2016 SEC Football Preview
The SEC Riviera Roundup
by Chris Warner
August 31, 2016
Since Alabama’s triumph over Miami in 1992, the year the league conceived the popular and often-copied end-of-season Championship Game, a school from the Southeastern Conference has won the college football National Championship eleven more times. Florida won in 1996. Tennessee followed in 1998. LSU won in 2003. Florida won in 2006. LSU won in 2007 and the Gators won again in 2008. Alabama won in 2009. Auburn won in 2010. Alabama won in 2011, 2012 and 2015. That is one impressive near quarter century of dominance. A single athletic conference won over half the national championships in college football. Even more impressive is the fact that nine of those 12 championships were won by teams from the SEC’s Western Division. In 2016, the West looks to extend its impressive stranglehold on the SEC and National Championship outlook, with the University of Alabama and Louisiana State University the favorites to win it all at season’s end.
In this inaugural column for the much-anticipated 2016 slate, we’ll examine the nation’s toughest sub-conference, questioning both the Tide and Tigers’ chances—or maybe someone else’s—at winning America’s toughest college football league and the national championship playoff, rate the rest of an extremely tough SEC Western Division and take our regular armchair quarterback tour of the college football league everyone else aspires to be like—the vaunted, the historic, the tradition-rich, S-E-C!
Alabama Versus LSU November 5th
Les Miles, 121-35 (.776), has his most talented team in 12 years as the LSU head football coach. The promising unit is headlined by the nation’s consensus top running back—and perhaps its best overall player. The New Orleans native is a once-in-a-lifetime performer. He is battered and soaked Louisiana’s favorite son, Leonard Fournette. The outstanding junior runner operates in what sports physicists distinguish the “Goldilocks Zone,” that rare, elusive optimum of size and speed that allows him to physically dominate less gifted opponents. Fournette has 2,987 rushing yards in just two seasons. He needs only 1,570 yards to break Kevin Faulk’s all-time rushing record at LSU (4,557 yards in four years). He is purple and gold personified; a Bayou State legend, and the nation’s top Heisman hopeful in a legitimate field of potential NFL superstars. Fournette is “all that and a sack of crawfish” and the Wolverine Les Miles’ top alpha male among a savage team he hopes this season can conquer his arch-nemesis—Nick Saban, and the University of Alabama’s Crimson Tide—a team he his Tigers have not beaten since 2011, and a team that remains a focus for his championship-starved fan base.
Are You Experienced?
While LSU returns a host of seasoned talent on both sides of the ball (17), Alabama has elected to simply reload with a Who’s Who list of the nation’s best high school football talent the last five years running. The Crimson Tide (11 returning starters), despite not starting a senior quarterback for the first time in four years, is again loaded; and, it still has Nick Saban as head coach. Nevertheless, LSU has an advantage in that it plays the Tide in Baton Rouge, and has a more experienced, junior signal caller in Brandon Harris.
Third year Offensive Coordinator Lane Kiffin will be challenged if forced to start a freshman quarterback. It is exactly what may happen at some point this season. In fall camp it has been true frosh Jalen Hurts, not fan favorites redshirt freshman Blake Barnett or Junior Cooper Bateman, who has most impressed, according to varied reports. Whatever the case, the Tide will be starting over offensively with respect to its quarterback and running back positions, as Jake Coker and Derrick Henry are now professionals. At running back for the Tide, it looks like Tuscaloosa native, Sophomore Bo Scarbrough, a 6-2, 230-pound bruiser in the mold of his Heisman predecessor, is the heir apparent, although backups Harris, Clark and Gore are capable, albeit unproven, possibilities. Coming off a national championship run that spurred the early NFL defection of defensive lineman A’Shawn Robinson, Saban must retool a defensive line that was among the nation’s best a year ago. Given their shaky quarterback predicament and new offensive line personnel—including center, look for the Tide to rely on a stingy, physical defense and quality special teams to carry its unproven offense in the early going.
While Alabama and LSU are the favorites to win the mighty Western Division, they are not the only big boys on the block. The Arkansas Razorbacks, under former Wisconsin Coach Bret Bielema, are a team that has made great strides the last two seasons. The Razorbacks hope to get solid quarterback play from Junior Austin Allen, the younger brother of departed Hog signal caller Brandon Allen. The 6-1 210-pounder is reportedly as talented as his older sibling. Bielema has had a 1,000 yard rusher in each of his ten seasons as a head football coach. At running back the name most often mentioned is senior Kody Walker but true freshman runner Devwah Wailey from Texas is one to watch. Another to look for is Little Rock speedster T.J. Hammonds or even Rawleigh Williams. If the Hogs can improve their sometimes porous defense from a year ago, they will seriously challenge for Atlanta and improve upon their growing annual win totals. “Fat Bert,” despite the girth, is on the move.
Ole Miss, Texas A&M, Mississippi State and Auburn, in order, round out the rest of the nation’s toughest sub-conference. While Ole Miss returns a wealth of talent—including the league’s most accomplished quarterback, they lack critical depth. A brutal schedule awaits the Rebs. The Aggies must respond with vigor. Head Coach Kevin Sumlin can hear the drum beats calling for his firing—especially if they cannot in this new season play “Big Boy Football.” During the offseason the Aggies got a gift in senior quarterback Trevor Knight, an unlikely senior transfer from Oklahoma. His experience (bowl win over Alabama), coupled with A&M’s many talented receivers, is a possible problem for SEC defenses. If the Aggies can produce a running game and a stingier defense under veteran schemer John Chavis—they could be spoilers. Dan Mullen always surprises, but this season is a huge rebuilding project for the Bulldogs, who must replace the program’s historically best signal caller. Gus Malzahn has somehow become the laughingstock of the SEC. It has been a strange three years on the Plains —a tenure that began with much promise. One has to wonder about the future of Auburn Football, and whether or not Gus Malzahn will be a part of it. It’s almost unthinkable, but if the Tigers win only two SEC contests this year, then the late-model Gus Bus could be for sale.
All Quiet on the Western Front
Alabama – (14-1, 7-1) – It has been a tough off-season for the Crimson Tide. Two players—one was starting left tackle Cam Robinson—were cited earlier this summer for possession of an illegal weapon and drugs in West Monroe, Louisiana. Ouachita Parish District Attorney Jerry Jones, LSU’s Benedict Arnold, dropped the charges against Robinson and his teammate, “Hootie” Jones, citing a lack of air conditioning while growing up as the reason for the dismissal of their charges. This embarrassing debacle was the biggest news item in an offseason that entertained other concerns about this new Alabama team. Nevertheless, more positive legal news came this week for Alabama’s sophomore offensive lineman Alphonse Taylor. He too was found not guilty–of a DUI received in July, meaning he too may be eligible when the Tide entertains USC this Saturday in Arlington, Texas.
Arkansas – (8-5, 5-3) – Bret Bielema may have turned the corner at Arkansas. After seasons of 3-9, 7-6 and 8-5, the Hogs appear poised to make a serious run at the SEC West title. Bielema’s Big Ten-like offensive approach is similar to that of Les Miles: Develop a tough, physical running game and overwhelm your opponent with size and talent. Bielema’s last Wisconsin teams prided themselves on running the football, and the Hogs are being built by Bielema into a similar rushing machine. All weight jokes aside, Bielema and his Hogs are undeniably making progress. The Hogs entertain Louisiana Tech in Fayetteville Saturday.
Auburn – (7-6, 2-6) – Gus Malzahn’s “Gus Bus” is not hitting on all cylinders. But actually, this is not how the engineers drew it up. Malzahn has gone rogue. Out of character, he is seemingly unable to adequately recruit and train athletes to meet team needs. Malzahn’s precipitous rise to power on the Plains belied his dearth of experience, having only coached at Arkansas State, where he proved his offense could work at the collegiate level. Auburn fans are optimistic, yet jaded heading into 2016. Only winning cures all, meaning the Tigers must improve on their two SEC wins from a year ago. Auburn plays Clemson Saturday in Jordan-Hare Stadium.
LSU – (9-3, 5-3) – Les Miles’ dad took him to poker games when he was a kid. During those late-night, smoke-filled sessions Miles said he learned about bluffing—and the ability to trick his opponents. Like a veteran poker player, Miles does not appear to be the brash, wily field general he was during his early years in Baton Rouge, when he often faked kicks and punts and went for it on fourth down. An economics major, the now older “Mad Hatter” seems to enjoy playing the averages, as his formula for a strong running game, a tough defense and great special teams has been good to him win-wise. Whether or not Miles continues to improve as a head coach is the question that has Tiger fans everywhere in a kickoff frenzy. The Tigers take on Wisconsin this Saturday at historic Lambeau Field.
Mississippi State – (9-4, 4-4) – Dan “Merlins” Mullen has proven his mettle as a head SEC football coach. In eight seasons in Starkville he has gone 55-35, which is more than respectable given Starkville’s recruiting challenges. Mullen must replace the Bulldogs’ All-American signal caller Dak Prescott, who is now a standout with the Dallas Cowboys. Look for Mullen, like Saban, to rely on his defense early until he can find some rhythm for his new offense. At quarterback, Damien Williams or Nick Fitzgerald will be the starter for the Bulldogs. Fitzgerald, at 6-5 230 pounds, is the likely starter for the opener against South Alabama.
Ole Miss – (10-3, 6-2) – Last year, Hugh Freeze was fed up with vicious Internet rumors related to his program’s ongoing alleged illegal recruiting practices. The unfettered accusations reached such a fever pitch that it prompted Freeze to publicly invite anyone who had information about cheating at Ole Miss to come forward. Well, much to his dismay—they did. Eventually, the NCAA got involved; and so did enemies of the program (see Laremy Tunsil’s draft day Twitter feed). Since that time, a dark cloud of doubt has lingered over the Grove, reminding Rebel fans of the mediocrity in football they recently left behind. Ole Miss has not won the SEC since 1963. Last year they came within fourth and 25. This year, it will likely be a tougher down and distance getting to Atlanta, as it’s hard to compete psychologically in the nation’s toughest sub-conference, knowing Draconian sanctions loom large. The Rebels take on Florida State on a neutral field (Orlando) Monday night, the first of a murderous early slate of games.
Texas A&M – (8-5, 4-4) – Kevin Sumlin is in a tough spot. A&M just built an expensive new stadium on oil money and brimming expectations of SEC Championships. Johnny Manziel whetted the appetite of Aggie fans with a win over Alabama in Tuscaloosa. Since that glorious triumph, and the departure of Johnny Football, the Aggies have struggled to intimidate their opponents. The Aggies are 36-16 under Sumlin, but the fan base wants bigger SEC wins—and championships. If 2016 does not usher in “Big Boy Football” in College Station, it could be Sumlin’s Swan Song. Senior QB Transfer Trevor Knight (Oklahoma) hopes to ignite an offensive unit that has had chronic quarterback problems. The Aggies host a 16th-ranked UCLA team Saturday.
Tiger Fans Aim to “Drink Wisconsibly” in Lambeau
When LSU meets Wisconsin in historic Lambeau Field on Saturday afternoon (2:30 CST), it will be the first meeting there between two major college football teams since 1957, the year the stadium was opened. However, history is likely to be made outside the stadium, when football fans from LSU and Wisconsin meet to tailgate before kickoff. This matchup is easily as intriguing as the athletic contest to be played, as both LSU and Wisconsin fans are known for their penchant for having fun. In a bid to promote goodly fellowship and competition among the reveling ranks, I must remind Tiger fans heading to Lambeau: “Drink Wisconsibly!” and “Geaux Tigers!”
Until next time…
*Chris Warner is a double graduate of Louisiana State University and holds a doctorate from the University of New Orleans. He is the author of over twenty books, including “A Tailgater’s Guide to SEC Football,” Vol. IV, “SEC Sports Quotes Compendium,” “Bushwhacked at the Flora-Bama” and “Saved at the Alabama-Florida Line,” (a novel), among others. He has been blogging about SEC Football for over 18 years. He is currently working on another novel set at the Flora-Bama, titled, “They Met at the Alabama-Florida Line.” He lives in Perdido Key, Florida.