Thoughts on all 16 teams in new-look SEC (2024)

Welcome to the new SEC. A process three years in the making, Oklahoma and Texas joined the SEC on July 1. It will become “official” this fall when the Longhorns and Sooners join arguably college football’s toughest conference and unquestionably the most successful, with 13 of the past 20 national champions by five programs: Alabama, Auburn, Florida, Georgia and LSU. Eliminate divisions, expand the College Football Playoff and there’s no shortage of intrigue for each team.

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As we close in on the first SEC media days as a 16-team league, here are 16 thoughts for every team in the conference.

Alabama

The product on the field is the ultimate decider, but it’s hard to ignore the smooth transition at Alabama under Kalen DeBoer. Yes, there was initial turbulence, and how could there not be? The greatest coach of all time suddenly retired and less than three days later, the program had a new coach. Now let’s fast forward several months.

Thoughts on all 16 teams in new-look SEC (1)

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Alabama faced just four exits post-spring practice (none were main contributors), signed the No. 3 rated transfer portal class and has the No. 2 ranked recruiting class in the current 2025 cycle, according to 247Sports. Now, comes the biggest question: Can he maintain the standard of excellence on the field? Talent acquisition is the most important component, and he largely has addressed that.

Thoughts on all 16 teams in new-look SEC (3)

Sam Pittman is entering his fifth season at Arkansas. (Nelson Chenault / USA Today)

Arkansas

It’s remarkable where this program’s trajectory has gone in such a short time. Two years ago, the Razorbacks won their 16th game in two years with a Liberty Bowl victory — the program’s most wins in two years since 2010-11. Now, Arkansas is one of the league’s most interesting teams because Sam Pittman might have the hottest seat.

New offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino brings attention for obvious reasons, but the silver lining to a potentially awkward situation is Arkansas’ offense should be much better schematically. Having Petrino means that Pittman can devote more attention to his bread and butter and probably Arkansas’ most important position group: the offensive line. That unit surrendered 47 sacks, and the offense averaged just 3.5 yards per carry. Arkansas lost five one-possession games last season, but a better running game and fewer sacks could make the difference in bowl eligibility.

Auburn

Is Hugh Freeze trying to recreate Michigan State’s 2021 offense? Doing so would elevate quarterback Payton Thorne, whose best season came during that time. Running back Jarquez Hunter is among the best in the conference, the offensive line is filled with veterans, and the Tigers upgraded at wide receiver, adding transfers KeAndre Lambert-Smith and Robert Lewis and blue-chip freshmen Cam Coleman and Perry Thompson. Tight end Rivaldo Fairweather returns as the leading pass catcher. The Michigan State offense led by Thorne featured players like running back Kenneth Walker, wide receivers Jayden Reed and Jalen Nailor, and tight end Connor Heyward.

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Freeze’s confidence in Thorne is apparent as Auburn didn’t bring in any transfers at quarterback. And Freeze has adapted, bringing in Derrick Nix as the offensive coordinator, an indication that Freeze will be more involved as a play caller. Will Auburn make a second-year leap under Freeze? It relies on Thorne, and Auburn has done what it can to make sure it happens.

Florida

Is this the toughest schedule in the modern era of college football? A case could be made. Am I betting on Florida to surpass its 4.5 over/under win total (BetMGM)? Yes, I am.

It has been a tough start with the Gators for Billy Napier, but talent acquisition hasn’t been the issue: Florida’s 63 percent blue-chip rate according to Bud Elliott is 11th nationally and higher than every team on the Gators’ schedule except for Georgia, Texas and LSU. There are good pieces: Quarterback Graham Mertz completed 72.3 percent of his passes with just three turnovers a season ago, running back Montrell Johnson is the second-leading returning rusher in the SEC, and the Gators signed the No. 5 transfer portal class.

Early swing games could determine Florida’s season. Miami (Week 1) is a talented but underachieving program. The Gators open SEC play with (Week 3) and Mississippi State (Week 4) under first-year coaches. Central Florida (Week 5) should be improved, but that’s certainly a winnable game. Tennessee is Week 6, but that’s a series Florida has dominated recently. Napier’s seat is pretty warm for July, but some early wins could cool it off.

Georgia

The 2023 Georgia team was Kirby Smart’s third straight 13-win team, but missing out on a chance for a three-peat left a sour taste for UGA fans. What will it take for Georgia to get back to the national championship game? Last year’s team provided a clear answer.

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Georgia is elite, but the team can’t operate at its optimal level unless its defensive front is controlling the game. The 2021 and 2022 national championship teams featured first-round NFL draft picks Jalen Carter, Jordan Davis, Nolan Smith, Devonte Wyatt and Travon Walker. It’s hard to expect any team to maintain that level of talent, but it was noticeably missing last year, particularly against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

Georgia returns most of its defensive line from last year, and it’s a veteran group that should be motivated to bounce back. Highly regarded 2025 NFL prospect Mykel Williams is moving to outside linebacker to give the pass rush a boost. The defense overall will be elite, but will the front create havoc? That could be the difference in the Bulldogs’ championship hopes.

Kentucky

With Nick Saban’s retirement, Kentucky coach Mark Stoops is the longest-tenured SEC coach (12th year upcoming). It’s not easy to win at Kentucky, but Stoops has done it, creating a model built to last in Lexington.

Kentucky’s talent acquisition model is efficient and effective: The program has made it difficult for other teams to get talent in its state — last week, the Wildcats beat out Alabama for blue chip defender Javeon Campbell. Stoops has turned Kentucky into a solid transfer destination, selling a chance to compete in the premier conference while competing for bowl games regularly. Transfers like Brock Vandagriff and Jamon Dumas-Johnson (Georgia) and Chip Trayanum (Ohio State) were big gets on the portal market.

Does it mean Kentucky will compete for an SEC title? Probably not, but will the Wildcats fade into obscurity with new powerhouses coming in? Under Stoops, it’s not likely.

LSU

After watching LSU last year, it obviously had to address its defensive deficiencies. The changes didn’t come to fruition in the portal as many envisioned, but coach Brian Kelly said it wasn’t for a lack of trying. Kelly did re-tool the defense from a coaching perspective, but can that make a difference?

Up front, LSU adds defensive line coach Bo Davis, fresh off a successful stint at Texas. The defensive coordinator, Blake Baker, just led one of the conference’s most disruptive defenses at Missouri — a unit that had an all-conference player at all three levels. And defensive backs coach Corey Raymond is back for yet another stint.

The offense has the pieces to be dynamic again, and there’s talent on the defense, highlighted by Harold Perkins. But that unit’s progression will determine if LSU is in Playoff contention.

Mississippi

Lane Kiffin has proven himself as the coach at Ole Miss as the Rebels have won 28 games during the past three years, their most in three years since 1960-62 (29 wins). With more talent on paper than ever, the question is can Kiffin elevate this roster to Playoff contention? The answer largely resides on another coach on the roster: defensive coordinator Pete Golding.

The former Alabama defensive coordinator was hired last season to stabilize the Ole Miss defense and pair it with the explosive offense led by Kiffin. Last season, the Ole Miss offense was top 20 nationally in virtually every category, while the defense ranked 70th or worse in total defense, pass defense, rush defense and first downs allowed per game. The bulk of Ole Miss’ robust portal class is on defense, giving Golding a deeper talent pool to make this a more well-rounded team.

Mississippi State

It’s not getting as much publicity as some of its peers in the league, but Mississippi State is red hot on the recruiting trail with 14 commitments since June 1. Its No. 37 national ranking is consistent with where the program was under Mike Leach. It has been a tragic and tumultuous time at Mississippi State: three coaches in three years beginning after Leach’s death in December 2022.

The key for Mississippi State is to re-establish identity and consistency, and early indications are that recruits are buying into new coach Jeff Lebby’s message. Now comes putting out a proof of concept on the field.

Thoughts on all 16 teams in new-look SEC (4)

Brady Cook threw for 3,317 and 21 touchdowns in 2023. (Tim Heitman / USA Today)

Missouri

Let’s start with a blind resume:

Player A: 3,941 passing yards, 72.4 percent completion, 24 touchdowns, six interceptions

Player B: 3,479 passing yards, 68.8 percent completion, 22 touchdowns, six interceptions

Player C: 3,364 passing yards, 65.1 percent completion, 23 touchdowns, five interceptions

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Player D: 2,834 passing yards, 65.8 percent completion, 23 touchdowns, six interceptions

Player E: 3,317 passing yards, 66.1 percent completion, 21 touchdowns, six interceptions

The players in order are Carson Beck, Quinn Ewers, Jaxson Dart, Jalen Milroe and … Brady Cook. While the first four widely are regarded as top NFL prospects, Cook is not despite similar production and leading Missouri to 11 wins last season. Is he the most underrated player in the league?

Missouri is a trendy Playoff team entering the season, and Cook will be a big reason why if the Tigers accomplish that goal. And his profile will rise as a result.

Oklahoma

How can we not start an Oklahoma conversation without referencing what athletic director Joe Castiglione said on the first day in the league? One thing is clear, Oklahoma isn’t shying away from the moment.

"Every coach that we talked to was excited. And you know what, the ones that weren't aren't here anymore" – Oklahoma AD Joe Castiglione with a not-so-subtle shot at former Sooners Head Coach Lincoln Riley 👀pic.twitter.com/5mxdzecxGa

— The Next Round (@NextRoundLive) July 2, 2024

It feels like Texas is shouldering most of the conversation as an SEC contender, at least this season. In some ways, Oklahoma is on the back burner despite besting Texas a season ago and winning 10 games. If there was a buy-low, sell-high team moving forward, it might be Oklahoma, which is recruiting at a high level and has a projected rising star in quarterback Jackson Arnold.

The 2024 schedule is tough, but it has some breaks: Tennessee and Alabama at home, Texas at a neutral site as always, and no Georgia. If Brent Venables has the Sooners take a step forward in 2024, regardless of what the record might be, look out.

South Carolina

Think back to the glory days under Steve Spurrier: The foundation was the roster’s in-state talent. Controlling the state is tough with rivals like Clemson and Georgia, but Shane Beamer has done well in the past two classes. One of those players, LaNorris Sellers, could be the starting quarterback this year.

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At the same time, Beamer has won some national recruiting battles, including five-star prospect Nyck Harbor in 2023, who could be Sellers’ top receiving option this fall. Can South Carolina maximize the opportunity with those two players to continue winning in-state and national recruiting battles? These two young players could be transformative for the Beamer era, and leading South Carolina back into postseason play would be a great step forward.

Tennessee

The highly anticipated Nico Iamaleava era is here. Tennessee fans got a glimpse during a 35-0 Citrus Bowl win over Iowa in January, and now it’s his show, and he should have plenty of help at receiver.

The 2023 season marked a step back for Tennessee, and one reason was the level of receiver play that dropped off from 2022. Replacing Jalin Hyatt wasn’t easy, but injuries to Bru McCoy and Dont’e Thornton didn’t help. There’s much more optimism about the 2024 group as McCoy and Thornton are back, Squirrel White is another year older and more confident and the Volunteers added talent from the high school ranks and the portal.

Texas

The question of the summer: Does the SEC have to worry about Texas or vice versa? On one hand, Texas did beat Alabama a season ago en route to a Playoff berth. But there’s reason to be cautious about outright Longhorns domination.

Texas has been known to play down to competition as it averaged 5.6 losses per year in its previous 10 seasons before 2023. Last year’s team broke through but still had questionable performances against Wyoming (a one-score game in the fourth quarter), Houston and TCU (which combined for nine wins last season). And the SEC top to bottom is more talented than the Big 12.

Texas undoubtedly is one of the favorites in the SEC and the nation, but to truly declare it a problem, more consistency is needed.

Texas A&M

For the first time in a few seasons, Texas A&M isn’t in the spotlight, and that must feel good. The 2022 offseason was about the Aggies’ famed NIL recruiting class, while a year ago, it was about how many games it would take before Jimbo Fisher would be fired. The Aggies have Mike Elko at the helm now, and while there’s much conversation about what Texas A&M has lost, there’s plenty that has taken place.

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To start, Texas A&M’s current 2025 recruiting class ranks No. 5 nationally, and that’s significant in Elko’s first full class. The roster did lose talent but added the No. 4 portal class, highlighted by edge Nic Scourton. The program retained quarterback Conner Weigman, running Rueben Owens and wide receiver Moose Muhammad III. The lack of attention has allowed A&M to work in silence.

Vanderbilt

When Vanderbilt hired program alum Clark Lea in 2021, it was supposed to be a stabilizing move: hiring someone who understands Vanderbilt and would be in it for the long haul. Ironically, the program has been pretty dysfunctional over the past few years. Lea has his third offensive coordinator in four years, the program has played multiple quarterbacks in 22 of Lea’s 36 games, and there have been 79 portal departures since 2021.

Some of that is a byproduct of being a program like Vanderbilt in the modern era as programs can find diamonds in the rough but always live in fear that larger programs will poach their players. But some of it is on Lea, who holds a 9-27 record after three seasons. Vanderbilt will (and should) give Lea time to get things on track, and there is some hope as quarterback play should be vastly improved with the addition of former Conference USA offensive player of the year Diego Pavia.

(Top photos of Kalen DeBoer and Kirby Smart: Todd Kirkland / Getty Images; Gary Cosby Jr. / Tuscaloosa News)

Thoughts on all 16 teams in new-look SEC (2024)
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