By John Fricke

Obviously things can (and will) change between June and kickoff of the regular season. Already we have seen how major injuries, off-field issues and coaching changes can drastically alter the way we see things shaping up. Ole Miss and Tennessee are dealing with issues surrounding their programs that need to be finally resolved. So these rankings will be updated prior to the first Thursday in September.

1. Alabama Crimson Tide – Focus On: Cam Robinson

Robinson is a First-Team All-American talent and a top-10 pick in the next NFL draft.  So before anyone says one offensive lineman can’t make a difference, think again.  Robinson’s status post arrest is something we will keep tabs on. Bama’s defense is still the dominant unit in all of college football.  Linebacker Tim Williams is a sack-blitzing machine primed for a major breakout and running alongside Reuben Foster will be too much for most of the Tide’s foe’s to deal with. Eddie Jackson and Minkah Fitzpatrick might be the top secondary duo in the nation. And all of those studs work behind defensive tackle Jonathan Allen, who might be the second best defensive lineman in the league (consider that the No. 1 is the No. 1 in the nation at that spot and you see how good Allen is).  Running back Bo Scarbrough will be a household name by midseason. Wide receiver Calvin Ridley and Tight end O.J. Howard are all conference targets but who will throw them the ball?  Cooper Bateman? Blake Barnett?  Alabama has proven it can win national titles with less than stellar quarterbacks, and might do so again this season.  Easily (again) the team to beat.

2. LSU Tigers – Focus On: Leonard Fournette

If not for the NFL rules Fournette would be a serious candidate this fall for NFL Rookie of the Year. As it stands he will make a run at the Heisman again in Baton Rouge. His issue is LSU’s. Unless Les Miles can find someone who can throw the ball effectively, the better defenses will simply load up on Leonard (see: Alabama, 2015). Quarterback Brandon Harris is back, now is that a plus? There is talent at wide receiver in Malachi Dupre and Travin Dural, but the best wideouts mean zip unless the ball is catchable. The defense has the potential to be truly great. Cornerback Tre’Davious White is a lock down corner, defensive tackle Davon Godchaux & defensive end Arden Key are already stars who could go next level under new and highly regarded defensive coordinator Dave Aranda’s defensive schemes.

3. Georgia Bulldogs – Focus On: Jacob Eason

It was only a spring practice game…  a glorified scrimmage. Still around 100,000 jammed every corner of Sanford Stadium to see the hyped frosh quarterback (and yes the new head coach Kirby Smart, but it was Eason who the fans came to see perform). From that brief outing it is fairly safe to say from a talent perspective Eason is already the second or third best quarterback in the league. Yes, without taking a real snap. Now, how he handles the pressure and stage will be a different story. A 100 percent healthy Nick Chubb to run alongside Sony Michel means UGA will score. It’s the defense that could take a major step forward. Yes they (again) lost lots of talent and yes the lines both need work.  But Smart is a defensive guru and his scheme’s and teaching will show big growth on the defense through the season. Safety Dominick Sanders could blossom into a true star. This is a 10-plus win club if it all falls right.

4. Tennessee Volunteers – Focus On: Josh Dobbs

The Vols are the darling pick of everyone to win the East. I will not argue that Butch Jones has built the Big Orange back into a 10-11 win contender. At what price? Yes UT can win the East, it could also have the off-field issues the coach is dealing with come crashing down around them (ask Baylor – it’s not as bad as Baylor, but it’s not good either). The defense has top quality studs up front. Defensive end Derek Barnett is a monster and the Vols have stars at every level. Linebacker Jalen Reeves-Maybin and Cornerback Cam Sutton are All-Conference capable players. Running back Jalen Hurd is already a star but it is Dobbs who shoulder’s the fortunes. He’s a true dual-threat who needs to take the next step in his passing game. If the off-field issues are tamped down, this is a club that could win the SEC title. I just get shaky when we are talking “ifs.”

5. Florida Gators – Focus On: Luke Del Rio

Del Rio’s dad is head coach of the Oakland/Las Vegas Raiders. The younger Del Rio walked on at Alabama, transferred to Oregon State and wound up in the Swamp. Yes, the Gators have another transfer quarterback in for this season (Austin Appleby who started at Purdue), but it is Del Rio who offers the most immediate promise at the spot that has cost the Gators the most over the past few seasons. The new quarterback will have a great target to throw at. Wide receiver Antonio Callaway has the game to become one of the top pass-catchers in the nation. Cornreback Jalen Tabor is the best at his spot in the league and Linebacker Jarrad Davis continues to improve into an impact player. There are four truly tough games on the Gators’ schedule (Tennessee, Georgia, LSU and FSU); Split those and this team wins 10.

6. Arkansas Razorbacks – Focus On: Ricky Town

I will grant you… this is high for a team that lost as many key players as it did on offense. Town is a transfer from USC. He was a highly sought after four-star prospect who has a chance to become a major factor in the SEC. And he has a solid offensive line and a premium target in wide receiver Drew Morgan. There are nine starters back on defense including an impact linebacker in Dre Greenlaw. Head coach Bret Bielema doesn’t get enough credit as one of the great teachers of the game. The schedule is difficult (TCU, Texas A&M, Alabama and Ole Miss in the first seven games).  I like this club to win a couple of those games and push for nine wins this season.

7. Ole Miss Rebels – Focus On: Chad Kelly

Kelly sure looks like he has a good chunk of his Uncle Jim’s game.  He is the top returning quarterback in a league that is adrift at that position at the moment. The Rebels can score, but stopping people will be an issue even with defensive end Marquis Haynes set to take the big stage as the star on the defensive line. Head coach Hugh Freeze is under serious fire for offseason problems, and the admission from star offensive lineman Laremy Tunsil that he was paid during his time in Oxford. Like Tennessee, this is a team with talent that has the threat of potential penalties hanging over its head.

8. Texas A&M Aggies – Focus On: Myles Garrett

OK we can move on….. Oh, alright we can talk about quarterback. So, which passer isn’t leaving this week? Actually after everyone named Kyle quit the team, Jake Hubenak played pretty well in the Aggies’ bowl game and there was a time when Oklahoma transfer quarterback Trevor Knight was torching Alabama in a bowl game for the Sooners. Plus there is Garrett, the world-class defensive end. He might be the No. 1 pick in next year’s NFL draft. Still there are lots of people shifting in their seats in College Station.

9. Auburn Tigers – Focus On: Gus Malzahn

There’s no doubt Malzahn is starting to feel the heat. There is no question Auburn has talent… lots of it. But the gigantic killer hole at quarterback is such a major problem it’s hard to see the War Eagles challenging for a title. They have a JUCO transfer named John Franklin III who comes in with high regard (but Jeremy Johnson was also held in high regard prior to last season when some preseason picks had the Tigers winning the West title). The Tigers will be counting on freshmen and transfers to plug holes in an average offense. Still that talent. Defensive end Carl Lawson has All-American game and Cornerback Carlton Davis is a game changer in the secondary. The schedule is brutal. Opening against Clemson with A&M and LSU in the first month with road trips to Ole Miss, Georgia and Alabama in the second half of the season.

10. Mississippi State Bulldogs

MSU might be the most intriguing program in the country. Head coach Dan Mullen has built the Bulldogs into a better program than most people recognize. Losing Dak Prescott is a major challenge, he was the heart and soul of MSU’s rise (which at one point in his career was all the way to No. 1 in the nation). Nick Fitzgerald leads a trio of guys vying to take the job, if this becomes a season-long audition it could spell a long year in Starkville. Defensive end A.J. Jefferson and Linebacker Richie Brown will be impact guys, but the defense could be forced to carry way too much of the load this season.

11. Kentucky Wildcats

The ‘Cats are sort of like Soccer In the USA. Everyone keeps saying ‘This is the year it will happen!’ With a defense that was middling at best, losing eight starters, and it’s key play-makers it could be next year again in Lexington. Mark Stoops has made the ‘Cats competitive, but they are still a few major steps from making a big leap. There were some high profile recruits who de-committed, that hurts the forecast in the next couple of seasons. As for now, Stoops has the program on stable ground but he is not catching up to the East (which by the way is getting better again at the top).

12. South Carolina Gamecocks

The Gamecocks will be very interesting to watch over the next three to five seasons.  Can Will Muschamp become a consistent winning head coach? He has a great staff he’s put together… Can it keep the best players in the state from leaving, and how do they battle again the in-state juggernaut to their north? Clemson has grabbed control and now SC has to regroup. This is a transition season that could still end in a minor bowl trip. Only three wins last season and only three starters back on an offense that struggled at quarterback and lost its top weapon (wide receiver Pharoh Cooper) to early entry into the NFL draft, and yet the offense wasn’t the issue. Muschamp will make big strides on a horrid defense. Fans need patience here.

13. Vanderbilt Commodores

That didn’t take long.  Vandy is, sadly for its fans, Vandy again. Yes the defense was better and quarterback Kyle Shurmur showed potential. Vandy hosts South Carolina on opening night. That game will be critical to both teams. The loser could be in for a very long season. Linebacker Zach Cunningham is a great player who carries a lot of the load on defense.

14. Missouri Tigers

Remember all the ruckus on campus in Columbia? The political fight that got people fired? Well there has been major fallout from that. Enrollment is way down and the football program is having a hard time keeping people. The head coach quit (more or less just said ‘heck with this’) and new head coach Barry Odom has major holes all over his depth chart. Missouri has way too much in-state talent (and no D1 competition either) to be down for too long but this season could bottom out on the Tigers.

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