With less than a month to go until the college football season gets underway, we took a trip around the SEC West fall camps to preview the 2016 season.
What is your school’s biggest storyline heading into fall camp?
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: All the headlines that have involved the Crimson Tide this season (player arrests, Kirby Smart departure just to name a couple), can all be summed by one word: complacency. The Tide’s dynasty is no longer in question and the sour taste of a loss isn’t fresh in the players’ mouths. Instead, another big, shiny trophy sits inside the Mal Moore athletic facility for all to see. So, what’s their motivation? You don’t have to be on the practice field to see the Tide have the talent to repeat as national champions, but do they possess the focus and drive that led them in 2016?
Grant Baker, Arkansas: Retooling the Offense. After the offense exceeded expectations in 2015, Arkansas lost three starters on the offensive line, both running backs, and quarterback Brandon Allen. While the depth is certainly there to replace these positions, the lack of experience is daunting.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: Even though Jovon Robinson’s dismissal has grabbed some headlines, the QB controversy is still biggest headline going at fall camp. Malzahn wants to name a starter as soon as possible so whoever ends up becoming the starter can get the first team reps.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: How will the offense develop? Obviously, Leonard Fournette will be the center-piece of an offense looking to build off a mediocre 2015 campaign. Quarterback Brandon Harris is in his third year as the starter and just completed his first full year under center. The receiving corps is loaded with the return of Travin Dural and Malachi Dupre. The key for this team will be balance. Harris has to find a way to be more effective in the passing game. With the addition of wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig, expect Harris to develop a chemistry with Dural and Dupre that hasn’t been seen before.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: Moving on from Dak Prescott. Prescott’s five years were the most successful for the program as long as anyone can remember. Without Prescott to lean on, the Bulldogs will have a much narrower margin for error, all while breaking in a new quarterback against the nation’s toughest opponents.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: Obviously, the NCAA investigation. As it drags on, the shadow of any possible or even rumored punishments have the chance of harming not only the on-field product but also–and maybe more importantly–the off-field aspects of the program like recruiting.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: The offense. It is usually defense at this time of year that is a concern for the Aggies but Sumlin is under pressure to fix his offense that has seen a decline in production over the past two seasons. There will be new faces in the backfield for A&M with Trevor Knight under center and a new running back to go along with first year offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone.
Give us one position battle to watch for as camp develops.
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: Quarterback. For the third year in a row the Tide roll into camp with a quarterback battle. However, this year’s competition involves some participants who could claim the job for years to come. Freshman(R) Blake Barnett, junior Cooper Bateman, sophomore(R) David Cornwell and true freshman Jalen Hurts are fighting for the right to take first team snaps inside Bryant Denny Stadium.
Grant Baker, Arkansas: Running Back. Though the Razorbacks lost Alex Collins and Jonathan Williams to the NFL, Arkansas has talent at the position. Rawleigh Williams III showed promise as a freshman last season before sustaining a neck injury, and talented four star recruit Devwah Whaley has potential. Kody Walker has the power to be utilized in short yardage situations.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: Quarterback. Sean White, Jeremy Johnson, and John Franklin III continue to battle for the starting job. White appears to know how to run the offense the way Malzahn wants, but he is limited when it comes to running with the football. Johnson has the most experience in the offense, but his decision making is what lost him the job last year. Franklin III has that big play ability in him reminiscent of Cam Newton and Nick Marshall. The problem with Franklin III is his inexperience in the offense and his questionable ability to consistently move the chains by throwing the football.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: Cornerback. The Tigers will be switching to the 3-4 defense this year under new defensive coordinator Dave Aranda. Star cornerback Tre’Davious White moved to nickelback during spring practice, leaving the wide cornerback position open. The presumed starter would be Donte Jackson, a sophomore who was mostly a punt returner last season, but the speedy defensive back missed most of spring practice due to academic ineligibility. Freshman Saivion Smith started in his place and shined in the spring game. Smith has experience practicing with the first-string and drew high praise from Aranda after the spring game. Though Jackson may start in the season opener, don’t think this battle is over yet.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: Quarterback. There is an open competition to follow in Prescott’s footsteps between Nick Fitzgerald, Elijah Staley, Nick Tiano and Damian Williams. Fitzgerald appears to be the favorite to win the job in camp and should be able to run a spread offense similar to the dynamic attack of the Prescott years. Tiano is the dark horse to take the job, and his talent is through the roof should he put it all together in the fall.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: Left Tackle. There is a 1st-round pick sized hole on Chad Kelly’s blindside. While 5-star true freshman Greg Little was recruited and signed to be the left tackle of the future, the question is who fills that space immediately. Many expect to see RSFr Alex Givens starting for Ole Miss vs. FSU on September 5th until Little is more familiar with Hugh Freeze’s offense.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: Running Back: The Aggies lost Tra Carson, a 1,000 yard back last year, to graduation, but have a plethora of options heading into the 2016 campaign. The question is, who will get the bulk of the carries? James White returns after an injury riddled sophomore season and electric Oklahoma transfer Keith Ford gets his chance to take the field with his former teammate Trevor Knight. Sumlin and co. also brought in a few talented backs in this past years recruiting class including Trayveon Williams and Kendall Bussey, both of whom could see significant time in the backfield this year.
What returning player has the most to prove in fall camp?
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: Bo Scarbrough. Filling the shoes of a Heisman Trophy winner is never easy, but Alabama fans will not be patient with Scarbrough in the backfield. The former 5-star recruit is at full strength and ready to take the roll as the next 1,000 yard back. Scarbrough is large in stature, but hasn’t made a big splash in camp (which can be viewed as good or bad). Even though Scarbrough doesn’t have a large college resume, the expectations are sky high for the running back.
Grant Baker, Arkansas: Austin Allen. Allen has been in the shadow of his older brother Brandon his entire life. With Brandon’s graduation and move to the NFL, Austin finally gets to take the reins. Allen’s ability to play mistake-free and generate big gains to take pressure off the running game will be absolutely critical to Arkansas’s success.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: Carl Lawson. After missing all of the 2014 season and half of the 2015 season due to injury, the talented pass rusher needs to finally step up on the field. He has shown flashes of potential, but his inability to stay healthy has prevented him from making a real impact on the Tigers’ defense. He is preseason All-SEC, so the hype isn’t going anywhere.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: Leonard Fournette. The junior will likely be entering his final season of college football and still has some expectations to live up to. His Heisman hopes faded late in the regular season last year after a disappointing game at Alabama rattled him. Fournette had the offseason to regroup and lost some weight. He weighs about 225 pounds and will head into camp looking to build off an impressive sophomore year. Fournette, who is expected to compete for the Heisman Trophy again, will be the main force behind this LSU offense in 2016.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: Elgton Jenkins. Jenkins played both tackle positions last year and has the ability to be a starter in the SEC, but Bulldog offensive line as a whole was porous in 2015, and Jenkins did little to cement his position in the lineup. Although he is penciled in as the starting left tackle for now, redshirt Martinas Rankin is out for his job should Jenkins falter in camp.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: Evan Engram. Preseason All-American. Preseason All-SEC. Possible NFL Draft 1st-round pick. Seems odd to think Engram has much to prove to anyone, however with high praise comes high expectations and Engram will feel the pressure to deliver this year. With Laquon Treadwell gone and no true #1 wide out emerging from Spring Camp, the offense looks primed to feature the stud senior from Powder Springs, GA.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: Speedy Noil. After a freshman campaign that had the 12th Man eager to see the future of Noil, he had a very sub-par sophomore performance on the field last year. With injuries and off-the-field problems, Noil was a bit of a disappointment in an absolutely loaded wide receiver corp. He has much to prove this year.
Name one newcomer who will make an impact on the field this season.
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: Jonah Williams. Nick Saban is notorious for not playing freshman all too often, but it’s hard to imagine Williams not earning playing time this year. The freshman tackle from Folsom, California was an early enrollee in the spring and is already competing for a starting spot on this offensive line.
Grant Baker, Arkansas: McTelvin Agim. Agim is the highest touted recruit Bret Bielema has signed since he took the job at Arkansas. The five star defensive end enrolled in the Spring to gain valuable practice time and build chemistry with his teammates. While he has already locked up a spot in the defensive rotation, he could be pushing for a starting job on a talented defensive front by the end of the season.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: Jamel Dean. A transfer from Ohio State, Dean will likely be the starting cornerback opposite of Carlton Davis. The coaches raved about his spring performance, and it showed during Auburn’s A-Day.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: Saivion Smith. The four-star prospect has the best shot to make an impact this season as he competes with Donte Jackson for a spot at wide cornerback. He snagged an interception off Danny Etling in the spring game and fits nicely into the dime and nickel packages of Aranda’s new 3-4 scheme.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: If he can get on the field, quarterback Nick Tiano. Tiano redshirted last season but has excited the fanbase with his performances this offseason. Although Nick Fitzgerald is the favorite to win the job, Tiano could provide a boost for the Bulldog offense if he gets an opportunity to take game snaps in 2016.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: The obvious answer here would seem to be one of the several true freshmen wideouts that Ole Miss inked in February. However, the biggest impact will probably be made by transferring senior LB Rommel Mageo. He brings power five starting experience to the middle of a defense that hasn’t had the most stable linebacker situation in years past and which badly needs quality play and depth at the position.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: Tyrel Dodson. Dodson should make an immediate impact at the linebacker position, where the Aggies struggled a season ago. A couple of underclassmen were thrown in at the role but the Aggies lost Josh Walker and Otara Alaka a season ago due to injury. The Franklin, TN native brings depth to the Aggies front seven, a place where they struggled a season ago, especially in the run game.
What is the biggest change you expect to see on the field this season?
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: Defensive line dominance. Last year’s Alabama defense was one of Saban’s very best, and the strength was in the trenches. In 2016, the defensive line still possesses loads of talent but lost two key run stoppers (A’Shawn Robinson and Jarran Reed) and it’s hard to believe that this front line will replicate the numbers it posted in 2015. There’s no doubt that the defensive line will be one of the SEC’s very best, but don’t expect it to hold Leonard Fournette to under 40 yards two seasons in a row.
Grant Baker, Arkansas: The deep ball. Brandon Allen struggled mightily early in his career. Because of this (and Bielema’s coaching style), Arkansas relied on a ground and pound running game, and relied on play action passes to their tight ends. However, new quarterback Austin Allen is known for his ability to throw the deep ball. With a deep, speedy receiving corps featuring downfield threats like Dominique Reed, look for Arkansas to stretch the field vertically more than they have in the past.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: I expect to see Gus Malzahn get back to focussing on the running game again. When Auburn’s offense runs the ball well, the team does well. Incomplete passes slow the up-tempo offense. If the quarterback play is still suspect entering the season, then Malzahn should help the QB by running the football more. This will also mean that Keryon Johnson would be getting the heavy load of the carries now the Robinson is no longer on the team.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: Defense. Traditionally, LSU has played in a 4-3 system. New defensive coordinator Dave Aranda brought in a 3-4 defense and many key players have switched positions. Aranda plans to feature different packages of the 3-4 to keep offenses guessing. This fast-paced defense should keep opponents on their toes and will use a good chunk of players on the roster.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: The new defense under Peter Sirmon. Sirmon comes from USC and brings a complex, multiple defense to Starkville. Although there is still veteran talent on defense, the Bulldogs will have significant personnel turnover on the defensive end. Look for less emphasis on a dominant defensive front seven and a more versatile unit across the board.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: Tempo on both sides of the ball. Five years after signing his first class, Hugh Freeze now has a roster comprised entirely of “his guys” and we’ll all get to see how he implements every facet of his offense through those players. Expect a lot of tempo on the offensive side of the ball and a lot of speed on the defensive side as Dave Wommack will try and use front seven havoc to try and ease some of the pressure on his young secondary by baiting opposing quarterbacks into making questionable decisions.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: Team chemistry. After two years of drama and uncertainty hanging over the program Trevor Knight has seemingly changed the culture of Texas A&M football in his short time in College Station thus far.
If everything goes right, where will your school be at the end of the season?
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: Exactly where they finished last season: national champions. The Tide have to get through a brutal road schedule that involves Ole Miss, Tennessee, LSU and the opener against USC to reach the College Football Playoff. If they win even three of those games it would be hard not to think the Tide will be competing for another national championship.
Grant Baker, Arkansas: 9-3, playing in a New Years Day Bowl: Arkansas has the talent and depth in the front seven to compete in the SEC West. If the offense can come together early (a big if), and Arkansas can pull out some close wins, the Hogs will play on New Years’. A tough schedule makes fewer than three losses seem unrealistic.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: 8-4. If Auburn can find a quarterback that can run the offense the way it is meant to be run, the Tigers could steal some games. The defense could actually be one of the better defenses in the SEC with all the leadership on the defensive line. If Auburn can win games which will likely be close (A&M, Arkansas), then the Tigers will be in good shape heading into the 2017 season.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: The Tigers would be competing for a national championship. They return 18 of 22 starters on both sides of the ball and expectations have never been higher in Baton Rouge.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: 9-4 with a bowl game win. If the Bulldog offense can find success early in the season and hit its stride before the meat of the SEC schedule, Dan Mullen’s team could once again be a national power. Unfortunately, road games at LSU, Alabama, and Ole Miss leave very little margin for error in the SEC.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: If everything goes right, this Ole Miss team could be playing for a National Championship. Four weeks into the season, they will meet Georgia in Oxford. It will be the third toughest game they will play all season and the other two (at FSU, vs. Alabama) will have already come and gone. If Ole Miss can get through that brutal September stretch unscathed, the path is relatively clear for an SEC West run and an appearance in the College Football Playoff.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: 11-1, possibly playing in the CFB Playoff. The Aggies are shaping up to be a ‘team of destiny’ after a tumultuous two seasons in College Station, Trevor Knight rides in and saves the day. With a defense that should improve upon its already impressive first year under John Chavis and an offense that will be getting back to the high-flying Sumlin-esque ways we are used to seeing, the sky’s the limit for the Aggies this year, but the SEC West is daunting as always.
Predict where your team will finish the season (give a final record).
Joe Klingbeil, Alabama: 14-1 (winning national championship) : Another mid-season loss, but another SEC Championship, which will lead to another College Football Playoff Final appearance and yet another national championship. The road schedule is grueling. But by the time they hit the meat of SEC play the new signal caller will be running the offense firmly, and the defense, well, the defense will be fine. The Tide will not come out unscathed though. A loss to Ole Miss, Tennessee or LSU is in the cards.
Grant Baker, Arkansas: 8-5 (after a bowl game): Arkansas plays at TCU, at Auburn, at Mississippi State, Texas A&M (neutral site), vs Alabama, vs LSU, vs Ole Miss, and vs Florida. That schedule is nasty, and most teams would be hard pressed to have only 5 losses.
Pearce Miller, Auburn: 8-5. The schedule is just too tough for a team that just dismissed its best offensive threat and is still in search of a quarterback. There are just too many uncertainties on the offense for this team to have a chance at competing in a very stacked SEC West division.
Hunter Lovell, LSU: 13-1. The Tigers win the SEC Championship but fall in the semifinal of the College Football Playoff. LSU doesn’t have the toughest road schedule and the best matchup may come against Florida around the midway point of the year. The Tigers should emerge from the regular season unscathed after producing the thriller of the year with a nail-biting win over Alabama at home. But as pressure and late-season problems build, the Tigers falter under the national spotlight in their first Playoff appearance.
Parker Say, Mississippi State: 7-6, with a bowl win. Mississippi State will be above average defensively, but the offensive turnover does not inspire confidence. If the Bulldogs can pull together three or four wins in conference, 7-6 feels about right. The SEC West can be unforgiving to rebuilding teams, and 2016 will probably be a long season in Starkville.
Jason Aivaz, Ole Miss: 10-3 (6-2 SEC), winning the Citrus Bowl. Florida State in Orlando on Memorial Day, Wofford, vs. Alabama, vs. Georgia. That is hands down the most brutal September in College Football this year (and possibly ever). Couple that with road trips to LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, and this is shaping up to be a nasty schedule. Ole Miss has the talent on both sides of the ball, and they have beaten every team on their schedule (save Wofford and FSU) under Freeze, but inexperience early or injuries later in the season could see this team either stumble early or falter down the stretch. Another 9-win regular season seems fair to predict, but it won’t be easy.
Adam Rohrbough, Texas A&M: 10-3 (after a bowl game). The first seven games on the schedule is an absolutely grueling stretch that defines the SEC so well. The Aggies start with UCLA at home and then get a tune-up with Prairie View A&M before a five game stretch that will make or break the season- at Auburn, Arkansas (neutral site), at South Carolina, Tennessee, and then a bye week to prepare for a game at Alabama.