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SEC Football 2021 Predictions

Bryce Young, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

Bryce Young, Alabama Crimson Tide Football

The SEC claimed its fourth national championship of the CFB Playoff era last season, as Alabama capped a historic run through the conference with a convincing win over Ohio State in the title game. The Crimson Tide top the SEC predictions for 2021, as coach Nick Saban’s team is Athlon’s pick as the team to beat once again. However, Georgia isn’t far behind. The Bulldogs have the right pieces on offense with quarterback JT Daniels entrenched as the starter, and the defense received a couple of key additions through the transfer portal.

Alabama and Georgia are the teams to beat, but Florida, Texas A&M and LSU are comfortably in the top 25 this year. Ole Miss is trending up under second-year coach Lane Kiffin, Auburn has potential to surprise in Bryan Harsin’s first season, while Missouri and Kentucky headline the next tier in the East. Arkansas, Mississippi State and Tennessee should all push for bowl games this fall. South Carolina and Vanderbilt are in rebuild mode and face an uphill battle to record a winning record.

SEC 2021 Predictions

East Division

1. Georgia

The Bulldogs had their three-year run atop the East end last year, but coach Kirby Smart’s team is primed for a return to Atlanta – and potentially bigger things in 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Georgia’s offense averaged 8.3 points a game more with quarterback JT Daniels in the lineup, and the USC transfer should benefit from a full offseason to work under coordinator Todd Monken. The Bulldogs are loaded at running back, and even with George Pickens sidelined indefinitely, there’s a promising group of receivers.

Concern: It’s hard to find anything to fit here. The Bulldogs need to sort out an offensive line that returns three starters, but talent isn’t an issue.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Adonai Mitchell

Incoming Transfers: TE/WR Arik Gilbert

Breakout Player: TE Darnell Washington

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Georgia should have one of the nation’s top defensive fronts. Lineman Jordan Davis is an All-America candidate, and linebackers Adam Anderson and Nakobe Dean form a strong second level. Also, there’s a deep group of safeties in place with Tykee Smith, Christopher Smith and Lewis Cine in the lineup.

Concern: The Bulldogs return very little experience at cornerback, but the addition of Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick eases concerns here.

True Freshman to Watch: CB Nyland Green

Incoming Transfers: S Tykee Smith; CB Derion Kendrick

Breakout Player: LB Adam Anderson

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Florida

The Gators won the SEC East for the first time under coach Dan Mullen last year and should remain one of the top 10-15 teams in 2021. However, Florida lost key pieces on offense and must improve significantly on defense.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Even though quarterback Kyle Trask, receiver Kadarius Toney and tight end Kyle Pitts are gone, Mullen will find ways for this offense to score points. Quarterback Emory Jones is a breakout candidate, and the Gators have good skill talent on the outside and a deep backfield to build around this fall.

Concern: Three starters are back, but the offensive line has room to improve.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Marcus Burke/Daejon Reynolds

Incoming Transfers: RB Demarkcus Bowman

Breakout Player: QB Emory Jones

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The concerns about this unit are warranted. However, Florida allowed only 15.5 points a game in 2019. There’s talent to work with, including end Zachary Carter, linebackers Brenton Cox Jr. and Ventrell Miller and cornerback Kaiir Elam. Can the returning talent get this group back to its '19 level?

Concern: Florida had an uncharacteristic season on defense in 2020, giving up 30.8 points a game and 6.1 yards per play. Can this group get back on track? Safety play is also under the spotlight.

True Freshman to Watch: CB Jason Marshall

Incoming Transfers: DB Jadarrius Perkins; DL Daquan Newkirk; DL Antonio Shelton

Breakout Player: S Rashad Torrence II

3. Missouri

A 5-5 record with a limited offseason and first-year coach was a good result for Missouri in 2020. With the transition season under their belts, the Tigers should be better in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Tigers upped their per-play average (SEC-only games) from 4.7 in 2020 to 5.6 last fall. The entire unit should benefit from a full offseason to work under Drinkwitz, and quarterback Connor Bazelak is back after a promising freshman year.

Concern: Top running back Larry Rountree has departed, but Tyler Badie should be an effective replacement. The Tigers need more playmakers to step up at receiver, while top tackle Larry Borom departed to the NFL.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Dominic Lovett

Incoming Transfers: WR Mookie Cooper; OL EJ Ndoma Ogar

Breakout Player: QB Connor Bazelak

Previewing the Defense

Strength: New play-caller (and former NFL coach) Steve Wilks inherits pieces to work with up front, including edge rusher Trajan Jeffcoat (six sacks) and linebackers Devin Nicholson and Blaze Alldredge.

Concern: Missouri allowed 6.1 yards per play and 32.3 points a game last fall, so Wilks has a lot of work to do. Also, the secondary ranked eighth in the SEC versus the pass last year and is thin on depth at safety.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Travion Ford

Incoming Transfers: LB Blaze Alldredge; CB Akayleb Evans; CB Allie Green IV

Breakout Player: CB Ennis Rakestraw

Order a Copy of Athlon Sports' 2021 College Football National and SEC Preview Editions

4. Kentucky

Mark Stoops has guided Kentucky to at least four SEC wins in four out of the last five years. If the offense takes a step forward, the Wildcats can push for eight or nine victories in 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Linemen Drake Jackson and Landon Young leave big shoes to fill, but the foundation is still strong up front. Running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. is primed for a huge season, and Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson is a needed playmaker on the outside.

Concern: New play-caller Liam Coen is tasked with improving an offense that has finished last in the SEC in passing for three straight years and averaged only 21.8 points a game in 2020. How quickly can Kentucky make a successful transition on offense? Also, Coen needs to identify an answer at quarterback (likely Penn State transfer Will Levis).

True Freshman to Watch: WR Christian Lewis/Chauncey Magwood

Incoming Transfers: QB Will Levis; WR Wan’Dale Robinson; WR Tre’Von Morgan

Breakout Player: RB Christopher Rodriguez Jr.

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Wildcats have finished in the top five in the SEC in scoring defense for three straight years. This unit returns only four starters but a good foundation is in place. End Josh Paschal, linebacker DeAndre Square and safety Yusuf Corker are All-SEC candidates.

Concern: Both starting cornerbacks from 2020 have departed and more pressure on opposing quarterbacks (15 sacks last year) is needed. How fast will the new pieces fall into place?

True Freshman to Watch: LB Trevin Wallace

Incoming Transfers: DL Justice Dingle; LB Luke Fulton

Breakout Player: LB Jordan Wright

5. Tennessee

New coach Josh Heupel hopes 2021 is the first step to getting Tennessee back on track. The Volunteers have depth concerns at a few positions but also enough talent to get to a bowl.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Heupel’s track record on this side of the ball should provide optimism after the Volunteers averaged only 21.5 points a game. There are options at quarterback and good skill players, along with two building blocks – Cade Mays and Darnell Wright – up front.

Concern: How fast can Tennessee adapt to the new system? Can a quarterback quickly emerge as the answer? The offensive line (29 sacks allowed in 2020) has to improve.

Recruit to Watch: RB Tiyon Evans (JUCO)

Incoming Transfers: QB Joe Milton; QB Hendon Hooker; WR JaVonta Payton

Breakout Player: WR Jalin Hyatt

Previewing the Defense

Strength: There may not be a dominant player up front, but the line has good depth and overall talent. The front-line starters are good in the secondary, and the transfer portal provided instant help.

Concern: Depth is a concern at linebacker and in the secondary. The overall performance has to improve after giving up 30.1 points a game and struggling versus the pass (11th in the SEC).

True Freshman to Watch: LB Aaron Willis

Incoming Transfers: CB Kamal Hadden; DL Da’Jon Terry; DL Caleb Tremblay; LB William Mohan; LB Juwan Mitchell

Breakout Player: LB Tyler Baron

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2021

6. South Carolina

New coach Shane Beamer is a popular hire, but the former South Carolina assistant inherits a lot of work after a 2-8 finish last year.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: New play-caller Marcus Satterfield can build the offense around four returning starters up front, along with one of the best running back duos in the SEC with Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd.

Concern: The passing game. The Gamecocks tossed only eight passing scores last fall, have a thin group of receivers and a first-year starter (Luke Doty) under center.

Freshman to Watch: RB MarShawn Lloyd

Incoming Transfers: QB Jason Brown; WR E.J. Jenkins; WR Ahmarean Brown

Breakout Player: RB MarShawn Lloyd

Previewing the Defense

Strength: South Carolina struggled to stop the run last year, but new play-caller Clayton White has plenty of talent to work with up front, including Zacch Pickens, Jordan Burch and Kingsley Enagbare.

Concern: The Gamecocks ranked 13th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and lost five key defensive backs – including first-round pick Jaycee Horn. Switching to a 4-2-5 won’t be easy in 2021.

Recruit to Watch: CB Marcellas Dial

Incoming Transfers: CB Carlins Platel, DT Jahkeem Green; DE Jordan Strachan; LB Debo Williams; CB David Spaulding

Breakout Player: DL Jordan Burch

7. Vanderbilt

New coach Clark Lea is a native of Nashville and a former Vanderbilt player, so he certainly knows the challenges at this program. After the Commodores finished 0-9 in 2020, Lea – one of the top hires of the offseason – faces an uphill battle in his debut.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Quarterback Ken Seals is back after a solid freshman season, and the Commodores return four players who caught at least 25 passes in 2020, including All-SEC candidate Cam Johnson.

Concern: Protecting Seals is a priority, but Vanderbilt’s offensive line is a question mark. Also, there’s very little experience returning at running back.

Redshirt Freshman to Watch: C Kevo Wesley

Incoming Transfers: RB Re’Mahn Davis; OL Junior Uzebu

Breakout Player: QB Ken Seals

Previewing the Defense

Strength: There are personnel concerns everywhere on this group, but Lea’s track record provides some optimism for 2021.

Concern: Vanderbilt allowed 37.3 points a game and 7.3 yards per play last year. Everything is a concern for the new staff.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Marcus Bradley

Incoming Transfers: DL Alex Williams

Breakout Player: DB Jaylen Mahoney

West Division

1. Alabama

The Crimson Tide aim to become the first team to win back-to-back championships since this program reached that goal in 2011-12.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Talent. New quarterback Bryce Young is a rising star, the backfield is loaded, and there's no shortage of options to restock the receiving corps and offensive line.

Concern: The new faces may take some time to blend. How fast can new play-caller Bill O’Brien get this unit performing at a level similar to 2020?

True Freshman to Watch: WR Agiye Hall

Incoming Transfers: WR Jameson Williams

Breakout Player: QB Bryce Young

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Alabama led the SEC in scoring defense and is loaded at all three levels. This should be one of the top defenses in college football.

Concern: Cornerback Patrick Surtain, linebacker Dylan Moses and lineman Christian Barmore leave big shoes to fill. Alabama’s defense needs to do a better job at limiting big plays and getting stops on third downs.

True Freshman to Watch: CB Ga’Quincy McKinstry

Incoming Transfers: LB Henry To’o-To’o; P Jack Martin

Breakout Player: LB Will Anderson

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

2. Texas A&M

Jimbo Fisher’s Aggies came within one spot of making the CFB Playoff last season and enter 2021 clearly trending in the right direction.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: The Aggies boast one of the deepest backfields in college football. Tight end Jalen Wydermyer should push for All-America honors. While a new signal-caller must be found, coach Jimbo Fisher has a solid track record at developing quarterbacks.

Concern: Fisher has two talented players – Zach Calzada and Haynes King – vying to start. Will this battle get settled in fall practice? Texas A&M must replace four starters from a dominant offensive line and get better play out of the wide receivers.

True Freshman to Watch: OL Bryce Foster

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Incoming Transfers: OL Jahmir Johnson

Breakout Player: RB Devon Achane

Previewing the Defense

Strength: This is one of the top defenses in the nation. Lineman DeMarvin Leal is primed for a big year, and the secondary returns intact after allowing only two opponents to exceed more than 240 passing yards in 2020.

Concern: Not much. Leading tackler Buddy Johnson and defensive lineman Bobby Brown III are gone, but the Aggies have talent waiting in the wings.

True Freshman to Watch: DL Shemar Turner

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: DL McKinnley Jackson

3. LSU

The Tigers hope to rebound after a disappointing 5-5 season, which came one year after winning the national championship. Coach Ed Orgeron hopes two new coordinators and other staff changes help the team return to the top of the SEC.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Whether it’s Myles Brennan or Max Johnson under center, LSU should feel confident in its quarterback play. The Tigers should improve up front with all five starters returning along the offensive line. Talent isn’t an issue at receiver, and Kayshon Boutte is poised for an All-America-caliber season.

Concern: The Tigers averaged 7.9 yards per play in 2019 but regressed to 5.5 last year. Can new play-caller Jake Peetz get this group back to its ’19 level? The ground game needs more punch after averaging only 3.3 yards per carry last fall.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Deion Smith/TE Jack Bech

Incoming Transfers: None

Breakout Player: WR Kayshon Boutte

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Previewing the Defense

Strength: The talent is in place for this defense to rank among the best in the SEC. The cornerback duo of Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks is arguably the No. 1 tandem in college football. A deep rotation returns up front.

Concern: The Tigers allowed 7.3 yards per play and 34.9 points a game last season. Is new coordinator Daronte Jones capable of fixing all of the issues in one year? Linebacker depth is a small concern, but Clemson transfer Mike Jones was a key addition.

True Freshman to Watch: S Sage Ryan/Derrick Davis Jr.

Incoming Transfers: S Major Burns; LB Mike Jones

Breakout Player: DE BJ Ojulari

4. Ole Miss

With a high-powered offense, Ole Miss has the necessary firepower to finish in the top 25. However, after struggling last year, the defense enters 2021 with big concerns in coach Lane Kiffin’s second season.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Scoring points won’t be a problem. Quarterback Matt Corral led the nation in total offense per game (384.3 yards) and is supported by one of the SEC’s top lines and backfields. Receiver Elijah Moore will be missed, but the Rebels have options.

Concern: The Rebels lost too many turnovers (18) and need to improve in the red zone after finishing 11th in the SEC last fall.

True Freshman to Watch: TE Hudson Wolfe

Incoming Transfers: WR Jahcour Pearson

Breakout Player: WR Dontario Drummond

Previewing the Defense

Strength: A full offseason and help through the 2021 signing class should help Ole Miss improve a defense that allowed 38.3 points a game and 6.7 yards a play last year.

Concern: The stats mentioned above. The Rebels ranked last in the SEC versus the run and nearly gave up 40 points a matchup. How far can this group progress with six returning starters?

True Freshman to Watch: DL Tywone Malone

Incoming Transfers: LB Chance Campbell; CB Nigel Knott; DB Jake Springer

Breakout Player: S Otis Reese

5. Auburn

It’s a new era on the Plains, as Bryan Harsin begins his first trek through the SEC in 2021. Auburn has the necessary talent to finish higher than the projected fifth-place mark here, but Harsin’s first team has a tough slate in 2021.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: Harsin’s work with quarterbacks at Boise State should give Auburn optimism he can develop Bo Nix or LSU transfer T.J. Finley. Running back Tank Bigsby is poised for a huge sophomore year.

Concern: The offensive line is a concern once again, and the top three wide receivers from 2020 have departed. Getting more consistent (and better) quarterback play from Nix or Finley is a must.

True Freshman to Watch: WR Hal Presley

Incoming Transfers: QB T.J. Finley; RB Jordon Ingram

Breakout Player: WR Elijah Canion

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Derek Mason is one of the top coordinator hires of the 2020-21 cycle, and seven starters are back from a unit that limited opponents to 24.7 points a game. Zakoby McClain and Owen Pappoe are two of the SEC’s top linebackers, and the secondary ranks among the best in the conference.

Concern: The Tigers have to adjust to a new scheme. Also, the run defense needs to improve after finishing eighth in the SEC last fall.

True Freshman to Watch: LB Dylan Brooks

Incoming Transfers: DL Marcus Harris; DL Tony Fair; S Bydarrius Knighten; S Donovan Kaufman; CB Dreshun Miller; DL Eku Leota

Breakout Player: DE Colby Wooden

Related: Athlon Sports' College Football Top 25 for 2021

6. Arkansas

After winning only four SEC games from 2016-19, the Razorbacks won three in coach Sam Pittman’s first year. The Razorbacks arguably overachieved last season and should be better in ’21.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: In conference-only games, Arkansas upped its scoring average to 25.7 last year from 17.4 in 2019. Receiver Treylon Burks is one of the best in the nation, quarterback KJ Jefferson is promising and all five starters are back up front.

Concern: The Razorbacks lost their No. 2 receiver Mike Woods to a transfer after spring ball and need to improve up front (34 sacks allowed). Jefferson has completed only 47.2 percent of his throws in two years in Fayetteville.

True Freshman to Watch: RB AJ Green/Raheim Sanders

Incoming Transfers: OL Ty’kieast Crawford; QB Kade Renfro; WR Warren Thompson

Breakout Player: QB KJ Jefferson

Previewing the Defense

Strength: Coordinator Barry Odom brought much-needed improvement to this group last year. After allowing 6.95 yards a play in SEC games in 2019, Arkansas cut that total to 5.65 in 2020. Nine starters return, so more improvement should be expected. Also, the defensive line added needed depth via the transfer portal.

Concern: This group still has room to improve on the stat sheet after giving up 34.9 points a game in 2020. More pass rush is needed after generating only 14 sacks last year. Jonathan Marshall will be missed at defensive tackle.

JUCO to Watch: DL Jalen Williams

Incoming Transfers: DL John Ridgeway; DL Markell Utsey; DL Tre Williams; CB Trent Gordon

Breakout Player: CB Montaric Brown

7. Mississippi State

The Bulldogs started fast with a win over LSU in the opener, but struggled in the middle portion of the season, before winning their last two games to finish 3-7.

Previewing the Offense

Strength: A normal offseason should help the development of Mississippi State’s offense under coach Mike Leach and the Air Raid scheme. Quarterback Will Rogers – assuming he wins the job – is capable of elevating this offense, receiver Jaden Walley is a rising star, and three starters return up front.

Concern: How much improvement can Leach get out of this group in one offseason? Can Rogers take the next step in his development? Or will Jack Abraham push him for the starting nod?

True Freshman to Watch: QB Sawyer Robertson/WR Teddy Knox

Incoming Transfers: QB Jack Abraham; WR Jamire Calvin; WR Makai Polk; QB Chance Lovertich

Breakout Player: RB Jo’quavious Marks

Previewing the Defense

Strength: The Bulldogs quietly ranked fourth in the SEC in fewest yards per play allowed (5.48) last year. This unit should be solid once again with eight starters back, including a standout pair of corners in Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes.

Concern: Depth overall is an issue, and this defense has to do a better job of limiting big plays allowed.

True Freshman to Watch: LB John Lewis

Incoming Transfers: CB Jalen Green; DL Randy Charlton

Breakout Player: DL Jaden Crumedy

SEC Championship: Alabama over Georgia

SEC 2021 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS

Offensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

Pick by Mark Ross: Matt Corral, QB, Ole Miss

Defensive POY

Pick by Steven Lassan: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

Pick by Mark Ross: Derek Stingley Jr., CB, LSU

Coach of the Year

Pick by Steven Lassan: Kirby Smart, Georgia

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Kirby Smart, Georgia

Pick by Mark Ross: Eli Drinkwitz, Missouri

Top Freshman

Pick by Steven Lassan: Ga'Quincy McKinstry, CB, Alabama

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Ga'Quincy McKinstry, CB, Alabama

Pick by Mark Ross: Tywone Malone, DL, Ole Miss

Top Newcomer

Pick by Steven Lassan: Derion Kendrick, CB, Georgia

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Wan'Dale Robinson, WR, Kentucky

Pick by Mark Ross: Wan'Dale Robinson, WR, Kentucky

Sleeper Team

Pick by Steven Lassan: Ole Miss

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Auburn

Pick by Mark Ross: Missouri

Key Position to Watch

Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia DBs

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Texas A&M QB

Pick by Mark Ross: Alabama OL

Best Coordinator Hire

Pick by Steven Lassan: Bill O'Brien, OC, Alabama

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Derek Mason, DC, Auburn

Pick by Mark Ross: Bill O'Brien, OC, Alabama

Hardest Team to Evaluate

Pick by Steven Lassan: LSU

Pick by Ben Weinrib: LSU

Pick by Mark Ross: Vanderbilt

Coach on the Rise

Pick by Steven Lassan: Mike Elko, DC, Texas A&M

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Sam Pittman, HC, Arkansas

Pick by Mark Ross: Mike Elko, DC, Texas A&M

Must-See Game

Pick by Steven Lassan: Georgia vs. Clemson (Charlotte) 

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Alabama at Texas A&M

Pick by Mark Ross: Alabama at Texas A&M

Breakout Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Emory Jones, QB, Florida

Pick by Mark Ross: Bryce Young, QB, Alabama

Comeback Player

Pick by Steven Lassan: MarShawn Lloyd, RB, South Carolina

Pick by Ben Weinrib: Trey Sanders, RB, Alabama

Pick by Mark Ross: MarShawn Lloyd, RB, South Carolina

Podcast: Complete SEC Preview and Predictions for 2021