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The SEC tried to help its top teams start as normally as possible. Then 2020 crept in.

By pitting its best teams against its worst, the league sought to protect national title contenders. It worked, except when it really didn’t.

Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images. Banner Society Illustration.

When the SEC released its reworked, all-conference 2020 schedule this summer, it was impossible not to notice a slate of lopsided Week 1 games between the conference’s most talented national title contenders and its sundry train wrecks.

The four SEC programs ranked highest in the preseason AP Top 25 (Alabama, Georgia, defending national champion LSU, and Florida) were now scheduled to open their seasons with four programs featuring brand-new coaching staffs and nearly no organized offseason practice to adjust or install (Missouri, Arkansas, Mississippi State, and Ole Miss, respectively).

Considering that conference title contender Texas A&M was now hosting woeful Vanderbilt to open as well, the league’s motive was impossible to deny: Amidst an offseason of panic, uncertainty, and no consistency, the Southeastern Conference wanted to stabilize its strongest programs by offering them its weakest in the first week.

The results were mixed, but the takeaway is clear: Normality, defined here as the attempt to achieve a preset expectation, is a shaky endeavor for college football in normal circumstances. This year it’s impossible. Unless you’re Alabama.

Let’s walk through this game by game.

Georgia 37, Arkansas 10

Expectation: That UGA would smash a bad roster with new systems in place. In a world of box scores alone, all seems well here.

Reality: That final is incredibly misleading. The Bulldogs were hapless for over a half of football, switching out redshirt freshman quarterback D’Wan Mathis for fatefully-UGA-quarterback-named Stetson Bennett, who finally woke up an alleged national title contender after the offense scored five points in the first half against the SEC West’s worst roster.

Weird 2020 Influence: Total. The offense was awful because Kirby Smart didn’t expect to be in a quarterback quagmire. UGA wooed Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman and USC transfer J.T. Daniels to Athens. Newman was considered the starter;he was going to spearhead new coordinator Todd Monken’s offense against Virginia in the originally scheduled opener.

Newman’s opt out, which cited “the uncertainties of this year amid a global pandemic,” came just as Athens and the University of Georgia saw a spike in COVID-19 cases. Daniels is still not medically cleared from a knee injury suffered at USC to play. Meanwhile, the SEC’s all-conference reshuffling of the 2020 schedule handed Georgia an opener at Arkansas, coached by former Bulldog assistant Sam Pittman.

Quarterback woes aside, given the gross disparity of talent between the two rosters it was hard to feel like Pittman wasn’t exercising some level of insider knowledge to stymie UGA to a 7-5 halftime lead for the Hogs.

If we’re bartering with the Gods, had Georgia kept Virginia, a far superior opening opponent, in exchange for not losing Newman, a win might not have been guaranteed, but something far closer to Georgia’s intent would’ve likely been on display. Instead, the leaderless Dawgs were forced to learn how to dance their way out of a pig sty.

Mississippi State 44, LSU 34

Expectation: Despite losing a ton of talent, the defending national champions would make easy work of Mike Leach’s SEC debut

Reality: Leach’s air raid absolutely embarrassed a depleted LSU roster in a huge upset. If you’re a non-SEC fan looking for a reliable salvo against the inevitable “LSU LOST ‘CAUSE THAT’S JUST THE DEPTH OF THE LEAGUE EVERY SINGLE WEEK IT JUST MEANS MORE” nonsense yawp: The SEC’s best program, its defending national champion, allowed a transfer quarterback from a bad Stanford team use a Big 12 “gimmick offense” to set the league’s single game passing record. In one try.

Weird 2020 Influence: High. The pandemic caused this game to be rescheduled to an opener, creating a surprise result. But it’s highly likely State still wins this game in Week 4 or 5, just not as a double-digit underdog.

LSU’s original opener, UTSA, would’ve likely shown alarming symptoms while still giving the Tigers a win. Between suffering from their own success and COVID opt-outs, LSU saw a near-complete disassembly of their national championship team: Their Heisman-winning quarterback went first overall, and 19 other players went to NFL rosters. That’s a ridiculous blow. Now add another 15 players to opt-outs and transfers. Of the 22 starters on the undefeated national championship team, six returned.

Compounding matters during a COVID-shortened offseason schedule, LSU lost both coordinators and installed totally new systems on both sides of the ball. Meanwhile, Mississippi State hired Mike Leach, a “scheme coach” unique for any number of reasons, but specifically for how he publicly touts his system’s ease of installation.

All that aside, the football parts of this match-up were grossly misjudged. Many, many people spent the offseason measuring MSU in terms of negatives: Could Leach’s scheme work in the SEC? Could K.J. Costello, a transfer quarterback from under-center, pro-set Stanford, integrate seamlessly? How long would MSU take to get up to speed, considering Leach’s slow starts in Pullman and Lubbock?

Except that MSU’s roster is inarguably the best Leach has inherited as a head coach. The Bulldogs fired Joe Moorhead after two winning seasons, remember?

There’s no way to reliably measure the ceiling for State under Leach after one game. However, it stands that in the arrested development of this very, very, particular offseason, it makes sense the one offensive scheme bragged on for out-of-the-box effectiveness worked as advertised on Day 1.

Texas A&M 17, Vanderbilt 12

Expectation: The Aggies would start an earnest run at the conference title with a complete, dominant, all-phases win over Vanderbilt and Derek Mason.

Reality: Bites.

Weird 2020 Influence: TBD. Unlike Georgia or LSU, the Aggies had returning starter Kellen Mond at quarterback and still damn near lost to Vanderbilt before the Commodores’ freshman quarterback threw a pick instead of a go-ahead touchdown.

Maybe Mond returning isn’t that a great a thing. Against Vandy he was 17 of 28 for 189 yards passing and a touchdown with two fumbles. Texas A&M’s offense looked terrible on Saturday, fumbling on two of its final three drives trying to put away the Commodores. But maybe this one was on those infrequent but brilliant Derek Mason moments, in which the former Stanford defensive coordinator strings together a ridiculous defensive showing that undoes an opponent’s more talented offense.

Or maybe it’s a little of both, and Texas A&M just needed a more gradual transition into SEC play. They were originally scheduled to open with Abilene Christian, North Texas and Colorado before playing Arkansas in Arlington. Now they’re playing Alabama this week. There was a substantial amount of offseason talk that the Aggies could be undefeated or close to it heading into November of their original schedule. Whether this was rust or systemic — or Vanderbilt’s defense is the 1985 Bears — can’t yet be determined.

Florida 51, Ole Miss 35

Expectation: Florida’s offense should click and Kyle Trask should turn heads against a moribund Rebel defense

Reality: Almost exactly that, give or take some trick plays from Lane Kiffin’s M-80’s-in-a-garbage-disposal offense.

Weird 2020 Influence: Minimal! This is the first of two games that felt like it wasn’t influenced by a number of distinctly 2020 factors. You really, really don’t want to lose a fight with the NCAA, because even years after being sanctioned Ole Miss is still incredibly young and thin, especially on defense. Back in January we knew Kiffin would create a fun offense with talented pieces and that the Ole Miss defense would still suck, just as we knew that Trask had caught stride in Mullen’s offense. Both teams combined for over 1,200 yards. It was basically a Big 12 game.

Alabama 38, Missouri 19

Expectation: If any one program could look unaffected by 2020, if any one system could reduce wild, immeasurable and unpredictable variables to minimal influence, it’s this one.

Reality: Exactly that.

You cannot in good faith develop sound context from the 2020 college football season, nor can you attempt or expect normalcy. Unless you’re Alabama. At no point in time during the Tide’s standard execution of a despot’s recipe for boiling bad teams alive could a football something be isolated and ascribed to COVID-19’s impact on 2020.

One could argue that in this present moment normalcy is not just an apparition; it’s a harmful aspiration. Still, if you seek a ballast during these times, watch Alabama play football. Or Kansas.

(Editor’s note: Deeply appreciate the omission of Tennessee and South Carolina here.)