The SEC season is finally here. It’s the week before the first games of the season, which will make it seem as though college football is truly back, even though the sport has been playing games for several weeks. In the new-look SEC, with a 10-game conference schedule for every team, there are no cupcake games or breather games. It’s only SEC competition, which means tougher schedules and more quality matchups. In this daunting environment, which teams will rise or fall?
SEC East Team That Will Surprise: Kentucky
The Kentucky Wildcats might not have a great offense with quarterback Terry Wilson, but they have a tremendous defense in an SEC East which doesn’t have a lot of good offenses. Kentucky’s offense might not steal a game the Wildcats are supposed to win, but the defense certainly might. Coach Mark Stoops was on the hot seat a few years ago, but he has improved Kentucky football since then and raised the standards for the program. Kentucky won’t win the division, but it will finish at least third and maybe make a run at second place. That would definitely represent overachievement given the football reputations of the various programs in the SEC East. Kentucky is a basketball school; finishing anywhere near the top of the East standings is an above-average year. Their odds to win the SEC at MyBookie are at 50/1.
SEC East Team That Will Disappoint: Tennessee
The Tennessee Volunteers have recruited extremely well over the past year under head coach Jeremy Pruitt. The Vols have gained considerable offseason buzz and have raised hopes among their fan base that they might be ready to return to the big time. Tennessee fans are desperately aching for a winner. The Volunteers haven’t won the SEC championship since 1998. They haven’t made the SEC Championship Game in Atlanta since 2007. The people of Knoxville want to see a winner right now. They know that Georgia is the favorite in the 2020 SEC East, but they think the Vols could challenge the Bulldogs. It’s a tempting thought, but ultimately it just doesn’t have enough evidence behind it.
The big problem with Tennessee, the thing which stands in the way of this program’s progress, is the quarterback spot and more generally the passing game. Tennessee has had four different offensive coordinators over the past five years. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano, entering his senior season, has not had any continuity or consistency at the offensive coordinator spot. It has been a revolving door of offensive coaches, and none of them have truly been able to teach the passing game at an elite level. Tennessee’s passing game has lagged well behind the top teams in the SEC. If the Tennessee defense is anything less than great, the offense needs to score 30 or more points to win, and that has been unsustainable for the Vols, who used to have Peyton Manning in the 1990s. Back then, the Vols could win shootouts. Not now. Good teams have more than one way to win. Tennessee still doesn’t have more than one way to win as long as its passing game remains mediocre. Only when that passing game takes the next step forward will the Vols become a real threat in the SEC East. They aren’t there yet, or at the very least, they need to show they have evolved before getting the benefit of the doubt. They will finish behind Kentucky in the SEC East, which is not what Vol fans are expecting in 2020.
SEC West Team That Will Surprise: Ole Miss
There won’t be any massive surprise in the SEC West this year. Alabama and LSU will be at the top, with Auburn having a chance to contend for the division championship. If there is going to be a positive surprise in the division, look at Oxford, Mississippi, where new coach Lane Kiffin will guide the Ole Miss Rebels to a bowl game. After Ole Miss stumbled to a 4-8 record, and just 2-6 in the SEC in 2019 season, being able to make a bowl game this season would be a noticeable upgrade and a shot in the arm for the Rebels, who need to regain confidence and a sense that they can compete in a very tough division. Kiffin’s new coaching staff includes defensive coordinator D.J. Durkin, who was formerly the head coach at Maryland. If the Rebels get a moderately good defense, Kiffin’s ability to coach offense should bring this team along ahead of schedule. If one team in the SEC West is going to finish slightly above its preseason expectations, Ole Miss is the best choice at this point even though their odds to win the SEC West are at 25/1.
SEC West Team That Will Disappoint: Texas A&M
The Texas A&M Aggies are paying coach Jimbo Fisher tens of millions of dollars to do something more than finish fourth in the SEC West. It is understood that A&M will have a hard time winning the SEC West with Alabama and LSU in the neighborhood, but Texas A&M is expected to lose no more than two games in some seasons. The Aggies won’t be great every year, but in one out of every three or four years, this program is expected by its fans to finish second in the SEC West and compete for the conference title. That is the standard for this season, with returning quarterback Kellen Mond at the helm of a talented, fast offense which can make Fisher’s Xs and Os come to life.
Why will A&M be a disappointment? The answer is Mond himself.
Kellen Mond is a fast, athletic, physically strong player. He can gun the ball into a small area. However, as soon as Mond has to throw a soft touch pass over the defense, or try a deep ball, or make a complicated read of a defense, he struggles. Mond has had problems making specific kinds of throws (longer throws and touch-based throws), and he has problems when the first read is taken away by the defense. If Mond puts everything together, Texas A&M can realize its potential, but Mond has wobbled far too often to trust him this season. A&M will finish behind third-place Auburn, second-place LSU, and first-place Alabama in the SEC West.