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SEC Thoughts as the Bowl Season Opens

A quick look around the league before we start playing postseason games.

NCAA Football: Auburn at Alabama John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports

Bowl season has opened up, but the SEC won’t play til Vanderbilt takes on Baylor in the Texas Bowl on Dec. 27. Still, there’s been some news, and there will be more this week with the early signing period opening on Wednesday.

So here’s a quick run through of a few thoughts that have been burning around the ol’ brainpan over the last few weeks:

  • Looking forward to the SEC West next year and surprise, surprise, Alabama is still pretty well set up in first place again. After that, LSU and Texas A&M seem pretty squarely in the second tier with what they should have returning. The Aggies lose Trayveon Williams and a couple of key players in the defensive front seven, but Kellen Mond, the receivers (depending on Jace Sternberger) and most of the offensive line should be back.
  • As we’ve said before, LSU should return almost all of their key players, and up to six experienced offensive linemen (pending the NFL draft cycle), plus a key talent infusion from players like Derek Stingley, John Emery and Tyrion Davis.
  • Auburn and Mississippi State seem a clear cut below LSU and A&M right now. Both will be breaking in new quarterbacks and losing a lot on defense. The Other Tigers, could be a wild card, although that’s assuming Auburn’s power brokers don’t choke things out before then. To recap: Auburn gave Gus Malzahn an extension with a huge buyout — payable very quickly, with no offset should he take a new job — right before last year’s bowl loss to UCF. Said Peach Bowl loss gave folks on the Plains some serious buyer’s remorse. And then a preseason top-10 team went 7-5 this season. So rather than biting the buyout and just firing Malzahn like they really want to do, Auburn has leaked assorted rumors regarding new coordinators and Malzahn opting to reduce his own buyout for some reason. Meanwhile, they just lost a former blue-chip recruit due to a very amateurish accounting error, and the recruiting class appears to hemorrhaging, with LSU attempting to poach stud receiver George Pickens and defensive end Jaren Handy.
  • You’d think Auburn would remember the last time this happened: yeah, Tommy Tuberville survived the 2003 Jetgate fiasco, and yeah, the Other Tigers went undefeated and won the SEC the next year, but the damage led to everything just kind of stalling out over those final few years and culminated with that 5-7 2008 season. This program is what it is at this point — Auburn’s offense hasn’t changed materially regardless of coordinator, and the new guy from Memphis won’t change that. Gus may take over the play-calling, but we know what to expect from this team by now. That said, the entire starting offensive line will be back, along with a pretty talented back in Boobie Whitlow. And yeah, the line was a big problem last year, but experience has a way of helping with that. Gus’s offense usually picks up with experience, and he’s going to have that everywhere but quarterback.
  • Ole Miss figures to bottom out after the years of bum recruiting under the shadow of the NCAA investigation. No more stud receiving corps to bail out the rest of the dwindling talent pool. Not that I thought Wesley McGriff was all that impressive as a defensive coordinator, but the talent there won’t do Mike McIntyre any favors, either.
  • State’s prospects may pin on how Joe Moorhead develops Keytaon Thompson between now and next year. On offense they should keep a couple of linemen, most of the receivers and a pretty good back in Kylin Hill. But the defense is going to lose a lot already in Montez Sweat, Jeffrey Simmons, Jamal Peters and Jonathan Abrams, and third-year guys like Erroll Thompson, Leo Lewis or Cameron Dantzler could all go pro as well. If Moorhead wants to avoid a step back without Nick Fitzgerald, the passing game is going to have to help bridge some of that.
  • Arkansas is looking at a long road back under Chad Morris, but then the whole reason he was brought in in the first place was the dwindling talent level under Bret Bielema. That said, the reality of a 2-10 season — literally the worst season in school history — may be more than many in Fayetteville can stand. Morris has a top-20 class, the program’s highest ranking since 2011, so that’s a reason for hope. But losing out on transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant definitely doesn’t help.
  • Over in the East, a Florida win in the Peach Bowl could help set them up for an interesting offseason. They should return just about all of their main contributors on both offense and defense — although I would think Jachai Polite and Jabari Zuniga will project as high draft picks. And though they sit at No. 20 in the national recruiting rankings, SB Nation’s Bud Elliot thinks they could close strong and land in the top 15. Yes, Georgia still has the field lapped in that division in terms of talent, but if that gap starts to close, Florida is probably the last team the Bulldogs really want to fight.
  • And then there’s Tennessee. The two game losing streak that cost the Vols a bowl doesn’t seem like a huge deal, given that Jeremy Pruitt kind of inherited a “Year 0” type of situation (to steal a Podcast Ain’t Played Nobody term). But Mizzou put it on UT, and the Vanderbilt game was obviously winnable. There just seems to be this weird vibe around the program. Yes, offensive coordinator Tyson Helton left for a head coaching job, but word is he wanted to get out of dodge and that he was somewhat forced on Pruitt, presumably by AD Phil Fulmer. That’s the second time such a rumor has come up; Austin Thomas left LSU for what he was told (by Fulmer) would be the same job at Tennessee, only to have Pruitt tell him otherwise. So...who’s in charge here? That’s never the question you want to be asking at a major program.