After a thrilling, All-SEC national championship game in Atlanta, the Jan. 8 meeting could be the start of a run of Georgia-Alabama matchups in meaningful spots in a college football season. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide begin 2018 at the top of their respective divisions in the SEC and another meeting next December in the CFB Playoff wouldn’t be a surprise. While Alabama and Georgia are the standard for the rest of the conference, the next group of teams features two programs with new coaches – Florida and Mississippi State – while Auburn hopes to knock off Alabama once again and claim the West Division title. LSU, Texas A&M, South Carolina and Missouri seem like locks for a bowl game in 2018, with Vanderbilt, Tennessee, Kentucky and Arkansas expected to be in the mix for six (or more) wins next fall.
It’s never too early to think about predictions or rankings for the 2018 college football season. With that in mind, Athlon provides its early power rankings for the SEC for 2018:
Early SEC Football Predictions for 2018
Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs are a clear favorite at the top of the East Division next fall. And after reaching the national championship, it’s probably safe to assume Georgia will be motivated to win it all in 2018. Jake Fromm returns under center after a standout freshman season, and the quarterback room will get more crowded with the arrival of five-star recruit Justin Fields this offseason. Fromm’s supporting cast will have some new faces. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, along with receiver Javon Wims are set to depart. But the cupboard isn’t bare on offense for coordinator Jim Chaney. Sophomore D’Andre Swift is a rising star at running back, and he’s joined by incoming freshmen Zamir White and James Cook. Expect the line to be a strength with four starters back in the trenches. Smart’s defense was one of the best in college football in 2017 and loses key cogs at every level. A major drop off in production isn’t expected. However, Smart and coordinator Mel Tucker will have a busy spring as they look to reload this defense. The linebacker unit is set to lose Davin Bellamy and Reggie Carter, and standout Roquan Smith could decide to enter the NFL Draft.
New coach Dan Mullen inherits a Florida team that slumped to 4-7 in 2017 but still has a core of young talent to build around. However, picking the Gators at No. 2 in the very early SEC predictions is a bit of a gamble until Mullen is able to find an answer at quarterback. Could true freshman Emory Jones start from the first snap of 2018? Regardless of which signal-caller gets the nod, the offense can lean on the one-two punch of running backs Lamical Perine and Malik Davis and a line that’s slated to return intact after Martez Ivey announced his intention to play his senior year in Gainesville. The outlook is a little better on defense for Mullen’s team. The Gators ranked seventh in the SEC by allowing 27.3 points a game in 2017. This unit loses lineman Taven Bryan early to the NFL, and cornerback Duke Dawson has finished his eligibility. However, the rest of the defense returns largely intact and regains the services of safety Marcell Harris after missing all of 2017 due to injury.
3. South Carolina
After a 9-4 record in 2017, South Carolina has the makings of a potential top-25 team for 2018. New play-caller Bryan McClendon is tasked with elevating the Gamecocks’ offense after this unit averaged 24.2 points a game last fall. There’s plenty of potential for this group with the return of quarterback Jake Bentley, receivers Deebo Samuel and Bryan Edwards, and running backs Rico Dowdle, A.J. Turner and Ty’Son Williams. The offensive line is set to lose two starters from a group that gave up 29 sacks in 2017. The defense gave up 26.5 points a game in coach Will Muschamp’s debut in 2016 but cut that total to 20.7 last year. But the Gamecocks will be busy patching a few holes in this group in spring ball, as linebacker Skai Moore, linemen Dante Sawyer, Taylor Stallworth and Ulric Jones and defensive backs Chris Lammons, D.J. Smith and JaMarcus King have finished their eligibility. The cupboard isn’t bare on defense, but this group will be tested right away with Georgia in Week 2.
Quarterback Drew Lock considered an early departure to the NFL, but the junior is headed back to Columbia for his senior year. That’s good news for a Missouri team that won six out of its last seven games. Top receiver J’Mon Moore has finished his eligibility, but the offense still has a solid core of talent at the skill positions, including running back Damarea Crockett, receiver Emanuel Hall and tight end Albert Okwuegbunam. Also, the offensive line will be among the best in the SEC. The only question surrounding the offense is the new play-caller. After Josh Heupel left to take over at UCF, Barry Odom decided to hire former Tennessee coach Derek Dooley as the new offensive coordinator. For the second year in a row, Missouri’s defense finished 12th in the SEC in points allowed. Ends Marcell Frazier and Jordan Harold, tackle A.J. Logan and safety Anthony Sherrils are the key departing seniors on defense. Tackle Terry Beckner, linebacker Terez Hall and Texas transfer Jordan Elliott (DT) are just a few of the players to watch next fall on defense for Odom. The schedule features road trips for swing games against Tennessee, Florida, South Carolina and Purdue.
Tennessee averaged a 13.2 finish in recruiting rankings from 2013-17. New coach Jeremy Pruitt isn’t inheriting a cupboard that’s completely empty, but the former Alabama defensive coordinator is going to have a busy offseason. The Volunteers are looking for answers for an offense that averaged only 19.8 points a game in 2017 and lost standout running back John Kelly to the NFL. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano should benefit from a full offseason to work as the No. 1 option, with running back Ty Chandler poised to have a breakout year as the starter. Guard Trey Smith is already one of the SEC’s top linemen after starting all 12 games as a true freshman in 2017. Pruitt’s impact will be noticed right away on defense. This unit has finished ninth in the SEC in scoring defense in three out of the last four years, and top defensive back Rashaan Gaulden is leaving Knoxville early to go to the NFL. Darrin Kirkland’s return from injury should bolster the linebacker unit.
The Wildcats have reached back-to-back bowl games under coach Mark Stoops. The next step? Earn the program’s first winning mark in SEC play since 1977. That could be a tough assignment in 2018. The quarterback position will be up for grabs after Stephen Johnson finished his eligibility, and Drew Barker decided to leave as a graduate transfer. Incoming junior college recruit Terry Wilson and sophomore Gunnar Hoak will compete for the job in offseason workouts. Regardless of which quarterback starts, expect to see the offense revolve primarily around running back Benny Snell (1,333 yards in 2017). Coordinator Eddie Gran’s group got a boost when tight end C.J. Conrad announced his intentions to return to Lexington in 2018. In addition to finding playmakers to fill around Conrad, Gran needs more from an offensive line that had an uneven 2017 season. Stoops’ defense won’t lose much in the way of key players, and linebacker Josh Allen and safety Mike Edwards decided to return to Lexington for their final year.
With a 5-7 record in 2017, Derek Mason’s program just missed on a second consecutive trip to a postseason game. The path to a bowl starts with the right arm of quarterback Kyle Shurmur, who quietly threw for 26 touchdowns to just 10 interceptions in 2017. The Commodores will have a new feature back after Ralph Webb closed out his four-year run in the backfield with 831 yards and 10 rushing scores. Shurmur is losing his favorite target too, as Trent Sherfield also expired his eligibility. Vanderbilt’s defense slipped from fifth in 2016 to 11th in the SEC in points allowed by giving up 31.3 per game in 2017. Mason has some work to do on this side of the ball too, as linebacker Oren Burks, safety Ryan White, cornerback Tre Herndon and linemen Jonathan Wynn and Nifae Lealao have finished their eligibility.
Alabama will be an overwhelming favorite to win the West Division and reclaim the SEC title in 2018. After rallying in the second half of the national title game to beat Georgia, coach Nick Saban’s team is loaded for another run at the national championship. After getting the call to replace Jalen Hurts after halftime, Tua Tagovailoa is likely to open 2018 as the starter. Tagovailoa is a better passer than Hurts, and the Hawaii native’s ability to stretch the field will take advantage of promising receivers DeVonta Smith, Henry Ruggs and Jerry Jeudy. Junior Calvin Ridley is considering an early jump to the NFL after catching 63 passes for 967 yards and five touchdowns in 2017. Running backs Damien Harris and Bo Scarbrough could declare for the next level, but this unit isn’t hurting for talent. If Harris and Scarbrough go to the NFL, Saban will simply turn to Najee Harris and Josh Jacobs to handle the workload at running back. Center Bradley Bozeman is the only loss on a line that was among the nation’s best in 2017. Even though nose guard Da’Ron Payne and safety Minkah Fitzpatrick are expected to declare for the NFL Draft, don’t expect the defense to take a step back. Mack Wilson, Anfernee Jennings and Dylan Moses are back to anchor the linebacking corps, and Raekwon Davis is poised to push for All-America honors at end. The biggest concern for Saban is in the secondary. Cornerbacks Anthony Averett, Tony Brown and Levi Wallace have expired their eligibility, with junior college recruit Saivion Smith expected to push for a starting job this offseason.
The Tigers appear to be the biggest threat to Alabama once again in the SEC West. With running back Kerryon Johnson off to the NFL, coach Gus Malzahn will put even more of the offensive workload on quarterback Jarrett Stidham. In his first year after transferring in from a junior college, Stidham threw for 3,158 yards and 18 touchdowns. The junior returns his top five statistical wide receivers from 2017, including Ryan Davis (84 catches) and Darius Slayton (22.2 ypc). The biggest concerns for Malzhan on offense are a line that loses four senior starters and a ground game that struggled to produce when Johnson was sidelined in 2017. The defense was among the SEC’s best last year and should be near the top once again. Coordinator Kevin Steele must replace edge rusher Jeff Holland, cornerback Carlton Davis and safeties Stephen Roberts and Tray Matthews. However, tackle Derrick Brown and end Marlon Davidson will be among the best in the SEC in the trenches for 2018.
3. Mississippi State
New coach Joe Moorhead is stepping into a favorable situation for his first year on the job in Starkville. Quarterback Nick Fitzgerald suffered a season-ending leg injury against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl but is slated to return in time for the 2018 opener. Fitzgerald should thrive in Moorhead’s offense, and he’s joined in the backfield by talented running backs in Aeris Williams and Kylin Hill. Left tackle Martinas Rankin has finished his eligibility, but four starters are set to return in the trenches next fall. The receiving corps should get a boost with the return of Malik Dear from injury and the addition of junior college recruit Stephen Guidry. Former Vanderbilt and Tennessee play-caller Bob Shoop was a good addition as the program’s defensive coordinator. He inherits a defense that gave up 20.9 points a game last fall. This unit is anchored by a strong front seven, which includes All-SEC candidates in Jeffery Simmons and Montez Sweat.
The Tigers went 9-4 in coach Ed Orgeron’s first full season at the helm but could have trouble reaching that level in 2018. The biggest question surrounding LSU once again is its offense. Will new coordinator Steve Ensminger elevate the offense after the program parted ways with former play-caller Matt Canada after just one year in Baton Rouge. Ensminger is tasked with developing new quarterback Myles Brennan, as well as finding new weapons at receiver after DJ Chark expired his eligibility. Running back Derrius Guice is expected to follow tackle Toby Weathersby and enter the 2018 NFL Draft. Keeping defensive coordinator Dave Aranda in Baton Rouge was a huge offseason win for Orgeron. Aranda is one of the best in college football and should keep this defense near the top of the SEC despite a few personnel voids to fill. Linebacker Devin White was an Athlon Sports All-American in 2017, and cornerback Greedy Williams is only going to get better as a sophomore. This unit will also benefit from Texas Tech transfer Breiden Fehoko joining the linemen in the trenches.
5. Texas A&M
Texas A&M hit a home run with its hire of Jimbo Fisher. With a promising core of young talent in place, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Aggies sneak into contention for a spot in the top 25 in 2018. Fisher’s background on offense should help mold quarterback Nick Starkel after a promising redshirt freshman campaign. The ground game is in good shape with the return of running back Trayveon Williams, and the offensive line returns nearly intact. Christian Kirk will be missed at receiver, but four out of the top six statistical wide receivers were freshmen in 2017. Continuing the theme with youth playing key roles in College Station, new coordinator Mike Elko inherits a defense with just two seniors among its top 20 tacklers from last season. Safety Armani Watts is the unit’s biggest loss, but end Landis Durham (10.5 sacks) and linebackers Otaro Alaka and Tyrel Dodson form a promising core for Elko to build around in the front seven. A road trip to Alabama and a home game against Clemson will give Fisher a good idea where his team stacks up in the SEC West in September.
A new era of Arkansas football is set to begin in 2018, as Chad Morris takes over after a successful three-year run at SMU. Morris is a good hire for this program, but it will take the former Texas high school coach a couple of years to recruit and adapt the players to his system. Morris is known for his high-powered offenses, and the new staff inherits promising playmakers in the form of running backs Devwah Whaley, Chase Hayden and all-purpose threat T.J. Hammonds. Additionally, receiver Jared Cornelius is expected to return after missing nearly all of 2017 due to injury. Sophomore Cole Kelley is the frontrunner to start under center after earning four starts in place of an injured Austin Allen in 2017. The biggest concern for Morris is the offensive line, which loses standout center Frank Ragnow and was inconsistent throughout last season. New defensive coordinator John Chavis has a wealth of knowledge from stops at LSU, Tennessee and Texas A&M as the play-caller. He inherits a defense that gave up 36.2 points a game in 2017 but returns promising linebackers De’Jon Harris and Dre Greenlaw, along with lineman McTelvin Agim. In the secondary, cornerback Ryan Pulley is back after missing nearly all of 2017 due to an injury.
7. Ole Miss
Matt Luke guided the Rebels to a 6-6 record in his debut as the program’s interim coach in 2017, and the former linemen in Oxford was able to parlay that into the full-time gig. Can Luke build off that and get this program to a winning record in 2018? It’s certainly within reach, but Ole Miss is once again banned from the postseason. Jordan Ta’amu stepped up at quarterback once Shea Patterson was lost for the year due to injury and guided the offense to at least 31 points in four out of the last five games. He will be throwing to one of the SEC’s top receivers in A.J. Brown (75 catches), with DaMarkus Lodge and D.K. Metcalf providing support as secondary targets. Luke has to find a new go-to back to replace Jordan Wilkins (1,011 yards in 2017), but the offensive line returns left tackle Greg Little, center Sean Rawlings and guard Javon Patterson. Considering the defense allowed 34.6 points a game last season and is set to lose some key pieces, Ole Miss will have to win with its offense in high-scoring affairs. End Marquis Haynes, lineman Breeland Speaks and linebacker DeMarquis Gates are the top losses on this side of the ball for Luke.