SEC power rankings heading into the 2022 season

·15 min read

The countdown to the college football season is now down to less than two weeks.

Most SEC teams will have to wait a bit longer for their campaigns to begin, but Vanderbilt will be the lone league team in action during Week 0 on Aug. 27 when it crosses both the country and an ocean to play the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors on the road.

It should be another strong year in the league after it captured its third straight national title last fall with the Georgia Bulldogs winning their first championship since 1980. This year, Alabama is the favorite once again as it returns arguably the two best players in college football in Heisman-winning quarterback Bryce Young and edge rusher Will Anderson.

Two league powers have new head coaches in LSU and Florida, which hired Brian Kelly from Notre Dame and Billy Napier from Louisiana, respectively. Both programs hope to erase disappointing 2021 seasons and begin their new eras on a high note this fall.

A lot can change between now and January, and there are sure to be some surprises in the SEC this fall. But for the time being, here’s where we think league teams stand heading into the season.

Vanderbilt Commodores

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It wouldn’t be a preseason SEC power ranking if it didn’t start with the Commodores.

It was a rough Year 1 for Clark Lea in 2021. Vanderbilt went 2-10 in a campaign that included a 20-point FCS loss to East Tennessee State to kick off the Lea era. Heading into 2022, the outlook isn’t much better.

Vandy is still searching for its first winning season since the outlier that was the James Franklin era, in which the team won nine games in 2012 and 2013. It has made two bowl games in that span but lost both times.

This year’s squad at least has the benefit of experience on its side, as nearly the entire starting 22 comprises upperclassmen. The Commodores have a quarterback who showed some positive signs last fall in Mike Wright, but this should be the worst team in the conference by a decent stretch once again.

Anything else would be impressive from Lea.

Missouri Tigers

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Missouri is a pretty tough team to evaluate for having a coach who is already entering his third year in Eli Drinkwitz. The Tigers are 11-12 over the previous two seasons, and aside from an overtime win at home against the Gators that ultimately ended the Dan Mullen era, there weren’t many highlights in last season’s 6-7 campaign, which ended with a loss to Army in the Armed Forces Bowl.

With the race for No. 2 in the East as wide open as it’s ever been, Mizzou doesn’t seem to be a real contender, which is a problem. The team has an uncertain quarterback situation, and it has to replace arguably the SEC’s best rusher from a year ago in Tyler Badie.

Drinkwitz got this job after a 12-1 season at Appalachian State in which he was essentially a continuation hire from Scott Satterfield. He’s still coming into his own as a head coach, but it may be another rough season in Columbia.

South Carolina Gamecocks

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South Carolina, perhaps quietly, had one of the most impressive seasons in college football.

With a first-time head coach in Shane Beamer and a quarterback situation so murky that graduate assistant Zeb Noland had to toss the clipboard and throw on a helmet to start a few games, nobody expected the Gamecocks to even sniff a bowl game.

Instead, they turned in a respectable 7-6 campaign that was capped off with a decisive win over North Carolina in the Duke’s Mayo Bowl. If that weren’t enough to inspire confidence, the team landed one of the most talented quarterback transfers in the country in Spencer Rattler.

Rattler lost his job at Oklahoma last fall, but his first campaign as the starter in 2020 was good enough for him to be considered a Heisman frontrunner entering last fall. If he can get back to even a fraction of that, he will be the best quarterback South Carolina has had in a long time.

This isn’t the most talented team in the East, but it has the chance to strike above its weight class and could be the team most likely to prove this ranking wrong.

Auburn Tigers

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There may not be a team in college football that has been written off more than the one on the plains. But is it justified?

On the one hand, coach Bryan Harsin seems to be fighting against inevitability after his first season in the SEC. The Tigers went 6-7, and that resulted in a literal coup attempt from AU’s boosters, which failed — for now at least. But does Harsin have enough goodwill to survive another rough season?

Likely not.

Still, a bad season in Auburn is far from pre-determined. This defense is loaded. The running game, led by Tank Bigsby, should be fine. The quarterback situation isn’t great, but Texas A&M transfer Zach Calzada had some positive moments last season, such as leading an upset victory over Alabama.

After a pair of relatively easy games, Auburn faces Penn State and Missouri. It could, theoretically, start 4-0. But if it loses one or both of those matchups, things could quickly spiral in an untenable way for Harsin.

Mississippi State Bulldogs

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Who said the air raid couldn’t work in the SEC?

Some questioned the Mike Leach hire at the time, but the results have been more than satisfactory so far. The Bulldogs went 7-6 last season in an up-and-down campaign that featured a lot of positives (wins over No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 12 Kentucky and No. 17 Auburn) and some not-so-positives (a two-point loss against Memphis at the Liberty Bowl in Week 3).

This may seem a bit low for MSU, which returns one of the SEC’s best quarterbacks in Will Rogers, the only college football quarterback other than Joe Burrow to throw for 4700+ yards and 35+ touchdowns while completing at least 73% of his passes over the last 22 years.

Talk about a lofty comparison.

This offense is for real, but can the Bulldogs put together the kind of consistency to compete in a division where the floor is so high?

Florida Gators

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When Florida came close to upsetting Alabama in the Swamp last September, things looked to be all good in Gainesville. Then, the team proceeded to lose six of its next 10 games, have a close call against FCS Samford (allowing an embarrassing 52 points), finish with a program-worst 2-6 record in the SEC and fired Mullen.

That’s the way she goes, I guess.

The Gators brought in Napier to bring the team back to national relevance, primarily with the intent of boosting recruiting. The early returns have been positive in that regard, but Year 1 could still be rough on the field.

Anthony Richardson is the full-time starter at quarterback now after flashing a lot of impressive signs last fall despite battling injuries and a coaching staff that didn’t seem very interested in giving him a chance. If he’s as good as he has the potential to be — he’s been mocked as a first-round pick — Florida could be about to surprise some folks.

The run game, which is generally a primary component of Napier’s offenses, should be strong. But this team still lacks playmakers out wide, and it’s unclear how much the defense has improved after an abysmal season last fall.

Add in a brutal schedule that features games against Utah (the defending Pac-12 champion), LSU, Texas A&M and Georgia, not to mention easily losable games against Kentucky and Tennessee, and there’s just too much potential variance to feel good about the Gators.

LSU Tigers

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This sure doesn’t feel like a team less than three years removed from a national title run in which it put together one of the most dominant teams in college football history.

The [autotag]Ed Orgeron[/autotag] era crashed and burned over the last two seasons, but LSU hopes to have things fixed after whisking [autotag]Brian Kelly[/autotag] away from Notre Dame.

The overall vibe on this squad entering the season isn’t particularly positive, but it’s hard to understand why that’s the case. The team addressed nearly every weakness from its 6-7 season last fall, bringing in a talented and experienced transfer class full of immediate starters on both sides of the ball.

Between [autotag]Jayden Daniels[/autotag] and [autotag]Garrett Nussmeier[/autotag], Kelly should be able to get at least competent quarterback play. The run game was practically non-existent last fall, but it gets [autotag]John Emery Jr.[/autotag] back from academic suspension and adds [autotag]Noah Cain[/autotag] from Penn State, a transfer running back who was very solid before injuries derailed his 2021 season.

LSU returns arguably the best receiver in college football in [autotag]Kayshon Boutte[/autotag], the front seven should be a strength and the secondary got a facelift from the portal and features almost entirely new players, all of whom have starting experience.

There is no clear area of weakness on the roster aside from the offensive line, which replaces four of five starters, but there is still a lot of talent there. The Tigers won’t win the West this fall, but they may be a lot more competitive against the division’s best teams than many expect.

Ole Miss Rebels

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Many think the Rebels will take a step back this fall, which is understandable given their 10-3 finish in 2021, which saw the team reach the Sugar Bowl and finish ranked No. 11. They have to replace a number of starters, namely quarterback Matt Corral.

But heading into Year 3 of the Lane Kiffin era, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. We know Kiffin can coach them up on offense, and Ole Miss added an intriguing transfer quarterback in Jaxon Dart, who shined with USC despite the Trojans’ 4-8 finish last fall. It also added a former five-star running back in TCU transfer Zach Evans.

A step back may be in the cards in Oxford, but the Rebels could still be a very good team this season.

Tennessee Volunteers

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Hyping up Tennessee based on a 7-6 season in which the team closed the year on a stronger note than it began? Don’t mind if I do.

In all seriousness, the Vols’ first campaign under coach Josh Heupel was more impressive than many expected, largely thanks to an elite passing attack led by Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker.

UT scored at least 35 points in eight games last fall, and four of its losses came against ranked opponents. A fifth came against Pittsburgh, who was unranked at the time but ultimately won the ACC.

Hooker is back, and the Volunteers hype train is leaving the station once again. With Florida down, second place in the East seems to be up for grabs, and Tennessee is a primary contender.

An SEC schedule that features games at LSU and at home against Alabama isn’t doing them any favors, but the Vols seem to have some semblance of a football identity for the first time in a long while. Was last year an aberration or a sign of things to come?

Kentucky Wildcats

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In a sport that is so constantly preoccupied with what’s going on at the top, it can be easy to overlook stories like what has happened in Lexington over the last couple of years. But whether you’re paying attention or not, coach Mark Stoops has the Wildcats playing the most competitive football they ever have.

He has registered two 10-win seasons in the last four years, including a 10-3 mark last fall that featured a Citrus Bowl win. The quarterback that made that possible in Will Levis returns, and he’s seeing very real first-round hype.

Some questions still remain, however. Levis loses his primary safety net in receiver Wan’Dale Robinson, who accounted for nearly 40% of the entire target share in Kentucky’s passing offense. Running back Chris Rodriguez Jr. is one of the best in the league, but his availability is unclear as he has been away from the team this offseason following legal issues.

The Wildcats are in uncharted territory as they enter the year with something they are not accustomed to: expectations. Will they live up to them or regress back to the mean?

Texas A&M Aggies

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Well, Jimbo, we’re waiting.

Fisher enters his fifth year in College Station in 2022, and though stealing him away from Florida State likely provided the playbook for the splashy hires we saw this offseason, Texas A&M’s investment hasn’t really paid off so far.

Aside from a 9-1 finish in 2020 in which the team finished just shy of the College Football Playoff, the Aggies have been largely disappointing. Things didn’t go their way last year as quarterback Haynes King went down early in the year with an injury, and the upset over the Crimson Tide proved to be little more than a consolation prize in an 8-4 season.

TAMU seems to have some momentum on its side after landing one of the best recruiting classes of the modern era in 2022, but this team still has too many questions to predict that it will be a real contender for ‘Bama.

King is back, and the Aggies added Max Johnson from LSU, but neither has proven to be a game-changer. Running back Isaiah Spiller is gone, though reliable slot receiver Ainias Smith is back, and the defense features a number of young players starting.

Fisher may still have the Aggies trending in the right direction, and they should still sit firmly in the top half of preseason power rankings, but this may not be the year his team takes the leap.

Arkansas Razorbacks

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It’s hard not to be impressed by what’s happening in Fayetteville.

Arkansas is one of the SEC’s harder jobs, for a number of reasons, and that’s why coach Sam Pittman’s masterful program building is so noteworthy. The Razorbacks have a clear identity and they’re consistent.

After the disastrous tenure of Chad Morris, who went 0-16 in SEC contests before he was promptly given the boot after two seasons, that’s a welcome change. Arkansas immediately became competitive under Pittman despite a tough situation he walked into during the pandemic, and it proved that was no outlier with a 9-4 finish last fall.

The Razorbacks return one of the SEC’s best passers in K.J. Jefferson, though he lost his top weapon in receiver Treylon Burks. Still, Arkansas brings a lot of production back, and this experienced team seems like the safest bet to finish second in the West.

Georgia Bulldogs

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Whatever questions remained of Kirby Smart have now been answered after Georgia finally got over the hump and won its first national championship in more than 40 years.

It did so with oft-maligned quarterback Stetson Bennett IV, a former walk-on who has had his ups-and-downs but came through when it mattered in the national title game. Bennett is back, but the Bulldogs don’t return many starters from an absolutely loaded roster last fall that saw a record 15 players drafted.

Still, when you recruit at the level Georgia has over the last five years, there isn’t really such a thing as rebuilding. Five-star recruits get drafted and are replaced with new five-stars, and that’s exactly where UGA finds itself entering 2022.

The talent is there, there’s no question about it, and the Bulldogs should return to Atlanta with relative ease. They could certainly compete for another title, but that could mean getting into the CFP without a conference title like they did last year.

Alabama Crimson Tide

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What more can I say about the Crimson Tide that hasn’t already been said?

Nick Saban has had more talent come through Tuscaloosa in the 15 years he’s been the head man than many programs have in their entire histories. Even with those standards, though, this Alabama team could be really special.

It’s not often you see a Heisman-winning quarterback return to school, but Alabama is enjoying that luxury with Young, who likely represents the best chance since Jameis Winston for a repeat Heisman winner. Young may not even be the best player on his team, though, as Anderson was arguably the most dominant college football player last season and would have likely been the first pick in the draft, were he eligible.

Losing receivers Jameson Williams and John Metchie III hurts, but the Tide added a pair of talented transfer receivers in Jermaine Burton and Tyler Harrell. They also landed the nation’s top running back transfer in Jahmyr Gibbs to replace Brian Robinson Jr.

The national championship feels like Alabama’s to lose.

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Story originally appeared on LSU Tigers Wire