10 questions I have about the SEC East in 2020
With the 2019 season now in the rearview and National Signing Day, Part 2 just around the corner, it’s as good a time as any to take stock of the college football landscape as we push toward spring football and the 2020 season.
In the SEC East, the landscape, at least in the previous 3 seasons, has been dominated by Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs.
It took a season for Smart to get his bearings and put his fingerprints on his alma mater’s program, but all he’s done since is go 36-7, come within a whisker of winning Georgia’s first national championship since the Carter Administration and capture the SEC East title for 3 consecutive seasons. Smart is the first coach since Steve Spurrier — another guy who knows a thing or two about raising his alma mater to national power status — to win the SEC East in 3 consecutive seasons and with Georgia’s immensely talented roster, there’s no reason to think the Dawgs can’t capture a 4th in 2020.
Nevertheless, the division as a whole continues to improve. A year after winning the crossover head-to-head against the SEC West for the first time in several seasons, the East broke even with the West in 2019. The strength of Georgia, coupled with a rising Florida under Dan Mullen, certainly helped, as the Dawgs and Gators went 3-1 vs. the West, with the only loss a fiercely contested Florida-LSU game in Baton Rouge.
But other programs are either on the rise or appear to be headed for better days as well. After a horrid start, Tennessee reeled off 6 consecutive wins to close Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt, a streak that included a thrilling comeback Gator Bowl victory over Indiana. Meanwhile, Kentucky managed to stitch together 8 wins and a bowl victory despite losing 2 scholarship quarterbacks before the end of October. Mark Stoops has built a consistent program in Lexington and the days of Kentucky being a divisional pushover appear over. The division’s other programs — South Carolina, Missouri and Vanderbilt — all had forgettable campaigns in 2019, but at Missouri, a coaching change has infused the program with much-needed enthusiasm in the cloud of the NCAA’s dreadful handling of Mizzou’s probation appeal and at South Carolina and Vanderbilt, there’s optimism that two young football teams can turn the corner in 2020.
Nothing builds hope and hype more than spring football and talking season, so with that in mind, here are 10 topics of conversation I have about the SEC East in 2020.
10. Derek Mason’s last stand in Nashville?
First things first. Derek Mason is a good football coach. Stanford has dropped off noticeably since his departure and he’s still widely regarded as one of the best defensive minds in the sport.
He’s gone bowling twice in 6 seasons at Vanderbilt, which is nothing to sneeze at given the program’s vast facility deficit and lack of high-end booster and institutional support.
But at some point, doesn’t he need to have a winning season? Didn’t James Franklin prove that possible — even at Vanderbilt?
Mason is 27-47 in 6 seasons and while new athletic director Malcolm Turner bravely defended his football coach and finally acknowledged the elephant in the room — that Vandy needed wholesale facilities upgrades and institutional changes to compete in the SEC — it’s still fair to ask if Mason is the guy to navigate Vanderbilt through this transitional phase. At Vandy, you don’t get fired for a 3-9 season a year removed from a bowl game. But another disappointing season could signal that it’s time for a change in Nashville.
9. Missouri’s riverboat gamble
For me, the most interesting, bold non-Lane Kiffin hire of the offseason was Missouri’s decision to tap 36-year-old Eli Drinkwitz as its next head coach. Drinkwitz, a disciple of innovative offensive minds Gus Malzahn and Boise State’s Bryan Harsin, had a roaringly successful season at Appalachian State in 2019, leading the Mountaineers to a 12-1 record. Drinkwitz is considered a bright young offensive mind, and the ‘Neers did finish 39th in the NCAA in total offense and 27th in yards per play in 2019, but how much of Drinkwitz’s success had to do with the culture and roster left in place by his predecessor, Scott Satterfield, is a fair question raised by cynics. Did Missouri reach on a young guy hoping he’d become the next big star? Perhaps.
There’s also the question of whether a young coach still making a name for himself can make inroads in recruiting and increase the talent quotient in CoMo. Drinkwitz is young and energetic and has ties to the South in his time in Boone and at Arkansas State, but he has very little experience competing for the types of recruits who litter SEC rosters. Maybe a little youthful juice is what the program needed — which is why Missouri’s administration turned away from more proven commodity retreads like Jim McElwain and other prime targets on Jim Sterk’s list, such as Skip Holtz and Jeff Monken. That’s a calculated gamble — and one Missouri decided was worth the risk as the program faces the prospects of competing in a division with national power Georgia, rising Florida and awakening Tennessee.
8. The last ride of Jarrett Guarantano
If there is a stranger football player in the SEC, I haven’t seen him play.
Take the Gator Bowl for example. Jarrett Guarantano looked hopeless for 3 quarters, then made every possible big throw and proper decision down the stretch to lead a stirring Tennessee comeback victory in the 4th quarter.
In a way, that game was a microcosm of his 2019 as a whole. Guarantano started terribly and was benched in Tennessee’s blowout loss at Florida. He sat behind freshman Brian Maurer until Maurer was injured against Miss State, then helped the Vols win that season-changing game, too. Everyone remembers the goalline fumble against Alabama, but few remember that he was tearing South Carolina apart before being hurt. But by season’s end, with Maurer battling injury and Guarantano showing an improved grasp of Jim Chaney’s offense, it was clear that despite Maurer’s talent, Guarantano was still the right guy to lead this football team.
That’s a big reason he decided to return for his senior season instead of seeking a grad transfer. Guarantano’s always had the tools — escapability in the pocket, a huge arm. Now it’s about finding consistency. Tennessee’s September will go a long way in telling the story: The Vols visit Oklahoma before welcoming a Florida team that has steamrolled them the past 2 seasons to Knoxville on Sept. 26. If the Vols want to establish themselves as legitimate contenders again in the East, they’ll need to beat the Gators. That starts with Guarantano.
7. What’s acceptable at South Carolina?
Was the whole “Will Muschamp is our football coach” mostly about Will Muschamp’s massive buyout? If I put my readers on and evaluate it, the answer is “probably.”
Then again, the Gamecocks had as brutal a schedule as anyone in America in 2019 and battled crippling injuries throughout the season. If the team is healthier, the schedule opens up — especially a September slate of Coastal Carolina, East Carolina, Missouri and one road game — at Kentucky. The Gamecocks were competitive in plenty of their losses — and there was that upset win over Georgia in Athens. But a fast start is essential. Otherwise, the noise in the system will become overwhelming in Columbia.
What’s acceptable is the big question. If the Gamecocks go 6-6 and qualify for a bowl game, is that truly the standard Tanner wants? Or does South Carolina need 7 or 8 victories to make everyone feel better about the program’s direction in Year 5 under Muschamp? Time will tell, but Muschamp’s fate is the biggest question swirling that program ahead of 2020.
6. Will Tennessee’s offensive line be the league’s best?
Here’s a testament to the way Pruitt is building the Tennessee program inside-out.
Tennessee had easily the SEC’s worst offensive line in 2018 and on paper, the worst outside of Rutgers in the Power 5. They improved a bit in 2019, and by season’s end, the Vols were relatively consistent in pass protection and got a decent push in the run game.
The group needs to continue to improve and gel, but the talent Pruitt has put on campus and/or developed is immense.
If Wanya Morris and Darnell Wright progress as Tennessee hopes and Trey Smith’s body holds up, the Vols should have three of the league’s best linemen. And that’s before the Cade Mays transfer and eligibility riddle is solved. This is a super-talented starting 5 at a minimum and Pruitt has loaded the unit with young depth. There’s a chance this is the SEC’s best OL in 2019 — if the group gels and stays healthy.
5. Jamie Newman reality vs. Jamie Newman hype
After Georgia legend Jake Fromm’s somewhat surprising decision to go pro, Georgia hit the transfer portal to solve its quarterback quandary and landed Wake Forest’s Jamie Newman.
Newman threw for over 2,800 yards and 26 touchdowns last season at Wake, excellent numbers that probably don’t even do justice to his size and talent.
But there are no realistic expectations for Newman. He’s already listed as a top 5 Heisman favorite in betting services, a sign of just how significant the hype will be around him all summer.
Newman could play great and never live up to that hype — and maybe Kirby Smart hopes he’ll do just that.
One thing is for sure, Newman will need to improve against elite teams. Last season at Wake Forest, he averaged only 6.5 yards per attempt against teams ranking in the top 50 of the S&P plus football rankings system — a number well below the national average (7.3). His completion percentage and rushing productivity took a hit in those contests too — something that is at least mildly concerning for a player making a jump in competition from the soft ACC to the mighty SEC. Newman will have plenty of talent around him, of course, a luxury he didn’t always have at Wake. But playing behind a rebuilt offensive line against a grueling early-season schedule, the answers as to whether the hype is justified will come quickly.
4. Will we stop sleeping on Kentucky, please?
No SEC staff outside of Baton Rouge did a better job than Mark Stoops and Kentucky last season.
They lost 2 starting quarterbacks — one of whom was a consensus preseason awards candidate — and reinvented themselves by installing a single-wing offense with a wide receiver playing quarterback on the fly midseason. It was a bold move by a coaching staff that put its confidence and trust in its players, who delivered. It would have been easy to feel sorry for themselves and go in the tank. Instead, Kentucky rattled off an 8-win season that included a stirring Belk Bowl victory.
Mark Stoops’ Kentucky, more than any program in the SEC, has a blue-collar identity. Kentucky is going to be physical, it is going to be fundamentally sound, and it won’t take a down off. They might get out-talented, but they won’t ever get outschemed. Stoops is the most underrated football coach in the country and with star quarterback Terry Wilson returning and an emergent run game, Kentucky will be just as big a pain to play against in 2020 as they were in 2019.
3. How will Florida replace those senior wide receivers?
Playing behind a skittish, young offensive line in 2019, Florida couldn’t get the run game going, finishing 106th in rushing offense. No matter: Dan Mullen simply turned the season over to Kyle Trask and a splendid wide receiver corps, led by 4 seniors: Tyrie Cleveland, Freddie Swain, Joshua Hammond and Van Jefferson. Jefferson, who just finished torching the competition at the Senior Bowl, was the best of the group, but all the others had their moments, whether it was Cleveland’s blocking at South Carolina, Swain’s catch-and-run against Auburn, or Hammond’s deep catch against Miami or game-clinching touchdown run at Kentucky. More vitally, those players were all team leaders — guys who would put logo over the name on the back of the jersey and would play special teams when asked.
Those are the types of players you build a winning culture with; they are also the types of players who are hard to replace, on and off the field. From a production standpoint, those players make up 4 of Florida’s top 6 targets in terms of passing game production. Florida has talent at the position, including returnees Trevon Grimes, Kadarius Toney and Jacob Copeland. Mullen has also upgraded that talent this offseason with the addition of high 4-star recruit Xzavier Henderson and former 5-star Penn State transfer Justin Shorter. But talent doesn’t always mean immediate production. Whether Florida’s wide receivers can produce is a huge question in Gainesville ahead of 2020.
2. Georgia’s offensive overhaul
Here’s the list of Georgia starters returning on offense: Trey Hill and George Pickens.
That’s the list.
Yes, Georgia’s recruited exceptionally well. I happen to think the wide receiver room is one of the deepest and most talented in America, for example. But that’s still a lot of change, especially for a program that takes a trip to Alabama in September.
Kirby Smart appears to be using the personnel changes to reevaluate scheme somewhat. Gone is the pro-style Jake Fromm and D’Andre Swift system and in is a more RPO reliant offense that will be tailored by offensive coordinator Todd Monken. That offense should suit Jamie Newman, who excelled in Dave Clawson’s RPO scheme at Wake Forest. In the NFL, Monken’s offenses — specifically the one he called plays for in Tampa Bay in 2018 — was known for its vertical passing game. That means the Bulldogs will be trying to adjust the system to their personnel — something Smart hasn’t always allowed at Georgia.
Whether it works with so many new faces is the intriguing question.
1. Is it Florida’s time?
Florida has questions at wide receiver, but the offensive line appeared to gel late in the season and the Gators return the SEC’s best quarterback in Kyle Trask.
You know that Todd Grantham is going to field a competitive product on defense and Florida’s recruiting uptick has edged them closer to Georgia, Alabama and LSU from a blue-chips on roster percentage standpoint.
The schedule also softens up: instead of Auburn, Florida visits a rebuilding Ole Miss. Instead of a tough road game at LSU, the Tigers come to the Swamp. South Carolina is down. Kentucky visits Gainesville.
In other words, it all comes down to the Cocktail Party.
So far, that’s been a house of horrors for Dan Mullen and a place of purpose for the Georgia alum Smart. If that changes this season, the SEC East champion will, too.