Football Takes has you covered with our 2021 College Football previews for the Power 5 conferences. Today, our SEC Football preview. Let’s take a look at the East and the West.
SEC Football Preview – East Division
The Bulldogs had their three-year run atop the SEC East snapped in 2020, but coach Kirby Smart’s team should be back at No. 1 in ’21. The offense found a late-season spark behind quarterback JT Daniels, and the passing game should take off with a deep receiving corps in place next fall. Zamir White’s decision to pass on the NFL adds another option in a deep backfield for coordinator Todd Monken, and Jamaree Salyer is back to anchor the offensive line.
Georgia’s defense ranked second in the SEC in the fewest points a game allowed (20) and first in yards per play (4.86). The secondary will be rebuilt, and edge rusher Azeez Ojulari departed early to the NFL. Despite the personnel losses, this unit should continue to be a strength. Georgia opens with a massive showdown against Clemson but won’t have to play Alabama, LSU, or Texas A&M in crossover play.
The Gators are the defending SEC East champs, but coach Dan Mullen has a lot of work ahead to get back to Atlanta in 2021. Florida’s offense ranked second in the SEC by averaging 39.8 points a game last fall. However, this unit will look a lot different with quarterback Kyle Trask, receivers Kadarius Toney and Trevon Grimes, tight end Kyle Pitts and a couple of starters gone up front. New quarterback Emory Jones is a talented option, and Mullen never lacks for production on offense. But with the significant personnel losses around the quarterback, some drop-off is expected.
If the offense takes a step back, can the defense get back to its 2019 level? The Gators allowed 30.8 points a game in 2020 – a 15-point jump from the previous year. This unit struggled to stop the run, gave up too many big plays, and allowed quarterbacks to complete 64.1 percent of their passes. As if those personnel challenges weren’t enough, Alabama comes to Gainesville, and Florida catches LSU, Kentucky, and Missouri on the road next fall.
Coaching changes and scheme transition was a tough haul in a season with limited or no spring practice and the abbreviated 2020 schedule. However, first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz had a solid first season in Columbia, guiding Missouri to a 5-5 record. With a full offseason to develop players and implement his schemes, Drinkwitz should push this team a little higher in the win column.
An offense that averaged 26.7 points a game in 2020 should be better with quarterback Connor Bazelak at the controls, along with four of the team’s starting linemen back. Replacing running back Larry Rountree will be a top priority this spring.
A new play-caller takes over the defensive controls after Ryan Walters left to take over the defense at Illinois. The Tigers are losing standout linebacker, Nick Bolton, to the NFL, but a good chunk of the defense is set to return for 2021. Catching Texas A&M and Arkansas (road) is a tough crossover, and Missouri also plays Kentucky and Georgia away from Columbia.
Significant changes are on the way for Kentucky’s offense after this unit averaged 21.8 points a game and 5.2 yards per play in 2020. Rams quarterback coach Liam Coen will take over the play-calling duties for an offense that’s accounted for just 16 touchdown passes over the last two years. Beau Allen and Joey Gatewood will battle for the starting nod, and the return of Josh Ali is a boost for a receiving corps that has to step up in 2021.
A standout offensive line has a couple of holes to plug, while Chris Rodriguez (785 yards) powers the ground game. The Wildcats have ranked inside of the top five of the SEC in scoring defense in each of the last three years. Coach Mark Stoops has to replace linebackers Jamar Watson and Jamin Davis, lineman Quinton Bohanna and defensive back Brandin Echols but a good foundation remains in Lexington. Key swing games against Missouri and Tennessee take place at home in 2021.
Jeremy Pruitt’s future remains unsettled in mid-January, but putting aside any coaching issues, this team has several personnel questions to address in order to push for a finish higher in the East. Harrison Bailey, Brian Maurer, and Virginia Tech transfer Hendon Hooker are set to battle in the spring for the starting quarterback job. Ty Chandler’s transfer means a bigger role for Eric Gray should be in order at running back, and there’s talent at receiver with Jalin Hyatt and Velus Jones outside.
Cade Mays is back to lead the way up front, but guard Trey Smith will be missed. Tennessee’s defense didn’t have a player earn All-SEC honors and gave up 30.1 points a game in 2020. Linebacker Henry To’o To’o is back, but this unit lost cornerback Bryce Thompson early to the NFL. Road dates against Kentucky, Florida, Missouri, and Alabama are on tap, and Lane Kiffin returns to Knoxville with a talented Ole Miss team.
6. South Carolina
New coach Shane Beamer was a popular hire in Columbia, but the former Oklahoma assistant takes over a team that went 2-8 in 2020 and enters the spring with major concerns on both sides of the ball. New play-caller Marcus Satterfield inherits some talented pieces on offense with quarterback Luke Doty and running backs Kevin Harris and MarShawn Lloyd.
The bulk of the offensive line will return, but playmakers at receiver are limited after Shi Smith departed for the NFL. The uncertainty continues to the defense after allowing 36 points a game in 2020. With transfers and departures hitting every level, new coordinator Clayton White needs a big year from players like Jordan Burch, Tonka Hemingway, Zacch Pickens, and Mohamed Kaba.
Clark Lea is a good hire, but the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator inherits a ton of challenges in his first year on the job. The Commodores averaged only 14.8 points a game in 2020 and surrendered 37.3. Lea’s background should bring some improvement to the defense this fall. Quarterback Ken Seals is coming off a promising freshman season, with running back Keyon Henry-Brooks and receiver Cam Johnson headlining the skill position talent.
Restocking and improving the offensive line remain top priorities this spring. One piece of good news for Lea is on the scheduling front. Vanderbilt won’t have to play any of the projected top three teams from the West in crossover play, and winnable games against ETSU, UConn, and Mississippi State take place in Nashville.
SEC Football Preview – West Division
Even with the loss of quarterback Mac Jones, running back Najee Harris, and receiver DeVonta Smith, coach Nick Saban’s team has all of the pieces to win it all again in 2021. New quarterback Bryce Young is primed for a breakout year, and the backfield has plenty of options to take over for Harris. John Metchie III seems likely to assume the go-to role at receiver, but contributions from unproven (but talented) players are needed to give Young a full deck of options.
The line is losing a couple of key cogs, including left tackle Alex Leatherwood. The defense will also lose a couple of major contributors, but this unit has the potential to be better in 2021, especially if linebacker Will Anderson continues to develop into one of the nation’s top pass rushers.
2. Texas A&M
Jimbo Fisher has Texas A&M on the right track entering 2021. The next step is to get to the CFB Playoff after just missing in 2020, but Fisher and the staff have to find a quarterback to replace Kellen Mond, develop more explosive plays out of the passing game and restock a standout offensive line. The running back corps – led by Isaiah Spiller – should be among the best in college football.
A defense that limited teams to 21.7 points a game will be even better next fall. Jayden Peevy and DeMarvin Leal anchor a strong defensive line, and Aaron Hansford’s return for an extra senior year was a boost to the linebacker unit. Alabama comes to College Station next season, but Fisher’s team plays at Ole Miss and LSU.
How quickly can Ed Orgeron get LSU back into contention for the SEC title? The Tigers slipped to 5-5 after winning it all in 2019. There’s too much talent in the program to expect a repeat of ’20, and Orgeron hopes a staff reboot provides a needed lift. Three talented quarterbacks – Myles Brennan, TJ Finley, and Max Johnson – are back to compete for the starting nod, with receiver Kayshon Boutte primed for a breakout year as the No. 1 option under new play-caller Jake Peetz.
Both lines of scrimmage figure to improve in 2021, and the defense still has one of the better cornerback pairings in college football in Derek Stingley and Eli Ricks. Florida, Texas A&M, Arkansas, and Auburn come to Baton Rouge next fall, while trips to UCLA, Alabama, and Ole Miss are slated next season.
4. Ole Miss
It’s full steam ahead for the Lane Train in 2021, as the Rebels have a good chance to be a top-25 team. Kiffin’s squad averaged nearly seven yards a snap (6.97) behind quarterback Matt Corral and a cast of dynamic playmakers. Even with receiver Elijah Moore and tight end Kenny Yeboah off to the NFL, there’s more than enough firepower to keep the Ole Miss offense near the top of the SEC.
While scoring points won’t be a problem, Kiffin and his staff have to find some answers for a defense that surrendered 6.7 yards a play and 38.3 points a game. Improvement on this side of the ball could be the difference between finishing in the top 25 or just outside of that range. Ole Miss has a tough road slate in 2021 (Alabama, Auburn, Mississippi State, and Tennessee), but Arkansas, LSU, and Texas A&M visit Oxford.
Offense is new coach Bryan Harsin’s specialty, and there’s a lengthy to-do list on tap for the former Boise State coach this spring. Harsin has to get quarterback Bo Nix to elevate his game after two up-and-down seasons as the starting quarterback.
The backfield should be a strength, but Auburn is replacing its top three receivers and question marks remain in the trenches. Derek Mason is a strong hire as defensive coordinator, and as usual, there’s plenty of talent to work with on the roster. Cornerback Roger McCreary, linebacker Zakoby McClain and safety Smoke Monday each passed on the NFL to return for one more season. A road trip to Penn State is set for Sept. 18, but Harsin’s team gets Ole Miss, Alabama, and Georgia in Jordan-Hare Stadium next fall.
Sam Pittman was a surprise hire, but he quickly won over the doubters in 2020. While the Razorbacks were just 3-7, there was a noticeable improvement on both sides of the ball. Look for another step forward in ’21, as Arkansas’ depth chart returns largely intact, and KJ Jefferson should ensure a seamless transition at quarterback with Feleipe Franks off to the NFL. Receivers Treylon Burks (16.1 ypc) and Mike Woods (19.3) are an underrated duo on the outside.
Defensively, the Razorbacks gave up 5.65 yards per play – nearly a full yard less after surrendering 6.5 in 2019. Similar to the offense, this unit returns nearly intact and received a huge boost when linebacker Grant Morgan opted to return for an extra year. Pittman won’t have any breaks in his second tour as head coach. Texas is on tap in non-conference play, and Arkansas plays at Alabama, Georgia, LSU, and Ole Miss.
7. Mississippi State
After a surprise win at LSU in the season opener, Mississippi State dropped its next four games under new coach Mike Leach. However, the Bulldogs improved over the second half of 2020 by winning three of their next six contests and losing two games by a touchdown.
A full offseason to implement Leach’s high-powered passing attack will help the Bulldogs’ offense, and there’s a lot to build around with the return of quarterback Will Rogers, running backs Jo’quavious Marks and Dillon Johnson, along with receiver Jaden Walley. Mississippi State’s defense was underrated in 2020 but will miss linebacker Erroll Thompson and lineman Marquiss Spencer next fall. Most of the depth chart outside of those two players will return, however.
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