College football will take another step towards what we hope will be a “normal” 2021 season on Monday when SEC Media Days begin in Hoover, Ala.
Last year’s media days were supposed to be held in Atlanta but were cancelled due to concerns about the COVID-19 virus. So the SEC played a 10-game, conference-only schedule. The only thing that felt normal about it was that Alabama was again the national champion.
Here are 10 storylines that we’ll be following next week in Hoover:
1—Despite all of the player losses, are you telling me that Alabama is going to be picked to win it all again? The defending national champions lost 10 NFL draft choices, including six in the first round, from a 13-0 team. That list included the Heisman trophy winner (DeVonta Smith), a first-round quarterback (Mac Jones), a first-round running back (Najee Harris) and a bunch of coaches. So yeah. Expect the media to pick Alabama to win the SEC again on Thursday.
2—Is it now or never for Georgia? Georgia is one of the most talented teams in college football, but a narrative has emerged that if the Bulldogs don’t win it all this year, the window of opportunity will close on head coach Kirby Smart.
I don’t buy it. Georgia has played in the SEC championship game in three of the past four years. The Bulldogs are good enough to win every single game they will play this season—including an SEC championship game with Alabama. Will they? We’ll find out early as Georgia opens with Clemson in Charlotte. That’s why we play the games.
3—Is Florida going to take a step back? If so, how big of a step will it be?
After Florida finished the 2020 season with three straight losses, folks started having some serious doubts about the Gators in 2021. They lost their biggest playmakers (Kyle Pitts, Kadaris Toney) and have a new quarterback in Emory Jones. The defense gave up 31 points per game, 50 points in each of its last two games and DC Todd Grantham is feeling the heat. I still have Florida behind Georgia in the SEC East but some folks, including Phil Steele, do not have the Gators ranked in the Top 25. Interesting.
4—Will this be the breakthrough season for Jimbo Fisher and Texas A&M?
Actually, 2020 was a breakthrough season for the Aggies with a 9-1 record and a No. 5 CFP ranking. The only loss was to Alabama (52-24). Fisher and his staff have recruited well enough to give Alabama a run for their money, especially since the two teams meet in College Station on Oct. 9. But Fisher will be breaking in a new quarterback in Haynes King, who replaces Kellen Mond.
5—LSU will bounce back after going 5-5 last season. But will the Tigers bounce back enough to be a serious contender in the SEC West?
A lot of troubled water has flowed under the bridge at LSU since the Tigers and Joe Burrow won the 2019 national championship. LSU appeared headed to a losing season in 2020 but won its final two games against Florida (in the Swamp) and Ole Miss in Baton Rouge. That finish provides a spark of hope. Coach Ed Orgeron shook up his staff, bringing in a new offensive coordinator in Jake Peetz and a new defensive coordinator in Daronte Jones. LSU has two good quarterbacks in Myles Brennan and Max Johnson.
LSU hosts Texas A&M in the regular-season finale on Nov. 27. That could be for second place in the SEC West.
6—Can new Auburn head coach Bryan Harsin and new OC Mike Bobo turn Bo Nix into a consistent SEC quarterback?
If they can, Harsin’s first season as the replacement for Gus Malzahn could turn out better than some of the experts think. There are going to be opportunities to throw the ball down the field because the Tigers WILL run the ball with sophomore Tank Bigsby, who had 834 yards last season. LSU transfer TJ Finley joined the Auburn quarterback room in May. It could make for an interesting preseason on the Plains.
7—Is Matt Corral of Ole Miss the best quarterback in the SEC?
In Lane Kiffin, Corral found his perfect match as a head coach and play caller. Corral was third in the SEC in passing last season (333.7 ypg) behind Alabama’s Matt Jones and Florida’s Kyle Trask last season. The real question is who will step up as the go-to receiver replacing the great Elijah Moore (149.1 ypg)?
Georgia Bulldog fans will argue that their guy (JT Daniels) is better. It will be an interesting competition to watch.
8—Don’t sleep on Kentucky
If Florida slips out of the No. 2 position in the SEC East, Kentucky could fill the gap. Wildcat Coach Mark Stoops, in his ninth season, is rolling the dice by bringing in 35-year-old Liam Coen from the Rams as OC and giving him free rein to update the offense. Kentucky has to settle on a quarterback among Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood, Beau Allen, and Penn State transfer Will Levis. Running backs Chris Rodriguez and Kovosiey Smoke combined to average 6.4 yards per carry last season.
9—Does Tennessee have a quarterback who can run Josh Heupel's offense?
New head coach Josh Heupel wants to compensate for whatever talent deficiencies the Volunteers have by playing offense at a breathless pace. The question is: Can anybody in his quarterback room execute Heupel’s offense in the way it is intended? Harrison Bailey and Brian Maurer have started games for Tennessee. Hendon Hooker, a transfer from Virginia Tech, where he started 15 games, is the most athletic of the bunch. And there is Joe Milton, a transfer from Michigan.
Right now I have Tennessee fifth in the SEC East.
10—Looking for a surprise team? How about Missouri? The Tigers were 5-5 in 2020 and showed some flashes that bode well for the future. Quarterback Connor Bazelak was the SEC Freshman of the Year as he completed 67.3 percent of his passes and had only six interceptions in 324 attempts. Consider this: Missouri had 31 players who were on the field for 200 or more plays last season. Twenty-four of them return.
OTHER STORY LINES TO WATCH
**--Shane Beamer takes over an undermanned South Carolina football program in his first season as a head coach. The son of Hall of Fame coach Frank Beamer will eventually be successful in Columbia. But not in 2021.
**--Vanderbilt (0-9 last season), starts over with new Coach Clark Lea, a former Commodores player. Vanderbilt has a promising quarterback in sophomore Ken Seals.
**--Mississippi State (4-7 last season) tries to get the Air Raid offense off the ground in year two under Mike Leach. Leach brought in another quarterback, Southern Miss transfer Jack Abraham, to compete with sophomore Will Rogers, who finished 2020 as the starter.
**--Arkansas was better than its 3-7 record showed in the first year under Sam Pittman. K.J. Jefferson takes over at QB for Feleipe Franks. It says here that the Hogs are going to be somebody they are not supposed to beat in 2021.