A way-too-early prediction of how the media will pick the SEC West to finish in 2020
Let’s fast forward 5 months. We’ll be finished with SEC Media Days and the stage will be set for the start of the 2020 season.
What a comforting thought that is.
Not so comforting is the fact that we still have to wait another 5 months for the unofficial start of the college football calendar. But the good news is that we can still make predictions and fire off takes to fill that time. As we know, the media’s prediction for how the divisions will finish is far from the only prediction that’s made in the preseason.
Today, I’m going to do something a little different. Because I don’t want to wait 5 months to get the official media ballot for the order of finish in each division, I’ll do it right here and now.
Before I start, I preface this by saying this is not necessarily what my ballot will look like. There could be similarities, but I, as a voting media member, am predicting how I believe my SEC colleagues will vote.
So don’t chirp me saying that I’m not giving Team X enough love. This isn’t my ballot. This is just how I believe the majority will vote come July.
Also, it’s worth remembering that the media has accurately predicted an SEC Champion just 7 times since 1992. It might be good to fly under the radar like LSU did last year when it got 3 of the 266 total votes to win the SEC.
Here’s how I think the media will vote on the West (we predicted the East vote on Saturday):
I mean, when you win 1 SEC game in 3 years, that No. 7 spot is all but automatic. That’s reality for the Hogs, who obviously still have an uphill climb in the toughest division in America. How long will it take for Sam Pittman to recruit an entire team of athletes who can compete in the SEC? That remains to be seen.
Year 1 with Feleipe Franks and Rakeem Boyd should still provide some bright moments. And on the defensive side, Barry Odom is back in at the role he’s best at as a defensive coordinator. Will that suddenly yield a team who can even be average in SEC play? I doubt it, and I don’t know what could happen in the next 5 months that would prevent other media members from feeling that way, as well.
6. Ole Miss
Wait, I thought we were all aboard the Lane Train? Well, many are ready for Lane Kiffin to again become at the face of a Power 5 program, but in this division, it’s hard to imagine the media looking at a 4-win team and having them picked to finish better than at any of the West’s top 4. There’s still a bit of an unknown as to how Kiffin’s offense will look with presumably John Rhys Plumlee leading the way. That mystery isn’t going anywhere because Plumlee is playing baseball this spring.
The defensive side of the ball is the bigger question mark. We saw those improvements from Mike MacIntyre last year, but this is a totally new staff with DJ Durkin and Chris Partridge. That’s with just 5 starters returning on defense.
Could I see possibly having Ole Miss ahead of Mississippi State? Sure, but my guess is the majority will have the Rebels picked to finish where they did last year.
5. Mississippi State
Welcome to the SEC, Mike Leach. The gauntlet that is the SEC West is just slightly different than the Pac-12 North. And by “slightly,” I mean “drastically.”
The good news for Leach is that he has a manageable crossover schedule in Year 1 with home against Mizzou and at Kentucky. The other good news is that he went out and got arguably the top grad transfer quarterback on the market in K.J. Costello. He’s the preseason bet to lead the league in passing. The fact that Kylin Hill changed his mind and decided to return also bodes well for how this offense should look in Year 1.
But even with Erroll Thompson back, are we sure MSU can stop anyone? Only Arkansas and Vanderbilt allowed more points in SEC play than the Bulldogs did last year, and now, 33-year old Zach Arnett will be tasked with coaching up a defense that got trucked by better competition. That’ll temper expectations in Leach’s first year in the SEC, but his first media days is sure to be electric.
Here are some words of inspiration this V-Day courtesy of the pirate…
“Rose are red, love isn’t real
Who’d win in a fight; A walrus or seal?”
– Mike Leach (probably) pic.twitter.com/e3lm9rYwdG
— Chris Marler (@VerneFUNquist) February 14, 2020
I’m not sure that Gus Malzahn being on the hot seat or not really matters anymore. It’s probably irrelevant as it relates to where Auburn is picked to finish in the preseason. Most people will have Auburn in that 3-4 slot with a major question looming — how will Bo Nix and Chad Morris work together in 2020? We know that this offensive line is losing 4 of 5 starters, and Boobie Whitlow’s surprising decision to transfer will make for even more questions on The Plains.
That’s without mentioning that the loss of Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson will be what Auburn feels most. Oh, and because it’s an even year, that means Auburn is traveling to Georgia and to Alabama.
So why 4th? Well, the Tigers are still coming off a 9-win season in which they beat the likes of Alabama, Oregon and Texas A&M. That was with a true freshman quarterback who many expect to improve in 2020. And despite those questions on the defensive line, it’s still Kevin Steele coaching up a defense, which usually works out pretty well for Auburn.
In other words, there’s still plenty of hope that this can be another 9-win season. That’d be no small feat with that schedule.
3. Texas A&M
Here’s the thing. I’ve already stated my case for why I think A&M absolutely does not deserve to start in the top 10 next year. It’s a team that won 7 regular season games and led for just 7:42 of 300 minutes against teams that finished in the top 14 of the AP Top 25. To me, that shows the Aggies aren’t on the same talent level as elite teams and shouldn’t be treated like one after a season in which their best regular season win was home against 6-win MSU.
But here’s the other thing — it’s the most favorable schedule in the SEC, and it’s not close. In its first 10 games, A&M’s only opponent that won more than 6 regular season games last year is Auburn. Crossover games at South Carolina and vs. Vanderbilt are about as favorable as one can ask for.
The entire conversation surrounding Year 3 of the Jimbo Fisher era this offseason is why now is the time for the Aggies to go from decent to elite. Like, can they start 9-1 or 10-0? It’s hard to envision a scenario that A&M isn’t in the division hunt going into those final 2 weeks of the season, when they’ll face Alabama and LSU.
Because of that and the fact that Kellen Mond is likely to get preseason All-SEC nods, it wouldn’t even surprise me to see A&M picked by some to finish 2nd in the division. Whether it’s completely justified or not, the Aggies will be pegged as the capable sleeper going into 2020.
Did LSU raise its program ceiling after the year it had? Absolutely. Should getting to the Playoff be the yearly bar to meet in Baton Rouge moving forward? I’d argue, yes.
That’ll all be factored into the conversation about Ed Orgeron’s team in 2020. But because of how many players the Tigers lost to the NFL Draft, my thinking is that some will predict a minor championship hangover. It would be one thing if we were just talking about the loss of Joe Burrow and how Myles Brennan is going to perform without Joe Brady. But the fact that 9 LSU underclassmen declared for the NFL Draft will limit 2020 expectations a bit.
Most underclassmen declared for 2020 NFL Draft
Iowa, Texas A&M 4
Auburn, Clemson, Miami, Michigan, Missouri, Notre Dame, OhioSt, Washington, Wisconsin 3
ArizSt, Baylor, Boise, FSU, Md, MichSt, MissSt, OU, PennSt, TCU, Temple, UCLA, Utah, UtahSt, VT 2
— Brett McMurphy (@Brett_McMurphy) January 21, 2020
In a way, it’s crazy to think that the Tigers could have the historic year they had and return the most likely preseason All-Americans on both offense (Ja’Marr Chase) and defense (Derek Stingley), yet still not be a preseason pick to win their own division. Plenty of people will still pick the Tigers to defend their West title.
But, as LSU knows better than anyone, Alabama is always there.
For most teams, losing potentially 5 or 6 first-round picks would be considered a massive hole to fill. As we know at Alabama, the expectation is always that Nick Saban will reload. The interesting thing is that I could make a case that Alabama actually benefitted as much as any team in America with the guys who bypassed the NFL Draft.
Dylan Moses, Najee Harris, DeVonta Smith and Alex Leatherwood all returned, and all of them could all easily be preseason All-Americans. That’s going to shape the expectation for Alabama, which won a national championship the following season in 3 of the 4 times it failed to reach the game under Saban. The words “revenge tour” might not be said as much as they were last year, but it’ll be mentioned in some facet.
Who knows how we’ll be talking about the quarterback room come mid-July. Will it be a 3-way battle? Will we have any idea what the pecking order is heading into fall camp? I doubt it, but perhaps with the offensive firepower around the Week 1 starter, it won’t change some high expectations.
For the fifth consecutive year, Alabama will be picked to win the division and make it to Atlanta.
SEC Championship: Alabama over Florida
This offseason is truly going to be one of a kind as we discuss the SEC Championship. There are legitimately 4 teams that I believe will earn a significant share of the votes to win the conference. I don’t expect Alabama to get a massive advantage to win the league compared to Florida, Georgia and LSU. All 4 teams could start ranked in the top 7 or 8 nationally, yet I doubt one will start off ranked ahead of Clemson or Ohio State.
What does that mean? Mayhem!
But despite the likely close vote to win each division and ultimately the conference, I think that favors the default pick of Alabama. Is that boring? Yeah. We saw this championship in 2015 and 2016, though I’d argue that Florida’s 2020 squad would have a much better chance of giving Alabama a run for its money than those Jim McElwain teams.
Again, this isn’t necessarily how I personally believe the 2020 season will unfold. But come July, this is my best guess for how that all-important (not really) preseason ballot will shake out.