Florida to challenge Alabama in SEC

By Bruce Marshall  () 

The favorites

Alabama and Florida

After taking a rare back seat in the conference last year and losing for the third time in four tries at Auburn, Nick Saban was in a bad mood even before the pandemic hit. Part of that was because of the losses and part because his defense didn’t play up to normal standards, ranking outside the top five in the SEC for the first time in over a decade. Injuries were somewhat to blame, however, so expect a quick recovery to normal Alabama levels. The offense should be fine post-Tua Tagovailoa with sophomore QB Mac Jones tossing 14 TD passes with just three picks in a test run late last season, and punishing RB Najee Harris rates as a peripheral Heisman threat. We suspect Florida will emerge from the East. Dan Mullen was much more comfortable with Kyle Trask than Feleipe Franks at QB last year, and Georgia’s late-summer QB issues make it more likely that the Gators will get to Atlanta.


Live dog


We admire coaches who can think on their feet and change plans midstream. So it was last season with Kentucky. Mark Stoops junked his normal offense by midseason because injuries had left converted WR Lynn Bowden as the best remaining option at QB. By the end of the campaign, the Wildcats were one of  the hottest teams in the SEC and Bowden was almost unstoppable. He rushed for nearly 1,500 yards in not much more than half a season and even passed for the winning TD in the Belk Bowl vs. Virginia Tech.  Bowden is now in the NFL, and Stoops might have to think of something different, but he has a real defense and several eager QB candidates, some with experience. Don’t underestimate this guy.  


Dead money


It might surprise some that Vanderbilt has never had a winless season. But now the Commodores meet “Football 2020,” with SEC games only, and the prospect of the big doughnut looms. It has become increasingly apparent that well-meaning and likable coach Derek Mason is in over his head, and the support base is maintaining a steady beat on the war drums. Mason is still getting protection from the administration, and new AD Candice Lee seems in no hurry to pressure her football coach. Mason, whose team stayed competitive for a couple of years, has dropped 10 of his last 13 vs. the number, and prospects for improvement on last year’s 3-9 straight-up and spread marks appear dim, especially as Mason’s once-respectable defense was overrun in 2019. Changing coordinators will not likely pull Vandy out of its death spiral.


Big games on the board


Georgia at Alabama, Oct. 17: Until the SEC alters its scheduling formula, the Bulldogs and Crimson Tide, in different halves of the loop, get together only once every six seasons unless they meet in the conference title game. Thus, Georgia is making its first visit to Tuscaloosa since 2007, and it’s a homecoming of sorts for coach Kirby Smart, who was Nick Saban’s defensive coordinator before moving to Athens. By this point, some order should have been restored to the Bulldogs’ QB situation — we think.


Georgia vs. Florida (at Jacksonville), Nov. 7: The SEC East usually gets decided in what used to be called the World’s Largest Outdoor Cocktail Party. Imagine this game with no tailgating allowed in November! Kirby Smart has had Dan Mullen’s number the last two years in Georgia wins, with the series winning streak now at three dating to the end of the Jim McElwain era in Gainesville. This should be Mullen’s best chance for a breakthrough.


Alabama at LSU, Nov. 14: Last November, it was the most anticipated matchup of the regular season, and it became an SEC shootout for the ages as Joe Burrow outgunned Tua Tagovailoa in a 46-41 track meet. If current projections hold, we’ll be getting a Mac Jones-vs.-Myles Brennan matchup this time, but anything close to last season’s thrills will be worth watching. How many more key LSU players might opt out before we get to November?


Mississippi State at Mississippi, Nov. 28: The Egg Bowl got a lot more interesting in the offseason with new coaching hires at each locale, Lane Kiffin with the Rebels and Mike Leach with the Bulldogs.  Eventually, one or both of these colorful characters will likely run afoul of their support bases. But for the next few years, we’re looking forward to enjoying the fun as two of the most creative offensive thinkers in the college ranks clash in a hot regional rivalry.


Season wins

In the reconfigured SEC schedule, each team will play 10 regular-season games, all against SEC teams with no non-conference games.



Why Georgia will go Under the season win total of 8.5: That Kirby Smart got Georgia to another SEC title game last fall belies a significant concern: The offense was broken. To that end, Smart went through several gyrations in the offseason, first pink-slipping coordinator James Coley (who landed at Texas A&M), then enlisting NFL assistant and former Southern Miss coach Todd Monken to replace him. Then Smart landed the plum of the transfer portal in Wake Forest QB Jamie Newman, but things started to go sideways in late August when Newman opted out for the fall. Another transfer QB, USC’s JT Daniels, had been practicing with the first team into Labor Day but had yet to be cleared to play after knee surgery last year. Eight starters are back from the nation’s top-ranked defense, but the offense is what concerns Smart. Not sure he has enough of it to clear this total. 



Why Alabama will go Over the season win total of 8: It took a rare LSU team and a trip to always-tricky Auburn to give Nick Saban his first two-loss SEC campaign since 2010. But this year the Iron Bowl is in Tuscaloosa, where Gus Malzahn has never won as a head coach. And even though this year’s LSU game is on the road, Saban has a pretty good recent record at Baton Rouge, winning four straight, with shutouts the last two visits. No Joe Burrow to worry about this year either. Sophomore QB Mac Jones has already had his test run as Tua Tagovailoa’s replacement, and expect the defense to rebound to normal Saban-like levels after a blip in 2019. At this moment, the Tide will likely be favored in all 10 games.



Why Florida will go Over the season win total of 7.5: Not a bad third choice, this Dan Mullen fellow, after the Gators initially preferred Scott Frost or Chip Kelly to pick up the pieces from the aborted Jim McElwain regime after 2017. Mullen’s credentials were forever burnished by getting his old employer, Mississippi State, to the top of the polls for a few weeks in 2014, a feat that might never be replicated. Georgia has been standing in the way of SEC East titles in Mullen’s first two years in Gainesville, but Mullen might have the edge this season. He certainly does at QB, where Kyle Trask proved a perfect fit a year ago when tossing 25 TD passes and only seven picks. He enters 2020 as the SEC’s leading returning passer. If Todd Grantham has another top-10 defense, Florida is the team to beat in the East.



Why LSU will push the season win total of 7: It’s not last year in Death Valley, and we don’t care how many blue-chippers Ed Orgeron has brought into his program the last few years. The Tigers simply lost too much firepower and skill to the NFL, not to mention both coordinators. The parade out of Baton Rouge didn’t stop after the draft, either, with primo WR Ja’Marr Chase (possible top-5 NFL pick) joining NT Tyler Shelvin and FS Kary Vincent Jr. as opt-outs, each prepping for the next draft. Joe Burrow’s replacement, Myles Brennan, could throw for 4,000 yards and be looked on as a downgrade, but we think the guy Orgeron will really miss is passing-game coordinator Joe Brady, now with the NFL’s Panthers after designing the record-breaking offense that Burrow detonated. Longtime NFL aide Scott Linehan does not have that sort of creativity. LSU slips, perhaps a lot, and we foresee a better chance the Tigers fall below seven wins than above it. 


Texas A&M

Why Texas A&M will push the season win total of 7: In any other league, A&M might be one of the favorites. In the SEC West, however, the Aggies are still apt to get lost in the shuffle. Maybe for not much longer, as this looks like Jimbo Fisher’s best chance to forge a breakthrough, with a veteran lineup loaded with seniors and 17 starters from a year ago. But we’re not completely sure about senior QB Kellen Mond, whose progress stalled in 2019 because he didn’t throw the deep ball as often or as well as Fisher wanted. This year’s Aggies probably will max at seven wins. As for Fisher, he’s not in must-win territory yet, but it’s safe to say those Aggie exes didn’t fork over that big contract for Fisher to play in the Texas Bowl. 



Why Auburn will go Under the season win total of 6.5: The schedule always cycles badly for Auburn in even-numbered years. That’s when the Tigers must travel to face their most bitter rivals in Athens and Tuscaloosa. In a combined six tries since 2014, Gus Malzahn has yet to post a straight-up win at either venue. Pandemic? Malzahn is more worried about the Georgia and Alabama trips. He’s also dealing with a completely rebuilt offensive line and a sophomore QB, Bo Nix, who seemed to steadily regress as a freshman starter after delivering a pulsating win over Oregon in the opener. An Auburn coach is always one subpar season from the hot seat, and, big buyout or not, Malzahn will be hearing the war drums in the distance if the Tigers stumble. We hear the Auburn brass would not hesitate to move DC Kevin Steele into the head-coaching role sometime down the road.



Why Kentucky will go Over the season win total of 5: We’re not sure Mark Stoops has ever done a better job in Lexington than last year, when he remade the offense for converted WR Lynn Bowden. Bowden proceeded to rush for 1,500 yards in barely over a half-season and led a rousing comeback win over Virginia Tech in the Belk Bowl. Gimmicky or not, the Wildcats moved behind Bowden. Now that he’s in the NFL, it’s back to Terry Wilson, whose injury opened the door for Bowden, or maybe Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, a strong runner who could perhaps function well in an offense not too dissimilar from a year ago. With most of the OL returning as well as an underrated defense that ranked 14th in national scoring, Stoops has some real ammunition. But it’s his ability to think on his feet, as he did with Bowden, that makes us bullish on the Wildcats.



Why Tennessee will push the season win total of 5: The Vols have been getting a lot of love from the pundits after winning their final six last season. That convinced many that Jeremy Pruitt, a Nick Saban disciple in his third year at Knoxville, had finally solved a decade-long UT coaching dilemma. But the Vols left little room for error in several of those wins, and the offense was nothing special, ranking 100th nationally. Clever OC Jim Chaney (Georgia’s offense hasn’t been the same since he left) has nine starters back, but QB Jarrett Guarantano’s deep threats must be replaced. We don’t want to get over our skis with the Vols and see no more than five wins on the slate.    


Mississippi State

Why Mississippi State will go Over the season win total of 4: Why? Mike Leach, that’s why.  Underestimate him at your own risk, which is heartening to Bulldogs backers who fret at all the starters lost from a year ago. But have no fear, as Leach has made it work in forlorn outposts such as Lubbock and Pullman. So Starkville should be a snap. He immediately went to work, luring Stanford grad transfer QB K.J. Costello, two years removed from tossing 29 TD passes in David Shaw’s Stone Age offense. If Leach could make heroes of Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon the last two years at Washington State, what might he do with a QB with better credentials like Costello? Leach’s best move of the offseason might have been luring San Diego State defensive coordinator Zach Arnett, who will import his Rocky Long-inspired 3-3-5 looks that could prove awkward for SEC foes.



Why Mississippi will push the season win total of 4: Eventually, new coach Lane Kiffin will burn bridges in Oxford, as he has been apt to do in previous career stops. But Kiffin could put an immediate charge into the Rebels because he has something to work with at QB in sophomore John Rhys Plumlee, a true dual threat who rushed for almost as many yards (1,023) as he passed for (1,362) as a freshman. The aerial component of the offense will be sharper than it was under Matt Luke, and the difference will be noticeable. The questions are on defense, where new coordinator D.J. Durkin, who grates almost as much as Kiffin, will be looking to make immediate upgrades on a platoon that lacks athletes. Defensive concerns might hold the Rebels to four wins.


South Carolina

Why South Carolina will go Under the season win total of 3.5: They’re already writing the epitaph for Will Muschamp’s tenure, which probably would have ended after last season had the Gamecocks not scored a rousing upset at Georgia in mid-October. But South Carolina won just once thereafter as the offense cratered, and Muschamp predictably juggled his staff in the offseason, with former Colorado State coach and longtime Georgia aide Mike Bobo the new OC for 2020. Don’t be surprised if transfer QB Collin Hill, who followed Bobo from Fort Collins, beats out incumbent Ryan Hilinski. But most of the skill-position weapons have departed, and the depleted defensive front seven will have a hellacious time replacing NT Javon Kinlaw, a first-round pick of the 49ers.



Why Missouri will go Under the season win total of 2.5: The Tigers went the coach-du-jour route and hired Eli Drinkwitz from Appalachian State after his one year there resulted in a 13-1 record. But Drinkwitz inherited a Sun Belt power. Not so much in Columbia. First, he has no clear-cut favorite in the QB derby that might land on TCU transfer Shawn Robinson. Skill-position weapons are suspect, and the OL was a mess in 2019. The Tigers’ best hope is to get involved in some lower-scoring games and lean on a defense that ranked 14th nationally a year ago. The Tigers are likely to be favored only twice, against Vanderbilt and Arkansas.



Why Arkansas will go Under the season win total of 1.5: Can’t the Razorbacks win two games? Probably not, mostly because the Hogs don’t have the one near-gimme in the SEC, Vanderbilt, on their schedule. And Charleston Southern was dropped from the slate in the pandemic shuffle. New coach Sam Pittman, a well-traveled assistant for three decades, arrived from Georgia and found a mess left by predecessor Chad Morris. The Razorbacks have lost their identity, and the talent base has eroded badly. That’s what Pittman is inheriting for his first head-coaching gig since Hutchinson CC in 1993. Oh, yes: The Hogs were 0-for-the-SEC in 2019 and are 1-15 since 2018.



Why Vanderbilt will go Under the season win total of 1: We realize we’re providing some bulletin-board material and that this means Vanderbilt will have to swallow the big doughnut in 2020. But the Commodores aren’t scheduled to play Arkansas, which would have been their best opportunity for an SEC win, and without the annual FCS visitor to Nashville, we’re not sure where Vandy gets a win. Derek Mason’s defense once gave the team a chance, but even that collapsed a year ago, and Mason is rolling the dice that new OC Todd Fitch and his shotgun/spread offense will give Vandy a better chance to compete. But with no experienced QB and now a bad defense, where does Mason get a win?


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