Alabama hasn’t loosened its stranglehold on the SEC over the last half-decade. The Crimson Tide sport four conference titles in the last five years, and even after missing the SEC championship game in 2017, Nick Saban and Co. still made the College Football Playoff and defeated Georgia in the national championship one month later. The king of the SEC is clear.
The Crimson Tide’s dominance hasn’t shut the rest of the SEC out of playoff contention, though. Georgia joined Alabama in the 2017 edition, and Auburn could have crashed the party with a win in the conference title game that same year. A one-loss or strong two-loss SEC team can certainly join the conference champion in the playoff given the right circumstance.
Alabama remains the favorite in the SEC entering 2019, and the Crimson Tide should appear in the playoff once again. But what other SEC schools could join the Tide and crash the playoff? Sports Illustrated identifies five potential candidates just over a month before Week 1.
Can Georgia win its first national championship since 1980? The personnel is certainly in place in Athens. Kirby Smart is 24–5 in his last two seasons, and he’s one Tua Tagovailoa touchdown pass from already having a title. The Bulldogs enter 2019 among the top tier of championship contenders, and Georgia may need to capitalize on Jake Fromm’s junior season before the NFL comes calling in April.
Fromm is the Bulldogs’ headliner as he continues to climb the program’s all-time passing leaderboards. The 6’2” signal caller tossed 30 touchdowns in 2018 while completing 67.4% of his passes, and he’s thrown just 13 interceptions in 29 starts with the Bulldogs. Fromm doesn’t just complement his weapons; he drives Georgia’s offense unlike any SEC QB outside of Tagovailoa.
Running back D’Andre Swift leads Georgia’s talented skill players. The 5’9” junior will take the leading role in 2019 after splitting duties with Elijiah Holyfield last season, poised for All-SEC honors in December. Swift tallied 1,049 yards and 10 touchdowns on just 163 carries last year. He could become the fourth player in school history to rush for 1,500 yards in a single season in 2019, joining Garrison Hearst, Nick Chubb, and (of course) Herschel Walker. Fromm and Swift are both All-America candidates. They could lead Georgia back to the playoff for the second time in three years.
The upcoming season marks the Tigers’ best chance at the playoff in the Ed Orgeron era. LSU is stout as usual defensively, headlined by dynamic safety and future first-round pick Grant Delpit. The Houston native picked off five passes and totaled five sacks in 2018, becoming just the third player to do so since 2000 (Myron Lewis, Javier Arenas). The Nagurski Award could very well be in his future. Defensive tackle and fellow pro prospect Rashard Lawrence will hold down the front seven, entering 2019 after 10 tackles for loss as a junior.
LSU’s defense will likely be elite, but its playoff chances once again ride on its offense. And there are now some reasons for optimism after a prolonged offensive rut. Joe Burrow is entering his second season as the Tigers’ starter after an efficient first year, and he’s now armed with ex-Saints assistant Joe Brady as the team’s passing game coordinator. Circle Sept. 7 on the calendar. If LSU can beat Texas in Austin, a loss to Alabama in November won’t end the Tigers' national title hopes. Maybe Coach O can pull it off.
Florida won seven of the first 17 SEC championships, finishing 2008 as the only school in the conference with over three SEC titles. It’s been a frustrating drought since. Will Muschamp went 28–21 in four seasons with the Gators, and in three seasons the Jim McElwain era netted only an Outback Bowl win. Perhaps the program will continue to turn the corner after a promising start to Dan Mullen’s tenure.
The Gators are a notable step behind LSU and Georgia for the playoff discussion, but they shouldn’t be immediately discounted. Florida hosts Auburn and plays Miami in Orlando, and it doesn’t have to face Alabama or Texas A&M. A battle in Baton Rouge on Oct. 12 will be difficult, as will the World's Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party in Jacksonville less than a month later. A split against LSU and Georgia could get Florida to the SEC championship game. Avoiding Alabama in December could lead to a surprising one-loss playoff appearance.
Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies' schedule is absolutely brutal, with road contests at Clemson, LSU and Georgia along with home battles with Alabama and Auburn. Four losses is more likely than one by the end of the regular season. So why include the Aggies? Jimbo Fisher has earned the respect. A&M’s $75 million man is among the top coaches in the nation with an impressive track record, and the Aggies outperformed expectations in his first year with the program. Kellen Mond could be poised for a breakout season, though a slate of fierce defenses will provide a difficult test. Texas A&M continues to be blocked from college football's final four as long as Alabama dominates and Georgia cruises through the East. At least Aggies fans can chant S-E-C as they watch the playoff in January.
Let’s dip into the pool of longshots briefly, if only to imagine the drama of a potential Kelly Bryant Revenge Game against Dabo Swinney and Clemson. Missouri’s schedule is easy through early November, and an 8–0 start is in play before playing at Georgia on Nov. 9. Even with a loss to the Bulldogs, all would not be lost—Mizzou finishes the regular season home against Florida and Tennessee, then at Arkansas—and some turbulence in the SEC West could knock Alabama from the top spot. In another complication, Missouri is currently appealing its postseason ban for 2019, and must see it overturned for it to even be eligible for the SEC title game, let alone the playoff. But we can all dream in July.