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SEC Football: 10 Things to Watch in 2020

SEC Football: 10 Things to Watch in 2020

SEC Football: 10 Things to Watch in 2020

The SEC never lacks for intrigue, and the 2020 season has plenty of storylines to follow among the league's 14 teams. LSU aims to defend its national title with a revamped depth chart and a new quarterback (Myles Brennan), with Alabama poised to rebound after missing the CFB Playoff for the first time since its inception. Texas A&M hopes to take a big step forward in coach Jimbo Fisher's third year, while the state of Mississippi features new coaches in Mike Leach (Mississippi State) and Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss). Georgia and Florida are locked into a tight battle for the top spot in the East, and Tennessee seems to be trending up going into coach Jeremy Pruitt's third year.

What are the biggest storylines surrounding the SEC for 2020? Matt Hinton examines LSU's quest for a repeat, Alabama's outlook for 2020, quarterbacks in the SEC and Texas A&M's hopes of a third-year jump under Jimbo Fisher and more:

SEC 10 Things to Watch in 2020

1. LSU’s Championship Hangover

LSU was indisputably the best team in college football in 2019, especially at the end. But limiting the Tigers’ greatness to the context of a single season doesn’t quite do its out-of-the-blue title run justice. With their championship romp over Clemson, Ed Orgeron’s team stated its case as one of the best teams ever.

The resume speaks for itself. The 2019 Tigers weren’t merely the first SEC outfit to finish 15–0; to get there, they humbled five top-10 opponents by an average margin of 20 points, including a season-defining win at Alabama and postseason humiliations of Georgia, Oklahoma and Clemson to seal the deal. Not only did they lead the nation in scoring, but they also racked up more points (726) than any team in Division I history. Not only did face-of-the-program quarterback Joe Burrow win the Heisman Trophy, but he also claimed it by the largest margin of victory ever, while also setting the single-season mark for pass efficiency and cementing his status as the no-doubt No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft. The Tigers trailed after halftime just twice all season, and never in the fourth quarter. They became the first No. 1 seed of the CFP era to win it all. They maxed out the potential that had been too often wasted over the years on stale offensive game plans and redefined what LSU football looks like in the process.

The 2020 Tigers? To be determined, to put it mildly. In addition to Burrow — probably the most valuable player in LSU history — the mass offseason exodus from Baton Rouge included nine early entrants for the draft, among them last year’s leading rusher (Clyde Edwards-Helaire), receiver (Justin Jefferson), tackler (Jacob Phillips), and pass rusher (K’Lavon Chaisson), as well as a pair of first-rounders in the secondary (Kristian Fulton and Grant Delpit) and four-fifths of the starting offensive line. It also included two prominent assistants, co-offensive coordinator Joe Brady (the new OC for the Carolina Panthers) and defensive coordinator Dave Aranda (the new head coach at Baylor). Virtually everyone who had the opportunity to leave for greener pastures took it.

Not that Orgeron is starting over from scratch, exactly. The depth chart is stacked with the usual concentration of rising blue-chip talent, headlined by a pair of returning All-Americans — WR Ja’Marr Chase and CB Derek Stingley Jr. And then there’s Brady’s partner on the offensive side of the ball, Steve Ensminger, who’s still on board as the chief play-caller. The heir apparent behind center, redshirt junior Myles Brennan, spent the past two years as Burrow’s understudy and should benefit from the continuity of having Ensminger in his ear. Ultimately, though, he should also benefit from what figures to be the most relaxed grading curve for an LSU quarterback in ages — no one in their right mind expects the revamped offense to pick up where last year’s record-breaking attack left off. As long as the championship buzz lingers, whatever comes next is gravy.

Related: SEC Football Predictions for 2020

2. Still Bama

It’s a testament to the juggernaut Nick Saban has built at Alabama that the kind of season most places would celebrate — 11 wins, a lopsided victory in a New Year’s Day bowl, top-10 finish in the polls — qualifies as a letdown. By Bama standards, though, it’s hard to spin 2019 any other way. Despite cruising through the rest of the schedule, the Tide lost their only really meaningful games — November barnburners against LSU and Auburn. Those failures snapped a five-year run of conference and/or national titles, with the only new addition to the trophy case arriving as a consolation prize via the Citrus Bowl.

Even before the season went sideways down the stretch, there were warning signs that (for once) it was not going to be Bama’s year, beginning with a rash of preseason injuries that sidelined several projected starters. The hits kept on coming: By the time LSU rolled into town, the defense was relying heavily on true freshmen at key positions, and QB Tua Tagovailoa was playing on a visibly gimpy ankle. Only a week later, Tagovailoa’s college career came to a brutally premature end at Mississippi State, taking any chance the Tide still had to sneak into the playoff down with him. A snake-bitten loss in the Iron Bowl, decided in large part by a fluky pick-six and a missed field goal in the closing minutes, was a fitting end to a snake-bitten regular season.

If you were expecting this to turn into a murky forecast squinting at the end of the dynasty on the horizon, though, sorry to disappoint: A marginally less invincible version of Bama is still Bama, and there’s still every reason to believe the Tide will be back in the thick of the national race in 2020. The talent and depth remain the envy of college football outside of maybe Columbus, Ohio, and Athens, Ga. Both coordinators (Steve Sarkisian on offense, Pete Golding on defense) are back for the first time since 2015. In the midst of the annual winter exodus, three potential All-Americans on offense — RB Najee Harris, WR DeVonta Smith, and OL Alex Leatherwood — opted to pass on the draft in favor of returning for their senior year; so did LB Dylan Moses, a breakout candidate who missed all of 2019 due to a torn ACL, and DL LaBryan Ray, who went on the shelf in September. The handful of freshmen thrown into the fire as day-one starters (DT D.J. Dale at nose, LBs Shane Lee and Christian Harris) now qualify as seasoned vets. And Tagovailoa’s understudy, Mac Jones, looked like a natural successor in his audition.

Between Jones, sophomore Taulia Tagovailoa and massively hyped spring enrollee Bryce Young, the next championship Alabama quarterback is likely already on campus. But with expectations running as high as ever, whoever emerges will not have the luxury of being graded on a curve.

3. What’s Next for Bo Nix?

Year 1 of the Bo Nix era at Auburn opened on a high note, with a dramatic, last-second win vs. Oregon in the season opener, and it closed on an even higher one — a 48–45 triumph over Alabama in an instant-classic edition of the rivalry. Everything in between? Well ... let’s just say beating Bama as a true freshman covers a multitude of sins.

Along the way, there were glimpses of the potential that made Nix a five-star recruit. He looked the part in blowout wins over Mississippi State and Arkansas. He resolved his turnover issues, going INT-free after Halloween, and was the coaches’ choice for SEC Freshman of the Year. Auburn improved on its dismal 2018 scoring average in SEC play by a solid nine points per game. Still, the overall picture was one of a work very much in progress. Nix turned in his worst outings in losses to Florida, LSU and Georgia, and finished in the bottom half of the league in completion percentage, yards per attempt, and overall efficiency.

Par for the course for a rookie, even one as hyped as Nix. But the prospect of a sophomore surge comes with a caveat, too: Just how high is his ceiling? On the optimistic side, Auburn fans have every reason to expect the light to come on sooner rather than later — it’s easy to imagine an older, more confident Nix emerging from the pack in Year 2 as one of the SEC’s savviest and most efficient passers. Athletically, though, the jury remains out: For a blue-chip prospect, there wasn’t much beyond the numbers that pointed to a vast reserve of untapped, next-level talent. Surge or no surge, there’s a good chance that the version of Nix the Tigers get in 2020 is essentially the finished product.

Related: College Football Top 25 for 2020

4. The Next Great SEC Quarterback: TBD

Speaking of star quarterbacks: Joe Burrow? Gone. Tua? Gone. Jake Fromm? Gone. Lynn Bowden Jr.? Gone. So, uh … who’s left?

Certainly someone is going to emerge. Just who that someone is going to turn out to be, though, is anyone’s guess. None of the most obvious candidates is quite obvious enough to qualify as a sure thing. The most experienced option, Texas A&M’s Kellen Mond, has 34 career starts but has yet to offer more than brief glimpses of his all-conference potential. The most heralded, Auburn’s Bo Nix, rarely allowed Tigers fans to forget he was still just a freshman. The most imposing in the pocket, Arkansas’ 6'6", 235-pound Feleipe Franks, remains a wild card. The most consistent, Florida’s Kyle Trask, made the most of his opportunity but as a fifth-year senior is likely maxed out athletically. The most explosive runner, Ole Miss’ John Rhys Plumlee, was too one-dimensional as a freshman and faces an uphill battle to convince a new staff to build the offense around his legs rather than fellow sophomore Matt Corral’s arm.

The next big thing behind center may turn out to be someone with whom SEC fans are only just getting acquainted. The new starter at Alabama will be blessed by an elite surrounding cast and (presumably) the same high-octane, passer-friendly mindset. Ditto Myles Brennan at LSU. The new starter at Georgia, Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman, was the most sought-after QB on the offseason market after a breakout junior season at Wake. The projected starter at Mississippi State, Stanford transfer K.J. Costello, is destined to put up gaudy numbers in coach Mike Leach’s high-volume passing scheme (although divining quality from quantity on the stat sheet is a different question). Kentucky will decide between senior Terry Wilson, who went 10–3 as a starter in 2018 before missing nearly all of ’19 to injury, and Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood (if awarded a waiver to play), a former top-100 recruit. The heir apparent at Missouri, Shawn Robinson, is a former blue-chip recruit who sat out 2019 following a transfer from TCU. Until further notice, though, there is vastly more potential on hand than actual proof.

5. Florida Makes it Move

Florida hired Dan Mullen in the wake of an historic collapse in 2017 to resurrect an ambitious program in disarray. So far, so good: 10 wins in year one, 11 in year two, back-to-back victories in New Year’s Six bowls, top-10 finishes in the AP poll in both seasons. The “rebuilding” phase of the project went about as well as anyone could have realistically expected.

Now the hard parts: 1) dethroning Georgia in the East, and 2) making a serious run at the CFP — logical steps forward that may also turn out to be the steepest. If it’s going to happen anytime soon, though, the window may be as wide open for the Gators to make their move in 2020 as it’s going to get. Where Georgia’s offense is a blank slate, Florida has the benefit of continuity via both Mullen, one of the most respected play-callers in the game, and senior QB Kyle Trask, who emerged from obscurity in 2019 to become the most productive UF passer since Tim Tebow. And where the Gators have suffered from a notable talent deficit relative to UGA, Mullen’s efforts on the recruiting trail and the transfer market — through which Florida has added four former five-star prospects in the past year — have gone a long way toward narrowing the gap.

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Narrow enough to vault the Gators past Georgia into the SEC Championship Game? Don’t count on an answer to that until the Cocktail Party on Oct. 31, the season-defining date for both sides. Until then, the fact that it’s a serious question again after three years of essentially unquestioned Georgia dominance over the division is proof enough that the Gators are on the right track.

Related: SEC Football 2020 All-Conference Team

6. Stingley for Heisman

LSU can hardly hope to replace Joe Burrow’s production on offense. For sheer athletic spectacle, however, he was arguably surpassed last year by a teammate on the other side of the ball: cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., the rare freshman talent for whom the five-star recruiting hype wasn’t effusive enough. In short order, the Baton Rouge native graduated from early enrollee to day-one starter to future face of his position, all without appearing to break a sweat.

Much of Stingley’s brilliance translated onto the stat sheet, where he led the SEC in interceptions (six) and total passes defended (21) and earned the top coverage grade of any FBS corner according to the film-eaters at Pro Football Focus. Despite an all-conference snub from SEC coaches — who as per usual deferred to older players, relegating Stingley to second team — he became the first true freshman DB this century to be voted a consensus All-American. In LSU’s subsequent playoff wins over Oklahoma and Clemson, he allowed two receptions on nine targets for a grand total of 25 yards. With the great ones, though, seeing is believing, and in Stingley’s case, his raw potential frequently leapt off the screen in ways that made his rookie moments (specifically a rough afternoon opposite Alabama’s DeVonta Smith) look like fleeting glitches. At 6'1", his combination of length, agility, and highlight-reel ball skills made him a no-brainer pro prospect before his 19th birthday.

The notion of a cornerback sustaining more than a novelty Heisman bid may sound like a pipe dream, especially for an established star who’s likely to see far fewer passes in his vicinity as a sophomore. Much of Stingley’s best work this season will unfold out of frame, largely unnoticed by casual fans. But opportunities to flash his playmaking side still exist — not only on defense, but also as a punt returner (a la Tyrann Mathieu, a Heisman finalist in 2011) and potentially as a part-time receiver on offense (a la Charles Woodson, still the only primarily defensive player to win it), a role Ed Orgeron reportedly promised Stingley as a recruit once he’d settled into his every-down gig. Ideally, that experiment would have gotten a dry run in the spring, before practices were canceled in the name of public safety. Even if he has to wing it, though, with a specimen like Stingley, any chance to get him on the field with the ball in his hands is a chance worth taking.

7. Aggies Aim Higher

From a certain angle, Texas A&M’s 8–5 finish in 2019 wasn’t quite the letdown the record suggests. Consider the context: All five losses came at the hands of opponents ranked in the top 10 at kickoff, three of whom (Clemson, Alabama and LSU) came in ranked No. 1 — the first time in the 84-year history of the AP poll a team has faced three top-ranked opponents in the same season. Meanwhile, the Aggies beat every non-CFP-caliber opponent on the schedule handily, capped by a win over Oklahoma State in the bowl game. After a hard-fought, late-season loss at Georgia, coach Jimbo Fisher stated that his team only lacked “the last two percent” to get over the hump against the SEC elite, which seemed at the time like a plausible estimate.

But A&M isn’t paying Fisher $7.5 million a year just to come close, and in the end it was debatable just how close the Aggies ever really were: Just a week after his “last two percent” remark, an all-out, 50–7 collapse at LSU in the regular-season finale made abundantly clear just how large a gap that number represents.

There’s no room for rationalization in Year 3. QB Kellen Mond is an entrenched senior in his third year in Fisher’s system. He’ll be surrounded by familiar weapons (RB Isaiah Spiller, WR Jhamon Ausbon, TE Jalen Wydermyer) and four-fifths of last year’s starting O-line. The defense returns virtually intact, and both sides of the ball are stocked with the fruits of consecutive top-10 recruiting classes. The schedule is as favorable as it’s ever going to get. Clemson is out in the non-conference slate; Colorado is in. Georgia has been replaced in the cross-division rotation by Vanderbilt. Alabama and LSU aren’t on deck until the last two games, leaving just one opponent in the first 10 (Auburn) coming off a winning season.

It would be hard to come up with a scenario that puts A&M in much better position to play its way into the national conversation. As much as the program has invested in building a contender, anything less will go down as another very expensive disappointment.

8. Raising the Stakes in the Magnolia State

They’ve been playing college football a long time, under all kinds of strange and chaotic circumstances — much too long to assume that anything that might happen at this point has never happened before. That said, you would have to dive deep into the archives to find a dumber ending to a football game than the closing seconds of the 2019 Egg Bowl. Elijah Moore’s infamous, ill-fated touchdown celebration not only cost Ole Miss a potential victory in its biggest game of the season, but it also set in motion a chain of events that dramatically changed the face of one of the sport’s saltiest rivalries.

Less than 72 hours after Moore lifted his leg in the end zone, Ole Miss fired coach Matt Luke, a move that almost certainly would not have happened if the Rebels had won at Mississippi State or lost in less ... uh, memorable fashion. In his place, the Rebels bet big on Luke’s opposite: Lane Kiffin, a well-traveled, high-profile figure who represents a 180-degree departure from his homegrown predecessor. Not to be outdone, MSU saw Ole Miss’ gambit by reversing course on its own embattled coach, Joe Moorhead — who had apparently salvaged his job before a deflating trip to the Music City Bowl — and raised it by hiring the even-more-colorful Mike Leach, founding father of the Air Raid.

Not that the rivalry can get much more intense (or any weirder) than it already is. Between them, though, the Kiffin-Leach dynamic already feels outsized for what has always been a fiercely local conflict. It brings the promise of bigger personalities, more fireworks and higher expectations. The successes of the past decade are still fresh in the minds of both fan bases, and with more money in the coffers than ever before, both programs now have signaled their commitment to playing for more than in-state pride. Exactly how well those ambitions are going to play out is anyone’s guess. But there are certainly a lot more people outside the state of Mississippi interested in finding out.

Related: Grading College Football's New Coach Hires for 2020

9. Muschamp Faces the Music

Last season set up as a make-or-break kind of season for Will Muschamp’s tenure at South Carolina, and if you’d asked them last August, many Gamecocks fans would have bet the house on a losing record sealing his fate. But four wins and eight losses later, here we are: Another year, another offseason of speculation as Muschamp gears up for yet another round on the hot seat.

Dismal as it was, the record didn’t tell the whole story. The schedule lived up to its billing as one of the most brutal in the nation. The offense was snake-bitten from the start, losing veteran QB Jake Bentley to a season-ending injury in the season opener, a loss to North Carolina; his understudy, true freshman Ryan Hilinski, never found his comfort zone, averaging an SEC-worst 5.8 yards per attempt for the season. And still, in the midst of the slide, the Gamecocks pulled off the upset of the year at Georgia, buying Muschamp a much-needed supply of goodwill as they went on to lose five of their last six. Factor in a prohibitive buyout clause in his contract, and it came to just enough to justify a reprieve.

It’s hard to imagine that will be the case if Carolina comes in below .500 again. The schedule is (slightly) more forgiving, Hilinski is a sophomore with a full season under his belt, and Muschamp agreed in December to reduce his buyout to free up more money for his assistants. Under pressure to rejuvenate the offense, he fired QB coach Dan Werner, stripped play-calling duties from coordinator Bryan McClendon (who left for Oregon in the spring), and handed over both roles to incoming OC Mike Bobo. If the transition results in a bowl bid, Muschamp could survive. If not, diminishing returns after five years may prove too difficult to spin.

10. Hitting Reset at Arkansas and Mizzou

Eight different starting quarterbacks. Sixteen consecutive losses in SEC play. Non-conference humiliations against the likes of North Texas, Colorado State, San Jose State, and Western Kentucky. Any way you slice the Chad Morris era at Arkansas, it comes out to the same thing: It was the most depressing two-year stretch in school history, by far, and possibly the worst for any SEC program in the three decades since the Razorbacks joined the league.

On paper, incoming head coach Sam Pittman is an unorthodox choice to oversee such a major rebuild — aside from a two-year stint as head coach at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College in 1992-93, he’s a career offensive line coach with no experience as a coordinator. But he’s hardly an outsider, having spent three years at Arkansas under former head coach Bret Bielema from 2013-15. And in the meantime, he earned a reputation as a high-energy recruiter on Kirby Smart’s staff at Georgia, a rep he immediately backed up by reeling in former four-star recruits from Florida (QB Feleipe Franks), Clemson (DE Xavier Kelly), and Oklahoma (LB Levi Draper) from the transfer market. It is not nearly enough to lift the Razorbacks out of the SEC West cellar anytime soon, but not a bad start, either.

Across the state line, Pittman’s first-year counterpart at Missouri, Eliah Drinkwitz, comes with more conventional experience — but just barely, having served one (wildly successful) season as a head coach at Appalachian State on the heels of brief OC stops at Boise State and NC State. At 37, Drinkwitz is still on the upward slope of a fast-rising career, and the situation he inherited at Mizzou is arguably the most favorable of any of the league’s four new head coaches. His predecessor in Columbia, Barry Odom, leveled out at 25–25 over four years, including a 6–6 finish in 2019 that felt like a sorely missed opportunity following a 5–1 start. With a favorable schedule, the same core of players should be good enough to improve on that right away.

— Written by Matt Hinton (@MattRHinton) for Athlon Sports' 2020 SEC Football Preview

(Top photo courtesy of @LSUfootball)