Florida-Georgia Game

Assuming that the college football season begins as scheduled (which feels like a big assumption right now), we’re down to three months until the beginning of SEC play on Sept. 12. We decided to celebrate by surveying our staff on how it would rank all of the teams in the SEC heading into next season.

1. Alabama - Average Rank: 1, High: 1, Low: 1

River Wells: To be the man, you gotta beat the man.

Since 2008, the Alabama Crimson Tide have been “the man.” Their hallowed reign as dark lord of the SEC may have hit a speed bump last season, but do not be fooled: Alabama is the best team in the SEC, and it has all the tools to prove it for the 2020 season.

The Tide find themselves in a quarterback competition after the departure of Tua Tagovailoa to the Miami Dolphins, but they have two good options. Redshirt Junior Mac Jones played well in relief for Tagovailoa after his injury last year, throwing for 1,503 yards and 14 touchdowns with just three interceptions in just five games. He’ll likely be competing with true freshman Bryce Young, a five-star out of Santa Ana, California. Young is a bit small, but his pocket presence and arm are likely to make the Tide a threat once he stands behind center.

Alabama managed to keep offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to keep its offense firing, and it’ll also see the return of running back Najee Harris, who averaged 5.9 yards per carry and rushed for 1,224 yards and found the endzone 13 times.

With a strong linebacking corps and a young secondary on the other side of the ball, don’t expect the Crimson Tide to relinquish their throne as the SEC’s overlords any time soon. 

2. Georgia - Average Rank: 2.43, High: 2, Low: 3

Zachary Huber: The Bulldogs have made the SEC Championship game three years in a row, and my colleagues at The Alligator think they’ll make it for a fourth consecutive year.. Yes, UGA has to replace four starters from its offensive line, the Great Wall of Athens, Jake Fromm, and a host of starters from their defense. However, Kirby Smart replaced all those starters with recruits who are just as talented, if not more. Personally, I went back and forth with ranking Florida ahead of UGA but ultimately went with Georgia, despite having one of the toughest schedules in the SEC. It has to face Alabama in Tuscaloosa, along with its traditional rivalry games against Florida and at home versus Auburn. But, the Bulldogs still have plenty of talent from their stellar recruiting classes where we believe the talent gap between UF and UGA is too much for the Gators to overcome.

3. Florida - Average Rank: 2.86, High: 2, Low: 4

Brendan Farrell: Consider us unconvinced that the Gators are the prohibitive favorites in the SEC East. Only two of our writers had Florida ahead of Georgia. Coming into Year 3, coach Dan Mullen now has his guys in place, and he excels at getting the most out of his guys. However, the talent gap between Georgia and Florida is still pretty sizable, and it’s going to take a win in Jacksonville to convince me that UF has a ceiling above double-digit wins and a win in a New Year’s Six bowl. 

Florida’s biggest advantage is that it is the only team in our top four to return its starting quarterback from last season — Kyle Trask. In a year where the offseason is going to be a giant wild card, continuity at the most valuable position could be what puts the Gators over the edge in the East.

4. LSU - Average Rank: 4, High: 2, Low: 5

Wells: Reports of LSU’s demise have been greatly exaggerated.

Sure, the Tigers are down a Heisman-winning quarterback in Joe Burrow. Offensive mastermind Joe Brady has left for greater glory in the NFL, and LSU’s offensive line is projected to only retain a single starter.

But that wasn’t the only reason the Tigers found success in 2019. Head coach Ed Orgeron is still in Baton Rouge. Wide receiver Ja’Marr Chase, who thundered through 2019 with 1,780 yards and 20 touchdowns, isn’t going anywhere. Safety JaCoby Stevens opted to return for his senior year, too, and North Dakota State graduate transfer Jabril Cox should do wonders to shore up a linebacking corps that largely migrated to the NFL.

The ghost of Burrow may haunt his replacement in senior Myles Brennan, but he’ll be expected to plug right into the offense. Brennan didn’t see much action last year—his total stats include a 60 percent completion percentage in 40 attempts for 353 yards and a touchdown—but he’s been with the program for quite some timeWill the Tigers be kings of the SEC this season? It’s unlikely, but look for them to still be a major problem for the conference’s top-tier teams during the 2020 season.

5. Auburn - Average Rank: 4.86, High: 4, Low: 6

Noah Ram: It was a close battle between the Tigers that reside in the plains and the ones from the Bayou, but in the end, my colleagues put the national champions ahead. Despite that, AU should be much improved from last season’s four-loss showing and is by far a top-three team in the SEC West. A team that can give Alabama a run for its money. 

Scheduling is one of the biggest reasons why improvement is expected. Last season, the Tigers were hit with an absolutely brutal schedule. It was a murderers’ row of opponents that included the national champion (LSU), the winners of three New Year’s Six bowls (Oregon, Florida and Georgia) and Alabama. This year’s schedule is much kinder, and there’s a good chance that if it beats Georgia on Oct. 10 in Athens, Auburn will be 10-0 heading into its final two games (LSU and at Alabama).

But the schedule isn’t the only reason War Eagle could fly high in 2020. Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix is expected to take a big leap forward come September. Nix’s freshman campaign certainly wasn’t awful by any means (especially for someone younger than anyone on the alligatorSports staff), but there were moments, like against Florida and LSU, when AU needed him and he didn’t pass the test. He will need to step up this year to pick up the slack for a depleted defense that lost the likes of defensive tackles Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson. The pressure will be on Nix and receiver Seth Williams to make a move forward. But if they do, don’t be surprised when the Iron Bowl once again decides who makes the journey to Atlanta. 

6. Texas A&M - Average Rank: 6.14, High: 5, Low: 7

Huber: Jimbo Fisher has put together two solid years for the Aggies; but, Texas A&M wants more from the coach it paid top dollar to steal Fisher from FSU. However, my coworkers don’t expect the Aggies to make the leap into the upper echelon of the SEC West this season. They do return eight starters, his leading rusher and receiver, and his senior quarterback, Kellen Mond. But, does Mond have what it takes to get the Aggies over the hump? Yes. He has improved all three years in College Station, but he is still considered only an above-average quarterback in college football. And none of us believe Mond has what it takes to lead Fisher and his squad to the promised land. 

7. Tennessee: Average Rank: 7.85, High: 7, Low: 12

Ram: Sometimes what you see can be deceiving, and while it looks like there's a considerable dropoff between the Aggies and the Volunteers, I promise you it’s not as large as you think. I know it may be crazy to think this way, considering UT started 2019 2-5, and its highlight halfway through the season was one of its players not knowing how to use a phone in a blowout loss to Florida. 

But while everyone was laughing, Jeremy Pruitt quietly led his team on a remarkable turnaround, winning six in a row and making it to a bowl game for the first time in three years. Even though none of those eight wins came over ranked opponents, you can’t deny that Pruitt could be building something special in Knoxville. 

It won’t be easy for the Vols in 2020, as they travel to Oklahoma and Georgia and welcome Florida and Alabama to Rocky Top, but they have a stellar offensive line and playmakers on both sides of the ball. 

With that schedule and the inconsistent play of quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee won’t be ready to compete with Florida and Georgia. However, give Pruitt just a couple more seasons, and soon enough it could become a three-team battle in the SEC East to see who makes it to Mercedes-Benz Stadium the first Saturday of December.

8. Kentucky: Average Rank: 8, High: 6, Low: 9

Declan Walsh: After posting its first 10-win season in 41 years, Kentucky seemed poised to carry its success into the 2019 season. After beginning the campaign with two convincing victories, the Wildcats had No. 9 Florida against the ropes going into the fourth quarter. Kyle Trask would not be denied, however, and the Wildcats returned to mediocrity, losing their next two games and finishing the season 8-5. Receiver Lynn Bowden Jr. ultimately emerged as the best option under center towards the end of last season, playing largely out of the option and the wildcat. With his announcement that he would forgo his senior season in Lexington and enter the NFL Draft, there exists quite a bit of uncertainty at the quarterback position. Terry Wilson had a strong 2018 season and started under center last season before tearing his patellar tendon in week two. Wilson is expected to be healthy but will face competition from Sawyer Smith and potentially Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, pending a waiver from the NCAA. The SEC’s fourth-best defense in points allowed will also need reinforcements up front, as Kentucky will lose two of their starting defensive linemen. 

The Wildcats will benefit from a Charmin-soft non-conference schedule, with matchups against Eastern Michigan, Kent State, Eastern Illinois, and a Louisville program that has lost a bit of its luster. South Carolina, Mississippi State and Vanderbilt all make trips to the Bluegrass State as well, serving as great opportunities for Kentucky to notch conference victories. With additional winnable games at Missouri and Tennessee, the Wildcats should at the very least go bowling in 2020.

9. Mississippi State: Average Rank: 9.71, High: 6, Low: 12

Farrell: The fallout from Mullen leaving Mississippi State has been dramatic. The Bulldogs underachieved with an 8-5 season in 2018 and limped to a 6-6 record in 2019 before a loss to Louisville in the Music City Bowl cost Joe Moorhead his job. 

In comes Air Raid mastermind Mike Leach, who left his post at Washington State to coach the Bulldogs. Leach hit the transfer portal right away and snagged his starting quarterback for next season, former Stanford passer K.J. Costello. Costello threw for over 5,800 yards and 46 touchdowns to 16 interceptions in three years in Palo Alto. 

But Mississippi State still has plenty of issues. No one knows how the air raid will work against SEC defenses.  The Bulldogs also have a brutal schedule with road games against Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, and MSU has a lot of talent to replace on both sides of the ball. Things could get even uglier in Starkville before they start to get better.

10. Ole Miss: Average Rank: 9.71, High: 8, Low: 12

Dylan O’Shea: Much like a phoenix, Lane Kiffin has risen from the ashes once again to claim another major conference head coaching job. This time, the Lane train will make its stop in Oxford to replace former Rebels coach Matt Luke. Kiffin gained control of the program after earning two 10-win seasons in three years as head coach at FAU. But the SEC is a bigger beast than Conference USA, which Kiffin barreled through with ease. The Rebels are in need of a dramatic rebuild, and their quarterback situation should garner most of Kiffin’s attention as the 2020 season looms.

Sophomore quarterbacks Matt Corral and John Rhys Plumlee are vying for the starting position after splitting time during Ole Miss’ 4-8 2019 campaign. Both quarterbacks left little to write home about in terms of passing, combining for just 10 passing touchdowns last season. However, Plumlee is a strong runner when forced out of the pocket and on designed plays, punching it in 12 times in 2019.

If Kiffin can get the most out of his two signal callers, the offense should do some damage with its returning stars in wide receiver Elijah Moore and running back Jerrion Ealy.

However, Ole Miss’ 2-6 SEC record in 2019, combined with its shaky quarterback situation, forced the staff to knock the Rebels down to ninth on this list.

11. South Carolina: Average Rank: 10, High: 8, Low: 11

Bryan Matamoros: Will Muschamp’s seat at South Carolina is probably the hottest among SEC coaches heading into the 2020 campaign. 

The Gamecocks hold a mediocre record of 26-25 in four seasons under Muschamp, and they failed to reach a bowl game last year for the first time since 2015.

Time is running out for Muschamp to turn things around, but a favorable schedule to start the upcoming season may provide his team with some much-needed confidence moving forward.

South Carolina opens up with three straight home games against Coastal Carolina, East Carolina and Missouri before hitting the road to face Kentucky — all winnable matchups for the Gamecocks.

However, the question remains as to whether sophomore quarterback Ryan Hilinski has what it takes to upend the tougher opponents on his team’s schedule. Hilinski was thrust into the starting role as a true freshman, posting a 4-7 record after Jake Bentley suffered a season-ending foot injury on the final play of the 2019 season opener.

Hilinski put up decent stats given the circumstances: 2,357 yards passing, 11 touchdowns through the air and just five interceptions. But his completion percentage (58.1) and yards per attempt (5.8) left something to be desired.

Expect South Carolina to be a middle-of-the-pack team in the SEC East this season when it’s all said and done.

12. Missouri: Average Rank: 11.43, High: 10, Low: 12

Matamoros: Missouri parted ways with Barry Odom shortly after the 2019 campaign, one which saw the Tigers finish 6-6 and miss out on a bowl game due to NCAA sanctions. 

Eliah Drinkwitz, who led Appalachian State to a 12-1 record and a Sun Belt Conference title last season, is the new man in charge at Mizzou.

The 36-year-old coach is already at a disadvantage, though. 

Spring practices are perhaps the most important part of the college football offseason, especially for a team transitioning from one regime to another. Drinkwitz barely had the opportunity to see his players take the field, however, as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the cancellation of sports throughout the nation. 

Missouri’s offense is a massive question mark heading into 2020.

There is no clear-cut starter at quarterback, but it appears that Shawn Robinson’s dual-threat abilities give him the upper hand over Taylor Powell, who is more of a pocket passer.

Regardless of who gets the nod, the Tigers will struggle if voids aren’t filled at wide receiver, tight end and offensive line. 

The good news is that Drinkwitz has five years of experience as an offensive coordinator, and he’ll reportedly be calling the plays come Week 1. In his lone season at App State, the Mountaineers ranked ninth in the country in scoring with 38.8 points per game.

The potential is there for Mizzou to make some noise in the SEC East, but it won’t be in Drinkwitz’s first season — not with loaded Georgia and Florida squads waiting to ambush the Tigers.

13. Arkansas: Average Rank: 13.43, High: 13, Low: 14

Walsh: Optimism is a tough bridge to sell to Arkansas fans. After a calamitous 2018 campaign, the Razorbacks were somehow even worse in 2019, finishing with a 2-10 record while recording just one win against FBS competition. However, there is reason to believe that Arkansas will be markedly improved in 2020, at least on offense. 

The cupboard isn’t completely bare for first-year head coach Sam Pittman, as the Hogs made waves in the transfer portal, bringing former Gator quarterback Feleipe Franks to Fayetteville. The SEC’s sixth-leading rusher, Rakeem Boyd, will return for his senior season as well. This partnership should make Arkansas potent offensively, with seven additional starters returning for next season. 

Defensively, the situation is less promising. Last season, the Razorbacks surrendered just shy of 37 points per game. Even against subpar opposition, their defense was poor, allowing 45 points against Western Kentucky and 34 against Colorado State. With the departure of All-SEC linebacker De’Jon Harris weakening an already depleted defense, Arkansas will likely struggle to get stops on defense. 

It will be a rough start to the season for Arkansas, hosting a Nevada team that bested Baylor last season before traveling to South Bend to take on Notre Dame. Winnable fixtures arise later in the year, as Charleston Southern and Louisiana-Monroe come to Razorback Stadium. While Arkansas will finish far away from the bowl eligibility mark, I expect a better team than last year and an SEC victory for the first time since 2017

14. Vanderbilt: Average Rank: 13.57, High: 13, Low: 14

O’Shea: Ricky Bobby always said, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” And, well, Vanderbilt didn’t end up coming in first on this list. 

The SEC’s only private university has excluded itself from the conference’s winning ways over the past few years. Derek Mason has coached the Commodores since 2014 and has yet to earn a winning season with the program, finishing with a career-best six wins in both 2014 and 2018. Mason’s squad took losses in bowl games during those two seasons as well.

And while the Commodores finished 2019 with a 3-9 record backed by just 198 points of offensive production, it could very well get worse for them in 2020.

Mason lost his top three quarterbacks from last year in leading passer Riley Neal, Deuce Wallace and Mo Hassan. That leaves Vanderbilt with true freshman QBs Mike Wright and Ken Seals, along with junior college transfers Danny Clark and Jeremy Moussa. 

Vanderbilt’s two top offensive players from 2019, WR Kalija Lipscomb and bellcow RB Ke’Shawn Vaughn, left Nashville for the NFL. 

The cupboard is bare for Mason and the Commodores coming into 2020. With little returning talent to build around, it’s more than likely Vandy will field the worst team in the SEC this year.

River Wells is a sports writer for the Alligator and covers the University of Florida women’s tennis team. He has previously covered UF swimming and diving. He has worked at the paper since Fall 2017.