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SEC Week One Primer

By Matt Smith
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Matt Smith previews week one in the SEC.

SEC football is finally back. We had to wait a few extra weeks this year, but that’s a minor issue compared to everything else that has been dealt to us in 2020.

Even in normal seasons, a week with seven SEC games is rare, but we’ll get that eight times this season, including the first four weeks. The conference overlords in Birmingham did elect to ease into the season, as none of the seven bluebloods will play each other this week. That’s not a bad strategy, as most fans in the South are starved for anything resembling real football (especially Atlanta Falcons fans).

Two games this week stand out as likely to be competitive, two games feature big personalities making their head coaching debuts at their new schools, and three games, well, they’ll be football games. Let’s dive into the details of Week 1 in the SEC.

Southern Storylines
The Undecideds
The biggest mysteries remain at Georgia, Missouri and Vanderbilt, as competitions appear settled at Arkansas, Ole Miss and South Carolina. The Bulldogs may have the biggest surprise starter, as redshirt freshman D’Wan Mathis has taken advantage of Jamie Newman’s opt-out and J.T. Daniels’ struggle to gain medical clearance. Winning the starting role would be a remarkable turnaround for Mathis, who had to have emergency brain surgery just 16 months ago. At Missouri, the competition between TCU transfer Shawn Robinson and redshirt freshman Connor Bazelak won’t formally end until Saturday. Vanderbilt’s battle goes four deep, as freshmen Ken Seals and Mike Wright are competing with transfers Jeremy Moussa and Danny Clark. My picks? Mathis, Robinson and Seals.

Virus Fallout
We already know Missouri will have at least seven players unavailable against Alabama on Saturday due to contact tracing protocols. While the logic of continuing to quarantine players who have tested negative more than once seems flawed, it does follow the guidance issued over the summer, and the frustration of having to sit perfectly healthy players is likely to just be another challenge of 2020. In most cases, the specific players unavailable won’t be known until they’re not actually playing.

Hazing The New Guys
All four men making their head coaching debuts at their new schools are sizable underdogs on Saturday. Sam Pittman at Arkansas and Eliah Drinkwitz at Missouri would need to register upset-of-the-season wins against Georgia and Alabama respectively, while Mike Leach leading Mississippi State past defending national champion LSU in Baton Rouge would also constitute a minor miracle. That leaves Lane Kiffin at Ole Miss. His Rebels are underdogs by nearly two touchdowns against fifth-ranked Florida, but the game is at home, and the talent gap is the smallest of any of the four matchups.

Rocky Starts on Rocky Top
While Jeremy Pruitt has handled everything well both on and off the field since the Vols’ 1-4 start a year ago that included home losses to Georgia State and BYU, those games 12 months ago still happened under his watch. With winnable games to open the season at South Carolina and home against Missouri, the pressure is on Pruitt to ensure his team comes out of the gate firing this time around. The schedule quickly toughens after the first two weeks, so a 2-0 start is a must if this going to be the year that Tennessee hopes to again be a factor in the division title race.

Big Blue’s Big Opportunity
Mark Stoops has made Kentucky a respectable program in his seven seasons in Lexington, but he’s mostly done that by feasting on the bottom half of the league. He’s just 2-19 against Florida, Georgia and Tennessee, and 0-5 against the four SEC West heavyweights. Saturday brings the Wildcats’ first trip to Auburn since an upset win over the Tigers all the way back in 2009. The Tigers are starting over at the line of scrimmage. Kentucky is not. The ‘Cats can win in the trenches. The skill position talent gap remains material, but this is now a game in which Kentucky should be disappointed if they lose. That says a lot about the state of Stoops’ program.

Trivia Time (answers below):
1. What three eventual one-loss national champions has Ole Miss defeated over the past 50 years?
2. Who is the last SEC team to play 10 games against other SEC teams in the same season?
3. Who is the only team in the last 30 years to defeat Florida in the Gators’ season opener?

Previews and Predictions
(5) Florida (-14.5) at Ole Miss, Noon ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Joe Tessitore and Greg McElroy
The veteran Gators make their first trip to Oxford since 2007 – the year Tim Tebow claimed the Heisman Trophy. Dan Mullen split four games there while head coach at Mississippi State, but even his 2014 team, that spent a month ranked No. 1, didn’t have the talent of this Gators team. The Rebels have some fun pieces for Kiffin to work with on offense, but overcoming a disadvantage along the line of scrimmage and in the secondary will be a challenge. There will be glimpses of why Ole Miss fans are so excited for Kiffin, as he’ll force some busts in Todd Grantham’s defense, but the steady hand of Kyle Trask and two Ole Miss turnovers will guide Florida to a comfortable win. Prediction: Florida 34, Ole Miss 20

(23) Kentucky at (8) Auburn (-7.5), Noon ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Tom Hart, Jordan Rodgers and Cole Cubelic
It sets up perfectly for the Wildcats. As noted above, this program hasn’t been a giant killer despite going 7-5 or better in each of the past four regular seasons. Auburn is very gettable for Kentucky, especially early, given the complete reload on both lines of scrimmage for the Tigers. Kentucky quarterback Terry Wilson hasn’t played in more than 12 months. He’ll make his return against an Auburn defense that is stout at linebacker and always fundamentally sound under Kevin Steele, but without the game-changers from the 2019 unit. I can’t quite pull the trigger here on an upset. Bo Nix will make one too many plays with his arm, and Auburn will survive a clunky but fun game. Prediction: Auburn 23, Kentucky 17

Mississippi State at (6) LSU (-16.5), 3:30 p.m. ET (CBS)
Announcers: Brad Nessler and Gary Danielson
Mike Leach in the SEC was always a dream of many college football fans after he left the league in 1999 to join Bob Stoops’ staff at Oklahoma following a resurrection of the Kentucky offense with Tim Couch. 20 years later, he’s back in the conference. His hand-picked quarterback is Stanford transfer K.J. Costello, who played well as a true freshman and sophomore, but backslid as a junior in 2019 and lost his job. LSU is the biggest mystery in the conference, with plenty of talent, but a new quarterback, two new coordinators, and some key COVID opt-outs. As the SEC passing games have evolved over the past few years, I don’t see Leach’s Air Raid offense bringing as big of a jolt to the league as he would have eight or ten years ago when his offense would have looked totally different from what Nick Saban, Les Miles and Mark Richt were running. LSU will be ready, but struggles on offense will keep this game from getting out of hand. Prediction: LSU 27, Mississippi State 18

(4) Georgia (-26) at Arkansas, 4 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Dave Neal and D.J. Shockley
Georgia’s quarterback situation is the only intrigue about this game. Arkansas could have had a perfect summer, and it still wouldn’t matter with these two rosters. Razorbacks quarterback Feleipe Franks knows this Georgia defense from his time at Florida, dropping a 36-17 decision to the ‘Dawgs in 2018. The Razorbacks’ skill position players will flash at times this season, but not this week. The Hogs’ best hopes to keep this competitive is for Georgia’s unproven receiving corps and offensive lines to struggle. There may be some early angst about the offense for Bulldogs fans, but the final score will end up close to as one-sided as expected. Prediction: Georgia 41, Arkansas 9

(2) Alabama (-27) at Missouri, 7 p.m. ET (ESPN)
Announcers: Sean McDonough and Todd Blackledge
Alabama’s first trip to Missouri since 2012 has a similar feel to the Georgia-Arkansas game, albeit the questions about the heavy road favorite in this game are more on defense. We may not learn much against a Missouri offense that will be finding its way in a new system, but the Tigers will provide a good litmus test for the Crimson Tide offense. Missouri defensive coordinator Ryan Walters, a holdover from the Barry Odom staff, is a rising star. He’s got an All-American candidate at linebacker in Nick Bolton, and has overall a sound unit. If the Crimson Tide can shred this defense, they can lay claim to being the best offense in the country. They’ll do just that. Prediction: Alabama 45, Missouri 10

(16) Tennessee (-3.5) at South Carolina, 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network)
Announcers: Taylor Zarzour and Matt Stinchcomb
It should be a calm year for coaching hot seats, but Will Muschamp has reason to worry after a 4-8 2019 season. He’s 7-1 as a head coach against Tennessee, however, and could really use a win over a Volunteers team that has high hopes for this season. Colorado State transfer Collin Hill, who played for new coordinator Mike Bobo with the Rams, beat out incumbent Ryan Hilinski to earn the start under center. He was good when healthy, but struggled to stay on the field at CSU. Tennessee will control the game between the 20-yard lines, but will it flip the script in the red zone after having so many issues there in 2019? I will say no. Prediction: South Carolina 24, Tennessee 20

Vanderbilt at (10) Texas A&M (-30.5), 7:30 p.m. ET (SEC Network Alternate)
Announcers: Mike Morgan and Andre Ware
With Alabama and Florida on deck, Texas A&M gets an opportunity to find its identity against Vanderbilt in the season opener. Jhamon Ausbon’s opt-out leaves quarterback Kellen Mond without much experience in his receiving corps, but the running game should be a strength, and Mike Elko’s defense is the best it’s been in Elko and Jimbo Fisher’s three seasons in College Station. The Aggies need to show they can move the ball in multiple ways to put some fear into their next two opponents. The Commodores’ defense isn’t good, but it’s certainly their stronger side of the football, so it’s an adequate test for Mond. I’m not sure Vanderbilt reaches the end zone on Saturday night. Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Vanderbilt 6

Best Bets
FAU -3 vs. USF – 5 Musburgers
Alabama -27 at Missouri – 4 Musburgers
Louisville +3 at Pittsburgh – 3 Musburgers
Iowa State -2.5 at TCU – 2 Musburgers
Boston College -17.5 vs. Texas State – 1 Musburger

Trivia Answers
1. Notre Dame (1977), Florida (2008), Alabama (2015)
2. Georgia (2017) – defeated Auburn in SEC Championship game, lost to Alabama in CFP Championship Game
3. Michigan (2017)

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.