The SEC East would appear to have certainly at the very top and very bottom, and plenty of room for debate in-between. Here are my thoughts on each team, listed in order of my predicted finish.
Georgia – After ending a 42-year title drought, Georgia finds itself in an unfamiliar spot. Instead of hoping they could finally break through, they now must avoid the trappings of complacency and sustain their success by sticking to the process that got them into the pantheon of elite programs. That is never as easy as it sounds. But the Bulldogs have the commitment from the university community, the infrastructure, the personnel depth from years of elite recruiting, and the head coach in Kirby Smart to make it happen.
The Bulldogs also have their title-winning QB in Stetson Bennett III back for his 6th season of college football. Bennett silenced many of his doubters last season, yet despite ranking 4th in the country in QBR and 3rd in yards per-attempt, there is still a faction who believe that Georgia won the title in spite of him. This narrative dismisses just how effective the offense was last season in scoring 36 points per game, 10th in the country. With the departure of so many starters on defense, it’s expected more of the load will fall to Bennett and the offense if they are to repeat. Bennett will have an unfamiliar wide receiver corps to target this season, but that should largely be mitigated by what is objectively the most prolific group of tight ends in college football. The top returning receiver on the team is last year’s freshman sensation TE Brock Bowers. He’s joined by fellow TEs Arik Gilbert, who was expected to start last season but sat out for personal reasons, and Darnell Washington, who battled several injuries in ’21. The running game is expected to be strong with Kendall Milton and Kenny McIntosh replacing Zamir White and James Cook. The offensive line returns a very good pair of bookends in tackles Broderick Jones and Warren McLendon, as well as center Sedrick Van Pran. They’ll be plugging in two relatively inexperienced guards in-between those three.
Just three starters return from last season’s defense for the ages, but the best player on that side of the ball was probably a backup in 2021. DT Jalen Carter, who some say might be better than ’21 starting tackles Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt – both 1st Round NFL picks – will anchor the defensive line. If the rest of the unit around Carter is nearly as good, it will be a testament to just how great the staff have recruited on the defensive front. LB Nolan Smith, the most highly-touted recruit from Georgia’s 2018 class, leads the linebackers and the hope is he can truly break out now that he will be the focal point. CB Kelee Ringo – he of the Pick Six in the title game – and S Christopher Smith are the returning starters in the secondary, but the unit is probably the biggest question mark headed into the season.
Kentucky – Mark Stoops has done nothing short of a remarkable job since coming to Lexington in 2013, where football traditionally was little more than a distraction until it was time for basketball season. Stoops is the only UK coach ever to have multiple 10-win seasons, a list that includes the illustrious Paul “Bear” Bryant and other notables like Jerry Claiborne and Rich Brooks. The Wildcats got to where they are with a basic schematic formula, and playing a very hard-nosed style within it. They prefer big offensive lines, running the ball, and relying on a good defense. Now they also possess the talent to attack opponents through the air like never before in the Stoops era.
QB Will Levis went from a change-of-pace running backup at Penn State to a bona fide starter, and perhaps even star, at Kentucky last season. Levis has the NFL buzzing over his potential, and many believe a good follow up to last season would cement him as a 1st Round pick in 2023. For him to have a good chance at that, the Wildcats will need to replace several key pieces around Levis. Wan’Dale Robinson, who set the school’s single season record for receptions and yards last year, is gone. His replacement is expected to be Virginia Tech transfer Tayvion Robinson (no relation), who had 113 reception for 1,555 yards for the Hokies in ’21. The ‘Cats also have six other 4-star recruits in the WR room, so there is talent there. Meanwhile, TE Izayah Cummings was the team leader in receiving yards among all returnees. RB Chris Rodriguez, the #2 rusher in the SEC last season, returns to provide balance to the offense. The interior portion of the offensive line looks solid and experienced; all three positions are manned by someone with a season’s worth of starting experience, if you include inbound transfers. The tackle positions are less certain. The favorite for the left tackle spot is true freshman Kiyaunta Goodwin, the #6 ranked tackle in the 2022 class and one of the highest-rated recruits ever to sign with Kentucky. Former JUCO Jeremy Flax will likely start on the right side.
Kentucky must replace its entire starting defensive front from last year, including 3-year starter and 2nd Round NFL pick Joshua Paschal. Fortunately they return an excellent linebacker unit led by MLBs DeAndre Square and Jacquez Jones, along with JJ Weaver and Jordan Wright on the outside, who have combined for 33.5 tackles-for-loss and 14.5 sacks in their careers. As for the front, the Wildcats will rely on members of a stellar recruiting class from 2020 to make a big impact in their third year. The secondary needs to improve upon last season; they ranked just 82nd in EPA per play passing in ’21. They do seem to like their two returning safeties, Jalen Geiger and Tyrell Ajian, but Stoops added three cornerbacks off the transfer portal to try and improve that position.
Tennessee – After a very messy offseason of coaching drama, plus attrition that left them with just 69 scholarship players by season’s end, Josh Heupel arrived in Knoxville and pulled off a minor miracle in getting the Volunteers to 7-6. He did it by turning one of the game’s most stagnant offenses into one of the most potent. Now Heupel has recruiting trending in the right direction too, no doubt aided by one of the more well-funded and organized NIL collectives. However, the journey from bad too good is often quicker and easier than going from good to great, and Tennessee’s journey is still just beginning.
Former Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker had a season of highs and lows as a quarterback; briefly losing his starting job early in the season, then battling injuries the final month of the season to lead his team to victory in 3 of their last 4 games (including a win at #18 Kentucky). He showed tremendous growth during the season and the coaching staff clearly have high expectations for Hooker in Year 2. He’ll have the benefit of the return of WR Cedric Tillman and his 64 rec/1,081 yds/12 TDs from last season. Elsewhere at WR, look for junior Jalin Hyatt, who had a very good spring, to emerge as a reliable target along with USC transfer Bru McCoy. Running back is a question mark with Jabari Small, who was injured on-and-off in ’21, the likely starter. Up front, there are very few concerns. Even with Cade Mays now in the NFL, 4 of 5 starting offensive linemen return, with another NFL prospect in Darnell Wright sliding over to replace Mays.
If the evolution of the offense from one season to the next was surprising, then the transformation of the Vol defense was a shocker. They led the nation in tackles-for-loss for most of the season, and recorded the most in school history (102). Improving upon that may be a very tall order as three of their best players on that side are now in the NFL, and several other key contributors have moved on as well. If they are as good, or better, it will likely be because of their linebacking corps, where Leading tackler Jeremy Banks returns and is flanked by Byron Young and Tyler Baron. Senior safeties Trevon Flowers and Jalen McCollough solidify the back end. The front line and cornerbacks are the big questions headed into the season, but also the most likely room for improvement as evidenced by their 101st ranking in 3rd down success allowed. For a team that runs a hyper-speed offense like Tennessee, the defense getting off the field on third down is crucial.
Florida – The Dan Mullen era appeared to fall apart very suddenly. The Gators went 29-6 in Mullen’s first 35 games. Then came The Shoe Throwing Incident on a foggy Gainesville night against LSU. Including that galling loss, Florida would go 5-9 through the remainder of Mullen’s tenure, as he was fired one game prior to the end of the ’21 season. But as the shoe-throwing revealed, discipline issues, along with so-so recruiting, were eroding away at the Gators from the inside before many realized it. Enter Billy Napier from Louisiana. His success in Lafayette (40-12, two Sun Belt titles in four seasons) made him a hot commodity on the coaching carousel. Was that enough to justify handing him the reins to a program with the expectations of Florida? Time will tell, but in his first 8 months on the job it does appear a culture change is well under way.
QB Anthony Richardson possesses all of the physical tools to be a top college QB, and NFL prospect. Napier, offensive coordinator Rob Sale and QB analyst Ryan O’Hara will attempt to maximize those tools and help Richardson improve his decision-making, though an important factor will also be whether or not he can avoid injuries that plagued him in ’21. In terms of play-calling, expect a run-first approach that relies on play-action passing, as evidenced by Napier’s offenses at Louisiana (92nd in pass attempts per game, but 38th in pass efficiency). The offensive line returns three starters on a unit that played a big role in the Gators averaging 5.48 yards per carry, 4th in the country. Co-leading receiver Justin Shorter is back, and Arizona State transfer WR Ricky Pearsall should help bolster the unit after the other co-leader, Jacob Copeland, transferred to Maryland. Running back Montrell Johnson, who came along with Napier from Louisiana, looks to be the lead back.
The Gator defense, while technically improved over 2020, was still not good in 2021. They ranked just 73rd in points per game allowed (26.8) and gave up 5.48 yards per play (59th). New defensive coordinator Patrick Toney inherits seven returning starters and will hope to get more production and cohesiveness out of players who largely have not lived up to their recruiting hype. DT Gervon Dexter anchors the defensive line, and they will hope for a breakthrough from edge rusher Brenton Cox Jr, the 23rd ranked player nationally in the 2018 freshman class. The secondary returns three full-time starters, led by CB Jason Marshall, and a fourth player with some starting experience. Already the best unit on the defensive side, the hope is their experience will help make the rest of the defense better.
South Carolina – Head Coach Shane Beamer’s first season in charge at South Carolina saw them win more games (7) than in the previous two seasons combined (6). Sometimes quick turnarounds in Year 1 lay the groundwork for what’s to come. Other times they’re fool’s gold. Beamer leads a program where it is historically tough to win. Only Steve Spurrier has had what could be considered unquestioned success there, with three 11-win seasons and one division championship over ten seasons. The offseason commitment of transfer QB Spencer Rattler provided a charge that helped legitimize the program as much as the surprise winning season in ’21 did.
The Gamecock’s started four different quarterbacks in ’21. That revolving door certainly contributed to the offense leading the SEC in turnovers, and ranking next-to-last in yards per play. If nothing else, the addition of Rattler should bring some stability to the position. However, the belief is he will do more than that, seeing as he was considered a Heisman favorite by some headed into last season. If there is one word that both Rattler and the rest of the Gamecock offense most want to improve upon in ’22, that word is “consistency.” They looked great in wins against Florida and North Carolina in the bowl game, but struggled too often. The offensive line returns a good bit of starting experience, but figuring out who the best five are is still a question. WR Josh Vann, the reception/yards/TD leader returns, as does #2 receiver TE Jaheim Bell. Rattler’s former Oklahoma teammate, TE Austin Stogner, came with him to add even more potential production to the passing game. The Gamecocks hope Wake Forest transfer RB Christian Beal-Smith will have success reminiscent of another Wake transfer, Kenneth Walker III.
South Carolina saw tremendous year-over-year improvement defensively; from allowing 36 points per game in 2020 (105th nationally) to just 24 in 2021 (46th). Though they have six starters to replace, they have some excellent talent in the wings, including two 5-star recruits up front – DT Zach Pickens and edge Jordan Burch – along with a very good and experienced secondary led by All-SEC CB Cam Smith. They must improve at stopping the run (12th in SEC) and rushing the passer, but the talent is there to do so.
Missouri – In two years under head coach Eli Drinkwitz the Tigers have gone 11-11 in the regular season, plus a last-second loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl last season. While expectations for Missouri are tempered playing in the SEC, .500 is probably not going to get you an extension. Drinkwitz will have to overcome a couple of important losses, as ’21 starting QB Conner Bazelek transferred to Indiana and SEC leading rusher RB Tyler Badie is in the NFL.
Brady Cook and Tyler Macon were competing for the QB1 job in spring. Then the Tigers got great news over the summer when two-sport, 4-star QB signee Sam Horn was not selected in the Major League Baseball draft, assuring he will come to Mizzou to compete for the starting job as well. Stanford transfer RB Nathaniel Peat is expected to replace Badie. The passing game should be boosted by the return of leading WR Tauskie Dove and 5-star freshman Luther Burden III. The offensive line returns a lot of experience; 4 of 5 regular starters. Only the center position will have a new face, with Buffalo transfer Bence Polgar having an edge after spring.
The Tigers return a lot more players on defense, so experience is not an issue there. However, improving upon their ’21 performance is. The Tigers stood at 129th in FBS in yards-per-rush allowed after five games last year. Drinkwitz made a coaching change to the DL unit, which did yield some improvement (80th in yards-per-rush during the remainder of the season). Still, they must be better this season if Missouri is to at least return to a bowl, especially given the lost production on offense. DEs Isaiah McGuire and Trajan Jeffcoat have NFL-level talent. Devin Nicholson returns to the MLB position, and Florida transfer Ty’Ron Hopper slides in beside him as the Will linebacker in Mizzou’s 4-2-5 alignment. The secondary is very athletic, but very thin on experience and needs to be more disciplined.
Vanderbilt – How long of a climb is it for Vanderbilt out of the SEC East basement? Head coach Clark Lea signed the highest rated class in school history in the most recent cycle – 32nd in the country in the 247 Sports Composite Index – and yet still has by any objective measure the least-talented roster in the SEC. Improvement in 2022 is unlikely to be measured by wins, which is a tough sell when you only registered 2 wins the previous year. But….this is Vanderbilt, which hasn’t logged a winning season since James Franklin left after 2013.
Sophomores Mike Wright and Ken Seals are expected to battle for the starting quarterback job. Both have starting experience and the competition should last well into August. A dark horse could be AJ Swann, a one-time Maryland commit who flipped to Vandy and was the highest rated offensive signee in their ’22 class. Whomever emerges will need to engineer more out of an offense that ranked 118th in the country in yards per game (312.8). The good news is the Commodores return all of their rushing production from ’21, led by Re’Mahn Davis, who missed much of the season due to injury, along with Rocko Griffin and Patrick Smith. Who will clear the way for them up front is the bigger concern. Three starters must be replaced, though two of them, the center and left guard spots should be manned by experienced players. Left tackle is the bigger concern, where either sophomore Gunnar Hansen or North Texas transfer Jacob Brammer should emerge the starter. Their most productive receiver is probably TE Ben Bresnahan, who is back healthy after battling a knee injury all of ’21.
Like the offense, the defense returns a lot of experienced players, but must produce better. They were actually better than the offense, but only slightly so. They will have a new voice, as coordinator Jesse Minter left for Michigan and is replaced by Nick Howell, who came from Virginia. Howell will run the same 4-3 base alignment Minter did, so schematically there won’t be much change. There is experience, and some talent in every unit of the defense, including the return of their top four tacklers from last year. However, many fans are probably more anxious to see new freshman arrivals from their big recruiting class. DLs Darren Agu and Bradley Mann, LB Daniel Martin (the top-ranked player in the class) and DBs Trudell Berry and Savion Ridley could all push for early playing time.
College Football Analyst
Mike is a Baltimore native living in Portland, OR since 2007. He currently runs his own business specializing in video production and online marketing. Prior to that he was a legal technology consultant, worked for 9 years at Johns Hopkins University and served 6 years in the Air Force. He also enjoys travel, food, beer, and is a volunteer at the Oregon Humane Society.