I think we can break the SEC into five different tiers this season. The top tier is comprised of the legit contenders for a College Football Playoff berth. I believe that group consists of Georgia, LSU, Alabama and Tennessee.
The second tier has four teams – Ole Miss, Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas A&M – that should win at least seven games, probably more like eight or nine, and could get to 10 wins if they can stay healthy and catch a few breaks.
Let’s dub our third group, which consists of Mississippi St. and South Carolina, as our wild-card tier. These teams have two of the nation’s premier quarterbacks so on any given Saturday, they’ve got a chance against anybody when Spencer Rattler or Will Rogers are at their best. With that said, there are some roster deficiencies that keep them a touch below the teams in our second tier.
The fourth tier is comprised of Florida, Missouri and Auburn. These are teams that will still be looking to clinch bowl eligibility in November and have eight-win ceilings. And if injuries take their toll and some things go South, going 5-7 or even 4-8 isn’t out of the question.
Finally, Vanderbilt get its own tier, although there were some positive developments coming out of Nashville in November of Clark Lea’s second season at the helm.
1-Georgia: After going more than four decades without winning a national title, Georgia has won back-to-back natties. The Bulldogs return six starters on offense and seven on defense from a team that finished 15-0 straight up and 8-7 against the spread. They’ve upgraded their wide-receiver room by taking the best wideout from a pair of SEC rivals, Mississippi St. (Rara Thomas) and Missouri (Dominic Lovett). UGA was +3,065 in net yardage in 2022 and won 13 of 15 games by double-digit margins, beating six SEC opponents by 20 points or more. If there’s a weakness, it’s a lack of experience at the QB position. However, I think Carson Beck passes the eye test enough that I made a small wager on him to win the Heisman Trophy at 25/1 odds. I think UGA fans will tell you they have three quality QBs, with Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton being the other two. With Oklahoma coming off the schedule due to its 2024 entrance into the SEC, Phil Steele’s preseason magazine has Kirby Smart’s team with the SEC’s easiest schedule and ranks it No. 56 nationally (Arkansas at No. 38 has the SEC’s next-easiest slate).
2-LSU: I have in-pocket plays on LSU -2 vs. FSU in Week 1, LSU at 16/1 to win the College Football Playoff and ‘over’ 9.5 wins on LSU’s season win total. The Tigers have All-American candidates in QB Jayden Daniels, WR Malik Nabers, TE Mason Taylor, DE Mason Smith, DT Mekhi Wingo and LB Harold Perkins. In fact, Wingo was a third-team All-American last year and Perkins was a fourth-team All-American as a true freshman. According to the 247Sports Composite, Brian Kelly brought in the nation’s No. 5 overall recruiting class and his 14 imports from the portal (one five-star and eight four-star transfers) are ranked No. 2 in terms of the transfer-specific class. Several transfers are going to start right away, including LB Omar Speights (Oregon St.) and CB Darian Chestnut (Syracuse). Speights started 39 games for the Beavers, recording 308 career tackles and 25 tackles for loss. Chestnut started 24 games for the Orange. Daniels had a 17/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio last season, in addition to producing a team-best 885 rushing yards (1,109 before subtracting sack yardage) and 11 TDs. The Tigers will likely be favored in 11 of their 12 regular-season games.
3-Alabama: Nick Saban has to relish his first season in more than a decade without having to deal with ‘rat poison’ galore. There are seemingly more questions and doubters than there are expectations (outside of Tuscaloosa, that is), and there are valid reasons for the presence of doubters. There’s been more turnover on Saban’s staff yet again, with new coordinators on both sides of the ball and on special teams. There isn’t a proven QB on the roster. Steele’s mag ranks the WR position as the seventh-best nationally, but there certainly aren’t any playmakers that are going to remind people of DeVonta Smith, Amari Cooper, Henry Ruggs, Jerry Jeudy or Jaylen Waddle. The Crimson Tide lost its five leading tacklers and seven of its top eight. Saban’s team does get its toughest games – vs. Texas, vs. Ole Miss, vs. Arkansas, vs. Tennessee and vs. LSU – at Bryant-Denny Stadium, though.
4-Tennessee: Josh Heupel has been spectacular in his first two seasons in Knoxville, producing an 11-2 SU record and a 10-3 ATS mark in 2022. The Volunteers spent five consecutive weeks in the top five and were ranked second when they took their undefeated record into Athens to face top-ranked UGA on Nov. 5. Joe Milton looked great in a 31-14 win over 10th-ranked Clemson at the Orange Bowl. Milton is the new QB with Hendon Hooker off to the NFL’s Detroit Lions. In two starts and plenty of snaps in relief of Hooker last year, Milton completed 64.6 percent of his passes for 971 yards and 10 TDs without an interception. He has the strongest arm in the country, and I believe he’s poised for a monster season. The Vols are 7.5-point road favorites at Florida in Week 3, but they’ve lost nine games in a row at The Swamp and 16 of the last 18 against the Gators. UT will be in a brutal spot at Kentucky on Oct. 28. The Wildcats will be in double-revenge mode and have two weeks to prepare, while the Vols are in a back-to-back road situation off a rivalry game at Alabama.
5-Ole Miss: Will Oklahoma St. transfer QB Spencer Sanders unseat Jaxson Dart for the starting QB job this month? If Sanders’s shoulder is 100-percent healthy, I think he’s the better player. I’m on the Rebels’ season win total to go ‘over’ 7.5, and I explained my reasoning with 2,977 words that you can read here.
6-Arkansas: I feel like most people forget how close Arkansas was to having a big season in 2022. The Razorbacks lost six of their last 10 games to finish a disappointing 7-6 SU and 6-6-1 ATS, but they dropped four of those games by only nine combined points. They went 0-2 when star QB KJ Jefferson had to sit out due to injuries and, with him in uniform, the Hogs definitely would’ve won in a 13-10 home loss to LSU. There were some good things, though. Sam Pittman’s squad beat Cincinnati, a team that had gone 11-2, 11-3, 9-1 and 13-1 in the four previous seasons, in its opener. The Razorbacks drilled South Carolina by 14 points, won by 17 at BYU, thumped Auburn 41-27 on The Plains and blitzed Ole Miss, 42-27. Jefferson and RB Rocket Sanders give the Hogs one of the nation’s best QB/RB combinations. I’m on Arkansas to go ‘over’ 6.5 wins and explained why here.
7-Kentucky: Devin Leary, a transfer QB from NC St. who had a 35/5 TD-INT ratio in 2021, will be an upgrade over Will Levis. UK’s offense went from averaging 32.3 PPG in 2021 to scoring at a pedestrian 20.4 PPG clip in 2022. OC Liam Cohen left UK to take a job with the L.A. Rams for one season, but he’s back after being sorely missed last year. Mark Stoops snagged 13 players, including six four-star guys, out of the portal with that group ranking No. 14 nationally. RB Ray Davis comes to Lexington after rushing for 1,042 yards for Vanderbilt last year. The Wildcats return each of their top-five pass catchers and probably have their best group of WRs since Stoops took over.
8-Texas A&M: The defense can’t be blamed for Texas A&M’s miserable 5-7 season (3-8-1 ATS) in 2022. The Aggies’ stop unit allowed an average of only 21.2 PPG, and they return 10 starters on that side of the ball. The returning QBs – Max Johnson and Conner Weigman – had a combined 11/0 TD-INT ratio, but Haynes King (now at Ga. Tech) started five games and had a 7/6 TD-INT ratio. The offense will benefit from the return of star WR Ainias Smith, who suffered a season-ending injury in Week 4 vs. Arkansas. Jimbo Fisher has added Bobby Petrino to his staff, but it’s unclear whether or not Fisher will relinquish play-calling duties to BP. Let’s call it like it is here: The only reason Petrino took this job is because he knows his only chance at getting an SEC HC job again is to take over on an interim basis for a fired coach in mid-season and make things happen. If the Aggies start slow, maybe he’ll get that chance? If things do go bad in College Station this year (for the record, I have A&M going 8-4 and that wouldn’t qualify but going into the open date in mid-October on a three-game losing streak with a 2-5 record certainly would), watching the Fisher-Petrino dynamic play out could become must-see television.
9-Mississippi St.: As previously noted, the Bulldogs are a bit of a wild card to me. As much as I liked Zach Arnett as a DC, I don’t really know what to expect from him as a HC. The new OC is Kevin Barbay, who was the OC at Appalachian St. last season. I don’t think they should drift too far away from Mike Leach’s Air Raid philosophy in Year 1, especially since Rogers had that system down to a science. Rogers is already Mississippi St.’s all-time leader in career passing yards (10,689), and he has an 82/24 career TD-INT ratio. Remember, the Bulldogs went 9-4 SU and 7-5-1 ATS last year, winning six games by double-digit margins and seven by nine points or more. None of the four defeats were shameful, as they lost at sixth-ranked Alabama, at 22nd-ranked Kentucky, at eventual SEC West champion LSU and at home to top-ranked UGA.
10-South Carolina: I have the Gamecocks at No. 26 in my Preseason Power Rankings. Rattler was playing the best football of his life in South Carolina’s last three games of 2022. Shane Beamer’s team blasted fifth-ranked Tennessee 63-38 as a 22-point home underdog and then ended a seven-game losing streak to arch-rival Clemson with a 31-30 come-from-behind victory as a 14-point road ‘dog. Rattler has great chemistry with WR Antwane ‘Juice’ Wells, who was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2022. How the Gamecocks fare in a handful of coin-flip games – like vs. UNC in Charlotte, vs. Mississippi St., vs. Florida, at Missouri and vs. Kentucky – will determine their fate in 2023. I have an ATS prediction for South Carolina’s opener vs. the Tar Heels in my USC-UNC preview for Week 1.
11-Florida: I chronicled how disappointing UF’s offseason was back in June, but Billy Napier has remained hot on the recruiting trail since then. UF currently has the No. 3 class in the nation for 2024 per the 247Sports Composite. Unfortunately for the Gators, they won’t be getting any help from those players this year. UF has the worst QB room in the SEC and one of the worst in the country, and that’s all on Napier. Many publications, including Steele’s mag, have Florida’s schedule ranked as the toughest in the nation. In the Games of the Year at DraftKings, the Gators are underdogs of 7.5 points or more five different times (counting the opener vs. Utah). That doesn’t even include road assignments at Kentucky, at South Carolina (when the Gamecocks have two weeks to prepare and UF will be playing its seventh game in seven weeks) and at Missouri. Napier’s team is also in a tough spot for a Nov. 4 home game vs. Arkansas, with the Razorbacks getting two weeks to prep for the Gators, who will be in a natural letdown situation off of their rivalry game against UGA. We will point out that since becoming a HC, Napier owns a 17-5-1 spread record with 10 outright wins in 23 games as an underdog. If he doesn’t add several more outright wins to that stat in 2023, Napier (and AD Scott Stricklin) will go into 2024 on a boiling hot seat. (With a $32 million buyout after this upcoming campaign, he’ll probably be safe even if UF only wins four or five games.)
12-Auburn: Like Napier, Hugh Freeze is starting to build some momentum on the recruiting trail. The biggest question on The Plains right now is if star RB Jarquez Hunter is going to be suspended at the start of the season and, if so, for how long? Another burning question is who will win the QB job between Robby Ashford and Michigan St. transfer Peyton Thorne? Auburn fought hard in November last year under interim HC Carnell ‘Cadillac’ Williams, who was retained by Freeze. The Tigers rallied to force overtime in a 39-33 loss at Mississippi St., but they bounced back to beat Texas A&M and Western Ky. at home. They hung around at Alabama for a little bit before the Tide pulled away in the Iron Bowl. Auburn brings back eight starters on offense and nine on defense, and Freeze is a major upgrade in the head-coaching department.
13-Missouri: Eli Drinkwitz’s team is going to have one of the SEC’s best defenses. Steele’s mag has CB Kris Abrams-Draine as a preseason first-team All-SEC selection, and it also has DE Darius Robinson and free safety Jaylon Carlies as preseason second-team All-SEC selections. LB Ty’Ron Hopper was a second-team All-SEC pick last year. Steele has Hopper as a preseason third-team All-SEC choice, and he has CB Ennis Rakestraw as a preseason fourth-team All-SEC selection. The Tigers, who finished 6-7 SU and 7-6 ATS in 2022, went 2-4 in one-possession games last year. They should’ve won at Auburn (about four of five different times!) in a 17-14 overtime loss. Mizzou could’ve won in a 26-22 home loss to Georgia in which it had the lead for three quarters and change, and you can make a solid argument that it could’ve won in a 24-17 loss at Florida. I’d be more bullish on this team if QB Brady Cook hadn’t missed spring practice after underdoing offseason surgery. Oh, and the loss of Lovett, who transferred to UGA, was a crushing blow for the offense.
14-Vanderbilt: We’ve got to give Lea some kudos for his upset wins at Kentucky (24-21 as a 17.5-point road underdog) and vs. Florida (31-24 as a 14-point home ‘dog) in November of last season. He has a new contract extension and has found his QB for the next three seasons. AJ Swann started six games as a true freshman, completing 58.1 percent of his passes for 1,274 yards with a 10/2 TD-INT ratio. Swann has a star in WR Will Sheppard, who is a preseason second-team All-SEC selection in most publications after catching 60 balls for 776 yards and nine TDs in 2022. WR Jayden McGowan enjoyed a breakout true freshman campaign, hauling in 44 receptions for 453 yards and three TDs. It’ll be difficult to exceed last year’s 5-7 finish both SU and ATS, but there appears to be eight ‘winnable’ games (the first seven and vs. Auburn on Nov. 4, but we only expect Vandy to be favored in three of those) on the schedule. If Lea can win six or seven of those, he should win SEC Coach of the Year honors.
Don’t Be Shocked If…
-Tennessee loses at Kentucky (and/or at Florida) but beats Georgia at Neyland Stadium on Nov. 18.
-Milton is very much in the Heisman conversation going into the UGA game.
-Tennessee scores 70 points in its opener vs. Virginia in Nashville.
-Florida goes 4-8.
-Alabama goes 8-4.
-Arkansas finishes the regular season on a five-game winning streak.
-Harold Perkins makes enough big plays to get invited to the Heisman ceremony.
-Max Johnson and Spencer Sanders start at QB in Week 1 for Texas A&M and Ole Miss, respectively.
-Jordan-Hare Stadium gets its mojo back in 2023 with Auburn pulling an upset over Alabama (and giving UGA fits on Sept. 30) in the Iron Bowl.
-Kentucky has a 5-0 record when it goes to Athens on Oct. 7 and has an 8-1 record when Alabama comes to Kroger Field on Nov. 11.
-Missouri is 5-0 when LSU comes to Columbia in Week 6.
-LSU beats FSU by two or three TDs in Week 1.