That’s a wrap. Close the door on the 2022 regular season.

It was weird, entertaining, unpredictable and honestly, a bit refreshing. Week to week, this conference gave us results that nobody could’ve predicted. South Carolina shocked Tennessee, Brian Kelly beat Alabama in Year 1 en route to a division title and Vandy! Yes, Vandy beat not 1, but 2 respected SEC programs in consecutive weeks to claim its 1st conference victories of the decade.

We’ll have more time to put a bow on the 2022 season after bowl season. But I thought now would be a good time to look back on what we learned about each SEC squad during the regular season.

Alabama — A few vintage Alabama players did not equal a vintage Alabama team

I thought Alabama was an obvious choice for preseason No. 1 after a runner-up season in which it returned the Heisman Trophy winner (Bryce Young) and arguably the best overall player in the sport (Will Anderson Jr.). And I picked the Tide to reach a national championship, so I don’t want this to sound like “I told you so.”

But 1 thing I wondered about was whether we perhaps overlooked the fact that as great as Alabama’s 2021 upside was — the SEC Championship Game performance was one for the ages — we overlooked that 6 of its 8 SEC games were 1-score games in the 4th quarter. Some rolled their eyes when Nick Saban called 2021 “a rebuilding year,” but that team had flaws that needed to be corrected, and the 2022 squad couldn’t do it. It again wasn’t a vintage offensive line, the play-calling left something to be desired with a struggling group of receivers, the defense was far from invincible and the road discipline issues proved costly. Hence, Alabama had 2 pre-Iron Bowl losses for the 1st time since 2010.

And if you tell me, “Well, Alabama was 2 plays from being 12-0,” I’d say, “OK, you could also say Alabama was 3 plays from 5 losses.” Why? The 2 red-zone defensive stands to beat A&M and Ole Miss, plus the game-winning kick with 10 seconds left to win at Texas. Reality was that Alabama played with fire a lot in the past 2 seasons, and it finally got burned enough so that Young’s heroics couldn’t overcome it. Ultimately, that’s why the Tide became the 17th AP preseason No. 1 in the past 18 years who failed to win a national title.

Arkansas — Rocket Sanders and Drew Sanders ready for takeoff … but the rest of the team wasn’t

Rocket Sanders might finish with the program’s best season for a running back since Darren McFadden. He has been that good. So, too, was Drew Sanders. The Alabama transfer switched to the inside in Barry Odom’s defense and established himself as a menacing force who could have 1st-team All-SEC honors and 1st-round NFL Draft money coming his way.

The problem? There wasn’t a whole lot of consistency around the Sanders duo. KJ Jefferson dealt with multiple injuries, the defense was a total liability that desperately missed an injured Jalen Catalon (again), and in close games, Arkansas often shot itself in the foot. A team hoping to make a New Year’s 6 bowl is instead at 6-6 with 2 crucial decisions to make with its coordinators, who entered the year as an undeniable strength. It was the 1st time in Sam Pittman’s tenure that his team disappointed. It’ll define his time in Fayetteville.

Auburn — All of those concerns about Bryan Harsin’s roster were legitimate

It’s probably never good that the only path to your team having a positive preseason outlook includes something like, “But maybe it’s just one of those years for Auburn.” A vintage Auburn miracle was the only thing that was possibly going to overcome:

  • Totally unproven QB1 options
  • Massive issues at the line of scrimmage (outside of Derick Hall)
  • No real promise in the receiver room
  • A loaded SEC West
  • Road games at Alabama and Georgia
  • Bizarre turnover at both coordinator spots
  • A stubborn head coach

Say what you want about the coup to get Harsin fired. Was it fair? No. But did he succeed or show any signs of figuring it out at Auburn? No.

It’s rare to see such an inevitable firing in October of Year 2. Harsin put himself in that spot because of the 1-way street in the transfer portal and the fact that he put his job on the line with a quarterback room of Robby Ashford (0 career snaps pre-2022), TJ Finley (120.5 QB rating in previous 2 seasons) and Zach Calzada (124.0 QB rating in 1 year as A&M’s starter). Auburn had nobody that scared you in the passing game, either throwing it or catching it. So loaded boxes for Tank Bigsby and Jarquez Hunter were inevitable, as was Auburn’s run defense collapsing with a lack of depth.

This team was doomed for failure in the toughest division in America. Auburn fans should just be thankful that Cadillac Williams stepped in and provided some joy in what turned out to be a lost season on The Plains.

Florida — Anthony Richardson was and is a project

It was fitting that Richardson’s 2022 regular season closed the way it did. He started off lights-out by connecting on chunk plays against a more proven team, only to have a crushing dry spell with a depleted group of receivers. He went 36 minutes without a completion. Yikes. Richardson was up and down on Friday night, and he was up and down all year under Billy Napier.

It was easy to forget how football-young Richardson was entering the year. He had just 1 career start and 66 career pass attempts. We saw some of his flaws play out in 2021 with Dan Mullen, but of course, the highlights masked those issues. Shoot, the 2022 debut with Napier masked some of those flaws because Richardson was the best version of himself in that Utah win.

The problem is that Richardson:

  • A) Was 12th among 13 qualified SEC quarterbacks in QB rating
  • B) Completed 53.2 percent of passes vs. SEC competition
  • C) Didn’t have consecutive games vs. SEC teams with QB rating of 120.0
  • D) Followed his best 3-game stretch with a loss to Vandy
  • E) All the above

It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”

And if you tell me that Richardson made up for it with the rushing numbers, I’d remind you that as great as he has been at times, 4 of his runs accounted for 231 yards. Like all things Richardson, that element was a bit herky jerky in Year 1 as a starter. He still makes some catastrophic mistakes, and while the mechanics have improved, there’s no denying that there’s plenty of room for improvement to maximize his immense upside. That’ll be the case no matter what Richardson decides is his next step.

Georgia — Kirby Smart never took his foot off the gas after winning it all

We’ve seen teams have a perfect regular season after winning it all. In the Playoff era alone, we watched 2014 Florida State, 2016 Alabama, 2018 Alabama and 2019 Clemson all accomplish that feat. But here’s why 2022 Georgia is a cut above those seasons, regardless of how this season turns out:

Encore seasons
1st-rounders lost
NFL Draft picks lost
2014 FSU
2016 Alabama
2018 Alabama
2019 Clemson
2022 Georgia

Yeah, Georgia had more than twice as much NFL talent walk out the door compared to 3 of those 4 teams. And what I’d argue is more impressive is the fact that the Dawgs got to this point by pounding a pair of teams who are currently in the top 10 of the Playoff poll. Oh, and an all-world defense that had 8 guys drafted lost captain Nolan Smith to a season-ending injury in the middle of game No. 8 … yet the Dawgs still held the nation’s top scoring defense heading into the final week of the regular season.

You could make a case that Smart deserves legitimate National Coach of the Year consideration. It’s one thing to preach against complacency and to hold offseason breakout sessions about businesses that had a fall from grace. It’s another to see Georgia truly attack a repeat bid the way it has. Darn impressive.

Kentucky — The Rich Scangarello hire was more miss than hit

It didn’t help the Cats that Will Levis struggled to stay healthy and the Kentucky offensive line just … struggled. Still, though. Scangarello’s play-calling was a constant topic of frustration. Between the lack of designed runs for Levis and the horizontal passing game, we didn’t see the offense take the next step. Instead, it regressed over the course of the season.

Granted, the Louisville win was a nice way to close the regular season. But home losses to Vandy and South Carolina felt extremely atypical for the Mark Stoops era. Maybe part of that was the byproduct of having talented, but inexperienced true freshmen receivers starting on the outside. But this just felt more like a forced fit with Kentucky’s inability to adapt all the pro-style concepts that Scangarello brought from the NFL.

Stoops hoped it would be an easier transition staying within the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay tree after Liam Coen succeeded in 2021. But now, he’s faced with a crucial decision about the future of Kentucky’s offense, especially in a likely post-Levis world.

LSU — Brian Kelly was indeed ready to take on the SEC, but wow, what deflating losses he had

If I told any LSU fan that Kelly would take down Saban and win the West in Year 1, he would’ve been giddy. Duh. That’s obvious. What Kelly did with a roster that had 39 scholarship players in the bowl game was truly remarkable. He had a year that few thought was possible. That’s why he was in the National Coach of the Year discussion … until A&M happened.

The Tigers watched their Playoff hopes come to an end against a 4-win A&M squad. Woof. The 3 losses were especially deflating. A blocked extra point against FSU, a home drubbing against the high-flying Vols and, well, A&M. Bizarre. On the bright side, Kelly went 5-1 against the nation’s toughest division. He made those mid-game adjustments and prevented LSU from a 3rd consecutive disappointing season. Depending on who returns, we could be talking about LSU starting as a top-5 team nationally.

But above all else, Kelly looks like the guy. That’s all LSU fans could’ve hoped for in Year 1.

Mizzou — The MVP was … Blake Baker?

Yeah, go figure that the most valuable member of the team was a guy who was initially hired to be a position coach after he was a casualty from Ed Orgeron’s LSU staff. But when Steve Wilks bolted for the Panthers, it opened up Baker to take over the defense. It was honestly what allowed this Mizzou defense to stay afloat. It drastically turned around a horrendous pass defense, and a defensive line that often got punched in the mouth turned into the most consistent strength of the team.

Without Baker, there’s no way that Mizzou would’ve clinched a bowl berth. Why? For the 3rd consecutive year of the Eli Drinkwitz era, the offense was maddening, only this year, it didn’t have a Larry Rountree or a Tyler Badie to save the day. More times than not, it was Baker’s defense that saved the day and kept the Tigers in games. Tennessee, AKA the No. 1 offense in America, was the only SEC squad to hit 28 points against Mizzou. It’s a good thing he got an extension on the same day that Drinkwitz did.

Now if only Drinkwitz could find an offensive play-caller.

MSU — Zach Arnett might be the best defensive coordinator Mike Leach has ever had

I know. That’s saying a lot about a guy with 2 decades of experience as a Power 5 head coach. Granted, Leach coached only 1 team with a top-20 scoring defense, and it was back in 2005 when he was at Texas Tech. MSU didn’t quite have that with Arnett in 2022, but it was excellent at getting off the field on 3rd down and getting takeaways. For the 3rd consecutive year, MSU improved under Arnett. With 17 guys on the 2-deep who had 3 years of experience under Arnett, we saw MSU play at a level that most defenses don’t under Leach.

I went back and found all the defensive coordinators under Leach, and none of them improved in 3 consecutive seasons under him.:

  • Greg McMackin (Texas Tech): 2000-02
  • Lyle Setencich (Texas Tech): 2003-07 (fired midseason)
  • Ruffin McNeill (Texas Tech): 2007-09
  • Mike Breske (Washington State): 2012-14
  • Alex Grinch (Washington State): 2015-17
  • Tracy Claeys (Washington State): 2018-19 (fired midseason)
  • Darcel McBath (Washington State): 2019
  • Arnett (MSU): 2020-present

It’s really between McNeill and Arnett. I’d argue that what Arnett did to overhaul that group after MSU had 7 defensive players selected in the previous 2 NFL Drafts prior to his arrival should give him the tiebreaker over McNeill, who inherited a defense that didn’t have nearly the kind of turnover MSU did. Whatever the case, Leach poaching Arnett from Syracuse, where he was briefly after learning under Rocky Long at San Diego State, was arguably the best move he made as a head coach. The longer Arnett sticks around in Starkville, the better.

Ole Miss — Quinshon Judkins is a superstar

If you had asked me over the summer who I thought would become a star in the Ole Miss backfield, I’ll be honest — I would’ve given you 3 names ahead of Judkins’. In my defense, 3-star recruits aren’t supposed to step into the SEC and put up 2014 Nick Chubb-like numbers. But that’s exactly what Judkins did.

True freshman seasons
2014 Chubb
2022 Judkins
Rushing yards
Total TDs
Scrimmage yards/game
100-yard rushing games

Mind you, Judkins still has a bowl game to play in. The Pike Road, Ala. native was supposed to simply be a rotation guy alongside transfers Zach Evans and Ulysses Bentley. Instead, he emerged so prominently that Lane Kiffin had no choice but to make him the building block of the offense. The question now becomes what his next 2 years look like. He has always been a high-volume guy, so one would think that would continue.

But will he be able to ever match or exceed that production behind what was an experienced Ole Miss offensive line? Maybe, but we do know that combination of explosiveness and next-level vision makes Judkins one of the must-watch players in America until further notice.

South Carolina — Shane Beamer is that dude

It’s one thing to beat a few struggling teams at the end of the season and win 7 games. But 2022 was always going to tell us a lot about Beamer and what he was capable of in Columbia. If you had asked me that question after Week 11 when his team’s lone touchdown in a blowout loss at Florida was a fake punt, I would’ve said yeah, he’s still got a ways to go to show that he’s going to be the long-term guy.

Then Tennessee happened. Then Clemson happened.

More importantly, the Beamer era took on new life. The Gamecocks took down consecutive Playoff-hopeful teams in November. The blowout against Tennessee was the most points ever scored by an unranked team against an AP top-5 team, and the stunner at Clemson marked the Tigers’ 1st home loss since 2016. Beamer became the first South Carolina coach to ever beat top-10 teams in consecutive weeks. Not even Steve Spurrier accomplished that feat. Beamer is about to get a gigantic raise after his patience with the Spencer Rattler/Marcus Satterfield experiment was rewarded in the best possible way to close the regular season.

Tennessee — Hendon Hooker was exactly the guy the Vols have been missing

Hooker emerging as a legitimate late-season Heisman Trophy candidate for the No. 1 offense in America was something we didn’t see in the post-Phillip Fulmer era. Hence, why the Vols earned double-digit wins for the 1st time during that stretch. Hooker helped Tennessee end losing streaks against Alabama and Florida, and he also dialed up a brilliant showing in a blowout win at West champ LSU.

Yes, the ending was brutal for Hooker and the Vols. A torn ACL in the midst of a stunning blowout loss at South Carolina took care of the Heisman and the Playoff in 1 evening. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that Hooker was a tremendous proof of concept for Josh Heupel’s scheme in Knoxville. He was the gold standard that all future Heupel quarterbacks will be measured against. They’ll have to top a 56-4 TD-INT ratio with 997 rushing yards and 10 touchdowns in 2 years as a starter. Tennessee doesn’t earn a trip to the New Year’s 6 bowl without Hooker leading the nation’s most explosive offense. He’ll be missed perhaps as much as any player in college football.

Texas A&M — We thought 2017 FSU was Jimbo Fisher’s floor? Yeah, about that …

Woof. Barf. Yuck.

There are a lot of 4-letter words one can use to describe A&M’s season. Here’s all you need to know. The Aggies tied the 2021 squad for their highest preseason AP Top 25 ranking (No. 6) of the 21st century, and yet they were the 1st SEC team eliminated from bowl eligibility thanks to a Week 11 loss against an interim coach in his 2nd career game.

Yes, the LSU win was a great way to close the year. Seeing that response was a nice sign that Fisher hasn’t lost the program. That was a great precedent for upperclassmen like Devon Achane to set. But it’s OK to point out that the Aggies dealt with a plethora of offensive injuries while also acknowledging that this season was a dumpster fire long before those ever really took shape. The whole “losing to Appalachian State at home” thing was what I meant by that.

When Fisher had 1 foot out the door in Tallahassee, it was assumed that he would never reach a low like that again. That is, rescheduling a game against an FCS foe just to clinch bowl eligibility. But his offense was totally inept for the 2nd consecutive year with 4 different starting quarterbacks. It’s a Fisher problem. Clearly, he needs an offensive play-caller who is up with the times. How Fisher navigates that — as well as keeping that historic recruiting class on campus — will define his time at A&M.

Vanderbilt — Clark Lea is up to the task

Vandy got to host a bowl-or-bust game after taking down a pair of divisional foes in consecutive weeks. That was a major win for Lea in Year 2. Not only did the Commodores get their 1st SEC win of the 2020s by stunning Kentucky in Lexington, they doubled down by taking down Florida. How? Lea’s team finally started looking like an SEC team in the trenches, which is saying a lot considering the team’s top offensive lineman, Tyler Steen, transferred to Alabama. It stopped the run and got explosive plays in the ground game from Ray Davis and Mike Wright.

Would it have been wild to see Vandy rattle off 3 consecutive victories to clinch a bowl berth? Absolutely. Losing in deflating fashion to Tennessee like that was a reminder that this team still has a ways to go to sniff relevancy. But there’s no reason why Lea can’t recruit the portal and build around a young roster that got a wealth of experience. Lea has some nice momentum heading into Year 3.