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 Week Zero: The Time has Come

Our writers take a stab at ranking the SEC’s best before the first snap of the 2023 season.
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Barrie Barto
AJ Swann and the offensive line, as photographed on Oct. 8, 2022. (Hustler Multimedia/Barrie Barto)

Attention college football fans! The much-awaited moment has arrived. After an agonizing six-month hiatus since our last experience of hard-hitting action and lightning-fast sprints, the inaugural match of the 2023-24 season is now just a few days away. This comprehensive article offers an overview to swiftly bring you up to date on the current state of affairs in this year’s SEC power rankings. From Georgia’s ambitious pursuit of an unprecedented three-peat to the promising signs and hopeful outlook for Vanderbilt and everything in between, The Vanderbilt Hustler leaves no stone unturned to provide you with all the vital insights you need. 

1. Georgia (0-0)

The Bulldogs of Athens, Ga., revel in the glory of their back-to-back National Championships. In 2022, Kirby Smart’s squad showcased unwavering dominance with a flawless 15-0 record, highlighted by a commanding 65-7 triumph over TCU in the National Championship. Amidst the jubilation, the team confronts the challenge of navigating a turbulent offseason, marked by the tragic loss of two beloved members of the Georgia football family — Devin Willock and Chandler LeCroy — in a devastating car accident on March 1st.

As Smart eyes an unprecedented three-peat, the Bulldogs are eager to return to the field. However, they also grapple with the departure of key contributors via the 2023 NFL Draft, including three-year starting QB Stetson Bennett, DT Jalen Carter, OT Broderick Jones, OLB Nolan Smith and TE Darnell Washington. Filling Bennett’s shoes will be redshirt junior Carson Beck.

Georgia’s defensive unit, a stronghold for the reigning National Champions, retains 70% of production, forming a solid base for their title defense. On the flip side, the offense sees a returning production rate of 52%, necessitating the rise of fresh talents. To fortify their ranks, the Bulldogs welcome notable transfers, such as wideouts Dominic Lovett from Missouri and Rara Thomas from Mississippi State — both established contributors to SEC offenses.

Despite ranking 44th in schedule strength, the Bulldogs’ preseason top ranking makes them a prime target. Aware they are the focus of each opponent’s strategy, they’re met with challengers determined to prove themselves against the defending champions. As the season unfolds, the pressing question remains: Can the Bulldogs stave off rivals and win a third consecutive National Championship?

2. Alabama (0-0) 

An 11-2 season is a noteworthy accomplishment for most college football programs, yet for the esteemed Alabama Crimson Tide under Nick Saban, it falls short of their towering expectations. The 2022 season commenced with promise, as key players like QB Bryce Young and DE Will Anderson Jr. returned, heralded as top talents in college football.

However, despite its potential, the Crimson Tide endured heart-wrenching road losses against Tennessee and LSU, both decided by a mere four points combined. These close defeats resulted in Alabama missing the College Football Playoffs for just the second time ever since the playoff’s inception nine years prior.

The quarterback position presents uncertainty as Saban must choose between Jalen Milroe, last season’s backup to Young, sophomore Ty Simpson and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner. The development of the QB unit is pivotal for the upcoming season’s success.

With substantial roster turnover, Alabama retains just 43% of offensive and 38% of defensive production. Yet, Saban’s reputation for recruiting and developing top-tier talent fuels optimism in replacing NFL draftees and transfers. However, the team faces a relative lack of experience compared to past Alabama lineups.

Navigating a challenging seventh-ranked strength of schedule, the Crimson Tide must secure pivotal victories, including road contests against Texas A&M and future SEC rival Texas. They hold the advantage of hosting rematches against Tennessee and LSU at home in Bryant-Denny Stadium. While expectations might be tempered from the previous year, the narrative of this rejuvenated and youthful Alabama team promises to captivate. 

3. LSU (0-0)

The LSU Tigers have experienced a significant turnaround compared to their performance just a season ago. In Brian Kelly’s first year as head coach in Death Valley, the team enjoyed a resounding success, finishing with an impressive 6-2 record against SEC opponents, ultimately tying for first in the SEC West. A thrilling and unexpected 32-31 overtime victory over Alabama earned them a spot in the SEC Championship game. Although they fell to the eventual champion Georgia Bulldogs, LSU concluded the season on a high note dominating Purdue 63-7 in the Citrus Bowl.

As they enter year two of Brian Kelly’s tenure, the Tigers carry a palpable sense of momentum. The LSU offense returns an impressive 81% of production from last year’s unit, which averaged 32.2 points per game. Led by QB Jayden Daniels, OL Will Campbell and WR Malik Nabers, the offense promises to be a formidable force, especially with another year of familiarity with Kelly’s system. 

On the defensive side of the ball, the Tigers maintain a solid foundation with 60% of production returning. Keep an eye on sophomore LB Harold Perkins Jr., who has the potential to be one of the best defensive players in college football. 

The Bayou Bengals face the challenge of navigating the fifth-ranked strength of schedule. They will face an early litmus test with a neutral site meeting against Florida State to kick off the season, followed by challenging away games against Ole Miss and Alabama.

Brian Kelly’s leadership has brought about positive changes, and with a high-powered offense and promising defense, they have the potential to make a strong push for the SEC Championship once again. 

4. Tennessee (0-0)

The Tennessee Volunteers are riding the wave of a successful 11-2 season — their best performance since 2001 and a testament to coach Josh Heupel’s impact. Quarterback Hendon Hooker’s connection with receivers Jaylin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman propelled the team to the nation’s top-scoring offense, at 44.5 points per game, and most efficient passing game in 2022. With these standouts now in the NFL, the current Vols squad is eager to establish itself as an SEC contender.

However, the offense faces a challenge, as only 57% of offensive production returns, necessitating adjustments. Joe Milton steps in as quarterback, having showcased his abilities in a decisive 56-0 victory over Vanderbilt last season. Key rusher Jaylen Wright is set to expand his role, capitalizing on his impressive six yards per carry average.

Transfers, including John Campbell from Miami, aim to fortify the offensive line and replenish talent. On the defensive front, the return of 69% of last year’s production provides stability, while transfer players like linebacker Keenan Pili from BYU add depth.

With a 13th-ranked strength of schedule, featuring demanding road games against Florida, Alabama and Kentucky, the Vols face challenges. Nevertheless, they hold a pivotal opportunity to take on the Georgia Bulldogs in Knoxville later in the season. As they ride the momentum of last year’s success, the question lingers: Was it a one-off achievement or a glimpse of a promising era for Tennessee football? Only time will tell. 

5. Ole Miss (0-0)

Amidst a sport of towering personalities, few shine brighter than the Ole Miss Rebels’ head coach. His distinctive charisma has translated into a commendable 64% win rate in Oxford, building on an 8-5 record in his third year at the helm. The 2023 season commenced on a high note with a promising 7-0 start, but the Rebels’ defense struggled to hold ground in the latter half, resulting in five losses out of six. As Lane Kiffin and the Rebels gear up for the season, their focus is on delivering a stronger finish against formidable SEC West rivals.

The cornerstone of last year’s success was the offense, which averaged 31.8 points per game. With an 80% return of offensive production, they are poised for continuity. Quarterback Jaxson Dart, who steered the team last season, returns to lead the charge. Accompanying Dart’s leadership is the dynamic presence of Quinshon Judkins, fresh off an exceptional campaign of 1,500 rushing yards and 16 touchdowns. The addition of transfer receivers Zakhari Franklin and Chris Marshall aims to fill the void left by NFL-bound Jonathan Mingo. 

Conversely, the defensive unit, which at times struggled to support the offense, retains 62% of its production. Kiffin’s adept use of the transfer portal aims to bolster the key positions, aiming for a more balanced partnership with the efficient offense. The Rebels face a rigorous challenge with the fourth-ranked strength of schedule, including demanding encounters against Tulane and Georgia, in addition to the formidable SEC West competition. With an eye on a strong finish and the coveted SEC title, Kiffin and the Rebels enter the upcoming season with determined ambition.

6. Texas A&M (0-0)

Expectations were notably elevated in College Station last season as another top-rated class of recruits joined the ranks and Jimbo Fisher continued at the helm. However, the Aggies fell short, ending with a lackluster 5-7 record. The silver lining for the Aggies lies in their offense, which boasts an 82% of returning production. This continuity presents a distinct advantage, especially for a program that has dealt with significant talent losses to the transfer portal in the past. The introduction of Bobby Petrino as offensive coordinator is expected to improve the tempo and efficiency of the seasoned A&M offense.

Conversely, the defense faces a tougher challenge, with only 43% of last year’s production returning. Despite their top-ranking pass defense, the struggle against ground attacks, ranking worst in the SEC, marred their efforts. The Aggies are set to battle for a bowl game appearance against the 18th-ranked strength of schedule, confronting demanding road matchups against Miami, Arkansas, Tennessee, Ole Miss and LSU to cap the season.

While a serious run a the SEC title might be a tall order for Texas A&M, the imperative of improving upon their five-win season looms large. 

7. Arkansas (0-0)

Under Sam Pittman’s guidance, the Arkansas Razorbacks have reclaimed their footing in the formidable SEC West. With 58% of last year’s offensive production making a return, including starting quarterback KJ Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders, the team is set for a strong offensive performance. Sanders, who accumulated over 1,400 yards and 10 touchdowns last season, finds solid support in Jefferson’s dynamic running capabilities. Backed by a proficient offensive line, a hallmark of Pittman-led teams, the duo aims to build on the impressive 32.1 points per game achieved last season.

On the defensive front, Arkansas retains just over 50% of its production. The collective experience of returning players and additions from the transfer pool seeks to elevate a defense that languished at the bottom of the SEC in terms of yards allowed. Facing the 11th most challenging schedule, the Razorbacks are determined to exceed last year’s seven-win performance and position themselves among the ranks of powerhouses like Alabama and LSU. 

8. Kentucky (0-0)

Kentucky is one of the biggest wildcards in the SEC this year. The Wildcats rose to No. 7 in the nation last season after a 4-0 start, but they sputtered down the stretch to finish a meager 7-6. This year, they’ll be without headline-grabbing quarterback Will Levis, whose moments of brilliance were often overshadowed by devastating mistakes in crunch time. To replace one of the best quarterbacks in program history, Kentucky turned to the transfer portal, bringing in another decorated Power 5 quarterback in Devin Leary from NC State. A pectoral injury prematurely ended Leary’s 2022 season with the Wolfpack, but he broke the program record for touchdowns with 35 in 2021 and has an impressive overall record of 14-4 as a starter. 

Leary isn’t the only high-profile transfer joining Kentucky for the 2023 season. Much to the chagrin of Vanderbilt fans, star running back Ray Davis will be decked out in blue and white when Kentucky takes the field at FirstBank Stadium. Davis became just the 10th player in Vanderbilt history to rush for over 1,000 yards in 2022. His 129-yard rushing performance was a key reason why Vanderbilt was able to defeat Kentucky. The Wildcats can only hope that their offensive additions, in conjunction with Bob Stoops’s strong track record with defenses, will be enough to improve on their disappointing finish last season. 

9. Mississippi State (0-0)

Much like Kentucky, Mississippi State is a team with a few question marks that still has the potential to finish much higher in the standings. The Bulldogs 9-4 record in 2022 earned them a No. 19 ranking to finish the season, but blowout losses to Alabama, Georgia and LSU revealed how far they remain from the top of the pack. Significant changes within the program suggest Mississippi St. will have a difficult path back to contention. 

The team suffered a massive emotional blow last December with the passing of legendary head coach Mike Leach, whose high-octane “Air Raid” offense revolutionized the college football passing game. Last season’s defensive coordinator Zach Arnett has taken over the mantle of head coach, and all indications suggest he has the program heading in the right direction. Will Rogers, who holds the school record for career yards, passing touchdowns and completions, will look to cement his legacy in a career-defining senior season. It remains to be seen if his gargantuan production will be affected by the offense’s shift from an air raid to a pro-style system.

10. Missouri Tigers (0-0)

Missouri enters the 2023 season looking to build on a perfectly mediocre showing in 2022. The Tigers finished 6-7, good enough to beat their preseason expectation of 5.5 wins but not quite impressive enough to threaten the established order of the SEC. The Tigers will return their starting quarterback, senior Brady Cook. Cook flashed potential in his first full season as a starter, posting a completion percentage of 65% and 14 touchdowns to 7 interceptions. He may struggle to replicate that production without his top weapon in Domic Lovett, who left the Tigers to join the Georgia dynasty. Lovett posted 846 receiving yards in 2022, representing just over 30% of Missouri’s entire passing offense on the season.

Fortunately for Cook, the Tigers picked up a few talented receivers in the transfer portal to revamp their new-look wide receiver room. Theo Wease Jr. from Oklahoma and Dannis Jackson from Ole Miss are two experienced, fairly productive receivers who are expected to be key contributors to Missouri’s offense this season. Given the two-year, 7 million dollar contract head coach Eli Drinkwitz just signed, there are clear expectations that Missouri will continue to improve in the near future. 

11. Auburn (0-0)

Those early 2010s years in which Auburn dominated the SEC, winning two league championships in four seasons, feel like a distant memory. The Tigers have not won more than six games in a season since 2019. Bryan Harsin’s efforts to follow up the championship-winning Malzahn era were an abject failure, culminating in 10 straight losses prior to his termination. Fortunately for Tigers fans, the only direction to move from rock bottom is up.

This offseason, the Tigers hired Hugh Freeze to become the 28th head coach in program history. While Freeze is no stranger to controversy, he is a legitimately talented program-builder with a proven track record in the SEC. Michigan St. transfer Payton Thorne will begin the season as the starting quarterback. The Tigers hope he can recapture his 2021 form, during which he threw for 27 touchdowns and led the Spartans to an 11-1 record. Last year’s starter Robby Ashford will be right at his heels, having shown plenty of improvement down the stretch of his true freshman campaign. It may take some time, but Auburn is well-positioned for a return to prominence in the SEC. 

12. South Carolina (0-0)

The Gamecocks have plenty of reasons to feel excited coming into the 2023 season. The team showed signs of growth in Shane Beamer’s second season at the helm, finishing 8-5 as the No. 23 ranked team in the nation. Painful early season losses to Arkansas and Missouri were eventually overshadowed by back-to-back top-10 victories against Tennessee and Clemson, effectively ending both teams’ chances at qualifying for the college football playoffs. Ultimately, the Gamecocks 2023 hopes rest in the hands of polarizing senior quarterback Spencer Rattler, an inconsistent gunslinger who was once ranked the No. 1 high school quarterback in the country. 

Rattler had the game of his life against No. 5 Tennessee, throwing for 438 yards and 6 touchdowns in a performance that almost single-handedly revived his NFL aspirations. He also had four games with 2+ interceptions, a telling statistic for a team that was 1-4 when losing the turnover battle. Rattler will benefit from some added offensive weaponry this season, including Arkansas transfer Trey Knox. Knox had five receiving touchdowns for the Razorbacks in 2022 and should be a top red zone target for the Gamecocks offense this year. If Rattler can keep the turnovers to a minimum, the Gamecocks could make noise in the SEC East. 

13. Florida (0-0)

The Florida Gators were hands-down the most disappointing team in the SEC in 2022. After starting the season with a thrilling victory against No. 7 Utah, the Gators earned the No. 12 ranking in the country and plenty of Heisman buzz for quarterback Anthony Richardson. Then, things got ugly. The Gators went 5-7 on the rest of the season, ending the year with a 30-3 blowout loss to Oregon St. in the Allegiant Bowl. 

Things will look very different in year two of the Billy Napier era. Replacing Anthony Richardson under center is Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz. Mertz was competent but unremarkable in his three years with the Badgers, but his veteran leadership should be highly valuable for a rebuilding squad. But even if the offense improves, the Gators will need to see a marked improvement on defense to have any chance to contend in this conference. 

14. Vanderbilt (0-0)

It has been a constant battle for Vanderbilt to stay above water in the SEC. The 2022 season was pretty successful by Vanderbilt standards: The Commodores won five games for the first time since 2018, edging out close games with a far more disciplined brand of football in Clark Lea’s second year at the helm. Unfortunately, the carousel of college football free agency brought on by the transfer portal has not been kind to Vanderbilt. The Commodores lost several key starters to other Power Five programs, including shutdown cornerback Jadais Richard and 1000-yard rusher Ray Davis. 

With quarterback Mike Wright also departing as a graduate transfer, sophomore AJ Swann officially takes the reins as the team’s undisputed QB1. Swann’s freshman campaign was highly promising, and he should benefit from increased rapport with his receivers and better familiarity with the offense. He’ll have no shortage of offensive weapons at his disposal, as the Commodores have the best receiver depth they’ve had in years. Will Sheppard, Jayden McGowan and Quincy Skinner offer varied skill sets and have demonstrated the dependability to make plays in big games. The defense also returns plenty of contributors, with a veteran secondary hoping to display more consistency this season. While the Commodores begin the season at the bottom of this list, there is every reason to believe they can finish much higher in year three of the Clark Lea era. 

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About the Contributors
Brandon Karp
Brandon Karp, Senior Staff Writer
Brandon Karp ('25) is from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., and is studying human and organizational development and political science in Peabody College. You can reach him at [email protected].
Barrie Barto
Barrie Barto, Editor-in-Chief
Barrie Barto ('25) is majoring in medicine, health & society with neuroscience and communication of science & technology minors in the College of Arts and Science. She previously served as Photography Director. When she's not strolling around campus with her camera, you can find Barrie cheering on the St. Louis Blues or tracking down the best gluten-free food in Nashville. She can be reached at [email protected].
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