Power ranking the SEC offenses for 2020L
Here’s a crazy thought.
Entering 2019, the last time an SEC team finished in the top 2 in FBS in scoring offense was Florida in 2001. That was Steve Spurrier’s last year in Gainesville, and a young, rocket-armed quarterback by the name of “Rex Grossman” nearly won the Heisman Trophy (he should’ve if you ask Florida/non-Nebraska fans).
That was over 18 years ago. As in, there were college freshmen who had never seen an SEC team finish with one of the top 2 offenses in America.
That is, until 2019.
LSU and Alabama finished No. 1 and No. 2, respectively, which tells you about all you need to know about the changing tide in the latter half of the 2010s. Crazy it is to think that in 2019, the SEC had more offenses finish in the top 2 than the rest of the 21st century combined.
So what does that mean for 2020? After all, so many of those dynamic offensive skill players are gone. Joe Burrow and Tua Tagovailoa fueled a special era in SEC football, and they highlighted a draft class that had 9 (!) offensive players from the SEC. There’s a lot of production to replace, yes, but even at places like LSU and Alabama, the systems are built to light up scoreboards for the foreseeable future.
Keep in mind that power rankings are about what I think a team is capable of in Week 1 of the 2020 season. That leans heavily on things like percentage of returning production, proven skill players and established systems. The confidence I have with a team’s starting quarterback is important, but it’s not everything.
On that note, let’s power rank some SEC offenses.
So get this. Vanderbilt lost Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Kalija Lipscomb and Jared Pinkney. It was up there for the best collection of returning skill players the program ever returned. Now, Vandy’s offense returns just 38% of its production (good for No. 122 nationally), the quarterback situation is a mess and somehow the SEC’s worst offense is going to improve? Yeah, I don’t buy that. Even with the addition of new offensive coordinator Todd Fitch, I have major doubts that the Commodores can flirt with offensive mediocrity with so much turnover.
13. South Carolina
Don’t hate me, Gamecock fans. I know that y’all are excited for Ryan Hilinski and true freshman tailback MarShawn Lloyd is hoping to take the league by storm. But we’re talking about Will Muschamp, who never coached a top-50 offense entering Year 9 as a head coach, and the answer to his all-or-nothing season was hiring Mike Bobo (he didn’t have a top-70 offense the last 2 years at Colorado State).
It’s hard to imagine the nation’s No. 105 scoring offense, who lost the underrated Bryan Edwards, taking a massive step forward even if the game slows down for Hilinski and his decision-making improves. A team who never broke 27 points against FBS competition is very much in “I’ll believe it when I see it” territory heading into 2020.
To be clear, there’s talent at the skill positions in Fayetteville. I didn’t agree with the anonymous coach who said the Hogs looked like a program who was hit by NCAA sanctions. Rakeem Boyd is one of the top returning backs in the SEC, Feleipe Franks won a New Year’s 6 Bowl and Treylon Burks and Trey Knox are one of the league’s exciting young receiver duos. Kendal Briles has pieces to work with, and if offensive line specialist Sam Pittman can maximize that group, Arkansas won’t be the offensive disappointment it was in the Chad Morris era.
Having said that, the nation’s No. 110 scoring offense still has a ways to go in a few areas. It’ll be an uphill battle in the trenches, there’s still nobody who’s a proven deep threat and Franks has been prone to his fair share of dumbfounding mistakes. We’ll see the offensive vision in flashes, but finishing with an average SEC offense will be a challenge.
I find that I keep talking myself into Eli Drinkwitz. The guy led top-40 scoring offenses in 4 of the last 5 years, and he did so at 3 different schools. While his offense is a bit of a mystery, there’s talent at receiver with Jalen Knox and Virginia Tech transfer Damon Hazelton, who could be a dark horse candidate to compete for the SEC receiving title.
Week 6 @ACCFootball Players of the Week:
Damon Hazelton was the go-to guy for @VT_Football Saturday night.
— ACC Digital Network (@theACCDN) October 8, 2018
Returning backfield duo Larry Rountree III and Tyler Badie should help, too. Mizzou ranked dead last in the SEC at 3.8 yards per carry, which was a mix of poor offensive line play and predictable play-calling. That should improve with Drinkwitz at the controls.
The big question is what the Tigers will look like at quarterback. There’s no guarantee that TCU transfer Shawn Robinson is going to be a perfect fit in Drinkwitz’s system after an up-and-down start to his career. He’s got Power 5 experience, but he’s never been particularly efficient. And if Robinson isn’t the guy, the depth behind him is troubling. The 2020 season will very much set the stage for what Drinkwitz is capable of in Columbia.
It’s too bad that the Vols are such an unknown in the passing game because the offensive line should be one of the SEC’s best if it can stay healthy. Trey Smith was one of the most important returns in all of college football, and if Cade Mays is ruled eligible, he’ll be as key of an undergraduate transfer as there is in America. The good news is that whoever starts at quarterback at Tennessee is no longer going to be a sitting duck. The bad news is that it’s a 4-horse race and we really have no idea how it’ll shake out.
Fortunately, this ground game should be relied on. A lot. Eric Gray’s emergence down the stretch showed why he might covet a 200-carry season, and Ty Chandler should still have a prominent role in Jim Chaney’s offense. Tennessee doesn’t figure to run the most innovative offense, but the nation’s No. 97 scoring unit should take a step up in 2020.
I’m gonna get roasted for this one, aren’t I?
Three things scare me about this offense. One is the fact that Chad Morris is running it now. No, I don’t agree with Gus Malzahn that he’s the best offensive coordinator in America. I think if that were true, he’d have more than 1 top-70 scoring offense in the last 5 years. He probably also have beaten at least 1 Power 5 team during that stretch, too. We watched Morris shuffle quarterbacks like playing cards at Arkansas, and we watched quarterbacks improve once they left him (shoutout to Ty Storey).
I’m also worried about an offensive line that lost 4 starters. Compare that to a 2019 unit who was loaded with experience and did a phenomenal job of keeping Bo Nix upright. Working with a new play-caller, that’s bound to have some hiccups. Even if the game slows down for Nix, that worries me, as does the fact that Auburn’s leading rusher from the last 2 years, JaTarvious Whitlow, is in the transfer portal.
But above all else, I worry about how Auburn’s inevitable step back on defense is going to impact this offense. Led by Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson, that group did so much of the heavy lifting to keep Auburn in games against quality foes. They gave the Tigers short fields and made life much easier on Nix than it could’ve been (Auburn was No. 29 in scoring but No. 64 in total yards). It seems inevitable that even with a talented second-year quarterback and one of the league’s top receivers in Seth Williams, Auburn is due for some offensive regression.
8. Ole Miss
I, for one, cannot wait to see Lane Kiffin’s offense. With all the weapons returning in Oxford — 78% of the offensive production is back — there’s reason to believe that this ranking will look far too low by season’s end. There are a whole lot of FBS coaches who wish they had a returning trio of John Rhys Plumlee, Jerrion Ealy and Elijah Moore. Yes, I do believe that Kiffin will build around Plumlee, and he’ll find a variety of ways to let his skill set shine.
.@OleMissFB’s John Rhys Plumlee showed out against the No. 1 team in the country!
212 rush yards & 4 rush TDs 🔥 pic.twitter.com/6eI0qagj3y
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 17, 2019
The ceiling on Ole Miss is obviously the passing game. As great as Plumlee is with the ball in his hands, he’s a run-first quarterback until further notice. This was FBS’ No. 102 passing offense for a reason, and it wasn’t entirely because of Rich Rodriguez’s system. To be one of the SEC’s top offenses, you have to at least prove you can have some sort of balance. Fortunately for Ole Miss, it hired one of the best offensive minds in the sport to make that happen.
If you’re questioning how I could rank the Cats in the top half of the SEC, you probably don’t know that they have one of the league’s best offensive lines. Two of Cole Cubelic’s top 3 tackles in the SEC are Kentucky’s Landon Young and Darian Kinnard, and Drake Jackson is Pro Football Focus’ most valuable returning center in America. This line was so good last year that with converted receiver Lynn Bowden essentially running the Wild Cat offense, the Cats still finished No. 2 in FBS with 6.4 yards per carry.
This ground game should still be elite with the likes of Kavosiey Smoke, Asim Rose and Christopher Rodriguez back after a season in which they combined for nearly 2,000 yards and 18 touchdowns. The Cats also return Terry Wilson after his season-ending knee injury. Back at full strength, we should see more of the mobility that shined in the bookends of the 2018 season, but Wilson’s arm could be the difference-maker.
Like Ole Miss, Kentucky has an uphill climb in the passing game. Even if Wilson stays healthy, the Cats need deep threats to emerge in this more balanced offense. If that happens, don’t be surprised if they surpass this ranking.
6. Mississippi State
Here’s the thing. Do I expect Mike Leach to come into the SEC and lead a passing attack that averages 450 yards per game? No. There are too many good defensive minds in this conference for that to happen. And if we’re being honest, I don’t think MSU has the personnel at receiver to make that happen. Not yet, at least.
But would I sit here today and bet on Leach’s offense to lead the SEC in passing? Absolutely. It might not be the most efficient unit with K.J. Costello, but I’d be surprised if the sheer volume doesn’t result in the SEC’s No. 1 passing unit. We’re talking about a coach who averaged 50 passing attempts per game in 17 of his 18 seasons as a head coach. This isn’t going to be the Kylin Hill show anymore, though I do expect his return will force Leach to turn him into a major factor in the passing game.
Also, let’s just say I’m not banking on the MSU defense to put the offense in a ton of spots in SEC play where it has to slow it down and preserve a lead.
This is sort of a hedge. The Dawgs are, at this juncture, a massive question mark. As I’ve been saying all offseason, a new offensive system with a new play-caller, a new quarterback, 4 new starters on the offensive line and a new offensive line coach doesn’t scream “ready for liftoff.” That’s especially true in this historically atypical offseason that prevented spring practice from happening. I think you can spin any Jamie Newman narrative you want, which is why I’m somewhere in the middle on him before we see him play an SEC game.
But there’s a reason why I have Georgia in the top 5. Even if the Air Raid takes a bit to get going, I do ultimately believe it’ll make Georgia much less predictable. I think Zamir White is going to have bigger running lanes to work with than D’Andre Swift did, and I think there will be plenty of moments in which Georgia fans are relieved that Kirby Smart took the steps to bring the offense into the 21st century.
Newman doesn’t have to be the second coming of Joe Burrow to give the Dawgs a top-30 scoring offense. With George Pickens and a healthy Dominick Blaylock, Georgia has plenty of talent at the skill positions to make that happen in an offense that should keep its fair share of SEC defenses on their heels come October.
Reminder: George Pickens is only a freshman 😳 pic.twitter.com/6L4YaDwH3N
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) November 10, 2019
4. Texas A&M
I’m not all in on A&M like many are, but I have this offense ranked so high for a few reasons. One of them is that A&M returns 80% of its offensive production. Even with the loss of receivers Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers, that’s No. 1 in the SEC.
If I’m betting on my confidence in A&M to score a lot of points, I also look at 2020 schedule. I know. I hate this argument for saying why a team should have a certain preseason ranking, but I think it’s different if we’re focusing on why an offense should be successful. Everyone is talking about the first 10 games. You know, the stretch where A&M only plays 1 team (Auburn) who won more than 6 games last year. Look at where those defenses finished in scoring last year:
- Abilene Christian — FCS
- North Texas — No. 105
- Colorado — No. 95
- Arkansas — No. 124
- MSU — No. 73
- Fresno State — No. 82
- Auburn — No. 17
- South Carolina — No. 53
- Ole Miss — No. 60
- Vanderbilt — No. 97
That’s right. The Aggies face 1 defense who finished in the top 50 in scoring, and that’s an Auburn defense who just had 3 players selected in the first 47 picks of the NFL Draft. Six of those 10 units are either an FCS team or they finished worse than No. 80 in scoring defense.
Before you tell me that Kellen Mond is totally overrated, remember that in his 2 years in Jimbo Fisher’s offense, he’s 12-0 against teams who finished with 7 wins or fewer. The guy feasts on weaker competition. Mond struggles with consistency, but he’s the SEC’s most experienced quarterback. If this offensive line — which struggled with injuries and depth last year — can improve with 3 returning starters, Isaiah Spiller’s ceiling gets much higher, and so does A&M’s.
If you’re anti-Kyle Trask, I’ve got news for you. I don’t think many quarterbacks could’ve stepped in and performed as well as he did. The guy threw 25 touchdown passes and completed 67% of his passes for a team that won a New Year’s 6 Bowl and finished No. 6 in the country. This year, he’s got an entire offseason with the first-teamers (sort of) and he’s still got one of the best offensive minds in America in his ear. He’ll also have what should be a better offensive line than the inexperienced unit who was far too mediocre a season ago.
The Gators will need to find someone to replace glue guys Van Jefferson and Freddie Swain, but returning the likes of Kyle Pitts, Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney will help Trask, as will the addition of former 5-star Miami (FL) back Lorenzo Lingard. Florida overcame poor offensive line play and a season-ending injury to the starting quarterback, yet it still had a top-30 offense.
This should be Florida’s best offense since Tim Tebow was in Gainesville. Nobody should be surprised if the Gators boast a top-20 offense at season’s end.
I know, I know, I know. How can I sit here and talk about the importance of percentage of offensive returning production and move past the fact that LSU is dead last in the SEC? Isn’t that a bit hypocritical? I hear you. I also hear the fact that the Tigers lost the guy who had the best single season in college football history, who was among an absurd 7 offensive players drafted.
LSU isn’t going to best its own record for most points scored in a season, but it also isn’t about to fall off the face of the earth. This offensive line isn’t going to take a step back and while the likes of first-round picks Justin Jefferson and Clyde Edwards-Helaire were invaluable pieces, let’s not forget what LSU has returning at the skill positions. Chris Curry was plenty effective when Edwards-Helaire was banged up in the Peach Bowl, and former 5-star tailback John Emery Jr. is chomping at the bit for more work.
Ja’Marr Chase was the best receiver in America in 2019, and he’ll lead a group that includes Terrace Marshall. Only 4 receivers at the Power 5 level had more than Marshall’s 13 touchdowns, and 2 of those guys were Chase and Jefferson. Racey McMath is the forgotten guy in that group who has all the makings of a breakout star in that offense.
Under-radar name to remember for ‘21 NFL draft is @LSUfootball WR Racey McMath. Hybrid WR/F has been used in 12 personnel. Some cool flash plays on ‘19 tape. We like him based off tools similarities to @seniorbowl alum & Seahawks pick Stephen Sullivan. #TheDraftStartsInMOBILE pic.twitter.com/aHAwMu13l0
— Jim Nagy (@JimNagy_SB) June 30, 2020
That offense, which no longer features Joe Brady, still features Steve Ensminger. It was Ensminger who did a significant amount of the play-calling that got so much praise last year. Myles Brennan showed major strides in limited work last year, and he’s been earning rave reviews since the start of 2019. As long as he can hold up physically, LSU is in position to light up more scoreboards in 2020.
Before you tell me this is a boring, cliché answer, hear me out.
Alabama just had its best offense in school history despite the fact that Tua Tagovailoa missed 4.5 games. Retaining Steve Sarkisian was as important as any assistant transaction in college football. No, that’s not a joke. Not enough people cared that Alabama hit 40 points in 10 of 13 games last year, or that without Tagovailoa in those final 2 games, Sarkisian’s offense averaged 40 points against a pair of top-25 defenses away from home.
I don’t care if it’s Mac Jones or Bryce Young. Whoever it is will be loaded with talent around them. Alabama returns 4 offensive players who are getting preseason All-America love. Jaylen Waddle is the slipperiest player in college football, and he’s in position for a major uptick in production without Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs. DeVonta Smith AND Najee Harris coming back was a surprise, as was the return of Alex Leatherwood. That’s for a group who will add the No. 1 running back in the 2019 class, Trey Sanders, who suffered that season-ending injury last August.
As historically great as Tagovailoa was, this offense wasn’t just the result of his play. If you were paying attention to Alabama last year, you would’ve seen that.
My guess? You’ll get constant reminders of that this season.