The SEC report

The 2019 SEC football preview: Aggies, LSU hope to challenge Alabama

Cooper Neill/Getty Images

The 2020 SEC season shapes up as one of the more interesting in recent years. Alabama is loaded as usual, but Texas A&M and LSU could surprise in the West. Meanwhile, Georgia may be ready to make a run at the playoffs again from the other side. The Aggies open their season Thursday night against Texas State.

Are the Aggies poised for a jump?

Year 1 of the Jimbo Fisher era saw the Aggies go 9-4 against one of the toughest schedules. It does not get easier this year, with games against Clemson, Alabama, LSU and Georgia on the slate.

The Aggies will need further development from quarterback Kellen Mond, who completed less than 60 percent of his passes last season but showed a lot of flashes.

They will need to replace productive running back Trayveon Williams, but Mond should have plenty of options in the passing game, despite the loss of highly touted tight end Baylor Cupp to season-ending injury. The offensive line is solid, despite losing Erik McCoy. If Mond takes the next step, this could be a very productive offense.

On the other side of the ball, they lose some key elements, but they improved dramatically in Year 1 with DC Mike Elko calling the shots. They are loaded on defense again, and could easily improve despite losing several key contributors.

The bottom line: A&M might be better this season, but the record might not reflect that. An early upset of Clemson would vault them up the polls, but there will still be serious dragons to slay.

Big year for LSU?

Hopes are high in Baton Rouge that this might finally be a breakout year for the Tigers. Joe Burrow will be in his second season at quarterback, and if he can improve, the Tigers offense should be very good. He was not all that accurate last season, but did a good job protecting the football. Coming off their first 10-win season since 2013, expectations are through the roof. Offensively, they have four starters back on the offensive line, but that group was not great last year. Still, there is talent and they should improve.

On defense, the Tigers are loaded again, especially in the secondary. Freshman Derek Stingley is an intriguing cornerback.

The Tigers have a serious early test in Austin against Texas, and will have to find out a way to beat Alabama, which they have not done in the last eight matchups. Games against Florida and A&M loom as well, but the rest of the schedule is very manageable.

The bottom line: The Tigers should be very good again this year, and a dark horse playoff contender. But getting past Alabama will not be easy.

The rest of the West 

Alabama will once again be favored to win the West, the conference and make the playoffs. Auburn is in a key year for Gus Malzahn and will be starting a true freshman at quarterback, so it is hard to know what to expect. Mississippi State could be a dark horse, but will need a new quarterback. Not much is expected of Ole Miss, and Arkansas appears to have a long way to go under second year head coach Chad Morris.

Eastbound and down

Georgia is the clear favorite in the East, although much is expected of Dan Mullen's Florida Gators, who looked shaky in an opening-week win over Miami, but they should improve. Missouri is a potential dark horse, but the rest of the division looks like also-rans.

The bottom line

Once again it looks like Alabama and Georgia, but Florida, A&M and LSU are all contenders.

Key games to watch

Aug. 31: Auburn vs, Oregon

Sept. 7: A&M at Clemson

Sept. 7: LSU at Texas

Sept. 21: Notre Dame at Georgia

Oct. 5: Auburn at Florida

Oct. 12: Alabama at A&M

Oct. 12: Florida at LSU

Nov. 2: Florida vs. Georgia

Nov. 9: LSU at Alabama

Nov. 23: A&M at Georgia

Nov. 30: Alabama at Auburn

Nov. 30: A&M at LSU



5 players to watch

1. Tua Tagovailoa, QB, Alabama: The "tank for Tua" strategy might not be a thing in the NFL after all this year, but the 'Bama QB could raise his stock quite a bit.

2. D'Andre Swift, RB, Georgia: The Bulldogs seem to have great backs every year, and Swift fits right in. Could be a dark horse Heisman contender.

3. Kellen Mond, QB, A&M: For the Aggies to take a jump, Mond will have to do so as well. He has shown incredible flashes, but has been inconsistent. With a second year working with Fisher, a breakout could easily happen.

4. Grant Delpit, DB, LSU: Delpit is an absolute monster who will be an anchor on what should be a very good defense. He plays multiple positions and is one of the most exciting players in college football.

5. C.J. Henderson, DB, Florida: The Gators defense will be the key to their success, and a lockdown corner like Henderson is critical. If they are going to make noise this year, Henderson will be a big reason. He struggled badly with tackling in week 0, but a lot of players did. He can and should improve.

Deshaun Watson had an up and down day. Tim Warner/Getty Images

So what does Bill O'Brien have in store for a Sunday encore in the clock management follies department? All's well that ends well for the Texans if another Billy Botch episode comes with another win. Get it and home games vs. the Panthers and Falcons make 4-1 a very legit possibility.

The Texans have a good shot to get the win in Los Angeles Sunday. They may have half the crowd rooting for them. The Chargers have the lamest homefield advantage in the NFL. L.A. has largely yawned at them since their move up the coast from San Diego. In their home opener the Chargers couldn't sell out the 27,000 seat soccer stadium serving as their temporary facility. Next season they move into the monument of wow and greed they'll share with the Rams. That place will hold about 70,000.

On the field it's a big game for the also 1-1 Chargers if they hope to hang with Kansas City in the AFC West race. The Chargers' three following games are at the joke Dolphins, then home vs. the not good Broncos and the Roethlisberger-less Steelers.

For the Texans, one major subplot is a constant. How porous will the offensive line be? Deshaun Watson has been sacked 10 times over the first two games. The Chargers have one of the NFL's better pass rushing duos in Joey Bosa and Melvin Ingram. If the Texans can protect, opportunity knocks for big plays downfield with the Chargers down both of their starting safeties. Rookie All-Pro Derwin James is on injured reserve recovering from a broken foot, Adrian Phillips broke an arm last Sunday at Detroit.

Warm California sun

So if you were 300 strikeout man Gerrit Cole, what would you be thinking about re: 2020 and beyond? I mean after next month ideally helping the Astros win the World Series. And if you are the Astros what are you thinking?

In his two Astro seasons Cole has been tremendous. The ballclub is tremendous, and if Cole re-signs it that much more figures to stay tremendous for at least another couple of seasons. But Gerrit Cole is to become the most highly coveted free agent on the market. The low end of what he should be able to command is probably in the six years 150 million range. Heck, he could get seven years 250 million.

Next year the Astros payroll is set to soar into competitive balance tax territory. Meaning, in addition to the payroll itself, the Astros are looking at paying millions in penalties if they pay up to keep Cole. To counter that the Astros certainly could pivot and trade Zack Greinke. They basically will be open to giving away Josh Reddick and the 13 million he'll make in the final year of his contract.

Maybe Jim Crane and his partners say this is such a special era, we'll forego huge chunks of profits to keep this core together. That would be fantastic, but drawing a line on how far they'll go to keep Cole would not be miserly. Long term megadollar pitching contracts carry large risks. Cole turns 30 next season.

Cole grew up in Southern California. His wife too. It's where they live in the offseason. He went to high school under five miles from Angels Stadium and grew up an Angels fan. The Angels have a desperate need for starting pitching. Even with Cole though, the Angels can't essentially promise perennial contender status. But the Dodgers can, every bit as much as the Astros, and the Dodgers have much deeper pockets. If the Coles want to spend the rest of Gerrit's prime pitching years living year-round back home in SoCal, no one should take offense. Still, if the Astros’ bid is competitive when factoring in income tax rates, proven comfort level with the team, air conditioned comfort for home games…

Big weekend for Aggies

Better college football schedule this week after the garbage card of a week ago. The biggest game nationally is seventh ranked Notre Dame at number three Georgia. Big game for Texas A&M vs. Auburn at Kyle Field Saturday. The 17th ranked Aggies are three and a half point favorites over the eighth ranked team in the nation. A hard fought loss wouldn't be shameful, but would mean that with games yet to come vs. Alabama, at Georgia, and at LSU, the Ags would have to pull off at least one upset to finish better than 7-5. 75 million dollars to lure Jimbo Fisher were not spent to yield any 7-5 seasons.

Buzzer Beaters:

1. Major Applewhite would have coached the Cougars to a 1-3 start much more economically for UH than Dana Holgorsen has. 2. The Tulane Green Wave wearing powder blue uniforms is just as dopey as the St. John's Red Storm and Duke Blue Devils wearing black. 3. Names that Houstonians should rule out for daughters: Bronze-Imelda Silver-Allison Gold-Alicia

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