2021 CFB: Storylines to follow in the SEC

There’s not many conferences, divisions or leagues in the entirety of sport that are more hyped than the Southeastern Conference. Everywhere you look there are historical football programmes, so much so that football has almost become the main religion in places like Alabama.

That hype doesn’t appear to be close to dying either, especially with the likely addition of Oklahoma and Texas in the very near future. However, whilst that move might happen sooner than some expect, there’s still a College Football season to play in 2021, so what are the big storylines to follow?

Alabama, as ever, is the headline event, so much so that the F10Y crew has already dedicated two preview articles to them – Raj dived into the new look offense, and I dug into the history books to see what we can expect from the 2021 Crimson Tide. However, with a new QB under center and a new Offensive Coordinator calling the shots, others in the SEC will feel that now is the time to unseat Saban and co as the top dogs.

Four new Head Coaches will grace the SEC this year, Shane Beamer, Josh Heupel, Bryan Harsin and Clark Lea are all first time HCs at the Power Five level and will already have a sense of the expectations on their shoulders. Lea has got a hell of a job on his hands, as he begins the task of revamping a Vanderbilt team that has been woeful over the last couple of years. The others all inherit teams with big fan bases, good facilities and a desire to keep up in what is fast becoming an arms race on the recruiting trail.

Will it be these new hires that manage to shake up the conference in 2021, or are the old dogs still the main challengers to the status quo? Let’s dive in.

Is this the year for Jimbo Fisher & the Aggies?

Like Alabama, Texas A&M will begin the year with a new Quarterback under center. For the first time since he took the hot seat in College Station, Jimbo Fisher won’t have Kellen Mond as his signal caller, and that in itself could form a whole storyline for this article. As it stands the Aggies are yet to name a definitive starter, but all signs point to Haynes King winning the job over Zach Calzada.

King is your prototypical American collegiate athlete, a multisport guy who has competed as a track athlete and basketball player since a young age. Of course he’s also an extremely talented football player and there’s a lot of buzz around the Aggies’ fanbase about him being the face of the programme for several years. At this stage of his career there’s still some development needed as a passer, but King’s speed and ability outside of the pocket will be enough to strike fear into SEC defensive coordinators already. And who better to develop the passing element of his game than former QB coach, Fisher.

If the young QB from Longview can secure the starting job then there’s arguably not a roster in the SEC that can provide a supporting cast with as much quality as A&M. At Running Back the Aggies have one of the hottest talents in the country in Isaiah Spiller. With two years of starting experience under his belt, Spiller will be hoping to enjoy another solid season before presumably making the step up into the NFL. Averaging more than 100 yards a game in 2020, the Junior RB showcases elusivity and a patience behind the line which has given even the best SEC defenses issues.

Alongside Spiller, two other playmakers stand out as the major threats on the Aggies’ offense, Tight End, Jalen Wydermyer, and dual receiving/rush threat Ainias Smith. Wydermyer is arguably the most exciting Tight End prospect in the country ahead of the 2022 draft, using his towering 6′ 5” frame to box out defenders and make highlight reel catches all over the field. If the big Tight End is the definition of imposing, Smith is the opposite, using his slight frame and incredibly quick footwork to create separation against even the most athletic defensive backs. If #0 is open, you can expect King to look his way for big yardage in 2021.

A mix of highly rated veterans and ever-improving young players will be tasked with keeping King upright and creating lanes for Spiller. Kenyon Green is the headline name on the Offensive Line and many have him tipped to be a day one or early day two prospect in 2022. Interestingly, the Aggies aggressive pursuit of grad transfer Jahmir Johnson was successful, meaning he’s now on his fourth college team – his experience will be vital to a unit that lost four key players at the end of the ‘20 season.

Despite the offensive prowess, the defense is the reason that the Aggies could truly be a playoff contender this season. With highly rated veteran talent across the board, third year Defensive Coordinator, Mike Elko, must be excited about the prospects of taking on the best of the SEC in 2021. 

With DeMarvin Leal, Jayden Peevy and Michael Clemons up front, there is every chance that A&M repeat their outstanding record in the run game in 2021. However, it’s in the Secondary that the most growth is likely to be seen this season. Myles Jones (CB) and Leon O’Neil Jr (FS) are the leaders of the unit, but in Jaylon Jones, Antonio Johnson and four-star freshman Deuce Harmon there is a solid young core emerging that could prove to be crucial in any title run that the Aggies make.

“He has a chip on his shoulder, a lot of guys do. But the one thing about Leon you always know is that he loves ball.” – Jimbo Fisher on Leon O’Neil.

After four years in the job Jimbo Fisher won the National Championship with Florida State, now as he enters his fourth season in College Station the expectations are building once again. Alabama, LSU and Ole Miss stand out as the real tests on the schedule, but a non-conference slate of Kent State, Colorado and New Mexico should give the new QB time to bed in before an SEC opponent lands on Texas soil.  

Can they go all the way and win the Natty this season? With the motivation of their near neighbours joining the SEC in the coming years, it’s incredibly difficult to rule A&M out.

(Photo: Texas A&M)

Can Shane Beamer lead a revolution in Columbia?

After 20 years of coaching you’d be forgiven for thinking Shane Beamer was one of the old guard, shrugging off questions from reporters and just focussing on ‘getting the job done’. But there’s a different vibe to the 44 year old first time Head Coach, in interviews it is obvious that a lot of the off-field roles and responsibilities that come with being ‘the guy’ are new to him, and it isn’t a stretch to say that he’s learning on the job. However, on the field is where Beamer will ensure he does the majority of his business. 

The South Carolina Gamecocks aren’t one of the heavy hitters of college football, but with the recruiting base available to them, an 80,000 seater stadium and the draw of being in the powerhouse SEC conference – it’s fair to say they could be better than they currently are. That’s where Beamer comes in, and it is perhaps no surprise that the Gamecocks went after a guy that has experience as a Recruiting Coordinator, an Assistant Head Coach and as position coach in all three phases of the game.

There’s no expectation that things change overnight in Columbia, and in many ways the 2021 season will be viewed as ‘Year 0’ for Beamer and his staff, as they begin to instill a new culture into a programme that has sometimes lacked direction over the last few years. 

Given how important recruiting is to any programme, it was vital that Beamer, Marcus Satterfield and Clayton White got off to a good start by piecing together a solid 2021 class, before taking bigger steps to improve the team in 2022. That’s exactly what they’ve done, keeping together a class of 13 three-star prospects that includes star junior college transfer, Bam Martin-Scott. But it’s in the 2022 class that Beamer’s reputation as a recruiter can already be seen – the Gamecocks have secured the commitment of four-star prospects Braden Davis (QB), Keenan Nelson (S) and Ryan Brubaker (OT) and it looks like more will follow.

Key to keeping the commitment of those highly rated prospects will be at least a sign of improvement on the field in 2021. South Carolina finished 2-8 in 2020, so improving the record should be fairly simple with the return to a normal schedule, but it’s also about improving the style of play, modernising the offense and playing solid defense.

Beamer has already been dealt several notable blows as the Gamecocks prepare for the season, starting QB Luke Doty has picked up a knock which could see him miss the first month of the season and last season’s leading rusher, Kevin White, is also sidelined at present. 

That’s not to say that there isn’t other talent on the roster. Kingsley Enagbare, Zacch Pickens and Jordan Strachan are all part of a formidable defensive line, with all three players set to be drafted in 2022 if they keep up the same level of performance. MarShawn Lloyd was touted as one of the most intriguing RBs in the SEC last season before injury gave Harris his chance to shine. And, with the departure of Jaycee Horn, Cam Smith is being tipped as a future star as his replacement at CB.

Vegas might not be particularly high on South Carolina this season, setting a win total of 3.5, but with games against Eastern Illinois, East Carolina, Troy, Vanderbilt and Missou littered throughout a grueling schedule, that feels a little low. If Beamer’s men can overcome the early injury setbacks and put in a season that takes them to a bowl game, then you can expect the recruiting trail to catch fire as the revolution gains ground.

Kevin Harris - Football - University of South Carolina Athletics
Kevin Harris (photo: South Carolina Gamecocks)

Ole Miss have the weapons but can they turn potential into a postseason appearance? 

It’s coming up to the 60th anniversary of the last time the Ole Miss Rebels won a conference championship. Since then it must have been a bit of a slog as a Rebels fan, a team which always flashes signs of brilliance but then seems to tie itself in knots and is never in the conversation come the business end of the season.

In Lane Kiffin’s first season on the job, it was the same old story. At times Matt Corral looked like a star, but against Arkansas and LSU he came unstuck and threw for a combined 11 interceptions. Now, that’s not to say that Corral’s performance in those two games cost the Rebels their season, a 1-4 start to the year did that, but it was definitely a case of ‘what might have been’ as Ole Miss eased past Vanderbilt, South Carolina and Mississippi State, before beating Indiana in the Outback Bowl.

In reality it may be too much, too soon to expect Kiffin to drive the Rebels forward to a playoff appearance in 2021, but with the talent they have on their roster it doesn’t seem far-fetched at all.

The aforementioned Corral may have some questions to answer around his decision making, but the raw talent of his arm and his ability both in and out of the pocket has already got NFL draft scouts salivating. A 71% completion rate and the third highest passing yards total in the SEC (despite playing less games than his nearest challenger) are proof that, with the right coaching, the Long Beach native could be the best signal caller in the conference in 2021.

Elsewhere on the offense there is exciting talent everywhere, but it is perhaps at Running Back that the biggest Rebel playmaker is positioned. Jerion Ealy, the former five-star recruit, is primed for a huge season, utilising a low centre of gravity and incredibly quick footwork to create issues for the defense all over the field. 

At receiver, Corral will be looking for a replacement for Elijah Moore, the slot sensation who was drafted by the New York Jets. In Jonathan Mingo, he might have it already. The 6’1” pass catcher can line up in the slot, out wide or even in the backfield, and as a bonus for Kiffin and the coaching staff it appears he’s taking a leadership role in the locker room.

Moore was clearly a huge loss for the Rebels, but elsewhere on the roster there is a huge  amount of experience. On the defensive side of the ball, there are no projected freshman or sophomore starters, instead the likes of Tariqious Tisdale, Sam Williams and Lakia Henry will give opposition offenses nightmares with four years of experience under their belt.

Many will think that the main reason the Rebels can’t challenge at the top of the SEC is because of their schedule. They face Alabama, Texas A&M and LSU over the course of the season, but the timing of the ‘Bama game in particular is interesting. Ole Miss travel to Tuscaloosa off the back of an early season bye, and following three winnable games to start their season, that could be the best time to face Nick Saban’s men, especially if there are early season struggles for Bryce Young. 

If, and it’s a big if, Ole Miss can upset the reigning National Champions, then the Rebels could get some momentum behind them early on in the season, leading to who knows what…

Got any more storylines that you’re excited for in 2021? Let us know @Full10YardsCFB, but for now I’ll leave you with this hype video…

By Andy Moore – @ajmoore21

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