S-E-C! S-E-C! S-E-C!
It's a chant embraced by the South and universally reviled everywhere else. The pompous, downright braggadocious attitude many SEC supporters have seems to irk other fans the wrong way, but can you blame them? The conference has won thirteen national championships since 2000, easily ahead of the other Power 5 conferences combined. They have been home to five of the past ten Heisman trophy winners and, if recruiting rankings tell us anything, should expect some more in the near future.
Objectively, the SEC is simply ahead of the rest of the country. That's quite the achievement, but where do these football powerhouses rank amongst each other? How do these ancient rivals match up for 2022? Which teams could make a surprise push to the College Football Playoff? Let's take a look at what should be another hard-hitting, high-flying season down South.
The Contenders: Alabama, Georgia, Texas A&M, Arkansas, & Kentucky
Not much has changed at the top of the conference; defending national champion Georgia and title-game loser Alabama should be ranked as the best two teams in the country, let alone the SEC. The Dawgs did lose quite a bit of firepower to the NFL, as a record number of players from last year's dominant defense were drafted in April. Still, Kirby Smart is no stranger to reloading, and the program does return top contributors like quarterback Stetson Bennett, tight end Brock Bowers, and linebacker Nolan Smith. The defense might not be quite as good as last season, but the offense is in a position to pick up more of the slack.
'Bama is in a similar boat as Georgia, but Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young's sophomore campaign could make the nation's seventh-best offense even more potent. Despite the departure of notable talents on the offensive line and at wide receiver, expect players previously buried on the depth chart, such as wideout Traeshon Holden and defensive lineman Tim Smith, to become household names by the end of the season. Nick Saban's recruiting prowess is well documented, but the Tide develop future stars better than anyone else in the country.
If anyone can challenge last year's division winners, it's Texas A&M. The Aggies welcome in the nation's top recruiting class and should enter the season as a top five team in the AP Poll. Jimbo Fisher has yet to lead the program to the playoffs, but a healthy Haynes King at quarterback (assuming he wins the job) and a revamped offensive line gives him his best shot, even without star running back Isaiah Spiller. A Week 3 showdown against Miami will tell us a lot about A&M before they start conference play.
Ohio State: 15.4
Texas A&M: 3.8
Oklahoma, USC: 2.9
Michigan, Wisconsin, LSU: 2.4
Arkansas has opened the season as a darkhorse contender in the perennially loaded SEC West. In the third year under head coach Sam Pittman and the fourth with dual-threat quarterback K.J. Jefferson, the Hogs have the continuity and talent to go toe-to-toe with the conference's best. If they can sneak out a win over one of Alabama or Texas A&M, this is a legitimate playoff contender.
Kentucky is another program high off of momentum from last season. Mark Stoops has always been one of the SEC's better head coaches, but he's never had a quarterback as skilled as Will Levis, who formed a deadly combo with running back Chris Rodriguez, a 1,379-yard rusher, in 2021. Replacing leading target Wan'Dale Robinson and multiple offensive line starters will be difficult, but the core in Lexington makes the Wildcats a threat to Georgia's SEC East supremacy.
The Challengers: Ole Miss, Mississippi State, and LSU
Ole Miss has been pass-happy during Lane Kiffin's two years on campus. Things might change a bit this year without star quarterback Matt Corral, who was selected in the NFL Draft last month. Incoming USC transfer Jaxson Dart, a former top recruit, should allow for Kiffin to push the ball down the field, but reliance on the Rebs' running attack, now led by star TCU transfer Zach Evans, should lead to more wins. With a loaded group of incoming talent, Ole Miss has a great chance at making another New Year's Six bowl.
Mississippi State is coming off a brutal end to the 2021 season, where they lost to arch-rival Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl and got blown out to Texas Tech in the Liberty Bowl. However, Mike Leach's crew was sidelined by an outbreak of Covid and several opt-outs late in the season. This is a veteran offense led by a top-flight junior quarterback in Will Rogers, who threw for nearly 5,000 yards last season. While they aren't seen as elite, the Bulldogs have plenty of surprise potential.
Figuring out where to place LSU in this article was a challenge, but they should remain competitive this year under new head coach Brian Kelly to scare a top program or two. In fact, it might not even be surprising to see the Tigers amongst the conference's best by the end of the season, but there's simply too much unpredictability right now. Returnee Myles Brennan is the favorite to start at quarterback, but Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels presents a major challenge; whoever wins the battle will give LSU veteran experience at the sport's most important position.
The Hopefuls: South Carolina, Tennessee, and Florida
It's hard to actually trust Tennessee; the Vols have been a preseason hype machine for the past two decades. However, quarterback Hendon Hooker is electric, and it really feels like Josh Heupel has changed the feel of a program that needed a jolt of energy. A defense that surrendered nearly 30 points per game will need to see some improvement, but it's hard not to like the foundation Heupel has put into place for both the present and the near-future.
South Carolina was the SEC East's version of Arkansas in 2021, a surprise program that showed it can hang with the big boys. Shane Beamer is quickly ascending amongst the coaching ranks, and landing talents like Spencer Rattler and Austin Stogner through the transfer portal is quite the coup for the Gamecocks. Now, the challenge will be both bringing Rattler back to Heisman form and maintaining what was a strong pass defense last season. If Beamer and his staff can't keep SC balanced on offense and defense, this could be a difficult season.
Florida had a disastrous 2021, with a mediocre 6-7 record that led to the firing of head coach Dan Mullen before the end of the regular season. Last year's starting quarterback Emory Jones has transferred to Arizona State, leaving Anthony Richardson as the projected starter. If he can stay healthy, Richardson can be a weapon for new head coach Billy Napier, but that's a big if; he's suffered through a torn ligament and concussion issues since high school. Additional questions linger across the offense, and it's unclear if there are enough players on the roster ready to step up for next season. The future looks good in Gainesville, but it's going to take some time before the Gators are a true contender again.
Typically one of the SEC's elite, Tigers fans may need more realistic expectations for 2022. The defense remains one of the conference's best, and should continue to play well with Derick Hall and Colby Wooden returning. Where things get concerning are on offense, where a murky quarterback battle shouldn't inspire much confidence that Auburn can get elite production at a position they have struggled to find success with.