April Fools! Here's 1 thing about every SEC team we probably shouldn't believe in 2021
Don’t believe everything you read.
Well, unless we’re talking about content on this website. In which case, take it as gospel.
But there are plenty of things we’ll see said or written about SEC teams that aren’t necessarily true. In honor of April Fools’ Day, I decided to dig into some of those things we’re seeing in the preseason that will prove to be false once 2021 is in the books.
Consider this my way of trying to squash a popular preseason storyline. Or rather 14.
Just like that bad April Fools’ prank, these are things you shouldn’t believe in 2021:
Alabama — Bill O’Brien will be a horrendous failed experiment
If there’s one thing we should take away from the Steve Sarkisian tenure, it’s that we should trust Nick Saban’s judgment when it comes to hiring the offensive-minded dude who flamed out in the NFL. O’Brien’s shortcomings in the NFL were far more to do with his general manager responsibilities than his offensive coordinator responsibilities. That’s not my way of saying I believe Bryce Young is destined to become Deshaun Watson 2.0 because they’re different players from a skill set standpoint, but we should be bullish on the former 5-star recruit. A “failed” experiment at Alabama would be something similar to the Brian Daboll-Jalen Hurts duo in 2017, and that still yielded a top-15 offense.
Just because O’Brien isn’t Steve Sarkisian doesn’t mean Young is set up for failure. Is it a major question mark? Sure, but if you’re dismissing O’Brien because of how things fell apart in Houston, you’re looking at the wrong things.
Arkansas — A 7- or 8-win regular season is imminent
Possible? Definitely. But as we saw last year down the stretch, you need to have depth to win games in this conference in November. Last year, Arkansas didn’t have that, and COVID protocols certainly didn’t help matters. Arkansas can be a vastly improved team and still find itself playing for bowl eligibility against Mizzou. That’s coming from someone who said that Barry Odom’s defense should be the most improved in the SEC. But these things aren’t always so linear. And by the way, I’m all in on Sam Pittman. So what’s the problem?
There’s a pretty decent chance that 4 of Arkansas’ first 6 games are against preseason Top 25 teams. Even if you go 1-3 in that stretch, that’s still only a 3-3 start. That’s not even including trips to LSU and Alabama in November. A 7-win regular season would likely entail beating Texas and then going 3-5 in SEC play. That feels like the ceiling. If someone tells you Arkansas should be able to get to 7 wins with ease, they either haven’t looked at the schedule yet, or they have forgotten how brutal this division can be.
Auburn — Tank Bigsby for Heisman
Don’t get it twisted. Bigsby is awesome. The way he breaks tackles and forces half the defense to bring him down is exactly what you should want in a back. Nobody would be surprised if he started and finished the year as a first-team All-SEC selection, especially now with Mike Bobo on board.
If Auburn wants to turn its season around they should recognize the potential superstar they have in true freshman running back Tank Bigsby and get back to hard-nosed, blue-collar, better bring your hard hat & lunch pail football #WarEagle pic.twitter.com/QFOmZkgCE4
— Power of Dixieland (@Power_Dixieland) October 20, 2020
But a few things would give me pause before thinking he has a realistic chance at winning the sport’s top individual honor. One is that he’s going to see loaded boxes galore, especially if Auburn can’t establish a deep threat after losing Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz. The second is the durability. Bigsby takes on so much contact and as we saw last year, it’s not easy to stay healthy once you start getting 20-plus touches a game. He’s a tank, but he’s not built like Derrick Henry.
Speaking of Henry, he’s obviously 1 of 3 running backs who won the Heisman in the 21st century, and he’s the only one at the position to do it in the last decade. All 3 of those backs played for teams who had national title odds, and Christian McCaffrey’s Stanford squad was set to play in a New Year’s 6 Bowl. Even Breece Hall didn’t crack the top 5 in the voting, and he led the nation in rushing for a New Year’s 6 Bowl-bound Iowa State squad. Just don’t waste money on a way-too-early Bigsby Heisman bet.
Florida — The Dan Mullen drama is just a media narrative
It’s not. It’s real. We’ve written and talked about Mullen so much in the last few months because he’s now over a year removed from when those alleged extension talks were in the works. Coaches who go to 3 consecutive New Year’s 6 bowls have extensions by now. There’s clearly a divide between Mullen and Scott Stricklin, and if you choose not to believe that, that’s your deal. The rest of us will continue to monitor this thing.
Between Mullen’s “pack The Swamp” comments, his 1-year show cause and his dismissal of his team’s Cotton Bowl performance, there’s more than enough there to at least understand why Stricklin hasn’t rushed in to give him a massive new contract. If Mullen does get a new deal before the start of the year, it won’t necessarily dismiss the notion that there’s at least some friction there. It would mean one side gave into the other. But if Mullen can take down Georgia and win another division title, that would be the best way to move past a strange year in Gainesville.
Georgia — The 2021 national title window closed with the George Pickens injury
If you were in the camp that the Dawgs are going to win it all in 2021, I think you should still have that mindset. That’s not meant to minimize Pickens’ potential impact, which could be felt if he’s able to make a miraculous return from his torn ACL. But Georgia still has a variety of proven weapons in the passing game, and it now has the signal-caller and the system to maximize them. That’s the good news. This is still going to be an incredibly difficult team to defend because of how deep that backfield is, and how much defenses are going to have to worry about the downfield passing game.
Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton (assuming he’s able to return by fall camp), Darnell Washington, Dominick Blaylock and James Cook (among others) are still going to make a major impact. Does Georgia’s path to end the 1980 jokes get a bit more difficult without Pickens? Sure, but there was so much emphasis on him taking that next step that some might’ve forgotten that there are other Georgia weapons who are more than capable of also doing just that.
Kentucky — Goodbye ground game, hello high-octane passing offense
Nope. New offensive coordinator Liam Coen might’ve come from the Sean McVay coaching tree to implement a much more modern offense, but there’s by no means going to be a pass-heavy offense in Lexington. Coen already said he wants lead back Chris Rodriguez to get 25 touches a game. Good. He should. It doesn’t matter that it’s not Eddie Gran’s offense anymore. Kentucky brought in Penn State transfer Will Levis to compete with Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood and hometown hero Beau Allen.
Whoever wins the job will have a responsibility of running a much more balanced offense than last year’s, which had a 64%-36% run-pass split. Coen wants to run more 12 personnel. He’s by no means running 5-wide sets like this is the Mike Leach Air Raid. It’s high-percentage throws, it’s stretching the field and it’s utilizing those weapons like Rodriguez and the versatile Wan’Dale Robinson, who has been drawing rave reviews since transferring from Nebraska. I’d bet on Kentucky still running the ball more than it throws. It’ll just look a lot different.
LSU — Ed Orgeron has lost the program
I’m not dismissing Orgeron’s alleged role in his handling of the Derrius Guice situation or with the Title IX protocol violations. Those are serious issues for which Orgeron absolutely deserves criticism. On a much, much different note, he also deserves criticism for the way 2020 played out with transfers and opt-outs galore, and the fact that he said this:
#LSU coach Ed Orgeron admits “I hired some coaches I didn’t even interview from the last staff, and I’m never doing that again.”
“I interviewed everybody (this time).”
— Jerit Roser (@JeritRoser) March 23, 2021
To say that it’s been a rough post-championship year for Orgeron would be an understatement. But to those who say he lost the program, I’d say that’s a bit much. Some have elected for Gene Chizik comparisons, which isn’t accurate either because of both of their backgrounds (I think everyone forgot that Orgeron won a New Year’s 6 Bowl in 2018). This is a massive year for Orgeron’s public perception. There aren’t any excuses. Bo Pelini is gone, the opt-outs should be in the rearview mirror and LSU returns 79% of its 2020 production. All the pieces are in place for a bounce-back year, which wouldn’t exactly suggest Orgeron “lost the program.”
MSU — The Air Raid just won’t work in the SEC
Copy and paste from last year? Eh, maybe a little. The Year 1 version of Leach’s offense was far from a finished product. It was a rebuild. It was a combination of a subpar offensive line with a young group of receivers. That made for a rough 2020 after such a promising start against LSU. The Air Raid absolutely can work. It needs offensive linemen who can pass block, it needs receivers who know how to find the soft spots in zone coverage and it needs a more experienced quarterback.
I think all 3 of those things happen, and stopping the Air Raid isn’t as simple as dropping 8 into coverage and rushing 3. As Leach said, if it were that easy, the offense would’ve been out of business a long time ago. It just takes time. It takes the right personnel. It takes a team buying in and trusting the long-term vision, even if that meant short-term frustration like last year. Leach made significant Year 2 jumps in both of his previous stops, and the pieces are in place to make that happen in Starkville.
Mizzou — Mookie Cooper will take the SEC by storm in 2021
The Ohio State transfer is getting all sorts of buzz already, and understandably so. He’s a St. Louis kid who was a top-100 recruit in the 2020 class. Eli Drinkwitz loves what he brought to the table. He could have plenty of success at Mizzou and one day, he could be their version of Rondale Moore. So why do I think he won’t take the league by storm in 2021? Well, it’s rare that we see a first-year receiver walk into the SEC and dominate. It’s not easy getting separation at this level. The craftiness needed to run crisp routes and win matchups on a consistent basis isn’t easy, especially when you’ve never played in a college game.
I’m trying not to let the words “Ohio State” or “4-star” set too high of a standard for Cooper, nor am I trying to hold it against him that he couldn’t crack an incredibly loaded Buckeye receiver rotation. Keke Chism is the guy who really developed a rapport with Bazelak down the stretch, and it wouldn’t be a surprise if he emerged as a go-to target and one of the SEC’s better wideouts. I like the long-term potential of Cooper, but I’m just tempering those 2021 expectations.
Ole Miss — Replacing Elijah Moore is no big deal
It is. Ole Miss might be able to do it, but I’d be surprised if any 1 returning receiver made the impact that he did in his first and only season in Lane Kiffin’s offense. Moore was an All-American who would’ve gotten even more attention had DeVonta Smith not delivered the best season we’ve ever seen from a college receiver. Moore accounted for:
- 23% of Ole Miss scrimmage yards
- 27% of Ole Miss receiving TDs
- 35% of Ole Miss receiving yards
- 36% of Ole Miss catches
Let me back up on that last stat. More than 1/3 of the passes that Ole Miss completed last year went to Moore. He had 86 catches. Kenny Yeboah was second on the team in catches … with 27. That’s right. Moore had 3 times as many catches as anyone on that team. As great as the Ole Miss offense is, and as exciting as it is to think about John Rhys Plumlee catching passes out of the slot from Matt Corral, you don’t snap your fingers and replace someone on Moore’s level.
South Carolina — Luke Doty is ready to be a star
Sorry. I’m not trying to pour cold water on the Doty takes, but honestly, I think part of the excitement surrounding him last year had to do with what came before him. Doty moved better than the likes of Collin Hill, Ryan Hilinski and Jake Bentley. I’ll hold off judgment because what we saw in 2020 probably isn’t a fair sample size. Three starts with a team who had opt-outs and depth issues galore isn’t ideal for a true freshman, though it’d be a different story if Doty put up better than 5.7 yards per attempt and 91 rushing yards.
Doty is the presumed guy for Shane Beamer in Year 1 in Columbia, in part because the depth simply isn’t there right now. Ryan Hilinski is off to Northwestern and Dakereon Joyner is at receiver. FCS transfer Jason Brown will push Doty, though he got off to a late start after missing the first part of fall camp because of illness. It would be a surprise if Doty wasn’t the starter. Becoming a star in the SEC, however, is a different ballgame. Doty looked every bit like a true freshman passer last year, and he’ll be learning a new offense this year. The good news? Kevin Harris and Marshawn Lloyd have the potential to be one of the best backfield duos in America.
Tennessee — The defense can’t get any worse than last year
Oh it can. And it will.
Forgive the Billy Madison reference and let’s break down reality. The reality is that for all of Jeremy Pruitt’s shortcomings when it came to figuring out how to yield a successful offense, the guy new how to run and recruit a defense. Last year’s group was much better than the raw numbers (No. 69 in scoring, No. 65 in total defense) indicated. The Vols consistently fell apart in the second half because they were constantly on the field. Imagine being on the field this long:
This is what a team is supposed to do with its Playoff hopes on the line. pic.twitter.com/AQ8M1pXK56
— Connor O’Gara (@cjogara) December 19, 2020
I thought it was telling that Heupel’s defensive coordinator hire took such a long time, and how his offense doesn’t play complimentary football. Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch both remain in limbo, but even if they do return, the Vols are still in desperate need of better pass-rushers to take some pressure off a veteran-laden secondary. I expect Heupel’s offense to be extremely hit or miss, and it’ll likely put the defense in some brutal spots in Year 1.
Texas A&M — The Aggies were a 1-year wonder
It’s funny. At this time last year, I kept banging the drum that the Aggies didn’t deserve preseason love just because the schedule set up well. I hated that. I kept pointing to the stat about how in 2019, they led for 7 minutes and 42 seconds of 300 minutes of football against teams who finished in the top 15. That flipped. Entirely. Now, I find myself believing that the Aggies are for real and that even with some key losses (Kellen Mond, Buddy Johnson, Bobby Brown, the majority of the Maroon Goons, etc.), they’re here to stay.
Jimbo Fisher’s retention of his coordinators is key, as is his ability to develop talent. The Aggies are suddenly loaded with Year 3 guys who are proven after nearly leading a Playoff push. Haynes King is a major X-factor at quarterback, but I’m optimistic on his freakish athleticism and playmaking ability. A&M absolutely deserves to start in the top 10, and I certainly wouldn’t be surprised if that’s where Fisher’s squad finished.
Vanderbilt — We’re going to see a totally new era in Nashville
Not yet. And yes, the $300 million commitment to athletic facility improvements is possibly the best news that the Commodores have had in the 21st century. We’re talking about a place where there hasn’t been a major renovation to the football stadium since 1981 and it’s sitting on $44 million annual revenue checks from the SEC. Clark Lea, as a former Vanderbilt player, appears to be the right fit in the long-term to capitalize on that.
But in Year 1? It’s hard to envision much different of a program than the one we saw struggle in 2020. Those stadium renovations aren’t set to take place until after the season. Vanderbilt had about as bad of a season as a Power 5 program could have from an on-field standpoint, which makes it difficult to envision a new coaching staff walking in and totally turning that around. Derek Mason was by no means a toxic guy who players didn’t want to play for. He just didn’t succeed at a job with an incredibly steep hill to climb. It’s still going to feel like that for Lea, though fortunately for him, he doesn’t have to face an all-SEC schedule in Year 1.