Power 5 preview: 7 questions for the SEC
While COVID-19 changed the college football landscape for much of the 2020 season, the national champion yet again emerged from the SEC for the third time in four years.
With powerhouse programs like Alabama, Georgia, Florida, and LSU all primed for another strong showing in 2021, don't be shocked if the conference is once again flying the title flag at its headquarters in Birmingham come January.
In the third installment of a five-part preview series examining the Power 5 conferences heading into the season, theScore answers seven questions regarding the top conference in college football.
Is Bryce Young the next big thing at Alabama?
The recruiting services and oddsmakers certainly believe so. Young came to Alabama as the country's top-ranked quarterback in 2020 and enters his first season as the starter with the third-shortest odds to win the Heisman. Young comes with great expectations, as the last three Crimson Tide starting quarterbacks - Mac Jones, Tua Tagovalioa, and Jalen Hurts - are all plying their trade in the NFL now.
Young will be surrounded by a plethora of talent in John Metchie III, Brian Robinson, Trey Sanders, Jahleel Billingsley, and a number of highly touted incoming freshmen, plus new offensive coordinator Bill O'Brien. He'll also be complemented by the nation's 13th-ranked defense returning seven starters from last year's championship team.
Young might not put up the numbers that Jones and Tagovailoa did the past two seasons in Tuscaloosa, but the overall depth across the board for Nick Saban should ensure another run at the SEC crown.
Will staff changes fix LSU's issues?
Everyone at LSU better hope so. Bo Pelini only lasted one season as the Tigers' defensive coordinator, with his 124th-ranked unit the main cause of LSU's disappointing 5-5 record. Ed Orgeron acted quickly in removing the former Nebraska coach and bringing in Daronte Jones from the Minnesota Vikings to fix the defensive frailties. Jones has eight returnees to work with, including arguably the nation's best corner in Derek Stingley.
A number of staffing changes occurred on offense, too, with the most notable being coordinator Steve Ensminger's retirement. Orgeron also turned to the pro ranks to fill the void on offense with Jake Peetz from the Carolina Panthers. Getting the ball to rising star Kayshon Boutte out wide will be job No. 1 for Peetz in Baton Rouge.
Is Georgia the class of the East?
If JT Daniels remains healthy, the Bulldogs certainly should be. The USC transfer only played in four games last season but threw for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns against just two interceptions. The offense took off with Daniels at the helm, putting up over 37 points per game while averaging only 29 without him. The Bulldogs' ridiculous running back trio of Zamir White, James Cook, and Kendall Milton are all back and can count on a veteran offensive line to clear the way. With Florida hit hard by personnel losses on offense, there's no reason Georgia can't reclaim top spot in the East.
What will Florida look like with Emory Jones?
A team with a much bigger focus on the running game. With Kyle Trask tossing to Kyle Pitts and Kadarius Toney, the Gators posted the nation's top-ranked passing attack. That likely won't be the case with Jones at quarterback, as head coach Dan Mullen will use the dual-threat capabilities of the former highly touted recruit. Florida barely even attempted to establish the run last season, finishing 96th in the country in that area. Expect Jones and explosive Clemson transfer Demarkcus Bowman to combine with the returning Dameon Pierce, Malik Davis, and Nay'Quan Wright to change that.
That doesn't mean the Gators will avoid passing the ball, as Mullen's previous experience with other dual-threat talents like Dak Prescott, Alex Smith, and Tim Tebow shows he's a master at catering the offense to each player. Or, just take defensive back Trey Dean's word for it.
"If y'all think Emory Jones is not going to throw the ball, that's a mistake," Dean told Matt Baker of the Tampa Bay Times.
Can Jimbo Fisher break the Saban curse?
This Texas A&M team is Fisher's best chance. Nick Saban is 23-0 in his coaching career against former assistants, including a perfect 4-0 mark versus Fisher, his old offensive coordinator at LSU. While the Crimson Tide host Lane Kiffin and Ole Miss on Oct. 2, it's the following week's trip to Texas A&M that puts the undefeated streak in serious jeopardy. The Aggies return 17 starters, including nine for the nation's ninth-ranked defensive unit. With Alabama undergoing significant offensive turnover, Texas A&M's stout defense could cause problems in the friendly confines of Kyle Field.
Which team will immediately benefit most from a new head coach?
The strength of Auburn's roster makes it the pick despite the fact it resides in the loaded SEC West. Bryan Harsin lacks any coaching experience in the southeastern region of the United States, but the former Boise State boss showed his mettle time and time again with the upstart Broncos. If he can limit Bo Nix's turnovers and ride Tank Bigsby in the running game, the Tigers, who have 15 starters returning, could make some noise this season.
Vanderbilt's Clark Lea, South Carolina's Shane Beamer, and Tennessee's Josh Heupel are the other new head coaches in the SEC, but there's plenty of questions surrounding those three schools after they combined to post a dismal 5-24 mark last season.
Which school will run the state of Mississippi?
It will likely come down to the Egg Bowl at the end of November. Ole Miss and Mississippi State may have only combined for a 7-12 record in 2020, but Lane Kiffin and Mike Leach's first year coaching in the state was full of fireworks. The Rebels finished third in the conference, scoring over 40 points per game, with star quarterback Matt Corral's brilliance causing Kiffin to celebrate wildly on the sideline. Leach's tenure began with a bang as K.J. Costello broke the single-game SEC passing record in the season-opening upset over LSU, but the Bulldogs struggled to put up points down the stretch.
Expect the teams to excel on opposite sides of the ball in 2021. Corral's return should ensure Kiffin has another dominant offense at his disposal, while the nation's 117th-ranked defensive unit will need to improve in Oxford. The Bulldogs return seven starters on one of the conference's best defenses but will need better quarterback play from Will Rogers to compete in the West.