Even in a conference as loaded as the SEC, one team stands out from the rest, and it should come as no surprise that it’s the Alabama Crimson Tide.
The SEC West enjoyed its greatest depth in years last season, with LSU taking another step in Ed Orgeron’s second season, Mississippi State’s defense standing as one of the nation’s best in Joe Moorhead’s first season and Texas A&M returning to the top-20 in Jimbo Fisher’s debut season in College Station.
In the East, Georgia has come heartbreakingly close to topping Alabama two years in a row, falling just short of a national title and a return trip to the College Football Playoff. Behind them, Florida and Kentucky finished in the top 12 in the country, and South Carolina and Missouri were top 30 for most of the season.
However, Alabama should still rule the conference. Despite shuffling through eight different coordinators in five seasons, the Crimson Tide enjoy continuity on the field. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa threw for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns last year and led Alabama to its most successful offense since World War II. He’s back and should be in the running to be a Heisman finalist again. Tagovailoa will have perhaps the nation’s best wideout in Jerry Jeudy, and the team also returns the next three leading receivers from last year in Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
On defense, Alabama returns linebackers Dylan Moses and Anfernee Jennings and most of the secondary. It will have to replace a few NFL-bound stars, most notably defensive tackle Quinnen Williams, but the unit features greater depth and experience than it did a season ago.
The SEC is as strong as ever, and Alabama is coming off a season in which it was humbled in the national championship game. Still, it has one of, if not the best quarterbacks in the country, a top-tier defense and one of the greatest coaches ever in Nick Saban. It’s still the Tide’s conference to lose.
Here’s how the rest of the conference is shaping up:
Georgia hasn’t lost to an SEC East foe since Oct. 29, 2016. With quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D’Andre Swift, most of last year’s offensive line, six of last year’s seven primary defensive linemen and eight of the nine defensive backs on the depth chart returning from last year, Georgia is geared up for another run at a national title.
The Gators rode a much-improved offensive performance to win their last four games, finishing the season ranked seventh in the AP poll. Quarterback Feleipe Franks returns, but the team has to replace four starters on the offensive line. Still, this figures to be the best Florida team in years. The Gators won their “Week 0” game Saturday over Miami, 24-20.
The Tigers were hit with a postseason ban for academic violations years prior, meaning anybody could transfer without sitting out a year. Only one did – the fewest in the SEC, a testament to the culture Barry Odom has built. With Clemson transfer Kelly Bryant under center, Missouri should challenge to be a top-20 team.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Will Muschamp has tons of experience at his disposal with quarterback Jake Bentley, running backs Rico Dowdle and Mon Denson, receivers Bryan Edwards and Shi Smith and most of the defensive front seven all returning. The Gamecocks face a brutal schedule, however, with matchups against Alabama, Missouri, Kentucky, Georgia, Florida and Clemson.
Tennessee is 2-14 in SEC play the last two seasons, but it returns quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, its top five receivers, seven of the eight offensive linemen who started last year, four of its top six linebackers and six of its top eight defensive backs. Add a strong recruiting class to the mix, and after spending the last two years at the bottom of the conference, the Volunteers can only go up from here.
Kentucky will have to replace an extremely senior-heavy defense from last season, most notably star pass rusher Josh Allen. This season offers the Wildcats perhaps their biggest test of Mark Stoops’ long-term plan of continued success. They were one of the best teams in the country a season ago, and if they are to reach that level again, it will be largely with a different group of players.
Vanderbilt is tasked with replacing longtime quarterback Kyle Shurmur and seven defensive starters from last year. Its 6-7 record a season ago perhaps doesn’t fully reflect its performance, but this is likely a start-over season for the Commodores.
LSU finished last season with double-digit wins for the first time since 2013 and finished ranked in the top 10 for the first time since 2011. Losing Greedy Williams and Devin White hurts, but LSU returns loads of experience on both sides of the ball and should challenge for the SEC crown with Joe Burrow under center.
Auburn always seems to topple one of the nation’s best every season, and should be well-positioned again this year. The Tigers return much of their passing game from last season, and are adding talented freshman Bo Nix. Their trademark defense should be as good as ever.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Tommy Stevens, a graduate transfer from Penn State where Moorhead was previously his offensive coordinator, beat out Keytaon Thompson for the starting quarterback job. A strong supporting cast and favorable schedule should lead the Bulldogs to another strong season.
Texas A&M Aggies
The bad news: the Aggies play Clemson, Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and LSU. The good news: they return quarterback Kellen Mond and every wide receiver. Their season will be defined by how many upsets Jimbo Fisher can pull off during a truly brutal schedule.
Ole Miss Rebels
Redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral looked great in his four games last season, and will now be handed the reins on offense. He’ll be without wideout DK Metcalf, who was drafted by the Seahawks, and other starters at receiver and along the offensive line. The Rebels figure to finish in the middle of the conference.
Chad Morris brought in a top-25 recruiting class, adding it to an already experienced skill-position group as well as a veteran defense. The arrival of graduate-transfer quarterback Ben Hicks should have the Razorbacks trending upward this season.
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