SEC football is regarded as the best in the country. With a collection of teams that have combined to take home 12 of the last 16 national titles — including three in a row — the league is widely recognized as the toughest in the sport.
Last season, it was Georgia that downed Alabama in the College Football Playoff final, weeks after the Crimson Tide had outclassed them in the SEC Championship. Both teams figure to compete for the right to be in the same situation in January, but first, they’ll have to run through a gauntlet with targets on their back.
Let’s take a look at the conference’s programs and their prospects for the upcoming campaign.
Having gotten the monkey off of their backs by grabbing their first national crown since 1980, the Bulldogs are out to repeat and grab some more Fanatics officially licensed sports apparel. They did lose a number of key cogs in a defense that ranked first in scoring a year ago — namely defensive tackle Jordan Davis and linebacker Nakobe Dean.
Notable returners on that unit will be senior linebacker Nolan Smith and sophomore corner Kelee Ringo, both of whom started at least a dozen games in 2021.
The offense touts signal-caller Stetson Bennett and tailbacks Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton. Bennett, the offensive MVP of the CFP Championship Game, will have a trio of familiar targets in sophomores Adonai Mitchell, Ladd McConkey, and Brock Bowers, not to mention tight end Arik Gilbert, who missed last year for personal reasons.
This team has a shot at providing their fans some more sports collectibles and memorabilia.
Alabama Crimson Tide
Bryce Young stepped in behind center last season for the Crimson Tide and didn’t look back. The junior passed for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns on his way to winning the Heisman Trophy. Jameson Williams and John Metchie III, two of his go-to guys, are gone, though.
But the cupboard is never bare in Tuscaloosa, and Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks, and JoJo Earle will aim to pick up where the others left off. Running back Jahmyr Gibbs also joins the fold after transferring over from Georgia Tech this offseason.
On the other side of the ball, linebacker Will Anderson Jr. is tasked with an encore to his 17.5-sack, 34.5-tackle for loss effort. He’d be the best player in almost all leagues.
Under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, the Vols saw a revival in 2021. Back to operate the quick-tempo attack is senior quarterback Hendon Hooker, who accounted for 36 scores. His favorite target, Cedric Tillman, pulled in touchdowns in each of UT’s last seven games. His last time out, he had three in the Music City Bowl.
Not to be forgotten is the team’s ground game. Junior Jabari Small ran for 796 yards last year, while the Vols rushed for an average of 217.8 yards per contest — a mark that ranked 11th in the country.
Tennessee had never pulled down more ball carriers in the backfield than they did a season ago. Six starters from that defensive pack return, including senior defensive end Byron Young.
Texas A&M Aggies
Head coach Jimbo Fisher pulled in a spectacular recruiting class for the Aggies, who lured in eight five-star pledges. Four of those signees are defensive linemen Walter Nolen, Shemar Stewart, Gabriel Brownlow-Dindy, and Lebbeus Overton.
They’ll likely bolster a defense that allowed the third-least points on average (15.9). Four familiar faces will patrol the back end for Texas A&M.
At quarterback, the Aggies don’t have anybody who had more than 35 pass attempts in a maroon uniform in 2021. Sophomore Haynes King will be battling for the starting job with LSU transfer Max Johnson.
In Will Levis, the Wildcats have a passer who could garner professional attention this fall. He slung the football for 2,827 yards and ran for another 376. Kentucky brings back its leading rusher — senior Chris Rodriguez Jr. — but watched wideouts Wan’Dale Robinson, Josh Ali, and Justin Rigg walk.
Senior linebackers Jacquez Jones — the crew’s top tackler — and DeAndre Square suit up in blue again. That tandem, along with junior edge rusher J.J. Weaver will anchor the unit.
Arkansas climbed out of the proverbial pit last year, notching rivalry victories over Texas A&M, LSU, and Missouri. The Razorbacks were the owners of a top 10 rushing game in 2021, and dual-threat signal-caller KJ Jefferson is back.
Jefferson led the team both on the ground and through the air, but receiver Treylon Burks has moved on to the NFL. His production will be replaced by transfer Jadon Haselwood and Warren Thompson.
On defense, Arkansas sports new starters in every position of the front seven.
Brian Kelly took the reins in Baton Rouge before last season fully ended. He’ll be tasked with choosing from a quarterback room made up of sixth-year senior Myles Brennan and Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels, among others.
Whoever ends up throwing the football for the Tigers will have the luxury of junior Kayshon Boutte lining up on the outside. Boutte and senior Jaray Jenkins were the two pass-catchers on the team to put up more than 500 yards last season.
On the other side of the ball, LSU will deploy three men up front, including returning starter and junior linebacker BJ Ojulari.
Billy Napier, a former assistant on the staffs of Dabo Swinney and Nick Saban, heads into his first campaign with the Gators.
He’ll enjoy the chance to mold signal-caller Anthony Richardson, who threw for 529 yards and ran for another 401 as Emory Jones’ understudy a year ago. In fact, Richardson, a sophomore, is UF’s leading returning rusher.
It’s likely that sophomore tailback Montrell Johnson, a transfer who followed Napier from Louisiana, sees a good amount of playing time.
Questions remain in spots on the defense, namely the front, but the team brings back a handful of starters in the secondary. Safety Rashad Torrence, a sophomore, paced the team in picks in 2021.
Ole Miss Rebels
The Rebels won 10 matchups last season, which was good enough for the most in a single season in program lore. They’ll take on a bit of a new look this time around, as Coach Lane Kiffin recruited transfers in quarterback Jaxson Dart and tailback Zach Evans. That tandem has a chance to make a large impact.
All-American defensive end Sam Williams moved on to the pros, but the portal provided new talent in linebacker Troy Brown, defensive end Jared Ivey, and defensive tackle JJ Pegues.
It’ll be up to a number of fresh faces to replicate the success Ole Miss enjoyed in 2021.
South Carolina Gamecocks
Shane Beamer turned South Carolina into a respectable program in his first season in charge. This year, he’ll design an offense centered on transfer triggerman Spencer Rattler, the most highly touted passer to ever pass through Columbia.
In front of him, the entire offensive line comes back, along with wideout Josh Vann, who was tops on the team with 679 receiving yards in 2021.
Junior Cam Smith and senior Darius Rush will return as the corners on defense. The Gamecocks had the best pass defense in the SEC, allowing 180 yards a game.
Mississippi State Bulldogs
The Bulldogs had one of the premier passing attacks in the nation in 2021. The proficiency through the air didn’t translate to anything better than an average record, though.
Junior Will Rogers slung the football for 4,739 yards and 36 scores. While Makai Polk, his go-to guy, is gone, four of the team’s leading receivers are back — including Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson.
Stopping the run was the defense’s strong suit, and some components of that effort are back. That group includes senior linebacker Jett Johnson, who paced the unit with 86 stops a year ago.
Coach Eli Drinkwitz will look to pull the Tigers from the ranks of the mediocre after going 11-12 over his first two go-rounds. Sophomore Brady Cook started behind center in the team’s bowl game last winter and was fairly accurate.
Among his options will be five-star freshman Luther Burden and senior Tauskie Dove, who caught 38 footballs.
The defense could use some improvement, as it ranked near the bottom of the league in terms of points allowed per contest last season.
The Commodores are by no means a traditional power in the South, with last year being another struggle as they went winless in the conference.
Neither the offense nor defense could impress, but solid performers in linebacker Anfernee Orji (92 tackles and 13 tackles for loss in 2021) and receiver Will Sheppard are back.
Coach Clark Lea contends that his players are more settled in this year than the last.
The offseason wasn’t exactly the smoothest for the Tigers and Coach Bryan Harsin, who went 6-7 and didn’t gain the favor of the higher-ups last season.
He brought in Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada, who was the only quarterback not named Stetson Bennett to beat Alabama in 2021. Running back Tank Bigsby ran for over 1,100 yards last year and will try to build on that.