2016 SEC preseason media poll? Here’s mine

PA headshot2Today’s the day every college football fan has waited for this summer. The first of the 2016 preseason media polls will be released starting in Hoover with the final day of SEC Media Days on tap.

It’s “talking season” and the July preseason polls give us all something to yak about or in the case of Sturg and his Crimson Tide, something to crow about. However, we all know they’re essentially meaningless and simply a guess at predicted order of finish.

Sturg and I set sail for ACC Football Kickoff in Charlotte next Thursday morning and in the era of transparency, I’ll post my ACC ballot here next week. But for now, here’s my preseason SEC poll…

SEC West
1. Alabama – Until someone knocks off the Tide, I’m going with the best coach in the history of college football to replace several important players on both lines of scrimmage and win the West. Looking for a new starting QB has been a non-issue the last three seasons for Nick Saban and company…and Alabama will be just fine with whichever of the four grabs hold of the job.

2. LSU – No thanks to an incompetent AD in Joe Alleva who left Les Miles inexplicably twisting in the wind last November, Les Miles is back and should be good news for Tiger fans. LSU is a tempting pick to dethrone the Tide with the SEC’s most electric player on offense in star Leonard Fournette and almost everyone back on the offensive and defensive lines.

3. Texas A&M – Going with A&M here is arguably high, especially given the offseason turmoil Kevin Sumlin endured with virtually every QB on the roster exiting stage left coupled with bringing in a new offensive coordinator in UCLA’s Noel Mazzone. John Chavis’ defense steadily improved and boasts the top pair of defensive ends in America. But Oklahoma transfers QB Trevor Knight and RB Keith Ford could be the biggest key for the Aggies.

4. Ole Miss – Chad Kelly is one of the top returning signal callers in the SEC and he’ll have to be this year with a young offensive line that will likely feature four sophomores and freshmen. Talent isn’t an issue in Oxford despite losing All-SEC players like Treadwell, Nkemdiche and Tunsil to the NFL Draft in May. However, distractions from a swirling NCAA investigation will be an issue and likely dog Hugh Freeze and his team all season starting in Orlando against FSU on Sunday, Sept. 5.

5. Auburn – The Tigers are an enigma and Gus Malzahn is treading on thin ice on the Plains. A brutal four-game start to the season with Clemson, Arkansas State, Texas A&M and LSU won’t be easy to navigate but having all four at home definitely will help, as Malzahn breaks in a new QB with Florida State transfer John Franklin III. Hiring Kevin Steele to run the defense doesn’t turn many heads (including mine) despite having six returning starters.

6. Arkansas – I’m a big fan of head coach Brett Bielema and the coaching job he’s doing in “Fayettenam” (have you ever been there and no it’s not worse than Starkville). A strong, pounding running game and physical defense is how you win in the SEC and Bielema’s squad needs a stronger start to the 2016 campaign than last year when the Hogs were in virtually every game.

7. Mississippi State – Who’s gonna be last in the West because unfortunately somebody has to carry that title. The straw that stirred the Bulldogs’ drink in standout QB Dak Prescott graduated and is now wearing a Dallas Cowboy uniform. There’s a lot to like about new starting QB in big sophomore Nick Fitzgerald. Dan Mullen has adapted his offensive philosophy and tailored it to maximize his personnel and a backloaded schedule should help, as he figured it out.

SEC East
1. Tennessee – What’s not to like about the Vols? They’ve got it all. So will this be the breakthrough year? It damn well should be with 17 starters returning, including one of the SEC’s best signal-callers in Joshua Dobbs and a standout tandem of running backs in Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. I love senior defensive back Cam Sutton leading a defense that’s littered with speed, experience. It all hinges on the first-seven games for the Vols this season because starting Oct. 29, their last-five games are a cakewalk.

2. Florida – Everyone is sleeping on the Gators. Not me. Tennessee is the rightful favorite in the East but Florida has owned Rocky Top with 11-straight wins. Second-year head coach Jim McElwain got a head start on the three new head coaches in the division this year by taking the Gators to the SEC title game last season. They’ll need to get the QB situation figured out quickly but one of the nation’s best secondaries will pair with All-American candidates DT Caleb Brantley and LB Jarrad Davis.

3. Georgia – It’s no secret that injuries to top running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel won’t make Kirby Smart’s first season easy, starting with UNC in the opener where both are questionable to play (as of now). An experienced offensive line that combines for almost 100 career starts helps, however the defensive line cannot afford to underachieve again.

4. Missouri – The Tigers always surprise and I think they’ll do just that again this season with head coach Barry Odom taking over. Eight starters returning on defense is huge, especially up front but scoring is the name of the game. And that’s where it could get tricky for Mizzou, replacing four starters on the offensive line and new pro-style QB Drew Lock under center.

5. South Carolina – I’ve said five wins is the ceiling for this team and if USC can get out of the gate 3-3, which includes three SEC games on the road, I think they can get there. Despite the loss of Skai Moore to an offseason neck injury, Will Muschamp’s defense has a rock in the middle with senior linebacker TJ Holloman leading a unit that will be infinitely better than last year (430 ypg allowed).

6. Kentucky – UK shot out of the gate the last-two seasons, including a 4-1 start last year before falling apart in the second half, highlighted by a 24-7 halftime lead that turned into a 38-24 loss at home to rival Louisville. The Wildcats have been notoriously weak on defense and only two returning starters in the front seven will make stopping the run and getting off the field on third down even more difficult.

7. Vanderbilt – Can Derek Mason’s team find some offense? Any offense will do. Vandy boasted one of the SEC’s top defensive units last season, allowing just 21 points a game. However, the Dores struggled mightily and let me emphasize mightily on offensive, crossing the 21-point mark just twice. Underrated junior running back Ralph Webb (1,152 yards in 2015) is the key to unlocking more points this season and rising in the division standings.

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