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SEC Media Days: Back on top, SEC ready for more in 2016

Well, we made it. The media day fun is about to get rolling in Hoover, Alabama with the start of a nearly week-long media day extravaganza with the SEC. Before everything gets underway, here is a rundown of the SEC heading into 2016.

The SEC in 2015

Heading into the 2015 season, the SEC was a conference many felt was still among the bets in the country but now was faced with the slightly infrequent task of having to back it up and prove it to everyone around the sport. Such things happen when a conference with a string of national titles to brag about suddenly has gone two straight years without a national championship trophy over two different championship models. Last year was an impressive one for the conference. It started with the clear frontrunner for the Heisman Trophy in Leonard Fournette at LSU before handing off to Alabama’s Derrick Henry for the remainder of the season. Alabama muscled its way back to the College Football Playoff and made sure things went differently this season compared to their first playoff experience a season ago.Alabama dismantled Big Ten champion Michigan State and outlasted an offensively-talented and previously unbeaten Clemson in the national championship game. Alabama left no question who the best team in college football was in 2015, and the rest fo the conference fared well as well to put to rest any concerns about the overall strength of the SEC.

Alabama dismantled Big Ten champion Michigan State and outlasted an offensively-talented and previously unbeaten Clemson in the national championship game. Alabama left no question who the best team in college football was in 2015, and the rest fo the conference fared well as well to put to rest any concerns about the overall strength of the SEC. The SEC went a combined 9-2 in the postseason, including the two victories by Alabama and winning records against the ACC (2-1), Big 12 (3-0) and Big Ten (3-1). Not too shabby. The SEC took some grief for their postseason showing the previous season, but remember the conference still had more postseason wins than any other conference with a 7-5 mark in 2014-15.

The SEC landed five teams in the final AP Top 25 last season, with Ole Miss sneaking into the top 10. LSU, Tennessee and Florida all joined the Crimson Tide and Rebels in the top 25.

Coaching Changes

In case you missed this past season’s edition of the coaching carousel

  • Georgia: Long-time head coach Mark Richt was let go by the university. He is now the head coach at Miami, where I expect good things to come for the Hurricanes. Taking his place is former Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart for his head coaching debut.
  • Missouri: After a turbulent season at Missouri, Gary Pinkel stepped into retirement. Missouri promoted from within and named defensive coordinator Barry Odom as head coach. It is Odom’s head coaching debut.
  • South Carolina: Steve Spurrier opted to retire in mid-October, which means no Spurrier at the podium this season. Weird. Co-offensive coordinator Shawn Elliott took over as an interim head coach for the remainder of the season but South Carolina hired Auburn defensive coordinator and former Florida head coach Will Muschamp to be the new head coach.

Two new first-time head coaches and one former head coach getting jobs at SEC schools, and each with one thing in common. They were all defensive coordinators previously within the SEC. Perhaps it is just a coincidence, but it is always interesting to see if there are any hiring trends within a conference. In the sEC, it was defensive minded coaches getting the call for head coaching jobs. The same was actually true in the Big Ten as well with former defensive cooridnator Chris Ash (Ohio State) getting a job at Rutgers and Maryland hiring former Florida defensive cooridnator D.J. Durkin. Illinois made a late call and hired defensive-minded Lovie Smith as well. The game of college football may be exploding on offense, and recent head coaching hires suggest programs are looking to adjust on the other side of the football.

Five Questions for 2016

Expect to hear some of these topics discussed this week. This is what I want to know, at least.

1. Is this the year we finally get a good Tennessee team?

I praised the hiring of Butch Jones a few years ago, and feel this is the first year in which we see the Vols start to make a serious push for the top spot in the SEC East. I originally predicted 2017 to be the year to watch Tennessee, but there are enough things in flux in the SEC East in 2016 to believe we may finally see Tennessee making a run in the division this fall.

2. Will Florida have an offense this year?

Florida has done well on the defensive side of the football, but ever since losing Will Grier to an NCAA suspension last season, the Gators offense has been a trainwreck on fire. If Florida is going to make a repeat run for the division crown, then it cannot get by on defense alone this season. Florida needs offense and their offensive unit rankings this season are average at best across the board, with the notable exception of wide receiver Antonio Callaway.

3. Is Leonard Fournette ready for another Heisman run?

As mentioned above, LSU’s powerful running back who once struck a Heisman pose following his first career touchdown was without a doubt the Heisman Trophy frontrunner for roughly two-thirds of the 2015 season. That unrivaled run lasted until LSU hit a brick wall against Alabama. Fournette’s Heisman campaign was fumbled, scooped up by Alabama’s Derrick Henry and returned for a touchdown in New York as Henry became just the second player in Alabama history to win the Heisman Trophy. Fournette benefitted from being such a high-profile Heisman candidate heading into the 2015 season with few really joining him in the conversation last summer. This season will be different with Stanford’s Christian McCaffrey racking up yards on the west coast, Clemson’s dynamic Deshaun Watson back for more in the ACC and Oklahoma’s Baker Mayfield and Ohio State’s J.T. Barrett set for an early potential Heisman showdown in mid-September, just to name a few (I didn’t even mention Florida State’s Dalvin Cook until just now).

The point being there is more competition the masses will be aware of going into the season, but a strong showing in Green Bay against Wisconsin would likely help Fournette set the pace as best he can in the season opener. What he does between then and Alabama will keep him there, and a signature moment against Alabama could keep him there (it worked for Johnny Manziel).

4. Is anyone going to stop Alabama?

History would suggest “no,” right? Alabama is a wrecking ball of a college football program that will be almost nearly impossible to completely stop once it gets moving. That is not to suggest Alabama will be unbeatable. History also suggests they are beatable at some point during a college football regular season. And despite the talent Nick Saban routinely sends to the NFL on an annual basis, he seems to recharge the batteries and figure out his quarterback situation as effectively as any coach possibly could. Once he does, even if it takes a little time to put everything together to his liking, Alabama emerges as a strong title contender. I fully expect that to once again be the case again this year. The SEC needs to knock Alabama down twice in order to give someone else a chance. The Pac-12’s USC will hope to chip away at their former head coach and current Alabama offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin, but Alabama has yet to lose a season-opening neutral field game and is not likely to start now. The road schedule should be challenging with Ole Miss, Arkansas and Tennessee before the end of October, and a trip to LSU is always a good fight. I’ll side with history though and roll with the Tide for another division run until proven otherwise.

5. So, I suppose South Carolina was serious about hiring Will Muschamp.

OK, so that’s more of an observation than a question, but it is still something I am trying to wrap my head around. The Gamecocks needed a new head coach to step in following the in-season retirement of the iconic Steve Spurrier last season, and for whatever reason the university decided former Florida head coach Will Muschamp was the best option. There were a number of coaches the program should have hired before even bringing up the name Muschamp, but alas what’s done is done and now South Carolina has to hope Muschamp doesn’t burn out his welcome in Columbia.

Podcast: Previewing SEC Media Days with Barrett Sallee

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Coaches on the Hot Seat

hot seatTwo names quickly come to mind for me. Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin is the first. Given how much the Aggies are paying Sumlin and how much the school has invested in the future of the program, it is time to see Sumlin prove he is worth every penny he is receiving. That could start by getting through one season with one quarterback and not seeing his talented young players decide they are better off elsewhere by December.

At Kentucky, Mark Stoops would really benefit from getting into the postseason. Three years on the job have ended without a bowl trip, coming up just one win shy of bowl eligibility each of the past two seasons. Gus Malzahn is probably safe unless things really go off the rails this fall. The good news is the preseason hype will be nowhere to be found this fall, so Auburn has a chance to avoid a letdown season.

Gut Prediction for 2016

Later this week I will have my official wins and losses predictions for the entire conference, but before I dig deep into the schedules and go on the record for good, here is how I think I may end up predicting the SEC Divisions and conference championship.

SEC East

  1. Tennessee
  2. Georgia
  3. Florida
  4. Kentucky
  5. Vanderbilt
  6. Missouri
  7. South Carolina

SEC West

  1. Alabama
  2. Ole Miss
  3. LSU
  4. Arkansas
  5. Texas A&M
  6. Auburn
  7. Mississippi State

SEC Championship Game: Alabama over Tennessee

I’ll hold off on player and coach of the year predictions for later this week.

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About the Author

Kevin McGuire
Contributor to College Football Talk on Also a contributor to Athlon Sports and The Comeback. Member of Football Writers Association of America and National Football Foundation. Follow on Twitter @KevinOnCFB.