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SEC football: 5 big calls for 2016

Tyler Kaufman/Icon Sportswire

It is no secret that the SEC will dominate college football headlines this fall, with the conference set to provide fans a heavy dose of Heisman hopefuls and national title contenders.

Here are five bold predictions for the nation’s most-hyped conference.

Two players from the SEC will attend the Heisman Ceremony

The SEC has produced five Heisman Trophy recipients since 2007, and there is a strong chance that number will grow to six this year. LSU running back Leonard Fournette enters the season as a preseason Heisman favorite, while Chad Kelly — the conference’s leading passer from last season — has a legitimate shot at becoming the first player in Ole Miss history to win the coveted honor.

Tennessee’s two-headed offensive beast of quarterback Joshua Dobbs and running back Jalen Hurd will also generate Heisman buzz if the Volunteers live up to lofty expectations. If recent history is any indicator, Alabama starting running back Bo Scarbrough will enter the Heisman conversation as well.

Vanderbilt will contend for an SEC East title

As part of a division that has undergone so much upheaval this offseason, whether by coaching changes or key positional losses, stability alone is why Tennessee has established itself as the runaway favorite in the SEC East. Another team within the division with an impressive returning cast, however, is being largely overlooked.

The Vanderbilt Commodores return 15 of 22 starters from last season, most notably quarterback Kyle Shurmur, running back Ralph Webb and middle linebacker Zach Cunningham. Also returning will be wide receiver C.J. Duncan, the team’s leading receiver as a freshman in 2014, who missed last season with a torn Achilles.

After a pair of 5-7 campaigns, Vanderbilt is generating little hype for the upcoming season, but with an experienced roster at his disposal, head coach Derek Mason is equipped to expose an SEC East experiencing major fluctuations.

Texas A&M will regain national relevance — at least for the moment

Texas A&M has fallen from prominence faster than perhaps any program in the country since its 11-2 inaugural SEC season in 2012.

The presence of returning Heisman winner Johnny Manziel kept the program in the headlines in 2013, but a 9-4 performance shed light on a potential decline. The Aggies have lost three starting quarterbacks in the past two years, all of which elected to transfer from the program. After enduring back-to-back 8-5 seasons, Texas A&M has completed its fade from national prominence.

Fortunately for the Aggies, 2016 should take a positive turn. The defense is showing signs of improvement under John Chavis, and the team features an explosive wide receiver corps led by Christian Kirk and Josh Reynolds. In graduate transfer Trevor Knight, Kevin Sumlin will have his first senior starting quarterback since Case Keenum’s historic 2011 campaign with the Houston Cougars.

By not playing Ole Miss and LSU until November, Texas A&M has a chance to enter the final month of the season with two or fewer losses. If the Aggies defeat UCLA in their season opener, they should enter a brutal two-game stretch against Tennessee and Alabama with a 5-0 record — a start which will warrant significant national attention.

Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn looks at the scoreboard during the 2015 Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field, Birmingham, AL. (Photo by: Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire).

December 30, 2015: Auburn Tigers head coach Gus Malzahn looks at the scoreboard during the 2015 Birmingham Bowl at Legion Field, Birmingham, AL. (Photo by: Bobby McDuffie/Icon Sportswire).

Gus Malzahn will be fired after a losing season for Auburn

By leading Auburn to the BCS National Championship Game in his first season as head coach in 2013, three years removed from serving as offensive coordinator for the Tigers’ 2010 national title run, Gus Malzahn earned a considerable amount of goodwill on the Plains. After posting a 15-11 record and going 6-10 in conference play over the course of the past two seasons, reality has set in — and Malzahn is firmly entrenched on the proverbial hot seat.

Unfortunately for Malzahn, Auburn is not poised for any sort of turnaround in 2016. The Tigers lost the only offensive playmaker on their roster when running back Jovon Robinson was kicked off the team earlier this month, and although naming a starting quarterback — Sean White — is a step in the right direction, the sophomore’s career totals of one touchdown and four interceptions in six starts do little to inspire optimism.

2016 will likely be another rough year for Auburn, and Malzahn will be forced to face the ensuing backlash.

The winner of LSU-Alabama will play for the national championship

In what seems to occur every other season, LSU and Alabama are once again on a collision course for an early-November showdown to be billed as the latest installment of the “Game of the Century.” As absurd as it is to toss that label around, there is merit in the sense that this game should carry substantial national title implications.

The Tigers and Crimson Tide are both projected among college football’s top contenders in 2016, and the reasons are clear. LSU has possibly the most dangerous group of returning players in the country. Alabama is in the midst of a historic stretch of greatness, led by a coaching immortal in Nick Saban. Although the winner of this contest will still have to win the SEC West, the conference championship and a College Football Playoff semifinal in order to reach the national title game, a strong case can be made that this matchup will be the toughest test either team faces all season.

The winner of this game has been to five of the past nine national title games. The only to not emerge victorious: the 2011 LSU team, which lost to Alabama in a rematch for the BCS national championship.

SEC football: 5 big calls for 2016

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