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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

SEC preview: Georgia leads pack in hot pursuit of Alabama

In this Aug. 3, 2019 photo, Alabama head coach Nick Saban leaves the field after a team photo prior to Alabama’s fall camp fan-day college football scrimmage, in Tuscaloosa, Ala. Alabama is hardly immune to change, with an assemblage of new assistant coaches and the next wave of blue-chip prospects replacing the old ones. Two constants remain: coach Nick Saban and championship expectations. (Vasha Hunt / Associated Press)
By John Zenor Associated Press

MONTGOMERY, Ala. – Alabama is still king in the Southeastern Conference, if not nationally.

Nothing that happened in the national championship game changed that, beyond serving as a heartening reminder that Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide isn’t in fact invulnerable.

The pursuit continues in the SEC, with Georgia again leading the chase pack after coming ever so close the past two seasons – in league and national championship games.

So Tide players are motivated by the mantra “never be satisfied.” For Georgia, the catchphrase is “do more.” Meanwhile, both can eye each other throughout the regular season just in case they meet again in the SEC title game.

An Alabama team that won every regular-season game by at least 22 points, had to rally to beat the Bulldogs in Atlanta with the SEC title on the line before ultimately getting pummeled 44-16 by Clemson in the national championship game.

“Our mantra now for our guys that we have as a leadership group is to never be satisfied,” said Alabama quarterback Tua Tagovailoa, last season’s runner up for the Heisman Trophy. “Early in the season, we’d been beating teams by a lot. Of course you’re going to get satisfied, because you feel invincible as a team. But never being satisfied is the way to go for us. We’ve just got to keep going until we get what we want.”

Georgia safety J.R. Reed says the Bulldogs can’t focus on a potential SEC title game rematch with the Tide.

“We can’t look ahead way down the line, because we might not make it there if we look way down there,” Reed said. “We can’t count our eggs before they hatch.”

Teams like Florida, LSU and Texas A&M are ready to pounce if either favorite falters. All three, like Georgia and Alabama, have high hopes and veteran quarterbacks.

In fact, eight SEC quarterback starters return and four other teams could start graduate transfers.

While Alabama’s nonconference schedule is less formidable than usual, other potential SEC contenders have some big ones. Auburn opens with Oregon in Arlington, Texas. Then on Sept. 7, Texas A&M visits Clemson and LSU is at Texas before Georgia hosts Notre Dame on Sept. 21.

So there should be plenty of drama on the road to Atlanta.

Here are some things to know about the SEC this season:

The favorites

East: If any team is threatening the SEC supremacy of Alabama’s program, it’s Georgia. The Bulldogs have not only challenged the Tide on the field but on the recruiting trail. Led by quarterback Jake Fromm , Georgia is the clear favorite to win a third consecutive division title. The Florida Gators are coming off Dan Mullen’s 10-win debut season and Missouri is boosted by the addition of quarterback Kelly Bryant , a former Clemson starter.

West: Alabama remains the favorite, as usual. But LSU’s Ed Orgeron and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher are trying to build on solid 2018 seasons when the Tigers won 10 games and the Aggies went 9-4. Auburn, Arkansas, Mississippi and Mississippi State are breaking in new quarterbacks.

Top players

Derrick Brown, DT, Auburn: Opted to return for his senior season though he’s a highly rated NFL prospect. Centerpiece of what could be one of the nation’s top defensive lines.

Grant Delpit , DB, LSU: A unanimous All-American and finalist for the Nagurski Award as the nation’s top defender. Delpit led the league with five interceptions but also had 74 tackles and five sacks.

Fromm, QB, Georgia: One of the nation’s most efficient passers, ranking fifth last season. Has 54 touchdown passes against just 13 interceptions in two seasons as starter.

C.J. Henderson, CB, Florida: The latest standout defensive back for the Gators. Has six interceptions over the past two seasons and returned a pair of them for touchdowns in 2017.

Jerry Jeudy , WR, Alabama: Tagovailoa’s favorite target won the Biletnikoff Award last season and is a bigtime deep threat. Hard to double team because the Tide has so many weapons in the passing game.

Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: Was the SEC offensive player of the year and lost out on the Heisman to Oklahoma’s Kyler Murray in his first season as the starter. He set Alabama single-season passing records with 43 touchdowns and 3,966 yards.

Andrew Thomas, LT, Georgia: A second-team AP All-American last season, he’s one of the nation’s better offensive lineman. Helps protect Fromm and pave the way for a running game led by D’Andre Swift.

New faces

Sure, every SEC head coach returns for the first time since 2006, but there was plenty of change among coordinators. The league has 11 new offensive and defensive coordinators , with Alabama and Georgia each replacing the play callers on both sides of the ball.

On the hot seat

It might be too much to ask for all 14 coaches to survive for a second straight year. The warmest seat going into the season belongs undoubtedly to Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, who’s set to start a freshman quarterback – either Joey Gatewood or Bo Nix – against a difficult schedule.