10 preseason SEC takes that I was dead wrong about
It’s never too early to admit I was wrong.
That’s what I found myself saying after a wild Week 3 in the SEC. Through 3 weeks, we’ve seen more stunning outcomes already than we have in most seasons. To be clear, I did predict that this year would unfold like that. After the pandemic took over the offseason and it wiped out spring ball, it didn’t necessarily surprise me that we got chaos.
And for what it’s worth, I did predict that A&M would beat Florida and that Arkansas would beat Mississippi State. Every blind squirrel finds a nut or something like that.
Still, though, there were plenty of things that happened after this bizarre offseason that threw me for a loop.
1. LSU will be just fine with Bo Pelini taking over for Dave Aranda
This offseason, I maintained that the Tigers would be one of the SEC’s better defenses with Pelini leading the way as long as he could just chill out. What I should have said is that LSU is in for an embarrassingly awful start on defense and Pelini will instantly look like the worst hire of the offseason. We watched Mike Leach and Eli Drinkwitz lead offenses that couldn’t be stopped by this LSU defense. The Tigers are dead last in FBS in allowing pass plays of 20 yards (22), and only 5 teams in FBS has allowed more yards per game (494.7).
Whatever juice Pelini had as an elite defensive mind in this sport looks gone. Stubbornness and an inability to get through to this defense made for a disastrous start. It’s hard to see Pelini looking anywhere close to worth that $2.3 million annual contract.
There’s zero chance that LSU will be “much better” on defense as Ed Orgeron maintained this offseason.
2. I’m not worried about Florida replacing a ton of defensive production; Todd Grantham always finds a way
I even stuck with that after the Ole Miss game because of Florida missing a few key guys. After 3 games, yeah, I’m bailing on that. Florida allowed 100 points, which is the most it allowed in a 3-game stretch since 1917. It wasn’t just that Florida lost to A&M. It was the way in which it happened. The Aggies were 12-of-15 on 3rd down. “Third and Grantham” might as well have been “Third and Automatic.”
It’s the tackling issues in the open field that are troubling, too. After this strange offseason, Dan Mullen said the Gators had barely tackled since the Orange Bowl. Three games in, that’s still true.
3. John Rhys Plumlee is too electric not to be Ole Miss’ starter
I’m a huge Plumlee believer, and I want to see him play football every Saturday. But mercy, Matt Corral is all sorts of electric in Lane Kiffin’s offense. There aren’t any limitations, and Corral looks like he’s in total control. As great as Plumlee is with the ball in his hands, obviously he has more limitations as a passer. That’s why he didn’t get this starting job. Instead, Corral did and it looks like he got the keys to a Ferrari. He’s perfect for Kiffin’s offense.
Second-and-22? Matt Corral don’t care pic.twitter.com/XRICEfVyxe
— Ben Garrett (@SpiritBen) October 11, 2020
Plumlee is still getting meaningful snaps, but after 3 games, Corral has separated himself not only as QB1, but as one of the top quarterbacks in America so far. I don’t know what Plumlee’s future holds. All I know is that he’s no longer the most electric quarterback in Oxford.
4. South Carolina’s ground game is in trouble without MarShawn Lloyd
I was bummed when the promising freshman suffered a season-ending injury. I was especially bummed for South Carolina fans who watched this program have a disastrous ground game during the Will Muschamp era. Then Kevin Harris showed up and looked like South Carolina’s first stud tailback since Mike Davis (the second South Carolina Mike Davis running back). Harris is now No. 2 in the SEC in rushing, and he holds the longest FBS touchdown run of the season.
We saw it in flashes last year, but Harris couldn’t really get work behind Tavien Feaster and Rico Dowdle. Now that he’s truly the lead back, he looks like someone worth building an offense around.
5. Kentucky’s established identity will lead to a 3-1 start
Woof, I botched this one. Kentucky finally got on the board after an 0-2 start, but it couldn’t even muster 200 yards in a win against MSU. I came into this year thinking that the Cats would start 2-0 with wins against Auburn and Ole Miss because of how established that ground game was and because of how much experience they had defensively. Instead, the Cats struggled in goal-line situations, they were undisciplined and they had major breakdowns defensively.
Mark Stoops is too good of a coach to let a team this talented crawl through a season, but I thought after the offseason that was with such limited time for actual football activities, Kentucky would be in a great starting spot. Instead, the Cats had to dig themselves out of an 0-2 hole.
With Tennessee and Georgia up next, Kentucky will be lucky if it doesn’t fall to 1-4.
6. Eric Gray will lead the SEC in carries
I leaned on my belief that Jim Chaney was going to want to build around that talented offensive line, which has been somewhat true so far. The problem was that I underestimated Ty Chandler’s involvement and how that would eat into the work of Gray, who exploded at the end of last season. Chandler currently has a 40-36 carry advantage on Gray. Besides not even having the most carries on his own team, Gray ranks No. 13 in the SEC in carries.
That could change like it did late in last season, but as of right now, it appears that Chaney would rather use Gray and Chandler like his 2017 Georgia duo of Sony Michel and Nick Chubb.
7. Alabama’s defense will look much more like what we’re used to seeing under Nick Saban
I said that I thought Pete Golding deserved a teeny, tiny break for last year because of all the injuries Alabama dealt with in the front 7, and that this year would be make or break for him. So far, that looks pretty dumb, especially after Ole Miss put up 647 (!) yards of offense and 48 points. Alabama can’t blame injuries. And honestly, you can’t even pin it on Ole Miss having Alabama’s signals, which as Lane Kiffin said, doesn’t really make much sense when you run that much up-tempo offense.
Alabama is missing tackles in the open field. Don’t forget the Ainias Smith play in the A&M game:
— Texas A&M Football (@AggieFootball) October 3, 2020
In 2 of its first 3 games of the year — AKA the only games that weren’t against a new coach making an SEC debut — Alabama surrendered at least 450 yards of offense. Even worse, Alabama ranks No. 70 of 76 FBS teams in pass defense and is 9th in the SEC in run defense. Yikes. That’s not even close to last year’s defense, which was what drew such criticism of Golding in the first place. If this continues at any rate, Saban will have himself a new defensive coordinator at season’s end … or by November.
8. MSU’s defense is in for a major regression with this new staff
I definitely discounted Zach Arnett’s impact on MSU. I was skeptical for a few reasons. For one, while he had the No. 2 scoring defense in FBS last year at San Diego State, defensive-minded Rocky Long was the head coach. I was also skeptical about how any defense could perform alongside Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. At Washington State, only 1 defense finished in the top 1/3 nationally, and at Texas Tech, only 1 of Leach’s teams had a top-20 defense. Besides, MSU lost a whopping 7 defensive players to the NFL Draft the last 2 years, which was why it ranked No. 113 in FBS in percentage of returning production.
I had a TON of reasons for why MSU shouldn’t have a good defense … but I clearly underestimated Arnett’s impact. Lost in the shuffle of MSU’s 1-2 start is the fact that the Bulldogs are No. 5 in the SEC in scoring defense, and they rank No. 5 nationally in run defense. Georgia is the only SEC team allowing fewer yards per game than MSU, who has looked like a totally different unit with guys like Marquiss Spencer and Aaron Brule playing at an All-SEC level.
If not for MSU’s offense leading Power 5 with 4.7 turnovers per game, we’d be talking about this defense a lot more.
9. No Jamie Newman? It’s a good thing Georgia has JT Daniels and D’Wan Mathis
Scratch that. I’ve already apologized to Stetson Bennett IV.
9A. There’s 1 thing preventing me from thinking UGA’s defense will be historically good
It was the nature of the offense. With Todd Monken’s Air Raid principles, I questioned if Georgia’s defense would have a slight dip in production because of a more pass-happy approach on offense with time of possession not as big of a priority. Yeah … about that. Here are some fun stats about this Georgia defense through 3 games:
- 3 offensive TDs allowed
- 0 2nd-half TDs allowed
- 0 rushing TDs allowed
- No. 1 in FBS with 38 rushing yards per game
- No. 1 among Power 5 in total defense
- No. 2 in FBS with 3.7 yards allowed per play
I’d argue that this Georgia team, if it were to continue allowing 12.3 points per game, would be a historically good unit. Why? Look around the SEC. Nobody else in the conference is in the top 20 nationally in scoring defense. The Dawgs are a full 10 points per game better than the next-best SEC defense. They are everything that Georgia fans hoped they’d be. This is shaping up to be one of those defenses where we can look back and pinpoint every touchdown scored against them. That’s how good Georgia is.
10. These new SEC coaches are in for absolutely brutal starts after this bizarre offseason
In my SDS Crystal Ball series, here were the 3-game starts I had predicted for each of the 4 new coaches in the SEC:
- Lane Kiffin: 0-3
- Eli Drinkwitz: 0-3
- Sam Pittman: 1-2
- Mike Leach: 1-2
I assumed that with the deck stacked against new coaches following an atypical offseason and a conference-only schedule, I thought tough times awaited them from the jump. As it turned out, all of them have a victory. Drinkwitz and Leach took down the defending national champs, Kiffin went on the road and beat what I thought would be a rock-solid Kentucky team and Pittman deserves to be 2-1. You could make a case that 3 of those 4 coaches should be in the way-too-early SEC Coach of the Year discussion, and that’s not including Leach, who debuted by shattering the SEC record books.
This easily could’ve been a “let’s feel sorry for ourselves” sort of start for these new SEC coaches, but that hasn’t been the case at all. It took them a whole 3 weeks to prove me wrong.