College football betting preview: SEC

By Adam Burke  (VSiN.com) 

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The VSiN college football experts have been hard at work this summer, writing up team previews and predictions for all 131 FBS teams, including their favorite individual season win total and College Football Playoff bets.

Here are the team previews for the SEC:

ALABAMA

The expectation in Tuscaloosa is the same as it always is — championship or bust. With potentially the Nos. 1 and 2 picks in the 2023 NFL draft, Alabama is poised for another big year and a trip to the College Football Playoff. After falling to Georgia last year, the Tide will be extra motivated to take home the hardware.

Offense

The reigning Heisman Trophy winner, Bryce Young, has a bevy of four- and five-star players around him on offense, but there could be some growing pains. The top four pass catchers from last season are gone, including big-play threat Jameson Williams (79 receptions, 1,572 yards, 15 TDs) and John Metchie III (96 catches, 1,142, yards, 8 TDs), so the Tide have to replace 252 receptions and over 3,000 yards from that quartet.

That group includes running back Brian Robinson Jr., who moved to the NFL after 14 touchdowns and more than 1,300 yards. Fortunately, this is Alabama, which doesn’t retool, it reloads. RB Jahmyr Gibbs transferred in from Georgia Tech after averaging 5.4 yards per carry and WR Jermaine Burton joined the program after winning a national championship ring against the Tide.

Sophomores Ja’Corey Brooks (15 catches, 192 yards,  2 TDs) and JoJo Earle (12 catches, 148 yards) will join matchup nightmare TE Cameron Latu in catching passes from Young, who threw for 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns last season. First-round left tackle Evan Neal is gone, but Alabama will have a good offensive line and tons of talent once again.

Defense

A defensive player hasn’t won the Heisman since Charles Woodson in 1997, and he is the only one who ever played exclusively on defense. That means that the odds are long against Will Anderson, but he had 17.5 sacks and 34.5 tackles for loss last season on an Alabama defense that allowed 20.1 points per game.

Alabama’s weekly margin of victory allows a lot of players to rotate in and out, so while the Tide return only seven starters on defense, plenty of the guys on the two-deep have game experience. The defensive line and the secondary are full of upperclassmen, including safeties DeMarcco Hellams and Jordan Battle, who combined for six interceptions and 172 tackles.

The Tide racked up 57 sacks last season and return five of the seven players who had at least two sacks. Alabama did give up nearly 5.5 yards per play against ranked opponents, but this is another powerhouse defense that looks likely to improve.

Outlook

Alabama will be favored in every game this season but does go on the road to Arkansas, Tennessee, LSU and Ole Miss in conference play and also has a trip to Texas to take on the new-look Longhorns under former Bama offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian. There are a lot of new faces on offense, specifically at the skill positions for Young to connect with, but somebody always emerges with a crop of talent this strong.

The Tide are heavily favored to win the West Division and the SEC and also have the shortest odds to win the national championship. At least two of those things appear very likely to happen and we’ll see how this team looks by December for a likely rematch with Georgia in Atlanta. My projections give Alabama 11.37 wins.

Pick: Over 10.5 (-265)

 

ARKANSAS

Nov. 20, 2021, felt like a coming-of-age night for the Razorbacks. They lost 42-35 to Alabama but gave the Crimson Tide everything they could handle in Tuscaloosa. A dominant effort against Penn State in the Outback Bowl was a good ending to a very successful season for Sam Pittman’s bunch. Now, it’s time to build on that.

Offense

The Razorbacks have a flashy offensive coordinator in Kendal Briles and play at a quickened pace, but they’re also plenty capable of punching an opponent in the mouth. Arkansas led the SEC with 228 rushing yards per game, led by dual-threat QB KJ Jefferson, who rushed for a team-high 664 yards and passed for 2,676 more. Three running backs had at least five yards per carry and more than 500 rushing yards, and two of them return.

Raheim Sanders (578 yards, 5.1 ypc) and Dominique Johnson (575, 5.9) were the top two in yards per carry for the Razorbacks, and they’ll be on the field often to spearhead a rushing attack that gave a lot of teams fits last season. They’ll have to be a huge part of the game because star WR Treylon Burks was a first-round pick and accounted for over 41% of the team’s receiving yards.

Fortunately, all but one starter returns on the offensive line, so the Razorbacks will have good protection for a mobile QB in Jefferson and should be able to once again stay ahead of the chains with a unit that averaged 6.4 yards per play.

Defense

A lot was asked of the defense last season, as the offense ranked 90th in third-down conversion rate. Under first-year defensive coordinator Barry Odom, the Razorbacks were just inside the top 50 in yards per play allowed and top 40 in scoring defense, despite giving up 52 points to Ole Miss and 42 to Alabama.

Odom has a mostly blank slate this season, as the Razorbacks return only four starters on defense. All-name-team member Bumper Pool had 125 tackles last season at linebacker and junior safety Jalen Catalon returns from injury after missing the second half of the season. However, losses in the front seven, including DT John Ridgeway and leading sack man Tre Williams, leave an unclear picture.

Odom is a strong DC and an excellent recruiter, so we’ll see how his first class develops and if his second class, along with a lot of activity in the transfer portal, can stave off any decline.

Outlook

The maturation process for Arkansas included a blowout loss at Georgia one week after beating Texas A&M in Arlington and an ugly loss at Auburn after losing a 52-51 thriller to Ole Miss in Oxford. The Razorbacks will be better for those battle scars in the long run, and this is a team that has a tremendous leader in Pittman and excellent coordinators in Briles and Odom.

The schedule is one of the toughest in the nation with Cincinnati and BYU in nonconference action, so that makes it hard to live up to lofty goals. This team will not be an easy out at any point, and its physical style of play is a weapon, but that schedule is a beast, as my projection is for 6.93 wins.

Pick: Under 7.5 (-145)

 

AUBURN

Not many people would call Bryan Harsin’s first season a success, but the Tigers were on their way to beating Alabama in the Iron Bowl before one bad decision cost them. Instead, a 6-2 start wound up a 6-7 season and a lot of things will look different this season with plenty of players coming and going.

Offense

The ultimate goal is winning the SEC West, but that road usually goes through the Crimson Tide, and the Tigers now have a quarterback who has beaten them. Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada is the likely heir to Bo Nix’s throne, though T.J. Finley and Oregon transfer Robby Ashford may also be in the running. Uncertainty at the QB position will put the focus on RB Tank Bigsby, who might be the best back in the conference.

Bigsby rushed for 1,102 yards and 10 touchdowns, while change-of-pace back Jarquez Hunter had 6.7 yards per pop on 89 carries. With a heavy reliance on the ground game, the Tigers were only 69th in yards per play and 68th in points per game with 28.3, a number inflated by two 60-point performances against Akron and Alabama State.

An offensive line that yielded only 18 sacks returns four starters, which should also help the rushing attack with Bigsby and Hunter. That said, this looks like a team lacking in explosive plays with major questions at QB.

Defense

It seems like a bad sign that defensive coordinator Derek Mason took a pay cut and left the SEC to join Oklahoma State. The Tigers defense ranked in the top 30 in points per game allowed and inside the top 40 in yards per play allowed, but Mason still chose to leave. Replacing defensive backs Roger McCreary and Smoke Monday won’t be easy, as the Tigers look to be inexperienced in the secondary.

Fortunately, top pass rusher Derick Hall returns after nine sacks last season, but he could be a lone bright spot as the team shifts a little under new defensive coordinator Jeff Schmedding. Harsin worked with Schmedding at Boise State, and he was the linebackers coach last season, so there is a lot of familiarity, but slowing down offenses in the SEC is a lot different than in the Mountain West.

Auburn had only 12 takeaways last season, a number that needs to improve if this team is to exceed its expectations.

Outlook

The schedule does Auburn no favors, as there are road games against Georgia and Alabama, as well as a tricky nonconference game in Week 3 against Penn State in a rematch of last year’s 28-20 loss in Happy Valley. A cloudy outlook at quarterback is nothing new after the Nix era, but the Tigers could have a revolving door at the position if none of the candidates takes the job and runs with it.

The SEC West seems to be getting stronger around Auburn, while the Tigers are stuck in the mud, spinning their wheels. The performance against Alabama felt more like an exception to the rule, so it might be a tough year at Auburn, as my projection says 6.39 wins.

Pick: Under 6.5 (-170)

 

FLORIDA

The Gators are one of the hardest teams to handicap this season. The guys from Gainesville are only two seasons removed from going 11-2 with an Orange Bowl win over Virginia. On the other hand, the Gators went 6-7 last season and narrowly beat Florida State just to make it to the Gasparilla Bowl. That isn’t the standard for Gators football, and coach Billy Napier has been brought in to reset the bar.

Offense

This just might be a full-fledged transitional year for the Gators. QB Anthony Richardson is immensely talented, but health and consistency have been concerns. He threw only 64 passes last season and had almost as many interceptions (5) as touchdown passes (6). We saw flashes of potential brilliance with 7.9 yards per carry on 51 attempts, but we also saw a lot of questionable decisions from the pocket.

Napier and offensive coordinator Rob Sale are taking a big leap from the Sun Belt to the SEC, where their physical brand of football allowed the Ragin’ Cajuns to push teams around. Florida isn’t exactly built to do that right now, and the big-play offense looks to be replaced by a more methodical style of play. The top returnee at running back (Nay’Quan Wright) had only 4.3 yards per carry.

The Gators did throw 18 interceptions last season and made up for it by being 14th in TD% in the red zone. A mobile QB really helps in the scoring areas, but Florida will have to get to those first.

Defense

The Gators made some strides on defense last season, but that’s because they had nowhere to go but up. The 2020 defense allowed 6.1 yards per play and almost 31 points per game. Last year’s defense shaved off four points per game and defended better against the pass, but the Gators were still susceptible to the run and not physical enough.

A lot of underclassmen played key roles last year because of injuries and the previous season’s ugliness, so the Gators are young and talented but can also be undisciplined and unpredictable. The losses from 2020 to 2021 were far more extreme than this past offseason, as the Gators lost only a couple of draft picks and return seven starters.

It was also a tale of two seasons for Florida last year, as the Gators allowed 175 points in a four-game stretch with LSU, Georgia, South Carolina and Samford — the game that got Dan Mullen fired — and allowed only 173 points over the other nine games.

Outlook

This looks like a tough year for the Gators. They open by hosting Utah and draw LSU and Texas A&M from the SEC West before finishing with Florida State in Tallahassee. Talent isn’t really a question, but how the talent fits in with the new regime and new schemes will be a recurring theme as the games play out.

The ceiling and the floor for the season center on Richardson (or Ohio State transfer Jack Miller). The QB will set the tone for better or worse. Going from Mullen to Napier is an upgrade, simply with the improved culture within the program, but the SEC East is getting better around the Gators as well. My projection is 7.34 wins, so Florida probably falls right on this line, but I could see them losing the toss-ups.

Pick: Under 7 (+ 105)

 

GEORGIA

The Bulldogs lost to Alabama in the SEC championship game again last season but got revenge against the Crimson Tide when it mattered most. After winning a national championship, the Bulldogs will look to rule college football once again, but they return only three starters from the nation’s best defense. Georgia also goes from being the hunter to being the hunted for the first time in a long time.

Offense

The Georgia offense averaged 7 yards per play last season, so it wasn’t all the defense that orchestrated the title run. Stetson Bennett is a quarterback who posted a 29-7 TD-INT ratio with a 64.5% completion percentage, but the Bulldogs offense primarily went through a rushing attack that averaged 5.2 yards per carry.

Zamir White and James Cook are gone, taking 18 rushing scores and almost 1,600 yards with them. A program like Georgia can reload at that position and will with sophomore Kendall Milton, who was the No. 3 running back recruit in 2021, and returning leading rusher Kenny McIntosh (5.7 ypc).

Bennett’s favorite target in TE Brock Bowers returns, but Jermaine Burton transferred to Alabama, and the Bulldogs have some questions at wide receiver with a young set of skill guys. For a team that was 41st in third-down conversion rate despite a lot of early-down success, there are some reasons to be concerned.

Defense

Georgia’s recruiting pipeline is very rich, but there are only three returning starters on defense after several first-round picks were lost, including No. 1 pick Travon Walker. Lewis Cine, Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Quay Walker were also all first-round selections. The Bulldogs had nine defensive players selected in the 2022 NFL draft. Good recruiting or not, that is a legendary group of players to replace.

For all of the talent the Bulldogs have had on Kirby Smart’s watch, this was the top defense by a good margin with 10.2 points per game allowed and just 4.2 yards per play. That’s not to say Georgia’s defense will tank, but that was a historic performance that won’t be replicated.

One of the new co-defensive coordinators is a longtime SEC stalwart in Will Muschamp, who won’t change too much, but the Bulldogs will have some new wrinkles along with all the new faces. Out of 32 red zone visits, opponents scored only nine touchdowns. Georgia’s 28.13% TD% was the best mark since LSU in 2016.

Outlook

Picking nits just comes with the territory with a reigning champion. Georgia still has an incredible amount of talent, just maybe not as much as last year’s team. The Bulldogs will still be favored in every regular-season game and look very likely to face Alabama in Atlanta again on Dec. 3.

That said, bettors may not want to expect a team that wins by an average of 28 PPG and racks up 49 sacks. A drop-off is very likely, but not far enough to fall short in the SEC East. My numbers have Georgia at least -13 in every regular-season game, so two losses are incredibly hard to find.

Pick: Over 10.5 (-240)

 

KENTUCKY

Not many teams finish -11 in turnover margin and still win 10 games. The Wildcats did that last season, as the offense took a huge step forward under offensive coordinator Liam Coen. Coen is gone, but another branch of the same coaching tree takes over and we’ve just come to expect a lot of battle from Mark Stoops-led teams. Is that enough to reach or even surpass the new expectations in Lexington?

Offense

What the Wildcats lost could be more important than what returns. The loss of Coen back to the Los Angeles Rams is a major concern, but his replacement, Rich Scangarello, hails from the Kyle Shanahan/Sean McVay school of offense, so the playbook should be about the same for QB Will Levis and the offense after jumping from 121 to 226 passing yards per game.

What isn’t the same is that WR Wan’Dale Robinson was drafted in the second round. He accounted for 104 of the team’s 242 completions and had more than double the receiving yards of the team’s No. 2, Josh Ali. Ali is also gone, so the top returnee had 14 catches last season for 195 yards in Izayah Cummings. There are also going to be three new starters on the offensive line.

The O-line could be the most important area of the team. The Wildcats have a run-first offense that finished tied for 16th in yards per carry last season. Leading rusher Christopher Rodriguez came back to school after rushing for 1,392 yards, so the ground game will be the focal point again.

Defense

The Wildcats forced only 12 takeaways last season but still allowed just 21.7 points per game and 3.9 yards per carry. Kentucky was a bit vulnerable through the air with a rebuilt secondary that lost two draft picks in 2020 and now has to replace two more starters from that unit.

Stoops and his assistants did really well on the recruiting trail with the front seven over the last few years, so those guys will be called upon to get more of a pass rush and help out the defensive backs. Kentucky went from 14 sacks in 11 games in 2020 to 29 sacks in 13 games in 2021. Unfortunately, Joshua Paschal, who had 10 of those sacks, is now in the NFL.

The defense has limited exposure because the offense stays on the field. Kentucky was 11th in average time of possession last season, and the defense was tied for 25th in fewest offensive plays against. The offense was also seventh in third-down conversion rate. Any regression could prove hurtful to the defense.

Outlook

The Wildcats were 5-1 in games decided by seven or fewer points last season, including the Citrus Bowl win over Iowa. Kentucky will be heavily favored in all three nonconference games and draws Ole Miss and Mississippi State from the West Division. It is tough to put a projection on Kentucky because a -11 turnover margin probably won’t happen again, but going 10-3 with that mark is incredibly impressive.

Kentucky is one of the more consistent teams in the SEC East, which should help against everybody but Georgia. The Wildcats have a pretty high floor but probably don’t have as high of a ceiling as what we saw last season. My numbers have Kentucky at 7.92 wins with the line at 8 and -115 on the Over and several closely-lined games.

Pick: Under 8 (-105)

 

LSU

There are huge storylines every college football offseason, but Brian Kelly going from Notre Dame to Baton Rouge was one of the biggest in recent memory. Culture and fit have been talked about a lot, but we’ll have to see the games play out before we can make any concrete judgments. The bigger question may be about the richness of the recruiting pipeline in the Bayou.

Offense

Arizona State transfer QB Jayden Daniels wouldn’t have gone to LSU if he wasn’t given some kind of assurances about playing time. How Kelly and offensive coordinator Mike Denbrock will work Daniels in with sixth-year senior Myles Brennan, redshirt freshman Garrett Nussmeier and true freshman Walker Howard is a mystery for now. Brennan was set to transfer and Kelly talked him out of it.

Last season, the Tigers had a 1,000-yard rusher in Tyrion Davis-Price and Max Johnson passed for over 2,800 yards with 27 touchdowns, but the LSU offense felt watered down. The team was 12th in the SEC in scoring offense and 80th nationally. Furthermore, LSU was 90th in yards per play with 5.39, a far cry from the 2019 national championship team.

This looks like an offense without an identity and the potential for some serious growing pains, though there are some extremely talented sophomores at wide receiver, including Kayshon Boutte, who led the team with 509 yards.

Defense

The Tigers will have a complex defense this season with some 4-3 and 3-4 looks under new coordinator and Steve Spagnuolo protégé Matt House, which could have top sack man BJ Ojulari playing more of a hybrid edge rusher role. Getting after the quarterback will be essential this season because LSU is much less experienced in the secondary. This defense allowed 65 plays of 20 or more yards last season and ranked 121st in opponents’ touchdown percentage in the red zone.

While the offense turned it over only 16 times, the defense had only 13 takeaways, which tied for 104th. There is still a lot of raw talent, but with a change in schemes and only three returning starters on defense, the Tigers may have one of their worst units in recent memory.

On the other hand, with a lot of young talent to mold, LSU could ride that athleticism to a strong season. We’ll find out quickly with a quasi-neutral-site opener in New Orleans against Florida State.

Outlook

In the 42-20 loss to Kansas State in the Texas Bowl, LSU had 39 scholarship players. The black cloud hanging over the program with coach Ed Orgeron’s job security took a major toll and a mass exodus of talent on both offense and defense left the team vulnerable. We’re used to seeing an embarrassment of riches in Baton Rouge, but Kelly has more of a rebuild on his hands than a reload.

The fortunate thing for Kelly and the Tigers is that the early part of the schedule is softer than the back half, as games against Florida State, Southern, Mississippi State and New Mexico are all winnable and all in the state of Louisiana. However, my projection is 6.3 wins, and the SEC West is a tough division with all the changes.

Pick: Under 7 (-135)

 

MISSISSIPPI STATE

Can an old dog learn new tricks? It is no secret heading into Year 3 what Mississippi State wants to do under coach Mike Leach. In the best conference in the country — one known especially well for defensive backs — does the Air Raid offense have a higher ceiling than what we’ve already seen in Starkville?

Offense

Junior QB Will Rogers certainly seems like the right man to lead this offense, a year removed from throwing for 4,739 yards with 36 TDs and just nine interceptions. The concern this season is that Rogers is missing both offensive tackles, including first-round pick Charles Cross, who went ninth overall to the Seahawks.

Rogers will also be missing his favorite target, as Makai Polk caught 105 passes as the only 1,000-yard receiver for the Bulldogs. He left for the NFL and went undrafted, but the top four pass catchers behind him are back, so Rogers has plenty of options and will once again use running backs Dillon Johnson and Jo’quavious Marks a lot as receivers.

The problem is the Bulldogs threw the ball 704 times, seven more than Western Kentucky and 129 more times than third-ranked Purdue. Even with the aerial assault, Mississippi State was 64th in yards per play and 60th in scoring offense. For a team that ranked in the top 20 in third-down conversion rate, those are alarming numbers.

Defense

Many believe 35-year-old defensive coordinator Zach Arnett is working his way toward becoming a Group of Five head coach soon. The Bulldogs held their own on defense, holding opponents to 25.9 points per game and SEC opponents to 27.3 PPG. Some of that had to do with MSU’s ball-control offense that ranked 10th in average time of possession.

The Bulldogs do return eight starters on defense and we could call it nine with the return of defensive end Jordan Davis, who missed all of last season with an injury. Defensive back Martin Emerson was a third-round draft pick and a huge loss to a secondary mostly full of transfers and upperclassmen with limited game reps.

This is the third year under Leach, so we’ll see his recruiting classes much more involved as the season goes along.

Outlook

The Bulldogs had their fair share of close games last season, losing by three or fewer points three times and winning by four or fewer points twice. Their style of play is conducive to playing close games with so much ball control on offense and a marginal defense.

Mississippi State opens with a revenge game against Memphis that could set the tone for the season before facing an improved Arizona team in Tucson and then a trip to Baton Rouge. September will say a lot about this team, which is likely destined for six or seven wins once again. It’s the third season under Leach, which gives the program more stability. It also gives opponents a lot more film to analyze. My projection is 6.73 wins with a win total of 6.5 and a little Over juice.

PICK: Under 6.5 (+ 105)

 

MISSOURI

The ceiling is low and the floor is high at Missouri. The Tigers haven’t won a bowl game since 2014 and haven’t finished higher than third in the East Division since that same season, but they also haven’t really bottomed out except for Barry Odom’s first season in 2016. The projection looks about the same this year, but the Tigers have some huge holes to fill.

Offense

No hole is bigger than the one left by RB Tyler Badie. Badie finished as the program’s second-leading rusher of all time with 1,669 yards in his senior season and also led the team in receptions with 54. He covered up a ton of offensive shortcomings with a quarterback in Connor Bazelak who threw 11 interceptions and just 16 touchdown passes.

The Tigers had 5.9 yards per play but rushed for 5 yards per carry, as the passing game ranked outside the top 100 in yards per attempt. Maybe sophomore QB Brady Cook, who started one game and played in parts of others, can add some more dynamism to the aerial attack. He did complete almost 80% of his passes, though he had only 59 attempts.

The Tigers did secure the top freshman wide receiver in the nation in Luther Burden III, who should be deployed like Rondale Moore was by Purdue in his freshman season. Junior Tauskie Dove also had 15.2 yards per reception and led the team in yards. The offense, despite the loss of Badie, has the chance to improve with a better passing attack.

Defense

The defense, which was a work in progress last season, has to start from scratch. The Tigers will have to learn a new defensive scheme as Blake Baker takes over after a one-year stop for longtime NFL assistant Steve Wilks. Baker is only 39 but has been a defensive coordinator for seven seasons.

The Tigers were serviceable against the pass last season but couldn’t stop the run at all. Opponents rushed for 5.3 yards per carry, and depth was a really big problem. SEC teams gained almost 6.7 yards per play and the bowl game performance against a one-dimensional Army team helped the late-season numbers.

Missouri hit the transfer portal hard and will hope that those guys are able to step in and do a better job than what was there last season.

Outlook

Another mediocre season looks to be in the cards for the Tigers. The ceiling could be lifted if Cook is the real deal. The wide receivers are small, but Eli Drinkwitz is a quality head coach who does a lot of interesting things. It will just take a big performance from the offense with a defense that looks below average.

The Tigers draw Auburn and Arkansas from the West Division and face Georgia at home. There aren’t a lot of clear wins on the schedule for Missouri outside of nonconference play, and some of the toss-up games are on the road. My projection calls for 5.4 wins and the win total is right at 5.5.

PICK: Under 5.5 (-135)

 

OLE MISS

Is it fair to say that no SEC team had bigger losses than Ole Miss? The Rebels have almost a brand-new roster and new coordinators on both sides of the ball. The schedule is set up in a way that will allow Ole Miss to figure things out, but is there simply too much to figure out?

Offense

Matt Corral had a only 20-5 TD-INT ratio last season, but he rushed for 11 touchdowns and looked like the poor guy from the Operation! board game at times. He’s gone and coach Lane Kiffin tapped into his USC roots to secure Jaxson Dart in the transfer portal. Dart filled in for the injured Kedon Slovis and got some much-needed experience with a 9-5 TD-INT ratio, but he is still an unknown.

This offense is full of new faces. The team’s top four leading rushers, including Corral, are gone, but Kiffin brought in two established transfers from Texas in Zach Evans (TCU) and Ulysses Bentley IV (SMU). With Dontario Drummond and the other top three receivers gone, Jonathan Mingo is the top returnee with 22 catches last season. Kiffin went transfer hunting and got Louisville’s Jordan Watkins.

Offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby is also gone, leaving John David Baker and Charlie Weis Jr. to shoulder the OC load. There is talent here, but how quickly can everybody mesh?

Defense

The Rebels defense took a huge step forward last season, allowing 24.7 points per game, down from 38.3 in 2020. A 9 turnover margin helped in a big way, as the Rebels took good care of the ball and forced 21 takeaways to tie for 30th nationally. Six starters return on defense, but Kiffin and his assistants were big shoppers in the transfer portal.

The secondary, which took a massive step forward last season, remained mostly intact after allowing only 13 plays of 30 or more yards, which ranked tied for 18th. The front seven needed attention after allowing more than 4.5 yards per carry. Three main cogs in the two-deep — Troy Brown (Central Michigan), Jared Ivey (Georgia Tech) and JJ Pegues (Auburn) — are newcomers.

Ole Miss has a new defensive coordinator after D.J. Durkin took the same role at Texas A&M. Can Maurice Crum and Chris Partridge maintain last season’s improvements or even build on them?

Outlook

The schedule opens with Troy, Central Arkansas, Georgia Tech and Tulsa, all games in which the Rebels will be favored. SEC play starts with Kentucky and Vanderbilt before the Rebels face West Division opponents the rest of the way. It wouldn’t be the least bit surprising to see Ole Miss get close to its season win total through that six-game stretch, but what happens after is the major question mark.

The season likely hinges on Dart and whether or not he can grasp the offense and develop a rapport with the other newcomers. The four-star recruit was the 10th-ranked QB in the 2021 class, so there’s a lot of promise. My projection is 8.16 with a line of 7.5 with some Over juice.

PICK: Over 7.5 (-135)

 

SOUTH CAROLINA

The culture has changed in Columbia. Coach Shane Beamer has brought in a positive attitude and a whole lot of talent, leaving South Carolina in a position to really make a move in the SEC East. The Gamecocks secured one of the biggest names in the transfer portal to improve the offense and have been recruiting at a much better level, so this is a team to watch in the conference.

Offense

Spencer Rattler is reunited with Beamer, who was an assistant at Oklahoma when the former five-star QB was being recruited to Norman. Rattler should spark an offense that managed only 5.3 yards per play and barely threw for 200 yards per game. Putting playmakers around the sophomore signal caller will be an ongoing process, but Rattler passed for almost 4,600 yards and 40 touchdowns with the Sooners.

It would help if highly-touted RB MarShawn Lloyd can take off. He dealt with a torn ACL in 2020 and never felt fully comfortable in 2021, rushing for just 3.6 yards per carry. The receivers and tight ends look a lot different, as Josh Vann and Jaheim Bell return, but the Gamecocks also picked up conference second-team honorees from James Madison and Arkansas State in Antwane Wells and Corey Rucker.

Look for Rattler to use the tight ends a lot and for South Carolina to look for creative ways to get guys open with a much more mobile QB behind a line that returns all five starters. For an offense that ranked 103rd in third-down conversion rate, it won’t be hard to improve.

Defense

The defense allowed a full yard per play less and 12 fewer points per game compared with the 2020 unit. It is hard to draw conclusions from the COVID-19 season, but the defense fought harder, generated more turnovers and pressured the quarterback more last season. The Gamecocks had 24 takeaways and held opponents to a 58% completion rate.

We did see just how far the Gamecocks have to go, however, as Georgia, Tennessee, Texas A&M and Clemson all scored at least 30 points and the three SEC opponents scored over 40. South Carolina wasn’t ready to match up pound-for-pound with better offenses and padded some numbers against bad ones.

One thing to loop in here is that the Gamecocks made huge strides on special teams last year after hiring former Ball State head coach Pete Lembo, who is one of the nation’s best special teams coaches. That looks to be a strength again.

Outlook

Maybe Rattler simply isn’t the guy. Maybe the excitement around last year’s 7-6 record and Duke’s Mayo Bowl win has been overvalued. Or, maybe, the Gamecocks are turning a corner after Steve Spurrier mailed in the last few seasons of his tenure and Will Muschamp failed miserably as a head coach. The positivity surrounding this program is something that hasn’t been seen in a decade, and the talent is starting to pour in.

The schedule is never easy in the SEC, but the Gamecocks appear to be much stronger at the most important position and seem to have a very strong coaching staff in place. My number is 5.9 and the line is 6. It sure seems like 6-6 is the most likely, but with plus money on Under, that makes more sense.

PICK: Under 6 (+ 105)

 

TEXAS A&M

The Aggies not only beat the Crimson Tide last season, but they also out-recruited Nick Saban and company during the 2022 recruiting sweepstakes. Saban knows that Jimbo Fisher’s bunch is a major hurdle, as we saw the two coaches trade barbs in the summer. The Aggies appear to be a major threat to the throne and are loaded with talent for this season and beyond. Now, they have to live up to the billing.

Offense

The irony is that Texas A&M’s biggest question mark is at the most important position. Zach Calzada led the upset of Alabama but didn’t play terribly well otherwise. He transferred to Auburn, leaving a QB battle between Haynes King and LSU transfer Max Johnson. The guy who wins the job has a bevy of skill-position talent and an offensive line loaded with potential.

The Aggies do have to replace leading rusher Isaiah Spiller, but junior Devon Achane ran for 7 yards per carry last season and had more touchdowns than Spiller. He is also a good pass catcher out of the backfield and will help top wideout Ainias Smith (47-509-6) and five-star freshman Evan Stewart.

Texas A&M managed almost 6 yards per play last season and looks improved at virtually every offensive position.

Defense

While the offense looks better, the defense is the star of the show. The defense also has a new coordinator in D.J. Durkin, who has gotten the most out of talented units in the past. Four of Texas A&M’s five-star recruits are defensive linemen, so the Aggies should improve against the run, where they were 36th in yards per carry allowed.

Any improvement at the line of scrimmage is a huge plus because this was a top-five pass defense by yards per attempt. This was the third-ranked scoring defense with just 15.9 points per game allowed, though the Aggies did allow only five points per game in four nonconference games. SEC foes managed 21.4 PPG.

Durkin is a hire with a long track record, but many believe former DC Mike Elko (now head coach at Duke) is a bigger loss than what has been discussed.

Outlook

Are the Aggies overhyped? Texas A&M was just 2-4 against SEC West opponents, with the huge win over Alabama covering up a lot of shortcomings. Drawing Missouri and South Carolina from the East certainly helped, as did a nonconference schedule full of overmatched opponents. This season’s nonconference slate features stiffer tests against Appalachian State and Miami, along with the usual suspects in the West and Florida out of the East.

Jimbo’s recruiting prowess has created a ton of buzz and optimism, but can his program live up to all of those stars? Picking the right quarterback would help, even if five-star freshman Conner Weigman ultimately ends up starting by season’s end. This team has a lot of bark, but the amount of bite is fair to question.

PICK: Under 8.5 (+ 120)

 

TENNESSEE

The Volunteers haven’t won 10 games since 2007 and have only won nine games twice since then. Last year’s 7-6 showing that ended with a loss to Purdue in the Music City Bowl felt like the start of something, but we’ve thought that with a lot of 1990s powerhouses that haven’t been able to tap into the magic of the past.

Offense

The optimism for Tennessee football comes from the offense. Under first-year head coach Josh Heupel, the Vols scored 39.3 points per game and had 6.5 yards per play. It was the first time since 2016 that the Volunteers averaged over 36 points per game and more than 6 yards per play. Heupel’s fast tempo and a bevy of big plays generated a lot of excitement.

So did Hendon Hooker. The Virginia Tech transfer posted a 31-3 TD-INT ratio while completing 68% of his passes. Hooker’s play left a lot of people wondering how Joe Milton won the QB competition before the season, especially because Hooker was also the team’s second-leading rusher for a group that had 4.9 yards per carry. Leading rusher Jabari Small is also back after rushing for 5.6 yards per pop.

Leading receiver Cedric Tillman also returns and will shoulder a bigger load with Velus Jones Jr. now a member of the Chicago Bears, but USC transfer and former No. 1 WR recruit Bru McCoy transferred in and should get a good look. Jones was also one of the nation’s best kick returners, so special teams may be an area to watch.

Defense

This unit remains the big unknown for the Volunteers. The defense was fine, but pretty average across the board in a lot of areas. Tennessee outscored opponents 190-51 in the first quarter, so going 7-6 is a pretty big indictment on the defense and its ability to protect leads. Tennessee did not win a game without scoring at least 38 points and even lost the Music City Bowl despite scoring 45 points.

Star defensive back Alontae Taylor and top pass rusher Theo Jackson are both gone, but the Vols have been able to recruit at a high level under Heupel, so it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some highly touted freshmen and sophomores get more of a look. Perhaps the defense jells more in the second year under defensive coordinator Tim Banks, but allowing 273 passing yards per game won’t fly.

Tennessee had one of the worst red zone defenses in the nation, as opponents scored on 92% of their trips inside the 20 and scored a touchdown on 72%, which ranked 119th in the nation.

Outlook

It felt like UCF went backward in some ways under Heupel, especially as the rest of the teams in the AAC adjusted to the “UCFast” tempo. This conference has some of the best football coaches in the world, so you have to wonder if teams will be better prepared early in games to avoid digging big holes.

The Vols also draw Alabama again from the West Division and have to face LSU in Death Valley the week before hosting the Crimson Tide. Rocky Top’s November schedule also includes three road games in four weeks, so injury attrition late in the year could be a huge deal with trips to Georgia, South Carolina and the rivalry game against Vanderbilt. My number is 8.11, but there is heavy juice on Over 7.5, so this is just a lean.

PICK: Over 7.5 (-160)

 

VANDERBILT

The uphill climb for Vanderbilt seems never-ending. The NIL and transfer portal are only going to make the gap wider for the Commodores, especially with the heightened academic standards at the university. Home-field advantage rarely exists in a tourist destination like Nashville, and it looks like another long season is ahead.

Offense

The Commodores have been held under 5 yards per play each of the last three seasons while struggling to find any semblance of an identity on offense. They also haven’t had good quarterback play and didn’t get it last season between Ken Seals and Mike Wright, who combined for more interceptions (15) than touchdowns (13).

The offense was learning new schemes last season under first-year head coach Clark Lea and first-year OC Joey Lynch, but with nine returning starters from the previous season, Vanderbilt managed fewer yards per play and only one more point per game. The loss of left tackle Tyler Steen to Alabama could loom very large.

The Commodores were outgained by nearly 200 yards per game in conference play and scored only 30 points once in a 30-28 win over UConn as a 14.5-point favorite.

Defense

A bad offense makes the job that much harder for the defense. The Commodores gave up nearly 36 points per game and 6.8 yards per play. While the offense didn’t help, the defense managed only nine sacks in 12 games and got badly pushed around at the line of scrimmage.

Somehow, the Commodores were 35th in the nation in third-down conversion rate against, so it was a matter of stopping the opposition from having early-down success. There are seven starters back, but the ‘Dores are learning a new scheme with Nick Howell, who was the DC for Bronco Mendenhall at both Virginia and BYU.

At least the defense could get a respite with two bye weeks, as Vanderbilt plays one of the Week 0 games against Hawaii, thus getting a bye in October and another in November.

Outlook

That early-season bonding trip to Hawaii could be interesting, and a very winnable nonconference game against Elon follows. Unfortunately, that might be the last favorite role on the schedule, as the Commodores host Wake Forest and play at Northern Illinois before hitting SEC play. Vanderbilt has lost 21 straight conference games and could very well make it 29 in a row this season.

Vanderbilt’s season win total is 2.5 with heavy Under juice. The NIL and the transfer portal really hurt them and they just don’t have the personnel to stack up. My projection is 1.99 wins, so 3 is a huge stretch.

PICK: Under 2.5 (-140)

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