Saving the best 'til last. While there is intrigue and drama awaiting in the other Power Five conferences, the SEC is the best conference in college football. In a year when Alabama, briefly, loosened it's grip on the national title, it was an SEC rival that beat them to win it. Georgia overcame an SEC title game loss against the Crimson Tide to win the national championship convincingly.
While Alabama and Georgia remain favourites to win the SEC West and East, they can expect more challenge this year. Texas A&M, conquerors of the Crimson Tide in College Station, have the No.1 recruiting class in the country. The Aggies will be joined by Arkansas and Ole Miss to make life hard for Alabama in the West. In the East, Georgia can expect a fight from resurgent Tennessee and fast-improving Kentucky. It might be a year or two early for Florida to challenge, as they begin a much-needed overhaul under new coach Billy Napier.
Who comes out on top in the toughest conference in college football and what are the must-see games? Read on...
In short, Alabama are loaded in virtually all areas and are the consensus preseason No.1 in college football. The Crimson Tide return seven starters on an outstanding looking defense, including Henry To'oTo'o and arguably the best player in college football, Will Anderson, Jr, who recorded 17.5 sacks last year. DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle return at safety and a promising secondary sees the return of Kool-Aid McKinstry from a solid freshman year, and transfer Eli Ricks come in from LSU.
On offense, the addition of Georgia Tech transfer Jahmyr Gibbs gives Bill O'Brien's unit another dimension. Gibbs is an electric NFL-calibre back with excellent pass-catching ability out of the backfield. Head coach Nick Saban has already named him RB1, a clear sign of his faith in the newcomer. New additions at receiver and on the offensive line will boost the offense, oh, and then there's Bryce Young. The Heisman-winning quarterback threw for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns last year. The team to beat.
Jimbo Fisher is building a future dynasty in College Station. Three outstanding recruiting classes were topped off by the Aggies pulling in the No.1 recruiting class this year, much to Nick Saban's frustration. Texas A&M has talent at every position, although their real challenge might be a year away.
What might stop the Aggies reaching the elite this year is consistency - they beat Alabama last year, but lost to Arkansas and Mississippi State, which knocked them out of the running. The lack of a star quarterback is the other factor. Haynes King beat out Max Johnson to win the starting job, and five-star recruit Connor Weigman waits in the wings. Devon Achane could be the star on offense. The dual-sport track and football star ran for a 96-yard touchdown in the win against Alabama and has a PB of 10.14 in the 100 metres. The defensive line has huge potential but needs to knit together new starters.
The Razorbacks are very much a team on the rise under coach Sam Pittman. Arkansas finished 9-4 last year, having posted a 3-7 season in 2020. The return of quarterback KJ Jefferson is a huge boost. The dual-threat talent rushed for 664 yards and passed for 2,676 with 21 touchdown passes, and has a strong offensive line to protect him.
Defensive coordinator Barry Odom has a huge defensive line and talented linebacking group. They return few starters, so this unit will take time to settle. Back-to-back games against Texas A&M and Alabama in Weeks 4 and 5 will give an indication of this improving team's level.
The self-styled transfer portal king, coach Lane Kiffin, has had to replace a lot of outgoing talent. Jaxson Dart comes in from USC to challenge Luke Altmyer for the starting job vacated by NFL-bound Matt Corral. Zach Evans and Ulysses Bentley IV come in at running back from TCU and SMU respectively while Troy Brown (Central Michigan) and Khari Coleman (TCU) boost the linebacking corps.
6'3", 205lb safety A.J. Finley is one to watch on a talent-deep defense that will hope to tighten up on last year. Ole Miss are exciting to watch and a favourable early season schedule could see them get to 8-0 before a tough run of games against Texas A&M, Alabama and Arkansas in consecutive weeks. They then finish up hosting Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl.
Brian Kelly comes in at head coach from Notre Dame on a 10-year, $95 million contract, bringing with him a 166-62 record and three Playoff appearances. He's done a good job replacing some gaps in the team but there is lots of work still to do. He has a very talented defensive line and arguable one of the nation's best receivers, Kayshon Boutte, as solid starting points.
The shock retirement of quarterback Myles Brennan means that Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels and Garrett Nussmeier will battle for the starting job. 6'6", 310lb True freshman Will Campbell starts at left tackle. The Tigers kick off in New Orleans vs. Florida State.
The Bulldogs have a brutal schedule this year, the toughest in the country according to some analysts. Weeks 5-9 see them line up against Texas A&M, Arkansas, Kentucky and Alabama before facing national champs Georgia and state rivals Ole Miss in two of their last three games.
Mike Leach's Air Raid offense will be led again by Will Rogers, who has developed significantly under his coach's tutelage since his freshman year. Mississippi State returns seventeen starters and has an equally aggressive defense. They beat Texas A&M 26-22 last year and lost close games to LSU and Arkansas. If they can hit form and retain consistency, they will be a team to keep an eye on.
A five-game losing streak to end the season put coach Bryan Harsin firmly on the hot seat, a run that may have contributed to quarterback Bo Nix bolting for Oregon. There is hope, however. Auburn took Alabama to two overtimes, beat LSU, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Tank Bigsby returns with Jarquez Hunter to form a menacing backfield but quarterback is undecided. Texas A&M transfer Zach Calsada, TJ Finley and Oregon transfer Robby Ashford are all in the running to replace Nix.
The generational defense that won Georgia its first national title since 1980 is gone. Eight defensive starters were taken in the NFL draft, as the Bulldogs lost a record fifteen players overall to the NFL. They do have some prodigious talent coming through. Jalen Carter, as promising a talent as departed Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt leads the defensive line. Kelee Ringo, famous for his pick-six against Alabama to seal the national championship, returns at cornerback.
On offense, Stetson Bennett returns as QB1 with a dangerous group of receivers featuring Adonai Mitchell and Ladd McConkey and a strong offensive line. The departed James Cook and Zamir White are replaced by Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh at tailback. While the defense might lack some of the lustre of last year, Georgia remains one of the best teams in the country and will have an intriguing opener against Oregon.
The Wildcats have made remarkable progress under coach Mark Stoops, surging to a 10-3 record last year. Quarterback Will Levis threw for 2,827 yards and 24 touchdowns since his transfer from Penn State and is being talked about as a first round NFL draft pick. Virginia Tech and Alabama transfers Tayvion Robinson and Javon Baker form a dangerous receiving group that includes promising four-star freshman Dane Key.
A strong returning defense gives Kentucky continued momentum. Their November 19th showdown with Georgia in Lexington could decide the SEC East.
One of the most explosive offenses (39.3 points per game last season) and an improved defense gives the Volunteers a real shot at the SEC East this year. Coach Josh Heupel, a year in from his move from UCF, has fostered an optimistic feel on campus in Knoxville.
Hendon Hooker passed for 31 touchdowns and just three interceptions, also running for 616 yards, The talented quarterback was also sacked 40 times, so the offensive line needs to improve for him to take Tennessee to the next level. Games against Kentucky and Georgia in consecutive weeks will be critical to their challenge.
The Gators are undergoing a transformation under new coach Billy Napier. The former Louisiana head coach was a former assistant to Nick Saban at Alabama, instilling much needed discipline and focus in Gainesville, which appears to be winning the players over.
Anthony Richardson is set for a breakout year at quarterback and right guard O'Cyrus Torrence, who transferred with Napier from Louisiana bolsters Florida's offensive line. The Gators lack depth in the overall roster though and this may be a long build for Napier through recruiting classes and the portal. They will be competitive this season, though.
A real sleeper team with scope to surprise. Coach Shane Beamer lured his former quarterback Spencer Rattler across from Oklahoma to provide a significant upgrade behind the Gamecocks' offensive line. Rattler, who had a superb freshman season before inconsistency lost him the starting job in Norman to Caleb Williams, will have a point to prove. His level of play could determine South Carolina's season. Jaheim Bell is one to watch at tight end.
Defensively, the Gamecocks are continuing to improve. Cornerback Cam Smith is a leader on defense and could follow in Jaycee Horn's footsteps to the NFL.
Eli Drinkwitz and Missouri have underwhelmed since his arrival from Appalachian State two years ago. Quarterback Connor Bazelak departed for Indiana, replaced by sophomore Brady Cook.
Drinkwitz might be saved by his adept recruiting, bringing in the highest-ranked class in Mizzou history. Five-star receiver Luther Burden III might be the pick of the bunch, adding immediate impact to the offense and in the return game. Ja'Marion Wayne looks like another great pickup while Cody Schrader and Nathaniel Peat add depth at running back. The defense looked promising in its opening 52-24 win against Louisiana State, picking up three interceptions.
0-8 in the SEC last year and 2-10 overall, Vandy has its work cut out again this season, Quarterback Mike Wright built on some highlights last year with a strong performance in a 63-10 opening game rout of Hawaii and the defense scored two touchdowns from fumble returns.
The roster continues to lack the depth of its SEC rivals but coach Clark Lea is working hard to improve the culture and talent of the Commodores. It may be a year or two before this starts to come to fruition.
Sept 24th - Texas A&M vs. Arkansas - two of the top three teams in the West meet in Arlington.
Oct 8th - Texas A&M @ Alabama - possibly THE must-see game of the season in Tuscaloosa. Saban and Fisher's teams meet for the first time since their off-season spat.
Nov 5th - Tennessee @ Georgia - a fast-improving Volunteer team go to Athens to challenge for the SEC East.
Nov 26th - Auburn @ Alabama - the Iron Bowl rarely fails to deliver. Can Auburn upset old rivals Alabama? A win here could save Tigers' coach Bryan Harsin's job.
The SEC is stacked with competitive, talented teams. While Georgia won the national title last year and Texas A&M continue to build through top recruiting classes, Alabama look too strong and I fancy them to repeat as SEC champions and go one better in the national championship, where they could win a wild shootout with Ohio State.