First and 10: Week 1 is here, so let's just start the countdown to the Cocktail Party. Why? It's personal
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
This is all on Dan Mullen. He set the bar for the Florida Gators in this unconventional college football season, and now there’s no avoiding it as the SEC begins play this weekend.
“I expect us to go undefeated,” Mullen told Pat McAfee in June.
Now here we are. As the SEC prepares to begin an extraordinary season amid unthinkable obstacles, Mullen has left his program an unavoidable target.
Win the SEC, or the season is a bust.
And for those who think Mullen was simply speaking like any coach would – what coach wouldn’t say they expect to win every game? – he quickly followed the idea of an unbeaten season with talk of a national championship.
“I’m not guaranteeing it because I’ll be honest with you, I have two national championship rings here (at Florida),” Mullen said, “and we didn’t go undefeated in either of those two seasons.”
The Gators haven’t won the SEC since 2008, and haven’t been a legitimate November factor in the national title race since 2009. Florida hasn’t even beat bitter rival Georgia – the critical step in winning the East Division – since 2016.
That’s where this story begins. Since Mullen arrived at Florida in 2018, the focus of returning the Gators to the elite of the SEC and college football was getting on the right side of the Georgia rivalry.
Georgia has won both games vs. Mullen’s Florida teams, physically imposing its will and leaving a void in the Gators’ feel-good, back-to-back double-digit win seasons.
But unique factors surrounding an offseason impacted by a global pandemic — and critical transfers that have contributed to a closing a talent gap — has Florida on the verge of catching Georgia and returning to the SEC Championship Game.
The Gators’ staff last year desperately wanted another shot at LSU in the SEC Championship Game because it believed Florida could have won the first game in Baton Rouge despite two unhealthy starting defensive ends. It was also the 4th career start for quarterback Kyle Trask.
That’s where confidence of this season begins and ends. The elimination of critical offseason months will give an advantage to teams that return experienced quarterbacks, especially if they’re among the elite of the game.
Make no mistake, Trask – a 5th-year senior who before last season hadn’t started a game since high school – has quickly become one of the game’s best quarterbacks. He has the nation’s best tight end (Kyle Pitts) and a potential first-round pick at wideout (Travon Grimes) and 2 former 5-star transfers (TB Lorenzo Lingard and WR Justin Shorter) adding speed and athleticism to an offense that has scored a combined 34 points in the past 2 games against Georgia.
One NFL scout told me this summer he expects Trask, with all that talent around him (including sophomore WR Jacob Copeland), to make a huge jump from Year 1 to year 2 as a starter.
“He throws on time, he throws with anticipation, he’s accurate. He’s a first-round pick right now,” the scout said. “His deep ball has to get better, but he can make every throw. He’s a winner and he’s a tough kid. You could’ve made that exact assessment of Joe Burrow going into last season. I’m not comparing the two because Burrow’s jump from one season to another might be the best we’ve ever seen in the college game. But I expect Trask to really play well this season.”
Meanwhile, there’s the Georgia offense: a big ball of questions. New quarterback, new offensive coordinator, new offensive line.
In one short fall camp, the Bulldogs went from one projected starting quarterback (Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman; opted out), to another (USC transfer JT Daniels; not medically cleared), to redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis starting the season opener against Arkansas.
Daniels is likely the starter if he’s cleared (he tore his ACL in Week 1 last season), but no matter who plays, it might take at least half a season for Georgia to get comfortable on offense.
“There’s a lot going on with that offense,” one SEC coach told me last week. “But I guarantee you, by the time that (Florida) game rolls around (in Week 7), that’s going to be the best game in our conference this year.”
2. The back (biting) story
Mullen and Smart don’t like each other. There’s no other way to say it.
Many coaches involved in bitter rivalries don’t necessarily enjoy being around each other, but there’s more than just simple friction between these two.
One SEC coach told me this offseason that 2 years ago at the SEC spring meetings in Destin, “you could tell there was tension there. It was almost uncomfortable. A couple of us tried to joke about it to lighten the mood – and they weren’t really having it.”
Smart, for the most part, has stayed above the fray because he has the upper hand on the field. Even when Mullen took numerous subtle jabs at the Georgia program last offseason, Smart didn’t respond — though some in the Mullen camp believe Smart politicking for the Florida-Georgia game to move to campus sites and away from neutral Jacksonville was Smart’s response.
However you look at it, the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party is a big deal for both coaches:
— Mullen must prove he can beat Georgia, win the East Division and win the SEC. Another loss and another missed opportunity at the SEC Championship Game, and all the capital he built with the impressive turnaround from the disastrous Jim McElwain years will be gone.
— Smart must win to not only stay on top in the East, but to distance Georgia from a growing trend of losses in big games. From losing double-digit leads to Alabama in the College Football Playoff Championship game and the SEC Championship Game, to being physically manhandled by Texas in the Sugar Bowl, to an ugly loss to LSU in the SEC Championship Game, the big game losses are beginning to pile up for a program that is as talented as any in the nation. A loss to Florida in the Cocktail Party would be especially galling, and likely prevent the Bulldogs from playing for the SEC title for the fourth straight season.
Make no mistake, these are two of the safest coaches in the game. But a loss for either in the Cocktail Party will start grumbling and grousing among the masses.
3. The big target, the Epilogue
When Mullen arrived at Florida, he talked like another 40-something coach (Steve Spurrier) who strolled into Gainesville in 1990 with a cocksure attitude and turned the SEC sideways with an innovative offense.
Mullen has coached a group of the most prolific quarterbacks in college football in the 2000s, including Josh Harris (Bowling Green), Alex Smith (Utah), Chris Leak and Tim Tebow (Florida) and Dak Prescott and Nick Fitzgerald (Mississippi State).
This is a coach who rolled into Florida and made an efficient quarterback out of Feleipe Franks, and a potential All-American out of an afterthought recruit (Trask) who last started as a 9th-grader.
Mullen’s game day acumen is Spurrier-esque, with one NFL personnel man telling me “he might be the best play-caller in college or the NFL.”
With all of that as the background, why would anyone second-guess Mullen’s declaration that this Florida team can win every game? While he added a qualifier that he would never want his assistant coaches to think any other way, he has never publicly stated such a statement with any of his previous teams.
How good does Mullen feel about this team? Early in fall camp when Grimes, Copeland, wideout Kadarius Toney and Florida’s best defensive player, rush end Zachary Carter, skipped the first few days of practice, Mullen didn’t panic and publicly reach out to the group.
The last thing he wanted to do was show desperation. And frankly, he believes in a group of young receivers and knows one player doesn’t make a defense.
“Of course we wanted them to play, but that was a health decision they had to make on their own and we supported them 100 percent,” one Florida staffer told me. “But if we’re at a point where four guys derail our season, we’ve got much bigger issues. We moved forward, and it was very clear it was next man up.”
Within a week, all four players were back in camp and committed to playing.
4. Bryce Young vs. Mac Jones
The last time Nick Saban had a freshman talent like this at quarterback at Alabama, it took him nearly the entire 2017 season to get Tua Tagovailoa significant minutes. And only because of ineffective play from Jalen Hurts in the national title game.
Don’t expect that to happen with freshman QB Bryce Young.
Barring injury, Mac Jones will be the starter when Alabama opens the season against Missouri. In an offseason of uncertainty, Jones has been the one constant in the locker room and on the field.
But Young’s talent is undeniable, and his ability to stress defenses in the run and pass games makes an already dangerous Tide offense full of future NFL players more dangerous with Young on the field.
Young is Tagovailoa with dynamic run game ability, and is one of the fastest players on the team. Young will play from Game 1 because of a shallow depth chart at quarterback.
The only question that remains: How quickly will he see significant minutes?
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread:
- Kentucky at Auburn (-7.5)
- Tennessee at South Carolina (+3)
- Florida at Ole Miss (+10.5)
- Alabama (-21) at Missouri
- Mississippi State (+17.5) at LSU
Last season: 39-34-1.
6. Your tape is your résumé
An NFL scout breaks down a draft-eligible player. This week: LSU WR Ja’Marr Chase, who opted out of the 2020 season:
“This is an interesting one. I don’t begrudge any player who decides he doesn’t want to play in the middle of a pandemic. But you have to understand, (Chase) plays a position where guys climb up and down the (draft) board all the time. He has elite speed, he’s fluid and deceptively strong and I love the way he plays. But while he’s sitting out, a guy like Jaylen Waddle is going to have a huge season. So will (Rashod) Bateman if he plays, as will (Chris) Olave. So I completely understand why guys want to sit out to avoid any Covid complications. But they better, too, understand that because they’re sitting out – especially at that position – there’s a chance they get passed.
“(Chase) will have gone more than a year since he last played. If you don’t think that’s not a concern to some personnel guys in this league, you’re way off the mark. If you’re going just on 2019, it’s going to be hard for anyone to pass (Chase). He’s probably the first receiver taken in the 2020 draft if he’s eligible. But there’s a lot of talent at the position for 2021 (draft). It will be fun watching those guys compete.”
7. Power Up
This week’s SEC Power Poll (and one big thing):
1. Alabama: The only question on this team is quarterback. And that might not be for long (see: Jones seizing control, or Young winning the job).
2. Florida: Carter, Brenton Cox and Jeremiah Moon will be a devastating trio of rush ends for a defense loaded with guys who played significantly over the past 2 seasons.
3. Georgia: The best defense in the SEC (maybe the nation), and the biggest questions on offense among the SEC elite.
4. Auburn: The defense carried the 2019 team; the offense and QB Bo Nix are the focus of 2020. Can Nix become more efficient and extend the passing game vertically?
5. Texas A&M: If the Aggies aren’t playing games that matter in December with a 3-year starter at quarterback (Kellen Mond), the $75 million experiment that is Jimbo Fisher is officially a waste of money.
6. LSU: Coach Ed Orgeron made every right move in 2019. Can he work his magic to get a gutted LSU team back into meaningful late-season games?
7. Tennessee: Give coach Jeremy Pruitt a ton of credit for salvaging last season after back to back ugly losses. Now he’s dealing with a different animal: expectations.
8. Kentucky: If Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood becomes eligible, the Wildcats could win 6 or 7 games. If he doesn’t, Terry Wilson’s repaired knee will dictate the season.
9. South Carolina: A crossroads season for coach Will Muschamp revolves around his good friend (and new USC OC) Mike Bobo, who brings his QB (Collin Hill) from Colorado State to help turn the fortunes in Columbia.
10. Mississippi State: Mike Leach is finally back in the SEC (he was with Hal Mumme at Kentucky in the 1990s), and has a legit quarterback in Year 1 (Stanford transfer KJ Costello). A lot of yards, a lot of points, a lot of fun.
11. Missouri: Eliah Drinkwitz was gifted a championship-ready team in his first season as an FBS coach at App State. He turned it into a champion. He was given an uneven roster at Missouri. Time to work some magic.
12. Ole Miss: The lines of scrimmage are iffy, but I can’t wait to see how new coach Lane Kiffin develops QB John Rhys Plumlee. A dynamic runner, Plumlee must be more efficient in the passing game – and protect the ball.
13. Arkansas: At the very least, Franks will have a quarterbacks coach and offensive coordinator (Kendal Briles) with a history of developing players at the position. But the rest of the roster? Woof.
14. Vanderbilt: A true freshman at quarterback, and too much uncertainty on the offensive and defensive lines. A bad, bad combination in a line of scrimmage league.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: All of you sportswriters are overlooking LSU. Do you think we don’t recruit here? Coach O is the best recruiter in the SEC! You’re going to doubt him replacing those stars? We’re just going to reload, bubba. Get on the train!
Trent: LSU under Orgeron has recruited as well as anyone in the SEC. That’s not the issue. You’re talking about replacing 14 players drafted by the NFL and 3 other critical players who opted out (Chase, DT Tyler Shelvin, CB Kary Vincent – all potential NFL first-round picks). More important, LSU will use a first-year starter at quarterback (Myles Brennan), whom Orgeron recruited behind in 2018 (when he landed Joe Burrow as a transfer) because Brennan wasn’t ready to play.
That doesn’t mean Brennan won’t play well; it means a 4th-year junior quarterback will be surrounded by new (and some inexperienced) players, and asked to play at a high level in the toughest division in college football. With hefty expectations.
This has nothing to do with recruiting, and has everything to do with a limited number of players that have been through weekly battles in the SEC. Preparing and playing, then recovering in a day or two, and preparing and playing again the following week. It takes time for most young players to find their groove in that process. It will be the same with LSU this fall.
9. Numbers game
6.29. Auburn QB Bo Nix is on every Heisman Trophy watch list. His second half in 2019 included just 1 interception in his last 225 throws over 7 games (three vs. Top 5 opponents), with 8 TD. Yet this is the number of concern: 6.29 average yards per attempt, a half yard under his season average of 6.7 that finished 88th in the nation. Auburn must throw vertically to win games of substance. Of all the good Nix gave the offense in 2019, Auburn isn’t winning the West Division without throwing vertically in big games.
10. Quote to note
Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt on the challenges of the offseason: “There’s probably not one family in American that has not suffered in the last six months. It’s unusual times. To me, there’s a big part of all this that I’ve been very concerned about with all of our players and all of our young people, is mental health. I can’t imagine being a child from 5 or 6, to age 25 or 30, that they feel like their youth is being taken away. The things that they’re used to doing.”