2023 SEC Football Conference Season Preview & Best Bets: Too much for Alabama to overcome

Apr 22, 2023; Tuscaloosa, AL, USA; Alabama head coach Nick Saban has some words for the Crimson defense after they allowed a long touchdown run during the A-Day game at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
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Sam Avellone


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Long-time suffering Browns fan born and raised in the greater Cleveland, Ohio area who now resides in SEC country. University of South Carolina alum. Sports handicapper for close to 10 years with a primary focus on NCAAB while enjoying NFL, PGA, NCAAF, NBA, and Soccer. For Sam Avellone media enquiries, please email contact@pickswise.com.
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Whether you are a SEC fan or not, there is no denying its dominance in college football over the last decade. A team from the SEC has won the national title in 6 of the last 9 seasons following Georgia’s second consecutive title in January, solidifying the conference’s top spot in the college football landscape. With conference alignment taking shape next season, the SEC as we know it will look a bit different when it welcomes Texas and Oklahoma and eliminates divisional alignment. However, there is still plenty of excitement and with numerous storylines heading into the 2023 season. 

SEC Championship Odds

Odds available at FanDuel Sportsbook at time of publishing.

Georgia (-105)
Alabama (+290)
LSU (+470)
Texas A&M (+1300)
Tennessee (+1600)
Ole Miss (+4500)
Auburn (+7500)
Mississippi State (+7500)
Florida (+8500)
Arkansas (+9500)
South Carolina (+9500)

Unsurprisingly, the two-time defending national champions and current favorites to win the 2023-2024 College Football Playoff are prevailing favorites to win the SEC. Alabama is still the favorite in the SEC West, but questions about the Crimson Tide have sparked a rise in LSU’s stock over the summer. Ole Miss, Auburn, Mississippi State, Florida, Arkansas and South Carolina represent the SEC’s longshots, while Missouri (120-1), Kentucky (120-1), and Vanderbilt (500-1) are unlikely to be in the conference title conversation at all. 

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Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia football has been the epitome of success in recent years, as Kirby Smart and the Bulldogs have had 25 players drafted after the last 2 seasons, and have more national titles than losses in that same amount of time. When they step on the field in September, they will be playing for their 18th-straight win as a program – as they strive to be the first team to win a national championship in 3 consecutive years since the 1930s. However, things look slightly different in Athens, as offensive coordinator Todd Monken is now calling plays for the Baltimore Ravens and Stetson Bennett is backing up Georgia-great Matthew Stafford in Los Angeles. Replacing Monken is Mike Bobo, who spent last year as an offensive analyst for Georgia and has previous experience as the coordinator when the aforementioned Stafford was wearing red and black. 

It would be much easier for Bobo if Bennett was still in Athens. Instead, redshirt junior Carson Beck takes over at quarterback, who is plenty familiar with Smart’s system but was unable to beat out Bennett the previous two years. Luckily for him, he will be playing behind a very strong offensive line that returns 4 starters from last year’s unit that ranked in the top 10 in both run and pass blocking according to PFF. Beck will be able to rely on an elite tight end in Brock Bowers, who likely would have been drafted in the first round this year if he was eligible, and a solid group of wide receivers – which includes sure-handed redshirt junior Ladd McConkey and highly-coveted Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett. Rounding out the elite offense, the running back group may not offer game-breaking upside like Georgia backs of years past, but Kendall Milton, Daijun Edwards, and Branson Robinson will all have a role in filling Kenny McIntosh’s void after the trio accumulated over 1,600 rushing yards and 18 touchdowns combined. As a whole, the offense put up over 41 points and 500 yards per game last season and should be able to replicate that success given their easy schedule despite some of the new names at the top of the depth chart.

Georgia’s defense is typically more feared than its offense and this year figures to be no different. The Bulldogs lost a lot of talented pieces from a unit that ranked first in run defense and held opponents to just 14.3 points and 296.8 yards per game, but they also return a lot of talent that will step in right away and produce at a high level in typical Georgia fashion. Freshman all-American Mykel Williams will likely start on the edge after recording 4.5 sacks last season and will play next to senior tackle Nazir Stackhouse, who ranks top 20 nationally in run defense and started every game last season. Georgia’s top two tacklers, Smael Mondon Jr. and Jamon Dumas-Johnson, will lead the linebacker group alongside true sophomores Jalon Walker and Marvin Jones Jr, providing a lethal second level of defense behind the line. The secondary found itself to be the defense’s weakness against quality offenses last season, but there is hope for improvement with freshman all-American Malaki Starks and junior Javon Bullard returning, Tykee Smith moving to Georgia’s STAR position, and quality contributors like Daylen Everette and Kamari Lassiter destined to increase production with playing time. Overall, Georgia has some important pieces to replace, but the Bulldogs are as loaded as any team in the country and have elite talent all the way down the depth chart to justify their odds to win the conference and the national title.

Alabama Crimson Tide

Nick Saban and the Tide used to be the gold standard in the SEC, but times seem to have changed ever since Smart left Tuscaloosa for Athens. Despite Georgia’s rise to supremacy, Alabama still maintains an elite profile having won 6 conference championships with a 66-8 conference record since 2014. Saban will have to replace his offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien and quarterback Bryce Young this season, so there is some uncertainty on this side of the ball coming into 2023. 

With Tommy Rees taking over as coordinator, the offense will cater to the strengths of its playmakers, and I expect a heavy dose of 11 and 12 personnel with pre-snap motions to open up lanes for Alabama’s pass catchers. The void at quarterback is not as easy to fill as the one at coordinator, however, considering Young was the top pick in the NFL draft and often created something out of nothing with the ball in his hands. There is currently a 3-way battle for the starting spot in 2023, and while red shirt freshman Ty Simpson seems to have emerged as the favorite to land the job in recent weeks, Jalen Milroe has been waiting for his chance in Tuscaloosa and Notre Dame transfer Tyler Buchner has familiarity with Rees’s offense. No matter who the quarterback is, he is not going to offer the same amount of upside in the passing game as Young, so I expect the Tide to lean heavily on the rushing attack – led by seniors Jase McClellan and Roydell Williams. Behind Jahmyr Gibbs, McClellan averaged 5.8 yards per carry while accumulating 829 total yards and 10 touchdowns to go along with Williams’s 250 rushing yards and 4 touchdowns. True sophomore Jam Miller could even have a role after averaging 6.8 yards per carry in limited action last season. In any case, the backfield will be protected behind an elite and deep offensive line that returns 4 starters to go along with promising 5-star recruits in Kadyn Proctor and Elijah Pritchett. Alabama’s pass catchers have the chance to be elite, but need to clean up the drops, especially Ja-Corey Brooks – who had a 11.4% drop rate according to PFF. Furthermore, transfer wide receiver Malik Benson and transfer tight end CJ Dippre could provide the Alabama offense with versatile pieces via the portal.

Much like the offensive side of the ball, Alabama’s defense is going to have a tough time replacing Will Anderson – especially with a new defensive coordinator in Kevin Steele. The Crimson Tide’s defensive production dipped year over year in 2022, so they hope to get back to creating havoc and putting pressure on the quarterback on a down-to-down basis this season. It will not be easy considering they have to replace a handful of productive contributors that are now in the NFL, but the Crimson Tide’s defensive depth chart is still loaded with elite talent and quality transfers. Sophomore Jaheim Oatis will anchor the defensive line alongside seniors Tim Smith and Justin Eboigbe, while Chris Braswell figures to replace Anderson at the JACK. In the second level, Georgia transfer Trezmen Marshall could be a Day 1 starter at the weakside linebacker playing next to leading returning tackler Deontae Lawson in the middle and returning starter Dallas Turner at strongside linebacker. In the defensive backfield, Kool-Aid McKinstry returns following an all-SEC season along with Malachi Moore and Terrion Arnold – who combined for 13 pass breakups last season – and could be starting opposite of Louisiana transfer Trey Amos at the cornerback position. The safety position raises some concern with its top three pieces departing, but UAB transfer Jaylen Key and true freshman Caleb Downs offer upside in replacing the departed starters. Alabama gave up just 19.7 points per game against FBS opponents last season and will have its work cut out for itself to get back to that level of production with all of the new faces in the lineup. But, the future Hall-of-Famer in Saban has done it before and could do it again!

LSU Tigers

The Tigers represented the SEC West for the first time since 2019 last season in their first season under Brian Kelly. Now in his second season, Kelly is 1 of just 15 Power 5 coaches to retain both of his coordinators as well as his starting quarterback – unlike the top 2 favorites in the conference. In addition to the roster and staff continuity, Kelly added one of the top transfer and recruiting classes in the offseason, which he should have no problem incorporating into the game plan considering he is just 1 of 3 coaches with at least 10 wins in the last 6 seasons. 

LSU exceeded expectations offensively last season, scoring more than 32 points and accumulating more than 445 yards per game against FBS opponents. The Tigers will look to build on that success in both Kelly and Jayden Daniels’ second season, after Daniels completed 68.6% of his passes for 2,913 yards and 17 touchdowns while throwing just 3 interceptions and adding 885 yards and 11 touchdowns using his legs. As a result of his success, he is currently the second-favorite to win the Heisman in 2023. He will play behind an offensive line that returns 4 out of 5 key pieces and will be accompanied in the backfield by a talented and experienced running back group that returns its top 4 rushers while adding Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs to the mix. Out wide, leading receiver Malik Nabers returns after posting 1,017 yards and 3 touchdowns last season, and so does Brian Thomas Jr. after catching 5 touchdowns. However, outside those two, LSU hopes some of the younger receivers can make an instant impact on the offense while true sophomore Mason Taylor figures to maintain his starting role at tight end after 414 yards and 3 touchdowns last season. All things considered, the Tigers should have a top 25 offense again despite the lack of depth at wide receiver. 

The Tigers just barely ranked outside the top 30 in opposing scoring, allowing 22.9 points per game to FBS opponents. The defensive unit loses 7 of its top 11 tacklers, including leaders at the edge and in the secondary, but 11 of Kelly’s 14 incoming transfers are defensive players – so the Tigers might be able to fill the gaps temporarily while Kelly continues to hit the recruiting trail. Interior defensive lineman Mekhi Wingo, defensive end Sai’vion Jones, linebackers Harold Perkins and Greg Penn III, and safeties Major Burns and Greg Brooks Jr. are the only returning starters that played significant snaps last season, but Maason Smith is expected back after tearing his ACL in Week 1 and should contribute to the defensive line right away. Texas transfer Ovie Oghoufo, who spent time at Notre Dame under Kelly before playing in Austin, figures to start at the JACK position, and Oregon State transfer Oma Speights should step in right away at weakside linebacker after accumulating more than 300 tackles in Corvallis. Meanwhile, the Tigers will have new faces manning the cornerback position as well. There might be some growing pains with this group early in the season, especially in the secondary, but I expect LSU’s defense to improve as the season goes on as the new pieces become more acclimated. 

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SEC teams to look out for

Texas A&M Aggies

The Aggies were just 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the SEC last season with an outright loss to Appalachian State at home, so there might not be anywhere to go but up in Jimbo Fisher’s sixth season in College Station. In comes Bobby Petrino to be the offensive coordinator and call plays for the Aggies, as Fisher was not having much success as the signal-caller last year. True sophomore Conner Weigman figures to be the starting quarterback after throwing for 896 yards, 8 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions over the last 5 games once Haynes King was benched, and will be playing behind an offensive line that returns all 5 pieces with in-game experience. The Aggies will have to replace Devin Achane’s production in the backfield, but they have a few high-caliber wide receivers in Evan Stewart, Ainias Smith, and Moose Muhammed III that will certainly be able to make big plays if Weigman can get them the ball. Defensively, Texas A&M will have to improve against opposing running backs if they want to get back to being a top 10 unit. The defensive line has a wealth of talent, and the linebackers are experienced and solid in their roles, so progression could be in the cards for the front seven. The secondary was already the strength of the defense with Demani Richardson, Tyreek Chappell, and Jardin Gilbert, but adding North Carolina transfer Tony Grimes should make this group even better. 

Tennessee Volunteers

The Volunteers won more than 9 games for the first time since 2007, but will have to replace integral pieces in Hendon Hooker, Cedric Tillman, and Jalin Hyatt. Veteran quarterback Joe Milton III is expected to step in for Hooker, but this is Milton’s third go-around in a starting quarterback role in college football after falling short in the first 2 attempts. However, coach Josh Heupel is an exceptional offensive mind, so he is capable of getting the most out of Milton, who passed for 971 yards, 10 touchdowns, and 0 interceptions in garbage time and after Hooker was injured against South Carolina. Milton will have a talented running back core on which to rely, but someone is going to have to step up from the wide receiver group sans Tillman and Hyatt – ideally Bru McCoy, Squirrel White, and Ramel Keyton. Heupel will never run a defensive-minded football team, but the Volunteers did show improvement year-over-year in 2022, jumping nearly 50 spots in scoring defense by allowing about a touchdown less per game. They return 14 of their top 21 defensive players in terms of snaps, ranking 22nd nationally in returning defensive production, and the front seven is solid with Tyler Baron and Omari Thomas, and leading tackler Aaron Beasley back in Knoxville after accumulating 76 total tackles and 13 tackles for loss last year. There is also a bunch of returning talent in the secondary including Jaylen McCollough, Tamarion McDonald, and Kamal Hadden, while Heupel added linebacker Keenan Pili and defensive back Gabe Jeudy-Lally from BYU in the transfer portal to fill in the depth at each position. Overall, the offense may take a slight step back after a historic season, but the defense is poised to take another step forward and keep Tennessee in the conversation.

Ole Miss Rebels

The Lane-Train rolls on, as Kiffin enters his fourth season in Oxford to lead the Rebels returning 71% of their production from a season ago. On the offensive side of the ball, 80% of the production returns, but the Rebels will have to replace a few key pieces in running back Zach Evans and wide receivers Jonathan Mingo and Malik Heath. However, all-SEC running back Quinshon Judkins is back in Oxford after leading the team in yards and touchdowns with 1,699 all purpose yards and 17 total touchdowns. Judkins will be running behind an offensive line that returns three starters that played over 900 snaps each, and two others that combined for 1,200 snaps last year will step into starting roles. As of right now, the starting quarterback figures to be Jaxson Dart, who started last season and completed 61.9% of his passes for 1,353 yards, 9 touchdowns, and 5 interceptions. However, Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders transferred in and could work his way into the starting lineup if Dart does not progress. Sanders has close to 10,000 career passing yards in 4 years in Stillwater and would be a huge boost to the receiving core, which brings in 2 highly-productive pass catchers in UTSA transfer Zakhari Franklin and Louisiana Tech transfer Tre Harris. The duo combined for over 2,000 receiving yards and 25 touchdowns last year in their previous programs and should step into starting roles next to last year’s third-leading receiver Jordan Watkins in the slot. Ole Miss also brought in a transfer tight end from Memphis, Caden Prieskorn, who caught 48 passes for 602 yards and 7 touchdowns last season. I think this can be a very exciting offense assuming the new pieces can replicate their production against SEC defenses. With an improved and consistent passing attack, defenses will be forced to honor the perimeter – which will free up running lanes for Judkins even more than last year when Ole Miss led the Power 5 in rushing offense. All things considered, the Rebels should be top 10 in total offense for a fourth straight season under Kiffin.

Things will not be as easy on the defensive side of the ball for the Rebels, as just 61% of production returns while 4 of Ole Miss’s top tacklers depart. However, Pete Golding left Alabama to be Kiffin’s defensive coordinator and figures to improve on the 31.3 points per game allowed last season. Furthermore, Kiffin brought in more than 10 upperclassman transfers that could make an impact this season in Oxford. The linebacker room is solid with returning starter Khari Coleman and Louisville transfer Monty Montgomery, but missed tackles were an issue for both players last season and they will need to improve on that. The secondary will need to improve as well, starting with Isheem Young who underwhelmed in his first season at Ole Miss after a couple strong seasons at Iowa State. Deantre Prince was solid with 11 passes defended and Georgia Tech transfer Zamari Walton allowed just 34% of targets to be caught against him last season, so there is some promise in the secondary. Meanwhile, the defensive line returns a few pieces, including edge rushers Jared Ivey and Cedric Johnson and JJ Pegues on the interior. Transfers Isaac Ukwu and Joshua Harris could get significant snaps as well. While there is a lot of talent to replace on this side of the ball, I trust Golding to be able to coach up the transfers and returning pieces and improve the defense to somewhere in the range of 28 points per game allowed. It is not much, but it is still improving year over year and would give the offense more chances to win games. 

SEC best bet: Alabama Crimson Tide under 10.5 wins (-150 at Caesars)

From both coordinators, to quarterback, to defensive leader and everything in between, Alabama lost a lot of talent after failing to make the College Football Playoff for just the second time in 9 seasons. The Crimson Tide will benefit from playing some of the nation’s best teams like Texas, Tennessee, LSU, and Ole Miss at home, but I have a hard time seeing them surviving the rigors of their schedule with 1 or less losses. It is a heavy price to pay on a future bet for a team that has had elite success over the past decade, but the quarterback position is a massive question mark and the Tide could struggle because of it after relying so heavily on Young’s playmaking last season. Furthermore, there’s no elite go-to wide receiver for the quarterbacks to rely on like in years past, so I question the offense’s ability to reach the ceiling required to escape their schedule with less than 2 losses. Texas, LSU, Ole Miss, and even Texas A&M all pose real threats to Alabama after improving or maintaining elite offensive talent, while Tennessee should improve defensively to pair nicely with its high-powered offense. There is still plenty of talent on the defensive side of the ball, but the loss of Golding and Anderson in the same offseason could take some time to recover from – time the Tide does not have with Texas coming to town in Week 2. I project Alabama’s win total to be more around 9.5 wins, so I am happy to take under 10.5 even at -150. 

SEC best longshot bet: Ole Miss Rebels to win the SEC West (+2000 at FanDuel)

The Rebels are 20-1 to win the SEC West for a reason. Their schedule is daunting with road trips to Tuscaloosa and Athens, while also welcoming LSU and Texas A&M to Oxford in either the week prior to or the week following those games. However, Ole Miss has a very intriguing offense, on paper, that could surprise many if transfers Franklin and Harris make instant impacts at wide receiver alongside an already elite running back in Judkins. The quarterback position should see improved production with either Dart or Sanders, and the defense is likely to improve as the year goes on with Golding in the coordinator role. I think the SEC West is going to beat up on each other, with the representative from this division carrying 2 losses or more heading into the SEC title game. The Rebels certainly have the pieces to get to 6 conference wins, but they are going to need to beat at least 2 of Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M or Georgia to cash this ticket. 

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