What will it take for each SEC East team to be happy in 2020?
Kirby Smart’s Georgia program captured the SEC East for the 3rd consecutive season in 2019, making them the first program since Steve Spurrier’s Florida juggernaut to win the East more than twice in a row.
The Bulldogs remain the most talented football team in the SEC East, but questions abound as to whether a Georgia team that is revamping its personnel and system on offense can maintain its stranglehold on the division.
Are the Dawgs still the favorites, or will Dan Mullen and Florida finally knock Kirby Smart off his pedestal? Is a Tennessee team with a veteran quarterback and offensive line ready to take the next step? Should we ever write off Kentucky? These questions and others will dominate the “talking season,” which has begun in earnest with February and National Signing Day well behind us and spring football just around the corner.
While the answers to the SEC East’s pressing questions won’t play themselves out until the fall, there are certain baseline expectations at every program in the East.
Here’s an early look at one thing needed from every SEC East program in 2020 to keep fan bases and administrations happy.
Ordered in SDS’ “way too early” predicted order of SEC East finish.
What needs to happen: Todd Monken to make good on the talent at his disposal and build a championship caliber offense.
Here’s a fun fact: In the College Football Playoff era, the average number of points per game scored by a college football national champion has been 39.0. In other words, you need to score a bunch of points to be a national champion.
Last season, despite an offense that computers liked from an efficiency standpoint, Georgia scored the 3rd-fewest points of any Top 25 team (only Iowa and Cincinnati scored fewer points per game). Georgia still finished ranked No. 4, thanks to a vintage Kirby Smart defense. But they didn’t score enough to challenge LSU in Atlanta.
Enter Todd Monken. A pass-first coordinator whose teams in the NFL and college have used the pass despite traditional common-sense understandings of down and distance, Monken is being brought in to drag Smart’s run-first offense into the Air Raid present.
Sure, Georgia still has elite talent at running back. The idea, however, is to use one of the most talented playmaking rosters in America in ways that consistently stress defenses — and for Georgia in 2020, that will mean letting transfer quarterback Jamie Newman get the ball to playmakers on the edge quickly and often.
If it works, it will be a sight to see — and Georgia will remain the team to beat in the SEC East.
What needs to happen: Beat Georgia.
This is all that matters in Gainesville in 2020 and anyone who suggests otherwise is trying too hard.
You could write a book — and maybe I will — about the momentum swings and shifts in this classic rivalry.
Credit Kirby Smart.
Like Steve Spurrier at Florida, Smart understands this rivalry game. He played in it as a player, hated losing to Florida, and knows that the road to Atlanta goes through the Cocktail Party. For all the similarities in the early stages of Smart’s tenure and Mark Richt’s tenure, the biggest difference is Smart has dominated on the banks of the St. John’s River. That matters. That’s something Smart will strive to continue.
In 2020, Dan Mullen needs to get the monkey off his back and finally beat Smart and Georgia. Last year’s loss, to a Georgia team that spent most of the season not playing as well as the Gators, was particularly soul-crushing. It now risks becoming a trend if Florida can’t find a way to win in Jacksonville next fall.
“Beat Georgia, and everything else you hope to do at Florida falls into place,” Steve Spurrier once said.
That’s correct. And it will be true again in 2020.
What needs to happen: A healthy Terry Wilson pushes this program back to 9 wins.
Terry Wilson is no stranger to adversity.
He lost (barely) the starting quarterback job to Justin Herbert (who turned out pretty good) at Oregon and after finally settling in as the Wildcats starter in 2018, was lost for the season with a knee injury in Week 2 of the 2019 season.
Now he’s on the road to recovery, throwing again and gearing up for one more ride with his guy.
Look, Mark Stoops and this staff coaxed 8 victories out of a single-wing offense they installed during a bye week with a wide receiver at quarterback. Imagine what they’ll do with a legitimate passing game, upperclassman talent at running back and a dual-threat like Wilson back.
Stoops has redefined the standard at Kentucky, and 9 wins in 2020 isn’t out of the question if Wilson is healthy.
What needs to happen: The pieces are falling into place, but can replacements for the likes of Jauan Jennings and Marquez Callaway emerge at wide receiver?
It’s hard not to like what you saw from Tennessee down the stretch in 2019. The Vols started 1-4 and finished 7-1, losing only to Alabama after Oct. 5.
The Vols head into 2020 with a senior quarterback in Jarrett Guarantano, capable running backs and one of the SEC’s most talented and powerful offensive lines. The defense is young and there are some questions at linebacker, but you trust Jeremy Pruitt to iron those out.
The one thing you should worry about? Wide receiver, and the challenge of replacing a program stalwart like Jauan Jennings and Guarantano-favorite Marquez Callaway.
Josh Palmer looks capable of stepping into a role as the No. 1 receiver, but he’s never done it. Ramel Keyton and incoming USC graduate transfer Velus Jones have potential, but in 4 combined seasons between the 2 of them, they have 40 total catches.
Can Jalin Hyatt make an immediate impact after he arrives on campus this summer? Will another role player emerge?
The Vols finished 100th in total offense last season despite those elite wide receivers. That number has to improve. If Tennessee is to make a leap forward and challenge Georgia, Florida and Kentucky in the SEC East — answers must emerge — hopefully by the time Florida comes calling on Rocky Top in late September.
What needs to happen: The next step for Ryan Hilinski.
The win over Georgia was great. Now it’s time for the talented Ryan Hilinski to lead the Gamecocks to more great autumn Saturdays.
Mike Bobo has consistently juiced every last ounce of talent from his quarterbacks (look at Aaron Murray’s career if you don’t believe me) and adding him should ensure progress for Hilinski. How much progress will go a long way in determining whether it’s Will Muschamp’s final year in Columbia or a year where Muschamp’s program starts ascending again.
What needs to happen: Shawn Robinson emerges as the right guy in Eli Drinkwitz’s offense.
There will be a quarterback battle in CoMo this spring and the best thing that could happen if you are a Missouri fan is TCU transfer Shawn Robinson grabbing the starting job by the throat and running with it.
On paper, Robinson, who has 2 years of eligibility remaining, is a better fit than Connor Bazelak or Taylor Powell. Plus, with Bazelak likely out of spring practice, it’s likely a Powell-Robinson battle with incoming freshman Brady Cook, a nice fit for Drinkwitz’s scheme, likely to redshirt.
Missouri has had good quarterback play, for the most part, since it joined the SEC. But Drinkwitz places a ton of demands on his signal-caller and Missouri’s ability to become potent on offense again depends on the best guy winning the job — which is Robinson.
What needs to happen: Establish an offensive identity.
Derek Mason returns for Season 7, but now Malcolm Turner, the man who gave it to him, is gone.
I think Mason is an excellent football coach in one of the sport’s toughest jobs. But with Ke’Shawn Vaughn gone to the NFL and uncertainty at quarterback, Vanderbilt might need to rely on scheme — and figuring out what it wants to be on offense — to improve the win total in 2020 and prevent new athletic director Candice Storey Lee from making a change at the top come next December.