Besides Georgia, these 3 SEC teams are facing the most pressure to rise above expectations in 2021
It’s the SEC. Everyone has pressure.
But obviously, not all pressure is created equal. To say that Gus Malzahn and Sam Pittman were entering situations of equal pressure last year would’ve been like saying that Alabama and Rutgers are recruiting from the same talent pool. Hence, why Malzahn’s 6-4 season was deemed a fireable offense with a record-setting buyout while Pittman’s 3-7 season put him in the “coach of the year” discussion.
Coach pressure and team pressure can be different things. Team pressure can be about hitting on a key opportunity that might not be there a year or 2 from now. For example, Jim Harbaugh wasn’t on the hot seat entering 2016. There was, however, massive pressure on Michigan to capitalize on its window to flip the script on Ohio State (pun intended). Thanks to one late collapse and one questionable JT Barrett 4th-down spot, that didn’t happen.
For the SEC in recent memory, nobody knows “pressure to rise above expectations” more than Georgia. The Dawgs are an outlier in this discussion. As long as the 1980 discussion remains while flocks of 5-star recruits keep coming to Athens, Georgia’s pressure to finally win it all will always be at peak levels.
On the flip side, Alabama’s pressure is always high, but its pressure to rise above expectations isn’t for 2021. The Tide just turned in one of the best seasons in the sport’s history. Even if Alabama were to go 9-3 — which I doubt will happen — nobody is saying that the Tide are falling out of the national spotlight.
These 3 non-Georgia SEC teams could be in jeopardy of that. Again, it doesn’t mean their coaches are necessarily at risk for getting fired for simply matching expectations in 2021, but it does feel like each of their coaches could at least be fired if things were to fall apart.
Let’s start with the obvious. When you go 5-5 at a place like LSU, you’re expected to bounce back in a major way. Like, compete for an SEC title and reach a New Year’s 6 bowl. The Tigers were closer to going 3-7 than some probably care to admit, which would’ve been the program’s first losing season of the 21st century. That didn’t happen. What did happen was LSU ended the season on a 2-game winning streak after it looked decimated by roster attrition throughout 2020.
Now, with a team that returns 80% of its production, the expectation is that LSU will look much more like the 2019 version of itself than the 2020 version. Four offensive line starters are back, Derek Stingley Jr. and Eli Ricks should be the best cornerback duo in America and there are multiple quality options at quarterback to work with new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz, who is expected to produce an elite offense worthy of Arch Manning’s services.
Oh, and Bo Pelini is no longer making north of $2 million to have the nation’s worst pass defense with All-American corners.
The expectation is for 2020 to feel like a one-off. Rising above that would be somewhere between 2018 and 2019. That would mean not getting shut out by Alabama. It would mean perhaps carrying SEC/Playoff hopes beyond that game. It wouldn’t necessarily mean delivering a season for the ages. Repeating 2019 should never be an expectation.
And obviously, Ed Orgeron’s reputation is hanging in the balance on and off the field. His role in the Derrius Guice situation put him in negative headlines, which after a bad year, only magnified the question about him being the long-term fit. While those discussions should be independent from one another, it’d be foolish to say there’s not some crossover there with the optics.
If Orgeron were to go 7-5 and Scott Woodward, who gave Orgeron that rich extension that runs through 2025, were to fire the LSU coach, he’d be owed roughly $21 million. Or if more allegations came out against Orgeron for his role in not following Title IX protocols, perhaps LSU could find a way to fire him with cause.
Add it all up and what does that equal? A lot of pressure on the Bayou Bengals in 2021.
Eight SEC head coaches are entering either Year 1 or Year 2. That includes Mike Leach. Is Leach going to be on any hot seat in America entering 2021? Nope. Year 2 coaches shouldn’t fall into that camp. But let’s at least remember a couple of things as it relates to Leach.
One is that Leach’s predecessor, Joe Moorhead, was an offensive-minded outsider who didn’t elevate the offense in Year 2. He, of course, got canned for that after the infamous Willie Gay-Garrett Shrader punch. After Leach set expectations at an absurd level in his debut, he didn’t exactly give off “I’ve got this under control” vibes.
Also remember that in Mississippi, contracts for public employees cannot be longer than 4 years. Leach’s current deal runs through 2023, which means it would have a $10 million buyout if he were fired after 2021.
The expectation is that Leach is going to make his typical Year 2 jump. He did it at Washington State and Texas Tech after sluggish Year 1 starts. If that doesn’t happen at MSU with a team that returns 78% of its production, a whole lot of Leach support will go up in smoke. The Air Raid questions in the SEC will become even more prevalent. Even worse would be if Ole Miss put together another top-15 offense and Lane Kiffin looked like the fun neighborhood house with the pool, the basketball court and the trampoline.
Leach actually showed in last year’s Egg Bowl that MSU wasn’t very far off from Ole Miss. In Year 2, though, any perceived separation would work against him. Leach’s K.J. Costello experiment didn’t work, and in 2021, it’s expected to either be another hand-plucked transfer (Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham) or a second-year starter who should look much more comfortable in the offense (sophomore Will Rogers).
Add in the fact that Leach retained rising defensive coordinator Zach Arnett and yes, there’s absolutely pressure on MSU to be better than some 5-7 team that gets pummeled by the SEC elites. No Year 2 coach in the SEC has more pressure than Leach because no Year 1 coach fell shorter of expectations than Leach.
There have been few years in the post-Urban Meyer era in which Florida’s high preseason expectations felt justified. Last year was one of them. It yielded a lot of great things, including an all-important SEC East title and the emergence of the nation’s No. 1 passing attack under Dan Mullen. It also yielded a lot of not-so-great things, like Mullen’s several head-scratching moments, as well as 3 consecutive losses to close the season. Despite some friction to end the year, Mullen did finally get that rich contract extension with a $1.5 million annual raise.
However, it’s worth noting that Mullen’s buyout is at $12 million. If Florida takes a massive step back this year and there are more bizarre Mullen moments, that’s not an impossible buyout in this climate. Would I expect it? No. Mullen won’t be on hot seat lists because of that aforementioned extension, but picture what could await Florida if an 8-4 or 7-5 season unfolds.
Would that include an embarrassing loss to Georgia? What about an unexpected loss to a team like Kentucky or … Tennessee? OK, maybe losing to Tennessee is a bit unrealistic. What’s not unrealistic is Georgia looking like it’s on a significantly different level. That’s the expectation. An 8-4 season in Gainesville is going to feel that much more frustrating if it coincides with a Georgia national title. And if you don’t believe that, go back to the Dawgs’ runner-up season in 2017, which coincided with Florida’s complete collapse.
If Florida were to get smoked by Georgia, LSU and Alabama (at home), it would have some Gators fans questioning the direction of the program in Year 4 with Mullen. Or perhaps not the direction but the peak. Not all 8-4 seasons are created equal, though. If an 8-4 season this year included an Alabama win or perhaps ending Georgia’s national title hopes, it would carry much greater weight.
FanDuel has Florida’s over/under for regular season wins is 9, and the odds to win the division are second-best at +500. Imagine if Florida goes 10-2 and at least gets 1 win against Georgia, Alabama or LSU. In that scenario, Mullen would likely have established his first true developed quarterback at Florida and he might’ve even looked smart for giving Todd Grantham another year. That would go a long way in Gainesville, regardless of whether Georgia ends the 1980 jokes. It definitely beats the alternative.
A pressure-packed year awaits the Gators, which is the norm. But it feels a bit more magnified with more questions about Mullen’s upside now.
And one quick thing about Tennessee
Expectations are low in Knoxville, and nobody is saying Josh Heupel should be competing for an East title in Year 1. Barring off-the-field issues or an 0-12 season, his job is safe.
But the Arch Manning dynamic is why Heupel has pressure on him to produce a dynamic offense in Year 1. Even though Manning is a Class of 2023 recruit, he is expected to make his college decision this spring and not look back. If Heupel and the Vols want any chance at the ultimate SEC legacy — as well as 5-star Alabama quarterback commit Ty Simpson (a Tennessee native) — Heupel’s offense has to be explosive.
It’s hard to envision a scenario in which Heupel has a mediocre offense that attracts a recruit as highly coveted (and NFL-focused) as Manning. If nothing else in 2021, Tennessee has pressure to undergo an offensive resurgence and look like a team on the rise instead of one facing NCAA penalties and a long rebuild.