While I wouldn’t call this necessarily a “make-or-break” season for Kirby Smart and the Dawgs, it does represent arguably their best chance in some time to break through and win the national title. They’ve got everything you would want – an upper echelon veteran QB in JT Daniels, playmakers at WR and TE, an offensive line with no real holes and impact players at all three levels of the defense.
The infusion of talent they got via the transfer portal (notably Tykee Smith, Arik Gilbert and Derion Kendrick) shores up any potential roster holes. Georgia should be favored in every game it plays this season outside of potentially its early neutral-site game with Clemson, but even that’s a toss up. Kirby has already proven that he is an elite recruiter – this is the season to prove that he’s an elite coach.
The Gators have their work cut out for them offensively as they need to replace Kyle Trask, Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, but if there’s anything we know about Dan Mullen it’s that he’ll be able to get the most out of whoever he has on the offensive side of the ball. Emory Jones brings a different skill set than Trask did, and his dual-threat ability will give Mullen and offensive coordinator Brian Johnson some new wrinkles to utilize, and the addition of former five-star RB Demarkcus Bowman gives Florida a threat out of the backfield they didn’t have last season.
Defensively, they’ve got one of the top DBs in the country in Kaiim Elam and some good LBs in Ventrell Miller and Brenton Cox, but there are definitely holes, especially on the defensive line. Will defensive coordinator Todd Grantham be able to scheme around their deficiencies? If so, they could make another run at the East title.
This season’s Kentucky team has a great mix of seasoned veterans and young talent that could amount to a very successful season. The Wildcats have got a very favorable schedule – they get Florida, Mizzou and LSU all at home and have only one true tough road game – at Georgia.
Their offensive line is going to be one of the best – if not the best – in the conference, led by Darian Kinnard and Dare Rosenthal, and Chris Rodriguez could pop as one of the top backs in the SEC. QB play is still TBD, but whoever is taking snaps gets to throw (and hand off) to Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson. While the defense is a little more concerning, Yosuf Corker is able to cover up a lot of mistakes from the safety position.
There’s definitely some preseason buzz around the Tigers’ program going in to Eli Drintwitz‘s second season in Columbia, and a lot of that has to do with the development of Connor Bazelak at quarterback, who impressed down the stretch of his freshman season last year. Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper should help give life to a receiver position group that definitely has some question marks, and theTigers still need to figure out exactly how they’re going to replace Larry Rountree at RB. Michael Maietti anchors an offensive line that, while not spectacular, is more than serviceable.
The Tigers’ front seven on the defensive side of the ball is solid, led by edge rusher Trajan Jeffcoat and DT Kobie Whiteside, but they’ll need to figure out what their plan is at DB outside of Tulsa transfer Akayleb Evans in order to have a shot at stopping some of the more potent offenses in the conference.
First year coach Shane Beamer definitely has a tall task ahead of him, as he looks to rescue the program from the doldrums after a 2-8 finish last season. Fortunately for him, the Gamecocks return four of five starting offensive linemen and a really nice backfield duo in Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd.
QB is still a question mark, however, so Beamer will need Luke Doty to take some big strides or hope that transfer Jason Brown can make some noise. Defensively, they’ve got a very good edge rusher in Kingsley Enagbare and some other solid defensive linemen, but the back seven definitely leaves something to be desired, especially after the loss of Jaycee Horn to the NFL Draft on a unit that already ranked 13th in the conference against the pass.
While there’s still some good players left on this Tennessee roster, with all of the upheaval in the program that has occurred in the past 12 months there’s been a big talent drain and an uphill battle ahead for new coach Josh Heupel. One of the biggest remaining questions is what on earth is happening at QB? Harrison Bailey should be the starter, but the Vols have brought in two other guys via the portal with starting experience in Joe Milton (Michigan) and Hendon Hooker (Virginia Tech).
They’ve got two solid pieces on the OL in Cade Mays and Darnell Wright, but they’re definitely lacking at the skill positions. Defensively, they’re going to need to make big strides, and that’s going to be tough considering all of the guys they lost in the offseason. And their schedule doesn’t do them any favors, either, with crossover matchups with Alabama and Ole Miss.
Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator and Commodore alum Clark Lea takes the helm for a Vanderbilt team that underwent its worst season in program history last year, going 0-10 and firing Derek Mason. Ken Seals returns at QB after a promising freshman season, and he’s got some nice targets in WRs Cam Johnson and Amir Abdur-Rahman, as well as TE Ben Bresnehan.
But the offensive line needs some serious retooling after struggling all of last season and losing three of five starters. Defensively, well, there’s nowhere to go but up. The Commodores gave up over 37 points per game, and add in the fact that their only future bright spot (Donovan Kaufman) transferred to Auburn it’s easy to see coach Lea is going to have to get really innovative if the Commodores are going to be competitive at all.
1. Alabama: 12-0
The Crimson Tide, coming off of yet another national title, are still the favorites not just in the West but in the entire conference until further notice. Despite having eight players selected in the first two rounds of this year’s NFL Draft, there is still a wealth of talent on this roster. Bryce Young should take over the reins at QB for Mac Jones, and he’s got an embarrassment of riches at WR, led by John Metchie and transfer Jameson Williams, with a trio of true freshman that look to be early contributors in Jacorey Brooks, Christian Leary and Agiye Hall. Oh, and they’ve still got a great OL anchored by the massive Evan Neal.
Defensively, this is still the strongest unit top to bottom in the conference (if not the country), led by their DBs. CB Josh Jobe is one of the best in the business, and Jalyn Armour-Davis isn’t far behind, with Malachi Moore playing the slot and Jordan Battle at safety. Will Anderson Jr. looks like a breakout player as an edge rusher, and the Tide will have depth at LB as always with the addition of transfer Henry To’oto’o.
My belief in Jimbo Fisher is pretty well known at this point, and this year’s Aggie team is going to be another really good one despite the loss of QB Kellen Mond. The Aggies have one of the top backfield tandems in the country in Isaiah Spiller and Devon Archane, arguably the best TE in the country in Jalen Wydermyer and a dangerous player in the open field in Ainais Smith.
Despite some of the turmoil surrounding the Tigers’ program right now, there is still a ton of talent on this roster. With Myles Brennan going down, it’s Max Johnson‘s turn to lead the offense, and he’s going to be able to lean on Kayshon Boutte at WR and get protection from a line that gets back the lion’s share of its starters from last season. True freshman TE Jack Bech is someone to watch out for, as he popped during his senior season and could be a good one.
We know all about this defense, especially the DBs, with Derek Stingley Jr. and Elias Ricks being the top two players at the position in the country. Ali Gaye and BJ Ojulari should both be able to get after the QB, and LB Mike Jones Jr. is one of the most athletic players at his position in the nation. Whether or not the offense is able to get consistent play their defense should keep them in almost every matchup.
Matt Corral is a dark horse Heisman trophy contender for an Ole Miss team that will be able to put up points in bunches despite the loss of Elijah Moore to the draft. Jerrion Ealy is a great back, and they have a solid line anchored by Jeremy James and Ben Brown. If the Rebels able to cut down on the turnovers, they could be one of the top scoring units in the nation.
They picked up a really good linebacker in the portal with the addition of Chance Campbell from Maryland, and DL Tywone Malone already looks the part of a dominant SEC defensive lineman coming out of high school. They’ll need to shore up their back end though if they’re going to compete at the high end of the conference.
The Bryan Harsin era begins on the Plains, and there’s plenty of questions surrounding this Auburn squad, but also a decent amount of talent to go around. Bo Nix is back after struggling through his sophomore season, and he’ll need to step up, especially with the Tigers losing top wideouts Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz to the draft. However, the Tigers have still got Tank Bigsby, who is arguably the best RB in the conference.
But who is going to block for them is a big question – they’ve struggled on the line in recent years, and outside of tackle Brodarious Hamm there are not a lot of answers. On the defensive side of the ball, the strength is in the LBs as Owen Pappoe and Zakoby McClain make for a really high-end duo. Transfers Donovan Kaufman and Dreshun Miller add to a defensive backfield that already had some really good players in Smoke Monday, Nehemiah Pritchett and Roger McCreary. Who factors in to the DL rotation is still a bit up in the air, but Harsin really believes in Derek Mason‘s ability to get the most out of this unit. However, the Tigers’ schedule is tough, with home contests against Georgia and Alabama and away games at LSU, Texas A&M and Penn State.
Sam Pittman surprised everyone in the conference last season by leading the Razorbacks to three conference wins – more than they’d had in the previous three years combined. WR Treylon Burks is a great deep threat, and they return the entirety of an offensive line that takes after their head coach and plays with a nasty streak. QB KJ Jefferson has shown some promise, but this team as a whole still is a couple steps down from the teams ahead of them in the conference talent-wise.
Jalen Catalon was a revelation at safety last season, earning first-team All-SEC and freshman All-American nods, and LB Grant Morgan returns as one of the better run stoppers in the conference. But with the lack of talent built up during the waning years of the Bret Bielema era and the entirety of Chad Morris era, there’s still a long way to go before the Hogs are back in contention in the West.
Mike Leach did not have the first season he envisioned in Starkville, especially after opening with a big victory over LSU. Things seemed to completely unravel over the course of the year, and there’s still a lot to be done to turn the program around. Will Rogers showed some promise as a true freshman quarterback, and in Leach’s Air Raid system he’ll have plenty of opportunities to sling it around, especially to top target Jaden Walley.
The offensive line, however, will need to hold up better in pass protection if it’s going to score the way we’ve come to expect from the Pirate over the years. Defensively, there’s still a long way to go, but the Bulldogs have got a nice pair of corners in Emmanuel Forbes and Martin Emerson. However, they’ve got a really tough schedule, including non-conference matchups with NC State and Memphis on top of the always-brutal SEC West.