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Angry Alabama, fighting Florida and the 10 SEC storylines that will define the 2020 season

Three weeks late and cut short. That’s the state of the SEC as it begins the 2020 college football season. But hey, at least it’s here. You better believe it just means more.

Last month, the SEC decided to delay its start until the last week of September and play a reduced schedule of 10 conference-only games. Now it’s just a matter of getting through the fog of COVID-19 like everyone else.

Might as well save the best ’til last. The SEC will attempt to play 10 games in as many as 12 weeks, ending with the SEC Championship Game on Dec. 19.

What the SEC — or college football — will look like by then is a guess. For now, we can revel in milestones. Nick Saban starts his 14th season at Alabama. Four others start their first in the SEC — Eli Drinkwitz (Missouri), Mike Leach (Mississippi State), Lane Kiffin (Ole Miss) and Sam Pittman (Arkansas).

With only 76 teams participating (as of now), the SEC has a chance to apply its typical stranglehold on the postseason. That means the possibility of two (or more) teams in the College Football Playoff.

Late and shortened, the SEC starts its season with five teams among the top eight of the AP Top 25.

The more things change, the more they stay in place in the Strength Everywhere Conference.

1. Angry Alabama: Nothing happens in the SEC until Alabama says it does. After an “off” year (11 wins), the Crimson Tide’s revenge tour starts in this truncated season. They begin as the favorites to win the SEC and claim a spot in the College Football Playoff for the sixth time in seven years. If that happens, Saban might have pulled off one of his best coaching jobs. He got key juniors like Najee Harris and Dylan Moses to stick around. He has had to retool the defense, which was the worst since Saban’s first year in 2007. Tua Tagovailoa’s injury gave successor Mac Jones enough reps last year to step right in. “I believe in Mac the same way I believe in Tua,” receiver DeVonta Smith said.

The only limiting factor might be game postponement. Would a 6-0 Bama get to the postseason over other teams that play full(er) seasons? Saban has accomplished a lot. It would be miraculous if he could make a pandemic disappear.

2. Not-so-defending champions: If this were any other year, LSU would be competing for another SEC title. After a 15-0 national championship season, the Tigers are instead competing against themselves. In other words, they can’t possibly be as good. They’ve lost their Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback, the nation’s best wide receiver, their defensive coordinator (Dave Aranda) and their offensive guru (co-coordinator Joe Brady).

Freshman tight end Arik Gilbert is a budding superstar. Cornerback Derek Stingley Jr. might be the best defender in the country. In a normal 12-game season, that might add up to a 10-2 record. In an abbreviated season, it equals second-place in the SEC West — at best. Even with one-fifth capacity, having Death Valley back lifts all college football spirits.

3. Florida’s time in the sunshine? It was a coin flip in the SEC East this preseason between Florida and Georgia. And then Jamie Newman opted out. Even before that, Kyle Trask might have been the best quarterback in the SEC. His success last season factored into Feleipe Franks taking his talents to Arkansas.

But it’s the surrounding cast that makes the Gators the favorites. Kyle Pitts is a difference maker at tight end. The wide receivers are experienced and talented. There is depth in a much-criticized (last season) offensive line. The first four games are a challenge — at Ole Miss, South Carolina, at Texas A&M and LSU. Note to those still flipping a coin: Georgia has won the last three meetings by an average of three touchdowns.

4. Goodbye Newman: D’Wan Mathis began the month as the third-stringer on the quarterback depth chart. On Saturday, the smart money says Mathis, a 6-foot-6 redshirt freshman, will be Georgia’s starter against Arkansas. Don’t call it a comeback; call it survival. Newman opted out Sept. 2. USC transfer JT Daniels’ knee still hasn’t rounded into shape. That leaves Mathis, 19 months removed from emergency brain surgery, as the likely starter. In May 2019, Mathis reported having headaches. A check showed he had fluid applying pressure on his brain. Corrective surgery ended with a plate in his skull secured by screws.

Mathis was well enough to throw 28 passes in the 2019 spring game and score on that trick play (above). Kirby Smart likes his run-pass ability. Don’t bet against the quarterback and Smart’s gold touch at the position. A book could be written about Smart’s quarterback recruiting, evaluation, coaching and success since he arrived. If Mathis wasn’t good enough to play, he wouldn’t be guiding the Dawgs. 

5. Bo Nix’s second season: Gus Malzahn kind of pieced it together playing a true freshman quarterback in 2019. Nix/Malzahn led Auburn to nine wins, including over Alabama in the Iron Bowl. Three of the losses came by seven points or less. Nix has to get more accurate. He’ll most certainly get better with former Arkansas coach Chad Morris as offensive coordinator. It all adds up to the Tigers being the next-best team in the SEC West. The front seven is salty. Gus will always want to pound the rock to set up the pass out of the spread. Auburn misses Florida but gets Georgia in its crossover games.

6. Third season’s the charm? This is the situation Texas A&M fans probably didn’t think through when they wanted out of the big, bad Big 12. The money is better in the SEC. So is the football, meaning it’s a lot harder to win. Jimbo Fisher’s first two seasons have been a somewhat mediocre, a combined 17-9. The expectation in Aggieland is that 2020 will be a breakthrough. Fisher has a senior quarterback in Kellen Mond, and sophomore Isaiah Spiller ran for nearly 1,000 yards as a freshman. Mond has to perform better on the road. The defense is good but must force more than 14 turnovers. That doesn’t cut it in the SEC.

This is Fisher’s best chance in College Station, Texas. But there’s also this: Texas A&M has lost less than three conference games only twice since 1999. Problem: The SEC West has seldom been more competitive. The Aggies try to crack the concrete ceiling in a division whose coaches have won seven of the last 11 national championships. Fisher is one of those. Saban and Ed Orgeron have won the others.

7. State of football in Mississippi: I can’t remember who said this in early January when Lane Kiffin got hired at Ole Miss, but it still applies. “There are going to be 49 states and one in a different universe.” Kiffin joins Leach for the most unlikely pair of performance-artists since Penn & Teller. They’ll stir it up in Mississippi and in the SEC West, but can either break through to win the conference? That’s something neither has ever done.

Hugh Freeze (Ole Miss) and Dan Mullen (Mississippi State) have proven that it can be done in the Magnolia State. Leach arrives in the SEC at the perfect time. Defense doesn’t necessarily win championships these days. His quarterbacks will lead the SEC in passing, but what will he have to compliment that offense besides a bunch of quips and quirks? For Kiffin, this is a bounce-back job, his third in the SEC. Who knew he had a (marginally) better career winning percentage than Mullen? Ole Miss and Mississippi State will be more fun, but will there be an SEC breakthrough at either school?

8. The first runners up: Which of these two programs will be the “it” team of 2020? No, neither will win the SEC East — let alone the SEC — but the buzz surrounding them suggests this season will be a taking off point for something bigger. Here’s why.

  • Tennessee (8-5 in 2019): The Vols finished last season winning six in a row for their best record since 2016. Jeremy Pruitt is killing it in recruiting. But in the SEC (and everywhere), if you don’t have a quarterback, you don’t have a chance. Jarrett Guarantano has been polarizing as a redshirt senior, and this is his last chance to leave a positive legacy. The top three ballcarriers return. Jim Chaney is still the play caller, and Cade Mays received a long-awaited transfer waiver from the NCAA. (He still needs clearance from the SEC).
  • Kentucky (18-8 from 2018-19): The Wildcats just posted their most wins in consecutive seasons since 1976-77. Folks lost their minds over the things Lynn Bowden Jr. could do at quarterback. Passing wasn’t one of them. With the return of Terry Wilson, Kentucky gets better at the position. Wilson has accounted for almost 3,000 total yards in his career. It doesn’t help that UK gets both Alabama and Auburn from the SEC West.

9. The SEC’s MVP: There might not be a clear favorite entering the season. Trask is the Preseason All-SEC First Team selection at quarterback. Harris might be the best Heisman candidate. We told you about Stingley. How about Alabama wide receiver Jaylen Waddle? He has 16 touchdowns three different ways in his career — receiving, punt returns and a kickoff return. Waddle leads Bama in all-purpose running yardage since 2018, averaging 19.2 per touch. He was the SEC’s best punt returner last season and heavily honored by CBS Sports voters as a Preseason All-America selection at punt returner (first team), receiver (second team) and all-purpose player (second team). Along with Smith, Waddle gives the Tide one the best receiving corps in the country (again).

10. The schedule’s long-term implications: The pandemic has provided the SEC and college football with an unprecedented opportunity to gorge on football. Ten conference games in a season are more than any SEC team has ever played. It’s what Saban has advocated for years (well, at least nine SEC games as part of an all-Power Five schedule). “I certainly think playing 10 conference games makes it very challenging,” Saban said. “… I can’t really answer how it will impact the future.”

The present suggests this season can go one of two ways. At least one dominant team will emerge, which the SEC has regularly produced annually since 2006. Or the 10-game slog could cause the SEC to cannibalize itself. Get ready for a possible 9-2 (or 8-3) SEC champion impacted by mental strain, COVID-19 concerns, injuries and a monster schedule. Alabama, Florida and Georgia — the league’s three favorites — all play five ranked teams. (Auburn does, too.)

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