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Predicting the SEC

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Wherein I make predictions that are very likely to look stupid in a few months.

NCAA Football: SEC Media Days Vasha Hunt-USA TODAY Sports

After completing the Vanderbilt opponent previews, and doing enough homework on the remaining West teams who aren’t on the schedule, it’s time to just put all my thoughts about the SEC in 2021 into a single post.

For this, I’ve gone through each team’s schedule and predicted a winner and loser, so the predictions reflect what I actually think the standings will look like and aren’t just a reflection of how good I think the teams are — so, schedules come into play quite a bit here. Possible forfeits due to COVID outbreaks do not. Because weird stuff happens over the course of a college football season, some of the individual outcomes aren’t necessarily going to track with the other ones, because in reality, they never do.

Anyway, there is approximately a 99 percent chance these will look stupid.

The East

  • Georgia (12-0, 8-0): Yeah, it’s probably bold to predict the Bulldogs will win the season opener against Clemson in Charlotte. But predicting that Georgia will win what’s probably the one true toss-up on the schedule and then win 11 more, each of which they should be favored by at least a touchdown, doesn’t seem like going out on too much of a limb. The closest thing to another iffy game on the schedule is the WLOCP in Jacksonville; they have to go to Auburn, but I don’t think that will be a problem for them in Bryan Harsin’s first year. The other two road games — at Vanderbilt and Tennessee — are also against teams with first-year coaches, and getting both Kentucky and Missouri in Athens is a boost. The reality is that Georgia might be the most talented team in the country, and I’m a big believer in the Tom Osborne rule — that is, if you field an elite team every year, eventually you’ll get a year when the breaks go your way. This might be that kind of year for Georgia, when they finally have a potentially elite quarterback in a year when the schedule works very much in their favor.
  • Florida (10-2, 6-2): As I said above... I think the gap between Georgia and Florida is enough that I consider the Gators a clear second in the East; they’re probably closer to the teams below them than they are in Georgia, and with the Kentucky and Missouri games on the road, I can’t rule out an upset loss to either one. As it stands, I think they’ll lose to Alabama and Georgia and handle the rest of the schedule, albeit probably with some close calls in there. The defense will probably be better than it was last season, but it’s hard to see how the offense doesn’t experience something of a dropoff with Kyle Trask and Kyle Pitts in the NFL.
  • Missouri (8-4, 5-3): If you read my opponent preview, you know that I’m a pretty big believer in the Tigers; while their 2020 season was a bit smoke-and-mirrors (with four close wins and five losses that weren’t particularly close), I’d bet on improvement still now that their quarterback is a sophomore. And there just aren’t a ton of holes to fill elsewhere. This team should click, though the margin for error is a bit thin: this prediction assumes wins over Kentucky and Arkansas, both on the road, neither of which is a given. Though I’m pretty confident they’ll win home games against Tennessee and South Carolina along with a road game at Vanderbilt.
  • Kentucky (8-4, 4-4): There are some question marks on both sides of the ball — Kentucky has some pieces to replace on defense, and they’ll have a new quarterback and a new offensive coordinator — but at this point, I pretty much know what I’m getting from a Mark Stoops team. They’ll win the games they’re supposed to win, not really challenge the top teams in the East, win seven or eight games, and go to a mid-tier bowl game. Of course, as Bill Connelly likes to say, hard jobs remain hard, and so I won’t rule out the possibility that this is the year that things fall apart — but I wouldn’t bet on it.
  • Tennessee (5-7, 2-6): It’s not quite a Year Zero — Tennessee has too much talent for that. But with all the offseason roster turnover, as well as a looming NCAA investigation and a new head coach, are you all that confident in Tennessee being ready to roll in 2021? Tennessee should win at least three of four on the nonconference schedule (I have them losing to Pitt here), and they should beat South Carolina and Vanderbilt at home. Beyond that, though, they travel to both Kentucky and Missouri, and no, they’re not beating Alabama, Florida, or Georgia. They’re probably not beating Ole Miss, either.
  • South Carolina (4-8, 1-7): Now this is a Year Zero. I don’t like the Shane Beamer hire, but whether it’s going to work out or not, we won’t get any evidence of it in 2021. Things just really bottomed out at the end of the Will Muschamp era, and while the nonconference schedule should provide some wins, I just don’t think they’re ready to beat many SEC teams that aren’t named Vanderbilt.
  • Vanderbilt (4-8, 1-7): It’s a testament to the current state of the Vanderbilt program that I consider this projection a bit of a homer pick — because it has an SEC win (I “officially” predicted MIssissippi State, though it could be any of the home games against teams not named Georgia) and I’m predicting a win at Colorado State, which won’t be automatic. But this record would give Vanderbilt fans some amount of optimism in Clark Lea’s first year, so there’s that.

West

  • Alabama (12-0, 8-0): I think Alabama will take a step back this year, because they practically have to — last year’s team had an argument as being the best team in college football history. But then I go through the schedule and try to figure out where the loss comes and... I don’t know? If it happens, a road trip to Texas A&M on October 9 is probably it.
  • Texas A&M (10-2, 6-2): The one thing holding me back from predicting A&M to win the West (which would be an upset, still) is that I don’t know if they have a quarterback. Sure, Haynes King or Zach Calzada might end up being very good, but I’m not exactly going to predict that until I see it. This is kind of the inverse of my thoughts on Georgia above: if last year’s team, with Kellen Mond as a senior, had had this year’s schedule, with a maybe slightly-down Alabama coming to College Station and a completely manageable slate otherwise, avoiding both Georgia and Florida from the East — well, that team could have been a national title contender. This one probably won’t.
  • Ole Miss (8-4, 4-4): Your opinion of Ole Miss depends entirely on your opinion of their defense; if you think it’s improved to being at least an FBS-average unit, I could probably see the Rebels winning a couple more games. If it’s as bad as it was last year, well, 6-6 is a real possibility. Somewhere in the middle is this prediction, which (see initial comment about weird stuff) has losses to LSU in Oxford and Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl, but does have the Rebels knocking off Texas A&M.
  • LSU (7-5, 4-4): I might feel more confident in LSU if not for the news that Myles Brennan — the most effective of the three quarterbacks LSU played last season — is likely out for a while, possibly even the entire season. Likely starter Max Johnson looked fine in six games last season, but more in the sense of “won’t cost the team by doing dumb shit” than in the sense of “actually winning games for the team,” and the days are long gone when you could have a very good team simply by having elite athletes everywhere else and a Greg McElroy doing little more than getting them the ball.
  • Auburn (6-6, 3-5): This might honestly be the worst-case scenario for Bryan Harsin’s first year on the Plains, but this isn’t the year when you want both Georgia and Alabama coming to Auburn, because I don’t think Auburn is winning those games. The effect of that is that the Tigers have to travel to LSU, Arkansas, and Texas A&M, and there’s a September game at Penn State thrown in for good measure. Auburn’s probably too talented to really bottom out this season, but there are going to be plenty of kinks.
  • Arkansas (5-7, 2-6): For all the positivity about Sam Pittman’s first year, Arkansas wasn’t actually good last season so much as that the Razorbacks were better than they were at any point in the short-lived Chad Morris era. That buys Pittman plenty of time, but as for this year’s team, the Razorbacks will be breaking in a new quarterback (most likely KJ Jefferson) and the roster still isn’t where it needs to be to really compete with the teams ahead of them. And drawing Georgia from the East, in Athens, certainly doesn’t help. Texas might be beatable, but maybe not so much with a new starter at quarterback in his second game (and his first game against a team not named Rice.)
  • Mississippi State (4-8, 2-6): First off, Mississippi State, what the hell were y’all thinking scheduling NC State and Memphis, the latter at Memphis? Anyway, like Auburn, this might be the worst-case scenario since it assumes losses in those two games and all four SEC road games, and that includes a trip to Vanderbilt (which Mississippi State barely beat last year, when Vanderbilt was awful and the game was in Starkville.) But it’s also hard to see much upside for this season. Maybe the Air Raid actually works in the SEC?