Where else can a review of the 2020 college football season begin but the SEC? The SEC East was home to an electrifying Florida offence. Georgia were hoping for better in 2020, missing out on the college football playoffs. Vanderbilt went 0-9 in a punishing schedule involving only SEC teams.
Tom is here to run through the 2020 SEC East season.
#1 – Florida Gators
Season Record: 8-4
Bowl Game: L 55-20 v. Oklahoma (Cotton Bowl)
The World’s Largest Cocktail Party (W 44-28 v. Georgia)
This game was complete domination in Jacksonville for the most anticipated game of Florida’s season. The scary concussion suffered by Kyle Pitts did put a sour note on what was otherwise an offensive masterclass. After falling to an early 14-0 deficit, The Gators turned the game on its head to humble their greatest rivals. Kyle Trask threw for 474 YDs and four TDs in a game that gave Dan Mullen’s troops the bragging rights for another year.
What a turnaround 2020 was for Kyle Trask. A backup QB to Felipe Franks until the latter’s injury in 2019, he stepped up to the plate in his Senior year. In the game against Georgia in Jacksonville, he became the first SEC QB to throw four touchdowns in five consecutive games. He finished the season as Florida’s all-time passing TD scorer (43). He was named a Heisman Trophy finalist, finishing 4th.
Kyle Pitts cemented his place as the best Tight End in college football last year. He was named an All-American and won the John Mackey Award, given to the best Tight End of the college football season. He ended his Junior year with 770 YDs and 12 TD receptions.
Dan Mullen’s COVID comments
Head Coach Dan Mullen seemed to blame his side’s defeat at Texas A&M on the home crowd at College Station. There were 24,700 fans in attendance on October 10th, the highest they would play in front of in the entire regular season. After the game, Mullen lamented that The Swamp lacked its usual atmosphere, and claimed to want to see it filled with 90,000 fans to establish a home field advantage. Just three days later, a COVID outbreak on the program.
Mullen never got his wish to fill The Ben Hill Griffin Stadium that year. He seemed unaffected by the 23,000 fans in Knoxville on December 5th for The Gators’ 31-19 victory over Tennessee.
The cleat toss
In an unexpected loss to LSU, Marco Wilson cost his team the game at The Swamp by throwing an opposing player’s shoe downfield. The resulting penalty led to a game winning field goal for The Tigers. Sat at #6 in the rankings going into the game, some were speculating that there may be two SEC teams in the college football playoff. One of them was sure to be Alabama. Could The Gators be the other? Not after this defeat to an unspectacular 5-5 LSU team.
Cotton Bowl defeat
This was a humbling defeat for The Gators after a close-run loss in the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. It was only the second meeting between the two sides. The Gators had won the first 24-19 back in 2009.
Granted, the team was undermanned and without some key stars who had opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft. It proved crucial on offence. Kyle Trask was unable to rely on star Tight End Kyle Pitts, as well as WRs Kadarius Toney and Treyvon Grimes. Trask threw 3 interceptions in this one, but it was the defence that would set the wrong sort of records on the day. They gave up 684 total yards, the most ever conceded in a Cotton Bowl Classic. The Sooners’ 55 points was also a Cotton Bowl record.
The Florida offence, so brutal in their approach in 2020, is depleted as a result of top talents leaving for the professional game. Quarterback Kyle Trask, Tight End Kyle Pitts and wideout Kadarius Toney have all declared for the 2021 NFL Draft. Offence was certainly their strong suit last year – what can Dan Mullen cook up in 2021?
Despite rumours that some NFL franchises were interested in speaking to Dan Mullen about his interest in a HC job, they amounted to nothing.
#2 – Georgia Bulldogs
Season Record: 8-2
Bowl Game: W 24-21 v. Cincinnati (Peach Bowl)
The Bulldogs saw some impressive work from young offensive talent. George Pickens could be the nation’s best receiver after an impressive sophomore season. Zamir White played a healthy year after an injury-plagued past, and led the team in rushing in seven of their fixtures. Finally, JT Daniels showed enough (when healthy) to suggest that he could play at a high level in 2021.
Losing in the games that matter
The Cocktail Party defeat to Florida was a wake-up call for The Bulldogs. With that defeat, they fell out of playoff contention, and to 13th in the rankings. They entered the game as favourites, but allowed a two score lead to slip. Injuries on defence weren’t helped by the ejection of Lewis Cine for a targeting hit on Kyle Pitts.
Before that, Kirby Smart’s side was humbled by eventual national champions, Alabama. They lost both games by comfortable margins (41-24 v. Alabama and 44-28 v. Florida). For Georgia fans, these are the most important fixtures on the schedule. If they want to be national champions (or even a playoff team), they need to do better.
Later wins on the schedule saw their position recover to 9th, but no higher.
Inconsistency at QB
Georgia entered the season with Stetson Bennett, JT Daniels and Jamie Newman in the QB room. Newman’s decision to opt-out before making an appearance for The Bulldogs made Kirby Smart’s decision easier. That’s not to say it was not frustrating for Smart and new OC Todd Monken. Many had expected Newman to win the starting job before his decision to sit out.
Bennett started the first five games, with Daniels taking over for the final four. It immediately became clear that Daniels was a better fit under Monken’s system, throwing for 401 YDs and four TDs against Mississippi State, his first start in nearly two years. Had he been healthy and played a full year, who knows how the season might have panned out for The Dawgs?
Expect huge changes on defence, particularly in the backfield. 3 of Georgia’s top CBs have left Athens to enter the NFL (Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, DJ Daniel all declared for the 2021 NFL Draft this year). Richard LeCounte III (S) and edge rusher Azeez Ojulari have both declared, as has LB Monty Rice.
On offence Tight End transfer Tre McKitty has declared, as has Ben Cleveland (IOL). Georgia fans never saw Jamie Newman put on pads as a Bulldog, but he will be hoping to find an NFL roster this April. Interestingly, he wore a Wake Forest helmet at the Senior Bowl.
#3 – Missouri Tigers
Season Record: 5-5
Bowl Game: N/A (Music City Bowl v. Iowa cancelled)
Defeating LSU to get their first win of the season has to be a high point. A superb 45-41 victory came with a 4th Quarter TD throw from Freshman Connor Bazelak to Tight End Nico Hea. Bazelak finished with four touchdowns and 406 yards, with 85% of passes completed. It was Bazelak’s most important performance of the season. Senior Larry Rountree III also rushed for 119 yards from 18 carries.
The cancellation of the Music City Bowl denied Mizzou the opportunity to end the season on a high. In the regular season, they beat the teams they were supposed to (Kentucky, South Carolina, Vanderbilt and Arkansas), plus an LSU side showing clear signs of regression from the 2019 national championship. On the other hand, they were defeated in games where they entered as underdogs (Alabama, Florida, Georgia).
A victory over Iowa would have ended the season on a high. The Hawkeyes impressed at times in the Big Ten, and would have proven to be an even test of the Tigers’ season. In the end, COVID took that opportunity away from a program that showed flashes of promise in 2020.
Larry Rountree III has completed his Senior year, and has entered the 2021 NFL Draft.
#4 – Kentucky Wildcats
Season Record: 5-6
Bowl Game: W 23-21 v. NC State
The win over Tennessee stands out. The Wildcats forced four turnovers, two of which were returned for touchdowns. The Cats had lost 17 games straight in Knoxville before this one-sided victory over their rivals. The Vols were restricted to just one score at the end of the first half. That aside, the Kentucky defence was stout throughout, and rightly brought home a dominant victory.
Arguably, the 24-2 victory over Mississippi State was a more dominant performance by the defensive unit, but this performance came in their historic rivalry game. As the third in ten years (and the first in Knoxville since 1984), this one meant more.
Low-scoring offence. In defeats to Auburn, Alabama, Georgia and Florida, the Wildcats posted just 29 points. They beat that total in three of their four regular season wins (34-7 v. Tennessee, 38-35 v. Vandy, 41-18 v. South Carolina).
Ironically, their most painful defeat came in a high-scoring, one point overtime loss to Ole Miss. The two teams traded touchdowns in overtime, but Kicker Matt Ruffalo missed the extra point for The Cats. The game ended 42-41 to The Rebels.
Mark Stoops is entering his ninth year as Kentucky Head Coach. However, there is one fresh face on the coaching staff in 35 year old Liam Coen. Coen was an assistant coach at the LA Rams before accepting the job as Stoops’ OC. An on-field addition has been WR Wan’Dale Robinson, who has transferred from Nebraska for his Junior year.
#5 – Tennessee Volunteers
Season Record: 3-7
Bowl Game: N/A (Liberty Bowl v. West Virginia cancelled)
A fast start to the season gave many the (false) hope that this would be a good year for Jeremy Pruitt and The Vols. A close 31-27 win over South Carolina was followed with a dominant 35-12 win at home to Missouri. Sophomore RB Eric Gray ran for 105 YDs and a score, and added another with a 13 YD touchdown reception. That win put Tennessee on an 8 game winning streak dating back to the 2019 season. It tied The Vols with Notre Dame for the longest winning streak in college football. One of those teams was to make it to the college football playoffs this year, but it wouldn’t be Tennessee.
The wounds opened up by the recruiting scandal that rocked the program in January will take considerable time to heal. Dr. Plowman, Chancellor of The University of Tennessee, admitted that she was stunned by what the internal investigation produced. A NCAA investigation into Level I and II rule violations is set to follow, which will inevitably have further consequences.
Things weren’t great on the field, either. The Vols fell from 8-5 in 2019 to 3-7 this time out. After starting the year 2-0, Tennessee lost every game remaining on its schedule, with the exception of an expected walk over of Vanderbilt.
Head Coach Jeremy Pruitt was sacked after an internal investigation into recruitment. Allegedly, potential recruits were offered cash bribes to enrol in Knoxville. Pruitt’s involvement saw him lose his job, despite his lawyer’s claim that this was an “orchestrated attempt” by the school. Not only that, many athletes took the opportunity to decommit from the program. After a long and uninspiring search for his replacement, Josh Heupel was eventually hired to inherit the ongoing crisis. Heupel joins from UCF and has a career 28-8 record as a Head Coach.
Trey Smith (IOL) has left for the NFL. Quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has transferred to Washington State. Four star recruit Kaidon Salter has committed to the Vols, and will compete with Harrison Bailey and Sullivan McDermott for the starting role. McDermott joins from UNC as a preferred walk-on.
#6 – South Carolina Gamecocks
Season Record: 2-8
Bowl Game: N/A (Gasparilla Bowl v. UAB cancelled)
The 30-22 win over Bo Nix and Auburn stood out for the Gamecocks. South Carolina forced three turnovers from Bo Nix, two of those coming from star cornerback Jaycee Horn. This was Horn’s standout game in college football, forcing 4 passes incomplete also. Whilst the run game ran in three scores, it was the defence that kept Auburn at bay to secure the win.
The Gamecocks couldn’t follow up after the impressive win over Auburn. In the three games that followed, they gave away an average of 53 points per game in defeats to LSU, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, scoring just 69 points across all three defeats. That saw The Gamecocks slide to 2-5. A change at quarterback, where Freshman Luke Doty stepped in ahead of Collin Hill, wasn’t enough to inspire South Carolina to another victory, as they fell to 2-8 on the year.
The Gamecocks gave up 30 points or more in 8 out of 12 games in a disappointing 2019 season. They regressed further in 2020, reaching the same unfortunate milestone in 7 of 10 fixtures.
HC Will Muschamp was sacked at the end of the year, and replaced by Shane Beamer. Beamer leaves his role as assistant coach on offence to Lincoln Riley at Oklahoma. A former assistant at Williams-Brice Stadium, Beamer was a firm favourite with fans and alumni. It wasn’t all bad news for Muschamp, who has joined the Georgia coaching staff as a defensive analyst.
Standout Cornerback Jaycee Horn is set to become a First Round selection in the NFL Draft. Wideout Shi Smith has also entered the professional game on the other side of the ball. Both will be a huge miss in 2021.
QB Ryan Hilinski has transferred to Northwestern after losing the starting job in 2020.
#7 – Vanderbilt Commodores
Season Record: 0-9
Bowl Game: N/A
Sarah Fuller made history, becoming the first woman to play in the Power 5. The Commodores’ “soccer” goalkeeper stood in at Kicker when the team was depleted due to injury. She kicked an extra point in a 42-17 loss against Tennessee. In an otherwise forgettable year on the field, Vanderbilt led the way in inspiring the next generation of college football players.
The 41-0 loss to Missouri stands out for Vandy. It came just two weeks after a 3 point loss to Kentucky, where they scored a season-best 35 points. To follow up two weeks later with a crushing loss to a 5-5 Mizzou team stung.
Derek Mason was relieved of his duties at the end of the year after seven years as Head Coach. He leaves with a 27-55 record, unsurprising for the smallest fish in college football’s biggest pond. Mason has been replaced by Clark Lea, former DC of The Notre Dame Fighting Irish.