These Group of 5 teams could have won these canceled SEC games in 2020
If you count BYU, last year, an SEC team lost 8 times to a Group of 5 school. Eight.
That’s a lot. While most of the canceled Group of 5/FCS matchups essentially took wins away from SEC programs, they also might have saved some embarrassment. There will be no Georgia State-Tennessee games this year. Fortunately for Arkansas, neither Western Kentucky nor San Jose State will appear on the SEC-only slate this year.
With that in mind, I thought it’d be interesting to play out some of those potential upsets. Inevitably, there would have been a handful of Group of 5 teams who would have waltzed into SEC stadiums and walked away with a win and a 7-figure check.
I found the 6 canceled games that would’ve been the best bets for that to happen:
1. Nevada vs. Arkansas
Remember last year when Arkansas lost to Western Kentucky and San Jose State? Of course you do. I mentioned it in the lede. And, well, if you’re an Arkansas fan, you’ll never forget Ty Storey’s return to Fayetteville. It was the end of the Chad Morris era.
Remember last year when Nevada came back and beat Purdue? You probably don’t because it was the Friday night of opening weekend, and that comeback happened at roughly 1 a.m. ET.
In the first game of the Sam Pittman era, dare I say, there might have been a few kinks to work out. After such a weird offseason, it’s not crazy to think a team with an entirely new coaching staff who took over a team with 1 SEC win in the past 3 years might have struggled. Jay Norvell returned a solid 73% of his offensive production from a 7-win team. Elijah Cooks would have fueled a tricky Air Raid attack that would have been a tall task for Arkansas’ defense to slow down in Game 1.
But hey, better Cooks than Storey.
2. Louisiana vs. Mizzou
If I had to guess, I think it’ll be a rough Year 1 for Eli Drinkwitz. And that’s coming from someone who likes him and thinks he’s going to become Lane Kiffin West in the SEC.
On the bright side, Louisiana wouldn’t have been an inexplicable season-opening trip to Wyoming. I’m still amazed that Mizzou agreed to that.
Louisiana still would have been a tough Cupcake Week matchup for a variety of reasons. That’s an 11-3 team last year. One of those losses was by 10 to Mississippi State and the other 2 were, ironically enough, both against Drinkwitz’s Appalachian State squad. Drinkwitz, in case you don’t know, is a fantastic quote:
Eli Drinkwitz was asked about App State and Louisiana starting to form a rivalry. He said someone on Twitter said the two schools should have a traveling trophy.
He told us he wanted to say, “We do — It’s called the Sun Belt championship trophy.”
— Ethan Joyce (@EthanJoyceWSJ) December 2, 2019
Billy Napier has a good thing down in Lafayette. A balanced team returns the majority of its production on each side of the ball after finishing in the top 30 in both scoring offense and scoring defense. The nation’s No. 6 run game returns 2/3 of last year’s 3-headed rushing attack, which would have made for quite the matchup for Nick Bolton and Mizzou’s defense in the post-Barry Odom era.
3. Tulane vs. Mississippi State
Don’t freak out, MSU fans. Mike Leach was an applaudable hire. I have no doubt that his offense will yield a billion passing yards and that the Bulldogs will start cranking out elite offenses in no time.
But I wonder about the timing of this matchup. It would have been in Leach’s first month as MSU’s coach, so there could have been some things to figure out. It also would have had an odd sandwich between SEC games. Motivation could have been lacking.
Let’s also not forget that coming off consecutive 7-win seasons, Tulane coach Willie Fritz was considered a candidate for that MSU job until John Cohen swung for the fences to hire Leach. Could there have been a little bit of extra motivation for Fritz? It’s possible. It’s also possible that a team with massive offensive turnover after replacing former LSU quarterback Justin McMillan and having leading rusher Corey Dauphine suffer a career-ending Achilles injury would have struggled to score points.
Still, this game had “too close for comfort” written all over it.
4. Colorado State vs. Vanderbilt
Is it easy to pick Vandy for this? Of course. But it’s worth noting that the Commodores only have 1 Group of 5 loss in the past 4 seasons. Arkansas had 2 last year alone. The year before that, Arkansas lost to … Colorado State:
Colorado State (+425) scores 25 UNANSWERED and takes down Arkansaspic.twitter.com/gnt72EVlrt
— The Action Network (@ActionNetworkHQ) September 9, 2018
Having said that, yeah, I do think Colorado State would have had a fighting chance to get out of Nashville with a win. Former Boston College coach Steve Addazio, who may or may not be the college football version of Jeff Fisher, has 71% of his offensive production back. That includes former Nebraska quarterback Patrick O’Brien and 1,000-yard receiver Warren Jackson.
This comes back to the belief that Vanderbilt is a total mystery on offense. An entirely new quarterback room is one thing. Losing the likes of Ke’Shawn Vaughn, Jared Pinkney and Kalija Lipscomb is another. I have major concerns how Vandy will score points against any FBS squad, even one that won 4 games and has an entirely new coaching staff.
5. Louisiana Tech vs. Vanderbilt
Don’t hate me for doubling up on Vandy. If you asked a diehard college football fan to name every team that won double-digit games in 2019, I bet that the vast majority of them wouldn’t name Louisiana Tech. Granted, most of those same people probably cackled as the Bulldogs shut out Miami in the Independence Bowl.
Unfortunately for Louisiana Tech, only 31% of that defensive production returns. That doesn’t include the loss of defensive coordinator Bob Diaco, who once famously declared war on UCF in one of the most cringe-worthy college football rants … ever? More interesting is the fact that we missed out on the Todd Fitch game. Fitch was Louisiana Tech’s offensive coordinator last year and now, ironically enough, he’s in the same role at Vanderbilt.
Again, I have zero faith in the Vanderbilt offense. I have more faith that Skip Holtz will crank out another 9-win season and win a bowl game (he has won 6 consecutive bowl games).
This game technically would have been during Cupcake Week, but it wouldn’t have been an automatic Vandy win by any stretch.
6. Georgia Southern vs. Ole Miss
I’ve said throughout this offseason that long-term, I think Ole Miss and Lane Kiffin are a great marriage. I’m excited about the prospects of John Rhys Plumlee running Kiffin’s offense and what it could mean for an underrated group of skill players.
But I’m skeptical about the question-filled Ole Miss defense stopping a tricky Georgia Southern option offense. After recording the nation’s No. 7 rushing attack, the Georgia Southern offense returns a whopping 80% of last year’s production. That team, by the way, gave Minnesota everything it could handle last year with a 35-32 loss in the Twin Cities (I know it’s been a long offseason, but don’t forget that the Gophers finished No. 10 in the AP Top 25 in 2019).
Georgia Southern would be the worst kind of Group of 5 team to fall behind against. That seems like an awfully difficult challenge for Cupcake Week. Having this game right before the Egg Bowl, in hindsight, probably wasn’t the smartest move. This would have been a tough game to get fired up for and also a difficult game to prepare for with such a unique offense.
There will be plenty of bright spots in this new era of Ole Miss football, but Kiffin might have avoided some late-season embarrassment by not having to face Georgia Southern.