Alex ScarboroughESPN Staff Writer
The start of SEC media days can mean only one thing: The offseason is coming to a close. With the first full week of the regular season less than 50 days away, here’s a look at the preseason power rankings for the SEC.
The linebacker bug has struck again with Terrell Lewis suffering a torn ACL and VanDarius Cowan being dismissed for “violation of team rules.” And have you heard? There’s a quarterback battle to consider. But despite the Tua Tagovailoa–Jalen Hurts debate, and the need to replace all four starters in the secondary, Alabama should navigate a manageable schedule and once again come out at the top of the conference.
Forget the so-called quarterback controversy you’ve heard about in Athens. It’s Jake Fromm’s job to lose after leading Georgia to overtime of the national championship game as a true freshman. Replacing Sony Michel and Nick Chubb at running back won’t be easy, but D’Andre Swift is a special talent. The real question isn’t on offense, but rather how the defense makes up for the loss of middle linebacker Roquan Smith, the Butkus Award winner.
Maybe Jarrett Stidham can become the No. 1 quarterback in the SEC. Maybe the defense, despite losing stars Carlton Davis and Jeff Holland, won’t miss a beat. But what about the schedule? When you look at a season opener against playoff hopeful Washington and games on the road at Georgia and Alabama to end the season, Auburn could be just as good as last season and lose more games.
People shouldn’t sleep on the Bulldogs. While it’s fair to wonder how Joe Moorhead will do replacing Dan Mullen as head coach, there’s not a lot else to question about this team. Nick Fitzgerald, one of the most talented QBs in the country, says he’s ready to play after suffering a gruesome ankle injury. And he has 1,000-yard rusher Aeris Williams back to help him. That’s to say nothing of a loaded defense that features All-SEC caliber players Jeffery Simmons, Montez Sweat, Mark McLaurin and Gerri Green.
There might not be a bigger wild card in the SEC than the Gators. The return of Dan Mullen has breathed new life into a stagnant program. There’s finally hope that with Mullen’s magic and the addition of Ole Miss wideout Van Jefferson, the offense might finally pull out of the ditch. But the missing link is the same it always has been: quarterback. Whether it’s Feleipe Franks or Emory Jones, the position will make or break Mullen’s first season back in Gainesville.
South Carolina has largely flown under the radar, but Will Muschamp has built a quality program in a very short period of time in Columbia. The offense, which has always been his Achilles’ heel, has become a strength thanks to the development of quarterback Jake Bentley and wideouts Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards. And the defense, despite missing true star power, should be solid under Muschamp’s watch. Don’t be surprised if the Gamecocks give perennial East powers Georgia and Florida trouble this season.
If we’re handing out superlatives and “wild card” is already taken, then maybe we ought to call LSU the biggest question mark in the SEC. Really, what are we to make of the Tigers? The offense, despite the addition of quarterback Joe Burrow, doesn’t appear poised to break out of what feels like a decadelong slump. And while the defense has two legitimate stars in Greedy Williams and Devin White, it will have to replace half of its starters from last season, including fixtures Arden Key and Christian LaCouture. The talent is always there in Baton Rouge, but maybe not the expectations this season.
8. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher may have the kind of expectations that befit a fully guaranteed $75 million contract, but maybe he should pump the brakes in Year 1. He has a lot of work to do. The good news on offense is that star running back Trayveon Williams returns, but the bad news is that there’s no clear-cut answer at quarterback and one of the best receivers in program history, Christian Kirk, is gone. Given the need for a rebuild on defense, the Aggies could struggle.
Benny Snell Jr. better tighten his chinstrap because he’s going to need to be a workhorse to carry this offense that has no clear answer at quarterback and an inconsistent group of receivers. The good news is that Snell, who rushed for 1,333 yards last season, is that type of back. If Mark Stoops, who has steadily upgraded the talent of the roster overall, can field a strong defense that returns eight starters, then the Wildcats could manage to be a player in the East.
Drew Lock might throw for 4,000 yards and become a first-round draft pick. The offense is certainly capable of supporting that. But the question is how the odd fit of offensive coordinator Derek Dooley plays out. It has been a while since he has been in the college game, and it wasn’t pretty.
11. Ole Miss
All right, so maybe the Rebs aren’t eligible to play in a bowl. And maybe the defense is going to be, shall we say, problematic. But nonetheless, this team is going to be dangerous and fun to watch thanks to the return of quarterback Jordan Ta’amu and one of the best receiver rooms in the country that features future first-round pick A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and DaMarkus Lodge.
Who knows if Tennessee fans have the patience (probably not), but this rebuild under Jeremy Pruitt is going to take time. The addition of grad transfers Keller Chryst, Mark London and Brandon Kennedy are helpful, but they’re Band-Aids on a larger wound as both sides of the ball need to be upgraded significantly in terms of talent. Simply reaching a bowl game would be a win for Pruitt and his staff in Year 1.
The return of senior quarterback Kyle Shurmur, a three-year starter, is something the Commodores can hang their hat on. But star running back Ralph Webb and three of the team’s top pass-catchers are all gone. With a defense returning just four starters, coach Derek Mason could be in for a rocky season.
Out of all the first-year coaches in the league, maybe none faces a steeper hill to climb than Chad Morris. It’s not just that the Razorbacks need to recruit better on offense and defense, it’s that they need to start recruiting a different kind of player as they transition from the throwback, plodding style of former coach Bret Bielema to the up-tempo, speed-oriented system of Morris.