1 thing I learned about every SEC team in 2023
Oh, 2023. You came and went faster than any of us could’ve ever predicted.
In the final year of the 14-team SEC, the 4-team Playoff and the SEC on CBS, we had plenty of noteworthy developments in 2023. A year that began with questions about Georgia’s march to history and Alabama’s grip on national relevance fittingly ended with those 2 programs battling it out in a clash in Atlanta.
But beyond those 2 SEC juggernauts facing off for a Playoff berth, we had plenty of other revelations in the conference this year.
Here’s 1 thing I learned about each SEC team in 2023:
Alabama — The dynasty isn’t dead at all
Imagine that. For the 4th time in 15 years, Alabama wasn’t picked to win the SEC. And for the 4th time in 15 years, Alabama turned that preseason slight into a conference title. The first 3 of those instances also included a Tide national title. It’s to be determined as to whether this 2023 squad can make it 4. But whether that happens or not, taking down Georgia en route to a Playoff berth should’ve sent a loud message to the college football world.
Jalen Milroe served as a microcosm for this Alabama team. A disastrous start, which included Nick Saban testing out other quarterbacks against USF, turned into a storybook finish to the regular season. Milroe and the Tide are a whole lot closer to “team of destiny” than “the dynasty is dead.” Saban’s G.O.A.T. status has never been more obvious.
Arkansas — Dan Enos + a porous offensive line = disaster
There was always going to be a wide range of outcomes for first-year coordinators in the SEC in 2023. There were 10 of them. But Enos might’ve been the worst, which was why he was fired after just 8 games. KJ Jefferson was a sitting duck behind an Arkansas offensive line that was atypically awful. Much like Mississippi State in its transition away from the Mike Leach Air Raid, Arkansas was an offensive mess in its transition away from the Kendal Briles offense. A more pro-style offense took designed runs away from Jefferson, and it didn’t help matters that All-SEC running back Rocket Sanders was banged up most of the season.
The Enos whiff could’ve been Sam Pittman’s undoing. Hunter Yurachek opted to give him another year. Go figure that hiring Bobby Petrino to return to Arkansas as his OC will be the most significant factor in whether Pittman gets a Year 6.
Auburn — This wasn’t a 1-year flip
I applauded Hugh Freeze’s use of the transfer portal and thought he did things to elevate the program in Year 1. There was no way that Auburn would’ve reached the postseason if not for Freeze’s willingness to dip into the portal for offensive linemen and Payton Thorne. But at the same time, a late-season beatdown at the hands of New Mexico State served as a reminder that Freeze didn’t have a roster that was ready to vault back into national relevance. He had a team that spent too much of the season in search of an offensive identity with a defense that had some great individual talent, but still needed more help.
Freeze’s high school recruiting for the 2024 class should help down the road, but there will still be plenty of moves for Auburn to make at the portal to make a Year 2 jump. This marked the first time that Auburn failed to show up in the AP Top 25 in consecutive seasons since 1976-77. Ending that drought in 2024 is by no means a given in the expanded SEC.
Florida — Billy Napier’s plan is stuck in neutral
Awful. Just awful.
Florida went from having a potential turn-the-corner win against South Carolina with a 3-1 start to SEC play to missing a bowl game because of a 5-game losing streak to end the season. Why did that happen? Austin Armstrong’s defense collapsed without Shemar James, who suffered a season-ending injury against Georgia. The Gators also had no shortage of self-induced mistakes on special teams, and the offensive line that returned just 1 starter was wildly inconsistent.
So Napier’s plan to rebuild the program is now in a brutal spot. He’ll be on every hot-seat list in America entering 2024, where he’ll have the most daunting schedule of anyone in the sport, at least relative to preseason expectations. His plan to rebuild the roster through the high school ranks will be a greater uphill climb knowing that if he can’t improve significantly in Year 3, the guy who hired him (Scott Stricklin) will likely get the boot and his days will be numbered. That’s not ideal.
Georgia — 3-peating is impossible
There’s a reason why we haven’t seen this feat accomplished since 1936 Minnesota. Doing that in the transfer portal/NIL era is even more of a challenge. Georgia certainly fit any description as a Playoff-worthy team, but it suffered the 1 loss that proved fatal to those chances. Injuries didn’t help the Dawgs against Alabama — a healthy Brock Bowers and Ladd McConkey would’ve made a bigger difference — but it shouldn’t take away from what Georgia accomplished just to get to 12-0. Doing that meant battling a grueling late-season schedule at far less than 100%, which UGA did.
With the Playoff expanding to 12 teams, it’s going to become even tougher to 3-peat. UGA came 3 wins away from doing that with a 41-2 record over the last 3 seasons. To think of anyone pulling off a run better than that seems virtually impossible when you consider how many things can prevent that from happening. It might take another 87 years to see a team 3-peat.
Kentucky — The Devin Leary-led passing attack was mostly a major bummer
You know, except when Kentucky needed to end Louisville’s slim Playoff chances. But other than that, it felt like an uphill climb all season with Leary. The NC State transfer looked like he was rarely on the same page as his receivers, and it didn’t help that the UK receivers struggled with drops. In SEC play, Leary was dead last in the conference in QB rating (117.4), and he averaged just 6.1 yards/attempt. The 2022 ACC Preseason Player of the Year looked like he never quite rounded into form, which could’ve been the result of the pec injury that ended his last year at NC State.
Whatever the case, Kentucky often felt like it needed to get bailed out by fellow transfer Ray Davis. On days that Davis couldn’t get rolling, the UK offense struggled. Even with Davis, an improved UK offensive line, a talented group of receivers and the return of OC Liam Coen, Leary still managed just 3 games with 250 passing yards all season, only 1 of which came against SEC competition. The struggles in the passing game felt like they held UK back from a 9- or 10-win season.
LSU — Jayden Daniels was that dude
Like, the dude who would warrant Joe Burrow comparisons. Like, the dude who would lead the No. 1 offense in the nation. Like, the dude who would hit 50 touchdowns in 12 pre-Heisman Trophy games. Historic, he was.
In the preseason, I pushed back on the notion that Daniels had that kind of upside. I even pushed back on that after he had a bad second half in the season-opening loss to Florida State. At some point, though, it all clicked. His trust in OC Mike Denbrock and Brian Kelly was on display, which helped Malik Nabers and Brian Thomas look like the second coming of Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson. And Daniels did that all while hitting 1,000 yards with his legs. His season was every bit as impressive as 2016 Lamar Jackson or 2007 Tim Tebow, both of whom played for 3-loss teams but still won the Heisman. Will Daniels join that group? He certainly did everything in his power to earn that.
Mississippi State — Transitioning out of the Mike Leach Air Raid wasn’t fun for anyone
I’m not breaking any news by saying that the Kevin Barbay offense was an absolute dud. No, that wasn’t just the byproduct of Will Rogers getting hurt. It wasn’t particularly effective when he and Woody Marks were healthy. But think about this. Mississippi State scored 3 offensive touchdowns in its final 5 SEC games. It was the SEC’s worst offense at 21.8 points per game, and against SEC competition, it was a baffling 12.6 points per game.
There’s a reason why the teams that Mike Leach left usually stuck with some form of an Air Raid offense. Zach Arnett, a defensive-minded guy who sought complimentary football and was intrigued by the efficiency of Barbay’s more pro-style offense at Appalachian State, only got 10 games this season before athletic director Zac Selmon moved on. One can’t help but wonder if things would have been different had Arnett nailed that hire.
Missouri — Kirby Moore was a savior
I’m not saying Moore is the entire reason that Mizzou had its best season in a decade. After all, Cody Schrader was a revelation, Luther Burden III lived up to the hype and then some, Brady Cook took the next step and Blake Baker’s defense was one of the SEC’s best. It’s at least fair to say that Eli Drinkwitz’s move to not only hire an offensive play-caller but to also hire the right offensive play-caller unlocked the best version of Mizzou. There’s no denying that. The Tigers had balance and they stretched the field in a way that the previous offense lacked.
The 2 SEC offensive-minded head coaches who gave up full-time play-calling duties were Drinkwitz and Jimbo Fisher. Both had entirely different seasons, but both watched their offenses improve by more than a touchdown a game. There’s something to be said for that. What’s undeniable is that Mizzou doesn’t get to a New Year’s 6 Bowl without Moore.
Ole Miss — I was way too low on every element of this team
I’ll admit it. I whiffed horribly on Mizzou and Ole Miss, both of whom were given 6-win projections by yours truly. The difference between my Ole Miss and Mizzou projections was that for the latter, I simply wanted to wait and see what an offensive play-caller would look like with Eli Drinkwitz. With Ole Miss, I whiffed on everyone.
I said I wasn’t sold on Jaxson Dart, and then he became one of the 10-15 best quarterbacks in the country. I said I had some skepticism about Quinshon Judkins avoiding the sophomore slump, then as Cole Cubelic pointed out, he became the first SEC player since Herschel Walker to start his career with 15 rushing touchdowns in each of his first 2 seasons. I said I thought Pete Golding was going to have an uphill climb with less talent than he had at Alabama, and he led Ole Miss to a top-half finish in the SEC in scoring defense for the first time since 2014. Kiffin’s team deserved to make a New Year’s 6 Bowl after it dunked on doubters like me with its second 10-win regular season in program history.
South Carolina — There’s no such thing as season-to-season momentum
I listened to Shane Beamer say over and over that as great as the 2022 finish was, it didn’t guarantee success for 2023. He was right. The Gamecocks dealt with depth issues at virtually every significant position outside of quarterback, where Spencer Rattler had his best college season and established himself as an NFL prospect. As great as the rise of Xavier Legette was in place of the injured Juice Wells, we saw a myriad of issues pop up for the Gamecocks. They didn’t have the depth to overcome injuries. That’s why this group couldn’t build on last year’s “momentum.”
So does that mean the late-2022 run was all for naught? Of course not. Beamer and the Gamecocks had an opportunity to get national respect, and in an era in which booster support has never been more important, that was a much easier sell to acquire talent than the alternative. But that’ll be a more challenging sell this time around after a 5-7 Year 3.
Tennessee — The Josh Heupel offense isn’t quite set-it-and-forget-it
I say that because Heupel had done nothing but crank out top-8 scoring offenses during his 5 seasons as a head coach. There was a strong notion that he’d continue that streak after losing the likes of Hendon Hooker, Jalin Hyatt, Cedric Tillman and Darnell Wright, along with primary offensive play-caller Alex Golesh, who got the USF job. And what happened? Well, the Joe Milton-led Tennessee offense was limited:
- No. 41 in FBS in scoring offense
- No. 38 in FBS in 3rd-down conversion percentage
- No. 47 in FBS in passing yards/game
- No. 52 in FBS in yards/pass attempt
- No. 79 in FBS in 20-yard scrimmage plays
- No. 87 in FBS in 20-yard passing plays
There was a significant drop-off from last year. Part of that was replacing those key pieces, and it didn’t help that Bru McCoy suffered a season-ending injury against South Carolina, or that Oregon transfer Dont’e Thornton didn’t live up to the preseason buzz before he got hurt against Mizzou. The Vols went 0-3 against their rivals with a blowout loss to Mizzou, and their best wins against Power 5 foes were against a pair of 7-5 teams. That’s what happens when you’re mostly 1-dimensional on offense and you’ve got a good, but not great defense.
Texas A&M — Money doesn’t buy happiness, but $77 million bought out Jimbo Fisher
It turns out, Fisher didn’t have a lifetime contract. He had a contract that was fully guaranteed, but he couldn’t do enough to guarantee a Year 7. Why? It actually wasn’t the well-documented hire of Bobby Petrino. The A&M offense improved by 12 points per game. That’s pretty stunning for a group that was down to its 3rd-string quarterback by November. But a defense loaded with 5-star talent was inconsistent, and Fisher’s conservative calls cost him in key spots against Alabama and Tennessee. Instead of running it back with Fisher, Ross Bjork signed off on paying more than $50 million than the richest buyout ever given to a head coach.
Could Fisher have saved his job had he hired an offensive play-caller sooner? Perhaps, but the lack of development was startling. A team ranked in the top 8 of the 247sports talent composite each of the last 3 years failed to record a top-25 finish. Fisher lost his final 9 road games, and while quarterback injuries played a part in that, A&M lacked an identity. And now, A&M is starting over with Mike Elko in the new era of the SEC.
Vanderbilt — Not all rebuilds have a linear progression
What a disastrous Year 3 it was for Clark Lea. After he led Vandy to a 5-win season with a bowl-or-bust game against Tennessee, he got an extension to stay with the program for the rest of the decade. Entering Year 4, it’s fair to wonder if he’s in over his head. The quarterback situation was again a constant shuffling of the deck and the defense couldn’t stop a thing, especially after the CJ Taylor injury. It’s hard to imagine that just changing the play-callers on both sides of the ball will make a difference. The Commodores are now dealing with the daunting task of getting their roster poached via the transfer portal. That doesn’t look like it’s an issue that’ll fade anytime soon.
A stadium that’s still in construction feels like a fitting way to describe the state of the program.