The Southeastern Conference can seemingly do no wrong, raking in more money than any other league and continuing to hold onto the trust of the majority of the college football world. After two years of falling short, the SEC is once again sitting at the pinnacle of the game after Alabama prevailed against Clemson in last January’s national championship game. Since the rise of the BCS era, the SEC has vaulted to prominence as the top conference in the sport, and that is unlikely to change in 2016 — at least in terms of one division.
That’s the ugly reality that the SEC is less likely to tout in public. The SEC West has become a juggernaut, with all seven of its squads ranked inside the top 30 of the PRS rankings. In the other division, meanwhile, only Tennessee falls within that threshold of excellence; the other six teams in the East rank between 48th and 95th in the PRS standings, with an average of 1.5 PRS points separating the average West school from the average East school. The gulf of talent and performance has been further exacerbated by half of the division’s teams hiring new head coaches in the offseason. When people think of the traditional dominance of this league, it is rarely East teams that come to mind.
And that is something that is unlikely to change in 2016. The West has won the SEC Championship Game seven straight years, breaking the streak of six straight won by the same division that was set by the East from 1993 through 1998. Only one contest in that span has even been close, with Georgia falling four points and five yards short in 2012. More broadly, the East went 2-12 against the West in 2015, outscored on average 29-19 in those contests. Given this is a trend that has only gotten worse over the past few years (the East was 6-8 against the West in 2013, and 4-10 in 2014) it will take something drastic to see the champion emerge from the lesser half of the bracket.
With that in mind, let’s dive in and assess the SEC pecking order, using the preseason PRS rankings as our guide to evaluate where each team stands heading into the 2016 season. (NOTE: While the PRS rankings are used as a guideline in determining the conference preview rankings, they are not a hard-and-fast rule. We try to contextualize the rankings as one facet of the analysis along with deeper evaluation of scheduling and personnel that impact what is likely to happen in 2016.)
7. Missouri — It might be the most nondescript perennial powerhouse in all of college football, but in transitioning from the Big 12 to the SEC Missouri barely missed a beat. Under Gary Pinkel the Tigers won three division titles in their last five years in their old league, before taking the SEC East in two of their first three years in the league. But now Pinkel has retired for health reasons, and new head coach Barry Odom will hope to right the ship after serving as defensive coordinator during a 5-7 campaign in 2015. Missouri returns sophomore Drew Lock at quarterback, top tailback Ish Witter, the top two receivers and top two tight ends, and a completely gutted offensive line. The defense must replace linebacker Kentrell Brothers and defensive end Walter Brady, but otherwise the front seven is a deep collection of talent. Opening in Morgantown against West Virginia, the team that replaced them in the Big 12, the Tigers must travel as well to LSU, Florida, South Carolina, and Tennessee in conference play. Six wins will be hard to find on this schedule for a team adjusting to a new era in Columbia.
6. South Carolina — Last year things went weird in South Carolina, as Steve Spurrier walked out on the team at midseason and left the coaching duties to co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott. The Gamecocks predictably spiraled to a 3-9 finish, as the team went through the motions uncertain about their collective and individual futures. In comes Will Muschamp, freshly redeemed after some time back as a coordinator at Auburn, and he’ll have the least experienced team in the division to begin the rebuild in Columbia. If Perry Orth matures at quarterback the offense will still likely be merely mediocre, as South Carolina lost its top tailback, is thin at receiver, and returns just two offensive line starters from last year. The defense should improve under Muschamp, but the eight returning starters mask the larger loss of depth on that side of the ball. Road trips to Vanderbilt and Mississippi State await right away to start the season, offering no chance to work out the kinks against a non-conference opponent. Muschamp is probably not going to engineer a quick turnaround, but subtle improvement would start with getting closer to bowl eligibility.
5. Vanderbilt — The Commodores were a team of contrasts in 2015, as a solid defense continually found itself betrayed by one abysmal offensive performance after another. The offense could only muster two games with 20 or more points against FBS competition, and only topped 30 points in a matchup against FCS Austin Peay. Derek Mason has one of the most experienced teams returning in the SEC, but it won’t matter unless an offense with eight returning starters can begin to contribute to the scoreboard more effectively. Settling on one starting quarterback would be a great place to start, given the returning talent at the skill positions. The defense should be at least as good as it was last year, with the potential to finish in the top 20 nationally given its depth at every level. A matchup with South Carolina at home to begin the year will set the tone for 2016 right off the bat, and trips to Georgia Tech and Western Kentucky to wrap up September will determine whether or not the Commodores can qualify for the postseason.
4. Kentucky — Last year the Wildcats started the season 4-1, with only a five-point loss to Florida marring an otherwise perfect record. Then midnight came for Cinderella, with five straight losses ending the dream of going bowling for the first time in five years. Rich Brooks steered this team back toward SEC respectability, but since his 2009 retirement Kentucky has gone just 25-48 and finished the year with a losing record each time. Now entering his fourth season at the helm, Mark Stoops returns a solid offense to try to push the team to that last win needed for bowl eligibility. Four-star sophomore Drew Barker stole away the quarterback job at the end of last year, and now it is his alone after Patrick Towles transferred to Boston College. The front seven on defense suffered heavy losses, though their marginal numbers relative to the SEC average might make this infusion of new talent a blessing in disguise. Southern Miss presents a tough home opener, and the only other sure wins on the schedule are New Mexico State and FCS Austin Peay. Unless they nab a few upsets, the postseason drought will likely extend to a sixth season.
3. Florida — In Jim McElwain’s first season, Florida weathered the tribulations of quarterback flux and inconsistent production on offense to take the Gators to their first SEC East championship since 2009. Carried largely by a top-15 defense, Florida ended the year on a three-game swoon when the competition improved dramatically. The offense will depend on a transfer quarterback, lost 1000-yard rusher Kelvin Taylor, and several strong receivers, but the line should be improved with far more returning experience and there is plenty of talent to boost the offensive production. The defense should be just as good as ever, with a deep front seven solid at preventing the run but the secondary potentially facing depth issues. The schedule lines up for another bowl trip for the Gators, but McElwain would have to work miracles to get UF back to Atlanta for the SEC Championship Game. Playing at Tennessee could result in the first loss to the Volunteers since 2004, and while things line up for eight or nine wins it might be tough to get back to double digits with a younger squad.
2. Georgia — Much like Nebraska in the Big Ten, the Bulldogs felt that they ought to be regularly contending for conference and national titles rather than suffering three or four losses a year. So after 15 years and 145 wins, Mark Richt was shown the door in the hope that a little bit of Bama magic might rub off in Athens under new head coach Kirby Smart. The longtime Crimson Tide defensive coordinator inherits a top-10 defense from last year, but he will be working with a front seven that looks completely different after a lot of departures. He will also need to retool an offense that sputtered in 2015. One of the best backfield tandems in all college football returns with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and the offensive line was bolstered by the addition of transfer student Tyler Catalina from FCS Rhode Island. The big question is who will be distributing the ball, as freshman Jacob Eason provides the biggest upside while Grayson Lambert is a known commodity. Opening against North Carolina in the Georgia Dome provides the opportunity to make a strong statement to begin the year, and if they get by Ole Miss to end September undefeated the Bulldogs could challenge for the SEC East.
1. Tennessee — Over three seasons in Knoxville, Butch Jones has improved the Volunteers’ win totals by two games per season. Last year Tennessee won nine games for the first time since 2007, and this year returns more depth than any other team in the SEC to enter 2016 as a favorite to win its first SEC East title since Phillip Fulmer was dismissed as coach. A top-30 scoring offense and a top-20 scoring defense nevertheless went 2-4 in one-score games, and will need to curb a propensity for coughing up leads late in games. Josh Dobbs returns for his senior year at quarterback to lead an offense that lost just two parts, second-team All-SEC left tackle Kyler Kerbyson and receiver Von Pearson. The defense returns a deep linebacking corps, an experienced secondary, and both of its disruptive defensive ends. Appalachian State, Virginia Tech, Ohio, and FCS Tennessee Tech provide four winnable opportunities out of conference, while the Vols also get both Florida and Alabama at home. If Tennessee is going to return to SEC prominence, the time is now.
7. Mississippi State — While Dak Prescott is off to the NFL, Dan Mullen’s rebuild of Mississippi State began before the quarterback’s arrival in Starkville and should continue beyond it. That said, it is likely to be a rebuilding campaign for the Bulldogs in 2016 after they lost not just Prescott but more than half of their total offensive production from 2015. Nick Fitzgerald is the favorite to replace Prescott, and there is plenty of skill as well as returning experience at all five positions on the line. An aggressive defense held eight of its opponents to three touchdowns or less, but they also coughed up four touchdowns or more in each of their last five games. While the defense is deep throughout its two-deep, the unit will need to work on inconsistencies that allowed some big performances last season. Having to play at LSU and at Alabama will make it tougher sledding in the division, while the only potential trap out of conference is a trip to BYU. The Bulldogs should manage to go to a seventh straight bowl under Mullen, but it is also likely to take a step back from the 19 wins of the past two seasons.
6. Auburn — Guz Malzahn’s time as the head coach at Auburn is beginning to look suspiciously like Gene Chizik’s run on the Plains. After taking the Tigers to the national championship game, the past two seasons have seen diminishing returns in the win column. Now Malzahn finds his seat heating up just as he returns one of the thinner rosters in the SEC. Jeremy Johnson could spark a renaissance if he becomes more consistent at quarterback, though he lost a lot of talent around him on offense. The defense also lost a bunch of depth from the line through the secondary, making it less likely that the unit is going to significantly improve on a performance that put them outside the top 50 nationally in 2015. At least Daniel Carlson, one of the top kickers in the country, is back as a junior. An opener against Clemson gives no chance to ease into the season, while the Tigers also face Arkansas State, Texas A&M, and LSU before the end of September. As such they’ll be lucky to emerge even .500 in the standings entering October, and it could be tough to find a sixth win later in the year.
5. Texas A&M — Since bursting on to the SEC scene with Kevin Sumlin in 2012, the Aggies have gone from being burgeoning powerhouse to division spoiler to just another middleweight in the SEC West. Top recruits have transferred out of College Station after the initial hype of Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season, and Sumlin now finds himself on a hot seat as he enters year five at Texas A&M. The Aggies return less experience than everyone except Alabama, but that is concentrated along the offensive line and secondary. Sumlin will turn toward Oklahoma transfer Trevor Knight at quarterback, while fellow former Sooner Keith Ford will try to replicate departed halfback Tra Carson’s 1100-yard season. Knight will have all of the top four receivers from a skilled group back. UCLA comes to town right away to test the Aggies, while they must take to the road against Auburn, Alabama, and Mississippi State along with a neutral-site game against Arkansas at AT&T Stadium in Arlington. Will a fifth straight bowl trip be enough to save Sumlin’s job, or have expectations been raised too high in College Station?
4. Arkansas — Last year Bret Bielema posted his first winning record in conference play in his third season at Arkansas, and the former Wisconsin head coach will look for another leap forward in 2016. That will depend on navigating one of the toughest schedules in college football with a roster that returns plenty of experience on defense but which has a lot of unanswered questions on offense. The Razorbacks lost quarterback Brandon Allen and 1500-yard tailback Alex Collins, meaning that Bielema and crew will lean more heavily on a deep receiving corps with a new quarterback as well as a retooled offensive line that lost three starters, including 2015 All-American guard Sebastian Tretola. Other than tackle DeMarcus Hodge and safety Rohan Gaines, the rest of last year’s defense returns. Unfortunately, offense was the strong point and defense was the weak link in 2015. This season, the Razorbacks get to play Alabama, Ole Miss, Florida, and LSU all at home, but they also travel to TCU out of conference and close the year with road games against Mississippi State and Missouri. Bowling is in the cards, but division contention is likely too much to ask.
3. Ole Miss — In 2015 the Rebels were able to knock off Alabama on the road, but losses to Florida and Arkansas prevented Mississippi from winning the SEC West and beating out the Tide for a spot in the conference championship. Now Ole Miss must retool after losing more starters than anyone else in the SEC, with just five guys back from the first team on each side of the ball. Among them is Chad Kelly, the transfer quarterback who threw for over 4000 yards last year, though he’s throwing to new receivers and working behind a new offensive line. The defense, the weaker of the two units last year, lost even more talent and will be dependent on youth to enrich the depth chart. The season opens right off the bat with Florida State, includes AAC threat Memphis and Sun Belt contender Georgia Southern, and offers few chances for the Rebels to catch their breath. If Freeze can get the new contributors to gel with the returnees quickly, Ole Miss will likely be able to upset an opponent or two on its way to another 10-win season.
2. LSU — Like so many of his SEC contemporaries, Les Miles suffers mainly from not being Nick Saban. Nearly canned after a 9-3 season, Miles must take the deepest returning class in the division and get over the Alabama hump if he is going to ever gain any long-term security in Baton Rouge. Nine starters return on each side of the ball, headlined by Heisman hopeful Leonard Fournette in the backfield, and recruited yet another top-tier class on the last National Signing Day. Only Navy turned the ball over fewer times in 2015, and Miles will likely lean on the ground game again. A top-25 defense has the potential to bloom into one of the best in the country this year, with safety Jamal Adams leading a deep secondary and a front seven that allowed just 123 rushing yards per game. The Tigers open the season with a showcase game against Wisconsin at Lambeau Field, which could prove significant later in the year, and they get to play both Ole Miss and Alabama in Baton Rouge. In all but the matchup with the Tide, LSU is sure to be favored thanks to the most seasoned group in the SEC.
1. Alabama — Until further notice, it is clearly foolish to bet against the Crimson Tide ultimately prevailing in their conference and in big games with big stakes. Nick Saban now has five national championships on his career record, yet only one of those teams finished the year undefeated. Alabama has a knack for getting the benefit of the doubt, sure, but that is the result of having a roster that continues to recruit and refuel better than any other in the country. Saban loses two-thirds of his offensive production and half of the defensive output from last year’s championship squad, yet Bama has a clear path to the title game. Stopgap quarterback Jake Coker is gone, as is 2200-yard rusher Derrick Henry and his backup Kenyon Drake, but four- and five-star recruits are there looking for their opportunity to contribute. The defense could face depth issues on the line, but the linebacking corps are deep and the secondary should be able to contain most offenses they’ll face. They do benefit from the return of punting weapon JK Scott, at least, and will hope that placekicker Adam Griffith will improve on his accuracy as a senior. The season opener against USC at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas is yet another strong non-conference opener scheduled by Saban, and they also take at least some risk by scheduling Western Kentucky the following week — especially with a trip to Ole Miss in week three. The Tide also head to Tennessee and LSU for critical road games, but Alabama can probably lose one of those three and still win the division and the conference.