Why the 3 most interesting teams in the SEC in 2020 aren’t the ones with a new coach
There has been no shortage of news this offseason across the SEC, as the coaching carousel spun later and longer than usual. That’s where much of the attention will land this summer when the league convenes at SEC Media Days in Atlanta.
The 4 new coaches will be under the spotlight as they experience the spectacle in new digs, although Lane Kiffin, and to a lesser extent Sam Pittman, are somewhat familiar with the circus.
However, once the season starts and the sheen of the “first-year coach” label wears off, much of the attention will land on 3 veteran coaches, and their teams, who are in quite interesting positions themselves for a variety of reasons. These coaches are Florida’s Dan Mullen, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp and Texas A&M’s Jimbo Fisher. Perhaps said another way: These might be the most restless fan bases in the SEC in 2020, with fans demanding more wins — or at least one in Jacksonville in particular — or it’s time to draw up the buyout.
For Florida, the season hinges on the Georgia game, and whether Mullen can boast that he closed the gap, or better, since last season when Florida pushed Georgia to a late 1st-down-clinching drive to put the game away.
Mullen was visibly irritated after the 2019 loss to Georgia when he doubled down on his opinion that Florida is just 7 points behind Georgia. Much has changed since that meeting for both sides. Florida won its bowl game over Virginia and drew plenty of attention as a team on the rise entering 2020 following 21 wins in 2 years.
Then there was Mullen’s brief mention for the Dallas Cowboys job, and the Gators losing out on blue-chip safety recruit Avantae Williams. Much will be made about Georgia’s offensive overhaul with new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and transfer QB Jamie Newman. But the biggest question for the next meeting in Jacksonville is will anything that happened in 2019 change in 2020?
Georgia was better at virtually every position, from the lines to the quarterback and skill positions.
Florida should have a leg up at quarterback with Kyle Trask, already a veteran, returning for another season, and there’s the Emory Jones variable about how Mullen will deploy the offense. It’s not a stretch to see even a slight improvement from Trask’s 2019 numbers, which were a completion rate of 66.9 percent, 25 touchdowns and 7 interceptions. After all, Trask shouldn’t be spooked to play in the Cocktail Party after he led the Gators on a 9-play, 80-yard scoring drive at the end of the 3rd quarter last year.
One narrative entering the summer will be that Florida has closed the gap on Georgia and has the tools to snap the 3-game losing streak. That talk actually started during the “way-too-early-Top-25” rollouts after the national championship. Given Georgia’s mass exodus of underclassmen and volatility on the offensive line, there’s one opening where Florida could gain an edge.
In Columbia, it’s interesting because there are so many variables that need to improve from recent years. And most are in the offensive backfield — or the guy calling the plays. Muschamp has made every accommodation for Bobo, including welcoming player transfers and new assistant coaches and an analyst, even to the extent of bumping Kyle Krantz from defensive assistant to analyst, to make room for Joe Cox on the offensive staff. (Krantz then moved to special teams coordinator after Coleman Hutzler’s departure.) There are not many more chips Muschamp could push to the center of the table in search of a productive and consistent offense.
As a successful coordinator at Georgia, it will bear watching to see how Bobo mentors Ryan Hilinksi, who came on strong but ultimately finished the season 11th in the SEC in passer rating. What will Bobo do differently from former OC Bryan McClendon?
But Bobo is far from the only newcomer. There are 9 new assistant coaches — or coaches in new roles — on the staff, including director of player personnel and director of player development. All of this gives Muschamp a major reset, but at the same time, if there isn’t marked improvement, after the program has recruited reasonably well and brought in multiple 5-stars, in Muschamp’s 5th season, there’s not much else to change except the head coach.
Bobo, after all, is Muschamp’s 5th offensive coordinator, and across the staff, this season will be defined by evaluation and player development, and that includes Muschamp’s hires as assistants.
Even though Fisher has largely had an above-average stint in College Station, rumblings began mid-2019 about him earning the $75 million contract. Now that dial will turn up with a host of factors in his favor, including momentum from a bowl win and the fact the Aggies return at least 18 starters. What’s more, the schedule is more favorable in 2020, with Vanderbilt and Fresno State instead of at Georgia and at Clemson.
But some fans have already braced themselves for a Charlie Brown-Lucy 2020 fueled by offseason hype following an 8-5 season with a Texas Bowl victory over Oklahoma State.
It’s not a stretch at all to expect Texas A&M to start 6-0 before playing at Auburn. But a week later, there may be an “Angst Bowl,” in Columbia because the losing fan base will be especially irritable since multiple difficult games loom down the stretch of the regular season. That might be the ultimate Make or Break Game of 2020.