Vanderbilt Schedule Preview, Part Two: Student Newspaper Edition

The Hustler caught up with sports editors from around the conference to ask some preseason questions as football season approaches. 

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Hunter Long

LSU defeats Vanderbilt 66-38 during parents’ weekend on Saturday, September 21, 2019. (Hustler Multimedia/ Hunter Long)

Bryce Smith, Staff Writer

Like most events in 2020, the SEC Media Days did not go as planned and were postponed from the originally scheduled dates, July 13-16. In light of this, and taking inspiration from The Auburn Plainsman, The Hustler wanted to give readers a taste of how sportswriters from around SEC country are feeling about their squads in 2020. We interviewed student writers from each of the 10 SEC schools that Vanderbilt is scheduled to play in the fall to get a read on the upcoming opponents. Part one included a preview of the first five games on the schedule—Texas A&M, LSU, South Carolina, Missouri and Ole Miss—while part two previews the second half—Mississippi State, Kentucky, Florida, Tennessee and Georgia. 

Mississippi State 

Vanderbilt Hustler: What has the reaction to Mike Leach been in Starkville thus far? 

Hunter Cloud, Sports Writer for The Reflector: I think there’s been a lot of excitement. I think Mike Leach is certainly a character, so there’s been a lot of excitement. He’s bringing an offense to Mississippi State that I don’t think State has ever had. Most of our offenses have been based off a running quarterback—at least since Dan Mullen, if not before then. This air raid offense is going to be something that changes how Mississippi State looks on the field. So, there’s been a lot of excitement, but there’s also been lots of uncertainty because State’s receivers haven’t been known for actually catching the football. Mike Leach is just a wild dude. He’s a pirate. 

What’s the biggest strength of this year’s group? 

I think the biggest strength, and this isn’t necessarily position-related, no one really expects anything from this group. They can go out there and win maybe four games, or they can go out there and win all of them. If they’ve improved as much as they’ve been saying they’ve improved with this offense, I think they can come out early, surprise LSU [and] hopefully make it a close game. I think their biggest strength is nobody knows what to expect from them. And probably their defense as well. Their defense has always been strong, but that’s where I see them being the strongest. The talk in the locker room has been that safety Fred Peters can have a big year on the defensive side of the ball, as can defensive tackle Nate Pickering. 

What are your expectations for the Bulldogs in 2020? 

Well, I’m a bit of a believer, so I’m usually going to want to say undefeated. But that’s not realistic. I think seven wins would be the high ceiling, then the low would be like four wins. But, it’s football, and COVID has certainly impacted things, so it’ll be interesting to see how the home crowd advantage is kind of gone without the cowbells.

Kentucky 

Vanderbilt Hustler: What are your expectations for Kentucky in 2020 both within the East and the conference as a whole? 

Braden Ramsey, Sports Editor for The Kentucky Kernel: The Wildcats should be in contention for the SEC East title for the second time in three seasons. There was a belief that last year’s team could have done the same, but injuries to the quarterback position destroyed any realistic chance of doing so. Don’t get me wrong—Lynn Bowden filled in fantastically, but you’re not going to beat the SEC’s top teams by being one-dimensional. The return of Terry Wilson will add that passing element back to the offense, making it stronger overall. The trio of Asim Rose, Kavosiey Smoke and Chris Rodriguez Jr. each tallied 500 yards on the ground in 2019 and should be able to alleviate some of Bowden’s missing production.

The defense should be one of the country’s best once again. Kentucky was 19th in the nation in yards allowed per game (321.6) and 12th in points per game allowed (18.4) last season. The secondary in particular should be extremely stout. The Cats allowed only nine touchdown passes this past season, tying Ohio State for the fewest in the country. [They] return the key pieces from last year’s coverage unit and add defensive backs Devonte Robinson—popular breakout candidate for 2019 who missed the season due to injury—and Kelvin Joseph—LSU transfer—to the group. Jamar “Boogie” Watson appears to be the next in a growing line of edge rushers/outside linebackers who put up stellar senior seasons. The Bednarik Award watch list member is PFF’s third-highest-graded returning edge rusher, and after racking up 6.5 sacks as a junior, he’s poised to take the next step. 

Am I going to outright predict that the Cats win each of those games and go to Atlanta? No. But, it’s not out of the realm of possibility. A few other things outside of their control would need to happen, but depending on how everything breaks down, 2020 could be another history-making year for Mark Stoops and co.

Is Terry Wilson still the guy under center for Coach Stoops? 

Yes. He was the man under center for the 10-3 season in 2018 and has earned the right to open the year as the starter. These extra weeks of camp have given him ample time to recover from the torn ACL he suffered against Eastern Michigan. Plus, his primary competition (Auburn transfer Joey Gatewood) has yet to be declared eligible for 2020 by the NCAA. Of course, a decision could come at any time and shake things up. But, even if Gatewood is able to play this year, Wilson will have to play his way out of the job. I don’t see anyone else taking it from him, barring injury. 

What’s the biggest strength of this year’s group?

The offensive line is PFF’s highest-graded [returning players] despite losing left guard Logan Stenberg to the NFL. It should be able to give Wilson plenty of time when he drops back, and it should open big holes in the running game. No matter the talent at every other offensive position, it’s difficult to be productive if you’re not good in the trenches (see the 2019 Cleveland Browns), and the big boys on Kentucky’s line make it one of the nation’s best.

The secondary, as I elaborated on earlier, is also a major strength. The running game will remain top-notch as well with the combination of a great line and good stable of backs.

What’s the biggest weakness? 

It’s the same recurring issue that has plagued the team for the past few seasons: the passing offense. The Cats had just 1,487 passing yards in 2019; for perspective, Joe Burrow threw for nearly four times that amount, and his top two pass-catchers each had more receiving yards than that. 

The lack of an aerial attack is what has held Kentucky back from competing for division titles in recent years. If the Cats truly want to make good on their potential, they have to discover something, or anything, through the air. 

Florida 

Vanderbilt Hustler: Does Florida need to win the East for this year to be considered a success?
River Wells, Sports Editor for The Alligator: I have varying levels of what success means in my mind. Obviously, Florida has gone to New Year’s Six Bowls and won them, but in the minds of the fans and the expectations placed on the team, I’d say yes. Dan Mullen has proven that he can go to a New Year’s Six Bowl. Florida has proven that. Mullen and his crew have not proven that they can win the East, and I think they need to in order to prove they can be serious contenders in the years to come. 

Who’s the biggest X-factor on the roster for the Gators? 

I like Kyle Pitts, the tight end. I think he’s going to be the most dominant receiving target that Florida has. Kyle Trask, he’s pretty good. He doesn’t turn the ball over, but the targets around him are a little bit lacking this year. But, I think with Kyle Pitts on the line blocking and catching passes, he’ll make the difference on that offense. 

Which newcomer is going to have the biggest impact?

Gervon Dexter, a five-star defensive tackle recruit that Florida got in the 2020 class. I think he’ll do really well for them and can play in different lineups. You’ve got Xzavier Henderson too, a wide receiver. Some wide receivers left from Florida this year, most notably Van Jefferson. You’ve got Trevon Grimes returning, but Xzavier Henderson as a four-star recruit can help shore up that group. There are some other recievers on Florida that are going to get their shot now that Jefferson is gone, but I think Henderson could be a pretty big help as well. 

Tennessee

Vanderbilt Hustler: What does Jeremy Pruitt have to do to continue his positive momentum in Year 3? 

Ryan Schumpert, co-sports editor of The Daily Beacon: I think that’s a good question. Before all of the COVID setbacks, people wanted to see him go 9-3, beat one of the top 10 or top 15 teams we were going to play, beat all the teams in the SEC East and win the crossover game against Arkansas like we did a year ago. Now, obviously you add Auburn and Texas A&M, so it gets harder. I think probably you want to see them go 6-4 and still kind of do that same thing: beat one of Georgia and Florida and then one of Auburn, Alabama and Texas A&M.I think 6-4 is what you really want to see, but I also think 5-5 wouldn’t be a disastrous season. 

Biggest area of strength on the roster? Weakness? 

Strength, I’d say the defense as a whole. They really took a big step from Pruitt’s first year to last year. Eight starters are back on that side. The three guys they lost were all good players, all-SEC guys, but I think they have the pieces there. I think they’ve built pretty good depth there. 

Specific position group, I’d say the offensive line. They’re pretty solid there across the board, especially if they get Cade Mays eligible. 

The biggest weakness I think has to be the quarterback position. It’s just been kind of a cluster the past year and a half. Jarrett Guarantano, I think, is going to be the starter again, but can he show any bit of consistency to hold down that position? If not, who’s the backup? We saw J.T. Shrout and Brian Maurer play last year. Both those guys are competing for the backup spot along with Harrison Bailey. There’s still a lot of question marks there, and if they’re really going to go 6-4 and turn a corner, they’re definitely going to need improved play at that position compared to a year ago. 

Who replaces Jauan Jennings as the guy on offense this year for the Vols? 

I think that’s one of the biggest questions on the offensive side of the ball. At receiver, I think it’s going to have to be a little bit by committee. There’s Eric Gray, who Vanderbilt fans know—he kind of came on toward the end of last year. He’s a running back in his sophomore season who the coaching staff hope can be a bit more of a consistent playmaker for them. At receiver, Josh Palmer is probably the most reliable. Besides that, Ramel Keyton, maybe DeAngelo Gibbs, a transfer from Georgia who had to sit out last year. It’s really going to be by committee. Two freshman receivers, Jalin Hyatt and Malachi Wideman, are really talented too. It’s hard to predict a freshman to come in and be a go-to guy, but certainly, those guys are an option. 

Georgia 

Vanderbilt Hustler: How do you feel about JT Daniels being under center?

Austin Roper, The Red & Black: This is a question I knew was coming, especially after the news about Jamie Newman yesterday. With JT, I feel like you can see a number of outcomes if he’s named Georgia’s starting quarterback heading into week one. That hasn’t yet been named—there seems to still be a competition going on between him and D’Wan Mathis, a redshirt freshman. The biggest concern for me as far as JT is his health— he still hasn’t even been fully cleared by Georgia after having an ACL injury at USC in the first game of the season last year. He’s been participating during practice and shared some first-team reps during Georgia’s scrimmage that they had last Saturday with Newman and Mathis, but obviously Newman isn’t a part of the quarterback competition anymore after opting out. Without knowing how healthy Daniels truly is, I don’t really have high expectations for him right now. We just don’t know enough information yet; we haven’t seen him in practice, and we haven’t seen him play at all with everybody else on the team. 

Todd Monken, Georgia’s first-year offensive coordinator, mentioned in a press conference last week that Daniels has really surprised the coaching staff with how athletic he is. But, I’m taking a wait-and-see approach with that because Daniels never really ran while he was at USC. Even if he is surprisingly athletic, I’m having a hard time believing that Georgia is actually going to start using its quarterbacks’ athleticism because in the past it has never tried to do that. 

All in all, I think Daniels is going to play well this season if he wins the job. Maybe there’s even a possibility that he plays better than what’s expected. How consistent he can be when he’s healthy is going to be the question. 

Besides Daniels, what’s the name to know on this year’s Georgia offense that has to replace nine starters? 

Normally, when an offense loses more than half of its starters from the previous season, expectations are not going to be very high for that side of the ball. But, most teams aren’t recruiting like Kirby Smart does at Georgia. So, the talent level will still be there. 

The guy I’m going with is sophomore wide receiver George Pickens. He’s someone who had a big part of the offense last year. His talent and his potential showed up in spurts. It’s only his second season in Athens, but, in my opinion, he is clearly the most talented receiver Georgia has had since AJ Green. He just has so much potential, and you saw that at times last year. But, it took him a while to really be put to use in Georgia’s offense so that his talent would be on full display. He can do it all; he’s not a one-dimensional receiver with a limited route tree. He’s more than willing to block on the outside, which is so important with how Georgia normally runs its offense under Smart. With him, the question is how much he has matured from last year to this year because he missed time against Georgia Tech and LSU last season by letting his emotions get the best of him. He got into a little altercation with a Georgia Tech defensive back last year in the second half of that game. I’m sure Georgia fans are hoping that he’ll build off his Sugar Bowl performance against Baylor when he had 12 receptions for 175 yards and a touchdown. That’s a perfect example of what he’s capable of doing, but for him, it’s a question of how much is he going to be used in the offense, and how much has he matured from last season. 

What are your expectations for Georgia this season? 

It seems like ever since Kirby’s second year at Georgia, when they went all the way to the National Championship, that that has been the expectation every single year. Smart has consistently recruited top-three classes each and every year, so the talent hasn’t dropped off. Looking at the schedule they have this year, it seems to me like their success is going to be determined after the first four games. I would say a good season for Georgia is somewhere between 9-1 and undefeated. But, I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if it’s 8-2, and that’s kind of where I’m leaning because I don’t know about the quarterback situation, and I don’t know about Georgia’s offense.