Coaches dish on all 14 SEC teams
It's not easy getting college football coaches to honestly comment on another coach, player or team. Most coaches don't want to give opposing teams bulletin board material, which is why there is a lot of coach speak or overused cliches used during the year.
In order to get an accurate assessment of teams heading into 2020, Athlon asked coaches in the SEC to talk anonymously about their opponents.
Note: These scouting reports come directly from coaching staffs and do not necessarily reflect the views of Athlon's editorial staff.
SEC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2020
"Their 'bad' year would earn most of the coaches in the country a raise and an extension, so let's not get too carried away about them taking a step back."
"They're as well-coached as anyone. They have answers for everything your offense wants to do. And if you take the Tua Tagovailoa injury away, it's a very different December and January for everyone except maybe LSU."
"They'll be better on defense this year, especially at linebacker. If (linebacker) Dylan Moses is healthy again, they're going to be fantastic at that position.
"The defensive front will have to step up, because the secondary is all new. Nick Saban loves to get hands-on when this happens. They're reworking that entire group."
"This is going to be a Heisman campaign season for Najee Harris, go ahead and make your bet."
"They don't have a quarterback locked in, and the more talented guy in the QB race has never been in the system. And their other weakness on offense is turning over receivers. So we think (offensive coordinator) Steve Sarkisian is gonna find ways to scheme Najee into everything they can, kind of the way Lane Kiffin did with Amari Cooper a few years back."
"Aside from losing Tua to the NFL, the biggest story for them is the coaching staff. They're not replacing coordinators for the first time in years. That's massive, especially for the next quarterback in. The lack of system consistency and leadership on the staff really hurt their culture."
"It's overblown that they're on the decline. Maybe marginally? Maybe? But at what perspective? This is still the most successful dynasty in the history of the sport."
"It's a total mess from top to bottom."
"What's the identity of this program? Are they a hard-nosed smashmouth team? That didn't work. Are they going to beat you with spread and tempo and use Texas kids? That didn't work."
"Last year was a total mess. They were vanilla on offense and defense the entire time Chad Morris was there. They were the worst-looking team on film in the conference, maybe in Power 5. Confused, out of place, low effort, no communication."
"That they landed on Sam (Pittman) is really telling. He's a well-respected career assistant who is great at his job, but it's hard to find what he can say or do with that program that could suddenly turn things around. They've got no personnel. The roster right now looks like NCAA sanctions hit them."
"(Rakeem) Boyd coming back was huge, he and Feleipe Franks are a decent place to start."
"The offensive line isn't horrible."
"(Offensive coordinator) Kendal Briles is a strange hire. They don't have the bodies to run that system, and he's had chemistry issues on other staffs. That hire told a lot of coaches that Sam wasn't alone in making the decisions."
"They want to score points, but they don't really get those dynamic Big 12-type of skill position bodies in recruiting."
"Defensively they're terrible, but Barry Odom is one of the best coordinators in the country. He can't work miracles, but they'll blend schemes and figure out what fits who they have. They should go out and work the portal."
"The first question everyone has is who is going to run that offense?"
"Chad Morris was a disaster at Arkansas, but he's one of the architects of that Clemson offense. He's a great play-caller with his own style. So is this a total program commitment, or will Gus Malzahn yank it back the first time they run into trouble?"
"They're committed to their quarterback and saw it through last year. You have to credit Gus, they pick their guys and ride it out."
"They're solid up front but they aren't SEC champs. That's the position that holds them back if the offense struggles, because they have enough toys at receiver to move around and let Bo Nix rip it."
"The defense is consistently one of the best in all of college football. Kevin Steele doesn't get enough credit for the job he's done."
"This was the most intimidating front seven in the SEC last year. They're losing some real NFL talent in the front, but they're deep enough to where you don't expect them to fall off."
"The safeties were nasty last year. Really great tacklers."
"They have some linebackers that cause a lot of problems. Owen Pappoe is a monster."
"This is still one of the most interesting programs in college football."
"It feels like every single year talk radio and the media and fans want to fire Gus, and every year they find ways to reinvent and improve.
"I don't know how you recruit and coach a better defense, honestly."
"The guy to watch is Bo Nix. Gus made him the heir apparent, and now he has to take that next step. If he improves and there's some harmony with Gus and Chad, then everyone is willing to accept it if the defense is a step off of last year. But if the offense struggles it's going to be absolute chaos all over again."
"They have a chance to be really special this year, but there are a lot of questions."
"Where are they in terms of talent and firepower? Can they beat Georgia?"
"You feel really good about what they've done in comparison to the rest of the East, but they're still behind one school."
"The quarterback change made them a completely different program. They're a better, more aggressive offense with Kyle Trask."
"The team speed is really good. It's as good as it ever was there."
"Everyone wants to claim it, but it really is between them and LSU for the DBU title. They have guys in that secondary who you can trust to cover in man, guys who can fly to the ball and then go play the run."
"Todd (Grantham) has a great third-down package. He really mixes it up. They can kill you there with the different pressure packages because of how talented they are at every position.
"What we saw last year was the recruiting and development is back up, so they don't have to be as exotic. They're shifting around less and can play you in their base. That's when a defense can really get dangerous."
"They're still a step behind Georgia in recruiting. Dan Mullen is maybe the best project guy in recruiting. He can get more out of a three-star on offense than maybe anyone in the nation. But that's not Florida. You have to win the big battles for the five-stars and flip them into NFL players.
"There's still a question of Dan as a big-game coach. He's a great play-caller, he's a great scheme guy, he's a great developer. But where is the signature win?
"In many ways Florida's 2020 comes down to Georgia. They could lose that game, win 10 and be a disappointment."
Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2020
"Everything is focused on their offense."
"D'Andre Swift is gone and so is most of that OL, but the whole key is going to be the quarterback play."
"Jamie Newman is completely different than what they've done in the past, so expect a quarterback run game and RPOs, not as much dropback. Maybe none? How can they adapt that offense to fit his skill set? Will they bend with that? With (offensive coordinator) Todd Monken, they will be different, but how much so depends on what the kid can handle."
"I think defensively they'll be as good as they always are. They're great at never making you comfortable. For as athletic as they are, they're still smart, too, meaning they're going to throw different coverages at you, maybe more than necessary. You get nothing for free against Kirby Smart."
"The nose tackle (Jordan Davis) is dominant, they're disciplined and the front and linebackers have looked a little bit more like those Bama-era Kirby defenses every year since he's been there. Longer and faster, longer and faster. They can drop into coverage, they can play big-boy stuff on the run."
"They have to be that level this year. The pressure is real to win in Atlanta, so you have to lead with defense."
"They certainly went through an identity crisis, and that's what they have to settle in camp. You could kind of understand their offensive methodology — with those backs they produce, it made sense to stay on the ground, to run pro. The problem wasn't the talent, it was the predictability."
"Recruiting-wise, it's them, it's Alabama and it's everyone else. If they fix the offense, they're national title contenders."
"This could be a big transition year."
"The remarkable thing about Mark Stoops is that he's been there long enough to eliminate the gap seasons between talented senior classes. It used to be that Kentucky would make a run and then fall off to a three- or four-win season turning guys over. He's shored that up, but that doesn't mean they're immune."
"They're really, really gonna have to run the ball to win."
"They return some really solid backs, so we expect them to lean on that early on."
"(Offensive coordinator) Eddie Gran does a great job adjusting to personnel. They can find a way to get production from limited options."
"It's a really solid, effective defense. They have Mark's identity, you can see his Florida State stuff, you can see his family's style in there."
"They've been a team where, hey, you're physical in a league where everyone is, but for a long time teams wouldn't expect that from Kentucky, so they got caught off guard. They're losing some guys up front who were nasty."
"The best thing going for them is that they're so many years into this system that this isn't a new situation. They've lost quarterbacks in season, they've had to get creative, and they've known this was coming. This is where having a veteran staff and a consistent development pipeline saves you, which is exactly why Kentucky hung with Mark when he was building it up."
"The biggest question is if they can keep that momentum they've created the last two years."
"There's a different attitude with them. You see it in recruiting too."
"They just had maybe one of the greatest single seasons in the history of the SEC."
"From the bottom up, on both sides of the ball, that 2019 team was one of the best ever."
"It started at the QB position, it was set up by smart, creative coaching and they had a bunch of killers on defense. So now most of that is gone and you're starting over, except now this is Ed Orgeron's program for a long time. That really changes the decision-making."
"The one thing you hope they keep in the OC transition is the NFL emphasis, because Louisiana has the athletes to run it."
"Running backs lining up outside, receivers inside, shifting exotic personnel groups, all that stuff was a huge deal. It showed that at a top program you can play around with more pro concepts than most people thought. Credit again to Ed for trusting those guys."
"Dave Aranda is gone, but that's probably the best for both parties."
"I think you saw a few times where Dave's scheme was so intricate it was overwhelming the players, especially if they had some depth issues or were banged up. Bo Pelini is going to live nicely with Ed."
"The caliber of athlete they have doesn't need to overthink it. Four down, pin your ears back and go. Ed wants to go four down. If you can recruit killers, let 'em work."
"You can't re-create Joe Burrow's ability to make as many off-schedule plays as he did. That's not something in a playbook. So many times they would get chunk plays from broken stuff on the run. So you have to lower your expectations there."
"The recruiting is better than ever, so the real question is whether or not they made the right coordinator hires. You don't want to be in an Alabama situation turning over coaches. Ed needs to have three or four years of consistency there."
"It's really hard to predict how this first year will go with Mike Leach. You think they'll follow his pattern and beat one or two teams they shouldn't but lack overall consistency."
"Under Joe Moorhead, they looked like a team on the decline, but you can argue he didn't get enough time to put his stamp on things."
"Defensively they're on the decline. They're losing size and speed year after year. I'd expect the same this season."
"We're about to see a really interesting experiment in the SEC. If Mike's running his offense, and we certainly expect that, how long can the defense hold up?"
"Hiring (defensive coordinator Zach) Arnett tells us he's going fast on offense, because that guy was headed to coach opposite Dino Babers at Syracuse."
"It could be bad especially if there's a learning curve for the offense and they're creating a lot of quick, non-scoring drives."
"This is a ruthless, physical league that's built on the line of scrimmage. We're gonna find out right away if teams just grind them down. And does that hurt them in recruiting that side of the ball?"
"K.J. Costello will be their best option at quarterback, but he's not necessarily a 'Leach guy' for that offense."
"Who are the playmakers at receiver? How are they going to respond to losing practices in the spring?"
"Maybe the biggest question is off the field. Mike is his own man, and he won't run himself to death. The velocity and the severity of recruiting in this conference is nothing he's ever been a part of. Where he's had success, you took projects, you took 'your kind of guys out of the pile.' If you do that in the SEC, you won't be here long."
"No one's really sure what to make of what's going on here."
"If we're being positive, there's enough talent to run Eli Drinkwitz's offense, and it's an attractive system, so he should be able to recruit. But most coaches don't look at Appalachian State's run last year and credit Eli. That was Scott Satterfield's program for years."
"They don't have an SEC quarterback. The TCU kid (Shawn Robinson) has the best chance and will probably get the job with (offensive coordinator) Curtis Luper joining the staff."
"Eli's system uses more run that you might think. They're not trying to Big 12 you with 50 passes; they're going to run out of no-huddle and spread, and if they can come out in a bunch of different looks, maybe they can sneak up on some defenses this year."
"The best thing they've got going for them on offense is also the worst — no one really knows what they're going to be."
"The offensive line was bad last year, fundamentally bad. Bad technique. That's the most important area for them after finding a quarterback.
"They don't have any offensive weapons; the best player is probably the Virginia Tech transfer at receiver (Damon Hazelton)."
"The good news is that they kept (defensive coordinator) Ryan Walters, who is a rising star. It was a good continuity move, too, which helps a lot going into fall camp without a full spring practice."
"The two top players, (Nick) Bolton and (Kobie) Whiteside, are starters on most teams in the league."
"The biggest question is how you fix Missouri. Getting kids hyped, getting a product out there that makes it exciting to be in the SEC. Why couldn't they follow through on those two division titles?"
"They're going to struggle, but they're in a better place than the other first-year staffed teams in the league."
"The running back position, the quarterback position, you see talent in the right spots."
"The Egg Bowl lost Matt Luke the job, but football people would say you had a team that tried to make an identity week to week and kept failing."
"Lane Kiffin is a vast improvement over any offensive mindset they've had, including Hugh Freeze."
"The cupboard is not bare at all on offense. (Jerrion) Ealy and (John Rhys) Plumlee form a really solid base for (offensive coordinator Jeff) Lebby, and almost all of their receivers are back."
"The big question here and on defense is what kind of line play are we going to see? That's really been the thing that held them back during the NCAA sanctions. They got thin on both sides, and it cost them a lot of games."
"We expect to see a lot transfers coming in and winning jobs, especially on defense. D.J. Durkin is really the second head coach, Lane is probably going to give him a lot of liberty with the defense. He knows (Will) Muschamp well and his scheme fits near that (Nick) Saban stuff."
"Lane has a year to figure it out, tops. He's going to be entertaining, he's Lane Kiffin."
"They're going to score points, they're going to embarrass your defense sometimes, but how consistent can they become? How legit can they recruit at Ole Miss?"
"Lane is the right guy for that culture, but is that culture ever going to produce a consistent winner? We'll find out by next season if this is old Lane or new Lane, and how badly he wants to win in the grind of the league."
"It's a pivotal year."
"This is the job everyone's talking about opening before the year starts, but you don't know (athletic director) Ray Tanner."
"We think Will Muschamp would really have to blow it to get fired this year. But yeah, there's some pressure here to get it going."
"They're still searching for an identity this many years in."
"Losing (Javon) Kinlaw really changes their defense. I say that because of how different they are with and without him. He was one of the best players in the country and could make your line play their worst game of the year. They don't have anyone else like him to fill the gap."
"Schematically it's Will's defense, so it's in the Saban tree. They're going to give you lots of coverages, they're going to focus entirely on making the quarterback uncomfortable, get you in second-and-long and tee off."
"The problem is, they're not as talented as most of the other teams in the league off this tree, so you're seeing a slowed-down version of a team you've probably already prepared for."
"The talent level is tough to measure. They're certainly not a top-level team, and that was the expectation for Will."
"Is (offensive coordinator) Mike Bobo going to run the old Georgia stuff? I don't think you can look at Colorado State's offense as an example. The personnel and the competition are night and day. They passed out of necessity, basically."
"We think Bobo wants to be a run-first, downhill offense and take a lot of the pressure off of (Ryan) Hilinski. He was really inconsistent and may not be the long-term answer, which is scary when you're going into a hot-seat year."
"Right now they're on the way to being good but not great. That job gets tougher and tougher every year that the fan base gets whipped by Florida and Alabama and the big boys."
"Butch Jones won nine games in Year Three, and Jeremy lost to Georgia State last season."
"The good news is that they finished like a completely different team. Start to finish, last season was one of the strongest coach-'em-up jobs you've seen in the league."
"Both the passing game and the overall defense, especially in the secondary, are night and day from Georgia State and BYU to the bowl."
"They should have a really strong offensive line, and they've got a fourth-year quarterback. He's not the most talented, he has shown some really bad decision-making, but experience at quarterback is invaluable in the SEC. The problem is they have to put the right weapons around him."
"Defensively it's up in the air. They have really great corners, but they're bad at safety. They've got talent in the front, but they're not really special. It's iffy."
"The good news is that they look more like the old Tennessee. They're bigger and faster, they're developing guys they recruit and those two things haven't worked together for their defense in a long time."
"Butch wasn't a bad recruiter, but Jeremy is doing a better job. That's the best thing they've got going. They're evaluating like Alabama and Georgia in terms of identifying guys. When you go out on the road, you 'feel' them more."
"They're in the right place. The problem is, they're on that tree with Bama and UGA. They need that big moment to turn heads with the elite prospects."
"They've put everything into this year."
"This is the season that's going to make or break Jimbo Fisher. It's not that he's on the hot seat at all with that contract, but this is the year he has to show them he can make A&M a national title contender."
"The theme for them is everyone taking that next step. It starts with Kellen Mond. He's had the experience, he's been in the system, now how good can he be in pressure situations? Can he make better decisions? Can he stay a threat running and still be an effective decision-maker passing the ball?"
"The running backs were young last year. They should be better this season. That's another case of a talented position that's well recruited. Now you have to show out."
"They're good on defense, and Mike Elko is really one of the best in the business."
"They've overhauled that thing to where you're seeing stuff you're not used to from them or really any Texas school."
"Depth is still a concern. That's the one thing missing they can't really fix this year, so if they're going to make this run health is going to be a really big deal. The next man up is a bigger drop-off than what you would see at a conference title contender."
"There's a lot of pressure on Jimbo, but he's used to it. This is the kind of year where he'll get out in front of it and put a lot of the attention on himself instead of the kids."
"Everything is pointing back to the bad old days of Vandy football."
"Where is the identity? It was always supposed to be defense. They're average at best on that side of the ball, and they've been completely lost on offense almost the entire time Derek Mason has been there."
"They're going to struggle, and losing the spring really hurts them with the new coordinators."
"(Offensive coordinator) Todd Fitch, at least by his resume, has a chance to open that offense up more. Mason's never had a play-caller with this kind of style."
"From what Fitch did at Louisiana Tech, they're going to be three- and four-wide a lot more, they're going to run out of the shotgun, they're going to try to do all the fundamental spread things to get you in space and avoid losing one-on-one battles. So this is as far as Mason's ever been from the Stanford mentality."
"The problem is they're busted at every position."
"Ke'Shawn Vaughn was their most talented guy, and he's gone. Most of the offensive line is gone too."
"(Defensive coordinator) Ted Roof is a coach's coach and veteran guy. I think the thing that really stands out about him is how many levels he's been successful at. He was at Auburn for a national title, and he ran a great defense at Appalachian State. He was a smart hire because he can fit scheme to talent, or lack of it, and it also shows that Mason is getting further and further away from the DC mentality."
"They're returning most of that defense. That has to be their calling card again because the offense is new and not talented enough, most likely."
"The bottom line is that Mason would've been fired already at any other SEC job, and this is a program that looks nothing like it did when James Franklin was winning games."
"If they win two or three games again this year and he isn't gone, it sends a signal to recruits in that Stanford or Northwestern category that Vandy isn't serious about football."