Defending national champion Georgia and College Football Playoff title game opponent Alabama enter the 2022 season as the consensus top teams in the SEC. No surprise there. The Bulldogs and Crimson Tide are powerhouses both on and off the field, but that’s where the similarities stop with another college football campaign approaching.
Whereas Georgia lost numerous championship-winning starters to the NFL in the offseason, Alabama saw 2021 as a rebuild. The Tide bring back not only Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Bryce Young but star edge Will Anderson Jr., CBS Sports’ Preseason Player of the Year, as a formidable 1-2 punch on offense and defense that has Bama once again favored to win arguably the toughest conference in the sport.
Beyond those behemoths, though, there’s plenty of disagreement regarding how the SEC will shake out in 2022.
Texas A&M is riding high off a record-setting recruiting class, though it may need those players to mature before it is ready to vault into contention for the league crown. Florida and LSU are both in rebuilding mode after jettisoning coaches with national championship-winning experience (Dan Mullen as a coordinator under Urban Meyer, Ed Orgeron as the lead man), but the Gators and Tigers hope to prove doubters wrong with immediate bounce-back campaigns.
Meanwhile, Kentucky and Tennessee have more hype in the SEC East than in recent memory, while Arkansas hopes to continue its surprising ascension from a year ago. Meanwhile, Lane Kiffin aims to prove his offense will work at Ole Miss despite his star quarterback’s departure to the NFL.
Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the SEC ahead of the 2022 season.
Most overrated team
Texas A&M: The Aggies begin the year as No. 6 in the Preseason AP Top 25 and the consensus favorite to be Alabama’s top contender in the SEC West after reeling in the top recruiting class of all-time. That said, an 8-4 record and fifth-place finish in the SEC West last season doesn’t exactly scream playoff contender. Granted, they lost opening-day starter Haynes King to a season-ending injury early in 2021, but Texas A&M is the only team to finish with fewer than 10 wins in the preseason top 12. The Aggies should be in prove-it mode, especially after losing their four All-SEC players to the NFL. — Shehan Jeyarajah (also Dennis Dodd, Barrett Sallee)
Tennessee: The AP voters have the Volunteers as the No. 26 team in the country, and the coaches aren’t that far behind. That’s aggressive for a team that still has a long way to go defensively, and even the 8.5 win total seems optimistic for a schedule that includes Alabama, Georgia and a game against LSU in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Is Tennessee in a place where it can be trusted to run the table otherwise, winning against the likes of Kentucky, Florida and Pitt while avoiding slip-ups in every position where the Vols are a sizable favorite? This team just went 7-6 a year ago, so while I definitely acknowledge Tennessee is a dangerous team, it’s got another step in development before flirting with double-digit wins. — Chip Patterson (also Tom Fornelli)
Ole Miss: Lane Kiffin’s “portal king” nickname is accurate, but not even the nation’s No. 2 transfer class can replace what the Rebels lost with quarterback Matt Corral, offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby and defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin. Corral was the soul of last season’s 10-3 team, and the staff turnover will cap what this team can accomplish in the sport’s deepest division. An easy nonconference slate, plus the annual game with Vanderbilt, make it relatively simple to project bowl eligibility for Ole Miss, but this team will take a step back. — David Cobb
LSU: Things have gone south quickly for LSU since the Tigers won the national championship in 2019. The Ed Orgeron era ended with back-to-back seasons of .500 or worse records. That’s the first time that’s happened at LSU since coach Gerry DiNardo’s last two seasons in 1998-99. Brian Kelly was lured away from Notre Dame to get things back on track, and while there is excitement around the program, it will probably require some patience before we see LSU competing for division titles again. — Jerry Palm
Most underrated team
Florida: Expectations for the Gators seem rooted in last season’s 6-7 record, but that performance was hardly indicative of the possibilities given the team’s roster. Relative to everyone else in the SEC East except Georgia, Florida still has the most complete team. Motivation seemed lacking in 2021 as Dan Mullen’s tenure limped to completion, and the team completely imploded down the stretch. That should not be an issue this season with a new coach in Billy Napier and defensive coordinator in Patrick Toney, both of whom have proven track records of success. — Cobb (also Jeyarajah)
Tennessee: Josh Heupel has a quarterback (Hendon Hooker). If you have that in the SEC, you have a chance. Squint and you can see the Volunteers winning nine games, but they could just as easily go in the opposite direction. Still, Tennessee is clearly on the rise. — Dodd
Ole Miss: Too much has been made of the absence of Corral and not enough has been made of the upgraded running back corps, versatile receivers/tight ends and a quarterback situation that — at the very least — is stable. With Kiffin at the helm, that stability transforming into excellence is more likely than not. I don’t care what the defense looks like on a consistent basis because Ole Miss is going to click in a big way against pretty much every team it faces. — Sallee
LSU: It’s nearly impossible to rate this LSU team entering the season. What I can tell you is what the Tigers are not, and that’s the fifth-best team in the SEC West. That’s where they landed in the preseason media poll. Both the high-end level of talent and depth of options at receiver make almost any other team in the league envious of what Kelly is inheriting, and if the defensive line can stay healthy, that group could be really nasty at line of scrimmage. With multiple future pros at wide receiver and a potentially dominant defensive front, LSU has two of the three or four most important building blocks for success in the modern college game. If Kelly can get quarterback figured out, the ceiling for this team is much higher than many expect. — Patterson
Mississippi State: Has any SEC program flown further under the radar this offseason than Mike Leach’s Mississippi State? We’re talking about a Bulldogs team that returns a veteran quarterback familiar with all the ins and outs of Leach’s playbook and nearly all of the production from a defense that was better than most realized last season. The Bulldogs are going to pull off at least one major upset and finish higher in the SEC West than most expect. — Fornelli
Kentucky: At the risk of offending coach Mark Stoops, Kentucky is definitely a basketball school. That is the primary reason why his program flies under the radar. However, Stoops has taken Kentucky to six consecutive bowl games, including two Citrus Bowls, and it has four straight bowl wins. The Wildcats may not be ready to compete with Georgia in the SEC East, but they match up well with everyone else. Not bad for a “basketball school.” — Palm
- Dennis Dodd: Mark Stoops will win 10 at Kentucky, figure out he’s hit his ceiling in Lexington and will take the not-so-suddenly open position at Auburn.
- Tom Fornelli: Every team in the SEC West will go bowling, but only Alabama and Texas A&M will win more than eight games during the regular season.
- Chip Patterson: Vanderbilt will hit its over-under win total by the end of September.
- Barrett Sallee: Ole Miss will run the table during the first two months of the season. The Rebels will hit the bye week on Nov. 5 with a battle against undefeated Alabama looming on Nov. 12. If they can spring the upset, coach Lane Kiffin’s squad could make a legit push for the College Football Playoff.
- Shehan Jeyarajah: After overwhelming divisional favorites Alabama and Georgia, no other SEC squad finds their way into the postseason top 10.
- David Cobb: Year 1 of the Brian Kelly experiment will go poorly as the ex-Notre Dame coach experiences the nation’s toughest division for the first time. The Tigers will miss a bowl game but finish with a top-10 signing class anyway.
- Jerry Palm: The SEC will put two teams in the College Football Playoff again this season and have a third team in the top six.
SEC predicted order of finish
Alabama: There’s no reason to try and out-think the room here. The Crimson Tide have the reigning Heisman Trophy winner in quarterback Bryce Young, the best player in college football in EDGE Will Anderson Jr. and the sour taste of last season’s national title game loss in their mouths. Young will have an even better season behind a significantly-improved offensive line, the secondary will emerge as the nation’s best, and the schedule sets up well for coach Nick Saban win win his second straight conference title. — Sallee (unanimous)