1.Alabama (Ranked #1 Nationally)
Yeah, Alabama is #1 again. Are you really surprised? The defending national champions return just three starters on defense, yet are a clear consensus number one. The reason for that is Nick Saban, arguably the greatest coach in the history of college football. Saban will have to replace both coordinators for what feels like the eighth year in a row, but it hasn’t affected this team in the past, so I am going to stop worrying about it when it comes to the Tide. On offense, the new coordinator is former New Mexico head coach, and most recently the co-offensive coordinator in Tuscaloosa, Mike Locksley. Locksley will have to deal with the quarterback competition that has turned heads nationally between two-year starter Jalen Hurts (2,081 yards on a 60.4% completion rate, 17 touchdowns, just one interception, 150.2 QB rating) and last year’s backup, Tua Tagovailoa (636 yards on a 63.6% completion rate, 11 touchdowns, two interceptions, 175 QB rating). After Tua’s game-winning touchdown pass in the national championship game, everybody just assumed he would become the starter. If I’m being honest, I wasn’t that crazily impressed with Tua that I would just pencil him in as the #1. Because of the game-winning throw (which was more of a blown coverage by Georgia than anything), people forget that Tua took a 16-yard sack the play before despite having ample opportunity to throw the ball away, showing his inexperience. If I’m making odds, Tua is definitely the favorite, but Hurts still has a chance in my book. The running back group is one of the best in the nation again, as the Tide get back a 1,000 yard rusher in Damien Harris (7.4 YPA) and have another five-star, Najee Harris back (6.1 YPA) to fill into the backup spot. Calvin Ridley does depart, but the Tide get their #2 and #3 receivers back from last year, and the offensive line will be one of the top three in the country yet again. Four starters return, and the one spot where a starter isn’t returning will be filled by 312-pounder Jedrick Wills, the #7 tackle in the class of 2017 (he will play guard this year). This offense should improve for the third year in a row even after an incredible 6.6 YPP last year.
The defense, especially the line, will be tremendous again, as Alabama returns two potential All-SECers at the end spots in Raekwon Davis (69 tackles, 8.5 sacks!) and Isaiah Buggs. Rashaan Evans does depart from the linebacking corps, where the new star will be the Jack Linebacker, Anfernee Jennings (41 tackles, 6 TFL), not to mention two five-stars on the inside in Mack Wilson and Dylan Moses. The secondary is where we do run into some issues for new coordinator Tosh Lupoi, as all four starters are gone, including Ronnie Harrison and Minkah Fitzpatrick. LSU JUCO transfer Saivion Smith will start at corner, and I’ve heard good things about strong safety Deionte Thompson, but the other two spots feel like question marks. The offense will take a small step forward, the defense might take a small step back, but whatever way you slice it, the Tide are my preseason #1, and the only team I’m projecting to go 12-0 thanks to a schedule where they get Auburn and Mississippi State at home.
Projected Regular Season Record: 12-0 (8-0 SEC)
2.Auburn (Ranked #10 Nationally)
Auburn, despite playing in the toughest division in football, has been legitimately great under Gus Malzahn, averaging nine wins a year against some really tough competition. The problem is, Alabama has averaged 13, and Auburn fans are tired of being the little brother. Sorry Auburn fans, but with another killer schedule, nine or ten wins seems like the likely destination again. QB Jarrrett Stidham will be awesome like he was last year (3,158 yards on a 66.5% completion rate, 18 touchdowns, six interceptions, 151.0 QB rating), and he gets back his top five receivers from to help him out, although the Tigers have dealt with some receiver injuries during spring practice. The run game is where I become a little less confident now that Kerryon Johnson is off to the NFL. The new leader in the running back room will be junior Kam Martin (453 yards, two touchdowns, 6.1 YPA), but if he can keep up with the incredible efficiency he had last year in limited carries, I don’t expect a step back on offense.
The defense was tremendous last year, one of just a handful of teams that allowed under five yards per play (4.7). There is plenty of star power returning from the group in order to make that a reality again, including last years leading tackler, MLB Deshaun Davis (82 tackles, 3.5 sacks) and two linemen that tied Davis at3.5 sacks, DE Marlon Davidson and NT Dontavius Russell. This will be one of the country’s best defenses, but with three preseason top-six teams on the schedule, all away from home, getting to ten wins is going to be a challenge, and will probably require a bowl win.
Projected Regular Season Record: 9-3 (6-2 SEC)
T3.LSU (Ranked #19 Nationally)
LSU is probably one of the most underrated teams in the country, but with a schedule that could contend for the toughest in the nation, they might never prove it. Year one under Ed Orgeron was a solid 9-4, the same number of wins Les Miles averaged from 2012-2016. The problem, however, is that for the seventh year in a row, the Tigers lost to Alabama, and LSU fans didn’t seem to care that Orgeron had put together a solid little year. Steve Ensminger is back at OC after being the interim back in 2016, and he will have to meld together a weird combination of pieces on this offense, led by an Ohio State transfer at QB in Joe Burrow, and a Texas Tech transfer at WR in Jonathan Giles (16.8 YPC back in 2016). The running back group is certainly untested, and the two-headed tandem of Clyde Edwards-Helaire and Nick Brosette combined for just 182 yards on the ground last year. The success of this offense really depends on those two opening up space for Burrow to throw to, and because of their inexperience I’ll hedge my bets and call for the Tigers to take a slight step back despite the two talented transfers.
DC Dave Aranda is one of the best in the country, so I am by no means worried about this defense. Aranda has a cornucopia of talented pieces to work with, be it Texas Tech transfer DE Breiden Fehoko, or NFL prospects like ILB Devin White (133 tackles, 4.5 sacks, 9.5 TFL) and CB Greedy Williams (38 tackles, 11 PBUs, six (!) interceptions). Not to mention the talented bevy of blue-chip prospects just waiting to break out after being backups last year from NT Glen Logan to OLB Michael Divinity. Now we come to the downside of this LSU team, the schedule. LSU has Miami out of conference, draws Georgia and Florida from the East, and of course, plays in the brutal SEC West. This team has a high ceiling because of the talent on defense, but the schedule makes me unwilling to go any higher than seven wins.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
T3.Mississippi State (Ranked #18 Nationally)
If this team didn’t have a new coach and two new coordinators, boy would this be a darkhorse playoff team if I’ve ever seen one. Even so, the Bulldogs have a shot at having one of their best years in school history here in 2018, thanks to an absolutely loaded roster that former Penn State OC Joe Moorhead inherits from Dan Mullen. QB Nick Fitzgerald (1,782 yards on a 55.6% completion rate, 15 touchdowns, 11 interceptions, 117.6 QB rating) isn’t a tremendous passer, but he is one of the best running quarterbacks in college football (984 yards, 14 touchdowns on the ground last year). The Bulldogs also return every running back from last year and four of five on the offensive line. My only concern is the receiving group, where nobody topped 300 yards last year, but with offensive genius Joe Moorhead at the helm, this feels like a team that could be one of the best in the country offensively, and a real threat to crack six YPP.
The defense isn’t too shabby either, and this could be the best group since the 2011 team that let up just 4.7 YPP. The defensive line is elite, as the Bulldogs get all four back from a group that combined for 167 tackles, 21 sacks, and 20 TFL last year. The new DC is Bob Shoop (formerly DC at Tennessee) and it will be interesting to see how he handles a secondary that was one of the best in the country last year. 14 of the top 17 tacklers are back from last year, and this defense will be near the top in a crowded SEC. With a schedule that shapes up rather nicely, with Auburn and Florida at home, and Kansas State as the toughest opponent out of conference, I think this group could threaten ten wins if they get a good bowl opponent.
Projected Regular Season Record: 8-4 (4-4 SEC)
The marriage of Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M just felt strangely right. Both entities seemed unhappy in their current state, Jimbo with the pressures of FSU, and A&M with the consistency but low upside that Kevin Sumlin provided. Sumlin averaged an 8-5 record over the past five years with the Aggies, never straying more than one game off of that average during his entire tenure outside of a tremendous 11-2 campaign back in 2012. Because of that, 8-5 feels like the benchmark for Jimbo and company during year one. Anything above that will feel like a big step forward, but if this team goes 7-6 like they did last year, A&M fans might start to get worried that the Aggies guaranteed Jimbo’s entire contract. The quarterback situation here intrigues me. Nick Starkel started five games as a freshman last year (the first game, where he got injured, and then the last four once he was healthy), throwing for a great 8.7 YPA on a 60% completion rate. The receiving corps looks stacked, with five of the top seven back (they do lose Christian Kirk), led by a talented duo of sophomores in Camron Buckley and Jhamon Ausbon. Another underclassmen is expected to fill into the third starting role as well, but it is unclear who as of now. The running game is where I start to run into some doubts. Trayveon Williams was just fine last year (4.6 YPA) and the Aggies ranked down at 10th in the conference in rushing yards per game, something they will need to improve on if Jimbo wants to make the top 25 in his first year.
The defense is pretty young as well, but there are some interesting pieces to watch in the front seven like last year’s leading tackler, Tyrel Dodson (105 tackles, 5.5 sacks, 5.5 TFL, three interceptions), and last year’s sack leader, Landis Durham (56 tackles, 10.5 sacks). The secondary is young like the receiving group without as many highly touted recruits, making me worried about a passing defense that was already 11th in the conference. With three top ten teams on the schedule, including both Clemson and Alabama, I don’t see A&M threatening for ten wins, however, almost the entire team will return for next year, when the Aggies could have college football playoff potential akin to 2016 Washington.
Projected Regular Season Record: 7-5 (4-4 SEC)
I’m actually really excited about this Ole Miss team, the problem is, with a bowl ban for the second year in a row, I’m not sure the players will be as excited as me. With the Hugh Freeze era behind us and Matt Luke stripped of the interim tag, it is time for Ole Miss to go down a new path. Luke was able to bring the Rebels to a 6-6 record last year, somehow keeping his players motivated despite the bowl ban, so I wouldn’t be shocked if he can do it this year either with a slightly more difficult schedule, but also a slightly improved team. QB Jordan Ta’amu was BETTER THAN SHEA PATTERSON last year, sorry Michigan fans. Ta’amu threw for 9.7 YPA on a 66.5 % completion rate and a 164.5 QB rating once Patterson went down with injury, numbers that were the best in the conference last year if you take out Tua’s limited sample size (Drew Lock does have a slightly higher QB rating, but Ta’amu beats him on the other two). The receiving corps might be the best in the country, with All-American AJ Brown, DaMarkus Lodge, and DK Metcalf back after all three averaged over 16.5 YPC last year. This offense should continue to improve.
The landshark defense that made Ole Miss famous back in 2014 & 2015 fell off a cliff the past two years, as the Rebels went from giving up under five yards a play to over six. The secondary should be a little better this year as they have eight guys back with some starting experience, in large part due to some poor injury luck over the past two years. I am less confident about the front seven, where the Rebels ranked 124th in the country in opponent rushing yards per game last year, but with almost everybody back I expect some improvement there too. There are some problems with depth, especially in the linebacking group, but this team has top-25 potential. However, I don’t see them getting much past 6-6 because of a tough schedule and the bowl ban.
Projected Regular Season Record: 6-6 (2-6 SEC)
There are very few coaches more diametrically opposed than Bret Bielema and Chad Morris. Because of that, I am quite worried about Morris trying to fit his scheme around a personnel group that quite obviously doesn’t support it. Despite that, on paper, this team should improve. Morris is an offensive genius, and as long as he doesn’t try and switch the Razorbacks from Wisconsin South to Oregon East overnight, I think this team will improve. The receiving group is the most alluring part of the offense to me, as the Razorbacks get their top four back, and eight of the top nine. The list is highlighted by slot man Jordan Jones, a speedy sophomore who averaged 19.1 YPC as a freshman, someone that feels like a perfect guy for Morris to work around. I’m assuming Cole Kelley starts at quarterback, the big man started four games last year, passing for 6.9 YPA on a 57.6% completion rate. Those aren’t the greatest numbers to work with, but if anybody can do it, it’s Chad Morris.
Arkansas’ defense was really bad last year, and they have only held opponents under six YPP once in the past five years (2014). New coordinator John Chavis has eight returning starters to work with as he tries to implement a new 4-3 scheme that should help hide Arkansas’ depth concerns at linebacker. This team has a shot at a bowl, and should be improved, but wins will be needed at home against vulnerable conference opponents like Vanderbilt and Ole Miss if Morris wants to make it there in his very first year at the helm in Fayetteville.
Projected Regular Season Record: 5-7 (2-6 SEC)