After winning yet another National Championship during the Nick Saban era, are Alabama primed to repeat, or will any of Georgia, LSU, Texas A&M, or Florida make a move on the throne while the champs reload in what could be the most wide-open campaign that the SEC has seen in years???
The Southeastern Conference reigns supreme heading into a second consecutive season, this time with a familiar crimson face hoisting the National Championship trophy, as Alabama claimed their sixth title under (Head Coach) Nick Saban. As a result, the Crimson Tide are hard at work at replacing a myriad of talented players (and not to mention coaches), which could very well open the door just enough for any of a number of worthy challengers to vie over their iron throne within the league. After finally finding a Quarterback that can open things up, will Georgia finally topple the Tide after years of coming up short? Will LSU rebound after slumping to a miserable 5-5 finish mired in scandal, opt-outs, and injuries following their magical title run in 2019? How will Texas A&M and Florida fair in replacing their prolific Quarterbacks? And lastly, how about the schools who are starting over, such as Auburn and Tennessee? Will 2021 serve as the launching pad for restoring their reputations? If there is one thing we’ve learned, it’s that this league is never short on entertainment, and is good for at least one (and sometimes two) participants in the College Football Playoff, so let’s take a moment to run through the SEC and take a look at some of it’s many residents, which if you pay attention to the news could be including some very prominent programs from the Big XII in a few years… though we’ll refrain from getting any further into that mess (we promise).
The Favorite: Alabama
Even after undergoing sweeping changes to both the roster and coaching staff, Alabama has more than earned the right to be branded as the favorite to win the Southeastern Conference year in and year out at this point. After winning his sixth National Championship in Tuscaloosa, Nick Saban once again sets out to reload the Crimson Tide, who in addition to having only three returning starters on Offense must replace a slew of assistant coaches and analysts. In other words, it’s deja vu for Saban, who has absolutely perfected the art over the past decade and some change. With (former Offensive Coordinator) Steve Sarkisian off to Texas, (former Houston Texans Head Coach) Bill O’Brien has been tabbed as chief offensive playcaller, while that unit must replace it’s starting Quarterback, Tailback, top two Receivers, Tight End, and a number of Linemen heading into 2021. With that said, there is no dearth of talent to replace them, as (Sophomore) Bryce Young looks to step into the considerable shoes of Mac Jones, though the five-star recruit appears more than up to the task. The Backfield features a quartet of capable ‘Backs, all of whom were highly-touted recruits, to replace the departed Najee Harris, while (Junior Receiver) John Metchie III (916 YDS, 6 TD) managed to record nearly 1,000 yards lining up opposite of 2020 Heisman, DeVonta Smith. However, with so much turnover on the offensive side of the football, Alabama’s success this season will likely fall to the Defense, which is expected to show major improvement over the last two seasons, particularly when you consider the fact that they return eight starters along with a plethora of quality depth. The Tide dominated last year in spite of a unit that yielded 352.2 total yards per game, the most under Saban in the last decade, and won’t be able to count on their cohorts on Offense bailing them out to the tune of 48.5 points (2nd Overall) and 541.8 total yards, which again was the most during the Saban era. (Defensive Coordinator) Pete Golding has underwhelmed by their standards, but with the talent on hand coupled with a proper offseason to get his message across, this should be the season in which his charges make a leap; (Edge-Rushers) Christopher Allen (13.0 TFL, 6.0 Sacks) and Will Anderson Jr.(10.5 TFL, 7.0 Sacks) are nightmares in the Backfield, ranking first and third in the SEC in tackles for loss, while (Cornerback) Malachi Moore (3 INT, 6 PD, 1 TD) was selected Freshman All-America, with (Safety) Jordan Battle (1 INT, 14 PD, 1 TD) making plays deep downfield for an experienced Secondary. For any other program, losing this much talent coming off a National Title would be nigh impossible to overcome, but then again there isn’t a coach in the country that has had more experience doing so (and not to mention success) than Saban, who will be looking to win back-to-back National Championship trophies for the first time since 2012. Simply put, he’s competing against himself at this point…
The Contender: Georgia
While they’re certainly not the only contender in a league like the SEC, there are a number of reasons to believe that Georgia are the most likely candidate to remove Alabama from their iron throne. First and foremost, the Bulldogs possess the pedigree to do it, having represented the East Division twice in the last three years, along with playing the Crimson Tide to a standstill in a memorable National Championship Game. Second, they compete in the far more preferable East, which means that they don’t meet ‘Bama every season, which is indeed the case here in 2021. Third, (Head Coach) Kirby Smart is one of the few Saban disciples to successfully carve out his own legacy at a major program, having guided the ‘Dogs to a stellar 52-14 record over the course of his six years in Athens. Lastly, the Offense is primed to open things up this season, with seven returning starters on a unit led by (Senior Quarterback) J.T. Daniels (67.2%, 1,231 YDS, 10 TD, 2 INT). A transfer from USC, Daniels was slow to wrest the starting job from the incumbent, Stetson Bennett, following an ACL tear in Week One of his Sophomore campaign with the Trojans, leading to his move southeast. There will be no Quarterback competition this season, as Daniels impressed mightily over the final four games of the previous campaign, topping 300 passing yards on two occasions, which is significant because his predecessors had managed that feat on just four occasions in Smart’s tenure with the school. Even with (Junior Wideout) George Pickens (513 YDS, 6 TD) expected to miss most of the season rehabbing from a torn ACL, the Receiving Corps has plenty of speed and athleticism to burn, while the Backfield led by (Tailback) Zamir White (779 YDS, 11 TD), and a typically mammoth Offensive Line remain a strength with plenty of quality depth. That same notion can also be applied to the Defensive Front Seven, though the Secondary is a major concern at the moment, with Smart heading into Week One with zero experience at Cornerback; (Sophomores) Kelee Ringo and Jalen Kimber are expected to be the starters, with the former being 2020’s highest-rated recruit at his position. There may be some growing pains early on, particularly with a titanic showdown against (No. 3) Clemson in Charlotte for the Season Opener, but this group has the talent to meet the standards set by their predecessors. How quickly they meet said standards will go a long way towards deciding how far Georgia will climb in not only the SEC, but the overall rankings where they’ll be gunning for a spot in the College Football Playoff after coming up short in each of the last three years.
The Wild Card: LSU
If there is any team that would prefer to take a mulligan on the pandemic-influenced 2020, then it would undoubtedly be LSU, who experienced the down year of all down years following their magical run to a National Championship in the year prior. Indeed, (Head Coach) Ed Orgeron was faced with a litany of issues last season, what with a slew of player opt-outs, injuries, COIVD-19 absences, and protests already on the staggering number of talent lost to the NFL Draft, all the while instituting a self-imposed Bowl Ban in response to an NCAA Investigation into the program that had major ramifications at another university (cough, Kansas). Add it all up and the Tigers narrowly avoided what would have been their first losing season since 1999, rallying back to win their final two contests to finish 5-5. As the world of collegiate athletics returns to some semblance of normal, so do Orgeron & Co, who are desperate to turn the page and get back to reaching the program’s annually lofty goals. Heading into 2021, they appear to have the pieces in place to do so, though it hasn’t come without some (necessary) change; Coach O overhauled his Coaching Staff with new Offensive and Defensive Coordinators in the form of Jake Peetz and Daronte Jones, with the former arriving as reference of (former OC) Joe Brady, and the latter coming from the Minnesota Vikings. They’ll have plenty of talent to work with, as the Bayou Bengals return a grand total of sixteen players on both sides of the football, making them one of the most experienced sides within the SEC this year. The Defense returns it’s entire front, along with a Secondary that very well may feature the staunchest tandem of Cornerbacks in the nation, led by Derek Stingley Jr. (5 PD) and Eli Ricks (4 INT, 2 TD). The train of thought is that continuity and experience will improve upon a unit that relinquished a miserable 323.0 passing yards per game en route to yielding an average of 34.9 points, the school’s most since 1952. Offensively, the Line remains intact, while the Receiving Corps has no shortage of options either, particularly Kayshon Boutte (735 YDS, 5 TD), who flourished over the final few games of the campaign. The lingering question though is who will earn the starting gig at Quarterback, where things remain unsettled. (Senior) Myles Brennan (60.3%, 1,112 YDS, 11 TD, 3 INT) waited three years to be the starter last season only to see his ascent stymied by a freakish abdominal tear three weeks into the campaign, with (Freshmen) T.J. Finley (57.1%, 941 YDS, 5 TD, 5 INT) and Max Johnson (58.7%, 1,069 YDS, 8 TD, 1 INT) sharing the reps over the remaining seven contests to varying degrees of success. During Spring Practice it was Johnson who took the initial snaps with the First Team despite Orgeron proclaiming the competition as “open”, though another unfortunate injury to Brennan (this time to his arm) has certainly narrowed the field. With the Tigers clearly trying to tap back into that championship magic from two years ago, the talent is there to make that happen, and if they can return to the standard that they’ve set defensively and Johnson confirms himself as the starter, LSU could be back to being a major factor in not just the SEC, but the Playoff to boot, but any more lingering chaos could lead to even more change on the Bayou…
In Trouble: Tennessee
Rebuilding is tough in any league, but the SEC is a particularly harsh place to do so, with none other than Tennessee the latest program to attempt to remake itself, which would be a novel idea unto itself if they weren’t doing so, again. That’s right, folks, the Volunteers are back at it again as they have changed coaching staffs for the fifth time since 2008. Indeed, one of the SEC’s true blue bloods has fallen on very hard times as both (former Head Coach) Jeremy Pruitt and (Athletic Director and celebrated former skipper) Phil Fulmer were shown the door after the NCAA uncovered sweeping recruiting violations within the program, which has in turn led to a mass exodus of players on both sides of the football, leaving the roster altogether in a very precarious place. The school hired (former Central Florida AD) Danny White, whose first choice to replace Pruitt was his former employee in Orlando, Josh Heupel with the small task of restoring Tennessee football the mandate. The questions center on Heupel being able to translate his success in Orlando within the American Athletic Conference to the Southeastern Conference, and how he’ll manage to recruit to his system’s strengths. Heupel took a well-stocked program at UCF to new heights, guiding the Golden Knights to a 28-8 record over the course of three years. So much of his offensive system is based upon quickness, not just at the line of scrimmage and in and out of routes but more specifically how quickly his charges can get into plays and snap the football from one play to the next, which requires plenty of experience and discipline within the system. However, experience isn’t something that this team has, with many of their top performers entering the Transfer Portal, including (Tailbacks) Eric Gray and Ty Chandler, as well as (Quarterback) Jarrett Guarantano, along with (Linebackers) Henry To’o To’o and Quavaris Crouch. So what’s left to build around you ask? Well, (Offensive Tackle) Cade Mays is one of just two returning starters on Offense and should serve as the rock on a rebuilding unit after shifting over from Guard, while (Defensive Backs) Alontae Taylor (1 INT, 4 PD) and Trevon Flowers (3 PD, 1 FF) are solid contributors in an experienced Secondary. Furthermore, the Receiving Corps should be far better suited to Heupel’s Offense than that of his predecessor, but ultimately it will be up to the 43-year old to develop a Quarterback capable of getting the most of this group of pass-catchers; Hendon Hooker (65.3%, 1,339 YDS, 9 TD, 5 INT) arrives as a transfer from Virginia Tech, while Joe Milton (56.7%, 1,077 YDS, 4 TD, 4 INT) transferred from Michigan, with both expected to compete in a wide-open competition that includes at least two other Quarterbacks. Needless to say, this will not be an easy or quick rebuild in Knoxville, for there is a wealth of work to be done before the Vols can even come close to competing with the tops teams within the East Division, let alone the league as a whole.