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College Football Preview 2020: SEC

Kyle Pitts, Florida
Power Rankings

East Division

1. Florida Gators Projected Record: 10-1 (Lose SEC Championship Game)
Strengths: Quarterback Kyle Trask did an admirable job filling in for the injured Feleipe Franks in 2019, and now he's back for an encore. Trask's 2,941 passing yards were the most by a Florida quarterback since Tim Tebow over a decade ago, and he was so impressive that Franks opted to leave town instead of compete for the starting job against him. Can Trask take the next step from "good" to "great"?... Trask loses his top receiver from 2019 in Van Jefferson, but there's still a lot to like about the playmakers on this offense. Tight end Kyle Pitts finished second on the Gators in receiving yardage a year ago and should be considered a John Mackey Award favorite, while Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes are explosive weapons on the perimeter. Toney in particular is a thrill to watch, often playing the "Percy Harvin" role in this Dan Mullen offense... The Gators had the nation's seventh-ranked pass defense last fall and there's plenty back to work with for coordinator Todd Grantham. The secondary in particular is loaded with future NFL talent, bringing back junior corner Marco Wilson and senior safety Shawn Davis. The front seven will undergo somewhat of a rebuild now that Jabari Zuniga and Jon Greenard are gone, but there's no shortage of talent.

Weaknesses: The offensive line was not up to SEC standards last season and now must replace three starters. Seniors Stone Forsythe and Brett Heggie are solid starting points, but the rest of this group has to show up. Left tackle is a particular concern for me, without anybody emerging at that spot so far... Florida's ground game struggled to move the ball behind this offensive line, resulting in one of the worst rushing offenses in Power Five football. The blocking has to improve, but UF must also lean on a new feature back, as Lamical Perine left for the NFL. Expect junior Dameon Pierce to get the first crack at things, but the Gators will also see what Malik Davis can do. Davis has been pretty quiet the last two seasons, but he rushed for 526 yards in 2017... Greenard and Zuniga won't be impossible to replace, but where do the Gators find their new pass rushers? Former Georgia transfer Brenton Cox has the potential to be a star, but it may take some time for him to adjust. Junior defensive end Zachary Carter also could be in store for a breakout after notching 4.5 sacks in 2019.

Bottom Line: Dan Mullen has done a tremendous job in his return to Gainesville, going 21-5 over his first two seasons. Is 2020 the year the Gators will be able to take the next step and overtake Georgia in the division? I think so, because of two main reasons: stability at quarterback, and continuity on the coaching staff, two things that should be particularly important after the shortened off-season.

2. Georgia Bulldogs Projected Record: 8-2
Strengths: The defense might be the best in the nation, as seven starters are back from a unit that was 1st in the nation in scoring defense a season ago (12.6 PPG). There's a lot to like about all three levels of this unit, but you have to particularly love this linebacker corps, which is filled with speed and depth... Georgia has become one of the best in college football at producing running back talent, and they should be just fine, even as D'Andre Swift moves on. Sophomore Zamir White is a former five-star recruit whose time in Athens has been quiet mainly as a result of injuries. Fully healthy, he's going to get the opportunity to show what he can do, and the coaching staff seems to believe he can be a superstar. Veteran James Cook and freshman Kendall Milton will also likely get their chances to show what they can do... Kirby Smart juggled up his offensive coaching staff over the off-season, moving on from OC James Coley and turning to Todd Monken to run the offense. Monken has earned a reputation for up-tempo, aggressive offensive attacks, which was the antithesis of what UGA has run throughout most of Smart's tenure. It seems like a necessary change if the Bulldogs want to continue competing for national titles, even if there will be some growing pains early as this offense adjusts.

Weaknesses: The arrival of J.T. Daniels later in the off-season greatly changed Georgia's quarterback room. Former Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, the projected starter, ended up opting out as a result of Daniels arriving, meaning it is likely the USC transfer's job to lose. We've heard a lot about Daniels' talent, but he arrived late, and hasn't played since 2018. Even if he is able to learn on the fly, there is likely to be some rust there... Once the strength of this offense, the O-Line underwent a transformation this off-season. O-Line coach Sam Pittman took the Arkansas job and then the Bulldogs watched three starters depart meaning the new coach, Matt Luke, will have work to do. Trey Hill, Ben Cleveland and Jamaree Salyer have all played plenty of snaps and they should be able to anchor the group, but this unit lacks the depth it once had. Salyer has spent most of his UGA career playing guard but he'll likely be flipped outside to tackle based on need... The biggest issue on this offense last season was their receiver corps, and while it should be improved, there are still some concerns there. Lawrence Cager is off to the NFL and projected starter Dominik Blaylock is out of the year. Sophomore George Pickens is ready to become a star, but he needs help from a supporting cast that includes Demetris Robertson, Kearis Jackson and a loaded incoming freshman class. Tight end should at least be in good hands, as Florida State transfer Tre McKitty arrives.

Bottom Line: Georgia's offensive questions make it hard for me to pick them to once again rule the SEC East, but the defense should still certainly keep them in the Playoff hunt. The X-factor has to be quarterback; if Daniels is able to acclimate quickly and give this offense the spark they need, another division title should be an expectation. If not, the Bulldogs could relinquish control of the division to the rival Gators.

3. Tennessee Volunteers Projected Record: 6-4
Strengths: The offensive line has a chance to be not just the best group in the SEC, but one of the best in college football, period. Four starters are back, led by All-SEC guard Trey Smith, and the Volunteers added Georgia transfer Cade Mays. Mays' eligibility for 2020 is still up in the air at the moment, but even if the Vols don't get him for this fall, there's still plenty to like about this group... Tennessee had a Top 20 pass defense in 2019 and nearly every important piece is back in the defensive backfield. Corner Bryce Thompson is the headliner of the group, with six interceptions over the past two seasons, although safeties Shawn Shamburger and Jaylen McCullough will play important roles... Tennessee ended 2019 on a six-game winning streak that was capped off by a come-from-behind victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. That, plus this coaching staff's work on the recruiting trail, has given this program momentum and energy going into 2020. If they're able to continue that hot streak into 2020, this team could be in store for one of their best seasons in recent memory.

Weaknesses: It's hard to know whether to qualify this quarterback room as a strength or a weakness. On the plus side, it's a fairly deep group with a lot of experience and a highly touted newcomer in Harrison Bailey. However, veteran QB Jarrett Guarantano has never really taken the next step at the position, resulting in a QB competition over the off-season. Guarantano will likely begin 2020 as the starter, but expect him to be pushed by Bailey and Brian Maurer... The Vols lost their top two receivers from 2019 in Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings, leaving the receiver room a little bit thin. There's still talent here, but it's a group lacking much star power, which won't help an aerial attack that has been mediocre these past few seasons... While Henry To'o To;o is a rising star at linebacker, he's the lone returning starter for this unit. Guys like Kivon Bennett and Quavaris Crouch look ready to step into starting roles, but it could still be a concern. Tennessee's rush defense was solid a year ago, but that was before losing Daniel Bituli, who led the Vols with 42 solo tackles.

Bottom Line: Tennessee once again appears to be on the rise, but can they turn that into wins on the football field? The O-Line should be elite either way, but can the rest of the offense take the necessary steps to compete for a division title? The Vols still appear to be a step below Florida and Georgia, but they are closing the gap quickly. A strong 2020 season could set up for a potential special '21 and beyond.

4. Kentucky Wildcats Projected Record: 5-5
Strengths: The backfield should be in good hands, even as do-it-all QB/RB/WR Lynn Bowden departs to the NFL. Terry Wilson was solid in 2018 prior to missing most of last season with injury. He's a tremendous runner and athlete, but he'll need to take the next step as a passer to really get this Wildcat offense humming. At running back, Asim Rose and Kavosiey Smoke did a great job moving this offense away from the legendary Benny Snell, and they'll form a potent 1-2 punch once again... Quietly, Kentucky had one of the nation's best pass defenses, allowing nearly 168 yards per game, which was second in the nation. Nearly every crucial piece is back to the puzzle, and UK adds on a potential starter in LSU transfer Kelvin Joseph. Joseph was a former high-profile recruit who played in 11 games in 2018 for LSU, but got forced out as they continued to add to their secondary... Max Duffy won the Ray Guy Award as the nation's best punter last fall, and he's back in Lexington. Duffy averaged over 48 yards per game in 2019, and he's obviously important in the field position battles. Having a game-changing punter like him is a huge advantage once the SEC slate really gets rolling.

Weaknesses: Bowden is a massive loss, even with Wilson able to come back healthy. He recorded over 2,000 yards per scrimmage and 17 total touchdowns and at times last fall, he was Kentucky's sole source of offense. It's never easy to replace a guy like him, who meant so much to this team and program... The front seven has numerous important pieces back, including DT Quinton Bohanna and linebackers DeAndre Square and Jamar Watson, but it's not a very deep group. If the Wildcats once again deal with injuries or possible ramifications from COVID-19, you wonder if this group is going to be able to hold up in this league... While UK has one of the best kickers in the game in Duffy, their kicking was an issue in 2019. Mark Stoops pretty clearly did not trust either one of his kickers last fall and they missed a total of four extra points, which obviously can make a major difference in close contests. Sophomore Chance Poore was the starter to begin 2019 before losing his job to Matt Ruffolo, and the two will compete again this fall.

Bottom Line: Stoops continues to do a great job with this Kentucky program, one that has become among the most consistent in the SEC East. That stability should help them overcome the absence of Bowden, particularly if Terry Wilson is able to stay healthy. If the defense once again plays like a Top 25 unit, the Wildcats will be stiff competition for any team they play. They might not be able to win the division, but they'll certainly be in the mix.

5. Missouri Tigers Projected Record: 3-7
Strengths: A number of transfers arrive that will most likely play big snaps right away for first-year head coach Eli Drinkwitz. TCU transfer Shawn Robinson may be considered the favorite to start at quarterback, as he is competing with Taylor Powell and Connor Bazelak for the job. Robinson showed flashes while at TCU, but he was also incredibly inconsistent. On the outside, Virginia Tech transfer Damon Hazelton was one of the most underrated transfers of the off-season. He thrived in Blacksburg over his two seasons there, even without a reliable QB to get him the ball most of the time... Larry Rountree might not be a household name but he's established himself as one of the better tailbacks in the league. Rountree's numbers took a slight dip in 2019 as he dealt with a few nagging injuries, but he should be ready to roll in 2020. Rountree currently ranks sixth on Missouri's all-time rushing yardage list, and he could feasibly rise as high as No. 2 with a quality campaign... The Tiger defense posted good numbers across the board a year ago and they came in 14th nationally in total defense. Seven starters are back for coordinator Ryan Walters, who Drinkwitz decided to keep on staff. Included in that seven is junior linebacker Nick Bolton, who led the SEC in tackles a year ago and is sure to be a future high NFL Draft selection.

Weaknesses: While Robinson may provide some relief at QB, it's still a position group that has major questions. Robinson will need time to acclimate to Drinkwitz and this offense and neither of the other two have seen much snaps. Drinkwitz has done a good job coaching quarterbacks in the past, and he'll earn his money by leading this group in 2020... Outside of Hazelton, there really is not much else at receiver. Nobody on this team managed over 500 yards of receiving in 2019, and that was before natural attrition took away some of the top weapons. Versatile Tyler Badie, who you'll see line up in the backfield and outside, can make things happen but other pieces desperately need to step up... Life is never easy for a first-year coach in the SEC, especially during a pandemic that stripped away most of the off-season. Drinkwitz has risen up the coaching ladder quickly as an offensive coordinator and during a short stint as head coach at Appalachian State. That doesn't mean things will be a disaster in Year One, but expectations should certainly be dampened.

Bottom Line: After a 5-1 start to 2019, Missouri fell apart down the stretch, leading to Barry Odom's eventual dismissal. Drinkwitz already has upped the enthusiasm and atmosphere around the program, and Odom left the cupboard far from bare. With that being said, Year One will still be a transition year for the head coach, and some growing pains will be expected. Hovering around .500 still seems reasonable, especially if the QB situation can be figured out.

6. South Carolina Gamecocks Projected Record: 3-7
Strengths: Head coach Will Muschamp brought on Mike Bobo as offensive coordinator, about as close to a home run hire as you can get for that position. Bobo was offensive coordinator at Georgia from 2007-2014 and then head coach at Colorado State from '15-'19. He'll hope to bring an aggressive, exciting offense to Columbia... The Gamecocks should be strong on both lines of scrimmage, particularly on offense. The O-Line returns four starters, including All-SEC caliber players in Dylan Wonnum and Sadarius Hutchinson. The defensive line has Zacch Pickens and newcomer Jordan Burch, two of the highest-rated players to sign with South Carolina in school history. Pickens is likely to start and should be a serious breakout candidate, and Burch will see snaps... Although South Carolina's pass defense numbers weren't great (80th in the country), they have two future NFL corners in Jaycee Horn and Israel Mukuamu. Mukuamu had three interceptions in the upset over UGA last fall and at 6'4", is an imposing presence on the outside. Horn is a little bit streaky, but he seemed to get more comfortable last fall as time went on.

Weaknesses: South Carolina's running back position was already a question mark entering 2020, and that was before true freshman MarShawn Lloyd tore his ACL a few weeks ago. Lloyd was the highest-rated RB recruit since Marcus Lattimore, and projected to seriously contend for the starting job. Instead, the Gamecocks turn to sophomores Deshaun Fenwick and Kevin Harris, two players who have not seen significant snaps in their USC career... Quarterback Ryan Hilinski had a promising freshman season after taking over for the injured Jake Bentley (who transferred to Utah), but how will he handle the transition to the Mike Bobo offense? According to reports, Colorado State transfer Collin Hill, who followed Bobo from his old gig, is pushing Hilinski for the starting job. Hill's comfortability with the offense is a major point in his favor, but Hilinski still seems like the QB of the future in Columbia. Either way, the passing offense will need to have some serious bite with the questions at running back... In addition to concerns at QB and RB, South Carolina is lacking much proven targets at wide out. Senior Shi Smith will start the year as their top option after bringing in 489 yards a season ago, but there's not much behind him now that Bryan Edwards is gone. Converted quarterback Dakereon Joyner is a fascinating athlete that can do some creative things, but is he really the second best receiver on this roster?

Bottom Line: The pressure is on for Muschamp, who is 26-25 in four seasons with the Gamecocks. There is some promising young talent throughout this roster and Bobo seems like a great hire, but I still think it could be a rebuilding year in Columbia. There are so many questions on offense, and the defense was just okay in 2019. Perhaps some of the youth can grow up quickly but if not, a middle-of-the-pack finish in the East seems likely.

7. Vanderbilt Commodores Projected Record: 0-10
Strengths: Vanderbilt has done a superb job producing running backs throughout the James Franklin and Derek Mason eras (Ralph Webb, Zac Stacy, Ke'Shawn Vaughn), and while this group doesn't have a proven star entering 2020, it has lots of upside. Senior Jamauri Wakefield missed basically all of 2019 with injury but is the most experienced weapon in the backfield. His receiving ability out of the backfield gives this Commodore offense more variety. Sophomore Keyon Brooks had 252 yards a year ago and his explosiveness will be sorely needed for this offense... Ten starters are back for the Vanderbilt defense, which will be led by new DC Ted Roof. Numbers-wise, this group wasn't very good in 2019, but having experience back should be crucial. The D-Line will undergo a slight transition into a 4-3 and there's upside there, while linebacker Dimitri Moore might be their best player on the team... Motivation shouldn't be a problem at all for Mason and his staff this season, which will hopefully bleed into the team. Mason enters his seventh season in Nashville on a scorching hot seat and even with the financial implications of COVID-19 hovering, another bad season should cost him his job. You'd hope that will give him more motivation to try different things and be more creative with a roster that is far less talented than most of the SEC.

Weaknesses: Quarterback is a major problem, as there is no starting experience on the roster. There's four players contending for the job, and none have gained much separation. Freshman Ken Seals arrived with some fanfare and led the offense in the spring, but he'll be pushed by former JUCO transfer Danny Clark. No matter what, there's going to be a learning curve for this offense as the QB situation is figured out... The offensive line really struggled against the elite pass rushers of the SEC in 2019, and even with three starters back there's a lot of room for improvement. The interior of the line is a real problem and struggled to get any push last fall, and the left tackle spot might be up for grabs after Devin Cochran transferred. With a new QB set to fill in, having poor protection on the line could be a death wish for this offense... Vanderbilt didn't have a complete breeze of a non-conference slate, but the move to the SEC-only schedule hurts programs like them. Instead of four non-conference opportunities that are all winnable (with the exception being Kansas State), the Commodores have to deal with a league that they went 1-7 against in 2019. They're simply not as talented as the rest of the league, and it should really show in 2020.

Bottom Line: Mason will have his work cut out for him if he wants to return for an eighth season. There's simply not much on offense that jumps out at you, and while the defense has a lot returning, they ranked 101st in the nation in total defense last season. Perhaps Vandy will be able to catch an SEC team sleeping, but rising out of the cellar in the East would be quite a surprise with their current makeup.

West Division

1. Alabama Crimson Tide Projected Record: 10-1 (Win SEC Championship Game)
Najee Harris, Alabama

Strengths: A number of possible NFL Draft selections decided to wait on the pros for at least one more season and return to Tuscaloosca. That list includes Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith, Alex Leatherwood, and Dylan Moses. All of those guys are All-SEC level players, and they give Nick Saban a tremendous, experienced core to start with in 2020... This offense is not your early-2010's Alabama offense. There is speed, playmaking and versatility throughout the unit, and it should again be one of the top offenses in the country. In addition to Harris and Smith, the Crimson Tide feature one of the fastest players in college football in Jaylen Waddle, and they have a few potential breakout candidates in John Metchie III and do-it-all Slade Bolden. They even have a superstar quarterback waiting in the wings in true freshman Bryce Young. Young might not overtake the veteran Mac Jones for the starting job, but he'll certainly see the field often in 2020... The defense was not as good as it usual is in 2019, but it should take a step back in the right direction this fall. First off, it will be significantly more healthy than it was a year ago, and some of the youth should continue to grow up. The rush defense was the worst part of the group in 2019, ranking 37th nationally, but should be much better now that Moses is back in the fold.

Weaknesses: Losing Tua Tagovailoa is significant, even though Mac Jones appears ready to fill the role. Although he ended up only really playing less than two full seasons for the Tide, Tua changed the way this offense operated with his arm strength and playmaking ability. Jones simply is not as talented, which means the offense might look a little bit different under his leadership... Can the pass defense return to form? It was strong a season ago but was still shelled by some of the tougher opponents Alabama played. It's got a great starting point, led by junior Patrick Surtain II, but must replace three starters. Junior Josh Jobe is expected to slide into the vacant corner spot opposite of Surtain, while sophomore Jordan Battle should be considered a serious breakout candidate... Placekicking remains a shockingly big problem for the Tide, even though they regularly bring in talent at the position. Sophomore Will Reichard is going to be the starter but he was erratic in 2019, even though he has a massive leg. If the Tide want to return to National Title form, he has to be more consistent, especially in the more important games on their schedule.

Bottom Line: 2019 was a "down year" for Alabama football and they still went 11-2 and came within a game of the CFB Playoff despite dealing with the injury bug all year. Now healthy and loaded with returning talent, the Tide should return to their perch at the top of college football. They're simply too talented not to, and they have more continuity on their roster and coaching staff than most years. I have them returning to the National Championship Game and once again dueling with Clemson for the title of national supremacy.

2. Texas A&M Aggies Projected Record: 8-2
Strengths: The Aggies have the most experienced quarterback in the SEC, as Kellen Mond is back for his fourth season as starter. Mond has had a great career in College Station, but he is coming off a little bit of a down 2019. He's played terrific in big moments for the Aggies, but has to become more consistent week-to-week. Mond doesn't even have to be a Heisman contender for this team to be an SEC West contender, he just has to play smart and limit turnovers... The defensive transformation that has taken place under Mike Elko continues apace, and now nine starters are back for him to work with. The only significant piece gone is D-Linemen Justin Madubuike, and Bobby Brown and DeMarvin Leal should more than make up for his absence. The secondary has the chance to be one of the best in school history, bringing back everyone to a group that was 41st in the nation in pass defense... Jimbo Fisher continues to bring in some tantalizing talent, and nowhere is it more obvious than at the offensive skill positions. Keep an eye on a few youngsters on the outside, namely Demond Demas and Jalen Preston, while tight ends Baylor Cupp and Jalen Wydermeyer do work underneath. Demas is a freakish athlete who should start right away as a true freshman, while Wydermeyer had the freshman campaign in 2019 Cupp was expected to have before injury struck. That isn't to say there is no experience in the receiver corps, as senior Jhamon Ausbon will help lead the way.

Weaknesses: Texas A&M didn't create much turnovers in 2019 and their turnover margin (-6) ended up tied for 100th in the country. If the Aggies are to contend for an SEC West Title, they need Mond not to turn the ball over, but also this secondary to make some things happen. There's plenty of talent back there, now it's just simply getting the results... Tailback Isaiah Spiller was quite a surprise filling in for the injured Jashaun Corbin, as Spiller managed 946 yards and ten scores. However, now that Corbin is gone, you wonder about who else can join Spiller in this backfield. He'll have no trouble handling the feature back role, but hasn't proven himself as a workhorse just yet. New RBs coach Tommie Robinson will turn to Ainias Smith or one of the newcomers as a change-of-pace option. Smith has proven himself on special teams, and I'm sure OC Darrell Dickey will find ways to incorporate him in this offense... For A&M to take the next step, they have to play better against the elite teams in this conference. All five of the Aggie losses were to Top 25 teams, but they were destroyed by LSU, and lost to Alabama and Clemson comfortably. Jimbo has to get his teams to play better against top competition and this is the year to do it, with LSU and Auburn possibly slated to take a next step. It's never easy to make the jump from a good team to a true National Title contender, but this A&M team has the talent, now it's just a matter of getting the on-field results.

Bottom Line: I'm a big fan of Texas A&M going into 2020 and think this could be the "breakthrough" year some fans have seen coming under Jimbo Fisher. This Aggie team has leadership at the most important places and they're deeper than they've ever been. If Mond can return to his 2018 form or possibly even get better, I think A&M pushes Alabama for the West Title. Even if he doesn't, there's still enough here to contend in college football's toughest division.

3. LSU Tigers Projected Record: 7-3
Strengths: There's still a lot to like at LSU's offensive skill positions, even with so many pieces moving on. At running back, veteran Chris Curry and former high-profile recruit John Emery should be able to handle things, while the receiver corps still has weapons. Terrace Marshall Jr. will now be the go-to guy, especially now that 2019 Biletnikoff Award winner Ja'Marr Chase has opted out. Marshall dealt with some nagging injuries in '19 and still managed 671 yards and 13 touchdowns. Sophomores Trey Palmer and senior Jontre Kirklin are a few names to watch behind Marshall... The secondary should still be really good, even with a few pieces moving on. Sophomore corner Derek Stingley Jr. has quickly established himself as the best corner in college football, and a favorite for the Jim Thorpe Award. He picked off six passes last fall and got even better as the season went on, which could set him up for a special sophomore campaign. Kary Vincent Jr. recently opted out, but senior JaCoby Stevens is still around, and LSU brought in some extra relief with the 2020 recruiting class. Five-star newcomer Elias Ricks could feasibly start right away, particularly with some depth issues at corner... Ed Orgeron not only watched his roster get gutted following last year's National Championship, but watched his coaching staff ravaged. DC Dave Aranda took the Baylor HC job and Broyles Award winner Joe Brady left for the NFL. With that being said, Orgeron seemed to go a good job patching together the rest of the staff. Former Nebraska head coach Bo Pelini was brought on as the new defensive coordinator, while former NFL head coach Scott Linehan takes over Brady's role as passing game coordinator.

Weaknesses: I don't know if we've ever seen this much roster turnover in a single-season. A mind-boggling 33 players have either gone pro or transferred off last year's team, crippling this team's depth. Not only was it the big names, such as Joe Burrow or Chase, but names expected to fill in this year, such as Marcel Brooks or Jamal Pettigrew. LSU still has plenty of talent, but it's hard to imagine them not showing any ill effects with so much roster turnover... Having to replace a record-setting, Heisman-winning QB is as challenging as it gets in college football, and the pressure's on for junior Myles Brennan. Brennan threw 40 passing attempts in mop-up duty last fall but he's now the big man on campus, especially with LSU not bringing in a grad transfer from the portal. Brennan seems like a fine fit for this offense and the tools are there for him to succeed, but it will not be an easy transition... There's concerns at nearly every position group, but the biggest problem for me is the linebacker corps. This is a very young group that loses Patrick Queen, K'Lavon Chaisson, Jacob Phillips and Michael Divinity Jr. Things got a little bit better when North Dakota State transfer Jabril Cox transferred in over the off-season, and he'll likely start. But, things are so thin that converted wide out DeVonta Lee has a significant chance to see a lot of snaps at OLB.

Bottom Line: It was always going to be hard for LSU to repeat last year's magical 15-0 season, and things haven't got any easier with numerous transfers and opt-outs. With that being said, this is a school that regularly brings in Top 5 Classes, and the talent is still in place. There is going to be some notable growing pains as that young talent is forced into larger roles, and a step back should be a natural result. Even so, I still think the Tigers keep afloat in the West, and even challenge Alabama/A&M for the division title.

4. Auburn Tigers Projected Record: 6-4
Strengths: After winning the tight quarterback competition prior to the 2019 season, Bo Nix had an up-and-down freshman campaign, unsurprising for a young starter in the brutal SEC West. Nix did have some truly impressive moments, but he also struggled with being decisive and turnovers. Auburn is very hopeful that his second year as starter can help him take the next steps, and he has a new OC in Chad Morris. Morris has promised to be a little bit more creative in the passing attack than his predecessors, which should only help Nix... Speaking of an improved passing game, Auburn has a lot of talent back at receiver. Junior Seth Williams emerged as a reliable downfield weapon in 2019, finishing with 830 yards and eight touchdowns. Behind him, the Tigers will also feature an absolute burner in Anthony Schwartz and a steady veteran in senior Eli Stove. Schwartz is the type of weapon that can truly score every time he touches the ball, and Auburn needs to find ways to get him more involved... The strength of the defense a year ago was the D-Line, but it will be the linebacker corps in 2020. Senior K.J. Britt and sophomore Owen Pappoe will be the starters in this 4-2-5 scheme, and both could be in store for big years. Pappoe especially is just scratching the surface of what he can be, and played extremely down the stretch last fall. Those two should help keep Auburn's rush defense a Top 25 unit.

Weaknesses: The offensive line is the biggest concern for the Tigers entering 2020. It was a fairly good unit in 2019, but now loses four starters, with the lone returnee being junior center Nick Brahms. Auburn will lean on relatively untested pieces at both tackle spots, and may end up using Akron transfer Brandon Council extensively. You never like seeing a team with a young QB have so much questions on the O-Line, but such is the reality this year on the Plains... The secondary is not completely devoid of returnees, but there is a lot gone from a passing defense that was okay a season ago. Nickelback Christian Tutt and corner Roger McCreary have played a healthy dosage of snaps in their Auburn careers, while junior Smoke Monday will be a tone-setter at safety. It's a group that will certainly look different in 2020, but the pieces are there for it to still be a productive group... Gus Malzahn teams are really best when they have a star running back that can keep defenses honest offensively, which really isn't the case this season. The Tigers do have a lot of depth in the backfield, that includes D.J. Williams, Shaun Shivers and newcomer Tank Bigsby, but it is a group really lacking in star power. One of those three will most likely step up and take the starting job, but how well will they fare behind such a crippled line?

Bottom Line: You never quite know what you're getting from an Auburn team year-to-year and this 2020 edition is no different. There's a lot to like on both sides of the ball, but it's difficult to overlook the concerns on both lines, particularly when you consider how the rest of the conference looks. The Tigers are still going to be a tough out in the West, but I think they are at least one step below the serious division contenders. However, maybe Gus can once again work some of his magic and push Auburn back into the "favorites" category.

5. Mississippi State Bulldogs Projected Record: 4-6
Strengths: The hiring of Mike Leach to replace Joe Moorhead seems like a popular one in Starkville, even if Leach can turn some people off with his quirks and oddities. Leach will bring his patented air raid to the SEC West, a division not known for air-it-out football. It certainly is a different look for a Bulldogs team that was 109th in the nation in passing offense last fall, but it should benefit them... The good news for Leach is that there is a lot to like in the backfield, as star back Kylin Hill returns, and Stanford grad transfer K.J. Costello arrives. Hill is extremely close to becoming Miss. State's all-time leading rusher, and he'll challenge for the title of league's best back while Costello has plenty to prove. Injuries cost him his job in Palo Alto, and his decision to follow Leach from the Pac-12 North to SEC West speaks volumes about what he thinks of his new head coach... The defense also has a new look, as new DC Zach Arnett arrives from San Diego State, bringing a 3-3-5 look with him. Arnett does have talent to work with, as the D-Line offers plenty of experience, and the top tackler, Erroll Thompson, is back. Of course, it will be quite an adjustment moving to this type of defense with such a shortened off-season, and there could be some problems early. Even so, I think the change in defensive philosophy will end up being a good thing for a defense that was far from great in 2019.

Weaknesses: An air raid attack will of course rely heavily on its receivers, and the Bulldogs are pretty thin on the outside. Osirus Mitchell has eclipsed 400 yards in each of the past two seasons, but can he take the next step and really be the go-to guy? Behind him, this group is pretty underwhelming, at least for now. Senior JaVonta Payton, once an Ole Miss recruit, and JUCO transfer Malik Heath are two names to keep an eye on... The pass offense might end up being pretty good, but the Bulldog pass defense might allow of yardage itself. There's a lot gone from a pass defense that was among the worst in the SEC in 2019, and neither corner spot has significant experience. Safeties C.J. Morgan and Marcus Murphy should be fun to watch, but can they get this group playing well? Arnett may have to come up with some creative looks to supplement the secondary for the time being... I love the addition of Costello, who started for three seasons at Stanford and knows how to win in major college football. With that being said, he is learning a brand new offense during a shortened off-season, and now joins a division loaded with defensive talent. I think Costello will end up being another success story for Leach and a future NFL Draft pick, but here's another situation where growing pains may be inevitable.

Bottom Line: Mississippi State decided to start brand new with Leach after last season's 6-7 mark, and this team will look quite a bit different in more ways than one. Returning a proven stud like Hill should be huge in keeping this team grounded as they undergo a transition period but unfortunately for the Bulldogs, there's no time to ease into the season. Once the schedule began with a September slate of New Mexico, NC State, Arkansas and Tulane. Now Miss. State opens with the defending National Champion LSU Tigers. With so much new pieces in place, sticking to around a .500 mark is about the best that can hoped.

6. Ole Miss Rebels Projected Record: 2-8
Strengths: Much like their Egg Bowl rivals, Ole Miss made a splashy off-season hire by bringing in Lane Kiffin from Florida Atlantic. Kiffin is another guy that hasn't shied away from controversy or headlines in his coaching career, but so far with Ole Miss he's seemed awfully subdued in his off-the-field shenanigans. That will be a good thing for a program that has had a chaotic few seasons of NCAA sanctions following the tenure of Hugh Freeze... I really like some of this offensive talent the Rebels can throw at you, and I'm curious to see how Kiffin and new OC Jeff Lebby work with it. Sophomore back Jerrion Ealy seems ready to have a breakout 2020 season after picking up nearly seven yards per carry last fall, while Elijah Moore and Jonathan Mingo lead a fascinating receiver group... The front seven should be solid, especially a linebacker corps that brings back its top two tacklers in Jacquez Jones and Lakia Henry. Junior Momo Sanogo is also healthy and ready to go for the 2020 season after missing most of last season with injury. He was the top tackler on this entire team in 2018.

Weaknesses: The quarterback position has talent, but it's still unclear what it will look like under Kiffin. Sophomore John Rhys Plumlee proved himself as an excellent runner, leading the SEC in rushing yards per game with nearly 114 per. However, he still leaves a lot to be desired as a passer, which is where Matt Corral comes into play. Corral is a former high-profile recruit who has flashed natural arm talent, but still struggles to play consistent football. I think we'll see both fairly extensively in 2020, but you never know with Lane... The offensive line was okay in 2019, but you wonder about the makeup of the 2020 group, only because the left side could be a concern. Both the tackle and guard spots are up for grabs going through fall camp, and it will be interesting to see how this group looks. Depth is also slightly a concern, which is important in the SEC even with a shortened schedule... New co-DCs D.J. Durkin and Chris Partridge's No. 1 priority? Figuring out how to improve a pass defense that was atrocious throughout most of 2019. Statistically, it was dead last in the SEC a year ago, and was thrashed by the better opponents on their schedule. If the Rebels have any hopes of SEC West contention, this unit needs to grow up quickly.

Bottom Line: Lane Kiffin's return to the SEC should be another thrilling rollercoaster ride, and the Rebels' offensive talent makes this a fun team to watch going forward. That offense won't have to be perfect for Ole Miss to be a tough out in 2020, but it may have to lead things early as the defense adjusts to new leadership. With a few more questions at important positions than Mississippi State, I have the Rebels finishing just behind them in the West.

7. Arkansas Razorbacks Projected Record: 1-9
Strengths: There are few players as underrated nationally as senior tailback Rakeem Boyd, who totaled 1,133 rushing yards in 2019. Boyd did that despite playing in a very one-dimensional offense, while operating behind a pretty weak offensive line. Arkansas is hopeful they can get him more space this fall, and also possibly include him more in the passing attack... This receiver group is also better than most people realize, even with a ton of youth. Treylon Burks and Trey Knox are a pretty potent 1-2 combo on the perimeter, and Burks looks like a future NFL player to me, standing 6'3" with huge hands. Tight end should also be in a good spot, as legacy Hudson Henry is ready to handle the role. Henry took a redshirt year in 2019, but some Arkansas fans have hypothesized he could be better than his older brother Hunter, who has been in the pros since 2016... New head coach Sam Pittman Jr. made a few interesting hires to round out his coaching staff. On offense, he brought in Kendal Briles to run the show, a guy who has been controversial to many, but who has had some fun offenses during his time as play-caller. On defense, former Missouri head coach Barry Odom remained in the SEC and will now run the show. He has his work cut out to improve a group that ranked 124th nationally in scoring defense last fall. I'm not sure if the hires will work out perfectly, but I do think they'll be entertaining to watch.

Weaknesses: The defense was clearly not very good at all a year ago and now there is a significant leadership gap. Program staples like McTelvin Agim, Kamren Curl, and Scoota Harris are all gone. Harris was an All-SEC linebacker last fall, while Agim and Curl are NFL talents who made plays at their respective positions. Finding new leaders is of top priority for Odom as he inherits this group... The quarterback competition is going to be very interesting to watch, and Pittman has some decisions to make. Arkansas brought in former Florida transfer Feleipe Franks, who started for the Gators for all of 2018 and the beginning of 2019 prior to a season-ending ankle injury. He has the experience, but he doesn't have the upside of K.J. Jefferson or newcomer Malik Hornsby. Jack Lindsey and John Stephen Jones (Jerry Jones grandson) also both started a game a year ago, and will factor into the decision... If Arkansas is going to climb out of the SEC cellar, the O-Line has to be better. It was once a notable strength under former coach Bret Bielema, but it declined rapidly under Chad Morris. With four starters back, there's a great starting point and Pittman's specialty is line play, so he should have some fun with this unit.

Bottom Line: The Razorbacks are in the midst of a dark time in their football history, as they've gone 8-28 overall and just 1-23 in the SEC the past three seasons. To make things worse, Arkansas now must play a conference-only schedule as instead of a slate that included likely wins against Nevada, Charleston Southern, and ULM. In short, it's probably going to be another rough year in Fayetteville. It's pretty hard to imagine them making any significant strides when you look at how daunting their schedule is, and the fact they didn't get much of an off-season. A reasonable goal? Winning a few games, and showing enough improvement on defense to feel good about this team going in '21.

All-SEC Teams
First Team
QB: Kyle Trask, Florida
RB: Najee Harris, Alabama
RB: Kylin Hill, Mississippi State
WR: DeVonta Smith, Alabama
WR: Jhamon Ausbon, Texas A&M
TE: Kyle Pitts, Florida
OL: Alex Leatherwood, Alabama
OL: Trey Smith, Tennessee
OL: Drake Jackson, Kentucky
OL: Deonte Brown, Alabama
OL: Austin Deculus, LSU
DL: Big Kat Bryant, Auburn
DL: Christian Barmore, Alabama
DL: LaBryan Ray, Alabama
DL: Zachary Carter, Florida
LB: Dylan Moses, Alabama
LB: Nick Bolton, Missouri
LB: Monty Rice, Georgia
CB: Derek Stingley, LSU
CB: Marco Wilson, Florida
S: Richard LeCounte, Georgia
S: JaCoby Stevens, LSU
Kicker: Evan McPherson, Florida
Punter: Max Duffy, Kentucky

Second Team
QB: Kellen Mond, Texas A&M
RB: Rakeem Boyd, Arkansas
RB: Larry Rountree, Missouri
WR: Seth Williams, Auburn
WR: Terrace Marshall Jr., LSU
TE: Jalen Wydermeyer, Texas A&M
OL: Wanya Morris, Tennessee
OL: Ben Cleveland, Georgia
OL: Trey Hill, Georgia
OL: Landon Young, Kentucky
OL: Evan Neal, Alabama
DL: Tyree Johnson, Texas A&M
DL: Kyree Campbell, Florida
DL: Quinton Bohanna, Kentucky
DL: Aaron Sterling, South Carolina
LB: Henry To'o To'o, Tennessee
LB: K.J. Britt, Auburn
LB: Azeez Ojulari, Georgia
CB: Patrick Surtain Jr., Alabama
CB: Israel Mukuamu, South Carolina
S: Shawn Davis, Florida
S: Jordan Battle, Alabama
Kicker: Brent Cimaglia, Tennessee
Punter: Zach Von Rosenberg, LSU

Honors & Awards
SEC Championship: Alabama over Florida
Offensive Player of the Year: Najee Harris, Alabama
Defensive Player of the Year: Derek Stingley, LSU
Newcomer of the Year: Bryce Young, Alabama
Coach of the Year: Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M

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