Thomas And Lapoint Preview The SEC: Top Defenses, DPOY Picks

To finish up our SEC season preview, lead writer Aidan Thomas and SEC analyst Nathaniel Lapoint take a look at the defensive side of the ball. Which teams will bring the most fearsome defenses into 2020, and which players will spend all season terrorizing opposing offenses? Let’s take a look at the picks. Also check out the top offenses as well as the power rankings and predictions portion of our SEC preview. 

Top Defenses

Aidan Thomas

  1. Georgia
  2. LSU
  3. Alabama

Nathaniel Lapoint

  1. Georgia
  2. Auburn
  3. Kentucky

There’s a fair amount of disagreement in our rankings of the top defenses. We both have Georgia atop the rankings, but beyond that, there are no similarities. I’m riding Derek Stingley’s talent as a major factor in this decision, taking LSU as the second best defense in the conference, as Georgia’s always-strong defense is a clear choice for #1. Alabama is a bit of a riskier pick, having lost a majority of their game-changing talent, with three of their four players who recorded multiple interceptions in 2020 off to the NFL, as well as their top two leaders in sacks. However, the Tide always have a strong line and seemingly just reload defensively every season, so I put Alabama third. 

In Lapoint’s list, he goes with Georgia at #1, which is certainly a safe pick given their history, returning production, and star power in Richard LeCounte, Monty Rice, and others. After that, he goes with a bit of a darkhorse in the Auburn defense. Many consider Auburn a top-5 unit, although I’m not even that high on the Tigers, but Lapoint is elevating Gus Malzahn’s unit to the second slot of his rankings, after Auburn made defensive coordinator Kevin Steele the highest paid assistant coach with 2.5 million dollars per year. And, sliding in third, Lapoint goes with his trusty Wildcats. He’s remained high on Kentucky throughout the preview process, and he doesn’t waver in going with a Kentucky defense that has been projected anywhere from a top-three unit in the SEC to not even a top-5 defense. Kentucky is really a complete unknown this year, but Lapoint goes with the SEC East squad as his third-best defense in the conference. 

Top Defensive Players

Defensive Player Of The Year

Thomas: Derek Stingley, CB, LSU

Lapoint: Dylan Moss, LB, Alabama 

Aidan ThomasNathaniel Lapoint
Derek Stingley, CB, LSUDylan Moses, LB, Alabama
Richard LeCounte, S, GeorgiaDerek Stingley, CB, LSU
Shane Lee, LB, AlabamaRichard LeCounte, S, Georgia
Israel Mukuamu, CB, South CarolinaNick Bolton, LB, Missouri
Dylan Moses, LB, AlabamaMonty Rice, LB, Georgia

The top three players in our defensive rankings are almost the exact same – with both of us being high on LSU cornerback Derek Stingley and Georgia safety Richard LeCounte. We also each rank an Alabama linebacker in our top three – I went with rising sophomore Shane Lee while Lapoint opted for Dylan Moses, who missed his junior season due to injury. Moses was Lapoint’s pick for SEC defensive Player of the Year, whereas Stingley topped my rankings. If Moses returns to his pre-injury form, then he does become an instant contender for the DPOY award, as he recorded 86 tackles – 10 for loss – and 3.5 sacks two years ago.

After those top three, I opted for more secondary talent, going with Israel Mukuamu from South Carolina before rounding my list out with Moses. I neglected to add a popular pick in Nick Bolton of Missouri, who notched 107 tackles and broke up 8 passes while serving as the rock of a quietly impressive Missouri defense. Lapoint slots Bolton fourth, and polishes off his rankings with Monty Rice, the Georgia linebacker who recorded 89 tackles and 14 QB pressures in 2019.

Thomas and Lapoint Preview the SEC: Power Rankings, Predictions, Coach of the Year

Even with the delayed start to the season, college football is – hopefully – creeping closer. To start our preview of the 2020 season, we’re taking a look at the SEC. Lead writer Aidan Thomas and SEC analyst Nathaniel Lapoint previewed the conference. You can find our power rankings and predictions below. Check out our Top Offensive Players and Teams and Top Defensive Players and Teams in the SEC as well. 

Power Rankings

Aidan ThomasNathaniel Lapoint
AlabamaAlabama
LSUGeorgia
Texas A&MAuburn
GeorgiaLSU
FloridaKentucky
AuburnFlorida
Ole MissTexas A&M
South CarolinaMississippi State
TennesseeOle Miss
Mississippi StateTennessee
ArkansasSouth Carolina
KentuckyArkansas
MissouriMissouri
VanderbiltVanderbilt

Where We Agree

Alabama is the team to beat. Ranked at the top of both sets of our power rankings, we believe the Crimson Tide will be out for blood in 2020. We also slotted Missouri and Vanderbilt, in that order, in the bottom of our rankings, with neither of us seeing much potential for the Tigers or Commodores this coming season. 

Where We Disagree

While we have a lot of agreement regarding the middle portion of the SEC power rankings, two major teams cause some differences – Kentucky and Texas A&M. In my season preview of the Wildcats, I was pretty low on Kentucky, and I may be underestimating the effect of Terry Wilson’s return and how much their defense can compensate for a lackluster offense. I remain low on Kentucky here, slotting the Wildcats 12th overall and 5th in the SEC East. On the flip side, Lapoint has Kentucky in his top 5, ranked as the 2nd best team in the SEC East over Florida, who’s considered a Playoff darkhorse entering 2020. This glaring 7-spot difference in our placement of Kentucky was easily the biggest difference in our rankings. 

Meanwhile, the placement of the Aggies was also a cause for disagreement. I remain high on the Aggies, putting Texas A&M third in my SEC power rankings, while Lapoint has the Aggies sliding to 7th. I don’t think A&M pulls out a conference championship, but I believe that Mond does some big things in his senior year, and Texas A&M wins a couple of big games for once. Lapoint is fully off the Aggies’ hype wagon, however, squaring them away directly in the middle of his power rankings. Who has the more accurate power rankings may come down to the performance of these two teams. 

SEC Championship Predictions

Thomas: Alabama over Georgia

Lapoint: Alabama over Georgia

We are in complete agreement on our championship pick. Alabama has not gone back-to-back years without a division title since 2010-2011…and they won the national championship in 2011 anyways. With Mac Jones – or possibly 5-star recruit Bryce Young – under center, as well as Najee Harris in the backfield and Jaylen Waddle and Devontae Smith leading the receiver corps, it seems like a no-brainer to pick the Crimson Tide in the West. In the East, Georgia will remain the favorite. We disagree on the 2nd best team (Florida vs. Kentucky), and that alone shows that there may not be a clear favorite to disrupt Kirby Smart’s run atop the division. Two games are yet to be announced to the SEC schedule, which could factor into this decision, but as of now, give us Georgia in the title game, where they lose to Bama once more. 

Coach of the Year Predictions

Thomas: Nick Saban, Alabama
Lapoint: Mark Stoops, Kentucky

Stoops is most definitely a popular pick for Coach of the Year, and Lapoint rides his Kentucky train into the award predictions. If Stoops does indeed have this Kentucky team contending for the SEC East title, then he should be a no-brainer for the award. Stoops also won the award in 2018.

I went with a pick that may be mainstream and boring in Nick Saban. Saban has not won the Coach of the Year award since 2016, but I believe if he guides Alabama to the title this year, he should be heavily considered. Winning the gauntlet that is the SEC West is always impressive, and doing so with a 10-game schedule will be even more impressive. Saban is also faced with a QB battle to navigate, as well as a defense that lost their top three leaders in interceptions and their top two pass rushers. If he can reload that defense on the fly against a division of lethal offenses, then Saban should absolutely earn this award.

Thomas and Lapoint Preview The SEC: Top Offensive, OPOY Predictions

It used to be defenses win championships…but after LSU went through and torched everyone last year with their world-beating offense, can we say that with any degree of confidence? As college football evolves towards the spread offense, leading to higher-scoring games, impact offensive players can make a huge difference. Who are the best offensive teams and players gracing the SEC with their presence in 2020? Let’s take a look at what lead writer Aidan Thomas and SEC analyst Nathaniel Lapoint think on the subject. Check out our Power Rankings and Season Predictions, as well as our Top Defenses preview pieces.

Top Team Offenses

Aidan Thomas

  1. Alabama
  2. Texas A&M
  3. Florida

Nathaniel Lapoint

  1. Alabama
  2. Georgia
  3. LSU

We agree on Alabama being the top offense in 2020. That should be almost a no-brainer. They have possibly the best running back in the country, two elite returning receivers leading a deep depth chart at the position, and a QB battle that will see either a strong returning senior QB or 5-star freshman win the job. Maintaining unity through that QB battle may be the biggest problem this offense faces.
After Alabama, we differ significantly in our predictions. I remain high on the Aggies and what Kellen Mond and Co. will bring to the table. I also think Kyle Trask is the best quarterback in the conference entering the 2020 season. He was extremely impressive when jumping into the role in the middle of last season, and with an offseason to prepare, I think he will lead Florida’s offense to big things in 2020. Meanwhile, Lapoint goes with Georgia and LSU to round out his top-three. They are high-risk, high-reward selections, no doubt about that. Georgia must reload at running back and navigate a QB battle between two transfers and then help one of those transfers adjust quickly to their system. However, there’s no doubting the talent in both Jamie Newman and J.T. Daniels, so if the transition goes well, and Georgia gets production out of the backfield, they could absolutely be a lethal offense in 2020.
Lapoint also puts trust in Myles Brennan and the LSU Tigers. The argument this offseason is whether LSU was a one-hit wonder that benefited from Joe Burrow, or whether Joe Burrow’s legendary season was a cherry-on-top of a revitalized offense. I’m high on LSU and think they’ll be near the top of the SEC, but Lapoint is confident enough in Brennan taking the reins to slot the Tigers into the third spot of his top offenses. Smoking hot take coming in here from Nathaniel Lapoint. 

Top Offensive Players

Offensive Player of the Year

Thomas: Najee Harris, RB, Alabama

Lapoint: Mac Jones, QB, Alabama

Aidan ThomasNathaniel Lapoint
Najee Harris, RB, AlabamaMac Jones, QB, Alabama
Ja’Marr Chase, WR, LSUJa’Marr Chase, WR, LSU
Kyle Trask, QB, FloridaNajee Harris, RB, Alabama
Kellen Mond, QB, Texas A&MBo Nix, QB, Auburn
John Rhys Plumlee, QB, Ole MissKylin Hill, RB, Mississippi State 

Najee Harris and Ja’Marr Chase were consensus top-three SEC offensive players in our rankings here. Harris was my pick for Offensive Player of the Year, while Lapoint stayed with the Tide, but gave the nod to Mac Jones, sliding Harris to #3. My uncertainty regarding the QB battle in Tuscaloosa prevented me from including Jones in my top 5, but there’s no doubting the talent of the signal-caller. Chase is likely the best receiver in the country and maybe a top-10 player in the country. A darkhorse Heisman contender, Chase comes in at #2 in both sets of rankings. Kyle Trask, who I’m very high on entering the 2020 season, slotted in at #3 in my rankings. 

Bo Nix and Kellen Mond both make appearances on the list, with Nix just missing my list, while Plumlee, the intriguing dual-threat QB from Ole Miss, and Kylin Hill, who should challenge Harris as the top running back in the SEC round out our respective lists. 

SEC Previews: Alabama Crimson Tide

The last time Alabama went two consecutive seasons without winning th SEC West was 2010-2011. It’s a period of remarkable consistency from the Tide in the country’s best division, so to say this quickly and efficiently – Alabama is my early-season pick to win the SEC once more. They’ve got a QB battle between Mac Jones and Bryce Young, and regardless of who wins, they could have a Heisman contender and one of the best signal-callers in the conference. They’ve got possibly the best running back in the country in Najee Harris, and they’ve reloaded at wide receiver again, all while bringing along their usual fantastic defense. Let’s delve into this Alabama team. 

Top Returners: Najee Harris, Shane Lee

Harris is a clear choice here, after a 20-touchdown season that saw him operate as the lead back in Nick Saban’s offense, piling up 1224 rushing yards on 5.9 yards per carry, rushing for 13 scores. He was an impact contributor in the passing game, collecting 27 passes for 304 yards and 7 more touchdowns, leading all non-QBs with his twenty TDs. He will be a massive part of this Alabama offense once more in 2020. 

As for defense, I’m going with Shane Lee as the top returning player on this defense. In his true freshman season, Lee recorded 86 tackles, 6.5 for loss, to go with 4.5 sacks, an interception, and two forced fumbles. After posting a workout video, Lee seems to be committed to the process of dropping weight and adding some speed, one of the biggest criticisms he received despite his outstanding production. If his freshman year was Lee not in prime physical form…nobody in the SEC wants to see him fully unleashed. 

Biggest Concerns: Replacing their elite secondary

The Alabama secondary was hit with some tough-to-swallow losses, with top talents Xavier McKinney, Trevon Diggs, and Jared Mayden all departing for the NFL. That trio had 11 of Alabama’s 18 interceptions in 2019, so replacing that production and lockdown ability in their secondary will be absolutely crucial. A pass rush can only do so much when receivers are open, so getting some players to step up and be impact formers at defensive back is a big talking point for the Crimson Tide. 

X-Factors: Patrick Surtain II

One of the aforementioned players that will need to step up in 2020, Surtain is the only Alabama returner who had more than one interception, after notching a pair of picks in 2019. A former consensus five-star prospect, Surtain attained honorable mention All-American honors last year, but he will need to be the leader of the Crimson Tide secondary this season. To do that, Surtain must rise from an above-average contributor on a deep defense to an instant game changer for a defense that lost a lot of talent. 

SEC Record Prediction: 7-1

I’ve hinted at this in my prior team previews of LSU and Texas A&M, but I see the Tide, Tigers, and Aggies locked in a 3-way battle for SEC supremacy. I think Alabama will fall at LSU at Death Valley, but they’ll notch the victory over the Aggies at home, opening the door for them to claim the regular season division title when Texas A&M beats LSU on the season’s final weekend. All in on the Tide in 2020.

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. 

  

Video courtesy of Brian Mallett of Endicott College. Check out his work and prices @Bmalmedia on Instagram, or visit his Youtube page

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.