Mandel’s SEC picks: Tide will do fine, but they’re not winning the conference

True story: When I submitted an SEC Media Days preseason ballot with Texas A&M listed as champ, the conference office checked to make sure some imposter hadn’t sent it in my place.

Apparently I was that extreme an outlier. My colleague Bruce Feldman picked Alabama in his SEC predictions.

So let me explain why I’m picking a team that went 3-5 in the SEC last year to rise up and surpass more conventional picks like Alabama (who I will surely be reminded beat the Aggies 59-0 last year) and Auburn (who you might need a reminder lost at home to A&M). 

First of all, Kevin Sumlin is a great coach whose offense can always be counted on to be highly productive. Last year saw a dip as the Aggies struggled to replace standouts Johnny Manziel, Mike Evans and Jake Matthews. A year later, sophomore Kyle Allen has established himself at quarterback.

Defensively, A&M has been awful the past two years, but Sumlin hired one of the sport’s finest coordinators in John Chavis.

And the talent is there. Freakish defensive end Myles Garrett is the most obvious standout, but plenty of others are already emerging from Sumlin’s consecutive Top 7 recruiting classes of 2013 and ’14.

But perhaps the most important factor is this: In an SEC West race that figures to be insanely competitive, A&M’s schedule sets up more favorably than any other contender. With Arkansas a neutral-site game (in Arlington, Texas), A&M plays just three conference road games — and one of those is Vanderbilt. It has a bye week before hosting Alabama (whereas the Tide will play physical Arkansas a week earlier) and also hosts Auburn.  

So A&M is my pick to win the West. And whoever wins the West is going to win in Atlanta. 


A few other thoughts:

–I’m not buying Tennessee as much as some (as you’ll see, I have them losing at home to Oklahoma), but I still see the Vols winning a mediocre East. Georgia and Tennessee both play Alabama as a crossover foe, but the Dawgs also have to visit Auburn while Tennessee hosts Arkansas.

–I fear I may have Ole Miss too low, because the Rebels are loaded with top-line NFL talent and should field another elite defense. But right now I have little faith in their options at quarterback.

–LSU is the hardest team to predict. Some people may be surprised to see LSU so low, but first of all, someone has to finish sixth in the West, and while the Tigers are loaded at several positions, quarterback is not one of them.

–I see Kentucky breaking through and reaching a bowl in Mark Stoops’ third season. Conversely, I foresee rough years for Steve Spurrier (whose talent level is slipping) and Jim McElwain (who inherits a horrid O-line). 

Predicted standings:


Texas A&M 11-1 (7-1) 
Auburn 10-2 (6-2) 
Alabama 10-2 (6-2)
Ole Miss 8-4 (4-4)
Arkansas 8-4 (4-4)
LSU 7-5 (3-5)
Miss St 6-6 (2-6)


Tennessee 9-3 (6-2)
Georgia 9-3 (5-3)
Missouri 8-4 (4-4)
Kentucky 7-5 (4-4)
Florida 5-7 (2-6)
S Carolina 5-7 (2-6)
Vandy 3-9 (1-7)

Championship: Texas A&M over Tennessee