The 2016 season served as a minor setback for SEC, which vaulted into conference supremacy with seven straight national titles between 2006-12. Sure, Alabama came within one second of winning its second straight national title before Clemson and Deshaun Watson broke every Crimson heart in the Yellowhammer State.
But the rest of the SEC was just broken.
Auburn made the Sugar Bowl -- a game reserved for the best non-playoff team in the conference -- with four losses, no team outside of Tuscaloosa managed double-digit wins, and the league was marred by inconsistent and inept offenses that looked "old school" in all of the worst ways.
But the 2017 season might be the SEC's major comeback. Even if it's not, the landscape of the conference should make it wildly entertaining for college football fans around the country and here's why.
Year of the quarterback
Many of those inept offenses (and some that weren't) were led by young quarterbacks on the brink of superstardom.
Alabama went undefeated in the SEC and then-freshman quarterback Jalen Hurts scored a go-ahead touchdown late in the fourth quarter of the College Football Playoff National Championship before Watson's heroics. The Tide did this all while easing Hurts into the offense without stretching the field deep, and playing to Hurts' strength -- his ability to operate a zone-read, quick strike offense like a seasoned veteran.
With new offensive coordinator Brian Daboll in town fresh from his stint on the staff of the New England Patriots and a full offseason as the unquestioned starter, just a little bit more consistency deep downfield should go a long way for the reigning SEC Offensive Player of the Year.
Mississippi State's Nick Fitzgerald didn't become a set-in-stone starter till the season began, and finished third all-time in the SEC for rushing yards by a quarterback in a single season (1,375 yards), behind Cam Newton and Johnny Manziel. Arkansas' Austin Allen topped the 3,000-yard mark through the air despite his offensive line giving up the second-most sacks in the conference (35). Missouri's Drew Lock did as well, while developing quite a connection with 1,000-yard receiver J'Mon Moore -- both of whom will be back for coach Barry Odom's Tigers.
Georgia's Jacob Eason (16 touchdowns, eight interceptions), South Carolina's Jake Bentley (nine touchdowns, four interceptions) and Ole Miss' Shea Patterson (six touchdowns, three interceptions) all evolved into starting quarterbacks as true freshmen as the season progressed, and had moments of brilliance.
The lumps taken by those young quarterbacks, combined with the departure of defensive studs like Alabama's Jonathan Allen, Ryan Anderson and Tim Williams; Auburn's Carl Lawson; Tennessee's Derek Barnett; Florida's Caleb Brantley; Texas A&M's Myles Garrett and many other defensive studs should light a few more fuses in a conference in desperate need of offensive fireworks.
Toss in the arrival of former Baylor quarterback and hot-shot recruit Jarrett Stidham at Auburn, former Notre Dame quarterback Malik Zaire at Florida and Kentucky's Stephen Johnson getting a full offseason to learn the Wildcat offense, and the SEC has its best crop of quarterbacks since 2013 when Manziel, Aaron Murray, A.J. McCarron, Zach Mettenberger and Connor Shaw were the headliners.
Coaching talent meets desperation
There's a prevailing thought that the SEC is down in the coaching department.
Just seven years ago, the SEC had Saban, Meyer, Petrino, Richt, Spurrier and Miles still at the top of his game.— Dan Wolken (@DanWolken) June 28, 2017
My how times have changed.— Tim Brando (@TimBrando) June 28, 2017
The real problem isn't coaching talent, it's coaching sustainability.
Texas A&M's Kevin Sumlin, Auburn's Gus Malzahn and Ole Miss' Hugh Freeze have all enjoyed variable amounts of success early in their coaching careers. But they're all still relatively new at this, unlike the 900-pound gorilla in the room known as Alabama coach Nick Saban.
Sumlin veered a little too much towards exotic offenses in the post-Manziel era and has been struggling to find the right mix of creativity and physicality over the last two seasons. Malzahn has bounced from hands-off to hands-on the Tiger offense like a pendulum ever since Auburn was within 13 seconds of a national title after the 2013 season. Freeze led Ole Miss to consecutive New Year's Six bowl games despite massive offensive line issues -- including a seven-game suspension to star left tackle Laremy Tunsil in 2015 -- and a rushing attack that couldn't gain traction between the tackles.
There's pressure on those coaches for a variety of reasons. But it's clear that they're all dedicated to picking a lane and staying in it.
For Sumlin, it's a further dedication to power rushing under backs Trayveon Williams and Keith Ford. Williams became the first true freshman in program history to rush for 1,000 yards last year, but tailed off dramatically during the course of the season. Not coincidentally, so did the Aggies.
|Month||Texas A&M team yards per carry||Trayveon Williams yards per carry|
Sumlin knows, considering his uncertain quarterback situation, that he has to dedicate to the run this year. "We're not going to neglect those guys [Williams and Ford], particularly with an inexperienced quarterback, but we have the tools to really help whoever's behind center," Sumlin said according to the Dallas Morning News.
In Malzahn's case, that means keeping his hands off new coordinator Chip Lindsey's offense. For the first time as a head coach, Malzahn let his quarterbacks receive private coaching during breaks in the offseason.
"I talked to Chip, and that was something that was important to him," Malzahn said at SEC spring meetings in May. "He really spun it from the value of being able to work with some guys when they were away. He was for it and talked me into it. I support it, and think it's a good thing. I've got a lot of trust in Chip. We have the same philosophy and all that. I have a lot of confidence in him."
For Freeze, it's all about steering the ship in the right direction through the perils of the ongoing NCAA investigation. After all, he has already proven that he can win at a reasonably high level in the SEC West despite a roster that -- contrary to popular belief -- wasn't as loaded as some of its division mates.
"I'm doing a lot of talking to people in football and out of football who have had to lead companies and groups through times such as this," Freeze said at SEC spring meetings. "It'll be a great opportunity for me to develop even more, and I look forward to it."
The SEC has been the king of "just OK" recently.
An SEC East team hasn't won the SEC Championship Game since 2008 (Florida), and the annual December event in Atlanta has become more of a victory lap for the West champion than an actual football game. More times than not, the team making that lap is Alabama.
Auburn had a couple of moments (2010, 2013), LSU had a brief one (2011) up until it met the Alabama buzz-saw in the BCS Championship Game. But for the most part, the SEC has been spinning its wheels under the shadow of the mighty Crimson Tide for the better part of a decade.
Something has to give.
Either the Tide will get knocked off or administrations in championship-starved programs are going to get fed up and make moves to find better ways to do it. Whatever happens, you, the fan, will win this year. The SEC sizzled (or, perhaps "fizzled") last year. This year, you'll get steak. We just don't know what kind quite yet. That's why they play the games.