1 – LSU Tigers (2022 Record: 10-4) (2023 Projection: 11-1)
- Biggest Question: Can Brian Kelly and the Tigers go back-to-back against the Tide? Last year, LSU shocked the Crimson Tide by beating them and winning the SEC West in Brian Kellys first season as head coach. The Tigers enter 2023 with a lot of confidence and an even stronger roster, headlined by quarterback Jayden Daniels and linebacker Harold Perkins. This year, the Tigers head into Tuscaloosa in early November for a matchup that holds maybe the most weight of any game in college football this season. If the Tigers are close to full health, they’ll have a strong chance to win even in hostile territory because I honestly think this is the better roster at this moment in time.
- Biggest Game: @ Alabama (November 4th) – Both teams will be fresh off byes heading into this matchup. We should all hope for a healthy matchup because this has classic written all over it.
- Preseason MVP: LB Harold Perkins – Perkins burst into the scene as a true freshman last season as a high energy pass rusher, but he’ll transition to a more traditional linebacker role in 2023. Assuming he packed on the necessary muscle for the move, he has all the intangibles to become another all-time Tiger great.
- Breakout Watch: S Major Burns – A former high profile recruit for the Georgia Bulldogs, Burns has dealt with injuries the last two seasons with the Tigers. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a leader and playmaker in the secondary for a Tigers defense that will among the top in the nation.
2 – Alabama Crimson Tide (2022 Record: 11-2) (2023 Projection: 10-2)
- Biggest Question: Will the uncertainty of the quarterback position derail Alabama expectations? The Crimson Tide head into 2023 with a major question mark at quarterback, without a true standout taking the job in the lead to the season. Jalen Milroe started a few games while Bryce Young was out last year and he has dynamic running ability, but his passing is a question mark. Tyler Buchner followed offensive coordinator Tommy Rees from Notre Dame, but he never truly flashed with the Irish. Lastly, Ty Simpson is a former high ranking recruit who redshirted last season. I think it’ll take a lot more than a quarterback controversy to derail the Tide, but coming off a year in which they didn’t make the SEC Championship it certainly isn’t ideal. Until a starter is picked and has shown what they can do, my confidence in the Tide is only as high as second in the West.
- Biggest Game: LSU (November 4th) – See: LSU section.
- Preseason MVP: LB Dallas Turner – Will Anderson is off to the NFL, but the Tide will have no shortage of pass rush talent with Turner back. In his first two seasons with the Tide, he’s racked up 12.5 sacks and will greatly expand on that in 2023.
- Breakout Watch: RB Jace McClellan – Wow. Shocking. Another stud Alabama running back, McClellan takes the lead role from Jahmyr Gibbs and will get no shortage of attention by seasons end. In 2022, he posted 655 yards and 7 touchdowns from the reserve role.
3 – Texas A&M Aggies (2022 Record: 5-7) (2023 Projection: 8-4)
- Biggest Question: Can Jimbo cool his hot seat and turn the Aggies in the right direction? 2022 was a nightmare season for Jimbo Fisher and the Aggies. After recruiting the number one class in the country, expectations hit sky high levels but Texas A&M fell flat, going 5-7 including an upset loss to Appalachian State at home. This offseason, Fisher brought in Bobby Petrino to oversee the offense and several members of that 2022 class left via the portal. I don’t expect the Aggies to compete with either LSU or Alabama atop the West, but I do think they’ll take a leap forward and win 8 or 9 games in 2023. Sophomore quarterback Conner Weigman looked impressive after taking over the starting role late in the season, and several other members of that 2022 class that stayed got important playing time and will contribute in expanded roles this season. If Jimbo can right the ship as I predict this season, the Aggies could be in a great spot headed into 2024 as a potential SEC Championship candidate.
- Biggest Game: @ Tennessee (October 14th) – This will be a tough game for the Aggies. Tennessee will play host while coming off a bye week, meanwhile the Aggies will be traveling to Knoxville immediately after facing Alabama in College Station. Going 0-2 in this stretch could be a backbreaker for Jimbo and the Aggies.
- Preseason MVP: S Demani Richardson – The senior safety was one of the true highlights of 2022 for Texas A&M after leading the team in tackles and having 6 passes defended. He’ll once again lead a defense that was stout against the pass.
- Breakout Watch: DL Walter Nolen – The former number one overall recruit saw four starts for the Aggies last season and had 2.5 tackles for loss. He’ll get a lot more playing time in 2023 and should be force on the interior of this defense.
4 – Mississippi Rebels (2022 Record: 8-5) (2023 Projection: 8-4)
- Biggest Question: How will Lane Kiffin handle the quarterback position? In case you missed it in all the offseason craziness, Kiffin went into the transfer portal and added longtime Oklahoma State starter Spencer Sanders and former LSU 5-star recruit Walker Howard. In addition to them, they already have former USC transfer Jaxson Dart on the roster who started 12 games in 2022 and was pretty solid. How Kiffin will handle this situation is unknown, but he certainly has plenty of options. Howard will likely be third string with the hope he can learn and take over in 2024. The Sanders-Mississippi connection doesn’t make a ton of sense to me still. Is he better than Dart? Eh, probably not. Kiffins offense also isn’t conducive to molding an NFL player at the position (see: Matt Corral). So why Sanders opted to transfer here for his college finale is confusing, but the good news for everyone else around the program is that having this kind of depth at the most important position is a rarity in todays game.
- Biggest Game: LSU (September 30th) – Similar to Texas A&M above, this game comes in the midst of a tough two game stretch where Mississippi will travel to Tuscaloosa before hosting LSU a week later. The Rebels opening month stretch isn’t easy, and a loss here could put the Rebels in a 2-3 hole to end September with a road trip to Tulane earlier in the season.
- Preseason MVP: RB Quinshon Judkins – Judkins had an incredible true freshman campaign, rushing for 1,567 yards and 16 touchdowns while sharing carries with Zach Evans. With Evans gone, Judkins could certainly see even more carries in 2023 and possibly even bigger production numbers.
- Breakout Watch: OT Jayden Williams – The young left tackle saw 13 starts for the Rebels in 2022 and garnered some love when it came to all-SEC honors. He’ll be a key component of this offense in his sophomore season as a blindside blocker and instrumental in opening up lanes for Judkins.
5 – Arkansas Razorbacks (2022 Record: 7-6) (2023 Projection: 7-5)
- Biggest Question: Can a shake up in OC/DC lead to better results? The Razorbacks had one of the longest tenures in college football when it came to having the same head coach and coordinators, but this offseason saw changes to both sides of the ball when it comes to the coordinators. Dan Enos takes over running the offense after departing from Maryland and Travis Williams takes over the defense after holding the same position at UCF last season. I’m not a huge fan Enos, but Arkansas is going to want to run the ball behind KJ Jefferson and Rocket Sanders and Enos has proven time and time again that he’s comfortable with calling that style of play. Williams led UCF to its best defense in the post-COVID era and should improve a Razorbacks defense that allowed a whopping 30.6 PPG last season. I’m hesitant to say these moves will make a significant overall change in this teams performance when it comes to record, but changing things up was a necessary task for Sam Pittman.
- Biggest Game: Texas A&M (September 30th – Arlington) – The Razorbacks have a tough four game stretch in which they are on the road for four straight games, and this is the second matchup in that stretch and the only one that isn’t a true road game. Arkansas should start the year 3-0 but could very much be 3-4 when they arrive back home in late October if they do not win this game.
- Preseason MVP: RB Raheim ‘Rocket’ Sanders – My personal favorite running back in the sport, Sanders was incredible in 2022. He had 1,443 yards and 10 touchdowns while adding 28 receptions for 271 yards in the passing game. With this coaching staff wanting to rely heavily on the run game, don’t expect anything less than another all-American performance.
- Breakout Watch: CB Jaheim Singletary – A former five-star recruit who transferred from Georgia this offseason, Singletary will step into a crucial role for a secondary that allowed almost 300 yards per game in 2022.
6 – Auburn Tigers (2022 Record: 5-7) (2023 Projection: 6-6)
- Biggest Question: When should fans expect Auburn to compete at the top of the West again? The Bryan Harsin era at Auburn was quick and the Tigers made the move this offseason to bring the ever controversial Hugh Freeze back to the SEC. He has hit the ground running in the recruiting department, but those wins won’t be seen until 2024 at the earliest. The Tigers should see Bowl season again in 2023 based on a moderately improved roster and Freeze being a solid overall head coach, but its going to take probably two years at least before this team is competing with LSU and Alabama, and maybe even Texas A&M.
- Biggest Game: Alabama (November 25th) – One of the biggest reasons Freeze was brought to Auburn was his two victories over Nick Saban at Mississippi, and he’ll get his first shot at him in this job with the whole crowd behind him. I don’t think Auburn wins this game, but if they do, it’ll be a mega boost for this program headed into 2024.
- Preseason MVP: RB Jarquez Hunter – On a team with limit top end talent, the Tigers will have plenty of it in the running back room with the return of Hunter. In a limited role last season, Hunter still amassed 675 yards and 7 touchdowns while behind Tank Bigsby and will now get the lions share of the carries.
- Breakout Watch: TE Rivaldo Fairweather – The Florida International transfer brings a n athletic frame and solid production into the starting lineup for the Auburn offense, and should give Peyton Thorne a reliable red zone target.
7 – Mississippi State Bulldogs (2022 Record: 9-4) (2023 Projection: 6-6)
- Biggest Question: What are reasonable expectations for the Bulldogs in 2023? It’s been an emotional 9 months for Bulldog faithful in the wake of Mike Leach’s passing. Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett won the bowl game and got the full-time gig, and enters 2023 as a first time head coach. I have limited expectations for the Bulldogs this season for that very reason: being a rookie head coach in the SEC is not going to be easy, and while the roster is likely stronger than Auburn above them, I anticipate growing pains. My other issue stems from what the offense will look like, with Kevin Barbay coming over from Appalachian State. The Mountaineers offense wasn’t stellar in 2022, and that gives me pause when it comes to how this team functions offensively throughout the season.
- Biggest Game: Mississippi (November 23rd) – The Egg Bowl will be a big game for Arnett, especially with home field advantage in his first rivalry matchup.
- Preseason MVP: QB Will Rogers – The multi-year starter gives the Bulldogs much needed experience and continuity headed into a new era of Mississippi State football. He’s coming off another solid season with 3,974 yards and 35 touchdown passes.
- Breakout Watch: WR Zavion Thomas – Thomas was primarily a return man last season but he’ll move into more of a receiving role in his sophomore season. Expect the speedster to see plenty of targets with Will Rogers behind the gun.