Florida holds a small edge in the East Division for the early 2020 picks
The SEC is never short on intrigue, but as evidenced by the early predictions and rankings, the 2020 season could feature two wide-open races atop the divisions. In the East, Florida and Georgia should be locked into a tight battle for the top spot, with Tennessee expected to close the gap and contend for a finish in the top 25. The Gators have a slight edge over the Bulldogs for now, but Georgia's addition of Jamie Newman could flip the frontrunner by spring practice. Alabama tops the West Division projections, with LSU at No. 2 and Texas A&M at No. 3.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2020 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2020:
Early SEC Football Predictions for 2020
It’s a close call between Florida and Georgia for the No. 1 spot in the East for the very early predictions for 2020. For now, a small edge goes to the Gators. Under Dan Mullen’s watch, Florida has won 21 games and finished in the top 10 in back-to-back years. For the Gators to take the next step, the offense needs a line that returns four starters to improve and help provide a little more balance on offense. Kyle Trask ranks as one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks for 2020, but Emory Jones is too talented to keep on the sidelines. Four of the top six statistical receiving options have to be replaced, including Van Jefferson (49 catches) and Freddie Swain (38). However, the cupboard isn’t bare on the outside. Tight end Kyle Pitts (54 grabs) and receivers Trevon Grimes, Jacob Copeland and Kadarius Toney form a strong group for Trask. Dameon Pierce is the frontrunner to replace Lamical Perine as the starting running back, but Miami transfer Lorenzo Lingard could be an option if he’s eligible in 2020. Todd Grantham’s defense is losing key pieces in linebacker David Reese, cornerback CJ Henderson and pass rushers Jabari Zuniga and Jonathan Greenard. However, this unit should still perform at a high level next year, as Georgia transfer Brenton Cox will help bolster the pass rush, and the secondary still ranks as one of the best in the SEC thanks to Marco Wilson’s return and the emergence of Kaiir Elam. The matchup in Jacksonville versus Georgia is likely to decide the East Division winner, but Florida has an edge in crossover scheduling with LSU coming to Gainesville and Georgia hitting the road to play Alabama.
As mentioned above, very little separates Georgia and Florida in these early rankings for next season. The Bulldogs have an edge in overall roster talent, but coach Kirby Smart’s squad heads into 2020 with a few major question marks on offense to address. Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman should be an impact addition to replace Jake Fromm at quarterback. The backfield remains strong despite the departures of D’Andre Swift and Brian Herrien. Zamir White, James Cook, Kenny McIntosh and freshman Kendall Milton rank among the top backfields in the SEC. After a standout freshman season, receiver George Pickens is primed for even bigger things in 2020. The offensive line lost key cogs Andrew Thomas, Isaiah Wilson, Solomon Kindley and Cade Mays, but a good foundation is in place for new line coach Matt Luke. Georgia’s defense ranked at the top of the SEC in yards per play allowed (4.3) and fewest points a game (12.6). Safety J.R. Reed and lineman Tyler Clark will be missed, but this unit returns largely intact and can carry this team until the offense finds is rhythm behind Newman. Crossover games against Alabama and Auburn will be huge, but the SEC East title is likely to come down to the Oct. 31 showdown in Jacksonville.
The Volunteers are on the right track entering coach Jeremy Pruitt’s third season in Knoxville. After an 0-2 start with losses to Georgia State and BYU, Tennessee rebounded by winning its final six contests. For Pruitt’s squad to finish ahead of Georgia or Florida in the East, the offense has to get more consistency out of the quarterback position. Whether it’s Jarrett Guarantano, Brian Maurer, J.T. Shrout or freshman Harrison Bailey, the development of this position is likely the difference in whether or not Tennessee finishes in the top 25. The offensive line has been a weak point in recent years, but the Volunteers should have one of the best in the SEC with the return of guard Trey Smith in 2020. This unit could get a boost if Georgia transfer Cade Mays is awarded immediate eligibility. Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway depart the receiving corps, but the offense should have a solid one-two punch at running back with Ty Chandler and Eric Gray returning. The Volunteers took a step forward on defense in 2019, holding teams to just 5.01 yards a snap. Improving on that total will require replacements to emerge for a couple of key departing players – linebackers Darrell Taylor and Daniel Bituli and safety Nigel Warrior. Linebacker Henry To’o-To’o is a rising star after finishing second on the team with 72 stops in 2019. Kicker Brent Cimaglia should push for All-America honors next fall after hitting 23 of 27 attempts last season. A huge showdown at Oklahoma is on tap for Sept 12, but Florida and Alabama come to Knoxville.
After winning 26 games through the first five seasons under Mark Stoops, Kentucky has posted 18 over the last two years. Just finishing 8-5 in 2019 was an accomplishment for Stoops and his staff. Starting quarterback Terry Wilson was lost for the season due to injury in early September, which later prompted the team to move receiver Lynn Bowden to the position in October. Bowden left for the NFL after finishing with 1,871 total yards in 2019, but Wilson is expected to return to the starting lineup. He’s joined by one of the SEC’s top offensive lines and a backfield that brings back three running backs that accumulated at least 500 rushing yards in 2019. Kentucky’s defense finished fourth in the SEC in fewest points allowed per game (19.3) and allowed 5.3 yards a snap. The line will miss Calvin Taylor and T.J. Carter, and the departure of linebacker Kash Daniel is significant. Despite those personnel departures, this unit should be solid once again in 2020. The Wildcats will be tested right away with a trip to Florida on tap in Week 2.
5. South Carolina
The Gamecocks faced a tough 2019 slate, but the pressure is building on coach Will Muschamp after a 4-8 record. Muschamp took steps to fix an offense that averaged only 5.2 yards a snap by hiring former Colorado State coach Mike Bobo to call plays in 2020. Bobo has a couple of quarterback options, as transfer Collin Hill (Colorado State), Dakereon Joyner and Ryan Hilinski and freshman Luke Doty will battle for the starting job. The team’s top three running backs depart, but freshman MarShawn Lloyd could provide a spark behind an offensive line that returns largely intact. The departure of Bryan Edwards (71 catches) is a significant loss in the receiving corps. Muschamp’s defense won’t have standout tackle Javon Kinlaw, safety J.T. Ibe or linebacker T.J. Brunson back next fall, but if players like cornerbacks Israel Mukuamu and Jaycee Horn and lineman Zacch Pickens develop, this unit could improve on the stat sheet after giving up 26.1 points a game in 2019. South Carolina could face three top-10 teams next November with Georgia, LSU and Clemson slated for the final stretch run of 2020.
After an 8-5 record in 2018, along with the arrival of transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, Missouri had plenty of momentum going into the ’19 season. That quickly dissipated with a defeat to Wyoming in the opener and culminated in Barry Odom’s dismissal after a 6-6 record. New coach Eli Drinkwitz had a successful year in his only season at Appalachian State, but the task of getting to a bowl in 2020 is significantly tougher in Columbia. Taylor Powell, Connor Bazelak and TCU transfer Shawn Robinson will compete for the starting job under center, but the offense also has question marks in the trenches and at receiver. The duo of Larry Rountree and Tyler Badie at running back is the strength of the offense. The Tigers have one of the SEC’s top defenders in linebacker Nick Bolton (107 tackles), and Drinkwitz is ensuring continuity for a unit that limited teams to 4.86 yards a snap by keeping Ryan Walters on as coordinator. Missouri registered the fewest (19) sacks of any team in the SEC and has to replace standout tackle Jordan Elliott. Home games versus Central Arkansas, Vanderbilt and Eastern Michigan in September should help Drinkwitz start fast in his first year.
Derek Mason is banking on a revamped staff to help the Commodores get back on track after a 3-9 record in 2019. Todd Fitch (offense) and Ted Roof (defense) are veteran signal-callers, but both will have their hands full. The offense needs to find consistency at quarterback after four players received snaps at the position in 2019. Additionally, leading rusher Ke’Shawn Vaughn (1,028 yards), receiver Kalija Lipscomb (46 catches) and tight end Jared Pinkney have all finished their eligibility. Left tackle Devin Cochran also decided to depart as a graduate transfer, adding concerns to an offensive line that allowed 28 sacks in 2019. The Commodores allowed the most yards per play (6.6) of any team in the SEC last year. With most of the depth chart slated to return, there’s optimism Roof and Mason can steer the defense in the right direction and improve on the stat sheet next fall. Non-conference games against Kansas State (road), Colorado State and Louisiana Tech dot the schedule, while Vanderbilt gets Texas A&M and Ole Miss in crossover play with the West.
The 2020 race to win the SEC West will be fascinating. At first glance, the division seems to be more open than in previous years. However, it’s hard to pick against Alabama as the early frontrunner for next fall. Quarterback play is under the spotlight with Tua Tagovailoa off to the NFL, but Mac Jones played well at the end of 2019, and true freshman Bryce Young will join the mix this offseason. Whoever wins the starting quarterback job can lean on one of the nation’s top offensive lines and a deep stable of running backs that includes Najee Harris after he passed on the NFL Draft. Even though Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs departed for the next level, Jones or Young won’t hurt for talent on the outside with Jaylen Waddle, John Metchie and DeVonta Smith back. For the first time since 2013, Alabama’s defense allowed more than five yards a snap in SEC play. Youth up front and injuries took a toll on this group, but there’s optimism for 2020. The linebacker unit will get a boost with Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon back after missing all of 2019 due to injury. The youth movement up front should turn into production, while cornerback Patrick Surtain is back to anchor a secondary that loses cornerback Trevon Diggs and safety Xavier McKinney. Finding edge rushers to replace Terrell Lewis and Anfernee Jennings (24 combined TFL in 2019) is a priority this spring. The Crimson Tide open with USC in Arlington and have to play Georgia in Tuscaloosa on Sept. 19. The showdown at LSU on Nov. 7 is likely to decide the SEC West title.
The reigning national champions are a small step behind Alabama and check in at No. 2 in the early SEC West predictions. In order for coach Ed Orgeron’s squad to repeat, the offense – the biggest reason for the 2019 national title – faces a couple of questions. How will the play-calling and scheme work with Joe Brady departing for the NFL? Additionally, who steps up to replace quarterback Joe Burrow? Myles Brennan is the favorite to win the job, but a transfer can’t be ruled out. The supporting cast took a few hits with running back Clyde Edwards-Helaire joining receiver Justin Jefferson in leaving early for the NFL. The backfield isn’t completely bare, as John Emery, Chris Curry and Tyrion Davis-Price should be an effective trio if Edwards-Helaire departs. Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase and Terrace Marshall are set to anchor the receiving corps after combining for 33 touchdown grabs and over 100 catches in 2019. However, Orgeron has a lot of work to do in the trenches after center Lloyd Cushenberry and tackle Saahdiq Charles declared for the NFL, joining starting guards Damien Lewis as key departures. LSU’s defense closed 2019 by playing its best stretch of the season over the final five games. Coordinator Dave Aranda is one of the best in college football, so despite a few losses early to the NFL, this unit should continue performing at a high level. After a standout freshman season, cornerback Derek Stingley already ranks as one of the top players in college football. Orgeron’s team certainly doesn’t have an easy path back to the CFB Playoff. LSU hosts Texas in Week 2 and plays at Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M in SEC play. The Nov. 7 matchup versus Alabama will be huge in deciding the winner of the West Division.
3. Texas A&M
With Alabama and LSU losing key pieces from its roster, can Texas A&M take a step forward and challenge for the SEC West title? Coach Jimbo Fisher’s team has a much easier path after a brutal schedule in 2019. The Aggies trade Clemson for Colorado in non-conference play, while Vanderbilt replaces Georgia in crossover action. Most of the depth chart on offense is set to return for Fisher’s team in 2020. Running back Isaiah Spiller (946 yards) is back after a solid freshman campaign, the offensive line returns largely intact, and the receiving corps is led by receivers Jhamon Ausbon (66 catches) and Ainias Smith (22) and tight ends Jalen Wydermyer and Baylor Cupp. Can quarterback Kellen Mond take the next step in his development as a senior next fall? The defense also returns most of its key pieces for 2020 and will benefit from the continued development of safety Demani Richardson and lineman DeMarvin Leal after promising freshman campaigns. Linebackers Buddy Johnson and Anthony Hines III paced the team in tackles in 2019 and return to anchor the defense once again next fall. Replacing standout tackle Justin Madubuike and generating more of a pass rush after recording only 29 sacks will be an offseason priority for coordinator Mike Elko.
Auburn should have one of the SEC’s top quarterbacks for 2020 with Bo Nix poised to improve off a promising freshman season. Nix connected on 57.6 percent of his throws for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns to six picks and ran for 313 yards and seven scores. Former Arkansas coach Chad Morris was hired as the team’s new offensive coordinator, and his experience working with quarterbacks should help Nix develop as a passer. The Tigers return a solid stable of running backs, and the team’s top three statistical receivers – including likely 2020 All-SEC candidate Seth Williams (59 catches). However, Nix’s development won’t matter unless Auburn can restock an offensive line that loses four starters. The turnover in the trenches continues to the defensive side. Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson and Nick Coe each departed at the end of the 2019 season. The secondary is also facing its share of turnover, but the linebacker unit should be among the best in the SEC. A neutral site matchup versus North Carolina on Sept. 12 should be a good litmus test for Auburn’s defense. The Tigers have to play at Alabama and Georgia next fall, but key games against LSU and Texas A&M take place at home.
5. Ole Miss
Ole Miss lost eight games in 2019 but five came by eight points or less. New coach Lane Kiffin isn’t stepping into a total rebuild, as the close losses and young talent suggest the Rebels could push for a bowl in 2020. John Rhys Plumlee returns after a dynamic freshman season as the favorite to start at quarterback, with Jerrion Ealy (722 yards) primed for a breakout year at running back. The team’s top three receivers are back, but the line has to be retooled following the departure of both tackles. Ole Miss showed marked improvement on defense in 2019. After giving up 36.2 points a game in 2018, this unit allowed 26.5 last season. The new defensive staff has a few holes to plug up front and in the secondary, but leading tackler Lakia Henry (88 stops) is back. The Rebels open with Baylor in Houston but have a brutal three-game stretch (Auburn, at LSU and Alabama) prior to the midway point of 2020.
6. Mississippi State
Mississippi State certainly won’t lack for intrigue in 2020. Mike Leach was hired after Joe Moorhead was dismissed following two years at the helm in Starkville. Leach has succeeded at tough jobs (Texas Tech and Washington State), and his high-powered offense will be tested against some of the nation’s best defenses in the SEC. Finding a quarterback is Leach’s top priority this offseason, but the receiving corps also needs to be restocked with four key seniors out of eligibility. All-SEC running back Kylin Hill decided to return for his senior year, and a couple of starters return in the trenches. Mississippi State led the SEC in scoring defense in 2018 but slipped to 12th after losing a handful of key pieces, including three first-round picks. The Bulldogs will have to replace seven of the team’s top 12 tacklers from 2019, but linebacker Erroll Thompson passed on the NFL to stay one more year in Starkville. Transitioning the personnel on offense to fit Leach’s scheme might take a year or two, but this team should still be in the mix for a bowl next fall.
New coach Sam Pittman has a tough job ahead in Fayetteville, as Arkansas enters 2020 on a 19-game losing streak in the SEC. And the 2020 slate won’t do Pittman and his staff any favors. The Razorbacks play at Notre Dame in non-conference action and catch Tennessee in crossover play. Pittman is a first-time head coach at the FBS level, but he hired a good staff, including coordinators Kendal Briles (offense) and Barry Odom (defense). Whether it’s K.J. Jefferson or a graduate transfer, Arkansas has to find an answer at quarterback to have a shot at ending its losing streak within the SEC. Pittman’s return to Fayetteville will help develop the talent in the trenches, and the skill talent features a couple of promising players, including running back Rakeem Boyd (1,133 yards) and receivers Mike Woods, Treylon Burks and Trey Knox. Odom is one of the offseason’s top coordinator hires, but he inherits a defense that has finished 13th or worse in the SEC in scoring defense in each of the last three years. On the positive side for Odom: This unit isn’t losing much in the way of key seniors. However, linebacker De’Jon Harris, lineman McTelvin Agim and safety Kamren Curl – arguably three of the unit’s best players – won’t return for 2020. Small steps forward in overall competitiveness would be a good sign for Pittman next fall.
Podcast: Early 2020 Predictions and Rankings