1.Georgia (Ranked #3 Nationally)
Last year was heartbreaking for Georgia fans, as the Bulldogs saw their national title hopes slip away on one Tua touchdown late in overtime against Alabama, but despite losing two NFL caliber running backs, an All-American G in Isaiah Wynn, and over half their defense (including linebacker of the year Roquan Smith) my computer still has this team in the top four nationally to start the year of redemption. Kirby Smart can solidify himself as one of the premier coaches in college football with another 2017 level season, the former Alabama DC transformed a school that averaged a still tremendous nine wins a year before he got there into a legit national title contender. QB Jake Fromm returns after a freshman All-American season (2,615 yards on a 62.2% passer rating, 24 touchdowns, seven interceptions, 160.1 QB rating), although dual-threat QB Justin Fields, the #2 overall recruit in the class of 2018, will challenge him for the starting role. Assuming Fromm wins the job, he will be throwing to one of the best receiving groups in the nation, one that returns six of their top seven from last season, including Terry Godwin (639, 16.8 YPC) and converted cornerback Mecole Hardman (418, 16.7 YPC). Perhaps my favorite part of the offense, however, is running back D’Andre Swift. The Bulldogs lost two running backs in the first 35 picks of the 2018 NFL Draft, but somehow, they still have a potential All-American caliber star at the position. D’Andre Swift managed 618 yards last year as a true freshman behind two of the best backs in program history, but the number that jumps off the page is the 7.6 yards per attempt that Swift brought in, just 0.3 behind Michel, and over a full point ahead of where Chubb was last year. Behind a tremendous offensive line, I can only see him improving.
The defense loses even more, and while it should be talented again, it will be much younger this year. At linebacker, both outside guys are gone to the NFL in Lorenzo Carter and Roquan Smtih. Sophomore studs Monty Rice and Walter Grant will take over on the edge, and seniors D’Andre Walker and Natrez Patrick will slide into the other two starting roles. However, because of the lack of experience on the outside, you can expect a step back from this group. You can see a similar thing in the secondary where sophomores will have to step into starting spots for CB Aaron Davis and S Dominick Sanders, although, on the bright side, CB DeAndre Baker returned after flirting with the NFL. The schedule is pretty manageable, with games @ South Carolina, @ LSU, and vs Auburn the ones that stick out as potential losses.
Projected Regular Season Record: 11-1 (7-1 SEC)
South Carolina had one of the quietest 9-4 seasons ever last year, everybody wrote them off after a 3-2 start, and in both their big games against rivals Georgia and Clemson, the Gamecocks lost by double digits, but by the end of the year, Muschamp had USC rocking, and they won their last six games against teams that didn’t go to the college football playoff. They did it in style, scoring over 21 points, their average for 2015 & 2016, in all but one of them (@ Tennessee, 15-9). WR Deebo Samuel is an All-American contender if he can stay healthy. Deebo racked up 16.7 YPC in 2017 before going down with an injury three games in. 1st round TE Hayden Hurst does leave the receiving room, but with Samuel back from injury along with the top three wide receivers that filled in for him last year, this group could improve despite the loss.
The defense was quite excellent last year, employing a bend but don’t break style of play to great effect, allowing just 5.2 yards per play, their best mark since the 2012 team that won 11 games. However, they will have to replace key pieces such as LB Skai Moore. The Gamecocks do get sam linebacker Bryson Allen-Williams back from injury, who will try and fill the hole left by Moore’s departure. TJ Brunson returns in the middle, and I expect this defense to pick up right where it left off. The schedule isn’t too bad outside of the obvious tough one @ Clemson, but the Cocks get Georgia and Missouri, my two other highest-rated teams in the East, both at home. Another 8-4 regular season should be the expectation.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (5-3 SEC)
Florida has been a school that has baffled college football fans recently. The Gators have won two of the past three SEC East championships, but it just didn’t feel like it in Gainesville, and UF decided to make a change at the top and bring in former Mississippi State head coach Dan Mullen to take over for the departing Jim McElwain. This is the type of team my model would be all over last year because of all the returning starters, but after I missed with teams like Oregon, Baylor, Texas, and USF, all of whom were in similar situations, I added in a new coach variable, which tempered my CPU’s projection on the Gators. Despite that fact, the model does have the Gators rebounding back to a winning year after a 4-7 disaster last season. A lot of that is on the back of a talented run game that returns their top two rushers from last season, Malik Davis and Lamical Perine (combined ten touchdowns and over 1,000 yards). UF will also get back junior back Jordan Scarlett, who was out for all of last season (suspended). The passing game is where we run into some troubles. Feleipe Franks struggled as a freshman last year (1,438 yards on just a 54.6% completion rate, nine touchdowns, eight interceptions, 113.3 QB rating), but the receiving core does get back an interesting piece in Tyrie Cleveland (18.6 YPC last year!), they add in a couple transfers, and get back DeAndre Goolsby from injury, making this one of the best groups in the country.
On the defensive side of things, the Gators don’t return quite as many pieces, but they should still be solid. The D gave up 5.7 YPP last year, a full yard drop from the previous year (ouch) and Dan Mullen brought his defensive coordinator with him from Mississippi State, that being Todd Grantham. This defense is chock full of sophomores and juniors, many of whom only saw time as backups last year. I would worry a little about this group, but with an easier schedule, the numbers may improve a little. Because of that schedule, one of the easiest among power conference teams, I would say a bowl is a near certainty, but anything above seven wins should be considered a massive success.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
Missouri was secretly awesome the back half of last year, ripping off six straight wins to end the regular season on a hot streak, saving head coach Barry Odom’s job in the process. The Tigers started 0-5 against FBS teams, averaging just 18 points per game, but during the six-game winning stretch, potential NFL QB Drew Lock and company nearly tripled that, averaging 51 points per game in that stretch, and letting up just 21 points per game on the defensive side, down from 42 during the losing streak. QB Drew Lock is a legit NFL prospect, but has had injury concerns in the past. Last year was his breakout, as the blue chipper racked up 3,964 yards through the air on a 57.8% completion rate, 44 touchdowns (*faints*), and just 13 interceptions on a QB rating of 165.7. He will have to deal with another new coordinator in former Tennessee HC Derek Dooley, but with pretty much everybody else returning around him, I do expect some improvement from the offense.
Defensively, the run defense should hold up again after a solid 2017 (opponents averaged just 4 yards per carry) in a group led by senior DT Terry Beckner (seven sacks last year) and senior LB Terez Hall (85 tackles, 12.5 TFL). The rest of the defensive line will need to be filled by sophomores who started a combined zero games last year, and two more sophomores with no starting experience will have to step up in the secondary, although I expect the additions of a couple grad transfers from Oregon and Texas to stop the bleeding some. Inexperience could lead to the potential for another rough first half, although this D does have the talent in place to be something special when it all gels together by the end of the year.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
Last year was the final straw for Tennessee head coach Butch Jones. The eight loss year was the highest number of losses the Volunteers have had ever in the 127-year history of the program, and it was their worst winning percentage (.333) in over a century when the Vols went 1-6 all the way back in 1909. Plenty of factors contributed to the big drop off after back to back nine win years, be it poor management from Jones, a boatload of underclassmen in big roles and some tough injury luck, and while I don’t expect a huge rebound in year one, Jeremy Pruitt was a smart hire to try and right the ship, division rival Georgia was having success with a former Alabama coordinator, so Tennessee decided they would give it a try. Pruitt was part of national championship-winning defenses at Alabama (2009, 2011, 2012, 2017) and Florida State (2013), the two most recent of which he was the head man. Pruitt is a great recruiter and I like his hires at OC (USC QB coach Tyson Helton) and DC (Georgia LB coach Kevin Sherrer). Expect Pruitt to try and rebuild the run game after an atrocious 2017 (117.4 rushing ypg), but with last year’s starter, John Kelly gone, he will have to rely on Ty Chandler, who showed flashes early last year (4.3 YPA as a backup). The receiving core, where they get the top two back, will be the strength of this offense, and with Stanford grad transfer Keller Christ in at QB (18-6 career touchdown to interception ratio) I expect some improvement from the offense as a whole.
The defense wasn’t good last year, but it did fine considering some injuries and some of the worst depth in the conference, but both those problems should be somewhat improved. Pruitt is obviously a defensive minded coach, so I would expect him to dedicate a lot of his time into making this into a team that can stop offenses more frequently after allowing nearly six yards per play last year. The secondary is a group my model flags as taking a big step back. The Vols lose both corners from a group that was already overachieving. Sophomore Shawn Shamburger and junior Marquill Osborne will have to step into those spots. The depth here is really concerning as a couple freshman will have to play big roles in dime and quarter packages, and they even converted last year’s #3 running back to corner to try and add some depth. The schedule isn’t ideal, with West Virginia out of conference and both Auburn and Alabama from the West. Getting back to a bowl in year one would be a miracle for Pruitt, and I’m expecting another four-win season.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)
The ‘Cats got really lucky last year, winning seven games despite being ranked in the 90s in my model (five of the six FBS wins were by ten points or fewer, meaning there was probably a good deal of luck involved). This year may be different. With a preseason ranking of 60th, you may expect another seven-win year, but because of a much tougher schedule, and the expectation of regression to the mean after you get lucky, my model actually does not expect a bowl. In fact, during the past two years in Lexington, head coach Mark Stoops has gone an incredible 8-3 in games decided by seven points or less. Some may call that good coaching, but generally, when you are looking at just a two-year sample size, it is just luck. Benny Snell is the crown jewel of the offense, the NFL prospect rushed for 1,333 last year (5.1 YPA), and he should help carry some of the load for Oregon transfer and new starting QB Terry Wilson, the nation’s #4 JUCO QB in 2017. Tavin Richardson will have to become a true #1 receiver with the loss of Garrett Johnson, and the numbers could improve despite a new QB because of Snell’s raw talent taking some pressure off of the new face.
The defense gets almost everybody back from a group that was pretty rough last year (opponents averaged 6.2 yards per play). The main factor to watch out for with this big blue defense will be the secondary. FS Mike Edwards (97 tackles, four interceptions) made the all-conference team last year, but the passing defense as a whole still ranked second to last in the conference and will need to improve if the ‘Cats want to make it back to a bowl. The schedule is a little tougher this year, with Louisville on the road along with winnable games against Missouri, Tennessee, and Texas A&M. As I mentioned at the start, the model does not expect a bowl, although I may have oversold it a little, as it is essentially a coin flip (45%).
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)
Vanderbilt has been secretly decent the past two years (11-14) after falling off of a cliff once James Franklin left for Penn State back in 2013. A lot of that has been due to a poor SEC East around them, but with the division on the rise, expect Vandy to fall back towards the floor. QB Kyle Shurmur is back (2,823 yards passing on a 57.9% completion rate, 26 touchdowns, and ten interceptions with a 137.6 QB rating in 2017). He is one of the lower end QBs in the conference but certainly still serviceable. WR Kalija Lipscomb is a name to watch in the passing attack, he averaged 16.5 YPC last year as a backup (610 yards, eight touchdowns). The run game does lose Ralph Webb, but Illinois transfer Ke’Shawn Vaughn will come in to stop the bleeding and will get to run behind a line that returns all five starters. Vaughn averaged 4.1 YPA in two years with the Fighting Illini. This should be about on the level of last year’s group despite the loss of Webb, the best rusher in program history.
The defensive situation is less ideal. The Commodores lose the majority of their starters, and while the first line should be able to take the hit, I am quite concerned about the depth. ILB Jordan Griffin is a name to watch for me, Griffin racked up 62 tackles and 7.5 TFL last year despite only starting half of the season, and I’d expect him to have a breakout senior year. The schedule isn’t too bad, although VU does get Notre Dame on the road out of conference. Ole Miss and Arkansas is about as nice of a draw as you could get from the West, but with the East improving around them and the losses on defense, I would expect a step back.
Projected Regular Season Record: 4-8 (2-6 SEC)