Remember Those New Coach Concerns … Forget ‘Em

Lyn Scarbrough

October 07, 2020 at 11:45 pm.

Seems like long, long ago … you know, back before the virus from China changed everything in life … that Southeastern Conference football fans wondered, maybe worried, about the four new coaches entering the league in 2020.

Can the unique system, and even more the unique personality, of Mike Leach, the Pirate from Pullman, work in the SEC, especially at a traditional rural place like Starkville, Mississippi?

Can Lane Kiffin make a difference in Oxford, his second shot at being a head coach in the SEC, one of the conferences where he already has a bombastic persona?

Can Eliah Drinkwitz make the transition from aspiring Appalachian State to middle-of-the-road Missouri … and how long will it be before he wishes he was back in the Sun Belt Conference?

And how about poor Sam Pittman? Who? You know, the new guy at Arkansas? He comes into the toughest division in college football – the SEC West – taking over a team that hadn’t won a conference game played anywhere since 2017, that lost at home last season to San Jose State and Western Kentucky, and that gave up 45 or more points five times in 2019?

Poor Sam. Bless his heart!

Well, that was then … and this is now.

After just two weeks in their first season together as SEC head coaches, we have answers to many of those questions and most are encouraging for those fan bases and for the league.

It didn’t take long for the first new-coach bombshell to drop. LSU, the defending national champion, boasting college football’s longest winning streak, took on 17-point underdog Mississippi State in Tiger Stadium at Baton Rouge in Week One.

Over 620 passing yards and 44 points later, the visiting Bulldogs had defeated the Tigers by 10 points and put up the most passing yards in a single game in SEC history. No defending national champion had ever suffered an opening-game defeat of that magnitude.

The second week of SEC play was even more surprising.

First, Ole Miss visited Kentucky, seen by some as an SEC East Division darkhorse. The Rebels had given up 51 points at home against Florida the previous Saturday, but had scored five touchdowns and never quit trying.

It was the same scenario in Lexington. After trailing 28-14 in the third quarter, Ole Miss came from behind to win in overtime, 42-41. Rebels’ Quarterback Matt Corral passed for 320 yards and four touchdowns, while the defense shut down the Wildcat offense when it counted.

Then that night in Starkville, the 18-point underdog Razorbacks, carrying a 20-game SEC losing streak, beat the Bulldogs, 21-14, in a game where State never had the lead. K.J. Costello, the passer who set the all-time record a week earlier, was held to 310 fewer yards than he had against LSU, while the Arkansas defense recovered a fumble and stopped the Bulldogs twice in the red zone in the fourth quarter.

Of teams with new coaches, only Missouri hasn’t pulled a big upset in the first two weeks. But, it’s not like a win was expected. The Tigers opened hosting No. 2 Alabama, before traveling to Knoxville to face Tennessee. Both were double digit losses, but Missouri did score 19 points on the Crimson Tide. A lot of teams would have lost those two games.

What happens next?

Arkansas goes to Auburn on Saturday. Any team that can outman the Tigers in the offensive and defensive lines has a chance to win the game. That was powerfully proven in Athens last weekend. Not sure that Arkansas can do that, but you never know. The Razorbacks lost to Georgia by 27, while Auburn lost by 21, but at least in the first half, Arkansas played the Bulldogs better than the Tigers did. After Saturday, the Hogs host Ole Miss in its second game against another of the league’s new coaches.

This week, the Rebels host Alabama in Oxford. Not much chance for a win there, but the Ole Miss offense is dangerous and other winnable games are on the schedule.

Mississippi State plays at Kentucky, winless after two games and badly needing a victory to avoid turning a season with high expectations into one on the brink of disaster. After the trip to Lexington, the Bulldogs return home to face Texas A&M.

Missouri travels to LSU for a night game in Tiger Stadium. The home team is still hurting from its first match-up against one of the new coaches, so don’t expect a positive outcome there, but the following week’s opponent is Vanderbilt in Columbia.

So, the jury is still out.

It will likely still be a good many seasons, if then, before the four new coaches take their teams to the top tier of the Southeastern Conference. The traditional league powers over the past decade or so – Alabama, Georgia, Florida, LSU, Auburn – probably aren’t going anywhere soon.

But, they should beware.

Don’t be shocked when significant upsets by these teams happen more often, when these teams become more competitive week after week. When that happens in the SEC West, just imagine what the gauntlet in that division will be.

2020 – The year that everybody will want to forget. The year that changed most everything in life and most everything in sports, almost all in a bad way.

But, bringing in new coaches, and changing expectations in four college towns, may be the best 2020 memory for fans of the Southeastern Conference, the impact of which could be felt for a while.