Like most events thus far in 2020, the SEC Media Days did not go to plan and were postponed from the originally scheduled dates, July 13 to 16. In light of this, and taking inspiration from The Auburn Plainsman, The Hustler wanted to give readers a taste of how collegiate sportswriters from around SEC country are feeling about their squads in 2020. We interviewed writers from each of the ten SEC schools that Vanderbilt is scheduled to play in the fall to get a read on the upcoming opponents. Part One includes a preview of the first five games on schedule: Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, Missouri and Ole Miss.
Vanderbilt Hustler: What are expectations this year in College Station? What kind of year would you consider a success? Disappointment?
Adithya Prabakaran, Sports Editor for The Battalion: Now in Coach Jimbo Fisher’s third year, the expectation is the team needs to start winning more games, especially against the best teams in the country. With two recruiting classes under his belt, the coach has had enough time to recruit his type of talent, now it needs to translate onto the field.
Before the conference elected to switch to a conference-only schedule, A&M’s toughest competition was likely Auburn, Alabama and LSU. Now with the additions of Florida and Tennessee, the path to perfection gets harder, but it also presents more opportunities for the team to prove how good they are to the country.
Given the amount of talent returning to College Station, on paper, the team has an advantage against Auburn, LSU and even Florida. However, the words “on paper” mean very little in a sport with too many variables on any given Saturday. That’s why an 8-2 record to end the season would likely be the floor on what is considered a successful season. Anything worse would likely be a disappointment because it would mean the team hasn’t developed game management-wise or player development-wise as much as it has needed to in three years under coach Fisher.
What’s the ceiling for Kellen Mond in 2020?
Just when you think you have Mond pegged, he’ll surprise you, both positively and negatively. A beautiful back-shoulder pass will be followed up with an overthrow interception. However, even with his erratic play at times, Mond has seen consistent progression over the last three years, so naturally we expect another step in the right direction this season.
Fortunately for him, he will likely have the best, or best-suited, supporting cast he’s had the last four years. Coach Fisher structures his passing offense to beat teams in the outer intermediate and deep areas of the field; this is why the team values Mond’s very good arm strength even if the accuracy isn’t always there.
Factoring in personnel, experience and general erraticism to Mond’s game, I think it is likely Mond passes for over 2200 yards, 25 passing touchdowns and 8 interceptions in this shortened 10 game season. Since he is also such a lethal runner, there is a good chance he ends up with over 400 yards and three rushing touchdowns. These numbers would cement himself as one of the greatest signal callers to ever don the maroon and white.
What’s the most intriguing matchup on the schedule this year for the Aggies?
This question is tricky because the best measure of team success would likely come from how well they perform against Alabama, a program that has been the model of excellence for years. We even take influence from the program, as coach Fisher was the Offensive Coordinator and QB coach for LSU under Nick Saban
However, I think the most intriguing matchup on the schedule is against Florida. The last time these two teams played [in College Station] was in 2013. It was a week one matchup in which the Gators won, but it was the beginning of Johnny Manziel’s Heisman season and the recent ascension of Texas A&M football as a whole.
Since that game, A&M has turned itself into the most valuable brand in college football, which has helped them significantly in recruiting. Even with a coaching change since that game, A&M has been able to recruit highly touted athletes, develop them and eventually turn them into high round draft selections. They have also been relevant in the College Football Playoff conversation several times, regardless if it was deserved or not.
Meanwhile, the Gators have experienced two coaching changes from Will Muschamp to Jim McElwain and now to Dan Mullen. The team has certainly had its bright spots with winning seasons but for [the] most part, it has struggled to find an offensive identity ever since the departure of Gator Great QB Tim Tebow and that has made the team look incompetent against the best of the best. Now with Mullen and QB Kyle Trask, it looks like some balance has been restored to Florida reminiscent of the teams from the late 2000s.
Considering both programs are on the upswing, this intra-conference matchup, which has been long overdue, feels more symbolic of how far the teams have come since their last matchup.
Predictions for Week One against Vanderbilt?
In the past couple seasons, it seems as if A&M plays their best football at the beginning of the college football season. Whether that is attributed to the skill of non-conference opponents, the high hopes of college football fans at the beginning, or relative health of the team, the games at the beginning of the season are seemingly more entertaining.
Factoring in the amount of talent A&M was able to retain compared to talent Vanderbilt lost in RB Keshawn Vaughn, WR Kalija Lipscomb, TE Jared Pinkney and even QB Riley Neal, on paper, the talent heavily favors the Aggies.
With the football season starting much later than normal, I expect the team to come out looking a bit rusty on both sides of the ball. However, as previously mentioned, this A&M team has a lot of experience, and that will eventually show. The power run offense will eventually open passing lanes for Mond and his pass catchers to take advantage. Eventually, the defense will take the positive momentum and energy from the offense and stop Vanderbilt’s offense from scoring endling like a routine game for the Aggies.
Vanderbilt Hustler: Coming off perhaps the greatest season in college football history, do you think there’s any chance that head coach Ed Orgeron and the Tigers can live up to the extremely high expectations?
Reed Darcey, Deputy Sports Editor for The Reveille: Well, it really depends what your expectations are. I don’t think anyone expects them to produce a similar season as they did last year. That was like lightning in a bottle, and I really don’t think we’ll ever see it again in LSU program history, maybe not even in college football history. So I think most people have to lower their expectations a little bit. LSU is simply not going to have that great of a season every single year, so I think it would be reasonable to expect a fringe playoff-contending season, where they’re always in the mix throughout the entire season. And they’ll just barely slip into that fourth seed or maybe they’ll just miss out. I think that’s where your expectations should be going forward. This season will say a lot about the future of LSU football.
The LSU offense will look extremely different with players like Joe Burrow, Edwards-Hellaire and others moving onto the NFL. Who are some players to keep an eye on in the Tiger offense to shoulder the load?
I would keep an eye on [junior wide receiver] Terrace Marshall. I know he had a pretty solid season last year, but he’s one of the top returning receivers in the SEC. I think he was pretty underrated last year, and he really flies under the radar like wide receivers Ja’Marr Chase and Justin Jefferson did last season. So I expect him to build on his productive season last year and take the next step by producing some really impressive numbers. I would not be surprised if he went in the first three rounds of the 2021 NFL Draft from what I’ve read so far. Everyone on the team is high on him, but he kind of flies under the radar.
Vanderbilt returns its entire starting defense this season. In last year’s matchup against LSU, two of the Commodores’ touchdowns came on the defensive side. Do you think Vanderbilt’s defense can give LSU trouble?
Probably not. I think it will be another blowout. Ja’Marr Chase went bananas last year against Vanderbilt, so it will probably be another blowout. There’s not much else to be said about this game. We’ll have to wait and see how quarterback Myles Brennan looks. It’s certainly going to be a little bit harder than last year, we know that. But I really think it all depends on how Myles Brennan and the offensive line looks. If Vanderbilt can get some penetration on the offensive line and rattle Brennan a little bit, then maybe we’re looking at a closer game. But overall I’m not expecting LSU to have a very difficult game.
Vanderbilt Hustler: What must Will Muschamp do to cool his seat this season?
Michael Sauls, Co-Sports Editor for The Daily Gamecock: It’s simple. He’s got to win. Fans have been unhappy in recent seasons with how Coach Muschamp will hype up our teams only to have a subpar season. He’s done great with recruiting, but with all the talent on the team you would think we would have seen some more results in the win column by now. But unfortunately, we haven’t really seen that.
Who starts under center for the Gamecocks in 2020?
My heart says Ryan Hilinski, but my gut says that might not be the case. I wouldn’t be surprised if there is a QB change before the season or halfway through it. Some competition in the QB room with Collin Hill coming in from Colorado State and Luke Doty coming in as a true freshman could very well make it anyone’s job. At the end of the day, I’m good with any of the three under center, as long as Doty isn’t moved to WR like Joyner was.
What’s the most intriguing matchup on the schedule this year for South Carolina?
I think the most intriguing matchup is who isn’t on the schedule. With the SEC moving to a conference-only schedule, that removes Clemson from the schedule for the first time since 1909. Even though Clemson has won the last six games the game still means a lot to the Carolina community. On the schedule, the biggest game to highlight is the game at LSU and the first game versus Tennessee. It will be interesting to see how the team starts off the season against the Volunteers who we typically can put up a fight against and that will be an important early victory if we win. The LSU game will be big because it’s a big test. We’ll get to see how our team stacks up against the defending national champs.
Vanderbilt Hustler: What are expectations for Eli Drinkwitz in Year 1?
Jack Soble, Sports Editor of The Maneater: I don’t think anyone expects them to win the SEC East—nor should they. It was obviously a tough finish to last year starting 5-1 and finishing 6-6. They fired Barry Odom for a reason. They brought in Drinkwitz from Appalachian State. There was a pretty typical amount of fanfare around the hire—the players certainly seem to like him a lot that’s been clear right away. They’ve touted him being more aggressive on offense, he’s certainly from an offensive background—he was the offensive coordinator at NC State. As far as a record expectation, no one can really say right now because we haven’t watched any practices because of COVID. No one can truly know what exactly it’s going to be because no one outside the team has seen them in action.
Who replaces Kelly Bryant under center this year?
So right now they’ve said they’re not going to name a starter before Week 1. In my view, it’s between Shawn Robinson, a transfer from TCU, or Connor Bazelak, a redshirt freshman. Bazelak started the Arkansas game at the end of the year with Bryant hurt and played a bit in the Georgia game. The issue with him is that he tore his ACL during the Arkansas game. He’s healthy now, but they don’t know how he’s going to be to start the season. Taylor Powell also played in relief last year but underwhelmed. Robinson is pretty experienced; he has some decent tape from TCU. He kept them competitive with Ohio State (a 40-28 loss in 2018); that’s the brunt of the film that I’ve watched.
Truthfully, no one will really know anything about this Mizzou offense. They have returning running backs Tyler Badie and Larry Roundtree III. They have a couple graduate transfers at receiver in Damon Hazelton Jr. from Virginia Tech and Keke Chism, a transfer from Division II who has been getting a lot of buzz. The lone returning receiver is Jalen Knox, who had a solid freshman year and didn’t really do much last year; they’re looking for him to break out. At tight end, Albert Okwuegbunam is gone to the draft. Daniel Parker Jr. will likely take over. The offensive line lost three starters: Trystan Colon-Castillo, Yasir Durant and Tre’Vour Wallace-Simms.
Which incoming recruit has the best chance to make an impact in 2020?
Transfer-wise if I had to pick one it would be Damon Hazelton Jr. from Virginia Tech. He’s from a Power 5 school, he produced a bit last year at VT, and they’re going to need pass catchers with the loss of Okwuegbunam and others. Hazelton Jr. was one of the first gets for Drinkwitz once he took over. They’re excited about him; he’s becoming a leader on offense.
In terms of freshman, definitely the cornerback Ennis Rakestraw Jr., who they’re very excited about. You can see a video online of Drinkwitz losing his mind in a good way after Rakestraw Jr. committed. He chose Mizzou over Alabama. He’s been getting some buzz, and the defense just lost their number one cornerback in Demarkus Acy, who signed a contract with the San Francisco 49ers. At cornerback, the players behind Acy, and even including Acy, did not have a good year last year. The secondary was certainly a weakness for Mizzou. If the struggles continue for guys like Jarvis Ware (started 11 games in 2019) early on, I would expect Rakestraw Jr. to see the field.
Vanderbilt Hustler: What has the fan reaction been to the first months of the Lane Kiffin era in Oxford?
James Minzesheimer, Assistant Sports Editor of The Daily Mississippian: I would say for the most part he’s been received pretty positively. Things will depend on how this fall goes as to how that continues. He’s in a tough situation because he didn’t really get a recruiting period because of when he got hired. At the same time, he didn’t really get much of a spring camp because of COVID. So, he’s in a pretty tough position for a first-year coach, and it’s only been made harder because of COVID. Obviously, he’s also got an incredibly tough schedule coming up: he’s playing five of the top ranked teams in the SEC. But I would say for the most part people are pretty on board the “Lane Train”.
If you had to choose one, what’s the most intriguing matchup on the schedule?
It’s hard to say. There’s a bunch of games that are pretty much already written off as losses for Ole Miss; they play Alabama, Auburn, Florida and LSU. None of those games are going to be very electrifying.
I am interested to see who is going to be the starter. If it’s John Rhys Plumlee, I’m really excited for the LSU game, because last year he put on an absolute showcase against LSU rushing for over 200 yards and four touchdowns. That’s a game I have circled on my calendar.
I’d say a more competitive game we’re looking forward to is Kentucky. I think that will be a good game—we’re mid-to-bottom of the SEC right now and Kentucky is right up there with the top of the SEC, which is surprising for their program. I’m definitely excited for that game. I’d say that’s the biggest one for me.
John Rhys Plumee ran wild on Vandy last season, but is he even going to start Week 1 against Florida?
That’s a tough one. I wrote an article in the Daily Mississippian about the quarterback battle currently going on in Oxford. It’s an interesting situation because Rhys Plumlee plays baseball for the Rebels. It seemed like it was going to be pretty cut and dry: Matt Corral was going to be there for spring camp and Plumlee was not [playing baseball]. So with a new coach coming in, it seemed pretty straight forward that Corral was going to be the starter. Obviously, spring practice got cancelled, and they didn’t really have summer camp, so it’s a huge battle right now. I think right now Corral has the slight edge because he played in the first scrimmage this past weekend. Also, there’s a little bit of history for him coming into the Florida game because he originally committed to play at Florida and then signed with Ole Miss. It’s so up in the air right now, but they’re both really good options in my opinion. Corral is a much better game manager and can throw that thing. Plumlee is elusive; he’s so fast. I like seeing him play; I think the way he plays is really exciting.
The Hustler will provide a similar preview for weeks six through ten in the coming weeks.