The Southeastern Conference finally opens play on Sept. 26 in a season that continues to be impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic.
LSU is the defending national champion, but coach Ed Orgeron had to fill several holes on the roster and coaching staff in the offseason. Nick Saban is entering his 14th season at Alabama, and the Crimson Tide are the preseason favorites to win the conference. Georgia, Florida, Auburn and Texas A&M are also ranked in the top 10 in Sporting News' Preseason Top 25.
The conference has the most legitimate playoff contenders, and there are a handful of new coaches in the conference. Mississippi State's Mike Leach and Ole Miss' Lane Kiffin will add a new layer to the Egg Bowl. Missouri's Eli Drinkwitz and Arkansas' Sam Pittman round out the list of first-year coaches.
Sporting News looks at the SEC and makes its predictions for 2020:
2020 SEC predictions
5. South Carolina
4. Texas A&M
5. Ole Miss
6. Mississippi State
How many playoff teams will come out of the SEC? With only three Power 5 conferences playing (as of now) and a conference full of contenders, it stands to reason that multiple SEC teams could make the College Football Playoff. The Georgia-Alabama and Florida-LSU crossover games make that scenario difficult, but the SEC remains the only conference that has put two teams in the CFP. It might become the first conference to put a two-loss team in the playoff.
The SEC pushed its start date back to Sept. 26. Commissioner Greg Sankey has promised to monitor the impact of COVID-19, which has hit Southern states such as Texas and Florida hard. LSU wide receiver Ja'Marr Chase is the biggest name to opt out so far. Chase won the Biletnikoff Award last season for the Tigers. Georgia quarterback Jamie Newman, a Wake Forest transfer, was the next big name to follow. Auburn linebacker Chandler Wooten, Texas A&M receiver Jhamon Ausbon and LSU defensive back Kary Vincent are among the other notable players who have opted out of the 2020 season.
Bryce Young, QB, Alabama
The five-star quarterback enrolled early but did not have the benefit of spring practice. Saban likely won't shed much light on the quarterback battle leading up to the opener, but Young will challenge Mac Jones for playing time even if he does not win the starting job.
Jordan Burch, DE, South Carolina
The five-star defensive end stayed close to home, and that gives Will Muschamp a building block on defense. This worked out when South Carolina kept Jadeveon Clowney in-state. Burch will be held to that lofty standard down the line.
Kelee Ringo, CB, Georgia
The five-star defensive back is 6-2 and 205 pounds, and he was a track star at Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. The Bulldogs have a talented secondary, but Ringo could work into the rotation and get meaningful snaps.
KJ Costello, QB, Mississippi State
Leach has an experienced quarterback to work with in his first season in Starkville. Costello played in 29 games at Stanford the past three seasons, but he dealt with injuries — including a concussion and a thumb injury. He's in a new offense, but Costello is bound to put numbers.
SEC Heisman hopefuls
Najee Harris, RB, Alabama
Harris is the complete package. Last season, he totaled 1,224 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground and added seven receiving TDs. He could follow in the footsteps of Alabama Heisman winners Mark Ingram and Derrick Henry.
Derek Stingley, CB, LSU
Stingley is the highest-ranked player on our Top 40 countdown not named Trevor Lawrence who still is playing this season. Stingley had six interceptions and 15 pass breakups last season and has a skill set that has been compared to that of Michigan Heisman winner Charles Woodson. It would take a remarkable set of circumstances, but Stingley has the talent.
Zamir White, RB, Georgia
White averaged 5.2 yards per carry last season in a bit role in the Bulldogs' offense. He appears ready to take on lead-back duties, and that should lead to big-time production. Georgia hasn't had a Heisman winner since Herschel Walker in 1982. That remains the standard in Athens.
SEC biggest games
LSU at Florida (Oct. 17)
The loser of this game will be up against it in the SEC race. Five of the past six meetings have been decided by single digits. This is a chance for the Gators to assert themselves as true playoff contenders.
Georgia at Alabama (Oct. 17)
This is the other matchup in what should be a huge doubleheader for the conference. The Bulldogs haven't visited Tuscaloosa since 2007, and this game will have huge SEC championship and CFP implications.
Georgia vs. Florida (Nov. 7)
Either Florida or Georgia has represented the SEC East in the conference championship game the past five years. The Bulldogs have won the past three meetings in this series, and the usual heavy weight is on the line in Jacksonville, Fla.
Alabama at LSU (Nov. 14)
The sequel to last year's "Game of the Century" should carry just as much weight. This is the toughest road game on the Crimson Tide's schedule. The winner likely will control its destiny ahead of the first CFP rankings on Nov. 17.
Auburn at Alabama (Nov. 28)
Nick Saban has never lost the Iron Bowl in consecutive seasons, and it's the biggest game of the traditional rivalry week. Alabama could clinch a spot in the SEC championship game here even though there will still be one game to play the following week. Can Bo Nix upset that plan?
SEC stat that matters
Joe Burrow passed for 5,671 yards and 60 touchdowns as part of a record-setting 2019 season that ranks among the greatest individual efforts of all time. The conference does not have another returning quarterback who passed for 3,000 yards last season. Alabama's Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia's Jake Fromm also are gone for the NFL. The Crimson Tide, Tigers and Bulldogs — the lead playoff contenders in the conference — all will have new quarterbacks under center. There are talented returning starters in the conference, including Nix, Florida's Kyle Trask, Texas A&M's Kellen Mond and Ole Miss' John Rhys Plumlee. Are any of those QBs capable of carrying their team to the SEC championship game?
SEC champion: Alabama
It's tough to pick anybody else. The Crimson Tide bring back another loaded roster, and they haven't gone consecutive seasons without winning the conference under Saban since 2010-11. Saban is 6-1 in the SEC championship game with Alabama, and he will add a seventh before another CFP run. The only question is whether more SEC teams will be in the playoff with the Crimson Tide.