2017 SEC football power rankings: Bouncing back, but can anyone catch Alabama?

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It’s hard to feel too badly for the SEC whenever other fan bases and conferences send snark its way. The “SEC! SEC!” chants alone invite it, whenever a league team loses to someone from another league. And in 2016, there was a strong case that this was not the best conference.

But while there are ongoing questions about recent coaching hires and whether imitating Alabama coach Nick Saban is a smart way to beat Saban (hint: it’s not), part of the reason the SEC got caught last year was youth — at quarterback, in key coaching roles, and throughout depth charts. And if you don’t believe, just look at this year’s depth charts. They’re packed with all the experience last year’s lacked. With your national title favorite, two other contenders, and depth it hasn’t been able to boast for a couple of years, 2017’s SEC will likely come pretty close to living up to its self-made hype.

Tier 1

Alabama

Nick Saban almost had his best team ever, despite a freshman QB. The QB's no longer a freshman.

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The Crimson Tide have a new offensive coordinator and lost perhaps more star power than normal from last year’s defense. They’re also still college football’s surest thing.

Tier 2

Auburn

Here's why you should feel great about Auburn this year, no matter how terrifying that is.

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LSU

Ed Orgeron's Tigers are just a liiiiiiittle bit of offense away from a Playoff run.

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Auburn has to prove that its defensive front can hold up as well as last year’s did; there are plenty of former star recruits up front, but there’s no Carl Lawson and no Montravius Adams. If the run defense remains strong, the Tigers have CFP potential.

We know LSU’s issues pretty well at this point, don’t we? If Ed Orgeron’s Bayou Bengals have a passing game, they could be fantastic. But that’s a mighty if.

Tier 3

Georgia

Will Kirby Smart’s second team be a division champ or just a more experienced version of his five-loss team?

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Florida

Jim McElwain's only improved one real thing about the Gators so far: close games.

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Texas A&M

At some point, if you're not moving forward, you're moving backward.

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Mississippi State

Dan Mullen has built ... a steady program? In Mississippi? Is that legal?

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Tennessee

Will slightly lower expectations mean happier Vols fans by season’s end?

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Kentucky

It’s really tempting to talk yourself into UK as an SEC East dark horse.

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Arkansas

Bret Bielema's brand is strong, but where are the wins?

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There are 10 teams with legitimate top-25 potential. Not all 10 will play at a top-25 level, but each has an excellent case.

And man oh man, is it difficult to distinguish between Georgia and Florida at the moment. Massive upside? Check. A long list of questions to answer? Check.

Tier 4

Ole Miss

The Rebels have no reason to give a damn. This should be fun.

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South Carolina

Will Muschamp's Gamecocks are on the rise! Maybe!

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Missouri

Mizzou has one thing in common with new rival Arkansas: extreme volatility.

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Vanderbilt

The good news: The Dores should again be better. The bad news: So should their opponents.

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The other reason why the SEC is probably the best conference in 2017: All 14 teams have legitimate top-50 potential. And the No. 11 team on this list probably has top-20 talent. Unless you’re Alabama or maybe Auburn/LSU, there will be few easy outs in SEC play.

How does S&P+ see things?

Here’s how my statistical system has the SEC laid out for 2017, with zero equating to an average FBS team. (You can find full 2017 S&P+ projections here.)

2017 projected standings (per S&P+)

Projected conference wins, with overall wins in parentheses.

West

  • Alabama 7.0 (10.7)
  • LSU 5.2 (8.9)
  • Auburn 4.9 (8.3)
  • Texas A&M 3.6 (7.0)
  • Ole Miss 3.5 (6.9)
  • Arkansas 3.0 (6.3)
  • Mississippi State 2.8 (6.0)

It’s not exactly USC in the Pac-12 South, but Alabama’s got a startlingly large projected lead on the field, considering there are two other projected top-10 teams in this division.

East

  • Florida 5.4 (8.2)
  • Georgia 4.7 (7.4)
  • Tennessee 3.8 (7.1)
  • South Carolina 3.5 (5.9)
  • Kentucky 3.4 (6.2)
  • Missouri 2.8 (6.3)
  • Vanderbilt 2.4 (5.0)

We only need a couple of upsets to get geared up for a seven-way tie at 4-4. Fingers crossed. Florida starts out with the projected advantage because of scheduling.

How these teams looked in 2016

The primary story line heading into last year was how many QBs this conference was replacing. But offense wasn’t necessarily the problem for a lot of SEC teams; plenty had an adjusted scoring average over 30 points per game. But 10 of 14 were also giving up at least 25 adjusted points per game. The defenses were young, too.


SEC offenses heading into 2017

Big-play ability was the separator last year. The range between the best and worst success rates in the conference was minuscule.

Best 2017 offensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Alabama: QB Jalen Hurts
  • Arkansas: QB Austin Allen
  • Auburn: OG Braden Smith
  • Florida: OG Martez Ivey
  • Georgia: RB Nick Chubb
  • Kentucky: RB Benny Snell
  • LSU: RB Derrius Guice
  • Mississippi State: QB Nick Fitzgerald
  • Missouri: RB Damarea Crockett
  • Ole Miss: OG Javon Patterson
  • South Carolina: WR Deebo Samuel
  • Tennessee: RB John Kelly
  • Texas A&M: RB Trayveon Williams
  • Vanderbilt: RB Ralph Webb

Okay, fine, Jarrett Stidham should probably be the guy mentioned for Auburn. But he’s a transfer, and I just wanted to note that Braden Smith is one hell of a mauler.

Regardless, in a conference loaded with good running backs, one in particular stands out.

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SEC defenses

You had bend-don’t-break defenses, you had exciting, attacking defenses ... and you had a few straight-up bad ones, too.

Best 2017 defensive players by team (best overall in bold):

  • Alabama: S Minkah Fitzpatrick
  • Arkansas: DE McTelvin Agim
  • Auburn: CB Carlton Davis
  • Florida: DE Cece Jefferson
  • Georgia: DT Trenton Thompson
  • Kentucky: LB Jordan Jones
  • LSU: DE/LB Arden Key
  • Mississippi State: LB/NB J.T. Gray
  • Missouri: DE Marcell Frazier
  • Ole Miss: DE Marquis Haynes
  • South Carolina: LB Bryson Allen-Williams
  • Tennessee: DT Kendal Vickers
  • Texas A&M: DT Zaycoven Henderson
  • Vanderbilt: LB Oren Burks

There are lots of front-seven guys on this list, but a safety leads the way.

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