After a long wait, college football is returning in all of its splendor, the likes of which have not been seen since January 2020. It’s easy to forget that at this time last year, the Big Ten and Pac-12 were not planning on having a football season. Last year’s limited setup was certainly better than no season at all, but perhaps no one felt the difference more than the loyal SEC fans who are accustomed to packed stadiums, loud marching bands and festive tailgates.
This year, the SEC fans are as eager as can be to get back to business—the simple anticipation of this year is enough to make it special. However, unproven quarterbacks are taking over powerhouse franchises, creating a level of uncertainty in the state of just about all SEC teams. These new faces could make or break their teams’ seasons.
It’s another year at No. 1 for Alabama. As long as head coach Nick Saban keeps bringing in top-tier recruits, it’s hard to see this ranking changing. Sure, the team lost seven starters on the offensive side, but between promising returners and new recruits, the Crimson Tide shouldn’t have trouble moving the ball on offense. First-year offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will have some big shoes to fill after Steve Sarkisian’s departure and sophomore quarterback Bryce Young will have to prove himself as well. Alabama’s defense, however, is bringing back almost all of their starters. They will be led by future NFL linebacker Christian Harris. Ordinarily, a team that lost ten players to the NFL draft would be in trouble, but it’s just business as usual for the Crimson Tide.
It seems as though every year, people prophesy that “this year will be Georgia’s year.” In other words, it’s their year to finally dethrone Alabama in the SEC. But it’s hard to put them ahead of Alabama, seeing as they haven’t bested the Tide since 2007. Star quarterback JT Daniels is finally healthy and ready to take the reins on offense. The Bulldogs also boast a loaded defense. With five returning starters from their dominant 2020 defense, along with transfers Derion Kendrick and Tykee Smith, the Bulldogs will be hard to score on. Georgia shouldn’t have any trouble making the SEC Championship, where Alabama will most likely be waiting for them.
3. Texas A&M
Texas A&M will begin a new era with quarterback Kellen Mond’s departure to the NFL. After four years with the program, he leaves the keys to the offense to redshirt freshman Haynes King. The skill position players are in place, led by tight end Jaylen Wydermyer. Not to mention the defense, which led the SEC in yards and points allowed, has nine returning starters including star defensive tackle DeMarvin Leal. The Aggies schedule boils down to one game: Oct. 9 against Alabama. Can they prove they’re the real deal?
Florida enters the year after losing four star offensive talents, including tight end Kyle Pitts, who is now an Atlanta Falcon. Along with Pitts, the Gators lost quarterback Kyle Trask and wide receiver Kadarius Toney. How will the passing attack, which thrived in 2020, rebound? Emory Jones will get the nod at quarterback, and between him and a plethora of options at running back, the running game should be in great shape. In 2020, the Gator defense struggled mightily. The secondary was where their problems arose. Florida lost their top four safeties, but they got their corners back. Can the defense return to its normal Gator self, or will their 2020 slump continue into this season?
5. Ole Miss
Ole Miss was excellent on offense last year, and there’s no denying it. Quarterback Matt Corral looks poised to have a very solid season, and despite the departure of wide receiver Elijah Moore, the Rebels have plenty of depth at the position. The defense is the topic in question as they were not excellent by any means. They’ll need a few key players, including safety AJ Finley and cornerback Keidron Smith, to step up. If the defense can show up, Ole Miss should be in for an excellent season.
After quarterback Myles Brennan started the 2020 season off strong, he suffered a season-ending abdominal injury, and in a freak fishing accident over the summer, Brennan hurt his left arm and will now be out for at least half of the season. He’ll leave the offense to Max Johnson. Fortunately for the Tigers, they have plenty of talent on the offensive end. The running game struggled last year, but the veterans are back and ready to improve. The defense was the bigger problem last year. 2021’s defense won’t be exactly the LSU defense of the past, but with cornerback Derek Stingley Jr.—arguably the best defensive player in the nation—they should be in much better shape. The Tigers are still rebuilding from the 2019 record-setting season, and this season will be a great testament to whether or not that rebuild can stay on track.
The Missouri football program looks to be in solid shape heading into the season. With quarterback Conor Bazelak back under center, the offense should improve after a slightly underwhelming 2020 season. The Tigers lost two of their top wide receivers to the transfer portal and graduation, but leading pass-catcher Keke Chism is returning. On defense, the secondary is where the Tigers run into problems. The front seven is in excellent shape, anchored by defensive end Trajan Jeffcoat. The secondary has returning veterans who will look to improve from last season. The name of the game for Missouri is simply showing improvement on both sides of the ball.
First-year head coach Bryan Harsin is in, and he’s looking to bring a mediocre Tigers offense to the upper echelon. For this to happen, however, quarterback Bo Nix needs to make a jump to assist workhorse running back Tank Bigsby, who will contend for the SEC rushing title. Nix averaged only 220 yards and just over a passing touchdown per game in the 2020 season. Nix will also be a little more comfortable in the pocket, with the Tigers’ entire starting offensive line returning. New defensive coordinator Derek Mason is inheriting a talented group—he’ll need to ensure Auburn’s front wall stays a threat to opposing quarterbacks.
Kentucky allowed fewer passing yards per game than any other team in the conference last season, but only five defensive starters are returning. Standout sophomore middle linebacker D’Eryk Jackson is already out for the season with a torn Achilles. Because of this lack of depth, the Wildcats’ defense will have to remain healthy to stay competitive. Look for transfer wideout Wan’Dale Robinson to make an immediate impact on the offense alongside Josh Ali, who is returning to Kentucky for a fifth year. They’ll be catching passes from Penn State transfer Will Levis, whose fit in offensive coordinator Liam Coen’s system is presently unknown. Right now, it appears that there are too many question marks for the Wildcats to compete in the East.
Arkansas closed out the 2020 season with four losses, but quarterback KJ Jefferson shined in his first start, leading the offense to 48 points against Missouri. Thanks to head coach Sam Pittman’s background developing offensive linemen, the Razorbacks’ unit has shown serious improvement since 2019. With all five starters returning, it could be one of the best units in the conference this season. But anything that Arkansas can do offensively is brought to moot if the defense continues to allow 35 points per game like last season. The Hogs’ defense is coming into the 2021 season with plenty of experience, but this experience needs to be converted to production, especially in the pass rush. Otherwise, we’ll surely see Arkansas near the bottom of the West for another season.
11. Mississippi State
When asked how he feels like his team is right now, head coach Mike Leach responded, “We’re a work in progress.” Mississippi State’s defense was solid last year, but the team is young—only six starters on offense and defense are seniors. Though this could prove advantageous to the Bulldogs in the future, it doesn’t bode well for 2021. Quarterback Will Rogers will lead the Air Raid offense and his favorite target will likely be fellow sophomore Jaden Walley, who made last year’s freshman All-SEC team. Rogers will have to get the ball out fast, however, because his offensive line allowed an SEC-high 34 sacks last season. This unit will have to improve if Mississippi State wants to return to relevance.
Since head coach Jeremy Pruitt was fired for recruiting violations in January, the Volunteers have lost 19 players to the transfer portal, and their fans are not lovin’ it. Among these losses are linebacker Henry To’o To’o and running back Eric Gray, who were ranked first and second in the transfer portal, respectively. New head coach Josh Heupel is known for his high-powered offensive schemes, and he’s bringing offensive coordinator Alex Golesh with him from UCF. But does he have enough to build the same kind of regime in Knoxville? Not this year.
13. South Carolina
South Carolina was dominated in the run game last year, allowing 195 yards on the ground per game. If the Gamecocks allow 36 points per game again this season, they can kiss their bowl hopes goodbye. Unfortunately, only four of their defensive starters are returning from last season, so it appears that things may get worse in Columbia before they get better. The Gamecocks aren’t getting much help from their recruiting class, either. Per 247Sports, they have the lowest-ranked class in the SEC by a considerable margin—only 13 recruits and none better than three stars. Don’t expect South Carolina to make an impact on the East this season.
Vanderbilt opened the 2020 season with a freshman quarterback giving Texas A&M an upset scare, and everything only went down from there. The offense couldn’t produce last year, putting up only 329 yards per game. Combined with only making an abysmal 44 percent of field goal attempts, the Commodores couldn’t even average 15 points per game. Second-year quarterback Ken Seals could make a jump, but it won’t be enough to counteract Vanderbilt’s defensive woes. The Commodore defense let opposing teams put up an average of 37 points last season. First-year coach Clark Lea will need a lot more time than the 2021 season to rebuild both sides of the ball and get Vanderbilt back to competing for bowl berths.