Breaking down the SEC
By Matt Jones & Scottie Bordelon
ALABAMA Head Coach: Nick Saban (194-27 in 17th season at Alabama and 285-69-1 in 28th season overall) Coordinators: Tommy Rees (Offense), Kevin Steele (Defense), Coleman Hutzler (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC Postseason Result: Alabama defeated Kansas State 45-20 at the Sugar Bowl. Key Losses: QB Bryce Young, RB Jahmyr Gibbs, OL Emil Ekiyor, OL Tyler Sheen, OL Javion Cohen, LB Will Anderson, LB Henry To’oto’o, CB Jordan Battle Key Returners: QB Ty Simpson, RB Jase McClellan, WR Jermaine Burton, OL Seth McLaughlin, OL Tyler Booker, LB Dallas Turner, CB KoolAid McKinstry, DB Malachi Moore, DB Terrion Arnold, PK Will Reichard Transfers to Watch: QB Tyler Buchner (Notre Dame), TE CJ Dippre (Maryland), LB Trezmen Marshall (Georgia) Freshmen to Watch: RB Richard Young, RB Justice Haynes, OL Kadyn Proctor, DE Keon Keeley, DT James Smith, LB Jaquavious Russaw, CB Desmond Ricks, S Caleb Downs Outlook: Only once under Nick Saban has Alabama gone more than two years without representing the SEC West in the conference championship game, so chances seem decent the Crimson Tide might find their way back to Atlanta in 2023. But to do so, Alabama must identify a quarterback to replace Bryce Young, the No. 1 overall pick in this year’s NFL Draft. No frontrunner was evident by the end of the spring under new coordinator Tommy Rees, and the spring transfer of Notre Dame quarterback Tyler Buchner made the position harder to forecast. Whoever takes snaps will be surrounded by a talented, but largely unproven supporting cast of skill players. Alabama defenses – coordinated this year by SEC veteran Kevin Steele – usually provide a buffer zone for a quarterback to grow and develop. In addition to the Tide’s many annual rivalries, the schedule includes an early-season blockbuster with Texas at home on Sept. 9. Kicker Will Reichard was a 2022 All-American, with no kick bigger than his last minute boot to beat the Longhorns 20-19 in Austin. ARKA NSAS Head Coach: Sam Pittman (19-17 in fourth season at Arkansas and overall) Coordinators: Dan Enos (Offense), Travis Williams (Defense), Scott Fountain (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC Postseason Result: Arkansas defeated Kansas 55-53 in three overtimes at the Liberty Bowl. Key Losses: C Ricky Stromberg, WR Matt Landers, WR Jadon Haselwood, TE Trey Knox, OL Dalton Wagner, DL Jordan Domineck, LB Drew Sanders, LB Bumper Pool Key Returners: QB KJ Jefferson, RB Raheim Sanders, WR Isaiah Sategna, OL Beaux Limmer, OL Brady Latham, DL Landon Jackson, LB Chris Paul, DB Dwight McGlothern, DB Quincey McAdoo, K Cam Little Transfers to Watch: QB Jacolby Criswell (North Carolina), WR Isaac TeSlaa (Hillsdale College), WR Andrew Armstrong (Texas A&M-Commerce), WR Tyrone Broden (Bowling Green), OL Joshua Braun (Florida), DT Anthony Booker (Maryland), LB Antonio Grier (South Florida), LB Jaheim Thomas (Cincinnati), CB Lorando Johnson (Baylor), DB Jaheim Singletary (Georgia) Freshmen to Watch: RB Isaiah Augustave, TE Luke Hasz, LB Carson Dean, LB Brad Spence Outlook: Quarterback KJ Jefferson returns to run a new offense after Dan Enos replaced Kendal Briles as the team’s coordinator. Jefferson and running back Raheim Sanders give the Razorbacks one of the league’s best backfields, but Arkansas must replace most offensive starters from a year ago. Defensively, Travis Williams will coordinate after Barry Odom left to be UNLV ’ s head coach. Chris Paul broke out last season and has big shoes to fill at linebacker, where Drew Sanders was a Butkus Award finalist. The secondary played well at times late last season and returns several contributors who will be tutored by Marcus Woodson, coach of last year’s great secondary at Florida State. Cam Little is a weapon as place kicker. The Razorbacks’ schedule includes a home date with Big 12 newbie BYU on Sept. 16. AUBURN Head Coach: Hugh Freeze (first season at Auburn; 81-42 in 11th season overall) Coordinators: Philip Montgomery (Offense), Ron Roberts (Defense) 2022 Record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC Postseason Result: None Key Losses: RB Tank Bigsby, DE Derick Hall, LB Colby Wooden, LB Owen Pappoe, K Anders Carlson Key Returners: QB TJ Finley, QB Robby Ashford, RB Jarquez Hunter, WR Ja’Varrius Johnson, CB DJ James Transfers to Watch: OL Dillon Wade (Tulsa), OL Avery Jones (East Carolina), OL Gunner Britton (Western Kentucky), DL Justin Rogers (Kentucky), LB DeMario Tolan (LSU) Freshmen to Watch: OL Connor Lew, OL Izavion Miller, DL Stephen Johnson, DL Keldric Faulk, CB Kayin Lee Outlook: Hugh Freeze is back in the SEC – the third former Arkansas State one-year coaching wonder to land at Auburn, following in the footsteps of Gus Malzahn and Bryan Harsin. Freeze, who found coaching redemption at Liberty following a disgraceful firing at Ole Miss, replaces Harsin. The talent pool does not appear to be much deeper than last year when Harsin was fired following a blowout home loss to Arkansas. The quarterback position might prove troublesome as returners T.J. Finley and Robby Ashford appear to be leading candidates after neither excelled a year ago. Jarquez Hunter will be looked upon to replace yards by Tank Bigsby in the backfield. The Tigers added decorated players from mid-major conferences to populate the offensive line. The reputations of coordinators Philip Montgomery (offense) and Ron Roberts (defense) are strong. Freeze’s track record in the SEC and elsewhere suggests he will be successful at Auburn, but it might not be an overnight success. An early progress report will be available when Auburn travels to California on Sept. 9. FLORIDA Head Coach: Billy Napier (6-7 in second season at Florida and 46-19 in sixth season overall) Coordinators: Rob Sale (Offense), Austin Armstrong (Defense) 2022 Record: 6-7, 3-5 SEC Postseason Result: Florida lost 30-3 to Oregon State at the Las Vegas Bowl. Key Losses: QB Anthony Richardson, WR Justin Shorter, OL O’Cyrus Torrence, OL Ethan White, DL Gervon Dexter, LB Ventrell Miller, LB Amari Burney, DB Rashad Torrence Key Returners: QB Jack Miller, RB Montrell Johnson, RB Trevor Etienne, WR Ricky Pearsall, WR Xzavier Henderson, DL Princely Umanmielen, DB Jason Marshall, DB Jaydon Hill Transfers to Watch: QB Graham Mertz (Wisconsin), OL Kiyaunta Goodwin (Kentucky), OL Damieon George (Alabama), LB Teradja Mitchell (Ohio State), DB RJ Moten (Michigan) Freshmen to Watch: WR Eugene Wilson, WR Aidan Mizell, OL Roderick Kearney, DL Kelby Collins, DL Kamran James, DB Ja’Keem Jackson, DB Jordan Castell Outlook: Lost in Florida’s rotating door of coaches post-Urban Meyer is this nugget: Year two was memorable for Will Muschamp and Jim McElwain, who won SEC East titles, and Dan Mullen won 11 games. Can Billy Napier turn things around in his second year? He’ll need to in order to avoid the heat faced by his predecessors, who all had better debut seasons. With first-round quarterback Anthony Richardson gone to the NFL, Florida will likely turn to Wisconsin transfer Graham Mertz under center. Behind him are the Gators’ two best running backs from a year ago. Florida also returns two of its three leading receivers, but must replace a pair of All-SEC offensive linemen. Florida was a mess defensively at the end of the 2022 season and lost three of its best defenders to the NFL. Pass rusher Princely Umanmielen generated buzz during the spring. The Gators face two big tests early, including a Thursday, Aug. 31, season opener at Utah – the return game for Florida’s upset win last year. Tennessee visits The Swamp on Sept. 16. GEORGIA State 42-41 at the Peach Bowl; and defeated TCU 65-7 at the College Football Playoff Championship Game. Key Losses: QB Stetson Bennett, RB Kenny McIntosh, TE Darnell Washington, OL Warren McClendon, OL Broderick Jones, DL Jalen Carter, LB Nolan Smith, DB Chris Smith, DB Kelee Ringo, K Jack Podlesny Key Returners: RB Daijun Edwards, RB Kendall Milton, WR Ladd McConkey, TE Brock Bowers, OL Sedrick Van Pran, DL Nazir Stackhouse, LB Jamon DumasJohnson, DB Malaki Starks, DB Javon Bullard, DB Tykee Smith Transfers to Watch: WR Dominic Lovett (Missouri), WR Rara Thomas (Mississippi State), CB Deyon Bouie (Texas A&M) Freshmen to Watch: DE Samuel M’Pemba, DE Damon Wilson, LB Troy Bowles, LB Raylen Wilson, CB AJ Harris, S Joenel Aguero Outlook: Can anyone beat the Bulldogs? Kirby Smart has taken the lessons he learned as a long-time assistant to Nick Saban at LSU and Alabama, and created a monster that has won the past two national championships and 17 consecutive games. Georgia is recruiting at a level that makes it difficult to forecast any end to its dominance. The Bulldogs’ 25 players drafted by NFL teams over the past two years are a record. There have been 55 Georgia players – including 15 first-rounders – drafted under Smart. The presence of big-game quarterback Stetson Bennett will be missed, but the talent assembled should make for a great team even if there is a drop off under center. Carson Beck seems the most likely successor after taking snaps in seven games last year. The Bulldogs have a great skill cast that includes returning running back Daijun Edwards and tight end Brock Bowers, and dynamic receivers Dominic Lovett and Rara Thomas from other SEC programs. Georgia lightens the nonconference load significantly and it’s not hard to envision a 10-0 start before a Nov. 18 trip to Tennessee. KENTUCKY Head Coach: Mark Stoops (66-59 in 11th season at Kentucky and overall) Coordinators: Liam Coen (Offense), Brad White (Defense), Jay Boulware (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 7-6, 3-5 SEC Postseason Result: Kentucky lost 21-0 to Iowa at the Music City Bowl. Key Losses: QB Will Levis, RB Chris Rodriguez, OL Kiyaunta Goodwin, OL Dashawn Manning, DL Justin Rogers, LB Jordan Wright, LB Jacquez Jones, LB DeAndre Square, DB Carrington Valentine, DB Keidron Smith, DB Joel Williams, P Colin Goodfellow Key Returners: WR Barion Brown, WR Dane Key, WR Tayvion Robinson, TE Jordan Dingle, TE Josh Kattus, OL Eli Cox, OL Jager Burton, OL Kenneth Horsey, DL Deone Walker, LB JJ Weaver, LB D’Eryk Jackson, LB Trevin Wallace, DB Zion Childress, DB Jordan Lovett, K Chance Poore Transfers to Watch: QB Devin Leary (North Carolina State), OL Tanner Bowles (Alabama), OL Courtland Ford (Southern Cal), DL Keeshawn Silver (North Carolina), DB Jantzen Dunn (Ohio State), DB JQ Hardaway (Cincinnati) Freshmen to Watch: WR Anthony Brown, TE Khamari Anderson, LB Grant Godfrey, LB Jayvant Brown, DB Avery Stuart Outlook: Life without quarterback Will Levis is upon Kentucky. He was drafted by the Tennessee Titans in the second round of the NFL Draft in April. In steps Devin Leary, a veteran from North Carolina State with more than 6,800 passing yards and 62 touchdowns against 16 interceptions in his career. Mark Stooped labeled Leary a “natural leader” in the spring. The Wildcats are looking to improve offensively after scoring just 20.4 points per game in 2022 and largely letting down a defense that sat behind only Georgia in points allowed per game in SEC play. The Wildcats return three of their top five players in regards to overall defense grade from Pro Football Focus, including edge J.J. Weaver, safety Zion Childress and lineman Deon Walker. Leading tackler D’Eryck Jackson is back as well. Kentucky will travel to Georgia to open October, then close the schedule at Mississippi State, at home against Alabama, and at South Carolina and Louisville. LSU Head Coach: Brian Kelly (10-4 in second season at LSU and 177-66 in 25th season overall) Coordinators: Mike Denbrock (Offense), Matt House (Defense), John Jancek (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 10-4, 6-2 SEC Postseason Result: LSU lost 50-30 to Georgia at the SEC Championship Game; defeated Purdue 63-7 at the Citrus Bowl. Key Losses: WR Jaray Jenkins, WR Kayshon Boutte, OL Anthony Bradford, DL Ali Gaye, DL Jaquelin Roy, LB BJ Ojulari, LB Micah Baskerville, DB Jay Ward, DB Jarrick Bernard-Converse, DB Joe Foucha Key Returners: QB Jayden Daniels, RB Josh Williams, RB Noah Cain, WR Malik Nabers, WR Brian Thomas, TE Mason Taylor, OL Will Campbell, OL Emery Jones, OL Miles Frazier, OL Charles Turner, DL Mekhi Wingo, DL Sai’vion Jones, LB Harold Perkins, LB Greg Penn, DB Greg Brooks, K Damian Ramos Transfers to Watch: WR Aaron Anderson (Alabama), OL Mason Lunsford (Maryland), DL Jalen Lee (Florida), DL Paris Shand (Arizona), LB Omar Speights (Oregon State), DB Denver Harris (Texas A&M), DB Jakailin Johnson (Ohio State), DB Darian Chestnut (Syracuse) Freshmen to Watch: WR Jalen Brown, DL Dashawn Womack, DL Jaxon Howard, LB Whit Weeks, DB Javien Toviano, DB Ryan Yaites Outlook: The Tigers won the SEC West in Brian Kelly’s first season leading the program and made their first SEC Championship Game appearance since 2019. LSU figures to be a strong contender in the division and conference again with star quarterback Jayden Daniels and 1,000-yard receiver Malik Nabers leading the offense. Linebacker Harold Perkins is also back to anchor the defense after a standout freshman season in which he recorded 14 tackles for loss and 8.5 sacks. Kelly saw six players selected in the NFL Draft and went to the NCAA transfer portal for help, particularly in the secondary, filling some holes. LSU opens the season against Florida State in Orlando and has road trips to Mississippi State, Ole Miss, Missouri and Alabama in league play. OLE MISS Head Coach: Lane Kiffin (23-13 in fourth season at Ole Miss and 84-46 in 12th season overall) Coordinators: Charlie Weis Jr. (Co-Offense), John David Baker (CoOffense), Pete Goulding (Defense), Jake Schoonover (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC Postseason Result: Ole Miss lost 42-25 to Texas Tech at the Texas Bowl. Key Losses: RB Zach Evans, WR Malik Heath, WR Jonathan Mingo, OL Nick Broeker, OL Mason Brooks, DL Tavian Robinson, DL KD Hill, LB Troy Brown, DB Otis Reese, DB AJ Finley Key Returners: QB Jaxson Dart, RB Quinshon Judkins, WR Jordan Watkins, WR Dayton Wade, OL Jayden Williams, OL Caleb Warren, OL Jeremy James, DL Cedric Johnson, LB Khari Coleman, LB Ashanti Cistrunk, DB Ladarius Tennison Transfers to Watch: QB Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State), QB Walker Howard (LSU), WR Chris Marshall (Texas A&M), OL Victor Curne (Washington), DL Joshua Harris (North Carolina State) Freshmen to Watch: RB Kedrick Reescano, WR Ayden Williams, DL Jamarious Brown, LB Suntarine Perkins Outlook: Ole Miss in 2022 began 7-0 and climbed as high as No. 7 in the Associated Press Top 25. Then the bottom fell out. The Rebels lost five of their last six games, and the win came against a Texas A&M team that was in the midst of its own nosedive. Lane Kiffin in January hired former Alabama defensive coordinator Pete Goulding to lead his defense. The Rebels were 11th in in scoring defense at 31.3 points per conference game. Only South Carolina, Auburn and Vanderbilt allowed more touchdowns. Quarterback Jaxson Dart is back after throwing for 2,974 yards and 20 touchdowns, but former Oklahoma State quarterback Spencer Sanders has been added to the competition. Running back Quinshon Judkins is a star and a preseason All-American after leading the SEC in yards and rushing scores. Linebacker Ashanti Cistrunk leads the linebackers following a 72-tackle season. Ole Miss returns two players who had 10 tackles for loss in 2022. The Rebels face Tulane and Georgia Tech early in nonconference play, and have road conference games against Alabama, Auburn, Georgia and Mississippi State. MISSISSIPPI STATE Head Coach: Zach Arnett (1-0 in first season at Mississippi State and overall) Coordinators: Kevin Barbay (Offense), Matt Brock (Defense), Eric Mele (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 9-4, 8-4 SEC Postseason Result: Mississippi State defeated Illinois 19-10 at the ReliaQuest Bowl. Key Losses: RB Dillon Johnson, WR Rara Thomas, WR Caleb Ducking, WR Austin Williams, OL LaQuinston Sharp, DL Cameron Young, DL Tyrus Wheat, DL Randy Charlton, DL Jevon Banks, DB Emmanuel Forbes Key Returners: QB Will Rogers, RB Jo’Quavious Marks, WR Rufus Harvey, WR Tulu Griffin, WR Jaden Walley, WR Justin Robinson, OL Cole Smith, OL Nick Jones, OL Kameron Jones, DL Nathan Pickering, LB Jett Johnson, LB Nathaniel Watson, DB Decamerion Richardson Transfers to Watch: QB Mike Wright (Vanderbilt), WR Freedie Roberson (Eastern Washington), TE Ryland Goede (Georgia), TE Geor’quarius Spivey (TCU), DB Khamauri Rogers (Miami), DB Kobi Albert (Kentucky), DB Raydarious Jones (LSU), K Nicholas Barr-Mira (UCLA) Freshmen to Watch: OL Leon Bell, DB Kelley Jones, DB Brice Pollock, AT H Ty Jones Outlook: Mike Leach’s death last December shocked and saddened the college football world. Zach Arnett, who was hired by Leach to lead Mississippi State’s defense ahead of the 2020 season, enters his first full season in charge of the program. Quarterback Will Rogers, who threw for 3,974 yards and 35 touchdowns in 2022, returns to provide stability for an offense that lost top receivers Rara Thomas and Caleb Ducking but brings back and has added key playmakers. Lockdown cornerback Emmanuel Forbes was taken in the NFL Draft, but the team’s top three tacklers – two with 100-plus stops – from 2022 are remain in the fold. Defensive coordinator Matt Brock called plays in the bowl win over Illinois. The Bulldogs are scheduled to play eight games at home, highlighted by Arizona, LSU, Alabama, Kentucky and Ole Miss. Five of the team’s first six games are at home ahead of an Oct. 21 game at Arkansas. Arnett has coached in a bowl game in every season since 2011. MISSOURI Head Coach: Eliah Drinkwitz (17-19 in fourth season at Missouri and 29-20 in fifth season overall) Coordinators: Kirby Moore (Offense), Blake Baker (Defense), Erik Link (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 6-7, 3-5 SEC Postseason Result: Missouri lost 27-17 to Wake Forest at the Gasparilla Bowl. Key Losses: WR Dominic Lovett, WR Barrett Bannister, WR Tauskie Dove, DL Isaiah McGuire, DL Travion Ford, DL Trajan Jeffcoat, P Jack Stonehouse Key Returners: QB Brady Cook, RB Cody Schrader, WR Luther Burden, WR Mookie Cooper, OL Javon Foster, DL Darius Robinson, LB Ty’Ron Hopper, LB Chad Bailey, DB Jaylon Carlies, DB Ennis Rakestraw, DB Kris Abrams-Draine, K Harrison Mevis Transfers to Watch: QB Jake Garcia (Miami), WR Theo Wease (Oklahoma), WR Dannis Jackson (Ole Miss), DL Joe Moore (Arizona State), DB Tre’Vez Johnson (Florida), DB Marcus Clarke (Miami) Freshmen to Watch: QB Gabarri Johnson, WR Joshua Manning, TE Brett Norfleet, LB Triston Newson, DB Marvin Burks Outlook: Eliah Drinkwitz enters his fourth season and is looking to notch his first winning record overall and in SEC play. The Tigers finished 6-7 each of the last two years and lost bowl games. Missouri hired a new offensive coordinator and offensive line coach. Quarterback Brady Cook is expected to lead Kirby Moore’s offense after recording more than 3,300 total yards last season, but Miami transfer Jake Garcia could make the battle interesting. The Tigers’ top two pass catchers are gone, but Luther Burden (six touchdowns) is back and Oklahoma transfer Theo Wease is expected to make an instant impact for an offense that was 12th in SEC play in scoring. Darius Robinson, a pro prospect who turned down the NFL Draft, headlines the defense up front and linebacker Chad Bailey highlights the second level. There are intriguing returnees and additions in the back end that could make the Tigers a challenge. Missouri had the fourthbest scoring defense in league games in 2022 (25.6 points). The Tigers will play five of their first six games in the state of Missouri. SOUTH CAROLINA Head Coach: Shane Beamer (15-11 in third season at South Carolina and overall) Coordinators: Dowell Loggains (Offense), Clayton White (Defense), Pete Lembo (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 8-5, 4-4 SEC Postseason Result: South Carolina lost 45-38 to Notre Dame at the Gator Bowl. Key Losses: RB MarShawn Loyd, WR Jalen Brooks, WR Josh Vann, TE Austin Stogner, TE Jaheim Bell, OL Jovaughn Gwyn, DL Gilber Edmond, DL Zacch Pickens, DL Jordan Burch, LB Sherrod Greene, DB Cam Smith, DB Darius Rush Key Returners: QB Spencer Rattler, RB Juju McDowell, WR Antwane Wells, WR Xavier Legette, DL Tonka Hemingway, DB Marcellas Dial, DB O’Donnell Fortune, DB Nick Emmanwori, DB DQ Smith, K Mitch Jeter, P Kai Kroeger Transfers to Watch: WR Eddie Lewis (Memphis), TE Trey Knox (Arkansas), TE Nick Elksnis (Florida), TE Joshua Simon (Western Kentucky), OL Sidney Fugar (Western Illinois), LB Jaron Willis (Ole Miss), Freshmen to Watch: RB Dontavius Braswell, WR Nyckoles Harbor, AT H Vicari Swain, OL Oluwatosin Babalade Outlook: A thrilling bowl game loss to Notre Dame did little to halt the momentum South Carolina gained from late-season wins over Tennessee and Clemson. Former Arkansas tight ends coach Dowell Loggains was hired as offensive coordinator in the offseason and has quarterback Spencer Rattler leading the charge after passing for 3,012 yards and 18 scores. Leading receiver Antwane Wells figures to be his top target again. Loggains brought with him former Razorbacks tight end Trey Knox, and the offensive staff added other intriguing playmakers for Rattler. The Gamecocks return their top two players interceptions-wise in O’Donnell Fortune and Marcellas Dial, and lineman Tonka Hemingway had eight tackles for loss in 2022. Few teams will play a harder schedule in September. The Gamecocks open with North Carolina at a neutral field in Charlotte on Sept. 2, go to Georgia on Sept. 16 and to Tennessee on Sept. 30. TENNESSEE Head Coach: Josh Heupel (18-8 in third season at Tennessee and 46-16 in sixth season overall) Coordinators: Joey Halzle (Offense), Tim Banks (Defense), Mike Ekeler (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 11-2, 6-2 SEC Postseason Result: Tennessee defeated Clemson 31-14 at the Orange Bowl. Key Losses: QB Hendon Hooker, WR Jalin Hyatt, WR Cedric Tillman, OL Darnell Wright, OL Jerome Carvin, DL Byron Young, LB Jeremy Banks, K Chase McGrath Key Returners: QB Joe Milton, RB Jabari Small, RB Jaylen Smith, WR Bru McCoy, WR Ramel Keyton, WR Squirrel White, OL Cooper Mays, OL Javontez Spraggins, DL Roman Harrison, LB Aaron Beasley, DB Tamarion McDonald Transfers to Watch: WR Dont’e Thornton (Oregon), TE McCallan Castles (UC Davis), OL Andrej Karic (Texas), DL Omarr Norman-Lott (Arizona State) Freshmen to Watch: QB Nico Iamaleava, WR Nathan Leacock, DL Daevin Hobbs, DL Caleb Herring Outlook: The Volunteers caught lightning in a bottle in 2022 with the tandem of quarterback Hendon Hooker and receiver Jalin Hyatt. Will Tennessee be able to replicate that offensive success in the third year under Josh Heupel? The Orange Bowl victory over Clemson provided a sneak peek at much of the grouping assigned with that task. With Hooker sidelined by an ACL injury and Hyatt sitting out, the Vols gained 375 yards and scored 31 points against a good Clemson defense. Joe Milton, who started in Hooker’s place, is the heir apparent at quarterback, but freshman Nico Iamaleava arrives with 5-star status. The Vols return some multi-year starters up front and some top playmakers in the backfield and at receiver. The explosive offense masked an erratic Tennessee defense that allowed 63 points in a loss to South Carolina that ruined national championship aspirations. The Vols open with a game against Virginia in Nashville and face their first SEC test two weeks later at Florida. TEXAS A&M Head Coach: Jimbo Fisher (39-21 in sixth season at Texas A&M and 122-44 in 14th season overall) Coordinators: Bobby Petrino (Offense), DJ Durkin (Defense) 2022 Record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC Postseason Result: None Key Losses: QB Haynes King, RB Devon Achane, CB Jaylon Jones, S Antonio Johnson, P Nik Constantinou Key Returners: QB Max Johnson, QB Conner Weigman, WR Ainias Smith, WR Moose Muhammad, WR Evan Stewart, DL Fadil Diggs, LB Chris Russell, DB Demani Richardson, DB Jardin Gilbert Transfers to Watch: CB Tony Grimes (North Carolina), S Sam McCall (Florida State) Freshmen to Watch: RB Rueben Owens, WR Raymond Cottrell, TE Jaden Platt, OL Chase Bistonis, OL TJ Shanahan, LB Daymion Sanford, CB Jayvon Thomas, AT H Micah Tease Outlook: It might be makeor-break time for the Aggies’ $95 million man, Jimbo Fisher, who has not led the Texas A&M to a winning record in SEC play since 2020 and missed on the postseason last year. The coach who has a reputation for quarterback molding is relinquishing some offensive control after hiring Bobby Petrino – a marriage of big personalities that has boom-or-bust potential. Haynes King transferred to Georgia Tech, leaving the quarterback competition primarily between Max Johnson and Conner Weigman. Fisher said during the spring that he expects the competition to last through the season, which is possibly coach speak, but perhaps an indication of another year when one quarterback does not shine. Receivers Ainias Smith, Moose Muhammad and Evan Stewart are proven playmakers. The Aggies must identify a new No. 1 running back with the loss of Devon Achane. Texas A&M’s defense was strong in its first year under coordinator DJ Durkin. A Sept. 9 trip to Miami promises to be an early challenge for the Aggies. VA NDERBILT Head Coach: Clark Lea (7-17 in third season at Vanderbilt and overall) Coordinators: Joey Lynch (Offense), Nick Howell (Defense), Justin Lustig (Special Teams) 2022 Record: 5-7, 2-6 SEC Postseason Result: None Key Losses: QB Mike Wright, WR Devin Boddie, RB Ray Davis, RB Rocko Griffin, DL Malik Langham, LB Elijah McAllister, LB Anfernee Orji, DB Maxwell Worship, DB Jeremy Lucien Key Returners: QB AJ Swann, WR Will Sheppard, WR Jayden McGowan, DL Christian James, LB Kane Patterson, LB Kane Patterson, LB Bryce Cowan, DB De’Rickey Wright, DB CJ Taylor, DB Jaylen Mahoney, P Matthew Hayball Transfers to Watch: DL Aeneas DiCosmo (Stanford), DL Jacob Katona (Stanford), LB Carson Casteel (Michigan State) Freshmen to Watch: WR London Humphreys, OL Barrett Maddox, DL De’Marion Thomas, DB Martel Hight Outlook: Vanderbilt’s SEC losing streak reached 26 games before it upset Kentucky on the road and Florida in back-to-back weeks last November. It was a positive stretch for Clark Lea, who is entering a third season leading his alma mater. Mike Wright, the quarterback who accounted for more than 1,400 yards and 17 touchdowns, transferred to Mississippi State, leaving the Commodores with more of an uphill climb offensively. Vanderbilt was 12th in the SEC in scoring offense and last in points allowed per game last season. The Commodores open the season versus Hawaii and travel to Wake Forest and Barry Odomled UNLV in nonconference play. Vanderbilt faces Ole Miss and Auburn from the SEC West.