April Fools is canceled? Regardless, here's 1 thing about every SEC team we probably shouldn't believe in 2020
Until further notice, we’re going to talk about this season as if we’re going to have one in its entirety. I realize things can change (quickly), but we’re working with the information that’s provided for now.
That means we have actual football to talk about. Specifically, we have strengths and weaknesses to discuss. Those 2020 conversations have already picked up steam. After all, we should be knee-deep in spring games right now.
Usually, my job is to try and convince you what you should believe. Like, Ed Orgeron isn’t the same coach he was a decade ago. Or rather, Dan Mullen knows his way around a playbook. Some things are easier to convince you of than others.
Today, however, let’s dig into some myths about SEC teams in 2020. In honor of an unusual April Fools’ Day, here’s something you shouldn’t believe about each team:
Alabama — The days of Nick Saban’s dominant defense are over
Last year, Alabama’s defense:
- A) Had 4 freshmen starting in the front 7 because of injury
- B) Was without its quarterback, Dylan Moses
- C) Couldn’t slow down LSU, arguably the best offense in SEC history
- D) Still finished No. 13 nationally
- E) All the above
It’s “E.” It’s always “E.”
Is that my way of saying that Pete Golding did his job perfectly? No. He absolutely has questions to answer in 2020. Hearing players like Terrell Lewis say things like players were out of position and the play-calling wasn’t where it needed to be is troubling. But with Moses back, Alabama is suddenly much more experienced in the front 7. Add in the presence of Charlie Strong and the belief that the Crimson Tide are no longer capable of producing a top-5 defense seems premature.
Arkansas — A bowl is a realistic 2020 goal
It’s just not. I would have said that before COVID-19 took over, but that’s especially true with the circumstances surrounding Sam Pittman in Year 1. This is such a crucial period for a first-year coach, and Pittman isn’t getting the time he needs to establish his culture, nor are his players getting live reps in the new schemes they’ll be playing in. That’s such a tall task in the toughest division in America. A team that won 1 SEC game in the past 3 years shouldn’t be expected to suddenly triple its win total. Treat this as a true Year 0 for Pittman.
Auburn — Chad Morris is going to revert back to his Clemson self
Speaking of Morris, seeing people like Tajh Boyd predict that Bo Nix is about to have a monster year seems, um, ambitious? I don’t want to say Gus Malzahn is dead wrong when he claims Morris is the best offensive coordinator in America, but I also don’t want to pretend that’s somewhat close to being right. That’s based on what we’ve seen from Morris since he left Clemson. Are some people better suited to be coordinators than head coaches? Absolutely. Maybe that’ll be Morris. But with complete control of the offense, I’d want someone who had more than 1 finish among the top 50 scoring units in the Playoff era.
Florida — The Gators should be the obvious SEC East favorites
Two things can be true as that relates to 2020 Florida. Is now the best time to catch Georgia? Definitely. The Gators return a bunch of experience on the offensive line with a plenty-capable quarterback in Kyle Trask and several key offensive skill players. The Gators shouldn’t need to be an all-world defense to contain a Georgia offense that has questions galore with Jake Fromm, D’Andre Swift and basically that entire offensive line gone.
But does that mean Florida should be the overwhelming favorite to win the division? No. Those 3 consecutive losses to Georgia create a hurdle that needs to be cleared before Florida is considered the “obvious” favorite. Kirby Smart has still had Dan Mullen’s number, and until he doesn’t, it’s not fair to assume that Florida is in a class by itself in the East.
Georgia — The Dawgs should be the obvious SEC East favorites
See what I did there?
I say that because you can’t have that much offensive turnover and still be penciled in as the no-doubt favorite when there’s another top-10 team in the division. Is this going to be the year that Florida ends the streak? I don’t know, but I do know this sets up better than it has in years past, mainly because of Georgia’s turnover on the offensive line.
But does that mean Georgia should be expected to fall off the face of the Earth? Absolutely not. The top scoring defense in America is loaded with returning production. That’s still going to be a nightmare unit to battle for 60 minutes, even if the Dawgs’ new-look offense with Todd Monken isn’t a smashing success. You’re not going to lose a bunch of games if you only cough up 12 points per contest. That seems realistic for Kirby Smart’s defense.
Kentucky — No more Lynn Bowden means back to the SEC basement
It seems like an offseason tradition to write off Kentucky. It’s easy to say, “oh, well what they did last year was special, but they lost this guy, that guy and the other, so 6-7 wins seems realistic.” This year, replacing a once-in-a-decade player like Bowden will be at the forefront of the Kentucky doubt. Lost in the shuffle will be the return of the promising Terry Wilson, an experienced offensive line and a loaded defense that finished No. 14 in scoring last year. The Cats’ floor is much higher than people realize with Mark Stoops.
LSU — The offense will fall apart without Joe Brady
Brady revolutionized the LSU offense in a way that nobody could have imagined. His 1 year at LSU will go down among the best we’ve ever seen from an assistant in the sport. But Brady didn’t own exclusive play-calling duties, nor did he take the offense with him when he left Baton Rouge for the Carolina Panthers. Steve Ensminger isn’t going to revert the LSU offense to the LSU offense of old. The Tigers will still have plenty of 5-wide sets that’ll create big throwing windows for Myles Brennan.
Is it realistic to think LSU will produce at a level like it did in 2019? No, but there’s still plenty of reason to believe that Ensminger can lead a top-10 scoring offense.
Mississippi State — Year 1 of the Mike Leach era will produce a West contender
Do I think Leach was a fantastic hire? You bet. He’s as good of an offensive mind as there is in the sport, and he gave that program an identity it was searching for in the post-Dan Mullen era. But anything more than 8 wins would be considered a massive success in that division. Let’s not forget that it took Leach a bit of time to turn things around at Texas Tech and Washington State. At each of those places, he had 1 winning season in conference play in his first 4 years.
I’m not convinced that MSU, which does return some nice pieces on each side of the ball with Kylin Hill and Erroll Thompson, is going to suddenly flip a combined average margin of defeat of 26.3 points against Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Texas A&M.
Mizzou — The ground game will see an immediate surge under Eli Drinkwitz
It’s no secret that the Tigers struggled in the ground (3.8 yards per carry) while Drinkwitz led Appalachian State to 232 rushing yards per contest last year. It’s easy to assume that the return of Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie will yield a nice Year 1 boost with Drinkwitz. After all, he’s a Gus Malzahn disciple. But I’m not convinced that’ll be the case. Why? Well, part of it is the fact that Mizzou lost 3 multi-year starters on the offensive line. Also, Drinkwitz’s rushing offenses at NC State finished 86th, 50th and 100th. In a division with defensive minds like Mark Stoops, Jeremy Pruitt, Todd Grantham and Kirby Smart, I wouldn’t bet on the Tigers suddenly improving an obvious 2019 weakness.
Ole Miss — The defense won’t skip a beat with the new coaching staff
Sorry, but I’m not sold on the combination of DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge to actually lead a defense. I’ll save you my thoughts on Durkin having a Power 5 job again after what went down at Maryland, and I’ll instead focus on 2017, which was the last time he ran a defense. It finished No. 120. Someone who hasn’t led a decent defense in 5 years is running a unit in the toughest division in America. And Partridge is a solid recruiter, but he’s unproven as a coordinator. Compare that to Mike MacIntyre, who turned the nation’s No. 114 scoring defense into the No. 60 group in his first and only year in Oxford.
Yes, I have legitimate concerns that the Rebels will revert back to their 2017-18 defensive ways with this new staff.
South Carolina — Will Muschamp’s buyout will keep him off the hot seat
Muschamp’s buyout for Dec. 1, 2020 is $13.475 million. Is that a lot of money to fork over? Yes, but coming off a 4-win season and entering Year 5 in Columbia, anybody assuming that buyout will keep him around beyond this year is in denial. Muschamp will be on every hot seat list in America and understandably so. That’s life when you fall significantly short of expectations in consecutive years in the SEC. Could a 7-win season save him? Perhaps, but context is needed. Does Ryan Hilinski look like the real deal? Is the Mike Bobo hire working out? Is his defense at least in the middle of the pack? If Muschamp doesn’t answer those questions, yes, even a program like South Carolina will shell out an 8-figure buyout.
Tennessee — The Vols are ready to compete with Florida and Georgia
It was a much, much better year once the Vols hit mid-October. That much was obvious. It’s because of that finish that some will be tempted to put the Vols into that “sleeper SEC East” role. I’m not there yet. Why? The Vols have yet to even stay within 3 scores of either Florida or Georgia yet under Jeremy Pruitt. Do I believe they will in 2020? Definitely. That defense turned a corner and showed it was far better than the group that got run over by BYU (literally). But I need to actually see Tennessee find some offensive life against those elite defenses to even consider the possibility that there’s a 3rd team set to join Tier 1 in the East.
Texas A&M — The Aggies should be in the Playoff conversation
Again, this is about not jumping the gun. I’m a broken record, I know. But I still can’t ignore that A&M had 300 minutes against teams that finished in the top 15 last year, and the Aggies led in just 7 minutes and 42 seconds of them. That number should improve significantly in 2020. If it doesn’t, A&M fans might want a refund on that $75 million promise. As well as Jimbo Fisher recruited so far and as favorable as that schedule is, it’s still a major jump to say that a team that played 2 games as a top-15 team in the past 2 years is going to be a Playoff team. Let’s see it first.
Vanderbilt — Derek Mason shouldn’t have to deal with questions about his future
I can like Mason and think he has a pressure-packed year ahead. Part of that is because of the mess that is the Vanderbilt athletic department right now. And the other part of that is based on the fact that this is Year 7, and he only won 21% of his SEC games so far. They don’t hand out decade-long contracts in the SEC just because you’re a captivating speaker with a good reputation in the industry.
Don’t get it twisted. Mason has done some positive things at Vandy, but more recently, the defensive-minded coach led the nation’s No. 115 run defense. If Years 4 through 7 with a coach results in no better divisional finish than second-to-last, what are we doing here? You can be a fan of Mason’s attitude while acknowledging that an all-important 2020 awaits him in Nashville.