Southeastern Conference 2023 college football preview

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Southeastern Conference 2023 preview

The Georgia Bulldogs won the SEC Championship Game on their way to winning the College Football Playoff last year. Kirby Smart’s team has won the conference in two of the last six years. The Bulldogs are also favored to win it for a second year in a row, as they’re listed at -115 to take the conference. The Alabama Crimson Tide have the second-best odds of winning the SEC, but they’re way back at +300. Nick Saban’s program has won the conference in eight of the last 15 years. People are somewhat down on the Tide after they missed the College Football Playoff last year, but you can bet against Saban at your own risk. 

 

The LSU Tigers are yet another team that looks to have what it takes to compete on paper. Brian Kelly led LSU to a 10-4 record in his first year with the program, and the Tigers now have +450 odds to win the SEC. Outside of that, it’s hard to count out teams like the Texas A&M Aggies and Tennessee Volunteers. 

The rest of the programs in this conference are likely a few years away from actually competing to win the SEC, but it will be interesting to see what the Ole Miss Rebels, Auburn Tigers and Arkansas Razorbacks do this season. Lane Kiffin has led Ole Miss to winning records in back-to-back years, so this program can make a little noise. As for Auburn, the Tigers hired Hugh Freeze in the offseason. He probably needs a little time to build this program up, but he’ll have the resources and knows what it takes to win in the SEC. Meanwhile, Arkansas is 16-10 over the last two seasons and brings back star quarterback K.J. Jefferson. That comes with some expectations, but does the team have enough around Jefferson to turn in another winning season? 

Another team to keep an eye on is the Florida Gators. It’ll be interesting to see how they do in Year 2 of Billy Napier. Florida was just 6-7 in 2022 and lost by 27 against the Oregon State Beavers in the SRS Distribution Las Vegas Bowl. If the Gators don’t improve in a hurry, Napier’s seat could get hot rather quickly. Florida is a program that expects to compete with the big boys in the SEC, so patience won’t be there in evaluating the state of this team. 

 

Alabama Crimson Tide

The Alabama Crimson Tide have seemingly fallen behind Georgia as the class of the SEC, but there’s no way Nick Saban will sit back and accept that. The legendary head coach is going to do everything in his power to get this team back in the College Football Playoff hunt, but will the quarterback play allow that to happen this season? That is seemingly the biggest question mark heading into the year, as Bryce Young is now spending his Sundays playing for the Carolina Panthers. 

Alabama’s offensive line wasn’t very good last season, but Young was so good that he could mask that, along with some of the program’s other deficiencies — at least when playing at home. Without a legitimate superstar at quarterback, will things look a lot worse? The defense likely won’t be what it was last year, which isn’t great, considering last season was a bit of a drop from the year before. 

Offense

If Jalen Milroe wins this job, the passing game could take a small hit. That’d be a slight shame considering the efficiency this unit has had through the air over the years, but it might be a necessary evil when you factor in that Alabama returns only two starters from last year’s offensive line. Milroe’s ability to take off and extend plays would help a unit that might lack connectivity early in the season. But Ty Simpson is a bit better as a decision-maker, and his accuracy as a passer is better than Milroe’s. Simpson would likely be a bit better of a fit for new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees’ system, and he also has the ability to tuck it and run. It’s just not something he looks to do quite as early. 

Regardless of who wins this job, the wide receiver group should be a lot better than last year, and most of that will come from the internal development of some highly talented athletes. The Crimson Tide also have a stable of gifted running backs, so the ground game should be fine as long as the offensive line doesn’t implode. 

Defense

Even though Will Anderson Jr.. struggled to live up to the hype last year, the team will miss his presence. But talent is never an issue on the defensive side of the ball for Alabama. Sure, the linebacking corps won’t be quite as good as it was with Anderson in the mix, but the defensive line should be better in 2023. 

The Crimson Tide also have a very good group of defensive backs, which should be a big asset against some of the SEC’s better passing teams. Overall, Alabama might struggle to replicate last year’s 18.0 points per game allowed (tied for 9th in CFB). But it’s hard to see the Tide completely falling apart on this side of the ball, and they should ultimately be a top-20 unit once again. 

Outlook 

There’s just no value in betting the Under at -175 odds. This is a very talented football team, and the schedule isn’t as awful as you might think for a top-tier SEC program. Alabama’s toughest road game will come against Texas A&M, but that’s one the Tide could easily find a way to win. If they steal that one on the road, it’s hard to find two other losses on the schedule. And there’s national title potential if the quarterback play is better than people think. 

Pick: Over 10.5 

 

Arkansas Razorbacks

Head coach Sam Pittman has worked wonders since arriving in Fayetteville. The Arkansas Razorbacks weren’t in good shape when he took over the program, and the team went just 3-7 in 2020. But Arkansas is 16-10 since the start of the 2021 season, and the team has won each of its past two bowl games. 

However, this does figure to be something of a challenging year for this team. Star quarterback K.J. Jefferson is back under center for the Hogs, but only 10 starters return from last year’s group. The Razorbacks also lost offensive coordinator Kendal Briles to TCU in the offseason. Briles did a great job of taking Arkansas’ offense to another level, and Dan Enos will have his work cut out for him in filling his shoes.  

Offense

It’ll be intriguing to see what this offense looks like with Briles no longer calling the shots. Enos, who spent last season as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for Maryland, probably won’t be asked to change things too much. He’ll definitely do what he can to use Jefferson as a runner, as the quarterback rushed for 640 yards and nine touchdowns last year. 

With a great group of running backs, Arkansas will have plenty of options when it comes to the ground game. But Jefferson also posted a career-high completion percentage in 2022, while also throwing for 2,648 yards with 24 touchdowns and only five picks. The Razorbacks will be hoping that the senior can turn in an even better year as a thrower in 2023. The issue is that Arkansas’ offensive line is a bit of a question mark, with three of last year’s starters having departed. The Razorbacks are also lacking in proven talent at the wide receiver position. 

Defense

Arkansas had one of the worst defenses in the SEC last year, giving up 28.8 points per game. Only two teams gave up more rushing yards per game than the Razorbacks did, but that actually could improve in 2023. Arkansas’ defensive line should be quite a bit better than it was last season. The team will just need an inexperienced group of linebackers to find a way to support the defensive front when defending the run. Another issue is that the Razorbacks were lousy in the secondary last year, and there isn’t much to be optimistic about when it comes to the defensive backs group. With that in mind, Arkansas should be one of the worst defenses in the conference again in 2023. 

Outlook 

With this total sitting at 7, you have to ask yourself whether it’s more likely the Razorbacks win six or eight games. And I just don’t see how eight would be the answer there. Jefferson is an electric player at the quarterback position, but Arkansas is going to miss Briles’ mind offensively. And this team is very inexperienced on both sides of the ball, so it’s hard to envision the Razorbacks exceeding expectations with their difficult schedule.

Pick: Under 7 

 

Auburn Tigers

After going 39-25 in five seasons with Ole Miss, some off-field shenanigans forced Hugh Freeze to take a few years off as a head coach. But Freeze returned with Liberty in 2019, and he went 34-15 in four seasons with the program. Freeze’s work with the Flames ended up getting him this big opportunity with the Auburn Tigers, and the expectation is that this will ultimately end up working out very well for both parties. But how quickly will the hiring yield results? It isn’t hard to envision it happening immediately. Auburn returns 17 starters, and Freeze did well on the transfer market. And Freeze’s schematic changes should bring the best out of most of these players. Another big change for the Tigers is that Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne decided to end his career with Auburn. He should stabilize the quarterback position in a big way. 

Offense

Robby Ashford is a dual-threat quarterback with a lot of potential, so he’d theoretically make for a good fit in the same offense that turned Malik Willis into a superstar. But it seems like this is Thorne’s job to lose, and it’s hard to argue with the logic behind that. Two seasons ago, Thorne threw for 3,240 yards with 27 touchdowns and only 10 picks for Michigan State. He struggled to replicate that in a down year for the Spartans last year, but Thorne is the son of a coach and can be trusted to run Freeze’s offense. He’s the safe play for a team with very inconsistent production from the quarterback position last year. With a solid offensive line and a running game that projects to be very strong, decent play is all Auburn needs out of Thorne. 

Defense

Defensive coordinator Ron Roberts should be huge for this program. Roberts oversaw a very good Baylor defense in each of the last three years, and that also means that he got to consistently pick the brain of Dave Aranda. Don’t be surprised if this is one of the best units in the SEC after giving up a miserable 29.5 points per game a year ago. The right system should do wonders for a team that has legitimate talent in place. Freeze brought in a ton of transfers that are ready to contribute immediately. And the Tigers should have one of the SEC’s best secondaries, with corners DJ James and Nehemiah Pritchett being two guys that should be in for big years. 

Outlook 

This is one of the better bets you can make in this conference. Auburn completely overhauled its coaching staff, going from one of the worst ones in the SEC to one of the best groups in the entire country. When you combine that with the fact that the new staff will get to work with some experienced players, you’re looking at a team that could take a massive leap in 2023. Five games on Auburn’s schedule should result in easy wins, and the team should be able to find two or three more. 

Pick: Over 6.5  

 

Florida Gators

The Florida Gators went 6-7 in Billy Napier’s first year at the helm, but people are still somewhat excited about the future of this program. Napier spent a lot of time working under Nick Saban at Alabama, so he’s viewed as a future star in his profession. But Napier isn’t going to have a lot of time to prove to Florida’s higher-ups that he is the right guy for this job. He needs to turn things around quickly, and it doesn’t seem like his second year with the Gators will be any better than the first. This is still a team that’s in dire need of an improvement at the quarterback position, and Napier needs to find a way to beef up his offensive line. Until that happens, Florida will struggle to turn in winning seasons in this loaded conference. If we’re right about the Gators in 2023, Napier could enter 2024 on the hot seat. 

Offense

The Gators have some studs at wide receiver. Ricky Pearsall and Caleb Douglas are two guys that can really do damage on the outside. Florida also has a nice group of running backs, with Trevor Etienne and Montrell Johnson making up a nice duo that brings different skill sets out of the backfield. The problem for the Gators is that the offensive line will likely be a weakness this year. That could cause everything to come crashing down on the offense, especially with quarterback play not being much of a strength. Whether it’s Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz or Jack Miller III under center, it’ll be hard to believe in this passing game. With that being the case, the Gators will likely have one of the worst offenses in the conference. 

Defense

While the offense likely won’t be much better in 2023, the defense should be tougher to score on this season. This program was once known for being impenetrable, and Napier clearly wants to get back to that. That’s why he brought in Southern Miss defensive coordinator Austin Armstrong to work with Sean Spencer in the offseason. Florida wasn’t very tough against the run last year, and the team couldn’t get timely stops either. That should change this year, as the defensive line is set to flip and become a legitimate strength for this group. The Gators also have a nice group of linebackers, so they should be able to hit opponents in the backfield and fly to the ball in a hurry. The only real question mark with this group is in the secondary, with the safeties being something of a concern. Regardless, Florida should improve drastically upon the 28.8 points per game it gave up in 2022. 

Outlook 

Maybe Napier is the right guy to turn this program around, but it’s hard to see it happening this year. The defense will have a difficult time keeping this team in games, and the schedule isn’t all that easy. Outside of potential victories over McNeese, Charlotte and Vanderbilt, nothing is guaranteed for the Gators.

Pick: Under 5.5

 

Georgia Bulldogs

The Georgia Bulldogs have won back-to-back national championships, and Kirby Smart’s team is favored to win it all again this year. Georgia will, however, need to do it without Stetson Bennett, the team’s starting quarterback for the past two seasons, as well as several elite players that went on to be selected in the 2023 NFL Draft. But programs like this one never really struggle to retool on a year-to-year basis. 

Georgia has five-star talent to plug into open positions on the depth chart, and the team also has 13 starters returning from last year’s championship team. If quarterback Carson Beck can get himself comfortable and start playing some good football after an easy early-season schedule, the Bulldogs should once again be in the College Football Playoff. There isn’t a team in the country that is as talented as this one from top to bottom. 

Offense

It seems like Beck is going to get the starting quarterback job, but it isn’t out of the question that Brock Vandagriff will steal it from him. Either way, this passing game should be just fine with Bennett gone. Of course, Georgia will miss Bennett’s poise in big games, but the Bulldogs have one of the best offensive lines in college football. 

Georgia also brought back pass-catching stars in tight end Brock Bowers and wide receiver Ladd McConkey, who leads a group of gifted wideouts. The Bulldogs should also have a great running game in 2023, with Kendall Milton leading a solid stable of running backs that should mostly be running through big holes. Overall, it shouldn’t surprise anybody if Georgia comes close to matching last year’s 41.1 points per game, which was tied for the fourth-highest mark in college football in 2022. 

Defense

Georgia had the second-best scoring defense in college football last year, allowing only 12.8 points per game on the season. The team did lose some elite talent to the NFL Draft, but the Bulldogs have plenty of studs remaining — and new players ready to have their coming out parties. Georgia is especially strong in the secondary, where Javon Bullard should be one of the best players in all of college football next season. The Dawgs also have a ton of talent along the defensive line, which is always helpful in a conference that is won in the trenches. If somebody can emerge from Georgia’s young group of linebackers, this should be one of the best defenses in the nation again. 

Outlook 

Georgia obviously has a great chance of winning the College Football Playoff this year, but it’s still hard to back the Dawgs to go undefeated in the regular season. Road games against Auburn and Tennessee will really test this Bulldogs team, and I just find it hard to believe they won’t get tripped up somewhere along the way. With that in mind, the best way to back Georgia is probably by taking them to win the SEC at -115. That gives you some wiggle room throughout the regular season, but you’ll still have a good price on them in the SEC Championship Game. They’d surely be a moneyline favorite of -115 or greater against anybody they face there. 

Pick: Under 11.5 

 

Kentucky Wildcats

After going 12-24 in his first three years as the head coach of the Kentucky Wildcats, Mark Stoops has had his team post a winning record in six of the past seven seasons. He has really done some impressive work in a situation that not many people thought could be successful. This year, Stoops is expected to flirt again with a winning record, and bringing in quarterback Devin Leary from NC State should help. Leary has big shoes to fill in replacing Will Levis, who was the 33rd pick in the 2023 NFL Draft. But the former ACC standout should be able to do it adequately, as long as he is given some time to throw. The big question for Kentucky is how the defense will perform with only five returning starters from last year’s superb unit. 

Offense

Levis was a very good starting quarterback for the Wildcats, but the team might have upgraded in bringing in Leary after last season. Two seasons ago, Leary threw for 3,433 yards with 35 touchdowns and only five picks for NC State. He has a big arm and can throw it deep with accuracy, so he might be able to take this passing game to another level. Leary is also a better decision-maker than Levis, so this offense likely won’t be gift-wrapping many turnovers to the opponent. The success of this unit will just come down to the offensive line. Stoops hit the transfer portal hard to try and patch things up along the line, but there’s no guarantee that’ll work. Kentucky will also miss having Chris Rodriguez in the backfield, as he’s one of the best running backs in school history. 

Defense

Kentucky had the 12th-best scoring defense in the nation last year, as the Wildcats gave up only 19.1 points per game. It’s highly unlikely they’ll be able to replicate that success with only five starters back, but this should be an above-average unit in 2023. Kentucky’s defensive line can probably be counted on to be productive in 2023, and the linebackers are another group that Stoops won’t have to worry about. The Wildcats just need to hold up in the secondary, as they’re pretty inexperienced at corner. The good news is that Kentucky has size and athleticism at the position.  

Outlook 

With a rather favorable schedule in place in 2023, it’s hard to see this team not winning seven games. All it will take is a win or two in a 50-50 game on the road. This isn’t exactly a team that’s impressive in any way, shape or form, but Stoops has consistently won since taking over in Lexington. I expect him to put together another year that ends with a trip to a bowl game. 

Pick: Over 6.5 

 

LSU Tigers

By the end of Brian Kelly’s first year in Baton Rouge, the LSU Tigers looked like one of the best teams in the country. Now, the expectation is that the Tigers will build on last year’s success and compete for a national title. But first, LSU needs to hold off Alabama in the SEC West and eventually Georgia after that. While this team looks great on paper, it does seem like something of a difficult task. But overall, Kelly has done a good job of quickly getting the Tigers back in the conversation. And this team should be electric on both sides of the ball, which is why we’re here debating whether this will be another double-digit win season. 

Offense

Quarterback Jayden Daniels always flashed potential in his time with Arizona State, but he looked like a legitimate star in his first year with the Tigers. Last season, Daniels threw for 2,913 yards with 17 touchdowns and only three interceptions, while also rushing for 885 yards and 11 scores. He looked very comfortable facing elite SEC competition, and he should have an outside shot at winning the Heisman Trophy this year. Daniels is flanked by a talented group of wide receivers, but can the running game take some pressure off him? Daniels probably put himself in harm’s way a little too often last year, so LSU needs a running back to step up and become the guy. The offensive line is definitely good enough this year, so there’s no excuse for somebody not to seize the job. 

Defense

In defensive tackle Maason Smith and linebacker Harold Perkins, the Tigers probably have the best defensive duo in the nation. Smith tore his ACL early last season, but he’s back to bolster the defensive line this year. Meanwhile, Perkins is a game wrecker in the middle of the field, and the two of them will be nightmares for opposing offenses this year. LSU should especially be better against the run this year, which will be huge after that was a weakness in 2022. If this group has one inexperienced unit, it’s probably in the secondary. But you never really have to worry about LSU fielding productive defensive backs. Overall, this should be a very difficult defense to score on this season. 

Outlook 

There aren’t many holes on this LSU roster, but how can you be confident in 10 wins with this schedule? Meetings with Florida State, Ole Miss, Alabama and Texas A&M all look like tough ones for the Tigers. And Kelly’s team can easily stumble somewhere else along the way. Kelly has clearly done a good job of building this program up, and he could have some championships in his future. But it’d be shocking if he gets it done with this gauntlet of a schedule. 

Pick: Under 9.5 

 

Mississippi State Bulldogs

The world lost an amazing coach and an even better person when Mike Leach passed away last year. Leach was one of the most unique personalities in college football, as there was never a dull moment when he was around. Leach will also be remembered as one of the brightest offensive minds in the history of the sport, so the vibe might not feel quite right with this Mississippi State Bulldogs team in 2023. But Zach Arnett was highly regarded as a defensive coordinator, and the 36-year-old should be able to find a way to win with this team. It just might not happen right away. The wounds are still extremely fresh for Mississippi State, and there’s likely an adjustment period coming. Don’t be surprised if the Bulldogs are ultra-competitive throughout the year, but they might fall short of expectations. 

Offense

Mississippi State brings back eight starters from last year’s offense, but that was a team that was built to play in Leach’s Air Raid. Things might not be as smooth with new offensive Kevin Barbay installing his system. Barbay is considered one of the most innovative young minds in football, so this offense should start humming eventually. But it might take a little time for these players to get comfortable, and time isn’t really a luxury when you play a schedule like this one. Look for quarterback Will Rogers to continue to make some big plays in the passing game, but the running game will be more emphasized in 2023. Four starters are back along the offensive line, and Barbay’s offense will be most effective when things are clicking on the ground. With that said, Jo’Quavious Marks could be in for a big year. 

Defense

The Bulldogs have a very good group of linebackers, so that’s a nice foundation to build on for Arnett. The defensive line should also be a productive unit for Mississippi State. The question is how the Bulldogs will hold up in the secondary. They only brought back one starter from last year’s group of corners, and the talent at the position doesn’t appear to be there. This defense is ready to play pretty much everywhere else, but a leaky passing game would be tough to overcome in this conference. 

Outlook 

It might take some time for everybody to get excited about this program after the tragedy that took place last year. But Arnett is viewed as one of the most promising up-and-coming coaches in college football. He’s a brilliant defensive mind and was going to get an opportunity to lead a team eventually. This year might be a little rough in Starkville, as the team is likely looking at six or fewer wins. But the future is brighter than it might seem right now. 

Pick: Under 6.5  

 

Missouri Tigers

Eliah Drinkwitz hasn’t yet turned in a winning season since becoming head coach of the Missouri Tigers, but the team returns 15 starters from last year’s team. They also happen to be getting talent back at the right positions, with quarterback Brady Cook returning after a big year and most of his offensive line back to protect him. Of course, having experience doesn’t guarantee success in the SEC, but this definitely does seem like Drinkwitz’s chance to make some noise with this program. Missouri opens the season with four winnable games in its first five contests, but how will things go from there? Do the Tigers have a few big wins in them? 

Offense

This offense feels like it can really take off in 2023. Last year, Cook threw for 2,739 yards with 14 touchdowns and seven picks, and he also added 585 yards and six scores on the ground. He’s a difficult player to try and stop, and he should be even better with a year of seasoning. Cook will also be working behind a very experienced offensive line, and his wide receiver group has potential. Luther Burden was a highly touted recruit that should be ready to step up and make plays in 2023. Missouri also has a nice group of running backs, so this team should get a little something out of the ground game. Overall, the Tigers should significantly improve upon last year’s 24.8 points per game. And this should be an offense that finds a way to show up against above-average defenses. 

Defense

Missouri only allowed 25.0 points per game last season and now has eight starters back from last year’s team. The strength of this Tigers team should be the defensive backs, as Kris Abrams-Draine and Ennis Rakestraw make up one heck of a duo at corner. But Missouri also has talent at linebacker, and there’s some potential along the defensive line. The big question is how the defensive ends will play for the Tigers in 2023. That is the least proven group on this defense, and it’s one that has been good for the program in recent years. If somebody can step up and make plays on the edge, Missouri might be a lot better than expected. 

Outlook 

It’d be pretty surprising if Missouri doesn’t open the year with at least a 4-1 record. From there, the Tigers will have opportunities to win some games. I like their chances at home against Florida, and I don’t think it’s outrageous to think they can beat either Kentucky or Arkansas on the road. That makes it hard not to like the Over for their regular season win total, especially at these odds. I also think there’s a chance this team ends up winning eight games. There’s real talent on both sides of the ball. 

Pick: Over 6.5 (+115) 

 

Ole Miss Rebels

The Ole Miss Rebels didn’t quite live up to 2021’s 10-3 season last year, as they went 8-5 in 2022. The season also ended with a disappointing 17-point loss against Texas Tech in the bowl game, but things have the potential to get better in 2023. Ole Miss still has Jaxson Dart at quarterback, and star running back Quinshon Judkins is back to run behind one of the conference’s best offensive lines. That means the offense should be special once again under head coach Lane Kiffin, who has done nothing but pump out elite offenses over the last decade. Kiffin also brought in former Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Golding in the offseason. If that hire hits, you’re looking at a team that could pull off some stunners this year. 

Offense

Ole Miss averaged 33.5 points per game in 2022 and should be even better offensively this season. Dart threw for 2,974 yards with 20 touchdowns and 11 picks last year, and he also rushed for 614 yards and a score. For his first year in the system, Dart really showed a lot of promise for the Rebels. If he does hold off Oklahoma State transfer Spencer Sanders for the starting job, Dart should do big things behind a stellar offensive line. It also helps that Judkins is arguably the best running back in this conference. Last year, Judkins rushed for 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns for Ole Miss. He has a good shot at leading the conference in rushing again this year, and his ability to take over games will make the Rebels a tough team to beat this year. 

Defense

Not only did the Rebels bring Golding in to change up this defense, but he also has seven returning starters to work with. This defense wasn’t even all that bad in 2022, as Ole Miss only gave up 24.2 points per game last season. But the Rebels should find a way to improve upon that, and that’s what makes this a team with some sleeper potential in 2023. Ole Miss should be especially tough aga