5 burning questions: Who can unseat Georgia in SEC?

Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/TNS

ORLANDO, Fla. — Five burning questions for the 2023 SEC season:


Are the best days of Nick Saban’s Alabama dynasty behind it?

Saban is 71, three years removed from his record seventh national title and recently purchased a $17.5 million home on South Florida’s Jupiter Island. Could retirement plan be falling in place or is Saban playing possum and getting ready to pounce yet again? The Crimson Tide certainly have lost a little steam, coming off consecutive two-loss seasons for the first time since 2013-14. Saban’s ’15 squad was the first time since his ’09 title Alabama team went two years between nattys. The second time was 2020, when he fielded arguably his best team. Following No. 1 draft pick Bryce Young’s departure, Saban even admits quarterback tops the list of concerns in 2023. The Tide also lost top defender Will Anderson Jr., the No. 3 pick. Bama’s recruiting has been typically superlative, but to avoid missing the College Football Playoff for the third time in five years someone less established must emerge.

What can stop a Georgia three-peat?

The Bulldogs aim to become the first program to win three straight national championships since the AP poll era began in 1936. Five have tried and failed since 1970, the latest Alabama in 2013 when Georgia coach Kirby Smart was the Tide’s defensive coordinator. Georgia will embark on the quest with a new quarterback after former walk-on Stetson Bennett’s rags-to-riches tale finally ended. Mike Bobo, former Bulldogs quarterback and longtime assistant, returns to replace Todd Monken as offensive coordinator. Tackle Jalen Carter, pass rusher Nolan Smith and safety Christopher Smith II headline a group of defensive departures. Yet, Georgia’s talent, led by All-America tight end Brock Bowers, remains perhaps without comparison, given Smart has consistently signed 5-star talent. A cupcake schedule features one serious test, Nov. 18 at Tennessee, before the postseason. Smart’s Dawgs know how to win, intimidate opponents and defy the odds.

Can coach Josh Heupel unleash the potential of quarterback Joe Milton III at Tennessee?

Milton is 6-foot-5, 242 pounds and can throw a football more than 80 yards. Physical talent alone does ensure winning success, much less week-to-week consistency as Anthony Richardson proved during Florida’s 6-7 recent season. Milton, a 2021 Michigan transfer actually was Heupel’s first starter in Knoxville. Heupel soon benched him for Hendon Hooker, who set school records as one of the nation’s breakout players in 2022. Hooker’s season-ending knee injury allowed Milton to produce a confidence-boosting, highly efficient 3-touchdown night during a 31-14 Orange Bowl rout of Clemson. If there is carryover, the Vols could challenge Georgia in the SEC East and maintain upper hand on rival Florida. Heupel has a track record of success with QBs at Oklahoma (Sam Bradford), Missouri (Drew Locke), UCF (Dillon Gabriel) and Tennessee. If the 23-year-old Milton is able to run UT’s high-octane offense, he’ll be the next in line.

Is LSU already back under coach Brian Kelly?

Early returns suggest the Tigers have awakened and repositioned themselves as the best SEC program outside of Athens or Tuscaloosa. Kelly put talented yet erratic ASU transfer quarterback Jayden Daniels into a system he could handle and turned him into a 2023 Heisman candidate. The 61-year-old Massachusetts native proved he could recruit in the South, inking the No. 6 class in 2023, headlined by star linebacker Harold Perkins Jr. , to bolster a roster with players from the No. 3 classes in 2021 and ’20. Everyone knew Kelly could coach. His 273 wins trail only Saban (280) wins and Mack Brown (274), and each 10 years Kelly’s senior. Kelly decided he had to leave a successful program at Notre Dame for the nation’s top football league in order to capture an elusive national title. A bold move looks like the right one.

Will the SEC stay at 16 teams or join the expansion fray?

Many say the nation’s top football conference started all of this expansion upheaval. Inviting football powers Texas and Oklahoma to join the SEC ultimately had a domino effect that now leaves the Big Ten with 18 schools, the Big 12 with 16, the ACC having to appease Florida State and the Pac-12 in shambles. SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said Texas and Oklahoma called him, any league would have welcome them and no plans exist to further expand. TV money ultimately could force the SEC’s hand. The league begins a 10-year, $3 billion deal with ESPN in 2024, coincidentally when Texas and Oklahoma arrive. Inviting more schools now would split up the pie. The SEC declined to expand its conference schedule from eight to nine games. There’s no financial incentive. If ESPN provides one, all bets are off. For now, a conference with 13 of the past 17 national champions can stand pat.