NCAA Football Futures: 2018-19 SEC Preview
The SEC’s dominance in recent years can be summed up fairly easily: the SEC has had at least one team in the National Championship in 11 of the last 12 seasons and they have won 9 of the last 12 Championships. So, I think it’s fair to say that the SEC Championship is the most important game of the college football season each year. Georgia is once again the team to beat in the East, with Alabama expected to top Auburn for the West. Both teams have a favorable path to an undefeated record in the regular season, which should allow the loser of the SEC Championship Game to remain alive for a spot in the CFP.
While I believe there are only a couple teams that can compete for the SEC title, I’ll do my best to make a case for a few contenders as well as my pick for SEC Champion.
The Favorite: Alabama (-140)
Last year’s CFP Champion, Alabama, has had an unprecedented run of 5 national titles in 9 years, so it’s clear to see why they’re the frontrunner for the SEC title and the National Championship yet again, with the lines at -140 and +190, respectively. The Crimson Tide are being predicted to avenge their only loss last season and finish the season as the SEC Champions at 8-0 in the conference and 13-0 overall. Despite their loss to Auburn in the final game of the regular season last year, Alabama got some help after Georgia’s upset of Auburn in the SEC Championship game and ended up winning the CFP Championship.
Despite losing their offensive and defensive coordinator, the most important piece remains the same: Nick Saban is the head coach. Saban’s greatest feat might be his ability to win after having to reload the roster AND the coaching staff on a consistent basis. In addition to coaching changes, his choice to replace proven starter Jalen Hurts with freshman Tua Tagovailoa in the second half of the CFP Final shows that he is willing to do anything to win. As far as this year’s quarterback battle, Tagovailoa is the “clear favorite” to win the starting job over Jalen Hurts, according to Matt Zenitz of AL.com.
The most difficult part of Alabama’s quest for their 6th SEC title in 10 years will be replacing the 12 members of their team that were drafted after this season, including 4 players who were drafted in the first round. Their secondary took the biggest hit, losing S Minkah Fitzpatrick, S Ronnie Harrison, and CB Anthony Averett. But they reloaded with 4 4-star or better DBs, including the #1 CB in this year’s class.
Alabama is the favorite once again, but Georgia is quickly closing the gap. I still might take Alabama, considering Tua Tagovailoa’s potential to win the Heisman and lead this team to another championship. I have the Crimson Tide winning the SEC West, having a tough battle against Georgia in the SEC Championship, and probably, making the CFP Final. Roll Tide.
The Contenders: Georgia (+275), Auburn (+1000), Mississippi St. (+1400)
Contender #1: Georgia (+275)
Despite losing the best linebacker in the nation in Roquan Smith, two NFL-starting caliber running backs in Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, seven defensive starters, and a few key offensive linemen, Georgia might be a better team in 2018. After coming within 3 points of last year’s CFP Championship, Georgia’s Kirby Smart turned to the recruiting trail and made it clear that the Bulldogs are going all out this year. They have the #1 2018 recruiting class, which includes 3 of the top 5 OLBs, the #1 dual-threat QB, the #1 RB and 7 players in the top 25 overall. Recruits don’t always equal wins, but Georgia’s ability to develop their top-rated recruits will be crucial for this season and I believe they’ll be able to win the SEC East with relative ease. Their odds to win the SEC and National Championship are 11/4 and 10/1, respectively. Those are both good for second-best in the SEC.
There’s plenty to be excited about for Georgia fans coming into this season and expectations have just about reached the level of “title or bust” for this team. On paper, there should be no reason this team loses a game this season, but road games at South Carolina and LSU are dangerous and facing Florida at a neutral location will likely mean the Gators are a tougher test this time around.
Georgia should win the SEC East with relative ease and may very well head into the SEC Championship game undefeated, with a spot in the CFP on the line, regardless of the result. (This is obviously the ideal scenario for SEC fans, since it would put 2 SEC teams in the CFP, which would be a reason to claim the SEC is the best conference in college football.) The SEC Championship game will most likely pit the Bulldogs against Alabama in a showdown for #1 in the country, and Georgia has the talent to pull it off, but will they live up to their new sky-high expectations? We’ll see soon enough.
Contender #2: Auburn (+1000)
The Tigers are obviously disappointed with how their season ended, but Gus Malzhan opted to stay at Auburn for a reason. Auburn’s got enough talent to return to the SEC Championship game and potentially find a spot in the CFP, it just depends on the protection of one of the nation’s top quarterbacks in Jarrett Stidham. Four starters from their offensive linemen are gone, with just Mike Horton coming back at one guard spot. Their offense was nearly unstoppable when they protected Stidham, but their offensive line remains as a big question mark, along with the skill players they’ll need to replace. They have the ability to make up for their loss of skill players and lineman depth by continuing to play an up-tempo style and relying on Stidham to put his receivers in position to succeed, not the other way around. Apart from one of the SEC’s best receivers in Ryan Davis, this Auburn offense will rely heavily on Stidham and a trio of young, exciting running backs.
After coming up with only 6 interceptions last season, the biggest key for this Auburn defense will be their ability to force turnovers. Despite losing three starters in the secondary, their defensive backs should be more than able to produce better results this season. I believe this defense has a good enough mix of developing pieces and veterans to build some depth in their defensive backfield and the combination of DTs Derrick Brown and Dontavious Russell is as good as any in the country, so their pass rush will hopefully take some pressure off a linebacking corps that lacks true star power.
Auburn’s defense will most likely be their strength and their offense has the skill players and a stud QB to get it done, but will they be able to rely on their offensive line? An appearance in a New Year’s Six bowl game wouldn’t be a big surprise, but going on the road for the Iron Bowl will most likely thwart any chance of an appearance in the SEC Championship game. Most of Auburn’s big games are at home until later in the season, so they just might be able to get to their road matchup with Georgia at 9-0. It would require a small miracle to get through unscathed, but if they can put it together early and build momentum, this team has the ability to win a stacked conference. At +1000, this Auburn team is definitely an intriguing play, but I would need to be impressed by their offensive line coming out of the gates against Washington.
Contender #3: Mississippi St. (+1400)
Coaching changes are never easy, but Joe Moorhead might be exactly what Mississippi St. needs to reach 10 wins for just the third time in last 20 seasons. That would obviously be best-case scenario with a first-year coach, but he’s inheriting a very solid defense that has an impressive line, versatile linebackers, and a tremendous secondary.
The offense will rely on the healthy return of QB Nick Fitzgerald, but there’s a lot to be excited about, especially considering that Moorhead’s calling card is the offense. The Bulldogs have a talented RB in Aeris Williams and will return four starters from one of the best offensive lines in the conference. Moorhead’s up-tempo offensive scheme and the addition of offensive coordinator Luke Getsy from the Green Bay Packers coaching staff may provide the boost necessary to get the receiving corps more experience, which would take some pressure off of Fitzgerald and Williams in the backfield.
On the defensive side, the Bulldogs’ run defense will need to show up each and every game. In 3 of their 4 losses last season, they gave up 200+ rushing yards, and they’re 1-7 when giving up 200+ rushing yards over the last 2 seasons. The good news is that eight starters return for their defense, which finished tenth in the nation in yards allowed and gave up only 21 points per game. The tale of the tape for last year’s defense is pretty simple. When they held opponents to less than 27 points last year, they were 9-0. When they gave up 27 points or more, they were 0-4.
At +1400, this Mississippi State team would be one of the best returns for teams with realistic championship odds in the middle of the pack in the SEC. While I don’t necessarily see them getting it done this year, I would keep an eye out for this team next year.
The Decision: It’s always tempting to pick Alabama because of their dominance and the consistency of Nick Saban, but the value pick is clearly Georgia at +275. I’m going with the Bulldogs to take the SEC this season and at 10/1, I love their National Championship odds.
Sorry Alabama fans. Well, not really. You’ll probably win it next year.