Where else can we begin to review 2020 in college football but in the SEC? The conference is more than just a home to the national champions, Alabama. There were bright years for fans of The Gators and Aggies, and disappointment for the reigning champions, LSU. Propping up the conference were long-time whipping boys, The Vanderbilt Commodores.
Ash is here to talk you through the SEC West, as Tom takes on the SEC East.
#1 Alabama Crimson Tide
Season Record: 13-0
W 31-14 v. Notre Dame (Rose Bowl)
W 52-24 v. Ohio State (College Football Playoff Championship)
Another national title… W. 52-24 V. Ohio State
When you go undefeated, it is difficult to pick out just one highlight. That would be the case if it wasn’t for a certain 18th national title, the sixth under Nick Saban. It was a dominating display by the Crimson Tide and further cemented Saban’s dynasty.
Their star performers were certainly on point. Mac Jones finished the day with over 450 yards and 5 touchdowns, Heisman winner DeVonta Smith slapped Shaun Wade all over the place, finishing with 215 yards and 3 touchdowns. Not to be outdone, Najee Harris added two rushing touchdowns to end an impressive campaign of his own.
How can anyone pick a lowlight from this season for ‘Bama? They were very few and far between for a team that some are calling the best ever in the program’s history.
A personal low point for Jaylen Waddle was his injury in October against Tennessee. Alabama did not skip a beat without him, but just imagine this offence could have done with Waddle alongside Smith! He had ended the year on a high, when he played in the National Championship to bring a hobbled end his career with Alabama.
Staff changes are aplenty this off season. The standout changes so far have been OC Steve Sarkisian moving on to Texas as the new HC. He has been replaced with former Texans HC Bill O’Brien. Sticking with former NFL Head Coaches, former Jags HC Doug Marrone has won a job as Offensive Line coach.
There are big changes in Tuscaloosa this off season. QB Mac Jones, WR DeVonta Smith and RB Najee Harris are all heading to the draft along with a number of other impressive talents elsewhere.
‘Bama also lost a number of big guys on the offensive and across the defence. OT Alex Leatherwood, C Landon Dickerson, WR Jaylen Waddle, CB Patrick Surtain II, DL Christian Barmore and LB Dylan Moses are the other top names leaving Bama in 2021. In total, 22 players from the 2020/21 roster have played their final game in Tuscaloosa.
In true Alabama style, they have readymade replacements lined up, thanks to an historic year of recruiting. The 2021 recruitment class boasts 10 of the nation’s top 50 recruits. It’s safe to say the Crimson Tide are not going anywhere anytime soon, Especially with Nick Saban at the helm.
#2 Texas A&M Aggies
Season Record: 9-1
Bowl Game: W. 41-27 v. North Carolina (Orange Bowl)
Overcoming The Gators
Texas season didn’t make the best start to 2020 with a lacklustre victory over Vanderbilt and a 52-24 drubbing to eventual champions Alabama. It wasn’t until their 3rd game of the season that it really kicked into gear, where they overcame Florida in a hardfought shoot out.
Kellen Mond certainly has his doubters but left it all out on the field against the Gators, guiding his team to victory with over 350 yards and three touchdowns. He went throw for throw against Kyle Trask. We saw a full offensive display from the Aggies; running back Isaiah Spiller had his best performance of the year with 174 yards and two touchdowns.
In the end it was the incredible defence that came up clutch when needed. A late turnover followed a fumble recovery by DeMarvin Leal. The Aggies sealed victory with a game-ending field goal. It was an all round performance by the Aggies and put everyone else on notice in college football.
Orange Bowl to end it all
Texas can feel hard done by that the playoff committee announced they had missed out on the 2020 college football playoffs. They didn’t let that get them down for long, and went into the NY6 Orange Bowl against UNC.
It was all about the run game for Texas. Texas found themselves 20-17 down entering into the fourth before a 24-point 4th quarter guided them to Orange Bowl victory. Key running back Isaiah Spiller went down hurt but not before two touchdowns. Backup Devon Achane was called up and did not look back. He ended the day with 140 yards and two rushing touchdowns.
Texas are likely still raging about not being a top 4 team, but ended the season on a high against a tough opposition.
Stolen playoff spot
Can it really be anything else for the Aggies in 2020? HC Jimbo Fisher was particularly outspoken in the lead up to the final four announcement, and pointed to eight wins in the SEC. Clemson and Notre Dames both had two losses on their records. The fact that Ohio State only completed six games and looked less than impressive in their Big Ten championship game was salt in the wounds.
In the end, they were the odd man out. Many had expected it, but it also brought to light the issues surrounding the playoff structure and further calls for change. The Aggies did end the 2020 college football season with their highest ranking since 1939. A college football playoff appearance would have capped off a fantastic 2020.
Caleb Chapman injury
After a breakout performance over Florida, where he had 151 yards, the hype lasted all of two days. It was announced the standout WR would be out for the rest of the season with a knee injury.
It meant that QB Kellen Mond lost his best passing option. The run game became even more impactful in 2020. As it turns out, The Aggies got on just fine without him. With him in the lineup, it could have been the difference between the Orange Bowl and a playoff spot.
The Aggies will lose 11 players in 2021 to the NFL Draft, including starting QB Kellen Mond.
Mond’s reliable WR Jhamon Ausbon has also declared after 872 yards and five touchdowns in 2020. The other names to look out for in April will be OG Carson Green, OG Jared Hocker, LB Buddy Johnson, C Ryan McCollum, OT Dan Moore, LB Ikenna Okeke, DT Bobby Brown III & Anthony Hines III.
There are no big staff changes to speak of. In terms of 2021 recruiting, they have just three of the top 50 recruits entering the program (DT Shemar Turner, DE Tunmise Adeleye & RB LJ Johnson).
#3 Auburn Tigers
Season Record: 6-5
Bowl Game: L. 35-19 v. Northwestern (Vrbo Citrus Bowl)
Top Tigers in the SEC in 2020
In a tough year for the Tigers there is one standout game for the Auburn fan base: the dominating victory over last year’s national champions, The LSU Tigers.
It was never a close affair, with Bo Nix having a positive day under centre. The polarising QB put up 300 yards and three touchdowns through the air, and also showed his dual threat ability with 81 yards and one rushing touchdown to see off their SEC foe. WR Anthony Schwartz was the main benefactor of Nix through the air, ending the contest with 123 receiving yards and one touchdown. That showing was his best in the orange and blue in 2020.
LSU are not the team we saw in 2019, but for Auburn to overrun them in this 48-11 blowout will be the lasting memory of the 2020 season.
From Bowl to worse
Head coach Gus Malzahn was already out of the door after eight years at the helm by the time The Tigers entered their Vrbo Citrus bowl game against Northwestern. Interim Head Coach Kevin Steele took charge of his one and only game.
Northwestern had impressed throughout the 2020 season and ran it close with Ohio State in the Big Ten Championship. Northwestern got out to an early 14-0 lead in the first and never really looked back with QB Peyton Ramsey picking up the MVP for the game.
What did not help Auburn was the three week break between their final season game and this bowl game, along with positive Covid test results just moments before they were set to depart.
Bo Nix, the offensive line & that ‘spike’
A lot has been said of Bo Nix’s struggles in 2020. The criticism has been fair at times. What has not helped is how fragile the offensive line was all year. Poor performances and injuries left Nix regularly running for his life.
A lack of judgement also has been a big factor for Nix. Silly mental errors and mistakes splattered into his game. Nothing sums this up more than the intentional grounding against Arkansas in October. With 30 seconds left in the final quarter, Nix fumbled the snap from his centre, picked the ball up in an attempt to spike it. I not only appeared to look like it went backwards, but also resulted in intentional grounding. Nix got away with it, despite Arkansas recovering the ball as the whistle went. Auburn would go on to win the game with the resulting field goal, much to the dismay and annoyance of Arkansas.
The one big change is of course the firing of HC Gus Malzahn after eight seasons. He has been replaced for the 2021 season by Boise State HC Bryan Harsin. Mike Bobo has come in from South Carolina as the new Offensive Coordinator, and former Vanderbilt HC Derek Mason has been hired as the new Defensive Coordinator.
Player wise, Auburn are losing some big names in 2021. WR duo Seth Williams & Anthony Schwartz, CB Roger McCreary and LB K.J Britt are the big names leaving the program for the NFL. Pass rusher Big Kat Bryant has announced he is transferring to Oklahoma.
#4 LSU Tigers
Season Record: 5-5
Bowl Game: N/A (Self-imposed bowl game ban)
A rose between many thorns
LSU saved their best for last in the 2020 season with a victory over the impressive Florida Gators.
This one all came down to a single cleat. With the game tied up and LSU stopped on a third down, Florida CB Marco Wilson inexplicably threw LSU tackle Kole Taylor’s cleat downfield. It resulted in multiple penalties and maintained LSU’s drive, culminating in a game-winning field goal. Only Wilson knows why he decided to do what he did, but it will live in the memory as one of the crazier moments in the 2020/21 season.
2019 this is not
Many expected a fall from grace by LSU following the mass exodus of the 2020 national championship roster. They also lost WR Ja’Marr Chase, CB Kary Vincent Jr & DT Tyler Shelvin to opt outs before the season started, WR Terrance Marshall eventually joined the opt outs in November 2020. LSU had 14 players drafted from the 2019 roster, which equalled a record in an NFL Draft.
LSU stumbled to a 4-5 record. The 2020 season started off in the worst possible way with the opening game loss to Mississippi State. Players and fans alike will be glad to see the back of the 2020 season.
LSU did not appear in a bowl game this year, after a self imposed ban. They also cut eight scholarship spots after reported allegations of mishandling sexual assault cases. This may not be the last we hear of this issue, as the NCAA is still investigating the program.
This year’s NFL Draft will not be quite as damaging for LSU as it was in 2020, but they are still losing some big talent. Ja’Marr Chase, Tyler Shelvin & Kary Vincent are all leaving, along with a number of other big names. LB Jabril Cox is one and done with LSU. WR Terrance Marshall Jr is following his partner to the NFL, as is starting safety Jacoby Stevens.
On a positive note, LSU are returning 20 of 22 starters from the past season, which will allow for more stability than last offseason.
LSU will expect a big improvement for 2021 and have already looked to replace both Shelvin & Stevens with top 30 recruits DT Maason Smith and Safety Sage Ryan. They have also picked up two top 100 wide receivers in Deion Smith and Chris Hilton to try and replace the clear holes they missed with Chase and Marshall missing the majority of the 2020 college football season.
#5 Ole Miss Rebels
Season Record: 5-5
Bowl Game: W 26-20 v. Indiana (Outback Bowl)
Outback Bowl tapes over a poor season
Ole Miss experienced an up and down season in Lane Kiffin’s first in charge. The Rebels ended with a 4-5 record in the SEC. They somewhat made up for the year with a bowl victory over Indiana, even if it was not the most flattering display.
This was the Rebels’ first appearance in a bowl game in five years and did so without their main offensive weapons in WR Elijah Moore & TE Kenny Yeboah.
Ole Miss nearly blew it, allowing Indiaina to get two touchdowns in the fourth quarter. This kept the contest interesting, but one of the lowest ranking defenses in the country in Ole Miss were able to hold on to see out the victory.
Quarterback Matt Corral was the standout for Ole Miss on the day with 342 yards and two touchdowns. He is returning for next season to add to his resume.
Auburn controversy strikes again
Auburn were in the headlines two weeks in a row thanks to a refereeing call on the field. In the fourth quarter, Ole Miss kicked off to Auburn only for the ball to hit kick returner Shaun Shivers on the finger and go into the end zone. Ole Miss RB Tylan Knight then recovered in the end zone for a would-be touchdown, only for it to be called a touchback by the officials on the field.
Lane Kiffin disclosed that he asked the referees in the moment if he needed to challenge the play, but the official replied that the replay officials at the league office had already reviewed the play and didn’t find anything worth reviewing. Auburn would go on to score the winning TD and put Ole Miss 1-4 on the year.
Ole Miss are in a positive spot for 2021, with many of their roster returning for Lane Kiffin’s second year in charge. They will be without WR Elijah Moore, TE Kenny Yeboah and OT Royce Newman, all of whom are going pro. Defensive Lineman Ryder Anderson and DB Jay Stanley have both announced they will be transferring out of the program.
Ole Miss’ top recruiting prospect for 2021 comes in the shape of 62nd ranked DT Tywone Malone.
#6 Arkansas Razorbacks
Season Record: 3-7
Bowl Game: N/A (Texas Bowl v. TCU cancelled)
Arkansas were a middling defence in 2020, but put it all on the field against Ole Miss in October. The secondary were on point with a total of six interceptions, causing Matt Corral issues all day. The standout was CB Hudson Clark, who came up with three interceptions and was awarded the Jim Thorpe Award. Not bad for a walk-on.
First SEC win
Arkansas’ year ended with a 3-7 record. But it was not all doom and gloom. They won their first SEC game since 2017 with victory over Mississippi State on 3rd October. Feleipe Franks was looking for a fresh start at Arkansas. He had one of his better days, ending on 212 passing yards and two touchdowns.
Cancelled Bowl Game
Arkansas had a poor year all round, but would have hoped to end on a high against TCU in the Texas Bowl. That was quickly wiped out thanks to Covid-19 and an influx of positive tests in the TCU campus. The outbreak led to the game’s cancellation.
New HC Sam Pittman did not have his best start to life as the leader of the Arkansas Razorbacks, but he did manage to keep the majority of his staff despite interest from other programs.
In terms of departures, the Razorbacks have some key names out. QB Feliepe Franks, star RB Rakeem Boyd, DT Xavier Kelly, Edge Jonathan Marshall and CB Jerry Jacobs are out of the door. Franks and Boyd will be particularly missed on this offence.
Pittman has a job on his hands to improve this team. He has done a good job of recruiting, with two four star wide receivers and one four star running back entering the program in 2021. There also appears to be an interesting QB battle developing, with KJ Jefferson and Malik Hornsby set to battle it out in the summer.
#7 Mississippi State Bulldogs
Season Record: 4-7
Bowl Game: W. 28-26 v. Tulsa (Armed Forces Bowl)
How well it all started for Mississippi State, with an impressive win over reigning national champions LSU in the opening week. The Bulldogs won in a 44-34 shoot out. K.J. Costello showcased the best of his ability. Costello ended the day with 623 passing yards and five touchdowns. He gave some confidence to new HC Mike Leach, who had introduced the Air Raid offence. Well, at least for one game.
This was K.J. Costello’s best outing of the year. He broke an SEC record for passing yards in a game.
Bowl game Brawl
A rather depleted Mississippi State came into this game missing a number of key players, none more so than QB K.J. Costello. Fortunately, they had enough to overcome Tulsa and end the year on a high note in the Armed Force bowl.
What should have been a great ending to the year turned sour incredibly quickly, with a mass brawl starting between the two benches that left onlookers disgusted. It is not overly clear how it started, with a large group on each side confronting each other. It soon descended into violence. A Tulsa player had to be helped off the field by multiple staff with injuries that resulted from the brawl.
A final, disappointing act came from a video in Mississippi State’s locker room, which showed WR Malik Heath joking about kicking an opponent in the facemask. It was an unforgivable end to a bowl game that will have further repercussions for both programs. Tulsa has already been disciplined. The Bulldogs are still waiting to hear on their charges for their role in the violence.
Running back Kylin Hill is the standout departure this year. QB K.J. Costello is also heading to the NFL Draft. A number of other players have also declared, and will be hoping to hear their names on Draft weekend.
Recruits are on their way for 2021, but no names stand out. Four star QB Sawyer Robertson will be looking to take over from the departed K.J. Costello and compete with transfers coming into town.
Mike Leach will stay at the helm after an up and down year, and is keeping the core of his staff for 2021.