SEC Football: Super Early Conference Rankings for 2017
The college football season is barely 24 hours in the grave, so that must mean it's time to look ahead to what 2017 has in store for the SEC.
Alabama took the league on its shoulders and made it to Monday's College Football Playoff National Championship, but it lost 35-31 to Clemson in the final second. It was a disappointing finish to an overall disappointing season for the conference.
Beyond Alabama's regular-season dominance, the SEC didn't have another team with fewer than four losses.
Bowl season wasn't much better—the SEC went 6-7, counting the season-ending loss.
There's serious room for improvement, and that should come. But with head coach Nick Saban and all that talent, the Crimson Tide aren't going away, and the conference has plenty of rising stars.
It looks like the SEC has hurdled its biggest struggle of the past few years, as quarterback play could become a strength. Big-time runners are coming up, too, and while some defensive playmakers need to emerge, the conference is recruiting at a high level.
Teams such as Georgia and LSU are reloading with some quality young recruits. So, there is plenty of excitement for everybody. All the squads are 0-0 for next season, right? Let's take a look at the way-too-early conference rankings for '17.
After one of the worst offensive seasons in SEC history in 2015, the Tigers took a shocking twist this past year—the defense failed them.
Missouri should rectify that under second-year head coach Barry Odom, a defensive mind with a coordinator background. Though the Tigers will lose star defensive end Charles Harris, they'll return Terry Beckner Jr. and others, and they always seem to develop defenders.
With Drew Lock coming back at quarterback following a gunslinging sophomore season, the Tigers could be explosive on offense.
If star freshman running back Damarea Crockett can bounce back from a season-ending suspension for suspicion of marijuana possession, according to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Dave Matter, and Ish Witter gets back, too, the Tigers will have some offensive weapons around Lock.
But will that talent be enough to make a bowl game?
The league is deep with teams that are ahead of Mizzou right now, and though that gap isn't so wide, the Tigers need to prove their place on the field. That's why they're bringing up the rear.
13. Mississippi State
When it comes to centerpieces, rising junior quarterback Nick Fitzgerald is one of the best building blocks in the SEC.
He can win games with his arm or his feet, and the dual-threat quarterback proved he could do both as a sophomore for the Bulldogs in a year when things weren't supposed to be pretty without Dak Prescott.
MSU didn't have the season it wanted, and while Fitzgerald should continue to surge, head coach Dan Mullen still has numerous on-field questions in 2017.
How do you replace star receiver Fred Ross, who did so much this past year? What about standout middle linebacker Richie Brown, who was such a leader on coordinator Peter Sirmon's young defense?
There are plenty of reasons for excitement. Prior to MSU's bowl win over Miami (Ohio), Ross told ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf he thought next year's team has the chance to be as good as the 2014 squad.
"That’s a pretty bold statement," Ross said. "But we were young this year. We had like 20 guys on the field, offense and defense, who had never played in a game, never took a snap. They were just young guys who hadn't played a lot of college football."
Again, there are young possibilities who could become answers to Mullen's questions. But they've got to prove themselves. If they do, the Bulldogs could surge up the list.
Vanderbilt's victory over Tennessee in the regular-season finale earned head coach Derek Mason his first bowl appearance as the leader at Vandy.
But the Commodores' good vibes ended when North Carolina State handled them in the Independence Bowl. In that game, VU's issues—like QB Kyle Shurmur's inconsistency and the defense's inability to force stops—reared their heads again.
Those problems will become even more prominent if star linebacker Zach Cunningham enters the NFL draft a year early, as is expected. All-time leading rusher Ralph Webb has the same choice to make, but his final decision is not yet clear.
If those two guys stick around, the Commodores could take another step forward in 2017. But if they leave, it's hard to see Mason recruiting well enough to consistently overmatch anybody else ahead of Vandy on this list.
There's no reason why Mason's program can't be a regular participant in bowl season, but it's difficult to envision Vanderbilt reaching that eight- or nine-win plateau. Mason needs to lure three or four more difference-makers to Nashville to go along with the nice young players already on campus.
Until he does, VU will stay in the lower third.
11. Ole Miss
Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze expressed resigned relief to ESPN.com's Greg Ostendorf after his team's loss to Mississippi State in the regular-season finale, even though it meant the Rebels wouldn't be going to a bowl game.
"From the disappointments to the injuries to everything that’s going on around our program, it’s been a very, very difficult season," Freeze said. "I’m glad it’s over now, and I can’t wait to hit the road recruiting, get the necessary changes made and get to spring ball."
After all, 2016 saw the school fall under heavy NCAA scrutiny that has yet to be resolved, endure numerous injuries (especially on defense), lose star quarterback Chad Kelly and fail to make the postseason.
Recruiting is suffering due to the NCAA cloud, and after the season, Freeze replaced both coordinators.
The new leader of the "Land Shark" defense will be former Auburn assistant Wesley McGriff. Phil Longo was tabbed to head the offense after leading the top Football Championship Subdivision unit at Sam Houston State.
There will be plenty of newness in Oxford, but given the frustrations of the past calendar year, that's not a bad thing. Also, with stud sophomore quarterback Shea Patterson and a stable of breakout receivers like A.J. Brown, there are exciting playmakers on offense.
If former ballyhooed prospect Eric Swinney can return and provide a semblance of a running game, that offense will be even tougher.
Can the defense regain some of that pizzazz that made it so special with the Nkemdiche brothers and Co.? That remains to be seen. But it's still a pretty safe bet the Rebels make it back to a bowl game in '17...if they're eligible for one.
10. Texas A&M
When quarterback Trevor Knight went down, yet another Texas A&M late-season slide skidded a little faster downhill. That doesn't bode well for the future of an Aggies team that must replace several stars.
None of the departing players are better than junior defensive end Myles Garrett, who could be the top overall pick in the upcoming NFL draft. You can't just insert somebody as talented as him to take over as a speed-rusher.
Toss in the question mark about who is going to replace Knight, and you've got plenty of reasons to wonder whether head coach Kevin Sumlin's hot seat may get too torrid in College Station.
With all that talent in the Lone Star State, there will always be playmakers, and Sumlin needs to get his share of them. Emerging star runner Trayveon Williams is a good start, and defensive coordinator John Chavis has a lot of talent to work with on defense.
But the Aggies have to find a way to take those early season positive vibes and extrapolate them across the entire season. A&M fans are restless, and after the hated Texas Longhorns went out and made a splash hire in Tom Herman, the Aggies won't settle for mediocrity for long.
They need answers at the quarterback position, along the offensive front and in some holes on defense to become a viable candidate in the West. Until then, the Aggies are just a middle-of-the-road team.
It certainly didn't help matters that Kentucky lost star running back Stanley Boom Williams to the NFL when he probably should have stuck around another season.
But that isn't downing the excitement in Lexington, where Kentucky fans can finally look forward to autumn for a reason other than basketball. The Wildcats finished 7-6 this year, and though they lost 33-18 to Georgia Tech in the TaxSlayer Bowl, they took a distinct step in the right direction.
Head coach Mark Stoops found some offensive weapons in JUCO transfer quarterback Stephen Johnson and true freshman running back Benny Snell Jr. Even though Williams' departure will sting, those two come back with a solid receiving corps.
For years, UK has been trying to build enough depth on defense to stay competitive, but it should take another leap next year. The Wildcats return 17 of 22 starters overall, and that is a reason to believe they could reach eight or nine wins.
While Florida and Tennessee attempt to replace a lot of talent, UK could sneak into the top rung of the SEC East. The Lexington Herald-Leader's Mark Story highlighted one thing that needs to change in order to make that happen.
"For UK to ever be taken seriously as an SEC football program," he wrote, "the Cats have to fare better against SEC East foes Florida (lost 30 in a row), Tennessee (lost 31 of 32) and Georgia (lost 24 of last 29)."
Break through in a couple of those games, and Kentucky could make a run.
Florida is losing so many superstar players on defense such as Quincy Wilson, Teez Tabor, Alex Anzalone and Jarrad Davis that it's hard to envision the Gators won't take a small hit.
There's no reason to think Florida will be poor on defense under new coordinator Randy Shannon, though. The Gators still have a stable of talent many SEC teams should be envious of, but depth will be lacking due to recruiting missteps in the first couple years of Jim McElwain's regime.
Still, defensively, UF will be good enough to win the SEC East.
The questions still loom on offense. There are potential answers, but players need to step up on that side of the ball.
It's hard to have much confidence in incumbent starting quarterback Luke Del Rio—the Gators need Feleipe Franks or Kyle Trask to live up to their billing as former stud prospects. Both signal-callers have a lot of ability, and strong quarterback play could rejuvenate the UF offense.
The Gators have potential playmakers on that side of the ball in running back Jordan Scarlett, receivers Antonio Callaway and Brandon Powell as well as budding players like Freddie Swain and C'yontai Lewis. They just need somebody to get them the ball.
When McElwain arrived in Gainesville, he was known for his offensive acumen. It's time for him to prove it in year three, or UF will get dethroned in the division.
With so much pressure on head coach Butch Jones and Tennessee in 2016, the Volunteers blinked in the spotlight, squandering a wide-open opportunity to seize the SEC East.
Now, UT must replace numerous players, including quarterback Joshua Dobbs, running back Alvin Kamara, wide receiver Josh Malone, defensive end Derek Barnett and cornerback Cameron Sutton.
That's not going to be easy.
The Vols have recruited well on offense, so there are players like dual-threat quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, junior running back John Kelly and junior receiver Jauan Jennings to take over and do well. But where is the depth?
A quarterback battle between Guarantano and junior Quinten Dormady will be fun to watch, as the two bring different skill sets to an offense that will undoubtedly miss Dobbs' playmaking ability.
The struggles in 2016 can be attributed to injuries and defensive failures under first-year defensive coordinator Bob Shoop, but given his track record, you have to figure the Vols will be better on that side of the ball in his second season.
There are plenty of concerns about the future as Jones is currently looking for an offensive coordinator to replace Mike DeBord, who left for Indiana to be closer to family, per USA Today's Rhiannon Potkey. Will the Vols hire an in-house candidate like Larry Scott or go outside of their family?
There are too many moving parts to feel strongly about UT's chances to win the East. But there is also a lot of talent, and the division still isn't that tough. Jones will be in his comfort zone with the expectations lowered in '17. But will it be enough to keep his job if the Vols remain in the eight- or nine-win window?
Bret Bielema is going to have to answer his share of questions this offseason after monumental second-half collapses against Missouri and Virginia Tech (in the Belk Bowl) to close the season.
Those two losses turned an impressive rebuilding campaign into a disappointment. They stung for different reasons. The loss to the Tigers had no business happening, and the meltdown against the Hokies was thorough.
They're the kind of losses that turn a fanbase against a coach.
When defensive coordinator Robb Smith left Arkansas to become P.J. Fleck's new coordinator at Minnesota, it had a rats-off-the-sinking-ship feel. Former Razorback coach Houston Nutt told Knoxville's The Sports Animal radio host Jimmy Hyams recently (via the Sentinel-Record) Bielema should be feeling heat.
"He's had a pretty nice little honeymoon," Nutt said in that interview. "I'm an Arkansan, born and raised there. They got after me pretty hard and we won three (SEC) Western titles and went to Atlanta twice. So it's, 'What have you done lately.'"
There's no reason for Arkansas to struggle in '17 with running backs Rawleigh Williams III and Devwah Whaley returning along with quarterback Austin Allen. The defense could improve if the Razorbacks find the right coordinator.
So, they should be able to rebound and attain nine or 10 wins. Bielema had better hope so.
5. South Carolina
The biggest surprise on this list may be South Carolina—plenty of you are probably wondering why this team is ranked so high.
Though the Gamecocks finished the year 6-7, they showed plenty of spunk in a lot of games. That included an overtime bowl loss to a very potent South Florida offense in which true freshman Jake Bentley showed the potential to carry the team on his shoulders.
Head coach Will Muschamp did a lot to turn around the culture in his first season, building South Carolina into a gritty defensive team that will improve further under his hard-nosed approach. The Gamecocks are recruiting well, and they'll be strong on that side of the ball.
Offensively, Bentley looks like he's got that "it" factor. Little-recruited freshman running back Rico Dowdle also looked very good at times in 2016, and the Gamecocks have several young receivers who can make plays with games on the line, too.
A home win over Tennessee in the latter half of the season seemed to kick-start the program, and Muschamp has the Vols' number. If Carolina can break through against Georgia and Florida, it could be right in the thick of things in the East.
Bentley and Dowdle will continue to develop, and that team is going to be a tough out for anybody by the middle of this season.
If Carolina were a stock, you would want to buy.
Though it wasn't a memorable season for Georgia, the Bulldogs finished it off with a solid win over TCU in the Liberty Bowl to get to 8-5 and jump into an offseason that is rife with expectations.
Get ready for the same hype train that followed Tennessee last year. Can the Bulldogs handle it better than the Vols?
The good news for UGA is it has two star running backs returning for their senior seasons in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Chubb wasn't himself in 2016, but he'll improve, and if he can return to his All-American form pre-knee injury, Georgia is going to be very good.
True freshman quarterback Jacob Eason's first season was rocky at best. But he has so much talent and arm strength, if he finally gets it, a season's worth of struggles will be valuable for him in the long run. Tight end Isaac Nauta looks like a budding star, too.
When you factor in just how well head coach Kirby Smart is recruiting in what may wind up being Georgia's best class on paper ever, there's plenty of excitement brimming about the future. Why not 2017? It's wide-open, for sure.
Defensively, the Bulldogs are young on the line, and the unit should be better in its second year under Mel Tucker, especially with an infusion of all that talent.
"So, when you see either Alabama or Clemson—you probably know fans of these teams—celebrating Monday night, try not to fret too much," DawgNation.com's Cy Brown wrote this week. "There still is a ton of work to be done to get there, but Georgia isn’t that far off from being in the running for a title."
They aren't there yet, but the pieces are coming together for UGA to be a threat in the division, at least.
LSU won't miss a beat and should even be better offensively in 2017 with Derrius Guice taking over at running back for Leonard Fournette and quarterback Danny Etling returning.
Considering the Tigers made one of the best hires of the offseason when they plucked innovative offensive coordinator Matt Canada from Pittsburgh, bright days are ahead for a unit that has been stagnant of late.
But an incredible 2016 defense—which would have been the talk of the SEC if not for Alabama's dominance—will be gutted. With the news that junior defensive tackle Davon Godchaux and safety Jamal Adams are leaving early, the Tigers lose a ton.
They'll join linebackers Kendall Beckwith and Duke Riley, cornerback Tre'Davious White as well as Tashawn Bower, Lewis Neal and Dwayne Thomas. The group that allowed 16.4 points per game won't be there anymore.
Recruiting was never an issue under Les Miles and won't be under new head coach Ed Orgeron, either. But you can't rebuild a defense losing that many playmakers, even if coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in the country.
It's going to be time for all those prospects to step up, and a lot of them will. That's why it's not difficult to envision the Tigers still winning nine or 10 games and going to a strong bowl next year. Orgeron's first full season won't feature a win over Alabama or anything, but it'll be successful nonetheless.
It just may not be good enough to make folks on the bayou happy.
Sumlin, Jones and Bielema aren't the only SEC coaches who should be feeling a little warmth. Auburn coach Gus Malzahn will be expected to have Auburn competing for the West division again in 2017.
Luckily for him, the Tigers won a huge recruiting sweepstakes when Baylor transfer quarterback Jarrett Stidham decided to finish his career on the Plains. If Stidham lives up to expectations and takes over the job, AU may just have another dynamic signal-caller.
That seems like the missing link to the Tigers' success against all their opponents, including Alabama.
With running backs Kamryn Pettway and Kerryon Johnson returning along with a slew of defensive stalwarts under surprising first-year coordinator Kevin Steele, who did one of the best jobs of any assistant in the country, the Tigers have a lot of quality parts.
Auburn has numerous young, talented receivers who will begin to realize their potential if Stidham (or perhaps a fully healthy Sean White) can get them the ball.
On paper, the Tigers don't look as good as Alabama. But in that rivalry game at the end of the year, anything can happen, and AU will have the playmakers to be a good SEC team again.
This year's squad made it to the Sugar Bowl and played at a high level in the middle of the season before injuries took their toll. If Auburn can do that for an entire season, '17 could be a big year.
On Monday night, Clemson proved that Alabama isn't invincible. But the Tigers also needed a generational talent at quarterback in Deshaun Watson to unseat the Crimson Tide atop the college football world, much the way Auburn did with Cam Newton several years back.
Unfortunately for the SEC, the Tide aren't going anywhere.
This year's Alabama team was young on offense, and the way head coach Nick Saban recruits, he can just replace star defenders like Jonathan Allen and Tim Williams with prospects that everybody in the nation wanted.
Case in point: When Shaun Dion Hamilton went down this year with a season-ending injury, UA replaced him with star Rashaan Evans. The Tide didn't miss a beat.
Alabama needs to upgrade its play in the secondary in 2017, but with so many playmakers returning on offense, the Tide will be among the top teams in the nation again.
Quarterback Jalen Hurts will have some competition with freshman Tua Tagovailoa coming in. Also, running back Najee Harris will join studs like Bo Scarbrough, Damien Harris and Joshua Jacobs in the backfield. The receivers are still elite, too.
Saban will just restock, and UA will refocus after a national championship loss. Will the Tide still be the best in the SEC? You shouldn't bet against it.
Quotes and information gathered firsthand unless otherwise noted. All stats gathered on CFBStats.com unless otherwise noted.
Brad Shepard covers SEC football and is the Tennessee lead writer for Bleacher Report. Follow Brad on Twitter: @Brad_Shepard.