2020 SEC Preview
The SEC may be the nation's top conference. Several times over the years, they've had multiple teams in the College Football Playoff discussion. Sometimes they've even had 2 teams in or met each other in the championship. Either way, you know someone will be a national contender in this conference. Here's how I see the conference shaping up this year.
Alabama Crimson Tide
While they won 11 games last year, it was a down year for the Tide by the standards that Nick Saban has set since his arrival in 2007. They were knocked out of the playoff picture seemingly just as Tua Tagovailoa went down with a horrific injury. In Saban's time in Tuscaloosa, he's become one of college football best coaches of all-time, winning 5 national championships and 8 national coach of the year awards. They also haven't lost to an unranked team since 2007 and haven't lost to teams ranked outside the top 15 since 2010. While they lose some fantastic players, the Tide open the season ranked #2 and look like a reloaded team ready to compete.
Mac Jones filled in pretty nicely for Tua Tagovailoa and beat out Bryce Young for the starting nod at QB in 2020. Jones doesn't have the same running ability as Tua or Bryce but has shown to be a capable starter in the SEC. Lead rusher Najee Harris is back after pondering the NFL. He will once again share the load in the running game with Brian Robinson. Speedsters Jerry Jeudy and Henry Ruggs left for the NFL, but Bama will still have Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith to throw the ball to. Sophomore John Metchie III is currently listed as their other starter at receiver. The offensive line returns 4 starters, led by tackle Alex Leatherwood, guard Deonte Brown, and center Landon Dickerson.
The Tide always have a good defense, even in their worse years. This years defense returns 5 starters and at least 2 key role players. Their biggest losses are in the secondary, where Patrick Surtain II is their only returning starter, and Josh Jobe will see an increased role. LB Dylan Moses is definitely the leader of this unit. Moses was a sure-fire 1st round NFL pick before suffering an injury last season. The defensive line also loses quite a bit. DT Raekwon Davis and pass rushers Anfernee Jennings and Terrell Lewis (who were really linebackers) are in the pros. 2019 All-SEC Freshman Christian Barmore and veteran LaBryan Ray will be the ones to watch up front. Phidarian Mathis should also see significant time.
Bama opens Saturday against Missouri.
Players opted out: none reported
The Razorbacks have had a rough past few seasons riddled with coaching changes. They haven't had a winning record since 2016. After two straight 2-10 seasons, they fired head coach Chad Morris and replaced him with Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman. It was far from a home run hire, but Pittman does have a history of developing some solid NFL players.
The offense loses lead WR Shemar Nash (opt out) and TE Cheyenne O'Grady (grad), as well as quarterbacks Ben Hicks and Nick Starkel, who shared the starting job. In their place at QB is SEC veteran grad transfer Feleipe Franks from Florida. Franks was a heralded recruit with a big arm and good athleticism, but was extremely inconsistent during his time with the Gators. Still, he's definitely an upgrade at the position. The star of this team is RB Rakeem Boyd, who returns after rushing for 1133 yards and 8 touchdowns a year ago. Mike Woods, Trey Knox, and Treylon Burks are listed as the starting receivers. It's an extremely young unit with only 3 seniors, so Pittman's history of development should come in handy.
While the defense has several losses, a majority of their starters are upperclassmen. Lbs Bumper Pool and Grant Morgan lead the way. The defensive line loses starters McTelvin Agim and TJ Smith. Agim is the bigger loss. He was the team's sack leader and rose quickly up NFL draft boards, ultimately earning a 3rd round selection. Clemson transfer Xavier Kelly will look to fill his role. Kelly is joined by Dorian Gerald, Jonathan Marshall and Julius Coates up front. The secondary is the youngest group on defense with Jerry Jacobs as the only senior.
I'm not really sure what to expect from this team, but any improvement will most likely be small. It'll take baby steps to get them back in contention. The first step is Saturday against Georgia.
Players opted out: WR Shemar Nash, OL Chibueze Nwanna
Auburn is a team that is always in the hunt in the SEC. Gus Malzahn's team uses a unique offensive style and some pretty good defenses to stay in the race consistently. Although they've been to 6 bowl games in 6 years, the goal of SEC teams is ultimately to get to the national championship. Malzahn has won his division twice and been to a national championship. After a 4 loss season that included a close bowl game loss to Minnesota, they'll look to get back on track.
The Tigers lose leading rusher Jatarvious Whitlow and 3 starting offensive linemen. However, they bring back star QB Bo NIx and his top 3 receivers (Anthony Schwartz, Eli Stove, and Seth Williams). Shedrick Jackson will see his role expand and is currently listed as a staring receiver. Last year's 2nd leading rusher, DJ Williams, is back after a tremendous freshman year but is listed behind Shaun Shivers on the depth chart. It will be interesting to see how this unit plays out.
The defense loses most of its defensive line and starting secondary, I think DLs Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson will be missed the most. Big Kat Bryant and Tyrone Truesdell will try to pick it up up front with TD Moultry rotating in as a pass rusher. Colby Wooden has the unfortunate privilege of following Brown at defensive tackle. The back seven should be a strength, especially with their linebackers. KJ Britt has an NFL future, and Zakoby McClain might as well. Owen Pappoe is listed as a co-starter with McClain after starting each game as a freshman last year. Although the secondary suffered some big losses, Christian Tutt, Roger McCreary, and Smoke Monday have all been key contributors rotating into games. This unit should still be pretty good.
They play Kentucky, who could be a sleeper in this conference, in their season opener on Saturday.
Players opting out: DB Travion Leonard, LBs Josh Marsh, Chandler Wooten
The Gators experienced some down years after Urban Meyer left. Jim McElwain built it back up a little, but then it fell apart again. Now, Dan Mullen seems to have the team on the rise after back-to-back seasons with double digit wins. The 2019 Florida team finished ranked 6th in the country, the program's highest final ranking since 2009. Let's see what they have for an encore.
After taking the job from Feleipe Franks, quarterback Kyle Trask is returning for another year. He seemed to provide a spark the offense needed and is firmly on the NFL's radar. Although they lose of 3 of their top receivers, Trevon Grimes Kadarius Toney, Jacob Copeland, and Penn State transfer Justin Shorter should make a strong group. Tight end Kyle Pitts, a projected 1st round pick, will add even more to their passing game. Malik Davis and Dameon Prince are listed as co-starters at running back, replacing La'Mical Perine. They'll attempt the tall task behind an offensive line 3 starters and adds Mississippi State transfer Stewart Reese at center.
The defense loses pass rusher Jonathan Greenard and DB CJ Henderson, and a couple more players along the defensive line. Still, the unit will be a strong one with several starters and key contributors returning. The Gators bring back at least 2 starters both on the defensive line and in the secondary. Tedarrell Slaton and Brenton Cox return on the defensive line. Marco Wilson, Shawn Davis, and Donovan Stiner run the secondary. At linebacker, Ventrell Miller is the lone returning starter. He'll be joined by Jeremiah Moon and Amari Burney. Interestingly, playmakers Kyree Campbell and Brad Stewart were left off of the Week 1 depth chart, but Mullen says both are available.
The Gators have a chance to make some noise this year. They'll start Saturday against Ole Miss.
Players opting out: none reported
Georgia has always been a team that's in the race, but rarely wins it. Under Kirby Smart, they've improved enough to be taken more seriously and have even earned a national championship game appearance. In the last 3 years, they've won 3 straight division titles and had 3 consecutive 11 win seasons for the first time in program history. They own the nation's second-longest bowl streak and should be in a great position to contend again in 2020.
The offensive side of the ball is where Georgia has the most changes from 2019. They've lost their quarterback, top 2 rushers, top 2 tight ends, 2 of their top 5 receivers, and 3 offensive linemen. That's a lot to have to replace in one offseason. James Cook and Zamir White should share the bulk of the load in the backfield. George Pickens led the team in receiving as a freshman in 2019 and will form a receiving trio with Demetris Robertson and Dominick Blaylock. Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman was supposed to be the team's QB but has opted out of the 2020 season and declared for the draft. Many thought USC transfer JT Daniels would take over, but but an injury has allowed D'Wan Mathis to win the job. No official depth chart has been released yet, so we're left to do some guessing for now.
The defense will be a strength for this team, as a majority of the unit returns. Safety Richard Lecounte and corners Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes lead a secondary filled with NFL potential. Malik Herring, Devonte Wyatt, and Jordan Davis form a disruptive defensive line. At linebacker, they'll have 2019 co-Defensive Newcomer of the Year Nolan Smith alongside Monty Rice and Quay Walker. There is a lot of pro potential on this defense that should make it one of the best in the country.
The Dawgs open their season Saturday against Arkansas.
Players opted out: QB Jamie Newman
Mark Stoops has quietly been building a good program at Kentucky and it's starting to show. They've had 4 consecutive winning seasons and have been producing more and more NFL talent. They had a trying season last year, attempting to replace 14 starters and losing 3 quarterbacks to injuries. The team still managed to win 8 games with WR Lynn Bowden Jr playing quarterback. This year's team does not lose nearly as much, so they've got a chance to improve upon that.
The offense will get a big reprieve with the return of QB Terry Wilson. Lead rusher Asim (AJ) Rose and 2nd leading WR Josh Ali both return. Ali is the lone returning starter at receiver and will be joined by Bryce Oliver, Allen Bailey Jr, and Clevan Thomas in expanded roles. Rose has been a key contributor over the past two seasons and will be seeking his first 1,000 yard season behind an offensive line that features pro prospects Landon Young, Darian Kinnard, and Drake Jackson.
The defense returns a majority of its players, but loses 2 defensive linemen. Josh Paschal and Quinton Bohanna are their best remaining at that position. The linebackers return All-SEC player Jamar Watson and promising junior DeAndre Square, who will be joined by key reserves. The secondary features the only underclassmen (Kelvin Joseph) but brings back many experienced players, including lead tackler Yusuf Corker. They will also be helped by the return of nickelback Davonte Robinson from a season-ending injury.
The #23 Wildcats have a tough opener against #8 Auburn on Saturday.
Players opted out: None reported
Now we have the defending national champs. 2019 was a storybook season for Ed Orgeron, Joe Burrow, and the Tigers. This year, LSU has several star players to replace in hopes of a repeat. Still, the Tigers open the season ranked #6 and will be contenders for the SEC crown.
This offense was beyond phenomenal last year. Offensive coordinator Joe Brady, QB Joe Burrow, RB Clyde Edwards-Helaire, and their receivers made everything look easy. Unfortunately, many of those guys are gone, including Brady. Not only did they lose several starters, but they also lost key role players like WR Dee Anderson and TE/WR Stephen Sullivan. TE Arik Gilbert is a decorated recruit and will replace Thaddeus Moss at the position. With top wideouts Ja'Marr Chase (opt out) and Justin Jefferson (NFL) moving on, 3rd receiver Terrace Marshall suddenly becomes their number one. He's joined in the starting lineup by Kayshon Boutte and Racey McMath. The battle to replace CEH is between Chris Curry, Tyrion Davis, and John Emery Jr, and no one seems to have pulled away from the pack. Myles Brennan will take over at QB behind an offensive line that only returns 1 starter (Austin Deculus). Harvard transfer Liam Shanahan takes over at center, while Steve Ensminger will be the offensive coordinator.
The team also saw a mass exodus of defenders, losing 10(!) key players. They'll have to replace their entire linebacker unit and much of their d-line and secondary. Luckily the secondary returns 4 players that were part of the rotation a year ago, including CB Derrick Stingley Jr and S Jacoby Stevens. They also landed an impact transfer at linebacker in Jabril Cox. Cox has spent his college career so far at North Dakota State and has been the Bison's best defender, earning many FCS awards. He's a pro prospect who should work well with Damone Clark and Micah Baskerville. The defensive line is the most inexperienced group on this side of the ball and will rely on DTs Glen Logan and Siaki Ika. They may really miss Tyler Shelvin along that front.
The Tigers host Mississippi State on Saturday.
Players opted out: DLs Tyler Shelvin, Nelson Jenkins, WR Ja'Marr Chase, DB Kary Vincent
Ole Miss Rebels
Ole Miss got a bit of a spark this offseason with the hiring of Lane Kiffin as their new head coach. They've had a few bad years, even with some good talent on their rosters (DK Metcalf, AJ Brown), and now have a coach that can get the best out of them. I don't expect overnight contention from them, just signs of improvement. It's a very young team so who knows what'll happen.
If there's one good thing about being a young, struggling team it's this: You don't have to lose a bunch of your players. The Rebs lost zero impactful skill players from their offense. They do only return 2 starters along the offensive line, though. There are a couple battles yet to be won. The depth chart lists co-starters at both running back (Jerrion Ealy & Henry Parrish) and quarterback (John Rhys Plumlee & Matt Corral). One position without much debate is wide receiver. Speedy slot receiver Elijah Moore will be joined by Jonathan Mingo and Dontario Drummond on the outside. They'll also add Temple transfer Kenny Yeboah at tight end, who can exploit mismatches over the middle of the field. Offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez has tools to work with.
Things on the defensive side of the ball are a little different. They lose 2 starting defensive linemen and 2 starting linebackers. Lakia Henry and Jacquez Jones return at linebacker and will be joined by either Tavius Robinson or Sam WIlliams. The defensive line doesn't have much experience, but Ryder Anderson and Tariqious Tisdale have played the most. The secondary features many young players. Keidron Smith has made the most starts of the bunch. There's a lot of room to grow with this team.
The Rebels have a tall task against #5 Florida this weekend.
Players opting out: C Eli Johnson
Mississippi State Bulldogs
Mississippi State has had some exciting years, but it all started to go down hill after Dan Mullen left. Joe Moorhead was never able to find success with the team and has been replaced by Mike Leach. Leach is known for his exciting Air Raid offenses and should bring a spark to Starkville after a disappointing season.
Leach has been able to get the most out of quarterbacks Gardner Minshew and Anthony Gordon in recent years. This year, he gets to coach a much more heralded QB in Stanford transfer KJ Costello. Costello has pro talent and I'm excited to watch these two work together. I think the SEC defenses will be a welcome challenge and chance for Costello to show what he can do. He definitely has the ability to succeed in this system. Leading rusher Kylin Hill returns to the team. He's already shown to be a very capable rusher and will get an opportunity to show his passing value in this offense. Returning WR Austin Williams is joined by transfers Tyrell Shavers and JaVonta Payton in the starting lineup. Osiris Mitchell should also see significant playing time there. The offensive line returns starting guards Greg Eiland and Dareuan Parker but will have new players at all the other spots.
The defense loses 2 starters at each level, all of whom at least got a chance in the NFL. The main two to keep an eye on this year are LB Erroll Thompson and DE Kobe Jones. Thompson is by far and away the leader on this defense and will be playing alongside Tyrus Wheat and Aaron Brule. Former starter Marquiss Spencer will return from injury to help jones on the d-line. The secondary will see a whole new group with Marcus Murphy and Martin Emerson having the most experience. That may end up being a weakness on this side of the ball.
The Bulldogs have the daunting task of facing defending national champion LSU this weekend.
Players opting out: DBs Taury Dixon, JaVorrius Smith, Tyler WIlliams
The Tigers are another team going through a coaching change, hiring Appalachian State's Eliah Drinkwitz. Drinkwitz was in charge of App State for one year and led the Mountaineers to an 11 win season and a Sun Belt Conference championship. Since joining the SEC, Missouri has had some mild success and has earned a conference championship appearance, but they haven't quite been able to get over the hump. They won 11 games in 2014 but haven't won more than 8 in any season since then. That won't cut it in the SEC.
The offense loses QB Kelly Bryant and TE Albert Okwuegbunam, but returns several good players and brings in a couple transfers to help them out. QB Shawn Robinson spent a year as TCU's staring quarterback. He's a dual threat and former 4-star recruit, so you know he has potential. It's just a matter of actually putting it all together. He'll be throwing to Jalen Knox and grad transfers Damon Hazelton and Keke Chism. Hazelton is an especially great add. He has almost 2000 receiving yards in his career and led Virginia Tech in receiving touchdowns in 2019. On the ground, the Tigers are led by Larry Rountree III. The senior has topped 700 rushing yards in each of his first 3 collegiate seasons, including 1,216 in 2018. Backup Tyler Badie also has a knack for making plays and is a threat to reach 1000 all-purpose yards. They have a big offensive line led by Rutgers transfer Michael Maetti, who started the last 3 years for the Scarlet Knights.
The defense only loses DB DeMarkus Acy from last season. LB Nick Bolton could play his way into the first round of April's NFL draft and will play with Devin Nicholson in the middle of the defense. LB?DE Tre WIlliams is an impact pass-rusher who should see more playing time. Kobie WHiteside is an underrated force in the middle of the d-line. Jamal Brooks will also help out the linebackers. The secondary returns Jarvis Ware, Tyree Gillespie, and Joshuah Bledsoe, while adding high-rising freshman Ennis Rakestraw. We'll see if they can start to compete again.
The Tigers face Bama this weekend.
Players opting out: DL Chris Daniels, WR Maurice Massey
South Carolina Gamecocks
The Gamecocks became a bit of an SEC power under Steve Spurrier, but haven't been the same since. Will Muschamp has been okay, but they definitely want to see much better. The heat may be turning up after an abysmal 4-8 season, so we'll see if they can dig themselves out of a hole.
Collin Hill transferred in from Colorado State and beat out Ryan Hilinski for the starting quarterback job. WR Shi Smith is the leader of the receiving corps. He was their #2 WR last year and will step into the #1 role. He's joined by Xavier Legette and Dakereon Joyner as the starters. Kevin Harris and Deshaun Fenwick are still battling at running back. They also added William & Mary transfer Nick Muse at tight end, who has been an all-conference player at the FCS level. The offensive line is experienced, but they still haven't named a starter at right tackle.
The secondary is the strength of this defense, returning 3 starters (JayCee Horn, Israel Mukuamu, and RJ Roderick). The defensive line loses menacing DT Javon Kinlaw and DE DJ Wonnum. That group will rely heavily on JUCO transfers, freshmen, and sack leader Aaron Sterling this year. The linebackers are mostly juniors with seniors Sherrod Greene and Damani Staley fighting for the final spot.
The Gamecocks play Tennessee in their opener on Saturday.
Players opting out: OL Mark Fox, WRs Randrecous Davis, OrTre Smith, OL Jordan Rhodes
Two years ago, when the Vols were looking for a new coach, fans were outraged when it was revealed the team was going to hire Greg Schiano. They demanded a different coach and the university obliged. However, Jeremy Pruitt was an even more underwhelming hire. Fast forward to now, and Pruitt has the team coming off an 8 win season and rising into at least some semblance of the power they once were. They're still a long ways off, but it's good to see that they've become a competent program again.
The offense returns QB Jarrett Guarantano, RB Eric Gray, WR Josh Palmer, and an offensive line that features NFL prospects Trey Smith and Brandon Kennedy. Georgia transfer Cade Mays may also be part of that group. He has an NFL future as well but needs to receive a waiver from the SEC. The rushing game should be strong. Gray and senior Ty Chandler are listed as co-starters. Chandler is the program's 3oth all-time leading rusher, while Gray came on strong at the end 2019. Senior Brandon Johnson and sophomore Ramel Keyton round out the starting receivers.
The defense loses 3 key players, including 2 linebackers. This year's defensive line will feature 4 seniors in the rotation. They'll rely heavily on a rotation up front, but Aubrey Solomon may be their best player in the group. Sophomore Henry To'o To'o is the lone returning starter at linebacker after an outstanding freshman campaign. Kivon Bennett will become the team's new pass rush specialist and will try to replace Darrell Taylor, who was an early round NFL draft pick. The secondary is mostly upperclassmen with starting experience led by Alontae Taylor and Bryce Thompson.
I know they're ranked #16 right now, but Tennessee could be a surprise team this year. They kickoff the season Saturday against South Carolina.
Players opted out: none reported
Texas A&M Aggies
The Aggies open the season ranked as the #10 team nationally. Jimbo Fisher enters year 3 as head coach after seasons of 9 and 8 wins, respectively. They've been a bit of an inconsistent program since joining the SEC. They'll go from on the cusp of national contention to a 7 or 8 win season. Fisher was brought in to change that, and year three should see more progress toward that goal.
The biggest hole on offense is wide receiver. The Aggies lose both Quartney Davis and Kendrick Rogers and currently have a bunch of freshmen listed as co-starters on their initial depth chart. Kam Brown, Jalen Preston, and and Caleb Chapman are the first names listed, but, since they are co-starters, I wouldn't read too much into that. QB Kellen Mond returns for his senior season. He's a true dual threat QB but has been inconsistent as a passer throughout his career. Isaiah Spiller should see the bulk of the carries at running back, but they will also have Ainias Smith available. The offensive line is a veteran group with 4 seniors, so they should be able to run a solid offense once they figure out their receiving corps.
The defense has several players who could end up in the NFL. DT Bobby Brown is a disruptive force up front, and I don't think he gets enough credit for being as good as he is. Linebacker Buddy Johnson is a tackling machine with good size and a knack for being around the ball. Corners Myles Jones and Leon O'Neal have prototypical size for today's NFL corners but need to show more speed and smoothness in their games. DB Elijah Blades is also a candidate, but he opted out, so they won't have him. The secondary and defensive line appear to be their strong points, but we'll see how it turns out.
The Aggies play Vanderbilt on Saturday.
Players opted out: DBs Elijah Blades, Derrick Tucker, QB James Foster, WR Jhamon Ausbon, LB Anthony Hines
Vanderbilt has almost always been in the basement of this league. They occasionally have some good years, especially when they were coached by James Franklin, but they mostly get crushed. Derek Mason has been trying to change that, but so far it hasn't worked. Although they knocked off a ranked Missouri team last season, they still went 3-9. That win was also their only conference win and their only close game. They need to improve ASAP.
To make matters worse, they've lost QB Riley Neal, leading rusher Ke'Shawn Vaughn, lead receiver Kalija Lipscomb, among other key players from last year's team. 5th-year senior Jamauri Wakefield takes over at running back. He's had 2 seasons with with playing time but has yet to really break through. He's also coming off a season-ending injury, so you can't be too sure what you'll get from him. Although there are many upperclassmen in the receiving corps, Chris Pierce is the only one who has started a game. Several others, like Tyrell Alexander and James Bostic, have had playing time but not significantly enough. At quarterback, they've apparently settled on freshman Ken Seals to start the opener. Starting a true freshman QB is almost never a good idea against SEC defenses. At least these guys will have a senior-led offensive line to help them. Maybe someone will break out, but the inexperience of this group will make it tough for them in the conference this year.
On defense, the Commodores lose Tae Daley, who was their only player with multiple interceptions in 2019. The 2020 defense features 6 seniors in the starting lineup, including LB Dimitri Moore and DL Dayo Odeyingbo. Those 2 are the main pro prospects on this unit, but some other could play their way into that conversation
Vandy may be in for another rough season. It'll be interesting to see how they perform in Saturday's opener against Texas A&M.
Players opted out: OLs Bryce Bailey, Cole Clemons, Stephen Spanellis, Jonathan Stewart. K Oren Milstein
Best Games on the Schedule
There's a ranked vs ranked matchup almost every week in this conference:
Kentucky @ Auburn, 9/26
A&M @ Bama, 10/3
Auburn @Georgia, 10/3
Tennessee @ Georgia, 10/10
Florida @ A&M, 10/10
Kentucky @ Tennessee, 10/17
LSU @ Florida, 10/17
Georgia @ Bama, 10/17
Bama @ Tennessee, 10/24
Georgia @ Kentucky, 10/24
LSU @ Auburn, 10/31
Florida @ Georgia, 11/7
A&M @ Tennessee, 11/14
Bama @ LSU, 11/14
Kentucky @ Bama, 11/21
Tennessee @ Auburn, 11/21
Auburn @ Bama, 11/28
Kentucky @ Florida, 11/28
LSU @ A&M, 11/28
A&M @ Auburn, 12/5