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Updated: Jun 10, 2023

Via South Carolina Athletics

Three things in life are guaranteed - death, taxes and the SEC making the College Football Playoff. Every year since the inception of the four-team playoff system, the SEC Champion has made an appearance, with only the occasional entry of the runner-up. In the title game itself, the SEC is 9-2 in championship game appearances (with the two losses being Georgia losing to Alabama and vice versa).

Entry to the Playoff for the SEC has largely been decided in the SEC Championship game, and usually the standard’s been for a team in red to represent either division. Last year saw an exception as Jayden Daniels outgunned Bryce Young to lead LSU to win the West, only to get blown out by reigning National Champions Georgia.

The exception, however, could become a repeat offender. This year looks wider than usual. Georgia should still win it, but keep in mind the Bulldogs lost a lot of talent to the NFL on the defensive side, and the quarterback position no longer features 38-year-old (!) Stetson Bennett IV calling the shots. Alabama brought in Notre Dame backup Tyler Buchner to replace #1 overall pick Bryce Young, but still hasn’t developed a true threat in the receiving core.

So, if there was ever an opportunity to rise up and challenge the usual suspects for a spot in the SEC title game (and potentially make the Playoff) who could it be?

Side note: I’m not including LSU because they are actually favored in a few circles to win the West, so there you go. Brian Kelly is one of few SEC coaches bringing back a proven quarterback.

Tennessee Volunteers – 2022 record, 10-2

It’s odd labeling a 10-win team as a dark horse, but that’s what you get when you share a division with Georgia. The Volunteers could’ve made the Playoff in 2022 without an SEC championship appearance, but then they went to Columbus and laid a Great Smokie Mountain-sized egg and lost Hendon Hooker for the season.

However, backup quarterback and future full-time starter Joe Milton stepped in and showed he’s ready to run the offense, leading the Vols to an Orange Bowl victory over ACC Champion Clemson. Bru McCoy returns as well, and Josh Heupel’s squad has proven they can beat mighty Alabama now. If they can get over the Georgia hump (they get the Bulldogs at home) then look out…well, the Georgia and South Carolina hump.

South Carolina Gamecocks – 2022 record, 8-4

Speaking of Cocky, remember when Sooner quarterback Spencer Rattler was the projected #1 NFL draft pick? He may not have lived up to the hype in Norman, but under Shane Beamer in Columbus he’s found new life, and could sneak his way into day two of the 2024 NFL Draft.

To get there, he’ll have to lead the Gamecocks on the meanest of streaks to Atlanta. They travel to Georgia, but that game will come early in the season. Texas A&M is coming off a down year, and they’ve proved they can beat Clemson and UT. Beamer knows how to get the most from his locker room, which returns ten total starters, and a tone-setting win over the UNC Tar Heels on September 2nd could be the boost they need to get rolling early.

Auburn Tigers, 2022 record, 5-7

Yeah, I know. “Oh boy, the Auburn insider is picking Auburn!” you say! Hear me out.

As Auburn proved once they had competent play-callers in the building, the Tigers can hang with anyone. Cadillac Williams inherited a shoddy offensive line, underperforming receiver core and a talented but inconsistent quarterback and powered the team to a 2-2 record in his only month as the interim head coach. Now, Williams is back on the sidelines, along with offensive guru Hugh Freeze, who has brought in roughly over 6,000 yards of experience to the Plains thanks to the transfer portal to pair with All-SEC caliber running back Jarquez Hunter.

Along with deep threat wideouts Shane Hooker of JSU, Jyaire Shorter from Texas State and Evan Engram TE comp Rivaldo Fairweather from FAU, he’s put the cherry on top of the #3 transfer class (according to On3) with former Michigan State quarterback Peyton Thorne. Thorne averaged 250 yards through the air when he led the Spartans to 10 wins in 2021. That’s the same average as the first year of a Hugh Freeze-led offense, making this a match made in heaven included with Auburn’s backfield.

Auburn faces both Alabama and Georgia at home this year, and if Ron Roberts, the defensive guru who taught Dave Aranda how to be a defensive guru, can get his unit hot and out of their minds, Auburn could pull off a bigger surprise than the 2013 season- A 12-win season that followed a 3-9 campaign.

What do you think? Who could be the surprise team to crash the SEC Championship? To crash the Playoff?

Let us know in the comments below!



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