Our final conference preview has become an annual conclusion to this 10-day preseason opening to the PiRate Ratings’ football coverage. In every instance since moving from radio to print, the Southeastern Conference has been our preseason number one league, and in most years, the top-rated team has been the overall number one team in the nation. This year, our PiRate Ratings show the top two teams in the league to be number one and number two nationally to begin the season, and the third best team is number four nationally.
In recent seasons, the West Division has been several points better than the East Division. While overall, the West is still better than the East, the difference is not as obvious as in past seasons. In fact, the number one team to begin the 2016 season is the Tennessee Volunteers from the East Division. Coach Butch Jones has been quietly building the Big Orange back to a point where they were in the late 1990’s, the late 1960’s, and during the reign of the great General Robert Neyland.
In 2015, Tennessee lost four times in games they could have won with a little better offensive line and a little more depth in the defense. The Vols have that this year. The team that won its last six games by an average of 22+ points per game is about a touchdown better this season. A four-game stretch between September 24 and October 15 will determine if this team can run the table and play for the SEC Championship. The Vols begin this tricky trek by hosting Florida, a team that Tennessee finds a way to lose to every year. Then, back to back road trips to Georgia and Texas A&M should be the two easier games of the four. FInally, the annual rivalry game against Alabama comes at home this year, and Tennessee would be a 3-6 point favorite if that game were to be played this weekend. After a week off, the road to the finish presents no major impediments with five games that could be won by an average in excess of 30 points per game.
Tennessee has powerful talent in every unit. Quarterback Joshua Dobbs will be one of the top 10 players at his position in the next NFL Draft. Dobbs completed 60% of his passes with a 15/5 TD-Interception ratio, but he averaged just 6.5 yards per attempt. That number needs to go north of 7.0 this year. Dobbs will have some famiiar receviers returning this year, led by the Josh’s (Malone and Smith), who teamed for 13.2 yards per reception on 54 catches last year. There is depth behind this duo, plus the Vols have talent at tight end in Ethan Wolf.
The running game will be solid with the return of Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Hurd gained close to 1,300 yards and Kamara added almost 700 last year, and if the two stay healthy, Tennessee could top 225 yards rushing and passing this year.
Making the offense more efficient this year is a no-name blocking corps. There is experience and depth here, but it is the one potential fly in the offense’s ointment.
The Orange have star talent in the defensive trenches, at linebacker, and in the secondary. Up front, end Derek Barnett was one of five SEC defenders to record double-digit sacks last year. He will team with Corey Vereen on the other side of the line, and the two should team for at least 15 sacks and another 15 hurries.
Jaleen Reeves-Maybin led UT with 105 tackles last year, including six sacks and 14 total tackles for loss. The weakside linebacker will team with Darrin Kirkland to form a dynamic duo in the second line of defense.
The secondary is deep and talented, with four returnees from last year that teamed to 34 defended passes. Opponents barely completed 50% of their passes last year, on par with Alabama’s defense.
When Tennessee was a dynasty in the 1930’s through the 1950’s special teams were very special indeed. General Neyland’s teams were noted for blocking punts, punting the ball a long distance with excellent coverage, and a high kick and punt return average. The Vols may have the number one special teams unit in the land this year with a top-rated punter, kicker, kick returner, and punt returner.
The race for second place in the East should come from the other two annually successful teams in the division. Georgia returns a lot of talent, especially on the attack side, but they begin anew with Coach Kirby Smart. Smart has never been a head coach, but former Alabama assistant coaches have a rather good history of success. The Bulldogs have some issues, namely a quarterback issue where a true freshman, an inexperienced junior, and a senior, who has started at two Power 5 schools are competing for the starting job. Top high school recruit Jacob Eason may be a major star in a couple years, but he may not be the best fit to lead this team as a true freshman. Junior Brice Ramsey has a rocket thruster on his throwing arm, and he can throw the ball down the field quickly, but not always where it should go. Senior Greyson Lambert is more of a game manager with experience, and he is likely to get the nod to start the first game.
The Bulldogs have two running backs capable of topping 1,000 yards rushing when healthy, but the problem has been that neither has been healthy. Nick Chubb may be ready to start the season, but he might not be 100%, while Sony Michele may not be ready. Coach Smart is preparing for the opener as if neither will be able to play, and that makes Georgia 7-10 points weaker than if the two stars were totally healthy.
Smart is a defensive genius, and he will mold the Bulldogs into a strong and cohesive unit this year. However, they may not gel until the second half of the schedule, and with North Carolina, Ole Miss, and Tennessee coming in the first half, UGa may be out of the race early.
Florida won the East Division in Coach Jim McElwain’s first season. McElwain, the former offensive coordinator at Alabama and head coach at Colorado State, has less experience returning to Gainesville this year than his friend and former co-worker has in Athens, but the Gators have a year of experience in his system, which equalizes the two rivals. The winner of the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is likely to decide second place with a better than small chance of besting Tennessee for the top spot. The Gators will go as far as new quarterback Luke Del Rio (Jack’s son). The Gators should have a decent passing game with three capable receivers, led by Antonio Calloway, who averaged nearly 20 yards per pass reception last year.
The Gators may be a little weaker in the defensive line this year, but the back seven is strong. How well they can stop the stronger running games will determine if they can contend for the division crown.
After the top three, the other four are fairly evenly matched, and they could finish in any combination. Of the four teams, Vanderbilt has the highest initial PiRate Rating, but the Commodores have an unfavorable schedule this year with road games against Kentucky and Missouri probably leading to losses, and leaving the Commodores with just one winnable SEC game. Third year coach Derek Mason should field another competent defense, but once again a weak offense will prevent the Commodores from winning consistently.
Missouri has had so many issues on and off the field in the last 16 months, and now the Tigers start over with a new coach in Barry Odom. Odom is a defensive wizard, having improved defenses at every stop, and he has brought in former Oklahoma quarterback Josh Heupel to run the offense. Because the Tigers’ roster has changed a lot since the end of Spring Practice, it is hard to get a real gauge on their true identity this year. What figured to be one of the strongest defensive lines in the league took a major blow when two expected starters were dismissed. The offensive line took a hit with the unexpected loss of their only experienced lineman, but then Missouri picked up a “free agent” from Memphis in Michael Stannard, who should start immediately at guard.
Kentucky begins the season with the sixth best rating in the East, but the Wildcats have the best chance of the four second division teams of breaking through with a bowl eligible season for fourth year head man Mark Stoops. If they cannot get to six wins, there may not be a year five for Stoops. The concern is finding a capable passer to throw to a stable full of quality receivers so that defenses will play running back Boom Williams more honestly. Drew Barker has to prove he can be an SEC quarterback, as the Wildcats have not had consistency here since Andre Woodson played a decade ago. Kentucky will have to outscore opponents to win, because their defense is somewhat suspect to start the season.
South Carolina begins the year as the obvious choice for number seven in the division and number 14 overall. The Gamecocks went 3-9 last year with just one conference win, and they face a bigger rebuild than any team in the league. First year head coach Will Muschamp did not fare well in his final two years at Florida, going 7-12 in his last 19 games after beginning his career 22-9. The Gamecock offense could struggle to score 20 points per game and gain 350 yards, and their defense might regress from last year’s 28 points and 430 yards allowed. If USC drops the opener at Vanderbilt, they may struggle to win a conference game. There are some gimme non-conference games on the schedule, which should allow Carolina to win three times without a conference opponent going down.
Now to the West. Usually, this is the spot where we tell you how easy the path will be for Alabama to win the division, the league, and the national title. This year, we thought we would offer you something different, as we have another team to place that burden upon. It surprised us too when we placed all our data into our algorithmic equations, and the computer spit out somebody other than the Crimson Tide as the top team in the division. That honor goes to LSU this year.
The Tigers could have begun this season with a new coach, as Les Miles was on a very warm seat last December. The Tigers’ big guys decided to stick with him for another season, as they knew the Bayou Bengals had a stockpile of quality talent returning. When you have Leonard Fournette at running back, the tendency is to hand him the ball 35 times a game and take your chances, and then when you throw the ball, look for Fournette in the flats or short zones. This gave the Tigers 23 touchdowns last year, but somebody else must help take off some of this load. It’s one thing to have a back carry the ball 300 times in the Pac-12, but against the brutal defenses in the SEC week after week, that method doesn’t do so well.
That’s where having two highly skilled wide receivers come in, and Miles must remember that Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural are eligible to receive passes. This tandem averaged more than 17 yards per catch last year, but they need to see more passes thrown their way, as they combined for just 71 receptions.
Therein, lies the rub. Somebody has to throw the ball relatively close to these guys’ hands, and in recent years, finding a quarterback to do just that has been somewhat difficult. Junior Brandon Harris has the potential to be that guy. Harris played injured in the second half of 2015, and his production fell off the table. He is healthy once again, and his passes look sharp so far in August. Backing him up will be former Purdue starter Danny Etling, who could challenge for playing time if Harris takes a step back.
Defensively, LSU could look more like their great 2011 team. The Tigers are loaded in the line, at linebacker, and in the secondary. New Defensive Coordinator Dave Aranda made Wisconsin the best defensive team in the Big Ten, and he has more than enough players with J.J. Watt’s collegiate talent level to guide the Purple and Gold to the top of the stop charts in the top league in the land. Up front, Gavin Godchaux forces more than one offensive lineman to keep him from penetrating into the backfield, and this frees up the linebackers. End Lewis Neal is a multi-tool defender, able to put QBs on the turf and able to cover the short passing zones. He is a potential All-American this year.
Aranda’s starting Wisconsin linebackers recorded 229 tackles last year, and he didn’t have a player the equal of Kendell Beckwith or Arden Key. Look for these two stars to record crazy defensive numbers this year, and Key might become one of the best blitzing ‘backers in the nation.
We’ve saved the best for last. There is not another secondary outside of the NFL that can match the quartet in Baton Rouge. It begins with Jamal Adams, who led the Tigers with four interceptions last year from his safety spot. Cornerbacks Kevin Tolliver and Tre’Davious White cover receivers like gloves. Free safety Rickey Jefferson covers a lot of real estate between the sidelines, and this group should give the Tigers the extra impetus to get over the hump this year and edge out the big crimson-colored rival.
Don’t count Alabama out, just because they lost enough talent to start an expansion franchise in the NFL. The Tide does not rebuild; they reload, and Coach Nick Saban has enough talent to win the national title again if the younger players play mistake-free.
Alabama still plays somewhat old fashioned, blood and guts football, so the running game is very important to the overall offense. Without Heisman Trophy winner Derrick Henry and top backup Kenyan Drake, there is no way this year’s team can come close to matching last year’s production, even with a strong offensive line opening holes. Those 50-yard touchdown bursts last year will become 7-12 yard excellent gains this year, and that will keep the offense from matching the 35 points per game of last year.
Add to the minor troubles the fact that a new quarterback must replace the highly underrated Jake Coker, who completed 67% of his passes last year and averaged almost eight yards per attempt. Cooper Bateman started just one game last year, and it was the only one ‘Bama lost. He may not be the eventual starter, as true freshman Jalen Hurts has impressed offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin enough to be considered a co-number one at this point in the preseason.
It is imperative that a QB emerges that can throw the ball, because the Tide has the best wide receiver group in the league, and they are going to need to throw the ball more this year in order to open up holes for the running game. Calvin Ridley, ArDarius Stewart, and Robert Foster should all play for pay one day, and they make the receiving corps one of the best in the nation. What may keep them from teaming for 200 receptions is lackluster quarterback play.
One need never worry much about the Alabama defense. It has been a long time since the Crimson Tide surrendered 20 points per game or 350 yards per game. As long as they don’t have to face DeShaun Watson, look for the Tide to give up about 15-17 points and 275-300 yards per game even with four of the top five tacklers missing from last year.
One of those returnees led the TIde with a dozen QB sacks last year, and end Jonathan Allen could be a first team All-American this year. Middle linebacker Reuben Foster returns after making eight stops behind the line of scrimmage and breaking up nine passes a year ago. On the back line, it starts with All-American Eddie Jackson at the strong safety position. Jackson tied for the league lead with six interceptions last year.
Alabama’s schedule presents the young Tide player with a challenge that will be a little too much to completely conquer. A neutral game with USC to start the season could give the Tide some confidence, as we believe they can win this one. However, road games against Ole Miss, Arkansas, Tennessee, and LSU will not be easy, and we feel like this team may split these four games. Still, 10-2 isn’t that bad when you consider that most other schools replacing this much talent would be lucky to win three or four games.
After the top two, there really isn’t a lot of distance between the numbers three through seven teams in the West Division. The parity is incredible, and all five of these teams should end up with six to eight wins each. We feel at this point that no team will exceed 4-4 in conference play, and maybe four of the five will come in at exactly 4-4.
The initial PiRate Ratings shocked us by placing LSU so high, but they shocked us even more when the computer spit out Mississippi State as the third highest preseason rating. Personally, all of us here figured the Bulldogs would be picked last in the division, which is what the media gurus said when they voted at SEC Media Days. We cannot obviously tell you why the algorithm gave the Maroon Bullies the nod as the third best East Division team to start 2016, because Coach Dan Mullen has to replace his star quarterback, top two receivers, three excpetional offensive linemen, and six quality defensive starters. Mullen is possibly one of the two or three most underrated coaches in college football, and when faced with a similar rebuilding project three years ago, the Bulldogs managed to win seven games. Their schedule takes Mississippi State to LSU, Kentucky, Alabama, and Ole Miss, four games they could easily lose. Even if they win one of those four, there is no guarantee they will hold serve at home against Auburn, Texas A&M, and Arkansas, so the Bulldogs are just one of a quartet we believe will split their conference games.
We believed that Ole Miss would be the clear choice for third best in the league, but the computer says they are fourth best this year. As long as quarterback Chad Kelly stays healthy and doesn’t try to force the ball in tiny spaces, the Rebels’ offense should do just fine, even without an SEC-caliber running back or a highly-rated offensive line. When Kelly gets the time to throw, he will have some good receivers getting open. Quincy Adeboyejo and Damore’ea Stringfellow will see their numbers inflate by at least 50%, as the Rebels try to replace All-American Laquon Treadwell’s 82 receptions and 1,153 yards. The Rebels averaged 41 points per game last year, but that number will drop by as many as 7-10 points in 2016.
The Ole Miss defense has a lot of holes to fill, but Coach Hugh Freeze has recruited well, and the Rebels have some talented, albeit inexperienced players to fill these gaps. End Marquis Haynes might be the top defensive player in a lower-rated conference, but in the SEC, he’s just above average. Haynes registered 10 sacks and 16.5 total tackles for loss last year, while adding eight QB hurries. Fadol Brown gives Ole Miss a fine bookend to compliment Haynes. The other defensive star is cornerback Kendarius Webster, but the Rebels lost a lot of talent from the secondary. It adds up to another 4-4 team from the West.
Auburn Coach Gus Malzahn began his tenure on the plains with a 12-win season and came within a whisker of winning the national championship. Since then, his Tiger teams have endured through 8-5 and 7-6 seasons, and if the fortunes don’t begin to turn this year, Malzahn could be interviewing for a new situation. The prospects for this year’s team being much improved are slim, because like all five of the little brothers in the West Division, Auburn has too many holes to plug, and at best the Plainsmen will only top last year’s seven-win record by a game. Whether 8-5 is good enough to keep Malzahn’s job is a question to be answered in the early Winter. As of this writing on August 23, Malzahn has yet to decide on a starting quarterback from among three, and the eventual starter will need a lot of first team reps to be ready for the opening game against Clemson. Add the issue of having to replace the running back that was expected to start with three inexperienced and pedestrian candidates, plus the loss of the top two receivers, and Auburn could struggle to score enough points against the teams that score in rapid succession.
Arkansas should have an improved defense in year four of the Bret Bielema era in Fayetteville. However, the offense lost its quarterback, star running back, and one of its two star receivers. Bielema usually produces an incredible offensive line, so we feel like the Razorbacks have the best potential of the bottom five of pulling some surprises and sneaking into the three-hole. However, if the new quarterback cannot get the job done, the Razorbacks also have the most risk of falling into the pit in this division.
Texas A&M has been through some tough times in the last several months. Not one, but the top two quarterbacks left College Station after the final regular season game last year. Two assistants were suspended without pay for making sexually explicit comments to a group of women fans.
Then, the top-rated quarterback in the high school ranks, Tate Martell, who outdueled UCLA QB Josh Rosen two years ago when their high school teams met, decommitted from Aggieland to sign with Ohio State. This led receiver’s coach Aaron Moorhead to issue an ill-advised Tweet, which then forced Head Coach Kevin Sumlin to discipline yet another assistant.
All this dissension cannot be good for Sumlin, who begins the season on a hot seat, and if the Aggies lose the opener at home to UCLA, it could snowball into something much worse. Games at Auburn, against Arkansas in Jerryworld, at home with Tennessee, at Alabama, at Mississippi State, and at home with LSU would then put the Aggies in jeopardy of getting to six wins should the Bruins come to Kyle Field and get the “W” on September 3.
Here is how the SEC Media picked the order of finish at Media Days in Birmingham last month.
|SEC East Division|
|SEC West Division|
Here are our initial PiRate Ratings for the top league.
The PiRate Ratings are meant to be used only to predict the outcomes of the next week of games, and are not best used to predict beyond that point. Because we use algorithms that include automatic adjustments by each team based on depth and experience, two different teams can win by the exact score we predict, and their new ratings might change differently.
Thus, using our ratings to predict won-loss records and bowl projections is a bit comical, but then we all need some laughs every now and then. So, laugh away at our projected standings and bowls.
|Southeastern Conference Projected Standings|
This wraps up the conference previews. Coming later today, we will be posting the updated PiRate Ratings and debut the Retrodictive PiRate Rankings, which is sort of comical, since no games have been played. Our first Retro Rankings of the season are actually predictive in nature, because we simply update last year’s final Retro Rankings in a similar manner to how we update our Predictive Ratings. Nevertheless, the Rankings will make their 2016 debut in this post.
Also, by this evening in the Eastern Time Zone, our webpage will be updated with the latest ratings and rankings as well. You can find this at piratings.webs.com. It is a no-frills just the stats ma’am site with stats and no commentary.
Our regular college schedule once the season begins in earnest is to have the updated ratings posted by Monday afternoon and the predicted spreads of the next week’s games online by Tuesday evening.
For those of you interested in our NFL data, we will have our NFL ratings and predicted spreads for the following week by Wednesday evening.
And, for those of you that promise, and we mean PROMISE, not to use our data to bet and lose your house, car, and family at the betting windows in Vegas, we will issue our JUST FOR FUN money line parlays this year. In theory only, if you actually did use just our parlay predictions last year, you might have come out ahead with a 40% return on investment, but this was most likely an anamoly. If we can convine you any more to this fact, we would not bet one dollar on these fun only parlay predictions. It’s simply all about the math for us analytics nerds. After all, we are a team of professional baseball scouts and sports metric analysts that just happened to play one or more of the big three sports. Our parlay predictions are more like how many play fantasy football just for fun not expecting to win anything.
Did you see the part above about NOT using our free predictions to lose your hard-earned, or even easy-earned money?