SEC Previews: LSU Tigers

Make no mistake, the defending champions are going to be very good in 2020. Will they make a historically dominant run to a 15-0 record (or whatever the equivalent is in the abbreviated season)? Probably not. But the Tigers aren’t going away just because Joe Burrow is gone. There are questions to be answered, but I expect LSU to be challenging for the SEC  crown once more. 

Top Returners: Ja’Marr Chase, Derek Stingley

Maybe you thought my introduction was bold for a team that lost a legendary quarterback, one of their top receivers, and their running back, not to mention the passing coordinator that revolutionized their offense. But if you want two reasons for why I’m still high on the Tigers, look at the two names above. Both Chase  and Stingley may be the best players in the country at their position. Chase is coming off an  84-reception, 20-touchdown season in which  he became LSU’s #1 receiver over first-round draft pick Justin Jefferson. Mentioned earlier this year as a darkhorse Heisman candidate (as good a chance as any receiver will ever get), Chase  is most  definitely among the elite  players  in the country, if not  the flat-out best  receiver to grace the gridiron this fall.

Meanwhile, Stingley is a clear contender  to be the SEC  Defensive  Player of  the Year. There’s been talk about the rising sophomore playing both ways in his junior season, although that timeline may be fast tracked if there’s a 2020 season. With quarantine rules in effect, having two-way players may be a game-changing asset on rosters. Stingley notched 38 tackles and 6 interceptions in his true freshman season, breaking up 15 passes and recovering a fumble as well. He was quite possibly the best player on a championship defense that included first-round pick Patrick Queen and second-round pick Grant Delpit. As a freshman. If I’m an LSU fan, I’m really excited about getting two more years of Derek Stingley. 

  

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Biggest Concerns: Replacing the Big Guns 

This one is clear enough. Joe Burrow is gone. Clyde Edwards-Hillaire is gone. Justin Jefferson is gone. On the defense, Delpit, Queen, Kristian Fulton, and K’Lavon Chaison are all gone. That’s seven players that went in the top two rounds, and it’s no doubt a lot of talent for LSU to replace. They’ve got returners and new guys ready to step up, but that’s quite the gut-punch to recover from. 

X-Factors: Myles Brennan

This season comes down to Brennan. He’s the man in Baton Rouge after backing up Joe Burrow the past two seasons. Can the understudy step up and earn a standing ovation? Brennan is 42-70 for 600 yards over his three years a backup, tossing two touchdowns and three interceptions. Under head coach Ed Orgeron, throwing to Ja’Marr Chase, and operating within LSU’s new spread offense, Brennan will have every opportunity to make good on the potential and talent that enticed LSU to offer the Mississippi product. Whether he does may determine LSU’s ceiling in 2020. \

SEC Record Prediction: 7-1
This record prediction came before the recent schedule adjustments, but ultimately, I believe LSU is on the shortlist of SEC contenders in 2020. My preview of Texas A&M already mentioned this so I’ll go ahead and anger any LSU fans who didn’t see it. I’ve got LSU taking down Alabama at home, but a bid at a second consecutive undefeated season falls short at Kyle Allen Field in their clash with the Aggies. After a 7-overtime loss to Texas A&M in their last road game clash with the Aggies, LSU dominated the match-up at Death Valley last year. Can the Aggies run it back on their home field? I’m giving it a tentative yes. LSU still finishes 7-1, still very much in contention for the CFP and New Year’s 6.

SEC Previews: Texas a&M Aggies

Just 7 times in the past 20 years, the Aggies have been ranked at the preseason top 25, and although they’ve finished in the ranking just one of those seven times. Three times they finished within the top 25 after being unranked in the preseason. It’s been an odd tale of a team that’s always good not great. They’ve finished with 7-9 wins in every season since 2012, but can they elevate their game in 2020. 

Top Returners: Kellen Mond, Myles Jones

It feels like Mond has been around for a while, but somehow, he’s only now entering his fourth and final season with the Aggies. He took a big step in his sophomore season, but his numbers slipped a little bit during a junior year that featured a brutal schedule. However, this year, I think Mond takes another step in a division with very few experienced quarterbacks. I would expect 3500 yards and between 25 and 30 touchdowns. Cutting down on the picks (18 over the past two years) would be a huge improvement for him. 

Myles Jones will be the leader of the secondary for A&M, after breaking up six passes, intercepting two, and forcing a fumble in 2020. He’s their top defensive asset, and some big performances from him could give their lethal offense more opportunity to go to work. 

Biggest Concerns: The Pass Rush

Justin Madubuike is gone, and with him goes the Aggies’ leader in sacks. Tyree Johnson returns with four sacks, and nobody else had more than two. Can Johnson elevate his game, and can the Aggies get someone else to step and up and be a force on the defensive line. 

X-Factors: Demarvin Leal

I’m not listing Johnson here because I believe he’s one of the top returners and is definitely capable of putting up big numbers. Rather, I’m going with Leal, who I believe will be Texas A&M’s best shot at gaining a second impact pass rusher. He recorded 38 tackles – 5.5 for loss- with two sacks a year ago. With Madubuike out of the picture, can Leal step up and be the extra star performer the Aggies’ defense is looking for?

SEC Record Prediction: 7-1

You’re not going to convince me this offense can’t swing with the best of them in the country and in the SEC. With Mond returning, their top two rushers, and two of their top three receivers, there’s little turnover for A&M, so if their senior signal-caller improves his numbers, I like the Aggies to roll against their competition. Give me a loss to Alabama on the road, but a regular-season ending statement victory at home against LSU. I’ve never bought into Aggies’ hype, but I’m doing so this year. Let’s see if 2020 brings big things for Jimbo Fisher’s squad. 

SEC Previews: Ole Miss Rebels

While many teams list Kentucky as their go-to sleeper team, I’ve already expressed my doubts about the Wildcats. Allow you to introduce you to my favorite SEC sleeper – the Ole Miss Rebels. Backed by head coach and Saban prodigy Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss returns a dynamic dual-threat signal-caller and their top receiver and could be a pretty scary offense in 2020. 

Top Returners: John Rhys Plumlee, Sam Williams (or Lakia Henry)

My confidence in Ole Miss was shaken slightly with the recent suspension of Williams due to sexual battery charges, reported on July 26. If Williams plays, he will be the on-field leader for the Rebels, having piled up six sacks, an interception, and 38 tackles (9.5 for loss). If he’s not, some question marks arise, but Lakia Henry is another valuable piece on the defense after the former JUCO linebacker recorded 87 tackles and a sack last season, serving primarily as an effective run stopper for Ole Miss. However, while these players are good, the defense was not the reason I became high on the Rebels. 

The SEC doesn’t have a most-improved player, or a breakout player, of the year award, but if they did, I would put my money on John Rhys Plumlee. As a freshman, Plumlee had his struggles at time, and I wouldn’t suggest he was near the top of the freshman quarterback starters, but he may just be the most dynamic quarterback in the conference. He led the Rebels with 1023 yards rushing and did so in just 8 games. He was responsible for posting 37 points on LSU’s championship defense, running for 212 yards and four TDs against the Tigers. If he becomes more polished in the passing game, Ole Miss could do some damage. 

Biggest Concerns: Pass Rush

Benito Jones is gone, bringing with him his 5.5 sacks and 10 tackles for loss. Can Ole Miss replace that production in 2020? What is Sam Williams’ indefinite suspension remains indefinite? And third-leading sack leader Charles Wiley remains in the transfer portal? Ole Miss could have a real hard time stopping some of these explosive offenses we’re bound to see in the SEC. 

X-Factors: Jacquez Jones

Jacquez Jones will absolutely need to step up his production in order for the Rebels to make moves in 2020. He put forth a solid 2019 season with 71 tackles and 7.5 for loss, to go with two sacks. With the aforementioned questions regarding their pass rush, Ole Miss needs Jones to be firing on all cylinders and ready to be a game-changing force on the defensive line. 

SEC Record Prediction: 5-3

Again, this is a risky prediction, but picks aren’t fun if you just go off of chalk and last year’s rankings. I believe that, under Lane Kiffin, Ole Miss is a team on the rise. Give me Ole Miss setting the tone with a home win versus Auburn in their SEC opener. They’ll beat Arkansas and Vanderbilt with no problem and should take back the Egg Bowl after Elijah Moore’s dog-pee fiasco last year. That’s four wins right there, and I like them to secure a home upset against the Florida Gators to polish it off. It’s bold. But safe picks are boring. Watch out for the Rebels. 

SEC Previews: Auburn Tigers

Year in and year out, the Auburn Tigers are one of the hardest teams to figure out. They always seem capable of springing big upsets, but they never enter those big games as favorites. They’ve got the dynamic Bo Nix returning under center, but questions elsewhere. What does #WarEagle have to bring to the table under Gus Malzahn in 2020? 

Top Returners: Bo Nix, KJ Britt

Nix is the obvious selection on the offensive side of the ball after a promising true freshman campaign in which he threw for 2542 yards, and 16 touchdowns to just 6 interceptions. He added in 313 rushing yards and seven touchdowns. WIll it be a sophomore slump or a dominant second year for Nix? 

Meanwhile, Britt is a top returning linebacker for the Tigers, as he notched 68 tackles – ten for a loss of yardage. He recorded 3.5 sacks and forced two fumbles. With 7th overall pick Derrick Brown off to the Carolina Panthers, Britt will be the source of disruption on the defensive line for Auburn, and his success in doing just that will be critical to their success. 

Biggest Concerns: The secondary

Auburn lost Jeremiah Dinson and Javaris Davis, two of their top defensive backs in 2020, leaving them with problems in the secondary. Christian Tutt returns but was somewhat inconsistent and needs to step up to keep the Tigers afloat on the defensive side of the ball. 

X-Factors: Roger McCreary

McCreary played out of a reserve role in 2019, but he put up some impressive numbers, racking up 36 tackles, an interception, and 9 passes defended, and 1 fumble recovery. Can he improve these numbers in an expanded role in 2020? Auburn is at their best when their defense is the heart and soul of their team, and if McCreary steps up this coming season, he could lead Auburn in that direction. 

SEC Record Prediction: 3-5

September 19 will pretty much make or break a huge moment in my overall SEC predictions. Auburn plays at Ole Miss, a team that I’m very high on. This record prediction for Auburn hinges on the fact that Auburn and Bo Nix is not as good as many expect them to be, and the Ole Miss Rebels are trending upwards. I have Auburn losing a few close ones and ending on a skid to LSU and Alabama. With LSU the defending champs, and Alabama chomping at the bit to regain their conference supremacy, plus Texas A&M and Ole Miss on the rise, I don’t like this uphill climb for the Tigers in 2020.  

SEC Previews: Arkansas Razorbacks

I’m starting off my SEC West team previews with a bold prediction: Arkansas is going to win some conference games. The Razorbacks, laughingstock of the SEC for several seasons now, return a 1,000 yard rusher and a few other strong pieces. While I’m not sure they can climb out of the basement of the SEC West, I like Arkansas to pick up a few wins in SEC play this season.

Top Returners: Rakeem Boyd, Bumper Pool

While the ‘Hogs break in a relatively new quarterback in Jack Lindsey (13-30 in 2019) in 2020, they’ll lean heavily on the presence of Rakeem Boyd, the workhorse of the Arkansas backfield last season. Boyd racked up 1,133 yards and 8 touchdowns on the ground, and he chipped in an additional 160 yards on 19 receptions. For a team that didn’t have a 500-yard receiver and is starting a new QB, Boyd will be the focal point of the offense. 

Meanwhile, defensively, the Razorbacks have Bumper Pool who, besides having a great name, excelled for the Arkansas defense last season, racking up 94 tackles – the top returning mark on the team – with 6.5 of those for loss, to go with five passes defended. The rising junior inside linebacker is a premier run-stopper, and if he can add a few sacks to his name, he’ll be an excellent asset as the Razorbacks look to steal some victories this season. 

Biggest Concerns: The Secondary

It was a concern last year, and it’s not getting much better. Arkansas recorded only 6 interceptions as a team, which was especially problematic when their own quarterbacks tossed 15 picks. Kamren Curl was the only player with two interceptions, and he left the Razorbacks after being selected in the seventh round of the draft. Facing an increasingly pass-heavy SEC, the Arkansas secondary will need to get up to snuff quickly and figure out how to make some big plays, or else the Razorbacks will be going nowhere fast in 2020. 

X-Factors: Joseph Foucha, Jack Lindsay

Foucha is Arkansas’s best hope at getting a game-changing player in their secondary. As a sophomore, the safety from New Orleans recorded one pick, to go with 87 tackles, four passes defended, and one fumble recovery. Outside of Bumper Pool, he’s probably the best returning player for the Razorbacks’ defense, and he will need to increase his production to help the defense get off the field, giving Rakeem Boyd and Arkansas’s inexperienced offense more drives to put up points. 

Heading to the offensive side of the ball, the X-factor is clear. While Arkansas knows they can get good production from Rakeem Boyd, if he stays healthy, they have little to know idea what Lindsay will do. His completion percentage in 2019 (43.3%) is not inspiring, but he also threw three touchdowns and no interceptions while putting up the best passer rating of four Arkansas signal-callers with 30+ pass attempts. He was also the only QB of that quartet to throw zero picks. Boyd can do a lot of the grunt work for the Arkansas offense, but if Lindsay thrives out of play action packages and puts up decently efficient numbers, the Razorbacks have some offensive potential. If not? Opponents will load the box against Boyd, and the 3-and-outs will pile up in Fayetteville. 

SEC Record Prediction: 2-6

Like I said, it’s not going to be terrible by Arkansas standards, but I definitely don’t have to like it. The Razorbacks are 1-23 in their past three SEC seasons, so picking a 2-6 record may even be bold, but I’m at least a little higher on them than in past seasons. Arkansas’s clear strength lies in Boyd and their running game, and they’ll have to lean heavily on it to pull out any victories. My early prediction is they snare a win at hapless Missouri and also play their Super Bowl in a Halloween home contest against Tennessee, coming off a bye week. Give me a pair of Arkansas wins there.

SEC Previews: Mississippi State Bulldogs

Throw it back to the first ever College Football Playoff rankings, released in Week 10 of the 2014 season. The debut rankings featured Dak Prescott’s Mississippi State Bulldogs at the top with a 7-0 record. The Bulldogs didn’t stay in the top four – finishing 11th – and they haven’t sniffed the CFP rankings since then. They’ve cracked the Top 25 in just three of the past five seasons, never climbing higher than #14. Competing in the brutal SEC West, it’s tough to rebuild in the same division as the dynastic Alabama team, the streaky Auburn Tigers, or an impressively consistent and occasionally dominant LSU squad. It’s the challenge that Mississippi State faces once more in 2020, as they will face an uphill climb with transfer quarterback KJ Costello taking the reins under center. 

Top Returners: Kylin Hill, Kobe Jones

With Costello likely taking control under center, displacing Garrett Shrader as the starter, Mississippi State will look elsewhere for consistency from players that know the system. One such player is Kylin Hill, who, if he were on a serious SEC contender, may have the chance at winning the conference offensive player of the year. Hill ran for 1350 yards and chipped in 180 receiving yards. He’s the heart and soul of the Bulldogs’ offense, and he’ll be relied on to carry the load as Costello adjusts to the offense. 

Kobe Jones is the top returning pass rusher for Mississippi State, after racking up 30 tackles (7 for loss) to go with four sacks. Facing a division with four true title contenders, Jones will have a tall task, and he will be desperately needed to cause disruption in the trenches throughout the season.

Biggest Concerns: The Secondary

Secondaries across the country are facing new challenges as the college game evolves towards the spread offense, and units that lack a standout player face a tough road ahead, as more and more teams bring in elite receivers. That’s the concern that Mississippi State, which lost the two players that hauled in multiple interceptions, faces this upcoming season. Can someone step up and become a lockdown defensive back that can match-up against the SEC elite? If not, this season could be in trouble. 

X-Factor: CJ Morgan
Morgan could be the answer to Mississippi State’s question marks in the secondary, after posting a strong junior season in which he tied for the team lead with 8 passes defended to go with 59 tackles and an interception. The Bulldogs may not know if they have an elite safety until they see Morgan matched up against Jaylen Waddle, Ja’Marr Chase, or any of the other elite receivers within the SEC, but Morgan’s performance in these clashes will be a key factor in determining Mississippi State’s ceiling in 2020. 

SEC Record Prediction: 3-5

The Bulldogs face a brutal four-game stretch that starts with Texas A&M, followed by road trips to LSU and Alabama, and punctuated by a home clash with Auburn. I can’t see this team ready to compete in those games, but outside of that absurd stretch of games, they put forth a decent effort this year, particularly if Costello melds well with the offense. Cross-division contests with Kentucky and Missouri look like very wannabe games, as does a home game with Arkansas. It’ll be an uphill battle, but the path to conference relevancy is there in 2020.