NCAA Football News

SEC Football Q&A: Early Picks for the 2016 SEC Championship Game

National signing day just wrapped up, and spring practice is just around the corner.

What better way to hold you over until toe meets leather in March than your weekly serving of SEC Q&A, right?

This week, we take a stab at a post-signing day SEC Championship Game prediction, which redshirt freshmen will become stars in 2016, the budding Florida-Arkansas rivalry and Mississippi State's hopes in the post-Dak Prescott era.

 

@BarrettSallee sec championship game who's gonna be in it

— Robert Gideon (@gideon_robert) February 8, 2016

For the first time since 2010 when Auburn topped South Carolina, the SEC Championship Game will be a rematch. Plus, for the first time, it will be a rematch of one of the top rivalries in college football.

Alabama and Tennessee meet in Knoxville on the "Third Saturday of November." If I had to guess right now, the Crimson Tide will get the best of the Vols in their first meeting, but Tennessee will have the chance for revenge a month and a half later with a conference title on the line.

Actually, I'm more confident in my pick of Tennessee in the East than I am with Alabama out of the West.

The Vols return a fearsome, multidimensional ground attack that features quarterback Joshua Dobbs, junior running back Jalen Hurd and senior running back Alvin Kamara. They have developed experience and depth up front along the offensive line and defensive line, have one of the best linebackers in the country in Jalen Reeves-Maybin, a loaded secondary that includes senior Cam Sutton, and they upgraded at defensive coordinator from John Jancek to Bob Shoop.

What's more, they get Florida on Rocky Top in a game that decided the division last year. 

Alabama has much more uncertainty on its roster, with the losses of Heisman Trophy-winning running back Derrick Henry, senior starting quarterback Jake Coker, center Ryan Kelly and senior middle linebacker Reggie Ragland.

Yes, Alabama should be fine and has earned the benefit of the doubt. The combination of Bo Scarbrough and Damien Harris should be fine at running back, there are plenty of talented quarterbacks like Blake Barnett and David Cornwell for offensive coordinator Lane Kiffin to choose from, the offensive line has built through recruiting over the last few years and my theory that Alabama has a machine that clones middle linebackers hidden somewhere in Tuscaloosa hasn't been refuted yet. 

A little more concerning for Alabama is that early test versus Ole Miss in Oxford. The Tide have lost that game in each of the last two seasons but still managed to make it to Atlanta. If that happens again—and it could considering the loaded Rebel roster and relative uncertainty with the Tide early on—that would leave head coach Nick Saban's crew a small margin for error for the final two-and-a-half months. 

Give me the Tide over the Rebels in a game that will decide the West, Tennessee over Georgia in the game that will decide the East and Alabama toppling Tennessee for its third straight SEC title.

Subject to change, of course.

 

@BarrettSallee always seems like there's a few RS FR that break out each year. Which ones should we be watching out for next year?

— Saturday @ The Swamp (@SwampSaturdays) February 8, 2016

The first name that pops into my mind is Blake Barnett, the former 5-star prospect from California who enrolled at Alabama last January. 

At 6'5", 200 pounds, Barnett has the arm strength to stretch the field deep, can push the ball sideline to sideline and actually was reclassified as a prospect from a dual-threat to a pro-style quarterback. So, he has the wheels that can make him a force in an offense under Kiffin that has proven to be successful with both styles of quarterbacks over the last two seasons.

"Once he learns everything and gets stronger and all that stuff and does the things he has to do, he's going to be a monster in college football," said former linebacker Reggie Ragland in January, according to Matt Zenitz of AL.com.

Two Ole Miss guys jump to mind rather quickly, too: running back Eric Swinney and wide receiver Van Jefferson.

Swinney signed with Ole Miss a year ago and was slated to at least contend for some time at running back, but a stress fracture in his leg ended his season before it started, forcing him to sit out. Quarterback Chad Kelly is the leading returning rusher for the Rebels, and they've struggled to run consistently between the tackles for three years. At 5'9", 197 pounds, Swinney is deceptively tough between the tackles, has the edge speed that Ole Miss has become known for and could become a star.

Jefferson should get more playing time after sitting out last season, now that star wide receiver Laquon Treadwell has moved on. At 6'2", 181 pounds, the former 4-star prospect was one of the stars of last year's recruiting class, and he should become more of a factor in an offense that clicks when multiple receivers get in the mix. 

It seems like South Carolina fans have been talking about defensive tackle Dexter Wideman for years, after he flipped from Florida State to South Carolina on national signing day two years ago. He didn't qualify initially, went to prep school in 2014, then redshirted with the Gamecocks in 2015. 

With a new staff comes a fresh start, and the 6'3", 280-pound, ultra-athletic interior lineman is a perfect fit for the defense under head coach Will Muschamp that moves interior lineman around based on down and situation.

 

@BarrettSallee Who gets the last laugh when they meet on the field next season, Bielema or McElwain?

— ATL Gator (@champton85) February 8, 2016

In case you missed the signing day dust-up between the two, here's a CliffsNotes version:

  • Arkansas target Tyrie Cleveland commits to Florida
  • Arkansas head coach Bret Bielema either compliments Florida's recruiting efforts or suggests impropriety on national television
  • Florida head coach Jim McElwain takes exception
  • Bielema publicly states that it was meant as a compliment and didn't intend harm
  • Everybody's "happy"

Just because Bielema and McElwain have kissed and made up after the hour-long, passive-aggressive war of words, that doesn't mean that it won't be brought up internally when the two meet in Fayetteville, Arkansas, on Nov. 5.

I would lean toward Florida as of today, because the quarterback situation should be resolved at that point, the new defenders should be playing like veterans and the Gator defense is loaded with talented, young players. This year might be a mirror image of last year in Gainesville. The Gators might struggle early due to roster uncertainty but hit their stride down the stretch once everything comes together.

The same path is likely to be taken by Arkansas, which replaces a quarterback, two star running backs, several pieces along the offensive line and superstar tight end Hunter Henry. But what do we know about Bielema-coached teams? They finish strong and should do the same in 2016.

It will be a fun battle in Fayetteville, but Florida's top-end talent should negate any home-field advantage that Arkansas has. 

Plus, whether or not McElwain still takes offense to Bielema's comments in November, he'll certainly use them to his advantage.

 

@BarrettSallee how well will Mississippi State be this year w/o Dak Prescott?

— Kroeger (@GKroegs) February 8, 2016

Mississippi State will be competitive within the SEC West, but there's a distinction between being competitive in games and actually competing for the division title.

Nick Fitzgerald should take over at quarterback and run basically the same offense that former signal-caller Dak Prescott thrived in over the last two seasons. Getting Fred Brown back at wide receiver is huge for the transition to a new quarterback. The defense still has plenty to work with, including guys like linebacker Richie Brown and defensive back Kivon Coman leading the way. 

The floor of the program has been raised to a point where simply being bowl-eligible isn't good enough anymore, and seven or eight wins should be expected in down seasons. 

Head coach Dan Mullen has earned the benefit of the doubt, and he should be able to fill some roster holes successfully to at least be competitive in virtually every game and spring an "upset" or two.

At this point, though, Mississippi State hanging in games with the so-called "big boys" shouldn't be a surprise.

 

Quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Statistics are courtesy of cfbstats.com, and recruiting information is courtesy of 247Sports.

Barrett Sallee is the lead SEC college football writer and national college football video analyst for Bleacher Report as well as a host on Bleacher Report Radio on SiriusXM 83. Follow Barrett on Twitter @BarrettSallee.

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