As football conferences around the country continue to cancel or postpone their fall season, the Southeastern Conference continues to prepare to play the 2020 season as scheduled.
There will be some changes to that schedule, however, as the SEC moves to a conference only schedule, meaning a lot of lucrative non-conference games won’t be played. Also, it’s unclear just yet how many fans – if any – will be allowed to attend games and as the student population begins to return to campuses it’s unclear if those populations can be managed during this ongoing pandemic.
Regardless of the uncertainty, the Alabama Crimson Tide (11-2 in 2019) and Auburn Tigers (9-4 in 2019) are moving forward with the expectation that there will be a season and both programs have a lot to look forward to.
The Crimson Tide is coming off a frustrating, injury plagued 2019 season that saw National Title hopes being carted off the field along with superstar quarterback Tua Tagovailoa late in the season.
As Tagovailoa enjoys his NFL career, the Crimson Tide still returns a number of key players on both sides of the ball. While last season’s wide receiver group will likely go down as one of the best groups in school history, both junior Jaylen Waddle and senior DeVonta Smith return for 2020.
Smith led the Crimson Tide last season with 68 catches for 1,256 yards and 14 touchdowns, while Waddle really came into his own. The 5-foot-9-inch speedster hauled in 33 passes for 560 yards and six touchdowns along with 487 yards and a touchdown in kickoff returns. He also returned five punts for 175 yards and another touchdown. Waddle totaled 1,222 yards and eight all-purpose touchdowns as a sophomore.
Senior running back Najee Harris returns after a season in which he rushed for 1,262 yards and 13 touchdowns along with 304 yards and seven touchdowns receiving.
The Tide also return experienced offensive linemen Alex Leatherwood, Landon Dickerson, Evan Neal and Deonte Brown.
Taking over for Tagovailoa will be junior Mac Jones, who earned four starts to finish the season and totaled 1,503 yards and 14 touchdowns with three interceptions. Unfortunately for Jones, however, his most memorable throws are the two interceptions that were returned for touchdowns in the Iron Bowl. Head coach Nick Saban has expressed his confidence in the junior but talented freshman quarterback Bryce Young will be waiting in the wings if Jones struggles.
The Alabama defense was hit as hard as most entire teams in regards to injuries a season ago but received some good news in the offseason when senior linebackers Dylan Moses and Joshua McMillon announced their intentions to return this season.
Both Moses and McMillon missed the entire 2019 season after suffering ACL tears during fall camp in 2019. In 2018, Moses led Alabama’s defense with 86 tackles, 10 tackles-for-loss and 3.5 sacks.
Moses and McMillon shore up a talented group of linebackers that will also include sophomores Shane Lee and Christian Harris and a host of top-rated incoming freshmen.
The Alabama defensive line will once again be anchored by 308-pound sophomore DJ Dale, who will be joined by junior LaBryan Ray, who returns from a season-ending foot injury in 2019. Sophomore Bryon Young, sophomore Christian Barmore and junior Phidarian Mathis also return on the line.
Alabama’s secondary will have to replace the production and experience of All-American safety Xavier McKinney and cornerback Trevon Diggs, but All-SEC cornerback Patrick Surtain II returns along with veteran cornerback Josh Jobe, safety Jordan Battle and safety Daniel Wright.
Some of Alabama’s key offseason acquisitions may end up being non-coaches as new strength and conditioning coach David Ballou and Director of Performance Science Dr. Matt Reha have received rave reviews since joining the Crimson Tide.
The pair’s hiring was greatly influenced by the level of injury prevention that the duo has managed at previous college stops, which Saban has stressed after a number of injuries plagued Alabama recently.
For the Auburn Tigers, much will hinge on the shoulders of sophomore signal caller Bo Nix, who returns after an up and down 2019 in which he threw for 2,542 yards and 16 touchdowns along with seven rushing touchdowns.
The cast around Nix, however, remains a mystery. New offensive line coach Jack Bicknell Jr. is working to rebuild a group that lost all five primary starters from a 2019 unit that paved the way for 2,588 yards and 31 touchdowns on the ground.
Center Nick Brahms earned five starts last season, however, and will be expected to anchor a line that will be a hot point of competition during fall camp.
JaTarvious Whitlow (763 yards and 10 touchdowns in 2019) left the program in the offseason leaving bruising back DJ Williams (400 yards and two touchdowns in 2019) as the team’s leading returning rusher. Joining him in the backfield will likely be junior Shaun Shivers, freshman Tank Bigsby and redshirt freshman Mark-Antony Richards.
In 2020, Nix will have the pleasure of one of the top receiver tandems in the SEC in juniors Seth Williams (830 yards, eight touchdowns) and speedy Anthony Schwartz (440 yards, one touchdown).
New offensive coordinator Chad Morris may be the best suited man that head coach Gus Malzahn has brought in. Morris literally learned Malzahn’s hurry up, no huddle offense from him and ended up becoming the architect of Clemson’s hurry-up spread offense that brought Dabo Swinney so much success.
Much like the offensive line, the defensive line must rebuild in 2020 having lost Marlon Davidson and Derrick Brown to the NFL. However, the defensive line returns veterans Big Kat Bryant (nine quarterback hurries in 2019) and Tyrone Truesdell (31 tackles, five tackles for loss and three sacks in 2019) who will anchor a young group.
The linebackers will be the unquestioned leaders of the Tiger defense with All-SEC senior KJ Britt (69 tackles and 10 tackles-for-loss in 2019) returning alongside sophomore Owen Pappoe (49 tackles and three tackles-for-loss in 2019) and junior Zakoby McClain (55 tackles and 5.5 tackles-for-loss in 2019).
The Tiger secondary will be replacing both starting cornerbacks and both starting safeties, but junior cornerback Roger McCreary (36 tackles, one interception and 11 pass breakups in 2019) and junior safety Smoke Monday (20 tackles, two tackles-for-loss and one interception in 2019) offer some much-needed experience in the defensive backfield.