Some of the schools in the Southeastern Conference have wrapped up their spring football practice. Others, like Alabama, still have a couple of weeks to go. Some still don’t even know who the starting quarterback will be, although Alabama’s major question marks probably lie in other areas.
Despite that, the polling of preferences — sort of an Iowa Caucus of SEC football — has begun. We’re a long way from an actual election, but plenty of media members are starting to guess who the real challengers will be.
Alabama is the three-time incumbent. No one other than fans of rival teams are going to pick against them. That doesn’t mean Alabama is automatically going to win. All sorts of things, from injury to team chemistry to schedule, affect that. But we’re still not at a point where you can take another team’s talent, stack it up against Alabama’s and say the other team is going to win. Sometimes a contender doesn’t emerge until August, after all the practices are done. Sometimes it takes until mid-season before a real rival reveals itself. Rarely, you have seasons like 2016 in which there really was no other team that had a shot. You could replay the 2016 SEC season a thousand times within the same personnel and the same coaches and you probably wouldn’t get a different champion in 20 of those trials. That’s partly a credit to what Nick Saban has built (and recruited) at Alabama and partly due to the fact that not one of the other 13 teams in the league seemed to solve certain fundamental problems. That doesn’t mean those teams couldn’t be good on a given Saturday. The fact is, though, that they weren’t consistent enough to be good every Saturday.
The good thing, if you like chaos, is that there are quite a few programs who think that all those problems will be fixed in 2017, and that Alabama will take at least a half-step back. Probably the most excitement at the moment emanates from Auburn, which was the last team other than Alabama to win the SEC back in 2013.
Since 2014, Auburn has never seemed to find the right driver for what was once a race-car offense under Gus Malzahn. The new hope is Baylor transfer Jarrett Stidham, who won rave reviews for his performance in an offensive-oriented Auburn A-Day. The hype — and that term isn’t meant to be derogatory — isn’t limited to Auburn fans. ESPN’s BPI Index, admittedly a system with a few bugs, sees Auburn as the No. 5 team in the country, a projection that would, if accurate, make the Alabama-Auburn game into a de facto third playoff game for the two teams, as it was in 2013. This state has survived a lot in the past week. Whether it could survive another 2013-style showdown remains to be seen.
Elsewhere, LSU seems to come closest to Alabama in the talent-stacking contest. The Tigers, however, have hired Ed Orgeron and who can say with confidence what the harvest will be?
In the East, Florida has hope after a strong intrasquad showing from redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks in the Gator intrasquad game. Georgia has stacked recruiting classes of much acclaim. Tennessee has talent but is Butch Jones really any more predictable than Ed Orgeron? South Carolina will be better than expected, and does not have to play Alabama, Auburn or LSU.
There will be more bold predictions to come, when there is more information available than there is midway through spring practice. What will be interesting is whether someone goes far enough out on the limb to pick a team other than Alabama.
Reach Cecil Hurt at email@example.com or 205-722-0225.