Alabama has reached the College Football Playoff in each of the four seasons since the format’s inception, and there’s a good chance it’ll make a fifth appearance this season. Despite setting an SEC record by having 12 players picked in this year’s NFL draft, four of which went in the first round, the Crimson Tide bring back a boatload of talent from the squad that went 13–1 and edged Georgia in the national championship game. They led most major media outlets’ post-spring top 25s, they probably will enter Week 1 atop the major polls and they should be in the mix for the No. 1 spot in the first ranking the playoff releases in late October. At SEC media days this week, they received 193 out of a possible 285 media votes to win the conference for the fifth time in eight years.
Alabama definitely looks like the SEC’s strongest candidate to reach the CFP, but at least one other team from the conference should be in contention heading into selection Sunday. With media days in the rearview and the new season just over a month away, we’re ranking the conference’s five teams with the next-best chances to make the playoff.
The Bulldogs’ trip to the national title game was not an anomaly. Entering the third season of his tenure in Athens, head coach Kirby Smart has the recruiting prowess and sideline acumen to compete at the top of the SEC annually. That includes 2018, despite the departures of six NFL draft picks, among them Butkus Award–winning linebacker Roquan Smith and the running back tandem of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb. The Bulldogs’ running game should hold up well even without Chubb and Michel. Sophomore D’Andre Swift heads up a deep group of backs that also includes incoming five-star prospect Zamir White and incoming four-star prospect James Cook, the younger brother of former Florida State star Dalvin Cook.
Terry Godwin, who passed on the draft for a senior season, will team with juniors Mecole Hardman and Riley Ridley to give second-year starting quarterback Jake Fromm a dangerous group of pass catchers. The return of shutdown cornerback Deandre Baker was another big win for the Bulldogs considering how much they lose elsewhere on defense. Georgia does not need a rebuilding season; anything short of double-digit wins and an East division championship would be a disappointment, and a return to the national title game feels within reach.
The Tigers’ case as a playoff threat starts with a defensive line that has the potential to be the best in the country—other than Clemson’s—even after the departure of team sacks and tackles for loss leader Jeff Holland. Juniors Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson and fifth-year senior Dontavius Russell head a group with the capacity to neutralize running games and consistently apply pressure to quarterbacks.
Auburn’s own ground attack won’t easily replace SEC Offensive Player of the Year Kerryon Johnson or maintain the running lanes first-team All-SEC guard Braden Smith helped create, but Jarrett Stidham’s choice to come back to school rather than turn pro ensured that head coach Gus Malzahn would have one of the SEC’s premier passers under center for another season—he led qualifying QBs in the conference with a 66.5% completion percentage and posted the highest efficiency rating during conference play.
Plus, while the torn ACLs suffered by junior Eli Stove and senior Will Hastings in spring practice stung (both are expected back at some point in the season, but not by Week 1), there are enough playmakers at wide receiver that Stidham can use to gash opposing secondaries, including senior Ryan Davis, who set a program single-season record with 84 receptions last fall. Auburn’s combination of high-level quarterback play and a ferocious defensive front makes the program’s first CFP appearance a realistic goal. It also makes the Tigers the biggest challenger to Alabama in the West.
3. Mississippi State
Joe Moorhead should not need a transition season in Starkville. It is not unreasonable to think that he could use the up-tempo system that elevated him into the national spotlight as Penn State’s offensive coordinator since 2016 to lift the Bulldogs to their most successful campaign since 2014, when they rose to No. 1 in the AP Top 25 Poll after downing three top-10 opponents in succession and finished with 10 wins.
The growing wave of Mississippi State offseason hype—to which Sports Illustrated contributed by ranking it 17th in its post-spring top-25—is not solely a product of Moorhead’s tactical chops. The Bulldogs will have one of the nation’s most fearsome defensive line tandems in junior tackle Jeffery Simmons and senior end Montez Sweat, a senior tailback (Aeris Williams) who has tallied more than 1,800 yards on the ground over the past two seasons and four returning starters on the offensive line. Most importantly, the Bulldogs will have a gifted senior quarterback who can confound opposing defenses with his ability to both gain chunks of yards on the ground and launch passes to wideouts in space. As long as Fitzgerald has fully recovered from the dislocated ankle he suffered in the Egg Bowl last season, Mississippi State should be able to push Alabama and Auburn for an invitation to Atlanta.
The program that Moorhead’s predecessor at Mississippi State, Dan Mullen, is taking over does not seem as well positioned to win big right away as the Bulldogs are. Maybe the most important on-field question facing Mullen upon his return to Gainesville is one that has bedeviled the Gators for much of the eight seasons since Tim Tebow left campus: Is there a good quarterback on the roster?
Of the three signal callers set to compete for the starting job in fall camp—redshirt sophomores Feleipe Franks and Kyle Trask and early enrollee true freshman Emory Jones—only one of them (Franks) has completed a pass in college. Whether or not Franks, Trask or Jones proves a reliable distributor in Mullen’s offense this season, Florida should be able to lean on a formidable running game headlined by redshirt junior Jordan Scarlett, junior Lamical Perine and sophomore Adarius Lemons (and possibly sophomore Malik Davis, depending on how his recovery from a season-ending knee injury progresses).
But if Mullen can’t engineer a miraculous offensive turnaround for Florida after the Gators finished last season ranked second-to-last in the SEC in yards per play and points per game, he and new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham can take comfort in a promising secondary featuring a playmaking nickel back (converted junior safety Chauncey Gardner-Johnson) and a high-end cornerback duo (sophomores Marco Wilson and C.J. Henderson).
There are difference-makers for handsomely compensated defensive coordinator Dave Aranda to work with in the secondary (sophomore cornerback Greedy Williams), on the defensive line (junior end Rashard Lawrence) and at linebacker (junior Devin White). New offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger inherits a Big 12 wide receiver transfer with a 1,158-yard season on his résumé (junior Jonathan Giles, from Texas Tech), an incoming WR recruit ranked third at his position in the class of 2018 according to the 247Sports Composite (Terrace Marshall Jr., from Parkway High in Louisiana) and a competitive quarterback derby that added a new member in May when coveted Ohio State graduate transfer Joe Burrow announced he was headed to Baton Rouge.
LSU brings back enough pieces on both sides of the ball to build on a debut campaign for head coach Ed Orgeron that saw the Tigers win six of their final seven regular-season games and finish 9–4, but to reach the national semifinals, they’ll need to navigate a brutal schedule featuring a Sunday-night opener against reigning ACC Coastal champion Miami at AT&T Stadium, trips to Auburn on Sept. 15 and Florida on Oct. 6 and a daunting three-game home stretch in which meetings with a pair of likely preseason top-10 teams (Georgia on Oct. 13, Alabama on Nov. 3) bookend a visit from one likely preseason top-25 team (Mississippi State on Oct. 20).