1 – Georgia Bulldogs (2022 Record: 15-0) (2023 Projection: 12-0)
- Biggest Question: How likely is a Bulldog 3-peat? After more than 40 years, Georgia football finally won the National Championship in 2021 and repeated as Champions in 2022. No team has won three consecutive Championships since Minnesota in the 1930s. Stetson Bennett has moved on to the NFL and Carson Beck will take over quarterbacking duties after winning the training camp battle, and the defense will look much different than it did even two years ago. The Bulldogs schedule and talent should combine for another undefeated season and likely playoff spot, but I’m not sure this is the best team in the country when the trophy is handed out in January.
- Biggest Game: @ Tennessee (November 18th) – The biggest regular season test on the Bulldogs schedule will be a late season matchup in Knoxville against the Vols. If Georgia can avoid the upset, they’ll likely be headed into the SEC Championship undefeated and with an inside track to another Playoff spot.
- Preseason MVP: TE Brock Bowers – Bowers is technically a tight end but is really more of a utility knife for the Bulldogs offense. In 2022, he had 63 catches for 942 yards and 7 touchdowns and added 3 more rushing touchdowns on top of that. The case could be made that he’s the best player in the country and will be a huge help for new quarterback Carson Beck.
- Breakout Watch: DE Mykel Williams – Surprise! Another freakishly athletic defensive lineman for the Bulldogs defense. Williams started 2 games as a true freshman last season and had 4.5 sacks. As he takes on a larger role this season, he’ll show off his double digit sack potential.
2 – Tennessee Volunteers (2022 Record: 11-2) (2023 Projection: 9-3)
- Biggest Question: Is Joe Milton worth the hype? No quarterback has received more hype this offseason than Joe Milton, who will take over the starting gig after Hendon Hooker went to the NFL. Milton possesses a rocket arm that he showed off in moments between his time at Michigan and last year with Tennessee, but we don’t have an idea of what he can do with a full season of starting. The good news is that this offense isn’t super predicated on threading the needle, instead it’s about getting guys in space and opening deep throwing lanes. Milton might not be as efficient a passer as Hooker, but I think he’ll be good for the Vols while adding a new flare to this offensive style.
- Biggest Game: Georgia (November 18th) – Last season, the Vols pulled a major upset at home over Alabama. This season, they’ll have Georgia come into town late in the year in a matchup that’ll surely replicate the crowd energy of the Alabama game. A win here for the Vols could potentially get them into the SEC Championship.
- Preseason MVP: WR Bru McCoy – McCoy had a topsy turvy recruitment journey but has settled in at Tennessee, where he’ll be the new number one receiver after Jalin Hyatt and Cedric Tillman departed for the NFL. Last season, he had 52 catches for 667 yards and 4 touchdowns and those numbers will get significantly better in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: WR Squirrel White – White was a reserve receiving option as a true freshman last season and had 30 receptions for 481 yards and 2 touchdowns. He’ll enter the starting lineup for the Vols in 2023 and his speed combined with Miltons arm strength could be a lethal combination.
3 – Kentucky Wildcats (2022 Record: 7-6) (2023 Projection: 8-4)
- Biggest Question: Will the return of offensive coordinator Liam Coen fix a bad offense? After 2021, Liam Coen departed Kentucky to go back to Sean McVay and the Los Angeles Rams. After a season there, he is back at Kentucky as offensive coordinator. Kentucky saw its points per game go from 32.3 in 2021 all the way down to 20.4 in 2022. The regression was extremely noticeably, and led to an underwhelming season for the Wildcats. The return of Coen, along with the transfer of Devin Leary and a receiving core that started to emerge late last season should have Wildcat fans excited for the possibilities in 2023, and I don’t think its crazy to expect this offense to get back to 32 points per game.
- Biggest Game: Alabama (November 11th) – The Wildcats will have a tough five game stretch to close the season, and in the middle of it will be a home matchup agains Alabama. The Wildcats haven’t hosted the Tide since 2013 and haven’t won since 1997, and will look to change that in a pivotal late season SEC matchup.
- Preseason MVP: QB Devin Leary – Arguably the best quarterback to hit the transfer market this offseason, Leary is a big get for Kentucky and is a better player than Will Levis was at the position. In his four years with NC State, he’s thrown for 6,807 yards and 62 touchdowns.
- Breakout Watch: DL Deone Walker – Walker had 4.5 tackles for loss as a true freshman last season and after starting 11 games, should be more experienced and even better in 2023 as an interior menace on this defense.
4 – South Carolina Gamecocks (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Can Spencer Rattler channel some consistency to put South Carolina over the top? Spencer Rattler performed admirably down the stretch for the Gamecocks, leading them to wins over Tennessee and Clemson to finish the regular season. If you include the bowl loss to Notre Dame, Rattler passed for more than 1,000 yards in that three game stretch and the hope is that he can channel that production into a full season in 2023. Its been the biggest issue of his career to date, so I hesitate to say he’ll finally piece it all together, and he has all-SEC receiver Antwane Wells returning but will have to deal with replacing four of the top five pass catchers from 2022. I’ll be rooting for Rattler to figure it out, but I can’t buy in on that hope anymore.
- Biggest Game: Clemson (November 25th) – A chance for Shane Beamer to win 2 straight against in-state rival Clemson? Circle this one in sharpie and crank ‘Sandstorm’
- Preseason MVP: WR Antwane Wells – The all-SEC pass catcher more than doubled the second highest reception leader on last years team, and his report with Rattler will be relied upon even more with a whole new cast of players in the receiving core in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: ATH Nyck Harbor – One of the biggest recruiting wins in school history, the freakish Harbor will get some run at wide receiver for the Gamecocks but also played pass rusher in high school. His blend of 6’5″ 230 lbs size and track star speed make him an easy choice as a breakout candidate.
5 – Florida Gators (2022 Record: 6-7) (2023 Projection: 6-6)
- Biggest Question: When will improvement be noticeable? When Billy Napier took over the job, he preached patience when it came to rebuilding the Gators. In the modern age of the sport, it’s hard for fans (especially a national brand in the American south) to have that patience, but Napier has done a good job of recruiting. I suspect bad quarterback play and a receiving core that lacks a true playmaker will make 2023 another dull year for the Gators, but I do think Napier is doing a good job of building every other area of the roster. A tough schedule that includes a trip to Utah and Florida State in out-of-conference will make this another tough season, but I think the Gators are poised to finally rebound in 2024 if they can just find a quarterback. because Graham Mertz probably isn’t it.
- Biggest Game: Tennessee (September 16th) – This game is firmly in a good place on the schedule, bookended by matchups with McNeese and Charlotte, the Gators will play host to a Volunteers team that may still be figuring out all the new pieces on offense. Factor in the noise of The Swamp, and the Gators could have a nice upset victory early in the season.
- Preseason MVP: LB Princely Umanmielen – The junior pass rusher had 9.5 tackles for loss in 2022 and in a defense with plenty of new faces, he’ll look to be the star on an improving defense with an even bigger season.
- Breakout Watch: S Kamari Wilson – The sophomore safety will step into a full time starting role after 2 starts and 39 tackles as a true freshman last season. Florida almost always has solid defensive back play, and Wilson should be the next big name back there.
6 – Missouri Tigers (2022 Record: 6-7) (2023 Projection: 5-7)
- Biggest Question: Is Eli Drinkwitz the long term answer at head coach? In three seasons as the head coach at Missouri, Drinkwitz has been an even .500 in the regular season (17-17) but with two bowl losses tacked on to that record. Missouri fans are starting to run out of patience and it feels like another dud of a season could see him on the outs. The good news? This team had a lot of close losses last season and returns plenty of starters on both sides of the ball. The other good news is that the front half of their schedule is very winnable. If Missouri fans are cool with 6 or 7 wins a season, a bowl game and a few big in-state recruitments, Drinkwitz can supply that yearly. If the expectation is higher? It might be time to look elsewhere.
- Biggest Game: LSU (October 7th) – The Tigers will have a great opportunity to pull an SEC upset when the Tigers come to town. Missouri came close to pulling off an upset against Georgia last season, can they follow through in 2023?
- Preseason MVP: CB Kris Abrams-Draine – Abrams-Draine didn’t have an interception last season for the Tigers, but he did make his presence know with 14 pass breakups. I woudn’t count on him having zero interceptions again.
- Breakout Watch: WR Luther Burden – The five-star recruit from in-state had a modest freshman campaign last season (45 catches, 375 yards and 6 touchdowns) but with Dominic Lovett leaving via the portal. Burden will step into the number one playmaker role in this offense and should see a huge gain in his total yardage and usage.
7 – Vanderbilt Commodores (2022 Record: 5-7) (2023 Projection: 5-7)
- Biggest Question: Can Vandy go bowling? Maybe? It’ll be close. I do think Clark Lea has done a good job of improving the program and looking like a formidable football team every Saturday. The good news for the ‘Dores is that they avoid Georgia, Alabama, and LSU on the schedule and the non-conference slate is winnable. At the end of September, Vanderbilt will host both Kentucky and Missouri in back to back weeks and likely needs at least one win between them if they want to get to 6-6 or better in 2023.
- Biggest Game: Missouri (September 30th) – If Vanderbilt wants to get to 6 wins, a home matchup against Missouri will likely be a must win to achieve that status. A loss here will likely keep them out of bowl season yet again.
- Preseason MVP: WR Will Sheppard – You’d be excused if you had a confused look on your face when seeing a Vanderbilt wide receiver show up on all-SEC lists, but Shepard is a certified dude in the receiving game. Last season, he had 9 touchdowns for the ‘Dores and with hype surrounding quarterback AJ Swann, Sheppard might see even bigger production in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: QB AJ Swann – The sophomore quarterback had a modest true freshman campaign in spot action, and he’s a player the coaching staff raves about and feels they can build the future of the program around . Will be worth keeping an eye on Swann as 2023 goes on to see if Vanderbilt has another Jay Cutler situation on hand.