Georgia's offense? Florida's defense? These 7 SEC units feel like they're the most obvious to improve in 2021
It just has to get better.
For a handful of SEC units, improvement feels imminent. Maybe they dealt with some brutal injuries last year. Maybe they got a new coordinator. Or maybe, dare I say, they were just … bad.
There are 7 SEC units that I feel confident in saying that they’ll be better. And to be clear, I define “better” as what the scoreboard says. A team might have a better defensive line this year, but if they’re getting torched in the secondary and allowing 40 a game, that doesn’t qualify as “better.”
We’re basing improvement on putting up a better final number.
So with that in mind, these are the 7 SEC units who simply have to — and will — get better in 2021:
1. LSU defense
2020 rank — T-No. 98
Why they’ll be better — Because Bo Pelini is no longer in Baton Rouge, but Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks still are.
Harsh? Yeah, but goodness. How is it possible that you can have those 2 at corner and you can finish dead last in FBS against the pass? Pelini shot the moon with arguably the most talented cornerback duo in the sport. Some of the man coverage we saw from LSU should fade with Daronte Jones. Who cares if he wasn’t the first choice to replace Pelini? It seemed like Pelini was the first choice to replace Dave Aranda.
The underrated loss of LSU’s defense was Tyler Shelvin opting out. He was such a key piece up front that LSU struggled all year to find someone to take up space and get in the backfield like he could. The Tigers’ biggest losses this offseason are JaCoby Stevens and Jabril Cox, but with that lockdown corner duo, as well as promising front 7 guys BJ Ojulari and Ali Gaye, there’s simply no way LSU should be in the bottom 1/3 of FBS defenses again.
2. Arkansas defense
2020 rank — T-No. 98
Why they’ll be better — Speaking of defenses that ranked No. 98 in the country, I’ve gone on record saying that Arkansas should be the most improved defense in the SEC this year. They struggled down the stretch last year with depth issues, but when healthy, that was a unit more than capable of holding its own. That’s why Barry Odom was getting serious Broyles Award love, though the raw numbers at season’s end didn’t help his case.
Grant Morgan and Jalen Catalon are back to lead a unit that lost just 1 starter. That’s a unit that should benefit from not having to learn a new system on the fly. Arkansas actually handled that pretty well. It allowed 24.7 points per contest in the first 6 games, which would’ve been good to finish No. 38 in 2020.
The depth up front should be better in a non-COVID year wherein injuries and contact tracing were a bad combination (Arkansas also added a pair of defensive tackles via the transfer portal). At least I would think, especially with consecutive top-30 classes to start the Sam Pittman era.
3. Tennessee offense
2020 rank — No. 108
Why they’ll be better — I don’t like to overreact to spring games, but come on. It was obvious. Yes, it was against a Tennessee defense that figures to struggle, but Josh Heupel’s offense is going to be better than Jim Chaney’s unit last year. It attacks downfield exponentially more, and based on the limited sample size, Tennessee has the personnel to have plenty of flashes of home-run ability.
Will they be a top-10 unit like the groups Heupel had at UCF? No way. But Tennessee was such a disaster last year that in its final 8 games, it scored a total of 40 second-half points. In other words, the Vols averaged 5 points per second half in games 3 through 10. It’s hard to be that bad on offense in 2020, but Pruitt found a way.
Heupel’s offense will stretch the field much, much more. Even if Tennessee doesn’t settle on a quarterback for the first part of the season, the pieces are in place to at least be mediocre. MSU’s offense was No. 109 in FBS last year, and it was a total disaster. Speaking of that …
4. Mississippi State offense
2020 rank — No. 109
Why they’ll be better — Have you ever watched one of those HGTV shows where a couple decides that they want to live in the house through the renovation? That’s basically what it looked like for MSU last year. But instead of digging out a cereal bowl that’s covered in drywall, the Bulldogs were the team that tried passing 50 times a game even though they couldn’t block a 3-man rush.
This year, that simply has to improve. It will. Mike Leach’s track record of Year 2 bumps is well-documented. At Texas Tech, the bump was 8 points per game. At Washington State, the bump was 11 points per game. MSU has plenty of room to improve with its young roster. In the Armed Forces Bowl when MSU beat a ranked Tulsa squad, all 4 touchdowns were scored by true freshmen. That capped what was easily the offense’s best 2-game stretch of the year, which came after 8 consecutive games with 24 points or less.
Even if Will Rogers can’t fend off Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham for the starting job, the personnel should be better suited to run Leach’s offense. It was evident that many weren’t on board to stick with it last year when things went south. Many of those players hit the transfer portal. Getting past that roster renovation phase in itself should yield positive results.
MSU should be, at the very least, a middle-of-the-pack offense.
5. Ole Miss defense
2020 rank — No. 117
Why they’ll be better — Returning 10 starters on defense helps. Getting a full offseason to get DJ Durkin’s scheme down also helps. Shoot, getting Otis Reese for a full season helps. Reese returned for the final 3 games after being stuck in intra-conference transfer purgatory, and the versatile defender provided an immediate impact. That looked like a much different unit in the Outback Bowl than what we saw for most of the year.
It’s no secret that this unit reverted back to its pre-Mike MacIntyre ways in 2020. You can’t let up 6.7 yards per play and expect to consistently win in the SEC. You sure as heck can’t surrender 40-plus in half your games and expect to consistently win in the SEC, either. Depth probably didn’t help an Ole Miss defense that felt like it was playing on its heels until the very end of the year.
Getting the scheme down and being in better spots will help, but the tackling can and will improve. I think:
How Kayshon Boutte closed out his freshman season at LSU:
— Eight catches for 111 yards vs. Alabama
— Five catches, 108 yards and a touchdown vs. Florida
— 14 catches, a school-record 308 yards and three TDs tonight vs. Ole Miss
— Matt Zenitz (@mzenitz) December 20, 2020
All signs out of camp suggest that those moments will be a bit more scarce in 2021. That’ll determine how big of a Year 2 jump Lane Kiffin’s squad makes.
6. Florida defense
2020 rank — No. 74
Why they’ll be better — Because Todd Grantham’s job depends on it. Is that a good enough reason?
It’s unfair to just say that Florida’s early struggles were the result of not having a full roster because those defensive issues never really got figured out late, either. I thought it was more egregious to allow 37 points at home to an LSU offense led by a true freshman in his first start than it was to surrender 50-plus to Alabama and Oklahoma. Only 3 of those LSU points came via a thrown shoe, which sort of told the story of Florida’s defense in 2020. It was undisciplined and frustrating to watch considering how much talent was on the field.
So why will Florida be better? Dare I say, adjustments will be made. Perhaps Grantham will dial it back on the failed cornerback blitzes that always seem to lead to 70-yard touchdowns. Or maybe it’ll just be a more consistent group led by Zachary Carter, Kaiir Elam and Brenton Cox. Florida also never really found that guy who could take over a game and get home, which has been a constant throughout the Grantham era with guys like Jon Greenard, Jabari Zuniga and Jachai Polite.
There’s too much experience returning on the edges for Florida to struggle like that again under Grantham. There are questions to answer at defensive tackle, where the absence Kyree Campbell was felt in the first part of 2020. He’s also gone, but there are some intriguing options to step in there.
Grantham entered 2020 with 3 consecutive years of years of top-30 defenses. I don’t know that he’ll do enough to win the trust back of Florida fans, but I’d bet on him getting much closer to that top-30 level than the bottom-half defense he had in 2020.
7. Georgia offense
2020 rank — No. 38
Why they’ll be better — Is it enough to just say JT Daniels > Stetson Bennett IV and D’Wan Mathis? It’s pretty simple here. Until Daniels took over, Georgia didn’t have a quarterback who could execute Todd Monken’s offense. The skill players were there, as was the offensive line. Georgia averaged 37.3 points per game with Daniels as the starter compared to 29 points per game without him. Not surprisingly, Georgia averaged 307.8 passing yards per game with Daniels as the starter compared to 209.3 yards with Bennett and Mathis.
It’s possible that Daniels will struggle at moments to start 2021. There’s more of a book on him now. He still needs more reps to read coverages and not have his protection collapse into him.
But man, it’s hard not to be enticed by the potential with his attention to detail combined with the way he throws the deep ball. There’s no doubt in my mind that if Daniels stays healthy, Georgia will at least have its first top-40 passing offense of the post-Aaron Murray. With the weapons around him, this should be a top-15 scoring offense with top-5 upside.
Even with George Pickens expected to be out for at least the majority of the regular season with a torn ACL, the skill players that Georgia returns are second to none in the SEC. Zamir White, James Cook, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, Darnell Washington … the list goes on and on even without Pickens.
It took a bit longer than it should’ve, but if Georgia’s offensive improvement puts the kibosh on the 1980 jokes, well, it’ll all be worth it.