Tiger Eye Preview of the 2020 Season
In this strange, half-started season of college football, the Southeastern Conference finally begins play this week in closed session. As other conferences have shown, the extended protocols call for extraordinary measures that have changed the entire fan experience like few other events in history. Gone are such regular features like tailgating, Tiger Walk, full stadiums, nostalgic strolls through the campus on the way to the stadium: just about everything that makes the in-person game day a memorable occasion.
But what will we see between the sidelines these first few games? From the style of play that other programs have shown in the early season, even in the few, limited games that have been played, teams are at wildly different levels of preparation, depending on a number of factors: number of returning starters, coaching staff turnover, length and levels of practice during camps, number of interruptions due to protocol restrictions, etc. With such limited data, scant public information released, and so few games actually played, it will be difficult to rate any team’s results with any sort of accuracy on the root cause or impact of reasons for success or failure.
How does this affect the Tiger Eye Review for the season? In this article I’ve tried to classify and discuss these factors.
One thing to note first off. While there will be no distinct change in the analysis I do, there is the fact that since the season is purely conference play, the numbers generated will be relevant much, much faster than in any previous year. My expectation is that there will not be many (or any) “throwaway” games for which statistics have less value than others. In this respect, ALL the games and their numbers will matter a great deal in a way I haven’t seen in any other season I’ve analyzed. So rather than waiting until the third or fourth game of the season for relevant results, I think the first two games of the schedule might actually be significant in analyzing what we’re likely going to see as we progress.
To start the discussion, I should point out what you won’t see impacting games this year.
Home-field advantage There is a new dynamic in 2020 to each and every game—absolute field neutrality. With limited fans in the seats, the dread of places like The Swamp, Jordan-Hare, Bryant-Denny, and Baton Rouge will be lost on visiting teams. There will be fewer distractions, less hoopla, and almost scrimmage-like games. I believe this will mean the play will be faster, with greater substitutions and increased emphasis on player conditioning and roster depth. Fast paced teams will have a distinct advantage, in my opinion.
And there won’t be any blasted cow bells.
That being said, I think certain aspects of game play will be heightened by several factors concerning this abnormal preseason, both in spring and summer drills and in fall camps. These are things that will matter only in 2020 after the break.
Offseason coaching changes: Newer coaches have had far less time with their players in organized practices and drills. Veteran coaches have longer relationships with their returning players, which might tip the balance, but no one has had much time or experience to give to new freshmen and transfer players.
Special teams play: The first casualty of lack of practice is usually special teams, especially on punt and kickoff coverage. These generally include younger or second/third string players, who by and large will be relatively poor early on.
Mistakes: Broken plays, missed blocking assignments, gap miscues on defense, penalties, the lack of which are hallmarks of disciplined, well-practiced squads on both sides of the ball. However, when practices are limited, these have the potential for great impact game-to-game early in the season.
Schedule strength and timing: Some teams are starting the season with a bang with early heavy games (UGA, Ole Miss). Others are alternating light and heavy games throughout (AU, TAMU), and still others seem to have their most difficult games a little later in the season (LSU, UA). All of this will sharply impact how well seasons go, and those that survive early “big” games will have, hopefully, navigated the above hurdles. Lastly, I expect there to be individual impacts by some key personnel
Flash and dash: Better athletes may play extraordinarily better in some games. Think of Jaylen Waddle in last year’s Iron Bowl or if you want a more Auburn-friendly example, Cam Newton in his single season. When there are weaknesses in discipline, lots of mistakes, poor decision making, lack of practice, and concerns, these gifted individuals tend to have their talents just explode on the field. And, along with those explosions, teams will have added difficulty adjusting as the result of limitations from preseason practices.
Experience matters: Whether it is on the bench, prior experience at key positions, length of time for coaching staffs, either with their team or from long careers witnessing a wide range of situations, I believe experience will impact the 2020 season to a much greater degree than previous years.
Note: Want to find out about how well Chad Morris and Kevin Steele work together? Take a gander at two significant examples on YouTube: the Auburn–Clemson games in 2010 and 2011. Kevin Steele was Clemson’s defensive coordinator both years, and Chad Morris was the Clemson offensive coordinator in 2011. I’ve watched both games several times. What struck me most was how many times on the zone read play Cam Newton faced a perfectly placed tackler in the hole in 2010, and how effective the 2011 Clemson offense was when it pummeled Auburn, especially in the second half.
In sickness and in health: You can go ahead and add “COVID positive” above what used to be called “The Injury Bug” in analyzing team play this year. I believe it will have a greater impact on games and schedules and may very well contribute significantly to the playoff discussion, especially with teams playing a ten or more games and a Big Ten champion that played, potentially, as few as SIX games.
If you don’t hear the whining now, just give it a couple of weeks.
All in all, this is going to be one nutty season. Who will rise and fall as the season progresses will be the degree to which teams, individuals and coaches overcome adversity, take advantage of opportunities, and make bold, dynamic decisions from the sidelines and on the field of play. Now, it may seem obvious that this is the formula for winning teams every year, but I think these factors will be significantly magnified in 2020 in comparison to prior years. As the Southeastern Conference loves to advertise in television commercials year after year: “It just matters more.”
If there was ever a season when that line was applicable, it would have to be 2020.
War Damn Eagle! Let’s play some Football, Bo!