Alabama: Yes, I have ‘Bama #1 in my Power Rankings. Yes, Nick Saban’s dynasty isn’t showing any signs of slowing down anytime soon. However, the Crimson Tide’s offense isn’t going to lose key pieces from its stellar offensive line, transcendent players like RB Najee Harris, WR DeVonta Smith, WR Jaylen Waddle and QB Mac Jones and just keep hanging 50-burgers against SEC defenses on a weekly basis. With that said, this year’s defense is going to be a lot better than last year’s unit that got sliced and diced by Ole Miss and Florida. Until I see Haynes King play, I’ll refrain from saying that the Tide will go down at Texas A&M. Instead, I’ll simply say that ‘Bama will be fortunate if it can navigate trips to Gainesville, College Station and The Plains and come away unscathed.
Texas A&M: I’m not as bullish on the Aggies as most seem to be, but I reserve the right to quickly change my mind if King is impressive in September. The offensive line and the linebackers aren’t elite, but the defensive line and the running backs are. King has plenty of weapons at his disposal, including one of the best TEs in the nation, Jalen Wydermyer, a third-team All-American last season. IF the Aggies are able to beat ‘Bama, beware of a vintage letdown spot at Missouri the following week. The Tigers get to host Tennessee and North Texas at home in their games leading up to the Aggies’ visit to Faurot Field.
Georgia: Man, the schedule works. If Auburn doesn’t have anything for UGA on The Plains, then the Bulldogs’ only significant challenge outside of Clemson will be Florida in Jacksonville. (Kentucky and Missouri have to come to Athens, and UGA’s other opponent from the SEC West is Arkansas at home.) There are plenty of question marks, though. UGA lost six starters on defense and 30 lettermen. George Pickens might be back in late November, but that’s certainly not a given. When will Dominick Blaylock be ready to return? Will Arik Gilbert be back at all and if he returns, will he last the rest of the season?
Florida: UF fans know trips to Missouri can be tricky, so I’ll stop short of saying that nine wins are a given. Eight certainly are, though. (Remember, Florida hasn’t lost at Kentucky since the mid-80s.) The Gators, who are currently 13-point home underdogs vs. ‘Bama in Week 3 and 6.5-point ‘dogs vs. UGA, can certainly get one of those and at LSU looks like a coin-flip game. Emory Jones is going to thrive but if he doesn’t, Anthony Richardson is ready to go. With talents like Ventrell Miller, Kaiir Elam, Zachary Carter, Amari Burney, Mohamoud Diabate, Brenton Cox and Trey Dean, the defense appears poised for a nice bounce-back campaign.
LSU: I was ready to call for a big bounce-back season for the Tigers, but then Dare Rosenthal transferred and QB Myles Brennan and DT Glen Logan sustained major injuries. Brennan and/or Logan might be back at some point, but that won’t be anytime soon. I like Brennan and Max Johnson, so the winner of the starting QB job didn’t matter to me. With Brennan out, it’ll be a catastrophe if Johnson goes down. The next man up under center would be Garrett Nussmeier, a true freshman. When Brennan was injured last year, we saw what happened in the next five games (three losses by margins of 37, 13 and 38 points) with true freshmen at QB. With all that said, the roster is still loaded with talent and I still like LSU in Week 1 at UCLA.
Ole Miss: Nobody is doubting the offense. Matt Corral, Jerion Ealy, Snoop Conner, Dontario Drummond, Jonathan Mingo, Braylon Sanders and John Rhys Plumlee are going to put up numbers. Look for new names like Jahcour Pearson, Bralon Brown and Qua Davis to get theirs, too. But what about the defense? That unit returns nine starters, but is that a good thing? Jacquez Jones, the Rebels’ leading tackler last year, and DE Ryder Anderson, one of their best pass rushers, have transferred to Kentucky and Indiana, respectively. Lane Kiffin gets two weeks to prepare for ‘Bama, which will be playing its fifth game in five weeks, but the game is at Bryant-Denny Stadium. The Rebels should be 5-1 going into a brutal four-game gauntlet that looks like this: vs. LSU, at Auburn (AU gets two weeks to prepare), vs. Liberty and Hugh Freeze (!) and vs. Texas A&M. They close the year with Vandy at home and the Egg Bowl in Starkville on Thanksgiving Day.
Mississippi St.: I’m a lot higher on Mike Leach’s team in Year 2 than most are. He played a lot of freshmen last year who gained valuable experience. The Bulldogs were playing well down the stretch. Despite bringing only 43 scholarship players to Athens due to positive COVID-19 tests, they were tied with Georgia at 24-24 with 10 minutes left. UGA ended up pulling out a 31-24 win, but MSU easily covered as a 25-point road underdog. The next week, Leach’s team covered again in a 31-24 loss at Ole Miss. After dropping a 24-10 decision vs. Auburn, the Bulldogs spanked Missouri 51-32 before besting Tulsa 28-26 in the Armed Forces Bowl. Zach Arnett might be the country’s most underrated defensive coordinator. QB Will Rogers had a 10/3 touchdown-to-interception ratio in the last six games. WR Jaden Walley is one of the SEC’s best and he’ll benefit from the addition of Washington St. transfer WR Jahmire Calvin. There’s a ton of young talent on defense with playmakers like CB Emmanuel Forbes, CB Martin Emerson, LB Aaron Brule, LB Tyrus Wheat and NT Jaden Crumedy.
Auburn: I think Bryan Harsin’s team has the nation’s toughest schedule. The Tigers have to play road games at Penn St., at LSU, at Arkansas, at Texas A&M and at South Carolina. Before thinking that trips to Fayetteville and Columbia will result in victories, let us remind you that AU lost at South Carolina last year and the Razorbacks were robbed of a victory on The Plains due to an unfathomable officiating mistake. The home games aren’t easy, either. Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi St. and ‘Bama come to Jordan-Hare Stadium. The defense and star RB Tank Bigsby should keep Auburn in most of its games. Bo Nix is reportedly being pushed by LSU transfer QB TJ Finley, but I expect Nix to hold Finley off for the starting gig. Will Nix improve in a different offense? Like many young QBs, Nix has played much better at home in his first two seasons. But he’s been abysmal on the road and that can’t continue. New OC Mike Bobo will be calling the plays, which did wonders for RB Kevin Harris at South Carolina last year. If he can stay healthy, count on Bigsby leading the SEC in carries.
Kentucky: Mark Stoops has taken UK to five consecutive bowl games and the Wildcats should go to a sixth straight this year. Once again, though, the biggest question mark is at the most important position on the field. Will Penn St. transfer QB Will Levis be the answer? We shall see. Chris Rodriguez is a beast at RB, OT Darian Kinnard was a third-team All-American last season and Rosenthal was an outstanding addition to the offensive line out of the transfer portal. The portal also delivered playmakers in ex-Nebraska WR Wan’Dale Robinson and former Ole Miss LB Jacquez Jones. The defense is led by a trio of veterans in Yusuf Corker, DeAndre Square and Joshua Paschal.
Missouri: The Tigers went 4-2 in six home games last year, but they limped to a 1-3 record in four road assignments with the three losses coming by margins of 23, 24 and 19 points. Eli Drinkwitz has acquitted himself well to date. I expect Mizzou to be in the postseason.
Arkansas: The Razorbacks get a road game at Georgia in their draw from the SEC East, and they host Texas in Week 2. So once again, the Hogs have a brutal schedule. In QB KJ Jefferson’s only career start, Arkansas lost a 50-48 decision at Missouri on a walk-off field goal. Jefferson had three TD passes without an interception and a pair of rushing scores in five games last season. He has one of the country’s top WRs in Treylon Brooks and one of the SEC’s best RBs in Trelon Smith. On the defensive side, the linebackers and the secondary will be strengths. LBs Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool are thumpers who are always at the right place at the right time. Safety Jalen Catalon returns after garnering third-team All-American honors in 2020.
Tennessee: All seven losses were by double-digit margins last year. Then the roster was robbed of talented players like RBs Ty Chandler (UNC) and Eric Gray (Oklahoma), in addition to LB Henry To’o To’o (Alabama) and OT Wanya Morris (Oklahoma). New head coach Josh Heupel is up against it, but he’ll find a way to score points. He has to decide on a QB soon with transfers Hendon Hooker (Va. Tech) and Joe Milton (Michigan) competing for the job with Harrison Bailey. With Bowling Green, Tennessee Tech, South Alabama, Vanderbilt and South Carolina coming to Neyland Stadium, Heupel should be able to get the Vols to a bowl game if they can beat Pitt at home in Week 2.
South Carolina: Shane Beamer’s starting QB Luke Doty is in a walking boot after getting a cast off of his injured foot earlier this week. Doty’s status for the opener vs. Eastern Illinois is still in doubt. Even worse, star RB Kevin Harris hasn’t practiced yet. The good news is that the Gamecocks are strong on the offensive and defensive lines. The star on the d-line is Kingsley Enagbare, who was a first-team All-SEC selection in 2020. The d-line has added Ga. St. transfer DE Jordan Strachan, who led the nation in sacks last year. This group also has a pair of five-stars in DE Jordan Burch and DT Zacch Pickens. A trip to the postseason isn’t out of the question, but Beamer and the Gamecocks need Harris and Doty to get — and then stay — healthy ASAP.
Vanderbilt: QB Ken Seals showed a lot of toughness and promise as a true freshman last season. He had six TD passes compared to only two interceptions in Vandy’s final four games. He has all of his WRs back. Cam Johnson, Amir Abdur-Rahman and Chris Pierce form a solid group of wideouts, and TE Ben Bresnahan had 28 catches for 300 yards and four TDs in 2020. The Commodores have lost 13 games in a row to FBS competition, and they’ll try to end that slide at Colorado St. in Week 2.