gotten better each year on Rocky Top and the senior could be in for a big year under Jeremy Pruitt and his new staff.

Ty Chandler – We stay on Rocky Top and keep with one of the bright spots for the Vols in 2017 in running back Ty Chandler. He proved he could carry a big load against Kentucky where he carried the ball 22 times, a game in which he also set career highs in rushing yards (120), touchdowns (2) and receiving yards (33). As a freshman Chandler totaled 305 yards and two touchdowns on 71 carries and was fourth in the SEC in kickoff return average. It will be a different looking offense in 2018 for the Vols, but Chandler could just be the SEC’s breakout player of the year.

Bold predictions
Missouri finishes second in the east – Missouri was picked by the media at SEC media days to finish fourth in the East, but some struggles by Florida and South Carolina could see the Tigers finish second. Missouri gets Vanderbilt, Kentucky, Georgia, and Arkansas at home and should win three of the four games. A tough trip to Bama should equal a loss, but the Tigers are more than capable of winning road games at South Carolina, at Florida, and at Tennessee.

The Tennessee game is a wild card for now as it is hard to figure out what the Vols will look like in late November and anything can happen when the Tigers travel to the other Columbia. So, circle the Tigers trip to the swamp as a must watch.

The SEC gets two teams into the CFB Playoffs again – Now this is a bold statement, especially when you look at how good the Big 10 should be and an improved Pac 12. However, there is still a chance that both Georgia and Alabama could make it back-to-back trips to the college football playoffs. That is if both can make it to Atlanta undefeated and there is actually a pretty good chance of that happing in 2018.

Mississippi State finishes second in the West – I am not buying Auburn as a serious SEC title contender. Most years when Auburn is supposed to be good they flop and when they are supposed to stink they do really well, so I need to see Auburn do it before I will say they can. This opens the door for Mississippi State as I think LSU and A&M are both a year away from title contention. The Bulldogs have the talent and a good, but new coaching staff. This might actually not even be that bold of a statement.

Lock and Dooley equals success for the Tigers – Maybe it’s just because I live in the heart of Rocky Top, but I feel a lot of people are still judging Derek Dooley on how things finished at Tennessee. One, a lot has changed since then and two Dooley has changed since then. Now, you can believe the Cowboy’s receivers, but I will go with what I know. Dooley helped bring the Vols some of the most explosive and highest scoring offenses in school history and despite a better win loss record for the most part, Butch Jones never really had as good of an offense as Dooley at UT. Lock is a very talented player and Dooley is a good coach that was simply not ready for that big of a stage when he was at Tennessee, but he is ready this time around.

Biggest non-conference games
Auburn vs. Washington Sept. 1st   – This one is easy. It will more than likely knock the loser out of the college football playoffs. Best case for the loser is they can lose one conference game, but that may be too much to ask for.

LSU vs. Miami Sept. 2nd  – This is the only game of the day and all eyes will be on it. Anytime two major national powers get together it’s always must watch tv.

Miss State @ Kansas State Sept. 8th  – Two teams that could be contending for a division title in 2018 and a big non-conference win early could mean a shot at a national title or at least being in the conversation early on.

Texas A&M vs. Clemson Sept. 8th – I’m really not sure that A&M has a great chance to win, but we will learn a lot about both teams in this matchup. How does A&M do when they are the less talented team could tell us more of what we can expect from them when they play Auburn and Alabama. For Clemson they get to play in front of 100 thousand plus people and prove large crowds don’t bother them like last year.

Florida @ Florida State Nov. 24th – I could easily go with any of the SEC vs. ACC games in the final week of the season, but the fact that both the Gators and Seminoles have new head coaches makes this start to a rivalries newest chapter very interesting.

Possible upsets
Arkansas @ Colorado St. Sept. 8th – This one is really simple the Rams are a solid team despite having a lot to replace on offense and their stadium in Fort Collins is a pretty good home field FYI. The Hogs should have a easy day against Eastern Illinois in week one, but face a tough road test in week two with the Rams. If this game were in Fayetteville I’m not sure I would give CSU much of a chance, but at home I like the Rams for the possible upset.

Florida vs. Kentucky Sept. 8th – Let me put this as simply as I can Kentucky’s best shot to end its losing streak to Florida was last year. However, this year may just be their next best shot. They get the Gators week two and yes it’s in Gainesville, but unlike Florida the Cats have a challenge in week one and that should get them in the right mindset. Plus. Florida could still be working out plenty of issues with a new offense and defense in week two.

Tennessee vs. West Virginia Sept. 1st  – The Vols have a shot at three upsets in 2018 and week one is the start. Jeremy Pruitt has a history of shutting down any offense when he has a lot of time to prep and he has the whole preseason to prep for this one. Pruitt’s history alone means the should be outmanned Vols have a shot.

Auburn vs. Tennessee Oct. 13th – Yes this is during Tennessee’s murderous stretch, but Auburn has a history of blowing these games and like stated above with Auburn I have to see them do it before I believe it can happen.

Tennessee vs. Florida Sept. 22nd – This one is pretty simple, two programs coming off bad seasons in 2017, talent issues at some positions, new head coaches and an early season match-up means both teams could still be working out more than a few kinks. The fact that the Vols host this one is why I’ll put Florida on upset alert in week four.

Bold SEC East final standings (I went with my bold predictions and upsets coming true for the bold final standings in the East)

  • Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC)
  • Missouri (8-4, 6-2 SEC)
  • South Carolina (7-7, 4-4 SEC)
  • Tennessee (6-6, 4-4 SEC)
  • Kentucky (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
  • Florida (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
  • Vanderbilt (1-11, 0-8 SEC)

 Realistic SEC East Final Standings

  • Georgia (12-0, 8-0 SEC)
  • South Carolina (9-3, 6-2 SEC)
  • Florida (8-4, 5-3 SEC)
  • Missouri (6-6, 4-4 SEC)
  • Tennessee (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
  • Kentucky (5-7, 1-7 SEC)
  • Vanderbilt (3-9, 0-8 SEC)

 Bold SEC West final standings (I went with my bold predictions and upsets coming true for the bold final standings in the West)

  • Alabama (12-0, 8-0 SEC)
  • Miss State (10-2, 6-2 SEC)
  • LSU (8-4, 5-3 SEC)
  • Auburn (7-5, 3-5 SEC)
  • Texas A&M (5-7, 3-5 SEC)
  • Ole Miss (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
  • Arkansas (4-8, 1-7 SEC)

Realistic SEC West final standings

  • Alabama (12-0, 8-0 SEC)
  • Miss State (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
  • Auburn (9-3, 5-3 SEC)
  • LSU (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
  • Texas A&M (6-6, 3-5 SEC)
  • Ole Miss (5-7, 2-6 SEC)
  • Arkansas (4-8, 1-7 SEC)

 

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