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SEC Football: Analyzing Returning Starter Data for 2022

Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M Aggies football

College football's 2022 season is still months away, but with spring practice in progress and the roster picture becoming clearer for all 131 teams, it's never too early to think about next fall and what teams return the most talent. As usual, the SEC is loaded with top-tier talent, as quarterback Bryce Young headlines an Alabama roster bringing back 13 starters for next year. Defending champ Georgia returns only 10, while Texas A&M has some retooling to do with nine starters back. Mike Leach's Mississippi State roster brings back the most starters (17) of any team in the SEC for next season.

Roster management in the era of the transfer portal has changed how teams can reload, improve or build going into a new coaching tenure. Returning starter data isn't necessarily the best way to judge teams going into a year, but it does provide interesting insight into strengths and weaknesses. Each year, Athlon Sports compiles returning starter data for its college football preview magazine. Players starting the last six or seven overall games are considered a returning starter. Also, some discretion is used, including returning from injury, split starters at a specific position, or other applicable reasoning for considering a player a starter.

Which teams return the most talent in the SEC for 2022? And what does the returning starter data tell us for next fall? Here's a look at what's ahead for this conference:

SEC Football: Analyzing Returning Starter Data for 2022

East Division

OffenseDefense

Florida

6

8

Georgia

7

3

Kentucky

5

5

Missouri

6

8

South Carolina

8

7

Tennessee

8

6

Vanderbilt

7

6

* Of Florida's six returning starters on offense, four come along the offensive line. 

* Eight returning starters provide a solid foundation for Florida's defense in 2022, but new coach Billy Napier has key voids to fill after the departure of end Zachary Carter, linebacker Mohamoud Diabate and cornerback Kaiir Elam.

* Georgia returns three starters along the line, but that number could be four if you consider Tate Ratledge a returning starter. He started the opener against Clemson but was lost for the year due to injury in that game.

* Just three returning starters on defense illustrates the reloading effort underway on Georgia's defense this spring. 

* Kentucky's offense returns quarterback Will Levis and running back Christopher Rodriguez, but the losses on this side of the ball were significant. Tackles Dare Rosenthal and Darian Kinnard and center Luke Fortner leave huge voids up front, and receiver Wan'Dale Robinson is a massive loss on the outside.

* The Wildcats' defense lost three starters up front and also in the secondary. 

* Of Missouri's six returning starters, five of those are linemen that started at least six games in 2021.

* Missouri's eight defensive returning starters are tied with Florida for most on that side of the ball in the East Division in 2022.

* South Carolina leads the SEC East with 15 returning starters for 2022.

* The Gamecocks lost three key cogs up front on defense - end Kingsley Enagbare, tackle Jabari Ellis and end Aaron Sterling. 

* Tennessee's eight returning starters on offense are tied for the most in the SEC East. That number includes likely All-SEC quarterback Hendon Hooker and 1,000-yard receiver Cedric Tillman.

* The Volunteers bring back six starters on defense, but three of the departing starters - safety Theo Jackson, cornerback Alontae Taylor and lineman Matthew Butler - had at least 20 career starts.

* Vanderbilt lost seven players - including offensive lineman Tyler Steen and receiver Chris Pierce - that started at least 10 games in 2021.

West Division

East DivisionWest Division

Alabama

5

8

Arkansas

5

4

Auburn

6

5

LSU

3

3

Mississippi State

9

8

Ole Miss

5

6

Texas A&M

4

5

* Alabama returns three starters from an inconsistent offensive line last year, but it must replace its best player in Evan Neal.

* The Crimson Tide should have one of the nation's best defensive backfields in 2022. Four starters - Malachi Moore, Jordan Battle, Brian Branch and DeMarcco Hellams - are back, and this unit gains the services of LSU transfer Eli Ricks at cornerback.

* Although Arkansas brings back just five starters on offense, it's an important collection of pieces with quarterback KJ Jefferson and four returners back up front.

* The Razorbacks lost five starters from the 2021 defensive front.

* Auburn's offensive line has been inconsistent the last couple of seasons, but four starters are back to provide optimism for improvement in '22.

* The Tigers have a solid foundation on defense with five returning starters, plus the addition of a couple of transfers, but three key cogs - cornerback Roger McCreary, safety Smoke Monday and linebacker Zakoby McClain - will be tough to replace.

* LSU (six) returns the fewest starters of any team in the SEC.

* The biggest losses for the Tigers took place along the line (no player with enough starters to qualify as a starter for 2022), and in the secondary with five key defensive backs departing the roster.

* Mississippi State returns the most starters (17) of any team in the SEC.

* The Bulldogs return enough pieces to be a top-25 team in '22, including quarterback Will Rogers. Replacing left tackle Charles Cross, cornerback Martin Emerson and receiver Makai Polk top the list of priorities.

* Ole Miss was one of the biggest winners in the transfer portal, and additions on both sides of the ball alleviate concerns about a roster returning 11 starters. 

* A solid foundation returns in the trenches for the Rebels' offense, as three starters are back in '22, including tackle Nick Broeker.

* Texas A&M returns three starters up front, but the left side (Jahmir Johnson and Kenyon Green) departed. 

* The Aggies brought in the No. 1 recruiting class, which includes several blue-chip defensive linemen. Those prospects will be needed right away with a defensive front looking to replace DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy, Tyree Johnson and Michael Clemons.

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