SEC football preview: A guide to the 2023 season

It just means more in the SEC — more wins, more NFL draft picks, and, this season especially, more storylines from top to bottom than at any point in recent memory.

Naturally, all eyes are on reigning champ Georgia, where the Bulldogs will be looking to put a turbulent offseason behind them to focus on a historic pursuit of a three-peat for the first time in the modern era. 

Chasing them all the way to Atlanta (and possibly beyond) are a host of others, including an improved LSU squad in Year 2 under Brian Kelly, and an Alabama program in transition as Nick Saban tries to reboot the Tide on both sides of the ball to get back into the College Football Playoff.

There are familiar names in new places, too, including former Ole Miss head coach Hugh Freeze taking over on the Plains at Auburn and, just as notable, Bobby Petrino landing at Texas A&M to jumpstart the worst Aggies offense in four decades. 

There’s no shortage of intriguing quarterbacks or skill position players either, including the best tight end in the country and a handful of the top running backs coming off 1,000-yard campaigns. Defensively, take your pick of any of a dozen future first-rounders capable of taking over a game, too.

With all that in mind, here’s a look at every team in the SEC listed in a predicted order of finish:



Coach: Kirby Smart (8th season, 81-15 overall)

Last season: 15-0 overall, 8-0 SEC

Postseason: Beat TCU in national championship game

Players to Watch: QB Carson Beck — Heir to Stetson Bennett, was highly touted prep signal-caller who threw for four TDs last season. TE Brock Bowers — Mackey Award winner has had the most TDs of any tight end the past two years. S Malaki Starks — Freshman All-American in his first year as a starter, had two picks and seven PBUs.

What we’re excited to watch: Between Bowers and a handful of transfers, the passing game could be as dangerous as ever.

What success looks like: The Bulldogs have the weight of history trying to become the first to win three national titles in a row since 1936.

Achilles’ heel: New OC Mike Bobo takes over in Athens and is far more conservative than his predecessor. 

X-Factor: Beck has been praised internally quite a bit, but it’s another matter entirely of going out and executing to keep the team atop the polls. 

If Georgia three-peats will Kirby Smart surpass Nick Saban?

If Georgia three-peats will Kirby Smart surpass Nick Saban?


Coach: Josh Heupel (3rd season at Tennessee, sixth as a head coach. 46-16 overall)

Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 SEC

Postseason: Beat Clemson in Orange Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Joe Milton III — Has perhaps the biggest arm in college football and is 3-1 as a starter. WR Bru McCoy — Takes over for Jalin Hyatt as the No. 1 option on FBS’ top offense after recording 667 yards in 2022. LB Aaron Beasley — Led the team in tackles and TFL last year as the Vols improved by over 50 spots in scoring defense.

What we’re excited to watch: The most prolific offense in the country led one of the biggest turnarounds in 2022 and now gets Milton running the show after a great Orange Bowl outing.

What success looks like: A return to the New Year’s Six and making the game against Georgia interesting.

Achilles’ heel: Tennessee’s pass defense was 127th in FBS last season.

X-Factor: If Milton struggles at all behind center, five-star Nico Iamaleava could be an option off the bench.

South Carolina

Coach: Shane Beamer (3rd season, 15-11 overall)

Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 SEC

Postseason: Lost to Notre Dame in Gator Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Spencer Rattler — Talented signal-caller turned a corner late last season with several upset wins but still led the SEC in turnovers. WR Antwane Wells Jr. — First-team All-SEC after making the jump from the FCS ranks last year. DB Nick Emmanwori — Freshman All-American who is the leading returning tackler for the Gamecocks.

What we’re excited to watch: Rattler is a true showman who can win or lose South Carolina any game on the schedule. 

What success looks like: Matching 2022’s eight wins after replacing 15 starters would be a massive accomplishment. 

Achilles’ heel: The program has led the SEC in offensive turnovers the past two years.

X-Factor: New OC Dowell Loggains should have a much more coherent attack that meshes with the personnel on hand.


Coach: Mark Stoops (11th season, 66-59 overall)

Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 SEC

Postseason: Lost to Iowa in Music City Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Devin Leary — NC State transfer was one of the top signal-callers in the portal and went 14-4 as a starter the past two years. RB Ray Davis — One of four tailbacks to rush for over 1,000 yards last season while with Vandy. DT Deone Walker — Freshman All-American is a monster in the middle of the defense and gets upfield quickly.

What we’re excited to watch: Liam Coen is back as offensive coordinator after a oneyear stint in the same role for the LA Rams.

What success looks like: A bowl game and a win over Louisville is the standard Stoops has set, but flirting with the top 25 at times should be an expectation, too.

Achilles’ heel: The offensive line was one of the worst in the country and was last in the SEC in sacks allowed and average yards per rush.

X-Factor: The combination of Leary and Coen running the offense will decide how good or mediocre the Wildcats will be.


Coach: Billy Napier (2nd season at Florida, 6th as a head coach, 46-19 overall)

Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 SEC

Postseason: Lost to Oregon State in Las Vegas Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Graham Mertz — Transfer had 38 touchdowns in three seasons as a starter at Wisconsin. RB Trevor Etienne — Sophomore averaged more than six yards per carry and scored six times in rushing for 719 yards. DE Princely Umanmielen — Led the team in sacks with 4.5 and recorded 9.5 tackles for loss.

What we’re excited to watch: The Gators have a host of skill position players back, including their top tailback and receiver.

What success looks like: Beat who you’re supposed to — such as Kentucky and Vanderbilt — and make things interesting against those you’re not (like LSU and Georgia). 

Achilles’ heel: Allowed 175 yards per game rushing last season and 25-plus points per game for the third year running. 

X-Factor: Mertz had the most turnovers in the Big Ten while in Madison but the former blue chip recruit did enough to beat out Jack Miller III for the starting role during camp.  


Coach: Eli Drinkwitz (4th season at Mizzou, fifth as a head coach. 29-20 overall)

Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 SEC

Postseason: Lost to Wake Forest in Gasparilla Bowl

Players to Watch: WR Luther Burden III — Led all freshmen in the conference with eight touchdown grabs. RB Cody Schrader — Team leader in total yards who notched nine touchdowns and is a three-down threat. LB Ty’Ron Hopper — All-SEC selection who recorded 78 tackles, 14 for a loss, on the league’s third-best run defense.

What we’re excited to watch: New OC Kirby Moore will handle playcalling duties for an offense that returns eight starters. 

What success looks like: The Tigers haven’t had a winning season under Drinkwitz and haven’t finished above .500 in SEC play for eight years.

Achilles’ heel: The offensive line was one of the worst in the country last year (101 tackles for loss allowed). 

X-Factor: Mizzou has the second most returning starters in the conference.


Coach: Clark Lea (3rd season, 8-17 overall)

Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: QB AJ Swann — One of the top recruits for the Commodores, he posted 10 TDs and threw just two picks as a true freshman. WR Jayden McGowan — Explosive playmaker had 44 catches, 453 yards and 3 TDs in 2022 and doubles as a dangerous returner. S De’Rickey Wright — Roamed the backend and had 55 tackles and three interceptions a year ago.

What we’re excited to watch: Overlook the ‘Dores at your own peril because this is a fun, young group that was competitive in conference play.

What success looks like: Vandy hasn’t been to a bowl game since 2018 and hasn’t had a winning record in a decade. 

Achilles’ heel: The defense allowed nearly 300 yards per game (128th in FBS) last season.

X-Factor: By playing Hawaii in Week 0, the program gets two key bye weeks in late October and November to space out the heart of the SEC slate.



Coach: Brian Kelly (2nd season at LSU, 33rd as a head coach. 294-101-2 overall)

Last season: 10-4 overall, 6-2 SEC

Postseason: Beat Purdue in Citrus Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Jayden Daniels — Completed 69% of his passes, had 29 TDs and led the Tigers in rushing after arriving from Arizona State. WR Malik Nabers — Biletnikoff Award candidate after 1,017-yard campaign that included 163 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game. LB Harold Perkins — Freshman All-American and All-SEC pick led the team in sacks and forced fumbles.

What we’re excited to watch: The offense should take another step forward with eight starters back, including the bulk of the offensive line. 

What success looks like: LSU arrived in Atlanta perhaps a year early, but now aims for a return to get a victory.

Achilles’ heel: The defense hasn’t been a top-25 unit for nearly half a decade and returns only four starters from last year’s group.

X-Factor: Daniels had the most rushing yards and touchdowns of any SEC quarterback and picks up plenty of third downs even when the play breaks down.


Coach: Nick Saban (17th season at Alabama, 28th as a head coach, 280-69-1 overall)

Last season: 11-2 overall, 6-2 SEC

Postseason: Beat Kansas State in Sugar Bowl

Players to Watch: RB Jace McClellan — 10 touchdowns last season as Jahmyr Gibbs’ understudy and will be leaned on with a new quarterback sharing the backfield. LB Dallas Turner — Played opposite Will Anderson Jr. and is expected to be the next major pass rusher out of Tuscaloosa after showing flashes (12.5 sacks) the past two years. CB Kool-Aid McKinstry — One of the best names in college football is also the best corner in the sport and a future first-rounder. 

What we’re excited to watch: The Tide’s offense is a real mystery this season without any returning stars at QB, RB and WR. 

What success looks like: You either win the national title at Alabama or you don’t. 

Achilles’ heel: Surprisingly, Bama wasn’t in the top five in the conference in running the football.

X-Factor: New offensive coordinator Tommy Rees has a big task on hand in developing a new starter under center that will determine if the Crimson Tide can win the SEC and go to the CFP or spend another offseason in an existential crisis among the fan base.

Nick Saban on what it takes to coach and thoughts on recruiting

Nick Saban on what it takes to coach and thoughts on recruiting

Texas A&M

Coach: Jimbo Fisher (6th season with A&M, 14th as a head coach. 122-44 overall)

Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: WR Ainias Smith — Coming back from a season-ending leg injury but had 19 TDs the past three years. WR Moose Muhammad III — Averaged more than 16 yards per catch last year while hauling in four TDs. S Demani Richardson — Led the team with 74 tackles.

What we’re excited to watch: Bobby Petrino arrives to maybe, kinda, sorta run the offense.

What success looks like: This is a roster loaded with four- and five-stars that should be contending for the SEC West, but the Aggie faithful would be thrilled over eight or nine wins.

Achilles’ heel: Had the second-fewest sacks in the SEC and was 123rd in rush defense. 

X-Factor: Petrino is one of the best playcallers in the sport but it remains to be seen if everybody can be on the same page after last year’s debacle. 

Ole Miss

Coach: Lane Kiffin (4th season at Ole Miss, 13th as a head coach, 84-46 overall in college)

Last season: 8-5 overall, 4-4 SEC

Postseason: Lost to Texas Tech in Texas Bowl

Players to Watch: RB Quinshon Judkins — Led the SEC in rushing with 1,565 yards and 16 TDs as a true freshman last year. WR Zakhari Franklin — UTSA transfer has the most receiving touchdowns (34) in the country since 2020. LB Monty Montgomery — Had 70 tackles, six sacks and two interceptions while at Louisville in 2022.

What we’re excited to watch: Pete Golding arrives from Alabama to run a defense that gave up more than 35 points per game in the second half of last year.

What success looks like: Given that the schedule features five top-25 teams (three on the road), getting to a good bowl game and finishing the year strong after last year’s slide.

Achilles’ heel: The defense hasn’t even been average for nearly a decade. 

X-Factor: Jaxson Dart is the incumbent starter at QB but LSU transfer Walker Howard or OSU transfer Spencer Sanders are pushing hard for the job.


Coach: Sam Pittman (4th season at Arkansas, 6th as a head coach, 30-26-1 overall)

Last season: 7-6 overall, 3-5 SEC

Postseason: Beat Kansas in Liberty Bowl

Players to Watch: QB KJ Jefferson — Electric signal-caller has accounted for 60 touchdowns the past two seasons against only nine interceptions. RB Raheim Sanders — First-team All-SEC after leading the league in total yardage. CB Dwight McGlothern — Notched the second most interceptions in the league to go with 10 pass breakups.

What we’re excited to watch: Jefferson and Sanders form one of the best backfields in the country and are capable of carrying the Hogs on every series.

What success looks like: A brutal schedule means reaching a bowl game would be a solid enough campaign, but the Hogs are aiming higher than that.

Achilles’ heel: The defense was the worst in school history and lost some of their best players at all three levels.

X-Factor: There are two new playcallers for 2023, with former UCF DC Travis Williams taking over defensively and Dan Enos returning to the SEC as offensive coordinator. 


Coach: Hugh Freeze (1st season at Auburn, 13th as a head coach, 103-47 overall)

Last season: 5-7 overall, 2-6 SEC

Postseason: None

Players to Watch: QB Payton Thorne — Michigan State transfer is taking over after two solid seasons in East Lansing and will play in a far more quarterback-centric offense. RB Brian Battie — Tall task to replace Tank Bigsby but the USF transfer rushed for over 1,000 yards last year. CB DJ James — Oregon transfer earned All-SEC honors after 37 tackles last year plus a key pick-six in a win.

What we’re excited to watch: Freeze is back in the SEC, which is bound to produce more than a few surprising wins and plenty of unique reactions from opposing fans and coaches. 

What success looks like: For their head coach, beating Ole Miss might top the list. For the team, getting back to the postseason above .500 and beating a rival like Georgia or Alabama for the first time in three years would be a positive.

Achilles’ heel: The Tigers had the worst turnover differential in the league and Thorne threw 11 interceptions at MSU last year.

X-Factor: Freeze has brought plenty upon himself over the years, but he still knows how to win games and build an SEC program.

Mississippi State

Coach: Zach Arnett (1st season)

Last season: 9-4 overall, 4-4 SEC

Postseason: Beat Illinois in ReliaQuest Bowl

Players to Watch: QB Will Rogers — MSU’s all-time leading passer is back for a third season as a starter and is the SEC’s most prolific returning QB. RB Jo’quavious Marks — Despite the Bulldogs’ lack of rushing attempts, he’s a dangerous threat between the tackles and in space out of the backfield. LB Nathaniel Watson — Second in the SEC in tackles with 114 while contributing six sacks out of the middle of the defense.

What we’re excited to watch: New OC Kevin Barbay arrives from AppState to transition MSU away from the Air Raid to a much more run-centric offense.

What success looks like: A third-straight winning season for Arnett’s first full campaign in charge.

Achilles’ heel: The secondary will feature at least four new starters.

X-Factor: A roster that was mostly recruited to throw the ball around will need to develop a newfound toughness. 


East Division

  • Georgia
  • Tennessee
  • South Carolina
  • Kentucky
  • Florida
  • Missouri
  • Vanderbilt

West Division

  • LSU
  • Alabama
  • Texas A&M
  • Ole Miss
  • Arkansas
  • Auburn
  • Mississippi State

Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and among others. Follow him on Twitter at @BryanDFischer.


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