Yet going into 2016, the dominant SEC story lines are coaches on hot seats, quarterback mysteries and a potentially vulnerable Alabama:
Coaches who better produce
1. Les Miles, LSU. Miles led LSU to the BCS Championship in 2007. The “Mad Hatter” had the Tigers in the BCS title game after 2011. Yet, after going 8-5 in 2014 and losing three straight conference games late last season, it appeared LSU was going to oust Miles.
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Amazingly, the school administration appeared to change its mind during LSU’s season-ending win over Texas A&M. Still, in 2016, it would behoove Miles to get the Bayou Bengals back in contention for the SEC West crown. Miles’ snapping his five-game losing streak to Alabama and ex-LSU head man Nick Saban wouldn’t hurt.
2. Gus Malzahn, Auburn. Few schools have more history of toxic coaching “politics” — and a quicker trigger on changing head men — than Auburn. Malzahn was the toast of the Loveliest Village on the Plains when he debuted in 2013 by going 12-2, beating Alabama and leading the Tigers to the BCS Championship Game. Since then, however, Malzahn is 15-11 (6-10 SEC, 0-2 vs Alabama). If the coach doesn’t want to find himself traversing the “Gene Chizik highway” right out of town, he needs a revival in 2016.
3. Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M. With Johnny Manziel as his starting quarterback (2012 and ’13), Sumlin was a nifty 20-6 (10-6 SEC). Since Johnny Football’s departure, Sumlin is 16-10 (7-9). Along with declining returns, Sumlin was plagued this offseason by lauded quarterbacks transferring out of his program and assistant coaches committing offensive acts in public.
Of the 14 SEC schools, only five have returning starters (which I define as a player who started the majority of games at the position the prior season) at quarterback. Of those five, only Mississippi’s Chad Kelly and Tennessee’s Joshua Dobbs are proven standouts.
Every other SEC school has some degree of question about the level of quarterback play it will get in 2016.
So depleted is the returning quarterback talent, college football guru Phil Steele projects Texas A&M’s Trevor Knight — who transferred from Oklahoma after losing the starting job to Baker Mayfield — and Georgia true freshman Jacob Eason as the third and fourth best QBs, respectively, in the SEC.
After near misses the past two seasons, Kentucky will again attempt to end what is now a 29-game losing streak against Florida when UK visits The Swamp on Sept. 10.
However, it is Tennessee and Coach Butch Jones that will be under the most pressure to end longish skids against conference rivals in 2016.
1.) Florida has beaten the Big Orange 11 seasons in a row. Last year, UT led UF 27-14 in the fourth quarter only to lose an excruciating 28-27 heart-wrencher. The Volunteers (tied with LSU for most starters returning in the SEC with 17) will get a chance at payback on Florida (12 starters back) in Neyland Stadium Sept. 24.
2.) Alabama has beaten the Big Orange nine seasons in a row. Last year, Tennessee went ahead 14-13 with 5:49 left in the game — only to watch Alabama answer with a long TD drive to win 19-14. UT will get Bama in Neyland Oct. 15.
The SEC players with the best shot to give the league its sixth Heisman Trophy since 2007:
1.) Leonard Fournette, LSU. The dynamic 6-foot-1, 230-pound junior led the country in rushing yards a game (162.8) in 2015 but his Heisman candidacy ran aground in Tuscaloosa when Alabama held him to 31 yards. His chance to legitimize his 2016 Heisman campaign comes Nov. 5 when the Crimson Tide visit Baton Rouge.
2.) Joshua Dobbs, Tennessee. If UT lives up to its massive preseason hype, the Volunteers dual-threat quarterback could reap some individual benefits.
3.) Chad Kelly, Mississippi. Statistically, Kelly is easily the best returning passer in the SEC (4,042 passing yards, 31 touchdown vs. 13 interceptions in 2015). Question is, can Ole Miss — which lost three players in the first round of the 2016 NFL Draft — win enough to make its QB a viable Heisman threat?
Everyone just assuming Nick Saban and defending national champion Alabama are a lock to claim another SEC crown might want to peruse the Crimson Tide’s road schedule in the league.
Alabama must visit Mississippi (Sept. 17), a team that has beaten the Tide two years in a row. It must go to Arkansas (Oct. 8), where Bama was fortunate to escape with a 14-13 win two seasons ago. The Tide then has road trips to two schools — Tennessee (Oct. 15) and LSU (Nov. 5) — where the fervor to beat Alabama this season will produce all-out holy wars.
If Saban can take a team with only 11 returning starters, no proven running back, and a new starting quarterback and run the table against this road schedule it would be among the most impressive coaching achievements of an already legendary career.
2016 College Football Preview