NCAA – 2017 SEC Preview

Chris’ SEC Projections

1. South Carolina
2. Texas A&M
3. Florida
4. Vanderbilt
5. Arkansas
6. Auburn
7. Tennessee
8. Alabama
9. Missouri
10. Ole Miss

11. Kentucky
12. Mississippi State
13. Georgia
14. LSU

2016 was almost a complete dream season for South Carolina. The Gamecocks would draw on opening night against Oklahoma but then won eighteen matches in a row, taking down the likes of NC State and Clemson before SEC play and everyone in their path en route to the SEC Tournament. Maintaining that kind of excellence for such a long period did wear on the club though, and it wasn’t really a shock to see them lose closely to Florida in the tournament semi-finals. SC didn’t get an easy road to the College Cup getting drawn against great Colorado and BYU teams for their regional but edging past both on the way to the Elite Eight. But despite a valiant effort against North Carolina with a spot in the College Cup on the line, the Gamecocks came up just short in a 1-0 defeat in Columbia. It was an unfortunate end to an amazing season that had seen South Carolina put up a perfect league season and break records at the box office thanks in no small part to their success on the pitch.

There are definitely reasons to expect SC to tail off a bit this season. Gone are six starters, tied for most in the SEC. But Carolina’s fortunes may be more about who is here than who isn’t, as they return one of the best attackers in the country in Savannah McCaskill. McCaskill’s growth has been incredible over the past few years, with the senior netting seventeen goals and adding in eleven assists to go with them last season. McCaskill’s profile has risen to the point that she has been in to train with the full USWNT and will likely be an early pick in January’s NWSL Draft.

Where else the goals are going to come from is a massive worry for the Gamecocks though. The club’s next four top scorers all depart, meaning Carolina doesn’t have a single player other than McCaskill that netted more than two goals last season, with the loss of Sophie Groff and Chelsea Drennan, who combined for seventeen goals and sixteen assists, particularly tough to overcome. It might be up to newcomers to help charge up the attack this season. Freshman Breukelen Woodard is probably the heaviest hitter of the rookies and could get early minutes in midfield. The attack could rise and fall with the addition of Meaghan Carrigan though. Carrigan scored twenty-seven goals for Richmond in her career there but never reached the ceiling of her potential because of injuries. If healthy, she could be the transfer signing of the season, but SC could be in trouble if Carrigan can’t get amongst the goals.

The potential one-dimensionality of the attack means there’s going to be more of an emphasis than ever on the SC defense. Fortunately, the Gamecocks have constructed more than one rock solid defense over the years. Part of that starts from having a strong spine through deeper midfielders, with returnees Lindsey Lane and Dominique Babbitt massively important figures both from an experience standpoint as well as from a talent perspective. As is the case with the frontline, the backline also gets rocked with graduation attrition. Gone are center-backs Kaleigh Kurtz and Paige Bendell and right-back Evelyn Robinson, creating a massive void of experience that Shelley Smith and her staff are going to be scrambling to compensate for. The one returner on the backline that started last year is Anna Conklin, the club’s left-back, who’ll need to be huge while the rest of the defense finds some chemistry.

A key will be a pair of highly rated additions. Rookie Jackie Schaefer is a U.S. U17 international and may need to step into big minutes right away. Sophomore transfer Grace Fisk stepped in admirably for Penn State last season and joins the team after the conclusion of the UEFA U19 Championship and should be a prime candidate for a starting spot as well.

The Gamecocks have been strong in goal more often than not over the years, and Mikayla Krzeczowski is another huge asset for the club after looking spectacular as a rookie. Her mettle will be tested again this year with a new look backline.

Carolina is a polarizing side according to my projections. Their star duo up front and in goal might be enough to lead them to SEC glory if they get enough from last year’s reserves and newcomers. But there’s also a very real downside with so many new moving parts, meaning this year might be more about coaching and system than anything else in Columbia.

2016 appeared to be set up for a big year for Texas A&M. The Aggies were coming off getting to the Elite Eight with a young squad that was returning most of its personnel for 2016. However, reality intervened in inconvenient ways. Ally Watt was chosen for the U.S. U20 team and redshirted as a result. Injuries piled up. And the side which had played beyond its years in 2015 suddenly dealt with some serious growing pains. The Aggies entered league play in a world of hurt, with their best result a victory at home over Rice, meaning there was serious work to do to bolster their RPI. But after two wins over league bottom dwellers LSU and Georgia, the Aggies hit a brutal stretch of six without a win in the league. They’d recover to win their last three in the league, but despite beating Auburn, most felt the Aggies needed a few wins on Orange Beach to keep their NCAA Tournament streak going. They’d beat Alabama but lose to South Carolina, with their RPI dropping to an extent that most felt they were dead and buried. However, not only did A&M get an at-large bid, they got a great draw as well, being sent to NCAA Tournament rookies TCU. The Aggies would win that one and take eventual national champion USC to the limit before losing on spot kicks, which seemed utterly implausible considering Texas A&M’s superhuman record on penalties over the past two decades.

With eight starters and the returning Watt back, it’s easy to look at this Texas A&M team as one that could challenge for a spot in the College Cup, especially given the depth of talent in attack. This Aggie side scored just twenty-seven goals last year, a number that seems almost sacrilegious on paper considering the attacking history in College Station. The number one weapon amongst the returners is likely to be junior Haley Pounds, leading returning scorer last year with eight goals, though her numbers were an ugly five in sixty-five shots if you factor out penalties. Pounds hit double digits a season before, so the talent is there, but she needs a bit of a sharper edge in front of goal.

And some help. Watt might be looked to to provide some of that help after earning her stripes as a super sub at the U20 World Cup last season. Watt scored seven goals as a true freshman in 2015 and has pace to burn but also was a bit inconsistent in that rookie season. Junior Emily Bates could ultimately be an important figure again, as the Aggies often floundered with her out of the lineup through injury. She netted five goals despite that and could be the straw that stirs the drink in 2017 for the Aggies.

More than likely though, this attack could live and die with the contributions of Mikaela Harvey in midfield. The SEC’s resident l’enfant terrible is a wizard with the ball at her feet and space to roam but also was wasteful with her shooting last year with two goals on forty shots. With a full complement of attackers to work with this year, including sophomore standout Grace Piper added to the above, she could be set for a seismic senior season. Unsurprisingly, A&M has also done their part to add even more weapons from this freshman class. The big names are Abby Grace Cooper on the frontline and Addie McCain in midfield, though it could be tough to squeeze into the starting lineup given the returning talent. Also in the mix are Sophie Salverino and Rheagen Smith, giving A&M an injection of young depth on the attack.

It’s not so cut and dry for the Aggies on defense, especially with the club in flux in goal. Danielle Rice went from a transfer who was deep on the depth chart to a cult heroine here after saving A&M’s bacon in between the pipes countless times the past few years. She graduates, and the club loses Mia Hummel to a transfer, meaning the Aggies have two new keepers in 2017. The favorite might be Olivia Ausmus, a U.S. U18 international and highly regarded freshman. The wild card is junior transfer Cosette Morche, an absolute giant at 6’2” but a largely unknown commodity after toiling for two seasons on an insipid Louisiana-Lafayette team. A&M churns out great goalkeepers as well as any program in the nation, so they’ll likely be fine, but there could be some growing pains early.

The backline could be a bit of a puzzle as well. Margaret Schmidt and McKayla Paulson look set to return at center-back after being the first choice pairing last season, though the Aggies might also see Florida State transfer Briana Alston in the mix for major minutes as well. Out wide, Kendall Ritchie returns at left-back, though the club has to find a new right-back with the graduation of Grace Wright. It remains to be seen who emerges with the job, with a returnee likely to get the nod. Though the number of defensive newcomers is much smaller than on offense, the addition of Mexican youth international Jimena Lopez could be worth watching. A&M looks like the top of the class in the SEC this season and should be in the running for silverware once more.

They should win multiple games in the NCAA Tournament but need some stars to emerge in the defense and a breakout season from one of their attackers to still be standing on the final weekend of the season.

It was the same old song for Florida in 2016, for better and for worse. The Gators were largely dominant in stretches in the regular season. A win at UCLA early was indicative of the quality on hand, but the Gators then conspire to lose two of their first three in the SEC. They’d rally with seven wins in their final eight to land in fourth in the final table. While that was undoubtedly disappointing considering Florida’s usual station in the SEC, they made up for it with a run to an SEC Tournament title by beating Missouri (on penalties), South Carolina, and Arkansas. With fresh momentum, some suspected that the Gators could be a contender to reach the College Cup. They started out well, beating Florida Gulf Coast and then getting past Wisconsin in extra time in a thriller. Florida would come up against an Auburn team they had lost to 3-0 in the regular season, thirsting for revenge. They wouldn’t find it. A 3-1 loss was a bitter end to their season that had begun with College Cup promise.

The Gators face the end of an era with the graduation of Savannah Jordan. Jordan finished out with sixteen goals as a senior, finishing with eighty-one for her career to seal her place in history as one of DI’s best ever in front of goal. Losing Jordan hurts, but the club also loses the club’s playmaker in chief, Meggie Dougherty Howard, as well. Dougherty Howard was joint second leading scorer here with eight goals but was more known for pulling the strings, leading the club with twelve assists from central midfield.

Often, the Gators have just churned out more stars once others have graduated, and there’s certainly no shortage of potential on Florida’s roster in the attack this year. The next great Florida midfielder might be junior Mayra Pelayo, who has shown glimpses of brilliant talent through two years but hasn’t been able to put it together consistently. Pelayo netted four goals and had eight assists and could be the Gators’ creative influence, either in the middle or out wide. The club’s leading returning scorer is Melanie Monteagudo, who picked up an efficient eight goals, despite not event starting half of UF’s matches last season. Other returners who could see major minutes include the junior trio of Briana Solis, Samantha Chung, and Sarah Troccoli.

As expected, UF fortified their attack with some promising additions. The highlight is Canadian international Deanne Rose, one of the biggest signings in recent memory here and widely thought of as a future star for her nation. Rose has heavy expectations coming in to Gainesville but could be a replacement for the scoring of Jordan in time. The Gators also bring in some intriguing transfers, with former Kansas midfielder Parker Roberts now eligible after redshirting last season while at the U20 World Cup, and Brazilian JUCO transfer Lais Araujo, another potentially prolific weapon. True freshmen Madison Alexander and Lauren Evans come in with less plaudits but still a solid amount of potential and could fight their way into major minutes here.

Defense has never particularly been Florida’s calling card, but they were among the SEC’s best. At least in league play. But the Gator rearguard actually has a lot of upside this season, as they were a bit young last year. The most intriguing piece is senior Gabby Seiler, a converted attacking midfielder who has slotted in as a “libero” type center-back with license to roam from the back. While it remains to be seen if Seiler’s future is truly on the backline, she helps build play in the customary Florida style and can punish teams who aren’t willing to press from the front and can also play as a full-back if necessary.

Senior Kristen Cardano will occupy the other center-back spot in all likelihood and had a nice season last year as well and could turn into one of the league’s steadier options in central defense. Out wide, Julia Lester figures to be the favorite at right-back, having netted three goals and three assists as a rookie. The other full-back slot could be a free for all, with Sara Wilson, Rachelle Smith, and Sammie Betters having all seen starting duties there last year. Florida has also fiddled with a 3-5-2 in recent years, which could open things up even more given the interchangeability of much of their personnel.

In goal, Kaylan Marckese has shown potential but also inconsistency and could potentially face a challenge from sophomore Susi Espinoza, who did indeed start UF’s opener against Florida Atlantic.

The Gators probably aren’t going to be SEC favorites, but they still have a sneaky amount of quality on display. Their postseason hopes probably rest on a few players making “the leap”, but they’ll still be solid enough to beat most SEC foes this season.

In a sense, Vanderbilt’s 2016 season was over before it really began, when the club’s best player, forward Simone Charley made the decision to redshirt after devoting a big chunk of time to her track and field career. The Dores weren’t bad by any means, but losses to the likes of Lipscomb and Northern Kentucky showed the program still has a long way to go. Vandy did look like they had turned a corner when they won four league games in a row, including a win over Texas A&M, but they then hit a slump at a bad time, winning just one of their final six matches in the SEC. It wasn’t enough to see them slide out of a first round bye, but Arkansas punched their ticket in the SEC Tournament quarterfinals, with the Dores still some way short of the NCAA Tournament bubble.

Expectations are much higher going into 2017 though, not least because Charley is back for her final season in Nashville. While the Dores’ offense wasn’t what it could have been with Charley last season, it wasn’t awful either, finishing in the upper-half of the SEC in league goals scored. The biggest concern with VU was that they didn’t have one real go-to scorer and depended on a scorer by committee approach, with the rookie trio of Hannon Eberts, Grace Jackson, and Jackie Welch all tallying five goals a piece. Eberts and Welch being on that list might be a bit of a fluke since both combined for just twenty-four shots, but the promising sophomore Jackson, along with Kayla Boyd and senior Lydia Simmons appear to be the picks of the returners other than Charley for goals.

Charley though is the ultimate wildcard in the attack for Vanderbilt. She’s an incredible athlete with a potential professional future in track and field and soccer as well. But for all that, she’s never been the finished product on the pitch. Charley has just twenty-goals in three seasons and is a high volume shooter, though one with plenty of upside. If it all clicks, VU could be lethal going forward.

The defense in Nashville definitely needs improvement though, as the Dores conceded more than a goal and a half a game in the league. Personnel-wise, Vandy has to replace left-back Sasha Gray and center-back Kacy Scarpa, who also played in midfield for the club. VU will have a nice anchor at center-back with Cristina De Zeeuw in the middle. De Zeeuw wasn’t a massive recruit coming into Nashville but has developed nicely into one of the SEC’s better center-backs. Out wide, the returning Danae O’Halloran also returns after starting all but one match last season.

It’s the additions that could have fans in Nashville excited though. Myra Konte is a U.S. U18 international and can play in an attacking role as well and could be a nice fit at full-back here if she lives up to expectations. The biggest ace in the hole VU might have is Stanford transfer Stephanie Amack, who redshirted last season and who brings a world of experience at a very high level to a youthful Commodore side. Amack hasn’t hit superstardom like some have expected, but she’s still get plenty of quality and experience and should be a huge asset whether deployed on defense or in midfield.

There are some questions in goal, where senior Kaitlyn Fahrner wasn’t consistent in stretches and ceded time to Lauren Demarchi late in the season. They could be pushed by a very promising recruit in Texas native Sarah Fuller, who could compete immediately for time.

My projections are very high on Vanderbilt this year. I’m not sure they’re ready for a title challenge, but anything less than an NCAA Tournament return would be very disappointing considering the talent here.

Arkansas suffered through some serious growing pains in 2015 en route to a slide down the RPI and an eleven loss season that threatened to unravel some of the progress Colby Hale had engineered in Fayetteville in his tenure. But the Razorbacks responded in a big way last season, winning early and often and many times against top opposition, such as in early season wins against Duke and Florida. Outside of a brief stretch of three losses in four late in the year, Arkansas just kept winning. That included in the SEC Tournament as well, where the Razorbacks advanced all the way to the final before falling to Florida after a valiant effort. Hale’s side would edge past Memphis in the first round of the NCAA Tournament but paid the penalty a week later against Clemson, going out on spot kicks after a scoreless draw with the ACC champion Tigers.

The Razorbacks will want to build on last year and look like having a great shot at doing so, with a nice core of talent returning, though they do look to lose five starters. Arkansas’ offense was a machine for much of 2016, and finished scoring more than two goals a game in SEC contests. It wasn’t just a one person show for Arkansas either last year, as five players netted six or more goals for Hale’s club. However, Arkansas has to replace two of that fabulous quintet, with Claire Kelley and Lindsey Mayo both graduating. Mayo was the team’s leading scorer last year with ten goals on a ridiculous twenty-six shots, while Kelley was more of a two-way threat, scoring eight and assisting on a team high thirteen goals. Also departing is Alexandra Fischer, who was second on the club with ten assists while also netting three goals.

That’s obviously a lot of talent to replace, but Arkansas has enough to cope. The big hope for the future is sophomore Stefani Doyle, whose recruitment was a huge statement of intent for a program desperate for top line talent. Doyle certainly fits that bill, and netted six goals last season as a rookie, though she does need to be a bit more efficient in front of goal. Attacking midfielder Kayla McKeon also made a big impact in front of goal, scoring nine times and is the club’s leading returning scorer. Arkansas also loads up with some excellent newcomers as well. Abbi Neece and Taylor Malham should make a difference in midfield, but the player to watch may be towering U.S. U20 international forward Parker Goins, who should give the Razorbacks yet another attacking weapon.

Arkansas’ defense was less spectacular last season and needs to improve if the Razorbacks are to challenge for a league title. One of the focal points is likely to be senior Jessi Hartzler, as much for her offense as her defense, as she scored eight goals for Arkansas, making her one of the most dangerous attacking defenders in the nation. The other major figure on defense last season for Arkansas is Qyara Winston, a surprising success story who went from barely playing in 2015 to being one of the league’s top defenders. Arkansas does lose full-back Erika Miller from their backline, but they will be boosted by the return of Hannah Neece and Carly Hoke, though the latter could also feature in midfield for the Razorbacks.

Arkansas also needs to find a new starting keeper with the graduation of Cameron Carter. Jordan Harris played much of 2015 as the club’s starter, but she’s already lost the job once and could face big challenges from Alexis Bach, Rachel Harris, and/or Taylor Beitz.

Arkansas takes some dings on offense through graduation but still has a nice foundation to build on. My projections think they have an outside shot at SEC silverware and could better their showing in the NCAA Tournament last year.

Auburn was a program that had been aching for a deep NCAA Tournament run after being one of the best SEC programs for the better part of a decade. The Tigers responded last season with their very best showing in the Big Dance, advancing all the way to the Elite Eight. That run wasn’t exactly expected after an up and down non-conference season that saw the Tigers handled by some of the nation’s elite, but they found a groove in the SEC, winning seven in a row at one point and finishing second in the league, though they were six points behind runaway champions South Carolina. They’d bow out in the SEC Tournament semi-finals to Arkansas but then went on a tear in the NCAAs, beating South Alabama, UConn, and Florida by multiple goals. USC would end their season, but it had still been a year to remember for the Tigers.

Karen Hoppa’s side will be hard pressed to repeat their Elite Eight run with five starters graduating from last season’s side. The Tigers’ attack takes some especially big hits with the loss of the Ramsier sisters, Brooke and Casie, who were tremendous as seniors, combining for twenty goals and nineteen assists, with the latter showing why she was one of the nation’s most clutch players with six game winning goals.

Fortunately for the Auburn faithful, there is still more than one source of offense for the club to turn to. Big things will be expected from one of last year’s breakout players, senior Kristen Dodson. Dodson was in the headlines for all the right reasons in 2016, scoring thirteen goals and assisting on twelve others to establish herself as one of the nation’s best attacking players. Auburn will also need continued growth from Bri Folds, who had a great rookie season with five goals and nine assists, though her efficiency in front of goal was shaky. Hoppa and her staff have invested heavily in bringing newcomers into the fold in the attack this season, with Kori Locksley and Alyssa Malonson two names to watch as the Tigers try to ensure their offense doesn’t skip a beat after some big losses to graduation.

Auburn’s defense as solid last season, though not nearly as good as the leaders in the SEC. While this group does return mostly intact, the one departure is a big one, as Kiana Clarke had been marvelous for the Tigers as a center-back in her senior season. It puts a little more pressure on returning center-back Karli Gutsche, who missed her rookie season but did very well as a redshirt freshman last year. The Tigers also need to replace left-back Samantha Solaru, who started almost every match last season. Auburn does retain Taylor Troutman, who was a force going forward as well with four assists. The Tigers do add some new blood, both experienced and inexperienced at this level. Charlotte product Emily Wise is the best defender in Auburn’s rookie class on paper and has a decent chance of filling one of those vacancies. The X-Factor is UCF transfer Caroline Bado, a fifth-year senior who began her career promisingly but has seen her career stall out a bit due to injuries. If Bado is healthy and on form, she could be a crucial piece of the puzzle.

Things are much more settled in goal, as veteran Sarah Le Beau is firmly entrenched here as the club’s #1 and should again be one of the SEC’s most reliable netminders.

Auburn probably will take a step back this season given the loss of star power, but they still should be one of the SEC’s better sides. They have an outside shot at SEC silverware and might win a few games in the NCAAs again also.

There are likely few hotter seats in DI soccer than in Knoxville going into the 2017 season. The Brian Pensky era of Tennessee soccer has been an unmitigated bust thus far, with the Vols having missed four straight NCAA Tournaments after UT made the Big Dance in Pensky’s first season in 2012. Making matters worse, the Vols’ RPI has dipped in back-to-back years after last year’s campaign. In 2016 there was a loss to Southeast Missouri State to open the season, a 5-1 home loss in the league to Alabama and inconsistent league form that left the club in seventh at season’s end. They vanquished Ole Miss in the SEC Tournament first round but were bounced by Auburn in the quarterfinals to end yet another disappointing season on Rocky Top.

It’s hard envisioning Pensky getting another stay of execution such as the one-year contract extension he received last offseason if the club doesn’t get to the NCAA Tournament this season. On paper, this squad looks capable of at least that. There are some very real challenges to overcome though, especially in the attack. The Vols part ways with New Zealand international Hannah Wilkinson, who saved her best for last, netting eleven goals and nine assists in a year where UT scored thirty-four goals. Replacing that towering presence on offense isn’t going to be easy, and the club also loses third leading scorer Carlyn Baldwin, who left a season early to turn pro in Europe.

Inheriting the role of top offensive option is in all likelihood Rylie O’Keefe, the club’s leading returning scorer with five goals and nine assists in 2016. Players such as Anna Bialczak and Ariel Kupritz have shown flashes of potential but not really put things together to this point. Pensky has to hope that returns and newcomers can push this unit on to the next level. Katie Cousins is back after redshirting to play in the U20 World Cup and will be hoping for better after a middling college debut in 2015. UT also brings in a few transfers in JUCO All-American Khadija Shaw and Middle Tennessee State’s Salera Jordan, who impressed as a rookie last year. Freshmen could play a big role as well, with U.S. U17 internationals Wrenne French and McKinley Burkett tipped for early success.

The defense wasn’t great last season but has a decent amount of room for improvement this year. One of the most interesting battles to watch might be in goal, where junior Shae Yanez will be looking to hold onto her job after winning it for most of the second half of last season. Though she’s the incumbent, Yanez could get a big run for her money from incoming freshman Ashley Orkus, a U.S. U18 international. On the backline, the club has to replace center-back Kathryn Culhane and full-back Emily Morrow. The center-piece should be Maya Neal, a raw but athletic center-back who lacks height but still has a ton of upside at this level and will need to continue developing for UT this year. Juniors Mackenzie Gouner and Danielle Marcano would also appear to be favored for backline roles if Pensky springs for experience. There could also be an opportunity for freshman U.S. U18 international Kelsey Kiley to come in and compete right away for major minutes.

My projections feel Tennessee is a middle of the road SEC team this year and should be in the hunt for an NCAA bid, which might be a must if Pensky wants to stay in his position beyond this year.

Wes Hart’s second season in charge of Alabama mercifully went better than his first, as Bama got back on the positive side of the ledger and qualified for the SEC Tournament to boot. Non-conference play settled little about this Alabama team’s ceiling for 2016, but a 5-1 mauling of Tennessee in the league opener raised some eyebrows. Unfortunately, there were some frustrating blips in conference play to go along with results like a home win against Texas A&M. The Tide won just one league game in six at one point and could have missed out on the SEC Tournament had they not beaten Vanderbilt and had results go their way on the final day of the regular season. They were still miles away from the NCAA Tournament, but 2016 still spelled a good bit of progress for Hart and the Crimson Tide.

Alabama’s been here in the past with previous managers though and never managed to sustain a prolonged period of success. Hart’s side was pretty middling on both sides of the ball last year, meaning a little improvement all-around might be more in order than a total makeover on one side of the ball. There may be a few more questions in attack though, as Alabama loses one half of a very potent one-two punch last season. Lacey Clarida is an unexpected departure with one year of eligibility remaining and was a massive presence in the lineup with seven goals in just ten games for the Tide.

That likely means more pressure on the returning half of that duo, Abbie Boswell, who made a big impression in her first season in Tuscaloosa, scoring seven goals and adding seven assists to lead the team in both categories. Finding another source of goals will be key to the Tide’s season though, and nobody else returning had more than three goals in 2016. Junior Emma Welch was second on the team with six assists, but she hasn’t shown a cutting edge in front of goal. That might mean early opportunities for the rookie forward duo of Lily Truong and Gabriella Duca, both solidly rated recruits.

On defense, it all starts in goal for the Tide, with towering senior Kat Stratton having come into her own manning the gloves for Alabama. She’s not going to be a superstar, but she’s still a mostly reliable set of hands in a conference that can sometimes be devoid of them. At times, Alabama was extremely young on the backline last year, though that could pay dividends with most of the club’s defenders back for another go. Kayla Mouton and Nealy Martin both return and could man the middle again, while full-back Elena Zang also returns for her junior season. Caroline Alexander must be replaced though, which could open up space for a returnee and/or a newcomer.

Alabama will be thankful for getting one more year out of Spaniard Celina Jimenez Delgado, after she missed all of last year through injury. Already a full international with Spain, Delgado could play as she does at that level as a full-back or be used higher up the pitch in attack as she was in 2015. The club also brings in Brynn Martin, a potential starter at full-back, a U.S. U18 international, and arguably Bama’s addition from this class.

My projections have Alabama pegged as a mid-table SEC team, which also means they have a decent chance at an at-large bid to the NCAA Tournament if things break their way.

After nearly winning the SEC title but still missing the NCAA Tournament in 2015, Missouri had less of a roller coaster season in 2016. The highlight of non-conference was a fine win against Colorado, while the Tigers would begin league play with a thumping 5-0 win at Ole Miss. Dominant home form in the league helped them overcome an iffy away record, with Missouri landing in fifth in the SEC table at season’s end. They’d flame out early in the SEC Tournament again, but, crucially, they’d drag Florida to penalties after a 3-3 draw, which pushed them over the top in their pursuit of an NCAA Tournament bid. Drawn against their fierce rivals Kansas, Missouri would bow out after extra time, 1-0. It had been a respectable season for sure, but Mizzou now hasn’t won a postseason game the past two seasons.

As has become custom, the Tigers don’t fare that great on my projections, but this is always a program that is much more than the sum of its parts. A team that’s rarely spawned superstars, MU may nonetheless find themselves with one on offense in the form of sophomore Sarah Luebbert. The reigning SEC Freshman of the Year, Luebbert rightly received U.S. youth international call-ups after netting ten goals as a rookie last season. Luebbert will be hoping to avoid a sophomore slump, and getting scoring help from teammates will definitely help in that regard.

The club does lose midfielder Melanie Donaldson, but much of the other offensive personnel returns for 2017. Team leader in assists Kaitlyn Clark returns for her senior after seven helpers last year and should again have an inviting target in Luebbert to work with. A couple more seniors should make an impact offensively as well, as Allie Hess netted six goals, second most on the team, while Jessica Johnson had a handful, though her efficiency was poor. With the returning players in attack, it might be hard for newcomers to break into the lineup, but English youth international Zoe Cross could be an exception if she lives up to her potential.

Missouri were above average defensively last year in the SEC. In goal, Kelsey Dossey should be first choice once again after taking over as the club’s full-time #1 last year, but rookie Peyton Bauman is highly regarded and could at least apply a little bit of pressure. The backline is a mostly workmanlike group but has to overcome the loss of its best player, Lauren Selaiden, one of the club’s center-backs. Erin Webb, who also saw time all along the defense, also graduates, meaning the Tigers could have some work to do to find a new center-back partnership, with sophomore Anna Frick the closest thing to a sure thing coming into 2017. Out wide, Jasmine Johnson departs, leaving a hole at right-back, with Peyton Joseph and Rachel Hise likely to battle it out on the other side. Top recruit Mo Adesanmi will likely find a home somewhere on the backline early this season given the loss of the aforementioned senior personnel.

My projections show Missouri as a lower-end mid-table team this year, but I suspect they’ll outperform those projections yet again and end up in the middle of the pack in the SEC, meaning they’ll again be in the NCAA Tournament hunt.

The SEC’s yo-yo club, Ole Miss was definitely more down than up in 2016. It was going to take some effort to top 2015’s run to the NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen, but the Rebels fell way short last year. The Rebels beat nobody of note in non-conference play and were blitzed by Missouri in the league opener, 5-0. It set a tone for the Rebels in SEC play, as they saw their defense hammered at, while the offense only kept up intermittently. Despite Ole Miss losing their last three matches by multiple goals, they still squeaked their way into the SEC Tournament in tenth place…where they lost to Tennessee by multiple goals. The end result was the program’s first losing record since 2011 and worst RPI finish since 2010.

The good thing about yo-yos is that they come back up after going down, and Ole Miss will bank on their success in past odd years to get back on the right side of the SEC ledger this year. Defense has definitely not been Ole Miss’ jam under Matt Mott’s tenure as head coach, and the Rebels will probably again focus on their efforts in attack in 2017. However, Ole Miss faces the reality of losing two of their top three leading scorers on a team that struggled for scoring depth last season. Gone are leading scorer Addie Forbus, who netted eight goals last year, as well as midfielder Gretchen Harknett, who displayed a quick trigger in leading the team in shots with sixty-two, though she netted just three goals.

The key to Ole Miss’ season might be the enigmatic CeCe Kizer, who rocketed to stardom as a rookie in 2015 before crashing back to earth in 2016. Kizer battled injury and a downturn in form, seeing her goal total drop from fourteen to five, even as she led the team with six assists. If Kizer doesn’t score, it’s difficult to see where the goals are going to come from. No other returner had more than three goals, meaning newcomers like freshmen Channing Foster and Emily Holten as well as transfers Julia Phillips (Florida State) and Mary Kate Smith (Jones County JC) will have to hit the ground running.

The offense has to be good, because Ole Miss were an absolute disaster on defense last season. That the Rebels got to the postseason giving up nearly two and a half goals a game in SEC action in 2016 was a mini-miracle and likely isn’t replicable this year. Continuity won’t be on Ole Miss’ side, as they lose three starters from the backline, with center-back Melissa Caopcaccia and full-back Georgia Russell graduating, while center-back Madison Meador transferred to Kansas. Left-back Grace Waugh is back, as is senior Liza Harbin, who also played a bit in central midfield but is probably going to be needed on the backline full-time this year.

Other returnees and newcomers could play a big role for the Rebels this year. Danielle Gray returns for her senior season after redshirting through injury last year and looks a serious contender for a starting role. Ole Miss also adds an interesting transfer in BYU’s Ella Johnson, who has solid experience but also may have rust after redshirting in 2016. The Rebels also bring in their fair share of defenders in this freshman class, including highly rated full-back Chanel Thomas. Junior Marnie Merritt figures to see the bulk of the action in goal, though she’s not going to be able to win games by herself for the Rebels. Realistically, this group has upside, and it’s not as if the defense can get any worse than last year’s unit.

Ole Miss looks like a side with a lot of volatility in their ceiling and floor in 2017. They could get to mid-table if the Kizer bounces back and the newcomers impress or fall out of the postseason if they don’t, but my projections split the difference and think they’ll finish in much the same area in the table as 2016.

There was palpable shock in the air in Lexington at the end of the 2016 season. The Kentucky Wildcats had endured a patently awful season, their worst since 2009, but few expected head coach Jon Lipsitz to be ousted after having led the club to and NCAA Tournament Sweet Sixteen appearance just a few years earlier. Non-conference was taxing for UK last year, as Kentucky largely won the games they should have and even drew with Long Beach State away but failed to net a marquee win before SEC play. The depth of UK’s plight became evident when league play rolled around though, as Kentucky went winless in their first nine, an unhappy dirge that only ended with a 2-1 win at Arkansas, a shock victory that was the only one of their SEC campaign, one that saw them finish a dismal thirteenth place and out of the postseason.

If Lipsitz’s dismissal was a shock, the news that assistant Ian Carry would be almost immediately promoted to the head coaching role was a leap of logic that seemed difficult to grasp for many considering he had helped oversee the current decline of the program. Regardless, Carry has a task ahead of him as he tries to move Kentucky back towards the upper half of the SEC.

The big positive he has is that the offense could be formidable if they play up to their sizable potential. However, that seldom happened last season, which was a large part of the club’s downfall over the course of the league season. The departure of joint leading scorer Zoe Swift, a mercurial talent, but one that netted six goals and five assists while leading the team in shots, robs the team of some direct thrust and counter attacking options which would have been preferable given the potential state of the defense. The pressure now likely falls upon the shoulders of Mexican international Tanya Samarzich, who has one final season to show why she was so highly regarded coming into the college game. Samarzich netted six goals herself last year but just one in SEC play and needs to prove she can do it against top opposition. Sophomore Marissa Bosco showed glimpses of real potential as a rookie but can’t carry an offense at this point and needs consistency. Midfield newcomer Miranda Jimenez has also been tipped as a player that could feature early for the Wildcats.

If Kentucky isn’t scoring with regularity, it could be painful to watch, as the defense, beset by injuries and inconsistency last year, was among the league’s worst, giving up two goals a game in SEC matches. It actually could have been worse if not for the presence of freshman Evangeline Soucie in goal for the club. Immediately thrown into the fire from the start, Soucie was often asked to stand on her head to keep Kentucky in games and often did just that. Her kicking game could use improvement, but the sophomore has the potential to be a standout netminder in the SEC.

UK will hope not to put Soucie through such travails this season, but it’s a shaky group on last year’s evidence. The Wildcats mixed and matched through different formations, but utility defender Micaela Dooley and center-back Alex Carter both depart, along with Swift, who played as a wide defender at times. Kelly Novak returns for her senior season and likely will play out wide, while Payton Atkins could also get a big jump in minutes if fully healthy. Major minutes might also be available for rookie Taya Edwards at center-back. The most important acquisition of the offseason though might be English youth international midfielder Hollie Olding, who might have a whale of a task on her hand in shielding this potentially work-in-progress backline.

The tools are in place for Kentucky to possibly rebound if the offense can put it all together. That’s far from a certainty though, and the defense looks like an Achilles’ heel that could force the attack into a situation with little margin of error, potentially keeping UK out of the SEC’s top ten and the postseason again.

The SEC coaching graveyard in Starkville claimed another victim in 2016, as Aaron Gordon got the chop at Mississippi State after another disappointing season for the Bulldogs. MSU had seemingly come into the new year with some hope of continued progress after winning three SEC matches in 2015. But a loss to Arkansas, 5-2, in the league opener raised alarm bells, and in the blink of an eye, the Bulldogs were 0-4-0 in the SEC. MSU would break that winless streak with a win over Alabama, but they proceeded to lose their last six to finish dead last in the league. Gordon went soon after, and the Bulldogs in effect are starting from scratch in the SEC once more.

Who took a position at a program known for almost being cursed over the decades was always going to be an intriguing proposition, and MSU’s selection only added to the fire. In comes Tom Anagnost, most recently an assistant at NC State and a part of that program’s resurrection last year from near rock bottom. Anagnost also has head coaching experience at Central Michigan and Miami (FL), achieving success at both stops, though the end of his tenure at the latter was infamously messy. It’s a bit of a gamble, but it’s a necessary one considering the real challenges faced by Mississippi State.

Anagnost has shaken a young roster up, with four starters departing and many freshmen and transfers coming in. Crucially, Anagnost has managed to hold onto senior attacker Mallory Eubanks, the club’s best player by some distance. Eubanks has experience with U.S. youth international teams and a change of pace to help her create her own shot, but she netted just three goals last year as defenses buckled down on her. MSU needs other sources of offense, but there’s little indication as to where that’s going to come from. Makayla Waldner’s the only other returnee with more than one goal last year, meaning newcomers like freshman AK Ward or Troy transfer Brooke McKee may get thrust into the limelight sooner rather than later.

And MSU better be able to score, because it’s still saddled with a defense that gave up a tick over two goals a game in the league last year. While Ari Holmes does depart, center-backs Khalyn Harmon and Courtney Robicheaux return, as does full-back Kiley Martens. Whether they retain their starting spots on the backline is another question entirely given last season’s performance, though there don’t seem to be any prized recruits coming in to steal spots away.

With Tanya da Souza’s transfer to Oklahoma State, there’ll be a new starting goalkeeper here as well. Rookie Bri Aldridge could be one for the future, but more than likely, the gloves are going to go to Colombian international Catalina Perez, a transfer from Miami (FL), who has seen much more success at international level than club. Anagnost’s teams have been known for their fierce defenses, so there’s hope, but it’s a big ask to turn this unit around overnight.

You could say much the same about MSU in general this season. Anagnost has done a tremendous job in the past of squeezing the most out of his talent, but that might not be enough here until he can bring in a few more difference makers on the pitch.

Georgia were rather obvious victims of Second Season Syndrome under Billy Lesesne last year, even though their W-L-D record was similar to 2015 and their RPI was better than Lesesne’s first season in charge. There were some bright spots in a tough non-conference slate with a draw against Oklahoma State and win over Samford, but the Bulldogs were in tough in the league, losing their first six to make a repeat of their late season run in 2015 quite unlikely. They’d save a little face with three wins in their final five, but Georgia still finished eleventh in the SEC, missing the postseason by three points. If you believe that the third season of a new coach’s tenure is a potential turning point, Lesesne has a lot on the line in 2017 as he tries to get the club back to being a contender for an NCAA Tournament berth.

That looks to be very difficult on paper this year though, as the Bulldogs lose six starters, tied for most in the league. Georgia’s attack was actually solid last year, and as you might expect given the heavy number of players departing, could struggle to match 2016’s form. Leading scorer Marion Crowder graduates after netting eight goals, while second leading shot taker and assist leader Lauren Tanner is also among those gone. Senior Kelsey Killean netted five goals to lead the returnees, even as she started just seven games, and figures to be in line for a starting spot this year. Mexican youth international Mariel Gutierrez netted four as well and could be crucial also.

More than likely though, Georgia is going to be relying heavily on newcomers, as their best additions are almost all on the attacking side of the ball. Forwards Mollie Belisle, Reagan Glisson, and Landon Lambert all come in highly regarded and could fight for an immediate starting spot considering the departures of Crowder and Tanner. In midfield, Georgia could thrust Ashley Anderson and Katie Higgins into the spotlight given the losses in that unit. There’s no blue-chip prospect amongst the newcomers, but the rookies do have the potential to at least make the Bulldogs less dependent on a single source of scoring.

If the offense doesn’t keep scoring? Trouble. Georgia gave up over two goals a game in the league last season, and unlike with the offense, help from highly regarded rookies doesn’t seem to be coming over the horizon this year. Youth could be an issue on the backline, as full-back Bria Washington and center-back Caroline Waters both graduate. Returning starters include Summer Burnett out wide and Delaney Fechalos in the middle. The likes of Gutierrez could be drafted into a backline role if she’s not needed more in the midfield, but it’s probably going to come down to getting someone who was in a lesser role last year to step it up in 2017. Swedish senior Louise Hogrell is likely the club’s #1 again in goal, though her erratic form in between the pipes has cost the team at times.

It seems clear that this could be a rebuilding season in Athens. Lesesne’s stocked up with some promising recruits, but the lack of veteran talent looks telling in an unforgiving league. If the youngsters don’t show their age, Georgia could surprise some in the SEC, but a second straight year out of the postseason looks more likely.

Figuring LSU out over the past decade has been a task difficult enough to give any prognosticator a headache. The Tigers had seemingly turned the corner in 2015 after three unflattering years, returning to the NCAA Tournament after winning a couple of SEC Tournament matches. But a brutal 4-0 loss to South Alabama in the first round of said Big Dance had some wondering if there was going to be a hangover come 2016, and the answer was a unqualified ‘yes’. First month defeats to George Washington and Colgate in Baton Rouge set the tone for what was to follow, and the Tigers ended up losing six of their first seven SEC matches behind a horrendous defense. There’d be no second half rebound, with LSU finishing twelfth in the league and out of the postseason. The Tigers have now endured a stretch of four years with just one winning season with the latest setback.

Anyone expecting a respite from the turmoil in the offseason would be sorely mistaken, as the Tigers were rocked by the news that forward Jorian Baucom was taking her talents to the Pac-12, transferring to Colorado for the 2017 season. This is an exceptionally big problem for LSU since Baucom scored ten goals last season, exactly half of the team’s total. When you factor in joint second leading scorers Summer Clarke (graduation) and Delaney Sheehan (foregoing final year of eligibility after graduating) are also gone, it’s apparent that there are gigantic concerns about the offense.

LSU returns just four players who scored last year, and all four of those players netted just one time. It also means that the Tigers are going to be gambling on their goals coming from newcomers in all likelihood. Domestically, North Carolina native Haley Garrett and Tiana Caffey, who got a call-up to the U.S. U17 WNT camp last July are the standouts, though neither is probably going to be a game breaker, at least early on. The big hope though has to be with English youth international Tinaya Alexander, one of many from Arsenal’s youth academy to join LSU this season. But if the youngsters don’t inject some life into the offense, the Tigers could be in a world of hurt given the lack of scoring from the returnees.

That’s because the defense was ghastly last season, giving up two goals a game in the league, though that remarkably didn’t make them the worst in the SEC in that department. For better or for worse, LSU should return three of the four starters on last year’s defense. Right-back Alex Thomas has also played forward and was once one of the team’s most promising prospects but has seen her development stagnate. Debbie Hahn can play left-back or center-back, though her size makes her ideal in the middle. Also central, Jordane Carvery came to Baton Rouge as a highly touted Canadian youth international but has fallen off the map in recent years. As you might expect, newcomers should play a big role on the backline as well, with two more Arsenal signees, Lucy Parker and Chiara Ritchie-Williams coming with youth international experience and the potential to be immediate starters. Junior Caroline Brockmeier played every minute in goal last season and figures to be likely to do so again this year.

The Tigers appear to be banking heavily on a contingent of international newcomers to turn the tide in their favor this season. The only problem is LSU’s tried this before and had some spectacular misses over the past decade. If head coach Brian Lee gets it right, the Tigers might fight their way back to the postseason. If he doesn’t, LSU could be a contender for the SEC basement.

One thought on “NCAA – 2017 SEC Preview

  1. Tim

    Vanderbilt: 1) O’Halloran tore her ACL and will be out for the season.
    2) Fahrner missed three weeks with a concussion suffered in the Arkansas game (reason for Demarchi playing in goal last year).

    Reply

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