conference preview: SEC
By Simon Carroll
A team-by-team analysis of the SEC, the season ahead and final standings predictions.
1. Georgia Bulldogs
2018: 11-3 (7-1)
There are three tiers in the SEC’s East division. There’s 4-7, which will fight for mediocrity. There’s 2 & 3, which will likely be a battle between Tigers & Alligators. And then there is Georgia. No team not named Alabama or Clemson is bringing back more talent in 2019 than The Bulldogs. They have the #1 offensive line in the nation with Andrew Thomas at left tackle. They have a potential Heisman candidate in quarterback Jake Fromm. D’andre Swift and Brian Herrien between them should account for more than 2,000 yards of offense. And they have a defense that conceded less than 20 points per game last year looking even better. Yeah – Georgia are the team to beat in the East, and it’s not particularly close.
The Bulldogs schedule offers them a nice start to ease them in before their first test in week four when they welcome Notre Dame. From then on it’s SEC all the way until their annual ‘Clean, Old-Fashioned Hate’ game against The Yellow Jackets, but even that stretch has been kind when you see who they travel to. Florida will push them close in ‘The World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party’, but anything other than an SEC Championship Game will be a disappointment in Athens in 2019.
2. Florida Gators
2018: 10-3 (5-3)
A very promising start for Head Coach Dan Mullen in his first year back in Gainesville. Ten wins, a strong Peach Bowl win over Michigan, and a remarkable development of QB Feleipe Franks has the Gator faithful excited for 2019. And rightly so – Florida are a tough matchup for pretty much any other program in college football.
Unfortunately they are in the SEC where the barometer for success sits at somewhere between one and zero losses. And when you host Georgia, have neutral games against Miami & Georgia, and travel to Death Valle to face LSU, the odds of a record like that are slim. Still, with one of the best receiving corps and secondaries in the SEC Florida can safely aim for double digit wins once more.
3. Missouri Tigers
2018: 8-5 (4-4)
Missouri, talent-wise, have possibly their best chance of gatecrashing the SEC Championship Game for the first time since they did it twice in their first three years in the conference (2012,13). Those were the heady days under Gary Pinkel. And so it seems cruel that just as Barry Odom has this program heading in the right direction once again, NCAA imposed sanctions will halt any ambition of postseason football. Serious academic violations mean that no matter what their record, The Tigers won’t be in a bowl game in January.
That’s a lot of talent that look likely to miss out. Kelly Bryant (who made the QB Lookout List earlier this offseason) has transferred from Clemson and could take this program to even greater heights. And in Albert Okwuegbunam they might have the best Tight End in the country on their roster. Not only that, but their conference schedule looks to be the easiest out of anyone’s in the SEC. Ten wins is a realistic target for this team in 2019.
4. Tennessee Volunteers
2018: 5-7 (2-6)
Good luck trying to predict the rest of the pecking order in the SEC East. You could make a case for any one of these teams to finish as ‘the best of the rest’. I’ve thrown the cat amongst the pigeons and gone with Tennessee, a program that propped up the division in 2018. With only two conference wins last year it’s a ballsy call, but there were plenty of signs to suggest that first year head coach Jeremy Pruitt can turn this team around…
Firstly, the Vols have recruited extremely well, including snagging two five-star offensive linemen (Darnell Wright, Wanya Morris) to help their poorest position group last season. They’re also bringing back more players than any other in the SEC, giving them a boost of experience. Their rivals, in particular Kentucky & Vanderbilt, are suffering from talent leaving for the NFL. And with seven winnable home games out of their first nine contests they have a very good shot at making significant progress in Pruitt’s second season in charge.
5. South Carolina Gamecocks
2018: 7-6 (4-4)
Another year, another meh season from a Will Muschamp program. The former Gators Head Coach has a total record of 29-27 in SEC conference play. At South Carolina he has kept the steadiest of ships crawling along – The Gamecocks beat everyone they’re supposed to, and lose to everyone they’re supposed to. Not even Steve Spurrier on his best day could punch this program up a level. So Muschamp has no chance.
They finished fourth last year, and I have them finishing fifth this time round. That alarming shutout by Virginia in the Belk Bowl just makes me a bit uneasy, and with Missouri looking good they will probably slip back a spot. With a tough SEC slate and Clemson to round off the season it could be even worse. But they do have some good offensive talent returning in quarterback Jake Bentley & receiver Bryan Edwards. That might just be enough to keep the status quo and see South Carolina to six wins.
6. Kentucky Wildcats
2018: 10-3 (5-3)
Even acknowledging the talented Josh Allen and Benny Snell, Kentucky played far beyond their abilities in 2018. That is a compliment to head coach Mark Stoops, who has performed miracles since he arrived in Lexington. Three bowl games in a row, and ten wins and a winning record in the SEC last year is a phenomenal achievement for what is still considered a basketball school. They were a win against Georgia away from the championship game…
Expecting anything close to that this season is unreasonable. As mentioned they’ve lost some key pieces, and the close conference games they won last year will be much harder to replicate in 2019. If they manage to make it to six wins and get another bowl game then they should build a statue of Stoops in one of the endzones. Without a huge jump in Quarterback play from Terry Wilson it’s more likely they just fall short.
7. Vanderbilt Commodores
2018: 6-7 (3-5)
It rankles with me that I have the Commodores propping up the division once more. Not because it’s a tired narrative, but because they still have some talent on this roster. Not least the dangerous trio on offense that Rory Joe Daniels excellently broke down in his piece on Lipscomb, Vaughn & Pinkney earlier this month. Much like Mark Stoops, Derek Mason has done an excellent job in elevating a program that for so long has been the doormat of the SEC East.
Unfortunately, the deficiencies are too stark to ignore. Losing quarterback Kyle Shurmer to the pro’s is a blow and there’s still no assurances as to who replaces him. And this defense, which gave up 30 points a game after week 2 last year, figures to be just as porous. I have no doubt that Mason will once again have this Commodores team annoying the SEC elite; it just won’t be in 2019.
1. Alabama Crimson Tide
2018: 14-1 (8-0), SEC Champions
Tua Tagovailoa. Jerry Jeudy. Henry Ruggs. Jaylen Waddle. Devonta Smith. Najee Harris. Raekwon Davis. Shyheim Carter. Dylan Moses. It’s quite possible that The Crimson Tide have more household names right now than the Miami Dolphins. Such is the machine that Nick Saban has created in Tuscaloosa, it’s actually quite remarkable that another team has been able to challenge their dominance as Clemson have. Despite being the toughest conference in College Football it’s no surprise I have them sitting atop not only the West division but also winning the SEC Championship Game for the fifth time in six years.
It’s a pretty bog-standard schedule, with no threats out of the conference. They also have a generous week off before hosting LSU, the team many predict to be their toughest opponent in the West. But there is some hope for a shock defeat at Texas A&M or in the Iron Bowl against hated rivals Auburn, both of which should be much stronger this season. Ultimately it will be surprising if Alabama lose one game, and a huge shock if they are defeated more than that en route to the College Football Playoffs.
2. Auburn Tigers
2018: 8-5 (4-4)
As mentioned in my top 25 preseason predictions, the pressure is mounting on Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn. The Tigers made the Championship game in 2017 but the other three seasons since 2015 have seen them win just ten SEC games in total. Constantly playing in the shadown of Alabama doesn’t help, and whilst Malzahn has overseen two epic Iron Bowl victories that have denied The Tide division dominance the success in Auburn has been fleeting at best.
The good news for their head coach is that Auburn brings back arguably the best defensive line in all of College Football in 2019. That’s crucial for this team, who have a really tough schedule. They open with Oregon, travel to Texas A&M and Florida early in the season, before hosting both Georgia AND Alabama to round off SEC play. Despite the tough slate, and even though they’ll have freshman quarterback Bo Nix under center, I expect The Tigers to be much more competitive this season.
3. Texas A&M Aggies
2018: 9-4 (5-3)
2018 saw an impressive start for Jimbo Fisher in his first season at College Station. Nine wins, a second place finish in the West and a dominant win over NC State in the Gator Bowl was more than most predicted. Not only that, but Fisher rolled out the red carpet and attracted a top five recruiting class including two five-star commits in Kenyon Green (OT) and DeMarvin Leal (DT). It’s not a surprise that Fisher has proved to be this good, it’s just remarkable he’s achieved it in 12 months on the job.
Jimbo’s magic doesn’t end there – his work with Kellen Mond (featured on the Quarterback Lookout List) last year reaped big rewards with the sophomore QB surpassing all expectations. If his growth continues on the same trajectory he will be one of the best quarterbacks in college football in 2019. But if you think Auburn’s schedule is tough then take a look at the Aggies’ brutal fixture list; at Clemson in week 2, Alabama in October and back to back road trips to Georgia and LSU to round out the year. It will be an enormous task just replicating the record they achieved last year, so I slip them back one spot to third.
4. LSU Tigers
2018: 10-3 (5-3)
Oh everyone is getting excited about The Tigers heading into 2019. And in fairness, LSU, Texas A&M and Auburn are difficult to separate as the best of the rest in the West. But I have scepticism regarding this program and ultimately it boils down to Coach O. Ed Orgeron is, by hook or by crook, in charge of his third big-time college football program. He’s a man who bleeds football. A man as Cajun as they come, And a man with a presence, an infectious personality that endears you to him and has you wanting him to succeed. Sadly, with a record of 41-36 as a head coach, he just hasn’t succeeded enough for SEC standards.
That’s not to say he hasn’t done well so far at LSU. He has the Tigers on the rise and the fanbase optimistic once more. They return one of the best defenses in football let alone the SEC, and this will provide the foundations for their tilt at the college football playoffs. But an inexperienced offense will need better play from their senior quarterback Joe Burrow, who after a nomadic college career will finally be a starter in 2019. With a schedule that includes trips to Texas & Alabama it’s a big ask to see them match the ten wins they got last year. A small step back for me.
5. Mississippi State Bulldogs
2018: 8-5 (4-4)
Another first year head coach having an impressive debut season, Joe Moorhead navigated the post-Dan Mullen era expertly in 2018. The biggest reason for this was The Bulldog’s defense, which was the stingiest in the SEC last year. The problem for Moorhead and Mississippi State is that a lot of that talented unit won’t be returning this year. Marquee names like Jeffery Simmons, Jonathan Abram and Montez Sweat were all first round draft picks, and it will need immediate production from their replacements to avoid a drop-off. In a crowded SEC that’s highly unlikely.
As excellently previewed on Rory Daniel’s ‘Finding Gold In Mississippi’ piece, Tommy Stevens looks set to be named starting quarterback after following Moorhead over from Penn State. His familiarity with the offense will give him a much-needed head start as this offense looks to try and step up whilst the defense finds it’s feet. Sadly this is not a division that affords you such luxuries as time. The Bulldogs face natural regression this season.
6. Ole Miss Rebels
2018: 5-7 (1-7)
It’s amazing to me that despite NCAA sanctions following recruiting and academic violations, and despite the chaos surrounding Hugh Freeze’s tenure and dismissal, Ole Miss sent so much talent to the NFL this offseason. One conference win was a shocking return from a team, particularly an offense, with so much talent. And third-year head coach Matt Luke will need a much better record this year after just four total SEC victories in his first two seasons in charge.
Bad news for Luke is that if anything, it’s going to get harder in 2019. Losing Jordan Ta’amu, DK Metcalf, AJ Brown, Dawson Knox, Greg Little and Javon Patterson from this offense will be crippling. Luke has done well to identify this and has brought in Rich Rodriguez as offensive co-ordinator. He will be tasked with getting the most out of Matt Corral, who was the focus of Rory’s other deep dive into the Mississippi Quarterbacks. Ultimately, the talent level on this team has dropped and the competition has gotten harder. If they can squeak two SEC wins and win out in non-conference play (Memphis & Cal will provide tough tests on that front) then Ole Miss have a chance at a bowl game in their first season out of post-season purgatory.
7. Arkansas Razorbacks
2018: 2-10 (0-8)
Chad Morris learnt the hard way the job he has on his hands in turning this Razorback program around. After Brett Bielema’s woeful tenure Arkansas bottomed out in 2018, losing every game in the SEC and picking up wins against just Eastern Illinois and Tulsa.
The new head coach has made every effort to strengthen this roster in the hopes of securing that first conference win this year, bringing in no less than eight transfers. Two quarterbacks, Nick Starkel (Texas A&M) and Ben Hicks (SMU) join in the hope of boosting this offense that was lacklustre last year. But it’s offensive tackle Luke Jones who might be the best acquisition after leaving Notre Dame. Both the offensive and defensive lines were underwhelming and if they’re going to see some improvement then the rebuild begins up front for the Razorbacks.
There’s no such thing as an easy schedule in the SEC. Arkansas learned that lesson last year and it’s no different this season. Trips to Alabama and LSU and a neutral game with Texas A&M will really test their mettle. There’s a couple of non-conference cupcake games on the slate that means they’ll taste victory in 2019. But anything other than a last placed finish in the SEC West will be considered a triumph.
previously the founder of nfl draft uk, simon has been covering college football and the nfl draft since 2009. based in manchester, simon is also co-creator & weekly guest of the collapsing pocket podcast.