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By Chuck Cox/College Football America director of editorial content
Last season, conference newcomer Texas A&M had the Heisman Trophy winner in redshirt freshman quarterback Johnny Manziel, went to Tuscaloosa and knocked off defending national champion Alabama, and dismantled former Big 12 rival Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl. Yet, it was the Crimson Tide that was the last team standing in the FBS, extending the SEC’s streak of winning national championships to a ridiculous seven straight years. That, sports fans, is utter dominance.
And with the abundance of talent returning to the conference this season, the smart money is on an SEC team holding up the hardware at the end of this campaign, too. First and foremost, there are the two-time defending champs.
With 16 returning starters, Alabama appears to be ready to pick up where it left off after blowing Notre Dame’s doors off in last year’s title game. Additionally, the Crimson Tide has a very favorable schedule. After two tough games — against Virginia Tech in Atlanta and at Texas A&M — to open the season, Alabama will play six of its next seven contests at home.
Stellar quarterback AJ McCarron will have receivers Amari Cooper, Kevin Norwood, and Christion Jones back in his arsenal. McCarron, who could easily win the Heisman this season, was nearly flawless last year, throwing for 2,933 yards with 30 touchdowns and three interceptions.
What’s even scarier for Alabama’s opponents is the fact the Crimson Tide defense, which led the nation by allowing a meager 250.0 yards per game last season, is almost all returning. With the exception of two new starters on the line, the other nine starters are back. Yikes.
Both LSU and Texas A&M could play the role of spoiler, though. The Tigers and Aggies combined to go 21-5 last season. With Manziel returning and a home game against Alabama, Texas A&M would seem to have the stronger chance to knock the Crimson Tide off its perch. The Aggies also have a favorable schedule with just one tough road trip in conference — at LSU. A&M has six starters back on either side of the ball.
LSU, which is always a contender for the SEC title, was hit hard by players leaving early for the NFL Draft. The Tigers had 11 players leave early, which means there will be plenty of new faces on the field this season. But for a team that has won 10 or more games each of the last three seasons, there should be plenty of talent to make up for the losses. LSU does have an early test in the opener against TCU at Cowboys Stadium.
The rest of the West Division will likely be playing for bowl eligibility, rather than for a division title. Ole Miss and Mississippi State both made strides last season, but neither finished above .500 in conference play. Ole Miss, however, improved to 7-6 in Hugh Freeze’s first season as head coach, and there should be more to come. Most of the offense is back including four starters on the line, leading rusher Jeff Scott (846 yards), quarterback Bo Wallace and two of his top receivers in Donte Moncrief and Vince Sanders.
On defense, seven returning starters will also add the nation’s No. 1 recruit — defensive end Robert Nkemdiche who joins his brother, Denzel, the Rebels’ top playmaker on defense last year at linebacker.
Mississippi State, meanwhile, has Tyler Russell at quarterback, but it will need to replace all of its top receivers from a year ago. A defense with only five returning starters must improve.
Arkansas fans got the new big name head coach they coveted with former Wisconsin head coach Bret Bielema taking over in Fayetteville, but the Razorbacks’ schedule with road games at Florida, Alabama and LSU might only allow for modest improvement in the win-loss column.
Auburn will also try to right the ship with a new head coach, former offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn. With five home games among the first six of the season, Malzahn can ease into things a bit and build some confidence among the troops.
Georgia and Florida are both coming off seasons in which they went 7-1 in conference play with South Carolina just behind at 6-2. Those three will be right in the thick of it again.
Georgia gave Alabama all it could handle in the SEC championship game last season, and should be extremely good again with 16 starters back including quarterback Aaron Murray. He threw for 3,893 yards with 36 touchdowns last year.
Florida, meanwhile, struggled to score points last season despite its impressive 11-2 record. That’s what a killer defense can do for you. Only three starters return there, but head coach Will Muschamp and staff will still have a strong, talented group on the field. If quarterback Jeff Driskel and the offense show improvement, Florida could be in the hunt.
The Gamecocks return Jadeveon Clowney, who is perhaps the best defensive player in the country. Clowney, who had 13 sacks last season, is an absolute beast, making highlight-reel plays look easy. A favorable schedule gives South Carolina a chance to make some noise.
Vanderbilt was a pleasant surprise last season. The Commodores finished 9-4 (5-3) for their first nine-win season since — wait for it — 1915. With 13 starters returning, it should be another strong year in Nashville.
The same might not be able to be said for Missouri, Kentucky and Tennessee, which combined for just 12 wins last season. Two of those squads will have new head coaches this season, as Butch Jones will lead the Vols with Mark Stoops taking over the Wildcats.
Missouri could be the next job opening in the SEC if long-time head coach Gary Pinkel can’t turn things around in Columbia this fall.