1 glaring weakness each SEC team must fix in 2021
It ended up being a pretty good year for the SEC. There was plenty of league-on-league crime during the all-SEC schedule. But the postseason did a fair job of clearing up that, aside from a few dumpster fires, the league was doing just fine. But as the script flips to 2021, everybody has something to tweak. Here’s what each squad is looking to fix for next season and beyond.
Alabama: Kicking touchbacks
Yes, finding a “flaw” on this Alabama program required a fair amount of digging. But one thing that stood out — and it almost has to be by design — is that Alabama doesn’t do touchbacks on kickoffs. Out of 110 Tide kickoffs, only 23 were touchbacks. Ole Miss, Vandy and South Carolina were the only other SEC teams that didn’t have touchbacks from half or more of their kickoffs.
Obviously, this is a point of strategy, and there are no real issues with Bama’s kick coverage (5th best in the SEC, heading into the Playoff). But if I’m Nick Saban and am looking for something to upgrade, I might well settle for either finding a kickoff guy who can blast it through the end zone, or, more likely, just telling the existing guys (Will Reichard and Chase Allen, both of whom should return) to start doing it.
Arkansas: Special teams
It was a wonderful 1st year for Sam Pittman, but one thing that might make the difference between a successful Year 2 and a grumbling fan base is fine-tuning special teams. Arkansas was near the bottom of the SEC in virtually every special teams category. Whether it was net punting (12th, most return yards allowed in SEC), punt returns (18 yards — all year) or plackicking (10th in field-goal percentage, last in PAT percentage), the Hogs struggled.
No doubt, some of this is an issue of a new coach looking to fill his roster with guys from the 247sports database instead of the Future Accountants of America database. But Year 2 may well hinge on cleaning up an accumulation of small things in the kicking game.
Auburn: Bo Nix
Auburn finished 11th in the SEC in passing efficiency. Not only was Arkansas better, so were Mizzou, Tennessee and even Vandy. Given Bo Nix and Seth Williams, that absolutely should not have happened. The inefficiency of Auburn’s offense last year could be the subject of a series of books, but we’ve all seen moments from Nix when it was clear that, yes, this guy can be — even should be — an elite SEC quarterback. Bryan Harsin’s 1st and biggest test is going to be salvaging Nix — or replacing him entirely. Gus Malzahn was on the clock until the clock ran out, and in 2021, it’s the quarterback who now will have something to prove.
Stop us if you’ve heard this one before, but LSU had some problems getting off the field on defense in 2020. How bad was it? They were 13th in the SEC in total defense, 10th in scoring defense, 10th in rushing defense and 13th in passing defense. Everything the Tigers touched turned to gold in 2020 — for opposing offenses. In Ed Orgeron’s 1st 3 full seasons, the Tigers gave up 19, 22 and 22 points per game. They won the national title while giving up 22 points per game. But they won’t win much giving up 35 points per game, like they did in 2020. Whoever the new coordinator is, the good news is that the bar is set pretty low right now.
Sorry to sound like a broken record, but another team tied to a sagging defense was the Rebels. Now, part of this is a culture thing. Lane Kiffin is going to run and gun and throw the ball and sometimes put his defense in a bad position. But that doesn’t mean the defense has to be, well, bad. The LSU defense looks like the ’85 Bears compared to Ole Miss. The Rebels’ position in the SEC standings? Last in total defense, last in scoring defense, last in rushing defense, last in passing defense. Giving up 40 points per game will put quite an onus on the offense.
USA Today noted in October that Ole Miss was paying 4 defensive coordinators, including 2 they were paying to coach elsewhere. We’re a couple of elephants and a trapeze artist shy of a circus on defense in Oxford. Whether Lane and company end up with an entertaining show or a championship-caliber team will probably be defined largely by how they fix the D.
Mississippi State: Rushing
Yes, Mike Leach came to town to throw the ball. No, he’s never going to have offenses built on grinding and pounding. But all that said, does anybody realize how historically bad the MSU rushing attack was in 2020? It’s not that MSU was last in the SEC in rushing. It’s that the gap between them and the league’s 13th-best rushing team, Vandy — which rushed for a not-at-all-imposing 110 yards per game — was almost identical to the gap between Vandy and Alabama, Georgia or Kentucky. Mississippi State rushed for 36 yards per game and 2.1 yards per carry in 2020.
Again, yes, Leach’s teams don’t run the ball. In 2018, he won 11 games at Washington State while rushing for 78 yards per game. But this isn’t the Pac-12, and a rushing attack that’s at least credible will be needed to move up the SEC ladder.
Texas A&M: The return game
There wasn’t much to not like in the Aggies’ 2020 season. Frankly, very few weaknesses showed up anywhere on the stat sheet. But one odd one is that A&M was awful in returning kicks. The Aggies simply didn’t return kickoffs, taking back 3 kicks all year for a total of 30 yards. The punt return game was similarly sleepy, contributing a long return of 22 yards and fewer than 100 total punt return yards. If the Aggies are looking to find some ground to make up on Alabama, shortening the field with a couple of timely kick returns could be a big part of it.
In the West, a defense is the thing between LSU or Ole Miss and being a top team. Having a defense was the thing between Florida and a trip to the CFP. The Gators defense wasn’t awful, it just didn’t match up. In the final regular-season numbers, Florida was 7th in the SEC in scoring defense and total defense, 6th in rushing defense and 9th in passing defense (although postseason play dropped UF down a few notches in many of those rankings). Florida allowed 30.8 points per game. That’s actually the worst stat in school history. The Gators had never allowed 30 points per game before. If they do it again, Todd Grantham will be coaching somewhere else, and Dan Mullen might just follow the path to the NFL.
Georgia: Play the right quarterback
We’ll never know how much of the issue was injuries, how much was struggles in practice and how much was Kirby Smart’s desire to be old-school Saban and win with 3 yards and a cloud of dust plus a few safe passes. But the bottom line is that UGA was a different team with JT Daniels (67 percent completions, 1,231 yards, 10 TDs, 2 INTs) than Stetson Bennett (55 percent, 1,179 yards, 8 TDs, 6 INTs) or D’Wan Mathis (40%, 89 yards, 1 TD, 3 INT). How will it play out over a whole season? Doubtlessly better than it did in 2020.
Kentucky: Throw the ball
As Eddie Gran leaves town and Liam Coen arrives to call plays, there’s a badly kept secret in Lexington. UK has won in spite of their passing game. Kentucky last passed for more than 188 yards per game in 2015, before Gran arrived and UK started a QB carousel that resulted in plenty of wins and rushing yards and not much offensive balance. UK was last in the SEC in passing by more than 60 yards per game in 2020. If Coen can up that to, say, 200 yards per game, Kentucky could be a contender in the East.
Missouri: Intercept some passes
The Tigers were one of the SEC’s feel-good stories in 2020. Eli Drinkwitz was outstanding, and the Tigers were a tough matchup on any given Saturday. One of the few things they didn’t do well was catch the ball on defense. The Tigers ended up with just 4 interceptions in the 2020 season, next to last in the SEC (only Vandy was worse). Mizzou’s pass defense wasn’t awful (8th in the SEC), and the good news is that their defenders got their hands on a number of passes (41 passes broken up). But improving beyond .500 in 2021 will probably be contingent on getting those DBs a little Stickum to help them finish the deal.
South Carolina: Stop the run
It’s an age-old football truism, but teams that can’t stop the run … well, they can’t stop much else. It was true for Carolina in 2020. Against a team with limited depth, the bullies of the SEC just ran it again and again, making Carolina 13th in the SEC in rush defense (195 yards per game). That also left Carolina vulnerable against the pass and led USC to near the bottom of the league in all defensive categories (36.0 points per game allowed, 12th in the SEC). Shane Beamer and new defensive coordinator Clayton White can start the rebuild by stopping the run.
Tennessee: Fix the culture
Look, there are a million things that could be said here. Virtually the entire Tennessee program was a disappointment in 2020. From losing to NCAA issues, the problems run deep. And the solutions needed are more than tweaking a system or hiring a cool new assistant. Tennessee has to find the culture that built the program, has to return to it and has to purge the program of all the bad news since Phil Fulmer’s last good team back in 2007. If they don’t, the lost decade and a half will turn into UT being the Nebraska of the SEC.
Vanderbilt: Establish the culture
It was awful. How could it not be? Vanderbilt was outgunned, outmanned and incredibly likely to have a winless season. In the long term, how can it get better? The Barton Simmons hire is the kind of out-of-the-box thinking that Vandy needs. For a brief couple of years under James Franklin, it looked as if the Commodores had found something that could work. In a league where they’ll always be last in spending, have the smallest stadium and have one of the weaker recruiting bases, Vandy has to think outside the box. They can’t spend more time doing the same things and expecting different results. So it’s time to do different things in 2021. Maybe it’ll work?