By Cole Frederick/Staff Correspondent
The stranglehold COVID-19 placed on sports from March to July left plenty of doubt as to whether or not college football would be played at all this fall. The season was delayed, two Power 5 conferences postponed the 2020 season and nonconference games were eliminated in the Southeastern Conference. Nevertheless, it’s the last weekend of September, and all 14 SEC schools are set to commence the regular season this Saturday with a 10-game, all-SEC schedule.
At times, it felt like this reaching this point was implausible, but the reality of SEC football will sink in on Saturday morning at 11 a.m. Sure, the stadiums will look much different with limited capacity, and the idea of homefield advantage might not be as significant this season. COVID-19 will undoubtedly impact teams in the SEC during the season, and it’s already done so in other conferences. But for the next 11 Saturdays, SEC football is back, and each team faces a grueling schedule.
As always in the SEC, there is a plethora of prominent storylines, including the typical preseason buzz from Tuscaloosa. Alabama is the favorite to win the conference after missing the SEC Championship Game for only the second time in the last six years. LSU, the defending national champions, lost the majority of its offensive production from a season ago and could struggle to stay in contention this year.
Auburn has a new offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, and the Tigers return only one starter on the offensive line to protect second-year quarterback Bo Nix. Georgia has national title aspirations and likely has one of the best defenses in the country, but the Bulldogs also have a brand-new offense and plenty of question marks on that side of the ball.
Jimbo Fisher’s Texas A&M squad is expected to contend for the SEC West Division in his third season in College Station, but preseason expectations have not been kind to the Aggies in the past. Tennessee has loftier expectations in Jeremy Pruitt’s third year after a strong finish to the 2019 campaign. Florida has not garnered much offseason attention, but Dan Mullen will have the Gators in the mix for the SEC East title again.
Kentucky and Ole Miss are two wild cards capable of pulling off upsets throughout the year, and Mississippi State’s transition to the Air Raid under Mike Leach will be fascinating to watch unfold. Missouri, Arkansas, South Carolina and Vanderbilt all face brutal schedules in the midst of rebuilding years, and the 2020 season could be a turbulent one for those four squads.
SEC preseason rankings
4. Texas A&M
9. Ole Miss
10. Mississippi State
11. South Carolina
Week 1 Previews and Predictions
Saturday, Sept. 26
Game of the Week: Kentucky at Auburn (-10.5). The lone top-25 matchup of the week will take place in a mostly em-pty Jordan-Hare Stadium on Saturday morning. Ken-tucky has the ability to challenge Auburn up front on both sides of the ball, as the Tigers are starting several new faces, and this has the makings of a low-scoring defensive slugfest. If sophomore quarterback Bo Nix makes the leap in his second year as a starter, Auburn will be a tough team to beat each week. The Tigers have the weapons offensively to be a dangerous team, but they’ll need to figure things out quickly with two tough games to start the year. Prediction: Auburn 23, Kentucky 20.
Florida at Ole Miss (+14.5). The Lane Kiffin era begins in Oxford with a matchup against one of the top teams in the country and a coach very familiar with the Rebels. Dan Mullen was 5-4 against Ole Miss while coaching at Mississippi State, and he’s making his first trip back to Oxford for the first time since leaving for Gainesville. The Rebels are not ready to contend in the SEC West just yet, but at the very least should be an entertaining team to watch. Florida is expected to contend in the East, and Mullen is searching for his first division title as a head coach. Prediction: Florida 38, Ole Miss 24.
Mississippi State at LSU (-16.5). The Tigers are set to begin their title defense at home, and this LSU team will look vastly different from last year’s record-setting squad. Joe Burrow is gone, and so is co-offensive coordinator Joe Brady. There are plenty of holes offensively, and while Ed Orgeron has recruited well, it would not be surprising to see the Tigers take a step back this year. Mike Leach is bringing his infamous “Air Raid” to Starkville, so it will be intriguing to see how well his team adjusts with such a unique offseason. Prediction: LSU 30, Mississippi State 20.
Georgia at Arkansas (+26.5). Sam Pittman’s first game as Arkansas’ head coach is a matchup against one of the best teams in the country with perhaps the best defense in college football. Georgia has championship aspirations this year, and the Bulldogs’ first major test comes next week against Auburn. Nevertheless, this Georgia offense has plenty of question marks entering the year, and the Bulldogs will be relying on the defense early on this season. Prediction: Georgia 27, Arkansas 3.
Alabama at Missouri (+27). Playing a 10-game conference schedule is more difficult for any team but adding Missouri as one of the extra games helps ease some of the burden. The Tigers could be slightly better than expected, but this is not a team capable of knocking off Alabama in Eliah Drinkwitz’s first season. Mac Jones earned the start at quarterback for the Crimson Tide, and his supporting cast once again is loaded with talent. Consider this a tune-up game for next week’s showdown against Texas A&M. Prediction: Alabama 41, Missouri 6.
Vanderbilt at Texas A&M (-31). The expectations are sky high for the Aggies in 2020, and they are easing their way into the season against a Vanderbilt team that will likely be one of the worst in the conference. Alabama is on deck, so Texas A&M needs to resolve any unanswered questions from fall camp before making the trip to Tuscaloosa. Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Vanderbilt 10.
Tennessee at South Carolina (+3.5). Are the Volunteers actually “back” or was last year’s second half success a byproduct of a softer schedule? On paper, Tennessee should start 2-0 before traveling to Athens to play Georgia, but the Game-cocks have won three of the last four games in this series and two straight in Columbia. South Carolina is more of an unknown this season than Tennessee, but this is a dangerous game for the Vols, especially if they play as poorly as they did in last year’s season-opening loss to Georgia State. Prediction: Tennessee 26, South Carolina 23.