The race to win the SEC for college football's 2022 season starts where the national championship ended. Georgia edged Alabama for the '21 title, and the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide should open next year as the early favorites to win the SEC and earn a trip back to the CFB Playoff. With quarterback Bryce Young returning, Alabama is expected to begin next fall as the No. 1 team in the nation. The SEC doesn't lack for intrigue outside of the top two. In the East, Kentucky and Tennessee are the early favorites for the No. 2 spot, while Billy Napier should help Florida get back on track, and South Carolina is trending up under coach Shane Beamer. The West Division is loaded once again. Texas A&M takes the No. 2 spot in the very early rankings, with Arkansas, LSU and Mississippi State headlining the next tier.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2022 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its very early power rankings for the SEC for 2022:
Early SEC Football Predictions for 2022
The Bulldogs are going to lose several key contributors after winning the national championship, but coach Kirby Smart’s team should still take the top spot in the East next year. There’s intrigue at quarterback once again if Stetson Bennett and JT Daniels decide to return, while the skill talent features one of the nation’s top tight ends (Brock Bowers) and a couple of emerging playmakers (Jermaine Burton, Kearis Jackson and Adonai Mitchell) at receiver. Georgia’s elite defense from ’21 is going to look a lot different next fall, but Smart and new co-coordinators Will Muschamp and Glenn Schumann will keep this unit near the top of the SEC.
It’s a toss-up between Kentucky and Tennessee for second in the very early SEC predictions. The Wildcats are coming off their second 10-win season under coach Mark Stoops and return quarterback Will Levis and running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. as foundation pieces for coordinator Liam Coen. Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson is expected to play a key role in replacing Wan’Dale Robinson (104 catches) at receiver, and the line has to replace standout tackles Dare Rosenthal and Darian Kinnard. Kentucky’s defense finished fourth in the SEC in fewest points allowed and received a boost this offseason when Jacquez Jones, DeAndre Square and Jordan Wright all opted to return. There are holes to fill in the secondary, however.
As mentioned above, not much separates Kentucky and Tennessee for the No. 2 and No. 3 spots in the early SEC rankings for 2022. The Volunteers were a much-improved team in coach Josh Heupel’s first year and should push for a top-25 finish with quarterback Hendon Hooker opting to return next fall. Velus Jones and JaVonta Payton depart the receiving corps, but Hooker returns No. 1 target Cedric Tillman and Wyoming transfer Isaiah Neyor should help right away. Improving the offensive line and a defense that allowed 33.6 points a game in SEC play top the list of offseason priorities on Rocky Top.
4. South Carolina
The Gamecocks are the sleeper team to watch in the East Division next year. Coach Shane Beamer guided the team to a 7-6 mark in 2021, which clearly exceeded preseason expectations. The addition of Oklahoma transfer Spencer Rattler gives South Carolina one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC and more help at the skill spots is on the way from the portal. Contending for a spot in the top 25 is within reach, especially if the offensive line takes a step forward, and the defense improves after allowing 6.1 yards per play in SEC matchups in ’21.
Just a year after pushing Alabama in the SEC Championship Game and playing in a New Year’s Six bowl, Florida finished the 2021 season with a reset. Dan Mullen was dismissed, and Billy Napier was hired to relentlessly recruit and get the program back near the top of the SEC. The Gators should improve in ’22, and this roster isn’t completely void of talent. Quarterback Anthony Richardson has showed flashes of big-time potential in limited action, and former top recruits Demarkcus Bowman and Lorenzo Lingard will have a chance for more snaps at running back next fall. Both lines of scrimmage need to be addressed, and the secondary is going to miss cornerback Kaiir Elam. The Gators gave up nearly 27 points (26.8) a game in ’21, but new defensive coordinator Patrick Toney should help this group improve right away.
The offseason priority list for coach Eli Drinkwitz starts with finding a replacement for running back Tyler Badie, who capped an underrated 2021 season by leading the SEC with 161.6 all-purpose yards a game. Connor Bazelak’s transfer leaves Brady Cook, Tyler Macon and incoming freshman Sam Horn to compete for the starting quarterback job. Another incoming freshman (Luther Burden) should provide a needed big-play threat on the outside. Missouri’s defense struggled under first-year play-caller Steve Wilks in ’21, but this unit showed some progress down the stretch. Major improvement is still needed, and Wilks received a boost with end Trajan Jeffcoat opting to return for ’22 and a couple of pickups through the transfer portal.
Clark Lea’s rebuilding effort on West End continues into 2022. The Commodores have only one win in SEC play since ’19, and the gap between this program and the rest of the conference was evident with just one of the eight losses in league play coming by one score. A more competitive ’22 campaign would count as progress, and Lea is set to return two proven quarterbacks in Mike Wright and Ken Seals, along with running backs Re’Mahn Davis and Rocko Griffin. Vanderbilt allowed 39.6 points a game in SEC matchups in ’21. How far can Lea improve this defense with another offseason?
The Crimson Tide will be a heavy favorite to repeat as SEC champs and win it all in 2022. Coach Nick Saban’s team returns quarterback Bryce Young and fellow first-team All-American and edge rusher Will Anderson Jr. Also, the additions of transfers Jahmyr Gibbs at running back from Georgia Tech and Eli Ricks at cornerback from LSU help to shore up two positions of need. Young needs some of the young receivers to develop and the offensive line to improve, but overall, the concerns about Alabama’s 2022 roster are minimal.
2. Texas A&M
The Aggies are already off to a strong start this offseason with the nation’s No. 1 recruiting class coming to College Station. A return to the top 10 and a New Year’s Six bowl should be the expectation in ’22, especially with coach Jimbo Fisher having a couple of talented quarterbacks to choose from – Haynes King, transfer Max Johnson and Conner Weigman – to go with one of the SEC’s top offensive lines. Devon Achane steps into the No. 1 role at running back with Isaiah Spiller off to the NFL, while Fisher needs to find a replacement for standout tight end Jalen Wydermyer. New defensive signal-caller D.J. Durkin has to restock up front after the departures of DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy and Tyree Johnson, but Texas A&M isn’t lacking for talent on defense.
The Razorbacks have made significant improvement in two years under coach Sam Pittman. Is another step forward in the works for 2022? Replacing receiver Treylon Burks won’t be easy, but quarterback K.J. Jefferson is back after accounting for 256.9 total yards a game in ’21. Oklahoma transfer Jadon Haselwood should play a key role in replacing Burks’ production (66 catches for 1,104 yards and 11 TDs) next fall. The Razorbacks also return a promising one-two punch at running back in Rocket Sanders and Dominique Johnson, while four starters are set to return in the trenches. Coordinator Barry Odom has to replace linebacker Grant Morgan, and a couple of key cogs in the trenches. Also, the secondary was hit hard by departures, including Joe Foucha as a transfer to LSU. A healthy Jalen Catalon returning at safety eases some of those concerns.
The Tigers might be the biggest wild card team in the SEC next year. Brian Kelly is the right hire for the Bayou Bengals, but the roster features several pressing questions. Myles Brennan opted to return to Baton Rouge instead of transferring, which gives LSU a proven quarterback to lean on in ’22. Receiver Kayshon Boutte is back from injury and should push for All-America honors. Restocking the offensive line and finding a more consistent (and productive) ground game is a must. Defensively, the linebacker and cornerback spots top the list of concerns for Kelly and new coordinator Matt House. Talent is never an issue at LSU. But how fast can Kelly fill the voids in his first year?
5. Mississippi State
With quarterback Will Rogers in full control of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense, the Bulldogs should push to be a top 25 team in 2022. Rogers threw for 4,741 yards and 36 touchdowns in ’21, and with another offseason to get comfortable in the scheme, he’s poised to push for All-SEC honors. Leading receiver Makai Polk and left tackle Charles Cross top the list of key departures on offense. The bulk of Mississippi State’s defense will return next fall, but cornerback Martin Emerson leaves big shoes to fill on the outside.
6. Ole Miss
The Rebels tied the highest win total (10) in school history in 2021, but coach Lane Kiffin’s team is going to look a lot different next fall. Quarterback Matt Corral, receiver Dontario Drummond and running backs Jerrion Ealy and Snoop Conner are all set to depart for the next level. Also, the offense will have a new play-caller after Jeff Lebby left for the same job at Oklahoma. Change is also the storyline on defense. The Rebels took a big step forward on this side of the ball in ’21, but coordinator D.J. Durkin is off to Texas A&M, and the depth chart is also going to have its share of turnover. Once the roster and coach carousel stops, there’s a good chance Ole Miss moves up the pecking order in the conference. But for now, uncertainty surrounds the roster prior to spring ball.
The SEC West is expected to be deep once again in 2022. While Auburn ranks No. 7 here, the Tigers should be among the top 30-35 teams in the nation. The strength of coach Bryan Harsin’s second team should be a defense that limited teams to 21.8 points a game in ’21. End Derick Hill (nine sacks) is back to cause havoc off the edge, and a healthy Owen Pappoe alleviates some of the concern at linebacker with Zakoby McClain off to the next level. Expect the Tigers to be a work in progress on offense early in the year. T.J. Finley, Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada, and freshmen Dematrius Davis and Holden Geriner will battle to start under center. Until the passing game settles behind a quarterback and a wide receiving corps with some uncertainty, the offense needs to lean on the one-two punch of Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter at running back.
Related: Recapping the National Championship and What's Next for the CFB Playoff