2019 NCAAF Preview: Southeastern Conference

August 24, 2019
By K. Becks

The SEC, as a conference, is in a bit of unfamiliar territory coming into this season. It is unusual for the league to have been embarrassed on the national stage not once, but twice near the end of a season, but that is what happened at the beginning of January.

You could say that it awakened a sleeping giant, as both teams embarrassed (Alabama and Georgia) are poised for yet another strong run that could see them both back in the Playoff this season. However, that rhetoric is a bit lazy because as of late these two teams are always in that conversation late in the year.

Rather, focusing on the true depth of the SEC as a whole is more interesting. Alabama and Georgia aren’t the only places where a Playoff contender may sit. The league is once again loaded and it would be a losing battle to suggest any other conference is better from top to bottom. Signed, a writer from the Midwest.

College Football Playoff Contenders

Alabama

As if Nick Saban needed another reason to use as motivation for his 2019 squad, the College Football gods delivered him one in the form of a 44-16 beatdown in last season’s national title game. Although there were signs of mortality earlier in the campaign (see: 2018 SEC title game), last year’s Alabama team was receiving much of the same type of praise that this year’s edition is getting in the preseason. Despite a Heisman frontrunner at quarterback and what looks to be one of the best backfields in the nation, Saban will ensure that nothing is taken for granted in that locker room after the way last season ended.

Despite losing some key contributors to last season’s defense, the Crimson Tide may be in better position to dominate on that side of the ball this coming fall. The secondary was uncharacteristically average by Alabama standards last season, but three starters return and there is a wealth of experience in that unit. Assuming a “next man up” mentality that normally presents itself on the defensive line, the Crimson Tide will once again be one of the most feared defensive squads in the country. And if that isn’t enough to sway, the offense will probably average 40+ points a game for a second consecutive season.

Florida

Dan Mullen’s quick turnaround of a program that went 4-7 in 2017 to a 10-win team last season is just further assertion that the Florida ball coach is one of the best offensive strategists in the college game. The Gators faithful always have high expectations, but even most of them have to be impressed with the meteoric return to relevance. The offense should be one of the best in the conference this year assuming Feleipe Franks continues to develop. With three returning wideouts to throw to and Samaje Perine’s brother Lamical in the backfield as a feature back, the only thing that may stunt that development is a nearly completely new offensive line.

The Gators are a bit of an outside shot to make the Playoff, if only because they will face two teams this season away from The Swamp ranked ahead of them in the preseason poll. The schedule is by no means easy, but by SEC standards it is manageable with a bit of luck. Mullen consistently did more with less at Mississippi State and now back at Florida, it appears this is just the first of many seasons in which his squad is being taken seriously by the national media.

Georgia

Is this the year that Kirby Smart finally takes down his mentor at Alabama? The fact that the question is even asked with a straight face is all the proof needed that the Bulldogs are once again a serious CFP contender. All the pieces appear to be in place, and not surprisingly they are arranged similarly to a school based in Tuscaloosa. Jake Fromm isn’t nearly as mobile as Tua Tagovailoa, but he’s as deadly with his arm and is everything you want in a quarterback between the ears. D’Andre Swift will compete for All-SEC honors out of the backfield, and the offensive line is set up perfectly to help him do that. Offensively, there isn’t any reason why Georgia can’t go toe-to-toe with the best in the country if required.

However, Kirby Smart is a defensive coordinator at heart and will want that to be Georgia’s ultimate strength. The secondary should be relatively strong, but the Bulldogs must avoid lapses on the defensive front like it did against LSU last year, a game which ended with a lopsided (and surprising) 36-16 scoreline in favour of the Tigers. If discipline ensues, expect good things in Athens. Given a favorable schedule that sees the Bulldogs play just four true road games, all signs point to another showdown with the Crimson Tide in Atlanta.

LSU

The Tigers are physical, set up to run the football well and likely to be disciplined offensively with senior Joe Burrow at the helm. All of these things are consistent with an Ed Orgeron coached team. What is not so consistent is the institution of an RPO type system that Burrow will head this year at LSU. With this approach, Orgeron appears to understand what his team’s strengths are, but it remains to be seen just how much freedom offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger gets to handle the calls. Coach O has a tendency to hold a tight leash on things and won’t be afraid to pull back if things turn sour.

We’ll find out rather quickly whether that is bound to happen this season, as the Tigers take on Texas in a monster matchup in Week 2. While that game won’t necessarily make or break LSU’s season, a win is much preferred as the Tigers must travel to Tuscaloosa this season to take on the Crimson Tide at the beginning of November.

Watch Out! (Team That Could Surprise)

Texas A&M

Entering its eighth season as a member of the SEC, Texas A&M is still looking to replicate the success that it enjoyed in 2012, its first in the league. Jimbo Fisher’s 8-4 campaign in 2018 with a relatively unknown commodity at quarterback is a sign that things are heading in the right direction. In addition to that now known budding star, Kellen Mond, the Aggies offense is flanked by physical wideouts and a promising freshman tight end in Baylor Cupp that should allow it to compete effectively against the tough SEC West defenses.

What could elevate Texas A&M is a defensive improvement in the secondary. The run defense may take a slight step back from being No. 3 in the country in yards allowed per game, but consistency throughout the unit will go a long way. The toughest part of the schedule is at the end of the year, which sees the Aggies on the road at Georgia and LSU in consecutive weekends. Assuming the team is firing on all cylinders at that time, an upset or two isn’t out of the question with the talent on the squad.

Hi, My Name Is… (Player to Watch)

Kellen Mond, Texas A&M junior quarterback

It’s a crowded collective in the “elite SEC quarterbacks” space, but Kellen Mond is knocking on the door after last season’s performance. With over 3,100 yards passing and 24 touchdowns to just 9 interceptions, Mond was closely following the footsteps of the SEC’s best in 2018 as a passer. His abilities as a runner give him the ability to bust that door down in 2019 if he continues to improve in the pocket.

Texas A&M tied for allowing the most sacks in the SEC last season, so if that can improve then Mond should have an easier time finding his big targets downfield. He has all the physical tools to be a force in the league and plays for a coach that has proven track record for getting the best out of his quarterbacks.

Out-of-Conference Games to Watch

LSU at Texas (September 7)

This monster matchup between two preseason Top 10 teams will be the highlight of Week 2’s slate of games. Expectations are always high in Austin, but with Sam Ehlinger emerging as the most stable quarterback that Texas has had since Colt McCoy, Longhorns fans are really believing this could be their year to return to the top echelon of college football.

LSU also has a stable quarterback situation with Joe Burrow and a new approach offensively that will utilize the RPO, which suits the senior’s skillset. Don’t expect either team to pull away in this one – these heavy hitters will go back and forth trading punches for four quarters.

Notre Dame at Georgia (September 21)

The Fighting Irish will be looking to prove that they continue to belong in the Playoff conversation, but it won’t be easy with such a difficult schedule in 2019. Of the many games that Notre Dame may struggle to find its footing in is this game against Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs.

The battle between Ian Book and Jake Fromm is a tantalizing one. Both teams will want to establish the running game early, though, and the team that is able to do that more successfully will have a slight edge.

In-Conference Games to Watch

Florida at LSU (October 12)

It’s good for college football that this rivalry is once again one of the top games to look forward to during the regular season. Florida’s resurgence under Dan Mullen was expected, but not this quickly. Mullen will lead what should be a dangerous offense into Death Valley to try to crack the code of LSU’s strong defense.

It’s quite possible that both teams are undefeated heading into this game, which will almost surely make it the marquee matchup of the week. There is little doubt that the Playoff picture will be affected significantly by the outcome of this one.

LSU at Alabama (November 9)

No surprise here – the road to the SEC title game runs through this rivalry more often than not, and 2019 is poised to be another year where it factors heavily into which team will represent the West Division in Atlanta. Hopefully, the result is one which is less lopsided than the 2018 edition, which was initially billed as the biggest game of this season at that point in time.

If history is any indication, this game will be marked by physicality, with the team that is better able to establish its running game the one that will ultimately come out on top. LSU’s previously highly touted defense was torched by Alabama last season, so with Tua Tagovailoa behind center for Alabama that is a possibility once again, physicality aside.

Conference Predictions

East Division

1. Georgia (12-0, [8-0])

2. Florida (10-2, [6-2])

3. Missouri (8-4, [4-4])

4. Tennessee (8-4, [4-4])

5. South Carolina (5-7, [2-6])

6. Vanderbilt (5-7, [2-6])

7. Kentucky (6-6, [2-6])

West Division

1. Alabama (12-0, [8-0])

2. LSU (10-2, [6-2])

3. Texas A&M (8-4, [5-3])

4. Mississippi State (8-4, [4-4])

5. Auburn (6-6, [3-5])

6. Mississippi (4-8, [1-7])

7. Arkansas (4-8, [0-8])

Championship Game: Georgia vs. Alabama

Winner: Georgia

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