College football, way too early: 2021 SEC team-by-team overview

The 2020 Southeastern Conference football season was undoubtedly one to remember for both the conference’s fans and its member institutions. The SEC took home its second straight national championship (thanks to Alabama), which is also its third in four seasons, and for the fourth consecutive season featured two top 10 teams in the SEC Championship Game. Also, the 2020 Heisman Trophy winner, Devonta Smith, plays for the SEC’s Alabama Crimson Tide, and he represents the conference’s second consecutive Heisman victory. Four of the conference’s teams played in New Year’s Six bowl games, and three were victorious. Those three teams finished inside the top 10 when the final rankings were unveiled. Therefore, while the offseason is still in its infancy, it is still quite the intriguing prospect to speculate how the SEC’s 2021-22 season will play out. 

  1. Alabama (13-0 in 2020, SEC champions, College Football Playoff national champions)- Everything that can be said about Alabama in 2020 has likely already been said. They returned to their dominance after missing both the conference title game and the Playoff in 2019, going undefeated and producing the Heisman Trophy winner. The 2020 season marked head coach Nick Saban’s sixth national championship with the program and seventh overall. As is often the case, there will be many departures from the Capstone; Devonta Smith, Mac Jones, Landon Dickerson, and more are gone. Additionally, Steve Sarkisian also left Alabama to become the head coach at Texas. He was not the only notable staff departure; running backs coach Charles Huff also signed on to take the helm at Marshall. Replacing Sarkisian at offensive coordinator is Bill O’Brien, former Penn State and Houston Texans coach who now returns to college football. Alabama will again have a number of prominent recruits joining the team next season, including several five-star recruits. Among the 5-stars are offensive linemen JC Latham and Tommy Brockermeyer, who will become part of a unit looking to replace multiple NFL talents. The defense loses Patrick Surtain and Dylan Moses but will still have a high level of talent, especially with 5-star corner Ga’Quincy McKinstry set to become part of the team. Alabama is poised to be a favorite in the SEC and college football overall again in 2021, which is not unfamiliar territory for the Tide. 
  2. Arkansas (3-7 in 2020)- The Razorbacks have struggled mightily within the SEC during the past few years. As a matter of fact, during the more-than-forgettable tenure of previous coach Chad Morris (who was axed in November 2019), the Hogs didn’t win a conference game. Former Georgia offensive line coach Sam Pittman was brought in as Morris’s replacement and was able to guide the team to some memorable moments in 2020. The Hogs notably added Felipe Franks at quarterback in the offseason after he transferred from Florida and won against a ranked opponent early on. They had a bid to play in a bowl game but did not participate due to COVID-19 issues. 2021 will be about focusing on the learning curve that comes with a new coach, especially one who has already gleaned some experience. While contention with the conference’s bigs isn’t necessarily expected immediately, there is a lot in place for this team to build on this season.
  3. Auburn (6-5 in 2020)- There wasn’t much good about the 2020 Auburn season. They lost all but one against ranked opponents, were defeated by 2-8 South Carolina, dropped three of their last four games, and dumped their eighth-season head coach. The story heading into 2021 is the hiring of new head coach Bryan Harsin, who comes to the Plains after posting a 69-19 career record at Boise State. Harsin, who for the second time in his career is replacing Gus Malzahn in some capacity, will look to use talent the team already has and develop the new talent coming in. A key piece of that new talent pool is 4-star quarterback Dematrius Davis, out of North Shore High in Texas. Much has been made of current starter Bo Nix’s play at quarterback and he will need to put his still-growing experience to use. He, as well as the rest of the Tigers’ squad, will have their share of chances to do it. The 2021 slate for Auburn includes home games against hated rivals Alabama and Georgia, as well as a road trip north to Happy Valley for a game against Penn State. They’ll also have LSU in Baton Rouge after beating them 48-11 last season. 2021, for better or worse, will have a lot in store for Auburn football, but the year is not bereft of proving ground or opportunities for the Tigers. 
  4. Florida (8-4 in 2020, SEC East champions)- The Gators, led by Dan Mullen, fell short of where they wanted to be in 2020. The SEC’s Eastern Division champions gave Alabama a battle in Atlanta, but by that time their biggest goals were effectively out of reach. They lost each of their last three games in 2020: at home against LSU, in Atlanta in a shootout vs Alabama, and decidedly in Dallas at the Cotton Bowl against Oklahoma. What’s more, Heisman nominee Kyle Trask is gone. Kyle Pitts, arguably the most unguardable tight end in college football, is also gone. Defensively, the team loses Marco Wilson, who is now infamous for his crucial shoe-throwing mistake against LSU. The crucial part of Florida’s 2021 success runs through new QB1 Emory Jones, who has played well when he’s seen snaps. They get Alabama at home and LSU on the road, both revenge games from last season. The former matchup will be a pivotal game for the Gators in the first regular season meeting between the teams since 2014.   
  5. Georgia (8-2 in 2020)- One of the biggest ‘what-if’s’ in 2020 was Georgia at the quarterback position. Stetson Bennett IV, who showed flashes but was ineffective in the Dawgs’ two losses, was replaced in November by USC transfer JT Daniels, who went unbeaten as the starter and led Georgia to a Peach Bowl win. They are one of the SEC’s national championship contenders, with the talent and the coaching to go far. Daniels appears to have been the missing piece. Following resolution of the quarterback position, and with huge games against the likes of Clemson and Florida, their mettle will be tested, but they can cement themselves as a definitive championship-caliber team should they get the job done. 
  6. Kentucky (5-6 in 2020)- 2020 began with a ranking and some promise for Mark Stoops’s Kentucky Wildcats, and the season was not all doldrums as they netted multiple ranked wins, including one to close out the year against NC State. In 2021, they will meet the LSU Tigers in Lexington in a big inter-division test. They’ll also get Eastern Division opponents Florida and Missouri at home. The schedule presents challenges, no doubt, and the Wildcats will also have to play Georgia on the road. However, with such high-profile games throughout the schedule, Kentucky now finds itself in a position to be a wild card, drastically affecting the SEC standings while making noise of their own if they can find a way to spring an upset or two. After all, Wildcat fans will definitely remember what happened on an electrifying October Saturday back in 2007, the last time LSU faced Big Blue on the road.   
  7. LSU (5-5 in 2020)- The Tigers had a lot to unpack following an undefeated 2019 which saw them take home the Heisman and the national championship. Top players departed in droves, including but of course not limited to Joe Burrow, Justin Jefferson, and Devin White. 2020 was a down year indeed for the team and one in which these departures were definitely felt. 2021 brings a wealth of great home contests for the Bayou Bengals, in which the conference opponents are Florida, Auburn, Texas A&M, and Arkansas. They will also attempt to win in Bryant-Denny for the second consecutive time against Alabama. There exists a quarterback question in Baton Rouge; as the Tigers look to get back on track, will it be Myles Brennan or Max Johnson leading them? Either way, don’t count LSU out for long, as they will look to return to college football prominence in 2021. 
  8. Mississippi State (4-7 in 2020)- It was a rough start to SEC competition for Mike Leach and his famous Air Raid. The Bulldogs started the season with an exhilarating road upset of then-No. 6 LSU, but then faltered the very next game against Arkansas. They also lost games to Georgia and Alabama, among others. A bowl win against a ranked team (Tulsa) was a nice bright spot for a season which in several regards was not a very fulfilling one. In 2021, State gets Alabama and LSU on their home turf, and they travel to College Station to take on Texas A&M. The Egg Bowl, which State lost in 2020, also returns to Starkville again. Look for Leach’s impact in the SEC to expand in 2021 as he and his team continue to get more comfortable with their new system.  
  9. Missouri (5-5 in 2020)- Missouri finds themselves in a very similar position as a team like Kentucky does in the 2021 SEC. In 2020, Mizzou played reasonably well under first-year coach Eli Drinkwitz. They took down ranked LSU and at one point cracked the College Football Playoff Top 25. Quarterback Connor Bazelak is a potential 2021 breakout player. Missouri, like Kentucky, has a number of games at home which could shake up the SEC landscape if the Tigers win, including tests against Florida and Texas A&M. Missouri’s biggest win against A&M in the SEC was also a home contest, a 2013 game that sealed their spot in the SEC title game. 
  10. Ole Miss (5-5 in 2020)- The Rebels, who entered 2020 with a lot of attention owing to the recent hiring of Lane Kiffin, joined the club of SEC teams with a ranked bowl win, which they secured by beating Indiana in the Outback Bowl. They also took revenge on Mississippi State in the Egg Bowl. 2021 brings some tough road tests for Ole Miss, as they will take on Alabama and Auburn (as well as State) away from home. They will also participate in the 2021 Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game against Louisville in a noteworthy out-of-conference contest. LSU and Texas A&M will both visit Oxford in 2021. Kiffin, who has coached in the SEC before, looks to take Ole Miss to new heights in 2021, heights not climbed since before the 2017 departure of Hugh Freeze. Mississippi was a fun offensive team to watch in 2020, taking Bama to the limit and putting up 40 or more five times. Matt Corral had some games where he caused a disproportionate number of turnovers, and Ole Miss’s defense was nothing to write home about at all. Cleaning up these important issues will determine whether Ole Miss can begin to win big-time games again under the Lane Train. 
  11. South Carolina (2-8 in 2020)- Shane Beamer will have tough sledding in front of him in 2021 as he inherits a program which did not meet expectations under his predecessor, Will Muschamp. 2020 was a particularly difficult year for the Gamecocks, whose only wins came against Vanderbilt and Auburn. 2021 will not be a year where SC is expected to be right up there with division rivals like Georgia and Florida; as mentioned above, it takes time to learn and adapt with a new coaching staff on the sidelines. They’ll nevertheless face an above-average amount of competition, with games against Texas A&M, Georgia, Florida, Auburn, and (of course) Clemson. South Carolina has not been the victor over their arch-rivals since 2013. A new start under Beamer is welcomed by Palmetto State fans and though sweeping success may not come overnight, seasons like the upcoming one are very important for programs seeking to retool and rebuild. 
  12. Tennessee (3-7 in 2020)- The less said about the Vols’ recent stretch, the better. The recent recruiting violations by the program which have come to light resulted in both the firing of head coach Jeremy Pruitt and the retirement of athletic director Phil Fulmer. While UCF’s Danny White has stepped up to replace Fulmer, a permanent replacement for Pruitt has not been named as of this writing. Kevin Steele is currently UT’s interim head coach after spending time in the same job at Auburn during the 2020 campaign. On the field, quarterback play has hampered Tennessee significantly. While they played some games in 2020 with a ranking, they lost several conference games, including to Florida, Georgia, and Alabama. All three of those teams are a part of Tennessee’s 2021 schedule, and they have an out-of-conference home game against Pitt. Like some teams in this preview, Tennessee also awaits a less-than-stellar 2021.While few bright spots are present now, if the Vols can conquer the long road ahead (which may not come to pass for a number of years), they may find themselves in the thick of things in the SEC once more. 
  13. Texas A&M (9-1 in 2020)- The Aggies’ 2018 hiring of Jimbo Fisher has paid off in spades. This season, they ran through most of the SEC en route to an Orange Bowl berth and a spot at No. 4 in the final college football rankings. Kellen Mond has gone on to the NFL, but his departure alone may not signal that A&M’s success was short-lived; after all, Jimbo Fisher has championship experience and 2020 proved that said experience and success can translate to the SEC in a big way. They will have a chance to make serious noise in the West with road games against LSU and Missouri, in addition to home dates with Alabama and Auburn. These games, in addition to other conference contests, will determine if A&M can capitalize on 2020’s successes and avenge their absence from the College Football Playoff. Expectations in College Station are higher than they have been in some years and 2021 is going to be a big one for the Aggies. 
  14. Vanderbilt (0-9 in 2020)- The most prominent story out of Nashville this past season was Sarah Fuller, the former soccer goalkeeper who became the first woman to play in a Power Five game. Her addition to the roster led to widespread national media attention. Also, the Derek Mason era at Vandy is at its close, and that was likely for the best, as the Commodores were in college football’s cellar in 2020. Replacing Mason is Clark Lea, the former Notre Dame defensive coordinator who was on the Irish’s staff during their 2018 meeting with Vanderbilt. In 2021, Vandy will face Stanford at home, as well as also welcoming Georgia, Kentucky, and Missouri to Nashville. The Commodores are not anticipated to have a realistic chance at competing for the SEC in 2021, but Vanderbilt will likely be able to go beyond playing through an entire season without a win in 2021.  

With college football being the sport that it is, game outcomes do not always fit the status quo, and this will almost certainly be the case again in 2021. This is especially true in an SEC season that could potentially see some top teams unseated and some new faces rising to the ranks of conference contention. With new coaches, players, and staff members, 2021 promises to join other interesting seasons, both within the SEC and in college football as a whole.

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