The Pi-Rate Ratings

August 22, 2021

Southeastern Conference Preview

On July 21, 2021, the future of college football was forever changed.  In a year where the Name, Image, and Likeness ruling in favor of the players allowed college athletes to enter the highest tax bracket and changed the definition of, or ended, amateurism; in a year, where every player was allowed to return to his team with the same amount of remaining eligibility as last year; in a year where the Transfer Portal created college football free agency; and in a year where the NCAA basically threw up its hands and told the conferences that they were free to determine the future of football, what happened on July 21 was the equivalent of the firing on Fort Sumter.

On that date, news leaked out from a Houston sports reporter that Oklahoma and Texas were going to leave the Big 12 Conference and join the Southeastern Conference.  

Immediately, the remaining Big 12 teams had to declare states of emergency.  The two teams leaving the conference accounted for most of the revenue generation in the league.  A league of eight teams with Oklahoma State and Iowa State as the two top programs would not command the media contract, and the league teams would be choked out in revenue sharing.

SEC Commissioner Greg Sankey then stated that increasing the number of teams in the Playoffs from four to 12 did not need to be put on a fast-track.  Other media officials began to speculate that Sankey might not be finished with realignment at 16.  Rumors surfaced that Florida State, Clemson, Michigan, and Ohio State might be next.  Once thought of as a totally ridiculous type of rumor, it no longer seemed far-fetched to believe it could occur.

Sankey started the Civil Football War, and the teams not included in the exclusive SEC Country Club chose to combine forces.  The ACC, Big Ten, and Pac-12 commissioners realized that their futures were in serious doubt, and something needed to be done to counter the moves of the SEC.  And, voila, it appears that the three leagues are on the cusp of forming an alliance, where the three leagues will play all of their non-conference games against each other.  The other idea is that they will agree not to play any SEC teams.  The War is on.

The problem with this potential war is this:  if you added Oklahoma to the SEC this year, four of the top six teams would be SEC teams.  Having the other leagues not play any of these teams might mean that the SEC could hold a four-team tournament of its own and have a much better playoff than if the rest of the nation was involved.

We’ll have to wait at least a year until the Sooners and Longhorns make the move, but suffice it to say–the SEC begins the season for the 15th consecutive season as the strongest conference in college football.  Penn State football coach James Franklin summed it up best when he was the head coach at Vanderbilt a decade ago:  “The three strongest conferences in football are the NFC, the AFC, and the SEC.”

After the news broke in Hoover, AL, about the potential realignment, the media eventually voted in their preseason poll.  Mind you, that this league allows local fan sites from the schools to vote in these polls, and you will see some ridiculous outliers in the votes.  I have been a poll voter in the past, but since becoming a voting member of the National Football Foundation, I only vote on NFF issues.


SEC Media Preseason Poll
Eastern Division1st PlOverall
Georgia124923
Florida7784
Kentucky2624
Missouri555
Tennessee362
South Carolina1355
Vanderbilt149

Western Division1st PlOverall
Alabama130932
Texas A&M1760
LSU1633
Ole Miss1529
Auburn440
Arkansas1241
Mississippi St.217

Championship Game Winner
Alabama84
Georgia45
Ole Miss1
Texas A&M1
Florida1
Kentucky1
South Carolina1

The PiRate Ratings show little difference from the media poll.


Southeastern Conference
East Division
TeamPiRateMeanBiasAverage
Georgia124.8124.5126.3125.2
Florida117.0119.4118.1118.2
Kentucky106.7108.8106.8107.4
Missouri106.2106.9106.2106.4
Tennessee104.1103.1104.6104.0
South Carolina101.1101.0100.4100.8
Vanderbilt90.989.989.690.1

West Division
TeamPiRateMeanBiasAverage
Alabama130.4128.8131.3130.2
Texas A&M117.4118.3118.6118.1
Auburn116.4115.2116.6116.1
Ole Miss113.3113.3113.2113.3
L S U111.0112.4112.8112.1
Mississippi St.110.2110.4109.7110.1
Arkansas110.1109.9108.5109.5

SEC Averages111.4111.6111.6111.5

Eastern Division

Georgia

None of Nick Saban’s former assistant coaches have ever beaten him in a football game.  There was a time when the same was true for Bear Bryant, until future Alabama head coach Gene Stallings and his 1967-68 Texas A&M Aggies came from behind to beat Bama in the Cotton Bowl.

Kirby Smart has come the closest to beating Saban, and he almost did it in the National Championship Game.  If there is a year where Georgia might be the better team between the two behemoths, this could be the year.  However, in recent days, Georgia has seen a rash of injuries and a personal issue deplete what might have been the best receiving corps in the nation.  

The Bulldogs have seen the injury bug hit the top two tight ends, Darnell Washington and John FitzPatrick.  Third teamer Brock Bowers is a competent pass-catcher, but his blocking ability is considerably weaker than Washington.

Wide receiver Arik Gilbert was considered the final piece of the puzzle for the Bulldogs to have the best offense in the SEC when he came this Summer via the Transfer Portal, but Gilbert has been away with a personal matter and has not been practicing.    What hurts here is that Gilbert can play at tight end or wideout.  Expected starting wideouts Jermaine Burton and Kearis Jackson have missed practice, and UGA was already prepared to play the 2021 season without top receiver Geoge Pickens.

If most or all of these receivers are able to play in game one, then Georgia has a fighting chance to pull off the first upset of the season, when they face former annual rival Clemson in a game to be played in Charlotte, North Carolina.  The Bulldogs are loaded at every position on both sides of the ball.

Quarterback J.T. Daniels went 4-0 as a Bulldog starter last year.  The former USC quarterback passed for more than 300 yards in two of those starts.  When a team that always has one of the top five running back units in the country can all of a sudden pass for 300 yards, you have a team that resembles LSU in 2019.

How is the Bulldog running brigade this year?  Zamir White can be a brigade by himself.  He was healthy for the entire season last year, and he produced 779 rushing yards at a 5.4 yard per carry clip.  He scored 11 touchdowns.  White has help.  Backup James Cook averaged 6.7 yards per attempt, and three other returnees combined to rush for 662 yards at 5.6 yards per attempt.

The Bulldog offensive line features one of the top blockers in the nation in guard-tackle Jamaree Salyer.

The 2021 UGA offense has the potential to be the best in the nation, not necessarily in points and yards, but in actual talent.  In the toughest league in college football, averaging 35-40 points per game and 425-450 total yards a game is better than 45-50 points and 550 yards in other leagues.

Defensively, Georgia can go head-to-head with Alabama in the front seven, but the defensive backfield may be a tad suspect if you can call maybe the 20th best secondary in the nation suspect.

Up front, nose tackle Jordan Davis should be playing on Sundays in 2022.  He can take on two offensive blockers, shed them, and clobber a running back, and he can rush the passer from the inside.  Jack End/Linebacker Adam Anderson is one of the best outside pass rushers in the league.

Star Linebacker/Safety Tykee Smith is another player with injury issues in Fall Practice.  His injury would hurt Georgia more than any of the injuries on offense.  The West Virginia transfer is considerably better than backup Latavious Brini.

The big intangible that could be the difference in a close game is special teams play.  The Bulldogs have the best punter in the league in Jake Camarda and one of the best kickers in Jack Podlesny.  Additionally, the Bulldog return games are both major weapons.

When we first released the ACC preview, our prediction was that Georgia would edge Clemson in an incredible game that would set the table for the Bulldogs to run the table to the SEC Championship Game, where #1 Alabama would face #2 Georgia.  However, since that preview, all the receiver issues as well as the potential loss of Smith makes the Clemson game look a little less likely for the Bulldogs.  The rest of the regular season should present Georgia with few problems as long as the team doesn’t suffer more injuries.  If the entire squad can be healthy in December, this might be the year the Bulldogs kick in the door and beat Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

 Florida

The Gators beat Georgia and were 8-1 after the first week of December last year.  A loss to LSU and then to Alabama in the SEC Championship Game sent the Gators to the Cotton Bowl, where future SEC foe Oklahoma dismantled the Gators’ defense in a 55-20 blowout.  At 8-4, the season was considered a disappointment.  2021 could be trouble for Florida, as Coach Dan Mullen has a rebuilding job to do on both sides of the ball.

The first question with the offense is how Emory Jones will replace Kyle Trask as quarterback.  Trask passed for 43 touchdowns last year and 4,283 yards.  He averaged close to 10 yards per pass attempt.  Jones is more of a dual threat quarterback.  He’d probably be an excellent single wing tailback, but will he be able to throw the ball 30-35 times a game and put up numbers anywhere close to what Trask accomplished last year?  We don’t think he will, but he might run for 750-800 yards.

Florida’s top three running backs from last year are back again, and combined with Jones, the Gators could rush for 175-200 yards per game and shave a few scrimmage plays off the defensive average as well.

Along with the loss of Trask, replacing Kadarius Toney, Kyle Pitts, and Trevon Grimes will be tough.  The trio accounted for 151 receptions and 31 touchdowns.  Florida’s receivers this year will rely on getting open because Jones uses the run-pass option with effectiveness, forcing defenders to play a cat and mouse game.

Three offensive line starters return, and this year’s line will be about as talented as last year’s.

The Gators averaged 40 points and 510 yards per game last year, but those numbers will not be approached in 2021.  30-35 points and 400-430 yards will still allow the Gators to win enough games to compete for a New Year’s Bowl.

Defensively, Florida broke down too many times last year.  With significant starters to replace, the defense may be no better this year.  The four returning starters, end Zachary Carter, linebackers Brenton Cox and Ventrell Miller, and cornerback Kaiir Elam all have All-SEC talent, but the other seven starters are average to above average only.  The defensive line has the potential to develop into a top flight unit if a couple of transfers play a little beyond expectations.

Florida’s non-conference schedule should allow the Gators to pick up four wins.  They must play both Alabama and Georgia in conference play, and their grudge match at LSU plus road games against Missouri and Kentucky present too many obstacles to compete for the Eastern Division title this year.  A nine-win regular season and New Year’s Day bowl would be a reasonable expectation.

Kentucky

Mark Stoops has a 49-50 career record at Kentucky in eight years.  It sounds mediocre, but he inherited a mess in Lexington, and he’s slowly turned this program into a fairly strong one, where a bowl game is now expected.  How the Wildcats went 23-14 the last three years with the weakest passing attack in the league is a testament to how well Stoops can squeeze points out of yards.  Kentucky’s 121.5 yards per game passing last year was actually less than some of Alabama’s averages in the 1970’s when they ran the Wishbone and passed the ball 10 times a game.

The passing woes may be a thing of the past, as former Penn State quarterback Will Levis has come to town.  Levis has a strong arm, and he can scramble and run the ball.  New offensive coordinator Liam Coen most recently tutored Jared Goff to an NFC Championship and playoff appearance in two years as the Los Angeles Rams’ offensive coordinator.  He believes Levis is the man that can make his multiple offense run effectively.

Running back Chris Rodriguez, Jr., led the Wildcats with 785 rushing yards while scoring 11 touchdowns.  Kavosley Smoke looked impressive in his few carries.

Kentucky may sneak up on some defenses this year with the passing game, not just because of the arm of Levis.  The receiving corps has some hidden gems, and a true freshman son of an NFL Hall of Famer might sneak into the first unit.  Nebraska transfer Wan’Dale Robinson becomes the top target, even though last year’s top receiver Josh Ali returns.   Robinson caught 51 passes in eight games last year for the Cornhuskers.  That true freshman that may sneak onto the first team as the third receiver is Christian Lewis, the son of legendary Baltimore Ravens’ linebacker Ray Lewis.

Kentucky has some questions to answer at the interior line.  Potential All-American Darian Kinnard might have been a second round draft pick had he chosen to enter the draft, and his return is a big plus, but the Cats lost their other tackle, Landon Young, who may have been the most talented offensive lineman Kentucky has had in 20 years.

Defensively, there are a lot of holes to fill, and this is the reason why we cannot call Kentucky a dark horse team to contend in the Eastern Division.  Similar to Florida, the four returning starters are all highly talented.  End Josh Paschal, linebacker DeAndre Square, and safeties Tyrell Ajian and Yusuf Corker will lead what will be an inexperienced defense at the other seven positions.  

Kentucky should win all four non-conference games, and then they are likely to split their conference games at 4-4.  An 8-4 season with a bowl game would continue the success of the Stoops era.

Missouri

Eliah Drinkwitz went 5-5 in his first season at Missouri after going 12-1 in his one year at Appalachian State.  The second year skipper has Tiger fans excited that Missouri is headed in the right direction.  Drinkwitz proved that he’s a coach capable of adjusting his style of play to the talent he has, as he went with wide-open passing attack in his first year in Columbia after being a run-first coach at Appy State.  Expect more of the same from the Tigers this year, as the Mizzou offense should post even better numbers in 2021 than in 2020.

Quarterback Connor Bazelak didn’t start the first two games last year, as Alabama and then Tennessee won in blowouts.  At 0-2, Bazelak assumed starting duties and guided the Tigers to a 5-3 finish and an average of 28.9 points per game.  Bazelak finished with a 67.3% completion percentage for 2,366 yards, averaging close to 300 passing yards per game in his starts.

Missouri’s pass receiving corps figured to be a team strength until it was robbed of two of its key reserves due to injuries in August practices.  Keke Chism and Jalen Knox figure to be the top two targets after combining for 66 receptions and 763 yards last year, but incoming Ohio State transfer Mookie Cooper figured to be the missing ingredient that took the UM passing game from really good to great.  Cooper is out until mid-season with a leg injury.  

The running game loses its top weapon in Larry Rountree III, after he rushed for 972 yards and 14 touchdowns and became a member of the Los Angeles Chargers.  Tyler Badie might not run for 800 yards this year, but he’s more likely to be successful picking up three yards on 3rd and two and punching the ball into the end zone from the two than Rountree was able to do.  He’s also a capable pass-catcher out of the backfield.

An experienced and talented offensive line will open holes for the running game and provide enough pass protection for Bazelak to work his magic.  Drinkwitz’s Tigers will be flying in 2021.  Expect Mizzou to top 30 points and 425 yards per game.

It’s the defensive side of the ball that will determine whether Missouri will stay around .500 or win a couple more games.  He hired former Arizona Cardinals head coach Steve Wilks as his new defensive coordinator, and Wilks will implement massive changes in the way this team plays defense.  Expect Missouri to play mostly a 4-2-5 defense with a lot more zone coverage after being mostly a man-to-man coverage team last year with three-linebacker sets.  The transformation may be rough at times, but it could lead to more takeaways, something Missouri needed last year, when they were -5 in turnover margin.

Missouri’s defensive strength is up front, where the defensive line returns three starters, featuring 1st team All-SEC end Trajan Jeffcoat, who led the team with six QB sacks last year.  Former starter Kobie Whiteside appears to be healthy once again after missing half of last year with a knee injury.

The now two-man linebacker crew must make do without its leading tackler from 2020, as Nick Bolton earned consecutive All-SEC selections his last two years and appears set to become a starter with the Kansas City Chiefs.  Devin Nicholson does return after finishing second to Bolton with 82 tackles.

The biggest concern with the defense is the secondary, where two starters return to a unit that struggled in coverage last year.  A revamped secondary will have to learn multiple zone coverages, and there could be growing pains.

The Missouri schedule is tougher than average, and the Tigers could sink in September if the defense cannot quickly grasp all the new concepts.  An opening game against Central Michigan should be a win, but the Chippewas are not a team to take lightly.  CMU has enough talent to make this game interesting.  A trip to Kentucky follows a week later, and the Wildcats’ new passing game will test out the Tigers’ new defense.  After a breather against SEMO, a game at Boston College to close out September could be a little more than Missouri bargained for.  A 3-1 non-conference mark after an easy win over North Texas would require three conference wins to gain bowl eligibility.  With a home game against South Carolina and a road game against a weak Vanderbilt team, the Tigers will need to find one more win to get to 6-6.

Tennessee

This once proud, perennial top 10 team has fallen on hard times in the 21st Century.  Five coaches have come and gone between the Volunteers’ last appearance in the SEC Championship Game.  The Vols also botched two coaching hires, one in which they apparently hired Mike Leach and then unhired him, and one where they apparently had agreed to a deal with Greg Schiano before protests forced them to cancel the agreement.

Tennessee turns to its latest hopeful guru in Josh Heupel.  What Paul Westhead was to college basketball at Loyola Marymount, Heupel was to college football at Central Florida, where the Knights typically ran 85 scrimmage plays and topped 40 points per game with a balanced run-pass attack.  The philosophy worked and was quite exciting to watch when Heupel had a star quarterback like McKenzie Milton.  It was still exciting and still scored points when Milton wasn’t there, but it wasn’t as consistent, and the other team discovered that they could score points almost as easily as UCF.  It ended in a 2020 season that brought a 6-4 record with an average game score of 42-33.

Tennessee suffered through a 3-7 season that included six consecutive losses by an average score of 35-16 before topping Vanderbilt in a blowout win and then concluding the former coach Jeremy Pruitt era with a blowout loss to Texas A&M.  Included in the turmoil was an endless quarterback battle that never worked its way to a successful conclusion.

After the season, the Vols lost more talent in the Transfer Portal than any other team, and that does not include three of the four quarterbacks.  It looks like a total makeover is coming to Knoxville, and makeovers like this rarely look pretty at the top level of college football.

There could be a bright spot with the quarterback position this year.  Two former starting quarterbacks with Power 5 conference teams have transferred to Knoxville.  Former Michigan quarterback Joe Milton appears to be the odds-on favorite to open the season as the starter, while former Virginia Tech quarterback Hendon Hooker should be #2.  This should be considered an upgrade over the revolving door on The Hill in 2020, and with the new offense, the Vols should be a bit more successful moving the ball and scoring points.

The ground game will need Milton or Hooker to take up some of the slack lost when Eric Gray transferred to Oklahoma.  Gray WAS the UT offense at times last year.  Jabari Small and Tiyon Evans will split most of the carries by running backs this year.  Both have the potential to be effective, and the Vols’ running game could be a surprise at times this year.

The receiving corps is a total remake this year.  However, with the QB problems in the rear view mirror, expect this unit to put up much better stats, even with all new starters.  With the extreme up-tempo run by Heupel, it requires at least two complete sets of receivers to play, and eventually, defensive backfields that cannot platoon with two separate units suffer fatigue breakdowns.  So, even if the receivers are mostly untested, they will put up some incredible statistics.  Keep an eye on Mississippi State transfer JaVonta Payton.  He should become the new go-to guy, but this unit has multiple players with sprinter’s speed.  If they can catch the ball, Tennessee could shock the league with passing numbers.

The offensive line has been an underperformer for multiple seasons.  It figures to be a work in progress this year, but Milton and Hooker could take a lot of the pressure off the interior blockers that was put there by the former quarterbacks.  Tackle Cade Mays can play guard as well, and he will be the foundation for this unit.

After averaging just 21.5 points and 346 yards per game last year, those numbers could be the halftime numbers of multiple games this year.  The Vols should move north of 30 points and 400 yards per game in 2021.

All is not so optimistic on the defensive side of the ball, and as quickly as the Big Orange score points, they may just as quickly give them up.  The Vols figure to finish #13 in scoring and total defense in the league this year thanks only to there being possibly the worst defense in modern SEC history just down the road.

The biggest issue with this defense is at the linebacker spot, where the roster was decimated by graduation and Transfer Portal defections.  Henry To’o To’o was one of the best linebackers the Vols have had in the last 25 years, and his loss is Alabama’s gain.  Look for Tennessee to rotate fresh linebackers into the rotation, hoping a couple can stand out and become key contributors.

Up front, the Vols look to have a somewhat decent pass rush with Matthew Butler returning at end.  Look out for USC transfer Caleb Tremblay on the inside, and we think that a healthy LaTrell Bumphus could be a key contributor here as well.

The secondary is the most experienced unit on the defense with three returning starters.  Cornerbacks Alontae Taylor and Kenneth George, Jr. combined for 10 passes defended last year, while safeties Trevon Flowers and Jaylen McCullough teamed for 105 tackles.

Heupel’s first Vols’ team has a chance at making a bowl thanks to an advantageous schedule.  If Tennessee can top Pittsburgh in week two in a home game, it should mean UT goes 4-0 in non-conference games.  Needing just two conference wins for bowl eligibility, one is a given against Vanderbilt, while games with Missouri, South Carolina, and Kentucky will give the Vols that chance to pick up the second conference win.

South Carolina

The Will Muschamp era is over in Columbia, and there’s renewed excitement in the hiring of Shane Beamer as the new head coach.  Beamer, a surprise long shot candidate for the job, hit the ground running when he took over, and he looks like he could be one of the best recruiters in the league, and he certainly has won over fans with his public outreach.  That bodes well for the Gamecocks down the road, but 2021 may be a season where the team looks too familiar to fans at Williams-Brice Stadium.

Coming off a 2-8 season that included wins over Vanderbilt and Auburn, it figures that 2021 should see something of a bounceback, especially for an offense that scored just 44 points in the final three games.  Six starters return on offense, and the most important one is running back Kevin Harris.  Harris finished second in the league in rushing with 1,138 yards, scoring 15 touchdowns.  He ran for more than 200 yards in two games and topped 100 yards in three others, averaging 6.2 yards per carry.  He added 21 receptions, which was third best on the team.  A recent back injury in practice may open the door for MarShawn Lloyd to reclaim the starting position he lost last year when he was lost for the season with a knee injury.  When both are healthy, this is the best tandem running back duo in the league.

You win in college football in the 2020’s with a quarterback that can move the ball through the air down the field, and South Carolina is hurting in this department.  Expected starter Luke Doty has missed practice time with a foot injury.  After watching backup Jason Brown struggle to run plays in practice and giving a walk-on a try, Beamer made the decision to take graduate assistant Zeb Noland, who has one year of eligibility remaining, and place him on the active roster.  Noland began his playing career at Iowa State and transferred to North Dakota State, where he graduated after being the backup to the great Trey Lance.

The receiving corps must be rebuilt from the ground up, and tight end Nick Muse may have to be the primary target with all the turmoil surrounding the passing game.  Muse grabbed 30 passes and gained 425 yards last year.  

The good news is that the offensive line is experienced and a lot more talented than it looked to be last year.  Four of five starters return.

The front seven of the defense has experience and talent, but the secondary is inexperienced and not as talented.  USC will need to blitz a lot this year to put pressure on enemy quarterbacks, because if given too much time, they will pick the Gamecock secondary to shreds.

In the trenches, the entire starting four return, including edge rusher Kingsley Enagbare, who led the team with six QB sacks and seven TFL in eight games.    

Linebacker Damani Staley is the leading returning tackler (50), and former starter Sherrod Greene returns at LB after missing almost all of last year.  When healthy in 2019, Greene made 6 ½ tackles for loss, so he is a disrupter.

South Carolina will likely be forced to use nickel coverage on most plays this year.  There isn’t a lot of SEC-caliber talent in this unit, and going up against the offenses on this schedule, the Gamecocks are going to be outgunned more often than not.

The USC schedule includes the non-conference season finale against rival Clemson, so the Gamecocks start the season with a guaranteed non-conference loss.  They will need to win the other three against weak competition.  Once conference play starts, only the Vanderbilt game looks like a near sure thing.  Four wins may be all that can be expected out of this team, but that would double last year’s total.

Vanderbilt

The one private, academically prestigious school in the SEC is always behind the eight-ball when it comes to acquiring enough talent to compete against the best public institutions of higher football standards than any other in the nation.  2020 was a season that Vanderbilt fans would like to forget.  Thanks only to Kansas being a total trainwreck, or this would have been the worst power 5 team of the 21st Century.

In all the years of struggling to survive in the SEC, until last year, Vandy had never suffered through a winless season.  But, the 0-9 finish, where the Commodores opted out of the Georgia game twice ended with Earth-shattering news that many believed embarrassed the school more than it advanced gender equality.  Covid decimated the Commodore lineup to the point where former coach Derek Mason was forced to take the backup goalie on the women’s soccer team and make her the starting kicker on the team.  Sarah Fuller was a perfect two for two on extra points to make history, but 2020 was a year Vanderbilt would like to erase from the history books.

Enter Vanderbilt football alum Clark Lea to take the reins of the Commodore football program.  Lea was one of the best defensive coordinators in college football in recent years at Notre Dame.  Former coach Mason came to Vanderbilt with the same credentials.

Lea has the endorsement of the Wizard of Vanderbilt athletics.  Baseball coach Tim Corbin wanted him for this job, and Lea hopes that a Corbin-like approach to the job can turn the Commodores’ football fortunes around.  A several million dollar investment in new facilities should help recruiting down the road, but for now the Commodores must make do with the weakest offense and weakest defense in the SEC.

Oddly, Vanderbilt is in good shape at quarterback, where they have two talented players that bring different skill sets to the game.  Starting quarterback Ken Seals looked like a seasoned veteran as a true freshman last year.  With minimal pass protection, he completed almost 65% of his passes and 12 touchdowns.  His 10 interceptions can be explained somewhat with very poor pass protection, but a couple were blatant freshman mistakes, including a crucial red zone pick against Texas A&M in the opener that might have made a 17-12 loss a 19-17 win and set a totally different tone for the season.  Backup Mike Wright has quicker feet and a stronger arm, but he is not as accurate as Seals.  Still, expect to see Wright get a good number of series as a change of pace.

Considering this team ranked 11th in the league in passing yardage, the Commodores have a couple of talented receivers returning in Cam Johnson and Chris Pierce.  The two combined for 81 catches last year.  Amir Abdur-Rahim is the secret sauce of this unit.  He is the one truly deep threat receiver, and we expect new offensive coordinator David Raih will gamble with a few more deep throws this year than Vandy has attempted in recent years.

The running game has been a strength in recent years as two Commodore players made it to the NFL.  However, this will be a question mark this year after expected feature back Keyon Henry-Brooks transferred to Louisiana Tech.  Incoming Temple transfer Re’Mahn Davis will begin the year as the starter.  Davis averaged 4.2 yards per rush in two seasons at Temple, but against the only defense anywhere close to SEC caliber, he only gained 36 yards on 15 carries.  Walk-on Mitchell Pryor may be the most reliable inside threat on the team.  What he lacks in pure ability, he makes up for in effort.  In limited duty in two years, he has averaged five yards per rush, all on straight ahead power dive plays and scored a pair of touchdowns.

The offensive line returns three starters, and three more former starters return after opting out last year.  Still, this is the weakest offensive line in the SEC, and the #13 line is closer to #1 than Vanderbilt is to it.

Now, for the extreme gloom.  The Commodore defense is not up to SEC standards.  It may not be up to the standards of a good FCS team.  It might ranke dead last this year if the offense cannot sustain drives that keeps the defense off the field.  The 2020 defense was more talented than this one will be, and they finished ranked 121 of 127 in yards allowed at 487.4 per game.

Last year’s defense had very few positives, and all the positives have vacated the premises.  End Dayo Odeyingbo, now playing in the NFL, and Andre Mintze, now trying to hook on with the Broncos as a UFA, accounted for more than 65% of the QB sacks and 41% of the TFL.  Top defensive back Donovan Kaufman followed Mason to Auburn.

What’s left is the overwhelming last place defensive line, linebackers, and secondary.  In all the years of covering college football, we cannot remember any team having the last place unit on an entire defense.  Vanderbilt gave up 37.3 points per game in 2020.  That included giving up 41 points to a weak South Carolina team and 42 to a weak Tennessee team.  As bad as that was, the 2021 defense could give up more than 45 points and 500 yards per game.

There are two winnable non-conference games on this year’s schedule, which is the reason why this team won’t go winless for a second season in a row.  Vanderbilt should beat East Tennessee State in the season opener, and Connecticut coming to Nashville in early October should be another win.  However, the other 10 teams on the schedule look to be out of reach.  A non-conference game at Colorado State is the other potential win, but the last time Vandy played a Mountain West team, the weakest one in the league, UNLV, blew them off the field in Nashville.

Western Division

Alabama

Nick Saban may have put his best ever team on the field last year.  The Crimson Tide beat 11 consecutive conference opponents, including Georgia, Florida, and Texas A&M, on their way to a perfect 13-0 record and national championship, where they toyed with both of their playoff opponents.

The talent lost from that team could form the basis of an NFL expansion franchise.  So much talent has been lost, that in our ratings, the Crimson Tide begin the season more than 11 points weaker than they ended the season.  So where does this drop Alabama in the national rankings to start the year?  It doesn’t.  They are still number one and still expected to win another national championship.

At this point in his wizardry in Tuscaloosa, Saban has become the John Wooden of college football.  When Wooden lost Kareem Abdul-Jabbar after the 1969 season, his next two years before Bill Walton debuted with the varsity, he relied on Sydney Wicks, Curtis Rowe, and Steve Patterson and won the next two national championships without the dominant big man.  Saban loses Mac Jones, who could very well become the New England Patriots’ starting quarterback sometime this season.  He loses Najee Harris, who was more dominant at ‘Bama than Derrick Henry.  Harris scored 26 rushing touchdowns and four more on passes for 180 points and 1,891 total yards.  Saban also loses Devonta Smith at wide receiver.  All he did was catch 117 passes for 1,856 yards and 23 touchdowns.  At the end of the year, he picked up the big piece of hardware naming him the best player in college football.  Ha, he may not have even been the best player on his team!

The roster is still chock full of 4-star and 5-star athletes waiting for their turns to become all-stars.  Foremost among them may be one of the leading candidates to pick up that big piece of hardware in New York City this December.

Bryce Young was the most heralded quarterback recruit to sign at Alabama in decades, but he has had to wait his turn in line.  In very limited action last year, he completed 13 of 22 passes for 156 yards and a touchdown.  Passing is just half of his game.  Young possesses an ability to make defenders miss when he runs the ball.  Think of him as a better version of Russell Wilson in college.  New offensive coordinator Bill O’Brien will make Young a better passer, but O’Brien’s history is one of a pro-style offense.  He might be forced to add more designed runs for Young.

The next star running back for the Crimson Tide should actually be a three-headed monster.  The trio of Brian Robinson, Jr., Jase McClellan, and Trey Sanders will team up to approach Harris’s 2020 numbers.  If Sanders stays healthy, he may eventually become the feature back capable of topping 1,000 yards.

John Metchie, III, and Slade Bolden are all that’s left of last year’s tops in the nation receiving corps, but Saban has hoarded 5-star talent in this unit and has two true freshmen (Ja’Corey Brooks and Christian Leary) that could quickly see the field this year.  Alabama can go three-deep in this position and still get the job done.

Normally, losing three star offensive linemen would be a big issue, but not here at the offensive line factory of Tuscaloosa.  The new OL may still be the best in the nation, but it may not be the best at Bryant-Denny Stadium.  Saban signed what may be the best offensive line recruiting group in the history of college football.  This group may be the college equivalent of the 1962 Green Bay Packers’ offensive line, the best in football history!  And, it is likely that the entire group will be redshirted, so watch out future SEC teams; pancakes may be served up at all future Tide games!

If an offense that lost eight starters still figures to be one of the best in the nation, what can you say about a defense that returns eight starters?  All three units on this team rank in the PiRate Ratings preseason adjustment process as top five units, and arguably, if the defensive line lives up to its potential, this Tide team could be number one in the SEC in all three categories.  Perhaps the last time this could be said was back in the 1930’s, when General Robert Neyland’s Tennessee team shut out every regular season opponent!  No, Alabama isn’t going to record 13 shutouts, not in these days, but holding opponents to less than 17 points and 350 yards per game in 2021 when the schedule is chock full of teams with future NFL talent is just as complimentary.

The defensive line has underperformed somewhat in recent years, but with all the star talent Alabama has had at linebacker, finding big beefy guys that could protect the linebackers was more important than finding the next Eric Curry and John Copeland.

All-American candidate Chris Allen  made 6 QB sacks and 13 tackles for loss, and yet he may be overshadowed by the other linebackers.  Will Anderson, Jr., is an All-American candidate after recording seven sacks and 10 ½ TFL.   Christian Harris led the Tide with 79 tackles with seven TFL and 4 ½ sacks.  As if that isn’t enough, the Tide picked up our top-rated Transfer Portal player in former Tennessee linebacker Henry To’o To’o.  To’o To’o has quickly picked up the new defense and will be the defensive quarterback from his middle linebacker position.  This quartet should conjure up memories of the 1970’s Pittsburgh Steelers linebacking unit of Jack Ham, Jack Lambert, and Andy Russell.

As good as the linebacking unit is, the secondary is better.  There could be two 1st team All-Americans patrolling the defensive backfield.  We keep comparing the Tide units with famous pro football units of the past.  Safeties Jordan Battle and Malachi Moore, combined with cornerbacks Josh Jobe and Marcus Banks (and don’t forget 5th DB Daniel Wright) are the college equivalent of the 1960’s Detroit Lions quartet of Nighttrain Lane, Dick LeBeau, Yale Lary, and Gary Lowe.  Unlike that great quartet, Alabama’s offense won’t put the great secondary’s accomplishments to waste.

Alabama’s schedule features an opening week game against Miami in Atlanta, a road game against Florida  two weeks later, a home game against Ole Miss two weeks after that, a road trip to Texas A&M a week later, and November games against rivals LSU and Auburn.  Still, we can predict nothing else but a 12-0 regular season.  A potential #1 vs. #2 Game of the Century against Georgia could be the perfect way to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the last Game of the Century played on Thanksgiving Day between Nebraska and Oklahoma.  If Georgia can upset Clemson, it could happen.  

Texas A&M

What a difference a couple months made in College Station, Texas, last year!  Texas A&M began the 2020 football season getting outplayed by a Vanderbilt team that would go 0-9.  Only a couple of crucial Commodore mistakes allowed the Aggies to escape with a 17-12 win.

The following week, Alabama easily topped A&M by four touchdowns, and there was a tiny undercurrent in Aggieland that Coach Jimbo Fishers’ seat was starting to get a bit warm.  A hard-fought upset win over Florida took the heat off and woke up the team.  Texas A&M proceeded to beat everybody else on the schedule and then trounced North Carolina in the Orange Bowl to finish 9-1 and fourth in the final polls.

If only the Aggies had an experienced quarterback returning, this might have been “The Year!”  A&M has exceptional talent everywhere else, and the big game against Alabama will be played at Kyle Field in October.  Alas, we cannot pull the trigger and call for an Aggie upset.  Another one-loss season is possible.

Replacing Kellen Mond at quarterback may force the Aggies to use two untested quarterbacks this year.  Last year’s number two man Hayned King is still a freshman.  He is the better runner, but lesser passer of the two contenders.  2019 backup Zach Calzada has the better passing arm but isn’t as mobile as King.  Calzada is more of a drop-back vertical passer.

While the Aggies suffered heavy losses to the offensive line, it does welcome Tennessee transfer Jahmir Johnson to bookend the outside spots with lone returning starter Kenyon Green.  There will be a slight drop in blocking ability, and it could be a main reason why King might have the advantage to start at QB, as his mobility can make up for the blocking liability.

One area where the Aggies will have more talent this year than last is the receiving unit.  Everybody that mattered last year returns this year, led by Ainias Smith and Chase Lane at wideouts and Jalen Wydermyer at tight end.  There three stars teamed for 118 receptions good for 1,479 yards and 14 touchdowns.  There is ample depth here.

The running game is in capable hands with the return of 1,000-yard rusher Isaiah Spiller and top backup Devon Achane.  Spiller is also a pass-catching threat to take a quick pass behind the line of scrimmage and make something happen.

The Aggie defense improved as the season progressed last year, and at the end of the year, it led the league in yards allowed and finished third in points allowed.  Nine starters return from this side of the ball, including multiple seniors who chose to return for a free year.

The best unit on the defense is the interior line.  End DeMarvin Leal and tackle Jayden Peavy have All-SEC potential.  

While linebacker is the question of the defense, it does return Aaron Hansford.  Losing Buddy Johnson will be a tough spot to replace, but Andre White, Jr., played well as a backup last year.

The secondary returns all five starters from last year, and this group proved to be quite good by November.  There is exceptional depth as well.  

The out-of-conference schedule is a cinch for A&M to pick up four wins.  Early conference games against Arkansas in a game to be played at Cowboys Stadium, and Mississippi State in a home game should allow the Aggies to be 5-0 when Alabama comes to Kyle Field on October 9.  It would take a minor miracle for the Aggies to win that game, but that game may be the one obstacle preventing A&M from running the table in the regular season.  Fisher is one of three SEC head coaches to own a national championship.  There are only five total (Dabo Swinney and Mack Brown).

The next three spots in the Western Division pecking order are up for grabs.  It is hard to differentiate between the three, so we will present them in order of their preseason PiRate Rating.

Auburn

Auburn fans grew tired of former coach Gus Malzahn.  His on-the-field coaching remained exceptional, but recruiting was beginning to fall behind the other leaders of the SEC.  After a 6-5 season last year, the administration felt that $21,500,000 was an acceptable price to part ways with Malzahn and hire a hot name.

Bryan Harsin may not have been the hot name Auburn fans wanted, but that’s who they got.  Harsin probably underachieved a little at Boise State, as the Broncos were expected to win the Mountain West Conference every year.  Every one of his teams from 2014 to 2020 were ranked in the top 25 at some point in the season, and every one lost games they should not have lost.  If he couldn’t win the conference championship with the best overall talent in the league, how will he make Auburn a big winner in the SEC, when they do not have the best talent in the Western Division?  It will be interesting to see what happens.  Harsin did pull off a coup in hiring Mike Bobo as his offensive coordinator and Derek Mason as his defensive coordinator, two guys with SEC head coaching experience.

Auburn returns 16 starters, and they add a key transfer that could make things interesting at quarterback.  Bo Nix is the returning starting QB, but he hasn’t totally solidified his spot for 2021.  Former LSU quarterback T.J. Finley started multiple games down the stretch for the Tigers, and if Nix continues to throw to the wrong receiver by not properly reading the coverage, Finley could eventually supplant him under center.  Bobo uses a pro-style offense where reading coverages and throwing to the right receiver is a much more involved process.  We have heard through the grapevine thay Nix disappointed with numerous interceptions in a recent closed scrimmage.  This is something to monitor as the season is less than two weeks from starting, but we believe Nix will be the starter for the opener with Akron.

The receiving corps took a major hit with the departures of Seth Williams and speedster Anthony Schwartz.  The duo made 101 catches with 1,396 yards and seven touchdowns last year.  The Tigers have some decent talent taking over, but they are inexperienced.  Ze’Vian Capers suffered through injuries that limited his availability until August, but he’s begun to look like a number one option in recent days.  Elijah Canion has deep play potential, and Harsin’s Bronco teams had a propensity to throw deeper routes than Malzahn’s offense used.

The running game returns its top two backs in Tank Bigsby and Shaun Shivers.  Bigsby was the top running back recruit in the nation two years ago, and he lived up to his credentials by taking the SEC Freshman of the Year Award after running for 834 yards and five touchdowns.  He topped 100 yards in four games, including three games in a row in October.

All five starting offensive linemen return from last year, but the Tigers had issues protecting Nix.  Of course, Nix held onto the ball a bit too long with trouble reading defensive coverage, which led to his throwing under pressure too many times.

Expect the defense to show marked improvement under Mason’s tutelage.  His defenses looked terrible against some SEC teams while he was at Vanderbilt, but he developed a lot of 3-star players into NFL talents.  Mason has more talent to work with in his first year at Auburn than he had in his entire tenure at Vandy.

Up front in the 2-gap 3-4 defense, end Colby Wooden has all-star potential.  Nine of his 41 tackles last year were behind the line of scrimmage.

The linebacker unit is going to be as productive as any Auburn linebacker unit in recent history.  Zakoby McClain led the SEC with 113 tackles (more than 10 per game).  Expect to see him top the three sacks he made last year.  Owen Pappoe added 93 tackles with four sacks and an interception.

A strong defensive backfield got stronger when Donovan Kaufman followed Mason from Vandy to the Plains.  He will plug the vacant safety spot and team with potential All-American Smoke Monday to give Auburn one of the top five defensive backfields in the nation.

Auburn has one of the three stud placekickers in this league in Anders Carlson.  Carlson connected on 20 of 22 field goal attempts last year.

The Tigers may have the toughest non-conference road game in the SEC this year, as they face Penn State in Happy Valley in week three.  They will definitely be 2-0 when they go to Beaver Stadium, and this will be a big test.  If they can beat a Big Ten contender on the road, Auburn will gain important confidence that could propel the Tigers into a 7-1 record when they play Texas A&M in a battle that could decide second place in the West.  Alas, we believe asking this team to beat Penn State is a bit too much, and the Tigers will more likely go 4-4 or 3-5 in the league.  The Tigers’ offense may sputter a bit this year, and the defense will not be able to bail them out every week.

Ole Miss

Now for the team that may be the most exciting to watch in the SEC and one of the most exciting in college football.  The Ole Miss Rebels are coming off a 5-5 season that included an Outback Bowl win over Indiana to make it to .500.  Ole Miss finished first in the league and third in the nation in total offense, while they finished last in the league and second to last overall in total defense.  Their average game score was 39-38.

Second year head coach Lane Kiffin may not have the best quarterback in the nation, but by the end of the year, the rest of college football might be looking up at him in passing yardage.  Matt Corral averaged 334 passing yards per game and three touchdowns per game last year and ran for another 506 yards and six scores in his first season running Jeff Lebby’s wide open spread offense. Lebby can claim lineage in the Bob Stoops, Art Briles, and Josh Heupel coaching trees.  If he were a racehorse in the Kentucky Derby, it would be like he carried the lineage of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, and Affirmed in his bloodline.  

The best option any quarterback can have is a receiver that can get open deep and catch the long bomb.  Any team would love to have a Cliff Branch type of deep threat, and Ole Miss has that in Braylon Sanders.  Expect a stellar year from Sanders where he more than doubles his 15 catches from last year.  He averaged more than 25 yards per reception and scored touchdowns on 27% of his receptions.  While Ole Miss will miss Elijah Moore and his eye-popping 86 catches, 1,193 yards, and eight scores, the Rebels will make up for a lot of that lost yardage by spreading the wealth around to three or four others.

As strong as the Rebels were through the air, their running game was potent.  Corral proved to be an excellent threat on the ground, and Jerrion Ealy forced defenses to stay honest with men in the box.  Ealy led the Rebels with 745 rushing yards and nine touchdowns.  Ole Miss can go three deep with talented runners.

The Ole Miss offensive line is not overly strong, but they are more than adequate in this offense.  Tackles Nick Broeker and Jeremy Jones get the job done.

This has the makings of an offense that will top 225 yards rushing and 375 yards passing.  600 total yards per game is reachable.  Kent State did it last year, and a Baylor team that Lebby was part of in 2015 averaged 617 yards per game.  The all-time record belongs to Houston in 1989 at 625 total yards per game.  If Kiffin decides to run up the score against the four really weak defenses his team will face, that number is within reach.

Ole Miss may need to gain 600 yards a game to compete for the number two or three spot in the SEC West.  Their defense will be improved in 2021, but then it is impossible to be worse than last year.  How bad was this side of the ball in 2020?  Remove the game against a Vanderbilt team that was as weak as a mediocre FCS team last year, and in the other eight SEC games, the Rebels gifted their opponents 42.8 points and 550 yards per game!

Thanks to an even weaker Vanderbilt defense this year, Ole Miss will have no units that rank dead last in the conference.  The defensive line is still weak enough that in a normal season, it would be the worst in the league.  There isn’t enough muscle up front, and this year, there won’t be as much experience as last year (which may not be such a bad thing).

The middle of the defense will be its strength and the only unit that ranks up there with other SEC defenses.  Four talented linebackers (counting buck defender Sam Williams, who is more linebacker than end) with starting experience return, including the leading tackler in Jaquez Jones and leading quarterback sacker Williams.

A full season from Star defensive hybrid safety/linebacker Otis Reese will improve the secondary coverage in 2021.  Once he was declared eligible, he averaged eight tackles per game.

If Ole Miss can reduce their gifts to opposing offenses to less than 35 points per game this year, nine wins are not out of the realm of possibility.  Their non-conference schedule should give them a 4-0 record, and one of those wins would come against former Rebel coach Hugh Freeze, who will most likely bring a 9-0 Liberty team to Oxford in November.  

LSU

Every year, there are a few teams that the PiRate Ratings predict to greatly outdo what other predictors predict.  Some of the time, our ratings are correct, and they are wrong.  Sometimes, we have egg on our face.

Likewise, there are teams that other services predict to have great years, when the PiRate Ratings show the same teams to be ranked lower than the other services.  Again, sometimes, we are correct, and sometimes, we have more egg on our face, maybe pie in the face.

LSU falls into the category of teams the PiRate Ratings expect to be weaker than what the consensus is for this team.  Others are picking the Bayou Bengals to contend with Texas A&M for second place and possibly to sneak up on Alabama in November.  We see a 4-4 SEC team; at least, we see a 4-4-level team to start the 2021 season.

Coach Ed Orgeron brought in new offensive and defensive coordinators, loses his expected starting quarterback before the season begins, and lost his best receiver over the Summer into the Transfer Portal.  The Tigers’ offense is less than average compared to the powerful scoring machines in the league.

Max Johnson went 2-3 in his five game audition with the team in 2020.  He limited mistakes, throwing just one interception in 150 attempts, but overall, he’s no better than 10th or 11th best starting QB in this league.  Backup Garrett Nussmeier may eventually be a much better option for the Tigers, but he won’t see a lot of action unless Johnson proves he cannot move the offense.

LSU has a stable full of horses at running back, but new offensive coordinator Jake Peetz wants to go with an aerial circus like the 2019 national champions used with Joe Burrow.  The four backs may see their total opportunities decrease this year.  John Emery, Jr., proved to be a quality pass receiver out of the backfield last year, so he will most likely see his playing time increase this year.

The receiving corps loses its best guy in Terrace Marshall, who led the Tigers with 48 receptions and 10 touchdowns before opting out in late November.  Returning deep threats Kayshon Boutte and Jaray Jenkins combined for 16.6 yards per catch.

The offensive line is the true strength of the offense.  The starting five all come back after four took advantage of a free second senior season.

The Tigers had issues on defense last year, giving up 35 points and 492 yards per game.  That number includes a game against 0-9 Vanderbilt that LSU will not play this year.  Remove the outlier stats from that 41-7 game, and LSU gave up 517 yards per game.  Orgeron replaced defensive coordinator Bo Pelini for former Minnesota Vikings’ defensive backs coach Daronte Jones.  The defensive backfield figures to be the strong point of the defense, with four of five starters returning, including cornerbacks Derel Stingley, Jr., and Eli Ricks, who make up one of the top outside tandems in the nation and second best in the SEC.

There is a ton of returning starting experience up front, but the LSU interior line was exploited too many times last year.  Jones promises to get more physical play out of a roster than can go two-deep across the line with talent.  End Ali Gaye recorded 9 ½ tackles for loss.

The middle of the defense is still a work in progress,  as there are no SEC star-quality linebackers.  Walk-on Jared Small is likely to win a spot in the lineup.

We are confident that Jones will make LSU a more physical, punishing defensive team this year, but how much will the actual numbers improve?  The offense may have some growing pains adjusting to the new offense, especially if there are issues with the quarterbacks.  The schedule does not present any gifts to this team.  LSU must open on the road at the Rose Bowl against a UCLA team that will be playing their second game of the year.  That game is a perfect trap game, and the PiRate Ratings show the Bruins to be the favorite.  This has the making of a 4-4 team in league play with a second consecutive five-loss season and a minor bowl invitation.

Mississippi State

The PiRates could write a book on Coach Mike Leach, “The Pirate,” that might be as long or longer than Leach’s Swing Your Sword.  Leach is the most interesting head coach in American sports, and he’s always good for making headlines with out of the box statements.

He would have stolen the show at SEC Media Days this year with the statements he made, but he had the misfortune of speaking on the day the “Big Reveal” rumor came out from Houston concerning Oklahoma and Texas.

Leach’s number one soundbite involved his plan for making the FBS Playoffs a 64-team event.

What about the 2021 season in Starkville?  2020 started off with a bang when the Bulldogs outscored 2019 National Champion LSU 44-34.  That was the high point of the season until mid-December.  State lost to Arkansas, Kentucky, Texas A&M, and Alabama, scoring just 30 points in those four games.  After a poorly played game that allowed Vanderbilt to keep the score close and ended with a small 24-17 victory, three more losses followed to Georgia, Ole Miss, and Auburn.  The Bulldogs scored just 58 points in those three losses, but the games were close.  Then, to close out the season, MSU slaughtered Missouri 51-32 and then as a 3-7 team in a bowl game, they topped Tulsa 28-26 in the Armed Forces Bowl.

Will 2021 be more consistent in year two of the Pirate in Starkville?  We believe that the Air Raid offense will be a bit more consistent this year, and the defense will be as good or a little better than last year, and the Bulldogs should find themselves back in a bowl game, this time with a winning record.

The Air Raid offense needs a quarterback that can quickly read a defense and throw accurately with a quick release to the right receiver.  It needs receivers that can understand when to alter their route assignments based on what the defense does.  It also requires tractors disguised as offensive linemen that can take maximum line splits and force edge rushers wider than normal to make them one step farther away from the quarterback.  Every requirement cannot be totally found in this year’s offense, but State will be closer to having all the parts this year than they did last year.

Will Rogers was 3-3 as the Bulldog starting quarterback, and he put up monster numbers once he took over as the number one QB.  Rogers completed 45 passes against Ole Miss in the Egg Bowl.  Only Tim Couch, a former Leach student, completed more passes in an SEC game.  Rogers only averaged 5.7 yards per pass attempt, but in the Leach offense, passing the ball 60 times means that 20 of those passes are really glorified quick-pitch plays with the ball tossed forward instead of backward.  Those plays should almost count as running plays.

Rogers’ top receiver was running back Jo’Quavious Marks, who caught 60 passes for just 268 yards, but as mentioned in the previous paragraph, a lot of the receptions were safety valve passes behind the line of scrimmage.  The actual top three returning wideouts, Jaden Walley, Austin Williams, and Malik Heath teamed up for 132 receptions and 1,397 yards.

Marks ran for just a little more than he gained in receptions, totaling just 312 rushing yards.  Backup Dillon Johnson averaged 4.4 yards per carry on limited touches, but he added 36 receptions, also for 4.4 yards per catch.

The offensive line is still the one liability hindering the Air Raid from taking off.  The offensive line returns several players that saw action last year.  While the blocking improved during the season, the offensive line has a long way to go until it is ready to replicate what Leach’s offensive lines at Washington State and Texas Tech did.  It will be much more experienced this year.

Leach’s best Cougar team in Pullman was the 2018 team that went 11-2 and finished in the top 10 in the final polls.  While he had Gardner Minshew running the offense, the real secret to why that team set the WSU record for wins was a defense that bent but did not break.  The 2021 MSU defense figures to be a little better than the 2020 edition, and the 2020 edition was better than expected, finishing fifth in the league in yards allowed and sixth in points allowed.  Defensive coordinator Zach Arnett comes from the Rocky Long coaching tree.  He’s a proponent of Long’s 3-3-5 defense.  He has a decent starting lineup set to begin the season, but the reserves will mostly be untested unknowns.

The strength of this year’s defense is the secondary.  Cornerbacks Martin Emerson and Emmanuel Forbes teamed for 117 tackles, and an impressive 17 passes defended.  Forbes led the SEC with five interceptions, returning three to the house.  

The best defender on the team can be found at outside linebacker.  Aaron Brule.  He can play the run, rush the passer, and drop into pass coverage equally well.  Tyrus Wheat isn’t far behind in talent and potential production.  

The defensive line is the weakest part of the defense, and if any of the starters miss time, the backups are not ready to control the lines in an SEC game.

Mississippi State should win all four of their non-conference games, but there are three teams that have the talent to challenge the Maroons.  In conference play, the Bulldogs get a home game with Kentucky and a road game with Vanderbilt from the Eastern Division.  That is their path to six wins and bowl eligibility, but we wouldn’t be surprised if they pick up an upset win along the way.

Arkansas

A 3-7 record at Arkansas never looks satisfactory to fans, but the three wins came against Mississippi State, Ole Miss, and Tennessee.  The last time Arkansas beat more than three SEC teams in one year was 2015.  The Razorbacks had lost 20 consecutive SEC games before topping Mississippi State in October of last year.  

In Sam Pittman’s first year at Arkansas, the Razorbacks lost three games by a field goal or less.  The Razorbacks return the most starters in the league, and last year’s starters were considerably improved from 2019.

The offense must replace the quarterback, but this might work in Arkansas’s favor in a unique way.  Offensive coordinator Kendal Briles would prefer to use the Veer and Shoot offense that made his dad famous at Baylor.  Last year’s QB, Feleipe Franks was a drop back passer and not equipped to be a dual threat in the offense.  Arkansas has a clear-cut #1 QB this year, but they also have a highly-talented #2.  K.J. Jefferson is a remarkable dual threat, and he should be a better fit in what Briles wants to run.  Backup Malik Hornsby is elusive and quick, and he can throw darts.  He isn’t as developed at reading defenses as Jefferson, but he can make the offense work if called upon to do so.

Jefferson and Hornsby have a prize receiver in Treylon Burks.   He led the Hogs with 51 catches, good for 820 yards.  He has first round draft pick written all over him, as he combines size, speed, and exceptional hands.  Tight end Blake Kern gives Jefferson another big body to locate in the middle.

Arkansas has quantity and quality in its backfield.  Trelon Smith led the team with 710 rushing yards with five touchdowns, which included an 83-yard touchdown run against Florida.  T.J. Hammonds will be playing his sixth season in a Razorback uniform.  He carries a career 6.9 yard rushing average.

The entire starting offensive line returns with three seniors coming back for an extra season.  The players have put on some muscle since last year, and this should start to resemble a legitimate SEC interior line.

The defense was still well behind SEC standards last year, as Arkansas gave up 35 points and 450+ yards per game playing one of the toughest schedules in the nation.  Nine starters return to run defensive coordinator Barry Odom’s unique defense.  Arkansas uses a Dime Defense as its base package, and the 3-2-6 alignment relies on defensive backs that can cover the run like linebackers.  

It all starts up front, where the three-man line aligns wide to get the best potential routes to the quarterback.  Arkansas added size and depth, including three players from the Transfer Portal.

The two-man linebacker tandem finished one-two in tackles last year.  Grant Morgan led with 111 tackles, 7 ½ for loss, along with five passes defended.  Bumper Pool recorded 101 tackles with 6 ½ for loss and five passes defended.

The secondary requires players that can quickly recognize the run and contain the play.  Frequently one or more of the players will blitz.  The good news here is that five of last year’s six starters are back and will be more comfortable running this system.  Middle safety Jalen Catalon was a beast last year with 99 tackles, three interceptions, four passes defended, and two forced fumbles.  Montaric Brown was the co-leader in passes defended with five.  The rest of the secondary has quick defenders.

The Razorbacks will soon be playing their old former Southwest Conference rival Texas as an SEC game, but they get to renew the rivalry this year with a home game against the Longhorns on September 11.  Texas will be the favorite, but Arkansas should compete in this game.  They will win their other three non-conference games and then they have a chance to win three more in the conference to become bowl eligible.

The PiRate Ratings are not designed to predict seasonal won-loss ratings.  Their nature makes them good for just the next game on the schedule.  However, we like to have fun predicting won-loss records.

Southeastern Conference
East DivisionConf.Overall
Georgia8-012-1
Florida5-39-3
Kentucky4-48-4
Missouri3-56-6
Tennessee2-66-6
South Carolina1-74-8
Vanderbilt0-82-10

West DivisionConf.Overall
Alabama8-013-0*
Texas A&M7-111-1
Ole Miss5-39-3
LSU4-47-5
Mississippi St.3-56-5
Auburn3-56-6
Arkansas3-56-6
* Alabama picked to win SEC Championship Game

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