The SEC is the undisputed champion of the college football world, with Georgia, the top Dawg, looking for its third consecutive national title. Heady stuff even for the best conference in the land.
And with the rich getting richer next season, when the league welcomes Texas and Oklahoma to its ranks, we have one last year with the present 14-team, two-division format.
Georgia’s path to another national championship — or even to a conference title — will include challenges as old foe Nick Saban and Alabama have reloaded, but both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks. LSU and Tennessee also figure to be top contenders, Ole Miss and Texas A&M are preseason Top 25 teams, then there’s South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Arkansas … as we said, this is the best conference in the land.
ESPN reporters Chris Low and Alex Scarborough break down the top newcomers, holes to fill, best early-season games, MVP and championship picks and more.
Three (or four) transfers to know
LB Omar Speights, LSU: We know after last season how good outside linebacker Harold Perkins can be rushing the passer and generally being a menace all over the field. And, if you have a longer memory, you’ll remember how dominating defensive lineman Maason Smith can be when healthy, whether it’s stifling the running game or using his quickness to chase down quarterbacks. But the difference for LSU this season if it goes from good to great will be the addition of former first-team All-Pac 12 middle linebacker Speights, who coach Brian Kelly believes has a future in the NFL, from Oregon State. — Alex Scarborough
WRs Rara Thomas and Dominic Lovett, Georgia: This is going to be a new-look Bulldogs offense. Not only is quarterback Stetson Bennett gone, so is perennially underrated offensive coordinator Todd Monken. All-American tight end Brock Bowers is back along with All-SEC receiver Ladd McConkey, but it will take more than that to support Carson Beck, who opens the season as Kirby Smart’s QB1. Enter Lovett and Thomas, who were Missouri’s and Mississippi State’s leading receivers last season, respectively. — Scarborough
QB Graham Mertz, Florida: It was tempting to go with the other top transfer quarterbacks in the conference — Payton Thorne at Auburn, Devin Leary at Kentucky, Tyler Buchner at Alabama and Spencer Sanders at Ole Miss. But Mertz is in a unique position because of the pressure he’s under to turn around a Florida offense that was so bad last season it cranked up the heat on coach Billy Napier after only one year on campus. It’s easy to write off Mertz, who was underwhelming in 32 starts at Wisconsin. But don’t forget he was once the top-rated pocket passer in the 2019 class, and don’t discount the benefit of a fresh start. Napier is optimistic about Mertz’s “incredible motor and work ethic.” — Scarborough
Three key positions to fill
LSU WR: For the Tigers’ offense to take the next step, not only does Jayden Daniels need to improve as a down-field passer, he needs more playmakers to step up at receiver, whether it’s Malik Nabers, Kyren Lacy or Brian Thomas Jr. — Scarborough
Georgia QB: Carson Beck entered preseason camp as the front-runner to replace Stetson Bennett and was given the nod Saturday, but Brock Vandagriff and Gunner Stockton will be nipping at his heels. — Scarborough
Three instant-impact freshmen
S Caleb Downs, Alabama: Spring practice was enough for the Alabama coaches to know Downs will be one of their four best defensive backs. He was the No. 1-ranked safety prospect in the 2023 class by ESPN — No. 11 overall — and is poised to fill a big hole for the Crimson Tide. — Chris Low
RB Rueben Owens, Texas A&M: After rushing for more than 7,000 yards during his high school career, Owens was a late flip to Texas A&M after originally committing to Louisville. Jimbo Fisher loved what he saw out of Owens in the spring with his agility, speed and work ethic. It won’t take him long to be a key component in Bobby Petrino’s offense. — Low
OLB Damon Wilson, Georgia: The Bulldogs were in need of outside linebackers, which was why beating Ohio State for Wilson in the early signing period was such a big deal for Georgia. Wilson was everything Kirby Smart and the staff hoped he would be in spring practice with his ability to rush the passer and be a disruptive force off the edge. — Low
Three must-see September games
Texas at Alabama, Sept. 9: Alabama needed a late field goal to slip by the Longhorns 20-19 in Austin a year ago, and that was with Bryce Young at QB. The scene shifts to Tuscaloosa this year as Alabama adjusts to life without Young and with a new quarterback. Even though it’s only the second week of the season, this game will go a long way toward shaping the playoff race. The winner gets an all-important nonconference win over what will probably be a nationally ranked opponent at season’s end. — Low
Tennessee at Florida, Sept. 16: The Vols finally broke through against the Gators last season after losing 16 of the previous 17 meetings in the series. Tennessee last won at the Swamp in 2003, so it has been a while. Florida needs to build some early momentum in Year 2 under Napier, and taking down the Vols in the SEC opener would be a great way to do it. Think we’ll hear much about Tennessee quarterback Joe Milton III‘s “I don’t lose in Florida” proclamation leading up to the game? — Low
LSU at Ole Miss, Sept. 30: LSU is getting tons of love this preseason, but it won’t be an easy September for Brian Kelly’s Tigers. The trip to Ole Miss will be their third game away from home in the first month of the season. For Ole Miss, it’s the second leg of a grueling two-game stretch that has the Rebels traveling to Alabama a week earlier. Both teams should be dynamic offensively, and the loser of this game is going to have a steep climb back. — Low
Low: RB Quinshon Judkins, Ole Miss
Judkins was Mr. Consistency for Ole Miss last season as a freshman in leading the SEC in rushing with 1,567 yards. Lane Kiffin is always going to have a potent running game, and there’s no reason to believe Judkins won’t put up similar numbers again this season.
Scarborough: DL Maason Smith, LSU
What’s the fun of preseason projections if you go by the book? That’s boring. And that’s why I’m picking Smith, who is under the radar after missing all of last season with an injury. When healthy, the 6-foot-6, 315-pound sophomore is a game-wrecker in the style of Jalen Carter, possessing the size and strength to clog running lanes and the quickness to rush the passer. I asked LSU running back Josh Williams about Smith and this is what he told me: “He’s about to dominate. He’s the one that everybody should be worried about.”
On the hot seat
Low: Billy Napier, Florida
It’s crazy to think Naper is (or should be) on the hot seat going into just his second year at Florida, but if the Gators are hovering around the .500 mark again after going 6-7 in his first season, the restlessness in Gainesville will reach an uncomfortable level for everybody involved.
Scarborough: Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M
Don’t tell me about Fisher’s buyout, which at last check is more than $70 million. I’m betting the Aggies, with rival Texas poised to join the conference next season, will cut that check if they stumble to another sub-.500 finish. A manageable September slate will either be a launching pad to better things with games against Austin Peay, Miami, Louisiana Monroe, Auburn and Arkansas, or it will be the beginning of the end for Fisher.
Low: Texas A&M
The Jimbo Fisher-Bobby Petrino pairing will be the storyline everyone fixates on leading into the season, but the real story will be the Aggies, who are hardly lacking for talent, putting it all together, rebounding from a losing season and making some real noise in the West Division race.
Why aren’t more people talking about the Vols after they beat Alabama, LSU and had an all-around breakout season? Josh Heupel’s offense took the SEC by storm last year and all anyone wants to discuss is how Georgia will run away with the East again. While quarterback Hendon Hooker is off to the NFL, Joe Milton steps in with a cannon for a right arm and the perspective of a senior who knows this is his last shot.
Conference title game
Low: Alabama 28, Georgia 24
For the 10th straight season, the SEC championship game will feature either Alabama or Georgia, this one being the third time in the last six years they’ve faced each other. Both teams will be breaking in new quarterbacks, but the difference is an Alabama running game that takes over in the fourth quarter.
Scarborough: Alabama 21, Georgia 20
Despite all the questions facing the Crimson Tide — the quarterback, the offense under a new coordinator and the defense, which has slipped somewhat in recent years — I think Nick Saban will find a way to beat LSU at home and make it back to Atlanta. And if he does, I’m betting Alabama is more battle-tested than Georgia, whose schedule is mediocre at best.
POST AUTHOR: Chris Low and Alex Scarborough