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SEC Football: 10 Things to Watch in 2021

What are the biggest storylines surrounding the SEC for 2021?

What are the biggest storylines surrounding the SEC for the 2021 college football season? Matt Hinton examines Alabama's consistent dominance, JT Daniels and Matt Corral's Heisman chances, the four new head coaches and more:

Nick Saban

Defending national champion Alabama is going to look different but don't expect much different results from Nick Saban's charges

1. Alabama: The More Things Change

Year in, year out, no program rides the annual waves of attrition more smoothly than Nick Saban’s Crimson Tide. Even by Bama standards, though, the exodus from last year’s national championship team was steep — so steep, in fact, that attrition doesn’t quite do the departing talent justice. On offense alone, the vacancies included spots held in 2020 by the Heisman Trophy winner (wide receiver DeVonta Smith), the nation’s most efficient passer (Mac Jones), the school’s career rushing leader (Najee Harris), arguably the most feared big-play threat in the college game (receiver Jaylen Waddle), a pair of consensus All-Americans on the offensive line (Alex Leatherwood and Landon Dickerson), and the coordinator who called the shots the last two years (Steve Sarkisian, off to Texas as the new head coach). Collectively, that group formed the core of the highest-scoring offense in SEC history.

In their absence, the lineup for the Sept. 4 opener vs. Miami will bear very little resemblance to the one that racked up 52 points against Ohio State in the national title game. The Tide will be rolling out at least eight new starters and a new play-caller with, frankly, nowhere to go on the stat sheet but down.

Then again, there’s a reason Alabama has been favored in 152 of its last 153 games, and it’s going to take a lot more than an especially notable round of outgoing star power to put that streak in doubt. In an era when offensive records are written and rewritten on an annual basis, the fact is that the Tide were so far ahead of the pack in 2020 that the 2021 edition doesn’t necessarily have to keep raising the bar to go on producing at a championship level. New coordinator Bill O’Brien is a proven commodity in both college and the NFL, most recently as head coach of the Houston Texans.

The heir apparent at quarterback, sophomore Bryce Young, arrived last year touted as the second coming of Russell Wilson; he’ll step into the full-time role in Year Two as an automatic Heisman candidate with the hype fully intact. Among the holdovers, WR John Metchie III and OL Evan Neal are aspiring first-rounders on track to continue the Tide’s All-America streak at both positions. The rest of the lineup is typically stacked with former blue-chip prospects who, like Young, are due to break through after biding their time as underclassmen. The incoming recruiting class is one of the most celebrated crops of the past two decades at Bama or anywhere else. Even the kicking game, a running joke throughout Saban’s tenure, now qualifies as a strength thanks to junior Will Reichard, who was perfect as a sophomore on both field goals and PATs.

And in the unlikely event the offense does take a significant step back, there’s still the defense, which (oh, by the way) returns the vast majority of the two-deep from a unit that led the SEC in scoring D for the ninth time in 12 years. We all know the drill here. Until proven otherwise, any rumors of the Tide’s demise as a de facto national contender are greatly exaggerated.

2. The JT Daniels Effect

Rewind to the midpoint of the 2020 season, and the vibe around Georgia was anything but optimistic. By early November, UGA had already endured a pair of season-defining losses vs. Alabama and Florida, leaving the Bulldogs with nothing in particular to play for over the final month. The defense, the backbone of the team, was outclassed in both games, giving up 41 points to Bama and 44 to the Gators in two of the most generous outings of Kirby Smart’s tenure. The offense, bogged down by ongoing issues behind center, seemed stuck in the wrong decade. The Bulldogs looked like anything but serious national contenders.

JT Daniels’ promotion to starting quarterback in mid-November immediately suggested otherwise. After sitting out the first six games with a lingering knee injury, the former USC transfer lived up to his 5-star billing and then some down the stretch, averaging 10.3 yards per attempt in his four starts with 10 TDs, two INTs and a stellar 178.5 passer rating. The bowl game, a dramatic come-from-behind win over unbeaten Cincinnati, capped a four-game winning streak to close the year and reset expectations for 2021 to the default setting: Playoff or bust.

Like Bama, Georgia’s roster is one of the few with the baseline talent level to compete for championships on an annual basis, regardless of turnover. Unlike Bama, almost all of Georgia’s key offensive personnel are back, including second-year coordinator Todd Monken and virtually everyone who touched the ball. Monken was hired to breathe life into a stagnant downfield passing game, and with Daniels’ arm, he’ll have all the firepower he needs to make good on that mission — last year’s top four targets (George Pickens, Kearis Jackson, Jermaine Burton, and Darnell Washington) were all freshmen and sophomores who collectively averaged 16.1 yards on 54 catches in Daniels’ starts. That was just a glimpse of an up-and-coming group just beginning to jell at the end of a frustrating year, and although Pickens’ status is in serious doubt following a spring ACL tear, his place in the rotation may be capably filled by 2020 injury casualty Dominick Blaylock. Also, former LSU tight end Arik Gilbert transferred to Georgia in June. Over a full season, they have as much raw big-play potential as any receiving corps in the country.

It won’t take long to find out how well that potential translates into reality: Georgia opens against another mainstay in the CFP race, Clemson, which faces plenty of question marks of its own coming off a semifinal beatdown at the hands of Ohio State. The anticipation for that one, and the long-term implications, will be dialed up to 11.

Related: SEC Predictions for 2021

3. Have Jimbo's Aggies Arrived?

2020 was a banner season for Texas A&M. The Aggies’ 8–1 record in SEC play was their best since defecting from the Big 12 in 2012. Their upset over then-No. 4 Florida at Kyle Field snapped an 18-year home losing streak vs. top-5 opponents dating back to 2002. They posted a come-from-behind 41–27 win over North Carolina in the Orange Bowl. Their final ranking in the AP poll (4th) marked their best finish since 1939. They were indisputably the best team in the state of Texas.

Still, given the enormous expectations that greeted Jimbo Fisher's arrival as head coach (not to mention the enormous payday), the on-field product in College Station remains a work in progress.

Six of A&M’s eight regular-season wins last season came at the expense of teams that finished .500 or worse, and the lone defeat, an early 52–24 blowout at Alabama, loomed large over the rest of the season as proof of the gap between the Aggies and the real national elite. The margin in that game was likely a deciding factor in the CFP committee’s decision to tab Notre Dame for the last semifinal slot opposite Bama, rather than stage a rematch no one was clamoring to see. In Year Four under Fisher, closing that gap remains the defining goal.

Getting there begins with the new quarterback, redshirt freshman Haynes King, who barely saw the field last year behind now-departed senior Kellen Mond. What King lacks in experience, A&M hopes he can make up for in the kind of big-play prowess that was sorely lacking from the passing game in 2020. The leading receivers, tight end Jalen Wydermyer and versatile RB/slot type Ainias Smith, both return, but the Aggies will also be looking for more out of a young, nondescript group of wideouts. Elsewhere the lineup is solid: The highly touted 2019 recruiting class, in particular, has made good on the hype, yielding All-America candidates at running back (Isaiah Spiller), tight end (Wydermyer), O-line (Kenyon Green), D-line (DeMarvin Leal), and defensive back (Demani Richardson). All are entering what will likely be their final season together. If King and his receivers hold up their end, it has the makings of another big one.

4. LSU on the Mend

No one in their right mind last year expected anything like a rerun of LSU’s stunning, prolific 2019 championship run. But the drop-off, predictable as it was, turned out to be more like a plunge off a cliff: Through eight games, the Tigers stood at 3–5 with historically lopsided losses against Auburn and Alabama already in the books and close to half the roster on the shelf due to injuries, COVID-19 and self-preservation ahead of the NFL Draft. The Tigers’ first losing season in two decades looked like a foregone conclusion, the national title a distant memory.

The last two games offered a light at the end of the tunnel. Rather than packing it in for the year, LSU posted back-to-back wins over Florida and Ole Miss that evened the record at 5-5 and gave fans a glimpse of a hopelessly young team beginning to come into its own. After a turbulent season behind center, true freshman QB Max Johnson emerged as a steady hand, connecting with fellow freshman Kayshon Boutte 19 times for 416 yards and four TDs in the wins. After languishing at or near the bottom of the league rankings on defense, the much-maligned unit forced nine turnovers as defensive end Ali Gaye, a junior college transfer, and freshman cornerback Eli Ricks cemented their status as rising stars. After a muted campaign that had featured a single home victory prior to the season finale, the energy in reduced-capacity Tiger Stadium for the shootout win over Ole Miss felt almost … normal.

There’s a lot to look forward to. Between Johnson and Myles Brennan, who started the first three games before losing the rest of the year to a hip injury, the Tigers will go into the new season with at least one quarterback they can feel good about, and between Boutte, Gaye, Ricks and All-America CB Derek Stingley Jr. — who expects to be back at full strength after an injury-plagued 2020 — they’ll have as much front-line star power as any team in the conference. For the sake of turning the page, they’ll have new coordinators on both sides of the ball as well.

That may not be enough to lift them back into the Playoff conversation in the same division with Alabama and Texas A&M. But for now, reverting to the kind of standard-issue LSU team that can be counted on to bank at least nine wins in any given year ought to count as a step in the right direction.

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5. Florida: Forgetting the Ending

The Gators hit every milestone that allowed them to claim Dan Mullen's third season as progress on the path to sustained national relevance: They beat Georgia, won the SEC East and remained in the thick of the CFP race well into December, all while producing Florida’s most productive offense and first Heisman finalist since Tim Tebow.

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Yet the ending — a three-game losing streak, including a stunner at the hands of a shorthanded, lame-duck version of LSU in the regular-season finale and an outright humiliation vs. Oklahoma in the Cotton Bowl — undeniably left a sour taste that lingered well into the offseason. January rumors that Mullen, a college lifer, might be open to leaving for the next level were probably overblown. But he is facing what may be his toughest year on the job, both in terms of scrutiny after the team’s collapse and the outlook for the season. With record-breaking QB Kyle Trask and his top three targets all gone, there’s a palpable sense for the first time under Mullen that the Gators are due for a step back.

The biggest concern, though, is the defense, which hit new lows statistically and ended the year by giving up 50-plus points and 600-plus yards in each of its last two games. Mullen fired two assistants in the secondary in the wake of the Oklahoma debacle, but the house-cleaning did not include embattled coordinator Todd Grantham, the focal point of the fan base’s angst. Grantham’s unit was repeatedly set aflame in a year when a merely average defense might have been good enough to run the table. It’s been a while since Florida has had that kind of opportunity, and the next time it comes around, there’s no guarantee the current staff will still be around to seize it.

Related: Ranking All 130 College Football Teams for 2021

6. Rebooting at Auburn, South Carolina, Tennessee and Vandy

The COVID-19 pandemic did nothing to slow the coaching carousel. When all was said and done, four SEC head coaches found themselves on the chopping block: Auburn’s Gus Malzahn, South Carolina’s Will Muschamp, Tennessee’s Jeremy Pruitt, and Vanderbilt’s Derek Mason.

The most surprising departure was Malzahn’s. He won nearly two-thirds of his games at Auburn, claimed a pair of SEC West titles and never posted a losing record in eight years. His successor, Bryan Harsin — who, coincidentally, is succeeding Malzahn for the second time, the first coming at Arkansas State in 2013 — comes from a successful seven-year run of his own at Boise State that yielded three conference championships and four Top 25 finishes. But as every Auburn coach quickly learns, consistently measuring up vs. Bama, Georgia and LSU (against whom Malzahn posted a combined record of 8–17) is another challenge altogether.

Pruitt’s exit from Tennessee was more predictable: The Vols’ 3–7 finish in 2020 marked their worst record in more than 100 years, resulting in the fifth regime change in Knoxville since 2008. The rebuilding cycle begins anew under Josh Heupel, who followed new athletic director Danny White from UCF. Heupel, a former national championship-winning quarterback at Oklahoma, is the philosophical opposite of the defensive-minded Pruitt, arriving with an aggressive, up-tempo mindset that tallied 43.0 points per game at UCF over the past three years. Tennessee’s average in that span: 22.9 points.

The new boss at South Carolina, 44-year-old Shane Beamer, has never been a head coach at any level, or even a coordinator. In many ways, though, he’s been groomed for a big-time job his entire life. In addition to working for his dad, Virginia Tech legend Frank Beamer, Shane has worked his way up as an assistant for (among others) Steve Spurrier at South Carolina, Kirby Smart at Georgia and most recently Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. He’s been around a lot of success.

His new team, however, has had very little of that lately. At South Carolina, Beamer is starting more or less from scratch, and he’s doing so with a roster that’s well behind the curve in the SEC. Outside of junior RB Kevin Harris, the conference’s leading returning rusher, the Gamecocks are a blank slate.

And as for Vanderbilt’s Clark Lea ... well, at least there’s nowhere to go but up from an 0–9 finish in 2020, the first winless campaign in Vandy history. (Yes, really.) Lea, who’s returning to his alma mater after spending the last three years as defensive coordinator at Notre Dame, should have all the time he needs on what figures to be a long, slow climb toward respectability.

7. Corral for Heisman?

This time last year, Matt Corral's future at Ole Miss was in serious doubt after a deflating 2019 campaign that saw him lose the starting job and the head coach who recruited him. Now entering Year Four in Oxford, he’s in the conversation among the Rebels’ best-ever quarterbacks off the most prolific passing season in school history. Under Lane Kiffin’s watch, Corral easily set Ole Miss records for total offense (384.3 yards per game), yards per attempt (10.2), and overall efficiency (177.6) at the helm of an attack that averaged 40.7 points in SEC play — more than a full touchdown per game better than the previous school record.

Is that enough to gin up some Heisman buzz in 2021? On paper, maybe. Even without All-America receiver Elijah Moore, who opted out ahead of the regular-season finale and turned pro, there’s no reason to expect Kiffin’s offense to significantly change or decline in Year Two. (In Moore’s absence, Corral piled up 788 total yards and six TDs in the Rebels’ final two games.) In reality, Corral has two significant obstacles to overcome. One: a rock-bottom defense that often threatens to make his gaudy stat lines look like empty calories in a losing effort, even when it’s a competitive game. And two: a reckless streak that resulted in random flurries of turnovers. Corral served up a league-worst 14 interceptions in 2020, making him the first SEC quarterback in a decade with more than a dozen picks in fewer than 300 attempts. But 13 of those picks came in just three games, losses to Arkansas (six INTs), Auburn (two) and LSU (five), compared to only one INT in the other seven. Ole Miss went 5–2 in those games, the losses coming in early shootouts vs. Florida and Alabama in which the Rebels rang up a combined 1,260 yards of offense.

For Corral’s rep to transcend the stat sheet, the Rebels will have to steal enough of those types of games to sustain at least a dark horse run at a division crown. The upside: If he matches last year’s output with fewer giveaways, the defense doesn’t have to be much better to do exactly that. The downside: As long as shootout logic prevails, the giveaways may just be the price of keeping pace.

8. Getting the Air Raid Off the Ground

In a fundamentally weird year across the sport, Mississippi State’s trajectory in 2020 was one of the weirdest. The Bulldogs opened the Mike Leach era on a high note, hanging 44 points and an SEC-record 623 passing yards on LSU in an opening-day stunner in Baton Rouge. They followed that up a week later by crashing and burning against lowly Arkansas, the beginning of an extended mid-season funk defined by injuries, roster attrition and a depleted offense that quickly sank to the bottom of the SEC rankings in almost every major category. At one point, they traveled to Georgia with just 43 scholarship players. Then, just when things were looking up following season-ending wins over Missouri and Tulsa, they rang out the year with a nationally televised brawl in the immediate aftermath of the Armed Forces Bowl vs. Tulsa.

Now that the dust has settled a bit, there’s a lot for MSU fans to look forward to in Leach’s second season — most notably an offense whose leading passer (Will Rogers), rusher (Jo’quavious Marks) and receiver (Jaden Walley) were all true freshmen, as was the MVP of the bowl game, WR/KR Lideatrick Griffin. Ideally, Rogers would have been tagged for a redshirt rather than be thrown into an unstable situation as a rookie, and his production after taking over for starter K.J. Costello reflected his limitations: Although he led the league in attempts per game (38.4), Rogers ranked last among SEC starters in average depth of target (5.7 yards), yards per attempt (also 5.7) and yards per completion (8.3), with more than 25 percent of his passes aimed behind the line of scrimmage. By contrast, only 6.9 percent of his attempts traveled 20-plus yards downfield, with nearly as many interceptions on those throws (three) as completions (five).

Considering the circumstances, though, Rogers’ growth was encouraging, especially in tandem with Walley’s emergence over the second half of the season. Together, they have the potential to give the Bulldogs the kind of high-volume connection that has defined Leach’s best teams at his previous stops. The next step is running a version of the Air Raid that actually looks like it deserves the distinction on a regular basis.

9. Year 2 at Arkansas and Mizzou

In the grand scheme of things, a 3–7 record at Arkansas is nothing to write home about. But in Sam Pittman’s first season as head coach, it was a breakthrough: Coming off three consecutive last-place finishes from 2017-19, the 2020 Razorbacks put a three-year, 20-game SEC losing streak to bed and generally looked like a team that belonged in the conference. In addition to the three wins, three of the seven losses were decided by last-minute field goals.

Now that the “moral victory” phase of the project is over, the grading curve in Pittman’s second season won’t be nearly as forgiving. But there are plenty of reasons to expect the arrow to continue pointing up. The two-deep returns virtually intact, headlined by last year’s leading rusher (Trelon Smith) and leading receiver (Treylon Burks), plus a trio of All-SEC picks on defense in LBs Grant Morgan and Bumper Pool and DB Jalen Catalon. The frontrunner in the quarterback competition, KJ Jefferson, has flashed in a limited role the past two years. The schedule is a bear, as usual, including a non-conference date with Texas and a cross-division trip to Georgia. Still, if Jefferson or redshirt freshman Malik Hornsby takes command of the QB job, bowl eligibility is within reach.

By comparison, Missouri’s 5–5 finish in its first season under coach Eli Drinkwitz didn’t exactly move the needle at a program whose overall record stands at exactly .500 since 2016 (30–30). The most encouraging development in Drinkwitz’s debut was the emergence of then-redshirt freshman QB Connor Bazelak, who has the makings of a four-year starter. A steady presence behind center will be crucial for a team that lost its most productive players on offense (RB Larry Rountree III) and defense (LB Nick Bolton), and which doesn’t boast much in the way of up-and-coming star power in their absence. Running back Tyler Badie and receivers Keke Chism, Mookie C and Tauskie Dove are the names to know as they assume more prominent roles.

10. Kentucky's Balancing Act

Kentucky is 23–14 over the past three seasons, good for the best three-year run in Lexington since Bear Bryant left town in the early 1950s. The team also finished dead last in the SEC in passing offense in each of those seasons, a trend head coach Mark Stoops is determined to change in an increasingly pass-oriented league. Enter new offensive coordinator Liam Coen, a former Los Angeles Rams assistant with a mandate to bring the offense into the 21st century. No more glorified Wildcat for the Wildcats.

In junior Joey Gatewood and sophomore Beau Allen, Coen inherits a couple of raw passers whose potential at this point far surpasses their résumés. Gatewood, a transfer from Auburn, is a former blue-chip recruit who checks all the boxes for size and athleticism; Allen is a decorated local product whose father played quarterback at Kentucky in the 1980s. The competition will likely extend well into preseason camp, especially with Penn State transfer Will Levis arriving this summer. But whoever wins the job will have some viable targets: Last year’s leading receiver, senior Josh Ali, opted to return for a fifth year, and the Wildcats added highly touted Nebraska transfer Wan'Dale Robinson, a Kentucky high school legend who accounted for 1,725 all-purpose yards and seven touchdowns in two years as a Husker. He’s a bona fide big-play threat in the slot, a void the Wildcats haven’t successfully filled since the days of Randall Cobb. Up front, All-SEC left tackle Darian Kinnard’s decision to pass on the draft doesn’t hurt, either.

Despite the renewed emphasis on the pass, don’t sleep on the ground game, where vets Chris Rodriguez Jr. and Kavosiey Smoke have averaged a healthy 6.4 yards per carry with 24 touchdowns between them the past two years. If they get the chemistry right, Stoops and Coen could come out looking very smart.

Podcast: Previewing the SEC for 2021