SEC Preview and Predictions: Week 1

Dec 5, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end Michael Nysewander (46) celebrates with teammates after defeating the Florida Gators in the 2015 SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Alabama won 29-15. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 5, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide tight end Michael Nysewander (46) celebrates with teammates after defeating the Florida in the 2015 SEC Championship Game at the Georgia Dome. Alabama won 29-15. Mandatory Credit: John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

By Jess Nicholas
Aug. 29, 2017

Last season’s record: 86-25 (77.5%)

Week 1 in the SEC has turned into a mini-playoff week, and this year’s offerings – highlighted by Alabama/Florida and Florida/Michigan – is no exception. The prevailing opinion among college football observers is the SEC is in for a down year overall, with a lack of challengers at the top (Alabama excepted, of course) and a mass of teams in the middle. If true, the Predictions Dept. has its work cut out for itself in 2017, as the always difficult task of picking winners gets harder and harder the more parity is present.

FLORIDA vs. MICHIGAN (at Arlington, Texas)
Two programs on the upswing meet in Dallas, but the question is just how good each team is at this point. head coach has resorted to keeping his roster a secret during game week, so even as off-plumb as Florida’s Jim McElwain comes across sometimes, he’s clearly the more mature option this week. Florida hasn’t announced a starting quarterback yet itself – probably because McElwain doesn’t even know himself who is going to spend the most time under center. Given where each team finished last season, Michigan would seem to be a clear favorite here. Florida folded up against its toughest opponents of the season, Florida and Alabama, before bouncing back with a resounding 30-3 win over an outgunned Iowa team in the Outback Bowl. Add in the suspension of a half-dozen players, and the may fall back to its pre-Iowa levels for this game, which would mean a walkover for the Wolverines.
Florida 20

ALABAMA vs. FLORIDA STATE (at Atlanta, Ga.)

Not every team is kicking off against a powerhouse. Georgia gets an Appalachian State, which took Tennessee to overtime in last year’s opener before losing 20-13. The Mountaineers then rolled up 10 wins in their next 12 games, and a majority of the starters from last year’s team return. Having said that, this is still a team with an undersized, thin roster that played only one other power conference team last year after Tennessee, and got killed by it (Miami, 45-10). Georgia shouldn’t have any trouble here unless the Bulldog coaching staff is approaching this game in the same way Tennessee’s staff did a year ago.
Georgia 38
Appalachian St. 21

Yes, Kentucky is on the road in Hattiesburg, which is an excellent barometer of whether a team has reached the SEC’s upper echelon (verdict: Kentucky hasn’t.). is coming off a 7-6 season that saw the Golden Eagles upset Kentucky in Week 1 in a year ago, so there’s a measure of to be had here. Like Appalachian State, Southern Miss only got one other shot against a Power Five team last year, and failed miserably at the task (a 45-10 loss to LSU). If Kentucky loses this game for a second year in a row, the hotseat Mark Stoops worked so hard to rise from may come back to scorch him in the butt yet again.
Kentucky 30

Nothing like opening up against an in- little sister to get some confidence under one’s belt and pad the gate numbers. Missouri may be in for a long season; this game shouldn’t be part of that drama.
Missouri 45
Missouri St. 17

Suddenly the Wolfpack is getting some traction as a darkhorse pick to make the College Football Playoff. The logic isn’t completely out of left field: A total of 17 starters return, at NC has one of the best front sevens among all NCAA defenses. That doesn’t change the fact the Wolfpack is coming off a 7-6 season, couldn’t stop the pass in 2016 (82nd overall) and is breaking in three new starters in the secondary, and has no idea what its kicking situation looks like at the moment. South Carolina will find this game to be tough sledding, but the Gamecocks aren’t facing the Steel Curtain here.
South Carolina 21
NC State 17

Interesting matchup here, and a very dangerous one from Tennessee’s point of view. The Volunteers have lost at least one offensive lineman for the long haul, will be without their best linebacker, and still have question marks at the quarterback position. Georgia Tech is a veteran team with most of the important parts returning, and the Yellow Jackets managed a 9-4 record in 2016 including a bowl victory over Kentucky. But Tech won’t catch Tennessee sleeping on the option, like it often does to opponents that only have a week of prep prior to facing it. Witness how well an overmatched Boston College team did against Tech in the 2016 opener (GT won only by a 17-14 score). Tennessee has more athletes and a better situation on defense despite the early injuries. Now’s the time to see if Butch Jones can get it done in the face of adversity.
Tennessee 34
Georgia Tech 30

Speaking of weird road game engagements, Vanderbilt travels down I-24 a bit to play MTSU in Murfreesboro. Never mind that quite a few Nashville residents have indeed left Nashville for Rutherford County over the years, but they’re usually not connected to an SEC school that made a bowl game a year ago. MTSU has had tough teams in the past, coming far too close to some SEC teams for those teams’ comfort. But if Vanderbilt is truly serious about taking the next step, the will have to consider games like this to be virtually automatic wins in the future. As long as Vandy is in a competitive situation with MTSU, the ’Dores aren’t ready for prime time.
Vanderbilt 30

FLORIDA A&M at ARKANSAS (at Little Rock, Ark.)
Arkansas enters somewhat of a rebuilding season, particularly on defense. But if FAMU comes anywhere close to the Razorbacks, it might be a harbinger of tough times ahead in Fayetteville. Bret Bielema and his team need to put away Florida A&M quickly and move onto TCU a week from now.
Arkansas 44
Florida A&M 17

Auburn’s revamped offense gets an early chance to put up big numbers and get some momentum going. The Tigers have always been a momentum-based team, and especially so under Gus Malzahn (and before him). If the offense sputters here, it’s probably going to be a long season.
Auburn 51
Ga. Southern 10

This game has been moved to Houston, as LSU cements its status as bad weather luck for host cities early in the year. The Cougars are not backing down from tougher opposition in 2017; they are doing a mini-tour of the SEC West that will also include State later in the year. The Cougars are coming off a 9-4 campaign in 2016, but are replacing their entire offensive backfield and defensive front four. Not a good combination when facing a Tiger team predicted to be strong both in the secondary and in the running game. Opening up with a ho-hum 20-6 win over Portland State didn’t do anything to build confidence in BYU’s hopes of upsetting the physical Tigers.
LSU 38
BYU 13

While the reality of future lost scholarships continues to march on Oxford like an army of unkillable zombies, there is still the business of meeting opponents on a field and not in a courtroom. Ole Miss tees off with South Alabama, which finished 6-7 last year and whose coach, former Alabama everyman hero Joey Jones, is suddenly fighting for his job. There have been complaints about his recruiting, but the Jags have been adept at knocking off bigger opponents. There are no questions about the quality of Ole Miss’ recruiting, but plenty of questions about its methods. None of that matters here, though, where the Rebels should line up and stomp the much smaller Jaguar squad.
Ole Miss 45
S. Alabama 20

Not worth talking about, really, unless the Bulldogs’ attempt at shoring up defensive holes goes awry. State struggled to stop anyone in 2016, and the entire season more or less landed on QB Nick Fitzgerald’s ability to carry a gameplan by himself. MSU can’t take the chance again this year that Fitzgerald will hold up. The defense needs to show its face early in this game and assert its dominance.
St. 37
Charleston So. 16

Observers are expecting a huge rebound from UCLA, which skidded into a 4-8 record last year unexpectedly. It mostly depends on whether QB Josh Rosen is really as good as people think he can be. This is a critical year for UCLA head coach Jim Mora, who was once thought to be the West Coast version of the next Nick Saban. Another season like last year, though, and whatever comparisons remain between the two will be immediately thrown out. A legitimate question to ask here is whether Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin can survive a loss in this game should one come his way. The Aggie program is not up to fan standards at the moment, and the Aggies have their own quarterback questions to answer. This will be a tough game for A&M to win, and even at 4-8, UCLA took Texas A&M to overtime last year in College Station.
Texas A&M 24

Follow Jess Nicholas on Twitter at @TideFansJessN

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