It's been two full years since a SEC team won the National Championship, and while they continue to win the recruiting wars a couple post-seasons worth of defeats has left the league regrouping and trying to put its foot down on the rest of the country.
Will Alabama's offense be good enough?
Sims, Henry, Cooper, White, Jones, and three offensive linemen are gone. In the effort to replace AJ McCarron last year the Tide got a surprisingly good year from Blake Sims (3,837 yards & 35 touchdowns) and now a big off-season quarterback competition is going down to the wire. Even with plenty of surrounding talent, is this the first time in a long time Alabama gets substandard quarterback play? If so, are they a top 5 team?
Auburn ready for a title run?
Coaching and a quarterback rule the day for Auburn. The offense has to replace several key members but everyone believes in Malzahn's ability to run the ball consistently and new QB Jeremy Johnson's arm to open up the passing game. Defensively, 8 starters are back with new DC Will Muschamp to work with. A neutral site opener against Louisville and visit to Death Valley in week 3 will really test the Tigers early.
Georgia needs a quarterback
It's expected sophomore Brice Ramsey will win the QB job for the Bulldogs and hand off a lot to Nick Chubb. The offense could be electric if controlled by a veteran quarterback. Georgia is probably still a reasonable favorite in the East but the schedule will be tough as they draw both Alabama and Auburn from the East, plus they travel to Knoxville as well as a season ending road trip at Georgia Tech.
LSU needs a quarterback too
Tiger fans are hoping Brandon Harris grabs the job as Anthony Jennings was brutally inefficient last year. They're both likely to play early on and without improvement LSU is destined to stay out of the divisional and conference race. Only 4 players were picked in the NFL Draft this off-season (and no one inside the Top 40) so a lot of experience returns for a program used to replacing loads of players each year.
Tennessee is so hot right now
The Vols are expected to make a big step forward in Butch Jones' third year with 18 starters back. It won't be easy with a sneaky opener against Bowling Green followed up by Oklahoma coming to Neyland Stadium. Beyond that a stretch starting in late September brings Florida, Arkansas, Georgia, and Alabama in a row. If quarterback Josh Dobbs grows into a start 10 wins are possible. A couple fewer could be expected too.
A&M seeking much improvement
9 conference losses over the past two years has the Aggies closer to the bottom of the West than the top. A&M still hasn't lost out of conference since Sumlin arrived, though that could change with an opener against Arizona State. New DC John Chavis has arrived to help a defense that surrendered 39.8 points per game in their 5 losses. Everyone loves the Aggies' receivers and 5-star sophomore Kyle Allen looks to hold down the starting job at quarterback. Watch out for freshman Kyler Murray to give A&M a dual-threat spark off the bench.
Jim McElwain, Florida
The Gators kicked Will Muschamp to the curb after a 10-13 finish over the past 2 years and brought in Colorado State head coach Jim McElwain who is coming off a 18-8 run with the Rams. Things might get better before they get worse as Florida has to rebuild on offense with a new offensive line and a redshirt freshman quarterback Will Grier expected to get most of the snaps. A 5 or 6-win season is possible if the offense struggles.
The Favorites & Confidence in Said Favorites
Alabama vs. Georgia
You never want to bet against Alabama here (4 title game appearances since 2008) but several teams in the West have the capability to win the division. Both the Tide and Georgia have unproven quarterbacks too which makes me feel like there's very little chance we see both of these teams in Atlanta.
Top Non-League Matchup
Alabama vs. Wisconsin
The Tide open up again on a neutral site where they've looked strong enough over the past few years. A few are going to pick Wisconsin for the upset which is tempting given Alabama's uncertainty at quarterback. A loss here by the Tide could really add to the Big Ten's cache and continue to change the conference power landscape.
Top League Matchup
Alabama at Auburn
Until the winner of this game doesn't play in the National Title Game or Playoff semi-finals then we might think about picking another rivalry in the SEC.
Freshman to Watch
Kahlil McKenzie, DT, Tennessee
So. Many. Choices.
Kahlil McKenzie at the open practice last night... https://t.co/ydgYEVf2fI— Vol Nation (@VolNation_) August 16, 2015
You can't go wrong with Trent Thompson, Byron Cowart, CeCe Jefferson, Daylon Mack, Kendall Sheffield, or Damien Harris. There are 5-stars everywhere. But you know McKenzie is getting on the field early and often for the Volunteers. He'll be a super star rather quickly.
Sell that Stock
If you take a look at the Gamecocks' national recruiting rankings you'd think they'll be all right. Then you see that they've finished 9th, 9th, and 8th in the SEC rankings. Oh boy. South Carolina was supposed to the favorite in the East last year and then lost 5 league games. You get the sense now, with not many playmakers on defense and a very young offense, that the amazing run by Spurrier is slowly coming to an end.
North Carolina, UCF, and Clemson must be faced out of conference and they travel for road games against Georgia, Missouri, and Tennessee within the division. A worse record than last year's 7-6 is probably more likely than not.
Buy that Stock
Normally we'd pick a lower team with plenty of room for improvement and Missouri is 24th in the pre-season AP Poll after all. Still, they've got what a lot of SEC teams don't have (a proven quarterback) and there are enough pieces back on both sides of the ball to defend their two-time division titles.
Most of all, their schedule sets up nicely. BYU is their toughest game out of conference by a mile and they miss Alabama, Auburn, LSU, and A&M from the West. This could easily be another season with 10+ wins and a battle in the SEC Title Game.