SEC 360: SEC storylines I can’t wait to see play out in 2020
It’s Super Bowl week, but I can’t get my mind off college football.
I recently learned that pop star Shakira will be performing at halftime when the Chiefs meet the 49ers this Sunday in Miami Gardens, Florida. No offense, but give me the pageantry of a marching band, give me a raucous student section tethered in unison, give me the splendor and dazzle of majorettes, give me a mascot roaming the field and making children smile, give me the picturesque beauty of a football game framed by an aging college campus any day over … Shakira.
Sure, hips don’t lie, but neither does Kirk Herbstreit.
The year 2019 in college football entertained us and surprised us. LSU took home the national title and Ed Orgeron found redemption. Alabama struggled with injuries but still won 11 ballgames. Georgia battled admirably with a quarterback who never really seemed like himself. Auburn lost 4 games but salvaged its season by winning the Iron Bowl. Tennessee almost came apart at the seams but then turned its season around and won 8 games. Florida quietly took second in the East and posted an 11-win season. Four teams fired their coach, several players across the league decided to take their talents to “The League,” and the recruiting madness hit full swing.
The awesome thing about college football is that you always find a resolution with a championship crowning a champion, but every year leaves you with cliffhangers that you can’t wait to play out. Here are a few of them:
Which quarterbacks will replace Tua and Burrow as the best in the SEC?
Last year was the year of the quarterback. Approaching the season, many expected Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm to be sitting beside each other in New York for the awarding of the Heisman Trophy. Neither made it. Instead it was LSU’s Joe Burrow hoisting the bronze statue. Now all of these beloved quarterbacks are gone from their respective schools, leaving a massive void to fill and begging the question, “Who are the quarterbacks of the future?”
You have to think Auburn’s Bo Nix is a leading candidate, but he’ll have to develop, and that’s something that’s been a bit of a rarity in Gus Malzahn’s system. Nix’s Iron Bowl counterpart, Alabama’s Mac Jones, showed tremendous grit and should be even better next season. Over in Oxford, the pairing of John Rhys Plumlee with the offensive ingenuity of new head coach Lane Kiffin will be an exciting dynamic to behold. Jarrett Guarantano, Tennessee’s signal-caller who gathered himself remarkably after the famous facemask tug in Tuscaloosa, returns to Knoxville. And, believe it or not, Kellen Mond is back at Texas A&M for what seems like his 17th season in College Station.
Perhaps the best returning QB is Florida’s Kyle Trask, who threw for 2,941 yards and 25 touchdowns last year. In his last 5 games, Trask tossed for 257, 363, 282, 343 and 305 yards. That’s Shane Matthews-esque, in my book.
What about the dark horses? Can Myles Brennan pick up the torch left by Joe Burrow in Baton Rouge? Will graduate transfer Jamie Newman or some other quarterback lead the Dawgs back to the SEC championship? I can’t wait to see.
What teams are ready to take things to another level?
I should have just titled this section, “Are South Carolina and Texas A&M ever going to do anything?” I don’t mean to be hard on these teams, but I keep waiting for something to good to happen in Columbia and College Station, and I’m not talking about the Belk Bowl.
Last year, the Gamecocks picked up a huge win at Athens but couldn’t sustain the momentum and finished at 4-8. A&M head coach Jimbo Fisher has been crushing it on the recruiting trail, but will this translate into victories and a legitimate run at the SEC West?
Tennessee is probably the team that seems most antsy to make a jump. I don’t think there’s any question Jeremy Pruitt wants to win and is willing to do what it takes to get there. The Vols have won 6 consecutive games and return 16 starters from an 8-5 campaign that was punctuated by a thrilling victory over Indiana in the Gator Bowl. Which means look out for Rocky Top next season.
Alabama’s quarterback battle
Mac Jones (97-for-141, 1,503 yards, 14 TD) did an incredible job filling in for the injured Tua Tagovailoa in 2019, and he’s definitely the leader in the clubhouse for the starting quarterback slot this year. But how safe is his job? Is there any way we are in for a surprise like we saw in 2016 when freshman Jalen Hurts came in and wrangled the quarterback job away from Blake Barnett? Well, maybe.
Backups Taulia Tagovailoa (career 9-for-12, 100 yards) and Paul Tyson (redshirted in 2019) are chomping at the bit, and there’s the 5-star Californian, Bryce Young. They’ll have to be plenty good to beat out Jones, who, frankly, can be as good as any quarterback Alabama has had in the past 30 years not named Tagovailoa. To put things in perspective, Jones threw for as many touchdowns last year as former Alabama quarterback Jay Barker did the entire 1994 season.
Alabama has finally shed the reputation of having quarterbacks who are “game managers” and Jones is the latest evidence of that fact.
Can LSU keep it rolling with Alabama-like attrition?
The month of January 2020 for the LSU football team began with ecstasy and ended with volatility. After capturing the national championship over Clemson, Ed Orgeron felt the attrition of personnel that great teams feel, and I’m not just talking about from a player standpoint. Coaches, too. Over the course of 2 weeks, Orgeron lost his quarterback, running back, top defensive back, passing game coordinator, defensive coordinator and several analysts.
This is a critical time for the LSU program. To sustain superiority, Orgeron will have to mitigate the yearly exodus of players to the NFL Draft and coaches to other programs. Orgeron has raised the bar of expectations such that LSU will not tolerate a rebuilding year.
Welcome to Excellence, Ed.
How will new coaches fare in their debuts?
Fresh faces always seem to stir up excitement and 2020 will have the best new crop in recent memory. There’s Eli Drinkwitz at Missouri, Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss, Mike Leach at Mississippi State and Sam Pittman at Arkansas. These coaches are, as we speak, probably fanned out all over the South, forging through the recruiting woods and trails like Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. Don’t be surprised if one of them turns up at a meat-and-three in your town.
We can talk and talk and talk about how exciting the Egg Bowl is going to be, but for now, let’s don’t oversell it. It’s like when the movie Cinderella Man came out. Because it had been billed as the greatest film in cinematic history, it was, honestly, a little disappointing (but still a very good movie). So let’s just pace ourselves for now.
Soon, my friends. Soon.
Where does Tua end up?
The Tua draft saga is a continuing narrative that doesn’t bore me a bit. General consensus is that the top 3 quarterbacks coming out of college this year are Burrow, Tagovailoa and Oregon’s Justin Hebert. The way prognosticators have it, Burrow can just about pack his bags to move back to Ohio, where the Cincinnati Bengals hold the No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. The next quarterback off the board is a bit hazier. Do you take Hebert or do you take Tagovailoa?
ESPN draft expert Mel Kiper Jr. loves Tua in Miami as the 5th overall pick. But will the Dolphins take him?
For now, let’s just say Miami skips Tua and goes with Hebert. Where else might Tua land? Here are a few teams that desperately need a quarterback or will in the imminent future: Los Angeles Chargers (6th pick), Indianapolis Colts (13th pick), Tampa Bay Buccanneers (14th pick), New England Patriots (23rd pick).
That last franchise on the list provides an interesting set of circumstances. Could Tua be the heir apparent to Tom Brady? You have to imagine Nick Saban would have good things to say about 13 to his ol’ pal, Bill Belichick.
Does anyone want to play defense? (Or does it even matter?)
A couple of weeks ago I was digging around, looking at stats from the 1992 season (I know … I’m a geek) and I noticed something interesting and, honestly, a bit peculiar. The highest scoring offensive team that year was Georgia, averaging 31 points per game, followed by Tennessee (28.9 ppg), Alabama (28.2) and Florida (24.2).
This is interesting to me because last year’s top offensive teams were LSU (48.4 ppg) and Alabama (47.2 ppg). That’s a dramatic climb on the offensive side of the ball!
Ed Orgeron recently hired Bo Pelini to become his defensive coordinator. For now, Saban seems to be staying with DC Pete Golding, but to win in 2020, the Crimson Tide will have to tighten the screws considerably on defense.
I noted from this year’s national championship game that, as good as Clemson’s defense was, LSU put 42 points on the scoreboard. Can we expect this offensive feast to continue?
One certainly has to wonder if we’ve reached a point in the game when great offense finally beats great defense, and the old saying that defense wins championships has, sadly, become glib.
Targeting needs to be revisited — and revised
I think the NCAA needs to take a hard look at the issue of targeting. Is it a good policy to eject a college athlete in front of a hundred thousand fans when he had no intent to target an opposing player? And even if he did, why subject him to the jog of shame back to the locker room? If you’re going to do that, why not just sit him in the corner or make him write sentences or paddle his little fanny out in the hallway?
Honestly, I cringe when players are, as they say, “disqualified for the remainder of the game.”
A potent example occurred in the CFP National Championship Game when Clemson linebacker James Skalski was ejected for targeting in the 3rd quarter with LSU leading 28-25. It was a huge momentum swing for LSU and an embarrassing moment for Skalski and Clemson.
Yes, absolutely we need to focus on player safety, but no need to humiliate anyone in the process.
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So how will all of these stories play out? Honestly, I don’t have a clue.
The only things that are certain in this world are death, taxes, and hips don’t lie.