Grading Seasons Across the SEC

Photo by Texas A&M Athletics (@AggieFootball on X)

By Tucker Harlin

KNOXVILLE, Tenn- The 2023 SEC football season officially concluded with Alabama’s 27-20 loss to Michigan in the Rose Bowl.

Every year, fans set expectations for their team ahead of the upcoming season. So how did each team stack up to the expectations set ahead of 2023?

This is an assessment of every SEC team’s 2023 season by letter grade:

ALABAMA: Record: 12-2  Letter Grade: A-

Championships are always the expectation in Tuscaloosa, but this season saw the most uncertainty in a long time for the Crimson Tide. 

With a lack of proven skill players on offense, the loss to Texas appeared to be an early nail in the coffin on the Tide’s 2023 season. 

But once SEC play began, the Tide turned. It secured 14-point wins over Ole Miss, Tennessee, and LSU at home, and converted a fourth-and-31 at Auburn to reach the SEC championship.

The Tide went on to win the SEC title over then No. 1 Georgia, avenging its national championship loss in 2021 and punching a ticket to the College Football Playoff after spending most of 2023 in the bottom half of the Top 10.

But the Rose Bowl loss to Michigan will leave a sour taste in the mouths of Tide fans all offseason.

ARKANSAS: Record: 4-8  Letter Grade: F

With the backfield tandem of KJ Jefferson and Raheim Sanders in its third season together, you would think the Razorbacks were going to be a force to be reckoned with on offense.

Instead, injuries, a patchy offensive line, and a fired offensive coordinator made 2023 a season to forget for Razorback fans.

The lone bright spot for the Hogs was their 39-36 overtime win at Florida, a program-first. 

The Hogs did not win a game in the SEC West’s final year of existence. Coupled with the fact that they held onto Sam Pittman after a four-win season, the future is not promising in Fayetteville.

AUBURN: Record: 6-7  Letter Grade: C+

Hugh Freeze inherited a major rebuilding task when he took the job on the plains, but 2023 could have been so much more for the Tigers.

The Tigers had double-digit wins over Mississippi State, Vanderbilt, and Arkansas in SEC play. Additionally, the Tigers logged a road victory at California toward the beginning of the season, and the Golden Bears ended up reaching their first bowl in five seasons.

The Tigers were frustratingly close to something special in their losses to Georgia and Alabama, losing each by single digits after blowing second half leads.

But the real head scratchers came in the losses to New Mexico State and later to Maryland in the Music City Bowl.

The Aggies put together one of their best seasons in program history, but a bowl-bound SEC team should not lose on its own field by three touchdowns to New Mexico State.

As for the bowl, the Tigers knew they were not going to see Taulia Tagovailoa at quarterback for Maryland. Even without Tagovailoa, the Terps were able to put away the Tigers early in the Music City Bowl.

FLORIDA: Record: 5-7  Letter Grade: F

Mediocrity is not handled well in Gainesville, and the breaking point is drawing closer for Gator fans and Billy Napier.

Following a double-digit loss at Utah to begin the season, Gator fans were treated to the typical red herring of a victory over Tennessee. Despite a bad loss at Kentucky, the Gators sat at 5-2 seven games into the season.

What followed was five consecutive losses. Aside from the losses to Georgia and LSU, the Gators blew ample opportunities to become bowl eligible down the stretch.

2024 is now a prove-it season for Billy Napier and the Gators, and all but one of the games on the schedule are against Power Five competition.

GEORGIA: Record: 13-1  Letter Grade: A-

Kirby Smart has built a championship-winning program in Athens over the past eight seasons. But when expectations are set as high as they were for the Bulldogs, anything less than perfection is a disappointment.

The Bulldogs started SEC play with a handful of lackluster wins over South Carolina, Auburn, and Vanderbilt. Injuries to significant players began mounting in the middle of the season, and November appeared to be a daunting stretch.

Instead, the Bulldogs played some of their best football in that stretch, the only close win coming at home against a good Missouri team.

However, the loss to Alabama in the SEC championship ousted the Bulldogs from their No. 1 status and College Football Playoff contention.

The Bulldogs took out their frustrations with a 60-point victory over Florida State in the Orange Bowl. Despite the shortcomings of 2023, Kirby Smart should have his team right back in the College Football Playoff conversation next season.

KENTUCKY: Record: 7-6  Letter Grade: B-

Mark Stoops has managed to string together eight consecutive bowl appearances, something not done easily in Lexington. But the last two seasons have Wildcat fans wondering how much further Stoops can take the program.

After winning their first five, the Wildcats were dealt a harsh reality check with a 51-13 loss at Georgia. The Wildcats then lost to Missouri at home for the first time in 10 seasons and suffered yet another close home loss to Tennessee.

The Wildcats did manage to outlast a 10-win Louisville team the final week of the season. 

But the win was sandwiched by losses at South Carolina and against Clemson in the Gator Bowl, and both Palmetto squads had disappointing seasons.

Additionally, Mark Stoops appeared to want the job at Texas A&M when it opened, making Wildcat fans question his desire to be the head man in Lexington.

LSU: Record: 10-3  Letter Grade: B

Brian Kelly has kept LSU relevant in his first two seasons in Baton Rouge. But after a promising 10-win season in 2022, 2023 saw no corners turned.

In what was a chance to exact revenge to begin the season, the Tigers were blown out by Florida State in Orlando.

While the Tigers offense has taken steps forward compared to what it once was, the play of the defense frustrates many of their great defenders of old.

Lack of a firm defense was evident in the losses at Ole Miss and Alabama, and it kept the Tigers from bigger victories over several other conference foes. 

Jayden Daniels became the second Tiger to bring home the Heisman trophy in five seasons. Despite Daniels opting out of the Reliaquest Bowl, the Tigers were able to outlast Wisconsin to pick up their tenth win.

But the lack of defensive prowess irked Kelly to the point of firing all of his position coaches on that side of the ball.

MISSISSIPPI STATE: Record: 5-7  Letter Grade: C-

A streak of 12 straight bowl appearances was broken in 2023 by Mississippi State. But it is hard to be critical of a team that went through what the Bulldogs did following the 2022 season.

There was not an athletic director in place at the time of Mike Leach’s passing, so the university had to make an impulsive decision and give Zach Arnett the job.

The Bulldogs had one ugly victory at Arkansas in SEC play, and the departure from Leach’s air raid had quarterback Will Rogers in a rut. Following a 51-10 defeat at Texas A&M, athletics director Zac Selmon made the decision to relieve Arnett of his duties.

Selmon brought in Oklahoma offensive coordinator Jeff Lebby to take the vacancy, a hire that has Bulldog fans hopeful for the return of a potent offense.

MISSOURI: Record: 11-2  Letter Grade: A+

In his first three seasons on the job, Eli Drinkwitz could not guide Missouri to a winning season. But the fourth year of the Drinkwitz era was more than any Tiger fan could have hoped for.

Harrison Mevis’ 61-yard game-winning field goal against Kansas State was just the tip of the iceberg on the Tigers’ best season since 2014.

After sweeping non conference competition, the Tigers’ only hiccups were in shootout against LSU and a rough second half at Georgia. The Tigers’ SEC success was highlighted by their first victory at Kentucky in 10 seasons and a dominant home win over Tennessee.

Though it was not pretty, the Tigers won the Cotton Bowl against Ohio State to cap a dream of a season. With many of their key contributors returning in 2024, the future is bright heading into Drinkwitz’ fifth season.

OLE MISS: Record 11-2  Letter Grade: A+

Few that have coached at Ole Miss can say they guided the Rebels to a 10-win season. 

Lane Kiffin is the only coach in Ole Miss football history that can say he guided the Rebels to an 11-win season.

The only two low points of the Rebels’ season in 2023 were the double-digit road losses to the two best teams in the SEC in Alabama and Georgia. 

Among the highlights for the Rebels was their fourth win in program history at Auburn, a shootout victory over LSU that resulted in a field storming, and a Peach Bowl victory over Penn State.

Couple an 11-win season with a bevy of high-profile transfers and there is not another team in the SEC with the momentum of the Rebels.

SOUTH CAROLINA: Record: 5-7  Letter Grade: F

The second year of the Spencer Rattler era had many optimistic that the Gamecocks would take a step forward in 2023. But a challenging stretch of games to begin the season coupled with the wear and tear of injuries made the opposite happen in Columbia.

A neutral site loss to North Carolina and four SEC road losses made up the bulk of the Gamecocks’ 2-6 start. Perhaps the most disappointing aspect of the first eight games was the home loss to Florida, a game in which the Gamecocks led by 10 late.

The Gamecocks put themselves in a position to become bowl eligible by winning their first three games in November, but a frustrating home loss to Clemson in the season finale crushed their bowl hopes.

With Rattler and many others gone, a rebuild of the offense is in order for the 2024 season.

TENNESSEE: Record: 9-4  Letter Grade: B

After a dream of a season in 2022, it was going to be a tall order to make the College Football Playoff in 2023 given what Tennessee had lost.

The three biggest tests for the Vols each season are against Florida, Alabama, and Georgia. 

They lost all three.

Georgia and Alabama found their ways to the SEC championship, but Florida finished the season 5-7. Additionally, the Vols ran into a nasty surprise at Missouri in their final road game of the season, giving them their fourth loss.

But some of the disappointment was undone as the Vols were fortunate to find their way into the Citrus Bowl. 

The Vols trounced a 10-win Iowa team to finish the year with an exclamation point.

TEXAS A&M: Record: 7-6  Letter Grade: D

With a heavily talented roster and a new offensive play caller, there was hope that the Aggies would make a jump in the SEC in 2023.

While they improved from their 5-7 season in 2022, they could not meet the demands of an unhappy fan base. 

A carousel of four quarterbacks plagued the offensive production all season long. The Aggies’ inability to win on the road, among other things, cost Jimbo Fisher his job with less than a month to play in the regular season. 

The Aggies gave Oklahoma State a fight in the Texas Bowl, but ultimately portal departures were costly for the defense.

VANDERBILT: Record: 2-10  Letter Grade: F

2022 saw a step forward for the Commodores, and a seemingly friendly front end to the schedule had fans hopeful for a bowl appearance in 2023.

Instead, the Commodores found themselves back in square one, not winning after their second game of the season.

Early losses to Wake Forest, UNLV, Kentucky, and Florida drained much of the Commodores’ momentum, especially considering the fans thought they would have decent chances to win those games.

With losses to SEC heavyweights on the back end of the schedule and a myriad of departures via the transfer portal, the future looks grim in West End.