It seemed like LSU would never dethrone Alabama while Nick Saban prowled the sidelines in Tuscaloosa. Then came Joe Burrow. The Ohio State transfer led LSU to a historic 15-0 season, carving through every member of the SEC that dared get in the Tigers’ way. Thus, we enter 2020 with a new SEC and national champion. Not that things project to stay that way. Alabama is again a serious contender, LSU lost a ton, and Georgia and Florida hope to break through out of the SEC East.
This is a look back at how the SEC fared this past season, while spinning things forward to 2020 for each member of the conference. For reference, the 2019 assessment is split into three categories: Exceeded Expectations, Met Expectations, Below Expectations.
Georgia Bulldogs (12-2): Below Expectations
Georgia should have been a playoff team. Everything set up that way with chaos nationally and Alabama’s decline out West. Instead, the Bulldogs lost to a four-win South Carolina team and got blown out by LSU in the SEC title game. The Bulldogs likely get into the playoff had either of those games gone differently. Instead, Jake Fromm finished his Georgia career with just one playoff appearance.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 3
2020 Expectations: There are many questions about the Bulldogs offensively heading into 2020. Jamie Newman was a good quarterback (2,868 yards, 26 TDs, 11 INTs) at Wake Forest. He brings an intriguing rushing element to the offense. But I wouldn’t exactly describe him as a dominant player in the ACC from week to week, and the defenses in the SEC are much better. He’s going to have a lot of young guys around him, too. Four of the Bulldogs’ o-line starters depart in addition to arguably the nation’s best o-line coach. The receiving corps should be better next year. But George Pickens is still the only proven entity. Defensively, the Bulldogs should be great; eight starters return off one of the best units in the country. Does that help Georgia overcome its schedule? We’ll see. A trip to Alabama in Week 3 will be telling.
Florida Gators (11-2): Met Expectations
Florida won 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since Urban Meyer worked in Gainesville, showing Dan Mullen‘s prowess as a coach. But it is worth noting the Gators lost to Georgia after an offseason of Georgia trolling by Mullen. That caused Florida to fall short in the SEC East.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 7
2020 Expectations: Florida is going to be a popular team this offseason as people try to pick trendy playoff crashers. There’s good reason for that. The large majority of Florida’s offense returns. That includes starting QB Kyle Trask, a revelation of sorts taking over for Feleipe Franks, and four members of the starting offensive line. It helps that group will be boosted by elite tight end Kyle Pitts and a run game that will be just fine with Dameon Pierce (5.6 ypc) shouldering the load. The defense will be good like always if the Gators can replace the edge-rushing pair of Jonathan Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, which totaled 21.5 tackles for loss last year. Those outside rushers are so critical in Todd Grantham’s system. Fortunately for Florida, young players like Georgia transfer Brenton Cox and Zachary Carter look capable of filling those roles ably. Having Marco Wilson back to anchor the secondary is also huge. The schedule sets up well with LSU traveling to Gainesville. This is the year for Florida to catch Georgia in the SEC East. The window is open.
Tennessee Volunteers (8-5): Exceeded Expectations
What a weird year for Tennessee. It started with an embarrassing loss to Georgia State and ended on a six-game win streak. Either way, the Vols made a three-win jump in Year 2 under Jeremy Pruitt. That’s a success.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 17
2020 Expectations: There’s a decent chance Tennessee is the team we overhype greatly thanks to a late-season push. Still, it’s hard to ignore a six-game win streak to end the season and the team’s rising talent (and competency) level. The Vols project to bring back 15 starters, including the core of a young defense that allowed just 15.5 points per game during their season-ending win streak. Quarterback is a bit of a question for Tennessee, though Jarrett Guarantano played well over the team’s final six games. Finding replacements for Marquez Callaway and Jauan Jennings at receiver will be critical.
Kentucky Wildcats (8-5): Exceeded Expectations
Everyone expected Kentucky to take a large tumble following a 10-win 2018 campaign. Instead, Mark Stoops proved his coaching prowess, leading a team without a real quarterback – Lynn Bowden basically ran the wildcat for 75 percent of the season in emergency duty – to eight wins. That’s the program’s second-best win total since 2007.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 23
2020 Expectations: Kentucky will have a strong argument to be a preseason Top 25 team. The Wildcats bring back 15 starters, including the return of quarterback Terry Wilson. His return from injury is particularly intriguing given that Wilson shares many of the same athletic traits that made Bowden a success at quarterback. If Kentucky can fuse some of those option-based rushing elements with a bit more passing the offense will be dangerous. The defense brings back seven starters off a top 40 unit, too. Kentucky is recruiting better than ever, so that’s only going to fortify the program’s depth. The Wildcats are going to be a tough out in 2020.
Missouri Tigers (6-6): Below Expectations
The schedule set up for Missouri to potentially win the SEC East by playing spoiler late in the year against either Georgia or Florida. That didn’t come close to occuring. The Tigers lost five of their final six games. That resulted in Barry Odom’s firing.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 69
2020 Expectations: Unclear. That sounds like a cop out, but there’s just a whole lot of new in Columbia. New head coach Eli Drinkwitz is tasked with fixing an offense that finished 99th nationally in yards per play last season. He’ll have TCU transfer Shawn Robinson under center to work with. If there’s some good news offensively it’s that running back Larry Rountree is back for his senior season – star tight end Albert Okwuegbunam and tackle Trystan Colon-Castillo are not. The defense will really miss elite defensive tackle Jordan Elliott. But almost the entire rest of the unit returns. Missouri’s 2019 defense, which finished 18th in yards allowed per play, should again be a strength.
South Carolina Gamecocks (4-8): Below Expectations
Will Muschamp just put together the worst season in Columbia this millennium outside of Steve Spurrier’s swan song with the Gamecocks. Things did not go well.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 18
2020 Expectations: It’s tough to peg South Carolina in 2020. It needs to be better for Muschamp’s sake. The Gamecocks brought in Mike Bobo to spark an offense that ranked 106th nationally in yards per play. South Carolina does have a young passer, Ryan Hilinski, to build around and almost the entire o-line returns. Losing star wide receiver Bryan Edwards and most of the running back room hurts, though. The defense must replace standouts like Javon Kinlaw and D.J. Wonnum along the front. Young players like Zacch Pickens and incoming five-star Jordan Burch promise a bright future defensively.
Vanderbilt Commodores (3-9): Below Expectations
Progress stalled in Nashville. Derek Mason had won at least five games in Year 2-4 of his tenure, but the 2019 Commodores came nowhere close to bowl contention. The only highlight of the season was a ranked win over Missouri, which is hardly an achievement in hindsight.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 54
2020 Expectations: There is some good news for Vanderbilt heading into 2020. The entire year-end starting 11 on defense returns. That unit struggled last year, ranking 117th nationally, but experience generally aids improvement. Veteran DC Ted Roof is also headed to Nashville to stabilize the unit. The offense will need a new identity with Ke’Shawn Vaughn (1,028 yards, 9 TDs) graduating. In fact, almost the entirety of Vanderbilt’s offensive skill talent departs as does the left side of the program’s o-line. Vanderbilt again projects to finish at the bottom of the SEC East.
LSU Tigers (15-0): Exceeded Expectations
LSU won a national championship and produced only the second 15-0 season since 1900. The Tigers had a Heisman Trophy winner and the highest-scoring offense of all time. So yes, LSU exceeded any and all possible expectations.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 5
2020 Expectations: LSU’s 2019 run was magical. A once-in-a-decade-like team rolled through the regular season, led by a historic quarterback performance. Will the Tigers be contenders in 2020? Of course. There’s too much talent in Baton Rouge for them not to be. But there will be a dropoff. Logically there has to be as the Tigers are following the best single-season effort by a QB in history. There’s talent, of course. LSU will have the best wide receiver (Ja’Marr Chase) and cornerback (Derek Stingley) in college football along with a bevy of other elite prospects. But given LSU’s schedule and its huge loss at QB – again, Burrow was historically great – I’d project LSU to come back to earth a bit, especially after nine underclassmen declared early for the NFL Draft.
Alabama Crimson Tide (11-2): Below Expectations
Alabama missed the playoffs for the first time in the College Football Playoff era. Fair or not that’s a failure in Tuscaloosa.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 2
2020 Expectations: Obviously, the Crimson Tide lose All-American QB Tua Tagovailoa. That hurts. But we saw late this season against Auburn and Michigan that Mac Jones is capable of throwing for 300-plus against top 10 defenses. And Jones still might lose his job to incoming five-star freshman Bryce Young … Both QBs will have weapons. DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle will form one of the better one-two receiving combos in the country, and four of the team’s five offensive line starters return. That’s huge and makes Alabama unique among legit title contenders. The Crimson Tide should be better defensively in 2020 simply because the team’s biggest 2019 weakness (linebacker) is now a strength with Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon back in the fold for their senior seasons. Throw in elite cornerback play from Patrick Surtain II and the influx of potentially special edge rushers from the 2020 class like Will Anderson, and the Tide should make a jump defensively to mitigate what’s lost with Tagovailoa’s exit.
Auburn Tigers (9-4): Met Expectations
It’s funny how a win over Alabama can change the tenor of Auburn’s season. Had the Tigers lost that game people would’ve likely called for Gus Malzahn’s job. Instead, Auburn rolls into the offseason with some momentum.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 8
2020 Expectations: Auburn’s strength, the line of scrimmage, is going to get ravaged by graduation. Four offensive line starters depart along with the key pieces (Derrick Brown, Marlon Davidson, Nick Coe) of college football’s best defensive line. You also have to wonder what you’ll get out of Bo Nix. The freshman should improve, but he still struggled (49.7 CMP%) against ranked competition. Plenty of talent remains, though. The Tigers have an exciting skill group and they’ve recruited well. But will the key pieces in the trenches be good enough to overcome a usually brutal schedule? That’s a tough question to answer at this point.
Texas A&M Aggies (8-5): Below Expectations
Texas A&M entered the season as a fringe top-10 team. It ended the year at 0-5 overall against ranked competition during the regular season. Texas A&M beat everyone it should have and nobody with equivalent talent. That must change entering 2020.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 6
2020 Expectations: The Aggies are going to be one of the most experienced teams in the country with 17 starters back off their year-end depth chart. Add in another top 10 class from Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M has the framework to make a run in the SEC, especially when you consider quarterback Kellen Mond is back for his senior year. Is Mond elite? No. But he’s an upper-tier SEC QB. The Aggies’ schedule is a bit friendlier in 2020, too. Their toughest test in the non-conference is Colorado and they drew Vanderbilt and South Carolina from the cross-divisional slate. LSU comes to College Station, too.
Mississippi State Bulldogs (6-7): Below Expectations
Joe Moorhead got dealt a tough hand in Year 2 as suspensions rocked his program. But 6-7 is still sub-standard in Starkville, and it got him fired.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 27
2020 Expectations: Passing, passing and more passing. Mike Leach has arrived in Starkville, meaning the Bulldogs are adopting the Air Raid. Mississippi State brings back six offensive starters for Leach to work with, but it’s unclear how rising sophomore QB Garrett Shrader will fit Leach’s system. Don’t be shocked if Leach explores the transfer portal and adds a quarterback. The Bulldog defense loses six starters and will have to cope with playing across from an Air Raid system for the first time – it’s not a complementary system for the defense. This will be the most naturally talented team Leach has ever worked with. This will be fascinating to watch.
Ole Miss Rebels (4-8): Below Expectations
Matt Luke lost the Egg Bowl and it got him fried, err … fired. The Rebels’ four-win campaign was their worst since 2011.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 32
2020 Expectations: It’ll be interesting to see what Lane Kiffin can do in Oxford. Ole Miss isn’t devoid of talent. The Rebels have two intriguing underclassmen QBs to build around – John Rhys Plumlee, Matt Corral – and one of the nation’s best young running backs in Jerrion Ealy. The offensive line projects to return three starters and star pass catcher (and pisser) Elijah Moore. The defense, especially the front, will look a lot different with Benito Jones and two other starters moving on. There are some contributors (Jacquez Jones, Sam Williams) who are back to aid D.J. Durkin and Chris Patridge in constructing a defense. The SEC West is as difficult a division as there is in college football. But Kiffin proved himself a capable program builder during his time at FAU.
Arkansas Razorbacks (2-10): Below Expectations
Arkansas lost to San Jose State and Western Kentucky. That’s all you need to know about the Razorbacks’ 2019 campaign. There’s a reason Chad Morris lost his job after less than two seasons.
2020 Recruiting Class: No. 48
2020 Expectations: This will be Sam Pittman’s first go around as a head coach, and it will be one of college football’s most intriguing experiments. You have to like what Pittman did with his coordinator hires, tabbing Odom as DC and Kendal Briles as OC. Those two are among the best at their jobs in the country. Pittman also secured the most important recruit of his offseason this week, earning a commitment from Florida QB transfer Feleipe Franks. Almost the entire offense returns around Franks, including running back Rakeem Boyd. The Razorbacks were young in 2019, which works in Pittman’s favor. All of that said … this will still be an uphill battle next season. The Razorbacks will be projected to finish last in the SEC West until they prove otherwise.
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