First and 10: The SEC is changing fast. Alabama better brace for a new world
1. I don’t want to get on a soapbox, but …
Change is coming, everyone. A season of the unknown in 2020 has begun to play out before 2019 wraps up.
Programs slipping and programs rising. New coaches, new quarterbacks, new identities.
Coaches on the hot seat, coaches with extensions – wait, those are one and the same. We’ll get into that later, but first consider this primer for 2020:
1. Alabama, SEC king for the better part of the last decade, will lose as many as 6 underclassmen to the NFL Draft and will return in 2020 with big questions at quarterback and defense – the two rock-steady foundations of Nick Saban’s teams since the 2008 season.
2. LSU, a solid favorite in this weekend’s SEC Championship Game against Georgia, will begin 2020 with a new quarterback (who might just be a familiar name in SEC circles) and more than likely without 30-year-old passing game guru Joe Brady (the hottest young coaching prospect in the country).
3. Georgia, a play way from winning it all in 2017, and a blown double-digit lead in the SEC Championship Game from reaching the CFP in 2018, could take a significant step back with what could be another true freshman quarterback starter for coach Kirby Smart (his 3rd in 5 seasons).
4. Florida, which has won 20 games in 2 seasons under Dan Mullen, has the SEC’s most experienced (and best) quarterback returning, and he might not win the starting job.
5. Arkansas and Ole Miss are looking for new coaches, and are looking at the same candidates (Mike Norvell of Memphis, and – wait for it – Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin).
6. Will Muschamp was nearly forced out of South Carolina last week, and but for a completely botched attempt to figure out how Florida State came up with $18 large (that’s million) to fire Willie Taggart, Muschamp might have been Nick Saban’s next defensive coordinator at Alabama (more on that later).
7. Joe Moorhead won the Egg Bowl, which at this point in the bitter rivalry means keeping your job or getting pink-slipped while sitting in the living room of a recruit (hello, Matt Luke). So he’s got that going for him. Which is nice.
8. Missouri is looking for a new coach after firing a perfect fit (Barry Odom) because anyone who loses to Vanderbilt, Kentucky and Tennessee in the same season should be fired.
9. Tennessee is cray-cray, over the moon for Jeremy Pruitt, the same guy they wanted to run out of town after losses to Georgia State and BYU to begin the season. Why, you ask? Because Pruitt beat Kentucky, Vanderbilt and Missouri – and still hasn’t won a game of significance in two seasons (i.e., Florida, Georgia or Alabama).
10. On performance alone, Derek Mason should have been fired at Vanderbilt but wasn’t. For the first time ever, a Vandy administrator sat back and realized the program needs a major facelift to support any coach (much less, Mason) in an untenable situation.
11. And last, but certainly not least, we give you The Curious Case of Gus Malzahn: Days from getting fired (again), he wins the Iron Bowl and professes his love for all things Aubie (again) while dancing behind the scenes with Arkansas (again). Is it possible that Auburn officials get suckered in (again) and throw even more money at the Gus Bus?
Good grief, do I have a man crush on Jimmy Sexton.
2. The most important/unstable position on the field
Two years ago, when Florida was looking for a head coach, it had nearly a decade of awful quarterback play in its rearview.
Now the quarterback room is so good, the best returning quarterback in the SEC next season (Kyle Trask) might not hold off Emory Jones this offseason for the starting job. Not only that, late last week former 4-star recruit Joey Gatewood passed on playing at Florida because the quarterback depth chart is too deep.
Jones’ dual-threat ability fits better with coach Dan Mullen’s offensive philosophy, and Florida’s inability to run the ball was a red flag in losses to LSU and Georgia. Throwing on 4th-and-inches is not a good look, folks.
Feleipe Franks, the former Florida starter, could leave for the NFL (or MLB) – or play as a graduate transfer. A likely landing spot: LSU. Franks chose Florida over LSU 4 years ago, but he might not have Brady to develop him like he did LSU star Joe Burrow (from late-round pick, to potentially No. 1 overall).
Jake Bentley, who 4 years ago chose South Carolina over Alabama, has decided to transfer.
So, to recap: Trask might not win the starting job after clearly playing well enough to force Franks to leave. Franks, meanwhile, will have numerous options, including LSU – which is desperately trying to stay ahead of Alabama, which could add Bentley.
Meanwhile, there is Georgia, the other SEC heavyweight. Jake Fromm is expected to leave for the NFL, placing the Dawgs in a precarious situation at the most important position on the field. Not only has Fromm regressed this season under new coordinator James Coley (more on that later), any new quarterback in 2020 will again be under Coley’s tutelage. Or will he?
Smart has started 2 true freshmen in the past 4 years (Jacob Eason, Fromm) and could play another in 4-star commit Carson Beck of Jacksonville, Fla. In the previous 2 true freshman seasons, Eason and Fromm combined for a touchdown to INT ratio of 40 TDs/15 INT – with Jim Chaney as offensive coordinator.
Finally, there’s Kellon Mond at Texas A&M. Aggies coach Jimbo Fisher has spoken highly of Mond, but it’s hard to ignore what happened this fall against the heavyweights: TAMU was 0-5 vs. Clemson, Alabama, Auburn, LSU and Georgia.
While most quarterbacks would also be 0-5 in that situation, you can’t turn away from 10-for-30 passing, for 92 yards, 0 TD, 3 INT vs. an LSU defense that had given up huge chunks of yardage all season.
Expect Fisher, too, to scour the transfer market (especially since he’s 10-9 vs. Power 5 teams in 2 seasons at College Station; 6-0 vs. everyone else with Mond at quarterback).
3. The Big Change, The Epilogue
There’s no bigger story in 2020 than the state of Alabama football. Because at this point, Saban’s program looks more vulnerable than it ever has.
The Tide couldn’t stop LSU at home (that late deep ball Tide touchdown was an unthinkable display of arrogance by LSU DC Dave Aranda, playing bump and run on DeVonta Smith with less than 2 minutes to play), and we don’t know what would have happened in the Iron Bowl had Tua Tagovailoa played.
Either way, quarterback is the easier fix – be it with a graduate transfer or finding a combination of Jones and Taulia Tagovailoa. Getting the defense right is the heavy lifting.
The defense was the problem against LSU, and the defense was the problem against Auburn. And that, for Saban, is the biggest takeaway from 2019.
How in the world did his beloved unit get this bad: giving up 25.4 points per game in SEC games.
There’s no denying now that Saban must make a change at defensive coordinator. He tried a combination of Tosh Lupoi and Pete Golding in 2018, and then Golding in 2019 – and by the end of this season, Auburn ran for 181 yards despite having a limited passing threat.
Maybe Saban can land an out of work former SEC head coach (Barry Odom) or former Power 5 coach who knows the league (Charlie Strong). Or maybe he throws money at a hot young coach.
Whoever it is, this unit has to get back to stopping the run and attacking in pass situations. Neither was prevalent in 2019.
Alabama can’t afford to go into the 2020 season — having lost 3 of its past 4 Power 5 games (that’s what it will be with a bowl loss) — with uncertainty at the quarterback spot and another season of defensive mistakes and slippage. Or the dynasty may truly be over.
4. The case for Georgia
Of course Georgia can beat LSU in this weekend’s SEC Championship Game.
All it takes is a wildly underrated defensive front 4 to get pressure on LSU QB Joe Burrow and force quick throws, and get the LSU offense off its timing-based RPO offense. Then run the ball with your big offensive line and deep rotation of running backs, and throw over the top with Fromm, and the next thing you know, you’re back in the College Football Playoff.
Only there’s one teeny-weeny problem: Fromm isn’t anywhere close to his production from 2017-18. His regression is startling.
Fromm has gone from 5th in the nation in passer rating in 2018 to 48th in 2019. He accuracy has dropped from 67 percent in 2018 to 62 percent in 2019, and yards per attempt from 9.0 in 2018 to 7.6 in 2019 (a half of a percent change in this statistic is considered significant).
The protection is there (he has been sacked only 9 times), but Georgia hasn’t had a consistent threat at the No. 1 receiver spot – much less throughout an inexperienced receiving corps.
What does all that mean? Georgia, like Alabama, will be staring at a crossroads season in 2020 with a new quarterback and plenty of questions after an ugly loss in the SEC Championship Game.
5. The Weekly Five
Five picks against the spread (Power 5 championship week style)
- Georgia vs. LSU (-6.5)
- Oregon (+5) vs. Utah
- Baylor (+9) vs. Oklahoma
- Virginia vs. Clemson (-28)
- Wisconsin vs. Ohio State (-17.5)
Last week: 5-4
6. Your tape is your résumé
Each week, an NFL scout breaks down the draft prospects of an SEC player. This week: WR Lynn Bowden Jr., Kentucky.
“Love this kid. This is the type of player every single GM in our league wants on his roster and in his locker room. A guy that will do anything to win, and his work ethic is infectious. He’s a ballplayer, man. He’s fluid, he sees the game, he’s a make-you-miss guy after the catch.
“He has a high football IQ. He’s a lot bigger and thicker than you think, too. My advice to him would be, get with a trainer for the next 4 months and work on that 40 time. The more he cuts off it, the higher he goes. But I’m telling you right now, this guy will be successful in our league. He’ll be catching balls for 10 years.”
7. Powered Up
The SEC Power Poll (and one big thing):
1. LSU: Remember when LSU couldn’t throw the ball? Now the Tigers will later this month sign 3 of the top 8 wideouts in the 2020 recruiting class, and 2 4-star quarterbacks.
2. Georgia: It’s simple: Beat LSU, and the SEC gets 2 teams in the CFP – most likely ranked No. 3 (Georgia) and No. 4 (LSU).
3. Florida: If Georgia wins the SEC, Florida goes to the Sugar Bowl to play Oklahoma or Baylor. If Georgia loses to LSU, Florida goes to the Sugar Bowl to play Oklahoma or Baylor. Clear enough?
4. Auburn: I don’t think Malzahn leaves Auburn, but now would be one helluva way to stick it to a fickle fan base that has been on his back for 2 seasons.
5. Alabama: There will be an exodus of players not playing in the bowl game, and why would you blame them? It’s fiscally reckless.
6. Texas A&M: Think about how top-heavy the SEC is: the Aggies, with 7 meaningless wins, are the 6th-best team in the league.
7. Tennessee: No one does meaningless November games quite like the Vols. We’ll get an idea of how far they have come in a bowl game against, say, Minnesota (how weird does that sound?).
8. Kentucky: Who knows why the FSU talks broke down. Either way, UK benefits by keeping Mark Stoops another season.
9. Missouri: AD Jim Sterk’s football hires: Bill Doba (fail) and Paul Wulff (fail) at Washington State, and Rocky Long (spectacular success) at San Diego State.
10. Mississippi State: Moorhead needs a quarterback, and I’m not sure Garrett Shrader is the answer. At least not now.
11. South Carolina: Muschamp needs an experienced, dynamic offensive play-caller who can develop quarterbacks. QB Ryan Hilinski has talent, but he’s raw.
12. Ole Miss: Would it really be that bad to bring back Hugh Freeze – as long as he gave a double pinky cross swear that he wouldn’t embarrass the university again with NCAA issues?
13. Vanderbilt: This thing doesn’t get fixed in 1 year. There are years of facilities upgrades still to be made, for starters.
14. Arkansas: Hogs are said to be interested in Lane Kiffin. That’s right, Lane Kiffin.
8. Ask and you shall receive
Matt: I don’t understand your power rankings. They should be the best team right now, not over the course of the season. That way, Tennessee would be top 4 or 5 right now. Give the Vols the respect they deserve!
Penny: I don’t know how to break this to you, but your Vols won 5 straight to end the season over 4 SEC teams that didn’t break .500 … and UAB. Tennessee’s 7-5 record looks worse than Texas A&M’s 7-5 record – if that’s possible.
The Vols lost to their 3 biggest rivals (Alabama, Florida, Georgia) by a combined 112-30, lost to Georgia State and BYU and beat – are you ready for it? – Chattanooga, Mississippi State, South Carolina, UAB, Kentucky, Missouri and Vanderbilt. One word: woof.
While I’m happy Vols fans have something to get excited about, I also see reality. This time next year, after Tennessee gets annihilated at Oklahoma in Week 2 and loses to Florida at home to end the month of November, Pruitt will be pushing that Big Orange boulder uphill once again.
Until then, put everything into the Outback Bowl (my best guess of Vols postseason plans) and hope for the best.
9. Numbers game
33. The most impressive number at LSU in 3 full seasons under coach Ed Orgeron: the 33 turnovers lost. That’s fewer than 1 a game.
You’re going to win a boatload of big games with that number, especially when you’re converting 50 percent – that’s right, 1 of every 2 – of your 3rd-down opportunities this season. LSU’s giveaway number through 12 games this season: 12.
10. Quote to note
Missouri AD Jim Sterk: “If we can go out and hire someone with a lot of experience, then we’re going to look at that.”