Butch Jones

Tennessee head coach Butch Jones points to the scoreboard during the first quarter of an NCAA college football game against Missouri Saturday, Nov. 21, 2015, in Columbia, Mo. 

AP photo by L.G. Patterson

SOUTHEASTERN CONFERENCE: The Advocate’s predictions

WEST DIVISION

1. ALABAMA: The sun never seems to set on the Bama empire — but it did go into eclipse in January. Darth Nick (Saban) seeks revenge.

2. LSU: If Ed Orgeron can bring this gumbo together just right — Etling, Guice, Key, Canada’s new offense — it could be quite a show.

3. AUBURN: The Tigers’ Sugar Bowl appearance was unexpected. Can Auburn continue its upward trend toward national relevance with Jarrett Stidham at quarterback?

4. TEXAS A&M: Kevin Sumlin faces a must-win season with questions at quarterback and a defense that gave up 500-plus yards per game in SEC play in 2016.

5. ARKANSAS: Austin Allen and Co. will put up points quickly, but the Razorbacks’ dull defense has to find a way to stop surrendering them just as fast.

6. MISSISSIPPI STATE: Nick Fitzgerald and the Bulldogs aren’t up to ruling the SEC West, but they could have a big say in who gets to be king.

7. OLE MISS: NCAA investigations. A bowl ban. A coach’s resignation. Lawsuits. These are interesting times in Oxford, for sure, but interesting doesn’t necessarily mean good.

EAST DIVISION

1. GEORGIA: An experienced quarterback (Jacob Eason) and star running backs (Nick Chubb, Sony Michel) have confidence running high between the hedges. Everyone’s team to beat in the division.

2. FLORIDA: If the Gators get their quarterback situation sorted out, it could mean a third straight SEC East title. Having five SEC home games helps greatly.

3. TENNESSEE: The Vols recoiled from heavyweight expectations last season. This year, when no one’s looking, can they become a surprising contender in the SEC East?

4. KENTUCKY: A 7-5 record would be celebrated in few SEC venues, but this is UK. Just getting to a bowl is enough. That’s doable for the Wildcats.

5. SOUTH CAROLINA: A bowl trip last season was success for the Gamecocks. With 10 returning offensive starters, USC is at least trending in the right direction.

6. MISSOURI: The Tigers won just four games in 2016 but return 10 starters from a potent offense. The defense, last in the SEC, has to improve fast.

7. VANDERBILT: The Commodores showed progress by reaching a bowl in 2016. Another is within reach this season, while throwing a few scares into its heavyweight foes, besides.

FOUR KEY GAMES

LSU at Florida

OCT. 7: Even if this game doesn’t have big divisional relevance (it does), the year of simmering bad blood between these schools alone makes it worth watching.

Florida vs. Georgia

OCT. 28 in Jacksonville, Florida: The Bulldogs and Gators are the consensus top contenders in the SEC East. This game should put the winner in the divisional driver’s seat.

LSU at Alabama

NOV. 4: It’s entirely possible these teams have no more than one loss between them when they meet in Tuscaloosa. The implications could be national in scope.

Georgia at Auburn

NOV. 11: The SEC’s most intriguing border war is often overshadowed by the Iron Bowl or the Cocktail Party. It shouldn’t be. The winner could emerge as a national player.

NOW TRENDING

TRENDING UP: GEORGIA

The Bulldogs went 8-5 in 2016 under first-year coach Kirby Smart, the kind of record that got Mark Richt run out of Athens. But there is encouragement in those pedestrian numbers, with a team that returns QB Jacob Eason and the SEC’s best backfield duo in Nick Chubb and Sony Michel.

TRENDING DOWN: TENNESSEE

Last year was supposed to be the Volunteers’ year. Instead, Tennessee went 9-4 with a disappointing 4-4 SEC record. It’s hard to imagine the Vols not backing up after losing Josh Dobbs, Jalen Hurd and Alvin Kamara. Butch Jones best find some clever answers for his growing raft of critics.

ON THE HOT SEAT: KEVIN SUMLIN

Texas A&M has won eight games each of the past three years. After sinking nearly a half-billion dollars into program/stadium upgrades, A&M demands a better return on its investment. Athletic director Scott Woodward said in May that Sumlin “has to do better.” How many wins is “better?” More than eight.

Follow Scott Rabalais on Twitter, @RabalaisAdv.​