SEC College Football Previewby Christopher Gallagher August 11, 2021 0 comments
Remaining one of the top college football conferences in 2020, the SEC was once again led by two powerhouses in Alabama and Florida. Perfect in the West Division, Nick Saban’s group finished 13-0, including an excellent 10-0 record in interdivisional play. Earning the No. 1 seed in the playoff, the team would capture their 18th National Title, following victories over Notre Dame and Ohio State. Staving off Georgia to sit atop the East, Dan Mullen‘s team suffered just four losses all year long. Catching steam again in their third year under Jimbo Fisher, Texas A&M narrowly missed out on the playoff after earning the fifth spot in the AP Poll.
Seeing turnover amongst the conference, the South Carolina Gamecocks parted ways with longtime head coach Will Muschamp in November. Allowing over 48 points in three consecutive losses, he finished 28-30 in his five seasons while never eclipsing the nine-win mark. Along with this, Vanderbilt fired Derek Mason after falling 41-0 to Missouri. Spending seven seasons with the Commodores, the 51-year-old eclipsed a disappointing 27-55 record. Deciding to go in another direction after finishing behind the Crimson Tide and the Aggies in the East, Auburn also let go longtime head coach Gus Malzahn. Employed for eight seasons with the Tigers, the Arkansas State alumni led the team to the BCS title game in 2013 while also capturing the West Division again in 2017.
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Top Conference Players
With no shortage of storylines heading into next season, Alabam will likely turn the reigns over to sophomore quarterback Bryce Young, following the departure of Mac Jones. In addition to this, after losing both Jaylen Waddle and DeVonta Smith at the wide receiver spot, the team will lean on returning starters John Metchie III and Slade Bolden to help carry the load on offense. Likewise to their fellow SEC foe, the Gators will head into 2021 with a new face under center after losing senior Kyle Trask. Looking to fill the shoes of the Heisman Trophy finalist, Emory Jones enjoyed an up and down performance in the spring. Finally, completing the quarterback carousel, the Aggies will look to build off of their strong 2020 campaign under second-year man Haynes King.
Littered with star talent, the SEC will likely have three or four players go in the top ten of next year’s NFL draft. Kickstarted by LSU cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. the junior will look to replicate his stellar 2019 numbers. After battling injuries during his 2020 campaign, he appeared in 15 games for the Tigers two seasons ago. Registering 38 tackles, the Louisiana native also racked up 15 pass breakups and six interceptions. Furthermore, offensive tackle Evan Neal should become the third consecutive Alabama lineman to be selected in round one of the draft. Standing at 6’7″, the 360 pounder offers a unique blend of balance, strength, and athleticism with the ability to play both on the interior and exterior.
Returning for his junior season at Ole Miss, quarterback Matt Corral has begun to draw substantial buzz across the NFL after a strong sophomore season. Leading Lane Kiffin’s team to a win in the Outback Bowl over the Indiana Hoosiers, he led the NCAA in total offense per game with over 384 yards averaged. Florida cornerback Kaiir Elam is penciled in as a first-round talent.
Coaches on the Hot Seat
Hired by the Mississippi State after they parted ways with Joe Moorhead after two seasons, Mike Leach underachieved mightily during his first year in the program. Leading the team to a 4-7 record, the longtime Texas Tech head coach, the 60-year-old, saw his air raid offense fail to score over 14 points in four straight games after their Week 1 victory over LSU. In addition to this, after transferring from Stanford for his senior season, quarterback K.J. Costello struggled all year long. He completed just 64 percent of his passes and averaged just 6.1 yards per attempt while tossing 11 interceptions. Ranked as the eighth best-recruiting class in the conference and the 24th best class overall, look for Leach to be gone if the program fails to get back on track.
One more surprise name to look out for is LSU head coach Ed Orgeron. One year removed from capturing the National Championship in 2019, the Tigers enjoyed a down year in 2020. Finishing in fourth place in the SEC, the team lost their opening game against Mississippi State. They also lost a road game narrowly on the road at Missouri before being blown out against Auburn. One of the headliners of the college football landscape, the 60-year-old, was recently named a defendant in the sexual harassment scandal involving running back Derrius Guice and ex-head coach Les Miles.
Furthermore, the program also choose to impose a bowl game sanction before the start of the season. They were looked into after payment from a booster to a former offensive lineman. Without Joe Burrow, Ja’Marr Chase, Justin Jefferson, and his former passing game coordinator in Joe Brady, Orgeron will have the number three recruiting class at his disposal to help get the team back on track. If the Louisianna native has his team stumble out of the gate again, he could be gone in a what have you done for me lately sport.
Three Conference Games to Watch
Alabama vs Florida
A rematch of the SEC title game from a year ago sees the Crimson Tide travel to Gainesville to battle the Gators on September 18. Narrowly escaping with a victory last December, a late touchdown pass from Jones to Smith would help Alabama earn their second conference title in three seasons. Seeing new faces added to the rivalry in 2021, both teams head into the game with no shortage of storylines. Under new guidance at the quarterback spot, both groups will also feature new faces along the offensive line after losing multiples starters to the NFL. Looking to capture their eighth straight victory in the rivalry, Saban’s group heads into this one leading the all-time series 26-14.
Florida vs Georgia
Finishing in the top two spots in the East Division last season, the Gators blew out Georgia in Week 7. Falling behind by two touchdowns early on in the first quarter, Trask and the Florida offense were able to get rolling down the stretch. Tossing for a career-high 474 yards, the senior quarterback also added in four passing touchdowns. Shaky offensively all afternoon long, both Stetson Bennett and D’Wan Mathis struggled for the Bulldogs. Completing just nine passes between them, the two signal-callers threw for three interceptions while being sacked three more times.
Ascending to the top of the early Heisman Trophy betting favorites list, Kirby Smart‘s team will look to unlock the full potential of junior quarterback JT Daniels. Furthermore, they got offensive lineman Jamaree Salyer to return for his senior season while also landing LSU transfer Arik Gilbert. Looking to get their second victory in their last five tries, Florida trails the all-time series 52-44.
Alabama vs Auburn
One of the most anticipated games on the schedule each year, the Crimson Tide beatdown the Tigers during the Iron Bowl in 2020. In their lone matchup of the year, Alabama jumped out to a quick 21-3 halftime lead. Continuing their onslaught in the final 30 minutes, a 39-yard touchdown dash by Harris put the game out of reach at 35-6. Looking to regroup next season after losing two of their final three games to close out the season, Auburn suffered a disappointing 35-19 loss in the Vrbo Citrus Bowl to Northwestern. Parting ways with their longtime head coach in Malzahn before the season’s end, the program will turn things over to first-year head coach Bryan Harsin.
One Bold Prediction
A former assistant coach finally knocks off Saban. Remaining perfect on his long list of accomplishments during his college football tenure, the 69-year-old head coach has a perfect 23-0 record in games against his past assistant coaches. Slated to battle his former offensive coordinator in Kiffin on October 2, look for his hallowed record to fall.
Possessing the talent on the offensive side of the ball to keep up with the high-powered Crimson Tide passing attack, Ole Miss returns their Heisman hopeful quarterback in Corral. Along with this, the Rebels will have senior wideout Braylon Sanders, back for his senior season. Averaging over 20 yards per catch over his past two seasons, the Georgia native will pair with running back Jerrion Ealy to give the team the punch needed to knock off their conference foe.
Dark Horse Teams
Poised to surprise teams next year, Kentucky rounded out last season with victories over South Carolina and North Caroline State in the Taxslayer Gator Bowl. Under the guidance of Mark Stoops for the ninth season, the team has qualified for five straight bowl games, including three consecutive wins. Likely to be under the guidance of junior redshirt transfer Joey Gatewood at quarterback, the Wildcats will also welcome in former Nebraska Cornhusker Wan’Dale Robinson at wide receiver. Expected to be the top target in Lexington, the 5’8″ wideout hauled in 51 balls for 461 yards and a score a year ago. With favorable games to begin their 2021 campaign against ULM, Missouri, and Chatanooga, the team rounds out their season with matchups against New Mexico State and Louisville.
A candidate by many to upset teams in the West Division, Ole Miss welcomes back 78 percent of its letterman from a year ago, including 19 positional starters. Winners of four of their final five games to close out their 2020 campaign, the Rebels were one of the most high-powered offenses in the country in their first year under Kiffin. Averaging over 550 yards per game on that side of the ball, the team amassed nearly seven yards per play.
With Corral back under center for another season, the program will aim to replace the production provided by wide receivers Elijah Moore and Kenny Yeboah with Dontario Drummond and Jonathan Mingo. The team will also have continuity along the offensive line as their whole starting unit from a year ago is set to return. Loaded with games on the road at Auburn and Alabama, the Rebels are also set to host LSU in October after nearly knocking them off last season.
- South Carolina
- Texas A&M
- Ole Miss
- Mississippi State
Georgia returns to the top after seeing their three-year reign atop the East division snapped a year ago. Hopeful to get a Heisman caliber season out of Daniels, the Bulldogs will also look to make running back James Cook a more significant part of the offense after he set career highs in carries, rushing yards, and receiving yards last season. Narrowly missing out on the top spot, Florida checks in at the number two spot in the group, with Kentucky hot on their heels. Lauded by many as a team to watch heading into their 2021 campaign, the Wildcats have the chance to make noise in one of the weaker divisions across college football. Rounding out the list, Vanderbilt remains in the basement in their first year under new head coach Clark Lea.
In the West, Alabama remains the class of the SEC. Capturing their third division crown in four years, look for them to punch their ticket to the playoff once again. Nipping on the heels of the Crimson Tide, Texas A&M can keep the ball away from their opponents with a strong crop of offensive talent. Led by Isaiah Spiller and Ainias Smith, the duo combined for more than 2,000 yards from scrimmage while racking up 19 touchdowns in 2020. In a log jam in the middle part of the group, Ole Miss has the continuity and talent on the offensive side of the ball to out win both LSU and Auburn. Finishing off the bottom part of the west, Mississippi State will struggle yet again, while Arkansas tries to reinvigorate their program after four consecutive losing seasons.
Conference Championship Matchup
For the first time since the 2018 season, Alabama and Georgia appear to be on a collision course for a meeting in the conference championship game. The two most complete teams in the SEC, both programs are filled with firepower on both sides of the football. Featuring many early Heisman favorites in Young, Daniels, and running back Brian Robinson Jr., there will be no shortage of storylines. Destined to be a high-scoring affair, look for this one to come down to the final 30 minutes. While the Bulldogs have the talent to keep up with the Crimson Tide, look for the reigning national champions to pull away late in a potential game of the year candidate.
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