Top contenders, sleepers and championship picks

Who will challenge Georgia, Alabama and LSU in the SEC in 2023?

The three schools enter as the overwhelming favorites to win the conference and among the top favorites to win the national title. Defending SEC West champion LSU is the No. 3 favorite to win the SEC at +450 and there’s a big jump to Texas A&M and Tennessee at +1400.

Here’s what you need to know about the SEC in its final season before Oklahoma and Texas arrive and the conference disbands its division format.

Previously: AAC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, C-USA, MAC, Mountain West, Pac-12, Sun Belt

Georgia (-110 to win SEC)

The Bulldogs are the prohibitive favorites to win the SEC and to also their third consecutive national title.

Georgia lost a lot of talent to the NFL after winning the national title in January. But the same thing happened the year before and the Bulldogs were even better in 2022 and outscored opponents by an average of 41-14. There’s no reason to think Georgia won’t simply reload ahead of a 2023 title run.

Carson Beck is in line to start at quarterback for the two-time defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs, taking over for Stetson Bennett. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)
Carson Beck is in line to start at quarterback for the two-time defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs, taking over for Stetson Bennett. (AP Photo/Ashley Landis)

Carson Beck is in line to take over at quarterback after serving as Stetson Bennett’s backup a season ago. The backfield has Kendall Milton (7 yards a carry) and Daijun Edwards (5.5) and all-world TE Brock Bowers will be a matchup nightmare for defenses once again. Ladd McConkey is back on the outside and the offense added ex-Missouri receiver Dominic Lovett. He had 56 catches for 846 yards a season ago. The offensive line returns its three interior starters, too.

Leading tacklers Smael Mondon and Jamon Dumas-Johnson return and will make plays all over the field in front of safeties Javon Bullard and Malaki Starks. Edge rusher Mykel Williams had 4.5 sacks as part of the line rotation a season ago while Chaz Chambliss and Warren Brinson are also in line for bigger roles.

Alabama (+260)

The Crimson Tide have two new coordinators and also need to figure out who will be the team’s starting quarterback while also replacing key starters all over the field. That’s a lot, even for a team used to constant change amid excellence like Alabama.

Former Notre Dame coordinator Tommy Rees is now in charge of the offense. He was followed to Tuscaloosa by ex-Irish QB Tyler Buchner after the Alabama spring game. Buchner is competing with holdovers Ty Simpson and Jalen Milroe to be the team’s starting QB. RB Jase McClellan is back after scoring 10 TDs and the receiving room should be better. Jermaine Burton, Ja’Corey Brooks and Kobe Prentice all return.

The offensive line has just two starters back but also didn’t live up to the standard we’re used to seeing a year ago. It should be better.

The defense is led by LB Dallas Turner and CB Kool-Aid McKinstry. Safety is a bit of a concern after the departures of Brian Branch and Jordan Battle, but Malachi Moore has plenty of experience and has been a regular part of the defensive back rotation. Five-star safety Caleb Downs was the No. 9 player in the class of 2023 and could get significant playing time right away.

BATON ROUGE, LA - NOVEMBER 05: LSU Tigers defenders line up for a play during a game between the Alabama Crimson Tide and the LSU Tigers on November 05, 2022, at Tiger Stadium in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LSU and Alabama are the clear favorites in the SEC West. (Photo by John Korduner/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

LSU (+450)

A dramatic overtime win over Alabama got the Tigers the SEC West crown in 2022 and the offense largely returns intact. QB Jayden Daniels is the No. 2 Heisman favorite behind Caleb Williams after a stellar first season at LSU. Can Daniels carry the LSU offense again?

After throwing 10 TDs and 10 interceptions at Arizona State in 2021, Daniels threw 17 TDs to just three picks in 2022 and completed almost 69% of his passes. He was dynamic on the ground too with 885 rushing yards and 11 TDs. The Tigers need to find a dependable running back or two to complement Daniels. He’s great at scrambling for first downs when there’s nothing open down field but he can’t be relied on as the Tigers’ primary rusher again.

Edge rusher Harold Perkins looks to build on a stellar freshman season that featured stints of dominance and Maason Smith and Mekhi Wingo should be excellent in the interior. The secondary has been rebuilt through the transfer portal as Texas A&M transfer Denver Harris, Syracuse transfer Duce Chestnut and Southeastern Louisiana transfer Zy Alexander could be the Tigers’ top three corners entering the season. Florida State will be a big test for LSU in Week 1 before a trip to Mississippi State in Week 3. That neutral-site game against FSU in Orlando is LSU’s longest road trip of the season.

Tennessee (+1400)

Joe Milton enters 2023 as the barometer for Tennessee. If he can be as good as Hendon Hooker was in 2022, the Volunteers are the clear No. 2 behind Georgia in the SEC East. If he still shows the inconsistency he displayed in previous stints, then it could be an up-and-down season for UT.

Milton opened the 2021 season as the team’s starter before Hooker took over and then closed the 2022 season as the top QB after Hooker’s knee injury. Milton threw 10 TDs to no interceptions and completed 65% of his passes. If that limited sample size is a sign of things to come in 2023, then watch out. Tennessee’s offense is going to be very, very good again.

The defense will be extremely experienced in 2023 and all but one starter could be a senior. LB Aaron Beasley was the team’s leading tackler a year ago and DBs Tamarion McDonald, Jaylen McCollough and Doneiko Slaughter are all back. Tennessee’s pass defense needs to be significantly better this season.

Texas A&M (+1400)

Offensive coordinator Bobby Petrino is tasked with improving an unit that’s looked clunky far too often over the past two seasons with head coach Jimbo Fisher calling plays. He’s expected to call the plays, but we’re still not totally clear on how much autonomy Petrino will have over the offense in 2023.

Conner Weigman appears to be the favorite to start at QB, but don’t count out Max Johnson. Weigman appeared in five games a season ago while Johnson suffered a season-ending injury just four games into the season. Whoever wins the job will be asked to pass for more than the 219 yards per game the Aggies averaged in 2022.

The pass defense was exceptional a season ago; safeties Demani Richardson and Jardin Gilbert return and the Aggies added CBs Sam McCall (Florida State), Josh DeBerry (Boston College) and Tony Grimes (North Carolina). If the front seven improves against the run and also getting to the quarterback, there’s a path to a big improvement in the wins column as long as the offense is better.

Can Texas A&M rebound in 2023 coming off a disastrous 5-7 season? (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Can Texas A&M rebound in 2023 coming off a disastrous 5-7 season? (Photo by Ken Murray/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Ole Miss (+5000)

Ole Miss coach Lane Kiffin has been both one of the biggest critics of the current transfer portal system and the most proficient recruiter from it. The Rebels added potential contributors all over the field in QB Spencer Sanders, TE Caden Prieskorn, WR Zakhari Franklin, WR Tre Harris, CB John Saunders and CB Zamari Walton.

Sanders is competing with Jaxson Dart for the starting job and the Rebels also added former LSU QB Walker Howard. RB Quinshon Judkins was phenomenal as a freshman, with 1,567 rushing yards and 17 total TDs. He’s the best returning running back in the SEC and Franklin and Harris could be starters right away. Whoever wins the QB job will have a strong supporting cast.

The defense needs to be better for the Rebels to have a chance in the West. Former Alabama DC Pete Golding is now in charge of a unit that allowed no fewer than 28 points in seven of the last eight games of the season. A trip to Tulane is a tough test in Week 2 before a trip to Alabama two weeks later.

Auburn (+6600)

Hugh Freeze immediately started scouring the transfer portal for talent after he became Auburn’s head coach. Former Michigan State QB Payton Thorne transferred to Auburn and won the starting job over Robby Ashford. Ashford has been great as a runner but has shown the need to improve as a passer.

With Thorne taking over under center, the offense will have 11 new starters in the opener against UMass. Former USF RB Brian Battie (1,185 yards in 2022) should form a very good RB duo with Jarquez Hunter. Returning WR Ja’Varrius Johnson led the Tigers with 26 catches for 493 yards and caught three TDs in 2022. Freeze also added three new potential starters on the offensive line through the portal.

The defense brings back a lot of familiar faces and added Ole Miss LB Austin Keys and Kentucky DL Justin Rogers. LB Cam Riley was second on the team in tackles while four of five starters in the secondary are back. Finding pass rushers to replace the lost sacks from Derick Hall (seven) and Colby Wooden (six) is imperative.

Florida (+8000)

Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz was recently named the starting QB ahead of Jack Miller. Mertz is coming off two lackluster seasons, but Florida is hoping he can find the promise he showed as a freshman.

The Gators will look to rely on a strong run game with RBs Montrell Johnson and Trevor Etienne both back. Johnson had 841 yards and 10 TDs while Etienne rushed for 719 yards and six scores. WR Ricky Pearsall is back, too, after averaging 20 yards a catch in 2022.

The defense needs to get better under new coordinator Austin Armstrong. Florida allowed 29 points per game as opponents averaged 4.5 yards a carry. Former Michigan safety RJ Moten should be an immediate starter in the secondary and defensive linemen Caleb Banks (Louisville) and CamRon Jackson (Memphis) could help beef up the run defense.

FILE - Florida quarterback Graham Mertz looks for a receiver during the second half of the NCAA college football team's annual Orange and Blue spring game, April 13, 2023, in Gainesville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Former Wisconsin QB Graham Mertz is the new starter at Florida. (AP Photo/John Raoux, File)

Mississippi State (+10000)

Will Rogers returns as the most experienced quarterback in the SEC. He’s thrown for 10,686 yards over three seasons and has tossed 82 TDs to 24 interceptions in Mike Leach’s Air Raid. Rogers should be well-positioned to adapt to a different offense in 2023 under new offensive coordinator Kevin Barbay.

RB Jo’Quavious Marks is also back after rushing for 582 yards on 113 attempts while receivers Jaden Walley, Rufus Harvey and Lideatrick Griffin also return.

LBs Jett Johnson and Nathaniel Watson are back to lead a defense that allowed 5.2 yards per play in 2022. The defense’s excellence is a big reason why Zach Arnett was promoted to take over as head coach after Leach’s death. An improved Arizona team is a good test in Week 2 before home games against LSU and Alabama over the following three weeks.

Arkansas (+10000)

K.J. Jefferson returns for his third season as Arkansas’ starting quarterback after excelling in Kendal Briles’ system the past two seasons.

Jefferson has thrown 45 TDs and just nine interceptions in his past 24 games while rushing for over 1,300 yards and 15 TDs. Now that Briles is at TCU, Jefferson will be working with a new offensive coordinator in Dan Enos.

RB Rocket Sanders also returns after rushing for 1,443 yards and 10 TDs and catching 28 passes. Replacements are needed for WRs Jadon Haselwood and Matt Landers.

The defense needs to get better after allowing 465 yards a game in 2022 and added former Missouri DE Trajan Jeffcoat and ex-Georgia CB Jaheim Singletary. A stretch of three road games and a neutral site game involving LSU, Texas A&M, Ole Miss and Alabama will define Arkansas’ season.

FILE - Arkansas quarterback KJ Jefferson looks to throw a pass against Alabama during the first half of an NCAA college football game Nov. 20, 2021, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Arkansas feels confident in Jefferson. In his first year as the Razorbacks' starter, he guided the team to its best record in a decade. He passed for 2,676 yards and ran for 644, combining for 27 touchdowns. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File)

K.J. Jefferson is back for another season at Arkansas. (AP Photo/Vasha Hunt, File)

South Carolina (+10000)

The Gamecocks look to build off wins over Tennessee and Clemson at the end of the 2022 regular season. QB Spencer Rattler is back along with receiver Juice Wells. Wells had 928 yards on 68 catches in 2022.

The offensive line needs to replace three starters and finding a running back and running game is key. Juju McDowell is the team’s leading returning rusher and he averaged 3.5 yards a carry.

Safety Nick Emmanwori is back along with three other starters on defense. Emmanwori had 85 tackles while DQ Smith had 54 stops and a pick-six. South Carolina opens with North Carolina and also plays at Georgia and Tennessee in September while hosting Mississippi State in Week 4.

Kentucky (+12500)

The Wildcats added former NC State QB Devin Leary via the transfer portal to replace Will Levis. Leary threw for 3,433 yards and 35 TDs in 2021 but played in just 10 games combined in 2020 and 2022 because of season-ending injuries. If he’s available for the full season, Kentucky could be dangerous in the East.

WR Barion Brown was dangerous as a freshman and nearly the entire offensive line returns. Vanderbilt transfer Ray Davis is in line to be UK’s top running back after rushing for 1,042 yards in 2022.

The defense added Cincinnati CB JQ Hardaway, Ohio State defensive back Jantzen Dunn and North Carolina DL Keeshawn Silver via the portal and needs to replace three starters in the secondary. But leading tacklers D’Eryk Jackson and Jordan Lovett return.

Missouri (+15000)

Consistent quarterback play could go a long way for the Tigers in 2023. Missouri brought in former Miami QB Jake Garcia to compete with incumbent starter Brady Cook and Sam Horn for the starting job. Cook could end up holding onto his job after establishing himself as a solid runner at the end of the season.

Mizzou will try to better utilize WR Luther Burden in his second season and added reinforcements along the offensive line through the transfer portal. The defense will again be the strength of the team with the return of LB Ty’Ron Hopper and S Jaylon Carlies. If the offense is above average, Missouri should post a winning season.

Vanderbilt (+50000)

Coach Clark Lea got a contract extension after bringing Vanderbilt within a win of a bowl game in 2022. QB AJ Swann showed promise in 2022 with 10 TDs and just two interceptions and has Will Sheppard to throw to again. Three-star RB Sedrick Alexander could be the team’s primary rusher as a freshman.

The defense needs to replace nearly the entire starting front seven but brings back three starters in the secondary. That’s big for a pass defense that allowed 291 yards per game and allowed opposing QBs to complete 64% of their passes.

Overrated team

Nick Bromberg: Texas A&M

Sam Cooper: Ole Miss

Sleeper team

Nick: Missouri

Sam: Kentucky

Title pick

Nick: Georgia. The Bulldogs should reload and they have an incredibly easy schedule until a meeting with Tennessee on Nov. 18. That game is at home as well, so I’ll be surprised if the Bulldogs don’t finish the regular season undefeated. Simply put, Georgia is the deepest team in college football.

Sam: Georgia. It’s hard to go against the grain and pick anyone other than UGA. The Bulldogs are in their own stratosphere in the SEC East, but Alabama or LSU could certainly give them a challenge in the conference championship game. It’s hard to win at such a high level, but I don’t see Kirby Smart allowing any complacency to slip in, especially with so many players moving into big roles for the first time.

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