The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
Since 1888
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.
The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University

The Vanderbilt Hustler

The official student newspaper of Vanderbilt University.

SEC Power Rankings: Season Preview

The Southeastern Conference features a number of teams primed to make a splash in 2022.
Mattigan Kelly
Vanderbilt dropped its first SEC contest of the season to the No. 2 Georgia Bulldogs in September. (Hustler Multimedia/Mattigan Kelly)

This season figures to be one of the most interesting in recent memory. Conference realignment among the nation’s Power 5 conferences dominated the headlines. Name Image Likeness (NIL) has forever raised the stakes in college recruiting. Can anyone unseat the Southeastern Conference as the nation’s best? All these storylines and more provide the backdrop for the 2022 college football season. 

Where does everyone in the SEC stack up? The Hustler has prepared its SEC Power Rankings to set the table for an exciting road ahead. 

1. Georgia

The Georgia Bulldogs pulled off a near perfect season in 2021, besting fellow SEC blue blood Alabama in the National Championship to claim the program’s third national title and first since 1980. Georgia saw an NFL Draft-record 15 players selected including five defensive players taken in the first round. It is unreasonable to expect the same level of dominance from head coach Kirby Smart’s defense but talented defensive tackle Jalen Carter will help bolster the pass rush and complement a talented outside linebacker group. The offense sees the return of 2022 Orange Bowl MVP Stenson Bennett for his sixth season in Athens. Losing wide receiver Jermaine Burton to Alabama will hurt but leading receiver tight end Brock Bowers will look to keep the offense among the best in college football. Until the champs are knocked off, they are no. 1 in these rankings. 

2. Alabama

Any season that does not end in a championship can be considered a failure in Tuscaloosa, especially by head coach Nick Saban’s high standards. The Tide will contend once again, however, boasting arguably the two best players in the nation in quarterback Bryce Young and linebacker Will Anderson. The addition of Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs and wide receiver Jermaine Burton from Georgia will give an offense that scored an SEC-best 39.9 points per game last season even more options. Look for Alabama to roar back in 2022. 

3. Texas A&M

Perhaps aside from Georgia and Alabama, no SEC team received more national media buzz this offseason than Texas A&M. Head coach Jimbo Fisher had quite the summer himself from a war of words with Nick Saban to hauling in the nation’s highest rated recruiting class ever. The Aggies got the best of Alabama last season and now they look to finish ahead of them in a grueling SEC West race. As of this article, Texas A&M has yet to name a starting quarterback, allowing Haynes King and LSU transfer Max Johnson to battle it out. Whoever wins will throw to a talented group of receivers including senior Ainias Smith who has caught 90 passes and scored 12 touchdowns over the past two seasons. The defense figures to be as good as last season in which it only allowed a second in the SEC and third nationally 15.9 points per game. If A&M can contend with the expectations, the Aggies could challenge for the SEC crown. 

4. Tennessee

The Volunteers are coming off a 7-6 season with first year head coach Josh Heupel which exceeded most’s expectations. The offense scored at a prolific clip, racking up 39.9 points per game and averaged 474.9 yards per game, both good for top 10 nationally. Quarterback Hendon Hooker returns after throwing for 31 touchdowns to only three interceptions in route to setting the program record for passer-rating in a single season. The defense was ranked near the bottom of the SEC in total yards allowed. The Vols must figure out how to be more consistent in 2022, however, as they did not have a winning streak longer than two games in 2021. 

5. Arkansas

After years of suffering, Arkansas emerged in head coach Sam Pittman’s second season at the helm. The Razorbacks finished 9-4 to the tune of wins over Texas, Texas A&M, LSU and Missouri. Arkansas capped the year with an Outback Bowl victory over Penn State, giving them their first bowl win over a Big Ten opponent in program history. Pittman’s group will have to deal with the loss of key players to the NFL Draft such as dynamic playmaker and top wide receiver Traylon Burks, left tackle Myron Cunningham and three defensive starters. Quarterback KJ Jefferson is back under center, running an offense that returns a rushing attack that gained an SEC-best 227.8 yards per game. If the offense can continue to hum, the Razorbacks will look to make noise in a crowded SEC West race. 

6. Kentucky

Similar to Arkansas, Kentucky’s 2021 season was one few would have foreseen. The Wildcats started 6-0 with four SEC wins. They then hit a rough patch, dropping the next three games against Georgia, Mississippi State and Tennesse. The loss to the Volunteers would be the last of the year for a squad that picked up a Citrus Bowl victory over Iowa. Whether the Wildcats can repeat their success will be determined by the growth of quarterback Will Levis and his supporting cast. Replacing star wide receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who set the Kentucky single-season mark for receptions and receiving yards in 2021, will be difficult. Head coach Mark Stoops will hope his new transfers, wide receivers Tayvion Robinson (Virginia Tech) and Javon Baker (Alabama) can fill the void. Chasing down the defending champions Georgia should prove challenging but a schedule that does not feature Alabama or Texas A&M could give the Wildcats a chance. The season will most likely come down to a Nov. 19 battle versus the Bulldogs.

7. Ole Miss 

Can Ole Miss replicate last year’s success? It will certainly be difficult. The Rebels won a program record 10 games last season and earned a place in the Sugar Bowl. Losing star quarterback Matt Corral and defensive end Sam Williams to the NFL Draft could certainly hamper head coach Lane Kiffin’s chances of having similar triumphs. However, Ole Miss was active in the transfer portal, notably adding signal caller Jaxson Dart from University of Southern California. Dart played in six games last season, throwing for over 1,300 yards, 9 touchdowns and 5 interceptions. He has the talent and a receiving core of Dontario Drummond and Braylon Sanders (1,577 yards and 12 touchdowns combined in 2021) should help the cause. Despite the loss of 11 starters from 2021, Ole Miss’s reload in the transfer portal should allow them similar success as last season. 

8. Florida 

Following a disappointing 6-7 season, Florida parted ways with head coach Dan Mullen and hired Louisiana’s Billy Napier. He will have a tall task ahead of him trying to restore the program to former glory. Anthony Richardson, the talented redshirt sophomore, will be under center following limited snaps as a backup. The rest of the offense will have a new look as it returns players responsible for only 13 of the Gators’ 53 touchdowns last season. There are many options in the backfield with running backs Nay’Quan Wright and Louisiana transfer Montrell Johnson who rushed for 838 yards and 12 touchdowns as a freshman last season. Florida will need to find a dominant pass catcher that Richardson can rely on and junior Justin Shorter seems to be the main candidate. The defense was middle of the pack in the SEC last season allowing 367.8 yards per game but only just over 200 yards in the air which was good for fourth in the SEC. The Gators face a daunting schedule with Kentucky and Tennessee in the first month of the season and Georgia and Texas A&M down the road but are definitely in a better position now than a year ago. 

9. South Carolina 

South Carolina made a major splash this offseason signing Oklahoma quarterback Spencer Rattler. The former 5-star recruit was a Heisman Trophy front runner heading into last season before being benched at OU due to too many turnovers. If Rattler can be more careful with the ball this season, he could light the SEC on fire. As for the rest of the squad? The entire starting offensive line returns which should help a rushing attack that produced just six 100 yard rushing games last season. Pass protection needs to improve as well after allowing 31 sacks. The defense recorded 24 takeaways last season which might not be met this season but is a good indicator of the defensive aggressiveness the Gamecocks play with. Fix the rush defense and the unit will improve from the one that ranked 41st nationally and 6th in the SEC in total yards allowed per game. The Gamecocks are truly one of the SEC’s biggest question marks in 2022.

10. Mississippi State 

Mississippi State was one of 13 SEC teams to make a bowl game last season, finishing 7-6 in the process. Faced with one of the toughest schedules in the nation, a bowl berth might be difficult to come by. However, the bulldogs gained valuable experience last season, rattling off wins over Texas A&M and Kentucky. Head coach Mike Leach’s famous Air-Raid offense will look to translate the nation’s 4th best passing attack into more points per game. The Gamecocks 29.1 per game was good for 59th nationally. Quarterback Will Rogers is also in his 3rd season running the offense and took a large step forward in 2021. Consistency will be the key as they proved they could do battle with most teams last season as three losses came down to one score. 

11. LSU 

LSU is far removed from the 2019 championship season that saw Joe Burrow and Ja’Marr Chase lighting up scoreboards. The Tigers went 6-7 last season and 3-5 in the SEC. Matters got worse at the end of the season when wide receiver Jontre Kirklin started the Texas Bowl due to LSU’s lack of options at quarterback. LSU hired Notre Dame’s Brian Kelly in an attempt to right the ship. A few weeks ago, the Tigers presumed starter, Myles Brennan, decided to step away from football which leaves uncertainty at the most crucial position. It will most likely be former Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels who will man the reins. It remains to be seen if Kelly can bring LSU back to prominence. 

12. Auburn 

Bryan Harsin’s first year as head coach of the Tigers was a bit of an up and down battle. Auburn started out 6-2 but then dropped their last five games to finish an underwhelming 6-7 and 3-5 in the SEC. With Bo Nix off to Oregon the quarterback battle is wide open. Many have speculated it will be Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada earning the starting nod but T.J. Finley might sneak up and win the battle. Whoever is under center will have to find something to work with among an uninspiring wide receiver core. The defense is also a question mark with defensive coordinator and former Vanderbilt head coach Derek Mason leaving to take the defensive coordinator job at Oklahoma State. If Auburn does not make strides, Bryan Harsin could already be on his way out. 

13. Missouri 

The last of the “Tigers” teams on this list might very well end up with an average season ahead. Missouri has lost 11 of 12 games against those that finished the year with a winning record and nine in a row against teams that ended with a losing one. Quarterback Connor Bazelak threw 23 touchdowns to 17 interceptions while completing 65% of his passes. He transferred to Indiana and Brady Cook will step in to start. A tough schedule ahead that features Georgia, Auburn, Tennessee and South Carolina to  name a few might yield another 6-6 season for the Tigers. 

14. Vanderbilt

Vanderbilt finds itself in this spot mostly due to their 2-10 finish last season but they could easily move up with a strong start to the season. Quarterback Mike Wright will start under center, giving head coach Clark Lea’s squad a mobile quarterback who can extend plays on his own. The offense returns 68% of its production from last season including wide reciever Will Sheppard and tight ends Ben Bresnahan and Gavin Schoenwald. They will figure to feature heavily in the second year’s edition of offensive coordinator Joey Lynch’s offense. Following the loss of defensive coordinator Jessie Minter to Michigan, Vanderbilt hired Virginia’s defensive coordinator Nick Howell and later promoted him to the same position. He will have experienced cornerback Jaylen Mahoney and Bednarik Award Watch List linebacker Anfernee Orji as key weapons to play with on defense. Vanderbilt has road games against Alabama and Georgia on its schedule this season but the squad should be much improved from last season.

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About the Contributors
Bobby Kent
Bobby Kent, Former Senior Staff Writer
Bobby Kent (’23) was a Senior Staff Writer for The Hustler Sports section, having been on staff since his first semester at Vanderbilt. Bobby was also the Sports Director for VandyRadio, co-host of Kent and Coad, a weekly sports talk show on VandyRadio and the host of VU Sports Wired, a Vanderbilt Video Productions and Hustler Sports Television show. Bobby previously interned at CNN Sports where he assisted in producing studio shows, writing anchor scripts and creating fullscreen graphics. He also wrote an article about Falcons kicker Younghoe Koo for that was a top 5 story for digital. He was an economics major in the College of Arts and Science with a minor in business. Bobby has been a dedicated sports fan ever since he was little and loves to track the decisions made by front offices, players and coaches. Bobby hopes to one day have a career in the business of professional sports either in sports media or with a professional sports organization. When not writing articles, providing opinions about Vanderbilt sports on TV or serving hot takes in the radio studio, Bobby can be found watching his beloved Philadelphia sports teams and watching the Eagles fly. He can be reached at [email protected].    
Mattigan Kelly
Mattigan Kelly, Former Deputy Multimedia Director
Mattigan Kelly ('22) was Deputy Multimedia Director for The Vanderbilt Hustler. She has been on the staff since her freshman year. Mattigan majored in chemical engineering in the School for Engineering. In addition to shooting for The Hustler, she was the Development Coordinator for Camp Kesem at Vanderbilt, works in a research lab on campus and plays Club Tennis.
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