2022 SEC football season promises a shift in central characters

Georgia Alabama CFP Championship game 2022

They met in the 2017 national championship game. They met in the 2018 SEC Championship Game. They met in the 2020 SEC regular season. They met in the 2021 SEC Championship Game, and then in the national championship game one month later in Indianapolis.

By Matt Zemek

Alabama and Georgia have set the standard in the SEC over the past five years. LSU had its one transcendent team in 2019, and Florida snuck into the SEC title game in 2020, but for the most part, the SEC has become Alabama, Georgia, and 12 Other Teams. As the 2022 season slowly moves closer and closer, everyone is wondering if one team can bust up the Bama-Georgia Axis Of Power.

While it is unlikely that any team will step up and achieve that feat, one coach and school have certainly occupied the spotlight in the national conversation about SEC football.

Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M defeated Nick Saban and Alabama last year, but more in the role of spoiler than SEC West roadblock. Indeed, A&M did not prevent Alabama from winning both the division and the conference. When the Aggies pulled their big shocker over the Tide, they had already lost twice in conference play, to Arkansas and Mississippi State. A&M limped into the Bama game at the bottom of its division. Zach Calzada had shown no signs of suddenly awakening and becoming a quality quarterback, but he used that Alabama spotlight as his national coming-out party. An A&M team which was seemingly headed for the basement in its division made an abrupt U-turn and produced a respectable season … but even then, the Aggies merely finished 8-4.

That’s not what Jimbo Fisher is paid to do. He is paid to win divisions, conferences, and national titles. He is paid to make the College Football Playoff. Beating Alabama as a spoiler is one thing; beating the Tide when all the chips are on the table is quite another matter. Given that A&M must travel to Tuscaloosa this year, the odds will be against the Aggies. Yet, this offseason has placed A&M front and center in the SEC discussion.

We all know why.

Fisher had a remarkable public fight with Saban – not with fists, but with words. Fisher lit into his former boss at LSU (where the two men won a national championship together in 2003) over various issues relating to NIL and the increased spotlight thrust upon Texas A&M for its top-ranked recruiting class, a product of the Aggies’ rich donors and their willingness to pay in the new NIL marketplace. This isn’t the first time two high-profile coaches go at each other for recruiting and player acquisition methods, and it certainly won’t be the last. Yet, the fact that Fisher and Saban used to work together, plus the fact that they were both born in West Virginia, has lent extra spice to this public feud. It instantly makes Texas A&M-Alabama one of the most talked-about games of the SEC season, even though Alabama-Georgia is the likely SEC Championship Game matchup and a possible preview (again!) of the national title game in January of 2023.

Georgia and Alabama are still the best until proven otherwise, but Texas A&M has become the focus of the SEC offseason due to Fisher’s words and the Aggies’ recruiting prowess.

The central dramas are different, but the results still figure to be the same.

Speaking of “dramas are different,” the SEC East has a new feel this year. Florida could be very good under first-year coach Billy Napier, but the Gators are a program in transition, and it is hardly a lock that UF will be the primary challenger to Georgia in the East. Kentucky, which won 10 games last year, and Tennessee – the only non-Georgia, non-Alabama SEC team to score over 500 points last season – could easily finish higher than Florida in the East. It will be a challenge for a lot of pundits to correctly peg the order – two through four – for the three teams chasing UGA in the East Division.

In the West, when one gets past the Bama-A&M fireworks, the other big story of the 2022 offseason is that Brian Kelly, fresh from Notre Dame, will try to make LSU elite again. The fit seems weird and not all that compatible.

You will find plenty of LSU fans who view Kelly as a competent X-and-O coach, but not a guy they love rooting for. AD Scott Woodward loves splashy, big-name coaching hires, but no one guessed Kelly would leave South Bend at the height of his powers to come to the SEC. Now Kelly can’t rely on a hand-picked Notre Dame schedule to get him into the playoff. He has to navigate the SEC, and he can’t lose more than one game in the conference if he wants a playoff berth.

LSU seems extremely unlikely to contend for a playoff spot in 2022, but if Kelly can lay the groundwork for a big 2023 this year, conveying a clear message that the Ed Orgeron mess has been sorted out on every key level, this season will be a relative success in Baton Rouge.

Elsewhere in the SEC, can Arkansas and Ole Miss sustain what they have built? Can Bryan Harsin survive at Auburn, or is he almost certain to be fired, with nothing short of a 10-win season being necessary to change the conversation surrounding him on The Plains? Can Mike Leach make Mississippi State more of a factor? Translated: Can Leach lift MSU beyond respectable-but-modest 7-5 or 8-4 seasons?

How high is Missouri’s ceiling after a 2021 season which was better than many expected? Can South Carolina climb to a higher plateau under transfer quarterback Spencer Rattler, whom Shane Beamer was able to bring to Columbia? Will Clark Lea make tangible progress in leading Vanderbilt from nowhere to somewhere in a long-term rebuilding project?

The 14 teams in the SEC all face different levels of challenges. The measure of success differs among teams in the top, middle, and bottom tiers in this conference. One thing everyone can agree on, however, is that public feuds between high-profile coaches have kept the SEC at the center of the national college football conversation. That’s just how everyone likes it in college football’s most cutthroat conference, which has won each of the last three national championships and four of the last five.

Will the centers of power in this conference be toppled in 2022? Not likely. Yet, the central characters in SEC football have changed, offering the promise of some fresh plot twists in the season to come.

The end result might be predictable, but the journey to that probable destination won’t be boring.

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