Preseason SEC Power Rankings heading into fall camp
The calendar finally flipped to August. Football is here. There’s something that needs to be brought up as it relates to preseason power rankings.
It’s not a predicted order of finish. That means strength of schedule shouldn’t determine how good a team is considered in the preseason. If we’re talking about over/under win projections, that’s a different story.
But I try and take that completely out of the equation and simply measure top to bottom, which team would I have the most confidence betting on to win a given game.
Obviously what we saw last year weighed heavily on the preseason rankings. It should. And obviously factored into these is what a team lost/added/returned.
Heading into fall camp, here’s how I’d rank each SEC team:
14. Ole Miss
There’s one big reason the Rebels/Landsharks are dead last. It’s because they’re dead last in terms of percentage of returning offensive production. Losing the likes of A.J. Brown, D.K. Metcalf and Jordan Ta’amu stings for a group that has been so limited because of the scholarship limitations from the NCAA sanctions. Even with Rich Rodriguez on board, it’s fair to question how that’ll play out with redshirt freshman Matt Corral running the show. And with Mike MacIntyre tasked with rebuilding the ever-porous defense, it’s hard to put much faith in Ole Miss to shine in its first year of the post-bowl ban era.
But didn’t the Hogs only win 2 games last year? Yes. North Texas and Colorado State made sure of that. We knew it was going to be a complete roster overhaul for Chad Morris. This year, I like his options at quarterback better with Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel. With Rakeem Boyd back, the hope is that the Hogs should be able to execute Morris’ up-tempo style a bit better. But yeah, we’re still talking about a team that was -181 in SEC play last year.
“The Big 3” has been one of my favorite things to talk about this offseason. Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney all returning gave the Commodores a rare skill player-focused identity. The problem is there are a lot of other question marks. Replacing Kyle Shurmur at quarterback, top cornerback Joejuan Williams, leading tackler Jordan Griffin and 3 starting offensive linemen won’t be easy. There’s a reason Vandy put so much stock in marketing “The Big 3.”
Nobody in the SEC returns more production than the Vols. That obviously includes Jarrett Guarantano, who got a boost with Jeremy Pruitt landing Jim Chaney to take over for Tyson Helton. We expect the Vols to be better in the trenches. Signing a pair of 5-star offensive linemen and hopefully a full season from Trey Smith — something that’s completely up in the air — would be an even bigger boost. The expectation is that Year 2 of Pruitt’s defense will yield more consistency. I’d expect more performances like we saw against Auburn and Kentucky throughout 2019.
10. South Carolina
On one hand, the Gamecocks return the most experienced quarterback in the SEC to a team that made improvements in Year 1 of Bryan McClendon’s offense. On the other hand, it scored a combined 28 points against the likes of Akron and Virginia to close the season. (Well, zero against Virginia.) I have high expectations for individuals like Jaycee Horn and Bryan Edwards, but I still think the Gamecocks have limited upside if they don’t improve significantly in the trenches (No. 98 stopping the run, No. 91 in rushing). That’s the only thing that can help South Carolina navigate a daunting schedule.
Again, this isn’t projecting wins. This is evaluating where this team is on Aug. 1, heading into training camp. As much as Mizzou is getting some nice sleeper buzz, this is still a team that beat 1 Top 25 opponent in the 3 years of the Barry Odom era. You can feel good about the schedule and skill players like grad transfer Kelly Bryant, preseason All-American Albert Okwuegbunam and Larry Rountree while also acknowledging that there are some major defensive holes to fill with Terry Beckner and Terez Hall off to the NFL. The team coming off consecutive 4-4 seasons in SEC play is in the middle of the pack until proven otherwise.
8. Mississippi State
Speaking of the middle of the pack, MSU was more mediocre than I thought it would be in 2018. Joe Moorhead’s offense was admittedly inconsistent with Nick Fitzgerald, who struggled with a more pass-heavy offense. This year, I think Moorhead’s offense does more of the heavy lifting with either Tommy Stevens or Keytaon Thompson (a healthy Kylin Hill would be huge). Defensively, I don’t expect MSU to repeat its top-ranked success of 2018. But even though Montez Sweat and Jeffery Simmons are gone, Erroll Thompson and Cameron Dantzler are plenty capable of making sure that defense doesn’t fall off a cliff.
I’m higher on Auburn than I thought I’d be for a couple reasons. I think they perform much better in the trenches than they did at times last year. With Derrick Brown, that defensive line is as good as any in the country. And whether it’s Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix, I think the ground game has a much better chance of looking like the prolific unit we’re used to seeing on The Plains. But it’s still a team that went 3-5 in SEC play last year and was maddening to watch at times. They got run off the field by Georgia and Alabama, which made 2017 feel like a distant memory. Having said that, I won’t be surprised if Auburn rises on this list in a hurry.
I’m sticking by my belief that Kentucky deserves to start as a Top 25 team. The group that won 10 games last year obviously doesn’t have Benny Snell or Josh Allen, but as Mark Stoops said, his roster has candidates who can become the next overlooked recruits-turned SEC stars. I’m buying Terry Wilson stock, and I think Lynn Bowden is going to be a problem in the SEC, especially if Kentucky’s ground game is even more versatile than last year’s. I trust Stoops to find the right pieces to make that defense work after a historic season. That’s my way of saying yeah, I’m higher on Kentucky than you are, and that’s OK.
5. Texas A&M
I was extremely skeptical of Jimbo Fisher in Year 1 in College Station. Like many, I had questions about how he’d perform in a new place after the way things fell apart in his final year at Florida State. But then Fisher helped maximize the mammoth potential in Kellen Mond, his defensive coordinator hire Mike Elko proved to be a massive steal and the Aggies had their best season of the post-Johnny Manziel era. Without getting caught up in the schedule, I think the way Fisher recruited is going to provide a major benefit for this team in 2019. The Aggies have to get better defending the pass, but I liked what we saw from the nation’s second-ranked run defense. This group could improve in 2019 and have a lower win total. That schedule will make A&M a tough power ranking team all year.
An ideal offseason? Not exactly. But is Dan Mullen back with a starting quarterback coming off a 10-win season and a New Year’s 6 Bowl? Yep. That’s a good sign. Also good was the fact that Mullen kept Todd Grantham in Gainesville with a rich new contract. Florida should maintain its defensive identity with guys like Jabari Zuniga and David Reese back. The Gators were a really good team last year that had some impressive wins against LSU and Michigan. Does a team that was 3-3 against its own division need to be more consistent in order to take the next step? Absolutely.
If not for the Alabama streak, there would be way more talk about LSU making a Playoff push. The offseason buzz around the Tigers is still significant, though. The addition of Joe Brady to implement the RPO system with Joe Burrow combined with a loaded group of returning receivers has me believing that LSU will have a top 20 offense. And as much as the loss of someone like Devin White hurts, I think LSU has the best secondary in the country with Grant Delpit, Kristian Fulton and promising true freshman Derek Stingley. A 10-win team with that kind of talent returning deserves to start in the top 5 nationally, in my opinion.
Say what you want about the big-game collapses, but 24-5 with a perfect record against the SEC East is quite the 2-year stretch. The Dawgs obviously have a ton of pressure to end the national title drought with Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift likely playing their final season. The big question marks are clear as day. Will Georgia’s inexperience at receiver and on the defensive line limit the team’s ceiling? That remains to be seen. But with what that group has on the offensive line and in the backfield, Georgia is going to be a nightmare to slow down.
For all the offseason talk about Alabama’s humbling title game experience against Clemson, it was still one of the most dominant regular seasons in college football history. With Tua Tagovailoa and that ridiculous receiving corps back, the expectation is Alabama will run the table in the regular season once again. What we need to see is if an uncharacteristic season of struggling against the run is a thing of the past. Nick Saban has a ton of production to replace on the defensive side, most notably Quinnen Williams. But there’s a belief that with Dylan Moses, Raekwon Davis and Terrell Lewis that this group can be deeper and more consistent than last year’s.
If that’s the case, Saban’s revenge tour is going to wreak all sorts of havoc in the SEC.