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Is Alabama unbeatable? 5 burning questions in the SEC

Orlando Sentinel logoOrlando Sentinel 9/3/2022 Edgar Thompson, Orlando Sentinel
Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, one of the promising players at a stacked position, poses for a hologram GIF at SEC Media Days last month. © Edgar Thompson/Orlando Sentinel/TNS Florida quarterback Anthony Richardson, one of the promising players at a stacked position, poses for a hologram GIF at SEC Media Days last month.

The last three winners of the College Football Playoff have come from the SEC, LSU, Alabama and Georgia:

Will Alabama turn the SEC race into a yawner?

Coach Nick Saban’s squad has the makings to be one of his best ever in Tuscaloosa, starting with reigning Heisman winner Bryce Young at quarterback and likely No. 1 draft pick Will Anderson at linebacker. Saban also mined the transfer portal for Georgia Tech RB Jahmyr Gibbs, an explosive runner and pass catcher, and incoming WRs Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and Tyrell Harrell (Louisville). LSU transfer CB Eli Ricks joins a defense returning its top two tacklers, linebacker Henry To’oTo’o and safety Jordan Battle. Then there’s Anderson, who registered 34.5 tackles for loss in 2021, including 17.5 sacks. If Saban can replace left tackle Evan Neal — a first-round pick — and find a bookend on the right side, the Crimson Tide could be unstoppable en route to national title No. 7 under Saban. Where the 2022 Tide fit into the pantheon of Saban’s best team then will be up for debate. The 2020 Tide team had six first-round picks and won by an average margin of 29.1 points. His 2011 team allowed an average of 8.2 points. The bar at Alabama is high, but Young, Anderson and Co. will strive to clear it.

Does Tennessee finally return to the SEC elite?

The Vols have been lost in the wilderness for decades. The program won its last SEC title in 1995 and has not recorded a 10-win season since 2007 under Phillip Fulmer, six head coaches ago. Offensive-minded former UCF coach Josh Heupel showed promising signs, becoming one of only four Tennessee coaches since 1941 to win at least seven regular-season games in Year 1. Heupel’s up-tempo Vols also delivered a more-exciting brand of football. UT finished seventh nationally in scoring offense (39.3 ppg) after finishing 108th (21.4 ppg) in 2020. QB Hendon Hooker (31 TDs, only 3 INTs) and WR Cedric Tillman (64 catches, 1,081 yards, 12 TDs) look to build on huge seasons. LBs Jeremy Banks (128 stops) and Aaron Beasley (84) anchor a defense that must improve on third down (42.1% for opponent) and against the pass (273.2 ypg). A favorable schedule, other than an Oct. 15 visit from Alabama, gives the Vols a chance to be 7-1 entering November.

Can Texas A&M back up coach Jimbo Fisher’s brash offseason talk?

Fisher took on the king of the SEC and did not back down. After Saban called out A&M on May 18 for enticing recruits with NIL deals to land the nation’s top 2022 class, Fisher called a press conference and went on the attack. Fisher called his former boss at LSU (2000-04) a “narcissist” and said, “Some people think they’re God.” Saban played down the dustup but is not one to forget a slight, much less a public undressing. That the Aggies beat Bama in 2021 provides additional motivation. But Fisher’s team has talent, including options at QB led by LSU transfer Max Johnson, one of the SEC’s top playmakers in WR Ainias Smith, explosive tailback Devon Achane (7 ypc) and a defense with four starters back in the secondary, including second team All-America Antonio Johnson. A recruiting class with eight 5-star prospects is poised to make an immediate impact. Keep an eye on WR Evan Stewart.

Is this the year of the quarterback?

Alabama’s Young headlines a stacked QB class. Kentucky’s Will Levis, Arkansas’ K.J. Jefferson and Florida’s Anthony Richardson are generating significant NFL draft buzz. Tennessee’s Hooker is in the conversation, too, and is second team preseason All-SEC. Mississippi State’s Will Rogers led the league with an average of 364.5 yards and threw 36 TDs in 2021. Despite 27 TD tosses at LSU, A&M transfer Johnson might not beat out Haynes King. South Carolina transfer Spencer Rattler opened last season the Heisman frontrunner before floundering. The season ended with Georgia’s Stetson Bennett hoisting the national championship trophy following a strong postseason. All told, the 2022 group is SEC’s best in years and perhaps better than 2013, when Johnny Manziel, Aaron Murray, Dak Prescott, Connor Shaw and AJ McCarron were taking snaps.

What will it take for new LSU coach Brian Kelly to fit in?

The 60-year-old Kelly is a Massachusetts native who has spent his entire career in the Midwest, including the past 12 seasons at Notre Dame. Kelly’s last five Irish squads each won at least 10 games, giving him an impressive 263-96-2 career record. Kelly clearly can coach. Yet, will he succeed in the Deep South? During an early appearance at a Tigers basketball game, Kelly’s sad attempt at a Southern drawl went viral, drew mockery and raised questions about his ability to connect with recruits in the region. LSU, though, is putting together a strong 2023 class at a place where talent rarely has been the issue. If it comes down to coaching, smart money is on Kelly to win his share on the bayou.

This article first appeared on OrlandoSentinel.com. Email Edgar Thompson at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com or follow him on Twitter at @osgators.

©2022 Orlando Sentinel. Visit orlandosentinel.com. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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