It doesn't take a genius to pick Alabama and Georgia to meet in the SEC Championship. They've been there for two straight seasons, and 2019 should be no exception. Both programs are near the top in the nation each and every season, and, while Alabama fans are looking for revenge for that humiliating 44-16 loss to Clemson, Georgia fans are looking to break through and win the Bulldogs' first national title since 1980.
The Razorbacks were the only team in the SEC to go 0-8 last year in league play. The Hogs were 2-10 in Coach Chad Morris' first season in Fayetteville and while Morris has promised fans that he and his staff will eventually get it right, it's going to take some time.
The Hogs have a good quarterback coming in Ben Hicks, who transferred from SMU, but most of the other talent is very young. Arkansas did have a top 25 recruiting class, but youngsters have a difficult time making an impact in the SEC. One positive factor for Arkansas is the fact that Tennessee legend John Chavis is the defensive coordinator, but last year his squad finished in the bottom four of every key statistical category in the SEC. It could be another long season for Arkansas.
6. Ole Miss
The Johnny Rebs are now bowl eligible after Coach Matt Luke's first two seasons on probation; brought on by the antics of former Coach Hugh Freeze. Luke has done an admirable job in Oxford putting together a record of 11-13 in two years. Last year's offense was one of the best in the SEC, but with a new quarterback in Matt Corral and three NFL receivers no longer on campus, there will be some definite growing pains. The good news is, the Rebels have a new offensive coordinator. Rich Rodriguez, formerly the head coach at West Virginia, Michigan and Arizona takes over with a sterling reputation as an offensive guru. The offense may struggle early on, but eventually will get much better. Coach Matt Luke is still trying to prove he is the right guy for the job, but his team is still a couple of years away.
5. Mississippi State
Coach Joe Moorhead replaced Dan Mullen in Starkville and took his team to an 8-5 season. Not bad really, but under Mullen the Bulldogs had a great deal of success, especially when you consider that MSU never won an SEC West title. The biggest problem I see for the Bulldogs is their passing attack. Keytaon Thompson is the heir apparent to Nick Fitzgerald at quarterback and he should key a tremendous ground attack but if the team can't pass the ball effectively they will struggle to match last year's eight win total. Mississippi State suffered heavy losses on defense which is another reason eight wins may be hard to come by in 2019. There is some good news ahead for Coach Moorhead. The schedule is more than manageable with only four road games.
If the Tigers do finish fourth in the SEC West, it could be the end of Gus Malzahn's tenure on the plains. Auburn fans have been extremely critical of Malzahn, but he continues to win just enough to keep his job. The Tigers will need to find a new quarterback as two year starter Jarrett Stidham chose to leave early for the NFL. The most talented replacement for Stidham is true freshman Bo Nix, a five-star signee. Starting a true freshman in the SEC at quarterback will more times than not lead to a disaster. The defense should once again be very solid and may have to carry the team while a starter at quarterback is developed. Auburn has a tough schedule ahead as the Tigers have to play both Georgia and Florida from the SEC East. If Auburn can manage to make it to the final four games of the season, they're all at Jordan-Hare Stadium.
3. Texas A&M
There is a lot of optimism in College Station, Texas in 2019. The Aggies went 9-4 last year and that nine win total is more than former Coach Kevin Sumlin won in his final four years at the school. The biggest positive in 2019 is at quarterback. Kellen Mond emerged as one of the top quarterbacks in the SEC in his sophomore season. Mond passed for 3107 yards and rushed for 474 more yards. Going into his junior season, he is very likely the best quarterback in the league, not named Tua or Jake Fromm. The Aggies have a manageable non-conference slate, with the exception of their second game of the season at defending national champ Clemson. Texas A&M battled the Tigers to the bitter end last year in College Station before falling 28-26. Texas A&M will be good enough to challenge for the West title but it will take more than just a few lucky breaks to unseat Alabama.
There are still folks in Baton Rouge who are still scratching their heads trying to figure out why they hired Ed Orgeron as the Bengal Tigers head coach. The fans love the gruff , tough Orgeron and he really loves his Tigers. He has put together a record of 25-9 in two plus years and after struggling on offense, he says he really likes his team's chances with senior Joe Burrows calling the signals. As far as the ground game goes, the Tigers must replace standout running back Nick Brossette, who rushed for 1,039 yards. Never fear....John Emery Jr., the nation's number two ranked running back will head up a very talented backfield. On defense, the Tigers should once again be very good and dominating up front. For LSU, the biggest game on the schedule is November 9th, when they play at Alabama. They have a marquee match up in game two this season when they play at Texas. If things fall into place, LSU could be a win over 'Bama away from making the college football playoffs.
Just when Alabama was being heralded by some as the best college football team of all time, the Crimson Tide was totally destroyed by powerful Clemson, 44-16 in the National Championship Game. It wasn't even close. The Tigers dominated the game in every aspect. That loss has bugged Coach Nick Saban during the entire off season and that likely means trouble for all twelve opponents in 2019. The toughest game on Alabama's schedule this season could be the October 12th date at Texas A&M and other than the annual grudge match with LSU in November, the schedule looks like a real cupcake. It's not hard to see that 'Bama could be 13-0 once again when they enter the SEC Championship Game. The toughest non-conference game on the Tide's schedule this season is the opener in Atlanta with Duke. Alabama has a potentially potent offense led by junior quarterback Tua Tagovailoa and a stand out group of wide receivers. A lack of depth on defense and several newcomers on the offensive line could be the only things that would give Coach Saban sleepless nights. If things fall into place and if Alabama can avoid facing Clemson until the National Championship Game, Saban will get his sixth national title at Alabama and his seventh overall.
On Friday, we'll preview the SEC East.
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Randy Smith can be reached at email@example.com