You never get a second chance to make a first impression, and three new head coaches in the SEC will get the chance to make a first impression in Week 1 against some pretty decent competition.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart will take his Bulldogs to the Georgia Dome to square off with defending ACC Coastal Division champion North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game, Barry Odom will lead Missouri into Morgantown to tussle with the high-octane West Virginia offense and South Carolina’s Will Muschamp will travel to Nashville to take on a tough Vanderbilt defense.
How big is Week 1 for the newcomers? That question and more are answered in this week’s edition of SEC Q&A.
It doesn’t mean an awful lot, to be honest with you.
For Smart, a win or loss to a very good Tar Heels squad with a potent offense under head coach Larry Fedora wouldn’t signify much. As I wrote earlier this month, the roster holes coupled with the grace period associated with being a first-time head coach almost creates a 24-month season for the former Alabama defensive coordinator.
For Odom, I get the same sort of feeling. Odom is a defensive guru, and he has plenty of pieces to work with. But if the game versus the Mountaineers gets sideways, it’s asking a lot of the inexperienced Tigers offense to win inside a tough environment in the season opener.
Muschamp is the one where I might pause a bit and think, “Man, it’d help if he’d beat the Commodores on the national stage on the first Thursday night of the season.”
Let’s get this out there right now—I think Vandy will win this game. The combination of a stout Commodores defense, running game and the inexperience all over the Gamecocks roster all contribute to South Carolina being a 3.5-point favorite on most sites, according to Odds Shark.
That said, can you imagine the national criticism Muschamp will take by losing to Vanderbilt—a team that’s not exactly considered a power in the SEC East—with millions of eyeballs looking on?
“Same ol‘ Muschamp,” they’ll say.
“If he couldn’t win at Florida, how can he at South Carolina?”
The internet will turn into hot-take central, and Muschamp will be the target of the fire.
That’s incredibly unfair to Muschamp, because the Commodores defense returns most of its core from a year ago, including linebacker Zach Cunningham, corner Torren McGaster and ultra-versatile hybrid linebacker/defensive back Oren Burks. That unit finished 22nd nationally in scoring defense a year ago (21.0 PPG), fourth nationally in red-zone touchdown defense (38.78 percent) and sixth in third-down defense (28.16 percent), according to CFBStats.com.
And South Carolina’s offense that will feature a true-freshman No. 1 receiver in Bryan Edwards, an unproven running back corps led by redshirt freshman A.J. Turner and could be starting true-freshman quarterback Brandon McIlwain is going to have success in Game 1 against this bunch?
I don’t think so.
But I also don’t think that Week 1 should be a referendum on Muschamp, either. The Gamecocks will get back into SEC East contention eventually, and they could be pretty dangerous as early as this November.
They won’t be in September, though.
Texas A&M should be in the Top 25 and is in my Top 25 that I submitted for Bleacher Report’s version of the preseason college football rankings.
There’s a lot to like about Texas A&M this year, but unfortunately for head coach Kevin Sumlin, the offseason was dominated by negative storylines that, for the most part, have no bearing on the 2016 Aggies.
Wide receivers coach Aaron Moorehead’s decision to subtweet recruits could matter during the 2017 recruiting cycle and beyond, but that doesn’t impact the 2016 squad at all. The two-week suspension to offensive line coach Jim Turner and tight ends coach Jeff Banks mattered early in fall camp, but they’re back, and there’s plenty of time for both units to come together prior to the opener.
The one offseason storyline that does matter is the departure of former hot-shot quarterbacks Kyle Allen and Kyler Murray, but Sumlin nabbed Oklahoma graduate transfer Trevor Knight—one of the top quarterbacks on the graduate-transfer market—to close out the month of December.
That matters, because that good news also came with the firing of former offensive coordinator Jake Spavital and hiring of Noel Mazzone to run more of a power-based spread attack that thrives with tempo.
“I think people try to lump a lot of things into everything, a lot of things that happened happened during the year last year,” Sumlin said at SEC media days. “December 31 of last year, we had to make some tough decisions, I did, in the direction of the program. Some of those were not easy, but those decisions were made.”
Sumlin is already flush with receivers and defensive linemen, has a secondary with several returning starters that finished second in the SEC in pass defense last year (166.3 yards per game) and gets several important pieces on a full-time basis this year, including linebacker Otaro Alaka and corner Priest Willis.
This is a team that can contend for the West title and should be toward the back end of the Top 25.
A three-loss regular season for Alabama would send Crimson Tide fans into a panic of epic proportions, but it is a realistic possibility this season considering the schedule and uncertainty on that roster—particularly up the middle of the offense with a new center, quarterback and running back.
Note: I said “possibility,” not “probability.”
A three-loss regular season is the floor for a Nick Saban-led Alabama program, but with USC out of the gate, a road trip to Ole Miss in Week 3 and games at Tennessee, at LSU, versus a dangerous Texas A&M team and the rivalry game against Auburn, I could certainly see a scenario in which the Crimson Tide drop three.
Now, I don’t think it’ll happen.
In fact, I picked Alabama to win the SEC title for the third straight season and go 11-1, with the only blemish coming against Tennessee on Rocky Top. But will Alabama play several close games outside of the one game that I think it’ll lose? Absolutely.
If the ball doesn’t bounce in Saban’s direction, I could see three losses.
The odds are low, though. I’ll go with 50-1.
If replicating Brandon Allen’s success from a year ago is the bar for new Arkansas starting quarterback Austin Allen, that’s not only a tad bit aggressive—that’s almost unattainable.
The elder Allen threw for 3,440 yards, 30 touchdowns, only eight interceptions and led the SEC with a 166.48 passer rating. That was with an ultra-talented offensive line, 1,000-yard running back in Alex Collins and a tight end in Hunter Henry who was one of the best in the country.
Austin Allen still has plenty of weapons to rely on, especially at wide receiver, but he doesn’t have that line and established running back—two hallmarks of Bret Bielema-coached teams.
A more appropriate bar for the younger Allen is to replicate his older brother’s junior season in 2014, when Brandon managed games well, tossed 20 touchdowns, threw only five picks and topped the 2,200-yard mark.
If he can do that, Arkansas will be in most games, likely will spring an upset or two, make a pretty decent bowl and set Bielema’s crew up for a big year in 2017. That should be the expectation in Fayetteville this season, with anything more than that—including SEC West contention—being a bonus.
Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.
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Source: Bleacher Report -SEC Football