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2018 SEC Spoilers

By Jim Johnson
SouthernPigskin.com
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If you want to be wholly surprised in 2018, don't read this.

One of the most fun things about college football is its unpredictability. I wouldn’t recommend trusting the consistency of 18-22 year olds in pretty much any facet of life, and this is no different. Every season, a handful of things happen that, if it took place in a movie, we would needle the writing for being too unrealistic. I say this as a warning, if you want to be wholly surprised in 2018, stop reading. If you’re still here, proceed with caution, as you have now entered the spoiler zone. Here are five things I am absolutely, positively, uncategorically certain will happen this year.

(SPOILER ALERT)

1. Auburn’s Jarrett Stidham will be the best quarterback in the country. This year, just being the best signal caller in the SEC would be quite an accomplishment. Looking across the landscape, the league hasn’t been this deep at the position in years. On paper, there’s really only about four teams that don’t at least have a seemingly serviceable option behind center. At the top of the conference, it’s probably a four man race between Drew Lock, who led the nation in passing touchdowns, Jake Fromm, who put together one of the most impressive true freshman campaigns in recent memory, a healthy Nick Fitzgerald, and Stidham. Yet, as good as they all were, no SEC quarterback posted a higher passer rating in conference play than Stidham, who threw for 13 scores with just one interceptions during that stretch, which included him playing some of his best games of the season against the likes of Mississippi State, probably one of the twenty best defenses in the country, and Georgia, a top five defense, at worst. While Drew Lock was racking up touchdowns against Southwest Missouri State, Idaho, and UConn, Stidham was at his best against the best. Why, again, are people expecting Lock, who completed just 57.8% of his throws in 2017, to be better after Mizzou replaced Josh Heupel with Derek Dooley? If there is a better quarterback, the smart money is on Jake Fromm, but it’s a double edged sword; all the reasons that make Fromm worth considering are the same reasons to question his ceiling. His efficiency numbers were off the charts, but as Georgia’s reliance on him amplifies, and his volume correspondingly increases, it seems unlikely that said efficiency will be sustainable, much less improved upon. Obviously, his raw numbers will increase, but that doesn’t mean he’s better. Stidham’s best downfield pass catcher was Will Hastings, who reeled in 70% of his targets 20+ yards past the line of scrimmage. Will Hastings is a 5’10, 170 pound white guy that walked onto Auburn, originally, as a kicker. With all due respect, Stidham deserves the lionshare of the credit for that. And, no matter how symbiotic (or not) Stidham’s relationship to his receivers may be, basically everyone that caught a pass from him in 2017, save Kerryon Johnson, is coming back. Nationally, Jake Browning is the only guy that stacks up favorably to Stidham, but Browning has been at Washington far longer than the Auburn signal caller at his current locale. The increased experience in what was a new system a year ago will be enough to push him over the top.

2. Tennessee will not win a single conference game. Jeremy Pruitt, aside from what a handful of former Georgia players might say, may end up being a good head coach. He also may not. However, we won’t get to find out this year. Pruitt is walking into an absolutely nightmarish situation, that stems from the top down. Even under new leadership, it will take significant time and effort to recover from and undo the previous brass’ missteps. The quarterback position is unsettled, and will be as important as ever, as the Vols transition to a more power-based pro-style attack. The two options are a grad transfer and an unproven sophomore that struggled throughout 2017. Gone, at running back, is John Kelly, who accounted for nearly a third of the team’s offensive production. Even after the much anticipated announcement of Trey Smith’s return, the offensive line, which was among the nation’s worst, will be extremely inexperienced. Defensively, the only player that made my preseason SEC Top 100 was safety Nigel Warrior, so there’s clearly not a ton of proven talent to work with. In fairness, the special teams should actually be pretty good, but it just won’t matter all that much, to be honest. With crossovers against Auburn and Alabama, as well as trips to both South Carolina and Georgia, in division, that’s four losses that can already be sharpied in. Math says that Tennessee might be able to steal one at home against Kentucky, Missouri, or Florida, but, at least from a personnel standpoint, all of those teams are far better off than the Volunteers. The best chance is probably Vanderbilt in the regular season finale, but even that one is on the road. Chalk up an O-fer for Pruitt and company in year one and go ahead and start looking forward to 2019.

3. Mississippi State will finish second in the West. With a healthy Nick Fitzgerald at the helm, Joe Moorhead is the perfect man to unlock the rest of this team’s skill position talent. The offensive line will also immediately be the best front he’s ever coached. Frankly, it’s amazing that he accomplished what he did at Penn State given how bad their blocking was. On the other side of the ball, the Bulldogs have the best returning duo in southern college football, in Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons, the latter of which will be the best overall player in the SEC this year, regardless of position. Altogether, 2018 is the perfect storm of circumstances for Mississippi State to have one of its greatest seasons in the modern era. The only team standing in the way of #2 in the West is Auburn. However, whereas Florida goes to Starkville, to accompany the annual crossover against Kentucky, the Tigers have the displeasure of playing Georgia, on the road, in their annual matchup. Plus, the two teams play head-to-head in Davis Wade Stadium, which could be just the hair that splits an otherwise razor thin gap between these teams. Moorhead’s group is a fringe top ten caliber squad that, in another division, or another conference, could absolutely be a darkhorse for the College Football Playoff. Having to play at Alabama will keep that from happening this season, but it’s Mississippi State, not Auburn, that is the biggest threat to the Tide, in the division.

4. Ed Orgeron will get fired after LSU gets its doors blown off by Alabama. No, predicting that Orgeron is going to be fired isn't some great revelation -- BetOnline.ag has him as the odds on favorite to be the first SEC head coach ousted in 2018 -- but at least I picked the week. Truthfully, I just wanted to rip him for a minute, because he has turned what was once arguably the coolest, most fun team in the league into a flaming pile of trash. Sure, LSU has some straight dudes at every level of the defense, but that will be the case until the sun burns out, no matter who is in charge. His apparent inability to keep his hands out of the offense, in 2017, and the subsequent firing of Matt Canada, who is one of the best offensive coordinators in the game, serves as the premier, shining example of his utter mismanagement and the resulting decline of the program. It would not be stunning if LSU missed a bowl game this season, and that is a travesty. Orgeron is fun, he’s funny, he might be a good coach in a less prominent role, but what has happened in the Bayou is more sad than anything else. When Georgia beats LSU by four-plus scores, in Baton Rouge, and the Tigers move to 4-3, Joe Alleva will start getting ancy, especially knowing that his own job is on the line. A second consecutive home loss, this one to Mississippi State, and the resulting .500 record will make him sweat. He’ll consider pulling the trigger during the bye week, but it would just be too cruel to make an interim debut against Alabama, even as a last gasp effort to save his own job. In fact, Orgeron deserves to face the Tide one more time as penance for his transgressions. Alabama will roundhouse kick this once proud program in the face -- probably in a shutout -- and that will be the last of Ed Orgeron at LSU. Oh, and Alleva will probably be gone shortly after, anyways.

5. Georgia is going back to the National Championship. The Bulldogs are going to lose again, this time to Clemson, but still -- pretty, pretty, pretty good. Plus, they’ll get some revenge against Alabama and Kirby Smart will become the first Saban assistant to best the master, head to head, in the SEC Championship. The Bulldogs do lose a lot of production and leadership, but mostly from positions with significant talent and depth. The grand mistake with looking at what Georgia is losing, is overlooking what Georgia has coming back. Even if Jake Fromm is no better than he was as a freshman, that’s more than enough for the offense to be as effective as it was in 2017. Even with the departures of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, RBU is plenty capable of replacing that production between the likes of D’Andre Swift, Elijah Holyfield, and Brian Herrien, not to mention incoming stars James Cook and Zamir White -- especially behind what will be one of the best offensive lines in the country. Linebacker is the biggest concern on defense, but that’s more so by default, as the secondary, led by one of the two best corners in the league and the best safety in the league, is elite, and the defensive line is littered with both experience and breakout star potential. The special teams, too, should continue to be among the nation’s best, most complete units. The schedule is a breeze. For all the talk about South Carolina, Auburn is truly the only losable game. Even a road trip to Baton Rouge is less than compelling as this will be LSU’s worst team in recent memory. History dictates that Georgia will probably drop one somewhere, but, frankly, 12-0 feels like the most likely scenario in the regular season, and far more likely than 10-2. However, should the ‘Dawgs slip up, an SEC Title win over Bama virtually ensures a playoff spot, where Georgia will beat Washington or whoever and then come up just short, once more.

Jim Johnson - Editor of Southern Pigskin, Producer of "Three & Out", and host of "Explosive Recruiting" on the Southern Pigskin Radio Network. E-mail: jim@espncoastal.com Twitter: @JimJohnsonSP