SEC Football: Preview and Predictions for the 2019 Season

Brad Shepard@@Brad_ShepardFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2019

SEC Football: Preview and Predictions for the 2019 Season

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    For the past two seasons, Alabama not only has had Georgia's number, but the Crimson Tide have also programmed it in their phone and pranked-called the Bulldogs to the tune of two heartbreaking losses in vital games.

    In the College Football Playoff title game two years ago, Tua Tagovailoa's overtime scoring pass completed a comeback that won yet another championship for head coach Nick Saban. Last year, Jalen Hurts' redemption story culminated with beating UGA in the SEC Championship Game.

    Of course, UA's fortune ran out in the title game against Clemson, but it was still a quality year at the top of the conference. The same two teams should be in the championship at the end of 2019 too.

    But who has a chance of knocking them off? 

    Can Dan Mullen take Florida another huge step forward? Is this Jimbo Fisher's year to prove he was worth the Texas A&M money? Will Ed Orgeron ever prove he's more than just an elite recruiter at LSU? Is another Kentucky lurking in the shadows?

    There are so many things to watch this season, so let's get into it.

    Here's the 2019 SEC football preview and a laundry list of everything you need to know to settle in and watch some Southern-fried pigskin.

Biggest Stars

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    Derrick Brown

    The Auburn Tigers are coming off a struggle-filled year, but they are banking on improvement this season, largely because of a stacked defensive line.

    "I'd say this right now: I think we've got a chance to be the best defense we've had since I've been here," head coach Gus Malzahn told the Montgomery Advertiser's Josh Vitale this summer.

    Former 5-star recruit Derrick Brown is a 6'5", 318-pound force who finished last year with 48 tackles, including 10.5 for loss and 4.5 sacks. He is joined by Nick Coe, Marlon Davidson and others who won't allow defenses to focus on him. 

    It could be an All-America campaign for the big guy.

                

    Grant Delpit

    Ho-hum—another year, another LSU defensive back on the stars list. What else is new?

    There are several youngsters waiting in the wings who'll make the Tigers secondary formidable again, but the star of the group is Delpit, a safety who could wind up the best defensive player in the nation. 

    Delpit does it all. Last year, he finished with 74 tackles, including 9.5 for loss, five sacks, five interceptions, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery. That type of stat-padding production allows defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to line him up all over the field. The junior will have a monstrous year.

    Enjoy him in Baton Rouge for one more season.

                             

    Jake Fromm

    The most underrated player in the SEC wears red and black, and he is the Georgia quarterback.

    Fromm will take a major step forward in a season in which his receivers are his biggest question marks. The truth is the Bulldogs pass-catching corps has more talent than it's had in Kirby Smart's tenure, and Fromm is a guy who can make the whole group better.

    Last year, he threw for 2,761 yards, 30 touchdowns and six picks. Even in the last two games, when he caught flak in losses to Alabama and Texas, he had 525 passing yards, six touchdowns and just one interception. Fromm took a step forward between his freshman and sophomore campaigns, raising his passer rating by more than 10 points, and he will elevate his play yet again as a junior.

    He's the player who makes the Bulldogs tick. 

                              

    CJ Henderson

    Florida's Henderson won't get as many headlines because of Delpit, much like Fromm when compared to Tagovailoa.

    But the junior from Miami is the best cover corner in the SEC. Look for him to have an all-conference, breakout year. A season ago, he had 38 tackles, including five for loss, three sacks and two interceptions along with a team-high seven pass breakups.

    He was a key reason why UF ranked second nationally in fourth-quarter opponent completion percentage (40.5). The Gators lost some key talent in the secondary, including 2019 fourth-rounder Chauncey Gardner-Johnson, but quarterbacks won't want to throw Henderson's way.

                                       

    Jerry Jeudy

    Jeudy was the poster child for Alabama's resurgent passing offense a season ago when he hauled in 68 passes for 1,315 yards and 14 touchdowns with an average of more than 19 yards per catch.

    It was common to see him streaking downfield before Tagovailoa hit him with a perfectly thrown ball.

    That's why Jeudy won the Biletnikoff Award as the nation's top pass-catcher and why he's a threat to repeat again this year. Alabama is known for producing elite receivers like Julio Jones, Amari Cooper and Calvin Ridley.

    Jeudy is the next great target in that lineage.

                          

    D'Andre Swift

    It's going to be interesting to see how the Dawgs divide carries between their deep backfield of high-quality running backs, especially since redshirt freshman Zamir White is back from injury and James Cook is poised for a breakout year.

    They'll both take a backseat to Swift, though. The Georgia junior is the top runner in the SEC, and he is the steadiest returning force since Kentucky's Benny Snell Jr. and Texas A&M's Trayveon Williams are gone to the NFL.

    The 5'9", 218-pound runner from Philadelphia battled injuries a season ago and still wound up with 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns, averaging 6.4 yards per tote. He is so talented that he found plenty of carries in the same backfield as Nick Chubb and Sony Michel as a freshman.

    Look for Swift's numbers to improve again this year. 

                                          

    Tua Tagovailoa

    He is one of those players who needs no last name, and if you know anything about college football, you know who he is.

    Tua.

    A season ago, the longtime Heisman Trophy front-runner ultimately lost out on that honor to dual-threat signal-caller and eventual No. 1 overall draft pick Kyler Murray. And after Trevor Lawrence's playoff performance, the Clemson quarterback is getting more buzz for the award.

    Don't sleep on Alabama's junior quarterback. He'll play with a chip on his shoulder, and he already puts up amazing stats. He finished with 3,966 yards, 43 touchdowns and just six interceptions for a passer rating of 199.4 in 2018.

    Tua has as good of a supporting cast as any in the nation, and he's going to have a huge year for a title contender.

Top Storylines

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    Is This Finally Georgia's Year?

    After an acclimation season in Athens, favorite son Kirby Smart has built his program into a powerhouse.

    The past two seasons have been oh-so-close to greatness, as the Bulldogs look to win their first national title since 1980. As mentioned, in the championship game for the 2017 season, they had Alabama beat until a frenetic comeback. Last year, they were about to topple the Tide until Hurts' miraculous performance off the bench.

    A disinterested Georgia team was overmatched against Texas in the Sugar Bowl too.

    UGA has so much returning talent to complete the deal. Not only are six defensive starters back to a unit that ranked 13th nationally in total defense last season, but a host of elite prospects also grace the three-deep thanks to Smart's dynamic recruiting.

    Offensively, UGA should have the nation's top line to go along with a loaded backfield and a veteran quarterback in Fromm. The receivers are a question mark, but there is so much talent there.

    It could be a special year.

                     

    Alabama's Defensive Overhaul

    In 2018, Alabama was able to mask several deficiencies because of the pressure Tagovailoa and the offense put on opponents.

    The biggest of those was the fact that the Tide defense was just mediocre, which had to grate on a defensive-minded coach like Saban. In the national title game, Lawrence and the Clemson crew shredded a unit that looked lost at times under former coordinator Tosh Lupoi, putting up 482 yards and 44 points.

    It's not a big deal that Lupoi left for the NFL's Cleveland Browns. Replacing him is Pete Golding, who was promoted from within the staff. The Tide also plucked assistant Charles Kelly from rival Tennessee, and he brings experience as a DC at Florida State from 2014-17.

    The Tide were dealt a blow when they lost projected starting inside linebacker Josh McMillon for the season because of an injury during camp, but they still have former elite recruits galore. With guys like Dylan Moses, Raekwon Davis, Anfernee Jennings and others, they have the ability to get back.

    Their title hopes rely on shoring up that side of the ball.

                                  

    Is This the Final Stop for the Gus Bus?

    The pressure at Auburn is great enough thanks to the Tigers' strong history. It doesn't help that hated rival Alabama is the best program in the sport's history and the best team of the past decade.

    Welcome to Gus Malzahn's life.

    But the fact is, if you coach at a proud program, going 8-5 and finishing fifth in your division isn't going to cut it for long, especially when you're 3-5 in the league. That's where the Tigers were a season ago.

    Now, they've got to find playmakers at running back and a viable option to replace Jarrett Stidham at quarterback. It's an unenviable position in a win-or-else year, but that's what's facing Malzahn, who has a massive buyout. There is a lot at stake this season.

                                         

    Looking for the Next Step in Aggie Land

    Speaking of big money, the Texas A&M brass spent $75 million to pluck Jimbo Fisher away from Florida State.

    After one season, so far, so good.

    The Aggies finished 9-4 and went 5-3 in the league as Kellen Mond elevated his game under quarterback guru Fisher, and they were one of the most exciting young teams in the SEC all season.

    The way they've recruited gives hope to College Station. Having to replace star running back Trayveon Williams won't be easy, but there are big things coming at A&M.

    This team could sneakily contend with Alabama if coordinator Mike Elko's defense takes a pivotal leap. Get ready for some excitement.

                             

    Who Is This Year's Kentucky?

    The Wildcats bought into head coach Mark Stoops' program-building campaign and dealt with years of mediocrity while he brought in his players.

    They were rewarded with a 10-3 season a year ago from arguably the best team in Kentucky's history. 

    With so many departures, it's going to be tough for the 'Cats to repeat. So, who could take their place? They could prove they are a sustainable program if they can duplicate the feat.

    If Missouri gets a big year from Clemson transfer quarterback Kelly Bryant, it could do big things. How about Mississippi State in Year 2 under Joe Moorhead? South Carolina has the most talent of any Will Muschamp-coached team, but a daunting schedule stands in the way. Can Tennessee surge in Year 2 for Jeremy Pruitt?

    Several teams have surprise potential. Will any stand up?

The Favorites

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    Alabama Crimson Tide

    As long as college football's best-ever coach is on the sideline of the sport's most storied program, Alabama not only will be a favorite to win the SEC every year but also the national championship.

    Tua Tagovailoa, Jerry Jeudy, Najee Harris, Dylan Moses, Raekwon Harris and other top-tier college football players and future high-round NFL draft picks ensure UA has the talent to be at or near the top again, and we all know the Crimson Tide have the coaches.

    No matter how many assistants Saban loses, he just replaces them before his team rinses and repeats as a title contender.

    Don't expect anything different in 2019.

                                                             

    Florida Gators

    It's been a tumultuous offseason for the Florida Gators, as broken down by Hail Florida's Walker Perryman.

    And it might even be fair to question what kind of chemistry this team has with its coaches and one another.

    What cannot be disputed, though, is what the Gators did on the field in Dan Mullen's first year as head coach. They went from struggling under Jim McElwain to the legitimate No. 2 team in the SEC East. Quarterback Feleipe Franks surged at the end of the season, and he has done all the right things since the end of '18.

    "I think he's already improved more during the offseason than he did throughout last season on the field," Mullen told Swamp247's Thomas Goldkamp.

    Florida has solid pass-rushers, defensive backs and talent at every tier of the field. The Gators don't have the depth, but if anybody's going to challenge Georgia, it's them. They still seem like at least another year away, though.

               

    Georgia Bulldogs

    Smart continues to embark on an impressive run with his alma mater, and the Bulldogs have every reason to be excited.

    They should be right in the national title conversation with Clemson, Alabama, Oklahoma and Texas; they're that good.

    The Bulldogs will have the most talented returning defense in the SEC, a steady-to-spectacular quarterback in Fromm who has played in and won big games and a backfield that would be the envy of every offense in the nation.

    There are plenty of questions, such as how new offensive coordinator James Coley will call plays since Jim Chaney left for Knoxville and who will emerge at receiver and on the defensive line. But this team has the potential to be Smart's best yet. Everybody needs to watch closely what happens in Athens. 

                 

    Texas A&M Aggies

    The Aggies are another team that is poised to improve this year but probably isn't ready to compete for the conference title.

    Fisher surrounded himself with a terrific staff, and they pulled in the No. 4 recruiting class in 2019 to build out a roster that already had plenty of youth and excitement.

    Quarterback Kellen Mond needs to improve his downfield throwing skills, but his offensive weaponry is impressive. The Aggies also have a lot of excitement around the young players on defense.

    How quickly that side of the ball jells will go a long way in determining how good A&M can be. That's especially true in the linebacking corps, which lost two players to graduation, including Otaro Alaka, and Tyrel Dodson a year early to the NFL. 

    Mike Elko's unit holds the key to success. If those young guys play well early, A&M could once again finish second in the West.

The Challengers

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    Auburn Tigers

    The SEC again may fall victim to the strong-at-the-top, mediocre-throughout concept that has been the conference's ugly little secret the past couple of years.

    Last season's emergence of Florida, Texas A&M and Kentucky helped put that to rest. This year, however, remains a question.

    Though Auburn is facing plenty of questions, including the fate of its head coach, it looks like it could finish as one of the league's top six teams again. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele's unit should carry the team and be one of the stoutest defenses in the nation.

    The Tigers need to find legit running backs, though. Malzahn also named true freshman Bo Nix as the starting quarterback Tuesday, marking the first time since 1946 a true freshman opened the season as the Tigers' signal-caller, according to 247Sports' Brandon Marcello.

    This could be the type of up-in-the-air year in which Auburn surprises everyone. Don't write off the Tigers.

                      

    LSU Tigers

    Even with the defecting talent to the NFL, the LSU Tigers have elite defenders to help pave the way for coordinator Dave Aranda, including safety Grant Delpit and linebacker Jacob Phillips.

    The questions continue on offense.

    Unlike in years past, though, the Tigers have a steady signal-caller in senior Joe Burrow. He needs to improve his passing consistency after completing just 57.8 percent of his throws last year, but he proved a season ago he can win big games. A bevy of former star prep receivers need to emerge too.

    At running back, juniors Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Tory Carter are getting the most buzz, but LSU needs freshman studs John Emery Jr. and Tyrion Davis-Price to perform well so the offense can take the next step.

    There isn't a lot of difference between them and Texas A&M; remember, last year's seven-overtime, 74-72 defeat to the Aggies became one of the most miraculous games in college history. The slight nod goes to A&M, but that game again will be a swing showdown in the West.

                       

    Missouri Tigers

    When it comes to talent in the SEC East, South Carolina probably has more of it than head coach Barry Odom's Missouri Tigers. But the Gamecocks play such a horrific schedule, they could be a really good team and still go 7-5.

    Alabama and Clemson loom, as do Georgia, Florida, Texas A&M and North Carolina.

    Mizzou's schedule is nowhere near that difficult, so the Tigers get the slight nod. The post-Drew Lock era should be softened a bit by the transfer of Kelly Bryant, who couldn't beat out Trevor Lawrence a season ago at Clemson.

    There's no shame in that, and Bryant should keep the signal-caller spot warm in Columbia, even if he's not a dropback passer like Lock. How Bryant will mesh with offensive coordinator Derek Dooley is a big storyline, but the Tigers could win nine games this year.

Best Rivalry Matchup: Florida vs. Georgia

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    Joe Robbins/Getty Images

    In past two Bleacher Report SEC previews, this space has been occupied by the Iron Bowl, and you can almost never go wrong by picking the Alabama-Auburn game as the league's best rivalry.

    But this is about the best rivalry matchup this year, and the Tigers are not likely to be able to hang with Alabama unless one of its two signal-callers winds up being a star who can put up points at the same rate as Tagovailoa and crew.

    So, we're going a different direction and picking the game formerly known as the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. That game features two of the teams on our "favorites" slide, and though Georgia should win again, Florida is at least ready to make things interesting.

    This season's tilt between the Gators and Bulldogs will feature two defenses loaded with potential NFL stars, two of the league's top-five quarterbacks and plenty of other fun storylines.

    Dan Mullen is a wily veteran of the SEC who is building his own program in Gainesville, while Kirby Smart is setting up shop for the long haul in the same stomping grounds where he roamed the field for the Red and Black.

    It has all the trappings for a fun game in Jacksonville, Florida, and while the Gators would have to play their best game of the year to win, it could happen.

Coaches on the Hot Seat

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    Matt Luke

    Ole Miss removed the interim tag from alum Matt Luke a season ago, but a 5-7 record isn't the type of year any Rebels fan expected. Defensive woes plagued the team under former coordinator Wesley McGriff.

    When offensive coordinator Phil Longo left for Mack Brown's staff at North Carolina, it also wasn't that impactful because of two strong hires made by the head coach. Rich Rodriguez replaced Longo as the offensive coordinator, and former Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre took over the defense.

    Between those three, you'd think one will be the head coach in 2020. But will it be the current guy?

    Ole Miss could struggle again this season with a new-look defense and an offense that said goodbye to playmakers such as quarterback Jordan Ta'amu and wide receivers A.J. Brown and DK Metcalf. That's so much talent to replace, and this is going to be a rebuilding season.

    Will the Rebels brass be patient with Luke through it?

                   

    Gus Malzahn

    After bursting onto the scene in 2013 with a 12-2 record that ended with a narrow loss to Florida State in the national title game, Malzahn has been a bit of a victim to his own success.

    It's not just because he's in the same state as Saban, though.

    Other than his first season at Auburn and another 10-4 season in 2017, Malzahn's other campaigns haven't broken the eight-win mark. That won't cut it in a place like the Plains. 

    This is a pivotal year for the Gus Bus, and Malzahn will lay his fate on the arm of freshman quarterback Bo Nix. At least he'll be calling the plays again, so he'll go down swinging if this is his final year at AU. The Tigers hope the offense looks like last year's Music City Bowl onslaught against Purdue.

    If that's the case, the defense is good enough to help Malzahn keep his gig another year.

                               

    Derek Mason

    If not for a three-year winning streak against rival Tennessee, Vanderbilt's coach already may be elsewhere.

    Mason is known as an elite defensive coordinator, but his Commodores have not gotten all the way off the ground. He hasn't had a winning season yet, though he did take VU to a bowl game in 2018 before losing to fall to 6-7.

    Now, Mason must replace star quarterback Kyle Shurmur, which won't be easy.

    If Vanderbilt doesn't make a bowl game this season, Mason's slow finishes may wind up costing him his job. He had to follow in the footsteps of James Franklin, who turned the VU program around, proving winning there can happen.

    Mason needs to do it on a more consistent clip. 

                   

    Will Muschamp

    Though some may think Arkansas' Chad Morris belongs on this list, he has done a complete overhaul of the Razorbacks program. So, while he needs to take steps toward being more competitive, he probably isn't losing his job in Year 2.

    Muschamp, on the other hand, could quietly be facing a make-or-break campaign.

    Despite South Carolina's rugged schedule, there is a lot of talent—and, therefore, a lot of expectations—on this year's Gamecocks, who return senior quarterback Jake Bentley and a lot of capable defenders.

    Muschamp is just a pedestrian 22-17 in Columbia, going 6-7, 9-4 and 7-6 in his three years there. Another season hovering near .500 should lead to fears that he is just a mediocre SEC coach, dating back to his days in Gainesville (2011-14).

    Of course, a big year against this level of competition could help South Carolina's program move up a couple of ticks in the SEC pecking order.

Best Offense: Alabama

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    The loss of star freshman running back Trey Sanders to a season-ending injury was a major blow to Alabama during fall camp, but the bottom line is the Crimson Tide have plenty of talented playmakers.

    Everybody will be watching how the team develops under new offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian, who replaces Mike Locksley. The former OC posted a brilliant 2018 season that helped land him a job as Maryland's head coach. Also gone is quarterbacks coach Dan Enos, who is now Miami's offensive coordinator.

    Sark is returning to Alabama after a rocky tenure with the Atlanta Falcons, and he's trying to resurrect his collegiate career that Saban helped get restarted after he was ousted from his head coaching job at USC.

    Oh, the weapons abound for the new OC.

    Everybody knows about Tagovailoa and Jeudy, but Najee Harris has the ability to be the SEC's most talented running back. Brian Robinson Jr. will provide help in the backfield, and perhaps the most exciting player on UA's roster who could become a household name is sophomore receiver Jaylen Waddle.

    Henry Ruggs III, DeVonta Smith and others outfit a unit that is rife with playmaking talent.

    It's going to be another scoreboard-lighting season in Tuscaloosa as last year's top-scoring offense in the SEC helps carry a defense that will improve as the season goes on. This unit is deep and good enough to win the national title if it stays healthy at running back.

    With defensive injuries and question marks, UA needs to score a lot. AL.com's Creg Stephenson believes it will.

    "It's a good thing the Crimson Tide will field one of the top offenses in not only school history, but potentially SEC history," he wrote. "After setting numerous school records in 2018 and challenging several others, Alabama's offense could be even better this season."

Best Defense: Georgia

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    Chris Graythen/Getty Images

    Putting a unit with a new coordinator as the conference's best is always a wild card, but we're going all-in, with the Georgia Bulldogs getting the slight nod over Auburn.

    There are so many talented playmakers awaiting Dan Lanning, and the 33-year-old's enthusiasm is seemingly infectious.

    "Most definitely his energy is phenomenal, no matter how it looks outside, he's going to bring that energy every day," UGA defensive back J.R. Reed told DawgNation's Mike Griffith. "We could be down by 40, and he'll still bring energy."

    As Brenton Cox's transfer to Florida proves, you can't keep everybody happy, but there are enough studs in Athens to be fine.

    Yes, Deandre Baker is gone from the secondary, but Richard LeCounte III and Reed should help things. Julian Rochester and Jordan Davis are nice cogs up front, and Monty Rice returns at linebacker. While there are questions about who's going to rush the passer, potential answers abound.

    The nation's top-ranked recruit in 2019, Nolan Smith, is ready to play. Adam Anderson looks like a budding star who can break out. Prospects such as Travon Walker, Nakobe Dean, Tyson Campbell and Tyrique Stevenson have the type of skill sets that make everybody excited.

    If UGA finds capable pass-rushers, this is going to be a fast, deep and talented defense. Auburn has more proven players, but Georgia's ceiling is higher.

Projected Regular-Season Standings

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    SEC East

    1. Georgia Bulldogs

    2. Florida Gators

    3. Missouri Tigers

    4. Tennessee Volunteers

    5. South Carolina Gamecocks

    6. Kentucky Wildcats

    7. Vanderbilt Commodores

                          

    SEC West

    1. Alabama Crimson Tide

    2. Texas A&M Aggies

    3. LSU Tigers

    4. Auburn Tigers

    5. Mississippi State Bulldogs

    6. Ole Miss Rebels

    7. Arkansas Razorbacks

Projected Conference Championship Matchup: Alabama vs. Georgia

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    John Bazemore/Associated Press

    While Alabama is projected to have the best offense, it still has a lot of defensive question marks. And Georgia had the Tide on the brink over the past two years and just couldn't close them out.

    They will this year.

    This is Kirby Smart's year, and while another heartbreaking loss could loom in a College Football Playoff against Clemson, the Bulldogs are the best all-around team in the SEC entering the year. Jake Fromm is a seasoned vet. D'Andre Swift is an underrated playmaker. The second-ranked defense in the SEC in 2018 is still loaded with talent.

    There are a lot of puzzle pieces waiting to fit nicely together for the Bulldogs to finally break through.

    It wouldn't be surprising for both squads to make it through the season undefeated and meet in Atlanta for the conference title, giving us yet another instant classic. If that's the case, look for both to be in college football's Final Four again.

    If that happens, who knows what will take place in a rematch? But this is only the SEC Championship Game prediction. 

    Smart is the Saban disciple who will emerge with his second league title in three years, and UGA will keep this new-money momentum as one of the college football's elite programs.

    Winner: Georgia Bulldogs

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