Duke or Alabama? A seal of approval prediction on Chick-fil-A Kickoff game
As usual, the Southeastern Conference is the deepest conference in the country, with a long list of College Football Playoff contenders to accompany the Alabama Crimson Tide, a preseason favorite to win a fifth national championship in 11 seasons.
Here’s a team-by-team look at the SEC in the media’s predicted order of finish:
1. GEORGIA BULLDOGS
Coach: Kirby Smart (fourth year, 32-10).
Players to watch: QB Jake Fromm; RB D’Andre Swift; T Andrew Thomas; T Cade Mays; CB Tyson Campbell.
Key games: vs. Notre Dame (Sept. 21); at Tennessee (Oct. 5); vs. Florida (Nov. 2); at Auburn (Nov. 16); vs. Texas A&M (Nov. 23).
Overview: Georgia has been the class of the SEC East basically since Smart took over as coach. The Bulldogs’ even greater success, however, has been on the recruiting trail. This is the year the two tracts of success could intersect in Athens, Georgia, and produce a loaded roster for the Bulldogs. They have now-entrenched offensive stars like Thomas and Fromm, and can count on rising stars like Campbell and Mays to give Georgia a well-rounded roster. The Bulldogs, once again, will be a playoff contender.
2. FLORIDA GATORS
Coach: Dan Mullen (11th year, 79-49).
Players to watch: RB LaMical Perine; DL Jabari Zuniga; LB David Reese; CB C.J. Henderson; CB Trey Dean.
Key games: vs. Miami (Aug. 24); vs. Tennessee (Sept. 21); vs. Auburn (Oct. 5); at LSU (Oct. 12); vs. Georgia (Nov. 2).
Overview: Once again, Florida will go as far as its defense will take it. The Gators have a veteran group and enough talented young players at unproven spots on the field to feel confident at least on one side of the ball. The only question is whether the offense can match the defense, which hinges largely on Feleipe Franks. After being benched against the Missouri Tigers, the quarterback finished the season with a pair of dazzling performances and could be ready to take a leap.
3. MISSOURI TIGERS
Coach: Barry Odom (fourth year, 19-19).
Players to watch: RB Larry Rountree III; TE Albert Okwuegbunam; OL Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms; LB Cale Garrett; DB DeMarkus Acy.
Key games: at Wyoming (Aug. 31); vs. South Carolina (Sept. 21); at Georgia (Nov. 9); vs. Florida (Nov. 16); vs. Tennessee (Nov. 23)
Overview: A postseason ban lingers as a cloud over an otherwise interesting team. Missouri’s passing attack was dynamic in 2018 with quarterback Drew Lock, now with the Denver Broncos, establishing himself as one of the SEC’s best. New quarterback Kelly Bryant guided the Clemson Tigers’ dynasty for a few years before transferring in the offseason, and he should help ease Missouri through a transitional period.
4. SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
Coach: Will Muschamp (eighth year, 50-38).
Players to watch: WR Bryan Edwards; DT Javon Kinlaw.
Key games: vs. Alabama (Sept. 14); at Georgia (Oct. 12); vs. Florida (Oct. 19); at Texas A&M (Nov. 16); vs. Clemson (Nov. 30).
Overview: South Carolina’s 2019 schedule is a gauntlet. The Gamecocks play each of the preseason top-three teams — the Crimson Tide in September, the Bulldogs in October and rival Clemson in November — which could make this another underwhelming season in Columbia, South Carolina. The Gamecocks should be solid on defense, though, just as they have been all throughout the Muschamp era. There just isn’t much upside unless they can spring a couple of huge upsets.
5. TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
Coach: Jeremy Pruitt (second year, 5-7).
Players to watch: WR Marquez Callaway; T Trey Smith.
Key games: at Florida (Sept. 21); vs. Georgia (Oct. 5); vs. Mississippi State (Oct. 12); at Alabama (Oct. 19); vs. South Carolina (Oct. 26).
Overview: As always, there’s no shortage of talent in Knoxville, Tennessee. In Year 2, Pruitt will try to prove things are moving in the right direction for the Volunteers, who have a potential first-round NFL Draft pick at left tackle if Smith is healthy enough to play, a returning starter at quarterback and bring back their top three running backs from 2018. A second-year leap for Pruitt is a distinct possibility.
6. KENTUCKY WILDCATS
Coach: Mark Stoops (seventh year, 36-39).
Players to watch: WR Lynn Bowden; G Logan Stenberg; C Drake Jackson; LB Kash Daniel.
Key games: vs. Florida (Sept. 14); at Mississippi State (Sept. 21); at Georgia (Oct. 19); vs. Tennessee (Nov. 9); vs. Louisville (Nov. 30).
Overview: After its best season since the 1970s, Kentucky could be due for a bit of a rebuild. Running back Benny Snell, often counted on to carry the entire offense, is now with the Pittsburgh Steelers. Edge rusher Josh Allen, one of the best defensive players in the country in 2018, is now with the Jacksonville Jaguars. The 2019 season might the most telling yet for Stoops in Lexington, Kentucky.
7. VANDERBILT COMMODORES
Coach: Derek Mason (sixth year, 24-38).
Players to watch: RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn; WR Kalija Lipscomb; TE Jared Pinkney.
Key games: vs. Georgia (Aug. 31); vs. LSU (Sept. 21); at South Carolina (Nov. 2); at Florida (Nov. 9); at Tennessee (Nov. 30).
Overview: Vanderbilt is always working from behind in the SEC in terms of talent, and now the Commodores have to replace seven defensive starters and their quarterback. It could be a rebuilding season in Nashville and those can get ugly. Vanderbilt will have to lean heavily on Pinkney and Vaughn.
1. ALABAMA CRIMSON TIDE
Coach: Nick Saban (24th year, 237-63-1).
Players to watch: QB Tua Tagovailoa; WR Jerry Jeudy; DL Raekwon Davis; DE/LB Terrell Lewis; CB Trevon Diggs.
Key games: at Texas A&M (Oct. 12); vs. Tennessee (Oct. 19); vs. LSU (Nov. 9); at Mississippi State (Nov. 16); at Auburn (Nov. 30)
Overview: Another year, another inevitable title run for Alabama. The Crimson Tide went back to the national championship for the fourth consecutive season last year only to surprisingly be blown out by Clemson, 44-16, in Santa Clara, California. Alabama is effectively co-favorites with Clemson, with a Heisman Trophy front-runner at quarterback, a loaded stable of wide receivers for Tagovailoa to throw to and a typically loaded Saban defense. Everyone will be gunning for the Crimson Tide, as usual.
2. LSU TIGERS
Coach: Ed Orgeron (eighth year, 41-36).
Players to watch: WR Ja’Marr Chase; DL Rashard Lawrence; LB Jacob Phillips; CB Kristian Felton; S Grant Delpit.
Key games: at Texas (Sept. 7); vs. Florida (Oct. 12); vs. Auburn (Oct. 26); at Alabama (Nov. 9); vs. Texas A&M (Nov. 30).
Overview: Defense is why LSU is the biggest threat to unseat the Crimson Tide atop the SEC West. Delpit might be the top defensive player in the country, they have a potential lockdown corner in Felton and a star linebacker in the middle of the field again, too. Throw in a returning starter at quarterback and it’s easy to see why LSU is viewed as Alabama’s toughest divisional challenger.
3. TEXAS A&M AGGIES
Coach: Jimbo Fisher (10th year, 92-27).
Players to watch: RB Jashaun Corbin; WR Kendrick Rogers; DL Justin Madubuike; P Braden Mann.
Key games: at Clemson (Sept. 7); vs. Auburn (Sept. 21); vs. Alabama (Oct. 12); at Georgia (Nov. 23); at LSU (Nov. 30).
Overview: Texas A&M improved significantly as the season went on in Fisher’s first year as coach in College Station, Texas, so expectations are lofty for Year 2. The Aggies bring back quarterback Kellen Mond after a good season, and he has an experienced group of receivers to throw to, led by Rogers. If Fisher truly is the quarterback whisperer he has a reputation as being, Texas A&M’s offense could be excellent.
4. AUBURN TIGERS
Coach: Gus Malzahn (eighth year, 62-30).
Players to watch: RB JaTarvious Whitlow; WR Anthony Schwartz; DE Marlon Davidson; DL Derrick Brown; DL Nick Coe.
Key games: vs. Oregon (Aug. 31); at Florida (Oct. 5); at LSU (Oct. 26); vs. Georgia (Nov. 16); vs. Alabama (Nov. 30).
Overview: Auburn has been one of the most difficult teams to project in Malzahn’s tenure, but, at least on defense, Auburn has the pieces to be a contender in the SEC West. Brown could have potentially been a first-round pick in the 2019 NFL Draft before opting to return for his senior year. Coe and Davison are elite running mates up front for Brown and help give Auburn one of the best defensive lines in the country.
5. MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
Coach: Joe Moorhead (second year, 8-5).
Players to watch: OL Darryl Williams; DE Chauncey Rivers; LB Erroll Thompson; CB Cameron Dantzler.
Key games: at Auburn (Sept. 28); at Tennessee (Oct. 12); vs. LSU (Oct. 19); at Texas A&M (Oct. 26); vs. Alabama (Nov. 16).
Overview: Moorhead picked up right where Mullen left off in his first year as Mississippi State’s coach. Plenty of Moorehead’s success, however, is owed to the infrastructure Mullen left in place before he left to coach the Gators. Mississippi State had arguably the best defensive line in the SEC and won games because of its defense. Year 2 will be a test to see if Moorehead can sustain the success his predecessor had in Starkville, Mississippi.
6. MISSISSIPPI REBELS
Coach: Matt Luke (third year, 11-13).
Players to watch: QB Matt Corral; RB Scottie Phillips.
Key games: at Alabama (Sept. 28); vs. Texas A&M (Oct. 19); at Auburn (Nov. 2); vs. LSU (Nov. 16); at Mississippi State (Nov. 28)
Overview: It’s tough to be in the bottom of the SEC West, which is squarely where Mississippi has sat for most of the decade. Save for a stretch of success near the end of former coach Hugh Freeze’s tenure, the Rebels have struggled to keep up with some of the powerhouses at the top of the division. Luke’s job has not been easy, particularly because of some of the sanctions levied upon Ole Miss during Freeze’s time. The Rebels have an interesting plan to try to turn things around: Rich Rodriguez is the new offensive coordinator and will get to mold Corral.
7. ARKANSAS RAZORBACKS
Coach: Chad Morris (fifth year, 16-33).
Players to watch: DL McTelvin Agim; LB De’Jon Harris.
Key games: vs. Texas A&M (Sept. 28); vs. Auburn (Oct. 19); at Alabama (Oct. 26); vs. Mississippi State (Nov. 2); at LSU (Nov. 23)
Overview: The SEC is filled with coaches in their second seasons ready to try to take a step forward. Count Morris as one of those second-year coaches hoping to build on — in his case — an embarrassing debut season. There are returning starters all over the field, though, so Morris should start to get things moving in the right direction in Fayetteville, Arkansas.