By Cole Frederick/Staff correspondent
SEC West Division
1. Texas A&M (11-1, 7-1). Losses: at LSU. Jimbo Fisher is entering his fourth season in College Station, and his Aggies are coming off a 9-1 campaign in 2020. In Fisher’s fourth year at Florida State, the Seminoles won the national title, and he’s built Texas A&M in similar fashion. The Aggies are strong on both sides of the ball, particularly along the line of scrimmage. New quarterback Haynes King, who takes over for Kellen Mond, will have several weeks of subpar competition to improve before Alabama comes to town on Oct. 9. If the Aggies can beat Alabama for the first time in nearly a decade, they will have the inside track to their first SEC West crown and a berth in the playoffs.
2. Alabama (11-1, 7-1). Losses: at Texas A&M. Nick Saban has won six national championships at Alabama and seven in his career, with last year’s title team arguably the best he’s ever had. The Crimson Tide cruised to a 15-0 season with one of the greatest offenses in the history of the sport, and Saban must now rebuild that side of the ball. Bryce Young takes over for Mac Jones, and the former five-star recruit will have almost an entirely new wide receiver corps. The defense will be the strength of the team, specifically pass rusher Will Anderson. Alabama will remain a championship contender despite the inexperience on offense, but a midseason loss to Texas A&M keeps the Tide out of Atlanta and out of the playoff field.
3. LSU (10-2, 6-2). Losses: at Ole Miss, at Alabama. LSU had one of the best teams in college football history in 2019. Last year, the Tigers failed to produce a winning record. It’s unfair to say Ed Orgeron is on the hot seat or that he even needs a great year to return in 2022, but he does need to prove that the 2020 season was a blip on the radar screen. The expectation in Baton Rouge is always to contend for the SEC title, and while the Tigers probably won’t make it to Atlanta this year, they should certainly come much closer than they did a season ago.
4. Auburn (7-5, 4-4). Losses: at Penn State, at LSU, Georgia, at Texas A&M, Alabama. Bryan Harsin enters his first season on The Plains and is completely reconstructing how the Tigers operate. Harsin inherited a talented roster from Gus Malzahn and is working on building the program in a similar fashion to how Nick Saban and Kirby Smart have built their programs at rival schools. Auburn has the talent to beat anyone on its schedule, but depth is an issue, and Bo Nix must improve mightily in Mike Bobo’s scheme. Early season tests at Penn State and at home versus Georgia will determine the quality of Harsin’s squad.
5. Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4). Losses: at Alabama, at Auburn, Texas A&M, at Mississippi State. One thing is for certain with a Lane Kiffin team is that his offense will score, and in most cases, frequently. That was certainly the case in his first season in Oxford, but the problem was that the 2020 Rebel defense often allowed just as many points as the offense put up. Kiffin will have another dynamic offense this season, and the hope in Oxford is that the defense will improve enough to give the Rebels a chance to contend in the West. Ole Miss travels to Tuscaloosa on Oct. 2 for the ultimate measuring stick game.
6. Mississippi State (7-5, 3-5). Losses: LSU, at Texas A&M, Alabama, at Arkansas, at Auburn. Mike Leach’s inaugural season in Starkville was altogether unsuccessful, but it was clear the condensed preseason greatly affected Leach’s ability to successfully implement his Air Raid system. The Bulldogs expect to rebound from last year’s 4-7 campaign, and the talent is there to make it to a bowl game and play spoiler in the SEC West.
7. Arkansas (6-6, 2-6). Losses: Texas A&M, at Georgia, at Ole Miss, Auburn, at LSU, at Alabama. Arkansas only finished 3-7 a year ago, but one detail was obvious about Sam Pittman’s squad – it wasn’t afraid of anyone. After becoming one of the worst programs in the SEC under previous regimes, Arkansas returned last year to its physical and hard-nosed style of play under Pittman. Pittman is looking to build on that foundation in 2021, and the next step is returning the Hogs to a bowl game. That won’t be easy considering the magnitude of the schedule, but a win over Texas in Week 2 would give the Razorbacks the spark they need for the year.
SEC East Division
1. Georgia (11-1, 8-0).Losses: Clemson. The expectations are higher than ever in Athens, and Kirby Smart is expected to have the Bulldogs in the playoffs again in 2021. Georgia is loaded with talent on both sides of the ball, and the schedule sets up nicely after the opening heavyweight tilt against Clemson. Even with a loss to the Tigers, Georgia will be among the favorites to reach the playoffs. Regardless of that Week 1 outcome, expect the Bulldogs to be in Atlanta for the SEC championship game with a playoff berth on the line.
2. Florida (9-3, 5-3). Losses: Alabama, at LSU, Georgia. The Gators will have a totally revamped offense in 2021, but if there’s any coach in the SEC who can be trusted with retooling an offense in one offseason, it’s Dan Mullen. Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts are in the NFL, and Emory Jones will take over at quarterback. Florida is likely to pivot from being a pass-first offense to a run-heavy team, and the Gators have a pair of tune-up games to figure out their identity before Alabama comes to town on Sept. 18. The schedule is daunting, and Florida must beat Georgia and LSU to repeat as East champions.
3. Missouri (8-4, 4-4). Losses: Texas A&M, at Georgia, Florida, at Arkansas. Missouri’s 5-5 finish a season ago took many by surprise since it was supposed to be a massive rebuild for first-year coach Eliah Drinkwitz. However, the Tigers were among the more pleasant surprises in the league and they are looking to build on that success in 2021. It would not be totally unsurprising if Missouri started out 6-0, and the matchup against Kentucky in Week 2 will be among the most pivotal games of the year for the Tigers.
4. Kentucky (7-5, 3-5). Losses: Missouri, Florida, LSU, at Georgia, at Mississippi State. Mark Stoops has completely revitalized Kentucky football, and while he has not led the Wildcats to the SEC title game, he’s had them competing in the top half of the league in recent years. The 2021 sea-son should be no different, and the Wildcats could finish as high as second in the SEC East. The swing game will be Week 2 in a home matchup against Missouri. If Kentucky can win that game, the ‘Cats could win eight to nine games this fall.
5. Tennessee (6-6, 2-6).Losses: at Florida, at Missouri, Ole Miss, at Alabama, at Kentucky.The Volunteers are on their fifth head coach since Phil Ful-mer retired in 2008, and Josh Heupel takes over a Tennessee team that was ravaged by the transfer portal. It’s not a total rebuild, and there’s still some talent on the roster, but this team is not close to competing at the highest level of the SEC. The schedule sets up favorably early on, and a 3-0 start is possible, but the middle portion of the schedule is an absolute gauntlet. A bowl bid would be a positive outcome for the Vols this season.
6. South Carolina (4-8, 1-7). Losses: at Georgia, Kentucky, at Tennessee, at South Carolina, Florida, at Missouri, Auburn, Clemson. Shane Beamer enters his first season as a head coach, and he has his work cut out for him in Columbia. There is some talent on the roster, but the Gamecocks are far behind most of their competitors in the SEC. South Carolina will be underdogs in every conference game except for when they host Vanderbilt, and they must play Clemson to finish the year. Five wins is likely the ceiling for the 2021 Gamecocks.
7. Vanderbilt (3-9, 0-8). Losses: Stanford, Georgia, at Florida, at South Carolina, Mississippi State, Missouri, Kentucky, at Ole Miss, at Tennessee. Clark Lea inherits the toughest job in the SEC, and the Commodores face a very difficult schedule. Vandy went winless a season ago and will be underdogs in every conference game this season. Lea will have the opportunity to start the year 2-0 with games against East Tennessee State and Colorado State, but the schedule picks up considerably afterwards. It will take time for Lea to rebuild this program, and it’s hard to imagine more than 3-4 wins this year for the Commodores.