SEC Football: Preview and Predictions for the 2022 Season
The 2022 college football season is nearly upon us, and the SEC will look to win its fourth straight national title. Last season, Georgia defeated Alabama in the national championship to claim its first national title since 1980. It was a rematch of the SEC Championship Game in early December, one in which Alabama upset the Dawgs.
Alabama and Georgia are the clear favorites to win the SEC West and East. But there are teams in each division that will look to upend the two heavyweights. In the East, Kentucky, Tennessee and Florida are the biggest challengers. Texas A&M, Arkansas and Ole Miss will push Alabama in the West.
We'll cover all these storylines—and several others, including the best offense and defense, biggest stars and new or hot-seat coaches—throughout this preview of the SEC.
Alabama QB Bryce Young
The reigning Heisman Trophy winner will be back to prove his breakout season last year wasn't a fluke. Young finished the season with 4,872 yards and 47 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. His most impressive game came against Georgia in the SECCG, as he accounted for 461 total yards and four touchdowns.
Young will lose his top receivers in John Metchie III and Jameson Williams, as well as running back Brian Robinson. But the additions of receivers Jermaine Burton from Georgia and Louisville's Tyler Harrell from the transfer portal should help. The Tide return three starters along the offensive line, and running back Jahmyr Gibbs from Georgia Tech should have the Bama offense humming smoothly.
Georgia QB Stetson Bennett
Bennett couldn't have had a more fairytale ending to his season last year. A Georgia walk-on in 2017, Bennett spent a season in JUCO before returning to the Dawgs for the 2019 season. As starting quarterback JT Daniels battled injuries last year, Bennett stepped in and played lights out.
On the season, he threw for 2,862 yards and 29 touchdowns with just seven interceptions. He rushed for another 259 yards, too. He was named the Offensive MVP for both the playoff semifinal game against Michigan and national championship against Alabama.
Bennett could have declared for the NFL draft after last season, but he'll be back. He gets three offensive lineman back, as well as receivers Ladd McConkey, Dominick Blaylock and tight ends Brock Bowers and Arik Gilbert. The QB should have another big year.
Arkansas QB KJ Jefferson
The Razorbacks went 9-4 last year, and Jefferson was a huge reason why. The 6'3", 242-pound sophomore threw for 2,676 yards and 21 touchdowns. He led the team's rushing attack too with 664 yards. Jefferson gets four of his offensive linemen back, as well as a pair of receivers via the transfer portal in Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers. Arkansas is a dark-horse SEC West candidate with Jefferson under center.
Alabama LB Will Anderson Jr.
Anderson is one of the unquestioned leaders of the Alabama defense. Last season, Anderson finished with 102 total tackles, 17.5 sacks and three pass breakups. His impact was so big that he finished fifth in Heisman voting. Against Mississippi State, he became just the third player in school history to get four sacks in a game. Anderson Jr. has +1600 odds to win the Heisman Trophy.
Can Alabama and Georgia both reload in 2022?
Alabama is no stranger to having to reload each season after several of its players get drafted. 2022 is no different, as the Tide return just five starters on offense and seven on defense. As we mentioned, Young is back on offense, and Nick Saban did a good job with the transfer portal for filling holes at receiver and running back.
Defensively, Alabama looks like it has one of the best linebacker corps in the country. The reigning Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner, Anderson Jr., is back, as well as leading tackler Henry To'oTo'o. Bama also gets the return of defensive end Byron Young, who had 7.5 tackles for loss last season. The Tide's two starting safeties are back, as well as cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry.
Georgia, meanwhile, will look to use the Alabama blueprint to reload after coming off a national title season. The Dawgs return just three starters on defense from the unit that finished first in scoring defense in 2021. Georgia will likely rely on veteran linebacker Nolan Smith, who had 56 total tackles and 3.5 sacks last season, to lead the unit.
Offensively, quarterback Stetson Bennett and a handful of talented receivers return. The Dawgs return seven starters on offense in total. But if Georgia's defense takes a step back this season, can Bennett and the offense win games by scoring points consistently?
What does Lane Kiffin's year three look like?
Ole Miss is coming off a historic season, winning 10 regular-season games for the first time in school history. But Lane Kiffin has to replace a lot of talent in 2022. The Rebels return just five starters on offense, and star quarterback Matt Corral is gone. Kiffin made some splashes in the transfer portal by landing USC quarterback Jaxson Dart, TCU running back Zachary Evans and linebackers Troy Brown and Khari Coleman. Kiffin even called himself the transfer portal king this offseason.
Will his transfers be enough to lead the Rebels to another nine- or 10-win season? Ole Miss gets a tough SEC West draw this year, including back-to-back road trips to LSU and Texas A&M at the end of October. The Rebels then have a bye before a home game against Alabama. We'll see how the portal king does in his third season in Oxford.
Which new head coaches can make the biggest impact?
Two former powerhouses in LSU and Florida will be starting over with new head coaches in 2022.
LSU hired longtime Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, awarding him a 10-year, $95 million contract. Kelly went 113-40 at Notre Dame, and he will without question have access to more talent and resources at LSU. Making the Tigers into a national title contender—and beating Alabama—is what he was hired to do.
Florida, meanwhile, just hired its fourth new head coach since Urban Meyer left in 2010. Billy Napier, a former Nick Saban assistant, went 40-12 over four seasons as Louisiana Lafayette's head coach. He'll be looking to bring Florida back to being a national power.
Texas A&M Aggies
Texas A&M was one of two teams to defeat Alabama last season, upsetting the Tide 41-38 at home.
Beating a Nick Saban-coached Alabama team is memorable, but the Aggies' goal is always to win the SEC West. TAMU dropped games against Arkansas and Mississippi State before the Alabama game, which put it out of the division race last season, and the Aggies went on to finish 8-4.
This year, TAMU returns six starters on offense and just five on defense. The quarterback that led the upset win over Alabama, Zach Calzada, has since transferred to Auburn. Who Jimbo Fisher starts under center will be key for the Aggies' hopes in the SEC West. The job is still being decided between Haynes King, LSU transfer Max Johnson and 5-star recruit Conner Weigman. King started the Aggies' first two games of the season before suffering a broken tibia.
Beating Saban two years in a row is a tough task. If TAMU finds its quarterback, maybe it can be done.
Wildcats head coach Mark Stoops has done a remarkable job in Lexington since his arrival in 2013. Kentucky is coming off a 10-3 season in 2021, the second 10-win season for Stoops since 2018. For the first time ever last season, the Wildcats opened the year 6-0, before falling to Georgia for their first loss.
One of the biggest reasons for Kentucky's success last season was the offense under quarterback Will Levis. Levis, who transferred to UK from Penn State prior to the 2021 season, threw for 2,827 yards and 24 touchdowns. He threw the most touchdown passes at Kentucky since Andre’ Woodson in 2007 (40). Levis is back along with starting running back Christopher Rodriguez Jr. and receiver Izayah Cummings.
Kentucky has a tough road slate ahead in the East, however. The Wildcats travel to face Florida, Tennessee and Missouri. But the Wildcats beat Florida and Missouri last season, so they could win at least a couple of those. The matchup with Georgia on Nov. 19 in Lexington looks like it could be a huge SEC East game.
Head coach Sam Pittman led Arkansas to a surprise 9-4 finish last season. It was a massive improvement from the Razorbacks' 3-7 finish in 2020.
Arkansas returns seven starters on offense from last season, including the aforementioned standout quarterback KJ Jefferson. Jefferson gets back three of his offensive linemen from last season, too. The Razorbacks get back just four starters on defense, so they are expected to take a step back there.
Arkansas' schedule might give the Razorbacks an edge. It includes just three true SEC road games against Mississippi State, Auburn and Missouri. The Razorbacks get some of their toughest games, including Cincinnati, South Carolina, Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss, at home. They will face Texas A&M, whom they beat 20-10 last season, in Arlington.
Coaches On the Hot Seat
Auburn's Bryan Harsin
After just one 6-7 season as Auburn's head coach, Harsin had an eventful offseason. In February, the school looked into Harsin's status as head coach after 20 players and five coaches left the program following the 2021 season. But later in February, the school announced it was retaining the head coach it hired in December 2020.
Auburn dropped the last five games of its 2021 season, including a quadruple-overtime thriller against Alabama. If that Iron Bowl had gone Auburn's way, it'd be interesting to see if Harsin would have had to go through the inquiry in February.
Auburn's schedule looks pretty challenging. In Week 3, the Tigers get Penn State at home. The Nittany Lions defeated the Tigers at home last year, 28-20. Auburn also goes on the road to face Georgia, Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Alabama.
If Auburn struggles to win games early in the season, don't be surprised if it makes a quick decision to move on from Harsin.
Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz
Missouri is entering its third season under Drinkwitz. So far, the Tigers have been underwhelming under the former Appalachian State head coach. Missouri has gone just 11-12 over two seasons.
Things don't look too promising this year. The Tigers lost starting quarterback Connor Bazelak to the transfer portal and starting running back Tyler Badie to the NFL. Missouri returns eight starters from a defense that gave up 434 yards per game last season.
Missouri's schedule is pretty challenging, too. The Tigers open the season with Louisiana Tech at home and then go on the road to play Auburn in Week 4. Mizzou also has to play at Florida, South Carolina and Tennessee before closing out the season versus Arkansas on Nov. 25. Firing a head coach after three seasons seems a bit harsh, but Missouri could be inclined to make a change depending on how things go.
Best Games on Tap
Sept. 3: Georgia vs. Oregon in Atlanta
This game should be a good measuring stick to see how well Kirby Smart can reload. It'll be interesting to see if new Ducks head coach Dan Lanning can catch the Dawgs defense off-guard. He was UGA's defensive coordinator from 2019 to '21.
Oct. 1: Alabama at Arkansas
Last year's matchup was in Tuscaloosa, and Arkansas kept it close throughout. The Hogs lost 42-35, but it was the closest game since they lost 14-13 in Fayetteville in 2014. Arkansas getting Alabama this year at home looks like a big advantage.
Oct. 8: Texas A&M at Alabama
Texas A&M upset Alabama at home last year on a last-second field goal. The Aggies have to travel to Tuscaloosa to face Alabama this year. Bama has defeated Texas A&M by 28, 22, 19 and 59 points in the last four games in Tuscaloosa. The last time the Aggies beat Bama on the road was with Johnny Manziel in 2012.
Nov. 19: Georgia at Kentucky
If this game was earlier in the season, I think Georgia would have the edge here. But Kentucky gets the Dawgs at home in a game that could shake up the SEC East race. I could easily see Will Levis and the Wildcats give Georgia a run for its money on the road. If it is enough to keep Georgia out of Atlanta, we'll have to see.
Best Offense: Tennessee
Tennessee is a bit of a dark horse to make some noise in the SEC East this year. That's because the Volunteers offense is loaded.
Tennessee returns eight starters from last season, the biggest name being quarterback Hendon Hooker. Hooker threw for 2,945 yards and 31 touchdowns with just three interceptions. The QB rushed for another 616 yards on the ground, too.
Hooker gets back his starting running back from last season, Jabari Small. Small led the team with 796 rushing yards and nine touchdowns in 2021. Leading receiver Cedric Tillman, who finished with 1,081 yards and 12 touchdowns, is back, too. Tillman had over 100 receiving yards in each of his last four games last season. The Vols return four starters along the offensive line.
Tennessee has to face Georgia on the road on Nov. 5. The Dawgs dominated Tennessee 41-17 last season. But it'll be interesting to see how a reloading Dawgs defense plays against this experienced unit.
Best Defense: Alabama
The Tide return seven defensive starters from last year, including their leading tacklers in Henry To'oTo'o, Will Anderson Jr. and DeMarcco Hellams. Alabama's defense finished in the top 10 in total defense, rushing and opponent third-down conversions last year.
The biggest returning piece for this defense, as we've mentioned, is Anderson Jr. He led the nation in tackles for loss with 34.5. That figure was also the second-best in school history.
Alabama brings back two starters along the defensive line in DJ Dale and Byron Young, as well as starting safeties Jordan Battle and Hellams. Cornerback Kool-Aid McKinstry saw lots of playing time as a true freshman in 2021, and LSU transfer Eli Ricks will be a strong addition to the group.
Alabama's defense might prove to be even more dominant.
Alabama (11-1 overall, 7-1 in the SEC)
Arkansas (9-3, 5-3)
Texas A&M (8-4, 5-3)
Ole Miss (9-3, 5-3)
Mississippi State (7-5, 3-5)
Auburn (6-6, 3-5)
LSU (6-6, 3-5)
Georgia (11-1, 7-1)
Tennessee (8-4, 5-3)
Florida (7-5, 4-4)
Kentucky (8-4, 4-4)
South Carolina (6-6, 3-5)
Missouri (5-7, 2-6)
Vanderbilt (2-10, 0-8)
Projected SEC Championship Game: Georgia vs. Alabama
This will be a rebuilding year for Georgia. But the good news for the Dawgs is that even if they drop a game or two, I don't see a legitimate challenger in the East. Tennessee looks like a close second, but the Vols are likely to lose at least two SEC games, especially with Alabama on their schedule.
Bennett returning at quarterback, as well as some talented receiving threats around him, puts the Dawgs offense in a good spot. Defensively, bringing back just three starters hurts. But Nolan Smith's return can help bring a younger group up to speed quickly.
Kirby Smart has been cleaning up on the recruiting trail over the last five years. This season, some of those young stars—like defensive end Mykel Williams and defensive back Daylen Everette—might see the field early.
Alabama shouldn't have a problem repeating as SEC West champions. The Tide find a way to reload without missing a beat pretty much every year.
I could see Bama dropping a road game against Arkansas or Ole Miss in the division. But one loss wouldn't keep it out of Atlanta come December.
All information about returning starters and all-time records via Phil Steele's 2022 College Football Preview.
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