2021 College Football Preview: Over/unders for every SEC team

By Bruce Marshall  (VSiN.com) 

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VSiN’s 2021 College Football Betting Guide is now available for order. Get access to over 300 pages of information, including over/under picks for all 130 FBS teams and our experts’ favorite season win total bets right here.

Here is the 2021 CFB betting guide preview for the SEC.

FAVORITES: ALABAMA and FLORIDA

We’re not going too far out on a limb to project Alabama as one of the favorites. Though most Southeastern Conference insiders suspect that not even the Nick Saban assembly line of talent will be able to seamlessly replace all the offensive talent that migrated to the NFL, including QB Mac Jones, two wideouts in Heisman Trophy winner DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and running back Najee Harris, all drafted in the first round. Also gone is offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, now the head coach at Texas. But the Crimson Tide doesn’t have to score 48 points a game again to be formidable, and blue-chippers abound, led by five-star sophomore QB Bryce Young, who is capable of picking up where Jones left off. The defense might be the highlight of this Tide edition. Meanwhile, Georgia is getting lots of love from SEC East pundits, but we slightly prefer Florida. Dan Mullen understands offense better than Kirby Smart, and the Gators were in contention for national honors until late last season when a spate of injuries thinned the ranks. After Mullen finally got over the hump against Smart last year, Florida wears the bull’s-eye until further notice in the non-Bama half of the league.

LIVE DOG: MISSISSIPPI STATE

Rewind to 2013, Mike Leach’s second year at Washington State. All of a sudden, things began to click for the Cougars’ Air Raid offense, and the squad became a force in the Pac-12 and a bowl team for the first time in a decade. Mississippi State hasn’t had that kind of drought — in fact, the Bulldogs got into a bowl game last year at 3-7 because of COVID-19 weirdness — but a similar breakthrough in Starkville wouldn’t surprise.

Sophomore QB Will Rogers had a bumpy go in his test run last year, but he was looking confident by the end of the season. Moreover, many insiders believe it takes a year to really get a grip on the reads and progressions integral to a Leach offense. The defense held up quite well for most of 2020, as defensive coordinator Zach Arnett kept plenty of capable opponents off balance with a variety of stunts and blitzes. Don’t expect MSU to beat Bama for the first time since 2007, but don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs are upgraded either. 

DEAD MONEY: AUBURN

Though a more conventional case can perhaps be made against Vanderbilt after it lost every game last season and covered only three spreads, the Commodores might be so discounted that they could provide some value for first-year coach Clark Lea. Auburn, meanwhile, likely doesn’t get the same benefit. Routinely overrated by the oddsmakers after Gus Malzahn’s smashing debut in 2013, the Tigers have been a pretty consistent money-burner since, and no surprise if Bryan Harsin’s Auburn debut is similarly overpriced (at least for a while). Spread failings or not, the thought persists among some SEC observers that Auburn hasn’t made an upgrade with this hire. And if not, point-spread shortcomings from the previous regime are not likely to change much either.  

BIG GAMES ON THE BOARD

Georgia vs. Clemson at Charlotte, N.C., Sept. 4: This used to be an annual showdown, and it renews for the first time since 2014. No other opening-week game has this sort of potential playoff consequences, and it’s a chance for quarterbacks D.J. Uiagalelei of Clemson and JT Daniels of Georgia to kick-start potential Heisman campaigns. After being a cut beneath the national elite the last few years, this is a chance for Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs to quickly establish their national contender chops.

Texas at Arkansas, Sept. 11: We’ll find out if Arkansas is ready to make a move up the SEC West ladder in Sam Pittman’s second year based on whether the Razorbacks can take down Texas and new coach Steve Sarkisian. But let’s face it: The appeal of this one is more nostalgic, as these once-bitter rivals from the old Southwest Conference have met only three times in the regular season since Arkansas moved to the SEC in 1992. 

Alabama at Florida, Sept. 18: Until the league powerbrokers decide to alter the slate, only once every six years does the SEC cycle into this matchup during the regular season, and only once every 12 years will they meet in Gainesville, so this will be a rare Tide visit to the Swamp. It’s also a rematch of last year’s SEC title game in Atlanta, where the Gators gave it a run before falling short in a 52-46 shootout. Dan Mullen is still looking for his first win over Nick Saban, losing all 10 meetings dating to his Mississippi State days.

Alabama at Texas A&M, Oct. 9: How much has Jimbo Fisher closed the gap on former mentor Nick Saban and Alabama? Well, A&M lost just once last season, and it was against the Crimson Tide 52-24. That was a special Bama team, but A&M is paying Fisher all that money to reach the College Football Playoff and win the title. We’ll find out whether the Aggies are really ready to challenge Bama and whether Fisher has found a QB to replace the graduated Kellen Mond.  

Florida at LSU, Oct. 16: It is not lost on Gators fans that their league schedule is looking much harder than Georgia’s, mainly because of that Sept. 18 test against Alabama, and Florida might have to win this game to keep within touching distance of the Bulldogs when they meet two weeks later. About the only highlight of a disappointing 2020 for the Tigers was their 37-34 stunner at Gainesville that knocked the Gators out of the national title picture, so Florida will be seeking revenge.

Ole Miss at Tennessee, Oct. 16: Lane Kiffin returns to Knoxville for the first time as a head coach since leaving the Volunteers after one season, the 2009 campaign. (Kiffin has trekked to Neyland Stadium as a member of Nick Saban’s staff.) As UT fans have long memories, Kiffin’s reception will be interesting. This might also serve as a nice midseason barometer on Josh Heupel’s progress in his debut season with the Vols. 

Florida vs. Georgia at Jacksonville, Fla., Oct: 30: As has often been the case in recent years, this grudge match at what they now call TIAA Bank Field will likely go a long way toward determining whether the Gators or Bulldogs reach the SEC title game in Atlanta. Florida broke a three-game losing streak in the series a year ago with a 44-28 romp.

Alabama at Auburn, Nov. 27: Gus Malzahn had the hex on Nick Saban at Jordan-Hare Stadium, beating him three of four times, which has created a pretty high bar for new coach Bryan Harsin to clear. While we expect the Tide to be ready to roll into the SEC title game by this point, we’re more curious at how the Auburn support base will react if Harsin undershoots expectations in his debut season. A decisive loss to Bama might get Tigers backers wishing they still had Malzahn.    

EAST

Georgia

People forget that Kirby Smart was forced to use three QBs by midseason last year, and that didn’t even include Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, the projected starter who opted out on the eve of the season. Former USC transfer JT Daniels, recovering from knee surgery, finally was able to take over at midseason and twice passed for better than 300 yards in his last four starts. But it’s worth noting that no one blocked the door when Daniels wanted to leave USC, and late-season wins over three SEC also-rans padded Daniels’ stats and Georgia’s resume before a late rally reversed what looked like a loss to Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl. 

Smart’s defenses are usually formidable, and last season’s unit topped the nation in rushing defense. But Georgia was also shredded by the two best offenses it faced, Alabama and Florida. The problem with a Georgia Over recommendation is that a neutral-site loss to Clemson in the opener would leave the Bulldogs no margin for error to get to 11 wins. We suspect they’ll fall short.

Pick: Under 10.5

Florida

Alabama’s once-every-six-years appearance on the schedule makes things a bit more problematic for Florida, which at least gets to host the Crimson Tide at the Swamp. And the hard-to-satisfy Gators fan base might be starting to get a bit impatient with Dan Mullen. After all, Florida coaches are supposed to win national titles, not lose three games to close the season, as the Gators did last year. However, some think Mullen might be able to do more with once-ballyhooed recruit Emory Jones at QB than he could with Heisman finalist Kyle Trask, who was more of a pocket thrower.

Jones is a pure dual-threat along the lines of another former Mullen pupil, Dak Prescott, and a revamped offense will now feature more run-pass option and direct QB runs with the mobile Jones, who also possesses a strong arm. And while do-everything, NFL-bound tight end Kyle Pitts leaves some awfully big shoes to fill, Mullen has plenty of capable weapons to step into the breach. 

We can’t overlook the late-season collapse of the Florida defense last year, due to a combination of factors that included injuries, but veteran coordinator Todd Grantham can still feature a likely future first-round pick in defensive end Zachary Carter, while the transfer portal has brought potential-impact defensive tackles Antonio Shelton from Penn State and Daquan Newkirk from Auburn. But as long as the secondary tightens up after allowing an SEC-worst 28 TD passes, the Gators can get to 10 wins, especially with the nonleague portion of the schedule not very threatening with hated Florida State now a shell of its former self.

Pick: Over 9

Missouri

In his first year as a head coach in the SEC, Eli Drinkwitz impressed onlookers. Especially notable were two October wins in which he employed drastically different strategies to beat LSU and Kentucky. Drinkwitz opened the bomb bays with fearless freshman QB Connor Bazelak passing for 406 yards in the LSU upset. Then he used a clock-eating, short-yardage offense that stopped Kentucky’s secondary from making momentum-changing plays in an old-style 20-10 win. But by December, Missouri was running on fumes, especially the defense, which surrendered almost 50 PPG across the last three games.

Enter former NFL head coach Steve Wilks, a defensive tactician enlisted by Drinkwitz to plug some of those gaps and savvy enough to make good use of a robust collection of defensive linemen and edge rushers. Trajan Jeffcoat had six sacks in 2020, while Blaze Alldredge recorded 21.5 tackles for loss in his last full season of 2019. As for Bazelak, look for him to benefit from the addition of potential big-play wideout and Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper.

The schedule provides much of the optimism for an Over call, with a trip to Boston College looking like the only potentially dangerous non-SEC date and only the trip to Georgia looking like a game where Mizzou might be a significant underdog. We’re expecting Drinkwitz to win at least eight times.

Pick: Over 7

Kentucky

We’re reluctant to strongly endorse UK because we’re not sure Mark Stoops has found the sort of playmakers on offense, like RB Benny Snell in 2018 or unconventional QB Lynn Bowden in 2019, who made those Wildcats editions go. A year ago the Cats struggled mightily on offense behind limited QB Terry Wilson, who fared better when able to hand off to Snell in 2018 but was mostly ineffective last year before heading to the portal and landing at New Mexico. Former Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood struggled in brief appearances, too, suggesting that Stoops might be ready to give Penn State transfer Will Levis the keys to the offense now coordinated by Liam Coen, pulled from the NFL Rams’ staff. Stoops and Coen have punishing north-south RB Chris Rodriguez Jr. (6.6 YPC and 11 TDs in 2020) and change-of-pace runner Kavosiey Smoke to provide a diversion, but this was the SEC’s lowest-ranked offense a year ago.

The defense was asked to carry much of the burden last fall and eventually buckled in late-season blowout losses to Alabama and Florida and now must replace seven starters. The good news for UK is that the nonleague slate consists of three layups in Lexington — ULM, Chattanooga and New Mexico State — and what should be a winnable trip to Louisville. But the non-Vandy SEC games are another matter, and Stoops will need a lot more offense to improve on last year’s 5-6 mark, which included a 23-21 Gator Bowl win over NC State.

Pick: Under 7

South Carolina

Checking every applicable box, new coach Shane Beamer has the masses excited in Columbia. They are thrilled to have an enthusiastic new leader after Will Muschamp’s businesslike approach the last five years. But whatever Beamer’s pedigree, including being the son of Frank, the greatest coach in Virginia Tech history, he has never been a head coach, and he inherits a program that went off the rails last year. 

Beamer and new offensive coordinator Marcus Satterfield will try to make lemonade from lemons on offense, with sophomore QB Luke Doty failing to excite in his audition at the end of 2020 and FCS St. Francis (Pa.) transfer Jason Brown not having played since 2019. Satterfield will likely try to pivot the offense around productive RB Kevin Harris (1,138 yards rushing last year), the only established threat. But with questions at QB, we’re not sure how much upside the offense has. 

Prospects are not much better on defense, where things also unraveled last season, and new coordinator Clayton White has to completely revamp a secondary that lost five players to the portal or the NFL. The Gamecocks’ best chances at wins are right out of the gate against Eastern Illinois and East Carolina, but we can envision this season spinning out of control as Beamer tries to grasp his new assignment with a transitional roster. It is not a recipe that suggests much beyond three wins.

Pick: Under 3.5

Tennessee

Over the last half-century, even coaches who once won big at Tennessee — think Doug Dickey, Bill Battle, Johnny Majors and Phil Fulmer — endured uncomfortable exits. The Vols’ support base had even less tolerance for those who didn’t win soon enough — think Derek Dooley and recently deposed Jeremy Pruitt. Into this cauldron arrives Josh Heupel, riding shotgun into Neyland Stadium from UCF alongside new athletic director Danny White and hoping to clear the stench from the Pruitt regime, which left recruiting violations in its wake. Heupel had a successful three-year run in Orlando, going 28-8, but also inherited an undefeated team from Scott Frost. There are questions whether the track-meet style that Heupel prefers will play as well in the SEC as it did the American, especially with the talent on hand in Knoxville. 

The offense is undergoing a complete rebuild, maybe not a bad thing after stalling a year ago. Heupel is likely to install the same up-tempo spread that worked with the Golden Knights and will turn to Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker, who passed for 2,894 yards and 22 TDs the last two years with the Hokies, or Michigan transfer Joe Milton, who started the last five games for the Wolverines in 2020. Heupel certainly wasn’t hired because of his defensive expertise, as UCF ranked 123rd on that side of the ball last year. The return of five “super seniors” on the defensive line should help the manpower up front and give new coordinator Tim Banks something to work with, and the secondary is experienced, though the linebacker corps was gutted by the portal.

If the Vols have hope, the schedule could offer four nonleague wins at Neyland Stadium and Heupel should be able to scrape out a couple of SEC wins. It’s that soft nonleague slate, however, that makes us think the Vols can get to .500.

Pick: Push 6 

Vanderbilt

Given how bad the Commodores were last year, going 0-9 in their first winless season, clearing the three-win hurdle looks awfully daunting. Even so, alumnus and new head coach Clark Lea, fresh off a successful stint as defensive coordinator on Brian Kelly’s Notre Dame staff, has fans excited after the well-meaning Derek Mason ran the program into the ground the last couple of years. Lea, however, knows the challenges and certainly realizes that a bit of guile will be his best chance to compete. Expect the offense to spread it out and let sophomore QB Ken Seals, who flashed some promise even while under siege last fall, wing it. The top three receivers are still in the mix, including Cam Johnson, who caught 56 passes a year ago. The collapse of Mason’s once-combative defense, all the way down to ranking 121st nationally, really submerged the Commodores. 

Lea’s defensive acumen will be put to the test, and Vandy simply has to generate more impact plays on defense after recording just two interceptions last season. But East Tennessee State and UConn provide real opportunities at home, and then it’s a matter of finding one more win (Colorado State? Kentucky? South Carolina?) to get to three.  Not impossible.

Pick: Push 3

WEST

Alabama

No room for error here, as the Crimson Tide needs to sweep the regular-season slate for this Over to cash. Daunting? Maybe not. Been there, done that, as recently as last season, Nick Saban’s latest unbeaten masterpiece and national title winner. This is not the same Bama team, certainly not on offense after losing QB Mac Jones, WRs DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle and RB Najee Harris to the first round of the draft. But after scoring 48.5 PPG, the Tide can afford a bit of a drop and still be the team to beat. 

Some think sophomore QB Bryce Young, a former five-star recruit, might eventually be even better than Jones, and Saban has simply been reloading on offense for years as his pipeline is not close to running dry. Indeed, another top-rated recruiting class could offer immediate help, and Saban has been stockpiling blue-chip RBs like Trey Sanders and Jase McClellan, who should be able to fill Harris’ shoes. Meanwhile, Saban hired Bill O’Brien, Bill Belichick’s former offensive coordinator at New England and the longtime Texans and Penn State head coach, to take Steve Sarkisian’s place coordinating the offense. Also look for another star-studded defense to feature in the fall, with the usual collection of future NFL draftees. 

The banana peels on the schedule look to be trips to Florida on Sept. 18 and Texas A&M on Oct. 9, but we suspect the gap between the Tide and the SEC West might be as wide as it was a year ago. We’d rather not forecast a spot where the Crimson Tide might lose.

Pick: Over 11.5          

Texas A&M

During Jimbo Fisher’s first two years at A&M, he had to deal with nonconference games against Clemson, and while the Aggies put up a fight, they lost both of them. Now, instead of Clemson, A&M’s biggest non-SEC challenge is Colorado, which should help Fisher clear this 9.5-win hurdle. 

We’d be even more confident if we knew a bit more about the quarterback battle in College Station post-Kellen Mond. In fact, what could hold back the Aggies is the situation at QB, where fast but untested Haynes King, who took only a few snaps last fall, needs to provide a dynamic dimension for A&M to threaten elite status. Everything else seems in place, with 1,000-yard runner Isaiah Spiller back as well as the top five receivers. Meanwhile, Fisher has been able to hold on to the “$2.1 Million Man,” high-priced defensive coordinator Mike Elko, who got a raise when suitors were inquiring about his interest in becoming a head coach, which figures to come soon enough. Elko molded the nation’s ninth-ranked defense last year and returns nine starters. 

If Mond were still in the fold, maybe this would be the year that Fisher could get Alabama, especially as the Tide must visit Kyle Field. No matter. We suspect it’s a good bet the Aggies get to 10 wins.

Pick: Over 9.5

LSU

Ed Orgeron set the bar pretty high in 2019, with a generational offense led by Joe Burrow and an unbeaten national-title year. So maybe LSU backsliding last year shouldn’t have been much of a surprise, especially with injuries and key opt-outs thinning the ranks. But the way it unraveled last season, especially for a defense against which opponents scored 44 or more points five times, had LSU fans shaking their heads. It was a complete breakdown for the stop unit, with the nation’s worst pass defense forcing Orgeron to jettison coordinator Bo Pelini and enlist Daronte Jones from the NFL’s Vikings to try to restore some order. Nine starters return, but Jones needs to work on the defensive culture and work ethic that waned under Pelini. Orgeron is also trying to recreate the magic of 2019 by bringing in Joe Brady disciples Jake Peetz and DJ Mangas to run the offense.

We’ll see whether QB Myles Brennan, who missed most of 2020 due to a torn abdomen, can reclaim the job from sophomore Max Johnson, who took most of the snaps in 2020 and was running the first string in the spring. It will help that sophomore Kayshon Boutte looks like the next great LSU receiver after catching 308 yards worth of passes in the wild 53-48 win over Ole Miss. But it’s not going back to 2019 by simply wishing, and Orgeron is at risk of getting off on the wrong foot when facing a resurgent UCLA at the Rose Bowl in the opener. With the usual SEC West hurdles and hooking Florida in the annual crossover game, getting to nine wins looks a chore.

Pick: Under 8.5

Ole Miss

Hype abounds in Oxford after the Outback Bowl win over Indiana, but in retrospect most of the damage Ole Miss did in Lane Kiffin’s debut season came against the bottom half of the SEC. We’re pumping the brakes just a bit because the Rebels leaked too much on defense and were only 4-5 against league opponents. Anticipating many upgrades on defense looks dubious with seven starters on hand from last year, when the front seven wasn’t physical enough or fast enough to knock most foes off balance.

The chance always exists that the Rebels can merely outscore foes, and QB Matt Corral effectively grasped the Kiffin schemes en route to 3,337 passing yards and 29 TD passes, though his 14 interceptions were an issue. Kiffin is also reportedly figuring out more ways to use John Rhys Plumlee, who provided a spark at QB in 2019, and can be deployed in the slot, out wide, at running back or a bit more as a change-of-pace QB this fall. Kiffin might have no choice but to find a way to get Plumlee more involved after the departure of star wideout Elijah Moore, who had 86 catches in 2020. But with an average score of 39-38 last season, we might have to ask Ole Miss to win eight shootouts to cast an Over vote.

We suspect it’s more likely the Rebels will fall a bit short but will provide fun watching nonetheless.

Pick: Under 7.5                            &​nbsp;         

Auburn

If Gus Malzahn did know something, it was on offense. But not even he could get QB Bo Nix to perform consistently last season, hastening Malzahn’s departure. Can new coach Bryan Harsin squeeze more consistency out of Nix? We’re not sure, especially as the OL was bothered by inconsistency and promising RB Tank Bigsby had his freshman year cut short by injury. Let’s also remember that of the many successful coaches like Harsin who have moved on from Boise State in the last 20 years, only Chris Petersen at Washington succeeded. Dirk Koetter was fired at Arizona State, and Dan Hawkins was fired at Colorado and is now at UC Davis.

The SEC isn’t the Mountain West or the Sun Belt, where Harsin succeeded for one season before moving to Boise. We’ll also see about the adjustment to new defensive coordinator Derek Mason, most recently the head coach at Vanderbilt and who will likely be junking the 4-2-5 alignment that worked fairly well for predecessor Kevin Steele and instead use 3-4 and 4-3 defenses. No matter, the best case for an Auburn Over rests with a schedule that provides a pair of gimmes in Akron and Alabama State before a trip to Penn State. But the SEC West is unforgiving, and Harsin would likely have to go 5-3 in league play to exceed seven wins. We don’t see it.

Pick: Under 7

Mississippi State

Year 2 of a Mike Leach regime is worth watching, as we saw at Washington State. In 2013, his second year with the Cougars, things suddenly began to click, especially on offense. As parallels exist between Leach’s first year at WSU and his maiden run in Starkville last season, might that carry into the second season as well?

One challenge Leach is facing that he didn’t in the Pac-12 is SEC defenses, which seemed to get a grasp on what Leach was doing with his Air Raid after the shocking opening win over LSU. Specifically, no one else was daring to play Leach’s receivers man-to-man, as the various zone looks seem to confound the Bulldogs’ QBs. By the end of the season, however, freshman Will Rogers was looking a lot more confident in the pocket after the Bulldogs scored only 30 points in four October games. Rogers, who passed for nearly 2,000 yards, might get a push from Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham, and almost all the skill-position weapons are back, including WR Jaden Walley, who caught a school-record 718 yards worth of passes as a freshman. The defense didn’t cause MSU to lose any games last fall, as Zach Arnett coordinated a confounding unit that kept most opponents off balance. 

Working against the Bulldogs is that, unlike some SEC teams, Leach has not just one but a couple of spiky nonconference games against NC State and Memphis. But Mississippi State will have a chance in those and might even be able to sweep its nonleague slate. If that’s the case, getting to .500 becomes a lot easier.

Pick: Over 5.5

Arkansas

In his first spin as a head coach after a long and distinguished career as an assistant, Sam Pittman proved a breath of fresh air in Fayetteville last season. He was an upgrade over the massively disappointing Chad Morris regime. Pittman also seemed to make good moves with his coordinators, hiring up-and-comer Kendal Briles to handle the offense and former Missouri head coach Barry Odom to run the defense. Yet when the dust settled, the Razorbacks were only 3-7, with the defense falling apart late. The unit allowed 50 or more points three times in the last four games, all losses. Odom needs to put together a pass rush in a hurry or SEC offenses will continue to gouge huge chunks of yardage despite the return of nine starters. On the other side of the ball, some think Briles might find sophomore QB KJ Jefferson’s dual-threat skills a better fit for his schemes than Feleipe Franks, who was serviceable with 17 TD passes and four interceptions in his final go-around last year.

Overall, 17 starters return, and the arrow seems to be pointing upward, but the schedule is enough to make us blink on 5.5 wins. We think there’s a good chance the Hogs will hit midseason below .500, especially with three straight games away from Fayetteville into October, while facing LSU and Alabama back-to-back on the road in November is another sadistic bit of scheduling. Because of all those roadblocks, getting to .500 looks like a real challenge, even though Pittman might have the program, which last year broke a 20-game SEC losing streak, back on the way to respectability.

Pick: Under 5.5

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