Kicking off another year of Monday Down South with everything you need to know about SEC football ahead of the 2023 season.
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August is BOLD PREDICTION season, the golden hour on the college football calendar when the only thing stopping you from saying any dang thing you please about the upcoming campaign is the fear that somebody might actually remember it once the games get underway. (“Bold,” of course, often serving as a synonym for “stupid.”) Here at Monday Down South, our mission tends to be more analytical. But in the spirit of the season, what the heck. Let’s get bold: Georgia will not 3-peat as national champion.

Yeah, I know. Only a fool these days lets himself get caught disrespectin’ the Dawgs, even by accident. Coming right out and volunteering for the job is an act of pure hubris. The defending champs earned 60 out of 63 first-place votes in the preseason AP poll and 61 out of 66 in the Coaches Poll, both of which they probably took in the locker room as grave insults for not being unanimous. They’re heavy favorites among the oddsmakers. This space has chronicled their relentless dominance over the past 2 seasons in minute detail, and been occasionally dead wrong in the process. The Dawgs slobber and rage over the idea that even a single living soul has even the slightest hint of doubt about their place at the top of the sport. If they do go all the way again, and Kirby Smart doesn’t have this column converted into a mock newspaper headline ready to wave in front of the cameras as the confetti falls in NRG Stadium next January, I might be a little insulted.

Yet here we are, undeterred. Let’s observe some facts. One: A 3-peat is unprecedented. No team in the modern history of the “national championship” has won 3 consecutive titles under any widely recognized system. (By “modern” I mean since the advent of the AP poll in 1936; I don’t want to hear anything about retroactive crowns claimed years after the fact.) Winning 2 in a row is rare enough that only a small handful of teams have even had the chance. Among that exclusive club, the Leinart/Bush-era dynasty at USC from 2003-05 is the only one that has seriously threatened to pull it off, coming up just short in the classic January, 2006 Rose Bowl with one of the most stacked rosters of all-time. In a sport with constant turnover, 2 years is the natural lifespan of a championship core.

To extend that point: Georgia lost, among others, its best player, herculean DL Jalen Carter; its face-of-the-program quarterback, Stetson Bennett IV; and its offensive coordinator, Todd Monken, indispensable cogs of both championship runs who will be very difficult to replace in assembly-line fashion. No defending champion has gone back-to-back with a different starting quarterback in Year 2 since Alabama in 1979 (a far less QB-centric era, to put it mildly). Altogether, only 3 starters remain from the 2021 lineup, none of them on defense. The ’23 version shares plenty of its predecessors’ DNA, but it is not the same team.

And as convincing as its closing statement against TCU was in last season’s CFP Championship Game, recall also that Georgia was pushed within half an inch of its life by Ohio State in a come-from-behind, 42-41 win in the Peach Bowl just to get there. Combined with a decisive loss to Bama in the ’21 SEC Championship Game, the notion that the Dawgs have been some kind of invincible monolith in the biggest games, or that their eventual triumph was inevitable, does not quite hold up. Nor are they inevitable in 2023.

Now, does any of that mean they don’t deserve their status as the default No. 1 team in the nation to open the season? Definitely not. Georgia has earned the benefit of the doubt in that position until further notice. Which, given the schedule, is almost certainly not going to arrive for a while. The early nonconference slate consists entirely of chew toys (UT-Martin, Ball State, UAB), and the SEC gauntlet is unusually backloaded, saving the only opponents who cracked the preseason AP poll — No. 22 Ole Miss and No. 12 Tennessee — for the home stretch in November. Auburn and Florida are in various stages of rebuilding; Georgia Tech is Georgia Tech; Alabama, LSU, and Texas A&M are conspicuously absent. The Dawgs will only play 4 true road games, with only a Nov. 18 trip to Knoxville looming as a legitimate test. That gives them nearly the entire regular season to resolve any question marks and iron out any wrinkles.

Who’s going to beat them? Your guess is as good as mine. The other heavy hitters awaiting in the postseason all have their fair share of question marks and wrinkles, too. A random midseason ambush is always a possibility (as Georgia fans know well), but by definition one that no one sees coming in advance. It’s up to the South Carolinas and Missouris of the world to convince themselves they can be that team, not anybody on the outside to believe it. In the meantime, UGA will continue to be the clear betting favorite every time out.

Still, we are too fully committed to the BOLD premise to turn back now! History consistently tells us that — on this level and the next — even the sport’s most entrenched juggernauts can only go so long before they’re due to encounter a glitch in the matrix. Georgia, 33-1 dating back to the depths of the pandemic, hammered by successive waves of attrition on the field and among the coaching staff, is due. When and how, time will tell. But if the defining question of the season is the Dawgs vs. the field, the nod — tentatively, for now — goes to the field.

The teams

The frontrunner: Georgia

You can’t claim a guy who finished 4th in the Heisman vote never got the respect he deserved, but it is telling that the preseason consensus is to treat Stetson Bennett like just another interchangeable cog in the machine. For all his success, Bennett never completely shed the stigma of the sub-6-foot walk-on who managed to hang around long enough to luck into an ideal situation and then rode it for all it was worth. (After all, he lasted until the 4th round of the draft for a reason.) All the available evidence, though, reinforces the fact that he was just a straight-up very good college quarterback.

He ranked in the top nationally in ESPN’s Total QBR metric each of the past 2 seasons, finishing with virtually identical numbers to Bryce Young and CJ Stroud both years, and was at his best when the stakes were the highest. Facing 4th-quarter deficits against Alabama in the 2021 title game and Ohio State in last year’s semifinal, he led multiple touchdown drives on both occasions to put Georgia over the top. There was always the question of whether it was still possible to win big in the Playoff era with an underwhelming specimen like Bennett behind center, but in the end it was more likely that the Dawgs couldn’t have won without him.

All of which is to say that replacing Bennett, as well as NFL-bound OC Todd Monken, is not a negligible concern.

The heir apparent, redshirt junior Carson Beck, is considerably bigger than Bennett at 6-4/220, and arrived with the requisite 4-star credentials in 2020. By Georgia standards, though, he was not a blue-chip prospect — as opposed to redshirt sophomore Brock Vandagriff, a former 5-star who has so far failed to overtake Beck on the depth chart — and he’s broadly expected to fall into the “game manager” column, with a similar mission to Bennett’s: Distribute the ball to the playmakers and don’t gift the other side any cheap points via turnovers.

One thing that Beck and the new play-caller, Mike Bobo, cannot replicate is experience. Bennett turned 24 years old in the middle of the 2021 title run, and 25 last year as a 6th-year senior. Beck, 20, has yet to take a meaningful snap in 3 seasons on campus. How likely is it that the offense, always Georgia’s Achilles’ heel prior to Monken taking over as OC, will look more like the attack that averaged just shy of 40 points per game over the past 2 seasons than the often frustrating units that preceded it? Until we get a better sense of what Bobo and Beck bring to the table against a real defense, they may as well get used to living with the question.

The challenger: Alabama

Bama is Bama, but while the expectations under Nick Saban never change — national championship or bust — the hesitation to extend to this team the automatic reverence the Tide have enjoyed over the past decade-plus is well founded. The 2022 edition was (relatively speaking) among the most mortal outfits of the Saban era, and that was with a couple of legendary talents, Bryce Young and Will Anderson Jr., who left to become 2 of the top 3 picks in the draft. Minus the headliners, the holdovers collectively inspire less awe at this time of year than they have in quite a while. Beyond the void at quarterback, there are red flags at the skill positions, along both lines of scrimmage, at inside linebacker, and at safety that might very well fall to true freshmen and/or JUCO transfers to address. Extremely talented freshmen and JUCO transfers, obviously, but still.

Again, though, in this day and age the void at quarterback is harder than ever to look past. The past 4 players who have manned the position at Alabama since 2016 (Jalen Hurts, Tua Tagovailoa, Mac Jones, and Young) were all Heisman-caliber difference-makers who went on to starting assignments at the next level, completely overturning the pedestrian stereotype of Bama quarterbacks over the previous 40 years. The 3 guys vying for the job in preseason camp (Jalen Milroe, Ty Simpson and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner) are, at this stage of their respective careers, just guys.

Neither Milroe nor Simpson distinguished himself in the spring, prompting the decision to add Buchner via the portal. The move reunited Buchner, a redshirt sophomore who won the job at Notre Dame last year before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury in September, with his former OC, Tommy Rees. On the other hand, there’s a reason he was available in the portal after the Fighting Irish decided to pursue an upgrade at the position themselves. The competition is ongoing.

There is some urgency to settle the question before a Week 2 date with Texas, a tone-setter that will go a long way toward calibrating expectations on both sides. It’s been a long time since the Tide have had any need to reassert their bona fides as national contenders, especially as early as mid-September. But that’s also why, amid all the uncertainty, it will still come as a major shock to the system if they don’t.

The dark horse: LSU

OK, no, as dark horses go, the defending West Division champs are not all that dark. In fact, at No. 5 in both major polls, you could argue the Tigers are about as, uh, well lit as they come. (Please do not send me angry e-mails about the format or the metaphors.) Based on Brian Kelly’s debut, though, it is fair to call them a work in progress. LSU ran the gamut in 2022, from a psychedelic opening-night loss vs. Florida State to a season-defining upset over Alabama to deflating flops against Texas A&M and Georgia to close the regular season to a 63-7 annihilation of Purdue to ring in the new year. Depending on the weekend, it felt like 4 or 5 different teams took turns wearing the same uniforms over the course of the season.

The glue that held it all together was QB Jayden Daniels, whose combination of mobility and efficiency gradually lent some coherence to an offense that didn’t seem to know what it wanted to be over the first half of the season. Daniels led all FBS quarterbacks in rushing yards (1,079, not including sacks) while posting one of the nation’s lowest interception rates (3 in 505 dropbacks). The only thing he didn’t do: Throw deep. Only 10.8% of his passes traveled at least 20 yards, per Pro Football Focus, also one of the nation’s lowest rates despite a stellar group of wideouts at his disposal. (At one point Kelly openly lamented that he’d trade an interception or two for more big plays.) If Daniels can add some downfield juice to his game while remaining a dynamic presence on the ground, maybe those suspiciously lofty Heisman odds will turn out to be a decent bet.

The wild card: Texas A&M

A&M lived every contender’s nightmare in 2022, watching a top-10 preseason ranking give way to a 5-7, last-place slog that felt worse than the record implied. By midseason even casual Aggies fans could recite Jimbo Fisher’s buyout clause by heart — the better to remind themselves that the astronomical numbers involved made him effectively impossible to fire. Through 5 seasons, Fisher has a slightly worse winning percentage in College Station than his doomed predecessor, Kevin Sumlin, and yet remains absolutely secure for the foreseeable future.

Unlike Sumlin in his hot-seat phase, Fisher is presiding over an undeniable well of talent in Year 6 as the massively hyped 2022 recruiting class begins to ascend the depth chart in earnest. Only 1 member of that haul played a prominent role last year, 5-star WR Evan Stewart, who led the team in receiving en route to being named a Freshman All-American. But plenty of others logged significant playing time, most notably QB Conner Weigman; OL Kam Dewberry; d-linemen Walter Nolen, Shemar Stewart and LT Overton; and DBs Bryce Anderson and Jacoby Mathews, all top-100 overall prospects. No matter how bad things got, it was always possible to look at a depth chart stacked with blue-chip underclassmen and see the bubble start to reinflate before your eyes.

None of the above are more critical to a quick turnaround than Weigman, whose rocky intro as QB1 last November did little to diminish expectations going forward. As a sophomore, he’ll be under the tutelage of Fisher — whose longstanding reputation as a QB guru has been on the wane for years — and Bobby Petrino, whose arrival as offensive coordinator has generated more intrigue than answers about what his role under the notoriously hands-on Fisher is actually going to entail. Whatever else he’s been accused of, Petrino has always been respected as a first-rate play-caller. Until recently, though, so had his new boss, who relented to hiring an OC only after his refusal to give up play-calling duties became a central theme of last year’s collapse. Fisher has been deliberately vague about the arrangement, calling it “more of a collective thing.” Whether the potential for a productive collaboration manages to prevail over the potential for colliding egos is the $67 million question.

The doormat: Vanderbilt

The Commodores went into 2022 with a 2 1/2-year conference losing streak hanging around their necks and one goal: Win an SEC game. They won 2. Full speed ahead in Year 3 under Clark Lea.

Projected order of finish

SEC East

1. Georgia. Seriously, woof to this schedule. It’s not the Dawgs’ fault that they miss the top teams in the West, or that ancient blood rivals Auburn and Florida are down at the same time. But the nonconference slate really is a disappointment. At least before shifting into cruise control in ’21 and ’22 they had to make opening-day statements against Clemson and Oregon. UT-Martin, Ball State and UAB barely qualify as preseason exhibitions.

2. Tennessee. The Vols waited 15 years for a season like 2022, but there has to be a sense of unfinished business after the bandwagon ran into a ditch last November at South Carolina. Now that they’ve had a whiff of Playoff fever, the pressure to get back on course will be that much more urgent. The new quarterback, Joe Milton, has as big an arm as they come, and as erratic. If the version of Milton who was MVP of a 31-14 Orange Bowl thumping of Clemson is the final product, Tennessee should be right back in the thick of the race. If he reverts to the version who can’t reliably throw the ball into a lake, it will go down as another missed opportunity.

3. Kentucky. The Wildcats didn’t get what they’d bargained for out of Will Levis’ final college season, limping in at 7-6 after rising as high as No. 7 in the AP poll. (Yes, that actually happened.) This year, they returned to the used QB lot for former NC State starter Devin Leary, whose 2022 campaign fell well short of the preseason hype itself due to injury. With some fine skill talent and no glaring holes up front, the table is set for a healthy Leary to finish what Levis started.

4. Florida. The rebuilding project under Billy Napier took a serious hit when Anthony Richardson declared for the NFL Draft: Instead of reaping the rewards of Richardson maxing out his enormous gifts on campus, the Gators were forced to settle for a generic Big Ten quarterback from the portal, Wisconsin’s Graham Mertz, who barely moves the needle. The roster as a whole, which didn’t place a single player on the preseason All-SEC team as voted on by league coaches, is giving off distinct McElwain vibes already.

5. South Carolina. No SEC coach is having more fun on the job than Shane Beamer, and arguably only Kirby Smart ended last year feeling better about the trajectory of his program following the Gamecocks’ milestone upsets over Tennessee and Clemson. Sustaining that momentum against a heavy schedule is a new challenge. QB Spencer Rattler remains the type of player who’s capable of beating almost any opponent on the ledger or losing to almost any opponent on given Saturday.

6. Missouri. The Tigers are still searching for an identity under Eli Drinkwitz, who is 17-19 over the past 3 seasons. That didn’t stop the school from giving him a $2 million raise last fall in the course of a 6-6 finish, to show its appreciation for eking out a trip to the Gasparilla Bowl. Sophomore WR Luther Burden III is on breakout watch, but the offense as a whole looks likely to lag behind the defense for the second year in a row.

7. Vanderbilt. Sophomore quarterback AJ Swann looks like a keeper after years of musical chairs at the position, but I thought the same thing a couple years ago about Swann’s current backup, Ken Seals. Never bank on a Vandy QB surviving for long.

SEC West

1. Alabama. The wide receivers vastly underachieved in 2022 by typical Bama standards, but between holdovers Ja’Corey Brooks, Jermaine Burton and Kobe Prentice and prize JUCO signee Malik Benson, there’s certainly no shortage of breakout-worthy talent. Their chemistry with the new quarterback is the most crucial variable in establishing the Tide’s ceiling.

2. LSU. In terms of national stakes, the opener against Florida State might be the most consequential nonconference game of the regular season. The winner still has a long track ahead in the Playoff race, but the loser is facing elimination before they even get out of the starter’s block.

3. Ole Miss. The Rebels were on track for a special season in 2022 before dropping 5 of their last 6 against a backloaded schedule. Lane Kiffin responded in what is quickly becoming his trademark fashion: By raiding the portal for 23 transfers representing every position group, including a couple of quarterbacks to push incumbent Jaxson Dart for the starting job. It won’t take 2 months to take this team’s temperature: Alabama and LSU are on deck before the end of September, hot on the heels of a Week 2 trip to No. 24 Tulane.

3. Texas A&M. The Aggies have an abundance of depth but a shortage of difference-makers. It’s time for some of those young 5-stars to begin emerging from the oven fully baked.

5. Arkansas. The Razorbacks cratered on defense in 2022, finishing 124th in total D and 101st in scoring. Cue the purge: Coach Sam Pittman sent defensive coordinator Barry Odom packing and brought in a dozen new defenders via the portal at all three levels. Still, unless most of that group exceeds expectations, it’s going to be up to QB KJ Jefferson and RB Rocket Sanders again to keep the scoreboard on TILT.

6. Mississippi State. The Bullldogs are moving on from the Air Raid, wisely opting against trying to run the late Mike Leach’s signature offense in the absence of the man himself. What does that mean for Will Rogers, the quintessential Mike Leach quarterback? That will be up to the new coordinator, Kevin Barbay, who comes from Appalachian State with a reputation for balance. Exactly what that entails in practice is to be determined, but it’s a fair assumption they’re not going to be asking Rogers to run any variations on the spread option.

7. Auburn. The Tigers’ best player, junior RB Jarquez Hunter, was reinstated earlier this month following a brief suspension to open camp, giving new coach Hugh Freeze at least 1 playmaker he can count on. As for the rest, don’t be surprised if the supporting cast is made up almost entirely of transfers.

The players

MVP: Georgia TE Brock Bowers

Tight ends aren’t usually synonymous with “value,” but describing Bowers as a “tight end” doesn’t come close to doing his all-purpose skill set justice. He is the ultimate tight end: Equally functional as a blocker and receiver, explosive in the open field, powerful after the catch, a nightmare in the red zone, a mismatch waiting to happen in almost every conceivable scenario. He is surely the only player ever to be nominated simultaneously for the Biletnikoff Award (best receiver) and the Lombardi Award (best lineman), which even if he is far more the former than the latter is still an accurate reflection of his versatility.

As a freshman in 2021, Bowers set Kirby Smart-era highs for receptions (56), receiving yards (882), and touchdowns (13); as a sophomore, he eclipsed his own marks in the first 2 categories (63 for 942) while adding another 7 TDs in the third. Even when he’s covered, he’s open.

A couple of changes could affect his usage in Year 3: 1), the transition from Todd Monken’s very friendly system to Mike Bobo’s; and 2), the departure of the Dawgs’ other blue-chip tight end, the colossal Darnell Washington, who held down the traditional inline role while freeing up Bowers to roam all over the field. Neither Monken, a first-rate play-caller, nor Washington, a one-of-a-kind figure himself, can be replaced as easily as “next man up,” even at Georgia. But then, with an athlete like Bowers, he’ll very likely succeed no matter where he lines up.

Offensive POY: Arkansas RB Rocket Sanders

A 6-2, 237-pound running back nicknamed “Rocket” is required by gridiron law to maintain a minimum threshold of awesomeness. Sanders clears the bar with ease: Beyond the spectacle of his raw size/speed blend, his sophomore campaign in 2022 was the most productive by an Arkansas RB since Darren McFadden’s Heisman runner-up season in 2007, yielding an SEC-best 1,714 scrimmage yards on 6.9 per touch. He can run with power; he can take it the distance; he boasts the dual-threat potential of a former high school wideout. With a couple of big games against the right opponents to put Arkansas in the running in the SEC West, he’ll be a Heisman candidate in his own right.

Defensive POY: Harold Perkins Jr.

Perkins spent the first half of his freshman campaign learning the ropes, and the second half breaking out as one of the singular talents in the college game: A dynamic edge rusher, off-ball linebacker and nickel defender rolled into one ball-hawking package. In the defining stretch of LSU’s season — a 4-game winning streak against Florida, Ole Miss, Alabama and Arkansas — he accounted for 24 QB pressures, 15 stops, 6 sacks and 2 forced fumbles in the span of a single month, seizing the attention of the entire country in the process.

Predictably, that pace wasn’t quite sustainable for an 18-year-old down the stretch. It was more than enough, however, to secure postseason accolades (Freshman All-American, second-team All-SEC per league coaches) and to establish Perkins as a rising star with no ceiling in sight. The only uncertainty in Year 2 is exactly how he’ll be deployed after splitting his time among multiple stations.

Although he’s significantly undersized for the box at 6-1/220, Perkins was at his best last year coming off the edge, where his initial burst and elite closing speed made up for his less-than-ideal frame. It’s also possible that with more experience he’ll be more comfortable over the slot, where he spent more time as the season wore on. Regardless, he projects as a premier playmaker in any capacity.

Most exciting player: Kentucky WR Barion Brown

Brown arrived at Kentucky last year as one of the highest-rated recruits of the Mark Stoops era and immediately justified the hype. As a freshman, he led the Wildcats in receptions and receiving yards while doubling as an electric return man on kickoffs, accounting for 1,046 all-purpose yards. That included 7 plays of 40+ yards, 3 plays of 70+ and 5 total touchdowns.

As a sophomore, Brown is the headliner (along with senior Tayvion Robinson and fellow sophomore Dane Key) of the most dynamic set of wideouts in a Kentucky uniform in ages. Whatever other problems the Wildcats face, a lot of them can be solved just by getting the ball in his hands by any means necessary.

Breakout offensive POY: Alabama RB Jase McClellan

McClellan is a rare bird in the portal era: A blue-chip back willing to wait his turn. In 2020, he was a little-used freshman understudy to Najee Harris. A bigger role awaited in ’21, until his campaign was cut short by a torn ACL. Back to full speed last year, his promotion to RB1 was thwarted again by the arrival of dynamic transfer Jahmyr Gibbs. Finally, it’s McClellan’s time. And, with the looming uncertainty behind center, it comes at a moment when the Tide could be banking on the ground game to carry a larger share of the offense than it has in years.

Compared to previous Bama workhorses, McClellan probably falls closer on the spectrum to, say, Brian Robinson Jr. than he does to Najee Harris or Derrick Henry. (Robinson being another example of a thickly built throwback who didn’t crack the starting lineup until his senior year.) But McClellan does have some big-play juice – he was responsible for the Tide’s longest run and longest reception in 2022 – and if a Playoff run is in the cards in the absence of a Heisman-caliber quarterback or wideout, they’re going to need every drop of it they can get.

Breakout defensive POY: Georgia DL Mykel Williams

The top-rated player in Georgia’s 2022 recruiting class, Williams was sized up as heir apparent to No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker before he even put on a UGA helmet. So far, so good. Although technically a backup — he came off the bench in all but 2 games — Williams led the Dawgs’ ferocious d-line rotation as a freshman in snaps, sacks and QB pressures, effectively taking over as the main edge-rushing threat down the stretch following a midseason injury to OLB Nolan Smith.

As a rule, Georgia’s sub-heavy, gap-oriented defense does not lend itself to individual box-score glory, especially the “big end” role, in which even an extraterrestrial specimen like Walker was largely tasked with stacking opposing linemen rather making splash plays in the backfield. Whatever the stats say, though, Williams is the kind of talent with the potential to wreck the curve. This time next year he could easily be on his way to becoming a top-10 pick in his own right.

Fat guy of the year: Alabama OT JC Latham

Alabama’s streak of 5-star, first-round bookends ended this year, the first since 2018 that didn’t feature a Crimson Tide tackle on Day 1 of the draft. (Last year’s starting LT, Vanderbilt transfer Tyler Steen, didn’t come off the board until Round 3.) With Latham reaching eligibility in 2024, the interruption should be brief. The only question is which end of the line he’ll hold down. In the past, Bama has always shifted its rising stars to the left side, a transition that Jonah Williams, Alex Leatherwood and Evan Neal all handled in stride. Latham, however, spent the entire spring in his familiar seat at right tackle, where he started every game in 2022, even as the still-undecided competition to replace Steen was well underway on the left. Given the many other question marks on offense, maybe Nick Saban just wants to go to bed at night knowing there’s at least one position he can count on.

Most valuable transfer: Ole Miss WR Zakhari Franklin

Few coaches have been more aggressive on the transfer market than Lane Kiffin, and there were few bigger fish in the portal this offseason than Franklin, a 2-time All-Conference USA pick at UT-San Antonio whose commitment in early June addressed Ole Miss’ most glaring vacancy. Both of last year’s leading receivers, Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath, left for the NFL, leaving the door wide open for Franklin — a former 2-star recruit who enters the season as the active FBS leader with 37 career touchdowns — to assume the role of WR1 as soon as he lands. Next on the agenda: Settling on a starting quarterback.

Sleeper of the year: Missouri LB Ty’Ron Hopper

Hopper never quite lived up to his top-100 recruiting billing at Florida, where he spent his first 3 seasons under Dan Mullen from 2019-21. At Missouri, he emerged quickly last season — and quietly, unless you’re a Mizzou fan — as one of the SEC’s most active defenders, period. Among off-ball ‘backers, he led the conference in TFLs (14) and overall PFF grade (82.6) while picking up a well-earned reputation for always being around the ball.

Nick Bolton, he is not: At 6-2/221, Hopper is on the lighter side where the next level is concerned, part of the reason he opted to pass on the draft for a 5th year on campus. On his current trajectory, his production this fall is going to be too impressive to ignore.

Best name: Georgia WR De’Nylon Morrissette

Honorable Mention: Ole Miss RB Ulysses Bentley IV … Auburn TE Rivaldo Fairweather… Arkansas TE Var’Keyes Gumms… Kentucky DL Octavious Oxendine… LSU TE Ka’Morreun Pimpton… Tennessee OL Javontez Spraggins.

Best position group: Georgia LBs

Even a linebacker factory like Georgia is supposed to feel the absence of a tandem as special as Nakobe Dean and Quay Walker, but in most respects the drop-off from Dean and Walker to Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon Jr. in 2022 was barely perceptible. “Pop” and Mondon were essentially interchangeable, combining for 146 tackles, 75 stops, 49 QB pressures and 17 TFLs with a more or less identical split in each category. Neither came close to matching Dean’s elite marks in coverage — again, an impossible bar — but then, they were just a couple of true sophomores in their first round as starters. In Round 2, it’s their turn to set the bar aloft for the next wave, with whom UGA fans should already be well acquainted by the end of this season.

Biggest X-factor: Tennessee’s deep threat

Few coaches love the long ball more than Josh Heupel, and few quarterbacks love throwing it more than Joe Milton, who led the nation in a reserve role in 2022 by heaving 34.2% of his attempts at least 20 yards downfield, per PFF. (For context, Vols starter Hendon Hooker ranked 2nd in the SEC at 20.5%.) In contrast with his reputation for extreme inaccuracy, Milton also connected an SEC-best 48.3% of those attempts with 8 touchdowns and no interceptions.

Take the small sample size with a grain of salt, but rest assured if the Vols have anyone who can roughly approximate the departed Jalin Hyatt’s impact as a deep threat, he’s going to get plenty of chances to prove it.