At long last, the SEC returns Saturday -- and not a moment too soon.
Here we are, a sense of normalcy rendered through the majesty of college football's greatest conference. But lest we take for granted the return of SEC football, we thought it best to take a moment to reflect on all the wonderful things we'll be getting this weekend when Alabama, Georgia, LSU, Florida and the rest of the league -- all great by proximity, if not by record -- return to our television sets.
Nick Saban getting mad: Alabama named its starting quarterback, and it's Mac Jones. Oh, but you didn't think the debate would end there, did you? Jones is fine, but fans have already seen him play. We're going to need some real excitement in our lives, so best to start the Bryce Young watch now. And to officially kick off that unnecessary bit of controversy, we'll need some poor, unsuspecting reporter to ask Saban about rotating in the young QB.
The SEC battle of attrition: There are no easy games in the SEC, so this year's conference-only slate is perfect. We won't have to witness the league dominate teams such as Georgia State, BYU, UNLV, San Jose State, Purdue, Wyoming, Appalachian State, Western Kentucky, Memphis, Cal or Kansas State. Opponents like that would have no shot against the SEC, so we're lucky the league will cut to the chase and just give us the good stuff in 2020.
Coaches on the hot seat: It's the SEC, and unless you're Saban, no one lasts too long before his seat starts getting hot, and we will soon find out who it will be in 2020. Will Muschamp needs a big year at South Carolina. Derek Mason is walking on eggshells at Vanderbilt. And when it comes to Gus Malzahn, Auburn is gonna make a move eventually, right?
Is that $75 million for Jimbo Fisher starting to look a little pricey? And Tennessee hasn't had a coaching-search debacle in a while. Maybe it's time for another one. Lane Kiffin has yet to coach a game at Ole Miss, and you'd have to drive him all the way out to Memphis to leave him at a major airport, but this is the SEC and anything is possible.
Double-secret depth charts: Kirby Smart won't say who is starting at QB for Georgia this week against Arkansas because that is how it's done in the SEC, where we're lucky they even bother to tell us when and where the games are being played. In the Zoom era, when the world is wearing a nice shirt with sweatpants, we love this type of chicanery. Frankly, we're disappointed that Smart has even admitted he plans to play a quarterback at all. A wiser SEC coach might have at least left the door open to running the Wildcat for the whole game. Got to keep Arkansas guessing.
Coach O saying "Geaux Tig-aaahs": There won't be much of LSU's championship team still taking the field on Saturday against Mississippi State, but that's not important. Joe Burrow is gone, Myles Brennan is in, and odds are the offense will keep chugging along. The important part is the pregame interview anyway. The sideline reporter will ask Ed Orgeron about the game, he'll say a bunch of stuff that sounds awesome, and then he'll give us that familiar refrain ... "Geaux Tig-aaahs." It will be the official sign that the 2020 football season has begun in earnest.
Saban's mesmerizing camera presence: Have you ever noticed that Saban is the only coach who routinely breaks typical on-field interview practices and looks directly into the camera? We've had a few weeks of college football now, and we've yet to have Saban stare into the eyes of America while he tells us what his team could do better in the second half of a game or how he feels after a victory. Either pregame or halftime TV time for Saban is going to really hit the sense of normalcy vibes.
Finding our yearly coordinator crush: Last season, it was LSU's Joe Brady, the passing game coordinator who helped produce one of the best offenses we've seen in college football history. He is off to the pro ranks now with the Carolina Panthers as their offensive coordinator. Now, it's time to find a new coordinator for us to gush over -- and proclaim as the next big coaching hire for a lucky school or NFL team.
Game-day Q&A with Pitt's Rashad Weaver
No. 21 Pitt hosts No. 24 Louisville in one of three top-25 matchups this weekend, and it'll be another shot for the Panthers' ferocious defensive front to feast. A big part of that attack is defensive end Rashad Weaver, who was among the country's top pass-rushers in 2018 but missed all of 2019 with a knee injury and was forced out of Pitt's opener due to a positive test for COVID-19 -- one that caused him to vent on social media.
We talked to Weaver about his return and Pitt's chances of being a contender in 2020.
ESPN: You went 629 days between playing football games, but you got back on the field Saturday against Syracuse and had two sacks and won the Walter Camp National Defensive Player of the Week Award. Did you know you'd come back this strong?
Weaver: I felt like I knew what I'd be like when I got out there, but I feel like I could've done better after watching the film. Even leaving the field at times, there was stuff I felt like I missed and was upset with myself about, but I feel like I'll just get better each week. Before my injury, I had stepped my game up a lot. I went into camp healthy and picked up where I left off, and it's all fallen into place.
ESPN: You missed all of 2019 with the injury. Then COVID-19 hits and the season is up in the air. Then you test positive leading into the opener. Was there a point you wondered if you'd ever get back on the field?
Weaver: Starting back when COVID really got big, it was just the unknown all summer, and that was frustrating. But it was just staying the course and staying positive. Me and my roommate, Keyshon Camp, we said every day we were going to have a season and we were going to do what we can. We talked about it every day. And the first game, that was just another bump in the road -- another week on however many days we sat out. But we knew we'd get out there and take full opportunity of it.
ESPN: So let me test your level of sympathy. You sacked Syracuse QB Tommy DeVito twice last week. He's already been sacked 14 times this year and 58 times since the start of last season. As a defensive player, do you ever feel bad for guys like that?
Weaver: They get what's coming to them. The guy plays how he plays, and he said we had an all right defensive line. If that's how he felt, he should've done a little better.
ESPN: Is Pitt's D-line the best in the country, and if so, can the Panthers challenge for the ACC title?
Weaver: We're a legitimate ACC challenger, and we've known that since camp. The defense, from the back to the front, is as solid as can be. Our defensive front is the best in the country, and it'll be proved throughout the season as the competition gets stiffer. We've worked for this, and we think it'll pay off.
What to watch for, key questions
How will Oklahoma State look?
Despite beating Tulsa 16-7 this past Saturday, we still don't know what the Cowboys are going to look like this Saturday. QB Spencer Sanders' status is uncertain (lower extremity injury), though freshman Shane Illingworth did bring the offense to life after coming in as Sanders' replacement. Plus, the Cowboys still have one of the best skill duos in RB Chuba Hubbard and WR Tylan Wallace.
Luckily for Oklahoma State, they open Big 12 play against West Virginia. Neal Brown is in his second year as the team's head coach, and the Mountaineers still have a lot more questions than answers. They opened up their season with a 56-10 win over Eastern Kentucky, but the Cowboys represent a different kind of challenge.
Will SEC teams look more prepared?
It's Game Week in the SEC
After months of discussion and uncertainty, the 87th year of official SEC football is set to begin.
We're all excited for SEC play to open up this weekend, and you should be keeping an eye out for any rust ... or maybe a lack thereof.
A handful of teams started slow in the opening weeks of the season because the COVID-19 pandemic created a disrupted and delayed practice schedule.
But the SEC had a few extra weeks to prepare. So we'll have to see if it shows on the field. Though it's probably safe to say some teams would struggle regardless (sorry, Arkansas).
Who is next in the line of Georgia quarterbacks?
If you have followed the quarterback carousel at UGA these past few years, it has been quite a ride. (There was Jacob Eason for a bit, then Jake Fromm, along with a year of Justin Fields as a backup.) And this year is no different. Expected starter and Wake Forest transfer Jamie Newman opted out, leaving JT Daniels and D'Wan Mathis.
Daniels started the 2018 season for Southern California but suffered a knee injury in the 2019 opener against Fresno State and was replaced by Kedon Slovis -- leading to Daniels' transfer to Georgia in late May. Daniels hasn't yet been medically cleared to play, but Kirby Smart hopes he will be able to compete on Saturday against Arkansas.
If Daniels isn't able to go, Mathis will start. The redshirt freshman missed his first season after needing emergency brain surgery to remove a cyst. Now, he is in a position where he could be the Bulldogs' season-opening starter.
The best team in Florida is ...
After UCF beat Georgia Tech 49-21 in its season opener -- in the same city where it claimed its 2017 national championship* -- sophomore standout quarterback Dillon Gabriel proclaimed his Knights "the best team in Florida."
Asked about that comment again Monday during a media availability with reporters in Orlando, Gabriel held firm. "I said what I said. I still think we're the best team in Florida."
Gabriel slings 4 TDs in UCF's win
Dillon Gabriel throws for 417 and four touchdowns in UCF's win over Georgia Tech.
Now, we all know how UCF quite enjoys rattling the cages of its Power 5 in-state brethren. UCF AD Danny White and Florida AD Scott Stricklin have gotten into several he-said/he-said skirmishes over an inability to schedule each other. UCF fans also accused Florida of refusing to play UCF in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl after the 2018 season at the height of their grudge fest.
The point is that nobody in the state much cares for one another, and that is especially true for the new program on the block trying to get everyone to take it seriously. But what Dillon said begs a very important question. Is UCF the best team in Florida? On its face the question seems like a pretty straightforward "no." After all, Florida and Miami are both ranked higher than UCF in the AP Top 25.
The Knights are a healthy 27-point favorite against ECU this Saturday, but how would they stack up against the Power 5 competition Gabriel so confidently boasts superiority over? ESPN Stats & Information proves nothing is ever truly straightforward in college football. Especially when it comes to UCF.
The Knights have the highest Football Power Index ranking of any Florida school, sitting at No. 8. On a neutral field and with equal rest, the Knights would be favored by:
1.3 points over Florida
12.8 points over Miami
14.2 points over Florida State
In addition to that, the FPI gives UCF the highest percentage of all the Florida schools to make the College Football Playoff (32.2% for the Knights, compared to 9.6% for Florida, and 0.1% for both Miami and Florida State).
So should we get a 2020 national championship banner ready? Wait, that is a different conversation. -- Andrea Adelson
It's 2020, so we have our first coach-by-Zoom
Earlier this week, first-year Florida State coach Mike Norvell tested positive for COVID-19, and though he has shown no symptoms, he is required to quarantine for 10 days, meaning he'll miss his first rivalry game with Miami this Saturday.
"I get emotional thinking about not being out there because everything I do is to help impact these guys and build them up and prepare them," Norvell said.
It's 2020, though, so there is a workaround. Norvell spent this week coaching from quarantine, sitting in on meetings via Zoom and watching practice on his computer with multiple cameras set up around the practice fields so he can keep an eye on all that's happening.
"We've got a Plan B, C, D, E, I think we've got them all covered," Norvell said. "Once again, unprecedented times. It's something that you always go into a season with a Plan B just in case something was to occur, but there are a lot of moving pieces [this year]."
How wild is Florida State's situation this weekend? Well, the Seminoles last played Miami on Nov. 2, 2019, a dismal 27-10 loss that ultimately cost Willie Taggart his job. Odell Haggins then coached the team's final four games of the season before Norvell took over.
With Norvell out this week, Chris Thomsen will serve as head coach, which leads to this truly astonishing stat, courtesy of former Clemson sports information director Tim Bourret.
After having one head coach (Bobby Bowden) for 417 consecutive games between 1976-2009, Florida State will be guided on Saturday by its fourth head coach in its last seven games. #packer&durham— Tim Bourret (@TimBourret) September 22, 2020
The Hokies will play ... probably
Ten teams whose conferences have already started play have yet to take the field, but eight are scheduled to do so this weekend, including Virginia Tech. Probably. Maybe. Hopefully.
That was Hokies coach Justin Fuente's message this week when asked about how many players he'll have available for Saturday's game against NC State. The game was originally slated for Sept. 12 but was postponed due to a COVID-19 outbreak among the Wolfpack. Then Virginia Tech had to nix last week's game against Virginia because of its own COVID-19 issues.
"We're living in a test-by-test world," Fuente said Monday. "We will not have a full roster. I hope we're able to play."
Fuente isn't the only one keeping his fingers crossed.
"Everybody's ready to let out their anger on somebody else," Hokies receiver Tre Turner said. "It's been frustrating because I'm just ready to play. I've been aggravated wanting to get out on the field."
Turner let out a little of that aggression on social media last week when rival Virginia took to Twitter to call out the Hokies for postponing their game. UVA has yet to have a single positive COVID-19 test, which led several Virginia players, including linebacker Charles Snowden, to suggest the Hokies hadn't handled their business, and Turner quickly shot back.
I'm ready whenever, wherever bro💯— Tré Turner (@tre11turner) September 12, 2020
So, is there some pent-up hostility there?
"It was funny to me because when our game got postponed [vs. NC State], you didn't see us going at NC State bashing players," Turner said. "There's a pandemic going on. But I don't take anything personal on Twitter at all."
Players to watch
Rattler comes out strong in first Sooners start
Spencer Rattler connects for four touchdowns in the first half, giving the Sooners a 41-0 lead at the half.
You could put Rattler here every week and it would be accurate, right? He has played only one game (and it was against Missouri State), but Rattler completed 14 of 17 passes for 290 yards and four touchdowns. He's a clear Heisman contender, and this week the Sooners face a Kansas State team coming off an upset loss to Arkansas State. I'm excited to see just how much damage Rattler and coach Lincoln Riley can do.
Hale: Auburn QB Bo Nix
There's arguably no bigger wild card in 2020 than Nix, who started as a true freshman last year, beat both Oregon and Alabama, and endured his share of struggles against a relentless schedule that also included Texas A&M, Florida, LSU and Georgia.
"That schedule would've been tough on anybody," coach Gus Malzahn said. "I'd like to see a lot of these other teams play that schedule and see how their quarterback does."
That was last year, though. This is a new season with a new offensive coordinator in Chad Morris, and Malzahn believes Nix will take a big step forward.
"He's got a lot of confidence, and Coach Morris is trying to build this offense to his strengths," Malzahn said.
Auburn's opener should be a good test. Kentucky has nine starters on defense who are seniors or redshirt juniors, led by corner Brandin Echols, who's among the best DBs in the country.
Under-the-radar game of the week
Lyles: Mississippi State vs. LSU. If you're a fan of SEC football (I would hope we all are) this might not be so "under the radar." Plus, LSU is comfortably favored. But there are still a lot of unknowns for both teams.
For Mississippi State, it's the debut of the Mike Leach show. There is no reason for Mississippi State to win this game, but hey, if Leach's offense really takes just three days to install, maybe it'll be entertaining. At quarterback, he'll be working with Stanford transfer K.J. Costello. At running back, Kylin Hill -- the SEC's third leading rusher in 2019 -- returns.
The defending national champs, meanwhile, return without many of their key players from last year (most notably 15 NFL draft picks). Plus, 2019 Biletnikoff winner Ja'Marr Chase opted out in late August.
But LSU is still LSU. So of course there was more talent behind the departing talent, including new starting QB Myles Brennan.
Hale: There are three matchups between ranked teams this week, with Auburn-Kentucky and Louisville-Pitt doing the heavy lifting and Army vs. Cincinnati flying under the radar. Still, the Black Nights and Bearcats offer perhaps the most intriguing matchup. Army has been dominant in its first two games of the year, beating MTSU and Louisiana-Monroe by a combined score of 79-7. Running on the Bearcats won't be easy, though. Cincinnati hasn't allowed 200 yards on the ground since its Week 2 loss to Ohio State last year. The winner of this one will be in a good position to make a run at a New Year's Six bowl.
Our upset picks are a combined 4-0 so far. Let's keep the mojo flowing ...
Who is on upset alert for Week 1?
The SEC Now crew discusses Week 1 matchups and which teams they think are on upset alert.
Lyles: Kentucky over No. 8 Auburn
I'm apologizing to David in advance for ruining our perfect record on upset picks if this one doesn't hold up. But in a season that has been affected by the COVID-19 pandemic in so many ways, and with Kentucky having one of its most talented teams to open up a season in years, I'm going to roll the dice on an upset at Jordan-Hare Stadium. Bo Nix had a typical freshman season of ups and downs for Auburn last year, and I'm going to bank on him starting the season slow -- while hoping Kentucky inches closer toward being a football school (kidding about the football school part).
Hale: Syracuse over Georgia Tech
The Orange offense looked brutal in its first two games, with QB Tommy DeVito sacked 14 times in two losses. Georgia Tech, on the other hand, has looked awfully good, moving the ball well last week against UCF and beating Florida State in the opener. But the Yellow Jackets are still a work in progress on offense, and Syracuse has its back against the wall. If the Orange can't win this one at home, they may not win a conference game all year.