- There's little money to be made—nor fun to be had—in betting Alabama -138 to win the SEC, but Georgia (+300) and Auburn (+800) are both appealing picks.
“It just means more,” they like to say about the SEC. Many programs outside the southeastern corridor may disagree, but this is certain: There is no conference in college football that’s more top-heavy, or with more bona fide National Championship contenders.
Once you get past Alabama, Georgia and Auburn, all of which were in the title conversation late last November, it’s an arms race—which has also made the SEC the top coaching conference in the country. Programs that may be down could quickly turn around, meaning there’s value to be found across the spectrum. For SEC fans, it just means more opportunities to cash in.
Odds to Win SEC:
Mississippi State +1400
Texas A&M +2500
South Carolina +3300
Ole Miss +5000
Arkansas + 15000
(In order of predicted finish)
With victories over Notre Dame, Auburn and Oklahoma last year—and a heart-wrenching loss to Alabama in the National Championship game—the Bulldogs will enter the 2018 season confident and motivated. They won’t field the same team, of course, with star running backs Sony Michel and Nick Chubb gone to the NFL, along with some key defensive pieces, most notably linebacker Roquan Smith. But sophomore quarterback Jake Fromm, the biggest reason for Georgia’s sudden renaissance, will help cover up inexperience and develop another talented offensive unit. That includes RB D’Andre Swift, who can pound the ball behind a stacked line and elude defenders in the open field. There are more questions about the defense, but Kirby Smart has rapidly transformed this program, which is thinking bigger than ever.
The Gators have something no other SEC team can claim: 19 returning starters. But to threaten Georgia, they will need to produce much more on offense—Florida scored more than 30 points in conference just once, against lowly Vanderbilt. It starts with quarterback Feleipe Franks, who mustered just nine passing touchdowns and threw for less than 1,500 yards in a season that ended with a seven-game losing streak to Power 5 teams. But it’s who isn’t returning for Florida—former head coach Jim McElwain—that could signal the biggest change in The Swamp. Dan Mullen squeezed everything he could out of his teams in Starkville, and he’ll have much more talent to work with, on both sides of the ball, in Gainesville. Give him a season or two to smooth out the rough edges, but expect Florida’s 4-7 mark to flip, at least, in 2018.
Quarterback Drew Lock returns to Columbia for his senior season, and with his entire offensive line joining him, look for more gaudy statistics (he’s thrown for 8,695 yards and 71 TDs so far) from the strong-armed NFL prospect. But what surrounds Lock, and new offensive coordinator Derek Dooley, will determine the Tigers’ conference fate. Speedy wide receiver Emanuel Hall is a game-breaker if healthy. Then there’s the defense, which is solid but with concerns at end and safety. Mizzou has a brutal three-game stretch starting in late September—it hosts Georgia, then travels to South Carolina and Alabama—but the remainder of its schedule is manageable. The QB play alone makes the Tigers an intriguing betting option.
4. South Carolina
The Gamecocks have been lapped by Clemson in the Palmetto State, but coach Will Muschamp has kept his team in the East conversation, and this year will be no different. On defense, South Carolina has all-conference talent—specifically defensive tackle Javon Kinlaw and linebacker T.J. Brunson—but lacks depth. The team’s biggest star on offense, wide receiver Deebo Samuel, returns from an injury-marred 2017 and can fluster defenses, giving QB Jake Bentley more options to exploit from the pocket. With eight offensive starters returning this season, South Carolina should continue to improve in a division that is making strides across the board.
The Volunteers mercifully turned the page on the Butch Jones era and have a fresh start with former Florida State, Georgia and Alabama defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt calling the shots. Odds are, he’ll improve the defense on Rocky Top, but his team includes just six returning starters and has a season-opening date against high-octane West Virginia. Then, after games against ETSU and UTEP, this: home vs. Florida, away vs. Georgia, away vs. Auburn, home vs. Alabama, away vs. South Carolina. A run-heavy offense will try and keep those talented teams’ offenses off the field; at quarterback, grad transfer Keller Chryst and returning starter Jarrett Guarantano will battle for signal-calling duties. All around, it will be a learning process in Knoxville, which should give bettors caution.
There are no questions at running back for the Wildcats, with Benny Snell coming off back-to back 1,000-yard seasons, but there could not be more questions at quarterback. Sophomores Terry Wilson, a junior college transfer, and Gunnar Hoak enter the season bereft of experience—neither has seen the field in a Division I game before. Kentucky will lean on the defense, which returns eight starters but, given its struggles, still faces a learning curve of its own. Kentucky plays four of its first five games at home, including two conference games. Getting out of September above .500 is crucial to avoiding a finish in the East basement.
In its seven conference losses last season, the Commodores were a sieve on defense, allowing no fewer than 34 points a game. To have any chance of reaching a bowl this season, defensive coordinator Jason Tarver must resuscitate a unit that brings back just five starters—which may be the best news of all. Vandy will be thankful to have steady, senior leadership on offense with quarterback Kyle Shurmur, but much of his supporting cast has departed. It’s hard to envision Vanderbilt finishing anywhere but the bottom. At the very least, it will make the in-state rivalry game with Tennessee all the more intriguing.
How the West Was Won, starring Nick Saban. Bama is the choice to win the West, even if it returns just 11 total starters. Saban’s crew simply reloads, with yet another cache of future NFL first-round picks on both sides of the ball. At QB, the Tide will start either Jalen Hurts or Tua Tagovailoa; both have shown game-altering ability under pressure. Wideouts Jerry Jeudy and DeVonta Smith—who caught Tagovailoa’s overtime strike to win the National Championship—will replace Calvin Ridley, while running back Damien Harris remains the workhorse back. There are more questions on defense, which lost Minkah Fitzpatrick, Da'Ron Payne and Rashaan Evans to the NFL. But this is a golden era of Alabama football, and while the Crimson Tide may occasionally stumble, there’s no reason to pick against them as West champions yet again.
Remember how potent Alabama and Georgia looked in their classic National Championship game? Don’t forget that Auburn beat both of those teams, in November, by double-digit margins. With coach Gus Malzahn’s future secured under a new contract, quarterback Jarrett Stidham back for more euphoria on the Plains, and a bruising, fleet defense that will torment the nation’s best offenses, Auburn is a serious threat to win the conference. Its schedule is a bear—not only does it face Georgia and Alabama on the road, but the Tigers begin with a neutral-site game against Pac-12 power Washington. That marquee season-opener will tell us a lot about what Auburn will do for an encore in 2018.
3. Mississippi State
The Bulldogs lost coach Dan Mullen to Florida, but they bring back 17 starters—none more important than quarterback Nick Fitzgerald. There was some Heisman buzz around the dual-threat QB early last season; a hard-to-watch injury ended his season against in-state rival Ole Miss. With Aeris Williams rumbling in the backfield, defenses will have a tough time keeping State honest. On defense, new coordinator Bob Shoop leads an improving unit. As always in the West, the schedule is a gauntlet, but new head coach Joe Moorhead, who was offensive coordinator at Penn State, knows a thing or two about life in an elite division.
Is it put-up-or-shut-up time for coach Ed Orgeron? While the rest of the West seems to be improving, the feeling around Baton Rouge is one of uncertainty. Orgeron’s contentious relationship with Matt Canada, the former offensive coordinator who was let go after just one season, speaks to the state of the program. Still, it will always recruit loads of NFL-caliber talent, especially on defense. This season, junior linebacker Devin White will unleash what defensive coordinator Dave Aranda cooks up on the field. There are more questions about the offense, especially QB, the Tigers’ perpetual Achilles' heel. Danny Etling is gone, which is hardly a death sentence, but there’s no sense of a true starter. Combine all of this with one of the toughest schedules in the country, and it could be a down year for LSU.
5. Texas A&M
There have been many coaching changes in the SEC over the past 12 months, but the Aggies’ is in a class of its own. Jimbo Fisher, who took Florida State to a National Championship in 2014, was brought to College Station to do the exact same thing. His recruiting savvy and schematic expertise will bear fruit right away, but actual wins may take some time. The schedule, which includes September meetings with Clemson and Alabama, will almost certainly leave A&M 2-2 after its first four games. Overall, the goal should be a bowl, and to establish a quarterback and offensive line for the future. Junior RB Trayveon Williams will help, and the defense, led by former Notre Dame coordinator Mike Elko, should improve. Things are looking up at A&M—which in the SEC West means about 7-5.
6. Ole Miss
Stemming from the Hugh Freeze sanctions, the Rebels can’t compete in a bowl, but they’re still an interesting team to follow. Last year, they allowed an astonishing 270.5 rushing yards per game, so there’s practically nowhere to go but up. On offense, wide receiver A.J. Brown could recall the heroics of Laquon Treadwell, given his big-play potential and talent. And how will former player Matt Luke, having shed the interim coach tag, handle this season? While Ole Miss should expect its share of struggles, look for it to play the spoiler role well.
In theory, former SMU head coach Chad Morris will open up offense in Fayetteville. But Arkansas is the epitome of a ground-and-pound program—and it’s the way it’ll need to play to stay in games with the West’s best. Plus, killing clock will keep the Hogs’ woeful defense off the field. It was gouged last year, and it still has a long way to go. With Ty Storey and the giant Cole Kelley competing for the quarterback position, and new-but-very-experienced coordinator John Chavis leading the defense from the sideline, there’s a lot we don’t yet know about Arkansas. It will be fascinating to watch its development, but even a couple conference wins would be an accomplishment.
Pick to win the SEC: Georgia
You can pencil Georgia into the SEC Championship game, considering its talent, experience and—compared to its counterparts in the West—relatively easy path to Atlanta. Once there, the Bulldogs have as good a chance as anyone to knock off a worthy opponent. The prospect is all the more appealing at +300.
Best Value Bet: Auburn
An 8-to-1 payout for a team that beat Alabama and Georgia last season is great value, and Auburn is bringing back its biggest pieces in 2018. As always, it will come down to the Iron Bowl, but under Malzahn the Tigers have shown a remarkable ability to play their best when the spotlight is brightest. It would be irresponsible not to take them as a value bet.