Biggest Storylines Heading into SEC Opening Weekend

David KenyonFeatured ColumnistSeptember 21, 2020

Biggest Storylines Heading into SEC Opening Weekend

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    SEC fans, your patience is about to be rewarded. SEC haters, the fuel for your Saturday fire is returning.

    College football's top conference will officially enter the 2020 season with a seven-game slate in Week 4. Every matchup has at least one ranked team, including one Top 25 showdown with No. 23 Kentucky traveling to No. 8 Auburn.

    And there are storylines galore in the conference.

    LSU is the reigning champion, but Alabama opens the campaign as the league favorite. Georgia and Florida are battling for the East division crown, and both Auburn and Texas A&M are hoping to contend with Alabama and LSU in the West.

    Throw in quarterback competitions and debuts for several new coaches, and the SEC's opening weekend is full of excitement.

4 New Coaches, 2 Big Personalities

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    Sam Pittman is overseeing a rebuild at Arkansas, and Eli Drinkwitz is hoping to make Missouri a conference title contender again. Their programs will host Georgia and Alabama, respectively, in the openerswhich can only be defined as "Welcome to the SEC."

    As important as their tenures are, however, the first-year spotlight is mostly shining on the Magnolia State.

    Lane Kiffin brings his outspoken nature to Ole Miss, and the ever-eccentric Mike Leach is at Mississippi State. Neither team is viewed as a contender, but both Kiffin and Leach are highly respected offensive minds and have a talented quarterbackMatt Corral for Kiffin, and Stanford transfer KJ Costello for Leach.

    Both teams are underdogs, as Mississippi hosts No. 5 Florida and Mississippi State heads to sixth-ranked LSU. But if either team springs an upset, these big personalities will demand even more attention.

    Given the difficulty of playing in the SEC West, that's a definite goal in 2020 for both programs.

Is Tennessee for Real?

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    Vasha Hunt/Associated Press

    While the Vols mostly beat low-tier SEC teams in a six-game winning streak to end 2019, they have no reason to apologize. And after a 2-5 start, the late-season surge suggested a promising third year of the Jeremy Pruitt era in Knoxville.

    It's time to prove that.

    Tennessee has a potentially great offensive line, especially since Georgia transfer Cade Mays is eligible. However, quarterback Jarrett Guarantano has consistently struggled with top defenses, and the Vols have a revamped group of receivers in 2020.

    Provided the defense plays as well as anticipated, Tennessee is built to challenge Florida and Georgia. But the margin separating a competitive team and a winning team is substantial.

    Will the Vols bridge the gap? The journey to that answer begins with a trip to South Carolina.

Can Auburn, Texas A&M Rise in SEC West?

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    Auburn and Texas A&M are both Top 10 teams, but they're the third- and fourth-best programs in the division. Second-ranked Alabama and No. 6 LSU sit a little higher in the rankings.

    While preseason expectations are never perfect, it's not like Alabama and LSU are undeserving of their current spots.

    The pressure to change that perception is on Auburn and A&M.

    Both defenses should be above-average or better, so offense is the main concern. Auburn needs quarterback Bo Nix to be more efficient, yet the offensive line is totally rebuilt. Texas A&M returns quarterback Kellen Mond but is revamping the receiving corps after NFL departures, an opt-out and an injury.

    It's a long seasonand has been a long offseasonbut those weaknesses will be scrutinized this weekend. Auburn hosts No. 23 Kentucky, and Texas A&M welcomes Vanderbilt to College Station.

Florida Aiming for the Top

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    John Raoux/Associated Press

    The year before Dan Mullen arrived, Florida mustered a 4-7 record. In his two seasons, the Gators finished 10-3 and 11-2. The trend, quite clearly, is heading the right direction.

    However, a loss to Georgia in both years prevented Florida from winning the SEC East. Snapping the losing streak and taking the division is the logical next step in this progression, and doing so would place Florida on the College Football Playoff radar.

    With a crossover slate that includes Texas A&M and LSU, the Gators have a couple of roadblocks before the Nov. 7 showdown with Georgia even arrives. But that resultbarring a surge from Tennessee or Kentuckywill likely determine the East division.

Georgia's QB Situation

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    Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out of the season, seemingly leaving USC transfer JT Daniels as the starter. In the words of ESPN analyst Lee Corso, though: Not so fast, my friends.

    Daniels has practiced with the team but isn't yet medically cleared to return from his ACL injury. If he's unable to play, redshirt freshman D'Wan Mathiswho recovered from an emergency brain surgery last yearmay start the opener at Arkansas.

    And in all likelihood, this competition will likely continue several games into the season as well.

    Georgia has championship hopes and expectations, but that'll merely be a dream without a reliable quarterback.

LSU's Title Defense

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    Tyler Kaufman/Associated Press

    Congratulations on winning the 2019 national title, LSU. This year, rebuild the starting lineups, replace your defensive coordinator and passing game coach, and do it again.

    Simple stuff, really!

    Among top-ranked teams, LSU faces the most daunting task. Myles Brennan needs to replace Heisman Trophy-winning and record-obliterating quarterback Joe Burrow, and both the offense and defense only return a couple of starters.

    LSU is never thin on highly recruited players, so the depth of available talent isn't in question. Moving from "potential" to "production" is the key, and that process starts opposite Mississippi State.

Alabama Looking for CFP Return

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    Richard Shiro/Associated Press

    Alabama reached the first five editions of the College Football Playoff, but losses to LSU and Auburn last season ended the streak. Can anyone stop the Tide in 2020?

    Led by running back Najee Harris and receivers DeVonta Smith and Jaylen Waddle, the offense is stacked. Star linebacker Dylan Moses returns after missing 2019, and cornerback Patrick Surtain II is one of the best players in the country.

    Mac Jones will likely start at quarterback, though 5-star freshman Bryce Young seems destined for playing time too. As long as that competition offers a net-positive answer, Alabama is the clear favorite to bring home the SEC Championship in 2020.

    Nick Saban, though, would define this as "rat poison." The Tide haven't proved anything until they accomplish it on the field.

    Step 1 of 10 is knocking off Missouri.