SEC expert picks 2021: Most overrated and underrated teams, projected order of finish, bold predictions

Written by on August 25, 2021

Defending national champion Alabama and SEC championship challenger Florida are both reloading on offense entering the 2021 season, which looks to open the door for one of the most competitive conference slates in the nation. Whether an exceptionally strong Georgia, rebuilding LSU or any of the other 10 teams in the league will be able to take advantage of that is another question altogether.

The Crimson Tide are back without three of the top five Heisman Trophy finishers and their offensive coordinator, while the Gators are also starting a new quarterback and slew of pass catchers. That leaves the Bulldogs in prime position to contend for their first national title since 1980, though that’s a phrase that’s seemingly uttered every season without Georgia actually winning the College Football Playoff National Championship.

There’s three new coaches getting their starts in the SEC East alone at South Carolina (Shane Beamer), Tennessee (Josh Heupel) and Vanderbilt (Clark Lea), not to mention Auburn (Bryan Harsin) looking to regain its footing in the SEC West. This as Arkansas (Sam Pittman), Mississippi State (Mike Leach), Missouri (Eli Drinkwitz) and Ole Miss (Lane Kiffin) enter Year 2 with their coaches hoping to make some waves in the conference.

Our CBS Sports college football experts have provided their picks and predictions for the SEC ahead of the 2021 season.

Most overrated team

Texas A&M: The Aggies are one of the most talented teams in the country, but I’m not convinced the 2020 season wasn’t more of an outlier than the expectation heading forward. My main concern here is Jimbo Fisher himself. He’s done an outstanding job of raising this roster’s talent level, but his offense remains too stodgy. In an era when national title contenders are opening up on offense and being more aggressive, Fisher’s conservative approach works against the Aggies. It keeps opponents in games. That’s going to catch up to you at some point. So while I think Texas A&M is a top-15 program at worst this season they’re currently a little too highly rated. — Tom Fornelli (also Barrett Sallee, Ben Kercheval)

LSU: There is too much that can potentially go wrong. OK, so Myles Brennan probably wasn’t going to win the job? Well, now you’ve got no experience past Max Johnson. Alabama, Texas A&M and possibly Auburn are better … to the point that I don’t know if 9-3 takes pressure off Ed Orgeron. Chasing the ghost of Joe Brady by hiring a guy who worked with him at the Panthers (Jake Peetz) seems strange. Watch that September schedule. If LSU doesn’t take care of business against UCLA in the opener, things could get ugly real quick. — Dennis Dodd (also David Cobb)

Auburn: Gus Malzahn may not have been meeting the expectations of some decision makers at Auburn, but the way the coaching search to replace him played out leaves little confidence that Bryan Harsin is set up to hit the ground running. In a division where I expect LSU and Ole Miss (and perhaps even Mississippi State and Arkansas) to improve, I think those gains come in part thanks to Auburn taking a step back. — Chip Patterson

Mississippi State: When Leach was brought in to MSU, my primary concern was would he be able to consistently outscore his defense. While I don’t want to draw too much of a conclusion after one year, especially a pandemic year, so far that answer is no. The Bulldogs scored 24 points or less eight times in 10 games, losing seven of those. That one win was a 24-17 victory over Vanderbilt, which was the only game in which MSU gave up fewer than 24 points. I didn’t expect the defense to do much and they didn’t. I also didn’t expect so little offense. One year is not a trend, but the SEC is strong enough to turn it into one. — Jerry Palm

Most underrated team

Missouri: With so much attention on Georgia, Florida and even Kentucky, we’re sleeping on the Tigers a bit. Drinkwitz’s debut in 2020 was … uneven … but what would you expect in a pandemic? The positives are that Drinkwitz appears to have found a quarterback (Connor Bazelak), and there’s at least some experience coming back along the offensive line. Mizzou needs someone to step up in the receiving group, and new defensive coordinator Steve Wilks has some work cut out for him in Year 1. But overall, there’s enough to like for the Tigers to at least make a bowl game and knock off someone they’re not supposed to beat, perhaps Florida at home on Nov. 20? — Kercheval (also Fornelli, Patterson)

Ole Miss: What’s easier to maintain, a V8 offense or a talentless defense? The Rebels have to be better on defense because they can’t get any worse. So let’s call it a slightly below average D paired with Matt Corral and that offense. The discussion begins at eight wins. LSU and Texas A&M better watch out going to Oxford. — Dodd

LSU: Please, can we get over the notion that LSU is a complete disaster and will fold like a cheap tent in 2021? Coach O told me at SEC Media Days that he learned from his mistakes from last season — specifically loyalty to offensive coordinator Steve Ensminger and his decision to go old-school with Bo Pelini as his defensive coordinator. The struggles that the young players went through will help this year. With almost exclusive five-man protection and playmakers in space on offense, and a much more cohesiveness on defense, the Tigers should improve. LSU is Alabama’s biggest threat in the West. In fact, it’s on Alabama’s level and will separate itself from Texas A&M. — Sallee

Auburn: With preseason first-team All-SEC running back Tank Bigsby operating behind an offensive line with several returning starters, the Tigers should be excellent in the run game. Despite questions at wide receiver, they should be improved in the passing game, as former five-star quarterback prospect Bo Nix gets help from two quarterback whisperers in Harsin and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Harsin may not know the SEC, but he hired two coordinators who do in Bobo and defensive boss Derek Mason. This team is still stocked with talent from five straight top-20 recruiting classes and should be better than fifth in the West. — Cobb

Kentucky: The Wildcats are the one of only two schools in the SEC that cares more about basketball than football. Nobody thinks about Kentucky football when the hoops season is almost upon us, yet Mark Stoops has turned things around for the Wildcats. Talk in the SEC East is all Georgia and Florida, but UK has tied for second in the division two of the last four years and finished third in the other two. The Wildcats may not yet be ready to win the division, but they are a team you better be ready to play. — Palm

Bold predictions

  • Dennis Dodd: Kiffin will develop a serviceable defense, Corral will throw for 4,000 yards and Ole Miss will win eight games. 
  • Tom Fornelli: Alabama will win the SEC West by at least two games.
  • Chip Patterson: JT Daniels will win the Heisman Trophy. Daniels won’t be the most prolific quarterback in the conference, but as awards season winds down, he’ll have a chance to be in the mix as long as the Bulldogs are contenders for the national championship.
  • Barrett Sallee: LSU will rebound from its extremely disappointing 2020 season and look more like the 2019 team that ran the table and won the national title. This team won’t run the SEC, but it will top Alabama in Tuscaloosa for the second time in three years, win the SEC West with one loss (an upset by Ole Miss) and produce one of the most dangerous offenses in the country. 
  • Ben Kercheval: Alabama quarterback Bryce Young will lead the SEC in yards passing and touchdowns. 
  • David Cobb: The three new SEC East coaches will win a maximum of four SEC games — combined.
  • Jerry Palm: The SEC will fall short of putting two teams in the College Football Playoff, but will advance four total in the New Year’s Six games.

SEC predicted order of finish

SEC champion

Alabama: Predicting Alabama to win the SEC in 2021 is the ultimate vote of confidence in Nick Saban and his ability to reload both on his roster and coaching staff. In a year when many are overflowing with returning talent, the Crimson Tide lose three of the top-five finishers in last year’s Heisman Trophy voting, along with coordinator Steve Sarkisian on offense. No team in the country is replacing as much on that side of the ball as the Tide, but their defense might be the best in the nation, and new offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien has the experience and talent to mold another elite offense. — Cobb (also Dodd, Fornelli, Patterson, Kercheval, Palm)

Georgia: The Bulldogs’ path to Atlanta is as smooth as any in the country, which not only should allow them to be at 100% when they stroll into Mercedes-Benz Stadium but develop the depth needed for a national title run at the end of the season. Daniels will actually get a chance to run second-year Todd Monken’s full offense, and coach Kirby Smart’s defense will be one of the best in the nation. That defense will be more than enough to shut down the SEC West champion — no matter who — in Atlanta. — Sallee (also Patterson)

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