SEC predictions for the 2022 college football season start with familiar programs at the top of both divisions. Georgia is a heavy favorite in the East, while Alabama is once again the projected favorite in the West. Kentucky and Tennessee headline the second tier in the East, with Texas A&M a clear No. 2 in the West going into the '22 campaign.
Not only does the SEC return two teams capable of winning it all, but the league also has good depth in the middle this fall. In addition to the Wildcats and Volunteers, Arkansas, Ole Miss, LSU, Florida and Mississippi State could all sneak into the top 25 at some point in '22. South Carolina, Missouri and Auburn should all be bowl teams. Vanderbilt aims to take a step forward in coach Clark Lea's second season but reaching six victories will be a heavy lift this fall.
How does Athlon Sports project the SEC for 2022? Steven Lassan predicts and ranks the East and West Divisions in the SEC for this fall:
SEC Football 2022 Predictions
The Bulldogs return only 10 starters from last year’s team that won it all, but there’s no reason for concern in Athens. Coach Kirby Smart’s program will simply reload with the next wave of stars on both sides of the ball. An elite defense that held teams to 10.2 points a game and 4.2 yards per play lost a handful of standout defenders, including linemen Jordan Davis and Travon Walker, linebacker Nakobe Dean and safety Lewis Cine. However, look for lineman Jalen Carter, linebackers Robert Beal and Nolan Smith, and cornerback Kelee Ringo to lead the way on another dominant defense in ’22. Quarterback Stetson Bennett is back for one more ride under center after throwing for 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns last fall. He’s joined by Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh at running back, and a deep collection of targets in the receiving corps, led by tight ends Brock Bowers and Arik Gilbert. Three starters return up front, but Georgia could have the nation’s best offensive line in ’22. Barring a major surprise, the Bulldogs should be favored (and likely by double-digits) in all 12 of their regular-season matchups.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
Josh Heupel’s debut was a successful one on Rocky Top. The Volunteers showed marked improvement on offense, averaging 39.3 points a game – up from 21.5 the previous year. Also, thanks to the emergence of quarterback Hendon Hooker, Tennessee led the SEC in plays of 40-plus yards (23) after collecting just three the previous fall. Hooker and receiver Cedric Tillman top the list of reasons for optimism in Knoxville, with four starters back along an offensive line hoping to improve after allowing 44 sacks last year. Although scoring points shouldn’t be a problem for Tennessee, the defense has to make major progress to push for nine wins. This unit allowed more than 200 rushing yards and 33.6 points a game in SEC play last season. Linemen Byron Young and Tyler Baron, along with linebacker Jeremy Banks, provide a solid foundation up front for coordinator Tim Banks. However, the Volunteers simply need more talent, depth and improvement to have any shot at pushing Georgia for No. 1 in the East.
It’s a tough call between Tennessee and Kentucky for the No. 2 spot in the East behind Georgia. Although the Wildcats have a favorable crossover draw (host Mississippi State and play at Ole Miss), a trip to Knoxville might be the deciding factor in which team finishes second in the East. The offense took a big step forward under the play-calling of Liam Coen last fall, averaging 32.3 points a game (up from 21.8 the previous year). Coen left Lexington for a spot on the Rams’ staff, prompting coach Mark Stoops to hire Rich Scangarello away from the NFL to call plays. Kentucky won’t change too much on offense, which is a good thing considering quarterback Will Levis ranks among the best in the SEC, and a deep stable of running backs is led by Chris Rodriguez Jr. Replacing three standouts along the offensive line and reloading at receiver after the departure of Wan’Dale Robinson tops the list of question marks for Scangarello. The Wildcats ranked fourth in the SEC in scoring defense (21.7 points a game allowed) last year and also limited teams to 5.5 yards per snap. There are holes to fill up front and in the secondary, but the linebacker unit ranks among the best in the SEC. Mark Stoops’ squad has a handful of question marks to answer going into ’22. However, the track record of this program suggests a quick reload to win nine or 10 wins is a reasonable goal.
The Gators are just one year removed from winning the East Division, and while coach Billy Napier won’t fix everything in one season, there should be noticeable improvement in Gainesville after posting a 6-7 mark in ’21. Quarterback Anthony Richardson is the biggest reason for optimism. In eight games last fall, Richardson averaged 8.1 yards per play, ran for 401 yards and was responsible for nine total scores. Napier’s background should help Richardson take a step forward in his development. The Gators have a solid collection of running backs – including Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson and former top recruit Demarkcus Bowman – and the addition of Ricky Pearsall (Arizona State transfer) boosted a receiving corps set to return Justin Shorter, Xzavier Henderson and Trent Whittemore. Improvement is needed along the line, with Louisiana transfer O’Cyrus Torrence likely to make an instant impact at guard. The line of scrimmage is a concern on the other side of the ball after Florida finished 10th in the SEC against the run and recorded only 20 sacks in conference play. Edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr. is back, and Ventrell Miller’s return from injury should boost the linebacker unit. Kaiir Elam will be missed at cornerback, but sophomore Jason Marshall is a rising star on the back end. A September slate featuring games versus Utah, Kentucky and Tennessee (road) should provide plenty of insight into where this team is in Napier’s debut.
5. South Carolina
The Gamecocks easily exceeded preseason expectations last season with a 7-6 finish. A jump in wins in coach Shane Beamer’s second year is aided by the arrival of a handful of transfers, including quarterback Spencer Rattler (Oklahoma) and receivers Corey Rucker (Arkansas State) and Antwane Wells (James Madison) to add to a receiving corps already featuring Josh Vann (15.8 yards per catch) and Dakereon Joyner. A solid stable of running backs is in place, but even with five starters back, the offensive line is an area of concern after averaging 3.8 yards per carry in ’21. The line of scrimmage is an area of focus on the other side of the ball too. The Gamecocks allowed 175 rushing yards a game last fall and must replace standout lineman Kingsley Enagbare (seven TFL). Cornerback Cam Smith leads a secondary that finished fourth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense but lost All-SEC safety Jaylan Foster. The schedule features tough crossover matchups against Texas A&M and at Arkansas, along with the annual showdown against Clemson. Getting to seven (or eight) wins will require Rattler to regain his freshman form from Oklahoma and better play along the line of scrimmage.
Wins in three out of Missouri’s final five SEC contests allowed coach Eli Drinkwitz’s team to reach bowl eligibility in a season marred by major issues on defense and inconsistency at quarterback. Both of those concerns lead the way in ’22. Although the Tigers played a little better on defense down the stretch, this unit still allowed 6.7 yards per play, 36 points a game and more than 200 rushing yards a contest in SEC action last fall. Ends Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat lead the way up front, while cornerback Kris Abrams-Draine and safety Martez Manuel are two building blocks for new coordinator Blake Baker. Transfer additions at every level should help bring some improvement in ’22. Offensively, the Tigers averaged only 22.6 points and 5.2 yards per play in SEC games last season. Exceeding that production this fall will require a running back (or two) to emerge to replace Tyler Badie (161.6 all-purpose yards per game last year) and a quarterback to take control of the offense. Three candidates are vying for the No. 1 spot on the depth chart – true freshman Sam Horn, sophomore Brady Cook and redshirt freshman Tyler Macon – with Cook the likely front-runner. Whoever wins the job has a solid group of receivers to throw to – including five-star freshman Luther Burden – and four starters back up front.
Clark Lea inherited a major rebuilding effort on West End, and that project will continue into ’22 with hopes of small on-field progress. Vanderbilt’s schedule features road trips to Hawaii and Northern Illinois, along with a home date versus Wake Forest. Also, there are crossover games versus Alabama and Ole Miss. In other words: Just getting to three wins might be the best-case scenario in ’22. Although the job is unsettled, both Mike Wright and Ken Seals are capable options at quarterback. The ground game should get a boost with the return of Re’Mahn Davis from injury, but the offensive line is a major concern. Vanderbilt ranked 13th in the SEC against the run, last in pass efficiency defense, and surrendered an unpleasant combination of 6.8 yards per play and 35.6 points per game. Lea was one of the top coordinators in college football during his time at Notre Dame and another offseason to develop the roster on defense will pay some dividends. However, the climb to respectability on this side of the ball with question marks at every level is steep.
The Crimson Tide are an easy pick as the team to beat in the SEC West and the No. 1 team in college football going into 2022. A high-powered offense is led by reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young at quarterback, with Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs primed for a breakout year as an all-around threat at running back. New faces must emerge at receiver, but transfers Tyler Harrell (Louisville) and Jermaine Burton (Georgia) should ease the loss of Jameson Williams and John Metchie III. Left tackle Evan Neal is gone off an inconsistent line that surrendered 41 sacks last year. Although the line has talent and a new coach (Eric Wolford), how this group meshes during the season is the biggest concern on the roster. The Crimson Tide held teams to 20.1 points a game last season and could be even better on defense in ’22. Will Anderson Jr. (33.5 TFL) is back off the edge, and Dallas Turner (10 TFL) is a rising star on the other side, with Henry To’o-To’o manning the middle. LSU transfer Eli Ricks adds to a talented secondary already featuring rising star Kool-Aid McKinstry on the other side, along with Jordan Battle, DeMarcco Hellams and Brian Branch at safety. Road trips to Texas, Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss dot the schedule, with Alabama hosting Texas A&M for a massive SEC showdown.
Related: College Football Top 25 for 2022
2. Texas A&M
Momentum is high in College Station after coach Jimbo Fisher inked the No. 1 recruiting class for ’22. The next step: Win the West Division and get to the CFB Playoff. While both of those goals are tough to attain with Alabama in the same division, a double-digit win total is within reach. An injury to quarterback Haynes King in the second game of ’21 created a major issue for the offense, but the depth chart is in better shape with King, LSU transfer Max Johnson and true freshman Conner Weigman in the mix. The Aggies need more big plays from the passing game, and true freshman Evan Stewart could provide some on the outside, teaming with Ainias Smith to give the offense a potent one-two combo at receiver. Devon Achane is the next star running back, and three returning starters provide a strong foundation up front. The defense was among the best in college football last season, holding teams to 15.9 points a game and 4.7 yards per snap. This unit is in a state of transition up front with DeMarvin Leal and Tyree Johnson headlining the list of departures. However, thanks to the ’22 recruiting haul, new coordinator DJ Durkin doesn’t lack for talent up front. Also, the secondary is one of the best in the nation. How far Texas A&M’s quarterback room develops and how fast Durkin can reload this defense will determine whether or not this team can compete for the playoff.
Third-year coach Sam Pittman has Arkansas on the rise entering ’22. After winning nine SEC games from 2015-19, the Razorbacks have won seven over the last two years. There’s reason to believe another step forward is in store, especially with All-SEC candidate KJ Jefferson returning at quarterback to go with four starters on the line and a solid set of running backs led by Rocket Sanders. Replacing Treylon Burks (66 catches) and his big-play ability is the biggest concern on this side of the ball. A couple of transfers in Jadon Haselwood (Oklahoma) and Matt Landers (Toledo) will push Warren Thompson and Ketron Jackson to be the No. 1 option. Although Arkansas allowed just over six yards a play and 29.6 points a game in SEC matchups last year, the defense thrived at getting stops on third downs and limiting teams inside the red zone. Just four starters are back, but Pittman and coordinator Barry Odom have added help through the portal, including ends Jordan Domineck (Georgia Tech) and Landon Jackson (LSU), linebacker Drew Sanders (Alabama), and defensive backs Dwight McGlothern (LSU) and Latavious Brini (Georgia). A non-conference slate featuring BYU and Cincinnati is tough, but Pittman’s team gets Ole Miss, LSU and South Carolina in Fayetteville next year.
Brian Kelly’s move from Notre Dame to LSU is the top storyline in Baton Rouge as the program looks to rebound from an 11-12 record over the last two seasons. Although a return to the top of the SEC West is unlikely, the Tigers should show steady improvement throughout the year. Just six starters return, but as usual, talent isn’t in short supply in Baton Rouge. A strong line anchored by Maason Smith and edge rusher BJ Ojulari is the strength of the team, and several transfers will step in right away to bolster a secondary that finished 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last fall. An offense that averaged only 5.3 yards per play and 23.5 points a game in SEC matchups last season enters the year with major question marks up front and an ongoing quarterback battle between Garrett Nussmeier, Myles Brennan and Jayden Daniels. Talented running back John Emery also looks poised for a breakout year after missing all of ’21, and the receiving corps should be among the best in the SEC with standout Kayshon Boutte back after a season-ending leg injury. If the offensive line jells, and Kelly and coordinator Mike Denbrock can figure out the quarterback spot, a top-25 finish and eight (or nine) wins could be within reach.
5. Ole Miss
Intrigue might be the best way to sum up coach Lane Kiffin’s team in 2022. The Rebels won 10 games and made the Sugar Bowl last year but lost a handful of key contributors, including quarterback Matt Corral, running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner, receiver Dontario Drummond, linebacker Chance Campbell and end Sam Williams. However, Kiffin navigated the transfer portal as well as any coach this offseason, restocking the offense with quarterback Jaxson Dart (USC), running back Zach Evans (TCU), wide receivers Jordan Watkins (Louisville) and Jaylon Robinson (UCF), and tight end Michael Trigg (USC) as well as Mason Brooks (WKU) in the trenches. Dart is considered the favorite to start under center, but Luke Altmyer can make a push for the job in the fall. In addition to Brooks, the Rebels bring back three starters up front to give this team one of the top offensive lines in the SEC. Ole Miss showed considerable improvement on defense last year, allowing just 24.7 points a game (down from 38.3 in ’20). However, building on last season’s progress will be tough with a new coordinator (Chris Partridge) and a few key players gone. While there is turnover, similar to the offense, Kiffin landed several impact transfers here, including edge Khari Coleman, linebacker Troy Brown and defensive backs Isheem Young and Ladarius Tennison. Matching last year’s win total will be tough, but Kiffin’s recruiting efforts and a favorable schedule will prevent a major drop in victories.
6. Mississippi State
Mike Leach’s team took a step forward last fall, upping the win total from four in ’20 to seven. With 17 starters back – the most of any team in the division – another jump in the SEC West is a reasonable goal. However, the Bulldogs have to overcome a brutal schedule that includes crossover matchups versus Kentucky and Georgia, along with road treks to Ole Miss, LSU and Alabama. Quarterback Will Rogers leads an offense that averaged 378.3 passing yards per game and just under 30 points (29.1) a contest. Reloading a few pieces around Rogers to keep the Air Raid performing at a high level is one of the key storylines this offseason. Running back is set with Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson returning, and while the Bulldogs have options at receiver, Makai Polk (105 catches) will be missed. The departure of tackles Charles Cross and Scott Lashley is a big concern after the line allowed 34 sacks in ’21. The defense allowed 27.3 points in SEC play last season, but eight starters are back, including a talented linebacker unit and cornerback Emmanuel Forbes. Addressing the pass defense (11th in the SEC in efficiency and 13 plays of 40-plus yards allowed) is a priority for coordinator Zach Arnett.
Between the five-game losing streak to end the 2021 campaign, offseason drama surrounding the job status of coach Bryan Harsin and plenty of roster turnover, there’s been no shortage of drama on the Plains. For Harsin to steer the program back on track and prevent another hot-seat situation, the offense must show significant improvement. The Tigers ranked 11th in the SEC in scoring and averaged only 17.8 points a game over their final five contests. The strength (and focus) of the offense remains at running back with Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter providing a standout one-two punch. The rest of the two-deep is a concern, however. The quarterback battle will extend into the fall with four candidates – Zach Calzada, Robby Ashford, T.J. Finley and true freshman Holden Geriner – vying for the job. Also, more playmakers need to emerge at receiver, and an inconsistent offensive line needs to step up with four returning starters. Auburn’s defense held teams to 21.8 points a game and 5.3 yards per play last fall but has its share of transition in ’22. This unit lost some depth to the portal, has a new coordinator (Jeff Schmedding), and must replace standouts in cornerback Roger McCreary and linebacker Zakoby McClain. End Derick Hall should be one of the SEC’s top linemen. The Tigers have enough pieces to be solid on defense once again. However, without improvement on offense or at least an answer emerging at quarterback, it’s tough to envision a major jump in wins.
SEC Championship: Alabama over Georgia
SEC 2022 SUPERLATIVES AND SEASON PREDICTIONS
Offensive POY: QB Bryce Young, Alabama
Defensive POY: LB Will Anderson Jr., Alabama
Coach of the Year: Nick Saban, Alabama
Top Freshman: WR Luther Burden, Missouri
Top Offensive Newcomers (Transfer): RB Jahmyr Gibbs, Alabama/QB Spencer Rattler, S. Carolina
Top Defensive Newcomer (Transfer): CB Eli Ricks, Alabama
Sleeper Team: LSU
Key Position to Watch: Alabama OL or Texas A&M QBs
Best Coordinator Hire: DJ Durkin, DC, Texas A&M
Hardest Team to Evaluate: Ole Miss
Coach on the Rise: Patrick Toney, Co-DC, Florida
Must-See Game: Texas A&M at Alabama (Oct. 8)
Breakout Player: Maason Smith, DL, LSU
Comeback Player: Kayshon Boutte, WR, LSU