SEC Year in Review: Let's look back on the bizarre mess that was 2020
It began with perfection.
The Year 2020 began with LSU completing the perfect season. It was historic greatness that felt rare in every way. Joe Burrow was the face of LSU’s perfect season, which culminated with a blowout victory against Clemson in New Orleans. The championship video sold itself. It was a season that even non-LSU fans could appreciate because of how the Tigers did it. Historic offense, battle-tested schedule, lovable head coach … it was all there.
As Jacob Hester closed the books on LSU’s championship parade, no one could’ve known the year that awaited. And no, that’s not just a reference to the disaster that unfolded on the Bayou in 2020. Though in a way, LSU’s dysfunction did serve as a bit of a microcosm for the year that was.
Every week, there was a development that made us long for the days of 2019 when things seemed simple. There was a pandemic, racial unrest, opt-outs and probably a few other things that we’ve already forgotten about (remember murder hornets?).
But between binge-watching Tiger King and having an electric SEC Championship, a football season happened. That, in itself, was a win. And as we learned thanks to the Big Ten, it wasn’t necessarily a guarantee.
How boring would this year-end column be without football? Instead of writing about actual games and events, there would’ve been a blank space of fall Saturdays that was filled by Property Brothers re-runs and socially-distanced farmers’ markets. Thank goodness that didn’t happen.
What instead happened was a year for the ages. These were the events that shaped the year that was in the SEC:
Greg Sankey makes SEC fans grateful he isn’t Kevin Warren
If there was ever a year in which a Power 5 commissioner was going to reveal his or her true colors, it was 2020. Like, when a pandemic was threatening to cancel an entire season before it started. In the case of Warren, “postpone” was the action he stood by along with the Big Ten presidents. It was Warren who made the stunning decision to switch to a conference-only season before any of the other Power 5 conferences, which proved to make some sense. What left college football fans stumped was when Warren announced that the Big Ten wouldn’t be playing football in the fall, but that they would try to map out a spring season.
That came just days removed from the Big Ten’s unveiling of its conference-only schedule. It was one of the many signs that Warren was in over his head as a communicator of a monumental decision. This certainly didn’t help his claim that a spring football season could happen:
Last night, the Big Ten began hypothetically discussing what teams would do in the fall *if* the season got moved to the spring. It was contentious, as the bigger programs still want to play this fall. It marked one of the first hypothetical conversations about this topic.
— Pete Thamel (@PeteThamel) August 11, 2020
The key word there was “began.” What Warren and the Big Ten presidents were doing for the previous 5 months remains a mystery.
Meanwhile, Sankey stood pat and maintained that the COVID-19 protocols were put in place for a reason, and pulling the plug on them in early August didn’t make sense. That proved to be the approach needed not just for the SEC, but for all the Power 5 conferences that ended up having a season, though some were shorter than others.
After the Pac-12 sheepishly followed the Big Ten’s footsteps and announced plans for a canceled season, the Big 12 appeared to be the swing conference that was going to determine whether any Power 5 league would play football in the Fall of 2020. But when the Big 12 announced that it would also stick with the protocols in place, SEC fans collectively let out a sigh of relief that we would indeed get football in 2020.
We could handle a canceled spring. A canceled fall would’ve been a different beast entirely.
And despite Warren’s feeble attempt at the spring football idea, it would’ve indeed been a canceled season.
Kylin Hill sparks change of state flag in Mississippi
Amidst a summer of racial unrest following the death of George Floyd, we heard many college football voices speak out. Kirk Herbstreit spoke out, as did the likes of Nick Saban, Dan Mullen and countless other prominent people in the sport. We also saw player-led boycotts at places like Florida State and Kansas State. Former players spoke out about racial injustice within their own programs at places like Iowa and Oklahoma State.
Action was taken, though perhaps none will stand the test of time like the one taken by Kylin Hill. The star MSU running back and Mississippi native issued a tweet in protest of the state flag, which had a Confederate emblem on it for the last 126 years:
Either change the flag or I won’t be representing this State anymore 💯 & I meant that .. I’m tired https://t.co/IzizpWLoIg
— Kylin Hill (@H_Kylin) June 22, 2020
Hill’s statement made national headlines. More importantly, it sparked change.
A week after that tweet, Mike Leach and Lane Kiffin were among a group who lobbied for a new flag at the state capitol. On June 28, the state legislature passed a house bill to have the flag removed and create a new one without the Confederate emblem.
One month after his tweet of protest, Hill was presented with a key to his hometown of Columbus:
Kylin Hill was presented the key to the city in his hometown of Columbus, Mississippi, tonight.
— Mississippi State Football (@HailStateFB) July 22, 2020
In an offseason in which college football players used their platforms perhaps unlike any year before on issues of racial injustice and the #WeWantToPlay movement, Hill did something that’ll be remembered more than any touchdown he scored during his time in Starkville.
Ja’Marr Chase, Jamie Newman highlight list of notable SEC opt-outs for 2020
When Oren Milstein became the first SEC football player to opt out of the 2020 season, the term “opt-out” was still young. It was certainly part of the 2020 vernacular. Opting out was an option provided by the NCAA for players to not lose a year of eligibility. It might’ve been put in place to protect against potential student-athlete liability issues because of COVID, but it also indirectly opened the door for 2021 NFL Draft prospects to not play through a condensed, conference-only season during a pandemic.
Chase was the first major SEC star to take that option, which was a major blow for LSU with him coming off the most prolific season ever for an SEC receiver. On LSU alone, the likes of Chase, Kary Vincent, Neil Farrell and Tyler Shelvin opted out before the season. After the season started, LSU lost both Terrace Marshall and Arik Gilbert to opt-outs.
Perhaps with the exception of Chase, no SEC opt-out made a bigger splash than Jamie Newman at Georgia. The Wake Forest grad transfer was set to become the first quarterback in Todd Monken’s offense, but instead of playing an all-SEC schedule, he announced his plans to prepare for the NFL Draft. The replies to this tweet were … something.
— Jamie Newman (@jlmn12_) September 2, 2020
That set Georgia’s quarterback wheel spinning until it landed on JT Daniels, who was a surprise transfer from USC this offseason.
Chase might not have necessarily started a trend of all SEC stars opting out — Florida and Alabama just played for an SEC Championship without facing that issue — but it did serve as a 2020 reminder that everything can change from week to week.
Mike Leach rewrites SEC record books in SEC debut
Remember when it took Leach approximately 1 game to set an SEC record for passing yards in a game?
Despite the fact that LSU proved to be a team with major defensive issues, what we saw from it while defending the Air Raid in the season opener was stunning. KJ Costello’s first SEC game saw him throw for 623 (!) yards in 60 attempts in a 44-34 victory against the defending national champs, who entered as 3-score favorites in Death Valley. That was 79 yards more than the previous SEC record, which had stood for 27 years. Osirus Mitchell, Kylin Hill and JaVonta Payton all had north of 6 catches for 122 yards.
How surprising was that performance? Even Costello himself said afterward that “I don’t know if any individual could visualize this taking place.”
It was everything MSU fans could’ve hoped for when Leach left Washington State to come to Starkville. There are coming-out parties, and then there’s what Leach did.
Unfortunately for Leach, he couldn’t face Bo Pelini’s defense on a weekly basis. Nothing came close to that performance the rest of the season, and against defenses who started dropping 8 into coverage instead of playing man-to-man, MSU didn’t even post a top-100 offense in Year 1 of the Leach era. While the future could follow a much different script, it was still a frustrating season for MSU post-LSU.
But we’ll always have that wild day in Death Valley.
Nick Saban becomes first SEC coach to test positive for COVID … sort of
When Alabama was set to face Georgia in what was being billed as the game of the year in college football, it was peak-2020 that Saban became the first SEC coach to test positive for COVID. That was worrisome on a variety of fronts. From a football standpoint, not having the sport’s best coach for the biggest game of the year was brutal from every angle. From a health standpoint, Saban, who turned 69 on Halloween, was the oldest SEC coach.
But Saban said he wasn’t showing any symptoms, which prompted additional daily tests that dominated the news cycle for the latter half of the week. All of those were negative, and as we found out on game day, Saban was a go for that night’s showdown after the false positive.
Weird. But in 2020, perhaps not so weird. After all, this was the year where fines were instituted to coaches for not wearing masks on the sidelines.
Saban did ultimately test positive and have to miss the Iron Bowl, though by that time, he was 1 of 3 SEC coaches to test positive for the virus (and ultimately 4 did). In addition to Jeremy Pruitt’s positive COVID test before the Vols pulled out of the Liberty Bowl, Sam Pittman had to miss the Florida game while Dan Mullen’s positive test was part of a team-wide shutdown of all football activities.
Speaking of Mullen …
Dan Mullen gets all sorts of hype while leading a historically prolific offense
Where should we start?
Let’s start off easy with Mullen. Like, here’s a casual video of him ripping off Todd Grantham’s head:
Dan Mullen has had enough of Todd Grantham pic.twitter.com/9On6rgyLYL
— SEC Mike (@MichaelWBratton) November 28, 2020
(It’s all good because Mullen said afterward that he was just mad that Grantham put his Christmas lights up too early.)
Mullen seemed like that was the mood he was in throughout 2020. Wrong him in any way and he’s going to try and stomp all over you.
Who could forget Mullen starting a benches-clearing brawl in the Mizzou game after charging at the officials for a non-call that he admitted he didn’t see? Mullen then hyped up the Florida crowd going into the halftime locker room and showed up to the postgame press conference (on Halloween) in full Darth Vader costume:
I woke up this morning thinking it was all a dream.
Dan Mullen in full costume, explaining the halftime brawl. Thank you GatorVision for the video. pic.twitter.com/GkO5IPFLjI
— Jim Dunaway (@jimdunaway) November 1, 2020
Mullen embraced the villain role by more than just wearing a costume. His postgame Texas A&M press conference was a sight to behold. After an upset loss, Mullen, fresh after seeing A&M’s “reduced capacity crowd” claimed that he wanted to see 90,000 people pack The Swamp for the LSU game.
Under normal circumstances, that’s about the least interesting thing that Mullen could’ve said. During a pandemic in which professional sports leagues were operating in a no-fans bubble, yeah, it wasn’t the best look. Mullen then testing positive for COVID the following week and being part of a team-wide facilities shutdown wasn’t the best look, either.
In some ways, Mullen came across like a coach fighting for his job even though he clearly wasn’t. Amidst all the antics and wild moments was Mullen dialing up Florida’s best offense of the post-Tim Tebow era. Kyle Trask had one of the best individual seasons we’ve ever seen from an SEC quarterback, Kyle Pitts became the first tight end to crack the top 10 in the Heisman Trophy voting in 43 years and Kadarius Toney made us question if he was the same species as us on a weekly basis.
Say what you want about Mullen in 2020. The guy certainly wasn’t boring.
2020 becomes golden era for SEC pass-catchers
You can make a case that 2020 was the best year we’ve ever seen for SEC pass-catchers. Think about it. DeVonta Smith and Elijah Moore led the country in receiving yards and catches. Smith has a legitimate chance to become the first receiver to win the Heisman Trophy since Desmond Howard. The guy has been that good. His per/game averages are even better than Amari Cooper’s 2014 season, which was arguably the best year ever from an SEC receiver.
It’s not just those 2 guys. Kadarius Toney was more than just a human highlight reel. He was a consistent, productive All-SEC receiver. Moore and Smith were the only Power 5 wideouts with more catches than Toney, and only 3 Power 5 wideouts had more receiving yards than the Florida senior.
Terrace Marshall had 10 receiving touchdowns in 8 games, Treylon Burks was No. 10 among Power 5 wideouts in receiving yards and Grimes was No. 5 among Power 5 players in touchdown catches. Oh, and Kayshon Boutte set the SEC single-game receiving record in LSU’s final game of 2020 … as a true freshman:
14 Rec. 308 Rec Yds. 3 TD.
🔥 LSU single-game rec yds record
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) December 20, 2020
The talent at receiver was off the charts, despite the fact that for various reasons, Jaylen Waddle, Seth Williams and George Pickens didn’t have the year that many thought they would, and again, Chase opted out.
What really made 2020 the year of the pass-catcher in the SEC was the tight end position.
What Pitts did was see-to-believe. Every broadcast would bring up Pitts as a matchup nightmare, and then on seemingly the next play, he’d go Randy Moss on a couple of dudes in the back corner of the end zone. Pitts’ year-end numbers won’t do his play justice but the guy finished No. 2 among Power 5 players in receiving touchdowns (12) even though he only played in 8 games. Pitts was so good as a pass-catcher that he became the first tight end to ever be named a finalist for the Biletnikoff Award.
It wasn’t just Pitts who shined among SEC tight ends.
Sooner or later, people are going to realize how good Jalen Wydermyer is (probably this offseason when he’s a preseason All-American). The Texas A&M sophomore was tied for third among Power 5 tight ends in touchdowns, and Hunter Long was the only Power 5 tight end who had more catches than Wydermyer. There was also the underrated Kenny Yeboah, who had just as many touchdowns as Wydermyer, and he averaged a ridiculous 19.4 yards per catch in Lane Kiffin’s offense. And while his season certainly ended on a strange note, highly-touted freshman Arik Gilbert had at least 4 catches in 6 of the 8 games he played in, which was more than Evan Engram and Hunter Henry combined in their true freshman seasons.
Sure, maybe some of it was the way defense was played in 2020. It wasn’t anything to write home about. But don’t let that take away from some remarkable years we saw from SEC pass-catchers.
Someday, we’ll look back on 2020 and be amazed at the talent that was in the league catching passes at the same time.
Lane Kiffin throws his playsheet to moon, sets SEC ablaze
“Siri, describe Ole Miss’ 2020 offense in 1 video.”
The clipboard toss pic.twitter.com/1BZVNswyJd
— Bunkie Perkins (@BunkiePerkins) November 15, 2020
Who knew a playsheet could fly so high?
Kiffin back in the SEC was pretty much everything we could’ve hoped for. His offense was electric. Unlike some of the last few years of the Ole Miss offense, it proved it could score with anyone. That included Alabama, which couldn’t stop much of anything against Kiffin.
Unfortunately for the first-year Ole Miss coach, his defense couldn’t stop much of anything, either. Matt Corral and Co. had all sorts of pressure to light up scoreboards, which they often did. Shoot, even when Corral had games with 5-plus turnovers, he still found ways to make plays down the stretch. It was home-run filled, punt-less, drunken fun. Every week.
Kiffin and Jeff Lebby are a dangerous combination together. When Ole Miss gets a defense, it’ll be a dangerous SEC combination with whatever those 2 are dialing up.
Alabama’s Heisman-worthy trio fuels historically dominant regular season
Heading into 2020, the storyline was “how big of a step back will Alabama’s offense take without Tua Tagovailoa?” As it turned out, we should’ve been forecasting Alabama’s boost. With Mac Jones leading the way for Steve Sarkisian’s offense, the Crimson Tide averaged 2.5 points per game more in 2020. Just as everyone predicted, Jones was 1 of 3 Heisman contenders in Tuscaloosa.
It didn’t even hold Alabama back that Jaylen Waddle missed half the regular season. Smith had arguably the best season we’ve ever seen from an SEC receiver while Najee Harris had 5 more rushing touchdowns than any FBS player. Harris actually averaged more rushing touchdowns per game (2.2) than Derrick Henry (1.9) had during his Heisman season, and that happened against only SEC competition.
There’s a reason Alabama scored at least 38 points in every game this year. Part of that is Sarkisian. Alabama is currently riding a streak of 24 consecutive games with 35 points, which dates back to when Sarkisian returned to Tuscaloosa as the offensive coordinator. That’s why Sarkisian earned the Broyles Award as the nation’s top assistant.
But what Jones, Smith and Harris did as a trio cannot be overstated. It’s a historically prolific attack with balance that’s been unstoppable like no Alabama offense we’ve ever seen. That’s saying a lot. It’s remarkable to think that Alabama lost 4 offensive players in the first 15 picks of the NFL Draft and yet it averaged just shy of 50 points per game in an 11-0 season against all-SEC competition.
Alabama won all but 1 game by at least 15 points. In 10 regular season games, it outscored SEC teams by an average of 32.7 points. That’s better than the 2017 team (+26.1), the 2015 team (+14.1), the 2012 team (+26.6), the 2011 team (+25.5) and the 2009 team (+15.4). Shoot, it’s even slightly better than that 2018 team (+32.6) who basically never played in a meaningful 4th quarter until late-November.
Yeah, that’s historical dominance if I’ve ever seen it.
COVID postponements/cancelations lead to weekly chaos
You don’t want to talk about that anymore after a year of shuffling the schedule but only seeing 2 of 71 SEC regular-season games get officially canceled? Yeah, neither do I.
Let’s move along.
Texas A&M gets hosed by Playoff selection committee
Go figure that when A&M got blown out by Alabama in early-October that it would have the biggest Playoff gripe of anyone. Yes, that includes Cincinnati and Coastal Carolina. The Aggies watched the selection committee favor not 1, but 2 teams that had major flaws on the résumé. As Jimbo Fisher said after A&M blew out Tennessee for its 6th consecutive win by double digits (and 7th overall), something is wrong if a 1-loss SEC team can’t make the field while a 6-0 team can.
Jimbo Fisher on why they deserve to be in the playoff. What do you think? pic.twitter.com/DW8mvhOVbK
— Antonio MacBeath (@TonyMacUMP) December 19, 2020
A&M got a raw deal from the selection committee with the Ohio State ranking, though at the very least, it was consistent. The Buckeyes were ranked ahead of A&M in every Playoff ranking, despite the fact that they had 3 fewer games played.
The Notre Dame decision was what really provided the dagger to A&M’s Playoff hopes. The Irish got blown out by Clemson in the ACC Championship for loss No. 1. However, the regular-season win against Clemson came when the Tigers were without Trevor Lawrence and 3 defensive starters. Yet A&M, which had an awfully similar résumé in terms of Power 5 wins and the 1 blowout loss, drew the short straw.
It had to be a frustrating pill to swallow for an A&M team who did everything it possibly could after suffering its lone loss, which came against a historically dominant Alabama team. We’ll never know what the rematch would’ve looked like for the much-improved Aggies. Thanks, selection committee.
Even amidst pandemic, 8-figure buyouts prove not to get in way of SEC firings
There was a question what SEC programs would do about buyouts during a pandemic with budget cuts and tens of millions of dollars worth of revenue losses at universities nationwide.
Needless to say, the SEC answered that question as only it could.
Three SEC coaches got fired in this strange 2020 season, including 2 who received 8-figure buyouts. Will Muschamp and Gus Malzahn took home $15 million and $21 million, respectively. Granted, that money was never coming directly from the schools. Booster momentum is always a driving force when it comes to all things buyouts.
Amazing it is that Gus Malzahn had a winning record in SEC play in 2020, yet Auburn forked over more than $21 million to send him on his way. The ensuing search suggested there wasn’t a unanimous replacement plan, either. It was all about moving on after 8 years of Malzahn on the Plains. South Carolina paying $15 million to fire Muschamp wasn’t as surprising as Auburn, but it was certainly noteworthy given the school’s nonexistent track record of shelling out top-dollar buyouts.
Even Vanderbilt was willing to pull the plug on the Derek Mason era. A pandemic couldn’t save a coach coming off a winless season.
Let this weird, grind of a year serve as a reminder that hefty buyouts aren’t deal-breakers. At least not in the SEC.
Florida Man throws shoe
Need I say more?