Since the College Football Playoffs began in 2015, the Southeastern Conference has been in six semifinals and five national title games. Sure, it’s been mainly Alabama, but the most dominant conference in football has been a mainstay in the rankings for a long time.
In 2018, four SEC teams finished in the top 10, the most by far of any conference. As of today, seven SEC teams are ranked in the pre-season top 25 and there is reason to believe this could be the strongest that these 14 teams have been collectively in a long time.
Alabama – Nick Saban has not gone consecutive years without a national championship since 2013, and coming back to Tuscaloosa with Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy and Dylan Moses, you can bet he intends to keep that streak going. The Tide took their perfect 2018 season into the National Championship Game and were embarrassed by Clemson. For 7 months, these players and coaches have been reminded of it daily. The offense didn’t click, and the defense couldn’t make a stop in that game, so Saban made changes.
Steve Sarkisian is back in crimson as the Offensive Coordinator, the role he had back in 2017. He inherits a tremendous collection of talent, one that includes the top receiving group in the country, an offensive line that could move a building, and last year’s Heisman runner up. Sarkisian will have a fun year calling plays for this group. Jeudy, Henry Ruggs III and Devonta Smith form an incredibly gifted group of route runners that should all reach double digit touchdowns and 1,000-yards each.
Pete Golding takes over the Defensive Coordinator role in just his second year with the Tide, but has a wealth of athletic skill to work with. They need to make up for the loss of Quinnen Williams, Christian Miller, Deionte Thompson, Mack Wilson and Isaiah Buggs to the NFL, but as Alabama does every year, they fill in the voids with the next 5-star athlete. Trevon Diggs and Patrick Surtain II return at cornerbacks and safety Xavier McKinney will once again cause chaos on the secondary. Moses is not just the best linebacker in the conference, but he appears to be poised to take that claim for the entire country.
The first 5 weeks of the season should be blow out victories for the Tide, games where you think they’ll never be stopped on offense. A road trip to Texas A&M on October 12th will be their toughest test until a home game against LSU a month later. I think Alabama still runs the table but look for that LSU game to be the toughest contest between the two teams in years.
LSU – This could be the year that the offense in the Bayou can finally support the defense. For years now it’s always been a pressure on the defense to keep the scores low because an anemic Tigers offense couldn’t keep up, but with former New Orleans Saints offensive assistant Joe Brady coming in as the passing coordinator, things may open up in Louisiana.
He will institute a run-pass option principle that will give Burrow and company more options. Ed Orgeron calls this, “The offense I finally want.” The nation’s number 2 ranked recruit at running back, John Emery Jr, will get some carries early on as he backs up Clyde Edwards and Justin Jefferson will be the go-to down field receiver once again.
If you thought their defense was good last year, get ready because this unit returns 8 starters on this side of the ball, including Fiesta Bowl defensive MVP Rashard Lawrence. Replacing Butkus Award winner Devin White will be no easy challenge, but the Tigers feel good about junior Jacob Phillips taking control of the defense from a leadership standpoint. Possibly the best defensive player in the country, safety Grant Delpit, returns as a preseason All-American and will make quarterbacks second guess throwing in his direction.
This is a top-10 team, maybe even top-5. They have the talent, the coaching and the motivation, now they have to put it all together for 12 full games. Coming off their first New Year’s Six Bowl, LSU has dreams of a College Football Playoff appearance, but standing in their way are Texas, Florida, Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M. I think they breeze through the rest of the schedule but finish 3-2 against the teams listed here. 10-2 isn’t what they shoot for, but it’s where they land.
Texas A&M – They will be better than they were last year, and I expect quarterback Kellon Mond to make major improvements in year 2 in a Jimbo Fisher offense. He showed times of being an elite passer in 2018 and if he can become more consistent with his decision making, this should be of the best offenses in the conference. All of his receivers are back, including Quartney Davis, Jhamon Ausbon and Kendrick Rogers. Jashuan Corbin and Cordarrian Richardson, a 230-pound UCF transfer, will have the most difficult job on offense in replacing All-SEC running back Trayveon Williams.
The defense last year was unbalanced to say the least. They had the top rushing defense in the SEC, but the worst pass defense. There will be some new faces this season as only Justin Madubuike returns for the front seven. Defensive end Michael Clemons missed last season with a foot injury and will healthy in what could be a break out season. The linebacking group is a headscratcher, as only one player, Buddy Johnson, has started a game, and he only that 4 times. There are a lot of concerns on this side of the ball, but Fisher is a great recruiter, and will have this balanced out sooner than later.
Will they be able to finish better than they did a year ago at 9-4 is the question? With the toughest schedule in the country, it won’t be easy. They hit the road to Clemson, Georgia and LSU, and then host Alabama at Kyle Field mid-season. They finished 2nd in the SEC West last season, but with the road they have to take for 12 weeks this season, I think they stay right where they were with 9 wins.
Auburn – Two years ago they beat Alabama and Georgia in the regular season, and there was hype around the Tigers becoming the next SEC powerhouse. Then in 2018, they were a pre-season top-10 team yet fell to 8-5 with surprise losses to Mississippi State and Tennessee. It was so bad that boosters were inquiring about the contract buyout for head coach Gus Malzahn. Now he enters the season without a proven quarterback, and to make things even more interesting, he is going under the headset himself to call the plays. They finished 79th in the country in total offense, and if they don’t jump to the top 50, he will be out of a job in January.
So, who will be the quarterback? He has options, just not great ones as redshirt freshman Joey Gatewood and true freshman Bo Nix have been battling it out all camp. Whomever wins the job will rely heavily on running back JaTarvious “Boobee” Whitlow to carry the ball often.
The defensive line for Auburn rivals any in the country in size and strength. Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson are NFL talent who have decided to return for their senior season to anchor the front that will keep quarterbacks on their heels all game. Nick Coe led the team with 7 sacks last season, and he returns as well. Daniel Thomas and Jeremiah Dinson form an incredible 1-2 punch in the secondary and will be up for top positional honors at the end of the season.
The defense will be good. They may even be very good, which they will need to be with the lack of experience on offense. Week 1 comes fast, and that arrives with a date with the Oregon Ducks in the biggest non-conference game on the schedule. They will have road games at Texas A&M, Florida and LSU and then host Georgia and Alabama, so the schedule isn’t one that will help you sleep at night if you are an Auburn fan. Considering they face 6 teams that believe they have CFP chances, Auburn will be tested to win 8 games. I think that should be the team’s goal this season, and although that won’t settle well with the alumni, it’s just not the right time for Auburn to contend.
Ole Miss – Matt Luke has made some big hirings in year three of his tenure as head coach of the Running Rebels, bringing in Rich Rodriguez and Mike MacIntyre, both former Pac-12 coaches, to handle the coordinator duties.
Rodriguez will institute the same run-based spread offense he ran while at West Virginia and Michigan. Matt Coral, a redshirt freshman, will be the first quarterback to give this new offense a go. Elijah Moore is the most experienced returning receiver, having caught 36 balls for 400 yards last season. Scottie Phillips will be the star of this team as this junior college transfer came within a few carries of 1,000-yards last season in his first run in the SEC.
Mike McIntyre enters Ole Miss following disappointing runs at Colorado where his Buffalos started consecutive seasons 5-0, only to finish 5-7 each time. He now inherits a defense that allowed 220 rushing yards per game. He will institute a 3-4 defense to force ball carriers to run outside the tackles and into Ole Miss’ strength. The linebackers will be all over the field, as this scheme will utilize their athleticism as both traditional 2nd level backers, but also hand-in-the-dirt type as well.
Is this a top 25-team? No. Is it a top-50 team? Maybe. They have a lot of confidence in their young quarterback and he will have time to develop, albeit through the fire. If Ole Miss finishes 6-6 and gets to a bowl, it will be a good season. They get Memphis, Arkansas, Southeastern Louisiana and California out of the gate before their road trip to Tuscaloosa. Perhaps they are 4-0 for their tilt with the Tide?
Mississippi State – They are close to being a top 25 team, real close. Last season they looked good in their wins, but really bad in their losses to Kentucky, Florida, LSU and Alabama. Granted those teams combined for a 44-10 record, but head coach Joe Moorhead wasn’t hired to beat only the average teams. The hopes are that the foundation has been built and with three starting offensive linemen returning as well as running backs Kylin Hill and Nick Gibson, they might be closer to where they want to be than we expect. The question is who will replace Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback? The answer seems to lie in Penn State transfer Tommy Stevens.
The Bulldogs defense was tops in the country in yards per play last year, but that was 2018, and a lot of those key players are gone. Still hanging around Starkville however are cornerbacks Cameron Dantzler and Maurice Smitherman who are as good as it gets in the SEC. Their line needs to be revamped after graduating a majority of the front, and the linebackers need to shift around, but they have enough talent and athletes to get the positions filled.
They should finish 6-6 on the season and make another bowl appearance. They have a rough 5 game stretch in the middle of the season where they are on the road, so expect that to wear on the Bulldogs, but the future is bright here. Expect them to improve each year under Moorhead and could contend for 2nd place in the division soon.
Arkansas – They lost every conference game in 2018 and even lost some of their non-conference bouts. It was an ugly year for Chad Morris’ debut in Arkansas and things can only get better, right? Ben Hicks, former SMU quarterback has transferred over to play lead man for the Razorbacks. In 3 seasons at his former school he amounted 9,000 yards and 71 touchdowns. He has the experience to jump right in and play from the get-go.
Seniors McTelvin Agim and TJ Smith anchor the defensive front in front of linebacker De’Jon Harris who is coming off a 118-tackle season. Harris figures to be an NFL linebacker next season, so Razorback fans enjoy watching possibly the best Arkansas defender of this generation for one more season.
This team could be good in the future. They have a motivated coach who seems to really be committed to the school, but in the meantime, he needs to weather the storm. They open against Portland State, Ole Miss, Colorado and San Jose, so they have a favorable start, but the downhill slide starts quick in SEC play. I’ll give them a 4-8 season, and that is being kind.
Georgia – An average coach would have needed a hypnotist to erase the end of the 2018 season from their team’s memory, but Kirby Smart is nothing of average. After blowing a lead in the SEC title game against Alabama, the Bulldogs went on to lose the Sugar Bowl to Texas and head into the off season with a disappointing taste.
They return 13 starters from last year’s team, including Heisman hopeful quarterback Jake Fromm. Add in consecutive top-3 recruiting classes and the near future is bright in Athens. D’Andre Swift has another year at running back, and if the offensive line is as good as we all think they will be, scoring will be a plenty.
The offense could be on par with Alabama and Clemson, but defensively is where the distinction between elite, and possibly elite lies. The Bulldogs have a lot of big, strong defensive linemen this season, but none of them have really stood out as their true number one guy. They will not have to worry about the second level, as they are stacked with linebackers Monty Rice and Tae Crowder, and the next line of defense, the secondary, has experience and speed returning.
Their schedule is a cake-walk for three weeks as they play Vandy, Murray State and Arkansas State. On September 21st they host Notre Dame and then don’t face much adversity for the next month until Florida. I think this year Fromm takes another step forward and is a front runner for the Heisman. Look for them to win the East, finish in the CFP discussion and win a minimum of 11 games.
Florida – With a deep backfield and one of the best defenses in the conference, this Florida team believes 2019 is the year they get past Georgia. They have momentum going into fall camp coming off their 41-15 dismantling of Michigan in the Peach Bowl and for the first time since Tim Tebow, Florida enters camp knowing who their quarterback is.
Feleipe Franks scored 31 touchdowns last season and only threw 6 interceptions, and he will head an offense that returns 4 other starters. Lamical Perine is a potential 1,000-yard running back and Tyrie Cleveland, Van Jefferson and Josh Hammond form a trip of senior wide receivers who are poised for their best year yet.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham won’t have edge rusher Jachai Polite this season, but he will have a veteran linebacking core coming back that stars David Reese II, Vosean Joseph and Cauncey Gardner-Johnson. Jonathan Greenard is a defensive end grad transfer from Louisville who might end up being the star of this unit if he can learn the system fast enough.
The season comes fast for the Gators, as they play in the first game of the season against Miami one week before the rest of the country opens up. It won’t be an easy game by any means and being on the road in Orlando takes the home field advantage away. After this they have two weeks until they welcome UT Martin. Florida should finish with 10 wins again for the second straight year, and while I want to give them on more win to make it 11-2, road trips to LSU and Missouri, with a neutral site game against Georgia, are all tough games.
Missouri – The Tigers went 8-4 last year, which brought head coach Barry Odom’s career record to an even 19-19. He enters 2019 with 14 returning starters, and while transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant isn’t considered in that figure, there is no bigger piece to Odom’s puzzle than him. Bryant has been on campus for 8 months now working with offensive coordinator Derek Dooley and a plethora of proven playmakers at all of the skill positions. Larry Roundtree III is one of the most underrated players in the conference and should be poised for a breakout season.
Defensively this team can be really good if they stay healthy. They don’t have the deepest of depth charts, but their number 1’s can play. Linebacker Cale Garrett is an NFL talent and will anchor their 4-2-5 base defense. Christian Holmes and DeMarkus Acy could be the best cornerback pair in the SEC East.
Missouri was solid last year, but quarterback Drew Lock was a true pocket passer. With dual threat Kelly Bryant at the helm, this offense has more options. This team has the talent and the schedule to be real contenders in the division. They open up at Wyoming and then host West Virginia, Southeast Missouri State, South Carolina, Troy and Ole Miss in consecutive weeks. It’s not crazy to envision a 6-0 start before they hit the road to Vandy in week 7. Missouri is a real player in 2019 and I predict a 9-3 finish.
Tennessee – The Volunteers will be good, and while this may not be the breakout year, I do believe it’s coming. Jeremy Pruit is going to be a premiere coach for years at Tennessee and the University seems to be giving its full support. He finished 5-7 last year and now has his first recruiting class coming in, so this rebuild will need time, but he has a nice base to work with in the mean-time. Jarrett Guarrantano has 18 career starts under his belt and now will get to work with Jim Chaney, former Georgia offensive coordinator. He completed 62% passes for 1,907 yards last year. Now add in more experience and a brilliant OC, and we might have some Knoxville magic ahead. This offense was last in the SEC in scoring last year, but don’t expect a repeat in that category.
The defensive line is depleted, in fact, all their returning players on the line account for just two starts. Fortunately, they might have time to grow and find ways to get to the passer because their secondary should be strong enough to make opposing quarterbacks panic in the pocket. Cornerbacks Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson have next level potential. Pruitt will not be calling plays this year, that role now belongs to former Oakland Raiders coordinator Derrick Ansley.
Will this team surpass last season’s win total of 5 and reach a bowl game? With Georgia State, Chattanooga and UAB on the schedule, they should be halfway there. They only have four road games, and while two of those are at Florida and Alabama, the schedule is very favorable. In think the experience on offense and the enthusiasm in the program really show here, and the Volunteers finish 7-5.
Kentucky – Coming off the school’s best season in 4 decades, there is a lot of hype around this Wildcats team. Unfortunately for Kentucky fans, National Defensive Player of the Year Josh Allen is in the NFL, and so is the school’s all-time leading rusher Benny Snell. Those are the two big names, but 10 other former Wildcats are gone and this team that went from obscurity to a 10-win Citrus Bowl participant last year now seems depleted. They are going to really have to rely on quarterback Terry Wilson to get the offense in sync. He has played plenty of experience in his career but ranking last in the conference in yards and efficiency doesn’t bode a whole lot of confidence.
The ‘Cats will take the field on Labor Day Weekend with only 4 returning starters on a unit that allowed under 17 points per game a year ago. New coordinator Brad White will institute a faster defense, anchored by returning linemen Quinton Bohanna and Josh Paschal. They graduated their whole secondary and will likely look to their 2019 singing class that includes six defensive backs.
The expectation has risen from bowl eligible, to playing in a New Year’s Six Bowl, and while that may not be a justifiable goal, it’s real. That makes for a disappointing season, as Kentucky will have to fight all season to win games. There is momentum carrying over from the Citrus Bowl, and there is enough experience coming back to make a difference, so I expect them to win the games they should, like Toledo, Eastern Michigan, South Carolina, Louisville etc., but the days of sneaking up and defeating teams like Florida and Penn State, are likely behind them. I still give them a 7-win season, which might not meet the goal, but it should be a good season in Lexington.
South Carolina – The offense wasn’t sexy last year, but they did enough to make you think they have it in them. Jake Bentley is a steady quarterback who has gotten better over the years but has had to shoulder the load of the offense too many times. Fortunately, he has Bryan Edwards, a star receiver in the making, and Rico Dowdle, a shifty back who with more carries could make a difference. 7 starters return to the Gamecocks, so if they come out of the gate hot, they could be a player in the division. The offense always plays with confidence, and maybe this year they will finally have a reason to do so.
Defensively, a strong linebacking group returns with TJ Brunson, Sherrod Green and Daniel Fennell. With experience on the line expect some aggressive play calling by coordinator Travaris Robinson. He was handcuffed with injuries last season, causing him to be more conservative with packages, but with a healthy lineup ready for the season, look for them to apply more blitzes and take more chances in the secondary. Before his time at South Carolina, Robinson coached at Florida and was pivotal in their pass defense, which was consistently top-10 during his tenure.
The good news for the Gamecocks is that they get Vanderbilt and Appalachia State. The bad news is they also have to play Alabama and Clemson. They don’t have it easy in 2019, so their final record may not reflect on the improvements they have made, so while I’d like to given them 7 or so wins, I just don’t see it happening unless they pull off an upset against Missouri or Texas A&M, both of which are on the road.
Vanderbilt - The SEC should have 10 teams bowl eligible in 2019, and if Vanderbilt can pull it together, the conference could have 11. With possibly the best running back in the country not named Travis Etienne, the Commodores will feature a heavy dose of Ke’Shawn Vaughn running the ball while new starting quarterback Riley Neal learns the offense. Having weapons like tight end Jared Pickney should ease Neal in quickly and will provide a big target in the red zone.
Defensively, they were bad last year. So bad, that there is no way they could worse this year, even after graduating four of their top 5 tacklers. Linebacker Dimitri Moore will be the feature of the defensive unit. The 6-3, 225-poind sophomore recorded 84 tackles last year and expectations are that he will be let loose in the backfield more this year. He will need to be steady, as the Commodores allowed teams to convert 46% of their third downs.
Their schedule doesn’t help them much either, with an opening weekend game against Georgia followed by a road trip to Purdue. If an 0-2 start seems predictable here, better make it 0-3 as LSU is third on the schedule. They also have to play defending MAC champion Northern Illinois and SEC rivals Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee. Vandy just doesn’t have the defense to win more than 5 games and get back to a bowl. Expect them to finish an ugly 5-7, but even still, Ke’Shawn Vaughn will keep you tuning in on Saturdays.
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