Chants of “SEC!” emanated from Texas fans inside Bryant-Denny Stadium last weekend as the Longhorns closed out a monumental road victory over Alabama to highlight Week 2 of the college football season. The Longhorns will be members of the conference this time next year, so their faithful took advantage of the chance to let big, bad ‘Bama know they aren’t scared of what’s ahead.
What do the Longhorns have to be afraid of, anyway? Sure, the SEC has produced 13 of the last 17 national champions, but the league is noticeably lacking in bite early this season. Alabama, LSU and Texas A&M — the SEC West favorites — have each suffered early losses, while two-time reigning national champion Georgia has some obvious offensive kinks to iron out if it’s going to three-peat. Still, the Dawgs are looking like the league’s only hope for a fifth straight national title after the conference’s lackluster start.
Notable Week 1 results included LSU losing to Florida State, Florida losing at Utah and South Carolina losing to North Carolina. Then, Week 2 brought Miami’s 48-33 win over Texas A&M and Alabama’s 34-24 loss to Texas as a home favorite. One easy explanation for the SEC’s struggles is lackluster quarterback play, but the truth behind the league’s poor start is more nuanced.
Every team, even those off to 2-0 starts, has shown flaws early in the 2023 season. As Week 3 dawns across the college football landscape, here is a quick hit on what each of the 14 SEC teams need to fix or improve entering league play.
Analysis via David Cobb
Florida — More perimeter playmaking: Say what you will about Graham Mertz, who was an uninspiring quarterback pickup for the Gators from Wisconsin, but he’s been fine through two games. The bigger concern is the absence of a playmaking wide receiver outside of Ricky Pearsall. With 14 receptions for 215 yards, Pearsall is the Gators’ top receiver and it’s not even close. You have to combine the team’s next four pass-catchers to equal Pearsall’s yardage total. Speedy freshman Eugene Wilson III has show some flashes with six grabs, but five of them have come at or behind the line of scrimmage. To succeed in the SEC, the Gators must facilitate more perimeter playmaking for players other than Pearsall.
Georgia — Improve the run game: Compared to the South Carolina team Georgia is playing this week, the Bulldogs are a juggernaut rushing squad. But by the standards of a program with consecutive national titles, UGA is struggling on the ground. The Dawgs rank 92nd nationally in rushing offense through games against Tennessee-Martin and Ball State. Georgia is 84th nationally in yards after contact per rush and dealing with depleted depth at running back amid injuries to Daijun Edwards and Branson Robinson. Veteran back Kendall Milton is also working his way back from a hamstring issue and has taken on a limited workload through two games. With a new quarterback and new offensive coordinator, it would be nice if Georgia could rely on the running game. So far, it’s been underwhelming.
Kentucky — Improve the pass protection: Kentucky’s offensive line struggled to a surprising degree in 2022, and the early returns suggest some shortcomings still exist. Kentucky quarterbacks have had just 2.58 seconds to throw through two games, which ranks 97th nationally, according to TruMedia. The Wildcats have allowed quarterback pressure on 29.6% of dropbacks, which ranks 69th. If Ball State and Eastern Kentucky gave UK’s offensive line problems, what will SEC foes do? Landing quarterback Devin Leary from NC State was huge, and getting offensive coordinator Liam Coen back from the NFL marked a tremendous hire. But they’ll be unable to reach their potential without better blocking.
Missouri — Force some turnovers: The Tigers are one of just nine FBS teams yet to force a turnover. Missouri doesn’t have the offensive explosiveness to blow SEC teams away and will have to be more opportunistic defensively if it’s going to be anything more than a 3-5 SEC team for a third straight season. In Mizzou’s best performances last season, positive turnover margin was a common denominator. But the Tigers finished the year ranked 12th in the SEC with a -3 turnover margin and a 6-7 record. They are off to another bad start in that regard this season.
South Carolina — Find a running game: South Carolina began the season by netting -2 yards rushing in a 31-17 loss against a North Carolina team that ranked 85th in rushing defense last season. The Tar Heels proceeded to give up 219 yards rushing against Appalachian State in Week 2. If the Gamecocks couldn’t run the ball on UNC, life in the SEC could be tough. The offseason transfer of Marshawn Lloyd to USC and the whiff on Notre Dame transfer Logan Diggs, who chose LSU instead, are looming large. Former quarterback and wide receiver Dakereon Joyner led the Gamecocks with 23 yards on 12 attempts against North Carolina. That Joyner and undersized scatback JuJu McDowell are the team’s best running back options is a serious concern.
Tennessee — Better downfield passing: Sixth-year senior quarterback Joe Milton is protecting the football and providing leadership much like predecessor Hendon Hooker. Where Milton is struggling to match Hooker, however, is with downfield accuracy; he is just 2 of 11 through two games on attempts traveling 15 or more yards through the air, according to TruMedia. Of his 42 completions in season-opening wins against Virginia and Austin Peay, 66.7% came at or behind the line of scrimmage. When Tennessee ended long losing streaks against rivals Alabama and Florida last season, Hooker’s accurate deep throws were a big reason why. The Vols have failed to demonstrate proficiency in that facet through two games in 2023.
Vanderbilt — Get tougher against the run: Only nine FBS teams allowed more yards per carry last season than Vanderbilt, which surrendered 5.16 yards per rush during a 5-7 campaign. If the Commodores are going to take the next step and get bowl eligible in coach Clark Lea’s third season, they must improve against the run. Wake Forest piled up 288 yards on the ground in a 36-20 win over Vandy last week as two Demon Deacons surpassed the 100-yard mark. Future SEC foes are seeing that weakness and licking their chops.
Analysis via Shehan Jeyarajah
Alabama — Develop a rushing identity: Transitioning to a new offense was always going to be a challenge as the Crimson Tide replace Heisman winner Bryce Young and break in new offensive coordinator Tommy Rees. Through two games, however, Alabama has lacked any semblance of rushing identity. No running back has carried the ball more than 12 times through two games as Alabama averages a paltry 4.2 yards per carry. Quarterback Jalen Milroe leads the team with 22 carries, but only 10 are characterized as scrambles, per Pro Football Focus. Alabama linebacker Dallas Turner told reporters at SEC Media Days that the Tide expected to get back to “Joyless Murderball” in 2023. So far, the offense has been joyless — but Rees hasn’t done enough to generate the physical murderball opportunities that characterized ‘Bama teams past.
Arkansas — Find receiving weapons: Through two games, quarterback KJ Jefferson has lived up to his billing as the SEC’s top quarterback. Around him, the rest of Arkansas’ offense has been decidedly lackluster. The Razorbacks have 159 total yards after catch through two games, and 65 of them came on one reception against Western Carolina. For comparison, Arkansas posted 119.6 yards after catch per game in 2022. Granted, losing five of the top six pass-catchers from 2022 meant regression was possible, but the entire game plan has been on Jefferson’s shoulders during the 2-0 start. Getting Rocket Sanders back from injury at running back will help, but the Razorbacks have to get Jefferson more dynamic play outside.
Auburn — Commit to a QB: Michigan State transfer Payton Thorne’s honeymoon period lasted about five quarters before the staff publicly questioned him and reopened the quarterback battle. Thorne hasn’t been great — 235 yards, three touchdowns, two turnovers in two games — but the issues are far deeper than the quarterback position. Auburn earned a 33.5 blocking grade, the worst mark since 2019, in a win over Cal. Thorne was sacked four times. No receiver has reached 100 yards in two games. Backup Robby Ashford gives Auburn a rushing component but has also completed just 3 of 9 passes for 3 total yards in 40 snaps. First-year coach Hugh Freeze simply does not have the pieces for an elite offense in Year 1, but shuffling the offense between different visions will only make the task harder for both young signal-callers.
LSU — Free Harold Perkins: In theory, LSU’s plan to develop linebacker Harold Perkins by playing him off ball for longer stretches had some merit, especially with his more slender linebacker build. Two games into the season, it’s fair to call the move a wholesale disaster. Perkins went from one of the most feared defensive players in the SEC to essentially invisible. He was credited with 41 pressures and 7.5 sacks as a true freshman but now has just six total tackles through two games without any disruptive plays. LSU has suffered from a lack of playmaking with only one team sack through team games. Perkins can solve that.
Mississippi State — Protect Will Rogers: Moving from a wide-split Air Raid offense to a more physical pro-style attack under first-year coach Zach Arnett comes with complications, but none more so than for the offensive linemen. Early returns have been poor. The Bulldogs posted a pass blocking grade of 45.6 and run blocking grade of 61.8 in a 31-24 home overtime victory against Arizona. Quarterback Will Rogers has been pressured 14 times and sacked three times against an FCS opponent and an Arizona defense that ranked 123rd in sacks a season ago. Rogers has handled the pressure well, upping his yards per attempt from 6.5 to 8.5 year-over-year and throwing for five touchdowns without an interception. If Mississippi State can’t make progress, Rogers may not make it through its Week 3 showdown against No. 14 LSU (especially if LSU listens to our advice and unleashes Perkins as a pass rusher).
Ole Miss — Get Quinshon Judkins going: The Rebels might be the happiest team in the SEC West after dropping 73 points on Mercer and pulling away from an excellent Tulane team late. However, running back Quinshon Judkins — selected as a preseason first-team All-SEC back — has been a shell of himself through two games. Judkins had 10 rushes of more than 10 yards in 2022 but has just two through two games this season. His yards per carry is down from 5.7 as a freshman to 3.5, including only 4.6 yards per attempt against Mercer. If Lane Kiffin can find ways to get Judkins free next to an improved Jaxson Dart, it transforms Ole Miss into a legitimate SEC West contender.
Texas A&M — Get to the quarterback: The Aggies boast one of the great defensive line recruiting runs in recent memory, landing nine top-100 defensive linemen and six five-star recruits in the past three classes alone. Astonishingly, all that talent lent itself to just two sacks and zero credited quarterback hurries in a 48-33 loss against Miami. The relative lack of pressure against the Hurricanes, who start three underclassmen on the offensive line, was devastating as quarterback Tyler Van Dyke picked apart an inexperienced Aggies secondary. There are serious questions on offense, but the destruction of Texas A&M’s defense under coordinator D.J. Durkin is far more devastating.