Monday Down South: We survived 2020. Let the 2021 narratives begin
Alabama and Ohio State have one last issue to resolve in Miami, but for the rest of college football, the cursed 2020 season is in the rearview and it’s full speed ahead toward 2021. On the cusp of the new year, here are 9 initial thoughts to set the tone for the next 8 months until kickoff.
1. Bama: Still Bama
As ever, it’s easy to dwell on what Alabama stands to lose in the annual winter exodus, especially on offense: The greatest receiver in school history, arguably the greatest running back, an All-American quarterback, a pair of consensus All-Americans on the o-line, and the offensive coordinator who called the shots the last 2 years, just to hit the top of the list. Assuming Mac Jones opts for the NFL – he’s widely projected as a first-rounder, the threshold Nick Saban typically cites for advising players with eligibility remaining to go pro – the starting lineup on Sept. 4 vs. Miami will bear almost no resemblance to the lineup in next Monday’s national championship game vs. Ohio State. The 2021 Tide will be starting over from scratch with as few as 2 returning starters (Evan Neal and John Metchie III) in an offense operating under a new play-caller for the 7th time in Saban’s tenure.
But as ever, the king stays the king. If it’s not Jones behind center, it will be sophomore-to-be Bryce Young, an automatic preseason Heisman candidate based on recruiting hype and garbage-time highlights alone. Behind the outgoing starters, every other player on the offensive two-deep in Friday’s semifinal romp over Notre Dame was (as always) a former 4- or 5-star prospect except Slade Bolden. Neal and Metchie, only sophomores, are already established as rising stars. The two-deep on defense didn’t feature a single senior, and aside from Patrick Surtain II and Dylan Moses, could return more or less intact. Even by Bama standards, the incoming recruiting class is among the most celebrated in the online ranking era. Even the dang kicker is a known quantity. Whether or not it rides into the new year as the defending champ, Bama remains the team to beat.
2. Georgia is not going anywhere
There was a point around midseason, in the aftermath of lopsided losses to Alabama and Florida, when it was possible to look at Georgia’s struggling defense and rapidly unraveling quarterback situation and wonder if maybe UGA’s window as a serious national contender had just been slammed shut. The stretch run suggested otherwise: JT Daniels lived up to the hype, George Pickens got healthy, the defense tightened up, and the Bulldogs offered a glimpse of their potential at full strength.
GEORGE PICKENS WHAT A CATCH
— PFF College (@PFF_College) January 1, 2021
Like Bama, Georgia’s roster is one of the few with the baseline talent level to compete for championships year-in, year-out, regardless of attrition; unlike Bama, almost all of Georgia’s principles are expected back, including virtually everyone who touched the ball after Daniels’ long-overdue promotion to starting QB.
If Daniels’ finish is a preview of what he’s capable of over a full season, he could be the missing piece that’s held otherwise elite outfits back throughout Kirby Smart’s tenure.
Either way, we’ll will find out ASAP in the fall: Georgia opens against a rebuilding Clemson team that suddenly appears as mortal in the aftermath of a semifinal beatdown vs. Ohio State as the Tigers have looked in a long time. The anticipation for that one should sky-high.
3. Did Florida blow its best shot?
By most lights, the Gators hit every major milestone they needed to hit to claim another solid step forward in Dan Mullen’s 3rd season: They beat Georgia, won the SEC East and remained in the thick of the Playoff race well into December, all while producing the program’s first bona fide Heisman candidate since Tim Tebow.
And yet the ending – a 3-game losing streak, including humiliations at the hands of a shorthanded, lame-duck version of LSU in the regular-season finale and Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl – undeniably left a sour taste that’s going to linger well into the offseason. With Kyle Trask and his top 3 targets are all on their way out, there’s a palpable sense for the first time under Mullen that the Gators are due for a step back.
It’s difficult right now to gauge how seriously to take reports that Mullen, a college lifer with no NFL experience as a player or coach, is open to overtures from the next level. But he is facing what may be his toughest year on the job, both in terms of scrutiny after the team’s late collapse and the outlook for the team itself. In Trask’s place, Emory Jones will finally have the position to himself after spending the last 3 years as the heir apparent/change of pace off the bench; his athleticism along with the departures at receiver could mean a dramatic shift away from the pass-happy philosophy the Gators embraced in 2020.
The bigger concern, though, is the defense, which hit new lows statistically and ended the year by giving up 50+ points and 600+ yards in each of its last two games. Mullen has already fired 2 assistants in the secondary in the wake of the Oklahoma debacle, but the house-cleaning apparently will not include embattled coordinator Todd Grantham, the focal point of the fan base’s angst.
Grantham’s unit was repeatedly set aflame in a year when a merely average defense might have been good enough to run the table opposite one of the most prolific offenses in school history. Instead, Florida limped in at 8-4. It’s been a long time since the Gators have had that kind of opportunity, and by the time it comes around again the current administration could be long gone.
4. LSU will be back
No one in Baton Rouge or anywhere else expected anything remotely resembling a repeat of the 2019 championship run. But the drop-off, inevitable as it was, turned out to be more like a freefall: Through 8 games, the Tigers stood at 3-5 with historically lopsided losses against Auburn and Alabama already in the books and close to half the roster on ice due to injuries, COVID-19, and self-preservation. LSU’s first losing season in two decades seemed like a foregone conclusion and the national title like a distant memory.
The Dec. 12 upset in Gainesville flipped that trajectory overnight. Rather than packing it in for the year, back-to-back wins over Florida and Ole Miss offered a glimpse of a hopelessly young team finding its footing. True freshmen Max Johnson and Kayshon Boutte connected 19 times for 416 yards and 4 TDs; the much-maligned defense forced 9 turnovers, including a pair of crucial pick-6 TDs by fledgling corners Eli Ricks and Jay Ward; juco transfer Ali Gaye completed his emergence as one of the league’s rising terrors off the edge. The energy in reduced-capacity Tiger Stadium for the finale felt almost … normal.
Between Johnson and a healthy Myles Brennan, the Tigers will go into the season with at least one quarterback they can feel good about, and between Boutte, Gaye, Ricks and Derek Stingley Jr. (remember him?) ,they’ll have as much front-line star power as any team in the conference. For the sake of turning the page, they’ll also have new coordinators on both sides of the ball. That won’t be enough to make them contenders, but for now, leveling back into the kind of standard-issue LSU team that can be counted on to bank at least 9 wins in any given year counts as a step in the right direction.
5. Auburn is in the QB market
Gus Malzahn bet his future on Bo Nix and lost that bet. Nix showed no significant improvement form Year 1 to Year 2, Auburn scored a grand total of one touchdown in losses to Alabama and Georgia, and Malzahn was shown the door after a 6-4 finish to the regular season. After another mediocre outing in Friday’s Citrus Bowl loss to Northwestern, don’t be surprised if his hand-picked, face-of-the-program quarterback is next.
In Nix’s defense, veteran starters with a 15-9 record under their belts don’t grow on trees. But he’s been too erratic for incoming coach Bryan Harsin to anoint as QB1 without at least a token competition for the job, and given that current depth chart is effectively a Nix-or-bust situation the grad transfer market may be the only realistic option. The transfer portal still has a few intriguing names who have yet to commit to a new school, including former starters at Wisconsin (Jack Coan) and Virginia Tech (Hendon Hooker) and home-grown product Jake Bentley, an Opelika High grad with 37 career starts at South Carolina and Utah.
Are any of those candidates actually better than Nix? Not necessarily – they probably wouldn’t be in the portal in the first place if they were. But they are credible options. And as it stands, the new staff needs as many of those as it can get.
6. Corral for Heiman?
Among the likely holdovers at quarterback – again, assuming Mac Jones isn’t one of them – the most accomplished by far is Ole Miss’ Matt Corral, who just single-season school records for total offense (384.3 ypg) and pass efficiency (177.6) while ranking third nationally in ESPN’s Total QBR, trailing only the 2 starting QBs in the national championship game. The Rebels’ 26-20 win over Indiana in the Outback Bowl marked his 7th outing with a 90+ QBR score this season in 10 games, more than any other quarterback except Jones.
Matt Corral hit a NASA spaceship with this ball
— PFF College (@PFF_College) November 28, 2020
Is that enough to gin up some nascent Heisman buzz in 2021? On paper, maybe. Even without prolific WR Elijah Moore, who declared early for the draft more than a month ago, there’s no reason to expect Lane Kiffin’s offense to significantly change or decline. (In Moore’s absence, Corral accounted for 788 total yards and 6 TDs in the final 2 games.)
In reality, Corral has two significant obstacles to overcome. One: A rock-bottom defense that consistently makes his stat lines look like empty calories in a losing effort, even when it’s competitive. And two: His tendency to cluster turnovers. Thirteen of his 14 interceptions this season came in 3 games, losses to Arkansas (6), Auburn (2) and LSU (5), compared to only one INT in the other 7 games. Ole Miss went 5-2 in those games, the losses coming in early shootouts vs. Florida and Alabama.
The Rebels will have to steal enough of those types of games to sustain at least a dark horse run at the division for Corral to even begin to transcend the stat sheet. The good news is that if he delivers the exact same season with fewer giveaways, the defense doesn’t have to be much better to do exactly that.
7. The Air Raid arrives in force
In a fundamentally bizarre season across the entire sport, Mississippi State’s trajectory was about as bizarre as they come. The Bulldogs started on a high note at LSU, immediately collapsed, spent half the season battling injuries, attrition and ineptitude, slowly began to pick themselves off the mat in late November, and finished with back-to-back wins over Missouri and Tulsa. The parting shot, for good measure: A sprawling fistfight.
A massive brawl broke out at the end of the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl between Tulsa and Mississippi State. pic.twitter.com/zfaq912SWU
— ESPN (@espn) December 31, 2020
When the dust settles, there’s a lot for MSU fans to look forward too – most obviously an offense whose leading passer (Will Rogers), rusher (Jo’quavious Marks), and receiver (Jaden Walley) are all true freshmen, as was the MVP of the bowl game, WR/KR Lideatrick Griffin. In Rogers and Walley, especially, Mike Leach has a couple of long-term pieces with the potential to establish the kind of high-volume connection that has defined his best teams at his previous stops. The next step in 2021 is running a version of the Air Raid that actually looks like it deserves the distinction.
8. Tennessee is on the road to nowhere
Jeremy Pruitt is not entirely out of the woods, pending the fallout of an ongoing investigation into potential compliance violations. But the fact that the new year has come and gone without a peep from Knoxville would seem to be a good indication that Pruitt is going to survive to see Year 4 despite a 10-16 record in SEC games. Why anyone would expect anything different from a team that lost 7 of its last 8, though, remains a mystery.
The revolving door at quarterback is settled (for now) in favor of sophomore-to-be Harrison Bailey, the last man standing at the top of the depth chart following the predictable transfers of Jarrett Guarantano and J.T. Shrout. But Bailey barely saw the field in any meaningful capacity until the tail-end of the season, and with RB Eric Gray’s status in limbo – he sat out the season-finale vs. Texas A&M in connection with the recruiting probe, which may or may not have any bearing on his availability in the future – the list of returning playmakers on offense is alarmingly thin. The defense has LB Henry To’o To’o and no one else whose name rings out beyond the diehards.
One way or another, Pruitt’s last, best hope for salvaging a future at UT is a spark or a breakthrough that hasn’t been in evidence at any point over the last 3 years, including during the unlikely 8-game winning streak spanning the end of 2019 and the first 2 games of 2020.
At their best, Pruitt’s Vols have managed to muddle through. But when that’s the best you can hope for, the writing is on the wall – or in this case, on The Rock.
9. 2021 is going to be the most anticipated season ever
Yes, 2020 had its moments and its stars, and if Alabama brings home the national championship next week, the 2020 Tide will take their rightful place among the dominant teams in SEC history. When it’s all said and done, though, it will always be the Plague Year, defined less by the games themselves than by the chaotic circumstances that never quite receded into the background.
The strain of playing amid a pandemic disrupted the familiar beats and rhythms of the calendar and knocked ancient rivalries off it altogether. It forced teams to play short-handed, on short notice, with endlessly fluid lineups in front of mostly empty stadiums that palpably lacked the juice of a capacity crowd. Considering how close the sport was to pulling the plug altogether in August, it’s a minor miracle they played at all. The absolute best thing you can say about the 2020 season is that, in the end, there was in fact a 2020 season.
The prospect of normalcy and predictability has never sounded so good. Thankfully, 2021 promises a standard offseason, a full, fixed schedule that kicks off on time, and maxed-out rosters that remain essentially intact from one week to the next. It promises big nonconference games, in-state rivalries, full crowds, marching bands, and zero arguments over how many games is enough to qualify for the Playoff. (Arguments over expanding the Playoff are another story.) It promises to reset the clock, to restore the natural order.
At this time a year ago, in the Before Time, we had the luxury of taking that order for granted. Now, on the other end of what felt like 6 or 7 years in 1, it’s more obvious than ever just how easily it can be thrown off-kilter. More than anything else, 2021 will be a celebration of those rhythms. I can’t wait.