Day 2 of Media Days brought some of the heavyweights in the SEC. Kirby Smart and Jimbo Fisher are established names in the business. Jeremy Pruitt was a terrific defensive coordinator at Florida State and Alabama and is starting to make very good progress at Tennessee, though it is still a work in progress.. Matt Luke and Ole Miss are now eligible to play in a bowl game after not being able to participate for 2 years due to NCAA sanctions. Luke is charged up about the possibility and is building the Rebels program back.
Here is what the 4 coaches had to say about their respective programs on Tuesday.
Kirby Smart, Georgia
Kirby Smart is 24-5 in 3 seasons at Georgia. He said yesterday that’s not good enough. Smart brought up an interesting stat yesterday. He told the media at Media Days that Brooks Koepka had a .0005 better scoring average than Justin Thomas last year, and Koepka earned $5 million more than Thomas. While Paul Finebaum and Marcus Spears of the SEC Network were making fun of stat guys before Smart’s appearance, maybe they need to study the stats a little better. As Bill Parcells used to say, “the numbers don’t lie.” Some stats really matter.
Smart hasn’t seemed to have been able to get over the hump with Nick Saban. Saban owns a 16-0 mark against his former assistants, a stat that Smart is fully aware of. He knows he’s got to defeat Saban to win a national championship. That’s the goal. But he’s got a lot of games in front of him before he can get to Saban and Alabama.
Jake Fromm is back for his junior season and brings a pretty strong resume, though there are some holes in it. Fromm has outlasted Jacob Eason, who is now at Washington and is expected to start, and Justin Fields, who is now at Ohio State and is the presumed starter. Both were 5 star quarterbacks out of high school with immense talent. Fromm held both of them off for the starting job. Fromm had an excellent year last season completing 207 of 307 passe, 67%, for 2,761 yards, 30 touchdowns against 6 interceptions. He lost to LSU, Alabama and Texas, in the Sugar Bowl, so he still has more to prove. The major question for Fromm and Smart is can they get over the hump and win it all. That would mean winning the East, the SEC championship game against Alabama or possibly LSU, that’s an outside possibility, and then win it all.
Fromm has D’Andre Swift in the backfield which is a huge plus. Swift rushed for 1,049 yards and 10 TDs last season. He is strong, physical and fast. He’s a tremendous asset for Fromm and the offense. Brian Herrien, a dependable hard nosed senior running back, is also returning. 5 star sophomore James Cook is back as is 5 star Zamir White, who was injured before the season started last year. The wide receiving corps is inexperienced but talented. Jeremiah Holloman, who was expected to be a key piece in the passing game, was dismissed from the team for assault on a woman. He caught 24 passes for 418 yards and 5 TDs last season. Riley Ridley, Terry Godwin, Mecole Hardman and tight end Isaac Nauta have left for the NFL. Demetrius Robinson, who was a 5 star out of high school and transferred from Cal in 2018, could be a key piece. Tyler Simmons caught only 9 passes for 138 yards and 2 TDs, but is a major talent and will be relied on also. Then there’s youth, but a lot of 4 star and a few 5 star talents. They’ll have to grow up quickly. One of the new wide receivers is Hoover 5 star George Pickens, who was committed to Auburn all the way up until the last day in February but flipped to Georgia.
The offensive line has great size and will be led by left tackle Andrew Thomas (Jr. 6’5”, 320). There is a lot of starting experience and physicality up front.
On defense, Georgia returns 6 starters and Smart feels really good about this group. Safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte are back and linebackers Brenton Cox, Tae Crowder and Monty Rice will anchor a strong group there. 5 star freshman Nolan Smith (6’3”, 235) could be a factor this season at linebacker also. The defensive line has good size. Rodrigo Blackenship is back to kick for what seems like his 10th year. He’s very good and clutch.
The Dawgs finished 11-3 last season and 7-2 in the SEC. Jim Chaney left for Tennessee to coach their offense so James Coley takes over as Offensive Coordinator and Quarterbacks Coach. Coley has been on the staff and Smart is confident in him. On defense, Mel Tucker, Smart’s defensive coordinator for the last 3 years, left to take the head coaching job at Colorado. Dan Lanning will take over the defense and Smart, as always, will be very involved.
The Dawgs open their season at Vanderbilt on Saturday, August 31st at 6:30 PM CT on the SEC Network. Could be a kill. Notre Dame comes to Athens on Saturday, Sept. 21st. Then the Dawgs are off, then @ Tennessee, Saturday, Oct. 5th, South Carolina and Kentucky come to Athens on Oct. 12th and Oct. 19th (both Saturdays) respectively. Then the Dawgs are off before playing Florida, Saturday, Nov. 2nd in Jacksonville. Apparently, the Florida fans are already dogging at Georgia on twitter. That’s dangerous. The Gators may have already lost the game. Then Missouri at home, Saturday, Nov. 9th, the Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry @ Auburn, Sat. Nov. 16th, A&M at home Sat, Nov. 23rd, then @ Georgia Tech, Sat. Nov. 30th.
Smart has expectations through the roof in Athens. He’ll deliver. It’s just a matter of if he can take it a step or 2 further and somehow figure out a way to defeat Nick Saban. That’s a tall order. But that’s the 43 year old from Montgomery’s goal.
Jeremy Pruitt, Tennessee
Jeremy Pruitt’s key point was that last year he had 2 offensive linemen who weighed 300 pounds. Now he has 15. He is returning 17 starters from last year’s 5-7 team, and they’ll be a much improved team. And while Pruitt says he has a lot of talented players on the team and a lot of potentially talented players, it’s more potential this year. But ESPN’s FPI stats has UT winning almost 8 games this season. The 45 year old from Ashland, AL. is building a potential winner in Knoxville.
Another key point Pruitt made was that he has on his staff coaches who have been a part of 16 national championships as assistants. He’s excited to have Jim Chaney on his staff as offensive coordinator. Chaney was making $950,000 per year at Georgia last year. He’ll make $1.5 million this season, $1.6 M next season and $1.7 M in 2021 at Tennessee. Pruitt said that Chaney is pretty happy with his “pay grade at the end of the month.” Chaney is a solid coach, but I’m not sure he’s prolific. He can get too conservative at times in crucial 3rd and even 4th down situations, but he’s got a new opportunity and we’ll see how he fares. Pruitt also hired Tee Martin back as wide receivers coach and passing game coordinator. Martin came from USC where he was OC there and had mixed results, but he was a 1998 national championship quarterback at Tennessee and will recruit well and probably be pretty good at a position. Derrick Ansley is defensive coordinator coming from Alabama, and Pruitt feels very good about him. So Pruitt is very high on his coaching staff.
He will have 40 players on his roster who have degrees, 11 of his 12 seniors will graduate in December, and his recruiting class averaged 27 on the ACT. Very impressive.
Jarrett Gurantano is back for his junior season after completing 153 of 246 passes, 62%, for 1,907 yards, 12 TDs and 3 ints. Pruitt said Guarantano has the players’ trust in the locker-room. If the junior quarterback can step it up this season, the Vols will be much improved. Ty Chandler is back at running back after rushing for 630 yards and 4 TDs last season. The wide receiver corps may be the strength of the team led by Marquez Callaway, who had 37 receptions for 592 yards and 2 TDs last year and Jauan Jennings who pulled in 30 passes for 438 yards and 3 TDs. Both could have huge seasons if Guarantano can get them the ball and the offensive line, which has been a question mark for a while now, can give Guarantano protection in the pocket.
The defense will be led by middle linebacker Daniel Bituli, who finished last season with a team leading 79 tackles with 7 for loss. Pruitt says Bituli speaks 3 languages, English, of course, French, and Congo dialect, he’s a native of the Congo. But Pruitt told him the only language he wants him to know is football.
The schedule features a big game on Saturday, Sept. 21st at Florida, off, then Georgia comes to Knoxvegas Oct. 5th, State comes to Knoxville the following week, Sat. Oct. 13th, then a difficult one @ Alabama, Sat. Oct. 19th. The Vols then host South Carolina, Saturday, Oct. 26th, UAB comes to Knoxville, Saturday Nov.2nd in what could be an interesting contest, though UAB lost a lot of seniors but have quarterback Tyler Johnston and running back Spencer Brown and some excellent young talent returning. @ Kentucky, Sat. Nov. 9th, @ Missouri Nov. 23rd (after an off week) then Vandy at home Saturday, Nov. 30th.
So there should be a lot of improvement in Knoxville. Pruitt is an excellent coach in my opinion. He is on the verge of putting the Vols back on the SEC and national radar.
Jimbo Fisher, A&M
The 53 year old from Clarksburg, West Virginia is coming off a successful 9-4 overall and 5-3 (SEC) campaign in 2018, his first season in College Station, including a 52-13 Gator Bowl victory over N.C. State. Fisher is changing the culture at A&M and looking for championships. He’s another Saban assistant who is looking for that elusive victory over his former mentor.
His 2019 recruiting class was 4th in the country, but 3rd in the SEC behind No.1 Alabama and No.2 Georgia, depending on if you’re looking at 247 sports or Rivals. Rivals had Georgia 1 and Bama 2. 247 had Bama then Georgia. Texas was 3rd in the rankings. So Jimbo is recruiting well with all that talent in Texas at his disposal, but a lot of competition in the state along with teams outside the borders.
Fisher has 11 returning starters, 7 on offense and 4 on defense. Kellen Mond comes into his junior season after showing immense improvement last season. In 2018, Mond completed 230 of 415 passes, 57%, for 3,107 yards, 24 TDs against 9 ints. Fisher is expecting even more improvement from his former high 4 star quarterback who he didn’t sign, but has coached up the last year and a half. The Aggies lost Trayveon Williams to the Cincinnati Bengals. Williams rushed for 1,760 yards and 18 TDs last season so that’s a lot of production to replace. Mond rushed for 474 yards and 7 TDs last season, and Jashaun Corbin will be the starter at running back this season. He rushed for 346 yards and a TD in 2018. The line is big and physical, the receivers are solid and the defense is young but talented under solid defensive coordinator Mike Elko.
But it’s the schedule that stands out. @ Clemson in week 3, Saturday, Sept. 7th with a 2:30 PM CT kickoff on ABC. Auburn comes to Kyle Field on Saturday, Sept. 21st, The Crimson Tide comes to College Station on Saturday, Oct. 12th. Then on Saturday, Nov. 23rd, A&M is @ Georgia, and on Saturday, Nov. 30th they’re @LSU. So very tough.
Fisher is firm in his commitment that winning championships is the only goal at A&M. With his $75 million contract, that’s what’s expected. This year will be tough, but Fisher is building a major winner.
Matt Luke, Ole Miss
Matt Luke wants his team to get to a bowl game this season, that would be successful year and he brought in a top 20 class in 2019 and has a top 20 class so far in 2020. He inherited a mess after Hugh Freeze got the program in trouble with the NCAA and Ole Miss was not allowed to play in the postseason in 2017 and ‘18 and lost scholarships. Last year the Rebels went 5-7 overall and 1-7 in the SEC.
Luke hired Rich Rodriguez to be his offensive coordinator and Mike McIntyre to be his defensive coordinator. Both had some success as head coaches, Rodriguez at West Virginia, not at Michigan or Arizona, and McIntyre had some success at Colorado. Both got fired though. But Luke hopes both men’s head coaching experience will help him.
Redshirt freshman Matt Corrall will be the starter at quarterback. He has thrown only 22 passes, completing 16 for 239 yards, 2 TDs and 1 int. But he’s got talent, He was a 4 star out of high school. Senior Scottie Phillips will return at running back after rushing for 928 yards and 12 TDs in 2018. They lost some highly talented wide receivers to the NFL, but return some young talent. The offensive line has good size, and they’ll be tested in the SEC. The defense returns 10 starters but was the worst defense in the SEC last year in points and yards allowed. So McIntyre will have his work cut out for him in changing the culture of this defense.
The Rebels open the season @ Memphis on Sat. Aug. 31st at 11 AM CT on ABC. Week 3 they host Arkansas at 6:30 PM CT on the SEC Network (week 0 is Florida-Miami August 24th). The Rebels go to Alabama on Saturday, Sept. 26th. Vanderbilt come to Oxford on Saturday, Oct.5th. @ Missouri Saturday, Oct. 12th. A&M comes to Oxford Saturday, Oct. 19th. The Rebels are off then play @ Auburn Saturday, Nov. 2nd. LSU comes to Vaught-Hemingway on Saturday, Nov. 16th. And, after an off week, Miss State comes to Oxford for the Egg Bowl on Thursday, Nov. 28th, Thanksgiving Night at 6:30 on ESPN.
So, like every other team, Ole Miss will be severely tested. Luke is hoping for the postseason, winning there and to continue building.