SEC preview: Alabama, Texas A&M, Georgia all CFP contenders

By RJ Young
FOX Sports College Football Writer

It ain’t about if the SEC is going to get a team in the College Football Playoff, it’s about how many. 

That’s what the conference has become over the last 20 years — a league that is, without question, the best in the sport.

In that respect, establishing which team is the conference’s best could very well mean establishing which is most likely to win the national title. As much as it galls the other 116 teams, the two squads that played in the SEC title game last season also played for the national title a month later.

It’s hard-charging, hammer down, high-line running, send it and make it stick if you’re gonna come out at the front of the pack in this league.

S-E-C! S-E-C! Indeed. 

Here are the top five SEC storylines we’re watching. 

What will Kirby Smart and Georgia do for an encore?

Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs will be the latest defending national champions to begin the season without the crown of preseason No. 1 in most rankings, including mine.  

They’ve won 41 out of 50 SEC games with Smart as head coach and lost just 15 total since he became head coach in 2016. Last month, he was rewarded for a run of success unseen since 1980 with a contract that makes him the highest-paid employee at a public university in the country.

But beginning the season as the No. 3 team in the AP poll and No. 4 in my rankings isn’t the snub UGA fans might think it is.

The chief reason for this is the loss of seven starters from what most consider the sport’s best defense in the last decade. However, Smart has plenty of talent to draw on, with 15 of his 85 scholarship players rated five-star recruits in high school.

Even with EDGE Nolan Smith, defensive back Kelee Ringo and defensive tackle Jalen Carter returning, though, it will not be easy to replace the experience of Travon Walker, Quay Walker, Lewis Cine and Nakobe Dean. Dean, who holds a degree in mechanical engineering, is one of the smartest players Smart ever had at linebacker. He knew the defense as well as his defensive coordinator, who is gone, too.

After Dan Lanning landed the head coaching gig at Oregon, Smart hired Will Muschamp — perhaps the only man more intense than he is — to coordinate the UGA defense.

How quickly Muschamp adapts to the defensive unit, or the defensive unit adapts to him, will be among the most important developments for a team looking to win back-to-back national titles for the first time since Alabama did it in 2011 and 2012 — with Smart as its defensive coordinator.

In fact, only four programs have won back-to-back national championships in the sport’s 153-year history: Minnesota (1940 and 1941), Army (1944 and 1945), Oklahoma (1955 and 1956) and those Alabama teams. 

Offensively, Stetson Bennett showed that he’s capable of leading the Dawgs to a national title, achieving folk hero status in the Peach State. He led an offense that put up 443 yards and 38 points per game while averaging more than 10 yards per pass attempt. He passed for 2,862 yards with 29 TDs and seven INTs. 

His weakness is how he performs against the class of the SEC. Bennett threw two INTs against Alabama in the SEC title game and was harried by the Tide into putting the ball on the carpet in the national title game. 

With offensive weapons like tight ends Brock Bowers and Darnell Washington, receiver Arik Gilbert, and running backs Kenny McIntosh and Kendall Milton, Bennett should have little trouble helping the Dawgs put up gaudy numbers in 2022.

But they’ll need to improve their rate of scoring touchdowns. When the Dawgs reached the red zone, they scored 86% of the time — compared to 92% and 93% by the Ohio State Buckeyes and Tide, respectively. 

Kirby Smart is college football’s highest-paid coach

RJ Young reacts to the news that the Georgia Bulldogs and Kirby Smart agreed to a new long-term contract that makes Smart the highest paid coach in college football.

Will Alabama become the first team since the 2017 Tide to begin the season ranked No. 1 and go on to win the national championship? 

Start with this: This is the 15th year Saban and Alabama have been ranked as the No. 1 team in the country at some point.

They return the reigning Heisman winner at quarterback in Bryce Young, plus three starters on the offensive line from a team that put up 488 yards and 40 points a game.

UGA wideout transfer Jermain Burton and former Georgia Tech running back Jahmyr Gibbs have received most of the attention from casual college football fans. But the addition of former Vanderbilt offensive lineman Tyler Steen could be even more critical to Bama’s success, much like the addition of Florida State center Landon Dickerson was to the 2020 national title team. 

With Evan Neal and Chris Owens gone to the NFL, Steen’s 33 games of experience in the SEC will be pivotal — especially with two years of eligibility remaining. As a former defensive lineman, he’ll also have a particular understanding of what defenses will attempt to do against Tide O-line coach Doug Marrone. 

Nick Saban says 2021 season was a ‘rebuilding year’

Alabama coach says last season was a “rebuilding year,” yet the Tide managed to take Georgia to the wire in the national title game.

Burton caught 53 passes for 901 yards for UGA over two seasons in Athens, and he’ll need to be even more productive in Tuscaloosa with John Metchie, Jameson Williams and Slade Bolden gone to the NFL. 

Saban also added former LSU and All-American cornerback Eli Ricks to a defense that could be one of the nation’s best — if Ricks and defensive backs Jordan Battle, Malachi Moore and Brian Branch can keep a lid on the secondary — because the pass rush is elite.

Led by Heisman candidate Will Anderson, the 2021 defense was the best Bama has fielded since 2017. Anderson recorded 17.5 sacks and a gaudy 34.5 tackles for loss. 

Anderson leads a defensive front seven that features stars DJ Dale, Dallas Turner and Henry To’oTo’o. If the defense forces more takeaways — compared to 22 last year — it’s not hard to see how the Tide end up playing in the national title game for the third time in three years. 

Will Texas A&M follow through? 

Since bolting from Florida State, where he led the Seminoles to a BCS national title, for the hills of Texas, Jimbo Fisher has put together a 34-14 record with three bowl wins. 

That’s good. It’s not good enough — not for Ampersand U fans. 

The 12th Man hasn’t shelled out millions to Fisher and in NIL collective to be the second- or third-best team in its own division. They want a national title, which would be their first since 1939. 

But, to do that, they first have to at least make the SEC Championship Game, if not win the damned thing. That’s tough when 23 out of their last 26 seasons have come with four losses or more. 

Jimbo Fisher: Why Texas A&M has ‘complete package’

Aggies coach joins Colin Cowherd to discuss the latest in college football, including his No. 1-ranked recruiting class.

Adding insult to injury? Six other SEC programs have won the national title in the BCS or CFP era — including Auburn — and its two newest members coming in 2025 — rivals Texas and Oklahoma — have, too.

This means A&M shares real estate with Arkansas, Kentucky, Ole Miss and Vanderbilt — all teams that have never shown their face in the SEC title game. 

Ampersand U fans can only live with that for so long. Even with all that pressure, I still think the Aggies are a better team than all but two and capable of not just getting to the SEC title game, but winning the national title. No matter who Fisher picks at quarterback — whether it’s Haynes King, Max Johnson or Conor Weigman — they’ve got talent at every offensive and defensive position.

Between true freshman wide receivers Evan Stewart and Chris Marshall and outstanding playmakers Ainias Smith and Devon Achane, they’ve got players who can put the ball in the end zone.

Even with Isaiah Spiller carrying the rock as the feature back last season, it was Achane who led the Aggies in rushing with 910 yards, seven yards per carry and nine touchdowns. 

Like Muschamp, coordinator DJ Durkin needs to adapt to the defense now-Duke head coach Mike Elko left behind, but a non-conference win against No. 16 Miami and a vengeful win against Arkansas could do a lot to prove to the selection committee that the Aggies are for real. 

Who will have the best Year 1 in the SEC? 

Billy Napier (Florida) and Brian Kelly (LSU) were two of the most high-profile hires during the 2021 coaching cycle. 

Napier has bearing, having coached wide receivers for Saban before turning Louisiana into a power in the Group of 5. 

Kelly built his reputation at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, then coached Notre Dame to multiple CFP selections, only to leave South Bend, Indiana, for Baton Rouge, Louisiana. He made the move because he believes the SEC — and the players he might have the chance to recruit at LSU — will give him a chance to beat Saban, rather than simply get boat-raced by him. 

In fact, winning the CFP national title is all that’s left for Kelly to accomplish in what will likely be a Hall of Fame career.

Both Kelly and Napier must choose the best quarterback to lead them into their new eras. Napier must choose between Ohio State transfer Jack Miller and incumbent Anthony Richardson, while Kelly will pick between former Arizona State transfer Jayden Daniels and talented sophomore Garrett Nussmeier — whose father, Doug, once coordinated Saban’s offense.

Will Brian Kelly shine at LSU?

RJ Young breaks down who will have a better debut season — Brian Kelly at LSU or Marcus Freeman at Notre Dame?

The safer bet might not be Kelly, even though he’s been to both the CFP and the national title game in the last 10 years at one of the sport’s biggest brands. The safer bet might instead be Napier, a sweet Southern 43-year-old who put together three 10-plus win seasons at Louisiana, including 12-1 in 2021.

The Gators will have a chance to show what Napier’s program can do early with a season-opener against a Utah program expected to contend for its first invitation to the CFP in school history.

Can Arkansas get to 10 wins? 

Is it a short walk from “Bubba Shot the Juke Box” to “Juke Box Hero” to “Turn That Damn Juke Box On,” or am I just that excited for Arkansas football to find its form? 

The Razorbacks won nine games last season, and two of their four losses were one-possession games. If the Razorbacks hadn’t fallen apart against Auburn, they were staring at a 10-win season.

Not bad for a team that had won a total of 11 games over the previous four years, and never more than eight in any of the previous 10.

The Hawgs have a shot to show the nation what they’re made of early, starting the 2022 season vs. No. 23 Cincinnati, then hosting Saban’s Tide on Oct. 1. 

Over the past two seasons, the Tide have proved vulnerable in their first SEC road game. Their first last year was close, and their second was their first loss to an unranked team (Texas A&M) since 2007.

Sam Pittman’s squad added former Alabama linebacker Drew Sanders, too, who should prove helpful to helping coordinators Kendal Briles and Barry Odom understand how to beat Alabama after coming close in a 42-35 loss at Bryant-Denny last year.

To do that, they just have to be incrementally better. The Hawgs led the SEC in rushing, put up 441 yards and 31 points per game, and have a bona fide star at quarterback in KJ Jefferson — the steel heart beating beneath the war cry of woo, pig.

If Jefferson can create the relationship with Oklahoma transfer and wideout Jadon Haselwood, as he did with Treylon Burks, the Pit Boss and his Hawgs might barbecue the SEC West yet. 

RJ Young is a national college football writer and analyst for FOX Sports and the host of the podcast “The No. 1 Ranked Show with RJ Young.” Follow him on Twitter at @RJ_Young, and subscribe to “The RJ Young Show” on YouTube. He is not on a StepMill.

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