LSU coach Ed Orgeron hoisted the College Football Playoff National Championship trophy on Jan. 13 in the Mercedes-Benz Superdome to cap off what was a banner decade for the SEC. The conference saw three teams win national championships (and six total), boasted four Heisman Trophy winners and further solidified its place atop the college football world.
The best is yet to come.
The 2020 season is shaping up to be one of the most intriguing seasons in SEC history. There are multiple contenders with huge questions to answer, new coaches ready to make a splash and no established star quarterbacks. Let's break down the top 10 reasons why the SEC will be must-see TV this fall.
Major questions with the top teams
There is no clear cut favorite in the SEC this season ... mostly due to the massive roster and coaching turnover that has taken place.
In the West, defending champion LSU has the fewest returning starters in the league (8). The Tigers also need to replace Heisman winner Joe Burrow at quarterback as well as defensive coordinator Dave Aranda and passing-game coordinator Joe Brady. Games are won and lost in the trenches, and Auburn is in a bind in that department. Defensive linemen Derrick Brown and Marlon Davidson are gone, as are four starters on the offensive line. Alabama got multiple stars back including running back Najee Harris, offensive lineman Alex Leatherwood and linebacker Dylan Moses. But the Tide have questions at quarterback, wide receiver and a secondary that isn't experienced enough to keep coach Nick Saban comfortable.
The East has plenty of intrigue, too. Georgia has a rebuilt offensive line and must break in transfer quarterback Jamie Newman in a disjointed offseason -- all while switching to a new system under offensive coordinator Todd Monken. Florida quarterback Kyle Trask was solid in relief of Feleipe Franks last season, and went through the -- albeit a bizarre one -- offseason as the unquestioned starter for the first time in college or high school.
Jimbo Fisher's big window
Texas A&M wasn't included in the section above for one reason -- Jimbo Fisher hasn't made the Aggies a contender. That has to change in 2020. The man with the 10-year, $75 million contract has 16 starters back (tied for the most in the conference), the most experienced quarterback in Kellen Mond and a very solid linebacking corps that can be the rock of Mike Elko's defense. What's more, the three SEC West teams mentioned above have all of those questions. The Aggies draw lowly Vanderbilt as their rotating cross-division game in addition to their permanent rival South Carolina.
Fisher needs to stay in the SEC West race -- and potentially the CFP race -- well into November. Otherwise, this season should be classified as a disappointment.
Coaches on the hot seat
There's no doubt that two coaches are entering the season on scalding hot seats -- South Carolina's Will Muschamp and Vanderbilt's Derek Mason.
Muschamp was given the dreaded "vote of confidence" in the middle of November 2019 and closed the season out with a 4-8 record. Would he still have a job without the upset win over Georgia on his resume? That remains to be seen. But anytime you keep a job after receiving a vote of confidence, with nothing of note to change the narrative, you're not exactly sitting pretty.
Mason took over at Vanderbilt in 2014 after the Commodores posted back-to-back nine-win seasons under James Franklin. It is unrealistic to expect the same kind of success early in Mason's tenure since Vanderbilt is his first head coaching gig. But six straight losing seasons (granted, two of them happened due to bowl losses) and three straight seasons finishing last or next-to-last in the SEC East is not acceptable -- even at Vanderbilt.
If that isn't enough, the financial aspect of the coaching carousel will be fascinating. The financial hit that schools could take if the season is cut short or fans aren't allowed in stadiums will likely have a direct impact on how much of a buyout schools are willing to dole out.
Tennessee is either the chic pick or a team on the rise depending on the ask. In fact, I pegged the Volunteers to go 9-3 when we picked records this spring (subject to change, of course). Why? Sixteen returning starters, an experienced offensive line, a defense that finally clicked and newfound respect for coach Jeremy Pruitt.
Consider this: Pruitt could have lost his team after two straight losses to open the 2019 season (Georgia State and BYU). Instead, he played Alabama closer than most and reeled off six straight wins to close out the season. Yes, part of that had to do with a relatively manageable schedule. But he didn't lose his team when most young coaches would have. That's pretty impressive considering it was only his second season as a head coach.
I'm not a big "returning starters" guy. Sometimes those starters just aren't very good. But Tennessee has quantity, quality and an offseason that has limited other teams from filling holes as quickly as they normally would.
The entire state of Mississippi
Ole Miss wide receiver Elijah Moore pretended to pee like a dog at the end of last season's Egg Bowl loss to Mississippi State, and it set off a string of events that will forever change the landscape of college football in the state. Matt Luke was canned by the Rebels and replaced by Lane Kiffin, Joe Moorhead was shown the door by the Bulldogs and replaced by Mike Leach, and suddenly the rivalry returned to the point Hugh Freeze and Dan Mullen had it in the middle of the 2010s.
We got Kiffin vs. Leach -- two of the most visible and entertaining coaches in the country -- in the Egg Bowl rivalry because a player pretended to pee like a dog. The Egg Bowl is always heated and one of the most underrated rivalries in the country. The new coaches involved have cranked it into overdrive.
Man, I love college football.
Alabama vs. Georgia Part III
In January 2018, we got "second-and-26" for a national title. In the 2018 SEC Championship Game, we got Jalen Hurts' redemption. After a one-year hiatus, we get the third installment of "the teacher vs. the student."
Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban will square off with ex-Alabama defensive coordinator and current Georgia coach Kirby Smart in Week 3 in Tuscaloosa in what is likely to be one of the most impactful games in the playoff race. Perhaps even more intriguing is the fact that, as mentioned above, both teams have significant roster questions that likely won't be filled by the time they tee it up at Bryant-Denny Stadium.
Will this matchup be the same kind of thriller that the two behemoths had the last two go-rounds? Please ... please let it happen.
Defense has been a staple of Florida over the last 15 years, and it'll take a lot from defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to keep that tradition alive. Gone are defensive linemen Jon Greenard and Jabari Zuniga, linebacker David Reese and defensive back C.J. Henderson from a unit that finished second in the SEC in scoring defense last year (15.5 points per game).
If the Gators are going to contend for the SEC East title, the inexperienced faces taking over for former stars have to perform at an elite level. That includes Georgia transfer linebacker Brenton Cox, linebacker/defensive back Amari Burney and defensive lineman Zachary Carter.
It's on Grantham to earn that $1.8 million paycheck.
Have a Drink
Missouri bellied up to the bar and signed Eliah Drinkwitz to a six-year, $24 million contract despite only one year as a college head coach. Granted, that 12-win season at Appalachian State was impressive, but that bank account demands that he lead the Tigers back to SEC East relevancy.
Can Drinkwitz get them back to the SEC Championship Game for the first time since 2014? He told CBS Sports writer Dennis Dodd that he knows he wasn't the first choice for the job, but knows that he's the best choice. That confidence extends to his perception of how his program can stack up to the division's big boys.
"I always think if we play at home versus Florida outside of October, we'll beat 'em because they're not going to play in the cold weather. Period."
He talks the talk. Let's see if he can walk the walk.
Auburn's time to shine
Much like Texas A&M, the door is wide open for Auburn to re-assert itself as a national power. Coach Gus Malzahn has three wins over Saban since 2013, which are more wins than any other coach in the country during that timespan -- including Clemson's Dabo Swinney. Despite that, Auburn has won the SEC West just once (2017) since that magical 2013 season and stepped on too many landmines along the way.
That has to change.
Quarterback Bo Nix was solid as a true freshman and should thrive under first-year offensive coordinator Chad Morris. Defensive coordinator Kevin Steele has proven to be one of the best assistant coaches in the country. The linebacking corps, led by K.J. Britt, is one of the best in the country. Big Kat Bryant is a top-tier edge rusher who should be the focus of every opposing offensive coordinator when they pop on film during game-week prep.
There are questions abound in the SEC West, and Auburn is no exception. But it has enough of a foundation for fans around the country to expect CFP contention.
Last, and certainly not least, is Alabama's quarterback battle. Mac Jones was nails in place of Tua Tagovailoa, throwing for 14 touchdowns -- including 10 after Tagovailoa's injury -- with the weight of the world on his shoulders. Sure, two costly pick sixes in the Iron Bowl are also part of his 2019 legacy, but don't forget that he torched that same Auburn defense to the tune of 335 yards in that barnburner. Jones will be the unquestioned starter to open the season. At least, for now.
True freshman star Bryce Young, the top-ranked quarterback and No. 2 overall prospect in the class of 2020, will have his shot at winning the job during fall camp. Can he win it? CBS Sports' own Barton Simmons wrote that Young has the kind of talent that can lead Alabama to a national championship as a true freshman in April. Does Jones have that kind of upside? It's up to Saban and offensive coordinator Steve Sarkisian to make that decision.
This battle has the same feel that the 2016 battle in Tuscaloosa had -- complete with the same opponent in Week 1. Blake Barnett got the start in the opener vs. USC, then-true freshman Jalen Hurts got his shot, won the job and led the Crimson Tide to within an eyelash of the national title.