The SEC joined the 2020 season on Saturday, and the first week did not disappoint.
Sure, No. 3 Oklahoma lost to Kansas State 38-35, and No. 9 Texas escaped from Texas Tech with a 63-56 overtime victory. Those are Big 12 storylines.
But the SEC is where the College Football Playoff race is real. Mississippi State upset No. 6 LSU — the defending SEC champion. No. 5 Florida gave three-time SEC East champion No. 4 Georgia something to think about. No. 2 Alabama, was, well Alabama, and No. 8 Auburn, No. 10 Texas A&M and No. 16 Tennessee won in their season debuts.
That’s going to create the biggest overreactions of the season so far. We separate some fact from fiction:
Alabama will win the SEC!
Maybe. National championships are the standard, and SEC titles are implicit.
The Crimson Tide reverted to their business-like form with a 38-19 victory against Missouri. What does that mean in terms of hanging with Clemson or Ohio State down the road? It’s too early to say, but at least Alabama isn’t in the same position at LSU or Oklahoma. It’s still good enough in the SEC.
Alabama’s playmakers did their job in the first half, starting with Mac Jones, who finished 18 of 24 passing for 249 yards and two touchdowns. Najee Harris (17 carries, 98 yards, three touchdowns) and Jaylen Waddle (eight catches, 134 yards, two touchdowns) made plays, and all of that was expected. The Crimson Tide has a loaded offense as usual.
The defense’s development will be the key. The Crimson Tide allowed just 113 yards in the first half without a turnover, and turned in the standard run-of-the-mill SEC blowout on the road. Mop-up duty wasn’t pretty, but that gives coach Nick Saban something to harp on leading into Week 5. The competition theoretically ramps up with Texas A&M.
Alabama might not be the best team in the country right now. Clemson is No. 1, and Ohio State hasn’t played yet. We still say the same thing every year: The season doesn’t really start until Alabama loses.
Can anybody in the SEC do it? About that. …
Trask for Heisman!
Yes. Kyle Trask entered the season as the top returning passer in a conference that lost LSU’s Joe Burrow, Alabama’s Tua Tagovailoa and Georgia’s Jake Fromm to the NFL.
Trask looked the part in a 51-35 victory against Ole Miss, finishing the day completing 30 of 42 passes for 416 yards and six touchdowns. The average length of those touchdown passes was 21.2 yards, but it was the Gators’ red zone efficiency that stuck out. Tight end Kyle Pitts, who had eight catches for 170 yards and four scores, didn’t hurt.
Trask threw four scores in the red zone, and the Gators hit two field goals on the other two trips. Florida scored on nine of 11 possessions in the game, and that’s a nod to Trask’s development in Year 2 with Dan Mullen.
For at least a week, yes, Trask is the best quarterback in the SEC. He’s also a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender — something the Gators haven’t had at quarterback since Tim Tebow. Trask, however, didn’t have the best numbers on Saturday; that goes to K.J. Costello of Mississippi State.
Speaking of which. …
Leach can win the SEC!
No. If Mike Leach can prove us wrong, then so be it.
The “Air Raid” debut was magnificent. Costello passed for 623 yards and five touchdowns in a 44-34 upset of No. 6 LSU. That broke the SEC single-game record of 544 passing yards, which former Georgia quarterback Eric Zeier set against Southern Mississippi in 1993.
The offense is a game-changer, and Leach has a little more to work with than rival Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss.
Mississippi State did catch LSU at the perfect time: The Tigers were breaking in a first-time starter at quarterback in Myles Brennan (who replaced record-setting Heisman Trophy winner Joe Burrow). Brennan was tasked with replacing Burrow’s impossible-to-follow act, lost Biletnikoff Award winner Ja’Marr Chase and is working with a new passing game coordinator in Scott Linehan. Add the pressure of playing against Leach’s “Air Raid” and absence of All-American cornerback Derek Stingley Jr., and that’s how upsets happen.
Costello might break Burrow’s passing records, but it remains to be seen how Mississippi State competes in the top 10 grind that includes Texas A&M, Alabama, Auburn and Georgia.
Then again. …
Georgia is in trouble!
Maybe. Georgia struggled in the first half against Arkansas and first-year coach Sam Pittman. The Razorbacks led 7-5 at halftime, and Twitter was ready to pounce. The Bulldogs dominated the second half in a 37-10 victory, but there are questions whether Florida has closed that gap in the SEC East.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart deserves some leeway for the quarterback shuffle. Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out of the season, and USC transfer JT Daniels was not medically cleared in the opener against Arkansas. D’Wan Mathis and Stetson Bennett struggled early in new offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s scheme.
Bennett settled in and hit 20 of 29 passes for 211 yards and two touchdowns. The bigger concern was a rushing attack that averaged just 2.9 yards per carry.
Georgia has a nasty defense, but that’s not enough in this conference. Look at the last two SEC champions: Alabama averaged 45.6 points per game with Tagovailoa in 2018, and LSU averaged 48.4 ppg with Burrow in 2019. You need that kind of offense to compete for national championships, which the Bulldogs haven’t won since 1980.
We’ll find out more next week, too. …
Watch out for Auburn!
Always. The Tigers might be the third-best team in the conference. The Auburn-Kentucky matchup was the only game between ranked teams, and the Tigers took care of business in the second half in a 29-13 victory. That goes against the usual unpredictability factor with Gus Malzahn; this was supposed to be a close game.
Sophomore quarterback Bo Nix finished 16 of 27 passing for 233 yards and three touchdowns, and he found a go-to target in Seth Williams (five catches for 117 yards and two touchdowns). Auburn didn’t run the ball well, and that means Nix must be more of a game-changer than manager as a sophomore.
As for Auburn? We would still take Alabama and Florida over the Tigers for now. We have no idea how the LSU and Mississippi State games will go.
Nix can continue to change opinions with a win at Georgia in Week 5. That is par for the course with the Tigers.
Saban assistants on the hot seat!
Jimbo Fisher and Will Muschamp, a pair of former Saban assistants, are going to feel some heat this week.
Texas A&M was a four-touchdown favorite, but snoozed through a season-opening 17-12 victory against Vanderbilt. Quarterback Kellen Mond (17 of 28, 189 yards, one touchdown) didn’t inspire much confidence that the Aggies can give Alabama an honest run in Week 5.
Fisher has improved the recruiting in College Station, but the Aggies are 1-7 against top-10 teams since he took over, including 0-5 in their last five tries. That will need to change in 2020.
Muschamp’s day began with a leaked video with him giving NSFW orders to the fans at Williams-Brice Stadium, and it ended with a 31-27 loss to Tennessee. The Gamecocks were competitive, and Colorado State transfer quarterback Colin Hill made it interesting with 290 passing yards. That’s not enough in Columbia.
South Carolina is now 26-26 under Muschamp. A trip to Florida — Muschamp’s last head-coaching stop — is up next. It won’t get any easier.