What Athlon got right – and wrong – in SEC football preseason predictions | Toppmeyer

Blake Toppmeyer

Alabama, Ohio State, Georgia and Clemson walk into a College Football Playoff …

Sounds like the start of a stale joke. And here’s the punchline: The Pac-12 was among the conferences that rejected playoff expansion this offseason, effectively barring itself for years to come.

Athlon Sports projected those four teams as its playoff quartet in its preseason prognostications, and smart logic says at least three of those four will claim playoff bids.

I agree with Athlon that Alabama and Georgia will account for half of the CFP bids for what would be the third time in a six-year span.

As SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey said this spring: The four-team playoff works fine for his conference, even if it hampers the sport.

Athlon positioned six SEC teams in its top 25 rankings, which are forward-thinking and serve as end-of-year projections.

Here’s what I think Athlon got right and wrong about the SEC.


Kentucky (Athlon ranking: No. 21) – No wonder Kentucky prefers the SEC stick to an eight-game conference schedule after Oklahoma and Texas join. The Wildcats consistently enjoy one of the easiest schedules among SEC teams. This year is no exception. Nonetheless, you can’t ignore that Kentucky lost three starters off an offensive line that's usually among its cornerstones. Attrition on the defensive line and in the secondary could prove problematic, too.

Tennessee (No. 18) – This is a smidge lofty for the Vols, who should remain an offensive juggernaut but must replace their best three players off an already suspect defense. Tennessee’s offense is good enough to outscore poor to mediocre competition, but the Vols’ defense hasn’t proven up to positioning UT for success against good teams.

[ OPINION:Why these six SEC football teams would be big winners in a 1-7 schedule model | Toppmeyer ]

Texas A&M (Athlon ranking: No. 5) – Preseason flattery for the Aggies is customary, and more often than not, Texas A&M’s performance doesn’t live up to the hype. The Aggies suffered some notable attrition off last year’s eight-win team, and some of the bullishness surrounding A&M is linked to its No. 1-ranked recruiting class. OK, so let’s revisit this in 2023, when those ballyhooed recruits are drier behind the ears. Plus, are we sure the Aggies are sound at quarterback? They have a three-deep battle, but I’m unconvinced that will produce a star.


LSU (Athlon ranking: Unranked) – Brian Kelly has not proven he can win the big game. But win a lot of games? Kelly does that regularly. His presence will be felt in Year 1. So will an important haul of transfers that should boost the offensive line and secondary, in particular. The return of running back John Emery (from academic ineligibility) and wide receiver Kayshon Boutte (from injury) will accelerate the offense.

[ TOPPMEYER:To understand LSU football hiring Brian Kelly, start with Scott Woodward's dad ]

Just right

Alabama (Athlon ranking: No. 1) – Offseason narratives about Nick Saban’s dynasty being vulnerable amid an era of name, image and likeness deals will look foolish after Alabama goes undefeated. This is one of Saban’s most-loaded teams. Reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young is joined by linebacker Will Anderson, whom I rate as college football’s best player. Oh, and the Tide added five high-impact transfers.

Georgia (No. 3) – Georgia is one of the few programs that could lose 15 players to the NFL Draft and make the playoff the following season. Credit Kirby Smart’s steadfast recruiting success for that. Still, Georgia will endure a noticeable step back, particularly on defense, after such sweeping exits. Outside of Alabama in the SEC Championship, though, I don’t see any regular-season stumbling blocks.

[ WANT MORE OPINIONS FROM BLAKE TOPPMEYER?: Subscribe to the SEC Unfiltered newsletter for multiple exclusive columns each week ]

Arkansas (No. 22) – I’m as optimistic as anyone about Arkansas’ sleeper-team prospects. Quarterback KJ Jefferson is a stud, and transfer wide receiver Jadon Haselwood and linebacker Drew Sanders should be particularly impactful. However, a brutal schedule that includes nonconference tests against Cincinnati and BYU keeps me from stumping for a loftier projection.

Ole Miss (Unranked) – The Rebels may be the SEC’s most boom-or-bust team, due to a transfer-laden lineup. Count coach Lane Kiffin among those who wonder how the volume of transfers will affect team chemistry. Count me among those who think Kiffin’s "Portal King" strategy will prove effective. My skepticism of Ole Miss is tied to it being unproven at quarterback and linebacker.

South Carolina (Athlon ranking: Unranked) – Quarterback Spencer Rattler is the single most impressive transfer addition in the SEC, and he addresses a massive need. He should help the Gamecocks inch forward in Shane Beamer’s second season, but not quite into the top 25.

Blake Toppmeyer is an SEC Columnist for the USA TODAY Network. Email him at and follow him on Twitter @btoppmeyer. If you enjoy Blake’s coverage, consider a digital subscription that will allow you access to all of it.