It has been years it seems like since all this virus business started. Sports have suffered seasons wholly lost and, in turn, brought deep aggravation and frustration to us all. Finally, finally, we can almost taste the game of football again. Oh my, how sweet the smell of football in the oven is, much like smelling mom’s cooking floating in the air all through the house when I was a kid. Man, I miss those times that will never be again, but hopefully, this mouth-watering odor we are beginning to smell will not turn out to be a dream that vaporizes in front of us. FOOTBALL……FOOTBALL…..FOOTBALL……how I love to say it! Can it be true? Mom always said, “Son, don’t count your chickens before they hatch.” Well, the season isn’t hatched yet, but the eggs are rocking around with life, struggling to get out.
I had worked on putting together my prognostication of how each side of the SEC would do this year, but then the schedule changed, so I had to go back and tweak it a little. So, here goes my humble, opinionated guess of how the SEC East will stack up in this very, different year.
#7. Vanderbilt ( 0 – 10 )
Derek Mason’s job is difficult enough in standard times. The Commodores don’t get opportunities to recruit the players all the other schools do. There is a high academic standard at Vanderbilt that must be met before an athlete finishes high school. Now, with the virus and complications it brings, athletes can “opt-out” and not play. It has already hit a lean Commodore depth chart hard. The main kicker and the leading tackler from last year (Dimitri Moore) opted out then returned but are yet to practice. Three starting offensive linemen informed Mason they would not be playing, and more of the same is expected. Since there will not be a lot upfront to slow the invaders down, backs better learn to dive or carry a white flag at all times. Offensive skill players are severely lacking. There is little experience at the receiver and running back, and none are “Game-breakers.” Quarterback is even worse. Vanderbilt will open the season without a roster QB who has ever taken a snap in the SEC, and the best probably is a true freshman from Texas (Ken Seals).
Ted Roof coached the Commodore defense after bouncing around college football like a rubber ball (14 schools in his career). The defense he inherits gave up over 34 points/ game last year. Between the defensive and secondary, four starters return, several hit the portal after a dismal 3 – 9 year and little fan support.
Even with teams having the “virus affect” defense for a poor team in 2020, it isn’t likely Mason will be hanging around after his 8th year, none of them producing a winning season. It is always possible for this team to get credit for a win or two, but it would probably have to be by forfeit. I have a place in my heart for Vanderbilt, but I am afraid Mason’s ships never get out of drydock this year. This looks to be an O for the season. Sad, sad.
#6. South Carolina ( 1 – 9 )
Will Muschamp begins year five in Columbia. Once again, there is optimism with the Gamecocks, at least with the die-hards. Everywhere Muschamp has been as head coach, his offense seems to always struggle like a Studebaker hitting on four of its’ six cylinders. Yes, boys and girls, that usually makes it hard to go just about anywhere. Mike Bobo is the third OC for the Gamecocks in the last five years. The Gamecocks return quarterback Ryan Hilinski who must lead an offense that is void of any playmakers. That is made even more challenging by the fact that two of the offensive linemen Muschamp has been counting on to give Hilinski a chance to make something happen have done the “opt-out” thing. Muschamp agrees that each player has every right not to play but retain their scholarship, but he also didn’t feel bad about packing their bags for them and waving adios.
On defense, the Gamecocks can, possibly, hold their own. Gone are the three starters up front, including a first-round draft pick, Javon Kinlaw. The defense may be able to contend if only the offense can produce more than 22 pts/ game like last year. Don’t bet on it. There isn’t a Charleston Southern to score 72 this year. Thank goodness for Vanderbilt, but even that is in Music City.
#5. Missouri ( 3 – 7 )
Eli Drinkwitz begins his initial season with the Missouri Tigers. He was hired away from Appalachian State to hopefully lead them back to where they first joined the conference. Since joining the SEC in 2012, the black and gold Tigers from Columbia have had two notable seasons. Other than that, Missouri has struggled to achieve a break-even season each year.
The Missouri offense has some depth at each position except the most critical, quarterback. Three play-callers are competing for the lead role with the best being a transfer from TCU, Shawn Robinson. Roundtree is back for his senior season at running back after going for over 1200 yards last year. There are others around him in the backfield who can contribute and several experienced receivers. The offense will come down to a quarterback stepping up.
The defense is almost all back after being significantly improved in 2019. Six regulars return in the DL rotation, solid linebackers return, but the defensive backfield must be replaced. The front of the schedule is loaded for bear. If the Tigers can survive early, November could be kind to them and help them have a break-even season. Drinkwitz will try to get his felines to buy into his vision before the hole gets too deep.
#4. Tennessee ( 6 - 4 )
After a horrible start in 2019, the Volunteers began to find themselves in the season’s stretch run. There are still areas to improve in, but Jeremy Pruitt’s mission to rebuild the program started to make some hay last year with the upset at Auburn. This is the year that Tennessee could become a good team again, moving towards the old Volunteer teams of years ago. The offensive line would be one of the top three in the entire SEC, but then Pruitt lured Cade Mays out of the portal away from Georgia. If this OL can stay, healthy Jarrett Guarantano could have a field day as he leads the Volunteers for his fourth season. Skill players around him were young in 2019 but showed progress as the season played out.
The Volunteer defense was pure garbage to begin the season last year but found itself talented youngsters started to grow up and gain confidence. Pruitt’s defense gave up 15.5 points/ game during the second half of 2019, and yes, they won all six games, including a thrilling gut-buster by coming from behind to beat Indiana in the 2020 Gator Bowl. Linebacker Henry To’o To’o will lead nearly all of the defense returns, a. d Pruitt’s Volunteers will be in every game this year and surpass teams above them this year if others falter for any reason. Tennessee is building, finally.
#3. Kentucky ( 7 - 3 )
Mark Stoops proved to many last year that he could adjust when unexpected trials come during a season. Quarterback Terry Wilson is back from his 2019 injury that ended his season early. Lynn Bowden will go back to wideout after showing how dangerous he can be by just being on the field, where it didn’t matter. Sawyer Smith (2nd-year transfer from Troy) is also eager to contribute. The Wildcats have three backs who rushed for over five hundred yards in 2019. Kavosiey Smoke (Wetumpka HS, AL) with 101 carries 616 yards in a freshman season while sharing the rock with two others. Smoke is considered by some to be the best back on the Wildcats team. This could be his breakout year, “Smoke,” as he is called, can be a very, outstanding player, and with Wilson and Bowden behind four returning OL starters, look for this Wildcat offense to be potent.
Stoops came to Kentucky as a defensive guru of sorts. The Bluegrass Boys return eight starters on defense and add Kelvin Joseph at defensive back after he sat out last year. If you remember, Joseph was pretty dang good at LSU, and now he has changed his Cat stripes. The Wildcats have a chance to put together an impressive season depending on how games with Georgia at home then back to back road games in November at Alabama and Florida go. With some luck, Stoop’s Wildcats could mount a serious challenge in the East.
#2. Georgia ( 8 – 2 )
Georgia and Florida to finish may be determined in the first five games before they ever meet in Jacksonville Nov. 7th. Kirby Smart cannot seem to get over the proverbial hump to mount a real challenge to be a real championship team. Georgia’s running game was not in the top 40 nationally for the first time in, well, a long time. Topping that off, two starting OL moved to the NFL and another to Knoxville (Cade Mays). Todd Monken (former USM coach) takes over the offense, and Matt Luke (TSUN) takes over the OL coaching duties after Sam Pittman exited for the Arkansas job. Transfers from Wake Forest (Jamie Newman) and Southern Cal (JT Daniels) will fight to lead the offense. The receiving squad is not as strong as years past, and now number two receiver, Dominick Blaylock, will undergo knee surgery, causing him to miss football in 2020.
Defensively, Georgia returns a strong defense that was 3rd in total defense nationally and 1st in rushing defense. Seven players return, who each had several starts in 2019, which is depth. Dan Lanning will have the best and deepest defense in Kirby’s era at Georgia. If the offense can find a way to get it together and improve, Georgia can make a statement, if not, a great defense could be wasted two years in a row.
#1. Florida ( 9 – 1 )
Coach Mullen and Coach Grantham have been together for several years now. Mullen trusts Grantham to handle the defensive side and keep the Swamp a dangerous place to visit. Grantham’s defense was fifth in the NCAA in takeaways in 2019. This year the two bookends of his defense must be replaced after both left for the NFL. Recruiting has filled those roles with five-star freshmen, which will grow quickly and are supported by experienced back-ups. There are questions at linebacker and safety. Grantham will have to work some magic if the Gators defense repeats it’s results from a year ago.
Kyle Trask became the most successful quarterback at Florida in a decade in 2019. Passing for over 3,000 yards was huge for the Gators, but four receivers have graduated. All-American TE Kyle Pitts returns along with an experienced OL. Besides Pitts, Trask will have at least two dangerous receivers to toss to Trevon Grimes and Kadarius Toney. Jaco Copeland could emerge as a star for the Gators after choosing the Gators over Bama. Mullen has a way of getting the most out of players, but he also has a way of being too conservative and letting great moments slip away. A&M is on the road, but LSU and Kentucky are in the Swamp, Georgia is a neutral game. There is no Bama or Auburn so, this could be a year that Florida overtakes Georgia, but will they?
One thing is for sure; there is no room for error or time for a slow start playing an all-SEC schedule. There will be upsets for sure and stars born in this unprecedented year of college football. We cannot even imagine what paralyzing role outbreaks of this virus could have on a team or even happen. We are all so excited that, finally, FINALLY, college football will actually happen though modified for at least 2020.
Share your thoughts and predictions, please. Remember, it is all just our best and most educated guess, so we are ALL 100% correct.