Now that we’re through signing day and most of the major coaching changes, some of the 2020 picture is starting to shape up. Bill Connelly has his SP+ projections out as well as his returning production list as well. The latter list is not particularly kind to LSU — it is losing a Heisman Trophy quarterback, a 1,200-yard rusher and some 200 catches. But it paints a very interesting picture of the Tigers’ 2020 schedule.
And with everything going on...you know, covering LSU in the College Football Playoff and winning the national championship...remember that?...I just haven’t had a ton of time to weigh in on some of the recent news on some of these teams. So I decided to jot some thoughts down.
You know, coming into this series with the Longhorns, I felt like the road team might have the edge in both games, just on how the experience levels of the rosters lined up. LSU had the edge in 2019 with a senior quarterback and a veteran defense, but that shoe should be on the other foot for UT in 2020.
But then the Longhorns finished 6-6 down the stretch of 2019 and Tom Herman was forced to offer both coordinators as a sacrifice.
Program success over the long-term for head coaches involves being able to navigate rough spots. Injuries (and Texas had a lot of those last year, especially on defense), close losses, underachievement. There’s always a balance to making changes versus staying the course. There’s always a balance for a head coach between confidence in the direction you’re leading the program in, understanding the need for change and over-correction to please external stakeholders. Herman just had to can his top two assistants (one of whom was considered one of the top young coordinators in the game a year ago) — that’s a one-time mulligan. How he moves Texas forward from that will say a lot about his acumen as a head coach. A lot of coaches have had an easy time as the wunderkind early in their career when everything’s clicking. Not that many can navigate rougher waters.
Now, with that said, the part about Texas returning a lot still holds true for next season. Moreso, given how many backup defenders had to get in the mix in ‘19. With the match-up still set for week two, that’s still an edge for the Longhorns. Question is, how does that compare to LSU’s homefield advantage. And how quickly the new coordinators get their units up to speed.
The Fake Pee Felt Round the SEC essentially got Matt Luke fired, among other ripple effects, which begat the Rebels bringing in Lane Kiffin. Luke sat right in that perfect spot of being an obvious transition hire of a program that didn’t seem to want to admit what kind of transition they were undergoing.
Hugh Freeze and Ole Miss’ incompetent power brokerage ran the program into a ditch, both with ham-fisted cheatin’ tactics and a magnificently bone-headed response to the situation (hey, how about we cooperate with the NCAA to absolutely no benefit to us, while also lying in public, leading to a defamation lawsuit). Luke certainly wasn’t going to get the program out of that situation, but he was the best they could do at the time and wasn’t going to make things worse. People forget that he inherited a 5-7 team from 2016. He didn’t deserve all the scorn he got, but at the same time he clearly wasn’t getting the program where Ole Miss fans want it. Firing him was inevitable, even if he maybe deserved a little more rope.
So here comes the Laner. On the one hand, he’s clearly the best coach Ole Miss could’ve gotten in terms of pure ability. On the other, I’m not sure he’s going to do all that much to change the program’s station in the long term. Kiffin is an exciting offensive coach that will certainly attract publicity; he offers a chance to recreate the Freeze Era minus the faux religiosity. He’ll recruit well, and probably give a few really good teams heartburn, but we know this is going to be a short-term deal (if I’m setting an over/under, let’s say three years or maybe 3.5). Either Kiffin will get some big wins and jump at a bigger job, or he won’t and it’ll all blow up for some other reason. And when that’s over, Ole Miss will still be firmly in the SEC West’s bottom tier. Maybe on top of Mississippi State or Arkansas, but still outside of the LSU-Bama-Auburn-A&M half, and not contending for a championship. So what difference will it really make?
My guess is the 2020 Rebs will ride Jerrion Ealy a ton, as Kiffin usually does with his best playmakers. How they make use of John Rhys Plumlee will be interesting. He’s certainly a dynamic runner, but kind of the opposite of that as a passer. Kiffin can do some interesting things with different players, but we’ve never seen him work with a quarterback that was quite that disparate in skill set.
Two straight 10-win seasons for Dan Mullen so far, and the ‘20 schedule looks pretty navigable for another. Is it me or is Kyle Trask the best returning quarterback in the SEC? Only Mac Jones is anywhere in his vicinity in terms of efficiency, but he has a much smaller sample size.
Interestingly, the 2020 Gators will be in an inverse situation to 2019 with more experience back in the trenches, but in need of more playmakers in the backfield and out wide. Trask’s experience will be a big plus over the rest of the East. But will it be enough to overtake Georgia?
Mullen said it after Florida’s Orange Bowl win — it’s a lot harder to go from 10 wins to 11 or 12 than it is to get to double digits. LSU’s been a great example of that over the last decade. Getting over that Georgia hump will mean getting past a team that’s been lapping you in recruiting. And yes, Mullen’s done a very strong job on that front but Georgia’s been on another planet.
I’ve said for years that Arkansas would have to find a way to be different to succeed. That said, trying to ape LSU’s model with Ed Orgeron wasn’t exactly what I had in mind. That’s what appears to be Sam Pittman’s plan; hire good assistants and recruit like crazy.
He’s certainly landed the big name coordinators part of that equation with Barry Odom for defense and Kendal Briles (eww) for offense. And Briles’ style of spread offense is just different enough to stand out some. I would say Pittman does seem to bring some likability to the equation, but the Briles hire took away that goodwill for me.
Transfer quarterback Feleipe Franks might be a good fit for that scheme as well; he has the big arm you need to hit receivers at those wide splits, and he has just enough mobility to be a plus in the running game.
But the biggest factor for Pittman will be time. Arkansas is a long-term rebuild, and the model Pittman wants to follow will take time to create dividends unless they have some oddly immediate success on the trail.
I always say that multiple things can be true when it comes to coaching hire and fires. In the case of State and Joe Moorhead, it seems like the Bulldogs maybe have higher expectations than what’s fair to expect of their program, and that Moorhead underachieved with a talented 2018 roster and was headed towards diminished returns after a 6-7 2019.
Bottom line; when your rep is “offensive guru” people expect a lot more than 28 points per game, which is about what State averaged under Moorhead. I’ve said it a few times but I think this just came down to a poor fit — not so much in terms of the whole “Yankee from the Northeast in Mississippi” part, but in terms of Moorhead trying to fit State’s talent to his scheme instead of the other way around.
Enter Mike Leach. His version of the Air Raid is just different enough to maybe make State a change-up, but his makeover of the program may take a minute. Having K.J. Costello transfer in helps. Oddly enough, he’s probably inheriting the best roster of any of his previous outpost rebuilds. But I’m not sure he’ll have that at receiver.
But with his wide splits, pace and purely distilled Air Raid just might be able to catch somebody on an off week or with a few hobbled defensive backs. It’s not much, but it’s something State can maybe build on for the long-term. We know Leach has a shelf-life, but when his time is done they may be a little better set up for his replacement, like Washington State is with Nick Rolovich.
Count me as dismissive of the notion that “the dynasty is over” in Tuscaloosa. Alabama’s in kind of a weird spot but they still have the most talented roster in the SEC, even with the underclassmen losses. I know their fans wanted Nick Saban to do some more staff shuffling, but after the last few years there’s value in continuity.
Mac Jones looked serviceable in small doses at quarterback, but with freshman Bryce Young working his way in watch this team ride Najee Harris’ legs on offense. An attack that’ll look more like Bama’s offenses pre-Tua and Jalen Hurts. It’s a good thing he came back for his senior season. It was a bad financial decision, and it’s unlikely he’ll ever make that money up on his second contract, but maybe he can help them compete for a championship again.
Staff shuffling continues for Will Muschamp’s program, and don’t be surprised if they pick up LSU running backs coach Tommy Robinson soon. Orgeron will likely call up Kevin Faulk from the support staff to full-time position coach.
But with trips to Florida, LSU and Clemson, it doesn’t look great for the Gamecocks to improve by much on last year’s 4-8 mark. Ryan Hilinski has some talent at quarterback, and Muschamp’s going to leave a much more talented roster for his successor, but there’s no real reason to think this will go anywhere.
Stop me if you’ve heard this before, but Auburn sets up as a wild card again. They really did put together a nice 2019, given the difficulty of their schedule with a freshman quarterback. Of course, in typical Gus Malzahn fashion he followed up an Iron Bowl victory with a frustrating bowl loss to Minnesota.
Looking forward, there aren’t really the obvious “Good Gus/Bad Gus” signs. Auburn will probably be ranked to start the year, but not in the top-10 to set up expectations. And they do return a few key play-makers, but face a rebuild along both lines. Bo Nix is a talented quarterback, and he returns some pretty nice receivers in Seth Williams and Anthony Schwartz, but this offense is going to have to evolve if they’re going to take advantage of that. And without Boobie Whitlow at tailback, that’s even more imperative.
New offensive coordinator Chad Morris definitely has run a more robust passing game than what Malzahn’s typically run. Question is, how much change will he be allowed to bring to the attack? Because the song has remained the same the last couple years as other coordinators have come and gone.
A neutral site game with North Carolina could be tricky early on, but the schedule is pretty navigable for the Other Tigers until the Georgia game in mid-October. But the LSU and Bama back-to-back to end the season could, potentially, leave a really bad taste in boosters’ mouths.
Are you ready? Because the Texas A&M 2020 hype machine is only going to gain momentum over the next few months. Twenty total starters back. Sixteenth in Bill C’s returning production rankings. And that schedule:
- Sep. 5 Abilene Christian Wildcats
- Sep. 12 North Texas Mean Green
- Sep. 19 Colorado Buffaloes
- Sep. 26 vs Arkansas Razorbacks (AT&T Stadium, Arlington, TX)
- Oct. 3 at Mississippi State Bulldogs
- Oct. 10 Fresno State Bulldogs
- Oct. 17 at Auburn Tigers
- Oct. 24 at South Carolina Gamecocks
- Oct. 31 OFF
- Nov. 7 Ole Miss Rebels
- Nov. 14 Vanderbilt Commodores
- Nov. 21 at Alabama Crimson Tide
- Nov. 28 LSU Tigers
That road trip to Auburn is probably the Aggies’ only real obstacle to a 10-0 start before that ending clip. At the barest of minimums, this has to be the year Jimbo Fisher breaks A&M out of the four/five-loss realm they’ve lived in the last few years. And the top of the West definitely isn’t as secure as it’s been; Bama and LSU are both transitioning away from superstar quarterbacks, and Auburn has its share of questions as well. While picking the Aggies to win the division is a far cry, it’s definitely the best chance they’ve had in some time.
And the big spotlight will be on the offense with the top three rushers and pass-catchers back and a senior quarterback. But Kellen Mond is the question here; his splits versus ranked and unranked opponents last year were practically two different players. A 12-percent difference in completion rate and a 40-point difference in passer rating. If he just levels that out, that’ll probably net them a few wins. But it’s going to take more to get over the Bama/LSU hump.
But Fisher’s the quarterback guru, right?