Leading up to the kickoff of the 2018 college football season, The Game Haus will be previewing each FBS conference and those independent teams. As we continue today with the SEC, we’ll offer league predictions and look at the top performers while also highlighting key games from each conference.
Here we go.
The national runner-up Bulldogs can finally put behind that disappointing loss to Alabama for the national title. There is plenty of talent left in Kirby Smart’s program. Justin Fields will push Jake Fromm (2,615 yards, 24 touchdowns and seven interceptions) at quarterback. D’Andre Swift is the new featured running back and linebacker Natrez Patrick looks to move on from some off-field issues to lead the defense.
2. South Carolina
A nine-win season in Will Muschamp’s second with the Gamecocks has expectations raised for 2018. Still, Jake Bentley must cut down on the interceptions (12) from last season and the offensive line needs to improve. Defensively, linebacker T.J. Brunson has the makings of a good one.
After the circus that was Florida football in 2017, Dan Mullen’s arrival as coach gave the program renewed credibility. Mullen must settle on a starting quarterback but at least the offensive line is experienced. New defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has the Gators in a 3-4, which should mean more disruption from Cece Jefferson (13 1/2 tackles for loss and 4 1/2 sacks in ’17).
Drew Lock operates the Tigers high-powered offense (37.5 points per game in 2017), but the key to their success this season will be how well they defend. Missouri yielded 31.8 points on average while not posting a significant victory during their 7-6 campaign.
Following an almost comical coaching search, the Vols turn to Jeremy Pruitt to help rebound from a 4-8 season that opened with three wins in four games. Pruitt must decide on a quarterback, a suitable running back and improve a defense that allowed 41 or more points five times last year.
The Wildcats are looking to make three straight bowl appearances for the first time since a five-year run for 2006-’10. Kentucky must figure out a quarterback, but running back Benny Snell Jr. returns after rushing for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns last season.
One bowl appearance in four seasons has coach Derek Mason feeling the heat. Vanderbilt’s lone ’17 SEC win came against Tennessee to end the campaign. Mason will no longer run the defense after that unit gave up 31.3 points per game and was embarrassed during a 59-0 loss to Alabama.
Regardless who wins the Crimson Tide’s quarterback battle between Jalen Hurts and Tua Tagovailoa, they still have the best talent in the SEC and the nation. The addition of highly touted freshman cornerback Patrick Surtain Jr. joins a defense that ranked first in the nation allowing an average of 11.9 points.
Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham threw for 3,158 yards with 18 touchdowns in his first season with the Tigers and should only get more comfortable. While the offensive line and backfield are question marks, tackles Derrick Brown and Dontavius Russell anchor a defense that yielded 18.5 points per contest in 2017.
3. Mississippi State
Former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead replaces Dan Mullen as coach and hopes quarterback Nick Fitzgerald rebounds after he regressed statistically in ’17 and suffered a gruesome injury in the Egg Bowl. Michigan State transfer Montez Sweat leads the defense after recording 10 1/2 sacks a year ago.
As usual, the Tigers will be talented, especially on defense. However, there is plenty for Ed Orgeron to replace on offense. It will also be interesting to see how LSU handles the season opener versus Miami and SEC tilts at Auburn and Florida. The Tigers do get Alabama and Georgia at home.
5. Texas A&M
Nick Saban is the king of SEC coaches, but Jimbo Fisher will be in the spotlight as he takes over the Aggies. Fisher, though, must make a decision at quarterback and get his team prepared to face Clemson, and play at Alabama, South Carolina, Mississippi State and Auburn.
Off-field issues aside, Ole Miss has some talent capable of a winning season, which is all it has to look forward to in 2018. Quarterback Jordan Ta’amu showed promise when given his shot last season and should be eager for this year. The Rebels allowed 31 or more points seven times in ’17, which can’t happen again.
Ex-SMU boss Chad Morris takes over the Razorbacks, who are expected to spread things out in Fayetteville. However, Morris and his staff must find a way to improve a defense that allowed 36.2 points per contest.
Players to watch
Drew Lock, QB, Missouri: Lock, who threw for 7,363 yards the last two years and 44 touchdowns in 2017 is a potential Heisman contender. However, he’s the latest athlete forced to do damage control for some past offensive tweets.
Devin White, LB, LSU: Teammate Greedy Williams is one of the top defensive backs in the country, but White is the heart of the Tigers defense. The strong and speedy White registered 133 tackles – 13 1/2 for loss – and 4 1/2 sacks in 2017. Both White and Williams are likely first-round NFL picks, with White perhaps the first linebacker off the board next year.
Oct. 27: Georgia vs. Florida. Georgia snapped a three-game skid in this rivalry and should be the favorite this time around. But Mullen has switched teams in the SEC and should have the Gators ready.
Nov. 22: Mississippi State at Mississippi. The Bulldogs will be the better team to start the season and probably at the end, but Ole Miss won last year’s meeting and three of the last four matchups. Regardless, the Egg Bowl should be entertaining.
Nov. 24: Auburn at Alabama. The Iron Bowl is biggest game of the SEC season and will likely determine which of these two teams represents the West Division in the league title game. The Tide have won the last three at home in the series.