Butch Jones’ fourth year at Tennessee is going to be the one. The Volunteers have nine starters returning on both sides of the ball. Last season, the Vols started the season 3-4 then rebounded to end up 9-4. Those four losses were by a total of 17 points and two of them were to Oklahoma and Alabama, teams that played in the College Football Playoff. QB Joshua Dobbs (2,291 yds., 15 TDs) and RB Jalen Hurd (1,288 yds., 12 TDs) are back on offense. The Vols defense gave up just 20 points a game last season, 16th nationally, and will be even better this season.
Only at Alabama can you lose seven players to the NFL draft and still be favored to win your conference the following year. Head coach Nick Saban will reload with six starters returning on each side of the ball. One of those is QB Tua Tagovailoa, a Heisman Trophy candidate who, like the rest of the Crimson Tide, wants another shot at the national championship. Saban’s toughest competition in the West Division will come from rival LSU and a pesky Texas A&M team that has an outstanding underrated quarterback in Kellen Mond.
In the East Division, Georgia is the favorite and a team that could steal away the SEC from Alabama. The Bulldogs return Jake Fromm at quarterback and six starters on defense. Florida returns eight starters on a defense that should be among the nation’s best. Junior Feleipe Franks remains at quarterback and all three of wide receivers are back.
Odds to Win the SEC Champion
**odds provided by Bovada
Most Improved: Kentucky
While it will never truly be a football school, Kentucky should finally turn the corner in the fourth year of the Mark Stoops era. The Wildcats return nine starters from a decent offense. Stoops will break in a new quarterback in Drew Barker but returns the entire wide receiver corps. RB Stanley “Boom” Williams (855 yds., 6 TDs) returns and he can be electrifying at times. Stoops is a defensive-minded coach and if Kentucky can get better defensively they could surprise a few teams.
Biggest Disappointment: South Carolina
They were a disappointment in 2015 and then they hired Will Muschamp as their new head coach. Expect the offense to continue to struggle. Muschamp’s teams at Florida found it difficult to score. The defense might be better and it will have one of the better defenders in the SEC, LB Skai Moore, returning. The problem is just three returning starters on offense are back. The Gamecocks won just one SEC game last year…Vanderbilt.
How can you not pick the Crimson Tide to win the West Division again? Six starters return on an offense that was much improved under offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin. Transfer Gehrig Dieter adds to an already talented receiving corps and Kiffin will plug in a new quarterback, most likely Cooper Bateman, to operate the ultra-efficient Alabama offense. Head coach Nick Saban’s defense will once again be one of the best in the country. Defensive end Jonathan Allen and his 12 sacks from a year ago return.
Most Improved: Texas A&M
The Aggies took a dive in 2015 finishing 8-5 after losing the season finale to LSU and the Music City Bowl to Louisville. Head coach Kevin Sumlin welcomes transfer QB Trevor Knight to provide some stability, experience, and excitement to the Aggies offense. Knight will have an experienced wide receiver corps, but the offensive line will have to develop. The defense still has DE Myles Garrett, a talented junior who had 12.5 sacks last season. It’s the offense that will make the biggest improvement. The Aggies dropped from averaging over 40 points a game in 2014 to just 27.8 last year. That will change and, because of it, Texas A&M will be much better in 2016.
Biggest Disappointment: Ole Miss
The Rebels started strong a year ago, 4-0 with a second consecutive win over Alabama. Ole Miss then lost three of the next six but still had a very respectable 10-3 season. Head coach Hugh Freeze has had some offseason issues and he loses some serious talent. Three Rebels – OT Laremy Tunsil, DE Robert Nkemdiche, and WR Laquon Treadwell – were first-round NFL draft picks. Ole Miss still has QB Chad Kelly, one of the nation’s best, but the Rebels will have a much tougher time navigating the SEC West this season.
SEC Champion: Tennessee
Alabama and Tennessee meet during the regular season and with the game in Tuscaloosa, the Tide will pull off the win. It is very difficult to beat a team twice in one season. On a neutral field and with a game against ‘Bama under their belts, head coach Butch Jones and the Vols get the signature win that marks a new era of Tennessee football.
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