May 25, 2024

SEC post-spring power rankings: Georgia fends Texas off for No. 1 spot, Alabama lands outside top three


1 To be honest, Georgia and Texas were in a heated race for the No. 1 spot. The Bulldogs get the edge given Kirby Smart’s SEC track record, the fact that Carson Beck looks like the conference’s best starting quarterback and more consistency on defense. Speaking of defense, expect that unit to look similar to the one that absolutely thrashed opponents in 2021. Georgia is laden with veterans on both sides of the ball, and anything short of an SEC Championship Game appearance for this squad would be downright shocking.  2 If Georgia’s explainer wasn’t enough of a hint, we anticipate that Texas will acclimate well to its new digs. Steve Sarkisian has steadily built this roster into a powerhouse, and after a breakthrough run to the College Football Playoff last year, the bar is higher for this program than it has been since Colt McCoy was running the offense. Quinn Ewers has gotten better in each year as a starting quarterback. He’s got a load of talent to work with on the offense, though much of it is comprised of transfers or former blue-chip prospects with little collegiate experience. The defense has some key areas to replace, notably both interior defensive line spots and both starting boundary cornerbacks, but there’s reason to believe serviceable options will emerge.  3 Is this the year Ole Miss finally breaks through? The Rebels have certainly flirted with SEC glory throughout Lane Kiffin’s tenure, though Alabama has consistently served as a major barrier. Ole Miss can finally step out from behind Alabama’s shadow now that divisions are a thing of the past and the Crimson Tide are nowhere to be seen on the 2024 schedule. In fact, Ole Miss’ 2024 slate is so favorable that Kiffin absolutely loaded up on veteran transfer talent with his eyes on a deep run to the expanded College Football Playoff. Those newcomers, who could almost comprise an entirely fresh team on their own, need to jell in an actual game setting, but there’s plenty there to work with here.  4 If you haven’t heard, things are quite different around Tuscaloosa. Nick Saban decided to hang it up after an illustrious 17 years at Alabama, making way for former Washington boss Kalen DeBoer. He inherits a tremendous roster that despite a handful of key transfer losses still has the makings of an SEC competitor. DeBoer also has a knack for getting the best out of his players, particularly quarterbacks, so Jalen Milroe is in line for a big year given his tremendous physical traits.  5 This is Missouri’s year to make some serious noise. The Tigers will only benefit from the Brady Cook-Luther Burden connection for so long. The former could work his way into the first round of the 2025 NFL Draft, while the latter will almost certainly be a top-15 pick. Mizzou does immediately have to replace five defenders that were selected in the 2024 draft. Fresh additions like five-star freshman defensive lineman Williams Nwaneri will have to come along quickly to plug the gaps on that side of the ball.  6 It’s Nico time in Tennessee. After sitting behind Joe Milton for a majority of his freshman season and winning Citrus Bowl Bowl MVP honors in his first career start, Nico Iamaleava is gliding into the 2024 season as Tennessee’s unquestioned starter at quarterback. An experienced offensive line that returns three starters, a backfield paced by Dylan Sampson and a wide receiver corps featuring six players with at least three years of collegiate experience will help him overcome any early growing pains. Keep an eye on Tennessee’s defense; it’s quietly gotten better every year under Josh Heupel. With a deep rotation along the line and an edge rusher like James Pearce Jr. wreaking havoc in opposing backfields, this group might take its biggest leap yet.   7 Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner is hard. Replacing a Heisman Trophy winner with a guy that has just one start in three years at LSU would normally cause some consternation. But, man, it’s really hard not to be excited about Garrett Nussmeier. Through the few tantalizing glimpses we’ve gotten of him since he signed with the Tigers in 2021, Nussmeier seems to have all of the tools to succeed at this level. He has a great frame, poise, immense arm strength and accuracy at every level. Nussmeier love aside, LSU’s ceiling is significantly lowered by a defense that constantly let it down last season and faces some major questions ahead of the 2024 season.  8 There are two primary reasons for concern as Oklahoma transitions into the SEC: It will be breaking in a brand new starting quarterback in sophomore Jackson Arnold, and it has to replace five offensive linemen with starting experience. While the Sooners have done well addressing their OL needs via the portal, fielding an entirely new unit while moving to a league like the SEC certainly isn’t ideal. Having Arnold take his first consistent snaps — outside of a bowl game — behind that line certainly complicates things. On the other side of the ball, Oklahoma might have one of the SEC’s deepest defensive units, so Arnold shouldn’t be tasked with digging the Sooners out of too many holes.  9 For a third straight season, Kentucky enters the year with a former transfer at quarterback. Is Brock Vandagriff the one that finally hits the next level? He doesn’t arrive to Lexington with as much experience as his predecessors, but he does seem tailor-made for Kentucky’s pro-style offensive scheme. Well, at least the scheme we’ve come to expect from Kentucky in recent years as new offensive coordinator Bush Hamdan is sure to introduce some of his own wrinkles. Vandagriff will have his choice of weapons with leading receiver Dane Key back and wideout Barion Brown lining up to spread the field alongside him.  10 Mike Elko was an excellent choice for Texas A&M after a whirlwind search to replace Jimbo Fisher. In his very first year as a head coach (2022), Elko led a Duke team that hadn’t had a winning season since 2018 to an 8-4 record and a win against Gus Malzahn’s UCF in the Miliary Bowl. He followed that up with a 7-5 showing in 2023 that, when you consider the fact Duke had to deal with three different quarterback injuries, doesn’t look all that disappointing. Now he takes over at a university that clearly isn’t afraid to spend big on its football program. It’s not outlandish to think that Elko’s Aggies can push for at least eight wins this year.  11 Most pundits seem to be pretty down on Florida. It’s understandable given the Gators are now 11-14 through two years under Billy Napier. This certainly feels like a make-or-break season for his tenure. But if there’s one team outside the top 10 of these rankings that I’m confident can climb into that echelon by season’s end, it’s Florida. Graham Mertz is an underappreciated quarterback (and is likely motivated to elevate his game now that star freshman DJ Lagway’s in the room), wide receiver Eugene Wilson is one of the SEC’s best playmakers and the defense is actually taking nice shape with transfers bolstering the returning starters.  12 Hugh Freeze has spent a lot of time and effort upgrading his team around the quarterback. Now it’s up to Payton Thorne to take that next step. The former Michigan State transfer failed to impress in his first season on The Plains. Whether that was due to a lack of talent to spread the ball to — no longer an issue now that former five stars like WR Cam Coleman are on the team — or Thorne’s own limitations, he has to be a whole lot better if the Tigers want to avoid embarrassments like losing to New Mexico State.  13 Though Shane Beamer has yet to announce anything officially, it seems as if South Carolina will be turning to a homegrown option to replace quarterback Spencer Rattler. LaNorris Sellers, who has impressed the coaching staff since the moment he entered the program, looked like a comfortable choice this spring. Who he’ll throw the ball to remains to be seen. Xavier Legette, who accounted for over a third of his former team’s receiving yards last season, is gone. So are three of the four leading receivers behind him. Not great for a first-time starting quarterback. 14 Just a few years ago, it looked like Arkansas was turning a corner under Sam Pittman. Now, there’s some concern about his job status after just four total SEC wins over the past two seasons. Arkansas has undergone some pretty severe changes over the past few months, though we’ll see if that leads to any sort of revitalization. Offensive coordinator Dan Enos got the boot after one year, and a familiar name in Bobby Petrino was hired to replace him. He’ll have an entirely new quarterback to work with after KJ Jefferson transferred away. Former Boise State starter Taylen Green looked impressive in Arkansas’ spring game. As did running back acquisition Ja’Quinden Jackson. Will that pair be enough to power Arkansas to a bowl game? It’s going to be a tough road with that schedule.  15 Jeff Lebby inherits an unenviable situation. The first-time head coach is taking over a program that, in many ways, is still reeling from Mike Leach’s sudden and tragic death. Put in a bind, Mississippi State promoted former defensive coordinator Zach Arnett to replace Leach. Arnett didn’t even last a full 12 games. Lebby’s background under the likes of Josh Heupel and Lane Kiffin suggests that we can expect some fireworks from Mississippi State’s offense in Year 1, but turning the Bulldogs into a bowl competitor this early seems like a tough ask for a coach as green as Lebby.   16 Simply put, anybody that coaches at Vanderbilt automatically has the hardest job among power conference programs. The Commodores play in one of college football’s premier conferences but don’t have the commensurate resources to compete. They’re at a talent disadvantage almost every single week, a gap that’s growing given the inherent setbacks that academically elite universities (like Vanderbilt) face in the NIL and transfer portal era. Clark Lea did his best to change things up this offseason, bringing Tim Beck in as offensive coordinator and taking over defensive play-calling duties. It’s just hard to see this being a squad that pushes for anything more than a decent non-conference showing. 





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