Alabama and Georgia lead the SEC early predictions once again
Alabama and Georgia are the clear favorites atop the SEC early predictions 2019, but the league could feature three other teams inside of the top 10 in most preseason polls. Florida is primed to take another step forward in coach Dan Mullen’s second year, LSU returns a good chunk of talent from its 10-win team in 2018, and Texas A&M is a program on the rise under coach Jimbo Fisher. Auburn and Missouri headline the next tier of teams in the SEC for 2019 early projections, followed by Kentucky and Mississippi State.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2019 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2019:
Kirby Smart’s team has claimed back-to-back SEC East titles, and the Bulldogs will be heavily favored to make it three in a row in 2019. Smart will have new play-callers on both sides of the ball after Mel Tucker was hired as Colorado’s head coach and Jim Chaney left to be Tennessee’s offensive coordinator. However, those changes won’t slow down Georgia on either side of the ball. Jake Fromm returns as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks after tossing 30 touchdowns and 2,749 yards in 2018. As usual in Athens, there’s no shortage of talent at running back. D’Andre Swift is back after recording 1,049 rushing yards last fall, and he’s joined by Brian Herrien, James Cook and Zamir White in the backfield. Center Lamont Gaillard leaves big shoes to fill in the trenches, but the offensive line should be among the best in college football. The receiving corps will require the biggest amount of retooling on the roster for 2019. Riley Ridley, Mecole Hardman and tight end Isaac Nauta all left early for the NFL. The Bulldogs will be counting on Jeremiah Holloman, Tyler Simmons and Demetris Robertson to lead the way as Fromm’s top receivers next season. Georgia’s defense has to replace All-American cornerback Deandre Baker, end Jonathan Ledbetter and linebacker D’Andre Walker, but this unit is loaded with talent and depth at all three levels. Tackle Jordan Davis is a rising star in the trenches, while the secondary features standout safety J.R. Reed and sophomore cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell. Adam Anderson, Brenton Cox, Quay Walker and Robert Beal were just a few of the top recruits from the 2018 signing class that saw limited time as freshmen and will be primed for bigger roles in ’19. Additionally, the 2019 signing class will include five-star prospects in defensive lineman Nolan Smith and linebacker Nakobe Dean. The Bulldogs are slated to host Notre Dame, Missouri, Texas A&M and Kentucky next fall, while the toughest road trip should be to Auburn on Nov. 16. And as usual, there’s the showdown with Florida in Jacksonville on Nov. 2 that could decide the SEC East.
Dan Mullen guided Florida to a six-game improvement in the win column in his first year in Gainesville, and the Gators are likely to begin 2019 ranked among the top 10 teams in preseason polls. Mullen’s acumen on offense was evident last year. Florida averaged 35 points a game (up from 22.1), 6.2 yards a play (up from 5.2) and connected on 33 plays of 30-plus yards (up from 18). More improvement in 2019 from this group wouldn’t be a surprise, but Mullen has to rebuild a line that lost four starters and wasn’t particularly loaded in terms of depth in ’18. Quarterback Feleipe Franks accounted for 2,807 total yards and 31 overall scores, but he will be pushed by Emory Jones for the starting job. Even though running back Jordan Scarlett left early for the NFL, the ground game is in good shape with the return of Lamical Perine, Dameon Pierce and Malik Davis. The Gators are also slated to return their top six statistical receivers from 2018, including Van Jefferson (35 catches) and all-purpose threat Kadarius Toney. Florida’s defense ranked among the SEC’s best last fall, and even though defensive back Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, linebacker Vosean Joseph and edge rusher Jachai Polite departed Gainesville early for the NFL, this group should be near the top once again. Jabari Zuniga and Louisville graduate transfer Jon Greenard anchor the pass rush up front, while linebacker David Reese returns after collecting 77 stops in 2018. The secondary should be among the best in the nation next fall. Cornerback CJ Henderson is back after earning second-team All-SEC honors in 2018, and Marco Wilson returns after missing nearly all of last season due to injury. Florida opens with an intriguing matchup in Orlando versus Miami and Auburn, Tennessee and Florida State come to the Swamp next fall. A huge road trip to LSU is on tap for Oct. 12.
Kelly Bryant’s decision to transfer to Missouri addressed the biggest concern for coach Barry Odom’s team going into 2019. With Drew Lock out of eligibility, the Tigers faced uncertainty under center, but Bryant’s arrival should ensure the offense continues to perform at a high level. The former Clemson signal-caller will have a strong supporting cast at his disposal. Running back Larry Rountree (1,216 yards) and Tyler Badie (437) headline the ground game with Damarea Crockett off to the NFL. Three starters are back in the trenches, and the receiving corps got a boost when tight end Albert Okwuegbunam passed on the NFL for another season in Columbia. Missouri does have to replace big-play threat Emanuel Hall at receiver, but Johnathon Johnson (59 catches) and Jalen Knox (27) provide a solid foundation. The Tigers allowed over 30 points a game from 2016-17 but cut that total to 25.5 in ’18. Additionally, Missouri’s defense held teams to 5.7 yards a play and ranked fourth in the SEC against the run. Odom’s defense allowed too many big plays (21 of 40 yards or more) and finished ninth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense. Defensive tackle Terry Beckner and linebacker Terez Hall are the biggest departures, and the Tigers will have to replace a couple of key cogs in the rotation up front, along with safety Cam Hilton. Linebacker Cale Garrett and cornerback DeMarkus Acy should push for All-SEC honors once again, while Akial Byers and Jordan Elliott will look to anchor the trenches. A road trip to Wyoming kicks off the 2019 season, and Missouri’s non-conference schedule features home matchups against West Virginia, Southeast Missouri State and Troy. The SEC slate is also manageable. The Tigers host South Carolina, Ole Miss, Florida and Tennessee, with road trips to Vanderbilt, Georgia, Kentucky and Arkansas (Little Rock).
The Wildcats were the SEC’s biggest surprise in 2018. Coach Mark Stoops guided the program to its first 10-win season since 1977, ended a 31-game losing streak to Florida, beat Louisville 56-10 and knocked off Penn State in the Citrus Bowl. Replicating that in 2019 might be difficult, but the Wildcats should earn their fourth consecutive trip to the postseason. Running back Benny Snell left for the NFL after rushing for 1,449 yards and 16 scores, but coordinator Eddie Gran still has talent in the backfield, including A.J. Rose (6.2 ypc in 2018) and freshmen Kavosiey Smoke and Christopher Rodriguez. Standout guard Bunchy Stallings and right tackle George Asafo-Adjei depart, but the Wildcats return three starters and tackle Landon Young is back after missing 2018 due to injury. With Snell off to the NFL, the Wildcats need more out of quarterback Terry Wilson. In his first year in Lexington, the junior college product threw for 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns to eight picks and added 547 yards and four scores on the ground. Tight end C.J. Conrad won’t be easy to replace, but receiver Lynn Bowden is among the SEC’s top all-purpose threats. Defense was the driving force behind Kentucky’s 10-win season, as Stoops’ group limited teams to 16.8 points a game and 5.24 yards a play. A handful of key players are departing from the 2018 defense, including standout edge rusher Josh Allen (17 sacks) and the entire starting secondary. Help for the defensive backfield could come from the junior college ranks, while linebackers Kash Daniel, Chris Oats, Jamar Watson and DeAndre Square and safety Davonte Robinson headline the list of key returnees for 2019. Kentucky opens next season with three home games, including a Sept. 14 date versus Florida. However, the Wildcats play swing games at Mississippi State, Vanderbilt and South Carolina next fall.
5. South Carolina
After winning nine games in 2017, South Carolina opened ’18 with expectations of finishing the season as a top 25 team. Instead of building off that nine-win mark, the Gamecocks slipped to 7-6 and finished 4-4 in SEC play. However, it’s notable the six losses came against Georgia, Kentucky, Texas A&M, Florida, Clemson and Virginia. Thanks to a brutal schedule, exceeding seven wins in 2019 is going to be a challenge for coach Will Muschamp’s team. South Carolina starts with a matchup against North Carolina in Charlotte and has three SEC games – Alabama, Kentucky and at Missouri – before October. The Gamecocks also take on Georgia, Tennessee and Texas A&M on the road and host Clemson, Appalachian State and Florida next fall. First-year offensive coordinator Bryan McClendon helped the offense improve on the stat sheet in 2018, increasing the scoring average from 24.2 to 30.1. Additionally, the offense upped its per play total from 5.46 to 6.2 in ’18. Quarterback Jake Bentley returns after throwing for 3,171 yards and 27 touchdowns, but No. 1 receiver Deebo Samuel (62 catches) has finished his career in Columbia. Bryan Edwards (55 catches) and Shi Smith (45) are a good starting point to build around at receiver next fall. The team’s top four running backs from ’18 are back, including Rico Dowdle (654). The left side of the offensive line will have a new look after tackle Dennis Daley and guard Zack Bailey expired their eligibility after the Belk Bowl. South Carolina’s defense had to navigate a handful of injuries last season but still held teams to 5.6 yards a play. This group returns largely intact next fall, and tackle Javon Kinlaw passed on the NFL for another season in Columbia. Linebackers T.J. Brunson and Sherrod Greene are back after pacing the team in tackles. The secondary will be an area of focus this offseason. The Gamecocks ranked eighth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and are set to lose cornerbacks Rashad Fenton and Keisean Nixon and safety Steven Montac. J.T. Ibe and Nick Harvey are seeking an extra year, and cornerback Jaycee Horn should be a bigger part of the defense after recording 45 tackles and eight pass breakups as a freshman in 2018.
The Volunteers just missed a bowl in coach Jeremy Pruitt’s first year, finishing with a 5-7 record after losing to Vanderbilt 38-13 in the regular season finale. Pruitt took two key steps to move the program forward over the offseason by reeling in a solid recruiting class and hiring Jim Chaney as the program’s offensive coordinator. Tennessee’s schedule in 2019 is more favorable than its ’18 version, so a bowl trip should be the expectation. Georgia State, BYU and Chattanooga visit Knoxville to start the year, followed by back-to-back games against Florida (in Gainesville) and Georgia. After that stretch, the Volunteers have winnable home games against Mississippi State, South Carolina, UAB and Vanderbilt. Chaney’s first priority is to develop quarterback Jarrett Guarantano (12 TDs to 3 INTs) and help the junior take a step forward in 2019. Leading rusher Ty Chandler returns after recording 630 yards in ’18, while the team’s top three statistical receivers are back next fall. The offensive line struggled last season but could take a step forward if Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy are back to full strength, along with the addition of five-star recruit Wanya Morris. Tennessee’s defense showed slight improvement on the stat sheet in Pruitt’s debut, cutting its points allowed total from 29.1 in ’17 to 27.9. However, the Volunteers surrendered 36.1 points in SEC contests, so there’s plenty of room to improve on this side of the ball. Similar to the offense, depth and talent up front is a concern. However, the secondary features a pair of promising cornerbacks in Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson, along with safety Nigel Warrior. Linebackers Darrell Taylor, Daniel Bituli and Darrin Kirkland are all slated to return for 2019. Tennessee might be a year away from marked improvement on both sides of the ball, but Pruitt’s team should take a step forward next fall.
The Commodores capped the 2018 season by earning their second bowl trip in three years under coach Derek Mason. Even though Vanderbilt ranks seventh in the East Division for Athlon’s way-too-early rankings, this team is positioned for another run at six wins next fall. Mason has to hire a replacement for Andy Ludwig after the offensive play-caller left for Utah. Additionally, quarterback Kyle Shurmur departs after a prolific career on West End. The competition to replace Shurmur features Deuce Wallace (back from suspension), Ball State graduate transfer Riley Neal and 2018 backup Mo Hasan. Whichever quarterback wins the battle will have a standout supporting cast, as running back Ke’Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney are back for 2019. Vaughn led the SEC with 10 runs of 40 yards or more, while Lipscomb and Pinkney combined for 16 touchdowns and 137 receptions last season. Three starters must be replaced along the offensive line. With the transition at quarterback, Mason’s team will need more out of its defense to eclipse six victories. Vanderbilt allowed nearly 200 rushing yards a game (194.7 ypg), surrendered 6.14 yards a play and gave up 29.4 points in SEC play in 2018. Leading tackler Jordan Griffin (119), safety LaDarius Wiley (83) and linebacker Josh Smith (61) have finished their eligibility, while top cornerback Joejuan Williams departed early for the NFL. Mason’s team won’t have much of a transition period for the new starters in 2019. Vanderbilt opens with Georgia, followed by a matchup at Purdue and a home game versus LSU in September. The Commodores also play swing road contests at Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee.
The Crimson Tide will reload and make another run at the national title in 2019. As expected every year in Tuscaloosa, there’s a round of assistant coach and coordinator changes, but that won’t slow coach Nick Saban’s team at all in the regular season. Quarterback Tua Tagovailoa is back to direct Alabama’s high-powered offense after throwing for 3,966 yards and 43 touchdowns in 2018. The Hawaii native returns most of his playmakers on the outside, as Jerry Jeudy, Jaylen Waddle, Henry Ruggs and DeVonta Smith lead the SEC’s deepest receiving corps. Tight end Irv Smith caught 44 passes for 710 yards and seven scores in 2018 and decided to leave early for the NFL. Damien Harris and Josh Jacobs depart at running back, but the ground game won’t miss a beat with Najee Harris, Brian Robinson and incoming freshman Trey Sanders toting the rock. Left tackle Jonah Williams and center Ross Pierschbacher must be replaced up front. Alabama’s defense was torched for 44 points in the national championship loss to Clemson and ended the year by allowing 4.9 yards per play – the highest since 2014. Quinnen Williams won’t be easy to replace up front, but Raekwon Davis passed on the NFL for one more year in Tuscaloosa. Despite losing Mack Wilson early to the NFL, Alabama still returns Dylan Moses, Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis at linebacker. A young secondary should be much better in 2019, especially with cornerback Trevon Diggs back from injury. Safety Deionte Thompson left early for the NFL and leaves big shoes to fill on the back end. The Crimson Tide open with Duke in Atlanta and play three out of their first five at home. Saban’s team has a bye week before a matchup against Texas A&M (Oct. 12) and hosts LSU on Nov. 9. Alabama closes the year with the Iron Bowl showdown at Auburn on Nov. 30.
Faced with a brutal schedule and significant question marks about the offense, LSU entered 2018 with low expectations. However, the Tigers roared to a 5-0 start that included a win over Miami and a one-point victory against Auburn. Coach Ed Orgeron’s team stumbled at Florida but handed Georgia a 36-16 loss in Baton Rouge. LSU finished 4-2 over its final six games, which included a crazy 74-72 overtime defeat at Texas A&M and a bowl victory over UCF. In other words, the Tigers easily exceeded preseason expectations and should be a top 10 team next fall. Quarterback Joe Burrow arguably played his best football at the end of the season, tossing nine of his 16 touchdowns over the final three games. Nick Brossette departs after rushing for 1,039 yards, but the ground game is in great shape with Clyde Edwards-Helaire and John Emery leading the way. Justin Jefferson, Terrace Marshall and Ja’Marr Chase form a talented trio at receiver, and the offensive line should take a step forward with nearly everyone back. LSU defensive coordinator Dave Aranda is one of college football’s top assistant coaches and has a veteran group slated to return in Baton Rouge next fall. Cornerback Greedy Williams and lineman Ed Alexander left early for the next level, but linemen Breiden Fehoko and Rashard Lawrence, linebacker Michael Divinity and cornerback Kristian Fulton all decided to return for 2019. Safety Grant Delpit will be among the SEC’s top defenders next fall. Additionally, the pass rush will receive a boost with the return of linebacker K’Lavon Chaisson from injury. The Tigers play at Texas on Sept. 7 and head to Alabama on Nov. 9. However, most of the tough games are at home next season, including Florida (Oct. 12), Auburn (Oct. 26) and Texas A&M (Nov. 30).
3. Texas A&M
The Aggies took a step forward in coach Jimbo Fisher’s first year in College Station and could push for a spot in the top 10 for 2019. Quarterback Kellen Mond tossed 24 touchdowns to nine picks and 3,107 yards in ’18 and is only going to get better with another offseason to work under Fisher. Mond’s supporting cast had some turnover after the Gator Bowl win over NC State. Starting center Erik McCoy, running back Trayveon Williams (1,760 rushing yards) and tight end Jace Sternberger all departed early for the NFL. Jashaun Corbin rushed for 346 yards in limited action and should be the team’s new No. 1 running back. The Aggies might not have a tight end as dynamic as Sternberger next season, but the receiving corps returns four players with at least 25 catches last season and should rank near the top of the SEC. McCoy’s departure is a big blow to an offensive line that allowed 35 sacks in 2018. However, with most of the depth chart returning, along with the arrival of five-star recruit Kenyon Green, this unit should show improvement in ’19. Coordinator Mike Elko was one of the offseason’s top assistant hires, and Texas A&M’s defense held teams to 25.3 points a game and ranked second in the SEC versus the run. This unit still has room to improve, but Elko will benefit from help from the recruiting class, including five-star prospect DeMarvin Leal in the trenches. Landis Durham, Daylon Mack and Kingsley Keke have departed the defensive line, and the linebacker unit suffered a setback when Tyrel Dodson followed senior Otaro Alaka to the NFL. The secondary finished 12th in the SEC in pass efficiency defense and has to replace safety Donovan Wilson this offseason. Texas A&M’s schedule features a non-conference game at Clemson, while a showdown against Auburn awaits on Sept. 21. The Aggies host Alabama but face a brutal back-to-back stretch in late November at Georgia (Nov. 23) and LSU (Nov. 30).
Auburn is the biggest wild card team in the SEC for 2019. The Tigers garnered consideration in preseason polls as a top 10 team for 2018 but finished 8-5 overall. Coach Gus Malzahn’s seat will be a little warm headed into next fall, and in an effort to jumpstart the offense, he’s taking over the play-calling duties. Quarterback Jarrett Stidham departed early for the NFL, but Malzahn will have a couple of talented options to choose from, including Malik Willis, Joey Gatewood and Bo Nix. The starting quarterback spot is up for grabs, but there’s a lot to like about the supporting cast. JaTarvious Whitlow, Kam Martin and Shaun Shivers are back at running back, while Seth Williams, Anthony Schwartz, Eli Stove and Will Hastings will alleviate the loss of Darius Slayton and Ryan Davis to the NFL. Inconsistency on the line was a big reason why Auburn only averaged 5.11 yards per play in SEC contests. However, there’s hope for improvement next fall, as the Tigers return all five starters, including left tackle Prince Tega Wanogho and guard Marquel Harrell. The Tigers will miss linebacker Deshaun Davis and cornerback Jamel Dean, but the defensive line is loaded with talent, including tackle Derrick Brown and ends Nick Coe and Marlon Davidson. Despite Dean’s departure, the secondary should still be in great shape, as Javaris Davis, Noah Igbinoghene, Jeremiah Dinson and Daniel Thomas all return. Malzahn’s team will face a tough slate next fall, starting with a neutral site matchup against Oregon in Arlington to start the year. Additionally, Auburn has road trips slated against Texas A&M, Florida and LSU. The Tigers also host Georgia and Alabama in November.
5. Mississippi State
Joe Moorhead’s debut in Starkville resulted in a solid 8-5 season, but the staff has a few big holes to fill to return to the top 25 in 2019. The Bulldogs finished second nationally in scoring defense (13.2 ppg), ranked first in fewest yards per play allowed (4.13) and allowed less than 100 rushing yards a game (95.1 ypg). But coordinator Bob Shoop is set to lose a few of this group’s key cogs in safety Johnathan Abram and linemen Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat. Simmons and Sweat combined for 31 tackles for a loss in 2018 and were instrumental against the run. In addition to those three players, Shoop has to replace tackles Braxton Hoyett, Cory Thomas and Tre Brown, along with end Gerri Green. Additionally, safety Mark McLaurin and cornerbacks Jamal Peters and Chris Rayford must be replaced on the back end. The 2019 unit will look a little different, but Shoop is one of the best coordinators in college football and should keep Mississippi State’s defense performing at a high level. Cameron Dantzler is one of the SEC’s top returning cornerbacks, and the linebacker unit should be a strength with Erroll Thompson, Leo Lewis and Willie Gay returning next season. Despite Moorhead’s background on offense, the Bulldogs averaged only 19.3 points a game in SEC contests last fall. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald departs after accounting for 2,888 total yards and 29 overall scores. Keytaon Thompson is the frontrunner to replace Fitzgerald and has played in 19 contests over the last two years. Running back Kylin Hill should see more touches after accounting for 734 yards and four touchdowns in 2018, while the receiving corps returns Stephen Guidry (19 catches for 440 yards), Osirus Mitchell (26) and Deddrick Thomas (19). Elgton Jenkins and Deion Calhoun will leave big shoes to fill in the trenches next fall. If Moorhead can spark the passing attack and get more consistent play out of the receivers, Mississippi State could push for a spot in the top 25 and eight wins once again.
6. Ole Miss
The Rebels two-year postseason ban is over, so coach Matt Luke’s team will have an opportunity to earn the program’s first bowl trip since the 2015 season. Additionally, Luke already made a splash this offseason, hiring former coaches in Rich Rodriguez (Arizona) to coordinate the offense and Mike MacIntyre (Colorado) on the defensive side. Rodriguez is tasked with molding promising quarterback Matt Coral, who connected on 16 of 22 passes for 239 yards and two scores and added 83 rushing yards as a freshman in 2018. Running back Scottie Phillips returns after recording 928 yards and 12 touchdowns in his first year on campus, but Corral will have a revamped receiving corps after DaMarkus Lodge expired his eligibility and A.J. Green and D.K. Metcalf departed early for the NFL. There’s turnover up front to deal with too, as left tackle Greg Little left for the next level and center Sean Rawlings finished his eligibility. Even if Rodriguez keeps Ole Miss’ offense among the best in the SEC, the Rebels won’t go bowling without improvement on defense. This unit has ranked near or at the bottom of the SEC in points allowed for three consecutive years and gave up 221.8 rushing yards a game in 2018. MacIntyre inherits a unit that loses only two seniors among its top 15 tacklers from last season, but all three levels enter 2019 with question marks. Ole Miss opens with three of its first four games at home but has a tough road slate (at Memphis, Alabama, Missouri, Auburn and Mississippi State) next fall.
Chad Morris finished 2-10 in his first year in Fayetteville, but there’s optimism for the future after reeling in a standout recruiting class. Thanks to a favorable non-conference schedule, the Razorbacks could double their win total from 2018 to ’19. However, escaping the cellar of the SEC West might be a year away. The first priority for Morris is to find an answer at quarterback. Ty Storey entered his name into the transfer portal, and Cole Kelley left for Southeastern Louisiana. The new redshirt rule allowed freshmen Connor Noland and John Stephen Jones to receive limited snaps in 2018 and should benefit their development over the offseason. A graduate transfer is also a likely option for Morris to add depth or competition under center. In addition to the uncertainty at quarterback, the Razorbacks have holes to fill up front. The offensive line gave up 32 sacks and heads into the offseason looking to replace standout guard Hjalte Froholdt. Help in the trenches could come from the 2019 signing class, as Morris and his staff inked two junior college prospects in the December period. The question marks at quarterback and up front are significant, but Arkansas does have a solid one-two punch at running back (Rakeem Boyd and Devwah Whaley), an All-SEC candidate at tight end in Cheyenne O’Grady and receivers Mike Woods and La’Michael Pettway back in the mix next season. The Razorbacks showed some small signs of progress on defense in 2018. After allowing 6.5 yards per play in 2017, that total dropped to 6.0 last fall. Additionally, under coordinator John Chavis, Arkansas increased its sack total and was better against the run. However, this unit still has a ways to go in 2019. This unit received good news when lineman McTelvin Agim and linebacker De’Jon Harris decided to return for their senior seasons. The secondary finished last in the SEC and lost cornerback Ryan Pulley to the NFL, while Santos Ramirez, expired his eligibility.