The SEC has taken three of the six national championships in the CFB Playoff era, and with six teams ranked inside of the top 13 of Athlon Sports’ projected top 25 for 2020, this conference will once again have a large presence in determining the title. Quarterback play is an area to watch this fall. The conference lost a couple of standouts, and all six of the projected top teams have some sort of question mark surrounding their signal-caller.
Alabama is Athlon’s pick to win the SEC in 2020, with LSU coming in second in the SEC West. The Tigers lost several key cogs off its 2019 national championship-winning squad, while the Crimson Tide can lean on running back Najee Harris and a talented offensive line until Mac Jones or Bryce Young claims the starting quarterback job. Texas A&M edges Auburn for third in the West, with Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Arkansas rounding out the projected order of finish.
The East Division is a coin flip between Florida and Georgia. The Bulldogs have the recent series edge and boast the better overall roster (according to recruiting rankings). With Georgia making significant changes on offense, while Florida has continuity at coach and quarterback, those small factors could be the deciding edge in a tight debate. Tennessee and Kentucky headline the next tier, with South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt rounding out the rest of the East.
SEC 2020 Predictions
Picking between Florida and Georgia for the top spot in the East Division was the toughest prediction of the preseason for Athlon Sports. Yes, the Bulldogs have more overall roster talent and have won three in a row in this rivalry, but a small edge goes to the Gators. Continuity on offense with the return of quarterback Kyle Trask under coach Dan Mullen is huge with a limited offseason, and Florida should see some improvement from a line that struggled in 2019 but added transfer Stewart Reese from Mississippi State. Kyle Pitts is one of the top tight ends in the nation, with running back Lorenzo Lingard and receivers Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney rounding out a solid corps at the skill positions. Florida's defense finished second in the SEC in fewest points allowed (15.5) and returns five starters. This unit should be strong once again, especially with one of the SEC's top cornerback duos (Marco Wilson and Kaiir Elam), along with a talented defensive line. The East is likely to come down to the annual showdown in Jacksonville, but Florida has an easier crossover (LSU) than Georgia, and road trips to Tennessee and Ole Miss are manageable.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
As mentioned above, it's a close call atop the SEC East. The Bulldogs return eight starters from arguably the top defense in college football in 2020 but winning an SEC or national title hinges on how far the offense develops. After a sluggish year offensively, coach Kirby Smart hit the reset button and hired Todd Monken as play-caller and brought in Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman at quarterback. With no spring practice, this duo won't have much time to get up to speed in the fall. Also, the Bulldogs are breaking in three new starters up front and have to find more playmakers to surround George Pickens at receiver. As usual, the ground game won't be an issue. The early trip to Alabama will tell us a lot about Georgia's offense.
Jeremy Pruitt has Tennessee headed in the right direction and sporting a six-game winning streak coming into the 2020 season. The gap between Georgia and Florida to Tennessee is still significant, and Pruitt's squad has a few obstacles to overcome in order to be a top-25 team. The schedule features games against Oklahoma, Florida, Georgia and Alabama - all projected to finish in Athlon's top seven - and the offense needs more consistency out of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano to improve a unit that averaged only 24.2 points a game last fall. After struggling up front the last couple of seasons, Tennessee's offensive line ranks as one of the best in the nation. The Volunteers gave up 27.9 points a contest in 2018 but lowered that total to 21.7 last season. Only five starters return, but the depth up front has improved, sophomore linebacker Henry To'o To'o is a rising star, and cornerback Bryce Thompson will challenge for All-SEC honors.
The Wildcats are coming off their best two-year stretch (18 wins) since 1976-77. Coach Mark Stoops' squad should push for a top-25 finish if quarterback Terry Wilson continues to develop as a passer after missing nearly all of 2019 due to a knee injury. Wilson needs playmakers to emerge outside, but the backfield is stocked with options, and the offensive line ranks among the best in the nation. Kentucky's defense held teams to just 19.3 points a game, allowed nine touchdown passes and surrendered only 5.3 yards a snap last season. The 2020 version should be just as strong for Stoops, as edge rusher Boogie Watson (6.5 sacks) and a strong secondary lead the way. The Wildcats play at Auburn in crossover play and also hit the road for key swing games against Louisville and Tennessee. Wilson's development will decide how high Kentucky climbs in the East this fall.
Related: SEC All-Conference Team for 2020
5. South Carolina*
The 2020 season could be a make-or-break campaign for Will Muschamp. The Gamecocks have watched their win total decline from nine in 2017 to seven in '18 and four last year. Under Muschamp's watch, South Carolina has never finished higher than ninth in the SEC in scoring offense. That's where the question marks begin this season. New coordinator Mike Bobo inherits an offense with question marks at every position and has to help quarterback Ryan Hilinski reach his potential as a sophomore. Despite the loss of standout tackle Javon Kinlaw, defense should be a strength in Columbia. Cornerbacks Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu form a standout duo in the secondary, with Zacch Pickens, Aaron Sterling and top recruit Jordan Burch anchoring the trenches. A schedule featuring crossover games versus Texas A&M and LSU isn't easy. Also, the Gamecocks play at Kentucky and play at rival Clemson to close 2020.
New coach Eli Drinkwitz arrives in Columbia after a successful one-year stint at Appalachian State, and his background on offense will be put to the test right away with an offense that returns just four starters after averaging 25.3 points a game in 2019. Drinkwitz has two intriguing quarterbacks - Shawn Robinson and Connor Bazelak - to choose from, but question marks remain up front after an uneven performance in the trenches, and there's little in the way of proven receivers. The one-two punch of Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie at running back is one of the better tandems in the SEC. Missouri allowed only 19.4 points a game on defense last year, so it's no surprise Drinkwitz retained coordinator Ryan Walters. Linebacker Nick Bolton anchors another strong group with seven returning starters, and this unit will have to carry the team until the offense develops. Despite the question marks, a favorable schedule gives Drinkwitz a chance to guide the Tigers to a bowl in 2020.
Derek Mason enters his seventh season facing several pressing concerns for a program that's won two or fewer SEC games in four out of his six years at the helm. Vanderbilt's offense is under the direction of a new coordinator (Todd Fitch), must replace three of the SEC's most talented skill players in running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, tight end Jared Pinkney and receiver Kalija Lipscomb. Also, the Commodores are likely to start a quarterback - either Jeremy Moussa or Ken Seals - that doesn't have a snap of experience at the SEC level. On the positive side, Vanderbilt's defense has 11 returning starters off a unit that allowed 31.8 points a game in 2019. Mason's team is filled with question marks - not an ideal scenario for a program coming off a 3-9 mark in 2019.
Even though Alabama missed the CFB Playoff for the first time since its inception in 2014, Nick Saban's dynasty in Tuscaloosa isn't over. Instead, the Crimson Tide have the necessary pieces in place to win it all in 2020. Quarterback Mac Jones played well in relief of Tua Tagovailoa last year and will compete with five-star freshman Bryce Young to start in the fall. Whoever wins the job has a strong supporting cast that includes arguably the best offensive line in the nation, running back Najee Harris and two All-America-caliber receivers in DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle. Alabama's defense slipped on the stat sheet last year, but better luck in the health department - especially in the front seven - will make a big difference. The return of linebacker Dylan Moses should help the run defense and overall communication. Cornerback Patrick Surtain II is a preseason All-American by Athlon Sports, but the rest of the secondary is new. The Sept. 19 home clash against Georgia will be a huge opportunity for Alabama to take its claim for the top of the SEC once again.
Related: SEC All-Conference Team for 2020
The reigning national champions return only eight starters, but coach Ed Orgeron's team won't drop too far in the West Division. Joe Burrow leaves big shoes to fill, offensive assistant Joe Brady left for the NFL, the line has four new starters, and the Tigers have to replace running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire and receiver Justin Jefferson. That's a lot to replace in one offseason. The rebuilding effort starts with quarterback Myles Brennan and the top receiver in college football in Ja'Marr Chase. Bo Pelini is back in Baton Rouge and plans to shift LSU's defense to more of a 4-3 scheme. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. is arguably the top returning defensive player in the nation, and the arrival of North Dakota State transfer Jabril Cox adds needed depth and talent to the linebacker unit. Orgeron's team faces tough road tests at Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M but Alabama and Texas both come to Baton Rouge in 2020.
3. Texas A&M*
Texas A&M seems primed to take a step forward in coach Jimbo Fisher's third year in College Station. The Aggies return the most starters (16) of any team in the West Division, including quarterback Kellen Mond. The senior needs to play better against the league's top competition, but the offensive line also has room to improve with four starters back. Fisher has plenty of talent at the skill positions to deploy, including running back Isaiah Spiller, receiver Jhamon Ausbon and tight end Jalen Wydermyer. With eight starters returning, there's optimism for a big jump in production on defense. The Aggies ranked ninth in the SEC by allowing 22.5 points a game last fall. Filling the void left behind by tackle Justin Madubuike and improving the pass defense will be a priority this fall. After a brutal schedule last year, the slate is considerably lighter in 2020. Texas A&M trades Georgia for Vanderbilt, hosts LSU and does not play Clemson in non-conference action.
Gus Malzahn's Tigers enter the year with big question marks in the trenches, but if sophomore quarterback Bo Nix takes a step forward under new play-caller Chad Morris, Auburn will contend for nine or 10 victories once again. An inconsistent offensive line is starting over with four new full-time starters, but there's good skill talent at running back and Seth Williams (14.1 ypc) is one of the SEC's top receivers. Although defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has to restock the line and rebuild the secondary, the linebacker unit is among the best in college football, and plenty of young talent returns to suggest a minimal drop in production. Auburn's schedule features a non-conference showdown against North Carolina and road trips to Georgia, Ole Miss and Alabama.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020
5. Ole Miss*
Lane Kiffin inherits an Ole Miss program without a bowl appearance since 2015. While Kiffin won't lead the Rebels to an SEC West title in 2020, the first-year coach inherits two proven quarterbacks in Matt Corral and dangerous dual-threat option John Rhys Plumlee (1,023 rushing yards). All-purpose threat Jerrion Ealy is primed for a breakout season in Kiffin's offense, and Elijah Moore leads a talented group of receivers. Ole Miss allowed 6.3 yards a play and 36.2 points a game in '18 but cut those totals to 5.8 a snap and 26.5 per contest in '19. Building off that improvement hinges on restocking the trenches and adapting to a new play-caller. Ole Miss has to play Florida in crossover play but catches rival Mississippi State in Oxford.
6. Mississippi State*
The Bulldogs won't lack for intrigue with Mike Leach taking over, but the lack of spring practice hurts a team making a significant shift to the Air Raid on offense. Stanford transfer K.J. Costello is a good fit for Leach's offense, while Kylin Hill might be one of the nation's most underrated running backs. The pieces are in place for a solid line, but Leach has to find playmakers at receiver. After holding teams to 4.1 yards a play in '18, the Bulldogs surrendered 6.3 last year. New coordinator Zach Arnett plans to implement a 3-3-5 approach, and similar to the offense, question marks surround every level. Linebacker Erroll Thompson should thrive in this defense. A trip to NC State in Week 2 will serve as a good barometer for Leach's squad, but a brutal October - Texas A&M, at Alabama, at LSU and Auburn - awaits this fall.
New coach Sam Pittman inherits a program that hasn't won an SEC game since 2017 and faces a brutal schedule in '20. However, Pittman has pushed the right buttons since returning to Fayetteville, including a fast close to National Signing Day and a solid staff that features coordinators Kendal Briles (offense) and Barry Odom (defense). Florida transfer Feleipe Franks is expected to start under center, and the Razorbacks have an underrated group of skill players around him, including running back Rakeem Boyd and receivers Michael Woods and Treylon Burks. The offensive line has been an issue over the last few years in Fayetteville and remains a concern again in 2020. The defense has allowed at least six yards a play in five consecutive seasons and has question marks at every level. Replacing standout tackle McTelvin Agim, linebacker De'Jon Harris and safety Kamren Curl won't be easy. Transfer Xavier Kelly (DL), Jerry Jacobs (CB) and Levi Draper (LB) will push for time.
Alabama over Florida
* Indicates team projected to reach bowl eligibility in 2020
SEC 2020 Projected Top Unit Rankings
SEC 2020 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Pick by Steven Lassan: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Pick by Braden Gall: Jaylen Waddle, WR, Alabama
Pick by Mark Ross: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Pick by Steven Lassan: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
Pick by Braden Gall: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
Pick by Mark Ross: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
Coach of the Year
Pick by Steven Lassan: Dan Mullen, Florida
Pick by Braden Gall: Mark Stoops, Kentucky
Pick by Mark Ross: Dan Mullen, Florida
Coach on the Hot Seat
Pick by Steven Lassan: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Pick by Braden Gall: Will Muschamp, South Carolina
Pick by Mark Ross: Derek Mason, Vanderbilt
Pick by Steven Lassan: MarShawn Lloyd, RB, South Carolina
Pick by Braden Gall: Trey Sanders, RB, Alabama
Pick by Mark Ross: Arik Gilbert, TE, LSU
Pick by Steven Lassan: Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia
Pick by Braden Gall: Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia
Pick by Mark Ross: Jamie Newman, QB, Georgia
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kentucky
Pick by Braden Gall: Kentucky
Pick by Mark Ross: Kentucky
Key Position to Watch
Pick by Steven Lassan: Florida OL
Pick by Braden Gall: Auburn OL
Pick by Mark Ross: Alabama DB
Best Coordinator Hire
Pick by Steven Lassan: Todd Monken, OC, Georgia
Pick by Braden Gall: Chad Morris, OC, Auburn
Pick by Mark Ross: Todd Monken, OC, Georgia
Hardest Team to Evaluate
Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia
Pick by Braden Gall: Georgia
Pick by Mark Ross: Missouri
Coach on the Rise
Pick by Steven Lassan: Mike Elko, DC, Texas A&M
Pick by Braden Gall: Lane Kiffin, HC, Ole Miss
Pick by Mark Ross: Jeremy Pruitt, HC, Tennessee
Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia at Alabama
Pick by Braden Gall: Florida vs. Georgia
Pick by Mark Ross: Georgia at Alabama
Pick by Steven Lassan: Kaiir Elam, CB, Florida
Pick by Braden Gall: Jerrion Ealy, RB, Ole Miss
Pick by Mark Ross: Jerrion Ealy, RB, Ole Miss
Pick by Steven Lassan: Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Pick by Braden Gall: LaBryan Ray, DL, Alabama
Pick by Mark Ross: Dylan Moses, LB, Alabama