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Chasing Georgia: Alabama, LSU now trying to catch up to 2-time defending champs

LSU coach Brian Kelly summed up the challenge confronting college football's top programs these days: Catching up with Georgia.

The two-time defending national champion and preseason No. 1 Bulldogs are Alabama's successor as the annual “team to beat” overall and in a powerful Southeastern Conference that has three teams opening in the top five. The Crimson Tide checks in at No. 4 heading into what amounts to a potential rebound season for Nick Saban's team.

Then there's LSU one spot back and very much in the mix after Kelly's promising debut season and progress in rebuilding the talent level. Is the roster on par with Georgia? Not yet, he says.

“But if we continue to do what we’re doing, we’re going to have a roster that can compete against Georgia, and then it’s just a matter of getting it done on the playing field so everybody then can assess they’ve closed the gap,” Kelly said.

Kirby Smart's Bulldogs are aiming at the first national three-peat of the Associated Press poll era dating to 1936. They will be without quarterback Stetson Bennett and three first-round NFL draft picks, among others. Smart has picked Bennett's backup, Carson Beck, as the starter going into the season.

“The threat for us is complacency,” said Smart, a former Saban disciple who has built his own powerhouse. “The first thing you have to do is acknowledge that it’s a threat. Like if you acknowledge the complacency is a threat, it’s the first step toward stomping it out.”

Alabama, which has won six national titles since 2009, must replace No. 1 NFL draft pick Bryce Young at quarterback, along with linebacker Will Anderson Jr. (the third pick).

No. 12 Tennessee, a resurgent former power like LSU, turns to Joe Milton to replace its own star passer, Hendon Hooker. Jayden Daniels, who helped lead LSU's resurgent offense after transferring from Arizona State, returns for an encore.

TOP PLAYERS

Brock Bowers, TE, Georgia: Perhaps the nation's top tight end, Bowers has 119 catches for 1,824 yards and 20 touchdowns in his first two seasons. Last season, he was a finalist for the Lombardi Award given to the nation's top lineman.

Daniels, QB, LSU: The Arizona State transfer proved one of the league's most important transfer pickups. He passed for 2,913 yards and 17 touchdowns against just three interceptions while also setting LSU rushing records for a quarterback with 885 yards and 11 scores.

KJ Jefferson, QB, Arkansas: The dual-threat veteran has started 24 games the last two seasons. Being able to hand off to Raheim Sanders certainly doesn't hurt.

Quinshon Judkins, RB, Mississippi: Set school records as a freshman with 1,567 yards and 16 rushing touchdowns. A preseason AP All-American, Judkins was SEC newcomer of the year.

Kool-Aid McKinstry, CB/RS, Alabama: The Tide's latest shutdown corner and highly rated NFL prospect. McKinstry, a preseason AP All-American, had 16 pass deflections last season and also averaged nearly 16 yards per punt return.

LBs Harold Perkins Jr., LSU; Dallas Turner, Alabama, Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Georgia: All three are rising stars trying to replace Anderson as the league's top linebacker. Perkins and Dumas-Johnson, a Butkus Award finalist last season, are preseason first-team AP All-Americans and Turner is a second-teamer.

Sedrick Van Pran, C, Georgia: The 6-foot-4, 310-pounder, another preseason All-American, has started 30 consecutive games since his redshirt season,

NEW FACES

Mississippi State has a new coach in Zach Arnett, promoted from defensive coordinator after the death last December of offensive guru Mike Leach. Auburn brought Hugh Freeze back to the SEC to revive a stagnant program. ... There's plenty of other new but familiar quarterbacks arriving as transfers. The biggest names are Kentucky's Devin Leary (North Carolina State) and Mississippi's Spencer Sanders (Oklahoma State) but ex-Notre Dame starter Tyler Buchner is a candidate to start for Alabama and Michigan State's Payton Thorne is set to start the opener for Auburn.

ON THE HOT SEAT

Texas A&M coach Jimbo Fisher has $77 million worth of protection since that would be his buyout if fired after this season. But the Aggies are desperate for positive signs after a 5-7 season.

“We live under pressure every day,” Fisher said. “We put more pressure on ourselves than anybody out there ever puts on us, so there’s no added pressure because what good does that do? Does worrying make you any better? No.”

Eliah Drinkwitz's seat could be warming up with a 17-19 record entering his fourth season at Missouri.

GAMES TO WATCH

Sept. 3, No. 5 LSU vs. No. 8 Florida State in Orlando; Sept. 9, No. 11 Texas at No. 4 Alabama; Sept. 30, No. 5 LSU at No. 22 Mississippi; Oct. 28, No. 1 Georgia vs. Florida in Jacksonville; Nov. 4, No. 5 LSU at No. 4 Alabama; Nov. 18, No. 1 Georgia at No. 12 Tennessee.

AP PICKS:

East: Georgia, Tennessee, South Carolina, Florida, Kentucky, Missouri, Vanderbilt

West: Alabama, LSU, Texas A&M, Mississippi, Arkansas, Auburn, Mississippi State

Champion: Georgia.

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AP college football: https://apnews.com/hub/college-football and https://apnews.com/hub/ap-top-25-college-football-poll