$10 million coaches predicted to meet again for SEC title

University of Georgia photo / Georgia football coach Kirby Smart and Alabama counterpart Nick Saban share a laugh before last December's Southeastern Conference championship game won 41-24 by the Crimson Tide. The Bulldogs would exact revenge in January's national championship matchup with a 33-18 triumph.

Which teams are expected to vie for this year's Southeastern Conference football championship?

The two with the $10 million coaches, of course.

Alabama and Georgia are again the overwhelming picks to win their respective divisions this season after the league office Friday released the voting totals that were compiled earlier this week at SEC media days at Atlanta's College Football Hall of Fame. Nick Saban's Crimson Tide received 177 of 181 first-place votes to win the Western Division, while Kirby Smart's Bulldogs racked up 172 of the 181 first-place votes in the East.

In the vote for the overall league champion - something media members have projected correctly just nine times in the past 30 years but in five of the last eight - Alabama received 158 votes to Georgia's 18. Alabama has played in six of the last SEC title games, including last December's version won 41-24 by the Crimson Tide over the Bulldogs.

"We've had a really good offseason with our team," Saban said Tuesday during his time at the media days podium. "We had a good summer with our players. I think our team has made improvements and progress in a lot of areas, whether it's physical development, attitude development, and trying to develop a mindset that will allow us to have good team chemistry in the future."

Saban is scheduled to make $10.6 million this year, while Smart received a new deal Thursday that starts at $10.25 million.

Alabama had nine first-team selections on the preseason All-SEC squad, including reigning Heisman Trophy winner Bryce Young at quarterback and reigning Bronko Nagurski Trophy winner Will Anderson at outside linebacker. Three more Crimson Tide first-team picks - running back Jahmyr Gibbs (Georgia Tech), receiver Jermaine Burton (Georgia) and cornerback Eli Nicks (LSU) - arrived in Tuscaloosa this past offseason via the transfer portal after playing elsewhere last autumn.

PREDICTED SEC FINISH

Eastern Division1. Georgia (172) 1,2542. Kentucky (4) 9323. Tennessee (1) 9294. Florida 7125. South Carolina (3) 6626. Missouri 3837. Vanderbilt (1) 196Western Division1. Alabama (177) 1,2622. Texas A&M (3) 9683. Arkansas (1) 8444. Ole Miss 6755. LSU 5916. Mississippi State 3907. Auburn 338Overall champion1. Alabama 1582. Georgia 183. South Carolina 34. Texas A&M 14. Vanderbilt 1

Georgia, of course, exacted revenge with January's 33-18 triumph over the Tide that resulted in the program's first national title since 1980. The Bulldogs have played in four of the last five SEC championship contests but last won that crown in 2017.

"I'm excited about this team because there is a lot of opportunity," Smart said Wednesday. "People have said, 'Do you have the talent? Do you have enough talent within your program?' We have plenty of talent. What we lack right now is experience.

"That's our job as coaches - to put these guys in a position to be successful, react in a calm manner and have the experience they need to play well against Oregon (Sept. 3 in Atlanta). That game will help set us up for the SEC gauntlet we have coming up after that."

The closest balloting from a team standpoint was for second place in the East, which Kentucky claimed with 932 total votes to Tennessee's 929. The voting mirrored where the Wildcats and Volunteers finished last season.

Tennessee was picked fifth in the division a year ago.

"Last year we broke eight school records on the offensive side of the football," Tennessee coach Josh Heupel said Thursday. "We finished top 10 in the country for tackles for loss. We had five guys who were drafted, the most for our program since 2017. There is a ton of excitement with everybody in Vol Nation and with recruits across the country.

"With our fan base, you can feel and sense that energy every single day."

Edge rusher Byron Young was Tennessee's only preseason first-team selection, with quarterback Hendon Hooker, receiver Cedric Tillman and tackle Darnell Wright making the second team. Earning third-team nods were center Cooper Mays, linebacker Jeremy Banks, safety Trevon Flowers and punter Paxton Brooks.

Smith tabs Bulldogs

Georgia picked up the 16th commitment and the sixth in-state commitment for its 2023 signing class Friday afternoon, receiving a nonbinding pledge from Kelton Smith of Carver High in Columbus. The 6-foot-5, 300-pounder is a four-star prospect, according to the 247Sports.com composite rankings, and the No. 10 interior offensive lineman.

The Bulldogs are fourth in the 247Sports team rankings, trailing only Ohio State, Notre Dame and Texas.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com.