The 4 SEC things I agreed with and 4 things I disagreed with from Athlon's quotes from anonymous coaches
Ah, anonymous coach season.
It’s a wonderful time of year. It’s when we see quotes that make us scratch our heads and immediately debate who said them.
Thanks to Athlon Sports, we had no shortage of anonymous coaches who weighed in on opposing teams (Athlon’s preseason magazine with all the quotes from anonymous coaches is on sale now).
Today, we’re just going to focus on the SEC. As in, what did these coaches say about SEC teams that I agreed with, and what did they say that I disagree with?
I came up with 4 apiece:
1. Auburn’s ability to always “reinvent and improve”
It’s weird that over the course of every offseason, I feel like I’m either talking myself into Auburn or out of Auburn. Last year, I talked myself into the Tigers because of how much experience they returned in the trenches. In a stunning turn of events, my 9-win preseason prediction was accurate.
That’s my way of saying that maybe I’m partially to blame for the first part of this quote from an anonymous coach:
“It feels like every single year talk radio and the media and fans want to fire Gus, and every year they find ways to reinvent and improve.”
It’s true that we often like talking about Malzahn’s job security. That’s based on what fans say, as well. But what I don’t agree with there was that “every year they find ways to reinvent and improve.”
Reinvent? Maybe. Malzahn adjusted his offense (slightly) to fit Jarrett Stidham’s skill set in 2017 and 2018, and in a 2019 offseason in which he took play-calling duties back and became “New Gus,” he started true freshman Bo Nix. Then, we found out that he was giving the offense over to fired Arkansas coach Chad Morris.
That reinvention hasn’t always netted improvement. Only once has Malzahn recorded consecutive winning SEC seasons in 7 years. He has yet to record consecutive finishes inside the top 20 of the AP Poll, and he had at least 4 losses in each of Auburn’s 6 seasons since that stunning national runner-up run in 2013.
Year-to-year stability seems to be a tough thing to find on The Plains.
2. Some Chad Morris things
I have concerns. A lot. I’m just not sold on Chad Morris. And I’ll be honest. I’m sort of sick of hearing about how much credit he deserves for building Clemson’s offense, which is partially why this quote made the “disagree” list.
“The first question everyone has is who is going to run that offense. Chad Morris was a disaster at Arkansas, but he’s one of the architects of that Clemson offense. He’s a great play-caller with his own style. So, is this a total program commitment, or will Gus Malzahn yank it back the first time they run into trouble?”
Clemson earned 5 consecutive Playoff berths, 4 national title trips and 2 rings since Morris left town. In that time, he had control over 5 offenses and only 1 finished in the top 70 in scoring. None of his offenses from 2015-19 beat a Power 5 team, either. That’s got “the game has passed him by” written all over it.
How sure are we that he’s still “a great play-caller.”
I actually think the questions about Malzahn wanting to yank control back are legit, despite the fact that he said he thought Morris was the best offensive coordinator in the country. I’ll pass on that.
3. A blunt assessment of Arkansas is fair, but that blunt?
Speaking of Morris, anonymous scouts aren’t exactly high on what he left Sam Pittman to inherit.
“(Pittman) is a well-respected career assistant who is great at his job, but it’s hard to find what he’s got, or what he can say or do with that program that could suddenly turn things around. They’ve got no personnel. The roster right now looks like NCAA sanctions hit them.”
Here’s the thing. I have no problem bashing Arkansas. We’re talking about a team with 19 consecutive SEC losses with just 1 conference win in the past 3 years. The Razorbacks deserve to catch heat.
But I’ll push back on the “they’ve got no personnel and it looks like NCAA sanctions hit them.” Feleipe Franks won a New Year’s 6 Bowl as an SEC starting quarterback, Arkansas returns one of the country’s better backs in Rakeem Boyd, and the combination of Trey Knox and Treylon Burks will take a nice step up this year. That’s a plenty capable offense for Kendal Briles to at least flirt with mediocrity.
And defensively, yeah, I’ve got questions, too. But what I don’t doubt is Barry Odom, who showed that he’s a fantastic defensive coordinator. His defenders will be put in much better spots, and he’ll maximize the talent they have coming back.
I’m not saying Arkansas is going to a bowl game, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if Pittman earned more believers than doubters this year. It’s not crazy to think the Razorbacks could actually improve after a pair of dumpster fire seasons.
4. A Heisman season for Najee Harris?
I like the Alabama running back. A lot. His running style reminds me of Adrian Peterson. It’s angry, it’s punishing, it’s elusive, it’s special.
But a Heisman season? I’m not quite on board with that like this anonymous coach:
“This is going to be a Heisman campaign season for Najee Harris, go ahead and make your bet. They don’t have a quarterback locked in. And their other weakness on offense is turning over receivers. So we think Steve Sarkisian is gonna find ways to scheme Najee into everything they can.”
In the 4 Heismans since Derrick Henry won the award in 2015, Bryce Love is the only running back who finished in the top 3 of the final voting. Think of all the good backs who missed that. Christian McCaffrey and Leonard Fournette didn’t get there in 2016, Saquon Barkley missed out in 2017 and Jonathan Taylor never finished better than No. 5.
It’s not that I think Harris will lack production, though there’s something to be said for the highly anticipated debut season of Trey Sanders. But I also think that whether it’s Mac Jones or Bryce Young, Alabama will throw the ball plenty. The Crimson Tide still have DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle.
Is Harris going to get the 300-plus touches that a Heisman winner needs? Based on how he was used in Steve Sarkisian’s offense last year — he only had 2 games of 25-plus touches — I’d say it’s unlikely that the volume will support a Heisman-worthy season.
I wouldn’t place that bet.
1. Mississippi State’s inevitable defensive struggles with Mike Leach
If MSU is mediocre on defense this year, I’d say that’s a win. At Washington State, Leach’s teams finished worse than No. 90 in scoring in 4 of his 8 seasons, including the 2019 season when that unit was No. 93 in FBS. In 18 years as a Power 5 head coach, he had 11 defensive players drafted.
In other words, yeah, I think losing Willie Gay, Cam Dantzler and Brian Cole was significant for MSU. Anonymous coaches are also anticipating a rough Year 1 on that side of the ball.
“It could be bad, especially if there’s a learning curve for the offense and they’re creating a lot of quick, non-scoring drives. This is a ruthless, physical league that’s built on the line of scrimmage. We’re gonna find out right away if teams just grind them down. And does that hurt them in recruiting that side of the ball?”
To be fair, I do think this offense will pass for a ton of yards and put up some points, though they should struggle against the elite West foes. With all due respect to new defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, I’m not crazy optimistic about someone who has 2 years of FBS coordinator experience. At least not to turn around a unit that lost 7 starters that’s facing the toughest division in America.
2. The “if not now, when” assessment of Jimbo Fisher
This. A hundred times this.
“This is the season that’s going to make or break Jimbo Fisher. It’s not that he’s on the hot seat at all with that contract, but this is the year he has to show them he can make A&M a national title contender. The schedule is as good as they can manage it, and they could be undefeated headed into the November games.”
A coach who is still owed $60 million is not on a hot seat. But in terms of why this is a bit of a “make or break” year for Fisher, that’s from a recruiting standpoint and having fan support. He has been given a pass for a 1-5 start against the likes of Alabama, Auburn and LSU, and only leading in 7 minutes and 42 seconds against teams that finished in the top 15 last year is, um, not elite.
But in Year 3 with the SEC’s most experienced starting quarterback, now is Fisher’s time to make a jump. Everyone knows that in those first 10 games, A&M’s only matchup with a team that won more than 6 games last year is at Auburn, which has its own issues.
If A&M isn’t sitting there in early December waiting on a New Year’s 6 Bowl bid, something has gone horribly wrong.
3. Georgia’s offensive identity crisis
Relax, Georgia fans.
I’m talking about last year. That’s what the anonymous coach said about the Dawgs’ lackluster offense and why it was time for a change.
“They certainly went through an identity crisis, and that’s what they have to settle in camp. You could kind of understand their offensive methodology — with those backs they produce, it made sense to stay on the ground, to run pro. The problem wasn’t the talent, it was the predictability.”
I’d argue that Georgia should have made the switch to the Air Raid before 2019, but hindsight is 20-20. We were talking about an elite offensive line with one of the top backs in the country. Then again, throwing the ball 40 times per game didn’t make sense with all of that inexperience at receiver.
Now, though, Georgia will look like a modern offense and not one that’s got a few too many 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust plays for a team that talented. And while the Dawgs have different personnel, don’t assume that Todd Monken’s offense will mean the death of the running back. Nick Chubb just had a Pro Bowl season with the Browns in Monken’s offense. This offense shouldn’t mean Zamir White is going to be getting 10 carries a game.
Georgia should look different in 2020. If the offense can get on the same page after this weird offseason, it’ll be much better to watch than 2019.
4. Florida’s sky-high expectations are justified
OK, this one is a bit obvious.
“In many ways Florida’s 2020 comes down to Georgia. They could lose that game, win 10 and be a disappointment.”
But it’s still true. Expectations are higher. They should be. Florida won consecutive New Year’s 6 Bowls and the last thing standing in the way of being a top-5 team with legitimate national title hopes is Georgia. Duh.
And while Georgia certainly holds all bragging rights after 3 consecutive years of Cocktail Part celebrations, this might be as good of an opportunity as any for Dan Mullen to beat Kirby Smart. A Georgia team with 9 new starters on offense playing in a new scheme with a new coordinator and a new quarterback suggests that this will be a very different attack. Considering the weird offseason that’s been, that favors a team without significant turnover like Florida.
Does that guarantee Florida will end the losing streak? Nope. But this is totally different than last year with a backup quarterback, and it’s obviously different circumstances than Year 1 of the Mullen era. If Mullen wants to take that next step as a recruiter and unanimously be considered an elite coach, everyone knows it involves taking down Georgia for an East title.
I don’t need to be anonymous to stand behind that take.