2018 SEC Power Rankings: The race to unseat Alabama is on again

Yahoo Sports

Welcome to Yahoo Sports’ 2018 conference previews. With the official start of the 2018 season just days away, we’re doing things a little differently this year. We’re power ranking the teams in each FBS conference. Like our preseason top 25, these rankings will undoubtedly be wrong. Let’s get into the SEC.

Previously: Group of Five conferences, ACC, Pac-12, Big 12, Big Ten

14. Arkansas (2017 record: 4-8)

The Hogs get the last spot in these rankings by virtue of a 4-8 season and a new coach. Chad Morris will need a year or two to get things going at Arkansas, especially given the depth of the SEC West.

We’ll know if Arkansas has a chance to go bowling early in the season. Week 2 contains a trip to Colorado State – a team that lost to Hawaii in Week 0 – and then the Razorbacks host a strong North Texas team in Week 3. If Arkansas is 3-0 after the first three weeks, then a 3-6 finish gets the Hogs to a bowl game.

Is that 3-6 finish possible? The Hogs will have to get wins against Tulsa and Vanderbilt and find a win against Missouri or another SEC West team.

Arkansas does return 17 starters, including its top four wide receivers and top four leading tacklers. If you believe a change of coaching scenery is all that the Razorbacks needed to be competitive in the SEC, then it’s understandable why you may be bullish on Arkansas’ chances.

13. Vanderbilt (5-7)

The Commodores get the spot ahead of Arkansas thanks to a better quarterback. Kyle Shurmur emerged as a productive QB as a junior in 2017. He completed 58 percent of his passes and threw 26 touchdowns to 10 interceptions. Vanderbilt will need Shurmur to be even better in 2018 if the Commodores struggle to replace RB Ralph Webb. He rushed for 831 yards and was responsible for 10 of the team’s 14 rushing touchdowns.

Coach Derek Mason’s defense has shown flashes during his previous four years with the team. And maybe replacing six starters will help the defense be more like it was in 2016 or 2015 than in 2017. After holding opponents under 25 points per game in each of those two seasons, Vanderbilt gave up over 31 points per game in 2017 and allowed five yards per carry.

12. Ole Miss (6-6)

How will coach Matt Luke keep his team motivated in 2018? The Rebels are in year two of a bowl ban for violations committed under previous coach Hugh Freeze. It was easy for Ole Miss to play with an us-against-the-world mentality in 2017 following Freeze’s summer resignation and the NCAA investigation swirling around the program. Can it continue?

The Ole Miss offense will be one of the best in the SEC in 2018. Jordan Ta’amu was better than Shea Patterson statistically in 2017 and he’s throwing to receivers A.J. Brown, DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf again this season. They caught 25 touchdowns combined. The defense returns seven starters and has to get miles better. Ole Miss gave up nearly 35 points per game including 57 to Vanderbilt and 66 to Alabama.

11. Tennessee (4-8)

New coach Jeremy Pruitt isn’t saying who will start the season at quarterback for the Volunteers. Will it be Jarrett Guarantano, who missed time at the end of 2017 with an ankle injury, or Stanford graduate transfer Keller Chryst?

Chryst was productive when he took over as Stanford’s starter in 2016. He suffered a knee injury in the 2016 Sun Bowl and recovered quickly enough to play in 2017 though he was unseated as the starter by K.J. Costello. Ty Chandler looks poised to be the team’s go-to running back in place of John Kelly.

Pruitt will need to improve the team’s pass rush in 2018. Tennessee had just 22 sacks a year ago and the players returning to the defense combined for just 13 of them.

10. Kentucky (7-6)

The Benny Snell show should be fun. Defenses will be keying on him, however. Snell rushed 262 times for 1,333 yards and 19 touchdowns in 2017. If he stays healthy the entire season he’ll probably get as many or more carries in 2018.

Terry Wilson has been named as the team’s starting quarterback. The junior college transfer will be fun to watch running the ball and it’s hard to imagine Kentucky throwing the ball more than 300 times if Wilson is the starter for the entire season. With Wilson and Snell in the backfield, Kentucky’s strength will be on the ground.

The defense has to replace defensive end Denzil Ware, who had 6.5 sacks in 2017. But five of the team’s six leading tacklers return. Last season was just the second time in the last six years that the Wildcats had given up fewer than 30 points per game.

9. Texas A&M (7-6)

Kellen Mond has been named the team’s starting quarterback for Thursday’s game against Northwestern State. Mond took over as the team’s quarterback early in the season after Nick Starkel suffered an ankle injury in Week 1. Starkel returned and ended up throwing the most passes of any A&M QB.

Mond offers more rushing ability than Starkel and new Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher said he’d been “very, very pleased” with the progress Mond made in the offseason. Running back Trayveon Williams is back, though A&M has to replace Keith Ford’s 12 rushing touchdowns and its top two leading receivers in Christian Kirk and Damion Ratley.

The defensive system will be completely different too. Mike Elko arrives from a year at Notre Dame to be the team’s defensive coordinator. Elko’s defenses at Notre Dame and Wake Forest have always been stingy, so we’ll see if that success translates to College Station. A&M was actually pretty good against the run in 2017, though opposing quarterbacks completed 60 percent of their passes.

8. Missouri (7-6)

The Tigers are ahead of the Aggies because of QB Drew Lock.

Lock is a first-team preseason All-SEC selection and set an SEC passing record with 44 touchdowns in 2017. It’s unrealistic to expect Lock to duplicate that number in 2018. Not only does Mizzou have to replace leading receiver J’Mon Moore but the system will be completely different too. Former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley’s offense will look a lot different than Josh Heupel’s. Expect Missouri to run fewer offensive plays in 2018. But if the efficiency stays at over seven yards a play, the Tigers will be doing alright.

Missouri needs to replace defensive back Anthony Sherrils and defensive end Marcell Frazier, but the defense should be better than it was for the entirety of the 2017 season. Mizzou gave up over 30 points in each of its first six games of the regular season before giving up 21 points or fewer in the next five.

7. LSU (9-4)

Welcome to LSU, Joe Burrow. Hopefully you can solve a quarterback conundrum that’s plagued the Tigers for what feels like forever.

QB Danny Etling was entirely serviceable in 2017, completing 60 percent of his passes and throwing 16 touchdowns to two interceptions. But no one would call Etling dynamic. Does Burrow fit that description? We don’t know. And it’s impossible to guess that with new offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger. Don’t get your hopes up that LSU’s offensive philosophy will be progressive.

Linebacker Devin White is a star and so is cornerback Greedy Williams. Either of them would start for any team in the country. The Tiger defense should be stingy once again despite having to replace six starters. Will the offense keep up against the top teams in the conference? LSU has to play Georgia in addition to Florida and the usual SEC West suspects.

6. Florida (4-7)

The Gators could hang with South Carolina and Georgia atop the SEC East. Dan Mullen’s offense should be a welcome change from the plodding Jim McElwain offense that Florida fans suffered through. Florida hasn’t averaged over 24 points per game since 2014.

Mullen’s got a lot to work with as well. Nineteen starters return and Feleipe Franks will start the season opener over Kyle Trask at quarterback. The team’s rushing attack should be far more diverse than it has been and Tyrie Cleveland averaged nearly 19 yards a catch in 2017. The addition of former Ole Miss wide receiver Van Jefferson should help too.

The defense returns nine starters including leading sacker CeCe Jefferson. The senior and former five-star recruit could break out in his final season in Gainesville. We’ll learn a lot about Florida from Oct. 27-Nov. 10 when the Gators play Georgia in Jacksonville and have games against Missouri and South Carolina at home.

5. South Carolina (9-4)

We’ll have a great idea about South Carolina’s SEC East chances after Week 2. Georgia comes to town on Sept. 8. If South Carolina pulls the upset, the Gamecocks could end up the favorites in the East. While Georgia draws Auburn and LSU from the West, South Carolina has Texas A&M and Ole Miss.

Eight starters are back on offense including every skill position weapon not named Hayden Hurst. Jake Bentley completed over 62 percent of his passes in 2017 and Deebo Samuel returns healthy after a season-ending injury. If Samuel can stay healthy for the entire season, the Bentley-Samuel connection should be one of the best in the conference.

[Related: More on South Carolina, the No. 25 team in our preseason top 25]

4. Mississippi State (9-4)

QB Nick Fitzgerald is suspended for the team’s season-opening game. That shouldn’t effect much for the Bulldogs. Mississippi State’s offense will be fun to watch with former Penn State offensive coordinator Joe Moorhead calling plays with Fitzgerald at QB.

If we want to get overly simplistic and say Fitzgerald will be playing the role of Penn State QB Trace McSorley, then you can do worse than Aeris Williams as the Saquon Barkley impersonator. Williams rushed for 1,107 yards in 2017 and should score more than five rushing touchdowns.

Defensive lineman Jeffery Simmons is one of eight returning defensive starters and the Mississippi State line should be one of the best in the country. Montez Sweat had 10.5 sacks a year ago while Simmons had five.

[Related: More on Mississippi State, the No. 17 team in our preseason top 25]

3. Auburn (10-4)

Can Auburn do what it did a year ago? Many Tiger fans will remember the 2017 season for the SEC West division win and Iron Bowl victory. Many UCF fans will remember the 2017 season for UCF’s win over Auburn in the Peach Bowl to cap off an undefeated season.

OK, we won’t talk about that game any longer. If Drew Lock is the best returning quarterback in the conference, then Jarrett Stidham is No. 2. He’ll have to replicate his 2017 production without wide receiver Ryan Davis, at least for a while. Davis suffered a torn ACL in the spring. He had 84 catches in 2017. No other Auburn receiver had more than 30.

The Tiger defense was better against the pass and run in 2017, thanks in large part to a pass rush that generated 37 sacks. Replacing Jeff Holland’s 10 sacks will be a top priority.

[Related: More on Auburn, the No. 12 team in our preseason top 25]

2. Georgia (13-2)

The defending SEC champions return eight starters on offense and more starters overall than Alabama but are the underdogs in the conference. That’s how things work when you’re perennially chasing the Tide.

Kirby Smart’s Alabama replication at Georgia enters year three and he’ll have to find replacements for Lorenzo Carter, Roquan Smith and Dominick Sanders on defense. Smart’s recruiting prowess should pay off here.

The team also has to replace Nick Chubb and Sony Michel at running back, though D’Andre Swift looks poised to take over as the team’s top running back. Swift could end up being the bellcow back unless Elijah Holyfield emerges as a strong No. 2 option. Five-star freshman Zamir White suffered a torn ACL in August.

[Related: More on Georgia, the No. 5 team in our preseason top 25]

1. Alabama (13-1)

To be the best you’ve got to beat the best. Is this the most vulnerable Alabama has been in a few years?

It’s a question worth entertaining at the very least. The Tua-Jalen debate will rage until the start of Saturday night’s game against Louisville. No receiver returning in 2018 had more than 15 catches. Eight starters need to be replaced on defense. Outside linebacker depth is thin.

But the process always works, doesn’t it? The offensive line has four returning starters and will be a road-grading unit once again for Damien Harris and Najee Harris. A young secondary is full of four and five-star recruits and should get better and better as the season goes on. Raekwon Davis leads a defensive front that is aiming to have 40 or more sacks for a fourth-straight season.

Alabama is the No. 1 team in the SEC and the No. 1 team in the country until proven otherwise. Given the schedule, we’re not sure when that “otherwise” will happen. It could at some point this season. Or Alabama could be heading to a fourth-straight National Championship game.

[Related: More on Alabama, the No. 1 team in our preseason top 25]

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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