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SEC Coaches Talk Anonymously About Conference Foes for 2021

Alabama Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on the Crimson Tide's Schedule

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 2021, 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 2021

SEC East

Florida 

"Dan [Mullen] continues to excel at understanding his personnel on offense and building great plays around them."

"They got away from the run a little bit, which we assume was a move tailored to their confidence in their quarterback and guys like [Kyle] Pitts. They could just as easily switch back this season based on what they have in Emory Jones and what they’ve lost at tight end and receiver."

"The speed is insane. You fear it. Their receiver speed is unbelievable, it changes how you scheme their entire offense."

"Defensively they seemed to be all over the place."

"Believe it or not, they weren’t as exotic on third down as they have been in previous seasons. My guess is that the personnel couldn’t handle it all. It was surprising, they would struggle against lesser teams and then go out and play world-beater."

"It’s no secret in the industry that Dan is hard to work for and [Todd] Grantham is stubborn, so watching that relationship maintain sure has been weird."

"The secondary is always good, they seem to have a factory going there. Where they lacked was the front, it seemed like they didn’t like to get nasty against the run. You could run at their inside guys and have some success. You should not be able to run against a Florida defense that easily."

"This is a consistent, talented offense that’s transitioning and needs a more effective scoring defense. If they can’t improve on run defense and points allowed you’ll see a noticeable regression.”

Related: Ranking the SEC Quarterbacks for 2021

Georgia 

They’re consistent, they’re talented, but they’re still figuring out how to be elite."

"Defensively they don’t throw as much at you as Alabama. You can see Kirby’s [Smart] hand in the defense that way. I think a Georgia defense is more about making decisions and executing than throwing a lot of scheme at you, and they make great decisions."

"They have great edge play, guys who are true game wreckers. Even more than Alabama, you find yourself having to address their front and making concessions. In terms of pure physical talent, you’re always having to bring a back or a tight end in, you end up doing things to move away from what you want. They’re great at taking away what an OC wants to do the most."

"Offensively they’re sort of adrift. What are they trying to do? Last year it was really muddy, and I think a lot of that had to do with betting on [Jamie] Newman, losing him and then adjusting to JT Daniels in-season."

"I think it’s fair to say they know they need to evolve, but they haven’t found the right way to do it. Having consistency and a returning QB is a good start, but they can’t get too conservative. Sometimes, even with the new offensive staff, it’s like they want to go back to the old Georgia, get big and try to mash until play-action on third down."

"They need to let [offensive coordinator Todd] Monken go for it, the kid can do it."

"This is a roster better than anyone in the country except for Alabama and maybe Clemson."

"They’re turning over most of their secondary and will probably be fine, that’s the consistency in personnel they have."

"They just have to embrace the future with their offense and they could win it all.”

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

Kentucky 

"A really consistent program, maybe the most steady in our league. They’re smart recruiters and they have a nice development system in place."

"Making the change on offense was a big deal for them, Eddie Gran ran a lot of ball control, simple stuff by design to accommodate the defense. They really live and die with the quarterback because they’re just solid but not great anywhere else. The new offense will have more play-action, more of that Rams offense, they’ll run a lot of outside zone and probably not as much between the tackles."

"Brad White is one of the best coordinators around and they could be pretty salty. This is their identity, they’re mean, physical, have a really smart secondary and a great pass rush. They’ll be as good on defense as they’ve been in Mark’s [Stoops] time there."

"The real question is if they’re going to open the offense up, since that held them back last season. How much more are they going to throw the ball?"

"Mark’s basically built a really smart, really disciplined Big Ten West type of program with a lot of Ohio guys and some SEC skill-position talent. They have a culture and they don’t really stray from it, so I can’t imagine them taking a lot of downfield shots."

"They need to find their quarterback and build around him."

"The defense is going to be stout, and it’s going to be interesting to see how this new offensive scheme compliments what Mark wants.”

Related: Ranking the Top 50 Impact QB Transfers for 2021

Missouri 

"This is maybe the one program that’s still under construction, but you can kind of see the plan."

"Eli [Drinkwitz] deserves a lot of credit for adjusting immediately to the personnel he had. They didn’t try to redefine the offense, they built on what worked previously. You could see little bits of the old staff’s stuff on offense but just with a slight adjustment. That was really smart, it made the transition easier on the kids not getting to spend a lot of time with the new staff."

"They’re smart about how they use guys because they know they’re not going to out-talent you."

"Defensively they were better in the secondary than expected. They’re an effort group, lots of energy, I thought they were bought in. They weren’t afraid to take risks, if they didn’t respect your quarterback they’d really stack the box and make you beat them vertically, then vice versa. Of course, that ended up killing them a lot, too. A lot of this is just not having the talent, and they won’t magically turn that around this year even with changing the coordinator."

"They were a young team last year with a new staff and they’re still figuring it out. The upside is that now they have a veteran quarterback, a good back, and the offensive staff knows how to score points."

"They’re going to have to shoot the lights out to keep up, but the way they’re recruiting that might not be the worst thing. They’re making more noise in recruiting than they really ever have in this league.”

South Carolina 

“Once [Will] Muschamp was let go everything really fell apart. There was a huge difference once he was fired, plus the injuries and transfers."

"It’s funny, because you could see some stuff [Mike] Bobo brought in, using fullbacks and tight ends, that maybe this was gonna be the right OC for Will. It was just too late."

"I don’t think they expected to have the hot seat year in 2020, they were starting really slow on offense and trying to buy the defense time. Talking to their coaches, the administration had no support for Will and Ray Tanner couldn’t protect him, so it didn’t really matter what they did."

"Shane [Beamer] is going to change the offense completely, but we’re not sure exactly what that will look like because they really don’t have a lot to work with at the skill position. If they can do it they’ll probably try some RPO. The upside is I think that [Marcus] Satterfield is a good OC for that situation, he will mix it up for whatever fits who they’ve got."

"Talent-wise, they’re pretty thin at receiver, they have no quarterback, so it’s going to be a long summer."

"Defensively they’re going 4-2-5, which is pretty different from what they’ve done, and they’re going to be a similar situation as the offense, where they’re going to have to scheme around what they don’t have."

"They need to figure out recruiting, they didn’t bring a lot. They could be shoppers in the portal.”

Tennessee 

"They never became what they said they were going to be. [Jeremy] Pruitt fell into that same trap as so many other [Nick] Saban assistants where he tried to be Nick and not himself. He’s not Nick. You got the feeling he didn’t know how to let go from being a coordinator."

"Offensively, they were a Jim Chaney offense. Pull film from any of his team, the stuff was the same. Defensively they tried to do way too much. Culturally they lost the kids, we heard that from transfers and gossip but it’s also on the tape. They didn’t want to play, they didn’t want to work for each other."

"You can call [Josh] Heupel’s offense simplistic, but the speed of it is the secret. Does have that talent right now? Probably not. The big thing to watch is the play-calling cadence. That offense is about speed and how you call it, how you call the first three plays to set up the big punch."

"Defensively they’re going to be bad, so get ready. They’re going to try to mix the formations but look for a lot of 4-2-5. They don’t have linebacker talent."

"There’s so much work to be done here, and on top of it they’ve got to deal with the NCAA thanks to the last staff. In short order? Find a quarterback and some receivers, create that battery and work on your team speed. Heupel wants a track meet, but he inherited that in Orlando. It will be harder to build that in this league, especially if they’re restricted by sanctions."

"The transfer portal beat them up pretty badly, I wouldn’t be shocked if they’re shopping for skill position transfers.”

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Vanderbilt 

"This is a total rebuild and it’s unlikely they’ll be able to show much of it this season."

"We never saw a Vanderbilt team give up under Derek Mason, so it’s not fair to say they gave up. Maybe you could say they just ran out of steam and the staff ran out of ideas."

"One thing that never showed up in the stats was that they could be really physical. They had that Stanford thing going, but they just never put it together with league-caliber talent."

"The program never had a consistent offensive identity. That killed them, ultimately. You could see them doing Stanford stuff, doing pro set, then it’s a lot of NFL stuff and a lot of play-action, and nothing panned out."

"I think you’ll see Clark’s [Lea] guys embrace the obvious. Spread ‘em out if you can’t hang. Don’t be stubborn."

"Defensively they’ll go 4-2-5, which was Clark’s base at Notre Dame. That makes sense for the type of players they can realistically get."

"They have to overhaul the personnel completely. They can’t be Stanford in the SEC, or Northwestern for that matter. You didn’t see Vandy in places you’d expect in-state or in the region. You’re not Alabama, but you have to recruit the South in the SEC. Build that out, then you start to compliment with guys looking for that Northwestern or Notre Dame type experience. Even with admission standards and a flat culture, no SEC program should be that talent deficient."

"The talk is that they want to establish long-term consistency, which means moving slowly at first."

SEC West

Alabama 

"Defensively they’ll be one of the best teams in the country based on what we think is coming back."

"Based on what they lose on the offense, maybe this is the year where the defense is more the identity than the offense. We haven’t seen that since Lane [Kiffin] changed things up there."

"I don’t think they’re losing much at QB, swapping Mac [Jones] for Bryce Young is a one-to-one."

"They’re loaded everywhere, so the open positions at running back and on the line aren’t concerning, but replacing [DeVonta] Smith is a real thing. He was a generational talent at any other program, but even here they’re going to feel that absence, especially with a new QB."

"If I’m guessing, I think Bill [O'Brien] keeps a lot of what [Steve] Sarkisian did, at least at first."

"The defense was definitely the weaker side of the ball last year. Pete Golding has the hardest job in the country but he’s done better than you think. They do such a good job forcing you to do things; they’re too talented to just line up against, you have to use a lot of formations and motions and just 'stuff' to keep them off-balance, which means you’re liable to make mistakes, and when you get behind schedule they pounce."

"The way to give them trouble, at least last year, was to make them think a lot. Formations to the boundary, then motions, maybe trading off the tight end, making them account for matchups in real-time and get them out of tendencies. Try to create gaps."

"When you’ve seen Alabama struggle in recent years, it’s because you’re making really talented players outthink their assignments. It’s really the only real way to beat them, unless you’re a Clemson, because you can’t win one-on-one matchups. All that being said, they're still the best program in college football.”

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

Arkansas 

"The biggest change in the league from 2019 to 2020. This is a completely different looking team on film between Chad [Morris] and Sam [Pittman]."

"Totally different mindset. All of a sudden they’re dogs. Physical, hard, playing aggressive late in games. You can tell the difference. They’re playing the way he acts, for sure. They’re doing what they said they would do under [Bret] Bielema, except it’s showing up on the field."

"That wasn’t Kendal’s [Briles] ideal system by far, you could see the struggle where they didn’t have guys to fit what they need to do to build plays off of each other."

"K.J. Jefferson is their QB most likely, so you’ll see a lot of different stuff because they build a lot of things specific to [Feleipe] Franks."

"The defense was raw, nothing really special, but most of those guys are back."

"They drop a lot of guys, I think as the offense was coming along the idea was to try and keep it all in front of you, don’t take big risks with the pass rush. Nothing in particular stands out for them on defense."

Recruiting is the big question here. Where are they in Louisiana? Where are they in Texas? What could separate Sam from other 'lunch pail' type coaches is that he gets the landscape, and it’s offense. You gotta sell scoring points, you can’t just get big on the line and mash in this league, the defenses are too talented up front and the offenses are too fast."

"It’s still a rebuild. They’re not going to scare you coming out of the tunnel. The things to look for are developing big plays guys on the offense and bringing the defense along slowly.”

Auburn 

"So far we hear that it is a total culture change. He’s (new head coach Bryan Harsin) a grinder. Detail-oriented, first-year stuff where he thinks everything should change. Wants to kill off any of that image that Gus’ [Malzahn] teams had and make it about running the ball and blue-collar and all that. But does he have a clue about recruiting? That’s the single biggest question right now in the league."

"The real reason Gus is out isn’t because Auburn fell behind Alabama, it’s because they fell behind Clemson and Georgia and Florida. Is a guy from Boise going to fix that?"

"They’re going to try and put a physical culture in. One-on-ones, WRs against DBs in practice. Get mean, that kind of stuff. This was an outside zone run team that’s gonna throw everything into the inside run game. Harsin sold them on being a blue-collar team, being Pat Dye."

"Derek Mason’s defense is going to be interesting and it may have to carry them early on, because if they dump in all that shift and motion stuff, that offense is used to looking at a single play card. It might be a tough learning curve."

"At Vandy Mason would scheme you to death. He would do a lot to try to hide the talent gap, and sometimes it worked. What’s it going to look like at a place where he has a better defense than he ever did at Vanderbilt or Stanford? Day one he’s got more to work with than ever. Do they simplify? What does their base defense look like? That’s the most important thing for them until they can bring the offense along.”

Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2021

LSU 

"This team is hard to understand from the outside."

"The quote from Ed [Orgeron] about not interviewing his coordinators before he hired them, man you could really tell that’s the truth if you look at last season."

"There’s a lot going on here with the amount of talent they turned over, the amount of staff and then just the title hangover and ‘rat poison’ problems you get after a season like that, but none of that explains how bad that defense was."

"That was an ego problem between coaches. What you see on film is a unit that’s convinced they’re more talented and doesn’t adjust. That is 100 percent coaching. When you have a guy like [Derek] Stingley, a good player looking so out of position and not getting calls, that’s on you as a coach."

"The offense was pretty good, really good for what they lost in opt outs. [Jake] Peetz is a play at bringing back Joe Brady, honestly. The upside is that he’s not going to fit a system overtop what they’ve been doing. Same on defense, really. You have really nice pieces, so it’s not about fitting a scheme as it is about creating consistency. You can’t have a pass rush without an effective secondary. They just didn’t look like they were in sync at all."

"You cannot hide from a lack of continuity, and that’s what they’ve been doing for years. The difference between this program and Bama is that when they turn over six or seven coaches in a year, the message is the same, the systems are the same, and there are a lot more bodies in the building to keep the kids consistent. LSU has risen and fallen with their assistant coaches and not their head coach.”

Mississippi State 

“I think that’s going to be an interesting deal this year, and it really comes down to how they’re going to recruit to those systems they have in place. Obviously they didn’t have the right fits at a lot of positions last year, that showed."

"The biggest thing that happened to them, good and bad, was that LSU game. After that game everyone figured it out - don’t play man. They fired on a lot of crossing routes and they were creating a lot of picks at different levels, bumping defenders off routes. The next couple teams, you saw them all drop eight and swarm to the ball. The problem there is that you have to run in that situation and they can’t. They’d check out of stuff and run for two or three yards."

"The system can work, but it hasn’t worked in the SEC since Kentucky and Hal Mumme. The question is will [Mike] Leach be open to evolving it? The air raid he’s running is so specific to the old Big 12. The beauty of Lincoln Riley is that he built on the air raid and changed things. He’s from that tree but he branched out. You can run out his air raid, in very creative ways. That’s what Mike has to do to complement the pass in this league."

"The defense does a good job causing confusion. They’re decent up front, lots of movement. Personnel-wise they’re not as talented as they were under [Dan] Mullen, but they’ve done a nice job compensating."

"They play hard, they bother you. Look at the Ole Miss game. They were able to bother Lane’s [Kiffin] play-calling. If that’s the direction they’re headed they could be a really good complement to that quick-fire offense.”

Ole Miss 

"Lane [Kiffin] is a savant. He is probably the best pure play-caller in the game."

"The tempo was surprising last year for a roster that wasn’t really fit for what he wanted to do, which was a lot of the Bama stuff. He’s just that good a play-caller, honestly, where he has such instincts for what makes each of his skill guys successful."

"To look at this offense now compared to Lane at USC, there’s a lot of ideas that are coming from guys like [Jeff] Lebby and he’s going with it. The great OCs adapt, they don’t dictate."

"The best thing they do is no-huddle. They scout defenses so well that they can lock in on a weakness or a tendency and work it over and over. That no-huddle stuff is great, but it’s not sustainable. The evolution they need is to have stronger line play and be able to shift down to ball control when they’ve got a lead."

"The defense is keeping them down. I’m not sure there’s a bigger gap between two sides of the ball in this league."

"They just don’t look SEC, honestly. We judge that by looking at the front seven, and there’s not enough size or grit. If you’re big up front you can maul them and hide the ball from that offense. They were light on the edges and you could tempo them back and gas their front, which is why they ended up in so many of those track meet finishes."

"Losing [wide receiver Elijah] Moore will hurt them, but this program’s strength is innovative offenses, they’ll adjust. The biggest problem is finding bigger, faster, quality defensive players. They can’t keep trying to win 50-49 games."

Related: SEC Quarterback Rankings for 2021

Texas A&M 

"It really seems like last year was the first time Jimbo [Fisher] had that roster the way he wanted it. When you’re recruiting in this league and transitioning from [Kevin] Sumlin’s offense to his, it takes that kind of time. So that’s the good part, the bad part is that they don’t have Kellen [Mond] anymore."

"When he first got the job, Jimbo talked about length and size and getting that kind of talent there that you really only see in the SEC. You see that on the line now, 320-pound-plus guards, long tackles, long linebackers, on film they really look like his good FSU teams."

"The tough part is the new QB and losing some guys on that offensive line, but they’re four years in on [Darrell] Dickey and it gets easier to transition starters."

"This could be a team where the defense carries them through big games."

"[Mike] Elko should probably be a head coach by now, keeping him has been a huge win. They’re good at confusing your reads. Lots of movement up front, they go odd and even fronts to see how you react and they keep mixing up coverages. Right when you’re comfortable he has a knack for changing schemes completely."

"This really comes down to the QB competition, and that’s Jimbo’s wheelhouse. They’re stacked on offense, they’re very good on defense, maybe underrated, so it’s really just the QB we don’t know about. How he brings along the competition in spring and summer is gonna be really important for them. But if I had to pick a head coach to get a young QB ready to lead a loaded team, it would be this one.”

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