The 2019 college football season was another banner year for the SEC as the LSU Tigers romped over the competition to a 15-0 (8-0 SEC) record, hoisting a national championship trophy in New Orleans after dismantling No. 3 Clemson, 42-25.
The rest of the SEC, especially Georgia, tried giving chase to the Tigers but fell short along the way and are now gearing up for a run in 2020. As each coaching staff starts to put together their spring practice plans, some draft-eligible juniors are testing the NFL waters, which could upend championship-caliber squads before the season even begins.
Given all the elite talent in the SEC, most squads each season brace for which players might leave a big void on the field by declaring for the NFL draft at the end of their junior season. Ahead of the 2019 draft, the SEC lost 32 players to the professional ranks with Alabama among the hardest hit, losing seven. Once again, the top college football conference has been raided with 36 players declaring, headlined by LSU's nine and Alabama's six.
In the case of Georgia, it may not be the quantity of players lost but the quality. Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart not only has to find replacements for starting quarterback Jake Fromm and running back D'Andre Swift but he also must retool the offensive line as Solomon Kindley, Andrew Thomas, and Isaiah Wilson have declared for the draft and former five-star tackle Cade Mays transferred to Tennessee.
With the early entry deadline for the 2020 NFL Draft having passed, teams are now scrambling to find successors to the All-Americans and All-SEC players that are instead focused on the next step in their football careers.
Gone: Grant Delpit, SS
Over the past two seasons, Delpit was about as good as it gets for the collegiate level at safety. A two-time consensus All-American and two-time first-team All-SEC member, his presence in the secondary will be missed, as he is in line to become the latest LSU defensive back to get drafted in the first round.
In: Kary Vincent Jr. (rising senior) or Mo Hampton Jr. (rising sophomore)
The Tigers' secondary will have to be reworked, but keeping safety JaCoby Stevens paired with true sophomore Derek Stingley Jr., a consensus All-American as a freshman, will help this group recover sooner than later. Vincent received significant playing time in 2019, coming up with 47 stops and four interceptions. Hampton, a true freshman, played in 12 games and earned one start. He is a two-sport athlete also playing baseball for LSU, which could slow his progression on the field.
Gone: Tua Tagovailoa, QB
Over the years, Alabama has had serviceable quarterbacks that took on the field manager role and allowed the run game and defense to dominate. When Tagovailoa came along, he became the focal point of the team, leaving many to wonder what a Crimson Tide offense will look like going forward. Tagovailoa left Tuscaloosa as the team's all-time leader in touchdown passes (87) and third in passing yards (7,442).
In: Mac Jones (rising redshirt junior) or Bryce Young (incoming freshman)
It is understandable that the Alabama fan base may be ready for Tagovailoa II with Young, a five-star recruit from Southern California. Young won a 2018 national championship with Mater Dei High School and took his team to an end-of-season No. 2 ranking (MaxPreps) in '19. Young is an electric dual-threat with a rifle for an arm, a quick release, and is as elusive as it gets. But Jones is still on the roster with a lot to contribute. After Tagovailoa suffered a hip injury against Mississippi State, Jones effectively took over, completing 68.8 percent of his passes for 1,503 yards with 14 touchdowns against just three interceptions in 141 pass attempts. Jones was lighting it up over the final three games with a 335-yard, four-touchdown performance against Auburn and a 327-yard, three-touchdown game against Michigan in the Citrus Bowl. Not a bad debut for someone tasked with filling such big shoes.
Gone: WR Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs III
Losing Jeudy hurts, but the void he leaves could have been more troublesome to overcome if fellow junior DeVonta Smith had joined him. Jeudy led the Crimson Tide in receptions (77) and added 1,163 yards with 10 scores. The college football world was forced to notice his talents in 2018 when he snagged 68 passes for 1,315 yards while posting 14 scores. Ruggs was the third option on the outside for Alabama, posting a stat line of 40 receptions for 746 yards with seven touchdowns, but his blazing speed will be missed.
In: Jaylen Waddle (rising junior) and John Metchie (rising sophomore)
Waddle appears to be next man up among the Alabama receiving corps. He was fourth on the team in receptions (33), yards (560), and touchdowns (6) this past season. Metchie was a four-star recruit in the 2019 class, a talent ready to make some noise at the Z-position. The 2020 class has a couple of four-stars that could push for time on the field in Thaiu Jones-Bell (5-11, 187) and Traeshon Holden (6-3, 195).
Gone: Jake Fromm, QB
Over the last three seasons, Fromm has been one of the SEC's most consistent quarterbacks, which led to plenty of wins. He averaged 2,745 passing yards and 26 touchdowns during his tenure as the Bulldogs' starter. Fromm's early departure was surprising to many since he never produced that big breakout season and did not eclipse the 300-yard mark in a game this past season.
In: Jamie Newman, graduate transfer from Wake Forest
When an opportunity opens up via the transfer portal, teams are smart to take advantage of the opportunity. Georgia pounced on Newman from Wake Forest. Newman fits the Fromm mold and he produced 2,868 passing yards with 28 touchdowns for the Demon Deacons and he can make plays with his legs if needed. Newman had big games against Group of 5 squads last season but never really tore it up against ACC competition.
Gone: D'Andre Swift, RB
Over the past two seasons, Swift has been an electric player for the Bulldogs with 1,049 yards in 2018 and 1,218 in 2019. Beyond the big plays on the ground, Swift was a threat in the passing game, forcing defenses to spy him when Fromm dropped back to pass. Not only will UGA be without Swift’s services, but they also lose senior running back Brian Herrien, second on the team in rush yards.
In: Zamir White (rising redshirt sophomore) and James Cook (rising junior)
White and Cook could get their chance to do their version of thunder and lightning for the Bulldogs. White is a load, checking at 6-foot and 215 pounds, while Cook is smaller (5-11, 190) but also fast-on-fast. White challenged Brian Herrien for second on the team in rushing, finishing with 419 yards and three touchdowns on 78 carries. Cook got 31 rushing attempts, posting 195 yards and two scores, but also showed he can be a dynamic threat in the passing attack with 16 receptions for 132 yards last season.
Gone: Clyde Edwards-Helaire, RB
For all the deserved attention LSU quarterback Joe Burrow received for guiding the Tigers to an unforgettable season, what transpired would have stopped short during the regular season if not for Edwards-Helaire. He finished second in the SEC in rushing with 1,414 yards and led the conference with 16 touchdowns on the ground. He was at his best when it mattered most, putting up 100-yard performances against Florida, Auburn, Alabama, and Clemson.
In: Tyrion Davis-Price, John Emery Jr., and Chris Curry (rising sophomores)
LSU is renowned for churning out top tailbacks year after year, and the 2020 season will see no drop-off in terms of potential out of the backfield. Davis-Price worked his way to second on the depth chart as a true freshman with 295 yards and six scores on 64 carries. Another former elite prospect LSU fans are ready to see break loose is Emery. A five-star recruit, Emery got his feet wet with 39 carries, which went for 188 yards with four touchdowns. Fellow classmate Curry stepped up big for Edwards-Helaire (hamstring) in the Peach Bowl/College Football Playoff Semifinal against Oklahoma and gashed the Sooners for 90 yards on 16 attempts. He should at least get the opportunity in spring practice to stake his claim to a significant role in 2020.
Gone: Lynn Bowden Jr., QB/WR
On the surface, replacing Bowden as a passing quarterback will not be difficult. Bowden, a receiver by trade, threw for only 403 yards with three touchdowns with a 47 percent completion rate. But what he meant to the success of the Wildcats' 8-5 season cannot be understated. He pulled off the rare feat of leading his team in receiving yards (348) and rushing yards (1,468), and came 287 passing yards shy of leading in all three major offensive categories. Bowden's onslaught against the SEC did not take hold until the sixth game of the season when Arkansas came to town. After a quiet five games, he was named first-team All-SEC all-purpose player.
In: Sawyer Smith or Terry Wilson, rising seniors
Bowden's rise to fame came at Smith's expense. Injured in the South Carolina game, Smith took a backseat to the revamped run-first offense that Bowden guided the rest of the season. Now Smith faces the challenge of battling Wilson, the opening game starter. Wilson suffered a knee injury in Week 2 against Eastern Michigan and would only play in four games in 2019. If he's able to recover fully, he should remain a legitimate dual-threat option. He threw for 1,889 yards and 11 touchdowns with an additional 547 yards and four scores on the ground in 2018.
Gone: Justin Jefferson, WR
Losing the talents of Jefferson, who tied for the most receptions in the FBS ranks in 2019 (111), would be a loss too great to bear for most squads. But whoever wins the starting QB job for the defending national champions has a wealth of talent to replace Jefferson’s 1,540 yards and 18 touchdowns.
In: Terrace Marshall Jr. (rising junior) and Racey McMath (rising senior)
Mitigating the sting of Jefferson leaving, the nation's top receiver returns in Ja'Marr Chase. Helping Chase avoid double- and triple-teams figures to be Marshall and McMath. Marshall lived up to the five-star hype out of high school during his sophomore season after pulling in 46 passes for 671 yards with 13 touchdowns. McMath added 17 catches for 285 yards and three scores and should see more opportunities in 2020.
Gone: CJ Henderson, CB
Henderson was eased into life in the SEC during his freshman season by playing in 11 games with five starts. He had a meteoric rise in his sophomore season, which ended by being regarded as one of the best in the business. Rarely tested, Henderson lived up to the hype when the ball came his way in 2019, stopping 33 plays with 11 passes defended to earn first-team All-SEC honors.
In: Jaydon Hill or Kaiir Elam (rising sophomores)
Hill served as Henderson's backup, and Elam was the backup for Marco Wilson on the other side. Both came up with 11 tackles last season, but Elam impressed with three picks and four passes broken up.
Gone: Lloyd Cushenberry III, C
One of the more undervalued yet important positions on the field is at center, and Cushenberry was tops in the SEC during the 2019 campaign. The junior was a veteran in the trenches, starting 27 consecutive games and earning first-team All-SEC and second-team All-American (AFCA, FWAA) honors.
In: Chasen Hines, rising junior
Hines is versatile in the trenches with experience at both guard and center, and he's a mountain (6-4, 336) to move off the line of scrimmage. He got one start as a freshman in 2018 and played in 10 games during his sophomore season. With all that LSU lost along the offensive line, expect plenty of guys to see time up front until Ed Oregon's new-look coaching staff finds a way to replace tackle Saahdiq Charles, left guard Adrian Magee, Cushenberry, and right guard Damien Lewis.
— Written by Ryan Wright, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and an established media professional with more than two decades' worth of experience and is a member of the FWAA. Over the years, Wright has written for numerous sites and publications and has his own recruiting site, www.recruitingnewsguru.com. Follow him on Twitter @RyanWrightRNG.