When previewing any SEC football season in modern times, let’s not pretend that the favorite exists in any locale other than Tuscaloosa. The Alabama Crimson Tide remain the gold standard in this conference. Once every four years or so, Auburn might knock off the Tide, and once in a great while, an opponent such as Georgia might rise up and threaten the power structure, but generally, we know where SEC gridiron supremacy starts.
By Matt Zemek
In a survey of SEC favorites for the coming season, don’t overthink it. Don’t try to be clever. Don’t intend to make the pick no one else is making so that you can say you’ll be right when everyone else is wrong.
Everyone else won’t be wrong. You will be wrong.
Of course, Alabama is the favorite in the 2019 SEC. One word: Tua.
Alabama will have one of the two best quarterbacks in the country (Trevor Lawrence being the other), and one of the two foremost favorites (alongside Lawrence) for the Heisman Trophy. Start with Tua Tagovailoa – that makes most of the argument for Bama right there.
Yet, there are two other significant reasons to value Alabama this coming season: First, Alabama gets LSU at home. I know the game in Baton Rouge last year wasn’t especially close, but many people would tell you that LSU is stockpiling more talent under Ed Orgeron, who is doing extremely well in recruiting and clearly surpassed expectations last season. Last year, it was widely acknowledged that LSU wasn’t yet ready to be in Alabama’s league. It was a genuinely significant accomplishment for LSU to make the Fiesta Bowl, win it, and finish where it did in the league standings. This year could be seen as a year in which LSU is ready to take the next step, but the Tigers’ SEC championship aspirations are definitely hurt by the fact that this is the year in which the SEC schedule rotation sends them to Bryant-Denny Stadium.
The other big reason Alabama should be viewed as the favorite in the 2019 SEC: defensive coordinator.
You saw the national championship game against Clemson. Tosh Lupoi can recruit, but he was severely exposed as a coordinator. Nick Saban needed a Kirby Smart-level lieutenant on his staff, and Lupoi wasn’t it. Promoting Pete Golding to defensive coordinator should give Saban a noticeable upgrade at the coordinator spot.
It is true that Steve Sarkisian’s return to the Alabama staff as offensive coordinator, following a rough tenure with the Atlanta Falcons, will gain more national attention. A lot of people in the South (and across the country) will look at Sark and think that Alabama might suffer as a result of his presence on staff. Let’s dispel that notion. No, Sark is not a brilliant offensive mind, but it would be very hard to get in the way of Tua and his wide receivers. Just about anyone would be able to get the Alabama offense to thrive. Mike Locksley did. I don’t regard Locksley as a great tactician. His specialty is recruiting. Yet, Alabama got to the national title game once again. It moved the ball and gained a lot of yards against Clemson. Locksley’s play-calling was ultimately exposed in red-zone situations, but viewed in a broader context, his presence as Bama’s offensive coordinator did not harm the program. It shouldn’t be any different for Sarkisian. The upgrade at defensive coordinator matters a lot more than the change at offensive coordinator.
Now let’s go to the other favorites in the SEC, the teams with the best chance of getting in Alabama’s way.
We have already discussed LSU to a degree. Let’s realize that the Tigers will get Auburn and Texas A&M at home this coming season. That will be an important factor when assessing the foremost contenders to Bama in the SEC West. LSU does deserve to be viewed as the main challenger to the Tide. Ed Orgeron was highly doubted by a lot of people, and I have to include myself in that crowd. Coach O hasn’t overcome all of my long-term doubts, but he has earned my trust for 2019 in terms of finishing second in the SEC West, ahead of the other non-Bama teams in the division.
The only other team with an especially good chance of causing trouble in the SEC West is Texas A&M. The blowout win over a talented North Carolina State team in the Gator Bowl sent a message about A&M’s place on the national scene. The Aggies haven’t arrived at the top tier, but they challenged Clemson this past season, defeated LSU (say what you want about the referees’ awful performance in that seven-overtime game), and handled Kentucky. Jimbo Fisher did reasonably well in his first transitional season in College Station, legitimately creating higher expectations for the future.
No Auburn? Very simply: I think we know by now who and what Gus Malzahn is as a head coach: Good enough to find the magic touch once in a great while, but erratic and inconsistent… and unable to home-grow an elite quarterback. The 2018 season was supposed to be a big one for Auburn, and it turned into a total bust. Nope – Auburn is not an SEC favorite.
For the other two favorites in the conference, one must go to the East, where a classic rivalry might be about to begin a classic period.
I am talking about Georgia and Florida, of course. Kirby Smart has become a recruiting freight train, while Dan Mullen showed in Year 1 at Florida how resourceful and adaptable he is. Smart’s emphasis on toughness and Mullen’s creative deployment of personnel set up a mouthwatering scenario in which this contrast of styles could become a heavyweight matchup for the next decade or so.
You don’t need a big explanation about Georgia’s legitimacy in the SEC and national picture: The Dawgs have a lot of veteran linemen coming back, and they have Jake Fromm for another year. Georgia should be able to pound the ball between the tackles and set up play action. Jim Chaney is out as offensive coordinator, having moved to Tennessee, but little should change under new OC James Coley. Georgia and Kirby want to bludgeon opponents into submission. They have the tools to do that in 2019.
When the Dawgs face Florida, though, they might run into an opponent with enough horses to create a fair fight.
The reason the hire of Mullen always made sense for Florida (and let’s pause to consider where this program would be if Chip Kelly had been hired, given Chip’s struggles at UCLA…) is that Mullen maxed out at Mississippi State. The rationale for hiring Mullen in Gainesville was simply this: If he could take Mississippi State to a No. 1 ranking and the Orange Bowl, by developing Dak Prescott to the extent he did, imagine what Mullen can do back at Florida?
We saw a taste of what is possible in 2018, as Mullen guided Florida to a New Year’s Six bowl and then a resounding win over Jim Harbaugh and Michigan. Mullen gets another year to develop and polish Feleipe Franks. Is this the answer at quarterback? It sure wasn’t in 2018, and UF still enjoyed a revival in spite of Franks’ enormous limitations. If Mullen and Franks can figure things out, Florida will probably become an elite team. The Cocktail Party would not only decide the East, but have College Football Playoff ramifications on both sides of the contest.
Alabama 1, LSU 2, Georgia 3, Florida 4, A&M 5. Those are your favorites.
Now, to a few dark-horse teams:
Start with Tennessee. Jeremy Pruitt won at Auburn and kicked Kentucky in the ribs last season… and that was his transitional year. In Year 2, he and the Vols – with the aforementioned Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator – might be able to accomplish more. Developing quarterbacks has been a huge, huge problem for Tennessee this past decade under Derek Dooley and Butch Jones. The ghost of David Cutcliffe has hovered over the Vols for quite some time. Chaney represents an upgrade from previous offensive coordinators, but he isn’t a five-star coordinator. He did, to his immense credit, make full use of the talent he had at Georgia. He won’t have that same talent in Knoxville – not in 2019, at least – but if he can be better than his predecessors as the Vols’ OC (which he should be), the potential exists for Tennessee to have in 2019 the kind of season Kentucky had in 2018.
Kentucky might be a dark-horse team given the ability of this program to develop a first-rate defense under Mark Stoops. However, with Josh Allen and Benny Snell – the team’s two most important players in 2018, one on defense and the other on offense – departing for the NFL, it’s hard to assign a very high ceiling of potential to the Wildcats.
Let’s look instead at Vanderbilt, where Ball State transfer Riley Neal will challenge Deuce Wallace and others in the Commodores’ quarterback room. Ke’Shawn Vaughn is an electric running back who didn’t get tons of touches last year. He needs and should get more looks at the ball in 2019, which conceivably should increase Vanderbilt’s level of upside.
The real questions for Vanderbilt concern not just the quarterback position, but the relationship between the starting quarterback – whoever it is – and new offensive coordinator Gerry Gdowski, who was promoted to OC from QB coach by head coach Derek Mason. Gdowski will continue to coach the quarterbacks, but now he gets the keys to the Vanderbilt offense. He has a chance to show if he can improve upon the work of Andy Ludwig, who went to Utah to return to Kyle Whittingham’s staff.
If Gdowski is the real deal, Vanderbilt could surprise some people – not in terms of winning the East, but having the kind of season Kentucky did last year, or something close to it. It’s not as though Vanderbilt hasn’t been competitive in the SEC; the Commodores just have a poor track record of making pivotal plays in hinge-point moments of games. The 2018 team, flaws and all, had great chances to win at Kentucky and at home against Florida. UK won the Citrus Bowl and Florida won the Peach Bowl.
Dark-horse teams aren’t teams which are likely to flourish, but if a dark-horse list exists, it’s hardly preposterous to put VU on it for 2019 in the SEC.